Official Report: Tuesday 10 November 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before commencing business today, I want to bring a matter to the House's attention. Members will be aware that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is gathering evidence for its inquiry into the Assembly and Executive Reform Bill. I will be submitting evidence on a range of matters in relation to the House's procedure, and I will put that evidence in the Library so that it is public for the information of all Members. However, the Bill also contains proposals in relation to the future election of the Speaker, so it is important for me to be clear that I have no self-interest in these proposals. I know that it is no secret to many Members, but I want to publicly put it on the record today that I will be stepping down as a Member of the Assembly at the end of this mandate. I will not, therefore, be seeking re-election as Speaker.
I turned 70 during the Hallowe'en recess, and I look forward to the opportunity of doing other things outside the Assembly. However, there will be plenty of time to be reflective at a later point, and I am making this announcement at this stage only to show proper courtesy to the House.
There is a lot of work in front of all of us in the next few months. There are a lot of issues that I still want to try to make progress on with not much time to do so. However, I am particularly focused on managing the heavy legislative workload that I am expecting to confront us in the months head. That will be challenging, and I will speak to the Business Committee about it today. So, let us move on.
That the Second Stage of the Shared Education Bill [NIA 66/11-16] be agreed.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I know that you have said that there will be future opportunity to reflect on your announcement this morning, but I wish you belated birthday greetings and wish you well in your retirement.
The case for shared education has been well established. There is an extensive body of international research regarding the effectiveness of school collaboration generally and in divided societies more particularly. That has been supplemented by specific local evidence, particularly a series of evaluations of pilot projects, which were supported by investment from the International Fund for Ireland.
Shared education provides the opportunity to raise educational standards and encourage and facilitate a culture of mutual understanding through ongoing and purposeful engagement in learning between children and young people from different community backgrounds. The access for learners to a wider choice of subjects, increasing access to specialist teaching and modern facilities and sharing of good practice, makes a compelling educational case. The statutory curriculum provides a core enabling framework to promote shared education through the development of the young person as an individual, as a contributor to society and as a contributor to the economy and environment.
Local evidence has shown that participation in shared education leads to an increase in self-confidence, self-awareness and self-reflection. Participants in high-quality shared education opportunities are more open to meeting others with differing perspectives and opinions and showed improved skills in problem-solving, decision-making and critical and creative thinking. All those skills are integral to the high-quality delivery of our curriculum. Equally, the opportunity afforded by shared education to make more effective and efficient use of facilities and resources provides a strong economic argument. My Bill seeks to realise those potential benefits offered through the collaborative, cross-community approach that shared education will provide.
In its report on shared and integrated education, which was published in July, the Education Committee accepted the need for a statutory definition for shared education. In the subsequent debate on the report in September, the Assembly endorsed its recommendations. My Bill will put that into effect.
I will turn to the Bill itself. This is a short Bill that provides a legislative definition of shared education and places a power on the Department and its arm's-length bodies to encourage and facilitate shared education. The Bill will also enact the duty on the Education Authority to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education, as provided in the Education Act 2014. In its report on shared and integrated education, the Committee recommended that the statutory obligation to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education, as set out in the Education Act, should be extended to my Department and all its relevant arm's-length bodies. The Education Reform Order 1989 places a duty on my Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. It is my considered view that it would not be helpful to now place a duty on my Department that would include a requirement to additionally "promote" shared education without any similar requirement to promote integrated education or, indeed, Irish-medium education. I am also firmly of the view that a power rather than a duty is the best approach at this juncture.
Shared education is still a relatively new and evolving area, and good practice is still being developed. We need to accrue good practice learning before placing a legal obligation on our education system that entails mandatory action. A power gives the flexibility to encourage and build confidence within the education system and the wider community around the benefits of shared education and to remove doubts about perceived risks voiced by some who responded to my Department's consultation. It also avoids any risk of communities perceiving that shared education is being imposed on them rather than encouraging and facilitating communities to move at a pace that they find acceptable.
The Bill will be underpinned by Sharing Works, my policy for shared education, which was published on 16 September. Sharing Works expands on the legislative definition by providing a practical description of how shared education will work in practice. The description is based on that which was endorsed by the ministerial advisory group on advancing shared education, the establishment of which was a Programme for Government commitment. The policy contains a series of actions that my Department will take forward by way of encouraging and facilitating shared education. The actions are based on the recommendations of the ministerial advisory group.
The Bill will send a strong signal to the education sector and the wider community that shared education is now a key feature of our education system moving forward. The Bill and the policy have been subject to equality screening and public consultation. Both have been generally welcomed by stakeholders and provide an opportunity to build a more inclusive approach at a pace that communities are comfortable with and that does not threaten any particular sector. In conclusion, I recommend the Bill to Members and will carefully consider today's debate in moving my Bill forward.
Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish you well in your retirement. As part of the somewhat ageing class of '98, I think that you are one of the few Members in the Chamber who has reached the age of 70. I hope that I look as well when I am 70. I hope to actually reach the age of 70, but that is another bridge to be crossed.
The Committee has considered the Bill in considerable depth. It undertook, and recently reported on, an inquiry into shared and integrated education. A key recommendation of that report was that there should be a statutory obligation on the Department and its arm's-length bodies to encourage the participation of all schools in shared education, and I welcome the Bill in going some way to meeting that recommendation. I anticipate that Committee members will generally give a broad welcome to the Bill in principle and will want to take it through the Committee Stage in order to examine the need for amendments.
As the Minister indicated, the Bill is relatively short, so I expect that some of the examination will be to ensure that the detail is got right and to look at areas where there may be a concern that the Bill does not go far enough or perhaps leaves something out. However, those will be matters for Consideration Stage.
As the Minister said in his opening remarks, the Bill is the legislative underpinning for the Department's Sharing Works policy. That policy defines shared education as cross-sectoral, inclusive cooperation between educational providers, delivering educational benefits and promoting good relations. The definition of that policy goes a considerable way towards the Committee's recommendation on the definition of shared education. As the Bill is focused in that regard, it is not surprising that it provides less definition on the policy than the policy itself. That is to be expected.
However, the Bill does not make explicit reference to educational improvement, it does not emphasise the importance of shared education being based on curriculum-based activities, and it seems to restrict inclusion to Protestants and Catholics and to socio-economic deprivation. The Minister outlined his reasons for suggesting that: namely that the Bill gives the Department and others a power — not a duty — to encourage and facilitate shared education. I suspect that those are issues that the Committee will want to tease out at Consideration Stage.
I would like to deal with some of those issues. First, educational improvement. The Committee previously indicated that it strongly believed that the unique selling point of shared education was its focus on improving the educational attainment of participants. That was evidenced in programmes operated by the Centre for Shared Education and others. It was clearly critical to winning the trust and securing the participation of those who are a little wary of engagement with neighbouring communities or are a little suspicious of the motives of the Department of Education. I am sure that the Minister would say that those are ill-founded suspicions. Nevertheless, they appear. Therefore, the absence in the Bill of a direct reference to educational improvement is a little disconcerting.
Also absent is a linkage to supporting the curriculum. Witnesses to the inquiry felt that that lack of clarity allowed all sorts of activities to be questionably labelled as shared education. The witnesses argued that that served to debase the term and allowed detractors to dismiss it as a light touch and as supporting the status quo.
During our consideration of the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Bill, Members talked about the inclusion of a purposes clause in that Bill. A discussion on whether we need a purposes clause for shared education may resurface during Committee Stage. Such a change might provide a level of definition and certainty, without limiting schools' imagination in respect of shared education programmes.
I talked about what shared education is; it is just as important to know and talk about who is going to be doing shared education. The Bill mentions reasonable numbers of Protestant and Catholic children. When we had a pre-briefing on that by the Department, the purpose of that was to allow a level of flexibility. I suppose where we are always trying to strike a balance in these things is on the issue between flexibility and providing schools with a level of certainty. I suppose it will be interesting to obtain the views of the Minister on that. For example, if we are talking about reasonable numbers, how will that be interpreted, and can that mean, for example, that it can be provided for in sharing between schools in a single sector?
The Committee, during its inquiry, also felt that the relevant section 75 groups should be covered by shared education and that it should promote attitudinal improvement and meaningful contact between them. Again, we will want to see whether this will be covered directly by the Bill.
As I indicated, the Bill gives the Department and some arm's-length bodies — and I think that it is important that it does not focus purely on the Department but covers arm's-length bodies — powers and not duties. The Minister has explained why he believes that that should be the case, but we, as a Committee, wonder whether this sits a little inconsistently with the obligations on the Education Authority as set out in the Education Act 2014. Again, members may well want to look at that during the anticipated Committee Stage.
The Bill does not refer to measures of educational improvement associated with the shared education signature project. I suspect that this will be mentioned in today's debate. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I simply remind the House that the Education Committee supports the measurement and reporting of educational improvements associated with all shared education programmes. However, the Committee has repeatedly advised the Department:
"that given: the concerns previously expressed by the General Teaching Council NI in respect of the efficacy of LoPs; the very low levels of participation; and the ongoing related industrial action, it was both surprising and unwise for the Department"
to make Levels of Progression part of the funding criteria for participation in the shared education signature programme. I know from correspondence with the Minister, at the levels of MLA and Committee member, that he is trying to resolve this and, indeed, is in discussions with the various teaching bodies and unions. However, we, as a Committee, are keen that some of the problems that have arisen there are not repeated when we pass this Bill.
In concluding my remarks as Chair in anticipation of the Committee Stage, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Department and our stakeholders. We have issued a call for evidence, so I suspect that the latter are busy drafting their responses and will submit those within a relatively short time frame. Given that we are close to the end of the mandate and that the Committee has dealt with this in a full report, I expect the Committee Stage to be short and rather intense. I appeal then to officials and stakeholders to be flexible as we consider this important legislation. It is the Committee's intention to do its job well and quickly. We see no desire to hold up the Bill, and we ask for everyone's cooperation in this task.
I will now make some remarks not as Chair of the Committee but as a DUP MLA. I give a broad welcome to the legislation. I have highlighted some areas where I would like to see some level of change. The legislation, by its nature, is not going to be perfect. To be fair, that is not necessarily a criticism of the legislation, because we have to recognise two things. First, legislation in and of itself will not do everything as regards shared education. A lot of work will have to happen on the ground that is not appropriate for legislation. Really, what we are looking for in legislation is a broad framework that aids what is happening. Secondly, it is also important to realise that there are many good shared education projects already happening. We are not starting simply with a blank page. We are looking to see a broadening and deepening of shared education. As such, we need to provide a framework for it and a facilitation of it; that would be helpful.
A number of benefits can accrue from shared education. The Minister has highlighted some of them, and I suspect that others will make reference to them in their speeches. There is a broader societal benefit. There is the commonly understood area of community relations of various sections of society working together, which I think that everyone would acknowledge is a benefit. There is also something else, and I think that it is important and right that the Bill makes direct reference to it. We often think of the community relations side of it as being purely between the two main sections of the community, but the emphasis in the Bill on socio-economic interaction is also very helpful.
I think that that will be of benefit to society as well. Also, and I concur with the Minister in this, it is not just about the broader, wider, societal benefits but the benefits to individual pupils who are involved in shared education. The widening of their experiences and the broadening of their confidence is something that will be helpful.
Secondly, I think that there is a broad educational benefit. That will come down to where we see the particular definitions in this. Undoubtedly, this should be a driver. While the focus will largely be on the societal benefits, I believe that cooperation between schools can be of benefit educationally and can help, for instance, pupils in one area to be linked in with another, and they can learn from each other's experiences. That should be an educational driver. It is right also that the legislation goes beyond schools and looks, for instance, at youth settings and indeed has the full panoply across that.
Also, it has been highlighted that — particularly when it comes to issues around IT and, perhaps, in the future, issues around personnel as well — in tight economic times, when we are trying to get the best possible value for everybody involved in the education system, sharing can lead to a higher level of efficiency in the system. We see sometimes, particularly with small schools, a movement at times to a situation of joint management of schools and sharing between principals of schools, which can be helpful as well. Whereas it is important that schools play a vital role in communities, that should not simply be used as a device to protect the existence of a school when that school is really unsustainable, but I think that there are efficiencies in the system that could be driven by shared education, and there are benefits to be had there.
The Bill itself is widely drawn in terms of what is meant by shared education. Mention has already been made of the socio-economic impact, and it is right that there should be flexibility, because there is a wide range of activities out there in shared education, which we should encourage. I welcome the fact that the focus is very much on the provider and the sectors, whether through the Department, the arm's-length bodies and the youth settings. I believe that that format looks to the main providers but gives space for schools to develop at their own pace and in their own way. There are models of shared education that will be of benefit. Here, we need to see a degree of balance. There is also a need to ensure that schools can move forward with clear understanding as well.
The representatives of the Department indicated to the Committee that they would judge things on a case-by-case basis, and, yes, there is a need for a level of flexibility. However, as I indicated when speaking as Chair, I expect that there will be suspicions within the sector. We do not want to see a situation where anyone at the Department of Education — given the timescale for this, it will probably not apply to the current Minister but to his successor or his officials — sees himself as playing the role of mighty Caesar in the gladiatorial arena, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, at whim, to particular projects. Schools need a level of certainty.
Linked to that is the issue of educational benefits. It is important that we put at the heart of this an educational driver. If assessment is to be used as part of the process of measuring that, we must have widely and clearly agreed means of assessment that have the confidence of the wider sector. The experience that we had with the shared education signature projects is one that we want to avoid. I suspect that it will be highlighted in this debate that we have reached a situation where a differential approach is taken in different areas of Northern Ireland. Because of the advice they have had, some schools feel confident simply to plough ahead; others are, at the moment, without funding, because they are caught as schools in a degree of dispute between the teaching unions, on the one side, and the Department, on the other.
That is a situation we want to avoid. Moving ahead, this should be focused on clearly agreed methods of assessment.
It is also important that we take a curriculum-orientated — indeed, a whole-school — approach to shared education. Flexibility is important. It comes back to balance. Shared education and cooperation between schools will operate in slightly different ways. From the point of view of the DUP — I suspect that the Committee will take a similar view — we do not want that to be tokenistic in its nature. It is not simply a question of two schools ticking a box to receive a level of funding, but that it is very much curriculum-orientated. In doing that, as I said, we have to encompass the full range of possibilities.
There are a range of issues for us to look at, and I will come on to a final one in a moment, but it would be churlish of me not to admit that this Bill is a step in the right direction. It is good legislation. The role of the Committee will be to take what is good and debate the ways in which it can be further improved.
In conclusion, and I appreciate the position that the Minister has taken, I share the view expressed in the Committee report that we need to look at an obligation, particularly on the higher-level bodies, rather than simply a power. I think that the wording is a little bit weak in that regard, and that is something that we as a Committee will need to look at. I look forward to the Consideration Stage. I believe that this can improve our education system, improve the opportunities for all our children and improve Northern Ireland, but let us make sure that we get the best possible Bill. That will be the key challenge for the Committee in the few weeks ahead.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I start by paying tribute to you following your announcement this morning. Your leadership and vision in this place, both as an MLA and as Speaker, will be badly missed. I had the pleasure to serve with you when you were Assembly private secretary (APS) to the Minister of Education, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable role, but unfortunately I was not left on the Education Committee long enough to cause the Minister too many problems. That is the role of a Back-Bench MLA.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the Second Stage debate on the Shared Education Bill. I start by acknowledging the very many solid examples of sharing and cooperation by many schools across many different sectors. It is only right that I commend the leadership of MLAs from all parties in this Chamber who, in their role as community leaders, have grasped the issue of shared education and promoted it, but also the small number of MLAs who, as parents of children participating in the shared education programme, have really taken the bull by the horns and engaged with their school communities, their peers and other parents to sell the benefits of the programme. It is good to see parents and MLAs from all sides doing that.
During the Committee inquiry into shared education, members of the Committee felt strongly that societal objectives were important and should extend beyond reconciliation of the two largest groups in our society in order to fully incorporate all section 75 groups. The Committee also felt that the statutory objective to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education should be extended to the Department and arm's-length bodies, and with that in mind I welcome the proposals contained in the Shared Education Bill.
The clear intent of the Bill is to provide a legislative definition of shared education, which is missing from legislation at the minute. There is a lot of talk about shared education, but there is not really any great understanding of what it means. A legislative definition of shared education will be very welcome.
The Bill will confer a power on the Department and its arm's-length bodies to both encourage and facilitate shared education, and it sets in train when the legislation will kick in. The legislation and policy is underpinned by the whole notion of Sharing Works, which is a policy for shared education. The four clauses of the Bill are quite self-explanatory, and anyone who is interested in reading them can, or probably already has.
One of the recommendations from the Committee inquiry that I would like to give some consideration to deals with the whole issue of measurement. Recommendation 6 of the inquiry stated that:
"the Department should give consideration to a wide range of agreed, objective impact measures ... based on educational improvement ... and societal reconciliation progress ... should be published regularly by the Department."
I am keen to hear from the Minister, either today or at a later stage, as to how that will be advanced.
As Members know, the county of Fermanagh has played a leading role in the development of the shared education programme and in rolling it out across the county so that people from Fermanagh, from all sections of our community, have had the chance to engage. My daughter, who is in P2, participates in the shared education programme in St Mary's Primary School in Tempo with Tempo Primary School, which is a controlled school. She thoroughly enjoys it, primarily because she went to a cross-community preschool — the only one in the village. She made a number of friends there who were not from a Catholic background and who now attend the controlled primary school. When she went into P1 and the shared education programme was brought to the school for the first afternoon, I saw such joy in that child's face when I came home. She was able to tell me that she had met her young friends whom she had not seen since preschool.
It is good that the programme is in place to allow children to make new friendships with people from a different background and also to keep existing friendships going. All too often, we hear stories of people from different generations who really did not engage or make friends with people from another background. I am talking about people from a Catholic tradition, a Protestant tradition and neither, who do not get to engage with people from another community until much later in life, whether in the workplace or at university. The shared education programme, and the concept of providing our children with the opportunity to engage in shared education, is a good opportunity to give them.
I commend the leadership shown by the Fermanagh Trust, which is one of the key organisations behind the shared education programme, and its trustees and staff, as well as the school communities in Fermanagh and across the North that have embraced this concept. The principals, staff and boards of governors of those schools have shown tremendous leadership for their communities in articulating what the benefits of shared education could mean for our society. This is much bigger than any individual child, family or school community; this is about trying to build a better future for all our young people. The leadership shown by the organisations involved in developing and rolling out shared education, as well as by the parents and school communities that have embraced it, has given us all an insight into how popular this area is and how much demand exists, so it is only right and proper that we see legislation being brought forward to enhance it further.
