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Official Report: Monday 09 November 2015


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Mr Fearghal McKinney has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes in which to speak.

Mr McKinney: It gives me great pleasure to bring today's petition on autism services to the Assembly. Autism services for children have been a major area of concern for me, my party and the constituents I represent. Indeed, the prevalence of autism, including Asperger's syndrome, in school-age children in Northern Ireland in 2015, tells us that the rate of autism has increased by 67%, with one in 54 pupils attending school being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The prevalence of autism increased by nearly 1% between 2009-2010 to 2014-15 — from 1·3% to 2·2%. In 2009-2010, there were nearly 3,700 children with ASD out of a school-age population of 270,000. In 2014-15, that figure rose to just over 6,000 out of a school population that had not increased very much. It is, therefore, very clear that autism prevalence is increasing in society, but, unfortunately, it is not being accompanied by the necessary funding increase to bolster services to be better able to deal with waiting times for diagnosis. There is no doubt that, without earlier and speedier diagnosis, children with ASD and special educational needs will not get the support they require in school or through the health service.

The current target for assessment is 13 weeks. At the end of April, nearly 1,500 children were waiting for assessment; more than 900 had been waiting longer than the recommended time. Of those, 476 had been waiting for more than 26 weeks, and more than 78 children had been waiting for over a year. Those are children who will have been found to have ASD and who will not have got the support that they required, inside and outside school.

The delays in the statementing process are wreaking havoc among families.

Many of these families are being forced to send their children to mainstream schools that do not have specialised staff or facilities to cater for their educational and developmental needs. That is why, when this petition was launched, so many people signed it.

In that context, I would like to praise all those from the Belvoir Autism Group who are present here today in the public gallery for the amazing work that they do in helping parents and children to get the best possible support and care that they need. If I could single out one individual, it would be Alison Breaden, who runs the group along with her colleagues. She is one of our community champions and deserves recognition for all the hard work that she and others do daily. Her compassion, desire and commitment to help families who are struggling to cope deserves the highest level of recognition. Her work in compiling today's petition is testimony to that.

The petition calls on the Northern Ireland Assembly to start delivering for some of the most vulnerable children. I hope that the Minister takes heed of the petition and that it goes some way to alleviating the struggles of families not only in South Belfast but all across Northern Ireland.

Mr McKinney moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr Speaker: Thank you very much. I will forward the petition to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and send a copy to the Committee.

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

Resolved:

That Mr Gary Middleton replace Mrs Emma Pengelly as a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel; that Mr Gary Middleton replace Mr George Robinson as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and that Mr George Robinson replace Mr Gary Middleton as a member of the Committee for the Environment. — [Mr Weir.]

Ministerial Statement

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to update the House on Maghaberry prison.

Last Thursday, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) published its report following an unannounced inspection at Maghaberry prison in May. I would like to thank the Chief Inspector, Brendan McGuigan, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and their teams for their work and the comprehensive report that they have published.

The inspection that was carried out in May provided a deeply worrying analysis of how the prison was performing at that time. The inspectors found significant concerns around staffing, resourcing, outcomes for prisoners and the provision of healthcare. The standard four areas that are considered and assessed in the healthy prison test are safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement. Against the first three of these, inspectors scored Maghaberry 1 out of a possible 4, described as delivering "poor outcomes for prisoners". Against the fourth, the inspectors scored Maghaberry 3, described as delivering "reasonably good outcomes for prisoners".

I want to set out for Members the context in which the inspection took place, the key conclusions and recommendations that were made by the inspectors and the steps that have been taken and are being taken to ensure that, when the inspectors return in the new year, they will see significant improvement.

Early in my tenure as Justice Minister, I made clear my determination to reform our prison system to ensure that it plays its part in making our society safer. For too long, its focus had been solely on keeping people locked up. It was time to broaden that focus, to ensure that society is kept safe by detaining those whom the courts send to prison and by doing all that we can to ensure that, on release, prisoners play a positive role in their families and communities.

I am proud that, in the years since, we have made great strides towards that objective. Based on the advice of Criminal Justice Inspection and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), 33 of the strategic recommendations for change that were set out in the fundamental review of the prison system led by Dame Anne Owers have been implemented or signed off. These were reforms that many believed were not achievable.

Last week's report confirms what we knew when we set out on the path of reform: that it would not be easy or straightforward; that not everyone, nor every part of the service, would move forward at the same pace; and that, as well as successes, there would be real setbacks and disappointments along the way. What Criminal Justice Inspection and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons found when they visited Maghaberry in May is the biggest of those setbacks that we have encountered. CJINI’s previous inspection of Maghaberry in March 2012 found signs of improvement in several aspects of the running of the prison, including the introduction of free-flow movement; an improvement in the quality of teaching, training and learning; and the provision of offending behaviour programmes. Encouraged by that report, but not complacent, the local leadership in Maghaberry continued to pursue improvements. The leadership team should be commended for the progress made during that period, in line with progress that was also beginning to be made at Magilligan and Hydebank Wood.

In 2014, however, due to planned departures from the Prison Service, a new leadership team was appointed in Maghaberry. A key aspect of the reform programme has been to develop new leadership from within the Prison Service. That has involved giving senior staff in the service opportunities to demonstrate their ability to deliver change in line with the service’s new focus. In many cases, senior staff have risen to that challenge and have shown real ability. Unfortunately, in the case of the team appointed at Maghaberry in June 2014 that was not the case. Increasingly concerned about the weakness of that leadership, in the spring of this year, Prison Service management took steps to challenge their performance.

Last week’s report references the difficult relationship that evolved between the local leadership at Maghaberry and Prison Service headquarters at that time. Frequently, when independent inspection reports identify failings, public bodies encounter criticism for inaction. In this case, immediately upon receiving the initial feedback from the unannounced inspection of Maghaberry, Prison Service management, with support from me and the DOJ permanent secretary, took steps to remove the governor and deputy governor from their posts and to replace them with a new senior team.

While I do not believe that it is appropriate to go further into what are ongoing personnel management matters, I will say that neither of the two personnel removed from their positions in Maghaberry was redeployed in the Prison Service. These actions are a reflection of the seriousness with which the Prison Service and I took the findings of the inspection and of the determination of the director general and her team to keep our reform programme on track.

The Prison Service has accepted all nine recommendations made by the inspectors and has put in place an action plan to achieve them. I am encouraged that the chief inspector of Criminal Justice Inspection has indicated that he believes that the action plan, if delivered, has the potential to address his concerns.

Of all the recommendations, I believe that the most fundamental is that urgent and decisive action be taken to strengthen Maghaberry’s leadership. The appointment of Phil Wragg as the new governor has been key to this. Phil is an experienced governor, with over 25 years’ service in some of the most challenging prisons in England, including Belmarsh. The challenges facing Maghaberry are serious and the level of improvement that we want to see will take time to deliver, but I have seen first-hand how the new governor’s decisive and dynamic leadership has already brought significant improvements in the areas of greatest concern to the inspectors.

One of the key challenges highlighted in the report was staffing at the prison. As Members know, our Prison Service has undergone significant changes in its workforce in recent years, with a large-scale early retirement scheme in addition to the changes that happen in any large group of employees over time. While reform programmes of this scale are usually supported by additional funding, the budget available to run our prisons has been significantly reduced. These factors, combined with the need to retrain existing staff for the new roles that we now expect them to play, have all combined to put staff under additional stress. While it is important to acknowledge that over three quarters of staff at Maghaberry did not take time off for sickness, the inspectors found an unsustainable level of staff absence that was having a detrimental effect across all areas of the prison. This is being addressed as a priority by the governor and his team. Since the arrival of the new governor, the level of daily sickness absence has dropped by over a third and continues to fall month by month. That is testament to his leadership and indicative of how things that could have been addressed by the previous team were not given appropriate attention.

While this is still work in progress, it is a critical part of getting the performance of the prison back to where it needs to be. Other steps to strengthen and support the staff at Maghaberry have included permanent and temporary transfers of staff from other prisons. An external recruitment programme recently commenced to target key replacements for custody officers, night custody officers and prison custody officers. That is an important step to ensure that the workforce can be reinforced and refreshed.

The report also identified low morale among staff, and the refreshed senior team is now more visible and accessible.

This is helping to build resilience and morale among the staff. Work is also being taken forward to improve the overall condition of the prison environment through cleaning and painting programmes in accommodation and communal areas. A cafe and restroom has recently been opened for staff and visitors, which not only provides staff with time and space to rest during their breaks but enables prisoners to work and achieve qualifications in preparation for release and potential future employment.


12.15 pm

Regarding outcomes for prisoners, I am encouraged that the report reaffirms the four overarching strategic themes identified by the Prison Service as those on which it will focus as it continues along the path of reform. These are leadership, about which I have spoken already; purposeful activity; partnership with healthcare; and a fit-for-purpose prison estate. In relation to purposeful activity, the inspectors found that the regime was curtailed and that prisoners were often locked for long periods of time. Actions being taken by the new senior team are focused on delivering a safe, decent and secure environment for everyone at the prison. Key to that is having a regime that meets prisoners' needs and matches the resources available to the prison. With the full complement of staff available, the prison will be able to operate with a full regime and a core day. That is what the management team is working towards. Purposeful activity is key to ensuring prisons can be a place of positive, constructive change for people in custody.

The inspectors recommended that the prison should complete a robust needs analysis to ensure that the resettlement services provided meet the needs of the prison population. I can confirm that, under plans that were already being developed, within days of their arrival at Maghaberry, prisoners are now assessed on their risks, needs and strengths, and a personal development plan is devised for the duration of their sentence.

The inspectors recommended that the leadership and management of learning and skills should be strengthened. The partnership that was announced after the inspection between the Prison Service and Belfast Met and North West Regional College was a significant step for all three prisons. The outsourcing of learning and skills means that a wider curriculum will be offered, including areas such as essential skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT as well as vocational courses.

Turning to healthcare, the report recorded a range of concerns. The provision of healthcare in prisons is a complex issue. While this is the responsibility of the South Eastern Trust, the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) is committed to continuing to work with the trust and DHSSPS to develop the joint justice and healthcare strategy, which is key to delivering an effective service at Maghaberry and the other prisons. In specific relation to Maghaberry, NIPS and the trust will produce and implement the action plan recommended by the inspectors within the month specified by them, and I intend to meet the Minister of Health to discuss its implementation when they do so.

The final overarching theme on which the report makes recommendation is the development of the prison estate. Following years of underinvestment, NIPS continues to progress plans for all three prisons, including the redevelopment of Magilligan and the construction of a new custodial facility for women. In particular, the changes and investment at Maghaberry will allow NIPS to build a focused regime that will be resourced in a more effective and efficient way. The first phase of this is the new 360-cell accommodation that is expected to be completed during 2018-19. This will give the prison greater flexibility across the regime. Plans are also in place to build a high-security facility and a new visits area at the prison. This will enable the redevelopment of the site into three mini prisons, with dedicated units for short-sentenced and remand prisoners; long and life-sentenced prisoners; and category-A and separated prisoners. The plans are clearly dependent upon finance. However, it is critical that this is delivered to ensure an effective, modern and fit-for-purpose estate.

The inspectors also found that Catholic prisoners experienced poorer outcomes and acknowledged that the reasons for this were likely to be complex. They recommended that the prison needed to understand the underlying reasons for this. Senior management at Maghaberry has now written to the Equality Commission seeking advice and guidance on how this can be achieved.

I know that, in some of the commentary around last week's report, I was accused of trying to spin or downplay the seriousness of its findings. I have no intention to do any such thing, and I hope that this statement will give Members a sense of the seriousness with which it is being treated by me, by NIPS senior management and by the new leadership team at Maghaberry. What I will do, however, in closing, is say that I believe it would be wrong to ignore or lose sight of the scale of what has been achieved and what continues to be delivered, not just at Maghaberry but across the entire prison system through the wider reform programme.

It would also be wrong to conclude that the problems identified at Maghaberry earlier this year are because of, rather than in contrast to, the progress being made against the recommendations made by Dame Anne Owers and her team. That progress has been about embedding long-term change in the prison system. I am confident that the Prison Service, under the leadership of its director general, Sue McAllister, will continue to progress along the difficult path of reform. Indeed, I am convinced that had we not embarked on that journey, and had we not benefited from the leadership that Sue McAllister and her senior team have shown, we would have seen a greater number of reports like last week's.

NIPS has taken swift and decisive action to ensure that Maghaberry has the right leadership and resources in place to deliver an effective regime. That work is well under way, but it will take time to deliver. I welcome the announcement by the inspectors that they will return to the prison in January, and I am confident that when they do, they will see real progress and a prison well on the road to recovery.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Before I call the first questioner, I inform the House that a large number of Members have put their name down to ask a question, and I am sure that Members agree with me that as many as possible should be facilitated. For that reason, I ask Members to ensure that their question is brief and relates to the ministerial statement. While I will, as is the custom, give some latitude to the Committee Chairperson, that does not extend to an alternative statement or multiple questions that are beyond the scope of this occasion.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your confirmation of the latitude given to the Chair. I will do my utmost to make the most of that latitude.

The CJINI report is a damning verdict on the state of Maghaberry Prison, highlighting failures of leadership and a regime in which prisoners are not engaging in purposeful activity. Most worrying of all, it cites a failure to keep prison officers and prisoners safe within the prison walls. It is alarming on an unprecedented scale when we hear inspectors describing the prison as being in "crisis", as "unsafe" and "unstable", and as the "most dangerous prison" in Europe. Despite the Minister's best efforts, there is no gloss or positive spin that can be put on this report.

Let me specifically deal with a few issues raised in the report. First of all, over the last few years, colleagues and I have repeatedly raised our concerns about prison officers' safety in Maghaberry. As well as describing the prison as "unsafe" and "unstable", the report details sustained, serious and credible threats against staff, a significant rise in assaults on staff since the last report and describes circumstances in which staff did not receive sufficient support to carry out their duties. Did the Minister take the concerns of the House seriously enough? What did he do when those concerns were raised? Why has there not been an improvement over the last number of years?

Secondly, on the issue of drugs, the Minister said, on 28 June 2012, that he was assured by the Prison Service that robust measures were in place to tackle the problem of illegal substances. He again said that on 26 September 2014, when he issued a statement titled 'Ford highlights progress on drugs at Maghaberry'. Given that the report talks about the prevalence of illegal drugs — it states that they are more widely available than had been the case at the last report and, indeed, that prisoners have said that it is easy to get hold of illegal drugs — will he acknowledge that his previous statements were wrong?

In relation to segregated prisoners, the report advocates radical thinking because that part of the prison is sucking resources away from other elements. Will the Minister inform the House what his radical thinking is on that?

Finally, the report talks about significant failures in leadership, ineffective relationships between senior management and staff and a worsening in conditions since they last reported on Maghaberry in 2012. The report makes it abundantly clear that, during the three years that the current director general has been in post, Maghaberry has got significantly worse, rather than better. Given that that is the case, how can the Minister assure the public that they can have confidence in the leadership at the top of the Prison Service and, indeed, at the top of the Department of Justice?

Mr Ford: I will endeavour to refer to those points. In the Chair's enthusiasm to ensure that he gets in as many questions as possible, he does tend to speak slightly fast, so I apologise if I do not cover all the points that he made.

He started off by highlighting the suggestion that Maghaberry is the — I think that he said this — "most dangerous prison in Europe". I am indebted to Newton Emerson for reminding me in his column in 'The Irish News' on Saturday of an article that I saw in the national media two or three months ago, pointing out a significant increase in deaths in custody in England and Wales, which were already at a higher level than in Northern Ireland. Whilst we should be cautious about applying too much of the statistics of small numbers, to suggest that that implies that Maghaberry is the most dangerous prison in Europe is perhaps a bit of hyperbole and hype in some of the reporting, rather than the content of the report itself.

Clearly, there are issues that relate to the safety of prison officers which cause us all concern. Again, unlike the situation in other parts of these islands, that threat to the safety of prison officers also comes outside the prisons, regardless of anything that may happen inside the prisons. That is a point that I was only too well reminded of on Friday when I attended the annual memorial service for the Prison Service, which remembered 31 colleagues who have lost their lives in the recent past. We need to acknowledge that the issue of safety is significantly different here from other regions and is an issue outside. In terms of the things like number of assaults, I noticed in the statistics that I was given most recently that those are down in recent months, and the number of occasions on which force has to be used is down in recent months, so there are clearly positive changes happening there.

Mr Ross also referred to the concern about drugs, and there is no doubt that there is a problem with illicit drugs in this society, and, as he did not highlight, there is also a problem of prescribed drugs being misused in prisons. Again, that is something on which there has been action taken. In recent months, we have seen a significant decrease in the numbers of those who either have positive drug tests or refuse to take drug tests. Whilst it is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, the clear implication is that the current leadership team in Maghaberry is addressing that.

The Member also refers to the effect of having two groups of segregated prisoners on the regime for the great majority of prisoners in Maghaberry, and I share that concern. It is not my decision that segregation exists, and it is not my decision that individuals are admitted to segregation. Those were decisions that were taken respectively by the Northern Ireland Office in the past and on behalf of the Secretary of State at the present time. Members may recall that, in the report by Dame Anne Owers and her colleagues, there was a recommendation, which I referred to in my statement, for three mini prisons in which there would be one high-security area that would include separated prisoners. That would give a way of ensuring that the maintenance of the necessity of a higher standard there did not impact on the regime for others, but, as was made perfectly clear, that is dependent on capital funding, which we have not yet seen.

The final comment that the Committee Chair made about the failure of the leadership of the director general was an unfair comment that I reject entirely. What we saw was a snapshot that showed how things were earlier this year, and a report that commented on failings of local leadership in Maghaberry and the breakdown of relationships at a point when they were being challenged from prison headquarters. It is not an issue of three years of decline since the previous report. We have highlighted the fact that progress was being made previously in Maghaberry. It was a snapshot showing a very difficult situation earlier this year, which is being addressed robustly by the director general and her senior team with full support from the Department.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to come back to the last point that you mentioned, Minister, which was the failure of leadership. Do you have a clear definition from the Criminal Justice Inspection of what it means by failure of leadership and ineffective relations in Maghaberry and the Maghaberry administration? In my opinion, over a long time, there has been a resistance to prison reform within the prison.

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Lynch for his question about that. I am not sure that it is for me to define what was referred to in the report as failure of leadership, but there are a number of instances cited in it: issues like the failure to have robust management of sickness absence, which is a clear issue. That is one of the points that was made most clearly as impacting on the entire way that the prison runs because of the lack of staff, therefore creating an unpredictability of things like lockdowns and general regime. I notice, for example, that, in May, just after the report was done, the average number of staff sick every day in Maghaberry was 101.

Today, 48 staff are absent. That, to me, is a demonstration of leadership at the present time. I think that you can take it that a failure of leadership is what was happening at the previous stage, and that was a key challenge that is being addressed by Phil Wragg and his senior team, from which we are already seeing very positive benefits for staff and prisoners.


