In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

Assembly business continues, check the business diary for information on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Tuesday 01 December 2015


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

Assembly Business

Plenary Business: 30 November 2015

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As all business in yesterday's Order Paper was concluded, we will move on.

Ministerial Statements

Mr P Robinson (The First Minister): In accordance with the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the twenty-fifth summit meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC), which took place in Lancaster House in London on Friday 27 November 2015. The deputy First Minister, the Minister of the Environment and I attended the summit, and they have agreed that I make this statement also on their behalf.

The UK Government hosted the summit, and the heads of delegations were welcomed by the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP. The Irish Government were led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD; the Scottish Government were led by the First Minister, the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP; and the Welsh Government were led by the First Minister, the Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM. The Isle of Man Government were led by the Chief Minister, the Hon Allan Bell MHK; the Government of Jersey were led by the Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst; and the Government of Guernsey were led by the Chief Minister, Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq.

The British-Irish Council was established under the 1998 multiparty agreement, and it plays a unique and important role in developing and furthering the links between its member Administrations. It provides a forum for exchange of information and collaboration on matters of mutual interest and fosters positive, practical relationships across these islands. Council members welcomed the agreement published on 17 November, ‘A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan’, following 10 weeks of cross-party talks involving the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK and Irish Governments.

Council members offered their condolences to the people of France following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. The Council reflected on the effects of the conflict in Syria, the refugee situation in the Middle East and the impact that it was having in Europe. It noted the efforts across the eight BIC member Administrations and internationally to help those refugees. Specifically, Ministers noted the value of joint working and cooperation between member Administrations on the domestic resettlement of refugees.

As is now customary at each summit, the Council discussed the current economic situation. All member Administrations outlined their latest economic indicators and the strategies in place to promote growth and to address unemployment. Overall, there was a picture of continued improvements in the respective Administrations. All Administrations reaffirmed the value of the Council’s discussions in this matter. The Council also reviewed the latest youth employment statistics across the member Administrations and welcomed the progress made in this area.

The Council discussed the 12 BIC work sectors and noted the positive achievements since the previous summit in June 2015. This included ministerial meetings held by the creative industries and housing work sectors. All member Administrations reaffirmed the importance that they attach to the British-Irish Council, especially through the valued work undertaken by the work sectors. The Council agreed a number of principles, within the parameters set out in strand three of the 1998 agreement, to reinforce the sectors’ work and ensure that BIC continues to deliver value for all member Administrations.

The UK Government, on behalf of the BIC environment work sector, presented a collaborative paper on natural capital and resources. The paper explored the challenge of safeguarding natural capital, with a particular focus on pollinators, and discussed the value of a strategic and collaborative approach. Minister Durkan responded to the paper on behalf of this Administration.

The Council noted the secretariat's mid-year report and agreed a new secretariat business plan for the period 2015-18. Finally, the Council noted that the next BIC summit would be hosted by the Scottish Government in June 2016.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the First Minister for the report. What progress has been made on youth unemployment, and where does Northern Ireland sit in comparison with the other regions in addressing its challenges?

Mr P Robinson: The Council has visited that area on a number of occasions, noting that there has been progress in the number of young people who are being employed. The rate of youth unemployment is still significantly higher than the rate of overall unemployment. That is a matter that the individual Administrations need to take very seriously.

In our Administration, we have taken a number of steps, particularly with the Employment and Learning Minister, in relation to skills and training. Ultimately, it is up to individual companies whom they employ. Very often, people with more experience are chosen rather than people who are youthful, imaginative and have great deal of energy to provide. There is an ongoing role.

As unemployment generally reduces, youth unemployment will start to reduce. Our rate of unemployment is 5·9%, which is just less than half the rate in the Republic. We are moving in the right direction, and, as unemployment continues to fall, so, too, will youth unemployment.

Mr Lunn: I thank the First Minister for his statement. I know that these things are necessarily brief, but I am looking at the BIC work sectors section of the report, which says:

"The Council discussed the twelve BIC work sectors and noted the positive achievements since the last Summit".

It continues:

"This included Ministerial meetings held by the Creative Industries and Housing work sectors."

Is that the best we can do? Ministerial meetings are hardly an achievement. Will the Minister flesh out what the "positive achievements" have been since the last summit?

Mr P Robinson: It was probably thought to be unnecessary because Ministers, after they come from sectoral meetings, make statements in the House on the individual issues that they are responsible for. There is probably not a lot of value in me repeating what they have already said in statements to the House on the sectoral meetings. However, during the discussion on work sectors, the relevance of some of those sectors was discussed, and a review is being carried out to ensure that the sectors that were chosen, in many cases years ago, are still as relevant today as they were then. In energy, for instance, it was decided that the two work sectors that deal with marine energy and the more normal energy field will be brought together. One has been chaired by the Scottish Government and the other by the UK Government, and they will jointly chair the new sector.

Mr Lyons: I am sure that the First Minister appreciates the role of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in hosting the BIC. However, does he have any concerns that the UK Government are not represented at as senior a level as the Irish Government at these meetings?

Mr P Robinson: We need to be clear that the Secretary of State hosted this BIC summit. It need not have been the Secretary of State, but we very much welcomed her presence and the fact that she hosted the session. It needs to be said — in discussions, the deputy First Minister and I have recognised this — that there is a distinction: the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, comes faithfully to every BIC meeting, as did his predecessor, but, in my time, I can recall only one meeting at which the Prime Minister was present. There is, I think, a requirement for all Administrations to recommit to BIC and ensure that they are represented at the very highest level.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the First Minister for his statement. In it, he points out the "unique and important role" of the BIC:

"in developing and furthering links between its Member Administrations."

I agree entirely with that. It is a very important body that may have increasing importance given the political developments in Scotland and the UK generally. The issue that really struck me was refugees and the experiences of all the Administrations in relation to them. Did the First Minister learn anything of value in relation to refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, that can be applied here? Further to that point, if you will indulge me, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, there is an anti-refugee demonstration called for Saturday. I ask the First Minister to give his view on whether that rally should take place.

Mr P Robinson: I am grateful for the comments about the value of the British-Irish Council. It allows us to deal with issues that are topical and of significance to each of the Administrations. Because of their topicality, the Paris attacks and the refugees situation were obviously discussed. Indeed, that was the longest period of discussion during the summit. Yes, I think that we learned quite a bit about Northern Ireland's position. Scotland has already received refugees and already has experience. Officials here will continue to contact officials in the UK generally, but particularly those in Scotland, who have direct and immediate experience.

I can well comment on the so-called rally on Saturday. It needs to be remembered that these are people on whom complete security checks have been carried out. Ten or 11 families will be coming into Northern Ireland. They are people who have faced torture in some cases and trauma in others. They are people who are in need of support. They are not the Mediterranean economic migrants. These are people who are genuine refugees. If I know anything about the people of Northern Ireland, it is that they are a charitable and giving people who will extend the hand of welcome.

Over the last few days, since the deputy First Minister and I were on television speaking about the issue, I have had several churches and a number of individuals wanting to know how they can put themselves forward to give assistance, support and welcome to these people. I do not think that those who are going to campaign against the presence of refugees will get a very warm hearing from the people of Northern Ireland. People have the wrong idea about the refugees if they think that these are people who should be objected to. Far from it. They are people who should be given every degree of support and welcome.

Mr Middleton: I thank the First Minister for his answers so far. He will be aware that the Chancellor delivered his autumn statement within the 48 hours prior to the BIC summit. Did the First Minister take the opportunity to raise with the UK Government the implications of the real terms spending reductions over the next five years?

Mr P Robinson: As you can imagine, the deputy First Minister and I did raise the issue of the spending review. We raised the fact that very significant cuts are being made to our Budget in real terms and the implications that would have for our Health, Education and other departmental spending. I have to say that we were not alone as an Administration in making those points. We were joined by our colleagues in Scotland and Wales. The spending review obviously fits into our Budget cycle. Decisions will have to be taken over the next number of weeks by the Executive, but there is no question that the less money that is given to us, the tighter the fiscal circumstances are and the more difficult it is for us to make ends meet, the greater the requirement for efficiencies and the more important it will be to make sure that every pound counts in each Department.


10.45 am

Mr I McCrea: I thank the First Minister for his statement. The First Minister, more than most, will be aware that the 'Fresh Start' document announced the reduction of our corporation tax to 12·5%. Were there discussions, during the part relating to the economy, on the reduction of our rate of corporation tax and its potential benefits for our economy?

Mr P Robinson: Yes, obviously, I referenced it in talking about the economic indicators and the prospects for the future. The decision was welcomed by the Secretary of State and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who felt that it would be advantageous and less confusing to the rest of the world if the whole of the island was asking for the same level of corporation tax. I think it was, perhaps, raised by one other Administration; I think Scotland expressed some concern that we might go fishing in their pond for business opportunities. We assured them that we would. [Laughter.]

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

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. With your permission, I will make a statement to the House on my intention to publish and consult on a framework for promoting sign language in the new year. It will include proposals for legislation, which will be taken forward through the remainder of this Assembly mandate and into the new mandate. I have already written to ministerial colleagues to seek their support and commitments in relation to the framework, and I am announcing today my intention to engage in pre-consultation through the sign language partnership, with some additional membership. The framework needs to be agreed with the partnership and to reflect members’ views.

Before talking about the specific proposals, it is worth reminding the House why this is such an important issue. I can summarise the many reasons in one word: inclusion. Sign language is about including some of the most marginalised people in our society, and it must be a priority for all of us. If you want to understand the need, think about how important it is to be able to communicate. Think about the frustration associated with trying to make yourself understood and to understand others. Think about how we take communication for granted in so many areas of our lives: education; accessing public services; securing employment; living a full and healthy life; and, most importantly, connecting with others. It is little wonder that sign languages are so important to people who are profoundly deaf and their friends and families.

We can do much more as a society to support sign languages and the people who use them. Although Irish and British sign languages were recognised as languages in their own right in 2004 by the then Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, there is no statutory protection for either language. They are not covered by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and there is no formal Executive-agreed policy or strategy document for Irish and British sign languages. I intend, with Members' help, to change that position.

First, I want to make clear what I mean by Irish and British sign language. Many hearing people have the false impression that sign language is a worldwide, universal language or a visual translation of spoken language. That is not the case. Here in the North, Irish and British sign languages are the first or preferred means of communication for people who are profoundly deaf. They are also used by a significant number of their family members and friends.

They are languages in their own right, which use hand shapes, movement of the hands, body language, facial expressions and lip patterns to convey meaning. They also have their own grammar, vocabulary and idioms that are completely different from the grammatical rules of the spoken language.

Around the world, profoundly deaf people identify themselves as a part of a cultural and linguistic minority and view sign language as a language of need. This is important to understand because, to some extent, our use of language influences how we perceive the world in which we live and our role in it. For many sign language users, spoken and/or written language is their second or even third language. As with all linguistic minorities, members of the deaf community have varied levels of English. While some sign language users are fully bilingual in sign language and English, many have limited literacy skills. This means that misunderstandings can easily arise, especially when using more complex concepts or grammar or less-common words. As such, sign language users cannot necessarily read or understand information on government websites or printed leaflets and various types of literature.

In every effort to improve deaf people's human rights, the removal of linguistic barriers is of paramount importance. A deaf person has the right to use sign language in any given situation. Communication, participation and access to services should not be a privilege; it is a basic right.

Deaf children learn to use sign language from their environment, as hearing children learn spoken languages from their parents and others. The status of sign language varies in each country. In some countries, the rights of deaf people to education and equal participation are secured by legislation. Language and culture are closely related, and the vocabulary of any language, written and signed, is influenced by cultural changes.

Over the years, my Department's work through the sign language partnership group has contributed much to improving the lives of sign language users and their families; for example, through the provision of increased numbers of interpreters and deaf sign language teachers, and free sign language classes for deaf children and young people and for their parents and families. However, I believe that there is a need to do much more.

One of the many reasons why I believe we need to make change is that, earlier this year, I met Emma, the hearing mother of a young deaf boy called Patrick. Emma highlighted for me the difficulties that families like hers face when they are informed that their child is deaf. She described the shortcomings in the provision of adequate services to families with deaf children. This includes access to free sign language classes as a method of family communication for those parents who choose to use sign language as the primary method of communication. Raising children can be a difficult enough job, but raising children when there is very limited family communication is extremely challenging. Emma is determined that Patrick and indeed the whole family are able to communicate in sign language. I am determined to help her and families like hers, particularly during those vital early years of a deaf child's life, when the opportunity to acquire communication and language skills too often turns into an opportunity lost.

Deaf children typically start their early education without having the same level of language skills and vocabulary as their hearing peers. This places them at a substantial disadvantage in their early education, when the development of literacy and numeracy skills will help to shape their future academic achievements and employment prospects. Research clearly demonstrates that where there is early intervention, such as the family sign language courses funded by my Department, to help to develop communication skills and improve vocabulary, deaf children acquire language and communication skills that are proportionate to those of their hearing peers.

Although I am pleased that my Department has been able to provide Emma and her husband, along with some other families, with free classes to learn British Sign Language at Jordanstown School, unfortunately DCAL does not have the resources necessary to provide for every family that wishes to take such classes. Let me ask each and every one of us in the House this question: what choices would you make if your child or grandchild was born unable to hear? I know that we all want the very best for our children and grandchildren. I hope that you will support me and my successor as we try to make choices available for the parents of deaf children and their families. I have listened carefully to what the deaf community are saying and their message is clear; they want legislation to safeguard their rights as a cultural and linguistic minority. They want to be able to access services in their own language, and I want to support their efforts. It is important, therefore, that we build on the work so far and take steps to make accessibility and inclusion throughout society the norm for our deaf community.

As the Minister with responsibility for sign languages, I am taking the next steps to address this issue. I am taking forward three key actions. First, I want to publish and consult on a framework for sign language in the new year. This will build on earlier work that we have undertaken with the sign language partnership, as well as our experience in recent years of funding courses and supporting deaf people and their families. The framework will include a range of commitments but, importantly, it will include proposals for legislation in the next Assembly mandate. As I said earlier, sign language does not have statutory recognition, despite its importance. This cannot continue, and I intend to bring these proposals forward so that we can remedy the situation.

Secondly, I have already written to ministerial colleagues to seek their support for and commitment to the framework. Some responses have arrived already, and I am expecting more over the next week. It is my intention to continue this work in the new year so that we can strengthen the commitments from all Departments for people who use sign language. The responsibility is not DCAL’s alone; it requires a collaborative and effective response from everyone in the Executive.

Thirdly, I am announcing today my intention to engage in a pre-consultation through the sign language partnership, with some additional membership. We will, of course, be consulting formally in the new year. My officials will host a series of consultation events across the North of Ireland during the consultation period, where stakeholders will have the opportunity to engage with departmental representatives. Before that, however, it is my intention to engage through the extended sign language partnership so that the agreed framework fully reflects the partnership’s views. Then, in the new year, the consultation document will be made available in the form of an online survey, with additional formats available on request, including Irish and British sign language translations. The 12-week consultation will be widely publicised and open to everyone who wishes to respond. Opinions will be sought from those groups with a direct interest in Irish and British sign languages, as well as those on DCAL’s list of consultees. DCAL’s key stakeholders, including MLAs, councils and other interested parties will be notified directly via email. Translations into Irish and British sign languages will be available. In the meantime, if people have any views that they wish to share with us, I will be happy to receive them prior to the formal consultation. I am keen to hear any views that people have and to begin a period of dialogue in the run-up to the publication of the framework.

This is a challenging programme of work, but I hope and believe that equal rights for British and Irish sign language users will attract cross-party support and that my successor in the Department for Communities will continue this work in the next Assembly mandate. Likewise, I acknowledge the role played by my predecessors and their contribution in making improvements for sign language users. There are many issues that we disagree on in the House, but I am sure that we all share the same motivation to do the best that we can for our deaf community. I believe that the political will exists, and we must grasp this opportunity. Go raibh maith agaibh.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for her statement, which is one that, I am sure, everybody in the Chamber will welcome. It is an important issue; people in the deaf community should be able to communicate freely with others and should have the resources necessary to ensure that they are understood. I also want to pick up on the question of the timeline.

There will be some consultation between now and the end of the Assembly mandate, but, clearly, the bulk of the work will be done in the next mandate. In the statement, the Minister said that the Department does not have:

"the resources necessary to provide for every family who wish to take such classes."

Can she perhaps spell out for us what she means by "resources"? Is this a financial resource? Is it about having the right people to teach sign language? What would be required and what is her assessment of the need?


11.00 am

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Chair for his comments and, indeed, for his support for the statement. By "resources", I mean financial support in my Department to help families to access sign language support and classes. The need is increasing, and, rather than perhaps waiting until a monitoring round to make bids, which I will do anyway until the conclusion of this work, I think that it is important to bear in mind that, in building not only on his work as Minister but on the work of all of our predecessors, there are many more children and families who need support, particularly in the deaf community. Given that there is no statutory obligation to do so, I think that we need to start somewhere. To ensure that the framework is the best way to start, we need to look at the group to ensure that it is still reflective of the needs of the deaf community and that, if we need to bring additional members, there is a flexibility to do so.

At this stage, there are many needs, but on the direct question that he asked, it is finance in my Department that is needed. There are excellent interpreters and excellent support, but, because of the increasing demand, there is a financial consequence for my budget.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, will the legislation be similar to the Sign Language Act in Scotland?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am aware of the Scottish Government's Sign Language Act. I believe that the consultation process will not only lean on and look to Scotland for some help and guidance, and, indeed, lessons learned, but that it will look to other legislators, not just in these islands but across Europe and further afield, to get the best possible legislation and protections for the deaf community. That is not just for the here and now but for the future. Scotland has been congratulated, and rightly so, for bringing forward these protections. I believe that we will be looking to Scotland, to other legislators and, indeed, to other experts in this field.

Mrs D Kelly: I congratulate the Minister on her initiative. Minister, you mentioned the resource implication. In getting an agreement for the strategy, how do you hope that it will be implemented? Do you see an inter-ministerial commitment being made or a ministerial group heading this up, given that a number of other Departments have responsibility?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. Even though the deadline for responses from ministerial colleagues is not until next week, I have already been very encouraged and heartened by the responses that I have had so far. They have all been supportive and positive. We all realise that there are resource implications, but, from what I have seen thus far, I believe that there is an attitude to see what we can do. The process of bringing the strategy forward needs to begin, first with the community and, indeed, with the people who have supported the sign language partnership and others. They need to see whether the framework is still the appropriate mechanism to bring forward for a consultation. The preconsultation exercise is to help us as legislators and MLAs, as well as the community and other stakeholders, to prepare to go out to full public consultation. As I said at the start, I am encouraged and heartened by the responses and the support that I have received thus far.

Mr Cree: I also thank the Minister for her statement. I would like to have seen it maybe a year ago, but that is over and done with now.

Minister, you are hoping to get the support of the rest of your Executive colleagues, which obviously makes a lot of sense, but is it possible to complete the pre-consultation, the consultation and, most importantly, the analysis before the end of this mandate?

Ms Ní Chuilín: As I said, I will start the work, and it will certainly go to the end of this mandate and be completed at the beginning of the new mandate. I felt that it was important to try not only to make ministerial colleagues aware of the process but to achieve support.

Regardless of who is in the new Department for Communities — indeed, for new Ministers in the new Departments — there are no statutory protections or rights in this area, and the process needs to start. I believe that the time is right for it to start now. Had we started the process earlier, it may not have been as fully inclusive as it could be. We are where we are. It is important to try to engage people in the sector, who, quite frankly, have been working in isolation. It is the responsibility not just of Executive colleagues but of all of us as MLAs who are responsible for legislation to give support and to do a bit more lifting for a community that has experienced marginalisation and isolation for decades.

Ms Lo: I welcome the Minister's initiative, but I point out to the House that thousands of ethnic minority people in Northern Ireland face exactly the same communication barrier in education, employment and access to public services. Would it not be more strategic to widen the scope of the framework to include ethnic minorities or minority languages?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I appreciate the Member's concern, particularly on communication and language barriers for people who have made these shores their home. I support the sentiment of your question and proposition in making sure that there is full inclusion. However, DCAL is responsible for sign languages; I am not responsible for languages other than sign languages, Ulster-Scots culture and heritage and the Irish language. Within the gift of my Department and my responsibility, I am bringing forward additional protections, and, hopefully, through this mandate and into the next one, legislation that will secure those protections for the deaf community.

I support the Member's concern that we need to try to be a more outward-looking community and legislator, particularly for people who experience ongoing communication difficulties, but, on this occasion, it is particularly for deaf communities, who experience extreme hardship and isolation. I know that the Member supports their call for additional protections.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is only families who are affected by children who are born with complete loss of hearing who know the full impact that it has on such children and the wider family. I have a very dear friend whose child is profoundly deaf, and I know the difficulties that that child has had to endure, so I welcome the statement. The Minister talks about a strategy for changing the position. What is that strategy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The strategy looks at legislation for statutory protection, because there is none. At the minute, to be quite frank, you could put it down as a discretionary area of spend rather than something that must be done to support families of deaf children. Frankly, that is the situation. It is important to look for protections, particularly for children and families, and at how we can strengthen legislation. It is not just for the here and now but for future-proofing the sector, which, I believe, is very important.

Given that sign language is within the DCAL remit and that I have written to ministerial colleagues, I believe that the Executive will need to look at this in the next mandate. As I said, we need to start somewhere. We need to make sure that the framework, as a preconsultation exercise, is still appropriate. If it needs to be amended, there is time to do that and then to start the formal consultation process. As the Member said, he has seen at first hand the impact of profound deafness on a family.

I am sure that he, along with colleagues, will want to try to ensure that we give those families our full support.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for a very interesting, clear and instructive statement. Has she in mind any specific policy for early years intervention? I note that she mentions that in her statement. It strikes me that it will be a very important step in trying to equalise things, if that can ever be achieved for those suffering from profound deafness.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, his support. He has picked up on a very important point: our children and grandchildren's main development happens in their early years, and most children are educated in their early years through play. Communication is key in the development of our children. Imagine, however, the communication challenges for a profoundly deaf child and their family. That is why it was important that I informed ministerial colleagues that I was doing this: it will run beyond the end of this mandate and into the beginning of a new one, and there will be implications for other Departments — new Departments. There will be implications for Health, Education, social inclusion and much more besides.