It is also important to reflect on the success of the shared education programme in Fermanagh, in the sense that it is not just cross-community but cross-border. A number of the maintained schools along the border corridor regularly engage and share with minority Protestant schools on the other side of the border. Protestant schools from the South come up to engage with children from a Catholic background in the North, which is tremendous, because not only do we have a problem in the North with children from both backgrounds not engaging with each other but we have a serious problem with neighbours from Fermanagh and Leitrim or Fermanagh and Donegal not engaging. The shared education programme in Fermanagh has also helped to break down those barriers.
In engaging with parents, teachers and school leaders across Fermanagh, it is easy to see the empirical evidence of the benefits of shared education in how it helps our children to develop, to broaden their minds and to know that their identity is not the only one. There is no one identity here that is more right or more justified than the other. All of us come from different backgrounds and mentalities, and it is important that we allow young people, at an early age, to establish that there are other people out there who hold different views. That is one of the key benefits of the shared education programme, and it also helps to break down community relations and tensions between communities.
We do not have peace walls in Fermanagh. We do not live cheek by jowl with people from the other community. In Fermanagh, by and large, there are whole villages made up of more than 95% of one or other section of the community. Take the village of Kesh, which is predominantly Protestant or unionist, and then take a village such as Rosslea, which is, on the other hand, more than 95% nationalist.
We do not have the same situation as in Belfast, where they have peace walls between our two communities. We have completely divided our society, and people live in different places. That is the way it is done. There is not necessarily anything wrong with it, but in how we break down the barriers and get our people to engage with it, it is widely accepted that we need to start at an early age and get people mixing from other backgrounds at as early an age as possible. That is why the shared education programme has been hugely successful.
I think we would all agree that, if we were starting with a blank canvas, we would not put in place the systems and mechanisms that we have for providing education today, but this is a step in the right direction. It is good to see the Assembly coming together to give statutory bodies the legislative power to facilitate and encourage shared education, but it is not about competing, and it is not contrary to the views of those who articulate a vision for integrated education. Not all of our citizens are at a place where they want to see integrated education yet. Many people in our society do, and several opinion polls indicate the support that exists for it, but there are some within our society who are not there yet. The provision of an option of shared education to those people will highlight the benefits that moving to such a system can bring. It is complementary to the whole notion of integrated education, which grows year on year, but the concept of shared education is growing as well, and it is something that we should encourage.
I will express some concern about what I see as the entrenched positions of the former education and library boards and CCMS. The Minister announced his plans to carry out the area planning process in September 2012 or 2013 — I cannot remember which year it was. It is clear to see, when you look through the reports that were generated, that there was not enough joint planning done. CCMS went and did its plan and the education and library board did its plan, but there was no effort made to join those two things together, despite the fact that, in many communities, there was a strong desire for joint planning to take place to provide the best possible education for our young people in a joint approach. The statutory bodies were somewhat behind.
I recognise that we are conferring a power to encourage and facilitate shared education on the Education Authority, the Department, the library boards and a couple of other organisations, but I just wonder whether that mindset remains within the higher echelons of those organisations, and how we as an Assembly and a society can challenge those mindsets and try to get the people who are in leadership positions in those organisations to take the views of people in society and actually move ahead with joint area planning, as was requested or mandated of them by the Minister of Education.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that our young people benefit educationally, personally and intellectually from engaging with people from another community or another background. There is an onus on us as an Assembly to do all that we can to facilitate, encourage and promote that. I think the Bill is an excellent first step. I hope that it passes. I am sure it will; it seems to have cross-party support and is something that all MLAs have spoken positively about in the past. I wish members of the Committee well as they strive to carry out the Committee Stage that will follow. I will keep a close eye on the Bill.
Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Second Stage of the Bill. The SDLP is broadly supportive of the Bill. Our schools need to move more and more towards models of sharing — sharing expertise, resources, facilities and educational experiences.
It is clear for the SDLP that principles of shared education must be firmly embedded in the curriculum. It is about more than schools coming together for an annual sports tournament or a walk up the Mournes. Shared education must be deep, meaningful and sustained. Clause 2 of the Bill is particularly important in that regard. Shared education can be delivered in many forms. It can range from large-scale projects at Lisanelly to the sharing of particular resources within specific classes. It remains the case that it would not be feasible to establish projects like Lisanelly all across the North. It takes a substantial amount of money and a high threshold of local agreement. We must be realistic if we want shared education to work. We must work within our constraints. There are constraints such as rural isolation, and there are financial constraints as well.
There are many smarter ways that we can achieve meaningful sharing in classrooms. The sharing of IT infrastructure already exists within schools in Northern Ireland. I am somewhat disappointed that the Department has not really taken on board the definition of shared education that the Committee agreed, which was:
"curriculum-based interactions that always foreground educational improvement and involve children and young people in sustained whole school/organisation activities across ... educational phases while making optimal use of ... IT infrastructure."
From the Department's response at the Committee last week, it is clear that it has ICT as an optional tool for schools to use. Given the huge investment by the Department in C2k and projects that have used ICT for inter-school links like, for example, Dissolving Boundaries, which proved how effective blended contact is, using ICT as an option is wasteful of shared public resources and is likely to mean that schools in rural areas will have difficulties in finding partners that they can work effectively with. Schools should be required to show how they plan to use ICT, not whether they intend to use it. That is important for schools that are close geographically as well as those that are far further apart.
I think of the Dissolving Boundaries project and go back to my background; it is probably nearly 20 years since we were involved in that project. I remember sitting in a history lesson — it was very appropriate for the time of year — in which children from a school in Kilkeel were working with children in Taunton in Somerset on a World War I project, and the children in Taunton talked about their grandparents in the trenches. That shows how ICT can bring the sharing of education alive — not just even on a Northern Ireland basis but across our island and across Europe.
The Department has referred to supporting shared education in initial teacher education. It is not clear who will provide the funding for that or how that process will be managed. Maybe that can be addressed.
We talk about ICT as an essential tool in shared education. The assessment of ICT will become statutory in 2016-17. That will include the use of ICT for exchange — using ICT to exchange ideas and information with others, such as partner schools. As a former teacher, and knowing how teachers work, I feel that we have a better chance of these projects coming together and working well in the classroom when shared education can work along with the requirements of ICT assessment and when teachers become more motivated by it and tuned into it.
Children will benefit when they learn the same subject together, not in different rooms of the same building. In that way, shared education that is embedded in the curriculum can be delivered without creating super-school structures. Furthermore, I welcome the Shared Education Bill as I hope that it will help the Department to become strategic in relation to the delivery of shared education. A number of schools that have engaged in real sharing of resources have had funding cut as a result of an apparent link to the Key Stage assessment. That is entirely counterproductive and will make the transition to shared education much more difficult.
Clause 3 of the Bill puts a statutory obligation on the Education Authority to promote education. That should benefit the strategic delivery of shared education. I suppose that when we talk about shared education, we have to think about the mutual benefits of shared education. First and foremost, it is about addressing educational underachievement and ensuring that children achieve their potential. It is about children benefiting from learning together and embracing religious and cultural diversity. In turn, society will benefit from that.
It would be remiss of me if I did not acknowledge the great work that goes on in shared education at the moment. I think of the integrated sector and Shimna Integrated College in my constituency — the work that goes on in that school, and also the outreach work that it does with primary schools.
Other schools, such as my old school St Louis working with Kilkeel High and schools that have a really good mix across their school population, schools such as St Columbanus in Bangor, Down High and Strabane Academy. I could go on and on.
We had a presentation from Cross and Passion and from Ballycastle in County Antrim. The one that I have been associated with for a long time is Limavady learning partnership. However, thinking of those two in particular, part of their success has been in the culture in the schools and their geographical proximity, which helps as well.
When I talk about sharing, I think about taking it that bit further to staff sharing their expertise and professional development. We can use ICT as a great tool again there. If you are to do professional development and you teach in Kilkeel or Belcoo, it is a long trip to Belfast for that professional development, so we can use ICT and so on to deliver these things online. Beyond that, we must share business and schools to ensure that our schools are tuned in to what the business world requires and understands what our schools are like.
However, it remains the case that the vast majority of children in the primary and post-primary sectors attend single-denomination schools. So we need to broaden the debate not just to sharing between Protestant and Catholic but to all section 75 groups. The SDLP envisages that sharing education will lead to more diverse opportunities for our schools, children, teachers and for senior leadership in our schools. Shared education is a priority for society here. That can be delivered only by promoting a culture of mutual understanding of society here through a purposeful shared curriculum in Northern Ireland.
There are many opportunities in shared education that I have only touched on. The Bill offers a first step.
Mrs Overend: We have before us the much-anticipated, long-awaited Shared Education Bill. Comprising four clauses that fit onto an A4 piece of paper, the Bill is nothing if not concise. It is not, however, visionary. It is minimalist legislation that certainly does not set out a road map for a Utopian shared future in education.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise that the Shared Education Bill is short. Last December, when the Committee was holding its inquiry into shared and integrated education, we had an interesting evidence session with the centre for shared education at Queen's University. The centre argued that the lack of coordinated policy or clear definition of shared education has created a policy vacuum that allows it to be labelled as "light touch" and supportive of the status quo. It was noted that this also affects the depth of meaningful activity and limits the potential of shared education to effect lasting systemic change.
The centre called for legislation that will provide a consensus on the definition of shared education. So, almost a year down the track, the question is this: does the definition of shared education in the Bill and the policy that underpins it provide us with a working and workable definition that commands widespread support?
I know that the definition is also a concern for other Education Committee members, as the issue was raised by many of them during our recent briefing on the Bill. At Second Stage, it is worth looking at the evolution of the definition of shared education. I hope that Members will bear with me, but I feel that it is important to look at the various definitions. The Bain report of December 2006 described shared education as a cross-sectoral approach to education, where:
"children grow up to feel comfortable in their own uniqueness and comfortable with difference. For that to happen, they need to be able to work together and 'play' together so that eventually, they can assume a shared responsibility for their future."
The definition of shared education used by Queen's University's centre for shared education is:
"Shared education is broadly defined as any collaborative activity within or between schools or other educational institutions that can: contribute towards school improvement, provide access to opportunity, encourage more effective use of resources, and promote social cohesion"
The definition that the ministerial advisory group was asked to use in 2012 involved the organisation and delivery of education so that it:
"Meets the needs of, and provides for the education together of, learners from all Section 75 categories and socio-economic status; involves schools and other education providers of differing ownership, sectoral identity and ethos, management type or governance arrangements; and Delivers educational benefits to learners, promotes the efficient and effective use of resources, and promotes equality of opportunity, good relations, equality of identity, respect for diversity and community cohesion."
The Sharing Works policy was published on 1 December this year. It states:
"Shared Education is described as the organisation and delivery of education so that it: meets the needs of, and provides for the education together of learners from all Section 75 categories and socio-economic status; involves schools and other education providers of differing ownership, sectoral identity and ethos, management type or governance arrangements; and delivers educational benefits to learners, promotes the efficient and effective use of resources, and promotes inclusion in terms of equality of opportunity, good relations, equality of identity, respect for diversity and
Specifically, Shared Education involves the sustained provision of opportunities for children and young people from different community, as well as social and economic, backgrounds to learn together.
It is expected that Shared Education will be organised and delivered in such a way that promotes equality of opportunity and social inclusion by providing opportunities for children from differing Section 75 groups (e.g. children from different religious backgrounds, children from different racial backgrounds, children with and without disabilities, children who are carers or school age mothers) and from differing socioeconomic backgrounds to learn together at school and in less formal education."
From all that, we have a boiled-down definition in the Bill. Clause 1(2) states:
""Shared education" means the education together of?—
(a) those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons; and
(b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not,
which is secured by the working together and co-operation of two or more relevant providers."
I feel that the Assembly needs clarity on why the Department has gone for such a short definition.
The explanatory and financial memorandum of the Bill states that funding has been committed to support the implementation of shared education up to June 2018. The Minister says that funding will be mainstreamed after that and for the longer term. In the past, when short-term funded programmes that focused on community relations ended, so did the schemes.
In the Sharing Works policy, the Department is committed to increasing the percentage of pupils to 80% within four years. To put it mildly, this is ambitious and will place huge logistical demands on schools. Option 4 in the shared education business plan estimates that scaling up would cost £44 million. As legislators, we have a duty to seriously question the wisdom of spending the £44 million that it is estimated it would take to expand sharing between segregated sectors at a time when basic maintenance in schools is being neglected and special needs teaching is being squeezed.
It seems to me that the basic problem is that we have not even begun to tackle the lack of consensus on where we want to go as a society. Perhaps that lack of consensus is the reason why we have such a minimalist and unambitious Bill in front of us today. We have seen some very good work undertaken in the area of shared education over the past decade. Since the phrase first emerged in the Bain report of December 2006, there has been extensive academic research carried out in the School of Education at Queen's. Commitments were inserted into the Programme for Government and the ministerial advisory group reported in 2012.
We have the shared education campuses programme being rolled out. We have also had the recently published report from the Education Committee on shared and integrated education and the recent publication of 'Sharing Works: A Policy for Shared Education' from the Department of Education.
One would have thought that, with all that activity, the political class in the Assembly would have come to some sort of understanding on the issue and on the way forward. However, go back to 27 January this year and reread the adjournment debate on St Mary's teacher training college. An objective reviewer of that debate could only come up with one conclusion: that the overriding priority in education for the two nationalist parties in the Assembly is the protection of the Catholic maintained sector, and that any sharing must not compromise the ethical purity of that sector and its distinctive religious and Irish identity. That is an absolutely valid and defensible position to take up; just do not, at the same time, come out with rhetoric about a shared future. It constantly amazes me to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box railing against the perceived evils of separating children by academic selection at the age of 11.
He has never shown the same concern about separating children at age five, never mind at age 11, on the basis of religious denomination. Suddenly, in that scenario, the concept of parental choice trumps everything else.
To continue on the same theme, if we are to have sharing in education, surely there should be no barriers to teachers from all community backgrounds and none taking up employment in any grant-aided publicly funded school in Northern Ireland. The fair employment exemption and the certificate are two obvious barriers. On 13 April this year, the Assembly debated an Ulster Unionist motion proposed by Danny Kinahan, who is now the MP for South Antrim, that stated:
"this Assembly notes the failure of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to repeal the exemption in fair employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in teacher appointments, as mandated by the motion Teachers: Employment Law, which was approved by the Assembly on 22 April 2013; recognises that the teacher exemption, as well as the continuing requirement for a certificate in religious education at nursery and primary level in the Catholic maintained sector, are unnecessary barriers to truly shared education; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take action to remove these overt examples of inequality and discrimination." — [Official Report, Vol 103, No 6, p19, col 2].
To remind Members, it was about the fact that, in 2015, the teaching profession is exempt from fair employment regulations here. Moreover, in the maintained sector, at nursery and primary level, schools can insist on applicants for teaching posts having a Catholic RE certificate. The Bill does not address those anomalies. The position of the Minister of Education is massively muddled on these issues. One minute, he says that he has written to OFMDFM on the certificate issue; the next, he says that he made a slip and that he actually wrote to it on the teacher exemption issue. Then he admits that he never wrote to it at all and just laughs the whole thing off.
In the debate on our motion on 13 April, nationalist MLAs lined up to defend the status quo. Mr Rogers of the SDLP said:
"Many parents want their children to be taught in a Catholic ethos". — [Official Report, Vol 103, No 6, p44, col 1].
"The religious education provided by our teachers is essential for the right foundation in life and the development of the Catholic ethos. Our primary-school teachers do not teach just religious education but the whole curriculum. The Catholic ethos permeates all aspects of the curriculum." — [Official Report, Vol 103, No 6, p44, col 1].
Winding on that debate, I said:
"do we actually want a shared society and a shared future? That is something that everyone in the Assembly must ask themselves. If some want the perpetuation of inequality, segregation and a shared-out future, they should be honest and say so. Some recent debates in the House suggest that more than a few prefer the status quo; however, there can be no genuine shared education under the current circumstances. Without change, the shared education concept can never succeed. Unless schools have interchangeable staff, the whole project will not be balanced and, for practical reasons, will not work."— [Official Report, Vol 103, No 6, p52, col 1].
I repeat that challenge today. Surely shared education cannot be simply about busing children from one type of school to share, say, a physics GCSE class with children from another type of school in order to make up the numbers. Surely shared education cannot simply be about building a new school building to accommodate two schools, with the children entering the front door and half turning right and half turning left. It seems that, for some, sharing is to be undertaken only on their own terms and must not lead to a process of integration or a dilution of the ethos of their individual sector.
After the Bain review of 2006, the Catholic maintained sector did its own thing and independently rationalised its schools estate. The area planning process conducted by the former education and library boards happened after that. In one large provincial town, a Catholic maintained secondary and a state controlled secondary had, for over a decade, developed a shared learning community; they had established formal links and shared classes to develop the curriculum. After the maintained sector rationalised its schools estate, that all stopped; sharing across the traditional divide ended. That was six years ago.
It is not all doom and gloom. Good practice is continuing in many parts of the country, including in my constituency of Mid Ulster. However, despite talk of shared campuses and shared education, the current picture is mixed and patchy. Some could question the Minister's commitment to the delivery of the signature projects on shared education as the schools applying to participate, and even those already signed up to participate, are the only schools in Northern Ireland that are being pressurised to adhere to specific assessment criteria that are still the subject of a dispute between the unions and the Department. Time is of the essence in finding a resolution here as time progresses for the successful delivery of each project where funds can be spent appropriately.
I know of a proposed project that aims to focus on children in the foundation years. That is surely admirable, as they are building a shared education ethos from the beginning of their school years, but the assessments that are being called for take place on older children in the school. In actual fact, the assessments of that school are not relating to the actual shared education project that would be implemented in that school. Those are the sorts of anomalies that need to be thought about, and a resolution must be found in that area. The Chair of the Committee knew that I might raise the issue of the assessments. I believe that the type of assessment is not necessarily key, but rather that some type of assessment is made.
The shared education that the Ulster Unionist Party believes in must lead somewhere. There is no indication in the Bill that it will lead anywhere. Is the Assembly serious about a shared future? Is it serious about shared education? What do we mean by shared education? The answers to those fundamental questions are not to be found on the A4 page that contains the four clauses of the Shared Education Bill. We will listen carefully to what the Minister and others have to say, and make further contributions as the Bill proceeds at Committee and Further Consideration Stages.
Mr Lunn: First, I join others in wishing you well, Mr Speaker, as you attempt to complete the good work that you are involved in in this mandate and, obviously, beyond that, I wish you well for your retirement, whatever you decide to do. I am told that 70 is the new 50. I certainly hope it is, in my case, as well. Good luck to you.