12.30 pm

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his statement. I fully support the reform programme that he has quite properly directed, but the report is also a serious disappointment to me, because it is damning, as the Chair rightly said. I am sure that the Minister will agree. Central to that is the failure of industrial relations in the prison. Does the Minister agree that the central issue of industrial relations in the prison is affecting all aspects of the reform programme? When will the industrial relations issue be settled?

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Maginness for his support for the reform programme. He is absolutely correct that the reform programme is vital to having things move forward, and it is extremely disappointing to see the quality of the report.

Clearly, there has been an industrial relations problem. It is not entirely unique to Maghaberry, as we can see if we look at prisons across different parts of these islands, and there is no doubt that confronting the changes that were required to be made has created difficulties for management and not contributed terribly well to industrial relations. I do think that we have seen some good progress made. I notice, for example, that, in some of his comments, the chair of the Prison Officers' Association referred more to issues such as capital funding to ensure that we have proper arrangements than to anything else. There is no doubt that many of the prison officers who continue to work in the Prison Service and who experienced very difficult times in the 1970s and 1980s will view the proposed changes with a certain amount of misapprehension. What is important is to see the good work that is now being done, under a leadership team that is making itself more visible on the landings and engaging better with staff on a day-to-day basis. That will helpfully change the situation, but there are wider issues that affect the higher-level industrial relations as well as relationships as they happen hour by hour in the prison, and, indeed, in each part of the prison. That is part of the challenge that the management team is taking on, and we will look to see how it succeeds over the next couple of months.

Mr Swann: Minister, in your statement, you refer to an external recruitment programme. Do you believe that the salaries and the terms and conditions for new, incoming prison officers are adequate to retain and recruit prison officers to the standard that is needed in the current prison system?

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

Mr Ford: Mr Swann makes a reasonable point. Changes have recently been made to the terms and conditions of newly appointed officers, and my understanding, at this stage, is that, with the current scheme looking to appoint up to 100 prison officers, we have already received in excess of 1,000 applications, with time still to run. That suggests that the terms and conditions that are being offered, and the modest improvement to them recently, makes them acceptable to those who would consider a career in the Prison Service.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Mr Somerville from the Ulster Unionist Party and I recently visited the prison. We were the only two members of the Justice Committee who took up the invitation, and we met Mr Wragg, the new governor at the prison. I beg your pardon: Mr Sammy Douglas was there too. My apologies. We met Mr Wragg and noted the extensive changes that he had made in the prison, which, in my view, were starting to gain respect from staff and prisoners alike.

You referenced the reduction in sickness absence levels, and the drive to continue to do that is important, but can you point out other areas of significant change that will provide reassurance to the public?

Mr Ford: I am glad that I am not going to annoy Mr Douglas by suggesting that he was not there. By what I heard from the Prison Service side, I believe that the visit by the three members was very positive. It was unfortunate that only three members of the Committee were available that day.

That question has highlighted the positive change that has come about since Phil Wragg's appointment. He is clearly grasping the nettle of some of the difficult issues that need to be done, supported by a refreshed senior management team in the prison that is being seen as more active.

I am not sure that I can provide reassurance today, but I know that there is significant attention being directed at a range of issues. The Justice Committee has seen the action plan that has been prepared. It is on the Web, but I will see that a copy is placed in the Assembly Library as well. The key issue is looking at a range of issues and showing that robust action is being taken, whether it is how we deal with management of separation or the wider issue of developing a strategy with the South Eastern Trust looking at healthcare provision and self-harm. Those are key issues that affect the welfare of prisoners and, ultimately, the good of society.

There are actions under way and actions in place that, I believe, we will see the results of when the inspectors return in January. We will see a positive response from that.

Mr Douglas: The Minister mentioned the Dame Anne Owers report. However, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, highlighted in the CJINI report that only 16 of the 93 recommendations in the 2012 report had been achieved in full. How can the Minister claim that progress has been made over the past three years when it is clear that things have got markedly worse?

Mr Ford: Mr Douglas highlights the difference between the wider strategic view following up on the report by the prison review team led by Dame Anne Owers and the immediate snapshot of the inspection of an individual institution. It is also the case that we have had reports in the past that have had a significantly large number of, in effect, fairly small recommendations, whereas the premise under which the PRT operated was of a strategic view with 40 strategic recommendations covering a range of areas. It was felt appropriate to concentrate on those, whilst not ignoring the individual recommendations. The Prison Service staff will be looking at the individual recommendations. The recommendations on this occasion are more of a high-level strategic objective than reporting on relatively small items and simply listing them. The key issue of dealing with things like sickness absence matters much more than some of the individual 93 recommendations did three years ago. The important thing is that we do not lose sight of those smaller points being what drives the overall reforms. The team now in place in Maghaberry will be taking account of both levels of recommendation.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. Would the Minister accept that the failure to implement the recommendations of the Owers prisons review team specific to Maghaberry led to this damning report on Maghaberry, and that if this failure continues, we will continue back to the same place at Maghaberry jail?

Mr Ford: I am not sure that it is reasonable to say, as Ms McGahan says, that there was a failure to implement the Owers recommendations in Maghaberry. The Owers recommendations are wide-ranging and far-reaching. What we saw in the inspection report was a failure in Maghaberry at that time — significant failings that led to a critical report.

That is in no sense undermining the concept of the Owers report and its wider, far-reaching recommendations, which, as I said, has seen a significant number of its recommendations signed off and others are work in progress.

We need to ensure that we do not understate the seriousness of the poor inspection report from May this year but nor do we need to suggest that that somehow invalidates the reform programme generally, because the reform programme generally is making progress and seeing positive responses in different areas, including, in some respects, in Maghaberry and very much in the other two prisons as well.

Mr Frew: The Minister will do well, given this damning report, not to gloss over or deflect away from the problems in Maghaberry prison. That is clearly what his statement is designed to do. Minister, you may want to talk about the future — and we would all like to see a better future for our prisons — but I want to talk about the here and now, when prison officers are working with low morale in an unsafe and unstable environment. Minister, how many action plans do we need before those actions become reality and our prison officers, and indeed the prisoners, are working and living in safer conditions?

Mr Ford: If Mr Frew is suggesting that today's statement is glossing over the problems at Maghaberry, I am not quite sure why I am standing here taking time to explain what has happened, acknowledge the issues in the report and point out the changes that have happened since then. That is anything but glossing over: it is recognising the extremely worrying contents of the report, as it related to last May, and explaining the action that is being taken. It is not about glossy action plans but about real work on the ground, on the landings and in other areas of the prison, to ensure that we move forward and have a better report in January.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for both his statement and his answers to questions thus far. When any Minister comes to the Assembly and accepts that there is a failure of leadership, ineffective relationships between people in management and a resistance to change, that Minister knows that he has a problem. As we go forward, the Minister has to reassure the House on the question I ask him today: is he now certain that leadership will be allowed to prevail, that ineffective relationships will not be tolerated, and that the Anne Owers prison reforms will be implemented, and implemented in full?

Mr Ford: I thank the Deputy Chair for his question and, indeed, for his support for the reform programme and his positive comments on aspects of it over the last day or two. If he is right that this report highlighted a failure of leadership, which is what it cites, then I am confident that the leadership that is currently in Maghaberry is significantly stronger than the leadership that was there in the month of May. I am confident that the leadership in prison headquarters is aware of the problems and, working with Maghaberry leadership, is taking robust action to deal with them. I am confident that the poor relationships that existed in May no longer exist and that the Department is backing the Prison Service management in carrying out its essential work. If we could get a bit of Executive joined-up leadership around a capital programme, we would be in an even better position.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his comments up to now. I will focus on one part of the statement:

"The inspectors also found that Catholic prisoners experienced poorer outcomes and acknowledged that the reasons for this were likely to be complex. They recommended that the prison needed to understand the underlying reasons for this. Senior management at Maghaberry has now written to the Equality Commission seeking advice and guidance on how this can be achieved."

While I presume that the Equality Commission can advise on those aspects that refer or relate to them, has any other specialist advice been sought from other sectors, such as education, health or skills, on why this is the case?

Mr Ford: I appreciate Mr McGlone's question. It is indeed a significant issue, and one that has not just arisen recently. That is why the advice has been sought from the Equality Commission. As far as I am aware, no other advice has been sought from other agencies at this point. The important issue will be to take the advice of the Equality Commission and see how it applies across all the aspects of the Prison Service, including the work being done around learning and skills and health, to ensure that we get proper outcomes for all prisoners.


12.45 pm

A monitoring group is looking at those issues in Maghaberry, alongside the request for assistance from the Equality Commission. The group meets on a monthly basis. We will need to see just how that works to ensure that things like adjudications do not have a detrimental effect on people from one particular background. At this stage, the answers are not clear and that has been acknowledged, by Brendan McGuigan in particular, as an issue which needs further action but on which there are no easy answers.

Mr Poots: I am delighted that the Minister can stay for more than two questions today. In terms of this particular report and statement; the Minister has been in position, in charge of prisons, for over six years now and he has appointed the leadership team. Do you not accept that the leadership team, which has been a revolving door of Englishmen coming over to run the prisons, has been totally detached from the prison itself and that it is wholly disingenuous of you to scapegoat two people who were in position for less than a year for this damning report on Maghaberry prison?

Mr Ford: I have been in position for over five years, not over six. I do not appoint civil servants; there are procedures by which they are appointed which do not involve Ministers. Sue McAllister may be many things, but she is certainly not an Englishman. The leadership team is not detached; the leadership that I see being given by Phil Wragg and his senior colleagues is absolutely attached to what is going on in the prison. There is no issue of scapegoating. The issue is of reflecting the appropriate need to ensure that leadership is provided to deal with the problems of Maghaberry, which was not being provided. That is why we have seen the improvement that I have already highlighted in a number of areas, such as sickness absence.

Mr Lunn: The strength of inspections lies in the independence of the organisations that carry them out. The Minister's statement referred to the oversight group implementing the prison reform programme as having signed off 33 out of 40 recommendations as implemented. I ask the Minister: what confidence should we have in the independence of the oversight group?

Mr Ford: The answer to my colleague is that we can have considerable confidence in the oversight group, in particular in the presence of three independent members. Patricia Gordon and Monica McWilliams are not known for giving Ministers or their teams an easy ride if they do not believe it is deserved. Brendan McGuigan, head of CJINI is also a member of the oversight group.

I should perhaps explain the procedure of the oversight group. It meets quarterly and receives reports from the Prison Service, or from the South Eastern Trust, as appropriate, relating to the healthcare recommendations of the prison review team (PRT). It determines whether those reports are good enough to be passed on for validation by either CJINI or RQIA, and then their report comes to a future meeting to decide whether something can be signed off. At the most recent meeting of the oversight group that I had, I was certainly impressed by the fact that the two independent members, with no formal role otherwise, were robustly questioning both CJINI and RQIA, particularly RQIA, as to the quality of some of the reporting that was done to ensure that matters were properly in place before they were signed off. It is not a matter of a ministerial-led group signing off; it is a matter that is very much in the hands of the independent members who are there, giving a robust challenge function, recognising progress where it happens, but also clearly stating where they believe that adequate progress has not happened. Members can be assured that that oversight group has worked extremely well and is close to completing its task in a way which provides the guarantee which can be provided for us and for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Givan: It was said that Dickens could have written the inspection report, but I think it is clear that Dickens has taken the pen for the Minister's statement today. This statement is a denial of his failure, and the failure of the director general, to manage Maghaberry prison. He has done it in a textbook example of how to dump on local management, scapegoating them in order to protect him at the top and the director general.

The director general heralded the appointments of the governor and deputy governor, who have since, unprecedentedly, been transferred out of the Prison Service, and I question the legality of that. Yet the Minister says in his statement that he has absolute confidence in the director general as she takes forward the reform programme. How can this be, following the litany of failures in the Prison Service since her appointment and during his time as Justice Minister?

Finally, will the Minister comment on Roe House, which has been a demonstrable drain on resources at Maghaberry? He, as Minister, has continued to appease republican prisoners. Will he stop this appeasement of dissident republicans in Maghaberry?

Mr Ford: I am not sure which of those several questions I am expected to respond to. I made it quite clear in my response to Mr Poots, when he used terms such as "scapegoat", that I was not scapegoating. I will make one very specific point. If Mr Givan is suggesting that transferring senior civil servants from one post to another is somehow illegal, he may wish to take legal advice, which is something that he does not seem to have had.

Moreover, by using the phrase "litany of failures", he fails to recognise the good work that is being done across the Prison Service in response to the PRT report, as part of a huge transformation project. It is clear that he is much more concerned about flying his kite by raising concerns about Maghaberry than recognising the reality of what is happening generally.

Mr Craig: We are right to highlight our concerns about Maghaberry, Minister. The Chief Constable confirmed only last week that there are five live cases of intimidation of prison officers in the prison and that several cases of intimidation of private contractors have reached the PPS. It has been pointed out to you that there has been serious intimidation of the staff and those who work in the prison. As the Minister, what have you done to stop that intimidation, other than appease those carrying it out?

Mr Ford: The suggestion that anybody in the Prison Service or Department of Justice is appeasing such people is utter nonsense and unworthy of a response.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his statement. Of course, he will not have been entirely surprised by this damning report, as I wrote to him on several occasions, asking him to hear the account of an officer who could have written the report single-handedly. Will he now agree to hear at first hand the account of an individual who was bullied, beaten up and left a broken man because he wanted to do his job honestly and fairly and refused to be part of the regime that brought about in a big way this awful report?

Mr Ford: I appreciate the point that Mr Dallat has been making about the concerns of one individual. I need to be careful as to what exactly is the appropriate role of a Minister, as opposed to the formal structures, in HR management. Nonetheless, I take extremely seriously the suggestions that he has made and will ensure that they are followed up at an appropriate level.

Mr Anderson: It is very appropriate that the Minister is in the Chamber to answer questions on this damning inspection report. It might be beyond belief, were it not that the finding that Maghaberry is in a state of crisis comes as no surprise to me, or to other Members of this House, having talked to people on the ground, including former and serving prison officers and their families. It gives me no satisfaction, Minister, to stand before you today and say, "We told you so" over many months. Yet nothing has been done to rectify the situation. I have brought issues to this House relating to staff morale, staff sickness levels and the "small" fire at Maghaberry, as it was described, costing £400,000. All we received were palmed-off responses.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr Anderson: In light of all the recommendations in the report, it is fundamental that urgent and decisive action is taken to strengthen the leadership at Maghaberry. Minister, you are at the top. Action needs to be taken. What confidence can anyone have if we still get palmed-off responses every time we bring the issues to the Chamber?

Mr Ford: I do not bring palmed-off responses. I have already said that an action plan has been prepared. It has been publicised, and there are opportunities for the Justice Committee in particular to follow through on it. Some people want instant, easy answers to the extremely complex problems that have beset the Prison Service for many years, even when we are seeing significant reforms and have seen significant improvements, even in the past few months. It is not a realistic way of looking at things.

Mr Allister: Leaving aside the self-serving efforts made by the Minister to give the report as soft a landing as possible, it includes words such as "unsafe", "unstable" and "dangerous". It could not be any more damning. What does it take for a Minister in this House to take responsibility for systematic and catastrophic failure and resign?

Mr Ford: I note that Mr Allister has adopted his customary positive and constructive attitude to these things. The simple question is this: on what basis should a Minister resign when action is being taken to redress failings highlighted in a report by people running a particular service? That action is being taken at the appropriate level, with full support from the Minister.

Lord Morrow: Now that we know, from the report, that it is the most dangerous prison in the United Kingdom, will the Minister tell us what is happening in that prison right now, as we speak, as a result of what we have read in the report? Is it his intention to declare an emergency at Maghaberry?

Mr Ford: Actually, we do not know that it is the most dangerous prison in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, Lord Morrow was not in the Chamber for the early part of my statement. It is quite clear that, although some of the media coverage has attracted hyperbole, there are prisons elsewhere in the United Kingdom that have suffered greater numbers of, for example, deaths in custody than Maghaberry has.

What we do know is that Maghaberry is the most complex prison in the United Kingdom. We know that, in Northern Ireland, difficult category A prisoners cannot be dispersed but are all concentrated in one prison. We know that other prisons in the United Kingdom do not have to manage two sets of separated prisoners.

We also know that action is being taken in Maghaberry prison by the senior leadership team to address the points made and to carry through the action plan that was published last week to ensure that Maghaberry becomes safer; has more purposeful activity; has proper staffing numbers providing a proper regime for prisoners; and has that kind of regularity available so that staff are less concerned. All of that is work that is currently under way and is being carried out by a leadership team that is out there, walking the landings, engaging with staff and providing the support that they need.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the Minister's statement.

Executive Committee Business

Rural Needs Bill: First Stage

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): I beg to introduce the Rural Needs Bill [NIA 67/11-16], which is a Bill to impose a duty on public authorities to consider rural needs; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

That the Second Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill [NIA 58/11-16] be agreed.

In December 2013, my predecessor, Nelson McCausland, published proposals for new housing legislation to make new provision for dealing with antisocial behaviour.


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In recognition of the limited time available to pass the legislation within the current mandate, I have decided not to proceed with the proposals relating to short tenancies, eligibility for homelessness assistance and injunctions against antisocial behaviour. I took that decision so that a more concise Bill could be drafted and achieve Assembly passage within the remaining time available to the Assembly.

The Bill is a short but potentially very effective and enabling piece of legislation. The provisions in the Bill are necessary to support the strategies and initiatives for dealing with empty homes, antisocial behaviour and disrepair in the private housing sector.

The first clause in the Bill makes provision for information sharing relating to empty homes. I am determined to maximise all opportunities to meet housing need, reduce blight and tackle antisocial behaviour, and I see the rejuvenation of empty homes as an important means of achieving that. To enable the Housing Executive to identify owners of empty homes with a view to bringing those properties back into use, the Bill will provide for relevant information held by the Department of Finance and Personnel’s Land and Property Services (LPS) for the purpose of rates collection to be shared with my Department and the Housing Executive. That proposal was included in my Department’s housing strategy, which was subject to public consultation in 2012. At the request of a former Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Bill will also require my Department and the Housing Executive to provide Land and Property Services with relevant information, for example, where any properties listed as vacant appear to be occupied or have different owner details.

The second clause in the Bill makes provision for disclosure of information relating to antisocial behaviour. In December 2013, my predecessor published proposals for new housing legislation designed to tackle antisocial behaviour in the social rented sector. The Department received more than 30 responses. While I have decided not to proceed with the two specific proposals outlined in the consultation document, a number of organisations that responded to the consultation highlighted the importance of information sharing in tackling antisocial behaviour.

The Bill would therefore ensure that, where the Housing Executive or a registered housing association needs information in order to take action against an individual who has been involved in antisocial behaviour, any person who holds such information would be able to disclose it without breaching data protection legislation.