I am really encouraged by the responses that I have received thus far, well before the deadline. While people are conscious that it will have a resource implication, I think that we are going into a new chapter, particularly on issues of access, and people in Departments, including Ministers, are looking at this to see what they can do. I believe that they will participate as fully as possible in a full public consultation, when it arrives, and try to give, as best as possible, their full support.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for her statement highlighting the importance of early intervention and classes such as family sign language, which can improve the communication skills and development of a deaf child. You currently offer only some families free classes to learn British sign language at Jordanstown School, for example. Legislation will take time and not create a bigger budget in Northern Ireland, so my question, Minister, is this: will you prioritise such classes, making them free for all families, in your current and future budget?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am not sure whether the Member was in the House when I responded to a previous question on that. I am trying to ensure that the financial resources for language classes and support are here so that it does not become an issue. That is very important. Not only that, I am committed to providing support and catering for the demand, as well as the potential increase in that demand. I believe that any Minister, if presented with this challenge, would try to ensure that it becomes a priority. I have made it a priority, and I have made the consultation a priority. I will ensure that I support those who need to access classes as best I can. I believe that I have done that, and I will continue to do so. If there is a need for additional support, I am open to seeing what that is.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas sin. I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to take this opportunity to commend one of the largest groupings working with the deaf community, and that is Hands That Talk from my constituency. It has delivered a service for, by and with the deaf community for more than a decade, very often on a shoestring budget. Will the Minister outline how the deaf community will be involved in developing and designing the framework and the public consultation?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I certainly know of the work done by Hands That Talk, as do many others. It is critical that members of the deaf community are involved in the sign language partnership group. That group will be added to, if appropriate and necessary, to ensure that there is as much inclusion as possible and that as many needs as possible are included within the framework, with a view to going to a full public consultation.

I support the Member's concern about trying to ensure that the deaf community is involved in this process from the onset right through to the consultation and, hopefully, the passing of legislation by the Assembly.


11.15 am

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an ráitis a rinne sí. Sílim féin gur teanga thar a bheith deisbhéalach í teanga na mbodhar agus gur chóir í a chur chun cinn agus a chosaint de réir dlí. I thank the Minister for her statement, and I agree that sign language is an extremely expressive language and that we should do all that we can to ensure that people who are deaf have access to the training needed to develop their skills in sign language.

Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire cad iad na buntaistí praticiúla a bhéas leis an reachtaíocht, agus cad é mar a rachaidh sí i bhfeidhm ar shaol an duine bhodhair ó lá go lá. What practical outcomes would the legislation have for a deaf person in their daily life?

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is to ensure that there are statutory protections. Thus far, it has been presented to me that, without these protections, deaf people feel very vulnerable and very isolated and, indeed, that resources, or potential resources, to do whatever practical things they wish to do are always on the basis of budget priorities. That cannot be the case in the future.

The importance of the legislation is to ensure that there is a recognition of protections and safeguards for the deaf community and that, where there is demand and where services are needed, our Departments and the Assembly have, within our gift, the legislation to protect people who wish to get on with their daily lives and do the things that we all take for granted but, for them, have proven to be very difficult obstacles wrapped with many challenges that we can only begin to understand.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill [NIA 68/11-16] be agreed.

I am pleased to open the debate in the Assembly today as I believe that this is important legislation. By way of background, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) is responsible for the regulation of the social work and social care workforce in Northern Ireland and for the regulation of professional training courses for social workers.

Regulation of the workforce is one element of the overall framework established by my Department to strengthen safeguards for service users and public protection. It makes a key contribution in providing independent assurance to the public that those responsible for the delivery of social care across Northern Ireland will be held to account for their conduct against agreed standards of conduct and professional practice.

It is important that the conduct model used by the care council is fit for purpose, efficient, cost-effective and commands the confidence of service users, the wider public and the social care workforce. The council's current conduct model has been in place since 2003, and whilst it has been robust and has ensured that those unsuitable to provide care have been excluded from the workforce, it needs to be updated to keep pace with best-practice developments in regulatory practice in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

My aim is to build on the strengths of the existing model while ensuring that it is modernised and reflects best-practice models used by other workforce regulators, particularly those used by professional healthcare regulators. I also want to ensure that the care council can continue to promote high standards in practice through the formal recognition of learning that social workers achieve through a broad range of methods, including the use of e-learning.

Specifically, the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill aims to achieve two things. First, it will modernise the council's model of conduct and extend the range of sanctions to dispose of conduct cases. Secondly, it will extend the council's powers to formally recognise the learning achievements of social workers.

The existing conduct model is based on a determination of misconduct. The current range of sanctions allows the Social Care Council to take appropriate action against registrants through admonishments, suspension from the council's register and, the most serious sanction, removal from the register. In comparison with other healthcare regulators, the range of sanctions available to the care council is limited and restricts its ability to respond flexibly and proportionately to cases where there are concerns about an individual's practice. That is particularly so where there are issues regarding health or competence.

The General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and the Health and Care Professions Council have a broader range of sanctions available to them for the disposal of cases of misconduct that allows them to place conditions on a registrant, such as a training condition to address an issue of competence. Recently, the legislation relating to the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland was amended to provide the society with a range of powers and sanctions similar to those regulators I just mentioned.

The sanctions available to the Social Care Council within its current model of conduct include admonishment, suspension and removal. It is proposed to introduce the additional sanctions of undertakings and conditions. The wider range of sanctions will enable the council to address deficits in an individual's performance and thereby improve the quality and safety of care provided.

The second set of proposed amendments seeks to extend the council's powers to give formal recognition to the learning achievements of social workers. Registration with the care council requires that registrants maintain and keep their knowledge and skills up to date in order to be accountable for the quality and safety of their work with vulnerable people.

At present, the legislation allows the care council to award certificates to social workers for the successful completion of formal professional training courses approved by it. The proposed amendments in the Bill will extend the council's powers so that it can recognise learning achieved by social workers to improve their knowledge and skills through a wide range of approaches to learning and development, such as academic courses, in-service training provided by employers, and e-learning and distance learning programmes.

The formal recognition of social workers' learning by the care council provides an assurance to employers, service users and the wider public that social workers are not only maintaining but continuing to expand their skills and knowledge throughout their career in the health and social care sector in Northern Ireland.

It is important to say that all the proposed changes in the Bill have been subject to public consultation. From June to October 2012, the Department and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council undertook a joint consultation on the proposals to reform the model of conduct used by the council. From November 2012 until January 2013, the Department and the care council undertook a further joint consultation on proposals to provide for more flexible methods for the recognition of the required standards of proficiency in social work.

Respondents to both consultations included registrants, employers, trade unions and key stakeholders from the statutory and voluntary sectors, as well as the professional body, professional organisations and universities. The responses indicated a strong level of support for implementing the proposed changes.

I believe that there is strong support for the Bill, which will modernise the council's conduct model and make it fit for purpose by broadening the range of sanctions available in the disposal of individual conduct cases. There is also strong support for extending the care council's powers to formally recognise a broader range of approaches to the achievement of learning in the context of a modern regulatory system for the social work and social care workforces in Northern Ireland.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I support the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill.

The Committee took evidence from departmental officials on the proposals for this legislation in July 2014. At that time, the officials advised that it was the Department's intention to introduce the Bill by November 2014. Nearly a year later, on 23 September 2015, officials came before the Committee again to advise that the Bill had still not been introduced. In giving an explanation for that very significant delay, officials referred to the need to address concerns raised by the Department of Justice in relation to the care tribunal and issues raised by the Attorney General; take into account the Westminster Government's response to the Law Commission's review of the regulation of healthcare and social care professions; and progress a number of other initiatives linked to the Social Care Council. Whilst the Committee has no doubt that these were legitimate issues that needed to be addressed, members expressed disappointment during the briefing on 23 September that the Bill had not been introduced at an earlier point in the mandate, given the end-of-mandate legislative pressures, which were apparent even in September.

The Minister introduced the Bill last week, on 23 November. Prior to that happening, the Committee had written to the Minister, following its meeting on 18 November, to ask him not to introduce the Bill during the remainder of this mandate. That was on foot of a discussion that the Committee had about its legislative programme. As Members will be aware, the Human Transplantation Bill is currently at Committee Stage, and we are all aware that it is a complex and emotive piece of legislation that will require the Committee's detailed attention between now and the end of January 2016. The Minister had also indicated to the Committee that it was his intention to shortly introduce the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, and that, in fact, happened yesterday. Again, that piece of legislation will require the Committee's attention, over a relatively short period.

Given the time available to the Committee to scrutinise and report on the Human Transplantation Bill and the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill before the end of the mandate, the Committee took the view that it would not be feasible for it to undertake work on this Bill over the same limited time period. Of course, all three Bills are important, but the Committee was of the view that the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill would be our lowest priority. However, we are now at a point where the Bill is having its Second Stage, the purpose of which is for the Assembly to debate the principles of the Bill.

As I have said, the Committee heard evidence from departmental officials and the Social Care Council on 23 September 2015. They talked members through the clauses of what was then a draft Bill. The Committee had various questions on the detail of the Bill but no objections to its overall aims and objectives. As the Minister outlined, the principal objectives of the Bill are, firstly, to modernise the model of conduct used by the Social Care Council to bring it into line with other health and social care regulators; and secondly — and importantly — to extend opportunities for the recognition of the continuous professional development activity of social workers post-registration.

There are a number of issues that we will be looking at more closely during Committee Stage. They are likely to be around what the registration of all social workers and social care workers with the Social Care Council will mean in practice, and whether there will be any additional burden on individuals or private companies. We will also be very keen to ensure that the new disciplinary processes introduced by the Bill will mean that all cases are dealt with quickly and efficiently. Another area that we will be looking at is making sure that the legislation is future-proof, given that various reports have been produced recently in this field across other jurisdictions.

Mr Easton (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I welcome the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill.

The Northern Ireland Social Care Council was established by the Health and Personal Social Services Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 to regulate the social care workforce in Northern Ireland.

The current model of regulation for the social care workforce has been in existence since 2003. It is important that the system of workforce regulation is supervised, responsive to the modern context of service delivery and informed by best practice to deal with our health service today.


11.30 am

The primary objective of the Bill is to ensure that the Northern Ireland Social Care Council regulatory system keeps pace with best practice in workforce regulation and achievement of awards in social work. The proposed amendments to the Health and Personal Social Services Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 seek to provide the Northern Ireland Social Care Council with a greater degree of flexibility and a range of sanctions for the regulation of the social care workforce in Northern Ireland, in line with other models of professional regulation across the United Kingdom.

The Bill aims to achieve two things. It will modernise the council's model of conduct and extend the range of sanctions to dispose of conduct cases. It will also extend the council's powers to formally recognise the learning and achievements of social workers. The current limitations in the scope for the Northern Ireland Social Care Council to confer awards in recognition of the achievement of standards of proficiency by social workers will also be addressed. I believe that the Bill will modernise the Northern Ireland Social Care Council conduct model and bring it into line with best practice models used by other workforce regulators across the United Kingdom. It will ensure that the Northern Ireland Social Care Council model keeps pace with developments in regulatory practice in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

The proposals also extend the powers of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council to award certificates in recognition of learning achievements by social workers through a broader range of methods. It forms part of the overall plan for modernisation of how the Northern Ireland Social Care Council regulates the workforce, taking into account advances in technology and the new ways in which people learn.

The Bill has five main clauses, and the bulk of these create additional powers in respect of registering persons, obtaining and disclosing information, registering social workers, recognising attainment of standards by social workers, and appeals to care tribunals.

I support the Bill and look forward to scrutiny at the Committee Stage.

Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill. The Bill focuses predominantly on the whole social care workforce and aims to give the Northern Ireland Social Care Council additional powers over workforce regulation, including sanctions for malpractice, and more powers in relation to achievement awards.

As articulated by the Chair, the Committee received a number of briefings from the Department on the Bill. There is, we understand and accept, a need to update existing legislation if we are to have a social care system that is fit for the twenty-first century and has recipients of care at the heart of the decision-making process. Before considering the principles of the Bill, it is important — I attempt to do this in all contributions — to recognise the vital role that social care workers play in Northern Ireland in looking after some of the most sick, disabled, vulnerable or frail people in society. The vast majority of these workers undertake their duties to the best of their ability — often, it has to be said, under extreme and intolerable pressures — and I believe that their dedication needs to be recognised today.

I also concur with the Chair's remarks in relation to not pursuing this legislation. It is not that we do not support the general principles but because of the Committee's ability to scrutinise. Given what I have said about the proposed new rules and the extent of the work that is undertaken, the workforce needs to know that matters of this importance are properly scrutinised.

One issue is that, occasionally, workers fall short of the standards that are expected of them. For example, last year alone there were 36 complaints made against social workers, 156 against social care workers and three against social work students. Of these, 58 registrants have been removed from the NISCC — 10 social workers, 47 social care workers and 1 student. Having considered that, it is only sensible that we consider reform that will ensure the best practice possible, and achieving the best practice possible will come about by full, robust and, if needed, lengthy scrutiny of the Bill.

While poor performance is unfortunate, officials told us that the delays caused by the current system were hindering the conduct and professional development of social work and that we are probably not achieving as much through regulation as we could in improving care standards and in helping to address shortcomings and deficits experienced in the sector.

The deficiencies in the system must be recognised when we consider new reform. In that regard, the policy intent of the Bill, in giving the NISCC move powers, is to be welcomed. It will directly impact on every social worker and carer in the North and will allow for more serious action to be taken against those who fail to uphold the highest standards in delivering high-quality care.

As has been reflected, the Bill contains nine clauses, some of which are uncontroversial and have gained a great deal of support in the Health Committee's preliminary meetings with the Department. I note, however, that there are a number of issues with the Bill that need to be considered.

Clause 1 refers to giving warnings or advice to registrants. I ask the Minister how the Bill will change that. What is the nature of advice and what levels of warning, informal and formal, will exist?

Clause 2 refers to the ability of the NISCC to publish or disclose information in relation to a registrant's fitness to practise. At what stage will that be invoked? Does it afford the NISCC the power to publish details of workers who fall short of the standards expected? Once again, those are issues for further scrutiny in the Committee. Is a 14-day limit for providing relevant information to the council the best-practice approach?

In clause 3, it is proposed that all those registered in England, Wales and Scotland be registered in one database in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister whether there will be any consideration of those who are registered with CORU in the Republic of Ireland. What conversations, if any, have taken place with that organisation, which is the body in the South responsible for social-care workers? Would a greater syncing-up of services provide more effective care? Do they register domiciliary-care workers, and have any discussions been undertaken in that regard?

Clause 4 relates to extending power to give awards. The briefing paper mentions power to make provision for the payment of such fees. Who will pay the fees? What cost will there be to caregivers, especially those at the lower levels, such as domiciliary-care workers? If the council must provide a way in which a standard can be obtained, will that cost anything? Will current workers be automatically offered new training? If not, will that create a threat to, or issues with, jobs?

We have no issues with clause 5, which provides further robust safeguards and enforcement mechanisms.

Those are questions that I am sure can and will be resolved at Committee Stage, and I look forward to taking a deeper look at them. I reinforce the point that has been made: will the Committee have sufficient time, not just for us as legislators but to ensure that those who work at the front end of the system benefit, and understand that they have benefited, from our considerations and that those considerations have been timely, thorough and robust?

We must look at the bigger picture of adult social care. In particular, I am concerned about the regulation of the domiciliary-care sector. New reform is a welcome move, but we need to adequately resource those workers, or the full effectiveness of reform may be lost. We need first to ensure that staff are adequately paid, skilled and have proper training. I want to reflect on that point for a moment. It is one thing regulating workers, but, if they are not getting paid properly, will the regulation be as effective as it should be? In the last few days, we have heard of the planned closure of seven residential homes through the Four Seasons announcement. That will cast a number of workers out of work and, of course, it means that older people will be removed to other centres of care.

We have a regulatory process, but we do not have investment in the structures or in the careers of those at the front end of the care system. It is important to say that. The warnings that are coming, particularly from the private sector, about the service are that people's jobs are under threat because of a rise in the minimum wage, which is a story in itself. Many of them are receiving only the minimum wage. The care providers are going to be affected by that, which threatens their business model. That is the point that I was trying to make to the Health Minister yesterday. We have certain provisions in the public sector that are not matched in the private sector. If we are to continue to have a private sector that can adequately care for a growing older population, we need to invest properly in the service.

The 2011 TYC plan recognised that there was going to be a growing older population. I have rehearsed this over and over, but I do not mind doing so again, because it is important to say that TYC was right. It recognised that there were going to be growing needs, and it needed to match that recognition to an understanding of what those needs were going to be and of the accompanying service provision.

I make those remarks in the context of the provisions, in the sense that the provisions are stating one thing but the system is saying something else. Indeed, the regulations may find themselves being undermined by a system that is not matching them.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, have I run out of time?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No, but I ask you to come back to the point.

Mr McKinney: I was steering myself back there, as you can probably tell, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I appreciate your advice.

Ideally, let us get the social workers regulated and empowered, and let us ensure that the work is attractive. We need to be making a career for them, and to be paying and training them properly.

The SDLP supports the Bill's general principles. We believe that it is a step in the right direction to protect some of the most vulnerable and disabled in society, which, as I said at the outset, needs to be its principal element. Any change to the provision or to work practices needs to be understood by the Assembly, by the Committee and, principally, by those who are working at the front end of the industry.

Mrs Dobson: I welcome the opportunity to make a few brief comments on the legislation. What we are discussing today has its foundations firmly rooted in the 2001 Act. As we have heard, the proposed changes have two very reasonable and sensible objectives: first, to modernise the Northern Ireland Social Care Council to bring it into line with other regulators, such as the GMC; and, secondly, to broaden the opportunities for the recognition of continuing professional development.

The NISCC registration scheme appears to have proceeded as seamlessly as could have been expected. It was a daunting task trying to ensure that all our 18,000 residential care, nursing home and children's home staff met the requirements. The registration scheme is taking its next step by applying to a further 12,000 domiciliary and day-care staff.

The scale of the numbers involved illustrates the breadth and width that the registration scheme will have for what is a fairly small population base. In addition, once the latest process comes to an end, Northern Ireland will be the only part of the UK that registers its whole social care workforce. Although I understand the rationale behind what the Department is trying to achieve — improving safeguards around those who often have unaccompanied access to our vulnerable and their homes — I urge the Department, and the NISCC in particular, to work very closely and carefully with the sector to ensure that undue pressures are not placed on employees.
I would very much welcome the Minister's assurance that that will take place.


11.45 am

We need to remember that the primary motivation for many domiciliary care workers is to help and support elderly neighbours and family members, with money often a distant consideration. It would be a retrograde step if, for whatever reason, some people were dissuaded from taking up these important roles. We must care for those who care.

The Bill contains several sensible proposals that I support and welcome, particularly in clause 4, which expands the scope of the NISCC to award certificates to social workers in recognition of learning achieved through a wide range of continuing professional development activity. Continual personal and professional development is important in all jobs, but even more so for those whose role sees them regularly coming into contact with the most vulnerable in our society. I also welcome the fact that there appears to be strong support for the Bill, particularly among staff and bodies on which it will continue to have the greatest impact.

I conclude by urging the Minister to continue to work with those employees and their representative bodies so that they, too, can contribute to better safeguarding as we move forward in our ever-changing demographics.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Health Minister for bringing this very important Bill to the House. The Chairperson has already spoken on my behalf as a member of the Health Committee, so I will be brief. I speak in favour of the Bill.

It is simple and straightforward legislation but it offers those in social work additional recognition of their professional standards and gives greater reassurance to the public. The debate on the principles of the Bill provides the opportunity to acknowledge, praise and recognise the critical role that social workers play in supporting so many of our people, especially the most vulnerable, in a whole range of settings across our society. We owe those workers a great amount of thanks and gratitude. Speaking in a personal capacity, my family receives support from carers and we could not speak more highly of the service that they provide.

Looking to the future, and in keeping with the direction of travel of Transforming Your Care and other potential reforms, social workers and other staff who work in the community are set to take on ever more responsibilities, it seems to me, for the delivery of health and social services outcomes. In that regard, I believe that the additional regulation offered by the legislation is appropriate at this time. This should not be seen as an attack on the sterling efforts of social workers but as an acknowledgement of their critical and growing role and their existing professional standards. Through this type of regulation, they will be on a better and more level playing field compared with their peers in other professions.

Finally, I am a little disappointed, as our Committee Chair indicated, that it has taken so long since the public consultation to get the Bill to this point, especially as there is consensus among key stakeholders. However, I welcome the fact that we are on the brink of taking forward these reforms. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill and look forward to its early passage through the House.

Mr Middleton: As a member of the Health Committee, I support the progression of this Bill to its next stage. I begin by paying tribute to the thousands of social care workers, social workers and students who do fantastic work in our communities. Although I am a new member of the Committee, I am well aware that the Bill has been in progress for some time. Although the consultation was completed in 2012, it is important and appropriate that the necessary time was taken to get the Bill to this stage and to get it right so that it gives effect to the changes that are required and does not lead to any unintended consequences.

I have no doubt that, between 2012 and the Second Stage, the Bill's provisions have been well considered by the Minister and his Department. It is also evident from the consultations that there is strong support for the Bill. There is a willingness to modernise the conduct model and make it fit for purpose for the future.

It is important that the Health Committee gets the opportunity to further scrutinise the Bill at its next stage. It is widely recognised that the Northern Ireland Social Care Council's model of conduct is out of step with best practice in other healthcare professions across the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. We need to ensure consistency in regulation throughout the UK.

The current model — in which registrants can only either be removed or remain on the register and which is without the provision for remedial action and improvement — is no longer the most efficiency way of doing things. That is why it is important that we rectify the situation, and it is clear that this can be done through the Bill. Ultimately, we all want to see the best possible practice in health and social care in Northern Ireland. The provisions in the Bill will enable the NISCC to take greater action, where there are failings in practice, through additional powers and conditions being made available to them. The desired outcome of the process will be improved safety for the general public and additional training for those who require it.

I welcome what the Minister said on recognising the achievements of social workers. I agree with him that formal recognition will provide further assurance to employers, customers and the general public, not just about maintaining skills but about expanding the skills and knowledge of social workers throughout their career in the health and social sector. That will, of course, take into account new technology and e-learning methods.

Hopefully, the Minister will touch on whether there are any potential financial costs of the Bill's provisions. I have no further comments to add. I look forward to see the Bill progressing to the next stage.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as an Bhille seo a thabhairt isteach. I thank the Minister for tabling the Bill. Cibé ar bith, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil díomá orm gur tugadh isteach é ag pointe an-mhall, gan riachtanas, i mo bharúil. I am disappointed that the Bill has been brought in at a very late stage unnecessarily. However, it is an important piece of legislation. It aims to regulate the system and ensure that the processes are in line with best practice in terms of workforce regulation and the achievement of continuing professional development (CPD) awards in social work.

The system is managed by the Social Care Council. It came into being with the remit of registering the social care workforce, which comprises social workers and social care workers. It is also responsible for setting standards of conduct in practice and for agreeing improved standards of training for social workers. Sanctions are another important function of the council.

In 2005, it became obligatory for people in that workforce to register, and there are 23,000 members who work in a wide range of social care settings. They include social workers, social work students, managers in residential daycare and domiciliary care settings, and staff in children's homes, adult residential care homes and nursing homes. There is a wide range of settings in which people who work in that environment are placed. So, it is important that the proper regulation, provision and safeguards are in place for everyone's protection; workers, residents and service users alike.