I am going to speak in favour of the Bill. I am saying that at the outset, and I will say it at the end of my contribution because, in between, people might wonder what I meant by that. I am glad that other Members have expressed reservations in various forms about the quality, content and significance of the Bill. As somebody has said, it is a good starting point. It is worthwhile; it is an attempt by the Department to at least clarify what is meant by shared education. I cannot help thinking that the definition that it has come up with is not perfect, and I am glad that I am not the only one to say that.
I enjoyed the Minister's opening remarks. That is not to say that I do not normally enjoy them, but I enjoyed them on this occasion because, for a start, they were mercifully brief, and, apart from that, the content was good to my ears, because, at the beginning of his comments, the Minister highlighted at some length the benefits of children being educated together. He actually could have been talking about the integrated sector. It would have been the same speech. I hope I heard him right on this, because it was quite encouraging to me, but he talked about the word "promote" and its inclusion in the Bill. There is now an obligation on the Department to:
"encourage, facilitate and promote shared education",
but only to "facilitate" and "encourage" integrated education. I happen to think that "promote" is a powerful word. If you look at the dictionary definition, you may find that it is the strongest of those three words.
Mr Weir: I am loath to interrupt the school report that the Member is giving the Minister, but, by way of clarification, the Bill talks about "encourage" rather than "promote". Strictly speaking, it is, I suppose, one of the things on which the Minister made clear there may be a divergence of opinion. It does not place an obligation; it places a power, which is of a different nature.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Chair for that. I was going to mention at some stage the use of the words "power", "duty" and "obligation". I am not sure which is the strongest; I fancy it is "obligation". Perhaps the Minister can clarify that. I also point out that the Minister has recently agreed to conduct a review of the integrated education sector. I look forward to hearing more detail from him on what he has in mind, because the sector would like that review to be independent and not conducted by the Department.
Quite a lot of money has been set aside for this project. My understanding is that quite a lot of money is to be set aside for shared and integrated projects, particularly capital projects. I cannot escape the feeling that it is all directed at the shared education projects at the moment. "Shared" is the buzzword, and that is the direction of travel. That is what worries people who have spent well over 30 years now trying to bring children together through the medium of integrated education, despite the blockages, objections and all the reasons not to honour the Department's obligations in that respect, all of which have held back the development of the sector. Now, we are told that the integrated schools are at the top end of the continuum — that is the word being used — of shared education. In other words, there is an expectation, or perhaps a hope, that all this on shared education will lead to some integration and that schools will get to know each other and begin to realise that integrated education is not something to be feared but perhaps a natural consequence of what they are now embarking on. I hope that that is the case. In, I think, 35 years, the integrated sector has produced only roughly 7% penetration into the entire school population. We will just have to see where this all goes.
We talked about measurable outcomes, which are very important. It is not hard to measure the educational outcomes of a sharing programme. There is either improvement or there is not. I hope that there is. I guess that the socio-economic and social development outcomes will be a lot more difficult to measure. I hope that, in the timescale that we are talking about, proper measuring devices can be arrived at to ensure that we can see an outcome, because the money will run out. I think that Mrs Overend said that the project is funded until 2018. Beyond that, it will be mainstreamed. Well, let us see in 2018 whether it is worthwhile mainstreaming it. The jury will certainly be out.
The Bill misses an opportunity to consolidate the relationship between shared and integrated education. That is something that we may come back to at Consideration Stage.
I will talk specifically about the wording in the Bill. The definition of "shared education" is the education together of:
"those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children".
That will be of interest to a school such as, let us say, Methody. I often refer to Methodist College. For the record again — Robin Newton, an old boy, is looking at me — the composition of Methodist College is roughly 45% Protestant, 25% Catholic and 30% other. What about the others? The others may be Protestants and Catholics who do not chose to define themselves in that way; genuine others who have no belief whatsoever; or, if they are from the immigrant population, they could be Muslim. There is a lot of diversity in our society these days. I would like to see something in there that refers to people who are not Protestant or Catholic.
Just last week, we had a presentation from the Department. I see Faustina and Andrew in the Officials' Box today. It was very interesting presentation on flexibility, which other Members have mentioned. The Chair mentioned the possibility of having some kind of Roman tribune or czar sitting at the top of all this making decisions about which projects will be acceptable and which will not. I am sure that we will not get to that point, but somebody presumably has to make decisions. I hope that there will be a lot of room for flexibility, because it worries me that projects could fall between the stools of "Protestant", "Catholic", "other", "socially deprived" and whatever other criteria come over the horizon. It would be a shame if good projects were not accepted or funded because they did not meet the specific criteria — not enough Catholics, Protestants or socially deprived children involved — even though they were very worthy projects. I hope that we do not get to that stage, because it would make a nonsense of the whole project.
I will say something positive about the Bill. Clause 1(3)(b) refers to:
"services of any kind ... which provide educational benefit to children or young persons or which are ancillary to education."
That is quite important, because it indicates to me that "services" does not have to mean something strictly and directly connected to the curriculum. Mr Rogers mentioned a project on World War One and that kind of thing involving his old school, St Louis Grammar School, and a school in Taunton. That may not be on the curriculum, but it is absolutely vital.
I always come back to this point: what is the thrust of this? Is it meant to be educational benefit? That was my understanding of the original reason for shared education. It still has to be the basic reason for it, but is it also about some kind of belief that it will have a dramatic effect on our children? If it does have that dramatic effect on our children, surely the natural consequence is to bring children together through a properly integrated system and not this constant reference to sharing. I hope that that is the way in which we go, and I hope that people come to realise that through the sharing projects.
Mr Flanagan paid tribute, as he would do, to what goes on in Fermanagh. Fermanagh is a terrific example of what can be achieved. Others mentioned Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College. We had a presentation from them, and they do excellent work. It is only a small point, but they told us that their sixth-form bash this year was a joint event for the first time. I do not know what consequences will flow from that, but it is great to see.
We have visited Limavady a couple of times. You cannot fault what is going on there, as it is excellent. Even if you aspire to the concept that schools should be coming together as one rather than being separate and sharing, Limavady is an excellent example of what can be achieved. It is also happening in Londonderry, or Derry, and elsewhere.
I do not want to knock the Bill, but I continually wonder whether the needs and rights of the integrated sector are being honoured, and I would like to hear from the Minister about that. I could cite many examples from down the years of where integrated schools have been held back or turned down. I will make an exception in your case, Minister, because I believe that you have honestly done your best to respect the obligation during your tenure. Again, I could quote example of that happening.
Beyond that, we will have more to say about the Bill at Consideration Stage, and, I fancy, others will as well. The Bill is not perfect, but what Bill ever has been? It is mercifully short, so we should not have to agonise over it for months. Sometimes, things that are short and sweet are quite complicated, too, but let us see where we go with it.
Mr B McCrea: I want to ask the Member's opinion about the merit of the Bill being mercifully short. For a topic of this importance, maybe there ought to be a bit more substance to it. I find it strange that the Bill is only one A4 page in length. I wonder whether that is an omission rather than a positive.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for that. He is not known for brevity himself, so he may learn something from it. [Laughter.]
I do not mind that it is a short Bill. This is the groundwork and first step, as others have said, towards something that will obviously have to be tweaked and amended along the way as we learn from it. I do think that it has merit, so I hope that you will forgive me, Members, for anything I have said that appears to cast doubt on the whole project because I am not intending to be entirely negative about this.
Mr Newton: Like others, including the Chair, my party colleague, I am generally supportive of the Bill. I think that it is important to recognise where the Bill is coming from, what its genesis was and what its driver is. It is coming from the parties that sit around the Executive table and that develop the Programme for Government.
The Programme for Government placed specific objectives on the Department of Education, and those were determined to be in three areas. The first was to establish a ministerial advisory group to explore and bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education. The second was to ensure that all children had the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015. We may have missed the target of including all children. The third objective was to substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015, and, in welcoming the progress that is being made in that sphere, I can say that some excellent examples have been brought to the Committee as evidence of that. Indeed, the Committee has had the opportunity to go out and look at the practice that is in operation. I do not think that any member of the Committee has not been impressed by what they have heard or what they have seen, appreciating all the difficulties and hurdles that principals and boards of governors have had to get over to make the initiatives work.
Reference was made to this being a small Bill, and I would not use the words "mercifully small". It is small, but it is significant, and it is a significant step in progress in Northern Ireland. If we can get the Bill passed, we will have taken a very positive step forward in education. All the evidence and all of what we have seen has been positive. The visits that we have undertaken as a Committee have been good examples of good practice, and, where projects have emerged, they have involved the essential condition or criteria that local parents, schools and communities have been supportive of them. I think that this is one of the essential ingredients as shared education moves forward.
There are good examples, and Trevor Lunn referred to the long history of Methodist College, or Methody. I am not a former pupil, by the way. I never had the brains to go to Methody.
Mr Newton: They turned me down.
That long history and ethos, and the good practice that is there, is embedded in that school. There is much good practice in other areas, and Trevor referred to those as good examples. Much of it has been done below the radar, where a song and dance has not been made about it, where press releases have not been issued, and where communities together have got on with each other and have done it and seen the benefits. If we are going down this route, as we are, then I suppose that the ethos and objectives need to be encapsulated in the Bill. Certainly, we need to see an improvement in education standards and all that flows from that for our children and young people and we need to further explore and examine at the next stage how that can be built in, too.
Much can be made of sending a class of A-level pupils to one school or another and sharing facilities. Is that really what we want? No, it is not really what we want, but it is a step forward. Where we have a school with a good reputation in mathematics, science, English, the arts, or whatever it might be, and an adjacent school that is maybe not just as strong in an area, why would we not want the former to share its strengths? Why would we not bring those schools together? Why would we not let that be shared with the pupils in the schools, or the young people in the colleges, for the benefit of their education?
On sharing the skills of our teaching staff, there are teachers who are exemplars and have leadership qualities that are way beyond what might be regarded as the norm. Why would we not allow a wider range of children to experience, or live within, those leadership qualities and gain from the knowledge and enthusiasm that some teachers can impart, beyond what others can do?
Moving forward, in the next five, 10 and 15 years, buildings and resources will be tight and at a premium; so why would we not want to share them where possible. There is a strong economic and educational case for shared education.
I have made the point that communities need to be comfortable with it. I suggest, as others have done, that not every community can move at the same pace and not every community will have the same opportunity, but a start needs to be made and a building block needs to be put in place. If we put that building block in place, I have no doubt that, when the benefits of it are seen, other communities will follow.
There have been a number of examples in the past, one of which was education for mutual understanding. I happen to believe that it was not a great initiative, but it was an initiative nonetheless. I know that Trevor Lunn is very much tied into the integrated education movement, but he recognises that it has not set the education world alight, given that he said that only 7% of the school population is involved in the integrated sector. Parents have not bought into the integrated sector, generally speaking, and pupils are not flocking to it.
Mr Lunn: I thank Mr Newton for giving way. I hear what he says, but where we differ is the reason why the integrated sector has not set the world on fire. It is not because of the lack of parental demand or choice, it is because of what I referred to in my speech as the Department's reluctance down the years to entirely embrace the sector and the obligations that it has towards it. Again, for the record, I have tried to absolve the present Minister of that. The sector has not been given the opportunity to flourish; that is where the problem is.
Mr Newton: I am not sure that I can totally agree with what the Member said, but he has shared that view in the Committee and, indeed, in the Chamber on previous occasions.
If we are going to move forward on this, we have to recognise that we have a very good cohort of teaching staff.
They are professional, dedicated and committed to their teaching profession, and shared education gives them an opportunity to share those skills and knowledge with a wider range of pupils.
I have already said that we cannot force the pace of this initiative, but we can indicate to parents and schools what the benefits might be for our children and young people. Where I think there is an essential feature if we are to fully gain the benefits — reference was made to it — is the matter of area planning. I have been greatly disappointed by what I have seen of area planning activities, which were described by one learned gentleman who came to give evidence to the Committee as being a cut-and-paste exercise. Many will agree with that description. If we are to be successful and this Bill is to deliver, we need to have successful, effective and holistic area planning. There needs to be a holistic approach to the planning of our schools estate, not a sectoral approach. It brings benefits to the Minister's budget and releases money to be spent on other things if we have an area plan that works.
This is a good step forward. Further work is needed on the Bill. Other steps need to be put in place for the Bill to work and to deliver in and around our education. Let me finish with the one area in the Bill that gives me great encouragement. It refers to not only dealing with Protestant, Catholic or others. The Bill will help those:
"who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation",
and allow them to mix with those who are not experiencing it, and to allow schools to implement initiatives that can ensure that those from a less-well-off background have the opportunities to go to what might be regarded as some of the more elite grammar schools. That takes us another step forward that can only be of benefit to our schoolchildren, young people and the future of Northern Ireland.
Mr Kennedy: Thanks for the opportunity to speak on this brief Bill — and to speak briefly, because much of the ground has already been covered by my colleague Sandra Overend. The Ulster Unionist Party has always given fair wind to the concept of shared education. We applaud the efforts of schools from different sectors to come together to share classes and facilities, whether that is in County Fermanagh or other parts of Northern Ireland, such as Limavady or Ballycastle. There are very good examples of practical cooperation out there, not least in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, and I am certainly aware of those.
As my colleague Mrs Overend explained in her speech, however, the concern is that there is no consensus about what shared education means. We have had some discussion on that and highlighted that even through this debate. In some ways, this short Bill does not take us much further forward in that. We have heard the rhetoric in this Assembly about shared education, but we should remind ourselves that, just a few months ago, in this very Assembly in debates about St Mary's teaching college and its future, Sinn Féin and the SDLP were competing as to who could stand up for the separate Catholic education system. There was no hint there of a shared future in education. It is also a fact that the CCMS continues to criticise integrated education heavily. It is my understanding that no Catholic maintained school has ever transformed into an integrated school. Twenty-five controlled schools have become officially integrated over 25 years.
Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way on that?
Mr Lunn: Just for the record: one Catholic maintained primary school has attempted to become integrated recently, and it is being blocked by the Minister.
Mr Kennedy: That confirms concerns that are still out there that, whilst the rhetoric is about shared education, the reality is still some way off. Those facts raise concern about equity.
It seems to me that there has been a complete lack of consistent policy on shared education. The Minister published a shared education policy three days after he approved yet another amalgamation of three Catholic maintained primary schools. He has approved increases in integrated school enrolments when they will affect controlled schools in places such as Moira and Carrickfergus, but he refuses integrated enrolments when they will affect the maintained sector, certainly in the Omagh area. There is no evidence of shared education there. It may be that Sinn Féin and the DUP are signing up to some shared campuses —
Mr Kennedy: The Minister will have ample opportunity when he makes his winding-up speech, and I am sure that he will take the opportunity. He normally likes to hold forth on his opinions.
It appears that Sinn Féin and the DUP are signing up to some shared campuses with separate schools and, effectively, to a tick-box exercise called "shared education". We need to understand that shared education is more important than that and has to be treated as shared education and not shared-out education. We support shared education if it is part of a process leading to a single-state education system in Northern Ireland that is open to all. As my colleague indicated, this short Bill, as it stands, does not signal a proper or full way forward to obtaining a shared future in education. We will seek to improve it as it continues on its legislative process, and I hope very much that others will be open to the suggestions that we will make.
Mr McCausland: The document that we have before us today, the Shared Education Bill, in many ways provides definition, context and a framework, but there is clearly a lot of work still to be done on taking shared education forward. It is certainly the case, as was highlighted by others, that there is a growth of interest in shared education in many areas across the Province and in many schools. This is part of the picture for moving forward, but it is only part.
Benefits will flow from sharing in education. We are faced with a situation in which we are not starting to develop education in Northern Ireland with a clean sheet. There are strongly entrenched interests and rights, and it will take quite a long time to change that, because there is no clear evidence of any desire for change in many sectors. However, benefits flow from shared education, one of which is in community cohesion. The more that we can move forward in creating a shared and better future for Northern Ireland and for the people who live in Northern Ireland, so much the better. One element of that has to be community cohesion, and one element of building community cohesion is around the better understanding of others and their traditions, background and identity.
The benefits of building a shared and better future are clear. There is also evidence of educational benefits in shared learning, which was put to the Committee.
Our education system reflects the divisions in our society. The Bill will go some way, I hope, to addressing that and ameliorating the disadvantages of such division.
Among the issues going forward is that we need to look at the financial aspect of the Bill. How that is handled will be crucial. There are also practical issues, in that there are differences between sectors that need to be recognised. The definition in the Bill of shared education is:
"those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons".
Most children from the Roman Catholic community attend a Roman Catholic maintained school, and most children from the Protestant community attend a controlled school. The Bill defines the bringing together of children in terms of religious belief, but religious belief has some correlation with political belief and some with cultural identity.
If children are coming together from different backgrounds and sectors, it is important that they do so on the basis of equity and cultural confidence. That is a question that I put repeatedly over a number of Committee sessions to the academic experts who were giving evidence. It always reminds me of Pierre Trudeau's comment on the relationship between Canada and America, when he said that living in Canada was a bit like being in bed "with an elephant." If people are coming together in anything, and it is to be genuinely shared, it is important that they come together on the basis of equity in the cultural confidence, awareness and competence of the children. When we questioned those who gave evidence to the Education Committee, some got it as an issue and some did not. That troubled me because, if there are folk in the education establishment who do not get it, that does not augur well.
I have emphasised time and again that, educationally, in being right for the child and in terms of the rights of the child, every child should have the opportunity in school to embrace, and have a greater awareness and better understanding of, the culture of the community from which they come. It is part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and a hugely important right, that the identity of the home and community from which a child comes — a child's cultural identity — is embraced, validated and affirmed in their school.
That certainly happens in Irish-medium schools, which are fundamentally based around language, culture and identity. It also happens to a large extent in the maintained sector. I remember an article by renowned columnist Jude Collins in the now defunct — thankfully — 'Daily Ireland', in which he said that we needed to fight for the preservation of CCMS and Roman Catholic schools, even for those who were not practising or devout Catholics, because they affirmed an Irish identity, taught Irish culture and helped children to see the world through Irish eyes. That was his perception, and I thought that, as an educationalist, he probably did know something about the subject. Who was I to disagree on that matter and in that area with Mr Collins?