The Social Development Committee has highlighted the fact that the Bill does not make provision for information sharing with private landlords. While I recognise that private landlords have a legitimate interest in any information that reflects on the good character of individuals who are seeking accommodation in the private rented sector, it appears that the human rights and data protection considerations would effectively preclude extending the disclosure provisions to private landlords within the Bill.

The third clause in the Bill makes provision for registration as statutory charge of certain loans. The Department and the Housing Executive are currently exploring the use of loan assistance for private-sector housing repairs and improvements. While the Housing Executive has power to register statutory charge in respect of most forms of grant assistance, there is no power to register charges in respect of grant by way of loans.

The absence of a power to register charges in respect of such loans means that the Housing Executive would either have to make unsecured lending or secure the lending by means of legal mortgage charge. The cost of the latter is substantially more than the costs associated with preparing and registering a statutory charge. The Bill would therefore make provision for the registration of a statutory charge in respect of grants by way of loan made under article 9(1)(a) of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. That would provide a means of security against any such lending and would ensure that, in the event that the owner defaulted on the loan or sold or transferred the property, the Housing Executive would be made aware of the transaction and be able to take any necessary action to recover the debt.

In conclusion, I have outlined the three provisions of the Bill. I believe that there is a need for the proposals and am confident that they will be well received by the relevant stakeholders in the public and voluntary sectors. On that basis, I hope that all parties can give their full support to the Bill. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing the Housing (Amendment) Bill to Second Stage.

The Committee took what I can only describe as a very pragmatic view of what it could do with the Bill to ensure that progress could be made during the period between introduction and Second Stage, given the delay in tabling Second Stage. During the period of uncertainty, therefore, the Committee was prudent and prioritised the Department’s legislative programme in its work programme. With the assistance of the Department, which we were grateful for, and, in particular, our stakeholders, we embarked on a call for evidence, even though, as I indicated, the Bill had not been formally transferred to the Committee for consideration. Nevertheless, being prudent and pragmatic, we issued a call for evidence. That was to ensure that, when normal service resumed, there would be sufficient time for the Bill to proceed through the entire legislative process. I thank Committee members for agreeing to that approach. I also thank stakeholders for responding to our call for evidence, despite the uncertainty about whether we would have a Committee Stage.

As a result of that approach, we were able to conclude our stakeholder evidence sessions on 15 October. Since then, we have been briefed by the Department on stakeholder and Committee concerns, and the Committee will, of course, continue with its discussions on the Bill at its meeting this Thursday. The Committee aims to conclude those discussions and report to the Assembly before the Christmas recess.

Given what I have said, I am sure that today’s debate on the principles of the Bill, while required by procedure, may seem to Committee members as having been overtaken by their discussions. It is important, however, for Members to focus on the principles of the Bill today, therefore I do not intend to go into detail on the issues that were raised by stakeholders and Committee members, even if you were minded to allow that, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.

For the record, the Committee received a pre-introductory briefing from the Department on 25 June 2015. Officials provided an overview of the Bill, and members were able to raise initial queries and provide comments on various aspects. The Committee noted that the Bill seeks to address three areas: the sharing of information on empty properties; the disclosure of information on antisocial behaviour; and the registration as a statutory charge of certain loans. I note that it is a significantly different Bill than that contained in the original proposals that were presented to the Committee in February and June 2014, and I highlight the fact that the Committee was advised that that was due to drafting complexities and associated time constraints.

The Committee noted the benefits of information sharing, particularly in the case of the sharing of information with DFP about empty properties. We are all only too aware of the housing crisis that we face, and the provision could assist DSD in bringing vacant dwellings back into use. Although that is not the essential purpose of the Bill, it would nevertheless be a very helpful by-product.

The Committee also noted the benefits of disclosing information on antisocial behaviour. That should help social landlords to deal better with antisocial behaviour. It is not simply envisaged as a means of excluding what might be described as problem tenants but could also help social landlords to provide support to tenants to help them to change their unacceptable behaviour or, indeed, to help them if they needed particular support.

The Committee noted that sharing of information relates only to social landlords. That caused concern among some members who saw it as an opportunity missed, perhaps, by the Department. Members expressed concern, for example, that tenants removed from social housing for reasons of antisocial behaviour could simply move to the private sector, and a new landlord would not have been made aware of their history of antisocial behaviour. However, members have since been briefed on the difficulties of including private landlords in the provision, including the demands that are placed on those landlords by the Data Protection Act. I will not go into detail on that matter, but the issue will be considered further by the Committee, and the House will be informed of its position in due course.

A second concern was raised in Committee about disclosing information on antisocial behaviour in that there is no compulsion on social landlords to disclose such information.

The Committee notes that the Bill provides only that any person "may" disclose information. This is another issue that we will continue to explore with the Department.

The third area of concern was the lack of any provision related to information sharing that would give legal indemnity to persons sharing the information in respect of defamation. However, recent communication from the Department addresses this issue in detail, and I believe that we will resolve it in the near future.

In conclusion, the Department has provided clarification on the concerns of the Committee and stakeholders. Some matters will require further consideration, but we hope to conclude our deliberations in the coming weeks. For today’s purposes, the Committee supports the principles of the Bill and asks the House to support its passing Second Stage.

I once again thank Committee officials, stakeholders and the Department, all of whom worked hard to ensure that, whatever the recent difficulties faced by the Minister in dealing with the Bill in the normal procedural manner, the Committee took the pragmatic view, supported by its officials and the Department, of making sure that it could discharge its responsibility to consider the issues in the Bill as quickly as it could and to achieve a successful legislative outcome within a certain time frame.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for bringing the Housing (Amendment) Bill to the Floor. Like the Member who spoke previously, I will talk generally about the principles of the Bill, starting with information sharing and empty homes.

Certainly, for me, there is an opportunity to help to address the increasing housing need across Northern Ireland by renovating and bringing empty homes back into use. Information sharing between the Department of Finance's Land and Property Services, which holds such information, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is key to identifying the location and ownership of these properties and allowing the Department to encourage owners to take the required action to enable such homes to be occupied.

An opportunity exists to cut through red tape. That could help to reduce the pressures on our housing lists and get homeless people off the streets. Just this morning, I heard a radio debate about homelessness and what we are doing as a community to address it. However, this could also lead to a reduction in the deterioration of properties and related crime, as well as an increase in revenue through rates.

Maybe the Minister will address the growing number of questions on the sharing of information about empty homes and antisocial behaviour. Individuals and organisations are often unwilling to provide information relating to antisocial behaviour to the Housing Executive or housing associations for fear of data protection issues. Clause 2 provides for disclosure of such information. Anything that will help social landlords to take action against individuals involved in antisocial behaviour must be welcomed. Antisocial behaviour is a blight on our communities, and all too often we see individuals in communities taking matters into their own hands. Better information sharing between the different statutory agencies will empower social landlords to tackle these issues more easily. One of the questions that I ask the Minister to address is this: does he believe that we are doing all that we can to address the problems of antisocial behaviour?

Finally, on the registration of statutory charges, the Minister referred to how the Department and Housing Executive are exploring the use of loan assistance for private-sector housing repairs and improvements. Without the Bill, loans made would be unsecured. Whilst there are other ways to secure lending, such as through a legal mortgage or a charge, the proposal to enable the Housing Executive to register a statutory charge in respect of grants by way of a loan is the most cost-effective. I again thank the Minister for moving Second Stage and officials for their help and support.


1.15 pm

Mrs D Kelly: The SDLP supports the sharing of information and the Minister's attempt to tackle the empty houses situation. The growing list of people looking for social housing and the misuse of social housing by some should concern us all, so we are very supportive of that aspect of the Bill.

Clause 2 deals with antisocial behaviour, which is a problem that is raised daily across our constituency offices and is something that the public are very concerned about. On the definition of antisocial behaviour, there is a note about widening it to include not maintaining a property. I urge caution on that, because there could be a number of reasons: the person could be older, have a disability or mental ill health. We should be very clear about how and when that might be used.

Like Mr Douglas, I listened intently today to some of the public debate on homelessness, and it is a regret that the issue is not included in the Bill, as the Minister had initially intended. Perhaps the Minister will inform the House as to how and when he hopes to include the aspirations on homelessness that he had wanted in the Bill and how they might come forward from the policy proposers in his Department, if not in this mandate, in the next one. Short-term tenancies are also excluded from the Bill.

We are happy to endorse the Chair's comments and ask the Minister to address some of the issues that I highlighted in his closing remarks.

Mr Beggs: Like other Members, I support the Bill coming forward. As the Chairman said, we have discussed it in Committee and feel that there is some room for improvement. I am content that it should formally pass its Second Stage today.

The sharing of information can address problems from vacant properties that adversely affect neighbours. From my experience of constituents getting in touch with me, I am aware that vacant properties can cause great distress and concern to neighbours for a range of reasons. There may be antisocial activity around a property, or there could be vermin infestation, which, with no one living at the property and the owner perhaps being difficult to trace, may become difficult to address.

There is a bungalow in the Antiville area, which I managed to get some movement on in the past year or so. It sat empty for a number of years, with the gardens not being cut and overgrowth taking over the place. Young people had started to congregate, and the police and environmental health officers were being called out. All that is a cost to public services, which could be avoided with earlier information sharing and owners addressing the issues concerned. I support anything that assists in earlier information sharing.

There is another property in the Whitehead area that blighted the neighbourhood for decades. Initially, I was called out by a pensioner who was concerned that an overgrown tree was damaging the adjoining wall; it had not been cut back and, in the wind, was hitting against the wall. The coping stone had already been damaged. As well as that, it was a jungle, with some 68 feet of overgrowth. Eventually, after information sharing — the community provided me with information, which I provided to the statutory services — the owner was traced, and his responsibility was highlighted to him. The overgrowth was cut back, and the property was sold. They found a garden shed and a boat below the undergrowth — it was a jungle. There was also concern about vermin infestation, so there needs to be better sharing of information. The interesting aspect of that case was that DFP knew who the owner was — he was listed with Land and Property Services — but did not know where he was. He was a social tenant of the Housing Executive, but it did not share the information.

Thankfully, through the community coming to me, we were able to share the information. Why should that information not be shared for the benefit of the community or rates collection? I strongly support the concept of the Bill and the sharing of information for the benefit of the wider community.

I think of another private home in Monkstown. Strangely, it has been lying unrented for at least a year. The window of the front door was broken, and young people were congregating, so there was concern from a neighbour about the safety of young people. There was even concern from the neighbour about the safety of everyone in the row. Because there is no automatic, fast sharing of information, it took some time to go through processes and for an environmental officer to eventually contact the owner. Clearly, there needs to be better information sharing to speed up the process. I am aware, from my previous experience as a councillor, that protocols and information can be shared to a limited degree. That needs to be looked at to see how it can be widened for, again, the benefit of the wider community.

I also welcome the concept of sharing information more widely. Some have mentioned the aspect of social housing landlords and how they are defined differently from the Housing Executive. The earlier transfer of relevant information can assist organisations to nip difficulties in the bud before they get out of hand, so I see benefits in widening the sharing of information. Perhaps systems need to be developed to manage this, but I firmly believe — we have already picked this up in Committee — that, if there were earlier sharing of information with social housing landlords, there could be benefits to communities and even to some of the tenants who are having difficulties and support could be brought in earlier. They might not even get to the stage where they get evicted if that system were brought in earlier and assistance given at an earlier stage.

If we go along that line, however, we then face the issue of private sector landlords, who are becoming more and more important in many communities. With many former Housing Executive houses having been sold off, they are now in the private rental sector. Are we going to protect the Housing Executive and social housing associations from potentially disruptive tenants by sharing information? If we do that but do not have some mechanism for including private sector landlords, we risk pushing those involved in antisocial activity, who might get evicted, into the private rental sector. That would leave private landlords, some of whom are small landlords, with less support available and having to manage some of the most difficult tenants around. We need to look at how, particularly in cases where there is known antisocial activity and there are clear convictions, that can be shared more widely, so that people become more responsible for their actions and ultimately look after their home, property and neighbourhood. We should not simply pass such situations on to the private rental sector, which has to attempt to manage them. One landlord told me about a training course that he was on. He was advised that one of the best means of dealing with a disruptive tenant was to pay him to go somewhere else, because it would cost a fortune in unpaid rents and legal cases — it is a long process, perhaps two years — to get him evicted. We need to see how we can better manage private landlord legislation, so that we get a balanced system that protects tenants but also landlords, whether social or private sector.

The other aspect of the Bill is the issue of grants by way of a statutory charge. I am open to supporting such an option. We can expect public capital grants to become fewer. We all face significant financial challenges, and this is an option that may enable necessary improvements to be brought about for the benefit of tenants. Perhaps some substandard housing stock could be brought back into use so that additional homes would be available for those who may, at this moment in time, be homeless. I am open to such a proposal, but we will have to monitor it carefully and see that it works in practice.

As a general comment, I welcome the Bill, although I wonder why it has taken so long, given that some of the issues have been around since 2009. I look forward to dealing formally with the Bill, after it passes Second Reading, at Committee Stage.

Mr Dickson: I will be as brief as possible. We are at the Second Stage of the Bill. I welcome the Bill back to the House today. We do not have a lot of time between now and the end of the mandate to proceed with a lot of legislation, all of which requires careful and appropriate scrutiny. This is a short Bill, but it is, nevertheless, important, and there are important details in it that we, as a Committee, need to examine carefully. I am glad that the time-wasting by Ministers and others appears to be over and we can get on with the work in hand.

I thank the Chair and members of the Committee for the work that has been done in the background to get the Committee work done, at least at an informal stage and now at a well-advanced stage. It is a track that we have been going down with other legislation.

As has been mentioned, the Bill covers three areas: empty homes, antisocial behaviour information sharing and statutory charges. The Alliance Party is content to support all those areas in general, but we will want to scrutinise some areas of detail in Committee to ensure that we get the best out of the Bill and to ensure that it delivers for everyone whom it is intended to cover.

I also want to comment on empty homes, in particular. Mr Beggs made reference to properties in our constituency of East Antrim. I am sure that such references could be replicated for areas across the Province, but there is an important point in that regard. While the identification and, hopefully, re-incorporation of empty homes into the social or private sector is important, it is not a panacea for our housing needs problem, and I think that the Minister will readily recognise that. It is a small step to dealing with properties that are, perhaps, a nuisance in an area, and it provides a useful means of providing housing. It may be that those contacts will simply result in a piece of land or property being sold into the private sector, or it may allow social or other housing providers to open negotiations with the owners of land or derelict properties to see whether they can be brought back into business, all of which is good, but none of which will solve our housing crisis.

I move now to antisocial behaviour and information sharing. Notwithstanding the concerns that others have raised informally in Committee about data protection and the sharing of information, the principle is right and is taking us into the right area. We need to share appropriate information so that we have the most effective and efficient means of dealing with those who commit acts of antisocial behaviour, for which, perhaps, we need to look at a definition in the context of the Bill. It is not to penalise people; it is to identify where the problem is and to take appropriate remedial action. It may simply be that knowing that a future landlord could be warned about behaviour could be sufficient in dealing with a problem.

In general, I support what the Bill is trying to achieve with regard to the statutory charge. Overall, at this stage, I am content to support the Bill.


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Mr McQuillan: I rise to support the Bill in its current form and welcome its contents, which I feel will provide lasting benefits not only for statutory and non-statutory partners in the provision of housing but for the communities that are blighted by empty homes and antisocial behaviour directed by tenants.

Part 1 deals with empty homes. We have discussed at length in this House the impact of empty commercial premises on high streets over the course of many years, especially with the economic downturn. We are all too aware of the impact that empty premises have on any city or town, especially if they fall into disrepair. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the Bill in this respect, as, unfortunately, the experience of empty houses in many housing estates is that they become a problem for all concerned. Houses become rundown, subject to vandalism and attract antisocial behaviour. While this aspect of the Bill is not the all-in-one cure for such problems associated with empty homes, it will most certainly help statutory bodies and agencies to work together more effectively to see that empty premises are secured at minimum expense to the taxpayer through the sharing of relevant landlords' details and utilised in order to address the needs of the community, be it through homing a family or individual who is in need of a new home.

Suitable accommodation is becoming harder to find, and with pressure on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and associated housing associations to identify suitable accommodation for those in need, we can see housing waiting lists reduced and needs met. An occupied home is better than an empty home. I hope that this aspect will go some way to alleviate the problems of housing stress and empty homes.

Part 2 deals with antisocial behaviour. I believe that the part of the Bill that relates to information sharing between statutory and non-statutory partners, such as housing associations, goes a long way to tackle the problem of tenants who subject others to antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour is wrong. I believe that permitting statutory bodies to share information regarding bad tenants will allow housing associations, which are becoming more prominent, to deal with those who have no respect for their neighbours or for anyone else for that matter. At present, statutory bodies are restricted in and how and with whom they can share information due to data protection. As housing associations become the main vehicle for providing quality affordable homes in Northern Ireland, they are, in effect, a statutory partner. It is therefore essential that we are afforded the information in order to allow them to take appropriate and proportionate action against tenants who are guilty of antisocial behaviour.

Those tenants who are guilty of antisocial behaviour are difficult to deal with and should, within the law, be brought to account for their actions, which cause others so much stress and annoyance. I would like to see the legislation extended or afforded in some way to private landlords and property management agencies; otherwise we risk seeing the problem of antisocial behaviour moving into the private sector, with such tenants subjecting communities to their antisocial and socially disruptive behaviour that threatens the cohesion of communities and disturbs private life.

While everyone needs somewhere to live, it must be made clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated. It is therefore up to statutory partners, including the PSNI and the justice system at large, to enforce the law in respect of antisocial behaviour, taking a zero-tolerance position to the issue.

Part 3 is on loans and properties. While technical, it is essential in allowing statutory bodies to secure outstanding loans in respect of repairs and improvements to private-sector housing stock. I therefore fully support this part of the Bill.

To conclude, I fully endorse the Bill in its entirety and commend it to the House. The first two parts are vital in tackling dereliction and the causes of antisocial behaviour in communities across Northern Ireland, which I fully endorse. Together, we must tackle these issues in order to protect responsible tenants and landlords.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I would like to start off by saying that, whilst the Bill is short, its content will have an impact right across the board. For too long, we have been talking in this House about the impact that empty homes have had on many communities across the North and the need for us to get our act together not only to identify them but to do something about them. The Bill, when it is passed, will help us along the road to doing that. For all of us, when we are out during elections in our constituencies and communities, one of the main issues raised with us at all times is the ever-growing difficulties with antisocial behaviour and how it is dealt with. I think that the question of information-sharing protocols being brought in will, for the first time, bring housing associations into the loop and allow them to act.

Many of us are aware of incidences in the past where somebody may have been guilty of severe antisocial behaviour in one community in a constituency and, because of some block on information sharing, was moved to another part of the constituency, and that led to difficulties in that community.