There will be a further 12,000 staff registered by the end of next year. Registration of the social care workforce is key to the framework that the Department has brought in, because, as I said, it has a focus on reinforcing safeguards for service users, many of whom are vulnerable. So, it is important that they feel protected and that there is an emphasis put on ensuring their safety and well-being. It is also vital that the people who work in such environments are appropriately trained and work to the highest professional standards. It is equally important that there is public confidence in standards of provision in social work and social care environments.

As other Members have attested, this comes about at a time when the part of the sector that cares for the elderly is greatly challenged. The recent announcement of the closure of the Four Seasons homes has been devastating for the people who live there and a massive blow to the care workers and other staff whose jobs may go. In addition, the Committee is in receipt of a disappointing report from the Commissioner for Older People in which she lays out many recommendations that she feels are necessary to improve the sector where there are failures in the system. We would like to see that addressed as well. It is part of a package.

It is important that those very disappointing events do not detract from the Bill's aims, which are extremely relevant nonetheless. We have to continue to seek the highest standards of care and best practice in social care and social work. The systems that are in place have to be capable of ensuring such standards and best practice so that we have a well-regulated, professionally trained workforce who deliver the absolute best provision for vulnerable people here in the North. The Bill will, hopefully, help to achieve that. Given the time frame in which we have to progress several Bills, it will be a challenging time ahead for the Committee. Nonetheless, I look forward to further scrutiny of the Bill at Committee Stage.

Mrs Cameron: As a member of the Health Committee, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill. I begin by commending the work that the social care workforce does to complement our front-line health service. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of them, from children's services to elderly care and everything in between. As we are living in a time of an increasing ageing population, we rely more and more on the support, care and assistance that these personnel provide to families and individuals. With that in mind, I feel that the Bill is a timely and welcome move that will assist in protecting and safeguarding the service users, who are often the most vulnerable. It will, at the same time, add to the existing professionalism of the service through additional training and conduct standards.

With the mandatory registration in the Northern Ireland Social Care Council being rolled out over the last 10 years to encompass social workers and social work students as well as managers and staff in residential and domiciliary care settings, we are already in a good position to ensure that we are providing well-trained and correctly assessed employees. The registration of day-care and domiciliary staff has recently begun. It is hoped that this will be complete by this time next year, further strengthening our current service.

The proposed changes that will come in with the Act will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. They will also give members of the social care workforce the opportunity for a rolling system of training and personal development that will ensure that they will be continually kept abreast of new developments, techniques and practices. It is also worth noting at this point that 87% of respondents to the consultation were in favour of the changes, and that, I believe, demonstrates an acknowledgment in the service of the need to modernise and reform.

The main changes to the current legislation come in the first four clauses of the Bill. The changes will focus on ensuring that any issues with staff can be dealt with more flexibly and on providing the NISCC with the power to investigate an employee's suitability to work as a social care worker. These steps will protect the safety and well-being of users, such as elderly residents of care homes, and help to increase public confidence in the social care system. The Bill will ensure that social care workers here will be subject to the same regulatory procedures as those in the rest of the United Kingdom and, as such, provide the same safeguards for service users as those across the water. Whilst the Bill is largely technical in its nature, it will ultimately provide protections for service users and social care workers alike and ensure the highest quality of social care provision. The Bill reflects a more modern, responsive and streamlined approach to social care and, as such, is to be welcomed.

The Chair has rightly outlined the Committee's concerns about scrutinising three pieces of legislation at this late stage of the mandate. I would like to put on record my concerns, as I have on several occasions at Committee, that rushing through controversial and sensitive legislation in such a short time frame is far from satisfactory or, indeed, appropriate.

That being said, this Bill does not appear to be in any way controversial. With that, I support the Bill.


12.00 noon

Mr Hamilton: I thank all Members who have contributed to the Second Stage debate for the remarks that they have made. I will do my best to address some of the issues that were raised. I am sure I will miss many, but I assure Members that I will pick those up in due course in correspondence.

Mrs Cameron concluded by making remarks about the timing and what was suggested to be the late introduction of the Bill. The Chair certainly laboured that point in her comments as well. I can offer lots of reasons that are probably not uncommon at this time in a mandate across Departments for why legislation sometimes takes a little longer than we would like. I was in the Chair's position as Chair of a Committee in the previous mandate, when we had to juggle several pieces of legislation in the last couple of months of the Assembly term, so I know the challenges that that presents. I think that I have made clear and other Members have mentioned some of the reasons why this legislation has taken a little longer than we would have liked, and there are good and valid reasons why that has been the case. It is important that all legislation, whatever its source, is properly developed and that we take our time to get it right. I think that everybody would agree that we should seek to get it right at the start. In this case, issues were raised by other Departments that took some time to be addressed. There are pressures on departmental resources, as there are in other Departments, that can sometimes take us away from the speedier introduction of legislation.

Put simply, I was not prepared not to introduce this legislation — forgive me the double negative. It is important legislation and has been approved by the Executive and, therefore, by the majority of parties in the Assembly. It is a short but important piece of legislation. It is my understanding — I think the Chair acknowledged this — that the Committee has been extensively briefed about this legislation, dating back several years. So, whilst it might be coming at a late stage in the mandate — I accept that — it is not coming as a complete shock or surprise to the Committee. The Committee has been worked with and coordinated with throughout the process of developing the legislation, so it ought to be well acquainted with what is before it today.

The Chair acknowledged that the Committee had been talked through the draft clauses, so, again, the actual legislation as it is formed is not a complete surprise. I understand and appreciate the fact that the Committee has been supportive of the legislation. That has been reflected in the comments that have been made today. There has been no real sign of dissent in Committee, here today or, indeed, through the extensive consultation processes that have been undertaken. While I appreciate the comments that have been made by the Chair about timing, I do not think that this will prove to be the most challenging or controversial legislation that the Committee will have to scrutinise in this or, indeed, any other mandate. I agree entirely with the points that Mrs Cameron made in that regard. Whilst understanding and appreciating the pressures that the Chair and the Committee have to contend with, I was not prepared to further delay the modernisation of the regulation of the social care workforce.

Other Members made points about the timing. I hope I am not quoting Mr McKinney inaccurately, but he talked about the need to have "full", "lengthy" and "robust" scrutiny of legislation: I agree with that point. They are principles that should be applied to all legislation, particularly those pieces that are of a controversial nature. Mr McKinney sped through a range of issues, whilst accepting the principles of the Bill. He supported and acknowledged, as did all Members, the changes proposed in the Bill around training and the development of those in the social care workforce. He also agreed that it was a good thing to put in conditions and undertakings. We were probably all unfamiliar with regulation in this area until this legislation started to develop and we took it through the House in its various stages to where we are now. I do not think that the current position of people remaining on the register or being removed from the register is a particularly sensible way to balance the regulation of our social care workforce. The changes that will allow for remedial action or improvement are good, sound things to do. I will look at Hansard and come back to the Member on the specific points that he raised. That will help him, and I am sure that it will help the Committee as well. I will make it available to the Committee too, to assist with its scrutiny, while being mindful of the issue around timing.

Mr McKinney also went into a discussion around pay and conditions for those in the social care workforce. Many, of course, operate in the independent sector, and pay and conditions are obviously a matter for members of staff and their relationship with their employer. I do not think that he was implying — I hope that he was not — that there was no point strengthening regulation if we did not resolve issues around pay. I accept that there are issues and challenges with pay. Many people will think that they are not being paid what they should be paid. Whilst I acknowledge that there are issues around pay and remuneration, particularly in the sector, I am sure that he would agree with me that whatever one thinks one should be paid, that is no excuse for poor standards, particularly when dealing with a very vulnerable population, as many of those in the social care workforce are.

Mr McKinney: I appreciate the Minister's giving way. The point that I am trying to make is that we have regulation and we should have regulation. We should have robust regulation. I am saying that it should be matched by a government commitment to ensure that they invest in the careers associated with this need so that people in the sector feel valued as well as regulated.

Mr Hamilton: I take the point. Without going off on a complete tangent and having the Principal Deputy Speaker bring me in as he tried to do with the Member himself earlier, I think that, if we were guilty of not treating the social care workforce and social care issues with the importance that we should have — I think we probably all were, if I can be bold in saying so — it is now coming into much sharper focus as an incredibly important issue, not just because of what has happened in the last week with the proposed closure of seven homes by Four Seasons, although that brings it into very sharp focus for us. Sometimes, we are focused very much on the health aspects of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, whether that be as Minister or the Committee, and less so on the social services side. I think that we are starting to see, understand and appreciate more that this is an area that will require much more of our focus now and into the future, every bit as much as getting the health service right. This is probably one of the biggest challenges that we face as a Department and, indeed, as a society. It is absolutely right that we acknowledge and reward that workforce properly and appropriately, although I note that some of the concerns being expressed by independent providers in the residential and nursing home sector are around the national living wage coming in and increasing their costs and the impact that that will have on the viability of those businesses. While I accept and acknowledge the points that the Member makes, I am mindful of listening to what the sector itself says about what that does in terms of pressure on their costs. That is a difficult balance for us all. I accept the clarification that the Member made on that. It is important to say that, even though people will have issues with their pay, particularly in this sector, that is no excuse for not having regulation or registration and ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.

Mrs Dobson, who is no longer with us here, raised the issue of registration. Yes, we are pioneers in the UK in respect of registration. It is right to register a workforce that works with very vulnerable people in society. As I have said, social care should not be seen as secondary to health; it is every bit as important, if not more so in many regards. Registration and regulation should also encourage improvement, as well as ensuring that poor standards are dealt with.

Finally, in respect of Mr Middleton's point about cost implications, I can say that there are no direct financial costs to the implementation of the amendments to the current regime. In fact, we actually expect that efficiencies should be made as the Northern Ireland Social Care Council streamlines its process of ensuring good conduct.

So, in taking forward the Bill, we will ensure that the Northern Ireland Social Care Council's conduct model is modernised and reflects best practice, that those who deliver social services are subject to more proportionate sanctions in respect of deficits in performance, and that learning attained through a variety of approaches can be recognised. Together, these changes will increase the confidence of those who should expect to receive the highest standards of care by ensuring that only those who are suitable and competent to work in social care do so. I ask Members to support the Bill, and I welcome the opportunity to work with the Health Committee during its scrutiny of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill [NIA 68/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next item of business is the Consideration Stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. I call the Minister of Education, Mr John O'Dowd, to move the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments, Nos 1 to 12, which deals with duties, cooperation and regulations. I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debate on the group of amendments, they should address all the amendments in the group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each amendment will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 (Duty of Authority to publish plans relating to its arrangements for special educational provision)

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 12. These amendments impose new duties on education bodies, require cooperation on special educational needs provision, and raise Assembly control of certain regulation-making powers. I call the Minister of Education, Mr John O'Dowd, to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendments in the group.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 2, line 18, leave out "may" and insert "shall".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 3, page 2, line 33, after "'take" insert "all". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 3: In clause 3, page 3, line 3, at end insert

"(2A) In Article 8 after paragraph (1) insert—
 
"(1A) Paragraph (1B) applies where—
 
(a) the Board of Governors of a grant-aided school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(1B) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(1C) Nothing in paragraph (1A) or (1B) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(d) or (as the case may be) under Article 8ZA(1)(a).".". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 4: In clause 3, page 3, line 29, at end insert

"(3) Paragraph (4) applies where—
 
(a) the Board of Governors of a special school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(4) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(5) Nothing in paragraph (3) or (4) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(a) or (as the case may be) under Article 8(1)(d).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 5: After clause 3 insert

"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
3A. Before Article 13 of the 1996 Order insert—
 
"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
12A.—(1) The Authority and the health and social services authorities ("the relevant bodies") shall co-operate with one another to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs.
 
(2) The relevant bodies shall share information with one another on request.
 
(3) But information about a child may only be shared with the permission of that child, if the child is over compulsory school age, or the parent of the child in any other case.
 
(4) The relevant bodies must co-operate to prepare a joint and integrated plan for exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(5) The relevant bodies may pool budgets and share resources for the purposes of exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(6) In this Article, "health and social services authorities" comprises—
 
(a) the Regional Board for Health and Social Care; and
 
(b) the health and social care trusts established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.".". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 6: After paragraph (5) insert

"(5A) The Health and Social Care Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) established under Article 3 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (NI 9) must, at intervals of not more than 2 years, conduct a review, and publish a report, on how the relevant bodies have co-operated with one another under this Article.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 7: In clause 4, page 3, line 33, at end insert

"(2A) After paragraph (4), insert—
 
'(4A) If, in helping the Authority in the making of an assessment under Article 15, the health and social services authority identifies any therapeutic or other treatment, or service, likely to be beneficial to the child, the health and social services authority shall provide that treatment or service to the child.'." — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 8: After clause 5 insert

"Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
5A. In Article 16 of the 1996 Order (statement of special educational needs) in paragraph (3)(b), after "specify" insert "the nature and extent of"’.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 9: In clause 7, page 5, line 18, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 10: In clause 9, page 7, line 34, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 11: In clause 9, page 7, line 36, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 12: After clause 14 insert

"Orders and regulations under Part 2 of the 1996 Order
 
14A. For Article 28 of the 1996 Order substitute—
 
'Orders and regulations under this Part
 
28.—(1) Orders made by the Department under this Part (other than orders under Article 5(3)) shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(2) Regulations shall not be made under Article 8 or 8ZA unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly.
 
(3) Subject to paragraph (4), all other regulations under this Part shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(4) Regulations made under this Part which—
 
(a) would otherwise be subject to negative resolution, but
 
(b) are combined with regulations subject to the procedure mentioned in paragraph (2),
shall also be subject to that procedure.
 
(5) Regulations and orders made under this Part by a Northern Ireland department may contain such incidental, supplementary and transitional provisions as that department thinks fit.'.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím le labhairt faoi leasú a haon. The Bill gives effect to the legislative changes required to support the policy for a revised special educational needs and inclusion framework. It puts the views of the child centre stage. The Education Authority (EA) will have a new duty to have regard to the views of the child when making decisions about their special educational provision. There are also enhanced duties on boards of governors to meet the needs of their pupils with special educational needs (SEN), and new appeal rights are given to the parents of children under two years of age and directly to children over compulsory school age. Importantly, a new duty is given to the EA, which will have to publish plans in relation to its arrangements for special educational provision. That will bring greater clarity and openness about what is available.


12.15 pm

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill (SEND) represents a first building block to a more responsive and effective framework of support for children with SEN. It will be followed by revised regulations, a code of practice and training. Through this combined package, the aim is that all children with SEN will get the support that they need to reach their potential during their school years.

In developing the Bill and the new SEN framework, I have always sought to have in mind the principles that every school should have an inclusive ethos, early and timely intervention is key, and schools and teachers will need training to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of their children with SEN. In turn, I believe that we should focus on learning outcomes for children with SEN, which should be agreed in consultation with a parent and a child. Transparency, accountability and reduced bureaucracy will increase confidence in the new SEN framework.

I thank the Education Committee for its scrutiny of the Bill. I believe that the Committee Stage was a very constructive process, and I have agreed a number of the Committee’s proposed amendments, which I will move today. Amendment Nos 1, 9, 10 and 11 relate to making it a duty of the Department to make regulations in a number of clauses by changing "may" to "shall". The Committee's scrutiny of the Bill raised the issue that there have been times when regulation-making powers in Bills have not been used. I have agreed to these amendments to ensure that the regulations under those key provisions are, indeed, enacted.

Amendment No 12 also relates to regulations and will have the effect of increasing the Assembly’s scrutiny of regulations made under clauses 3(3) and 3(4) by making these regulations subject to affirmative rather than negative resolution. The amendment will also ensure that, when regulations made under the powers in clauses 3(3) and 3(4) are combined with regulations made under powers elsewhere in the 1996 Order, which are subject to negative resolution, the entire set of regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution. That is a positive step and will ensure that the regulations regarding boards of governors and EA duties made under those clauses will benefit from increased scrutiny in the Assembly.

Amendment No 2, which the Committee also proposed, relates to the duty on boards of governors to ensure that teachers take "all reasonable steps" rather than "reasonable steps" to identify and provide for pupils attending their school who have SEN. That will have the effect of strengthening the duty on schools for pupils with SEN.

Members will note that the Bill will introduce a new duty on all schools to complete and keep under review a personal learning plan (PLP) for each child with SEN. That will focus on learning outcomes and involve the participation of a parent and a child. Having listened to the views of the Committee, I tabled amendment Nos 3 and 4, which will ensure that a child's personal learning plan is transferred to the next grant-aided school at which the child is a registered pupil. That will, of course, be subject to the consent of a parent or a child over compulsory school age. The amendments will ensure that, in developing a new personal learning plan, a school can benefit from the information in the previous school’s plan for a pupil. I ask members to support the eight amendments that I have proposed.

I turn now to the amendments proposed by the Education Committee. Amendment No 5 places a duty on health and education bodies to cooperate to identify, assess and provide services to children with special educational needs. It also includes a duty to share information and to prepare a joint and integrated plan, and provides a power to pool budgets and share resources. Amendment No 6 proposes that the remit of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) be extended to include oversight of that cooperation. As these are cross-cutting amendments, I have consulted with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. He has cautioned against accepting these amendments. He believes that they will duplicate provisions in the Children's Services Co-operation Bill, which is awaiting Royal Assent.

The Health Minister has also advised that it is not a policy intention of DHSSPS to extend the remit of the RQIA in this way. I have also been advised that, from a legislative perspective, amendment Nos 5 and 6 are unnecessary as they duplicate provisions in the Children's Services Co-operation Bill and are potentially harmful because they may cause confusion and uncertainty as to the relationship between the Children's Services Co-operation Bill and this Bill. It is my understanding that, as legislators, we should never duplicate other legislation. To do so causes confusion about which legislation takes precedence.

I am aware that the Children’s Services Co-operation Bill and this Bill are not direct duplications. However, two slightly different duties with the same policy objective may cause more confusion for the authorities implementing them and have a negative impact on the exercise of the functions in relation to children.

As drafted, amendment No 5 places a duty to cooperate in identifying, assessing and providing services to children with SEN. That implies that both the EA and health bodies would be involved in all three activities — identification, assessment and providing services. The EA, of course, cannot provide health services, and health authorities cannot exercise functions under special education legislation. However, I have a firm policy position in favour of increasing cooperation between all bodies that can improve children’s lives. Cooperation is especially important for the children who are most vulnerable, such as children with SEN or looked-after children.

I know that there are concerns about the lack of coordination between education and health in regard to services for children with special educational needs or disabilities. Several members raised that at the Bill’s Second Stage debate, during the recent autism debate and throughout the progress of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. As such, I can understand why the Committee tabled the amendments, and I support the principles underpinning them. If they are passed today, I will have to consider making technical amendments to this clause at Further Consideration Stage. However, I cannot place a duty on another Department without the other Minister’s consent. The Minister of Health has advised me that he has concerns about these amendments. Therefore, I cannot support amendment Nos 5 and 6.

Amendment No 7, which the Education Committee tabled, relates to placing a duty on health and social care trusts (HSCTs) to provide the treatment or services identified in a statement of SEN. That amendment would place a duty on HSCTs to provide therapeutic or other provisions that the trusts have assessed as being required. I am, as I am sure all members are, in favour of children receiving any services that they have been assessed as needing in order to help them to achieve their potential. However, this is another cross-cutting amendment, so I consulted the Minister of Health, and he cautioned against its acceptance. He advised me that he believes that this amendment would also duplicate provisions in the Children’s Services Co-operation Bill. Creating a duty for the HSCTs to provide treatment for children with SEN may also mean that that treatment takes precedence over the treatment of others and could have other unintended consequences. As with amendment Nos 5 and 6, I cannot place a duty on another Department without the other Minister’s consent. The Minister of Health has advised me that he has concerns about the amendment. Therefore, I cannot support Amendment No 7.

Amendment No 8, which the Education Committee also tabled, would require statements of SEN, which are completed by the EA following the process of statutory assessment, to include specification of the nature and extent of special educational provision. I support parents’ desire for clarity on the services that their children require. However, I believe that the current legislation already supports that. If further improvements are required regarding the content of statements, the appropriate vehicle to address that will be in the regulations related to the Bill. It is right and proper for the Bill to address the high-level issues and for the detail to be dealt with in subordinate legislation.

I intend to launch a public consultation on the regulations related to the Bill in early 2016. The consultation process will provide a much better opportunity for the public and other stakeholders to express their views on the content of statements and, indeed, on other issues contained in the regulations. I hope that all of those with an interest in the area will take the opportunity provided by the consultation to offer their views. Therefore, I ask Members not to support amendment No 8, which, in many respects, pre-empts the forthcoming consultation.

In conclusion, I thank all those who have taken an interest in the Bill. It has been a lengthy journey, but it has been worked on with a sense of cooperation and with the best interests of children and families with SEN at the centre of all of our discussions. All children need support to achieve their potential. Some, such as those with SEN, will need more support as they move through the school system. I want to ensure that they get the support that they need as early as they can and that every school and every teacher has the capacity to include and support a child with SEN, with the appropriate external supports as required.

Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I am very happy to speak at the Consideration Stage of Bill, initially as Chair of the Education Committee. I will pick up initially on a point that the Minister made, and I think it is one of the dilemmas for all of us when dealing with the Bill. Understandably, the nature of the SEND Bill lends itself, by necessity, to a greater level of subordinate regulations and, indeed, to a detailed code of practice. This is not simply an attempt by the Department to push a lot of it further down the line, as is sometimes the case with different Departments; the detail, by necessity, has to be there. This is about trying to strike a balance between giving adequate space for that detail and putting in sufficient safeguards. Consideration Stage, in particular, gives the Committee the opportunity to amend the legislation and, indeed, try to get it right. It will come down, more or less, to where there is disagreement in principle — and perhaps in practice, particularly with amendment No 8, but I will come to that later.

This is an important Bill that will support the revised special educational needs and inclusion framework. As I understand it — and the Minister may be in a better position to confirm it than me, as I am a little bit newer to this — this may be the first time that any Education Bill's Committee Stage has been followed by a Consideration Stage. We have tended to fall into one of two categories: either there has had to be accelerated passage or a Bill has been killed off at some stage. So, we may be, inadvertently, making a little bit of history here today. Maybe that reflects the importance of the subject. It may be a little bit early to offer congratulations either to the Committee or, indeed, to the Minister, but I think that it is certainly worthy of note. Indeed, if all goes well today, I am sure that the Committee and the Minister might even be tempted to have a go at another couple of Consideration Stages before the end of the mandate. We shall have to test that out.