In the same way, children coming from the controlled sector need to go into any sharing, shared or inclusive situation on the basis that their school has validated, affirmed and embraced their culture. It is a rights issue. It is an issue that arises in the context of shared education. It is many years indeed since I went through teacher training, but we were told in those days about the Bullock report on education. The Bullock report said that one of the contributors to a successful education was bringing the culture and language of the community into the school. Educationally, it is right. It is right in the context of shared education, and it is also the right of the child. I raise it today in this context merely because I want to take every opportunity to raise it so that those who are not so aware of the issue at the moment will become more aware of it within the cultural establishment and seek to play their part.
I am delighted that the Bill includes a reference to the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. That may have some relevance to the future existence or otherwise of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. I do not know the Minister's thinking in that regard, but it is certainly specified in the Bill as one of the contributors. That is important, because what happens outside the school in the youth context is just as important as what happens within the school setting. CCEA also has an important role here. That relates to the point that I have been making about the cultural education of the children.
I am sure that there is a lot more work to be done on the Bill. There is a lot more work to be done in developing a common understanding of shared education, where it leads and where it is going. However, it does recognise that, for many people in Northern Ireland, there is not a desire at this point to have a fully integrated system, but they would be comfortable with something of an incremental nature such as this facilitates. In many difficult issues, an incremental approach is best. It has to be one with which local communities are comfortable.
Mr Allister: My experience of my constituents is that their aspiration and primary interest in respect of their children is that they can obtain for them the best available education. Many do not nuance it much beyond that reality. I do not find that that is trumped by any aspiration towards social engineering, yet much that the Department brings forth seems to fit within the category of social engineering. Last night, I again chaired my local primary school's board of governors. The message that was coming through to me on a multiplicity of educational issues from parents, representatives and others was simply, "We want the best for our kids. We want a school that delivers. We want a school that passes them into a post-primary system that maximises their talents. We are not particularly interested in ticking social-engineering boxes. We are interested in achievement for our kids."
I must say that I fear that some of what should be the foundational and overarching objective in education of that nature is being lost. I also detect in the context of this proposal the hand of those who, of course, are determined to rewrite the educational charter in Northern Ireland. We had another exposition of it from the Minister last week. He is determined, if he can, to write grammar schools out of it and to write selection out of it. This seems to dovetail with that, almost to the point of being a Trojan facilitator of it.
Let me say that I have no difficulties whatsoever, where it is pragmatic and sensible, with two, three or more schools sharing a new science lab or whatever to better all in that school community.
There is no sensible or practical objection to that.
Mr McNarry: Does the Member agree that, perhaps within this multicoloured vision, what we are heading towards is multi-developed sites, campuses of 2,000 or 2,500 pupils, brought there, as the Member says, in some form of social engineering? In what he is saying, could the Member address the House on how we might escape from that, in terms of coming back to what his constituency wants, which is very similar to what my constituents are saying on the matter?
Mr Allister: I think that, under the aegis of this Bill, we are not going to escape from that. The Bill requires the Education Authority, by virtue of the definition it gives, to activate the statutory obligation on it under section 2 of the 2014 Act:
"to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education."
Of course, it does this in respect of integrated education, and we know what that means: preferential funding. It does it in respect of the Irish-medium sector, and we know what that means: preferential funding. Now, it is to do that in respect of what is termed "shared education", so we know what that will mean: preferential funding. Preferential funding, as experienced, as applied to the integrated and the Irish-medium sectors, has meant a dearth of funding for the controlled sector and, at times, the maintained sector. So, we can see where this is going.
I think that the experience of large campuses is not perhaps working out as all the promise packaged in them said it would. I hear rumblings from Omagh Academy about how it feels it is being squeezed and its identity lost. That which was promised to the school is, in fact, being repressed. So, I think there is, within the Bill, an element of social engineering and politicising of education, even more than it already is. I detect within the Bill the very distinct anti-grammar school and anti-selection agenda of the Minister.
Mr Allister: In a moment.
Those who are signing up for this seem to include people who have painted themselves as the saviours of grammar schools and selection. This is almost going to create a new elitism, the triumph of Marxist philosophy. That is really what is being ensconced in clause 1 of the Bill, in the definition. This is the Minister's prime argument, as I understand it, for he is anti-selection and he takes an anti-grammar school stance. For all the reasons of political correctness, we are going to tick the sectarian box and then tick the box so that all, from whatever background, might have, enjoy and attain — irrespective of the fact that it is a conglomeration of different talents — the same opportunities and achievements. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is absolute folly to think that all kids are equal in their academic or non-academic abilities. This idea of the second part of the definition:
"those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not",
has now, suddenly, become a prioritised, funded objective of shared education. It is an ill-disguised attack on what, in the Minister's definition, grammar school education and selection represent. It is an ill-disguised attack on those concepts. So I have no difficulty in identifying what I perceive to be the political agenda driving this.
I make the point again: you do not need this sort of legislation to enable the pragmatic, practical, sensible cooperation that you might see in any one town. You only need this gloss and this element of definition if, in fact, your motivation is to build a Trojan Horse in support of an anti-selection, anti-grammar school agenda.
I think that I was due to give way first to Mr McCrea.
Mr B McCrea: You are very kind, Mr Allister. Actually, you have gone on to develop the theme; I was not sure that you were going to. As Mr Allister was aware, I highlighted clause 1(2)(b):
"those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not"
It seems to me that this is the central point of the Bill. This is indeed a Trojan Horse; an attack on existing structures and an attempt to bring in comprehensive education by an alternative route. The Member carried on and dealt with the matter, but I find it strange, and I ask him whether he also finds it strange, that the point has not been raised by any of the major parties heretofore?
Mr Allister: The Member puts it well and articulates what I myself feel about this. This is a scarcely concealed assault on the existing educational establishment for the purpose of peddling and promoting the comprehensive agenda — which, of course, other parts of the United Kingdom are retreating from at a great rate of knots. That is exactly what is afoot here, and I identify and empathise with that point.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. I share in the belief that parents around Northern Ireland see educational improvement as the main objective. Wanting to link in with educational attainment is important, but I have to say that I am somewhat amazed by the leaps that the Member has made. He uses a Trojan Horse analogy. I and the Minister take very different views of selection. This is not some sort of Trojan Horse for comprehensive education or the destruction of the grammars. Rather, if one is to use an analogy, the Member is in the role of Don Quixote tilting at fantasy windmills. Shared education can be of educational benefit: cooperation can lead to dealing with issues of social and educational deprivation and educational underachievement. However, the kind of fantasy problems seen by the Member in the legislation are wide of the mark. He is peddling a completely false premise and completely false fears.
Mr Allister: With respect, the DUP Chief Whip is the last person to give lectures on fantasy windmills because, of course, it was the DUP that bought into Government in 2007 on a number of premises, each of which has now been shown to have been utterly false. They now discover that the party that they are sitting in Government with is controlled by a body that they said had been disbanded with the decommissioning of all weapons. Now they find that is not so —
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to return immediately to the issue before us. We are well off the topic.
I was making the point that the credentials of the Member in making a judgement of when and where there are Trojan Horses are perhaps a little suspect.
You cannot analyse the Bill without the conclusion. Ask yourself the simple question: does the process outlined, along with the statutory duty in last year's Bill, advance comprehensive education or the alternative? I think that any fair-minded person would come to the conclusion that the primary beneficiaries will be those who build their philosophy on the words of clause 1(2)(b) by bringing together:
"those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not",
thereby comprehensivising all of the educational system.
That is, patently and obviously, what it is about. There are those who, by dint of the political agreements that they are required to make to keep themselves in office, have strained at many a gnat, but here is another camel that they are quite prepared to swallow. The DUP has swallowed this camel. It will still wear a badge that says that the party is for grammar schools or for selection, but its Members will troop through the Lobbies to endorse the very philosophy that undermines the —
Mr Allister: No. Judging by his previous contribution, I do not think that there is a lot of merit in giving way to the Member, although I normally do, as he knows.
I think that there is a bit of discomfort among them, and so there should be, and if I can add to that discomfort by shining the torch of truth on to what is really going on, not for the first time I am happy to do so.
I will finish where I started: education should be about outcomes and improvements. It should not be about ticking fashionable boxes, and doing so in such a way that it financially disadvantages others whose cause some still claim to endorse. I have no interest in the social engineering that I detect in the Bill. Therefore, I think that the Bill is of the nature that I have described.
Mr Speaker, I am normally fairly diligent about staying on to listen to the entirety of a debate, but I have an arrangement that I have to fulfil. I hope to be back in time to hear the Minister's reply, but I apologise to succeeding contributors if I am not here when they speak.
Mr B McCrea: The Bill is an assault on the existing education structures. It is certainly an assault on integrated education. There are some who started their contribution by saying that it is "mercifully short". We must therefore take the opportunity to look at why the Bill has been introduced at all. What is the purpose of introducing a "mercifully short" Bill?
Mr Allister indicated that he may have to go. Before he does, I will deal with his issues. He was challenged by the Chief Whip of the DUP across the Chamber, and whether the Chief Whip of the DUP wants to take on Mr Allister or me, the argument will be the same. Clause 1(2)(b) states:
"those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not".
This is a Trojan Horse. It is an attempt to put finance where finance was not before. Given that we are dealing in a fixed sum of money, taking money from one source to give preference to the other will mean the demise of the financial contribution.
There may well be people here who tut-tut. When the great mantra of Don Quixote is brought up, I always know that a nerve has been touched, as it alludes to the fact that someone is mad to be suggesting the point that he or she is making. Well, in looking through the Bill, I see relatively few things to discuss other than these issues. It is not being a Don Quixote to point out the fallacy in the argument that is being put forward.
In a speech made by Mr Kennedy — I am sure that the words that I am about to say will cause him a little concern — I agreed with what he had to say, almost in its entirety. I realise that that may be something of a shock and we may have to revisit the issue, but he said that this short Bill does not take us very far. He said, in relation to the argument about Stranmillis and St Mary's, that, if people were genuine in their approach to shared education, they might have adopted a different position on that.
Others have made contributions about integrated education and the fact that only 7% of the population are involved in integrated education. The reason for that is that the numbers in integrated schools are capped, so those who wish to change to some form of integrated education are prevented from doing so. If you look through successive polls, you will see that there is willingness to change.
Some say that the Bill is a stepping stone. My problem with stepping stones is that they are all very well when you are dealing with shallow water and can get from one side to the other, but a stepping stone that leads you into a deep-water channel brings you nowhere but to destruction. We need not to put in place stepping stones but to build bridges.
I do not necessarily need to have an integrated structure per se. I am happy to have other forms of education. It is time for another uncomfortable truth: I noted when Nelson McCausland was talking that he and I went to Belfast Royal Academy, as did Mr Lunn — we may have to have some form of reunion. That school has a very mixed intake. It is a grammar school that brings in people from all backgrounds and tries to reach, on the basis of merit, those who want an academic education. I do not want that school to have to change its position because it does not provide strictly integrated education, but, believe me, it is integrated education nonetheless.
If you want to know where I think that we should be strategically in 20 to 25 years' time — those of you who are interested in a lot of stepping stones — I think that our children should be freely educated together. They should be in a structure in which they can be educated on the basis of and where they are provided with services that they want to receive. I agree with Mr Allister that what really influences most parents is that they want quality education for their children. When I look at the Bill — Trojan Horse/Don Quixote — I see a really strange Bill. I just do not understand why such a modest proposal has been put forward.
There is a strategic issue. The fundamental fault line in our society, the Assembly and our political processes is the idea of maintaining Catholic, Protestant and separate. That is the issue that we have to resolve, and, simply put, this form of delivery will take too long. It will be hijacked for alternative strategies that have nothing to do with what is in the Bill.
Almost half of our children are taught in schools in which 95% or more of pupils are of the same religion. Only 7% attend integrated schools. It was suggested in the Committee that this shows the failure of integrated education, yet what I pick up from successive opinion polls — maybe others will have different information — is that the public at large want greater integration and an end to segregation.
There was a poll by LucidTalk in 2013. I know that there are others, but these are the figures that I happen to have. In that poll, 66% said that they believed that integrated schools should be the main model for our education system; 68% said that they believed that integrated schools are the best settings to prepare children for living and working in an increasingly diverse society; and 79% said that they would support a request to transform the school that their children attend to an integrated school.
You go back to how our friends try to help us. Speaking in the Waterfront Hall in July 2013, no less a figure than President Obama said:
"If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation."
I am sure that other Members will deal with it, but, as far back as 2010, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, described Northern Ireland's education system as being a "benign form of apartheid".
The Good Friday Agreement — the Belfast Agreement — contains a specific pledge to:
"facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing",
as an essential element in the process of reconciliation and the creation of a culture of tolerance at every level of society. The Bill attempts to change that balance. It attempts to put shared education on a similar level as integrated education and, in the fullness of time, it will subsume that obligation. This is a change of political priorities, and it should not go unremarked.
There are people here who talk about shared education, who believe that it is in some way the same or analogous to integrated education. There are people who say the words, but they do not really mean them. It is a tick-box exercise. The principal of Enniskillen Integrated Primary School, Adele Kerr, was dismayed when Arlene Foster made comments about her school when Obama and Cameron came to see it. She said that it was:
"a blatant attempt to sabotage this historical day".
She said that Mrs Foster's comment was "insulting" and:
"If Mrs Foster visited our school which she has never done, despite me telling her the door is always open, she would know why we were chosen for our visit."
We should not speak with weasel words. We should not pretend to be one thing and do another. We have to tackle the integration of our children if we want to have a future in this place.
I am coming to the end of my contribution. In its recent report on shared and integrated education, which it presented in September, the Committee for Education was spectacularly dismissive of integrated education. It stated:
"Given the relatively limited uptake of Integrated Education and the very different views expressed by sectoral bodies in respect of its facilitation, encouragement and definition, the Committee agreed that the Department should undertake a strategic review of its approach and relevant actions to date relating to Integrated Education."
I was not on that Committee, though I have been in the past. I resile from that point of view. I do not think that it is the right way forward. I do not think that we should abandon integrated education nor try to supplant it with something different. The Bill, in its points, pays lip service to integration and, in the process, attempts to introduce a legislative framework that will allow the Minister of the day to produce finance for his own particular interests.
This is not the right way forward, and that is why the Bill is extremely dangerous. For those who say that they will give it a fair wind and have a look at it in the Committee, it is a Bill that is on two sides of A4 paper with no real clauses or information. What are you going to do at Committee Stage? Are you going to introduce 100 amendments? Are you going to get agreements on those amendments? Or, are you going to push through something that lets the Minister of the day do whatever he likes? Members on the Benches opposite have a responsibility to stand up and fight for the education system in this part of the world because it is a good system. Of course there are areas that we need to address, but the issue is that doing it on one page of A4 is not the right way forward.
I intend to return to that after Committee Stage. This should not go through on the nod. Those Members sitting opposite really need to have a look at the Bill and see if they truly agree with it.
Mr Speaker: I just point out, John, that the Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.00 pm. I do not know how long you intend to take with your contribution.
Mr McCallister: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I hope to finish at 1.00 pm or possibly before it.
In opening my contribution to the debate, I will say that I welcome the Bill in the context that I proposed the amendments that put it in the Bill that established the Education Authority. I suppose there are several options that we could look at that people have produced around education and where we may go on these things. Some say that we should go to a single education system. That is fine because no doubt that would be a secular education system. Dare I say that to go down that road, with a comprehensive-style system, would be much more of a Trojan Horse. It would also be much more limiting to parental choice. It would fly in the face of what I would like to see.
I agree with one point made by Mr Allister, which was that educational outcomes should be the main objective of this. However, by sharing, you hope to give access to the best schools and the best teachers and to broaden the curriculum. That is what you want to do. I hope that the Minister's policy and aspirations for the Bill are about that: extending choice and giving kids from various backgrounds the opportunity to share and have a curriculum that they would not otherwise be able to take advantage of. That is the essence of the Bill and, for me, its importance.
I give the Minister notice that I may think of amending the Bill when it comes back from Committee Stage. Of course there are things that I want included. However, the Bill is not a Trojan Horse for some sort of all-embracing comprehensive system. It cannot be. The very definition of having to share means that you must have different systems and sectors. It may be desirable to go to a single education system, if you want a very much one-size-fits-all approach to education. I think that Mr Flanagan said, at the start of the debate, that this may not be where you would start if you had a blank canvas, but we are where we are in education terms.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. As has been indicated, there are different views around the Chamber on comprehensive education and academic selection, and those are well trodden. However, the Bill is essentially silent on that. There has been a slight element of educational McCarthyism that sees reds under every bed and some sort of subliminal Marxist agenda — the Minister may well have an overt Marxist agenda — but this is about sharing between sectors. I really fail to see where the difficulty is with trying to share, particularly between those who are in socio-economic deprivation and those who are not. I am not quite sure how this is some amazing pathway to comprehensive education or, as some would have it, some reinforcement of the current system.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to Mr Weir for that, and I agree with his point. It has long been established that we have a huge job to do in our education system, especially to deal with the huge failing in Protestant working-class areas and across the board in all working-class areas where our education system is not delivering.
The Member knows my views on creating social mobility and, of course, education is one of the greatest assets we can give people. One of the greatest advantages we can give our young people to get them economically active is a proper and decent education. That way, they get a start in life and do not get trapped on welfare. It ties in with so much of our policy agenda, and it is crucial that we get it right. So, I do not fear giving people from poorer backgrounds some advantages through access to better schools, widening the curriculum choice and sharing what we need to share. There is no Trojan Horse here.
My commitment is the same as that of many others, namely to have grammar schools that perform very well. I would also like to see us using other models in which schools can specialise. Mr Allister quite rightly mentioned that in England they are retreating from some of the comprehensive models, but they are looking at specialist schools. Could we have other schools — vocational schools — that specialise, whether it is in sport or music, and lift the standard?
You have various models that advocate totally integrated schools. That is much more of a worry and much more of a Trojan Horse towards a one-size-fits-all model. The people who argue for it may want to create some sort of beige-coloured society where we are all the same and of the one ability. That is not life. Diversity and pluralism make up our community in Northern Ireland, and we should celebrate that because it enriches all our society, right across not only to Northern Ireland but the entire United Kingdom and indeed the British Isles. Diversity enhances and enriches our lives, and we should cherish it.
It is also a great vehicle for providing parental choice, where parents can choose the model of education they would like to have. To those who say that we should go entirely integrated and secular in education, I say, "You are limiting parental choice by doing that." You are also trying to pretend that the Catholic Church, the CCMS or the Transferor Representatives' Council should be out of existence. That is not where we are. That view also denies the fact that faith-ethos education outperforms other types of education. If we look at the list of the best performing schools, Catholic grammar schools are amongst the best and I think that the top 10 non-selective secondary schools are all in the maintained sector. What are they doing and giving in that ethos-based education that other schools need to replicate? We should be sharing and lifting all boats in a rising tide. That is what we need to do.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the Bill provides a real opportunity for the grammar schools, which so many here support, as do I, to share some of their expertise and experience and demonstrate generosity and, perhaps, community responsibility by reaching out to other schools that are not quite so successful? That may be a problem as regards the criteria in the Bill on different sectors, but there is a real opportunity for a trickle-down experience and, as you said, to lift all boats.