One of the difficulties that we need to take on board when we are doing this is that, while we need to deal with antisocial behaviour, it is sometimes so wide that it takes in people who may suffer from mental illness or serious addiction problems. It is also crucial to look at having a wrap-around package that puts the onus on housing providers to give full support to the people they are moving. At present, that is virtually non-existent. These are all important issues when they are all put together, and, whilst this is a short Bill, it will have a dramatic impact and will allow housing providers to deal with things more competently.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate. As Members have said, the Bill is short and fairly straightforward legislation. It is much shorter than the other Bill that the Minister is trying to bring through the House. The Second Stage debate, as has been mentioned, is concerned with the principles of the Bill, and I, like others, will try my best to adhere to those broad principles.

The sharing of information, with particular emphasis on empty properties, and the potential for the rating agency and LPS to share information about empty properties with statutory agencies and social housing providers, is a logical step. It is something that we can all support to make better use of existing residential properties that could be taken out of the vacant or abandoned column and occupied by families or citizens in need. It would not only deliver major improvements for those who now reside in the property but would help to regenerate communities where empty premises are a blight and are often a centre for attracting antisocial behaviour. It is a straightforward proposal that we would all support.

During the informal work that the Committee has done to date, we discussed with the Department the potential for sharing other forms of information. I would be keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that, because when we raised it with the Department, we were told that work was ongoing and that efforts were being made to deal with the issue of sharing information from electricity supply companies and whether those properties were, indeed, empty or not. It would be useful to hear from the Minister about that, because when we raised it at the Committee we were told that that work was ongoing. Perhaps the Minister will give us a more concrete update today on how information from electricity supply companies can be better shared with the Housing Executive and social housing providers to tackle empty properties and the potential for tenancy fraud, which, we are told, is a significant issue.

With regard to the potential for housing families. If you look at many of the Housing Executive investment plans, you will see that in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the vast majority of areas will not see any investment in new social housing before 2020. Putting vacant properties back into use is the only avenue that we will have to try to get more tenants into social housing over the next five years.

I still think that much more investment is needed and that the Housing Executive needs to do more to demonstrate that there is a need for social housing in communities. However, if we are going to be faced with a situation where there is no investment in many rural areas over the next five years, then it is unacceptable that Housing Executive or housing association properties or, indeed, private houses, which agencies think that people are living in, are lying empty. We need to see more being done to bring those houses back into occupation. The same goes for properties that are nearly finished. Much more needs to be done to bring those properties up to a standard where they can be completed, so that people in need can be put into them. The section of information to be shared, as proposed in the Bill, is very narrow, but it is a fairly common-sense approach, so we would all support that.

Clause 2 deals with antisocial behaviour, and this is an important aspect that does need to be resolved because, too often, we hear from the Housing Executive and social housing providers that there is a small minority of tenants who are engaged in antisocial behaviour and that they have few mechanisms for establishing the prior activities of a social tenant in previous accommodation provision. Once again, it is a straightforward proposal, but I would like to see some detail about how this information will be shared in a way that complies with the various data protection Acts that exist and how that can be done uniformly across our 11 councils so that it is done with a system or a mechanism where the information can be easily accessed and it is not a situation like we have at the minute where there may be 11 different databases and, if you want information, somebody has to trawl through a book or a different form of a spreadsheet. That might be quite time-consuming and take a long list of people to try to get to the bottom of it. If this information is going to be shared, it needs to be done in such a way that people can access it easily and that there is uniformity across the system in how it is stored.

I do think that this is a sensible proposal on how we protect social landlords in making sure that repeat antisocial offenders are not abusing their rights as tenants and damaging homes or damaging communities. However, I also think that there is a need for a reciprocal arrangement for tenants to find out such information about their landlords, because we have heard a call from landlords in the private rented sector that they should have access to this information too to see how landlords in the private sector have previously behaved. If we are ever going to go down such a road, I do think that we want to see a reciprocal arrangement where information on landlords and their past behaviour with tenants should also be shared with tenants. It would be unacceptable to me if landlords could find out what previous activities tenants had been involved in but there was no mechanism for tenants to find out about the potential past activities of a small number of rogue landlords who still exist. Dealing with antisocial tenants is a problem for social housing providers, and I support, once again, what is a very narrowly focused element of the Bill.

Those are the two most substantial clauses in the Bill. I commend the Minister for his efforts. I support him in his deliberations in trying to bring this Bill forward, and I look forward to working with fellow members of the Committee in the next stage of the Bill.

Mr Allister: I welcome the opportunity to take part in this Second Stage debate — some weeks later than one might have anticipated, but then the Minister had some political acrobatics to engage in as he flip-flopped in and out of Government because he told us, of course, that business could not be as usual because the IRA had murdered. Once the independent panel confirmed that the IRA had murdered and, more than that, it had guns, an army council and everything else, suddenly it was time to sweep murder under the carpet and it was time for business as usual. That brings us back here today. Nothing to do with principle or conviction in politics; simply to do with buying time for the expediency of clinging to office, and so we arrive here today.

I think that the Bill embraces a number of sensible and necessary steps. I wish to comment only on clause 2 of the Bill. It quite rightly deals with a long-running problem, or an aspect of that problem, pertaining to antisocial behaviour. It is right that, within the social sector, there should most certainly be the opportunity to exchange important information about those who have been engaged in antisocial behaviour, but the fact, of course, that it is restricted to the social housing sector in the public sense points up a gap or a lacuna in the arrangements. As we know, many people are housed in the private rented sector, and antisocial behaviour, sadly, can be as rife in the private housing sector as in the social sector. Therefore, the situation that we would arrive at with the implementation of the legislation would be that, between a housing association and the Housing Executive, there would be an interchange and interplay of information about the tenancy record etc of that individual, and that is right and that is good. However, more often than not, the individual who gets into trouble because of his antisocial behaviour can walk around the corner to the private sector, and do so with immunity, because his deeds and the information on him do not follow him. If he were to walk around the corner to a housing association or Housing Executive property, the exchange of information would follow him, but not with the private rented sector. That leaves a gap in what is being attempted here.


1.45 pm

We had the Minister say today that the reason for that gap, and the reason why it cannot be plugged, is that there are data protection and human rights issues involved. I have to say that that is a slightly different emphasis from what I understood the officials to have said to us in Committee. The emphasis of what the Committee was told was that it is not really possible to extend the exchange of information to the private rented sector, because it is not adequately regulated. The adequate regulation of the private rented sector could equally embrace how it complies etc with data protection, and that could be a spin-off from that. Therefore, my suggestion — I hope that the Minister will think that this is a positive suggestion — is that he should reserve to himself in the Bill an enabling clause, whereby, at the point at which the private sector is adequately regulated, he can apply, by secondary legislation, the information-exchanging provisions about antisocial behaviour to that regulated sector rather than have to start from scratch with fresh legislation to plug the gap. I therefore suggest to him that all that he needs to do at this stage is to encompass in the Bill an enabling clause, whereby, as and when the private rented sector is adequately regulated, he can apply the essence of clause 2 to it.

I will listen with interest to hear whether there is a sound argument against that. It seems to me that it would take us some way down the road to ensuring that the sharing of information would ultimately not simply be done within the public sector and the housing association sector but cover the ambit of the rental sector, including private housing. I trust that the Minister will take and consider that idea and see whether it is a viable way forward for clause 2. I respectfully suggest that it is.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Minister, Mr Mervyn Storey, to conclude and wind on the debate, I have to inform him that, if he is still speaking at 2.00 pm, we will stop the debate for Question Time and restart afterwards.

Mr Storey: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. If I do not respond to all Members, they will know the reason why.

First, I thank the Members who made a constructive contribution to the debate for the time that they took. In particular, I thank the Chair of the Committee and its members. I appreciate the difficulties and the issues that we have had to deal with. I welcome the Committee's recognition of the benefits that the Bill could have by bringing empty homes back into use and tackling antisocial behaviour.

It is regrettable that, on the day that we bring the Bill back to the House, there was another incident this morning, on Bracken Avenue in Newcastle. I have already had conversations this morning with the Housing Executive. I am glad that there have been no injuries, as the situation could have been a lot worse.

I pay tribute to the Fire and Rescue Service, the police and all involved in ensuring that that incident did not result in a worse situation than we have. I have also had discussions this morning with the Housing Executive because a number of elderly people are involved in that incident, and I want to make sure that everything is done to meet the needs of the people who have been affected.

I return to the issue in front of us. The Committee was concerned at the absence of provisions on information-sharing with private rented sector landlords and that the provision on antisocial behaviour was not compulsory and there was no legal indemnity for those disclosing information. The Committee intends to give those issues further consideration during Committee Stage. I welcome the fact that the Committee has now taken a proactive approach not only on this issue but on other issues. I appreciate what my officials have done to brief the Committee on numerous occasions around a number of those issues.

Some questions were raised by Members, and, with your indulgence, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will try to work my way through them. The Chair of the Committee raised the issue of why the Bill did not cover the whole range of topics set out in the consultation paper as of 2 December 2013. As you know, that consultation document proposed new legislation in regard to a new form of social housing tenancy and clarification of the legislation that provides for the Housing Executive homelessness duty to come to an end in cases of antisocial behaviour. It was subsequently proposed that the Bill should also enable the courts to grant a more comprehensive injunction against antisocial behaviour and breach of tenancy agreement, including a power for courts to enable the PSNI to arrest without warrant persons who breach such injunctions. The timescale for progressing the Bill through the Assembly, as we all know, is tight, and, due to the requirements of making sure that we do this in a timely way, the Bill concentrates on the areas where there is a pressing need for legislation.

There was also an issue raised by my colleague Sammy Douglas and by the Chair about whether the Bill could amend the requirement of the Housing Executive to share information about antisocial behaviour with private landlords. My Bill as introduced will make provision for information to be shared with the Housing Executive or a registered housing association. Those are professional organisations that are governed or regulated by my Department, and they have governing boards and established policies and procedures in place for the proper management of what is deemed sensitive information. The Information Commissioner's Office has advised that social landlords should not disclose any personal information unless they are satisfied that the parties receiving the information have arrangements in place that conform to data protection and human rights requirements — for example, ensuring that information is held securely. Given that, unlike social landlords, private landlords do not have a governing body, I do not consider that private landlords would be in a position to meet the strict requirements of data protection and the issues in relation to human rights. The sharing of information with private landlords has not been subject to public consultation. I believe that, given the far-reaching impact of the proposal, there should be an opportunity for those who would be affected to air their views. Apart from the other considerations that I have mentioned, the timescale for taking the Bill through the legislative process is already challenging.

Mr Douglas also raised the issue of how the proposal relating to sharing information about antisocial behaviour would represent an improvement on the existing arrangements. Existing legislation only allows a limited range of information relating to certain court orders to be disclosed: it is therefore proposed to allow any person to disclose information about antisocial behaviour that may be required by social landlords for a comprehensive range of housing management purposes. Such purposes would include applying for an injunction, an anti-social behaviour order or an order for possession; conducting criminal proceedings for any offence; deciding whether to withhold consent to a mutual exchange of secure tenancy; deciding whether a tenant is entitled to exercise the right to buy; deciding whether the threat of the applicant is ineligible; deciding whether to allocate housing to any person; and deciding whether to take any other action.

Other issues were raised. I want to say in response to Mr McCann that some antisocial behaviours are the result of mental illness. We all know that there is a variety of reasons. I have had some discussions with my colleagues in Upper Bann about recent events in the Dingwell Park area, and we all know the circumstances and challenges there. Social landlords are aware of issues around mental illness, and my Department has issued guidance that emphasises the need to provide appropriate support to tenants with particular challenges. We need to bear that in mind when we look at the issue. We would all like to have a society where we did not have to deal with these issues; however, the reality is far from that.

Let me conclude by reaffirming a point about empty homes, which repeatedly comes up and is always an issue of concern for Members. You will recall that the Department's empty homes strategy and action plan seeks to address the issue. The strategy was introduced on 5 September 2013, and we are working our way through that action plan and strategy. I hope to be in a position to give a further detailed briefing to the Committee on empty homes, but suffice it to say that steady progress has been made in meeting the targets outlined in the plan since its launch, with 13 of the 16 actions listed in the action plan either being achieved or ongoing. We could give more detail on that.

Due to the time, I will conclude by saying that I take these responsibilities seriously. Housing is an important issue, and I will be judged, I trust, on my actions and on the sincerity of those actions and not trying to make cheap political points.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill [NIA 58/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Social Development.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Minister for Social Development to open the debate on the Bill.

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): Not moved, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Motion not moved.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its order until then.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): The time available does not allow me to list individually the bodies consulted by our Department during the policy development process. The OFMDFM equality scheme, which is available on the departmental website, provides a core list of 156 organisations that should be routinely consulted.

However, individual business areas are encouraged to add to that list as necessary to reflect the interests of particular stakeholders in the matter under consultation or if new groups or bodies emerge. The external bodies consulted may, therefore, vary in accordance with the subject matter and objectives of each consultation exercise.

Mr McNarry: I appreciate the response from the deputy First Minister and recognise the time constraints that he talks about. Would he have time to confirm that the IRA army council is also consulted routinely in decisions taken by his own office?

Mr M McGuinness: In the course of my duties as deputy First Minister over the last eight years, working with the Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson in their capacity as First Minister, and working with four other Sinn Féin Ministers in the Executive, I do not ever recall anybody questioning any decision as having been subject to a group of people in a smoke-filled room.

I really do not think that the question is appropriate, but, in the context of the discussions that we are involved in, all of us recognise that there is a job of work to be done collectively by the Executive and by every Member in standing together against those who would try to plunge us back into the past.

In the course of the last eight years, the records of the five Sinn Féin Ministers are beyond question. As we move forward, hopefully to an agreement in the coming days, I hope that we can devise an approach and strategy that has all of us singing from the same hymn sheet to make it absolutely clear to anybody who believes that violence represents the way forward for all of us that we say no. We say that we will stand together and devise approaches and strategies to undermine those who would try to overturn the democratic and peace processes.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I am stating the obvious, I am quite certain, in saying that the Minister can, in choosing whether to answer a question, decide whether it is directly relevant to the original question.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. To get the question back on track, can the Minister indicate the yearly cost of consulting external bodies? I am not suggesting that consultation is not necessary; I would just like to have some indication of the cost to his Department.

Mr M McGuinness: We all understand in this House that consultation is sometimes an indispensable part of the processes that we are involved in. I do not have the cost of all of that to hand, but I will write to the Member with the answer to that question.

Mr Allister: Whatever the arrangements for his colleagues, when it comes to the deputy First Minister, is it simply a matter of looking in the mirror when he is taking directions from the IRA army council?

Mr M McGuinness: I do not think that that is an appropriate question. It obviously comes from someone who, since he came into the House in the first instance, has been hell-bent on trying to undermine the processes of the House. Obviously, the Member is dedicated to the overturn of all the agreements that have been made in the last eight years. Of course, he is a former member of the Democratic Unionist Party and decided, for whatever reason, to part ways. Clearly, when he parted ways, he walked off into the wilderness.

Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Wells is not in his place. Before we move on, I inform Members that questions 3 and 5 have been withdrawn.

Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister Jennifer McCann will answer this question.

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): We have committed to welcoming between 50 and 100 refugees by December under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, with the intention that further groups would arrive on a phased basis. By taking this approach, we hope to resolve any unforeseen issues that might arise before further refugees arrive. We anticipate that the first group of refugees will arrive before Christmas. They will spend a short period in a welcome centre to provide orientation and prepare them for life here. Initially, they will be placed in temporary accommodation, most likely in the greater Belfast area.

The strategic and operational groups are considering a wide range of factors to ensure that we meet refugees' needs. These include the process for managing their arrival, the availability of translators and interpreters, and health, housing and education requirements. We are also taking into account any implications for the existing community. We are working closely with NGOs to ensure that we draw on their expertise and experience and involve them in our arrangements. Their support has been very helpful, particularly in ensuring that we develop plans that effectively meet the social and cultural needs of refugees and support their integration. Although the Executive are taking the lead, councils have the essential role of preparing communities for new arrivals and ensuring that they are welcomed with dignity and respect.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the junior Minister for her answer. She has given a good outline, in particular that some refugees will be coming before Christmas, which I think most people will welcome. She talked about the roles of local councils. What roles does she think that councils, in particular, will play in the integration of these Syrians into local communities?

Ms J McCann: As the Member says, local councils have a really pivotal role in this. They are already on the operational group that is headed up by DSD. They have expressed a willingness to play a role in creating a welcoming environment and working with communities and everything else. A number of councils have already convened their own groups. In your council area of Derry and Strabane, the group consists of church leaders, elected representatives, community leaders and representatives from minority groups. There is also a representation from the business and charity sectors. The local mayor has already joined with Trócaire to set up a special tax-giving service to allow people to donate to an emergency refugee fund. Belfast City Council also already has a subgroup that meets on a regular basis. There is an overall group that the councils are represented on. I have met the mayors of a number of councils, along with voluntary and community organisations and NGOs that deal with refugees on a daily basis. People are very keen to work together. Obviously, there is a great deal of goodwill out there among local people. We want to get the maximum benefit from that. Councils have a pivotal role to play.

Ms Hanna: I thank the junior Minister for her answers so far. You have referenced the pressure on the existing sector providing for refugees and asylum seekers who are already here and the concerns about the lack of an integration strategy, which means that each new arriver is having to reinvent the wheel. Is there any more funding for existing groups providing existing services? Is it likely that Northern Ireland will be open to receiving more refugees after this initial tranche?

Ms J McCann: I can tell the Member that we will be receiving more refugees, but on a phased basis. Obviously, you point out that there are already people here who are refugees or asylum seekers. They are from Syria and other countries. We need to ensure that those people are looked after, as well. The best way of doing it is in a partnership, collaborative approach because we also need to ensure that the groups, particularly the local groups — the voluntary and community organisations like NICRAS and others — are resourced and able to pass on whatever knowledge they have. From speaking to some people who have already come here about the difficulties that they face even as we speak, I know that we need to ensure that the people who come here in December — because they are very vulnerable people, as well. A lot of them are women and children, and they have been through great hardship and difficulties already. We need to ensure that we have the services in place, right across the board, that will meet their needs. You are certainly right about that approach, and we will look to make sure that those organisations are resourced.

Mr Moutray: Any Syrian refugees who come here will find a country with a very different culture to the one that they left behind. What help will be given to them to adapt in that respect?

Ms J McCann: You make a very valid point. It is essential that we have an approach of partnership working. As I said, there are people who are already here who have experienced the difficulties of coming here, when, for example, you do not know the language. In the first year, we will put on English language classes and so on. Also, we will look to ensure that their health and housing needs are met. We will look for places so that the education needs of their children are met. Some of these people are very vulnerable and will need special services, such as counselling and other support services. We will look to local community groups and those organisations on the ground, particularly the council representatives, because the services need to be organised in a joined-up way if we are to get the maximum benefit from them.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: NGOs have identified to the OFMDFM Committee a tension between what the Executive do for current refugees and asylum seekers and what is, potentially, enhanced support later this year for the Syrian refugees. What actions are being taken to try to address that tension?