As I have already indicated, this important Bill supports the revised SEN and inclusion framework. The Department has assured the Committee that the objectives of the framework are as follows: to maintain an inclusive ethos within schools; to ensure timely identification and assessment of SEN support, and to support early intervention. Indeed, I think it has been accepted that the earlier the intervention, the better the educational outcomes, and, indeed, the better the level of support, the more efficiently we can do that. As part of the framework, there is also a desire to reduce bureaucracy, which is sometimes easier said than done; to build on the capacity of educators, and to take into account the views of pupils and parents. Sometimes, there can be tension between those two.

There were many in-depth and complex exchanges during the Committee Stage. We were faced with a welter of background material, and there were detailed policy documents to consider. There were even some innovative suggestions and hotly contested points of principle. Throughout all our deliberations, however, the Committee kept at the forefront of its consideration the objectives of the framework and the impact of the proposed legislation on children with special educational needs and disabilities. That has to remain the House's primary focus.

As we discussed at Second Stage, the number of children with SEN appears to be increasing. That provides challenges to schools, in terms of early identification and capacity building among teachers. It provides challenges to the Education Authority, in terms of a growing resource demand and the need for a consistent SEN support package; and it provides challenges to the Department, in providing a coherent policy framework. For Committee members, these challenges seem to be very real and are felt very acutely by parents. Many parents place their faith in the SEN assessment and statementing process and then come to a representative organisation, or even to their local MLA, when things appear to go wrong. Many complain about a complex process, with poor coordination and lack of communication between education and health providers of SEN services.

The Department advised that one of the objectives of the framework, though not necessarily the Bill, is to reform and improve the SEN assessment process. The Department also advised on measures it is adopting to enhance its cooperation with other providers of SEN services, including the health and social care trusts. I believe that that goes very much to the heart of much of today's debate. Although children with SEN are, of course, at the forefront of our minds, the Committee is also keen to see that the Bill helps parents to get satisfaction from what has been, up to now, an often inconsistent and confusing statementing process.


12.30 pm

During the Committee Stage of the SEND Bill, members considered written evidence from 32 organisations and undertook nine oral evidence sessions and 16 formal meetings. Deliberations were also informed by a stakeholder event and an informal stakeholder meeting. Additionally, the Department provided sight of indicative draft regulations, some of which are referenced in the SEND Bill and others that relate to future changes to the statementing process.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many stakeholders who wrote to the Committee, gave oral evidence or attended our health/education cooperation event. It is not always possible to receive oral evidence on an issue such as this, which touches so many groups and individuals, from every organisation that makes a submission, even when the Committee Stage is subject to extension. I assure all our stakeholders that we study their views and suggestions, whether written or oral, carefully and give great value to the Committee Stage. I would also like to thank the Department for its cooperation, particularly in responding to queries and for the way that it shared its early drafts of the regulations on a without-prejudice basis. That was important. I think that the Committee would agree that a number of our stakeholders demonstrated a significant and unique insight into SEN issues. As MLAs, we are, ultimately, generalists in our nature, so it was very helpful to get that. Indeed, the stakeholders who presented to us communicated most eloquently and helped to influence the Committee's choice of proposed amendments

Before I come to the specifics of the amendments, I want to make a few remarks, as Chair, on the other provisions of the Bill. The Bill introduces a requirement for the Education Authority to take into account the views of children in respect of their SEN provision. The Committee welcomed that idea for a few different reasons and even considered amendments that would guarantee children the right to speak at SEN tribunals. The Committee was dissuaded from that course and accepted assurances that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) would, in any event, generally always accept evidence from children. Further to that, the Bill includes provisions that transfer rights in respect of SEN and disability from parents to children who are over compulsory school age. While it is true that there were some reservations about that, the Committee received assurances that regulations would specifically support and permit children to receive help from their parents in making a SEN or disability claim. The Committee awaits with interest regulations specifying how the capacity of a child is to be determined to exercise those new rights in a meaningful way. Members also noted that the provisions may provide some benefit to looked-after children where social services, as the de facto parent, fail to properly represent the child's interest.

The Bill also contains measures relating to a pilot scheme that would allow the transfer of SEN rights from parents to children who are below compulsory school age. It is fair to say that the majority of members questioned the necessity of those provisions, and they noted the very limited experience in other jurisdictions and the lengthy running timescales included in clause 11. The Committee noted that the related regulations are to be subject to draft affirmative resolution, and, on that basis, I think that the Committee was just about content not to oppose the relevant provisions of that element.

Clause 5 introduces some reductions to timescales for the SEN assessment process. I will say more about that in a moment. I would just like to record the Committee's concern and dismay about the number of statements that are provided outside the specified time frame and the proportion of those that are subject to what are termed "valid exceptions". The Committee accepted the compression of timescales for parental involvement on the understanding that the statutory bodies' timescales would be subject to a more significant compression and that, if parents failed to meet the new deadlines, it would not adversely impact on their children's access to SEN support.

The Bill also contains provisions relating to additional mediation arrangements for the SEN assessment process. When the Department explained those new arrangements properly and clarified some points of concern that we had raised, the Committee was quite happy with the relevant clause. In particular, the confirmation that the new process is voluntary and will not compromise or delay SENDIST deliberations was most welcome. However, given the lengthy consultation process that preceded the Bill, it is quite surprising to find that the Department had not previously communicated those simple assurances to stakeholder organisations. That could have calmed a lot of nerves in the broader sector.

I turn now to the amendments themselves. They cover a number of themes. I want to begin by talking about the SEN assessment process, to which amendment No 8 applies.

The Bill makes only limited reference to the current five-stage process under which children's educational needs are assessed and statements of educational needs produced. The Children with Disabilities Strategic Alliance (CDSA) called for an amendment to require the Education Authority to better quantify and specify the support available to children in SEN statements so as to ensure improved consistency of support for statemented children. The CDSA contended that the current legislation permitted the Education Authority too great a degree of discretion in the variation of agreed support and the timing of its withdrawal.

During the Committee Stage, the Department advised that other regulations and a revised code of practice would be brought forward soon, which would reform the assessment and statementing process, shortening it from five stages to three and reducing the overall timescale from 26 to 20 weeks. The Department indicated that the more streamlined approach, coupled with strengthened provision in schools, would lead to a reduction in the number of children requiring statutory assessment and being granted SEN statements. For the majority of pupils, support would be available at stages 1 and 2, which are the school-based stages, without the need for a statement.

The Committee noted with concern the absence of detail in the Department's plans in respect of the reform of the statementing process and the consequent concerns among stakeholders. However, the Committee felt that given the potential for benefits for children in the revised SEN and inclusion framework, the Department should be given the opportunity to properly consult and draft the detailed regulations and revised code of practice setting out its changes to the SEN assessment process. The Committee agreed that it would not put down amendments in that regard.

That said, the Committee noted particular concerns raised by parents' representatives, including Autism NI and independent parents of children with acquired brain injury, about SEN statements. The Committee therefore agreed to support an amendment that would insert a new clause — amendment No 8 — requiring the Education Authority to better specify provision for those children in the latter stages of the assessment process through the SEN statement. The Committee felt that that change would provide improved assurance for parents of statemented children.

I will now deal with amendment Nos 3 and 4. During the Committee Stage, the Association of Educational Psychologists and the Equality Commission suggested that clause 3 be amended in order to set out a framework for personal learning plans, including an obligation for regular review and the transfer of information between schools. The teaching unions expressed concerns about an additional associated bureaucratic burden on teachers and confusion in respect of the monitoring of outcomes associated with PLPs.

The Department clarified that PLPs would provide greater focus on outcomes and monitoring than the existing non-statutory individual plans and that the revised code of practice would set out the relevant format and content of PLPs, and the timescale for the review etc. The Committee noted the Department's explanations and accepted that statutory PLPs would provide greater clarity and certainty for all pupils. However, the Committee expressed concerns in respect of educational transitions. In particular, members wanted to ensure that important SEN information that identified educational support provision should transfer with a child when they changed school. Members therefore felt that sharing PLPs between schools was essential and that the necessary provisions should be in the Bill. Members noted that where parents felt that the school had wrongly diagnosed an educational need, it was likely that those parents would prefer that the relevant PLP should not transfer with the child. Thus the Committee agreed to support amendments that would place an obligation on the board of governors of mainstream or special schools to transfer PLPs with a transferring pupil to the board of governors of the receiving school. That obligation is subject to the agreement of the parent or, in line with the spirit of the Bill, the child, where the child is above compulsory school age. I am happy to indicate that the Department accepted those amendments and the Minister will move them today.

I would like to move to Committee amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7. A wide range of witnesses to the Committee expressed dismay in respect of the poor and unsatisfactory levels of cooperation between health and education bodies. Many representative organisations expressed similar views on health and education overlaps, at the Committee stakeholder event, which was organised with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Stakeholders advised that the current provisions permit health and social care trusts to sometimes decline to provide support to SEN children, even where it is identified in a SEN statement, owing to resource constraints. It was argued that that allows for significant variation in the SEN provision available to children in different parts of Northern Ireland. How often have we heard reference to a "postcode lottery"? I think that there is concern that there is that variation within Northern Ireland. Respondents to the Committee Stage, including the Committee for Health, indicated support in principle for amendments that would place an enhanced duty on health and education boards to share information, plan jointly and generally cooperate. Autism NI also suggested that a third-party organisation was needed in order to oversee the effectiveness of cooperation between Health and Education.

The Department of Health and witnesses from the Education Authority and the Health and Social Care Board highlighted extensive examples of successful and ongoing cooperation between both sectors. The Department also argued that further statutory obligations relating to cooperation would be unlikely to lead to improvement, as the relevant constraints related to budgets rather than legislation. The Department indicated that further obligations might entail considerable additional costs, with questionable additional benefits for children with SEN. The Department advised that, in any event, new protocols were being developed that were designed to enhance cooperation between Education and Health and that this process was supported by the ongoing review of allied health professionals services.

The Committee noted with considerable concern the views expressed by many stakeholders during and, indeed, prior to the Committee Stage of the Bill in respect of what we might characterise as lacklustre cooperation between health and education bodies. The Committee noted the large number of SEN assessments and statements that are produced outside of statutory timescales, as an apparent consequence of poor communication between HSCTs and the Education Authority. It was singularly unimpressed by the evidence from the Department, the Education Authority and the Health and Social Care Board in that regard. It was also disappointed by the Department’s inability to share draft protocols covering enhanced cooperation and noted the apparently limited progress at that time in respect of the review of allied health professional support for children and young people with SEN. Members felt that ongoing liaison programmes and departmental assertions of good intentions were, in the case of the former, ineffective and, in the case of the latter, not particularly credible. The Committee therefore took the view that further obligations for health and education cooperation were required. It agreed that variations in SEN provision, both geographical and otherwise, might be best tackled in the interim by supporting a revised duty on HSCTs to provide services identified in SEN statements. The Committee therefore agreed to support amendment No 7.

The Committee also felt that, owing to the limited nature and unsatisfactory level of cooperation between education and health bodies, a more general obligation in that regard was required, linked to specific activities, including the sharing of information and integrated planning, underpinned by powers to pool budgets as appropriate. The Committee felt that such an obligation was necessary in order to address perceived long-standing failures by relevant bodies to deliver consistent services for SEN children and to coherently meet the challenge presented by increasing demand for SEN services in schools.

The House recently passed the Children’s Services Co-operation Bill, which included provisions relating to general joint commissioning in support of the well-being of children. As the scope of the SEND Bill is limited to SEN and disability, the Committee agreed to table amendment No 5, dealing with education and health cooperation in the provision of SEN services and specifically referencing issues raised in evidence, including the requirement to share information, undertake integrated planning and share budgets as necessary.

The Committee noted proposals to establish a new oversight body or imbue an existing body with oversight powers in relation to health and education. Members agreed that, for the present, the establishment of a new quango in the health and education sectors would be expensive and potentially ineffective. They noted departmental suggestions that existing duties of an existing body — for instance, the RQIA — might possibly impinge on or duplicate the role of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) and have questionable effect on SEN provision, given the former organisation’s limited experience of the education sector. The Committee obtained the views of the RQIA and NICCY in that regard, and they did not agree. The Committee subsequently agreed to table amendment No 6, which would extend the duties of the RQIA to include the assessment of cooperation between the Departments of Education and Health in the provision of SEN services. Some Members indicated that they might wish to consider further related amendments in respect of the period during which a report might be generated by the RQIA.


12.45 pm

The Committee also sought the views of the sponsor of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. He advised — I paraphrase, but I am sure that if I get it wrong he will be happy to correct me — that, while there was some overlap, he did not believe that the amendments unnecessarily duplicated or, indeed, undermined his Bill. Obviously, the Minister has indicated that the Department does not support amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7.

The Committee suggested other amendments that the Department agreed to support and the Minister will move today. In particular, I would like to mention amendment No 2, which enhances the obligations on schools in respect of support for children with SEN. The other amendments generally deal with strengthening the obligation on the Department's regulatory powers in relation to the SEN plan; the duties of boards of governors in respect of SEN provision; appeals against the content of statements for children under two; and assistance, support and assessment for children above compulsory school age who wish to exercise their SEN rights.

Probably not surprisingly, given the complexity of the issue, the Committee took a little longer than expected to complete its work on the Bill. In concluding my remarks as Chairman, I commend my colleagues for their patience, their diligence and their thorough consideration of these important issues.

The issues have been fairly well covered, so I will just make a few final remarks from the perspective of the DUP. I am glad to see that there has been a spirit of cooperation in seeing where we can improve the Bill. As was indicated earlier, the focus has to be on making the best possible provision for children, in particular, and their parents. We need to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible and is delivered as quickly as possible and that we do not get unnecessary additional burdens on schools. To that end, I welcome the fact that, when concerns were raised at various stages by stakeholders and then reflected by the Committee, the Department, either by giving assurances or by taking on amendments, showed a spirit of cooperation and allowed us to see those.

I turn to the amendments from the Committee's point of view. I took on board what the sponsor of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill said — obviously, our amendments predated his — and, whereas I appreciate that the Minister has indicated that there is a level of duplication, I see things slightly differently. I take on board what Mr Agnew said: while there may be some overlap, the two are not necessarily the same and, indeed, amendment Nos 5 and 7, in particular, provide greater clarity. From that point of view, I am fairly relaxed about amendment Nos 5 and 7 and think that they could be useful.

I take on board what has been said by the Minister about amendment No 6. Essentially, the RQIA has volunteered for this oversight role. It is clear that, whatever cooperation there is, there will have to be a level of oversight. However, I take on board what was said by the Health Minister and the Education Minister about how it would require additional legislation to amend the role of the RQIA and how, despite its willingness to volunteer, it may not be the most appropriate body to do this. To that extent, as an individual Member, I am persuaded by the argument that amendment No 6 is not one that should be supported; indeed, it could be looked at when putting something in place.

Having listened to the Minister, the Committee and, indeed, the DUP are persuaded that amendment No 8 is the way to go. I simply caution that there is probably not a fundamental difference on amendment No 8 between the Department and us.

It is probably more a question of what we regard as clarity and legislative tactics. The Minister clearly believes that it is best dealt with by way of regulations. From a Committee and party point of view, we believe that, in providing that level of clarity and clear reassurance to groups, it is worthwhile pursuing amendment No 8.

I commend these amendments to the House. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I support most of the amendments but oppose amendment No 8, taking on board what has been laid out by the Minister.

Most in the Chamber will agree and take comfort from the fact that the process has been years in the making and that a lot of the issues have been dealt with by previous Education Committee members long before I had the chance to come onto the Committee. As was outlined by the Chair, it has been very positive to see that spirit of cooperation breaking out and a consensus that we need to deal with fairly complex areas of concern. Putting the child at the centre of the process has been to the fore of everybody's mind, which is great.

I notice that it is mostly Education Committee members who are in the Chamber, but special educational needs issues dominate MLAs' inboxes and workloads, and parents and schools are often frustrated that they are not able to access services or that there are various difficulties. The Bill will be a sea change in dealing with that.

As the Minister outlined, the Bill represents a new framework that is built on principles that the Committee very much focused on: transparency, inclusiveness, accountability, and reducing bureaucracy and red tape. At its very core, it is about putting the child at the centre of the process. We have seen how much we have strengthened the rights of the child and parents' appeals. Perhaps most important is the building of capacity in teachers and schools to be able to deliver world-class and up-to-date services for children with special educational needs. The Bill forms the building blocks of a far brighter future, and I look forward to the regulations and consultation that will follow.

Much of the contest on some of the amendments touches on the emerging need to cooperate and for co-design between Departments. That comes from Mr Agnew's Bill, but a lot of it predates it. Some of the amendments take unique opportunities on board. Too often, there is a silo mentality between our Departments and even within Departments. That comes up all the time when we are dealing with special educational needs: the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing and so on. Any attempt to break that down is very welcome.

I take on board many of the concerns that the previous Member who spoke laid out about duplication and some of his concerns about the amendments. I refer to the Minister's point about sitting down with the Health Department and working out technical amendments for Further Consideration Stage. That gives us the scope to press ahead with the amendments. It is a unique opportunity. Parents are calling for and demanding a far more coordinated process, and we need to look at that.

Perhaps the Health Department is saying that a lot of the permissive powers are sitting on the shelf, and we do not need new powers. However, the point is that they are not being utilised to the extent that we need to see. The duty to cooperate —

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hazzard: I will indeed.

Mr Agnew: The Member made the point that the Education Department and the Health Department need to sit down in advance of Further Consideration Stage. Does he not agree that that should have happened in advance of the Bill being brought to the House?

Mr Hazzard: I have no doubt that the Departments have been talking, and, from the Minister's comments today, it sounds as though discussions have taken place the whole way through the process. If I gave the impression that they will only be sitting down for Further Consideration Stage, it is not what I meant to do.

On the amendments to cooperate, it may be advantageous to deal specifically with the duplication issues and areas that can be tidied up to make sure that it is workable. That is what we want. The Committee certainly does not want to make bad law. We want to strengthen what is going on and do not want any unintended consequences negating what we are trying to do.

I take on board the comments that the RQIA is maybe not the best body for the purpose, but it is great that it volunteered. That is a perfect example of co-design and cooperation working.

On amendment No 7, one of the biggest things when dealing with all of this has been the geographic disparity that there is sometimes. We have all seen it in our constituency. Amendment No 7 would help to tackle that, because the situation desperately needs to be addressed.

On amendment No 8, I take on board the Minister's comment that, if the Bill provides a "building block" — those were the words used — the regulations will follow and that that is where the matter will be dealt with. I am entirely supportive of parents' desire for clarity on what services their child requires, but I am happy to go with what the Minister said about the regulations and, especially, the consultation. We do not want to put the cart before the horse. Perhaps amendment No 8 pre-empts the consultation process. That is why we will be opposing it.

I am happy to support the Minister's amendments. Out of all of them, I will speak about amendment Nos 3 and 4 and the transfer of the personal learning plan. The personal learning plan is one of the Bill's big strengths. It will be able to be transferred from school to school. Parents will be very happy with that, and it will be a big success. Therefore, we will be supporting amendment Nos 1 to 12, with the exception of amendment No 8.

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

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.56 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Questions 7 and 11 have been withdrawn.

Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 10 together.

Reducing our corporation tax rate to 12·5%, which we have committed to do from 2018, will bring with it the potential to transform the local economy by creating well in excess of 30,000 additional jobs and boosting output by around a further 10% by 2033 when compared to a business-as-usual pathway. We have already begun planning so that we can maximise this potential. For example, work is under way around gaining insight into the new FDI markets that a lower rate will open doors to. We are also looking at the types and sectors of those investments and the parts of the world that we should be targeting.

We are doing this in collaboration with the Department for Employment and Learning. The results of this work will feed into its recently launched skills barometer, to help ensure that any expected skills shortages can be identified, planned for and addressed, so that companies have access to the right skills and talent that they need to make their operations here a success under a lower corporation tax regime.

Mr McKinney: The question referred to discussions with the Minister for Employment and Learning, and I noticed that there was no reflection on whether there were discussions. However, I have a comment that the Minister for Employment and Learning made yesterday in the Chamber, principally around Fresh Start discussions. He said:

"It is important that we start now to invest more in skills. Simply waiting until 2018 to do so will not be effective." — [Official Report, Vol 109, No 10, p55, col 2].

That does not instil me, and I am sure that it will not instil other Members of the House, with any confidence that these discussions are being had or are being productive.

Mr Bell: I think that the Member is not aware of the full scale of the facts of our discussions, and I will set those out a little better for him. We have ongoing discussions with DEL. Minister Farry has always made himself and his officials available and we constantly share the understanding and intelligence that we have, sometimes up to three times a day. This is particularly so when we are faced with major challenges, such as those we have been faced with in some areas of north Antrim, when we will meet throughout the day. So, I assure the Member that a series of constant discussions go on with DEL.

I have to praise DEL's input to this Department in making sure that we are fit for purpose. However, all of us around the Chamber are aware that our unemployment rate is 5·9%. The European Union average is 9·5%. We want to make sure that we can drive down that 5·9%, which is too many. How do we do that? We do it by advertising the fact that Northern Ireland can lead on tax, talent and costs. Northern Ireland business operates at about 85% of the UK costs and 95% of the Republic of Ireland costs. We have a tremendous asset, and it behoves everyone in the Chamber to go out, sell it and bring jobs to Northern Ireland.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers. Can he give me his assessment of how we can address all the real challenges related to manufacturing, such as, obviously, the cost of energy, labour and transportation?

Mr Bell: Manufacturing has faced significant challenges. I pay tribute to the men and women in Northern Ireland who have taken our manufacturing to new levels of growth and have added jobs to the manufacturing sector.

I want to cut through all the spin and go straight for the hard economic data on manufacturing. I refer to some words that were given to us by Professor Neil Gibson:

"The manufacturing sector is larger in NI than the UK average, accounting for 13.6% of Gross Value Added (GVA) and 10% of employment".

Benchmarking Northern Ireland against other parts of our United Kingdom, manufacturing here accounts for 13·6% of GVA, whereas the UK average is 10%. Manufacturing accounts for 10% of our employment, whereas the UK average is 8%.

I pay tribute to people who are manufacturing, because we have a great manufacturing base. We have people who are working extremely hard, and we need to attract further manufacturing jobs to Northern Ireland on the basis of our lower corporation tax, the talent of our people and cost.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Minister for his responses so far and welcome the research and analysis that is under way, particularly with DEL. Does the Minister expect us to attract new jobs in the manufacturing sector? Does he want to clarify comments he made recently, when he said:

"Don't let anyone tell you that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is in a difficult position."

I remind him that we have seen well over 1,000 redundancies announced in the manufacturing sector.

Mr Bell: I am more than happy to clarify that, because, unlike the Member, I will not talk manufacturing down in Northern Ireland. When manufacturing is growing in Northern Ireland, it does not serve any purpose for small people to try to make themselves look tall by talking about where jobs have been lost. If he had listened to what the workers at Michelin said, he would have heard them say, "We were beaten by a five million reduction in the European tyre market. There was nothing more that government or Invest Northern Ireland could've done." Their words, Mr Cochrane-Watson, not mine.