Mr McCallister: I agree with Mr Lunn that there is an opportunity. If some of the criteria need to be changed, then that is what the Committee Stage and Consideration Stage are for.
I am quite sure that Members, the Committee and the Chair will want to work with the Minister, and I am sure that the Minister will be keen to engage.
The big challenge for CCMS and the Catholic Church is how they open up those schools to others. As Mr Lunn said, how do we use that expertise, knowledge and ethos? How do we share it and help to raise standards across our school system? The societal benefits that flow from that are of great benefit to us, but education is the key priority. If we get that, the challenge that I put down to, broadly, the Catholic Church and the maintained sector is this: how do you make your schools more receptive to people from other faiths and none? We have models, and we do not have to look that far to other parts of our country. Some Church of England and Roman Catholic schools in England are even setting targets for admissions of 25% to 30% from other faiths or no faith. Why are parents in other parts of the country choosing that? It is because the standards are there.
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I listened intently to what he said about educational attainment in working-class areas. I recently spoke at the opening of an extension to a primary school in my constituency of North Belfast: Springfield. I made the point to those gathered that parents valuing education is a key element of raising the educational attainment that we are talking about, particularly in working-class areas of north and west Belfast. The issues that face young Catholics in Ardoyne are very similar to those that face young Protestants in Woodvale just across the Crumlin Road, where I live.
Mr McCallister: I absolutely accept that point. Not only do you have generational dependency on welfare and benefits but you need to give an education to help to get people out of that poverty trap. This is why, in the past, I have been critical of some of the Minister's cuts to early intervention. All that stuff contributes dramatically to improving outcomes for our children and their eventual participation in the wider economy. It is absolutely critical, and the point is well made as to how we would do that and actually start to share.
The big challenge, of course, is to those in the Catholic maintained sector who want, as I do, to maintain a faith/ethos education. They do not want a secular education and want to maintain their ethos. It is about how you open it up. How do you get a much more diverse intake into a school? You will have to look at diversity on your boards of governors. You will also have to look at diversity in your teaching staff and the barriers that they face. Mrs Overend mentioned the barriers for teaching staff. All those things can make a huge contribution in how you tackle genuine sharing.
Mr Rogers: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member acknowledge that there are many schools with a faith-based ethos? I am thinking particularly of the likes of St Columbanus' College in Bangor. While it is a Catholic school, it has a large mix from right across the community. We really need to work on that to ensure that there is a better spread throughout our schools.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful, as always, to Mr Rogers for that point. We have some brilliant examples, whether St Columbanus' College in Bangor, Methody in Belfast or Dominican College up in Portstewart. I think that Mr Lunn mentioned Cross and Passion College in Ballycastle. Sadly, however, as the figures suggest, we remain in the mid- to high 90s in percentage terms of those of us who are being educated in schools that have the same religious or community background as ourselves. We have some brilliant examples for the Minister to model on and to look at how we do that around Northern Ireland. I applaud those schools for doing it. I like that model because it is organic and natural, and it is happening without forcibly bringing people together. That is something to be welcomed.
However, you come back to the big challenges: what are the barriers to truly sharing and to having those models that Mr Rogers talked about in Bangor, Portstewart or Belfast? I suggest that in some areas, it is the diversity of the teaching staff, the diversity of the intake, making sure that people from a different faith, or no faith, feel welcome and can get the benefits of the pastoral care that is very recognisable in some of those schools, and making sure that they get all of the educational advantages. How do we get all of that in? How do we open up those schools and, effectively, free them and many of our parents into feeling that they can look at schools from a different community background as a realistic option to send their children to? We will know that we have started to make a difference on this when we have achieved that.
Yes, of course, like every piece of legislation, the Bill will need amendments and changes to be made and will demand that. That is why I welcome the Minister's bringing the Bill. I also welcome the fact that he has not moved on accelerated passage and that the Bill will go through the scrutiny stage. I agree with and applaud the overall objectives of what I believe is his policy intent. It should be focused on the educational outcomes, widening choice, extending the curriculum, using our education system to truly lift all boats and get aspiration back into all communities and using education to deliver that and to deliver on skills, the economy and releasing people from the poverty trap and the trap of welfare. I welcome the Bill, and I welcome the societal benefits that I very much hope will flow from it, if it is successfully passed and implemented. Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The debate stood suspended.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.
Before I suspend the sitting, I wish to advise the House that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will respond to Mr Jim Allister's question for urgent oral answer immediately after the private Members' motion on funding for transport infrastructure. I have also been advised that Mrs Overend is not in a position to move the Adjournment debate today, so a revised indicative timings of the order of business has been issued.
The sitting was suspended at 12.57 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): I have an opportunity to wish you well, Mr Speaker, after your announcement this morning.
My Department became aware of an existing research study by Oxford Economics that was seeking UK-wide funding to examine the potential impacts of a UK exit from the EU under a selection of plausible scenarios. We have now accepted a proposal from Oxford Economics to join its UK study and to have its work extended to Northern Ireland following a formal approach that we made to it during October.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister. While the Oxford Economics approach is welcome, given the scale of EU assistance to Northern Ireland in agriculture, infrastructure, Peace and innovation, does the Minister agree that the Northern Irish economy would continue to experience a net benefit from remaining in the EU?
Mr Bell: The Oxford Economics research study proposes to examine a range of the potential scenarios, not just a simple in/out scenario. The study we have commissioned will look at, for example, the Norwegian option, which is to leave the European Union but become a member of the European economic area; the Swiss option, which is a new settlement as a product of continued bilateral negotiation; the Turkish option whereby the UK would enter into a customs union with the European Union similar to the current arrangements adopted by Turkey; and also complete withdrawal involving a complete repatriation of powers, with the UK's EU trading relationship determined according to the work of the World Trade Organization's most-favoured-nation criteria. We will look at all the specific impacts of these potential exit scenarios in Northern Ireland across issues such as GDP, sector output, trade volume, household spending and unemployment.
Mr Lyons: Will the Minister tell us the terms of reference that have been agreed between the Department and the Oxford Economics research group?
Mr Bell: We have set them specifically to look at what I have explained; the different options available and the potential impact those will have across the whole range of scenarios. We have to look very seriously at the implications of being in and being out. if we are to be in, then what potential benefits will there be, and, if we are to be out, what pitfalls will there be and what potential successes could we have, such as free-trade agreements and specific economic zones with areas where we currently do not have them. Let us take all the research and consider it in the round, looking specifically at a range of metrics; GDP, output by sector, trade volume, household spending, employment and unemployment. Comparisons will be made throughout the United Kingdom as a whole. The short paper exercise and access to a database detailing the results are expected to be available to us by the end of this financial year.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers. I note that there is no firm opinion from him on what his or his party's view is on our future position within Europe. Will he give us an indication of whether he would be willing to support the call for any decision on a referendum here to be binding, so that if the majority of people here vote to stay within the European Union, that is what should happen?
Mr Bell: As we are part of the United Kingdom then, legally, we will be part of the United Kingdom when taking part in the United Kingdom referendum. It is the "United Kingdom referendum": the clue is in the title.
Mr Allister: Does the Minister agree that it would be liberating for this trading nation, the United Kingdom, to be freed, in consequence of leaving the EU, of the shackles of bureaucracy on our economy and that it would be liberating with regard to the growth markets which are outside the EU in that we would have the free facility to make our own trade agreements where there is growth rather than be tied to the moribund EU economy, which is now down to less than 20% of the world's GDP?
Mr Bell: All that will need to be considered in the round. Members have asked me about the DUP's position, and I stand fully behind what Diane Dodds has done. I am not, however, answering questions as a DUP Minister; I am answering questions as the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister. We have to take a number of issues into account. There are particular advantages in being part of a market of 500 million people. We have to look at the scenarios that I outlined to see what the benefits are, what brings in the most GDP and employment and what represents the best value for United Kingdom citizens.
We also need to consider the scenarios that the honourable Member pointed out — very well, I have to add — of the potential, should we leave the European Union and look towards what we can do with free trade in some of the world's emerging markets. The honourable Member made those points well; I suppose that we trained you well when you were a DUP MEP.
Ms Sugden: I am glad to hear that the Minister acknowledges the pitfalls of being in and out. Given that farming underpins our economy, has he met any farming groups to discuss the impact of a Brexit on that industry?
Mr Bell: I have met a number of farming groups on a range of issues. We have to look, for example, towards the common agricultural policy, but we also need expert opinion on what would be available to Northern Ireland farmers if we were not paying money into the European Union. What scenarios could there be? I understand that the agrifood sector is a key beneficiary of EU membership as a trading partner and as the result of direct funding from the sector. I also acknowledge that we exported over £1·1 billion in sales to the European Union, although the exact impact on those sales, according to research, depends on the terms that the UK Government would negotiate with the European Union on the movement of goods and services.
The UK, including Northern Ireland, would face a departure from the common agricultural policy and its related subsidies and regulations. I know that many local farmers rely on the single farm payment in order to be viable, but we also need to look at the money that would be available for them were we to be out.
Mr Bell: The Executive’s economic strategy sets out an overarching goal to 2030 to improve the economic competitiveness of the economy through a focus on export-led economic growth, and this will remain our priority going forward. Our most important exporting sector is manufacturing, and, despite the recent bad news about Michelin, the manufacturing sector has been posting strong growth in output and has created over 1,800 jobs in the past year to March 2015. It is interesting to note that the manufacturing sector is outperforming the UK average.
As we look to refocus the economic strategy, we will continue to invest in the key drivers of innovation, research and development and skills in order to create the conditions that will allow businesses in all sectors to grow and prosper. That is how we will contribute to the Executive’s collective goal of delivering economic growth, increasing prosperity and creating jobs.
Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for his response. Having listened to it, I suspect that he will agree that manufacturing jobs are the future. He outlined that some 1,800 jobs have been created in the manufacturing sector over the past year or thereabouts. What is his target for the next five years, particularly in the manufacturing sector?
Mr Bell: Manufacturing is a vital sector, accounting for 14% of all local economic output. It accounts for one in every nine of our local jobs. Despite the bad news, the output was 3·2% over the year to quarter 2 in 2015, which outperformed the UK average. The latest DETI research on the cost of doing business showed that we are competitive on all costs against the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland but that we cannot compete globally on cost alone.
I am targeting trying to compete for higher-end jobs that require high skills. That is where our competitive edge lies. That is why I am looking to life sciences, agrifood, advanced materials and advanced engineering. I note the success of the Member's constituency in accounting for some 21% of all jobs in manufacturing.
Mr Lynch: Does the Minister accept that regional targets need to form part of Invest NI's corporate plan and the Programme for Government going forward?
Mr Bell: We have to be careful. All of us want jobs to come to our constituency, and that is natural. I want jobs for Strangford as much as you want them for anywhere else. However, we have to be careful and look at the evidence from the last census: 40% of the people working in all constituencies work in areas outside the parliamentary boundary that they live within. We have to be very careful because we cannot instruct businesses where to go. Businesses will determine that on that on the basis of whatever factors are in their criteria. We will seek to put the best-case scenario right across Northern Ireland to attract jobs because we are conscious that nearly half of our people work outside their parliamentary boundary.
Mr Speaker: My apologies, Mr McGlone. I should have called you as the Chair first. Please accept my apology.
Mr McGlone: Tá tú ceart go leor. You are all right. Agus mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. Thanks very much to the Minister as well.
Much has been made, Minister, by the manufacturing sector of the need for a more strategic approach and the development of a manufacturing strategy. Has the Minister deliberated on a stakeholder-type approach involving manufacturers, the social and trade union sector and his Department in order to develop a more contemporary manufacturing strategy?
Mr Bell: The manufacturing strategy that the five parties, including the Member's, came to was the economic strategy, and DETI's manufacturing strategy is within that. I have met unions, and I have tried to take forward some of their ideas. They have asked me specifically to do things around energy costs, and I think that everyone in the House knows what we did, particularly in relation to Bombardier, our biggest manufacturer.
Sadly, we will never see the truth. I was ready to sign off a three quarters of a million pounds grant investment to Michelin to try to bring its energy costs down. I can work with trade unions on some things; I do not think that other things that they have asked me to do, like appointing additional junior Ministers, would be acceptable to the House. We will work together to support them in the way they are and to continue their growth.
Mr Speaker: I inform Members that question 9 has been withdrawn.
Mr Bell: In June this year, I met Madam Wang Ling, the vice governor of Hubei province in China during her visit to Northern Ireland. The meeting related specifically to our agrifood sector, and I was there with some of our major companies, including Moy Park.
At the beginning of July, I met Madam Wang Shuying, consul general of the People's Republic of China when we addressed the China Healthcare and Life Sciences Roadshow in Riddel Hall at Stranmillis. That was an important initiative taken forward by United Kingdom trade and industry on how we can develop health and life sciences.
Last month, I attended the UK-China business summit at the Mansion House in London, after which a dinner was hosted by the Lord Mayor and President Xi. At that economic summit, the value to the United Kingdom of up to £40 billion of investment was outlined by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping.
Mr Cree: Minister, welcome back. You have been quoted as saying that we are now in what is being labelled the "golden age" in UK-China relations. Can you explain to us exactly why you say that, how it is "golden", particularly with respect to Northern Ireland, and when we may see direct benefits in Northern Ireland from China?
While I appreciate your attributing the quotation to me, I was repeating what the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said when he talked about the "golden age" of UK-China relations and the development of the new Silk Road. The Chancellor very wisely said that he wants the United Kingdom to be the European choice of investment for the Chinese Government. There are trillions available, in their foreign exchange and how they invest it, and we want to bring that to Northern Ireland.
Six years ago, Northern Ireland was exporting in the region of £60 million to China. Figures for the last period show that we have raised that to £95·5 million. It is my intention and target to take our exports to China over £100 million by the next period of office.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for his responses so far. Can he tell us what potential he sees for the Confucius Institute in Northern Ireland? How does he see that relationship growing?
Mr Bell: It is a valuable relationship for Northern Ireland. All the work through Ulster University in the Confucius classrooms is funded through the UK Hanban Institute. I would like to thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for their support in helping us to bring that together; Dolores Kelly who, as chair of the all-party group on China and as Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee in that period, helped us to get the initiative off the ground; and Danny Kennedy who, as Minister at the time, supported it. There was also very valuable input from Anna Lo.
What we need to realise is that, according to Goldman Sachs, China will become the world's largest economy somewhere in the 2020s. We have a unique opportunity to work alongside to attract investment to Northern Ireland from what is the world's largest trading economy and which is about to become the world's largest economy.
I am delighted that from the convent school in Omagh to Bangor Academy in my area, to Millburn Primary School in Coleraine, to South West College in Fermanagh, 1,500 of our young people have successfully passed their first qualification in Mandarin this year.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answers. I freely acknowledge that he is deeply committed to human rights and religious freedom. Can he tell the House on how many occasions he raised those issues with the Chinese Government?
Mr Bell: As the Member knows, human rights and foreign and Commonwealth matters are raised by the UK Government, and I fully endorse the position taken forward by them. Anybody who knows me will know that I was a commissioner with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for many years. I passionately believe, in terms of my faith and the principles of being an Orangeman, in civil and religious liberty for all. I will always advocate those principles, no matter which country I am in.
Mr Speaker: Mr Paul Givan is not in his place. We will move on.
Mr Bell: Advanced engineering businesses McAuley Precision and McAuley Fabrication are undertaking a £5 million expansion, supported by Invest Northern Ireland, which will cumulatively create 87 new skilled advanced manufacturing jobs in Ballymoney by 2019. The 87 new jobs are planned to be recruited over the next four years, and it is anticipated that they will generate £2·1 million annually in additional salaries in the north Antrim economy.
Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he will agree with me that that was excellent news for the economy of north Antrim. However, he will be aware that, unfortunately, it was a case of the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, given the devastating announcement just some weeks later of the job losses at Michelin. Is the Minister willing to meet me, along with stakeholders in the Ballymena and north Antrim area, to discuss a strategy to bring more much needed jobs into the area?
Mr Bell: Yes, I am more than happy to do that. The announcement was a surprise to me, and the unions have confirmed that it was a surprise to them.
I pay tribute from this Dispatch Box to the workers specifically at Michelin. Their output was high, and my quarterly report of September showed some of the best figures ever. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, there was a five million unit reduction in the tyre market, and there were costs associated with Asia and the fluctuation of the euro that were beyond everyone's control at that particular time. I have met unions and workers, and I praise the fact that, on Friday, as I met some of the management, the workers were back on the floor. We have period of two to two and a half years, right through to 2018, to try to get this right, and I will leave no stone unturned to try to bring in jobs to replace what is there.
Mr Allister: The news at McAuley's was most welcome and came against a landscape of a succession of less-good-news stories for Ballymoney, where there has been a downward trend in employment. Although the McAuley announcement was somewhat overshadowed by the news from Michelin, it is nonetheless of itself good news for Ballymoney. On the subject of Ballymoney, what can the Minister tell us about planned and scheduled FDI visits to that part of north Antrim?
Mr Bell: What we do is this: we go out to companies and try to attract them. When I talk about the specific area, I do not just say, "Look, just come to this town and don't look at anywhere else". I give them the skill set for the area. I get very disappointed when I read in the media about people talking about declining industrial towns and declining manufacturing. I do not take anything away from what happened with Patton, JTI Gallaher or Michelin, but there is a huge good-news story to tell in that particular area, and it is the good-news story of Moy Park, Randox — with its hundreds of new jobs — Schrader and Wrightbus. You would be privileged to sit on a bus in Hong Kong that is made in Ballymena. Therefore, be conscious of the fact that, according to the census, 40% of us work outside our area. Let us attract the jobs into Northern Ireland. We have a golden opportunity through reducing our corporation tax to make ourselves competitive and to bring in tens of thousands of new jobs.
Mr Bell: It was a pleasure to meet Bombardier senior management during my visit to Canada. Although Bombardier faces challenges, its management team is confident that those can be overcome and that sales will follow. It would be wrong to speculate further on the potential outcomes of Bombardier's commercial decisions. I welcome the recent Bombardier announcement of the Quebec Government's plan to invest $1 billion in the CSeries. All of us should view that as a very positive development.