Ms J McCann: In my previous answers, you heard about the partnership approach that we are taking. At the minute, our officials are drafting a strategy for integration. Basically, we are working away. Two groups are working at the Executive level: a strategic group that is headed up by OFMDFM, and also an operational group. There are separate groups in council areas as well. We have had a number of meetings; I myself have met a number of the NGOs and local organisations that are already working with refugees who are already here and seeking asylum. The learned experiences that those people have passed on to those organisations and which the organisations are passing on to us are going to be pivotal in taking this forward.

Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer this question also.

Ms J McCann: Our Department continues to consider proposals for a pension for severely physically injured victims. In conjunction with the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the Victims and Survivors Service, research is ongoing into various issues, such as legislative requirements, to allow the scheme to be implemented in a way that benefits all victims and survivors. In the Stormont House Agreement it was also agreed that further work will be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward on the proposals. As a result, our Department is looking at drafting a document that will seek opinion on various aspects of the pension proposals. The draft is to be submitted to the Stormont House implementation group for consideration later this month. We remain committed to ensuring that all victims and survivors receive the best services possible.


2.15 pm

Mr Lyttle: I thank the junior Minister for her update. Does she agree that improving the services available for victims and survivors in our community remains an important task? Does she agree that it needs to be an open and transparent process? If so, why has research undertaken by the Commission for Victims and Survivors, proposing a model for a severe injury pension for victims and survivors, yet to be published?

Ms J McCann: Discussions about this issue are ongoing. It was raised in the Stormont House Agreement, for instance. As you rightly say, there are other issues: the development of the Victims and Survivors Service; the regional mental trauma service; advocacy; and counselling support. Pensions have been part of the negotiations. When taking this forward, we need to be very sensitive to the needs of the people involved. Having met them — I have a meeting today with some victims who were severely injured — we are really listening to their voices and what they are saying. We want to take this forward.

Mr Campbell: I am glad to hear that work is continuing. Does the junior Minister agree that it is important that the needs of those who were severely physically injured during the Troubles are paramount in the consideration of this issue and that the focus of attention does not become an assuaging of any guilt for what she and the deputy First Minister may have done in the past?

Ms J McCann: The needs of all victims and survivors are and should be central in everybody's mind when we take forward any service. As I said in my previous answer, we have been looking at a number of legacy mechanisms to develop the services, including the mental trauma service. There are also legacy mechanisms to give families the maximum disclosure that they need: the Historical Investigation Unit (HIU), information retrieval and the archive. No matter what we do through legacy mechanisms, it is very important that they are victim-centred and that people should not put party political issues before the needs of victims and survivors in any way.

Mr M McGuinness: We are committed to providing a community safety college that provides a high standard of training for our public safety services so that they can respond effectively to the needs of the whole population. This was a Programme for Government commitment by the Executive, and we remain fully committed to it. We have not had any recent discussions with the Minister of Justice on the matter. We understand that an updated business case is being prepared to take account of a review of the projected needs of the services involved. I expect that the Ministers of Justice and Health will present recommendations based on this business case to the Executive before the end of the year.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. I hope that the use of the past tense in "this was a Programme for Government commitment" is not of relevance to people who are from and live in the constituency.

Will the Minister provide some detail on the efforts that have been made to recover the £53 million that had been committed by the Westminster Government to the project?

Mr M McGuinness: The Member will know that the First Minister and I met a very large delegation from the constituency of Mid Ulster. We made it absolutely clear during our engagement that we were still committed to the development at Desertcreat.

The big question will centre on the scale of that development.

The Member would have been in the House when I said that I was disappointed by the PSNI's attitude to its contribution to its aspect of the training college at Desertcreat, near Cookstown in County Tyrone. Over a period of years, it was obvious to me that there was little enthusiasm in the higher echelons of the PSNI for the policing facility that was on offer at that college, and that, if it ever came to fruition, the PSNI would not be determined to pursue that aspect.

We are now dealing with the needs of the different community safety agencies, whether it be the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service or policing, but our commitment to the project remains. During the course of the very complex and extensive negotiations that are taking place, I think that the Member would be surprised if that issue was not raised. We certainly believe that the project would bring enormous benefits to the community safety services that we depend on. We are still committed to the project and to Desertcreat.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas fosta leis an LeasChéad-Aire. The deputy First Minister mentioned receiving a new proposition and business plan by the end of the year. If we can get back on course with Desertcreat, what is the expected time frame for completion?

Mr M McGuinness: I fully expect that this matter will be brought to the Executive in the coming days; certainly before the end of this month. The time frame for work to begin will depend on the Executive's decision, whatever that may be.

Mrs Overend: I thank the deputy First Minister for his responses. Since the original funding earmarked for this project was announced, it has been lost. Where does the deputy First Minister propose that funding for this can be found? Is it part of his negotiations, since it would benefit the constituency that both he and I represent?

Mr M McGuinness: The Member understands, as do I, and as did the previous Member who spoke, that this was a Programme for Government commitment. It has been impacted by the requirements of the different organisations that would locate at Desertcreat. Very shortly, we will take possession of a business case that will be brought by the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health, and we will see what that brings. However, as I said previously, the First Minister and I have been committed to this project from the very beginning and we have remained true to it.

I am not pre-empting the outcome of any decision by the Executive, but paying for the project will be a matter for them to deal with. There is a huge responsibility on the British Government to recognise that the money was taken back as a result of the difficulties that were presented to the promulgation of this case. They must also recognise the need for the community safety college, and that the Executive are determined not only to move the project forward but to point out to the British Government that they, too, could make a contribution.

Mr M McGuinness: Of the 82 commitments in the Programme for Government, over 80% have been achieved, which is a significant improvement on the 70% achieved in the last Programme for Government. OFMDFM led on the delivery of 14 of the commitments, including some of the most complex and challenging issues in government. Our track record in delivery has been strong, in particular through the Delivering Social Change framework, the social investment fund and Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC). Those projects have brought new, innovative approaches and unprecedented levels of collaboration to bear on tackling the most invidious issues facing our communities.

Through Delivering Social Change, among other achievements, we have supported remarkable improvements in achievement in literacy and numeracy by our young people; we have improved and streamlined support to families with complex needs through a new network of family support hubs; and we have invested in growing the capacity of the social economy through the establishment of incubation hubs in locations across our communities.

Through the social investment fund, we have committed approximately £58 million to projects, which is 73% of the total fund. Under Together: Building a United Community, seven major good relations programmes have been put in place. They represent the largest investment in constructive community relations in our history and are a positive statement of our intention to build a better shared future. In addition, engagement with Europe has increased, exceeding targets by drawing down over £95 million of competitive funds.

When the First Minister and I published the Programme for Government, we were very clear that it was an ambitious programme aimed at achieving deep and meaningful change in the quality of people's lives. Our record and delivery demonstrate that that was the right approach.

Mrs Dobson: Does the deputy First Minister accept that the redevelopment and regeneration of the Maze site should not be dependent on the location of a conflict transformation centre there? Will he prioritise the redevelopment of the Maze and the jobs it will bring?

Mr M McGuinness: I think that the Member and her party will be very conscious of the fact that that was one of the very big Programme for Government commitments that we had agreed. The Member and her party should also be conscious that they, with others, led the way in undermining the development of that site. The Programme for Government commitment was about the construction of a peace-building and conflict resolution centre on the site, as well as the further development of the site through, for example, the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society from the King's Hall to the Maze. It has obviously moved forward very decisively, and a fantastic future is in store for it as a result of that move. We have been to the site on several occasions through its agricultural show in the last couple of years, and it is going from strength to strength.

I would like to see a resolution of it, but that obviously depends on the collaboration and cooperation of all parties in the House. It was unfortunate that a certain Member from North Antrim, elements in the Ulster Unionist Party, some people in the DUP and others in organisations outside of the House effectively collaborated to prevent the construction of a peace centre, which would not have been a shrine to anything other than peace.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given the significant achievements outlined by the deputy First Minister, how can the next PFG improve on further delivering its commitments?

Mr M McGuinness: That really depends on the outcome of the next election. The next Programme for Government will be a matter for an incoming Executive, which the people will decide upon in that election. That said, work is ongoing to look at potential high-level objectives and identify possible delivery models and governance and accountability structures. In particular, we are exploring potential benefits of an increased focus on outcomes, through the development of an outcomes framework for the public sector. It is helpful that the development of the new structures in government and preparation for a new Programme for Government are progressing together so that future delivery of outcomes should benefit from better collaboration and decision-making with increased accountability.

Mr McCarthy: The deputy First Minister will be aware that, under the Programme for Government, some £80 million was set aside in the social investment fund for the regeneration and rejuvenation of areas. Can he tell the Assembly how much of that money has been spent for those purposes in those areas?

Mr M McGuinness: I think that I did that in the last answer. I think that it is well over £50 million.

Mr Speaker: We will take a quick question from Mr Seán Rogers.


2.30 pm

Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer this question.

Ms J McCann: The Programme for Government sets the general objectives and direction for the Executive in tackling poverty. It is also the means for integrating the activities of Departments and agencies and utilising and allocating resources between them to meet those objectives.

In the Programme for Government, the Executive made a commitment to reduce poverty, promote equality and tackle existing patterns of disadvantage through the Delivering Social Change framework. That framework was established to deliver a sustained reduction in poverty and associated issues across all ages and to improve children and young people's health, well-being and lifetime opportunities, thereby breaking the long-term cycle of multigenerational problems. However, it is clear that a lot more needs to be done to address those issues.

We have agreed not to appeal the court's judgement and are considering the recent High Court ruling. We will take account of the court's view of our statutory obligations and what is necessary to bring us in line with the requirements in law as well as in our community. We expect to bring forward further proposals in the coming months.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. I thought that I was going to be very unlucky and get a two-minute answer. We move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Anderson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what OFMDFM is doing to promote good relations within sport, in view of the refusal of nationalist members of Mid Ulster District Council to support a motion to congratulate the Northern Ireland football team on its qualification for Euro 2016. (AQT 3081/11-16)

Mr M McGuinness: In the aftermath of the qualification, I congratulated them, as I also held out hope and expectation that the Republic of Ireland would qualify along with them. They face two very testing matches at the weekend against Bosnia and Herzegovina. I hope that they will come through those. The two managers — the O'Neills — have done a fantastic job for the North and the South.

It will not come as a surprise to anybody in the House that, not on a political level but on a purely sporting one, I believe that a single team would be much more effective in Europe and in qualifying for the World Cup. That said, I applaud the achievements of our sportspeople North and South, and I have never been reluctant — nor has the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure — to congratulate teams from the North that have done well on the world stage. It is something for all of us to be proud of.

Mr Anderson: Deputy First Minister, I hope that you relay your comments to your Sinn Féin colleagues in Mid Ulster District Council. Do you agree that the recent decision by the GAA to form a guard of honour at the paramilitary-style funeral of Declan McGlinchey in Bellaghy sends out a very negative signal to the Protestant and unionist community and does nothing to contribute to good relations in sport?

Mr M McGuinness: I was very saddened by the death of Declan McGlinchey. He was a young man who suffered grievously as a result of the conflict; he lost his mother and his father in that conflict. I feel a tremendous sympathy for his wife and seven children. For someone to die of a heart attack before the age of 40 is terrible for any family.

In the circumstances, it is quite obvious that Mr McGlinchey was very much a part of the GAA in the Bellaghy area. The decision of the GAA, along with other members of the community, to participate in the funeral, I think, does not indicate any sympathy for what people might think were Mr McGlinchey's views, which, previously, were in opposition to the work that we have been involved in in the Assembly.

T2. Mrs Dobson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister has held any discussions with colleagues or officials about the sale of the Northern Ireland NAMA portfolio. (AQT 3082/11-16)

Mr M McGuinness: The First Minister and I have been very much involved in a lot of discussions that have taken place at the Finance Committee. Other discussions are also taking place in Dublin. It is obvious from the statements that have been issued by the Police Service and by police in the United States of America that what happened as a result of £7·5 million finding its way to a bank account on the Isle of Man is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Does he share my concern and perception that sharp practices in business dealings here risk damaging the worldwide reputation of Northern Ireland as a place in which to invest and do business?

Mr M McGuinness: We have been very successful over recent years in showing that we are open for business. Quite a number of delegations from all over the world have come here. I think that all of them have been very impressed, to the extent that we have brought in more foreign direct investment than at any other time in the history of the state. Of course, the First Minister and I, along with Arlene Foster, when she was in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, have been very much involved in engaging with world business leaders, particularly in North America. A lot of those investments that are taking place and will take place in the future are down to those important engagements.

The issue of the NAMA portfolio is the subject of an investigation in other areas, and my sense of it is that we can move forward with considerable confidence that people who are looking at committing their businesses or establishing new ones here in the North will continue to pursue those objectives.

T3. Mr Allen asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the consultation on measuring progress indicators in the strategy to improve the lives of people with disabilities. (AQT 3083/11-16)

Mr M McGuinness: Junior Minister McCann will take this question.

Ms J McCann: We recently had a meeting with local organisations in terms of the UN commissioner who was over. We had gone out and consulted people from those organisations and groups on our disability strategy. They decided that the strategy should roll over into the next period. We are trying to ensure that the UN declaration on people with disabilities is met but that we also ensure that we have a strategy, going forward, which is resourced in such a way that we can introduce some of the signature programmes that we had been discussing in the earlier period with those organisations and groups. That is how we are trying to proceed and take that forward.

Mr Allen: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. As she may or may not be aware, I have had difficulties with accessibility in this great Building. Can the Minister outline whether there is any funding in her Department for Departments to improve access to their own buildings?

Ms J McCann: I totally appreciate what the Member says, and it is not the first time that this issue has been brought to our attention. Indeed, I think that it was two weeks ago that I spoke to people who were up here in wheelchairs, and they found accessing the Building quite difficult. That is something that we will be raising. You make a very valid point, and we certainly need to practise what we preach, so to speak. If our strategy is asking other places to have disability access, we also need to provide that for people here.

T4. Mr Kennedy asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what measures the deputy First Minister believes need to be put in place to satisfy the desire of law-abiding citizens to finally deal with the twin evils of criminality and paramilitarism. (AQT 3084/11-16)

Mr M McGuinness: The Member will be as aware as any other of the delegations to the discussions that have been going on for the past eight or nine weeks that that is a serious issue that we are dealing with.

As I have said, emerging from that has to be an agreed approach by all the parties to how we will stand together against paramilitarism, armed gangs and criminality. I am 100% behind that. It is unfortunate that, in the course of the debate, some sight has been lost of the Davison and McGuigan families, who suffered so grievously as a result of the actions of the criminals who took the lives of their loved ones.

Yes, there is a huge responsibility, and I hope for a successful conclusion to the discussions that we are involved in that will feature an agreed approach by all the parties in the Assembly. That is essential. There are people on the extremes of so-called republicanism and so-called loyalism who are still determined to use violence to promote their objectives. The only way to defeat that is to make politics work, but in making politics work there is a duty and a responsibility on all politicians to stand together, as I have stood with unionist politicians over the last eight years, against both the loyalist extremists and the so-called extreme republicans who would try to plunge us back to the past.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful for the reply from the deputy First Minister. Will he stand with the Chief Constable and his senior command, other political parties and the British and Irish Governments on the Chief Constable's clear stance on the status and existence of paramilitary organisations, including the Provisional IRA?

Mr M McGuinness: I will stand with all democratically elected politicians in the House against violence, against armed gangs of all descriptions, against criminality of all descriptions and against all paramilitary organisations. It is always possible that you will end up with recriminations when questions like that are asked in that fashion, but it is not lost on the community that I come from that, over the past two or three years, unionist politicians have had absolutely no difficulty standing alongside the UVF in north Belfast.

T5. Mr Dickson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what contribution the deputy First Minister thinks he and the First Minister can make to an Executive strategy to combat paramilitarism. (AQT 3085/11-16)

Mr M McGuinness: There have been many discussions over the last eight or nine weeks, and they have all been very inclusive — the round tables, bilaterals and trilaterals that have taken place. In the discussions that I have had with the First Minister, we have effectively recognised the problem that we face in terms of opposition to these institutions, opposition to the peace process and opposition to all the political parties in the Assembly. Do I think he is serious about coming to an agreed approach that bears down in an effective way on the activities of those who would plunge us back to the past? Yes, I do, and I think that he believes that I am serious. What is required over the next while is for all politicians in the House to join us in our approach to bearing down on those who thought it was a good idea to lift a gun and go out and shoot Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. I think that —

Mr Campbell: Patsy Gillespie.

Mr M McGuinness: I hear some barracking from the other side of the House from people who have been less than constructive in the work of peace-making and reconciliation, but I will ignore that for the moment. There is a serious discussion taking place, and the outcome of all of this will hopefully see an approach that finds favour not just in the House but in the community.


2.45 pm

Mr Dickson: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. There are many statutory agencies that, unfortunately, have to deal with paramilitaries as so-called or de facto gatekeepers: what action will you and OFMDFM take to remove that scourge from the community?

Mr M McGuinness: It is all part of the challenge that we face. In my role as deputy First Minister over the past eight years, I have been threatened by paramilitaries. My life has been threatened by so-called republicans in different parts of Ireland. My home has been attacked. My wife has been verbally abused in the streets. I know what people face when dealing with those matters, but I have not bowed the knee to any of the people who make such threats; in fact, when they issue threats, it makes me stronger. We are trying to move from a position of recognising that we are in a society emerging from conflict into a post-conflict situation. We are not there yet — there is still a considerable amount of work to be done — but making politics work and coming to agreements such as the agreement that we are trying to forge at the moment can, on the other side, send a very powerful message to those in our society who believe that violence represents the best way forward that it is the road to no town. What represents the best way forward for us is working institutions, people being prepared to work on reconciliation processes and people working to ensure that we provide foreign direct investment and support for our indigenous businesses. If we can get our act together on all of that, I know that our young people can have a bright future and will not be rich pickings for those who would criminalise them and drag them into activities that will see them end up in prison.

Mr Speaker: Time is up. We now move on to questions to the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Employment and Learning

Mr Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 2 and 12.

Ulster University's decision to close its school of modern languages is the outworking of the budget cuts to my Department and the higher education sector. As a result of the cuts, Ulster University has sought to rationalise its course offerings across campuses. That has resulted in the decision to close some courses and consolidate others. The university has advised that, in making those decisions, a number of factors have been taken into consideration, including student demand, attrition rates, student satisfaction, employment statistics and research performance. The consolidation of teaching provision across all campuses will facilitate budgetary savings without impacting on the quality of teaching, which remains paramount.