While I am on my feet, I should clarify something: you very foolishly attempted to introduce a point of accuracy into this House in relation to Schrader. From my conversations with the company during the week, it is still practising as Schrader. It has been bought over in the same way that Moy Park was bought over, and that company still trades as Moy Park. So, your ignorance of your constituency appears to extend to your ignorance of company law.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We do not take points of order until the end of Question Time.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I would not want the Minister to —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am sorry. Do not challenge the Chair. Keep your questions succinct and do not encourage debates; it is Question Time.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that that is a warning for me, and I will take it on board.

One thing that the Minister and I agree on is that the Fresh Start Agreement gave confidence to the business community and those who wish to build the economy. In that context, has he seen the prosperity plan from the last SDLP Member to speak, Mr McKinney? I have not seen that prosperity plan. Has the Minister seen that prosperity plan, which may have an alternative way to grow the economy? If he has, will he give me his assessment of the SDLP prosperity plan?

Mr Bell: I have talked to the trade unions, the CBI and the Chamber of Commerce, and the consistent message that they have been giving us is, "We want all the politicians in Northern Ireland to work together. We want the Executive to work together". There is now an onus on all of us because the business community thrives on confidence. What can we say? We can go to the rest of the world and say that Northern Ireland attracts more foreign direct investment than any other part of the United Kingdom thanks to the skills of its people, a low-cost operating base, the talent of its people and one of the best-educated workforces — a youth workforce — that Europe has.

What all of us have to do is put our shoulders to the wheel. I do not think that any advantage will be given by people who seek to snipe and carp from the sidelines and to talk down people's jobs and the growth in manufacturing. We should be talking Northern Ireland up, because, despite the ignorance of what some Members will try to tell you, our people are delivering ahead of the UK averages, including in manufacturing.

Mr Allister: I find the Minister's complacency about the decline in our manufacturing quite astounding. He talks about ongoing discussions with the Minister for Employment and Learning that are going to produce the skills needed if his exaggerated claim about 30,000 jobs on the back of corporation tax is ever to be met. The same Minister for Employment and Learning has time without number in recent months complained vigorously and publicly about the lack of commitment to skills, skilling up and training to meet that challenge. How is it that the Minister thinks that he is making progress on delivering these things when the Minister in charge, the Minister for Employment and Learning, does not seem to know anything about it?

Mr Bell: We have just had another prime example of a small person who needs to try to talk other people down and talk the manufacturing industry down in an attempt to make himself look big. I tell the Member that, contrary to what he would believe, he does not know it all; none of us does. The reality is that we got the figure of 30,000 jobs from Professor Neil Gibson.

I know that the Member believes himself to be an expert in everything, but he is not. We turned to the best evidence that we have. Here we have an opportunity to attract 30,000 jobs to Northern Ireland, and the small-minded and petty can just snarl. There is not a word about going out around the world trying to attract jobs. There is not a word about the manufacturing sector and the skills that we do have. The interesting thing, particularly for his constituency, is that, to the best of my knowledge, I have spoken to every other party in the House. The only party that has never spoken to me directly about manufacturing is the Member's. Is it the case that the Member is the perfect embodiment of the hollow vessel from north Antrim sounding the loudest?

Mr Allister: You will not even answer the question.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I will not remind the Member again. If there are any more remarks from a sedentary position, he will not be heard for a very long time.

Mr Bell: I congratulate the Northern Ireland team on qualifying top of their group. It was a wonderful night to be at Windsor Park and witness it at first hand. The tremendous atmosphere of everybody celebrating Northern Ireland's success together is perhaps a lesson to all of us in the House. I want to wish the Northern Ireland team every success in the finals in France next summer. I should say, too, that my thoughts are very much with the people of France and Paris in particular.

In recent years, Tourism Northern Ireland has been working closely with various sporting organisations, such as the Irish Football Association, in developing marketing initiatives to promote Northern Ireland. In terms of the European Championships 2016, Tourism Northern Ireland will work with its partners Tourism Ireland to exploit any potential destination marketing and PR opportunities to promote Northern Ireland in overseas markets.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer. Whilst it is hugely important that we support the Northern Ireland football team in France, I am disappointed that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has not held a reception for the team at Stormont, given that the CAL Minister has previously welcomed foreign nations to Parliament Buildings. Does the Minister plan to welcome the team to Stormont in the near future and show his support for our home team?

Mr Bell: Yes. I have already issued an invitation that I understand will be taken up by the Northern Ireland football team and their management. It is important for us to celebrate the huge success of the Northern Ireland team and what they have achieved. Even under the old rules of qualification for the Euros, Northern Ireland would have qualified this time. No play-off was required for the team; it delivered, and it delivered well and came in top of its group. The team deserves the support of all of us.

The success of our football team comes on the back of the success of Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Carl Frampton, A P McCoy, our Commonwealth Games team, our Olympians and the Ireland and Ulster rugby teams. It would be outrageous if the success of our football team was not recognised here in Stormont. That is why I spoke with the IFA. We will ensure that a suitable date is found, hopefully around the time of the March international break. We will be here to honour the team. When I looked at Windsor Park, I saw that Northern Ireland was completely united behind the team. It was one of the best nights that I have ever enjoyed. It gave a huge lift not only to those who were there but to the country. I hope that we can all come together to celebrate that success.


2.15 pm

Mr Nesbitt: I would be grateful if the Minister shared with the House his assessment of how well utilised the opportunities were that presented themselves at the last finals that Northern Ireland qualified for, Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986? Does he agree with the constructive criticisms at the time by Harold McCusker, a politician whom I know he, like me, holds in great esteem?

Mr Bell: I associate myself with the remarks of the late Harold McCusker, a person whom I had the privilege of knowing personally. He was a leader and a gentleman, and a fine man of the greatest integrity. He made an enormous contribution. I cannot say too much about Spain 1982. I can remember watching it very late at night. I was 12 years of age and was allowed to stay up on the Friday night as Gerry Armstrong scored that goal. I can tell the Member that my office is open to him and to anybody else to come and share ideas, look at what synergies we can get out of our collective wisdom and use them collectively.

The Northern Ireland team is delivering on the field, Northern Ireland's politicians have delivered by way of Fresh Start, and our young people are delivering with some of the best education results in Europe. Furthermore, Northern Ireland has had significantly lower levels of unemployment than the Republic of Ireland for the most of the last five years, and, for most of that period, it has been below the UK average. So, out there, people are delivering and they are delivering success. Let us utilise that success for the advantage of future generations.

Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Member for asking the original question. It is very prudent and timely. In his answers, the Minister is right: the people are delivering ahead of anyone. In that, I include our sportspeople. Again, I take the opportunity in the House to congratulate the Northern Ireland football team and, indeed, the Irish football team, which has also qualified. There is an opportunity for the Minister, who is a great promoter of sports tourism, to start delivering for our communities by, perhaps, opening up a conversation with Executive colleagues and the Irish Government on the economic benefits of an all-Ireland tourism strategy. Has the Minister any plans for that to happen?

Mr Bell: I congratulate the Member on acknowledging the work that the Department puts in. I have been in it for only six months, but my predecessor, Arlene Foster, did a tremendous job, particularly for the Member's constituency. The Irish Open has sold out only twice in its history — first, in Royal Portrush and, secondly, in Royal County Down. We celebrated over 107,000 paying spectators and wall-to-wall coverage. Not only did that boost our golf tourism strategy, but it also boosted our goal of delivering tourism as a £1 billion industry by 2020. This year, we are already over three quarters of a billion pounds en route to that target. I have been working with the Irish Government, particularly on getting the Rugby World Cup to Ireland in 2023. It is important that we have the right stadia, but it is also important in the sense that some of the provisional figures say that we could attract somewhere in the region of 350,000 people to Ireland and that, in particular, Northern Ireland could play a key role in about eight rugby international matches and, perhaps, a quarter-final.

If we were able to pull that off, it would be a tremendous gift for Northern Ireland, because we have earned a reputation from the G8, the Giro d'Italia, the two successful Irish Opens, and, let us not forget, we will have the world's greatest golf tournament at Royal Portrush in 2019. We have an earned reputation for pulling off international events hugely successfully. I will do all in my power to back all that and drive our tourism beyond the £1 billion target by 2020.

Mr Bell: Invest Northern Ireland supported 13 Northern Ireland companies to attend the Food Hotel China exhibition in Shanghai last month. It is the fourth year that Northern Ireland companies have exhibited at the event. Invest Northern Ireland has also supplemented its in-market China team and now has three trade advisers based in Shanghai and one in Beijing. The team works closely with our agrifood companies. Invest Northern Ireland also hosts visits from Chinese food buyers, which allows them to experience at first hand the quality of our food products and the security of our supply chain. I believe that there is significant potential in China for our agrifood industry, which Northern Ireland will continue to promote. We have a strong academic evidence base to show that Northern Ireland is producing the safest food in the world. We want companies such as Moy Park, which has 6,000 employees, to grow in order for us to grow the economy and jobs in Northern Ireland.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline whether there are any plans to further the work of Invest NI with the second-tier cities, because there are criticisms that people tend to concentrate their efforts on Beijing and Shanghai, but there are enormous opportunities in other provinces? Further to Mr Ó Muilleoir's comments, would the Minister express surprise that, given Sinn Féin's recent marriage and wedlock with the Tories, he is now begging the SDLP for our economic policy document?

Mr Bell: I fear that I should not interfere with private grief.

First, I congratulate the Member because she has led the all-party group on China hugely successfully. Secondly, she was instrumental from 2010 in ensuring that Northern Ireland got some £8 million investment into Ulster University, and today, through the work that she led on and the Confucius Institute, from Aquinas Grammar in Belfast to Bangor Academy in my area to the South West Regional College to Millburn Primary in Coleraine — I could go through the list of the eight hubs — we are delivering some £27 million of investment directly from the Chinese Government in children here learning Mandarin. This year alone, over 1,500 children qualified in Mandarin. I have seen children from the west of the Province who went into school on Saturdays specifically to learn and to get their first HK qualification, and it was quite inspirational.

The Member's question was about second-tier cities. We have been following Vice Premier Liu Yandong's advice. In particular, we are looking very much at Shenyang in Liaoning province in the north-east. I travelled up there. We brought news of what companies here can offer. We were able to deliver the news about corporation tax, the talent of our people and the cost-efficiency of producing and creating jobs in Northern Ireland. The British Embassy is fully supportive of that link between Northern Ireland and the north-eastern part, Liaoning province and Shenyang and Yingkou in particular. We will continue to exploit and deliver those links not just for education in Northern Ireland but for job creation here.

Mr Lyons: I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the news about exports of pork products to China. Will he give the House his assessment of further opportunities for exports for our agrifood sector?

Mr Bell: I congratulate two distinguished women for what they have achieved. First is my predecessor, Arlene Foster, who took a specific initiative for trade to lead a number of agrifood trade missions to China.

Secondly, I congratulate the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, who has given us some of the best news that has been heard in the period of this Assembly, which is that, subject to some qualifications for Karro and Dunbia, we will be able to export our pork product to China. The initial view feeding through to me is that it is an investment of somewhere in the region of £10 million.

I also want us to be able to develop our poultry, beef and lamb products. Manufacturing exports to China, including food — some people like to joke about international travel to China — have increased by 58% over the current Programme for Government. Exports rose from £60·3 million in 2010-11 to £95·5 million in 2014-15. We all have a job to do, and I will be happy to lead. Agriculture has certainly delivered on pork. Arlene Foster, in her time, delivered on all the trade opportunities that I am now able to build on. All of us have the enormous prize of exporting to China next year products worth above the £100 million barrier.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive responses so far. He has confirmed the role of DARD and the Minister, Michelle O'Neill. Will he outline the work required in the time ahead, including forward work planning with the various Departments, including DARD, to enhance the work already undertaken?

Mr Bell: DARD and DETI will work together to deliver our agrifood product into China because the market is so huge. The sky is the limit for the number of jobs that we could, collectively, create if we get those licences through. Michelle O'Neill pioneered enormously successful work to get licensing to get the product in. That was built on a background of Arlene Foster creating numerous opportunities for our businesses. Now that they have the licence, they can take the full advantage of that into the markets with the relevant distributors.

Export certification is a reserved matter. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in Westminster has taken the lead, with us, in opening up exports of pork. I want to continue to work very closely with DEFRA to achieve the same result for chicken, beef and lamb. For Northern Ireland's industry, the announcement on pork adds value to the carcass for producers and processors. Only when the pork processing plants are formally listed on the Chinese Government websites can those exports can begin.

It has taken a number of years to get to this point. It would be remiss of me not to congratulate the agrifood industry for its patience and its commitment to achieving the result, which is, as I said, worth in the region of £10 million in additional export sales. I believe that to be a conservative estimate, given the size of the market, a population of almost 1·4 billion people and the appetite for the pork, chicken and beef dishes that we do so safely and so well in Northern Ireland.

Mr Bell: Invest Northern Ireland continues to offer support for the development of new tourism accommodation projects in south Down. Support is aimed at encouraging the development of new accommodation in line with forecast future demand. New accommodation developments may benefit from capital support from Invest Northern Ireland, if the promoter can demonstrate that the project is market-driven; is capable of attracting visitors from outside Northern Ireland; and is not displacing people from similar projects. Invest Northern Ireland is happy to engage with any promoter who may meet the criteria for support.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Does the Minister agree that south Down, like other counties in the North of Ireland, needs a range of accommodation provision? Accommodation is the biggest spend of any tourist.

We need B&Bs, hostels, hotels and self-catering accommodation. Given that there is currently a lack of provision, particularly in the southern end of the county, can he outline what work he is doing to ensure that that provision is created?


2.30 pm

Mr Bell: What I want to see are projects coming forward from the area that look at our criteria. I have laid out the criteria for accessing support. I could go through thousands of offers, and not just for the tourism offering, that we have given to locally owned businesses in the South Down parliamentary constituency. The Member is right, and I mentioned this earlier when I was speaking to Mrs McKevitt about what south Down has to offer. Not only was there the success of 107,000 paying spectators at the most recent Irish Open but there was the success of television companies such as the Golf Channel broadcasting the sheer geographical beauty of south Down for dozens of hours back to back.

I can say to the Member that, in the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area, there are 312 premises and 1,200 rooms. To answer her question, that at the minute excludes self-catering accommodation, as that is not recorded. There are about 4,288 bed spaces. Anybody who has had the privilege, as I have had at different times, to be at the Slieve Donard Hotel, the Burrendale Hotel, the Donard Hotel, the Enniskeen Country House Hotel or the Canal Court Hotel and Spa in Newry will know that not only do you get a wonderful tourism offering — with the heritage on offer, the world's best golf courses and some of the best shopping and leisure opportunities — but you get some of the best-quality hotel and B&B accommodation in Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am afraid that that ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Ms Fearon asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his assessment of the preparations for the Year of Food and Drink 2016. (AQT 3221/11-16)

Mr Bell: I and a very distinguished team with some key figures in it — Michele Shirlow, Howard Hastings and a number of others — have been conducting preparations. We are also cooperating with Minister's O'Neill's Department, DARD. First, we launched the programme in Amsterdam. We took a Dutch chef who is based in Bangor in County Down across to Amsterdam to some of the leading travel and food critics in Europe. We were able to host some specific produce that we had taken forward.

Furthermore, we held a number of festivals; for example, the Comber Potato Festival, which was hugely successful. A number of producers with bespoke products were able to bring those to market. We then did an event in the Titanic building, at which we showcased all the specific Northern Ireland foods.

Most recently, I brought literally hundreds of people together from every county in Northern Ireland to the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. We set out stalls of our products and brought in some leading critics from 'MasterChef' and elsewhere. Other people are probably more expert on cookery programmes than I am, but some of the leading critics were there. It was an opportunity for us to bring buyers by the hundred through the hotel to let them see what Northern Ireland had to offer specifically. I should say that I was particularly delighted that Madam Wang, our new consul general in Northern Ireland from China, came along to look at the quality of the produce on offer. The knowledge base is saying that we have the safest food in the world, and the first criterion that the Asian markets in particular are looking for is safe food. Northern Ireland can deliver that.

Ms Fearon: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer so far. Will he encourage Tourism NI to work closely with Fáilte Ireland, which has recently launched a network of food champions across the South, on developing plans over the coming year?

Mr Bell: Absolutely. Tourism Northern Ireland works very well with Tourism Ireland in terms of the product that we have to offer. I just came back from China last week, where there was representation by significant travel agencies from China. We understand that, in future, millions of people will travel because the economy is becoming so successful. At that event, the information was largely supported by the expertise of Tourism Northern Ireland but was delivered in that particular market by Tourism Ireland. I can tell you that there was a full room of people in the centre of a major Shanghai hotel who were looking to bring their travel companies and lead tours to Northern Ireland. The latest figure I have for the Giant's Causeway alone was 28,000 Chinese visitors.

At the last event that we held at the Stormont Hotel, we had some of the Irish food critics up. We also had some of their award winners. We will share best practice and expertise because our agrifood industry over the last period has performed against some of the worst economic conditions that there have ever been for most of our lifetimes. That trajectory is going up, and all of us need to get behind them and support them.

T2. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to comment on the recently awarded Michelin stars to Deane’s Eipic and Ox in Belfast and the effect that that will have on the image of Belfast as a tourist destination. (AQT 3222/11-16)

Mr Bell: The Member raises a hugely valid question for tourism and our economy in Northern Ireland, because the award of those Michelin stars to Ox and Deane's Eipic puts Northern Ireland on a world food map for excellence. Many of us knew that excellence was there, but the award confirms it and elevates it to a number of websites and travel agencies as an additional offering in Belfast. I am a Belfast boy, born, bred and probably battered, but I have never been more optimistic for Belfast than I am today. Look at the number of hotels that there are coming in from Beannchor and Bill Wolsey, right through to the four- to five-star Hastings hotel. Hotels that closed in Belfast in the 1970s are now reopening in bigger and better premises right at the heart of what is a great city. The food offering will greatly complement that success.

Mr G Kelly: Gahbaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer. I would like to join others who have congratulated the local entrepreneurs behind the success of those two restaurants. The Minister will know that there is a demand from restaurateurs about reducing their VAT burdens. Perhaps he could speak about what plans he has to support that demand and perhaps bring the rates down to, I dare say, those on the other side of the border.

Mr Bell: We fully support the reduction in the rate but it is not within our power to deliver it; it is a reserved matter. I spoke in London a couple of months ago at the British Hospitality Association and made the exact plea that you have made to allow our industry to be competitive. I have also spoken to the Secretary of State, Boris Johnson and others specifically in relation to trying to get VAT reduced. I fully support the work that Hospitality Ulster and the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation have done.

We will continue to push at that door. I am not being given any indication that we will be able to get it changed, but we will continue that push because the latest figures that we have show that our trajectory of tourist visitors to Northern Ireland is up. Belfast is thriving. Crumlin Road Courthouse is an immense visitor experience. It is sometimes best not just to think of what we think about it but to actually go to hear what the industry is saying and what the people who experience it are saying about the Crumlin Road in your own constituency. The trajectory of the success of that particular tourism initiative has been huge. The feedback is huge. I am not sure if it still is — I have not checked recently — but I know that it was the leading attraction, particularly for Belfast. When you put together the quality from Titanic to Crumlin Road Courthouse through to, this morning, HMS Caroline and, on the back of that, new hotels and a new conference centre, you realise that Belfast is really on the move.

T3. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, given the prospect of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, if such a referendum took place tomorrow, what way would he, as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, vote. (AQT 3223/11-16)

Mr Bell: The reality is that there will not be a referendum tomorrow, and there is not likely to be a referendum until, I understand, 2017. So, what this Minister for Enterprise has done is to commission research from Oxford Economics, because I want our people to have the best and most informed knowledge when they make these critical decisions. I have commissioned research not only on a potential Brexit but also on taking a laissez-faire approach, keeping it as it is, and what that would mean and what it would cost. I have also asked Oxford Economics and others to look at some of the other measures out there. Norway, I understand, has its own arrangements. The Swiss have a different relationship. Turkey has a customs relationship. So, the point has to be this: let us get the best, informed analysis to make our decision when the referendum comes.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answer. Quite clearly, he did not give me a definitive yes or no. His answer was about trying to inform the electorate of the issues, and I welcome that. I inform him that I would vote yes. Further to that, does he foresee, at any stage, any merit in Northern Ireland being outside the European Union?

Mr Bell: It is not my place to advise the Member, but if I may be so bold as to say that you should not say how you will answer the question until you know what the question actually is.

Northern Ireland has been a net beneficiary when it comes to moneys received from the EU. We do not know the referendum question, so I think that, in advance of knowing it, we have to be careful when trying to give answers. My position, which he knows, and which was so ably set out by our MEP Diane Dodds, is that I believe that the European Union needs to be renegotiated. We will then look at what comes out of that renegotiation to see what is in the best interests of Northern Ireland. Until we have had that renegotiation and that evidence, I do not think that you can start to make decisions, because decisions made without evidence and knowledge are usually pretty poor decisions. There will be big outcomes, whatever decision we make. That is why the best thing for us all to do, in advance of hearing the question, is to look at the advantages and disadvantages of a complete Brexit and at the other opportunities so that the people of Northern Ireland can be best informed. I believe that, in its current form, the European Union needs to be renegotiated.

T4. Mr McCartney asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, mindful of the issues with Michelin and other large employers, to outline the steps that he has taken on energy costs for that type of employer, albeit that he did not think that he would live to see the day when Crumlin Road Gaol and a Michelin star were mentioned in the same sentence, with the hospitality industry revolving around tourism and the contributions of local people on good incomes. (AQT 3224/11-16)

Mr Bell: Energy costs are but one particular part of the difficulty that all of us in the House face. It is an energy "trilemma": it is not only the cost of energy but the security of our supply and the sustainability of that energy. We have to be very careful because, although it is a devolved matter and DETI can take a lead, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has informed us that, if we step outside its arrangements, domestic and business customers in Northern Ireland will bear the entire cost.


2.45 pm

The first thing that I have been doing — the Member will be aware of this — is pressing to get our North/South interconnector through its planning stages and fully operational. That is the first quick win because there is €20 million automatically there. Secondly, we will speak with DECC to see what individual advantages we can get to Northern Ireland for our renewables sector. However, I will caution the Member in the sense that I have had estimates for having to put up household bills ranging from £15 right up to £50. The consequences of that for industry are tens of thousands of pounds, and, for some of our big users, it is not an exaggeration to talk about millions.

We will work on energy. I do not believe that there will be any immediate quick fixes. I have asked an expert panel to seek best international practice, but energy is only one factor. Costs are a critical factor. We can all sell Northern Ireland as having 85% of the costs of the UK, 95% of the costs of the Republic and a lower rate of corporation tax.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr McCartney for a very quick supplementary.