Bombardier Aerospace is a major contributor to the manufacturing economy. It has a workforce of almost 5,500, and all of us know that it is a vibrant supply chain right across Northern Ireland. Bombardier Belfast supports almost all the company's aircraft programmes, and it provides advanced engineering services to a number of third-party customers. Therefore, it was a very positive meeting, and we are very upbeat about the future of a quality product in the CSeries.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given what the Minister termed as the "surprise" collapse of Michelin, can he guarantee that he will monitor the situation here so that we do not have any further nasty surprises?
Mr Bell: I cannot guarantee that what happened with Michelin can never happen again, and nobody in the House can give that guarantee. What I can guarantee is that we will do all in our power to ensure that it does not happen. What we had at Michelin was almost monthly visits from Invest Northern Ireland. We put in about £4.75 million of taxpayers' money to support the jobs that were there, and we put in training support. On the specific issue of energy, we tried to act where we had the tools to act, and that was with a £750,000 grant to support them in using renewables to bring their energy costs down.
We are keeping a watching brief across a number of areas that are finding it difficult. We have people — in many cases, Invest Northern Ireland — going in monthly. We are also receiving, in many cases, reports — sometimes quarterly reports and sometimes monthly updates — on specific areas. We will do all in our power to protect the manufacturing sector.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers today. Does he recognise — I know that he has mentioned it — that Bombardier is leading in cutting-edge technology in composite engineering? Does he recognise the good work that Bombardier is doing in looking at alternative energy sources, especially in the renewables sector?
Mr Bell: Bombardier is doing excellent work. I saw the CSeries in production and saw the busy factory floor and the aircraft being assembled in the final stages of production, and I want to congratulate the entire Bombardier team. They can be very proud, as the Member rightly says, of the CSeries. There is a great sense of pride across Northern Ireland to see wings that have been built in Belfast being attached to what is a game-changing aircraft. There will be challenges, but the management team is confident that those can be overcome and that more success can follow.
What have the Government done? I brought legislation to the House specifically to give the reassurance that was necessary to the investors about their renewable plant, which is valued at well over £100 million, and I am delighted to see that the other finance has now stacked up. We look forward to seeing the reduction, which could mean up to a quarter of energy costs reduced for our largest manufacturer.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister and commend him on his visit to Bombardier in Quebec. Of course, we all echo the support for Bombardier at this time. Minister, do you agree with me that, in light of the commitment of the Quebec Government through the $1 billion invested in Bombardier, there are lessons there for all of us here about getting behind our industries, particularly our manufacturing industries, in this part of the world?
Mr Bell: Yes, I want to fully get behind them. I met one union initially and have had a series of meetings with Manufacturing Northern Ireland. I attended its programme here in Parliament Buildings, where we celebrated the manufacturing industry. We heard the good news that some of the things that we have done in the House have been game changers and are not available anywhere else in the UK. That has supported the manufacturing industry. That is why I think we are seeing growth. I am open to ideas. I will continue to meet manufacturers. I spent a period with the Chamber of Commerce in Magherafelt, with the huge success of SDC Trailers, but I also took the opportunity to meet dozens of people from the manufacturing sector and Manufacturing Northern Ireland. I want to salute them for the growth that they have already achieved, and I will certainly apply whatever is in my toolbox to help it go forward, because we want those jobs and that growth in the manufacturing sector.
Mrs McKevitt: In your previous answers, Minister, you did not want to speculate much on the $1 billion bailout of Bombardier and the proposed aid from, I think you said, the federal Canadian Government. Has the Minister made an assessment of the threat to manufacturing jobs in Belfast due to the impact on Bombardier of the loss of the market share to the Chinese state-owned aerospace companies?
Mr Bell: Bombardier has made a huge commitment to Northern Ireland. I think that we want to be a little bit careful before we use words like "bailout", because I am not sure that it accurately reflects what has happened. When you bring an aircraft into production, there are huge challenges. I have looked at the Bombardier chart in Canada for airworthiness and all the checks that it has to make, and it is fully confident that it can get entry into the market by the second quarter of 2016. I will not speculate on potential sales or potential discussions and joint ventures, because there is a need for commercial sensitivity.
What I can tell you is that the management are confident that those challenges can be overcome and that they will successfully enter the market in the second quarter of 2016 with a brilliant aircraft, with its wings made here in Northern Ireland, with all the support that gives to the supply chain. I am confident that it will be successful.
Mr Speaker: That is the end of the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.
T1. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether he will concede that a reduction in the rate of VAT in Northern Ireland for tourism businesses is unlikely to happen, given that he will be aware that the Northern Ireland Select Committee is considering that issue, and to state what other policies he would like to put in place if that differential is not established. (AQT 3101/11-16)
Mr Bell: I do not accept that, just because in a reserved matter people think it less or more likely for us to achieve something, we should not continue to make the argument that we need to achieve it. Our hospitality and tourism sector is going from strength to strength. Figures recently released showed that our tourism is up. We have set ourselves a target of a £1 billion tourism industry by 2020. Major events will do that, such as the Open Championship coming to Northern Ireland, which is good news. As the Member will know, the only times that the Irish Open sold out were at Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, with a staggering 107,000 paying spectators. Just think how that bodes for the Open coming to Northern Ireland. We will continue to make the argument for a reduction in VAT because the case can be well made, and we will continue to support the sector to achieve that £1 billion target.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. The other issue that tourism faces is cuts to the arts: does he feel that that is a difficulty? While I accept that the Irish Open was a huge success at Royal County Down, the other challenge, particularly in a constituency like South Down, is growing tourism, making it sustainable, having jobs and increasing tourism spend. He needs to address all those things. How does he propose to address some of them?
Mr Bell: The first thing in growing tourism is for the industry to look at tourism and hospitality as a career choice from the outset and give it the status that it deserves as an industry that provides a similar number of jobs in Northern Ireland to agriculture. The first thing that you want to do is ensure that you have your skills base right. Tourism research informs me that people remember the people they meet at the first point of contact, and we must make sure that they are properly skilled. The second thing is your tourism offering. We have a huge offering from the creative industries, and you mentioned the arts. There is "Game of Thrones", which is HBO's most successful series, right through to golf tourism and the beauty of the geography of Northern Ireland, particularly in areas such as the Mourne mountains. All in all, we need to thank the industry for the 2% increase in visitor numbers that it achieved in the first six months of this year.
T2. Mr Lyons asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in light of the news last week about Michelin, which was devastating not only for north Antrim but for many people in the East Antrim constituency, for an assurance that his Department will continue to work with Invest NI, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the Department for Employment and Learning to ensure that support is available for workers at the Michelin plant, not only in the next few months but up to 2018 and beyond. (AQT 3102/11-16)
Mr Bell: Yes, I can give that assurance, and we have already started. I place on the record my thanks to Stephen Farry, the Minister for Employment and Learning, who, on hearing the news, was immediately in my office. We spent several hours together discussing with the mayor and the chief executive of the council what we could do and what Invest NI support could come to the council. We acknowledge the work of the Michelin management team in ensuring that people will not be out of work until 2018. Their hope and ambition, which is an ambition that everybody in the House should have, is that those people can leave work and go to another job with a healthy pay cheque in their hands. What we have to do now is reduce our corporation tax, set the date on which we will do that and attract the 30,000-plus new jobs that are available to Northern Ireland.
Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for his answer. There has also been an awful lot of good news in East Antrim recently. The Minister visited my constituency on Friday and was able to see the excellent work of businesses and a social enterprise there. We now have the Gobbins visitor attraction, which he has also been to, so we have much positive news as well. Can the Minister tell the House how many jobs have been promoted in East Antrim during this Assembly term? What can Invest NI do to ensure that employment can continue to grow in my constituency?
Mr Bell: Mr Lyons will be proud to know that, at one point in the history of Northern Ireland, the Gobbins cliff path was more successful in attracting tourists than the Giant's Causeway. I can see huge potential for what can be done there in the future. On the specific question on jobs promoted in East Antrim, there have been 672 external, with 33 in the last period. In East Antrim locally, from 2011-12 to the forwarding period, we have had 458 and 119. The number of jobs promoted in the East Antrim parliamentary constituency from 2011-12 to 2014-15 sits at 1,130, with 152 in the last period.
T3. Ms Hanna asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, now that the NIRO consultation has ended, to outline what conversations he might be able to have with the Department of Energy and Climate Change across the water about the future of wind energy in Northern Ireland. (AQT 3103/11-16)
Mr Bell: I was very disappointed that, having consulted the coalition Government and set out our figure for 2017-18, a Conservative Government stepped in and immediately changed it with respect to wind. They changed their position; we did not change ours. In response to that, I tried to support farmers, I tried to support small-scale industry and I tried to support large-scale industry. However, it fell at the first hurdle in the House, with some Members telling me, "We will not allow you to spend one penny extra in Northern Ireland". Subsequent to that, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) changed its position. In its changed position, DECC allowed us to bring across over 90% large-scale and a significant number of small-scale. Others were to follow, and we could socialise the costs across the whole of the United Kingdom. I will continue to do what I can for small-scale in conversations. We are in detailed discussions and correspondence with DECC, but I also have to be conscious of the cost of energy to the Northern Ireland domestic user and to industry.
Ms Hanna: With all that in mind, does the Minister regret his earlier statement about the certainty of that funding, which gave considerable comfort to small-scale producers? I appreciate that there are mitigating circumstances in the UK-wide context, but can he outline what, specifically, he will be able to do to help that sector recover?
Mr Bell: I am seeking to ensure the best outcomes in cost to the consumer and the number of megawatts that can be achieved. I have to take DECC's changing position into account. It took position a, and I responded to position a in the best interests of Northern Ireland and supported the small-scale. I tried to put it through the Committee of the House, and the Committee rejected it. Then, when DECC came up with position b, I tried to look at what was in the best interests of Northern Ireland for the industry and for the domestic consumer. Energy is devolved, but costs are socialised. We need to take into account the three parts of what is known as the energy trilemma. You cannot go just for any one sector: you have to look at security of supply. We need to get the North/South interconnector up and running, as we are missing out on £20 million savings because of the circumstances of that project. However, we will always have to look at cost and at people's ability to pay.
T4. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether, given his previous comments and previous meetings with Amber Rudd from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), he would be willing to meet her again. (AQT 3104/11-16)
Mr Bell: I will meet her any time, any place, anywhere, but Amber Rudd was a Minister in the previous Government. The present Prime Minister was Prime Minister in the previous Government. As a result of discussions that my predecessor had with them, we went out to our industry and said that the date is 2017, with a grace period to 2018. When the Conservative Government came into power, they moved the goalposts in Northern Ireland, and everything that I have done subsequent to that and to DECC's change of position is to try to drive forward a position that can ensure that the Northern Ireland consumer — the business customer — gets best value at minimum cost.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his clarity and welcome the fact that he intends to meet Amber Rudd again. Do I take that as a declaration of his intent to go in and fight for those people who are clearly losing out?
Mr Bell: People in my constituency borrowed money against their own homes to go for renewables on the basis of what DECC had allowed Northern Ireland to do in the terms of its consultation. I am acutely aware of their needs, and, when the record of this period is written, they will see that, when Amber Rudd changed her position, I tried to put legislation specific to Northern Ireland through the House. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee turned down legislation that I was seeking to introduce for farmers and small-scale users. When Amber Rudd changed her position again, I tried to nuance the position, and the Committee again turned down proposals for small-scale users and farmers. I am in discussion with Amber Rudd, in writing and through my officials, to see what we can do for those people, but I can only do what is realistic and introduce legislation that the Committee allows to go to the Floor.
T5. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment at what point he believes that the Committee rejected legislation, given that, at no point did it reject legislation and, on two occasions, it sought further clarification, albeit that, if the Minister is so unaware of that, that makes for a worse situation, given the two preposterously bad evidence sessions that the Committee held on the matter. (AQT 3105/11-16)
Mr Bell: I am fearful when a Committee Chairman has to ask a Minister what his own Committee did in terms of delay and getting legislation through. Members of the Committee, including the Chairman, have adopted different positions at different times. One cannot be a chameleon and change colours depending on who we are talking to. The Chairman of the Committee cannot be like a cushion, simply bearing the imprint of whoever sat on him last. We did not change our position. I brought legislation to the Committee, and it got delayed and did not go through. I nuanced it and tried to bring additional information, but it got delayed and did not go through. I hope that farmers look to that Committee to see what could have been done, had it followed the advice that I originally gave it. Those people who are losing out — Members may laugh — should take a close look at the work of the Committee.
Mr McGlone: That is very good. It is good to have a Minister who lives in a parallel world. I invite him to look at Hansard and the public record. On a unanimous cross-party basis, the spotlight shone very firmly on his Department, and its shortcomings were incredibly crass. Is the Minister prepared to be part of the solution, which, on a cross-party basis and with the agreement of all parties, we have sought to bring with his cooperation, which is not great today?
Mr Bell: Sadly, the Chairman is not across his brief on what occurred. When we tried to do what we said we would do in Northern Ireland, it did not go forward. I agree that there was a cross-party basis for not taking it forward. My understanding, when I sat down with the Chairman in my room upstairs and pleaded the case for small-scale farmers and others who are suffering today — many of whom borrowed against their house — is that he was supportive. Then, in the Committee room, the position was completely different. In fact, I was told that Northern Ireland would not allow one single extra penny. You saw the work of the Committee. It is a matter of record what I brought to the House. It is a matter of record how DECC changed its position. I am more than happy to stand with anyone and look at what DECC proposed, what it changed, and how, in every single case, I looked at what was in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole.
Mr Speaker: I inform Members that questions 8 and 12 have been withdrawn.
Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have appointed the chair of a working group that will shortly commence a review of the Northern Ireland local government code of conduct for councillors. The working group will review the principles in part 3 and the rules on decision-making in part 8 by February 2016. I will consider the outcome of the review and any proposed changes to the code of conduct prior to consultation.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
It is important that the local government sector has an opportunity to put forward its views on the code, and the working group will engage with key stakeholders and invite them to give their views in writing or at a stakeholders' engagement event. The review will be completed, and consultation on any revised code of conduct will commence during the current mandate. However, I have asked the chair of the working group to seek the views of key stakeholders on the possibility of shortening the timetable for the review to enable the consultation to be completed and the revised code put in place during this mandate.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. Is the Minister confident that the anomalies in part 8.1 of the code will be rectified in a way that enables councillors to interact lawfully with one another?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. Part 8 has caused the most consternation and, indeed, I think it fair to say, confusion among councillors and NILGA, their representative body. Many of the issues revolve around the fact that it can be interpreted as diluting or emasculating their performance as elected representatives. The concerns expressed were that councillors would not be allowed to organise support for, or opposition against, a particular recommendation or matter being considered; they would not be allowed to lobby other councillors on a matter being considered or not to comply with political group decisions on a matter being considered where the decisions differed from a councillor's own views. Further, they would not be allowed to act as an advocate for, or promote, a particular recommendation in relation to matters being considered. Basically, councillors would not be allowed to be politicians or public representatives. The working group will look at each of these concerns, and part 8 in general, and I look forward to receiving its comments. Clearly, I am hopeful and confident that these issues will be resolved.
Mr Campbell: Can the Minister assure the House that, when the reviewed code of conduct sees the light of day, we will not have a repeat of the current position that at least one councillor in Northern Ireland, in Londonderry and Strabane, has not only been convicted of a criminal offence but has repeatedly not only refused to condemn terrorist incidents but expressed his support for dissident republican activity? I am sure that the Minister is well aware of whom I speak. That person remains an elected representative and is not seen as having breached the current code of conduct.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. The aspects of the code that are being reviewed are in parts 3 and 8. I have described in detail the implications around part 8, which pertains to decision-making by councils and councillors. Part 3 deals with principles, and that will hopefully address some of the concerns that the Member has raised. I cannot pre-empt the outworkings of a review, but it will go out to consultation and the Member and party colleagues will have an opportunity to take part in that consultation.
Mr Cree: Minister, while it is essential that we have a workable code of conduct, do you agree that it is important that the content of that code or protocol should not become a tool for vexatious purposes by political opponents?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Cree for that question, although I am sure that no political opponents would stoop to such depths as to use what is written in the code as a means to attack or detract from a political opponent. I think that it is vitally important that all members adhere to what is written in the code and also to what is not written with regards to the respect with which they treat their fellow politicians and members of the public.
Mr Allister: Will there be any opportunity to write into the code an obligation on councillors to request and receive allowances only to their personal accounts, in order to end the abuse that is presently ongoing with Sinn Féin councillors in some areas? If that cannot be done within the code, how will the Minister deal with that abuse?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Allister for that question; again, I am aware of the situation to which the Member refers. However, I fear that this review will not provide an opportunity to address that anomaly that he quite rightly identifies. Both primary and subordinate legislation clearly state that councillor allowances are payable by councils directly to councillors. The relevant legislation is contained in Part 3 of the Local Government Finance Act (NI) 2011 and in the Local Government (Payments to Councillors) Regulations (NI) 2012.
In light of the recent court proceedings, my officials wrote to all district council chief executives to remind them of this legislation, but the legislation is silent on which bank accounts councillors' allowances must be paid into. I have written to council chief executives on the matter, and I will speak to them all about it in the near future. Whereas the Assembly has the power to investigate whether an account number given by a Member is actually a personal account, councils do not have that investigative duty or power.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, Minister. I understand that there has been an administrative error within the system. I understand that you were informed that the question had been withdrawn. The Member was not informed that the question had been withdrawn and that another Department may well answer the question.
I call Mr Trevor Lunn.
Mr Durkan: Conscious of the difficult operating environment and the fact that current funding arrangements finish on 31 March 2016, I had indicated that I would urgently consider the development of appropriate funding mechanisms to enable third parties to deliver key environmental outcomes from April 2016. I have listened to the views of stakeholders, who particularly sought certainty on funding and multi-year funding, and I today announce a new environment fund that will cover two years, with possible extension for a third year. Funding will be allocated for the next financial year, 2016-17, with the potential for funding in future years subject to future Budget decisions made by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. That is a broader fund than the previous natural environment fund. The new fund will cover the delivery of a wider range of key environmental outcomes under two broad themes: ensuring good habitat quality, landscape and species abundance and diversity; and the promotion of health, well-being, resource efficiency and sustainable economic development, realising the full value of our environment. It will provide a more comprehensive, transparent and consistent funding mechanism by which the majority of environmental outcomes can be delivered by third parties under grant aid.
Alongside the environment fund, I have also recognised that the Department will continue to need to develop additional mechanisms to support the delivery of environmental priorities in 2016-17, and beyond, via funding to third parties.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. It is quite a coincidence that he should launch the fund on the same day as I ask that question, but he has completely killed any opportunity for a supplementary question. Thank you very much.