The level of interest and demand from students choosing modern language subjects at Ulster University is low both in terms of the number of students who select modern language as a first choice and in terms of those who meet the requirements of the course. While I acknowledge the concern among business and other stakeholders regarding access to modern language courses, given the language skills required by the workforce, the further education colleges are well positioned to help meet the demand for modern language learning in Northern Ireland at the level needed. There is also the potential for my Department to give consideration to the provision of a business language academy through the Assured Skills programme. However, that is dependent on an identified need of a group of employers, where the availability of language skills is impeding the growth of a particular sector.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response.

Local firms have said that modern language skills are crucial for the development and growth of business. The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ann McGregor, has described the closure of the school of modern languages at Ulster University as a setback for exporters. In the light of the importance to our economy of countries such as China and Germany, does the Minister agree that it is vital that both those languages are taught at university level in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that the failure to offer such courses will simply add to the brain drain?

Dr Farry: We need to be slightly cautious about the latter points that the Member makes. Issues were raised around the viability of the school to begin with. That is reflected in the decision-making process in which the university has been involved. Overall, taking on board the comments made by the Chamber of Commerce and other business organisations, it is worth reflecting on the point that none of what we are doing around higher education makes a huge amount of sense. To be perfectly frank, it does not make any sense at all.

Obviously, that includes what we are doing around modern languages. I think that we would all prefer it to be different, but we have not followed through, in our actions, by having a more realistic approach to budget setting as an Executive and, in turn, through what comes through to my Department. Therein lies the difficulty of where we find ourselves today.

By way of mitigation, we could look to the further education sector and the potential for an academy to be created, where demand exists, under the Assured Skills programme. Indeed, that may prove to be a more effective way of addressing the language skills that are required by businesses. It is important to bear in mind that there can be a difference between the teaching of languages in an academic context, such as that you would find in a university, and the more practical, selective requirements of business, such as the ability to engage in sales and marketing, with an eye to exports.

Mr Wells: I understand that sackcloth and ashes are the order of the day. I have just realised that I missed question 2 to OFMDFM. I got slightly confused between the two sets of questions. I apologise to you and the House for that.

Minister, some of my close relatives are Swiss. When I visit them, I am appalled at how the capabilities of graduates from our part of Europe compare with the those of the Swiss people in European languages. Surely we are sending out the wrong signal to industrialists and investors when we say that, instead of expanding modern languages and its education throughout the Province, we are cutting back. Surely that is the totally wrong thing to do as we attempt to increase our markets throughout Europe.

Dr Farry: I will say several things to the Member. The fact that we are cutting our higher education sector in Northern Ireland is at the heart of the negative message that we are sending out to the rest of the world. We need to be mindful of how important our base — the universities and the skilled graduates that we are producing — is to Invest Northern Ireland's narrative on how it is successful in attracting investment into Northern Ireland. There are real dangers in that regard. Obviously, what we are doing around languages is one subset of that. I mentioned to Mr Anderson that the further education sector and, indeed, a potential academy approach may well be able to address the particular language requirements of the business community.

The Member made a comparison with Switzerland. It is useful to reflect on the fact that Switzerland's economy has a different approach to higher level skills. The Swiss actually have a much smaller higher education sector than us, per capita participation, but they have a much more advanced system of higher level vocational skills. Without wanting to diminish what we are doing around higher education in Northern Ireland, we have drawn very heavily from colleagues in Switzerland in designing our system of apprenticeships, including higher level apprenticeships in Northern Ireland.

Mr Dallat: I have listened very carefully to the Minister. He has made reference, twice, to further education colleges taking up the slack created by Ulster University abandoning courses in modern languages. Perhaps he might detail more elaborately what consultation and discussions he has had with the colleges of further education and what additional resources he is making available to them. Finally, I will squeeze in another question. Has he had any discussions with the Minister of Education on the knock-on effect that the abandonment of modern languages will have in our schools throughout Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: I have had discussions with the Minister of Education primarily around the Irish language, which we will come to shortly. The further education colleges are very clear on their own mission about supporting the local economy. As the Member will appreciate, we are finalising a new further education strategy for Northern Ireland. It will consolidate a lot of the progress that has been made in recent years. While the colleges are certainly up for the challenge, we need to be realistic about the prospect of directing more resources to them. Resources are very scarce at present, and the prospect is that they may get scarcer before the situation improves.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: In view of the Minister's comments on FE, can he elaborate on the capacity, ability and indeed the available funding in the FE sector to take up the challenge of modern languages delivery, because the drastic cuts have made significant cutbacks in the criteria for students already?

Dr Farry: That question tends to follow on from and reinforce what Mr Dallat has said. Again, to take the answer further, there are no good answers, short of actually having a more responsible approach to public finances across the board. We are not in a situation where we can make more money available to further education. The further education sector itself is already battling with cuts, has had to make very significant savings in this year's budget and, like other parts of the public sector, is looking ahead with great concern to what may be happening in the future.

We need to get our priorities right. I am very clear that we have to invest in skills across a very broad front if we are to truly transform the economy. Quite sadly, we are going in the opposite direction: we are defunding our colleges and universities. We cannot simply say that, if cutbacks are happening at universities, we will put more resources into further education. That is just not realistic. We have to make do with what we have at present and deliver things more efficiently and effectively and, at the same time, make the case for more resources through future years' budget allocations.

Dr Farry: This site is owned by the Ulster University. In July 2009, the university advised that the site was surplus to requirements and that planning permission for residential use had been obtained. It was proposed that the site be offered for sale at an appropriate time, with all the proceeds being reinvested in the university's core business. The university has advised me that the position has not changed.

Mr McQuillan: Could a portion of this site be used for a new site for Mill Strand Integrated Primary School? It is in desperate need of a site in that area, and there is no green space at all apart from that site.

Dr Farry: At a personal level, I would be more than happy to see the school get new premises. Ultimately, those are conversations to be had between the Education Authority and the university. I am sure that, not least on the back of the comments made by the Member, those conversations can take place.

Mr Ó hOisín: Like others, I would support the relocation of Mill Strand Integrated Primary School, although I do not believe that that site would necessarily be its first choice. If that is not to be, the Minister will be aware that, with the Open coming up in 2019, there will be demand for hotel accommodation. Perhaps he would agree that that might be a consideration.

Dr Farry: I am happy to concur with the Member that, again, that may well be a useful way to look at the future of the site. I should stress that these are not matters for me or the Department: this is for the university to take forward. Again, I am sure that the university will pick up the comments that have been made by the Member and continue efforts to explore a more productive use for the site than the current situation.

Dr Farry: My Department is continuing to process final claims from projects that were originally funded as part of the European social fund (ESF) between 2007 and 2013. The majority of organisations have now received full payment under the programme. My Department has brought on board additional staff to further assist this process and to ensure that it is completed as soon as possible. I am pleased to report that 66 projects under the 2014-2020 programme are now fully up and running. Many of the projects have been operational since April, while some other EU-funded programmes from the 2014-2020 funding round, here and in other parts of the UK, have yet to initiate their application processes.

In order to ease cash flow issues for the new projects, I have agreed to my Department's implementing an interim measure whereby 50% of the ESF and DEL contribution in unpaid claims is paid now and vouched later. Applying this process has alleviated the initial financial pressures that the projects have experienced, whilst work continues apace to ensure that all claims are fully vouched in line with audit requirements. In tandem with this, the Department has brought further staff into the ESF managing authority on a temporary basis in order to assist with the vouching of all claims.

I am confident that this combination of short-term measures has gone a significant way to addressing the backlog of claims and will soon bring the managing authority to a position whereby it can efficiently vouch each individual claim as and when it arrives.


3.00 pm

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his response so far. Will he outline what further meetings he intends to have with groups that are still impacted by the problems with ESF funding?

Dr Farry: At this stage, I am open to groups that wish to get in touch with me and ask for meetings, and we will look to facilitate those. Obviously, my officials will have ongoing interaction with them, and the managing authority meets groups to discuss problems. There is a range of avenues through which we have ongoing dialogue with the groups that benefit from the European social fund.

Mr Swann: Will the Minister update the House on the two judicial reviews being taken against the Department on the European social fund?

Dr Farry: Strictly speaking, those judicial reviews are not yet at the point at which they are being taken against the Department. That remains to be seen over the coming weeks. We will, obviously, defend our position in the event of any challenge. I am certainly confident about the procedures that have been deployed by my Department and officials over the incoming 2014-20 period, although we are always happy to learn lessons about how things can be done better. We are in the hands of the process, but I stress to the Member that it remains to be seen whether, in practice, anything will transpire.

Mrs McKevitt: Are any outstanding moneys for the groups still there? You said that the approach was that you were paying now and the groups would apply later, but are there still moneys for ongoing programmes that groups have applied for and not received?

Dr Farry: There are two processes in play. One is the closure of the outgoing 2007-2013 period. The Member will know that we put measures in place at the beginning of July to accelerate the closure of that programme, and good progress has been made. We are down to the final outstanding payments, and, hopefully, those will be cleared up before the end of this calendar year. The second process is the flow of resource to projects in the incoming programme between 2014 and 2020. As I set out in the main answer, we have put in place a process of accelerated payments in the form of a 50% contribution towards unpaid claims: in effect, we pay now and vouch later, and we are happy to do that at our risk. That is a fairly low-risk approach for us to take. Hopefully, that delay in the system will work itself out over the coming months, and we will be back on a level playing field and addressing claims as they come in.

Ms Lo: What impact is the ESF having on communities across Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: It is important to recognise that — I made this point in the main answer — we have the European social fund for 2014-20 up and running. We managed that without any break in coverage, albeit that it was rather tight at the end of March into the beginning of April. The timescales provided to us by the European Commission for the clearance of our operational programme meant a very tight turnaround. It is worth noting that we are well ahead of many other parts of the European Union in having our European social fund up and running. Certainly, we stand in a good place compared with the situation elsewhere in the UK.

Of course, the European social fund itself makes a massive contribution to the provision of skills and to bringing people closer to the labour market across Northern Ireland. I am pleased that we have 66 projects up and running. We have a commitment over the next three years whereby in excess of €110 million is due to be spent on what we do to support the community and voluntary sector and to support others, particularly those who are most marginalised from the labour market and from those skills, in improving their life opportunities.

Dr Farry: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I wish to group questions 5 and 7. As a result of the budget cuts to my Department, Ulster University has sought to rationalise its course offerings across campuses, which has resulted in the decision to close some courses and to consolidate others. This includes the consolidation of Irish courses at the Magee campus. A bachelor's degree in Irish language and literature will continue to be offered at the Belfast campus as a part-time study option. The university has advised that, in making these decisions, a number of factors have been taken into consideration, including student demand, attrition rates, student satisfaction, employment statistics and research performance. Consolidation of teaching provision across all campuses will facilitate budgetary savings without impacting on the quality of teaching, which remains paramount.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that Belfast's reputation as the Irish language capital of Ireland has been built on the phenomenal foundation of Ulster University in York Street? Does he accept that it is a blow to the city and its reputation for this course to have been ended?

Dr Farry: It is important to clarify that the course has not been ended: the university has sought to consolidate its full-time provision in the Irish language at the Magee campus in Derry. Without wishing to intrude on internal Sinn Féin politics, I was under the impression that people were keen to see the expansion of the university at Magee and certainly to build up Magee's impact in taking forward a number of courses. Obviously, Magee is not that far from Belfast, and, as we expect students to travel to Magee for a range of other courses, particularly as courses are consolidated, the provision for Irish language should not be any different. It would be nice, of course, to have a situation in which the full-time provision was available in Belfast and Derry, and the Member will be fully aware of the context in which the decisions have been taken: cuts to the higher education budget. In the context of an improved situation, I hope that the university's approach could be reconsidered, and we could see the restoration of some full-time provision in Irish language in Belfast. As we look to the development of a Gaeltacht quarter in Belfast, for example, a certain logic and synergy could be developed. I certainly would not be disparaging about the fact that course provision is going to Derry, and I encourage the Member to recognise the difficult decisions that the university has been taking and the fact that it has, in the main, preserved Irish language provision overall.

Mr Poots: Is it not the case, Minister, that your Department has had to deal with severe cuts in its funding, not least because £10 million a month of fines were being paid back to Westminster as a result of the failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform? This is a consequence. The cuts to Irish language budgets and Irish language at universities are a direct consequence of Sinn Féin's actions in ensuring that those fines are sent to Westminster instead of being spent on universities?

Dr Farry: I concur with the Member in the main: we are in a very serious situation with our public finances. We need to have much more financial responsibility, and that starts with a resolution of the situation on welfare reform and the cessation of money leaking out of Northern Ireland through welfare fines. Obviously, there have been serious consequences for our higher education provision. It is worth stressing again that Irish language provision has escaped the axe. We have seen a consolidation of provision in Derry rather than having it split between Belfast and Derry. People should take some comfort from that, particularly those who are Irish language enthusiasts, because the university has sought to preserve what has happened. Across the board, consolidation means that less money is spent on overheads, which allows the university to do more to maximise the number of student places that are retained in what is otherwise a very serious situation in which places are being lost.

Mr B McCrea: Minister, given that Ulster University receives 40% of its funding from your Department and a significant amount of the balance from student loans, which also have a government bias, is it appropriate that you should be more directive in telling the universities what studies they should deliver and on which campus?

Dr Farry: No, I do not. I think that we need to show a degree of caution in how government seeks to micromanage what happens in universities, the education sector, hospitals, the health service, museums, sporting organisations and arts organisations. We have to have a pluralist society in this country. We have to respect the fact that we employ professionals and recognise that civil servants and Ministers are there to take broad-based decisions on policy and resources. In doing so, we have to recognise that we have, whether it is NDPBs in other situations or universities, formally autonomous bodies. We have to trust those who are professionally qualified to take the decisions on how best to use scarce resources and to invest in courses that are relevant to the future of our economy and which have an impact on the further development of our society.

Dr Farry: My Department is committed to ensuring that anyone over 19 years of age with learning difficulties or disabilities, and who can benefit from available provision, can avail themselves of the opportunities on offer. The offer includes a range of education, skills and employment provision such as Training for Success, apprenticeships, further and higher education, programmes funded through the European social fund, careers guidance and employment support services.

In addition to the current provision, I recently initiated a number of strategic approaches that, cumulatively, will enhance our provision for those who are post-19 and deliver improved support and services. Those include the outworking of the review of careers support; the implementation of the new youth training strategy, Generating our Success; the further education strategy; an employment and skills strategy for people with disabilities; the delivery of a wide range of support services under the new European social fund programme; and the new economic inactivity strategy. Those initiatives will put in place additional and improved provision that young people with learning difficulties or disabilities can access to achieve their education, skills and employment goals.

Furthermore, my Department chairs a cross-departmental group that has been considering current gaps in provision and opportunities for making improvements to services for young people with severe learning difficulties or disabilities who are making the transition from school to adult services. The work of that group has resulted in a transitions action plan, which sets out a range of proposed actions across government that aims to deliver improved support for people post-19 with severe learning disabilities.

The action plan, which was agreed in May 2015, will be monitored by the Bamford interdepartmental senior officials group, which will report to the ministerial group. My Department will be responsible for collating the necessary information and updates from relevant lead Departments in order to assess progress.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware, no doubt, of the angst that often comes to families of children with special needs when they turn 19 and have to leave their special school. Has he consulted schools such as Ceara in Lurgan and Donard in Banbridge, both in my Upper Bann constituency, on issues like that?

Dr Farry: First of all, I identify with the sentiment that the Member outlined — the real difficulties and fears that families experience in the transition from special school to adult services. Going from that certainty to a very uncertain situation has often been described to me as feeling like you are walking off a cliff. It is in that context that we have this action plan in place to better advise on the services available across a range of provision, whether in the Department of Health or in my Department through the further education sector and employment opportunities. There are often gaps between what Departments can offer. It is important that we use the strategy and the action plan to try to close those gaps. Obviously, the Department of Education is an important partner in that regard. I have not personally had a discussion with the schools that the Member refers to. It is the Department of Education's responsibility to engage with them and to reflect their experiences and concerns to the Civil Service group and the ministerial group as we try to take forward the action plan. Proper signposting to the available services and identifying and trying to overcome the gaps will be critical aspects of the work that we take forward.

Mrs Dobson: What assurances can the Minister give that the reduction in college places will not adversely affect young people with special educational needs entering further education and those already progressing in community and off-campus provision? Minister, you are aware of the particular concerns in my constituency of Upper Bann.


3.15 pm

Dr Farry: We have sought to protect those places in the cuts that have been made to the further education sector this year. That is my intention as we look to further years as well, because I recognise the importance of the provision and how families rely on that.

It is also important to recognise that, during my term in office, we have had a 50% increase in resources available through the additional support fund for students in further education. That commitment also remains very much in place.

We are also taking forward the public consultation on a new employment strategy for people with disabilities. Again, that is a fresh commitment that we are making. We are privileged to have support from a whole range of community and voluntary sectors, particularly those that are funded through the European social fund, who will be our partners in the delivery of that strategy once it is formally agreed in the new year.

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

T1. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what action his Department has taken to address the employee gaps in the construction sector. (AQT 3091/11-16)

Dr Farry: First of all, we work very closely with the construction employers, and the Construction Industry Training Board is a non-departmental public body of my Department. The Member will also be aware that we are taking forward new strategies for apprenticeships and youth training. We are working towards a sectoral partnership for the construction sector, whereby it can identify its very particular training requirements and work in partnership with the colleges and other training providers around the creation of a refreshed curriculum for what is required to ensure that the sector can continue to flourish in Northern Ireland.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. I was recently at a meeting with Helm Housing in Rathcoole housing estate, looking at a new development there, and some of the issues that were brought up were around social clauses and apprenticeships. They had been working with Northern Regional College to try to address some of those issues, and they found that quite problematic. I just want to ask for your assessment of the further education colleges' placements in construction sites. How good has that been to date, and how can that be improved upon?

Dr Farry: The Member will be aware that we are moving from the outgoing system of Training for Success and previously programme-led apprenticeships, which may be at the heart of the tensions that have existed in finding placements because that has not always gone as smoothly as has been the hope in the past. Under the new systems, that situation should be improved because we are going to see a much stronger focus on employer-led advice on where particular training is required rather than the sector guessing where it is.

I am conscious, however, that our situation in Northern Ireland is turning around, and we are now seeing that with people expressing concerns about the future pipeline of talent. We are committed to working very closely with the FE colleges. We have a very strong track record of what they do to support construction. In some ways, that is exemplified by the stunning success that Northern Ireland has had in skill competitions and, most recently, WorldSkills. To put that in context, Northern Ireland managed to achieve 40% of the entire UK medals in WorldSkills in São Paulo in Brazil in August this year. Gary Doyle, who was a former student of the Southern Regional College, won the gold medal and is essentially now the world's best plumber. That is a great accolade, and it really shows the real effort that colleges are making in investing in construction skills that we are achieving that level of success.