Mr McCartney: Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Deputy Speaker. Seagate in Derry has written to, I assume, all the Foyle MLAs. Can the Minister be mindful that, to an employer like Seagate, energy costs are a big factor and that, in the wider Derry economy, Seagate plays a massive role in ensuring that people have employment and disposable incomes?

Mr Bell: The Member makes the point very well for his constituency. That sort of thing has happened in other parts of Northern Ireland. For example, the House was very supportive of Bombardier in a project that is valued at up to somewhere in the region of £118 million to help it with its energy costs and potentially reduce those costs by 25%. For Michelin, there was an initiative on renewables and grant assistance for £750,000, but, unfortunately, due to other conditions beyond anybody's control in Northern Ireland, that could not be availed of. We will specifically look at that, but I advise the Member that there is no simple answer. If you take that energy cost away from the company, who pays for it? It has to be paid for somewhere along the line, and I would be loath to take on board an increase of up to £50 per household for the Northern Ireland domestic customer. The Member can come to me with specific details on Seagate, mindful that the economy in the west is doing well. In my first couple of weeks of office, I was delighted to announce hundreds of new jobs in that area, and that is a testament to the skills of the workforce and what it has to offer.

Environment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I must tell Members that question 1 has been withdrawn.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): My Department controls noise from airports through a number of policy areas. The environmental noise directive requires member states to undertake mapping of road, rail, industry and airport noise sources every five years and subsequently produce noise action plans. Noise maps were prepared in 2012 based on 2011 noise source data. Both Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport prepared noise action plans during 2013, which I have approved following a public consultation.

Noise at airports can be controlled by a planning agreement. Planning agreements are established under section 76 of the Planning Act 2011 and are used to overcome obstacles to the grant of planning permission where these cannot be addressed through planning conditions. Thus, planning agreements can be used to control noise at airports. George Best Belfast City Airport is the only Northern Ireland airport to have had a planning agreement in force since 1997.

My Department's strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), published in September, emphasises the need for planning authorities to take account of the full range of environmental and amenity considerations, including noise impacts, when formulating development plan policies such as zoning land for particular uses, developing key site requirements and also in determining planning applications. Consultation with relevant experts, including environmental health professionals, may be necessary, and it is important that authorities reach balanced decisions that weigh noise impacts against all other relevant material considerations.

Ms Fearon: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he have concerns about noise levels in the vicinity of airports? When will we hear the findings of a public inquiry into this issue at Belfast City Airport?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question and the supplementary. Many residents in this vicinity have concerns about the impact of noise at airports. As someone who lives near the City of Derry Airport, I have a concern that there is not enough noise; I would love to see and hear more flights coming in and going out on a daily basis.

The Department received the PAC report of the public inquiry into the proposed modification of the planning agreement with George Best Belfast City Airport on 30 October this year. Interested parties were notified that it had been received. Before releasing the report, which I have not yet seen, I will consider the advice of my Department on whether and how the agreement should or could be modified. The report will subsequently be made available to other stakeholders and the general public after it has been disclosed to the airport itself as the other party to the planning agreement.

Mr McKinney: Perhaps the Minister could outline what further steps are then taken as part of the process to reach accommodation on what are clearly, as he articulated, differing views on this issue.

Mr Durkan: There clearly are differing views. I have a degree of sympathy for those living in the immediate vicinity of the airport who feel that the noise has become too much. Under the current agreement with George Best Belfast City Airport, there are restrictions on seat numbers as well as on the times of air traffic. Some of the breaches of times, for example, that residents and objectors to the noise coming from the airport have pointed to are beyond the control of George Best Belfast City Airport, which I met last year and which convinced me that it was doing all in its power to address those issues. They are serious issues that cause residents serious concern.

The airport's proposals were received in March 2012, and a revised proposal and further information was received in 2013. Each submission was the subject of public consultation, and a significant number of representations was received. Interested parties also had the opportunity to submit evidence and appear before the PAC at the public inquiry. Now that the PAC report and recommendations have been formulated considering all that evidence, it is not intended to consult any parties on the PAC report or to reopen the debate. It is now for my Department and the airport to agree whether and how the agreement should be modified, taking into account the independent recommendations of the public inquiry.

Mr McGimpsey: Is he satisfied with the noise pollution policing regime, which is just a straight lift from a table on the mainland? In particular, is he satisfied with the regime around tonal quality, which is the worst type of definition of noise, when you get a tonal quality that is unbearable? You hear that around Belfast City Airport. Furthermore, is he satisfied that local authorities policing that regime is sufficient?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question, which has been raised by residents. The recently published Airports Commission report recommended that an independent aviation noise authority be set up and act as the competent authority under EU regulation No 598/2014, which comes into force next June. I understand that a final decision on that has still to be made by the Department for Transport. It would not be for my Department to lead here in the North but for DRD.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for recognising that George Best Belfast City Airport is a responsible, if noisy, neighbour. Does he agree that the airport contributes to the economy and to the employment of 1,500 people, plus all the businesses that it supports in the greater Belfast area, so that, when he does his work, he should take all those aspects into account?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. In my answer to Mr McKinney, I said that this is a finely balanced issue, and one has to take into consideration the justifiable objections of nearby residents and other interests: namely, the huge economic significance of the airport and all the benefits that it brings not just to Belfast city but to the North as a whole. It is a major employer, it puts Belfast city on the map, and it has so many flights going in and out of Belfast. It makes Belfast easier to get to and easier to get out of, which is always something that I am glad to do. [Laughter.]

We certainly need to look at these things in the round, and it will all be taken into consideration.

Mr Durkan: The SPPS, which I published in September, states:

"in relation to unconventional hydrocarbon extraction there should be a presumption against their exploitation until there is sufficient and robust evidence on all environmental impacts."

I believe that that is a sensible and reasonable approach.

Members will be aware that the SPPS must be taken into account by councils — in this case, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council —in the preparation of their new local development plans, and it is also material to all decisions on individual planning applications and appeals by the relevant planning authority.

At independent examination, local development plans will be scrutinised to ensure that they take sufficient account of the SPPS and other central government plans, policy and guidance. My Department can, if necessary, direct a council either to modify or to withdraw a plan document if it does not take sufficient account of regional planning policy.

The provisions of the SPPS apply to the whole of Northern Ireland, including County Fermanagh. I believe that the SPPS provides clarity and certainty to councils and everyone affected by and interested in planning decisions for this form of development.

Members will also be aware that, as part of the transfer of the majority of planning powers from my Department to councils, a hierarchy of development for local, major and regionally significant developments was introduced. Should an application be considered to be a regionally significant development proposal, it will be dealt with by my Department as the planning authority but under the same planning policy framework.

Mr Lynch: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer and acknowledge that he has visited Fermanagh on a number of occasions. He quoted from the SPPS:

"there should be a presumption against their exploitation until there is sufficient and robust evidence on all environmental impacts."

Will the Minister expand on that?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question and for acknowledging my visits to his constituency on this issue and on many others. There has been huge concern and opposition to fracking not just in Fermanagh or the North but right across the world. Many of those with concerns have pointed to its potential impacts on the environment and on human and animal health. When such concerns exist, it is reasonable and sensible to establish that the practice is, indeed, safe and does not cause harm to the planet or to people, before allowing any such application to proceed. I have taken that precautionary approach in this case, and, as I say, I believe that that is sensible. It has certainly been well received by many people, if not most, in the Member's constituency.


3.00 pm

Some of the environmental concerns raised relate to hydrology, the potential impact on local drinking water supplies, the undoubted impact on the landscape and the resultant impact on habitat and species. There are also, as I referred to, local concerns about the potential impact on human health. Those same concerns have been raised very loudly in the USA, where the extensive research carried out over a number of years remains inconclusive.

Mr McNarry: We have just heard the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister highlight his concerns about high energy costs. I know that this Minister can be comical in his answers, as I hope he was being when answering Mr Lynch. Has he the full backing of the Executive for his approach, which he outlined to the House, to fracking?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that comical question, which is in keeping with his comical statements on a range of issues over recent weeks and months. I assure him that approval for the SPPS that we are discussing, which includes a presumption against fracking, was sought and received from the Executive. Contrary to Sammy Wilson's belief — he said in local papers that I had perhaps breached the ministerial code by publishing it — I obtained full Executive approval prior to publication. As I said earlier, I believe that this is a reasonable and sensible approach, and the fact that Mr McNarry thinks that it was not confirms to me that it is.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answers. Is there a health dimension to the all-Ireland research on fracking, and, if not, does he believe that one could usefully be added?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Maginness for his question. I reassure the Member that the all-island joint research programme is tasked with looking at the health impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction (UGEE). The research is looking at the potential health impacts of exposure to chemicals, vibration, light or noise and of pollution to environmental media, such as soils, air and water, with a view to preventing environmental factors from degrading human health. The research will also undertake a review of health impact studies worldwide to develop a suitable protocol. This is set out as a specific task in the terms of reference, which state:

"the potential role of health impact assessment in regulation of UGEE projects/operations should be considered based on the experience in other countries, and recommendations should be made towards developing a protocol in the island of Ireland context."

Also, as a result of comments received in the public consultation exercise on the terms of reference for the research programme, an official from the Health Service Executive of Ireland was added to the programme's steering committee.

Mr Swann: The Minister has given reassurances on fracking in Fermanagh based on the strategic planning policy statement. Can he give the same assurances to north Antrim? Will he assure us that the SPPS will also cover the threat of lignite, which he still has not addressed for the people of north Antrim?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. He caught me with a similar one before, but I have come prepared today. The 'Northern Area Plan 2016' designates a lignite protection area in the Ballymoney borough. The purpose of the designation is to preserve this important resource in the event of future difficulty in accessing external energy sources. The recently published SPPS sets out the planning policy framework for the determination of all planning applications across Northern Ireland. It retains, in a strategic way, the mineral policy of a planning strategy for rural Northern Ireland. The SPPS states that councils, in preparing their local development plans, should produce appropriate policies and proposals that reflect the policy approach of the SPPS and are tailored to the specific circumstances of the plan area. That includes ensuring that sufficient supplies of aggregate are available at local and regional levels; safeguarding mineral resources; ensuring that workable mineral resources are not sterilised by other surface development that would prejudice future exploitation; and identifying areas that should be protected from minerals development.

Mr Durkan: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is holding its twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. From 6 December to 8 December, I will be attending, as part of the official delegation, what, in my view, is the most important global conference of our time.

Climate change is a global challenge that requires a global solution. It affects us all, and we all must work together to play our part in tackling it. That is why I am keen to frame my input to the Paris discussions from an island of Ireland perspective and why I am keen on a climate change conversation that includes everyone. To that end, I met Minister Kelly and a delegation of Church leaders to discuss common issues of concern to be taken forward in Paris. We acknowledged that all of society, including the Churches, should encourage and promote understanding of the causes of climate change and the impacts that it has on our daily lives.

In preparation for COP21, all 28 EU member states gave a commitment to the EU binding target of at least a 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. I fully endorse that approach and believe that it will make a meaningful contribution to achieving a balanced international agreement in Paris.

At the conference, I will be making it clear that I believe that we should be striving to secure an ambitious international agreement and that the North of Ireland will play its full part in contributing to the agreed emission reduction targets. To help do so, I shall shortly be seeking views on proposals for climate change legislation that will help inform the Executive and assist the introduction of a Northern Ireland climate change Bill. We need a global agreement in Paris, which is unquestionably in our and the entire global community's best interests.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for a very comprehensive answer and for taking a sensible approach to what is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.
Minister, what commitment do you have from your Executive colleagues on the aspects of legislation that you might wish to bring forward for which they would be responsible? I am thinking in particular of DARD. Will you expand further on the legislative timetable that you have in mind?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. The issue is very topical and was the subject of an extensive and interesting debate in the Chamber yesterday. While the vote in the Chamber yesterday mandated me again to proceed with the introduction of climate change legislation, that there was a Division highlighted the fact that it is an issue on which we do not yet have consensus. That is what I have been doing over the past two years: attempting to build consensus and, indeed, momentum for climate change legislation.

Good work is being done across all Departments through the cross-departmental working group on climate change, and all are making efforts in their Department to reduce carbon emissions, and so on. It is vital that we do so.

The Member mentioned DARD, and, of course, agriculture is the sector in Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the island of Ireland that causes most emissions. Concerns have been expressed in the past and, indeed, in the not too distant past — yesterday — that any climate change legislation in the North might impact on the productivity of our farmers. That is not necessarily the case. It is important that we work with the agrifood sector. I have done so already through the establishment of my prosperity panel and my world-leading prosperity agreements, through which we have seen that, by going beyond environmental compliance, businesses, including those in the agrifood sector, have been able to boost their performance, not just environmentally but financially.

We need more of that type of work. We also need to show real leadership from this Chamber on that issue.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra ansin. I thank the Minister for his very detailed answers. I listened carefully, and it appears that he is intent on developing a climate change Bill for the North. Will he give us some more details on when he expects to do that and what will be involved in that climate change Bill?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Realistically, we will not see the introduction of climate change legislation during this mandate, and that causes me regret. As I have said over the past two years, I have been attempting to build consensus. I believe that we are making slow but steady progress in that regard, and I think that the topicality of this issue and the huge media coverage that has been afforded to the ongoing conference in Paris and the issue of climate change is something that we can work to our advantage here. The fact that we are the only jurisdiction on these islands that does not have its own climate change legislation causes me, as Minister, a degree of embarrassment but it should cause us all collectively, as a devolved Assembly, a great deal of embarrassment. As I said, it is something that we need to show leadership on.

I have circulated a high-level discussion paper among Executive colleagues and other stakeholders, outlining how I believe a climate change Bill here might look. I do not expect everyone to like how I would want it to look, but it is something that I would be prepared to compromise on. Whoever succeeds me as Minister with responsibility for climate change policy should take that on board in order to get some legislation over the line here.

Ms Lo: I really want to thank the Minister for his very comprehensive answers to the question. I feel the passion and enthusiasm from him about climate change legislation in Northern Ireland, and I want to thank him for that. As he said, it will not happen in this mandate while he is Minister. How does he feel about the new structure with the two Departments, DARD and DOE, working together? Will that enhance the possibility of getting that legislation or will it be a hindrance?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I am not sure though how she felt my passion. I hope that it was as good for her as it was for me. [Laughter.]

Ms Lo: For the legislation, I said. [Laughter.]

Mr Durkan: The new departmental set-up could work either way. There are potential advantages in the amalgamation of agriculture and environmental policy in that it will bring officials from those Departments closer together, hopefully working towards common goals. However, I know that the Member is well aware of concerns that have been expressed from the environmental sector that it might not be an amalgamation of environment and agriculture but might be a subsumption of environment into agriculture. I think that it is very important, therefore, that we have DOE in as strong a position as possible — not just the Department but the environmental NGOs to which I referred — prior to the restructuring of Departments. That is why I have given them some certainty in moving into the new departmental structures with the establishment of my new natural environment fund. I recognise the importance of the work not just of officials in the various Departments but of people in that sector who have many years of experience and expertise that we should avail ourselves of at every opportunity.

Mr Durkan: With regard to the allocation of resources under the local government reform programme, I can speak only about the planning function, which my Department transferred to councils. As I have previously advised Members, I took a brave and bold decision to ring-fence the planning budget that was passed to local government.


3.15 pm

My action guaranteed that the planning resource allocation would not be impacted by the disproportionate in-year cuts that my Department had to absorb. I stand by that decision; it was the right thing to do. I am a Minister who honoured the commitment given by the Executive to the sector that functions should be cost-neutral at the point of transfer, even though it meant that I had to make bigger cuts in different areas of my Department.

As Minister of the Environment, I came up to the mark. I pressed the Finance Minister and other Ministers to do the same. They did not. Therefore, it is for those Ministers to defend their decisions regarding the resource allocations they transferred to councils. That said, I will not stop doing everything I can to persuade my Executive colleagues to ensure that local government is adequately resourced to fulfil its new duties, while councils continue to provide good-quality service to our citizens and deliver value for money to ratepayers.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. However, he knows that councils are undertaking a financial impact review that they anticipate will reveal costs in excess of £100 million. How can he help towards meeting related costs to help them get over this hurdle?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As outlined in my previous answer, I ensured that the budget for functions transferred from my Department was ring-fenced. So, they transferred in a manner that was cost-neutral to the ratepayer. As Minister with responsibility for local government, I am aware of the difficulties that our new councils are having, due largely to the transfer of some other functions. I refer principally to the transfer of off-street car parking by DRD. That was something of a Trojan Horse, if I can use that term when talking to Mr McCann, in that there were huge hidden costs, and councils certainly feel that they got a raw deal with the transfer of that function. The resource that came across with that function was nowhere near satisfactory

I continue, with Executive colleagues through the partnership panel, to work with local government on identifying issues and, hopefully, ways that we can address them. It was always anticipated that the reform of local government would cost money at the outset. It would cost money to central and local government, but those costs will be offset in the medium- to long-term through huge savings that can be made by more collaborative working.

Mr McCallister: I raised this issue with the Minister before, and he will know that planning is one of the powers devolved to councils that has caused some of the biggest problems, particularly in my area. Does he agree that it is time that he and his Executive colleagues set a target for planning decisions to be made?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Will the Minister please be very brief?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. He and others have raised concern about councils' performance in their new planning function. I think that those concerns are justifiable and understandable, given that the quarterly performance report published last week showed a huge downturn in planning applications output by councils in the first quarter of this year. That is understandable enough, given that it was a transition period. Teething problems were to be expected and there were and have been teething problems.

I am not going to try to deny that there are inconsistencies of approach across different councils, not even in interpretation of planning policy and planning decisions but, in fact, in how planning committees conduct their business; who gets speaking rights and for how long and so forth. There is a great deal of confusion out there for councillors, the public and applicants. On 14 December, I will be having a one-item agenda meeting with the 11 chief executives of the new councils, and that item is planning.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions.

T1. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of the Environment what he and his Department can do to assist those people who are submitting planning applications, given that he will be aware that planning applications and their progression is a problem, particularly for industry. (AQT 3231/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. The greatest assistance that any planning authority can give to those making applications, particularly those who make applications that boost our economy and create jobs, is certainty. That is what developers and businesses want to see. They want to know their prospects of an approval, and they want to know how long that approval might take.

It was in the interest of giving certainty to businesses, communities and social housing providers that I published the Belfast metropolitan area plan (BMAP) and pursued and published SPPS. That creates certainty. Unfortunately, as I said, given that councils have responsibility for deciding on maybe 99% of planning applications, and there appears to be inconsistency in how they are processing applications, we need to iron that out to give certainty to anyone with an interest in doing business, setting up business and creating jobs, not just through the business that they are setting up but through the construction of the premises required for it. They need that certainty, and we all have a responsibility to provide that.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer. From speaking to others and from my own information, I am aware that applications seem to be down. If they are down, and significantly so, what help can the Department of the Environment and the Minister that leads it give to local councils?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Does he mean that the number of applications is down?

Mr Durkan: It will be different in each council area, but council officials from several council areas who I have been speaking to have pointed to an upturn in the number of applications. That was demonstrated quite clearly last week, for example, when Derry City and Strabane District Council applied for three new planning officers. In other council areas, additional planning staff have been brought in to deal with an increase in the number of applications. That is indicative of the upturn in the economy that the Member's ministerial colleagues tell us so much about.

It would not necessarily be for me, as Environment Minister, to boost the number of applications in an area. We have to look at whether the reason for a lack of applications is the lack of prospect of approval. There may be an issue to be looked at there. Is it due to an aspect of the strategic planning policy statement? Is there a proposal type that people are thinking of but do not have the confidence to develop into a full-blown planning application? Planning officials under the DOE, and now under councils, were available for pre-application discussions. If someone has an idea that they would like to test the water on to see if it would have a reasonable prospect of success in the planning process, they can approach the planning officials in councils, seek a pre-application discussion and hopefully be guided in the right direction as to how or where to submit that application.

T2. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of the Environment what measures he plans to put in place or what advertising he plans to do in the run-up to the festive season to help to reduce the number of road traffic accidents. (AQT 3232/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Regrettably, we traditionally see an increase in the number of road traffic collisions at this time of the year; the festive period. The evenings are darker, there are more people on the road, and people are rushing to do shopping and get home and see family in worse traffic conditions. Therefore, it is important that we redouble our efforts in an attempt to reduce the number of collisions on our roads.

To that effect, I have been working closely with my road safety partners in the other Departments. That has mainly been with the emergency services, primarily the PSNI, which recently launched its annual anti drink-driving blitz. The Department has renewed its advertising on drink-driving, and I have been working very hard with officials on the launch of a new social media strategy and advertising campaign that specifically focuses on drink-driving, which, again, traditionally occurs more at this time of year, and the dangers posed by people using handheld devices. That will go live on social media within the next couple of weeks and will be targeted specifically at young drivers, so I am not sure if Mr Buchanan will get anything about it in his inbox.

Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. I am interested in social media because, to catch the younger generation, it is important that we get into social media. Does the Department have any way of measuring the shock factor of the advertisements that are put out across our television screens?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Indeed, it is a question that I myself asked when I was not long in this post. The DOE ads have often been shocking, that has been proven and there is scientific research that shows that that does work. It permeates people's consciousness and, most importantly, it has an impact on driver behaviour. In saying that, I do not think that every ad has to be a blood-and-guts one. There has to be a balance in our approach to advertising, and I think that we do that quite well. Due to huge budget cuts that the Department suffered this year, the amount of money that I have had to spend on road safety advertising has been virtually halved.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and it is due to that that I have looked more at going down the social media route, which also enables us to target certain demographics specifically . I cannot tell, and I am not sure whether you can, but people who have an interest in cars and things like that — it could be drivers under 25 living in rural areas — can be identified and then targeted with the information. I think that that is a very good use of resource. Hopefully, we will see the benefits in a reduction in the number of collisions, serious injuries and fatalities on our roads.

T3. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of the Environment, bearing in mind the recent torrential rain, to outline how the emergency flooding financial assistance package operates. (AQT 3233/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Article 26 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1992 makes provision for a scheme of emergency financial assistance to district councils. Financial assistance under this article takes the form of grants paid by my Department, with the consent of DFP. As a result, I have made emergency funds available to cover council costs incurred when responding to the needs of householders across Northern Ireland in the event of any flooding following rainfall or tidal surge from 7 November 2015 until 31 January 2016.