Mr Flanagan: I will be honest: I was not really listening to the Minister's answer, so I do not know whether he has answered my question or not, but I presume that he has not, because I am asking him about something else. Can he give us an update on the scheme announced in June, similar to the plastic bag tax? He proposes to bring in a deposit-return scheme for bottles. Can he give us any update on that off the top of his head?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question, although the link is quite tenuous. I think the Member gave that away himself by saying that he had not listened to my previous answer but was going to ask me about something completely different anyway.
I floated the idea of introducing something along the lines of a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers — bottles, largely — at the start of the summer, and since then my officials have been working on it. We have been looking at and learning from other jurisdictions. Scotland ran a pilot on it, and we are now looking at the results of that pilot. It is something that I will be speaking about to my counterpot — counterpart, sorry; that is another vessel — counterpart in Scotland, Minister Lochhead, in January when I visit him. I see great opportunities, not just for our environment, but for collaboration with other jurisdictions. There will be considerable outlay involved if we are to proceed with that scheme, but I believe that the expense of the initial outlay can be offset and greatly reduced by collaborating with Scotland and, potentially, the Irish Republic.
Mr Rogers: Minister, thanks for your answers thus far. What will the total value of the fund be? Will you ensure that funding will be available to ensure the effective management of areas of outstanding natural beauty like the Mournes?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As yet, we do not have detail on how much will be available; I am working on that with officials. It is vital that those organisations have certainty as early as possible. They will be able to apply from this week. I intend to open applications from Thursday, and they will have a month, up until 10 December, in which to apply. In the meantime, we will work on how much money we can make available from the fund. As the fund is broader than the natural environment fund that I established this year, I hope that the pot will be bigger in terms of finance available as well. It will also be broader in that it will be able to assist groups like those the Member referred to that ensure the effective management of areas of natural beauty such as the Mournes.
It is worth underlining that, even this year, with an extremely challenging budget outcome for my Department, over half a million pounds was allocated to various environmental NGOs to continue to provide a full range of environmental and visitor management for areas of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed, it was mainly for the Mournes area. I can also confirm that those organisations will be able to apply for funding from the new environment fund that I have spoken of today.
Ms Lo: I am sorry for my voice today.
I am absolutely delighted with the Minister's announcement, and I am sure that the sector is very reassured by it. I understand that the Minister has said that he is still working out what money there will be. What about the built heritage sector? Will it be protected, too? Will it be assured of further funding from that pot?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Chairperson of the Environment Committee for that question, which is indeed very topical, given 'The Detail' report that, I believe, was given comprehensive coverage on the BBC 's 'Talkback' today.
Regrettably, built heritage projects will not be able to avail themselves of the environment fund that we are talking about. However, I very much value our built heritage, and the funding that I was able to provide to it in the previous financial year is indicative of that. That should be looked at, rather than how much I was unable to provide in that direction this year.
Under the restructuring of Departments, the function of built heritage will go in a different direction to that of environment and will lie in the new Department for Communities. However, it is extremely important that its importance and value be recognised. Built heritage plays a massive role in promoting our economy and, indeed, the health and well-being of our citizens.
I have spoken to officials about built heritage's importance, and they recognise its importance. It has frustrated my officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) greatly that the only money that we were able to allocate to built heritage this year was through the carrier-bag levy. We were able to allocate almost £600,000 to buildings that were deemed to have a community function or benefit. I am aware of a number of buildings of great value out there that really need work done on them. We are working on finding a way in which to do just that.
Mr Durkan: Since April 2015, district councils have been responsible for determining the vast majority of planning applications. Under the reformed two-tier planning system, applications for local and major developments are submitted to, and determined by, local councils, while applications for regionally significant developments are processed and decided by the Department.
The Planning Act also allows the Department to direct that any planning application be referred to it instead of being dealt with by a council. In recognising and respecting the important role of councils in making decisions on the future development of their area, I envisage that call-in power being exercised only in exceptional circumstances. I believe that councils, with locally elected and accountable representatives, are best placed to take the key decisions about the future growth and development of their local areas and communities. However, there may be circumstances in which a proposed development raises issues of such regional importance or strategic interest that the application should be called in so that the Department can in effect take over the role of decision-maker.
My Department has published guidance, 'Notification and Call In of Applications', which highlights the legislative procedures to be complied with by district councils when notifying the Department on all types of applications, including potential call-in cases, and provides an indication of the matters that may be considered by the Department when deciding whether an application should be called in. Those include considering the relevant development plan; the opinions of statutory consultees; the national importance of the proposal; the relationship of the proposal to a regionally significant application; the significance of the development to the whole or part of Northern Ireland; and any potential significant effects that a proposal may have outside Northern Ireland. Each case will, however, be considered on its own merits, and the fact that a particular development proposal may be complex or controversial will not necessarily mean that it is of strategic interest or regional importance.
Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, you recently called in the application of the Cam Burn wind farm, which is causing a bit of a breeze in my constituency. You issued a notice of an opinion to approve, which is at odds with the views of the local council. What happens next with that application?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. There has indeed been some attention around my decision to call in this application and to approve it. I have written to the council not only to outline my decision to approve it, and the rationale behind that, but to inform the council of its next steps. The council has 28 days during which it can ask for a hearing on my decision, in effect. Should it choose to do so, that hearing will be held by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC), which will give its determination on the application. However, the final decision will ultimately come back to me. Should the council wish to go down that route, and the PAC decides that I was wrong, the decision would come back to me and I could reverse it. I am very doubtful that the PAC would find that to be so, and the decision would come back to me either way.
Mr Swann: Minister, when you say that you doubt that the PAC will change that, have you already made up your mind? So, is there no point in members of the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council coming to you? If you are saying in the Chamber today that you have made up your mind, you have breached that entire process. By calling in this planning application, you have undermined councillors on the council's planning committee. It was disgraceful that the chief planning officer in that area and the chair of the planning committee found out about your decision through the BBC.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. However, I correct him by saying that I have not breached any process or procedure. I share his disdain about the manner in which elected representatives found out about this decision. I do not know how the BBC got hold of this so quickly, and I place that on record.
The council now has a chance to ask for a hearing. I am not saying that I would overrule the PAC, should it come to a different view to mine. However, I am saying that it would have to come back to me, and I very much doubt that the commission would come to a different conclusion than have I, given that council and DOE planners thought that this was a nailed-on approval. I may have done the council a favour in some respects.
I caught the end of Minister Bell's Question Time, and there was something around the Northern Ireland renewables or renewables obligation certificates (ROCs) situation here. Given its failure to issue an approval to what, I think, is a blatantly approvable application that it might have stopped or stymied, the council could have left itself in a precarious position and open to not just a planning appeal but further legal proceedings.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. It appears that when you mention the word renewables in this place, you have to get things firmly on the record or, when you meet a Minister, make sure that you have someone to take an independent minute, as I did.
Will the Minister outline what progress has been made towards meeting the Programme for Government renewable energy targets, as his Department fits into that?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. The Programme for Government targets are a material consideration when dealing with or processing any planning application. The Member will be aware that I published the strategic planning policy statement, the SPPS, on 28 September. It consolidates, updates and improves the policy context of the suite of planning policy statements (PPS), including PPS 18 on renewable energy. The aim of the SPPS in relation to renewable energy is:
"to facilitate the siting of renewable energy generating facilities in appropriate locations within the built and natural environment in order to achieve Northern Ireland’s renewable energy targets and to realise the benefits of renewable energy without compromising other environmental assets of acknowledged importance."
The SPPS will, inter alia, continue to support and contribute to the renewable energy target of 40% of electricity consumption here in the North from renewable resources by 2020, as set out by the Executive and indicated in DETI's strategic energy framework. Furthermore, DETI has advised that the Executive's 2015 Programme for Government target of 20% renewable energy generation is being met.
Ms Sugden: I will bring the issue back to where we started. Does the Minister concede that his initial decision to approve Cam Burn wind farm was ill advised, given the planning legislation, and that, since I submitted two priority written questions, which he is yet to answer, he has done a quick U-turn to abide by the law?
Mr Durkan: I look forward to reading that question again in Hansard. I have not conceded anything; I have outlined what the council could do, should it wish to challenge my decision, which, let me state clearly, is, I believe, the right decision and is a legal decision.
I have also answered a priority question from the Member. She may not have received the answer yet, but I have answered that question. I am taken aback by her, shall we say, recent interest in this planning application. The planning application was in the Department for a considerable time and has been with the council for six months or more, yet the first the council or I heard from the Member on it was after she learned about it on the BBC.
Mr Durkan: The number of road deaths in 2015 is a serious concern, and I extend my sympathy to those who have lost loved ones and those who have suffered life-changing injuries. So far this year, 61 people have died, compared with 69 at the same time last year.
At the beginning of the year, severe cuts were made by the Executive to my Department's Budget allocation. Despite the very challenging financial position, I was able to allocate just over £1 million to road safety communications, grants and educational materials. In recent weeks, I have been able to supplement that with a further £184,000 through internal reallocations. Despite the regrettable 50% reduction in the road safety budget, my Department continues to take a range of actions to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads. We focus on problem areas, such as drink-driving, speeding and carelessness and inattention and on groups that are over-represented in the casualty figures. Those areas are the key focus of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, which completed its Consideration Stage in June. I will shortly bring the Bill back to the Assembly to conclude its legislative passage.
In March, I launched a new motorcyclist safety campaign, and in June I launched the 2015-16 road safety grant scheme, through which I have approved funding for 15 projects across the North. Also in June, I launched a road safety community toolkit to give local voluntary groups all the resources they need to organise events, bringing road safety messages into the heart of local communities. Also in June, I rolled out the safe driving teaching aid, enabling driving instructors to address road safety with learner drivers. My Department also continues to provide a range of resources and schemes to be used by teachers to allow them to improve road safety behaviours in children and young people.
I assure you that I remain fully committed to continuing to work with my Executive colleagues, the PSNI and other stakeholders to improve road safety and reduce casualties.
Mr McKinney: I am sure that the House joins the Minister in recognising the deep pain felt in families and communities as a result of such tragedies. Will the Minister further outline what action will be taken to target vulnerable road users, such as younger people and older people?
Mr Durkan: There are many activities being carried out through the Department's mix of channels to address vulnerable road users. Through its social media activity and TV, radio and outdoor advertising, the Department regularly reminds drivers to give extra consideration to children, older road users and those with less protection, such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Messages also address vulnerable road users to increase their own safety, as they share the road with motorists, by wearing high-vis vests or coats, crossing at a safe place and obeying the rules of the road as advised in the Highway Code, amongst others.
My Department provides a range of resources and schemes to be used by teachers to allow them to improve the road safety of their pupils. The initiatives include, among others, the road safety teaching aid calendar, the enhanced cycling proficiency scheme, the junior road safety officer scheme and education packs. They have been very well received, and, for the most recent initiatives, early indications show a positive response.
Through various channels, the Department reminds parents that it is their responsibility to ensure that children are properly restrained when travelling in vehicles. As I said in my original answer, I have recently approved funding for 15 road safety projects through the road safety grant scheme. Two of the projects address older road user safety, which is one of my road safety priorities. I have, therefore, approved additional funding for each project to extend their coverage to an even wider audience. One project addresses the importance of fitness-to-drive through drama. The second will deliver a comprehensive training package on alcohol and drugs awareness and hazard identification and will provide a series of driving assessments for older people.
T1. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister of the Environment whether he sees merit in a financial review of the cost of local government reform, particularly considering that the transfer of functions, such as the planning portal and some off-street car parks, has been estimated by NILGA as costing somewhere in the region of £100 million, which could hardly be considered to be cost-neutral to councils. (AQT 3111/11-16)
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. It was always anticipated that, as we approached local government reform and the Assembly voted for it, there would be significant costs in the beginning but that, when offset against the savings that would be yielded in the medium to long term, they would pale into insignificance. I am aware of major concerns felt by and across local government on some of the issues that the Member has referred to. The problems regarding the planning portal are a lot less than they are with the transfer of off-street car parking. The responsibility for that lies, ultimately, with the DRD; it transferred that function. However, in my opinion and that of local government, the budget that transferred with the function was nowhere near adequate.
As regards a review, I will continue to work with local government, chiefly through the partnership panel. I will also meet a group of chief executives of the new councils tomorrow. I will be happy — well, I will not be happy, but I have no doubt that I will hear more from them on the issue tomorrow and through the various fora in which I engage with them. Local government knows that it has a friend in me. I will do everything I can to persuade my Executive colleagues to ensure that local government is adequately resourced to fulfil its new duties and provide good services for ratepayers at good value.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that he will work in partnership. I hope that he does so, particularly through NILGA and SOLACE. He agrees that, regarding the transfer of functions, there have been discrepancies between the cost impacts on councils and those projected by DOE and other Departments.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I slated another Department — I can speak about it, but I cannot really speak for it. I can speak about the DOE and the function that we transferred: planning. I took a brave and bold step; it was unique among Ministers or those with responsibility for Departments that were transferring functions. Early in the previous financial year, I ring-fenced the budget for planning that was to go to local government so that it would not be impacted by the in-year cuts that Departments were facing. As a result, I had to make bigger cuts in different areas of my Department. That was based solely on my belief that the functions should be transferred at a point that was cost-neutral to the ratepayers in the new councils. I came up to the mark on that one. I am aware that some issues have arisen around planning, but, like I said, they are minuscule in comparison with some of the other issues facing local government. However, that does not diminish my appetite to resolve them.
T2. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of the Environment to outline his views on the development of wind farms in areas of outstanding natural beauty, given that wind farms are a very topical issue. (AQT 3112/11-16)
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Wind farms are, indeed, very topical this afternoon. Following the transfer of the majority of planning functions to local councils, the determination of most wind energy proposals falls to councils, as we discussed. As such, my Department's strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) requires that the environmental, landscape, visual and amenity impacts associated with or arising from renewable energy development are given proper consideration and that adequate protection is afforded to the region's natural and cultural heritage features.
While planning policy does not rule out wind farm development in areas of outstanding natural beauty, it is a key policy objective to ensure that the environmental, landscape, visual and amenity impacts of such developments in such sensitive areas are fully considered before any decision is reached. In addition, the SPPS makes clear that a cautious approach to renewable energy development proposals will apply in designated landscapes that are of significant value, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty. That is one area in the SPPS on which we have actually strengthened policy and made it less permissive. I know that that was the view among Members, which came across very strongly in the Environment Committee's report on wind energy. I responded to that and tightened it up in the SPPS.
Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for that. What is his view on the proposed wind farm development in the Mournes?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question; he is bringing it back to the Mournes again. An application for Gruggandoo wind farm was received by the strategic planning division on 16 March 2015. It proposes 12 turbines, with an overall height of 125 metres, with a potential power output of 39·6 MW. An environmental statement to accompany the application was received on 31 March, and the application was declared an article 31 on that date, so it will be determined centrally by the Department. The application has been advertised in accordance with environmental impact assessment regulations, and neighbour notifications have been carried out and the consultation sent to the appropriate bodies, including Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. To date, 41 objections from third parties have been received and, just yesterday, a letter of support came in. The application is still under consideration by my Department, so I cannot comment further on it.
T3. Mr Cree asked the Minister of the Environment what is being done to create a registry of ancient and culturally important trees in Northern Ireland. (AQT 3113/11-16)
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Cree. I thought that he was going to ask about a registry of Crees rather than trees. The Member has raised the issue with me in written correspondence, and I have received quite a bit of correspondence on it through social media.
The patchwork of native broadleaved woods and hedgerows that comprise our countryside gives it a unique appearance in the context of north-west Europe. Many of Northern Ireland's native woodlands and hedgerows possess high biodiversity, landscape and cultural value and have been given statutory protection as special areas of conservation, areas of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Although many trees of special interest, due to their great age or other factors, are located in the foregoing protected areas, many grow in the countryside or in urban areas and deserve and require individual protection.
Many of the legislative functions regarding the protection of trees, the management of existing trees and the consideration of further or future protection of trees through, for example, the making of tree preservation orders transferred to the councils on 1 April this year. Councils also have the powers to draw up local development plans, which can provide policy and guidance on the management and protection of trees as part of the development proposals. I know that the Woodland Trust is campaigning very vociferously for a national tree register to celebrate our remarkable trees. I welcome the initiative for the creation of a register of trees of national special interest for Northern Ireland. I have instructed my officials to consider the resources required to establish and maintain a register and to advise me who would be best placed to administer such a register.
Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that. It is indeed good news. Does he envisage that the only protection would be tree protection orders or is some other form of protection needed for these trees, particularly the ancient trees that may be one-offs?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary. As I said, I have tasked my officials to do some work on this, and they will not do so in isolation. I have instructed them to go to the Woodland Trust to hear its views on this and to councils, which, as I said, now have responsibility for the protection of trees. I am not passing the buck to them. I am saying quite clearly that I want to work with councils and other interested third parties to see that this gets done.
T4. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of the Environment for an update on the licensing of bonfires and to state whether he is aware that some councils provide differential funding for bonfires depending on whether they are traditional or non-traditional. (AQT 3114/11-16)
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McCrea for that question. This is another issue on which I have announced my intention to work to resolve what is a perennial problem here in Northern Ireland. Many communities suffer at the hands of those who organise bonfires badly or whose motives are not to bring communities together but to create division and indeed chaos in their own communities.
My officials and I have been working behind the scenes with councils on the issue. There is a lot of good practice across councils. Across the North, we have seen a reduction in the number of bonfires. Indeed, I read a report in today's 'Belfast Telegraph' that stated that there has been a huge reduction in the number of fires in Belfast that burn tyres, which is to be welcomed. There is good practice. It is important that we develop that good practice, roll it out and ensure that it is uniform across all council areas.
I think that everyone — everyone in their right mind — agreed that, of the list of options that I had come forward with, the third option, that of introducing a licensing scheme, was the best way to go. I think that it has to be uniform across all council areas. I know that some councils allocate bonfire management scheme money to community groups that organise bonfires. In some cases, the group that organises the bonfire might not necessarily be the group that gets the money, and I think that that was what the Member was getting at. That needs to be stamped out. I am not trying to stamp out bonfires per se. I know that a lot of people run these things responsibly, enjoy them and see them as part of their culture.
Mr B McCrea: Is the Minister aware that some community groups feel that when you fund something, it attracts the attention of outside agencies and that this applies in particular — I will say it here — to paramilitaries? Is he aware that those community groups are looking for such funding, if there is to be a licensing scheme, to be properly recognised? Will he take the opportunity to meet some community leaders so that they can explain the problems that they are having?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McCrea for his question. I have said previously in the Assembly that there is a need for collective, if not unanimous, political support for a scheme like this to succeed, and not just political support but community support. Therefore, it is extremely important that we consult far and wide.