T2. Ms McGahan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning whether he is aware of the startling figures in her constituency that state that almost 42% of those people aged 16 and over who live in Fivemiletown have no academic or professional qualifications, with similar figures for neighbouring areas stating that the figure in Clogher is almost 40%; in Aughnacloy, it is almost 37%; and, in Ballygawley, it is almost 35%; and, if he is not aware, will he give these alarmingly high figures his attention. (AQT 3092/11-16)

Dr Farry: I agree with the Member that those figures are alarming, but I regret to say that they will be reflected in many other parts of Northern Ireland as well. We do have some major issues with underachievement in our education system, and we have historic problems with those who have low or no qualifications. That is why it is so important that we are investing across a very broad front of educational opportunities and training opportunities. There is a role for the Department of Education, for which the Member's colleague is the Minister, and my Department obviously has a role to play. It is important that we have a joined-up strategy that bridges the two Departments; seamless progression between school and training opportunities, including the new system of youth training and apprenticeships, and through to further education and higher education; and early warning of those who are likely to leave school without any formal qualifications so that we are able to put in place measures to try to capture them and to see what other techniques we can deploy to try to ensure that they get on the first rung of the ladder of skills and qualifications.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Roy Beggs. Sorry, I call Ms McGahan for a supplementary. I beg your pardon.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response and commend him on his efforts to tackle the skills deficit in the North. What measures and actions can he take immediately, in improving prospects for those local people and providing support, to deal with this alarming problem in a rural area, where proximity to services appears to be the problem?

Dr Farry: We can offer some limited support through transport to further education, depending upon people's personal situation, through application to their local college, which will be South West College in the case of the areas that the Member mentioned. Ultimately, this requires resources, and the more resources that we have, the more we are able to invest in those types of interventions. For example, we have a NEETs strategy, Pathways to Success, for which there is no effective budget. That budget essentially expired at the end of March 2015. I had hoped that it would have been renewed in different circumstances, but it was one of the first things that was dropped when the Executive were trying to wrestle with balancing their budget. We also have an economic inactivity strategy, which was agreed by the Executive in April this year, and, again, that has not been commenced because of the absence of resources. We essentially have two strategies sitting on the shelf at present that we could activate if we had the resources. Those would directly benefit the Member's constituents in the circumstances that she mentions.

T3. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for Employment and Learning how he and his Department proactively monitor the demand for skilled craftsmen and women, such as fitters and welders, in order to maintain current demand and meet future demand in the manufacturing industry, given that, last week, we learned that private sector employment is increasing in every sector in Northern Ireland except for manufacturing. (AQT 3093/11-16)

Dr Farry: I chair a working group for engineering and advanced manufacturing, which brings together business organisations, our colleges, our universities and a representative sample of employers. We have an action plan that examines the different skills requirements, and we seek to update that on a regular basis. There is a strong pipeline of skills. There is obviously more that we need to do in that regard, but opportunities also depend upon the underlying economic climate in Northern Ireland, and that, in turn, is affected by what is happening in the wider global economy.

It is a difficult and challenging time for manufacturing. Obviously, we have heard some very difficult and troubling announcements in recent weeks and, indeed, over the past couple of years, but it is important that we continue to talk about the underlying strength of manufacturing in Northern Ireland and the fact that we have a critical number of world-class businesses that really are making major contributions and are exporting beyond Northern Ireland to other markets.

Mr Beggs: Last week, my colleague Robin Swann and me visited Larne Skills Development and learned of its remarkable 96% success rate in moving trainees into full-time employment by working closely with private sector companies in meeting their needs. One issue raised with us was the demographics among the welding community. In the next 10 years, a high proportion of welders will be approaching retirement age. How are those demographics being addressed? Will the Minister ensure that we do not reach a situation where there are vacancies for key skills where gainful employment could be had and that the skills will be developed to meet the needs of industry?

Dr Farry: The further education sector can respond to requirements from employers and where there are gaps. This week, we are launching Northern Ireland's first skills barometer, which takes down to a more granular level where we see pressure points emerging in our economy. That advice will be there to help policymakers, and those in charge of resources, so that they can use them more efficiently and effectively, as well as advising those making career decisions.

We invested in welding academies at Belfast Metropolitan College and the Northern Regional College, particularly to ensure that Harland and Wolff has a stream of people skilled in the welding required for oil rigs, which is a highly skilled and lucrative occupation.

T4. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, given that, although his understanding following consideration at Committee was that Steps 2 Success was a purely voluntary scheme for participants, it has subsequently transpired that it is mandatory for people aged 18 to 24 after nine months and for people aged 25 and over after 12 months, for an indication of when that policy decision was taken or was that the purpose of Steps 2 Success all along. (AQT 3094/11-16)

Dr Farry: I am not sure at what stage the Member was under the impression that this would be a purely voluntary process; that was never the undertaking given by me or my officials at any stage in the development of Steps 2 Success. Steps 2 Success is a fresh programme that replaced Steps to Work. That process of referral to Steps to Work was in place long before Steps 2 Success was considered.

Steps 2 Success seeks to learn positive lessons from Steps to Work. It also took on board the implications of how work programmes were taken forward elsewhere in the UK. That allows us to have a very Northern Ireland-orientated system that meets our circumstances and has a more focused approach to the needs of the individual and ensures that everyone is assisted in their search for work.

However, I am puzzled as to why the Member ever thought that participation in this programme was ever purely voluntary.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will establish me in puzzlement later. Does the Minister believe that Steps 2 Success is a worthwhile programme? There have been 21,000 participants until June 2015, but only 1,500 did so voluntarily. That is less than 9% and at a total cost of £14 million to your Department. Will the Minister tell us whether he thinks it is a worthwhile scheme or whether his Department is merely implementing a lightened version of the work programme that has been so ridiculed in England?

Dr Farry: The Member will be aware that there is a degree of conditionality with jobseeker's allowance. That is out of our hands, so it is important that we respond where people are in long-term unemployment.

If we do not have a programme in place, we have a vacuum in the offering made by my Department, or any successor Department, in addressing the long-term unemployed. We sought to ensure that what we put in place met the circumstances of Northern Ireland. That is one of the attractions and benefits of devolution.

If we had not had devolution, we would have had in place in Northern Ireland the same Great Britain Work Programme that Scotland and Wales have, given that employment matters are not devolved in those contexts. In putting in place our own programme, we sought to be much more sympathetic to the direct needs of our own economy and to ensure that we treat everyone as an individual and understand their particular requirements in investing in skills and trying to avail themselves of employment opportunities.


3.30 pm

It is important that we try to help people out of unemployment. It is not a situation that they want to be in, and it is not a situation that is good for our society. I have met very few people who actively want to be unemployed. People are not moving into Steps 2 Success with any sense of compulsion. It is technically mandatory, but it is seen as an opportunity for people to try to transform their lives.

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Donaldson Report

Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Allister has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Mr Allister: Why did the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety choose to outline his policies on an issue as important as the outcome of the Donaldson report at a conference in Ballymena rather than making an oral statement in the House.?

Mr Speaker: I have been advised that, unfortunately, the Minister is unavailable to respond to the question at this time. I have written to the Minister expressing my disappointment. This, I believe, is one of the key and most important strategic decisions that has been taken by any of our Ministers, and I am very anxious to facilitate Members in questioning the Minister. Consequently, I am going to move this question to the same spot tomorrow, 24 hours from now. I am sure that the Minister is anxious to discuss this matter with Members and the House, so we will move it to this time tomorrow.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As I understand Standing Orders, they require notice of such a question to be given by 10.30 am to allow the Minister a four-hour window to arrange to be here. This is a Minister who has been in this Building today and who I wanted to question as to the contempt that he showed for the House in making a key policy announcement outside the House and avoiding the questioning of it within the House. Then, we are told that he compounds that contempt by simply saying, it seems, that he is too busy to be here. Is that not a serious challenge to the authority of the House?

Mr Speaker: I have to say that that sounded more like a statement than a point of order. The criteria for eligibility for urgent oral questions does not include either the requirement or the foreknowledge that the Minister will be available. I understand, and I suppose others understand, that there is another engagement nearby that urgently requires the attention of Ministers, but I noted the attendance of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and both junior Ministers at Question Time. I think that I have taken a reasonable approach. We will, hopefully, be able to deal with this matter in an appropriate fashion this time tomorrow. Let us move on.

Mr McKinney: On a point of order, Mr Speaker —

Mr Speaker: Is it a separate point of order?

Mr McKinney: It is related.

Mr Speaker: No, I do not want to take any further discussion on this. I have made my decision, and I think that that is sufficient for now. There will be an opportunity to discuss it tomorrow. Let us move on.

Committee Business

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 26 January 2016, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA 62/11-16].

As provided for in Standing Order 33(1), on 12 October 2015, the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill was referred to the AERC for Committee Stage. The Committee was asked to consider and report to the Assembly no later than 30 November 2015. The Bill contains nine parts, 24 clauses and a schedule, which sets out 10 areas that may, subject to the approval of the Assembly, be included in an Assembly and Executive reform motion. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the formation of an Assembly opposition, with certain rights and benefits, and, in the words of the Bill itself, "to promote constitutional change" and "reform the Executive."

It goes without saying that any Bill that seeks to change the constitutional arrangements of the Assembly merits careful consideration. At its meeting on 13 October, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee agreed to issue a call for evidence to invite interested parties to submit their views on the Bill. The Committee considered an extension to the Bill's Committee Stage necessary in order to give stakeholders adequate time to respond and to enable the Committee to reflect on the evidence received.

The Committee believes that, to do justice to the Bill and the matters that must be considered, additional time is required before reporting to the Assembly. To date, the Committee has heard oral evidence from legislative experts and leading academics, and the call for evidence is due to close tomorrow. Further oral evidence sessions are planned for the weeks ahead. The Committee therefore asks that, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 26 January 2016 for the Committee Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 26 January 2016, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA 62/11-16].

Private Members' Business

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.

Ms McCorley: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Secretary of State to join the Irish Government in supporting the proposed investigation into the events in Ballymurphy in 1971, when 11 civilians were killed, to be conducted on the same basis as the Hillsborough football stadium investigation and jointly funded by the two Governments.

Éirim inniu leis an rún seo a mholadh, agus tá mé lán-sásta é a dhéanamh. I am very content to move the motion, which is very important for the families of the Ballymurphy massacre victims.

Tá sé 44 bliain ón Samhradh 1971 nuair a chuaigh Arm na Breataine ag dúnmharú daoine ar feadh trí lá i mí Lúnasa. Forty-four years ago, in the summer of 1971, in the month of August, the British Army went on a three-day killing spree. Throughout the greater Ballymurphy area, it wreaked havoc on the streets, and, at the end of those three days, 11 people lay dead and lives were changed forever. Those who died were Father Hugh Mullan, Francis Quinn, Daniel Teggart, Joan Connolly, Joseph Murphy, Noel Phillips, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr. Paddy McCarthy died later after a heart attack, as a result of being put through a mock execution by members of a British Army foot patrol. Mar thoradh, chaill 57 páiste tuismitheoir agus scriosadh teaghlaigh. As a result, 57 children lost a parent and families were devastated. Indeed, the whole community of greater Ballymurphy was traumatised by this mass murder.

For over four decades, the families of those who were killed have been tirelessly campaigning to find out the truth of what happened over those three days, who was responsible and what decisions were taken that led to the murders of their loved ones. Those efforts have been consistently thwarted, with closed doors at every turn. Notwithstanding that, however, a robust body of evidence has been gathered over the years by the families that points to the clear fact that all those people were innocent victims, unlawfully killed, and that the actions represent a breach of article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As Pádraig Ó Muirigh, the families' solicitor, stated:

"The case raises serious questions regarding human rights abuses committed by the British Army and of a culture of impunity in the north of Ireland in which members of the security forces routinely were above the law."

In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, the GOC of the British Army and the Chief Constable of the RUC jointly decided that the Royal Military Police would carry out an investigation, and a very poor and shallow investigation it turned out to be. There was no probing or searching for the truth, no attempt to challenge the inconsistencies in soldiers' statements and no place given to the eyewitness accounts of local people whose evidence refuted that of the soldiers. Significantly, no investigation was carried out by the police force at the time: the RUC. At the original inquest in 1972, vital evidence was withheld from the coroner, and the statements accepted from soldiers were riddled with inconsistencies. Those statements were just accepted without question. There has been a total failure to bring about adequate inquests in the cases. Mar sin de, fágadh teaghlaigh dhúnmharú Bhaile Uí Mhurchú ar an trá bhán, mar a bheadh Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne iontu agus an doras druidte os a gcomhair. The families of the Ballymurphy massacre were left distraught and bereft, and the door closed before them.

After many years of campaigning, the families produced overwhelming new evidence and witness statements, which resulted in the Attorney General for the North of Ireland directing the coroner to reopen the inquest in 2011. Four years on, however, no inquest has taken place due to the failure of the MoD and the PSNI to fulfil their legal requirements to assist the inquest. Níl aon mhuinín ag na teaghlaigh go rachaidh seo áit ar bith. The families remain very sceptical that this avenue will lead anywhere. The whole issue of legacy inquests cries out for fundamental reform, and, as we know, this is part of the current negotiations, which as yet are incomplete.

Ms J McCann: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that families such as those who lost loved ones in the Ballymurphy massacre in 1971 are entitled to maximum disclosure and that the British Government are protecting the people responsible for that murder and the people in the British state who knew about it? In a sense, they are still covering up what happened by refusing the families an inquiry. That is why it is important that the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms are brought forward in such a way as to give the maximum disclosure that the families are entitled to.

Ms McCorley: I agree with everything that the Member said. There needs to be a very robust outcome to the legacy issue in the Stormont House Agreement.

Tá an rud atá na teaghlaigh a iarraidh simplí agus díreach. The families' demands are simple and straightforward. They want an independent panel to be set up to give in-depth oversight of all the documentation on the causes, context and consequences of the Ballymurphy killings in August 1971. The seven-person panel must have the trust and confidence of the families. The documentation must include evidence on the part played by the British Government, the British Army, the RUC, the DPP and the coroner's office. A report must be published informing the public of the comprehensive detail of everything that happened. This is a necessary process that must also include simultaneous consultation with the bereaved families, at the end of which each family should have a separate confidential report on the panel's findings on the death of their loved one. Finally, on costs, it should be made clear that what is sought here is not a Saville-type investigation, as carried out into Bloody Sunday; what is proposed is time-bound work, similar to the investigation of the Hillsborough tragedy, lasting between 12 and 18 months. The British and Irish Governments should share the costs arising from the panel's work.

In the last number of weeks, Janet Donnelly succeeded in having her father's body exhumed, and it is now being scrutinised for evidence by two forensic experts. Joseph Murphy's family said from the start that they believed that he was shot, into his open wounds, at a military barracks after being injured and that a bullet may still be lodged in his leg. Initial evidence from the exhumation certainly seems to suggest that there was indeed a second bullet. Rather than being treated for his injuries at the time, Joseph Murphy was beaten and then shot again.

To add to their pain and loss, Joseph's family, along with the other Ballymurphy families, have had to endure rejection, insults and closed doors from British agencies for asking for the truth about what happened to their loved ones. More recently, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers rejected their proposal for an investigatory panel to be set up. She said that she was very moved by their pain and loss but did not feel that the public interest would be served by establishing an independent review. Secretary of State, I beg to differ, as do the Ballymurphy families. Níl ciall ar bith le do fhocail do dhaoine atá ag iarraidh na fírinne. Your words mean nothing to people who seek the truth.


3.45 pm

It is heartening to see the response from the Irish Government in recent times. Taoiseach Enda Kenny also expressed his disappointment at Theresa Villiers's failure to appoint a Hillsborough-style panel. He visited Ballymurphy earlier this year and listened to personal accounts of what happened from bereaved family members. He told them that he supported their case and undertook to raise it with David Cameron. We call on the British Government to do the decent thing and join the Irish Government to help bring forward the truth of what happened in August 1971.

"'Truth' is a small word, but a daunting concept." — so said Professor Phil Scraton, who was central to the campaign for truth after the Hillsborough disaster, which eventually succeeded in uncovering all of the truth of what happened on that terrible day in 1989. The families in Ballymurphy who lost their loved ones in 1971 are just as entitled to their truth. The 11 people who were brutally done to death on their own streets by the British Army will never regain the lives that they should have had, and those they left behind can only imagine the richness of the lives they should have shared. Tá sé ceart agus cóir go mbeidh a lá fírinne acu faoi dheireadh. It is only right and just that they should finally have their day of truth.

Mr Craig: Ballymurphy in 1971 was one in a long list of events in Northern Ireland that created a long list of victims, victims of a war of terrorism that was waged in the Province. It was one horrific event in a long list of horrific events in the history of Northern Ireland. It was, unfortunately, neither unique nor the worst to take place in the Province.

I have listened with interest, and I have absolutely no doubt that the victims and the families who are left want to hear the truth of what actually occurred in that unique piece of our history. It is something that I certainly have sympathy with and understanding of. This was not the only event to take place where no one has been brought to account and where we had major breaches of article 2 — the right to life — in the Province. My family suffered from that in the bombing of Newry police station, when eight police officers were bombed to pieces and there was nothing left. No one was ever brought to book. No investigation ever uncovered what happened there. The truth is out there, and there are those on the opposite Benches here today who, I suspect, know something of the truth of that situation but refuse to bring it forward. There is hypocrisy on all sides about these things.

Will we get satisfaction for the families? I have severe doubts. Will yet another inquiry bring any closure for them? I have my doubts, because I have looked at what happened with the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where millions upon millions of pounds of taxpayers' money was spent that could have been used elsewhere. Is one person any more satisfied now than they were when that event occurred? I doubt it. I think that we are all reinforced in our opinions, no matter what they are, of what happened in that event and, unfortunately, I do not think that it will bring truth in this case.

We have all seen the demise of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), and I can understand the families' frustration about that. Looking at the whole Coroners' Court situation in Northern Ireland and at what is happening in the ombudsman's office, I do not think that anyone in the Chamber believes that any of that will bring satisfaction to the families. It is grinding to a halt under its own pressures. We have a historic situation in Northern Ireland that, unfortunately for all of us, all the victims who sit around the Chamber, we will see no satisfaction from. We need a comprehensive way forward on the whole issue of historical inquiries.

I thought we had come close to achieving something that would bring that about in the HIU and the whole Stormont agreement at Christmas. Unfortunately, that has been delayed. I live in hope as a victim, and I hope that others live in hope as victims, that we will find a way forward in treating and dealing with the past in this Province, but I do not believe for one second that taking any one issue from the past in Northern Ireland and dealing with it separately and uniquely moves that situation forward. We need a comprehensive way of looking at the past. That is hopefully what we are going to get with the HIU. I think where that family needs to look with hope is towards the HIU and how we can move all those situations forward, but not take them as one. Northern Ireland is full of victims, many of whom sit on these Benches.