The scheme of emergency financial assistance to district councils also includes an immediate payment of £1,000 to householders as practical assistance to those who have suffered severe inconvenience to help to make homes habitable as quickly as possible. It is not a compensation payment, though. Circular LG 31/2015, which provides advice on the scheme of financial assistance to councils, was issued to all councils on 12 November. Standard application and survey forms for use by householders and councils respectively are included in the circular, and claims for reimbursement must be submitted to the Department using the templates provided in it. Application forms seeking reimbursement of expenditure relating to recent incidents must be submitted to the Department within three months of the flooding incident occurring. Claims made outside this period will not be eligible for reimbursement, unless in exceptional circumstances where prior agreement has been reached with the Department.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for that answer. Bearing in mind what you have said, Minister, have you any plans to change the scheme?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I have plans, hopefully, to improve the scheme. I recently provided an Executive paper, 'Flooding: Standing Scheme of Emergency Financial Assistance to Councils', to my Executive colleagues for their consideration and comments.

My paper seeks Executive agreement to create a standing scheme of emergency financial assistance to councils in relation to flooding incidents following heavy rainfall or tidal surge, rather than creating individual, time-bound schemes that require individual approval. My aim for the introduction of a standing scheme is to improve reaction time and to avoid the possibility of delay while approvals are sought.


3.30 pm

Members will be glad to hear that I have included an additional proposal to extend the original scheme to allow for severe inconvenience payments to recreational and community buildings, churches and small businesses. By "small businesses", I mean businesses with fewer than 25 employees. As it exists, the scheme is available only to householders. We have seen recent flooding incidents in Newry and, even more recently, in west Tyrone, as a result of which small businesses have suffered major inconvenience and damage but have not been able to avail themselves of the payment that householders can. I am also aware of a church in my constituency that suffered flooding and serious inconvenience but was unable to avail itself of the payment as it was not deemed to be a house, although I did try to convince officials that it was the house of God and should be eligible as such.

T4. Mr Cree asked the Minister of the Environment how he expects the powers remaining in his Department to be devolved to other Departments next year. (AQT 3234/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As we approach the elections in May and the subsequent restructuring of Departments, the functions of my Department — the DOE — will be split three ways. As mentioned in an earlier answer to Ms Lo, the classic environmental aspect of the Department's work — issues around climate change policy, environmental regulation and so forth — will be amalgamated with agriculture in the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Other aspects of my Department's current workload, including road safety and planning, will be amalgamated with the current DRD in the new Department for Infrastructure, which, I think, is a good fit. It is understandable that road safety would be with the Department that is responsible for maintaining our roads network and implementing road safety measures. Planning will also be there, which is understandable.

Other work such as responsibility for local government and our built heritage will comprise part of the new Department for Communities, which will contain many if not all of the functions of the current Department for Social Development. There is a lot of merit in that, particularly with the councils' new community planning function. I know that the Minister for Social Development announced last week that he would not yet be proceeding with their regeneration function, although, by being in the same Department, they should be able to maximise the benefits of that for local ratepayers and citizens.

Mr Cree: Minister, do you also expect the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency to be completed within that time frame?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. We seem to be well into injury time here. My beloved Everton conceded a goal late into injury time on Saturday. I hope that I do not score an own goal at this stage in injury time today. In response to Ms Lo, I spoke about the concerns that the environment sector has expressed about the amalgamation or subsumption of our environmental function into agriculture, given the appropriate emphasis that the Executive put on the agrifood sector. That is why I thought that it was timely to reintroduce the debate on the need for an independent environment agency. A paper on that is out for consultation, to which Members will have a chance to respond. I think that there are huge merits in that. We are the only jurisdiction on these islands that does not have an independent environment agency, and I do not know what any party, business or individual would have to fear from the establishment of such an agency.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Time is up. Members may take their ease for a moment before we return to the previous debate.

Executive Committee Business

Clause 2 (Duty of authority to publish plans relating to its arrangements for special educational provision)

Debate resumed on amendment Nos 1-12, which amendments were:

No 1: In page 2, line 18, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 2: In clause 3, page 2, line 33, after "'take" insert "all". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 3: In clause 3, page 3, line 3, at end insert

"(2A) In Article 8 after paragraph (1) insert—
 
"(1A) Paragraph (1B) applies where—

(a) the Board of Governors of a grant-aided school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(1B) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(1C) Nothing in paragraph (1A) or (1B) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(d) or (as the case may be) under Article 8ZA(1)(a).".". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 4: In clause 3, page 3, line 29, at end insert

"(3) Paragraph (4) applies where—
 
(a) the Board of Governors of a special school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(4) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(5) Nothing in paragraph (3) or (4) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(a) or (as the case may be) under Article 8(1)(d).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 5: After clause 3 insert

"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
3A. Before Article 13 of the 1996 Order insert—
 
"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
12A.—(1) The Authority and the health and social services authorities ("the relevant bodies") shall co-operate with one another to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs.
 
(2) The relevant bodies shall share information with one another on request.
 
(3) But information about a child may only be shared with the permission of that child, if the child is over compulsory school age, or the parent of the child in any other case.
 
(4) The relevant bodies must co-operate to prepare a joint and integrated plan for exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(5) The relevant bodies may pool budgets and share resources for the purposes of exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(6) In this Article, "health and social services authorities" comprises—
 
(a) the Regional Board for Health and Social Care; and
 
(b) the health and social care trusts established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.".". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 6: After paragraph (5) insert

"(5A) The Health and Social Care Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) established under Article 3 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (NI 9) must, at intervals of not more than 2 years, conduct a review, and publish a report, on how the relevant bodies have co-operated with one another under this Article.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 7: In clause 4, page 3, line 33, at end insert

"(2A) After paragraph (4), insert—
 
'(4A) If, in helping the Authority in the making of an assessment under Article 15, the health and social services authority identifies any therapeutic or other treatment, or service, likely to be beneficial to the child, the health and social services authority shall provide that treatment or service to the child.'." — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 8: After clause 5 insert

"Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
5A. In Article 16 of the 1996 Order (statement of special educational needs) in paragraph (3)(b), after "specify" insert "the nature and extent of"’.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 9: In clause 7, page 5, line 18, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 10: In clause 9, page 7, line 34, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 11: In clause 9, page 7, line 36, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 12: After clause 14 insert

"Orders and regulations under Part 2 of the 1996 Order
 
14A. For Article 28 of the 1996 Order substitute—
 
'Orders and regulations under this Part
 
28.—(1) Orders made by the Department under this Part (other than orders under Article 5(3)) shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(2) Regulations shall not be made under Article 8 or 8ZA unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly.
 
(3) Subject to paragraph (4), all other regulations under this Part shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(4) Regulations made under this Part which—
 
(a) would otherwise be subject to negative resolution, but
 
(b) are combined with regulations subject to the procedure mentioned in paragraph (2), shall also be subject to that procedure.
 
(5) Regulations and orders made under this Part by a Northern Ireland department may contain such incidental, supplementary and transitional provisions as that department thinks fit.'.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Rogers: This is a very important Bill for the children in our schools, for teachers and for the parents of children with special educational needs. At the outset, I thank a number of people: the Committee Clerk and staff for doing all the hard work for us; Caroline and her team from the Department, who were always there to answer our questions — we did not always get the answers that we wanted, but they did their best to respond; the stakeholders, whose input was very valuable; and the teachers, who do great work delivering special educational needs provision to children.

I will speak about a few of the clauses and amendments together. One of my concerns is that I would really like to see the revised code of practice. The Department gave us some assurance on how the Education Authority and schools would consider the age and maturity of children with respect to special educational needs (SEN) assessment decision-making. I welcome the development of the Irish-medium sector's special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) steering group, but the Department has a responsibility to support special educational needs in the Irish-medium sector just as it has in any other school.

In clause 2, it is difficult to understand fully the quality of the plan without seeing the resourcing. You think of what happens at the moment. In some cases, the intervention is very good, but the cases arriving in our offices are those of a child who needs speech therapy and has to wait for six months or a school with 80 or 90 children and only eight hours of educational psychology support in a year. It is disappointing that provision relating to allied health professionals, occupational therapists and speech therapists will not be included in the Bill. There is a reference somewhere in the document to the role of educational psychologists, and it is reassuring that their role will not change.

I move on to clause 3. We had a lot of discussion about "best endeavours", "taking reasonable steps" and eventually agreed on "all reasonable steps". The reality is that teachers use their expertise to go the extra mile for children and, along with the boards of governors, take all those reasonable steps.

On amendment Nos 3 and 4, I think that the personal learning plan (PLP) would, if used properly, be an extremely important document. The devil is in the detail, which will become clear only in the revised code of practice. The PLP is a statutory document replacing the non-statutory individual education plans (IEPs). When children are transferring, the plan should, subject to parental agreement, transfer with them. However, lessons need to be learned from the IEP practice to ensure that PLPs do not become a bureaucratic nightmare and a burden for our teachers. It is OK for the Department or the Education Authority to think that PLPs are a good idea, but it is the teachers who must deliver them.

The Minister mentioned duplication earlier. The only point that I will make about duplication is that, if they are working closely together, the Education and Health Departments will ensure that there is no duplication. There is no need for any duplication whatsoever.

Clause 3 will strengthen the duties of boards of governors around special educational needs, but who will support the governors? After all, they are very busy people who help out in our schools in a voluntary capacity. They do not always have the capacity to deliver special educational needs functions correctly. I declare an interest as the chair of the board of governors of Grange Primary School. The Department tells us that it will deliver the training. Much of the training in the current cycle would mean a 70-mile round trip in the evening for people to attend two hours of training. It is important that, when training is being delivered, it is accessible. Maybe more use should be made of IT so that training could be delivered on a more local basis.

When we put more stress and pressure on a board of governors, that inevitably puts more stress on our overworked principals and teaching staff. There is hardly a primary school principal who has not had to cut his non-contact time because of budget pressures. Although valuable in itself, the appeals process is in danger of becoming another bureaucratic nightmare.

The change of role from being a special educational needs coordinator SENCO to a learning support coordinator is not without its problems. Are teachers expected to stretch themselves further in the new role, more challenging and demanding as it will be, while continuing to teach their classes? I would like to see the outworkings of those assurances from the Department on the role of learning support coordinators, their qualifications and the support to be provided for them. With plans come roles and responsibilities and resourcing issues. Caroline and her departmental colleagues were as open as possible on the issue, but I would like to see more detail.

The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has identified particular issues around capacity and whether its staff will be able to deliver speech therapy and other services. Earlier contributors were concerned about duplication. When I spoke about duplication a few minutes ago, I mentioned it in the context of Steven Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Bill, when it becomes law. Let us work on duplication and let us iron those things out through practice. We should not take anything for granted at this stage.

Protocols are fine, and it is nice to see them written down, and so on, but we need a better service. We need the support of the allied health professionals, but, because of the cuts that they are experiencing, that can be a problem from a health point of view. Let us face it: the present system is not working as effectively as it could be. If it were, we would not need a new Bill. It would be nice to see the Health Department working closely together with other Departments to carry out a cost analysis or, even more importantly, a cost-benefit analysis. We all know the benefits of early intervention.

The Department argues that it has an obligation to cooperate only with statutory organisations, but where would parents be without the voluntary organisations? Some of their people made representations to us, and they are invaluable. The proposed obligation on health authorities would bring Northern Ireland's SEN framework more closely into line with the changes already enacted in England, which recognise the fundamental importance of health therapies for children with special educational needs. However, if health provision for children with special educational needs is to legally bound, it follows that health professionals need to be an integral and equal part of SEN processes and planning.

I have one or two other concerns. Providing a statutory obligation within a limited budget resource poses a real risk to the provision of services for children who have additional speech and language needs but who are not statemented. We must remember that. Children with underlying receptive language difficulties are often missed or classed as difficult, and, in those cases, funding may be directed towards behavioural difficulties rather than at addressing the underlying communication needs.

Another thing comes to mind. The Committee listened to representations on the vision issue. The problems of a number of children who have literacy deficits could be addressed through proper eyesight tests and by wearing glasses. Such a scheme was described to the Committee by Michael Gilsenan.

Appropriate levels of intervention for children and young people without statements may prevent them from needing a statement at a later stage and/or entering the SEN system at all, ensuring that they can fully participate in the education system.


3.45 pm

The Minister talked about amendment No 7, and the thing that persuades me to support it is the first few words:

"If, in helping the Authority in the making of an assessment".

For me, those are the key words. This is helping the Education Authority and if it, in turn, helps children, it is worth doing.

On the reduction of time limits, some respondents were concerned that the time reduction could have an adverse effect on parents, citing the difficulties in getting expert advice in a shorter time. The Department assured us that getting the extra medical information was, indeed, the Education Authority's responsibility. All that I am asking for here is a bit of flexibility.

I share the concerns of the language and speech therapists that learning support coordinators, principals and boards of governors may not have sufficient knowledge and expertise of speech and language issues to make the appropriate judgements regarding the unmet needs of the children. Speech and language therapists, for example, can deliver speech and language therapy in a range of ways. They can provide some therapy in the classroom. They may work with the teacher or the classroom assistant to put in place communication strategies to be used in all interactions with the child. In other instances, a child will require intensive one-to-one therapy outside the classroom for a time. Will health professionals really input to this system? As we move through these clauses, we need to say that it is important that the appeals process does not become a bureaucratic nightmare. It needs to be there to help parents, children and schools to make sure that they can understand it. Mediation is a very important process and, again, we need clarity on that.

Moving on to clauses 9 and 10, parents and, indeed, young people over compulsory school age will need a lot of support to ensure that the young person is properly supported. My concern is especially people with complex needs. How will the Education Authority determine the capacity of the young people to understand and exercise their rights? It is regrettable that special educational needs support is not extended beyond 19 as is the case in some authorities in England. It is quite conceivable that somebody with an acquired brain injury has a chronological age of 20 but could be operating like a 14-year-old. There needs to be a harmonisation of policy and procedure between the Education Department, the Health Department and DEL to ensure there is continuity for children when they move from compulsory education to further and higher education.

I can skip through much of this because we are generally in agreement with it. To round off, the SDLP strongly supports advocacy for the child or the parent through the special educational needs process. It is positive to see that catered for in the Bill. The phrase that is coming out is, "caring for the child". We support the amendments, but let us be mindful that the Bill's implementation must be kept under constant review and that it is likely that fewer children will be statemented as a result. While the focus is very much on statemented children, there are many children who will not be statemented but will need SEN support beyond the school. As other Members have said, the Bill will have the desired outcomes only if there is a more complementary approach from education and health. Working through the legislative process is fine and this Bill is fine, but the true measure of the Bill's effectiveness will be determined by how well our SEN children are catered for in our education system in the future.

Mrs Overend: It is my pleasure to speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill at Consideration Stage. I welcome its progression today. I think that it was some nine years ago that the Department of Education began a review of special educational needs, and that was long before my time in this place. During my time as a Member of the Assembly since 2011, I have received numerous representations from concerned parents and teachers on the complex, prolonged and unsatisfactory system that is currently in place, which leads to delays and inconsistencies. So, I welcome the progress of the Bill, with the amendments being proposed today. As a member of the Education Committee, I can say that we gave it fair scrutiny, with the mission of making improvements and representing the views and concerns of those who provided evidence to us. I thank all of them for their input. I would also like to express my thanks to the Committee Clerk and staff for helping to keep the issues streamlined. I must also say thanks to the departmental officials for their responses, patience and cooperation.

Turning to the amendments; amendment Nos 1, 2, 9, 10 and 11, in their various places throughout the Bill, were discussed in Committee at length with various witnesses. It was felt that the word "shall" is stronger legislatively and will ensure the duty that is being placed. I welcome the Minister agreeing to the Committee's suggestions in those cases and moving those amendments.

Clause 3 makes a number of changes to the duties of the board of governors in relation to pupils with special educational needs. It requires boards of governors to make school personnel, not just teachers, aware of a child's special educational needs. It requires them to maintain the PLP, rather than a non-statutory individual educational plan, and it obliges them to make parents, and children above compulsory school age, aware of dispute mechanisms. It also ensures that the Education Authority is aware of changes regarding SEN support.

Regarding amendment Nos 3, 4 and 5; during representation to the Committee it was generally felt by many that communication was necessarily improved, not only between the Departments of Health and Education but, very importantly, between any and all education providers for each child with special educational needs. Furthermore, we felt strongly that the PLP should be shared between schools that the child has transferred to, provided that the parents, or the child if over compulsory school age, agree. I believe that the PLP acts as a historical document, providing information on any action in the past, that may or may not have been beneficial, for the future education of that child.

Amendment No 5 extends the same sharing of information effect to the two main Departments, Education and Health. The sharing is two-sided. Information can travel both ways, and, importantly, they may pool budgets and share resources for the purposes of exercising their functions. We have heard of the example that delays in a child receiving the appropriate care that he or she requires was down to a simple yet elongated debate about who would pay for it. The Committee amendment resolves that debate and the obvious delay.

Amendment No 6 follows on from the previous amendments, and amends amendment No 5 so that provision is made to assess the sharing that will now be guaranteed. Indeed, the Committee discussed the need for that amendment, following the successful implementation of Mr Agnew's private Member's Bill, the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. The Committee felt, as I do, that there is no point in placing an obligation to share and not have the necessary checks in place to make sure that that sharing is a success. It was felt that this amendment is not duplication but that there may be some problem with extending the functions of the RQIA to enable it to carry out these additional functions.

The decision as to whether there is an increase in bureaucracy, and the worth of it, is questioned by some, but I feel that there is a need to assess how the new functions are working and whether the sharing is successful. I am minded to support that amendment.

Amendment No 8 amends the 1996 Order to read that the statement shall specify the nature and extent of special educational provision to be made for the purpose of meeting those needs. I am content with the amendment, as it clarifies that all types of provision made or provided to each child with special educational needs, whether specific or otherwise, should also be referred to. I think that that is particularly relevant, considering the reduction of the statementing process from five stages to three. It is felt that that precaution will help children who may not be reaching the statutory process.

Turning to amendment No 12, concern was expressed about the capacity of the board of governors to discharge its functions and the absence of qualifications for the new learning support coordinator role. Actually, we were assured that this was a remodel of the existing SENCO role in schools, but it now includes a responsibility for taking into account multiple non-SEN identities; for example, newcomers coming into the school with special educational needs.

The Department gave assurances that there would be regulations setting out the qualifications for the role of the learning support coordinator. Furthermore, we were concerned that there had not yet been the opportunity for public scrutiny of other regulations. We are aware that the reduction in the number of stages in the assessment process will be the subject of secondary legislation and a revised code of practice. I, therefore, feel that amendment No 12 is necessary to ensure that any secondary legislation is properly scrutinised, examined and debated and that the Assembly procedure should be changed from negative to draft affirmative. I am not sure whether the Minister and his Department were trying to chance their arm by not including such back-up or scrutiny measures, but, in the end, he agreed, so I will say nothing more except to welcome it.

To conclude, it has been a steep learning curve for me during the Committee Stage of the Bill, but nothing shines a light more on the detail than each personal story that is brought into our constituency offices. I thank each parent and teacher who thought of asking me for help in their situation. Of course, schools face huge difficulties with the current system. We hear of instances of a school principal having to choose between children — which child has the higher need — because they are only allowed to refer one child in each academic year. That is not good for parent-teacher relationships, and it certainly is not a satisfactory outcome for all children requiring special educational needs provision.

Should the Bill proceed past this stage, as I expect it will, it will not be the end of the process. The road ahead has many additional pieces of information to consider in the regulations and the code of practice, as well as the further stages of the Bill. In the meantime, the Ulster Unionist Party supports the passing of this group of amendments.

Mr Lunn: I largely support the Bill and the amendments. Mrs Overend mentioned the fact that the first review was perhaps nine years ago. I think that only I and the Minister have been involved with this right through the whole nine years. It sometimes feels like 19 years, but I am glad that we have got to where we are now, and I welcome the Bill having got to this stage.
Over those nine years, the amount of concern, lobbying and difficulty reported to all of us in our constituency offices and in the Committee has been unbelievable, so we are making good progress. We have had to take a long time over it, and the Chair referred to the number of submissions and oral evidence sessions. I am sure that the departmental staff must be tired looking at us, frankly, because they have been there so often, but what they have done and the advice that they have given us have been much appreciated. I think that it is confirmation of the level of agreement across the Committee and the Department that we have got to where we are now, and we are near enough at the end of the process. We are down to 12 amendments, a half-dozen of which are not really contentious at all. I am sure that we can come to some agreement on the other half-dozen. They have all been brought either by the Minister or the Committee, so I think that we are getting somewhere.

I think that the eventual passage of the Bill will leave children and their parents in a better place in terms of procedures, rights and outcomes. The Chair, the Minister and, I am sure, everybody else would agree that that is what it is all about: it is for the benefit of special needs children in our community.

I will briefly look at the amendments. I am not going to comment on the whole Bill, because there will be another day for that. I will just look at the amendments today.

Amendment No 1 — we are actually past that — will leave out "may" and put in "shall" in respect of the regulations. I like that. When a Bill says "regulations shall" rather than "regulations may", it fills my heart with joy, because it means so much more. It closes a loophole that was half a mile wide, Minister. So, I look forward with pleasure to the regulations.

Amendment No 2 just puts in the word "all", but that really does strengthen the duty involved. I am fine with, "take all reasonable steps". No problem at all.

Amendment Nos 3 and 4 are about the transfer of information. They are fine; I do not think that we will have any disagreement about them. Why did it take so long to come to an agreement about this? We were constantly told that this was not necessary and that the receiving school did not have to get the information from the delivering school and so on, yet it is obvious that there should be continuity. However, we have it now, and although overdue it is extremely welcome.


4.00 pm

Amendment No 5 is the one that I really want to talk about; it is the one about cooperation, particularly with the health and social care services. There is a bit of history to this. In the first part of those nine years, we were told often enough that there was not a problem, that the health services were up to the task and that we did not need an obligation and did not need to go through all this nonsense as long as they were on their honour to cooperate. In fact, the history of non-cooperation is well documented and extremely frustrating, and one of the logjams in the whole process has been waiting for Health to step up to the mark. Many of us thought that the way to deal with this was to impose a duty. I hear when the Minister says that we are crossing over and are trying to impose an obligation on another Department. We got advice on that. It is probably not something that we need to do all the time, but I do not see it as any kind of duplication. It is worthwhile.

Along the way, Mr Agnew's very worthy Children's Services Co-operation Bill came over the horizon. It is about to become an Act. I congratulate him on that, as it is a superb piece of legislation. Immediately, the Department of Health jumped on it and said, "Yes, that will sort out the situation. You do not need to worry about placing an obligation on us through an education order". I just thought that that was a bit too handy and, frankly, a bit too glib. I am happy with amendment No 5. Even if there is a level of overlap or duplication, I still propose that we run with it and leave it there, and I hope that that is the outcome of the debate.

Amendment No 6 is the one about oversight by the RQIA. To put it bluntly, that seems appropriate to me. I have forgotten whether the DUP and Sinn Féin said yes or no, but I am sure that I will find out shortly. It clearly needs some sort of oversight. The RQIA is in place and, as I understand it, has volunteered to deal with this. The only objection seems to be again that we are trespassing into the remit of another Department. It is the same as with the previous amendments. I say: why not? Where is the harm? There is a solution here; let us go for it. Unless somebody comes up with a convincing argument as to why we should not run with it, we will certainly support it.