I would be happy to meet the community group or groups to which the Member referred, as I have already met people from diverse communities, shall we say, to discuss this issue as well, as I said earlier, as continuing discussions with councils and other Departments and agencies.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That the Second Stage of the Shared Education Bill [NIA 66/11-16] be agreed. — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have listened with interest to the debate and welcome the interest that Members have shown in their contributions on this important matter. I will further reflect on the points that Members have raised during the debate.
Moving the Bill to its next stage will afford the opportunity to consider fully the issues. While there may be differing views as to what is necessary in the Bill, I welcome the general support for advancing shared education and for the need for legislation to define shared education. However, I acknowledge that there were a number of dissenting voices throughout the debate. Shared education has the potential to make a significant difference to the educational outcomes of our young people and to building a strong and shared community. Most Members have endorsed this, with impressive examples from their own constituencies.
I will now turn to Members' comments; I may not be able to cover them all, but I hope to cover the generality of them in my concluding remarks.
The Chair of the Education Committee set out the Committee's position on shared education and reflected on the fact that the Committee has carried out its own inquiry on the matter. I hope that the Bill passes Second Stage and moves to Committee Stage; that will give the Committee a further opportunity to explore the issues in and around the Bill with those whom it deems to be interested or wishes to see.
I welcome further debate on shared education and on the Bill. The Bill is short, but it is important. The Bill's brevity does not reflect the Department's commitment to shared education; the brevity of the Bill reflects what is needed in legislation around this issue. Members should also familiarise themselves with the shared education policy that was published earlier this year, which gives greater detail about the Department's policy and work and scope in and around shared education and direction of travel.
I suspect that the issues that were raised by the Chair to do with educational improvement, connection with the curriculum and definition, as he pointed out, will be the subject of much debate in the next stage of the Bill. The very core of shared education has to be educational improvement. It has to ensure that it connects with the curriculum, not only in schools but with youth work as well. The definition of shared education has been much debated. The inclusion of all sections in legislation around schools in terms of section 75 has, to date, proven difficult, but I await the Committee's further deliberations on that matter.
Will there be a Caesar giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down on programmes? I know that the Chair was jesting somewhat — at least I hope that he was — but there will be, as there have been up to now, clearly defined criteria against which the merits of applications and projects will be judged. Any applications that to date have gone through panels in the Education Authority and which have proven successful have been informed, and any that have not proven successful have been informed on where there were shortcomings in their projects and where they may want to concentrate in any further application. The application process for funding for shared education is open and transparent and will ensure that everyone involved in shared education is aware of how they are being judged against the criteria.
The Chair also raised the issue of whether, under this definition, children with different socio-economic levels may qualify for shared education if they all come from the one religion. That will not be the case because the legislation is quite clear that shared education is the educating together of those of different religious belief and socio-economic deprivation, so there will have to be a cross-community element. A number of Members raised the issue —
Mr Weir: I have a point that was raised at Committee. Obviously, the definition in the legislation is reasonable numbers of Protestants and Roman Catholics. I suppose, first, there is an issue about how that is defined, and, secondly, the query was on whether two schools from the same sector that may well have some level of mix in them would be able to qualify.
Mr O'Dowd: I do not think that it rules it out. I do not want to prejudge any application from any school. Under the criteria that we are using or can use, imaginative proposals from schools should certainly be given an opportunity to be judged against the criteria that will be published.
A number of Members raised concerns about shared education versus integrated education. Mr Lunn raised concerns about this matter and, in fairness, has done so in the past, although he is supportive of shared education policies and the Bill as it stands. No doubt, he will make his mind up about any amendments, or anything else, that come forward. Let us be clear: it is not a case of either/or. These are programmes of work in our society that, in my opinion, are complementary of each other but which should not be seen as competition to each other.
However, I will caution the House. Some Members may be of the view that they need to make it a duty rather than a power around shared education. Shared education includes the word "promote"; the legislation on integrated education does not include the word "promote". If we move to a stage where shared education is a duty and includes the word "promote", there may well be a justifiable argument that we have put integrated education into the shadows. I caution Members, when they are discussing whether there should be a power or a duty on the Department of Education, to remember that there is a difference between the definition of integrated and Irish-medium education and the Department's duties on that and the shared education clause, which includes, as was the will of the House in a previous debate on the Education Act, the word "promote". It is not in the definition of integrated, so Members should be careful in how they approach those things.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for giving way. He talked about the will of the House. It was the will of the House in 2012 that the word "promote" should be included in the obligation to promote integrated education. I know that that was in a private Members' motion rather than legislation, but it was clearly the will of the House.
Mr O'Dowd: As the Member said, a motion is not legislation. Several pieces of legislation have gone through the House since then, and the House has not taken a decision on those matters. I flag up to Members that, if they support "promote" in this instance, they are making a distinct difference between shared education, integrated education and Irish-medium education.
I also want to touch on the issue of whether the Bill allows me as Minister to undermine academic selection. Unfortunately, it does not. That is the truth of the matter, and that is to my regret but, I suspect, less to the regret of others in the House. However, I reluctantly welcome the fact that Mr Allister and Mr McCrea have now confirmed to the House that academic selection is to the disadvantage of those from a socially deprived and disadvantaged background. They have confirmed it from their own mouths today because they are opposed to the inclusion of, in clause 2, the term "socially disadvantaged". In their words, they claim that it will be to the detriment of grammar schools and to the detriment of academic selection.
I will never again have to prove to the House, or use any reference source other than the clear statement from those two gentlemen today, that academic selection is to the disadvantage of those from a socially disadvantaged background.
Mr O'Dowd: They are terrified to include a clause in a Shared Education Bill that has nothing, unfortunately, to do with academic selection, but it is a fact, even though that would ensure that we break down barriers across our entire society and in our community, whether those are between people from different community backgrounds or different socio-economic backgrounds. Such is their irrational fear on the matter.
Mr O'Dowd: They have stood up today and confirmed the very fact —
Mr O'Dowd: — that academic selection is to the disadvantage of those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.
I will give way.
Mr Allister: Thank you. Academic selection has been an elevator for many people from very socially deprived backgrounds, so the positive proof of academic selection is that it lifts people. In deploying the argument that was used, it was deploying the Minister's approach, because it is his constant mantra that academic selection exacerbates the conflict between those who are socially deprived and those who are not. The challenge to the Minister, since that is his view against academic selection, and since the Bill ensconces that, is that he is being less than forthright in failing to acknowledge that it is a leg-up for the anti-selection campaign that he heads, because it embraces the very concept that lies at the heart of —
Mr O'Dowd: I caution the Member to watch his balance, because he is dancing on the head of a pin there. He knows quite well what he said in the debate earlier. Mr McCrea, who is looking to make an intervention, was on the airwaves only last week saying the exact same thing. His concern about the Shared Education Bill is that we would have groups from different socio-economic backgrounds sharing together and that that would be to the disadvantage — in his words — of the selective sector. Now that I have pointed out that they are confirming an argument that I have been using, they are trying to change that terminology. They can do that if they wish, but it does not change what they have said and what they are on record as saying.
I will give way to the Member.
Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My point, Minister, which you do not appear either to accept or understand, is that you are entitled to bring forward legislation seeking the end of academic selection, if you wish to do so. What you are not entitled to do, and what I worry about in the Bill, is to do that in an underhand way. This is a Trojan Horse. Had you brought forward the Bill and not mentioned those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation, I would have followed your argument. This legislation is supposed to be about shared education. However, it gives you an open door to fund whatever you want, and I am just putting it to you here that, if you think that the Bill is going through without scrutiny and challenge, you are wrong. This is not the right way in which to go about it. I will stand over my argument here, in a Committee or on the airwaves, because it is correct.
Mr O'Dowd: It is the Shared Education Bill, and I think that it is only right and proper that we have sharing across as many aspects of our community as possible, that we break down as many barriers in our community as possible and that we give as many young people in our community as possible different experiences and different opportunities to share those experiences.
Under current legislation, I can basically fund what I want, so that is a silly argument. Under current legislation, I can basically fund what I want — if we follow your pathway. Therefore, if I thought that funding on its own would end academic selection, I would have carried that out four and a half years ago, instead of waiting until the last six months of the term.
The Bill has absolutely nothing to do with academic selection.
It has everything to do with shared education, the four clauses in the Bill and the policy set out in Sharing Works, which was published earlier this year. Members may want to read more into it than there is. Members may wish to come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories, but they do not exist because the legislation will set the parameters of how I can work, and previous legislation sets out exactly what I can and cannot fund. So, none of this changes it whatsoever. If we go off on that tangent, we will miss the opportunities that the Bill presents.
During his contribution, Mr Rogers talked about the use of ICT. There is an opportunity for the usage of ICT in the programme, and some of the schemes that are already on the ground are using ICT, but it is vital that we have contact. I am not suggesting that Mr Rogers is saying this, but we do not want to turn this into sharing through Skype. We want young people engaging with each other, meeting each other, being taught the curriculum together, learning about each other's experiences together and learning about each other from each other. ICT will play a part in that. It will not be the lead role in it, but it has a role to play going into the future in all aspects of our education system.
Mrs Overend, who, I understand, had to leave the Chamber for personal reasons, provided commentary and set out the position of the Ulster Unionist Party around the Bill, expanding it into a vision of the future of a single education system. I may not agree with everything that she has said, but if the Ulster Unionist Party has a vision of a single education system, let us see it. Let us see how we protect the rights and entitlements of individuals, communities and people from different religious, community and cultural backgrounds and how we protect people's British and Irish identity, all within that education system.
There has been much talk over a number of years that people would like to see a single education system. I would like to see more meat on the bones around exactly what that proposal means. I do not think that anybody should be fearful of the debate, but there has to be a debate about it. A single education system may mean different things to the various parties around this Chamber, but, unless we debate it, we will not find common ground on it.
I have touched on Mr Lunn's comments around various matters. In my approach to integrated education, I was accused by Mr Kennedy of favouring integrated education over the controlled sector and doing damage to the controlled sector in various areas through another conspiracy that I am involved in, as well as the academic conspiracy, which is going on in that corner over there. He used the example of Omagh. He said that I refused to approve an expansion of integrated education in Omagh because it would damage the maintained sector. I will give Mr Kennedy a piece of advice. Never, ever believe your own propaganda because you end up coming out with statements that are completely wrong.
One of the reasons why an expansion of integrated education in Omagh was turned down was not because it would have a detrimental impact on the maintained sector but because it would have had a detrimental impact on the controlled sector. So, I carried out an action that was the complete opposite of what you accused me of. I do not know whether you want to intervene and withdraw your remark or you want it to stay on the record, but it is factually inaccurate. You have a habit of coming into the Chamber and making comments about what I am up to and none of them ever stacks up. In this instance, the record will show, the reports on which I based my decision around Omagh will show and, I have no doubt, the upcoming court case that is proceeding around that decision will also show exactly why that decision was made, and the judge will decide whether my decision was based on reasonable arguments moving forward.
The Second Stage of any Bill is always that moment in time when Members will have different views on the direction of travel of a Bill. Some will reject it outright, and some will decide to give it a fair wind and debate it through Committee Stage. Others may be happier with various clauses of the Bill than others. The Bill is very short, but, as I said in my opening remarks, it is very important for moving our education system and our society forward.
It is a much-debated subject. Mr Newton was correct when he said that shared education is a Programme for Government commitment. It is set out across three areas, and the Programme for Government put an onus and a responsibility on my Department to move shared education forward. This is yet another step in moving shared education forward. The policy was also another step in moving shared education forward.
I encourage Members to support the Second Stage of the Bill and to allow it to go through to Committee Stage and Consideration Stage. Mr McCallister said that he may have amendments etc. That is the way the system works. Let us ensure that, if we move the Bill forward, we do not miss the focus on what the shared education programme is about. It is about another step forward for our education system and for our society, and, if we work together on this, I believe that we can make significant gains for everyone without involving losers in the equation. I thank the Members.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Shared Education Bill [NIA 66/11-16] be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.
That this Assembly expresses concern at the high levels of regional economic imbalance, as evidenced by high levels of long-term unemployment and economic inactivity in north and west Belfast, west of the Bann and along the border corridor; welcomes the commitment in the Programme for Government 2011-15 to address regional imbalance, and the establishment of the ministerial subgroup on regional opportunities; recognises the role that the availability of property, skills, appropriate infrastructure and telecommunications can play in making areas magnets of attraction for investment; acknowledges the desire of local government, political, community and business leaders in areas of high unemployment to work in partnership with government to attract greater investment and prosperity; and calls for the inclusion of subregional job creation targets in the next Programme for Government.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht tábhachtach seo. I welcome that we are debating this issue once again. We debated it about two years ago, and progress has been slim to date. Hopefully, this motion will be the impetus for corrective action to resolve what has been a long-standing issue.
In 2014-15, almost 40% of the jobs that were promoted with Invest NI support were in the Belfast City Council area, with two thirds of all the jobs promoted being east of the Bann. That is not reflective of the overall economic output in this region or the location of our people, as only 18% of the North's population actually lives in the Belfast City Council area. It is forcing the displacement of our people to already overcrowded, overpriced and under pressure urban communities, and that leaves our rural areas like ghost towns that are struggling for viability and sustainability.
It is not a new policy, but it has worsened as a result of the changing economic conditions in recent years and the switch to focusing on attracting jobs in the service sector as opposed to the manufacturing sector. Jobs in the manufacturing sector were more likely to be based in rural communities as a result of the comparatively cheaper price of land and the availability of space as well as a range of other issues. It is also partly the legacy of decades of deliberate underinvestment in areas with large nationalist populations, as the majority of both government and private investment was directed, for both political and gerrymandering reasons, into already affluent unionist areas.
Mr Flanagan: I will not, Gregory, no.
A Fermanagh MLA held the position of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (ETI) Minister for nearly eight years, and the county was neglected just as much under that leadership as it was under direct rule. Two thousand people left Fermanagh last year, mainly to get work.
Many people think, and I am one, that it does not suit some unionist politicians for jobs to be created in areas with large nationalist populations, or along the border, as they are more likely to be filled by nationalists or, heaven forbid, by people who live across the border. Those mindsets remain to the fore in many unionist politicians.
Mr Flanagan: I will not, William, no.
It is convenient for unionist politicians that those 2,000 people, most of them young, are no longer in Fermanagh to vote, as the census and other figures point to a growing younger population from the nationalist community.
West of the Bann and along the border are the areas with the worst road and rail networks, telecoms infrastructure, sewerage, water and electricity grid services. There is also inadequate provision of social and affordable housing and an absence of higher education provision for the most part, despite there being a sufficient population on both sides of the border to sustain such services.
Regardless, with the inability or refusal of successive ETI Ministers to address the growing problem of uncompetitive energy prices for intensive users, Invest NI openly admits that it does not even bother trying to attract manufacturing companies any more. So, we are left with call centres and other service centre jobs, which are invariably based in large urban areas.
It would be wrong of me not to welcome the recent announcement of 800 jobs in a call centre in Enniskillen, jobs that will pay below the living wage. However, jobs of that nature will not bring our people home.
A report for the Scottish Executive last year indicated that the North does well in attracting inward investment but that it tends to be lower-value inward investment. Invest NI has seen record performance in the greater Belfast area but that is not shared across the North.
Recently published Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures on the number of workers being paid below the living wage revealed that our three council areas with the highest number of workers being paid below the living wage are the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, with 39·9%; Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, with 38·9%; and Mid Ulster District Council with 37·4%. Over 200,000 workers here — or 28% — are paid below the living wage, far higher than any region in Britain.
A recent OECD report on the border region found that the North:
"remains relatively more peripheral with respect to its political influence".
If the North is already on the periphery as a result of the emanation of economic policies from London, imagine how much more peripheral areas west of the Bann and along the border corridor are. The threatened withdrawal from the European Union would only worsen this as any existing opportunities for cross-border cooperation and harmonisation using EU mechanisms would be removed.
Official statistics for disposable income, low pay, levels of economic inactivity and long-term unemployment are also comparably worse in peripheral areas such as Fermanagh and Omagh, Derry and Strabane, and the Causeway Coast and glens. While our overall unemployment rate is falling steadily, it is remaining steady for long-term unemployment.
Some Members may well rise to deny once more that a problem exists, even Members who left Fermanagh many years ago to get a job in the greater Belfast area. There was a commitment in the Programme for Government 2011-15 to address regional imbalance.
The establishment of the ministerial subgroup on regional opportunities has done initial exploratory work on the Derry area. I would like to hear news about what it is actually doing and when we can see that group beginning to look at the specific challenges facing rural communities and how we can create employment for our citizens, particularly to stem the growing demographic changes in our society — the wholesale movement of people from rural to urban communities and the problems we face with emigration.
There has been much talk of a proposed reduction in corporation tax being the solution for our economic woes. Would a reduced rate of corporation tax address or compound the problem of regional disparity? We need to take informed, evidence-based decisions in that regard.
I witnessed the ETI Minister spoofing the Chamber last week about the need to set a date and rate for corporation tax, as if that were going to be the solution for the manufacturing crisis.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can I ask you to rule on the word "spoofing", given that what I was saying was repeating what the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, told the Chamber of Commerce lunch in Belfast City Hall?
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. So, the ETI Minister talks about corporation tax being the solution for the manufacturing crisis, as almost Pontius Pilate-like he washes his hands of the loss of 860 jobs. I am sure that his colleagues in north Antrim are grateful for this blissful ignorance as he runs around with his fingers in his ears ignoring the warnings that emanated from Michelin more than two years ago, that came from the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for over two years and that have been coming from the trade union movement for several months, as he stood up and repeated ad nauseam his claim that a reduced rate of corporation tax was the solution for businesses that were not making a profit. At any stage —
Mr Bell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I invite you to check the record. The foolish allegation — I know that it is difficult to work out which foolish comment I am talking about among the number that have been made — is that I said that corporation tax would be a solution for people of low profit. Will you check Hansard to see whether I have ever said that and, if not, rule against the Member? I said the same words as the deputy First Minister said. Is he spoofing as well?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I will take that as an intervention rather than a point of order. I remind Members that there will be ample opportunity for them to make a contribution to the debate.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister never took his fingers out of his ears to assess the nonsense message that somebody had given him to parrot and parrot and parrot.
We live in a society with a two-tier economy. There is greater Belfast, and then there is everywhere else. Are we a regional Assembly for greater Belfast, or are we somethi