Mr Attwood: I apologise for the fact that, when I finish my remarks, I have to leave to go elsewhere in the Stormont estate to deal with some of the issues that Mr Craig has just touched on. Apologies to the House and anybody else in the Building for the fact that I cannot stay and hear what is a very important and welcome debate.

First of all, as is always the point of reference when it comes to issues of victims and survivors, I acknowledge the victims and survivors, not least the Ballymurphy massacre families, but many other individual families, groups of families and communities. It is because of their resilience and dignity that, even as I speak, people are continuing to interrogate how the issue of the past should be addressed and, hopefully, addressed in a comprehensive and ethical way.

I do not know if I have said it in the Chamber before, but, at the Haass/O'Sullivan talks, in the early hours of New Year's Eve, Richard Haass said to me that it was the impact upon him and on Meghan O'Sullivan of the voices of victims and survivors that moved him from a position, in September, around the first plenary meeting of those negotiations, where he was not of a full open mind when it came to dealing with the issues of the past, to one where he proposed a variation on Eames/Bradley when it came to dealing with the past. That was because of the voices of victims and survivors and the impact, intellectually and emotionally, that they had on him and her. That is because of the dignity, resilience, courage and dedication of families like the Ballymurphy massacre families in refusing to have anything other than an acknowledgement of truth and accountability, and, hard though it may be to secure, justice as well. I want to first acknowledge the families.

Mr Bell asked a fair question. Why should people support this group of families in the call for an independent review and investigation of the circumstances of the murders of their family members? The answer actually comes from Eames/Bradley, because, without breaking the confidence of Eames/Bradley, there are people in that process who, when they met the families of the Ballymurphy massacre, said that not only was their message and experience compelling but that it was of such a scale that the denial of justice, truth and accountability to the families was of such enormity that, if there was ever to be another public inquiry into an event from the past, that might be one such case. That is not, in any way, to diminish the equal right of any victim or survivor to have justice, truth and accountability in the circumstances that they face. However, consistent with that principle, which is common to all, people in and around Eames/Bradley saw in this issue a need to respond in a discrete way over and above what might be the mechanisms to deal with truth and justice that are being negotiated.

It is very timely that we have the debate today. Not only is the shadow of Ballymurphy over the Chamber, it is over the negotiations that are ongoing not far away from here. The shadow of all the past is across all the negotiations that are ongoing as we speak. If, on the far side of two, three, four or whatever number of days it takes to conclude those negotiations, any party or Government is on the wrong side of the right standards of justice, truth and accountability, it is not only the families in Ballymurphy who will have been let down. Families across Northern Ireland will say that, if we could not do it with Eames/Bradley —

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

Mr Attwood: — Haass/O'Sullivan, Stormont House 1 or Stormont House 2, it is an indictment on Governments and politicians that they should, once again, so gravely let down victims and survivors in their search for truth, accountability and justice.

Mr Nesbitt: My primary objective is trying to get through my speech without causing offence. I have met members of the Ballymurphy families on a number of occasions, and there can be no doubting the impact that that day had on their lives. For them, the Troubles are not history; they are a living legacy that they endure daily.

I heard Mr Craig talking about closure. For victims, there is no such thing as closure this side of the grave. There is a weight and burden that will be carried daily. The challenge for the House is to take steps that might, to some degree, lighten that load between now and the inevitable.

What we do at the moment through a series of processes is incomplete and imperfect. It is also imbalanced, in that any objective analysis would say that the focus tends to be more on the state and state agents than on the paramilitary organisations. Victims, of course, have had a huge range of experiences, from the 14 who died on Bloody Sunday, into which there has been not one but two public inquiries and an expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds, to the many relatives of the over 1,000 dead who still wait for something. Since the HET was wound up, there has been nothing for that huge number of people who, like the Ballymurphy families, seek truth, justice, acknowledgement and information.

We have to accept that getting truth and justice is just one of the needs of victims and survivors. Another need for many is simply an acknowledgement that something happened that should not have happened. Reconciliation must challenge us in the House. Do we have a common definition of what reconciliation means at a time when the range of opinion offered by politicians is stark? One political leader can talk of an event and say that it was unjustified and unjustifiable, while another says that he is proud of what he did during the Troubles, would do it all again and would not take a step back from the activities that we acknowledge as terrorism.

Over the last two years, the main parties have given considerable thought and effort to a better, more balanced way forward in dealing with the past. In proposing the motion, Ms McCorley said that legacy inquests are crying out for reform.

Well, right from the Haass/O'Sullivan talks, the Ulster Unionist Party said, "Yes, you were right about that. Let's get them into the historical investigation unit". Sinn Féin did not support us in that call.


4.00 pm

Jennifer McCann criticised the British Government and the authorities for not divulging information that she says they possess: we can all play that game. Think back to the Saville inquiry and the evidence of Martin McGuinness: asked about others who, like him, were members of the Provisional IRA in Londonderry at the time of Bloody Sunday, he said that he had a code, had taken an oath and would not divulge that information "under any circumstances". Everybody is withholding information, republicans and loyalists equally.

What we are doing really serves nobody's best interests. I hope that we can find a better and fairer way forward over the next number of days elsewhere on this estate. It is with regret, bearing in mind the impact on the Ballymurphy families of what happened in the early 1970s, that it is my position that the Ulster Unionist Party cannot support the motion. For us, it is time to stop the piecemeal approach.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. From the outset, I pay tribute to the Ballymurphy massacre families. They have pursued their quest for truth with incredible stamina and determination. They have been steadfast and relentless in their campaign to have the truth told to the world about the events in Ballymurphy in August 1971, when 11 people lost their lives. It is important to state that, despite their great loss and the disgraceful way that they have been treated by the British state, the families have at all times conducted themselves with great dignity, and their campaign has been characterised by a complete absence of bitterness.

The narrative of the families' campaign is as follows. Over three days — 9, 10 and 11 August 1971 — more than 600 British paratroopers entered Ballymurphy and shot dead, on those three days, eight civilians. Another two were fatally injured and died subsequently of their wounds, and an eleventh person, Pat McCarthy, died of a heart attack after being subjected to a mock execution by the paratroopers. On 9 August, Frank Quinn was shot and killed when he went to assist Father Hugh Mullan, who had been shot in the back while administering the last rites to another injured man. Frank was shot in the back of the head. Noel Phillips was shot and wounded in a field opposite the Henry Taggart military base. On hearing his cries for help, Joan Connolly, a mother of eight, went to his aid. She was shot in the face and lay wounded in the field. When the shooting stopped, Daniel Teggart lay dead, having been shot 14 times.

Joan Connolly cried out for help for many hours and eventually bled to death. An eminent A&E consultant said that had she been brought to hospital she would most likely have survived. British soldiers entered the field where Noel Phillips lay injured and, according to eyewitnesses, shot him twice in the head. Joseph Murphy, who had been wounded, was taken to the Henry Taggart base, where he was brutalised and shot again in the wound that he had received earlier. Joseph Murphy died 13 days later in hospital. On 10 August, Eddie Doherty was shot in the back on the Whiterock Road and died a short time later. On 11 August, John Laverty, who was 20, was shot and killed. Joseph Corr, a father of six, was also shot and died of his injuries 16 days later. John McKerr, a carpenter and father of eight, was carrying out repair work on Corpus Christi Church when he was shot in the head and died outside the church.

People will say that this case is like every other case: the victims are not going to get justice. The difference between this and other cases is that no investigation was carried out. The slaughter took place at the time of the infamous tea and sandwiches agreement between the Chief Constable of the RUC and the commander of British armed forces in the North, whereby the Royal Military Police would investigate any fatal shootings by military personnel. We know that the statements that were taken by the military police contained many contradictions and inaccuracies and were later contradicted by civilian witnesses. At the time, no statements were taken from civilian witnesses. What is also important in this case is that the same regiment, only a matter of months later, was deployed on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday. If something had been done after the Ballymurphy massacre, we might never have had Bloody Sunday in Derry and the downward spiral that followed the events of that day.

What are the families asking for? What they are asking for is quite reasonable. The British Government have said there will be no more public inquiries that cost a fortune to the public purse, so the families took up that challenge. They went away with their legal advisers and Professor Phil Scraton from Queen's University and devised a model based on the inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy that would have a minimal cost and perhaps bring truth to the families. The British Government have rejected that.

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Mr Sheehan: I call for the truth to be brought out and brought out now.

Mr Allister: It is no part of my purpose or intent to diminish or demean suffering by any family, be they connected with this Ballymurphy matter or anything else. Let me be very clear: anyone who was not involved in criminality and died as a result of a criminal act against them is an innocent victim, as are their families, and they are entitled to be regarded as such.

I suppose that the biggest difficulty with the selectivity of the motion is that many in the community that I know best will say, "Where's the inquiry into La Mon? Where's the inquiry into Kingsmills? Where are the inquiries into a litany of such incidents?". We have already had over £200 million spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and the Ballymurphy incidents are to be investigated through an inquest process. Yet, for many who were the victims of terrorists, there have been no such investigations and no such inquiries.

Of course, what happened in Ballymurphy transpired in an operation just a few days after the notorious Bloody Friday events. Of those, we are yet to hear the truth. We have yet to hear who and from what part of the city masterminded Bloody Friday. We have yet to hear the truth from those who know the truth and, with great calculated determination, conspire to conceal the truth. The demands that come selectively for inquiries such as this would be so much stronger if in all cases — this is not a generalisation at all of the Ballymurphy families — some of those who advocate them were themselves not victim makers and were, instead, truth tellers. Therein is part of the problem. It is the proportionality of the demand that creates difficulty for some of us.

I find it rather surprising that the motion calls on the two Governments, as they are referred to, to jointly fund any investigation. What happened at Ballymurphy, whatever the details, happened in the United Kingdom. If there are matters to be investigated, and if that were thought to be the appropriate course, it is a matter for the United Kingdom authorities, not for some third party to be involved in the funding of any investigation. I quibble over that part of the proposal.

My fundamental message is this: consider the imbalance, disproportionality and lack of investigation into a litany of terrorist episodes as horrendous as any by an organisation that some have recently suggested has its own malevolent influence in government. The sparsity and the lack of investigation on that side of things and the repeated demand for investigation at whatever cost in respect of this matter speaks so loudly to some of us that that proportionality and imbalance is something that we cannot endorse.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. I commend the proposers, and I know that Trevor Lunn will make a winding-up speech on it. Rosie McCorley and Pat Sheehan laid out in very detailed terms the incident that took place in Ballymurphy in August 1971. Our party has pledged its support to the families in their search for the truth. I say with a degree of confidence that, although many doors have been closed to them over many years, most people would say that, because of the quiet and dignified manner in which they have approached it, a door will eventually open and they will get their request. Apart from the fact that the British state was responsible for killing their loved ones, a big part of their demand in searching for the truth is that they were failed by the state in terms of investigation.

Irrespective of what the incident is, people should make their judgements on the merit of the case put forward by the families, not on side arguments or other flawed arguments. We have seen a combination today. The Bloody Sunday inquiry is often used. I heard Mike Nesbitt saying that there were two inquiries. There were two inquiries because the first one was so flawed that it was unbelievable. Other people talked about the cost. Again, the cost of the inquiry could have been avoided if people had faced up to their responsibilities and told the truth in the first instance.

The Ballymurphy families have realised that perhaps some part of public opinion might think that some of the inquiries are open-ended and therefore cost too much. The fact is that they have put forward the Hillsborough stadium model as the way forward. I think that most people who watched the Hillsborough incident accept that families got to the truth and that it was done in a more time-bound way and that there was less cost as a result.

The second aspect of the proposition is that other cases have not been investigated or have not been investigated properly. If that is the case, Members are entitled, as are these families, to bring the case to public opinion, seek political support and seek redress. That is what should be done. You cannot say to some person, "Yes, you have the merit for a particular course of action, but we can't support it simply because, in other instances, other people haven't made the case". That is not only a poor but a flawed argument.

Importantly — Pat Sheehan referred to this — one of the things that came out during the Saville inquiry was the arrangement between the British military police and the RUC around investigations, which was that the military police were charged with conducting investigations into all killings carried out by the British Army at that time. Subsequently, a very senior figure within the judiciary here in the North of Ireland said that he found that questionable and dubious. Indeed, he went on to say that he could find no legal basis for that arrangement. That instance alone, and the breaching of article 2, showed beyond any shadow of a doubt that the investigations were improper. So, on that ground alone, the Ballymurphy families deserve an inquiry. It is only through that that we will see that there was not only a poor or improper investigation and an arrangement between the British Army and the British military police, but —


4.15 pm

Mr Dallat: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that while this dark cloud hangs over Northern Ireland, we are limited in the progress that we can make in the peace process, which we are all involved in, and in the extent to which we are one community speaking with one voice and putting the past behind it?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCartney: Absolutely. Members have referred to the processes that are in place, and people are trying to conclude on that this week. There is absolutely no doubt that those families who are seeking the truth will not be put off or deterred. In my opinion, they should be supported. Certainly, we have the responsibility to ensure that all matters relating to the truth are ventilated and that people are given proper recourse. The Ballymurphy families are an excellent example. From the outset, they have asked for nothing more and, certainly, they deserve nothing less, than the truth. People have tried to say, "This is going to be Saville mark II", and I have heard people say that Saville did not achieve anything. It is wrong to say that. A British Prime Minister had to stand up and say that what happened was unjustified and unjustifiable, so at least one person changed their mind.

The families deserve support. It is crucial to note that there are many unanswered questions on the nature of the investigation, the subsequent closing of doors and the holding back of evidence at the inquest. Members have outlined their opinion on the motion, as it is framed. They have all said that there was something grievously wrong, that some great hurt was visited upon these families and that they deserve the truth. Members should support the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Lunn: I thank everybody who has contributed today, including those who, evidently, will not agree with me, because we needed to hear from all sides in a debate like this. As others have done, I acknowledge the families, some of whom are with us today, for their dignity and persistence in the matter.

I do not see this as an occasion to vilify the army. It is tempting, and others have succumbed to the temptation. I want to talk about the call for a specific form of inquiry to deal with a particular circumstance involving state forces. It has a lot of merit. That sort of inquiry would be a review of the available evidence. There is a lot of it, and it comes from all sides. It needs a team with the forensic skills of Phil Scraton and his team, which were demonstrated through the Hillsborough inquiry, to run some of it to earth and to try to establish the facts. Some of the facts are not contested. The evidence comes largely from such official sources as witness statements, soldier statements, autopsy reports and hospital reports. It is all there; it is available for any of you to look at.

On the dates in question, there was certainly a riotous situation in Ballymurphy and in areas across west and north Belfast and other parts of the country. It was the day following the night on which internment was brought in, and feelings were running high in those areas. There was certainly gunfire from different sources — republican and loyalist — in the area, and the army was trying to control a very difficult situation as best it could. The real question is this: were any of the 11 people who were killed on the day or died of their wounds a few days later a threat to the army? That is the question.

There was gunfire directed at the army, but there does not appear, on the face of it, to be any evidence that it came from any of the people who were shot.

You could look at some of the individual situations. I think that the first person to be shot was a gentleman called Bobby Clarke. He is still alive. He has made a statement and can make a further statement. He was the man whom Father Hugh Mullan went to comfort, anoint or give the last rites in the Catholic tradition. The evidence appears to be that Father Mullan was waving some sort of white cloth. He attended to Bobby Clarke. He went to get some further help, at which point he was shot. This is evidence taken from autopsy reports. He appears to have fallen to a kneeling position, at which point he was shot again and killed.

A gentleman called Frank Quinn tried to go to his aid, as others said. Mr Sheehan mentioned all the names, as did Ms McCorley. He was shot dead. All this happened — it is not contested — on open ground. If people were shooting at the army, they certainly were not shooting at them from an area of waste ground where they would have been completely exposed. It just does not sound right. No firearms were recovered from any of these people. There is no evidence of firearm residue on any of them. It is not me saying that or some republican source; it is the autopsy reports. That is the official version. Joan Connolly, a married woman of about 45, was shot at the same time. She was shot three times. She was shot, and, as she tried to recover and get back to her home or get help, she was shot again. This is not contested. Danny Teggart, whose son John is with us today, was also shot on open ground. He was shot 13 times. The army operated under rules of engagement. Even then, they had to fire only at identified targets who were a threat to them personally; in other words, a petrol bomber or somebody with a gun. Yet all those people were shot over three days.

Members mentioned others. The case of Joseph Murphy is interesting. The allegation has been around for a long time that he was not only shot and wounded but abused back in the army barracks and that perhaps another bullet was put into him. I do not have the evidence for that, but there is evidence because his body has just been exhumed and there is, in fact, another bullet lodged in it. Maybe that is correct as well. John McKerr was mentioned as well. He was a carpenter. He was doing some work to the Corpus Christi chapel in preparation for a funeral. He finished it and was walking away from the chapel when he was shot dead. He was shot in the head. This is not contested. It is in the records.

All this happened 44 years ago. It happened in the same month as I was married, two weeks later. The bereaved relatives have had to carry the weight of this grief for 44 years. While people like me and others of my generation have grown through the period and raised families and grandchildren, these people have had to live with the weight of this grief. We now have an opportunity to agree to try to get the British Government to agree to a particular sort of inquiry that is very cost-effective, as has been proved by the Hillsborough inquiry. It works, it is effective, and it does not have to interfere with the coronial process. In fact, the Hillsborough inquiry fed the coronial process. It was used as very useful evidence.

There are no, evidently anyway, national security issues here; there are no handlers or informers to protect. The MoD, as part of the coronial process, so far as it has gone, has said that it is having difficulty in tracing particular soldiers — any soldiers — who might have been on the ground on that day. I find it, frankly, absurd that ex-soldiers cannot be traced. They have not gone to ground; they are not hiding. They are receiving pensions from the Government, and the MoD says that it cannot trace them. That is ridiculous.

The range of available evidence is very wide. There is the MoD, the RUC and the HET inquiry, which went nowhere. The Catholic Church has a major dossier on all of this. There are civilian witness statements, hospital records, autopsy records and the national archives in Kew and Dublin. I could go on, but I will make my main point before I finish.

It may surprise some people that I am standing here making this plea. I am sure that I am the only one wearing a poppy who is making this plea, but there is a reason for that: I want to be proud of our army. I wear this poppy with pride, and I wear it to commemorate and acknowledge the sacrifice that the army has made over the years in theatres of war. This was not a theatre of war. If the army has misbehaved in these circumstances, it needs to be able to acknowledge it. It happened on Bloody Sunday, which, Mr Sheehan rightly said, need never have happened, had this been properly investigated. I want to continue to regard the army with pride, and it needs to cooperate if such an inquiry can be put together. The British Government, if needs be — I think they do — need to be able to man up and acknowledge that something went dreadfully wrong on this occasion.

I ask the House to support the motion. I ask the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, perhaps, not to oppose it. There is no loss of face in this; you have to acknowledge that something is wrong here. I will leave it at that, Mr Speaker.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Adjourned at 4.38 pm.

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