The wording of amendment No 7 troubles me slightly. It says:

"insert—
"(4A) If, in helping the Authority in the making of an assessment under Article 15,".

Mr Rogers referred to this and said that, if it will help the child, that is sufficient. It goes on:

"the health and social services authority identifies any therapeutic or other treatment, or service, likely to be beneficial to the child, the health and social services authority shall provide that treatment or service to the child.".’"

Why would it not? If it finds a problem with a child, whether in the course of normal investigation or in the course of an assessment, you might expect that a health authority would be obligated to provide whatever therapy and treatment would be beneficial to a child. It does not strictly say that it should be beneficial to the child's education. It is a cover-all clause. I do not say that it is badly worded or too wide, but I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about that clause when he sums up.

With regard to amendment No 8, it is entirely my fault, but I do not have article 16(3)(b) of the 1996 Order in front of me, so I do not quite know what the full context would be. I gather that the Minister thinks that it should be dealt with down the line by way of regulation. If I read it right, the DUP is content with it as it stands. I will take the Fifth Amendment on that one and rely on what the Minister says when he sums up. On the face of it, I cannot see much wrong with the amendment, but we are open to persuasion: we are the Alliance Party, you know.

Amendment Nos 9, 10 and 11 each state:

"Leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’".

That is lovely — manna from heaven — great.

We do not have a problem with amendment No 12, which is about affirmative resolution.

As you can see, we do not have much of a problem with any of the Bill. It is shaping up nicely into good legislation that is long overdue. I see that the previous Committee Chair has joined us. In his day, he also had sleepless nights over this one. I am sure that he has come here to see a happy outcome. I have lost count of how many Chairs we have been through in those nine years.

We welcome the Bill. We are looking for a bit more clarification on one or two items. We are not quite at the final fence, but we are almost there. Even leaving aside one or two deficiencies that were highlighted today, an awful lot of parents and children will be mighty glad to see the end of this process and what it produces for special needs children.

Mr Craig: I cannot claim to have as long a memory on the Bill and special educational needs as my colleague in Lagan Valley Mr Lunn. I do recall, however, as a Committee member, that one of the first things that we discussed was the first special educational needs Bill. I think that my colleague Mervyn Storey organised a meeting of concerned groups and parties in the Great Hall. That was an interesting meeting. Unfortunately for the then Minister, the consensus was that the original Bill was not up to much. That seemed to be the prevailing thought of most of the bodies and concerned parents.

I welcome the fact that we have reached a stage at which we have a Bill that has been scrutinised by the Committee, and many of its recommendations have been accepted by the Minister and are being implemented through amendments. That is a huge step forward for special educational needs. The concept is to speed up an incredibly bureaucratic system. Everyone in the House will welcome attempts to speed up that process.

While I have no issue in principle with amendment No 4, which seeks consent from pupils and parents to pass personal learning plans from one school to another, especially if a child transfers midterm, we will face a difficulty in that parental or even pupil permission may be required. I appeal to the Minister to think about that because my bitter experience as an elected Member is that, when it comes to pupils changing schools midterm, there is normally little or no agreement between schools. That is an unfortunate reality. In a lot of cases, getting consensus on passing a pupil's personal learning plan over to the new school is doubtful. We need to consider the unintended practical output of what may occur if there is no other mechanism of handing over that personal learning plan to the new school. It could have a detrimental impact on the education of the child concerned. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, a lot of these issues are very personal to the parents and pupils involved, and there is not always consensus. I appeal to the Minister to take another look at that to see whether, in circumstances in which there is disagreement, some mechanism can be found to assist the new school in obtaining that information.

I understand why some people will think that, in clause 4, we are trying to reinvent the wheel. Other legislation was welcomed by the Committee and in the House, but there is a deep and underlying concern. Every member of the Committee, including me, had to admit that, when cases came in, the one thing missing from them all was joined-up thinking between Departments. There is no way of escaping that. I do not say that with any joy, whether Education or Health is responsible, but the truth is that we have all had bad experiences of the two not connecting properly and information not being shared. Amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7 are an effort to try to force some joined-up thinking between the two Departments. In answer to my colleague's concerns, as a party, we will support amendment Nos 5 and 7. However, because of concerns that the Minister has raised with us about RQIA having the responsibility, we will not support amendment No 6.

I welcome the fact that, in clause 5, we are trying to reduce the number of assessment days from 29 to 22. Personally, I think that it will be a huge challenge for the Education Authority, and it may not be totally under the authority's control, Minister. I have numerous cases in which it is not the Education Authority, as it now is, that delays the process. When looking for medical records or information, it takes time for the bureaucratic Health Department to get the information back to the authority. That will definitely be a challenge.

That takes us back to the need for a joined-up approach between Health and Education in the assessment process. Hopefully, that is what will be at the root of this: a more streamlined, joined-up approach between the two Departments. At the end of the day, we are looking for a child-centred approach that will deliver on the education of a child. If that means forcing Departments to work together, I am content to do so in order to get some form of achievement.

My colleague is right: this is a bit of a historic day. Nine years later, we are finally getting another Bill through the House. I remember his speech on the setting up of the Education Authority. As a member of the Committee, I welcome the fact that the Bill is at this stage. I know that there are other stages to go, but I welcome and approve of the fact that we are now at this stage.

Mr Agnew: On behalf of the Green Party, I welcome the Bill. I will speak specifically to a number of the amendments. This is one of those cases when I welcome what is in the Bill but am disappointed by what is omitted. It goes back to some of what I said at Second Stage.

What is disappointing is that we have a Department of Education Bill for special educational needs, when what we need is an Executive Bill. SEN and disability are not the remit of one Department: they cut across a number of Departments. Much of the conversation today has been about the need for Departments to cooperate, but the leadership has to come from the top — in other words, from the Executive. Despite the time that it has taken for the Bill to come to the Assembly — the consultation was in 2009, and discussions took place before that — it would appear that, in all that time, the effort was not made to get Departments around the table to produce a Bill. Instead, we have a Bill from a single Department.


4.15 pm

I welcome the work of the Committee to address some of what is missing through seeking greater cooperation. The focus has inevitably been on the roles of the Department of Education and the Department of Health, but it is not just those Departments that have responsibility for children with special educational needs. There is a role for the Department of Justice, which provides education in juvenile justice centres, and for the Department for Employment and Learning in further and higher education and in the transition to those institutions from children's services. Therefore, although I welcome the focus on special educational needs, the fact that, yet again, a cross-departmental issue is being taken forward through a single departmental approach goes to the heart of how we do government here. I make that point about how we do government in Northern Ireland to the Minister but also to the Executive collectively: too often we think of Ministers in Departments and not enough of the Government and their collective corporate responsibility.

Issues were raised at Second Stage on the roles of other Departments. It is disappointing that, although ones were tabled by the Minister and the Committee, there were no amendments that I can see tabled through the Minister from other Departments. That is a criticism of the Departments that I have just mentioned for taking the attitude of, "This is the Department of Education's Bill, so we do not need to get involved". Although the primary Department for my private Member's Bill was the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Department of Health took an active role in its amending stages. Indeed, at Further Consideration Stage, there was input from the Finance Minister. I would like that Bill to be a model for more of the legislation coming through the House so that we get more Government than departmental Bills.

I come now to the amendments. I welcome amendments Nos 3 and 4 on the sharing of personal learning plans. I see in those amendments perhaps the beginning of a change of culture in policymaking. In seeking to protect data and to protect the individual from the sharing of private information, we have sometimes lost sight of the purpose of some of our statutory services. We have guarded information — "jealously" is perhaps the wrong word — with the good intention of protecting the privacy of individuals, but sometimes that is done to their harm. This small step towards sharing of information between schools is to be welcomed. I ask the Minister whether information from assessments that have been provided by the family to the school will be shared with other schools.

I have even heard anecdotal evidence of information not being shared within schools. When a child goes into a new class after the summer, the information is not always being passed on in full to the new teacher. That is perhaps not something for legislation but it needs to be looked at in terms of how special educational needs are managed within our schools, as well as the sharing of information between schools when a transfer happens, as highlighted in amendment Nos 3 and 4. I welcome the amendment but just make the point that there are other areas where information sharing could be beneficial to the child, with the proviso, of course, that it has the consent of the parent and/or pupil as appropriate.

I gave evidence to the Committee on how amendment No 5 would interact with the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. I certainly do not subscribe to the view that it would do harm to what was intended by my Bill. Amendment No 5 is very much within the same spirit as my Bill. It could be argued that there is duplication with some of the provisions in my Bill and paragraphs (1) and (5) of new article 12A but, overall, I think that the amendment adds detail to what was proposed in my Bill. I point specifically to paragraph (2), which, again, relates to information sharing. It is important that, where there is consent, information is shared and public agencies and Departments working together can, with the permission of the individuals involved, share information to ensure that cooperative working is effective.

There is a specific requirement in amendment No 5 to:

"prepare a joint and integrated plan".

That is certainly additional to anything that is in my Bill. Whilst that may have been an outworking of the provisions in my Bill, it certainly was not a specific requirement of my Bill, and it is additional. Overall, I welcome amendment No 5. I thank the Committee for inviting me to give my input on it, and I think that it very much aligns with the Children's Services Co-operation Bill and would in no way contradict it.

I also gave my view on amendment No 6 to the Committee, and I will repeat it to the House. The preparation of a report on cooperation is important so that we have that internal self-assessment within Departments. The Children's Services Co-operation Bill requires reporting and requires Departments to cooperate with OFMDFM in the preparation of any report. I suggested to the Committee that the amendment should perhaps be drafted to make it clear that any reporting does not have to be additional to what is required in the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. Making it explicit that it must be part of the existing reporting might help to move away from any criticisms of increased bureaucracy. That was a fear voiced about my Bill when it went through its initial stages and, in working with OFMDFM, I sought to ensure that any reporting was in line with existing reporting requirements rather than additional to them. That may have been a better way to approach amendment No 6. That said, I do not object to what is contained within it, and it will be up to the Committee whether it intends to move it. If it is not moved, perhaps a refined amendment could be tabled at Further Consideration Stage. I am certainly not opposed to amendment No 6 as drafted; I am just suggesting another way of achieving the same objective.

I welcome amendment No 7; I think it gets to the crux of some of the problems that have arisen, in my experience, in the provision of support for children with special educational needs. It concerns the wrangling that sometimes happens between Health and Education as to whose responsibility it is to provide for a child with special educational needs. I use the example from the Children's Law Centre of the girl with cerebral palsy who required daily physiotherapy whilst in school and was not provided with it due to a disagreement between Health and Education as to who should provide and fund it. It was undoubtedly the case that the physiotherapy was necessary for her education, but, of course, it is provided by the Department of Health.

Amendment No 7 puts a duty on the Department of Health to provide services where they are identified as being therapeutic and beneficial for a child, and that is to be welcomed. I can see from a departmental point of view that the term "beneficial" can be quite broad. Perhaps the phrase, "where it is required to achieve potential in education", or language along those lines may have made it more focused. I will be interested in the Minister's views, although it applies specifically to the Department of Health. However, speaking on behalf of the Executive, the Minister could perhaps give us his view on it.

We need to resolve this issue whereby it is clear that a child needs support, whether it is educational support or health support in an educational setting. At times, that provision is not forthcoming due to disagreement over which budget it should come out of. Departments need to remember that this is public money, and that, regardless of whether it is the Department of Health or the Department of Education, those who pay their taxes believe that the provision should be there to ensure that children with special educational needs are not left in the situation where their educational attainment is less than it could and should be because of the lack of provision of services due to wrangling over resources. Whether it is done with this amendment or through the pooling of budgets in relation to special educational needs, we need to find the solutions, because the intent of the Bill is to ensure that the child is at the centre of the decision-making process. If that is truly to be the case, we should be looking at the child's needs and not at the needs of Departments to potentially protect their budgets and the continual disagreement that there appears to be in some of these cases as to whether Education or Health should fund it.

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

That is why I talk about corporate government. The Department of Education and the Department of Health are just two arms of government. They are publicly funded. The money is public money. The public want to see special educational needs provision being provided, and we need solutions rather than problems in that regard.


4.30 pm

I will not speak to the other amendments in any detail, other than to say that I support them. I will just make one final point in relation to what is not in the Bill. As the Minister and Committee members will be aware, the Children's Commissioner published a report in 2012 in relation to transitions for those with learning disabilities from child to adult services.

I see nothing in the Bill that addresses the problems that were identified in that report. Positive steps have been taken on the need for cooperation between Health and Education. One of the areas that was highlighted by the report was the lack of parallel planning between Health and Education for transitions from children to adult services, meaning that transitions could happen at different ages within the different systems, thus increasing the amount of disruption. When thinking about that, I always think about children with autism who really struggle with transition periods. The fact is that the lack of cooperative working between two of our Departments increases the difficulty for children with special educational needs. If we are truly to put children at the centre of how we make decisions and how we plan these transitions, there needs to be cooperative working, and we should have one transition plan rather than two.

In conclusion, I welcome the amendments. Given the years that it has taken the Bill to get to this stage, I am disappointed that it does not do more. That said, I do not wish to be churlish. Much in the Bill is positive. I fully support a number of the amendments, particularly around cooperation, and I think that some progress is being made.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I speak as a member of the Education Committee in support of amendment Nos 1 to 12, with the exception of amendment No 8.

Much has been said on the detail of some of the amendments, but when we reflect on amendment Nos 1, 9, 10 and 11, we see that the movement of "may" to "shall" will effectively enact the regulations under the Bill as it is intended they be.

Amendment No 12, again, is effectively about making the regulations subject to affirmative rather than negative resolution. Arguably, that strengthens the scrutiny elements of the Bill. Committee members certainly welcome that as a positive step.

Amendment No 2 relates to the duties on boards of governors, with a particular focus to ensure that teachers "take all" reasonable steps rather than simply "reasonable" steps. Again, that is sensible and logical given the Bill's intent.

Amendment Nos 3 and 4 refer to the transfer of personal learning plans. The Bill introduces a new duty for schools to complete a PLP for each SEN child, with a very clear focus on learning outcomes. That would go some way towards involving the child and parents. It is important to reflect on the Bill's intent and the context of the legislation. Many Members have referred to a child-centred approach, and that is right and proper. As the Minister has indicated, the SEND Bill is simply a building block. However, it provides us with the legislative changes that are necessary to support the revised SEN and inclusion framework. It is proper that we reflect on the steady increase over the past 10 years in the number of people with SEN. There were some 73,435 pupils with SEN in 2014-15. So, there is a stark and clear need to advance this legislation.

I will concentrate a couple of remarks on a number of amendments, in particular amendment No 5, which places a duty on health and education bodies to cooperate with one another to identify and assess children with SEN, provide services to them and share that information. This, again, was a stark piece of evidence that came through in the Education Committee's work and in my work as Chair of the Health Committee. It places a duty on the bodies to share the information on request and prepare a joint and integrated plan for exercising their functions. That is, effectively, a power to pool budgets and to share resources. That is a welcome requirement, and one that I have advocated for some time. It is crucial that we see cooperation across all areas of SEN provision. It is important that jointly planned and delivered health and education services be delivered for children with SEN. We would all expect, and advance, the concept of having robust regulations and a code of practice that will follow the legislation and provide that detailed model of how cooperation will work.

Amendment No 6 deals with the oversight of cooperation and extends the remit — this has been challenging for some Members — of the RQIA to encompass oversight of cooperation between Education and Health. That is an interesting change in the dynamics of the role of an organisation such as the RQIA. Reflecting on the RQIA, many see it as one part of the health system scrutinising another part of the health system. So there is no doubt that the amendment changes the dynamics.

It is worth reflecting that the whole remit of the RQIA was informal guidance by the Commissioner for Older People advanced in terms of a need for review. So it is apt that we explore that changing relationship in the Bill. The proposed obligations on health authorities will undoubtedly more closely align the SEN framework to other progressive pieces of legislation that recognise the fundamental importance of health therapies to children with SEN.

I want to take a minute to reflect on the need to cooperate. As a Committee, we sought evidence and requested research papers from our Assembly research team. We found that 59% of statements were granted outside the 26-week limit, and 74% of those statements were as a result of delays in health. So, there is a huge challenge to the system to do better. It was concluded that there is inadequacy in the joint working between education and health; there is also a lack of data collection or analysis by the Health and Social Care Board. Even a survey in 2010 found that only 14% of teachers felt that there was a coherent or consistent approach across health, social care and education. So, it is important that we reflect on the blockages in the system and allow the Bill to be part of looking at formal duties to cooperate between both Departments.

I support the amendments, with the exception of amendment No 8. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leofa sin uilig a bhí páirteach i ndíospóireacht an lae inniu. I thank all the Members who contributed to today's debate. As I said at the beginning of the debate, the Bill is about strengthening the rights of children with special educational needs, and additional duties will be placed on the Education Authority to bring clarity to the support that should be available for children with SEN.

The rights of parents will also be strengthened, and there will be new duties on boards of governors, all of which is to ensure that the learning of the child progresses and develops throughout their journey through our education system.

I hope that we will be able to move the Bill beyond today and that further work will be carried out, as Members are aware, at Further Consideration Stage etc. We should focus on the outcomes for children with SEN, which should be agreed in consultation with the parent and the child. Transparency, accountability and reduced bureaucracy were the themes of many Members' contributions to the debate. The Bill will ensure that everyone involved in the SEN world has confidence in the new SEN framework, I have already outlined the rationale behind the amendments that I have proposed, which were brought forward by the Committee and sponsored by myself.

All the amendments emerged from Committee scrutiny. That was not just during Committee Stage, as the Bill and the SEN framework have been discussed for many years. Contrary to what some in the House believe, including Mr Agnew perhaps, the Bill has not been delayed by political fallout or dispute. The Bill has been brought forward on the basis that we want to bring as many people with us as possible. We have sought agreement, interrogated the issues and debated them in the original consultation and in many debates in Committee, even in my time as a member. I have made presentations to the current Education Committee, as have my officials and others in the SEN field. We want to get the legislation right and to make sure that it is the building block on which we build a modern SEN service.

Members will rightly highlight their constituents' poor experiences when it comes to interacting on statementing or other aspects of the SEN processes, but it also has to be remembered that, every year, thousands upon thousands of children either go through statementing or are involved in SEN in our schools and that, in the vast majority of cases, the experience is very good. Members are right to highlight times when it goes wrong and to hold those involved to account. When we as legislators and decision-makers have to change legislation to ensure that public servants can deliver a service better, we should do that, and that is the case. This legislation allows us to carry out that very function.

The Chair outlined the role of the Committee in the scrutiny of the Bill. As I said, that has been taking place over many years, not just on the Bill but on the preparation of the various stages of the SEN framework. I have said before and I think that it is worth repeating that it has been carried out in a very positive and informed manner, with those on both sides of the table seeking resolution and the best possible legislative outcomes for the young people involved. Maybe it is my own experience, but I have to say that, when a Minister brings forward a Bill, they lose control of it once it goes through Second Stage. It could go in any direction after that. However, in these considerations, I was confident that the SEND Bill was going in only one direction — the right direction of ensuring that it served the needs of young people — and that was the collective work of the entire Committee. We still have a way to go in ensuring that the Bill becomes law, and there will be many a twist and turn in the road.

Members raised several issues of concern, comment and observation on aspects of the Bill. Seán Rogers referred to training and support for teachers and boards of governors. We have a plan and resources in place for that training. It is a step change for schools and boards of governors, and we as a Department of Education have a responsibility to step up to the mark and support them. The Member mentioned the use of IT and referred to a 70-mile round trip, and I will certainly bring that comment back. We should look to use modern technology to provide training across a wide range of areas not only for SEN and support for boards of governors and teachers but for other elements of our education system.

Sandra Overend wondered whether I was chancing my arm but was caught out by amendment No 12. No — well, I do chance my arm and am occasionally caught out. However, scrutiny of the Bill highlighted concerns on this. It does not cause any difficulty to ensure that there is open transparency on the Bill, so why not do it? Let us just do it and bring it forward so that everybody has confidence in it.


4.45 pm

Trevor Lunn summed up the objective of this debate and the lengthy debate over the years: the Bill will leave our children and parents in a better place. If we achieve that, we will have done a good job, and we are capable of doing that with the Bill. Trevor asked what the concerns were about amendment No 6. Again, I advise the Chamber on behalf of the Health Minister, who has advised me, that it is not the policy intention of the Department of Health to extend the remit, as set out in amendment No 6, of the RQIA in this way. It is only fair and proper that I reflect the comments of the Health Minister. Other Members referred to that in their contributions. I think that colleagues from the DUP said that they had concerns about the RQIA being used for this purpose. At the end of the day, the House will make its decision. People, quite rightly, look for oversight, and there has been concern about cooperation between the two Departments. Perhaps the most logical step is to ask this question: where will the oversight of that be? We have a very good Education Committee and a very good Health Committee: perhaps that is where the oversight should rest. That would certainly remove any bureaucracy or further pressure on any other regulatory body. Our Committee structure has impressed even the critics of the Assembly, so there is certainly a potential role for the Health Committee and the Education Committee in ensuring that there is cooperation between the two Departments, if the amendments are passed today, and that we are held to account for it.

Mr Lunn: Thank you for giving way. Are you saying that the Education Committee and the Health Committee could, between them, produce a report of the qualityof what might be produced by the RQIA? How would we have the facility to do that?

Mr O'Dowd: The question of whether the RQIA has the facility to do that has also been raised. It is not within its remit, so that is not its field of expertise. Some Members said that the RQIA had stepped forward and volunteered to carry out this role — fair play to it. I am certainly not undermining the professionalism of the RQIA, but I am reflecting the view of the Health Minister. It is not the policy intent of the Health Department to have the RQIA carry out such a role. There is an alternative, and it is up to the House to make the decision on the amendment one way or the other. I am saying that we should not underestimate the capacity of our Committees to scrutinise Departments. That is their role. If Departments are not cooperating, particularly when under a legislative remit to do so, the Committees are in a position to do certain work. Members may or may not agree with my view.

Jonathan Craig touched on amendment No 4 and expressed his concern about whether the personal learning plan would be passed on if there was a dispute between the school and the parents. I am more than happy to look at that again to see whether there is a way of addressing those concerns, but — I think that Mr Agnew touched on this as well — we are dealing with data protection and the rights of individuals. I will look at it between now and Consideration Stage to see whether there is a way of addressing that concern, if at all possible, and to ensure that information is shared between schools to the benefit of the young person involved.

Members crossed themes on a number of matters. I am touching base on just some of the issues, and, if I leave out any Members or their points, I will be more than happy to respond to them. As I said in my introductory remarks — I want to reassure Mr Agnew again — the time that it has taken this legislation to come to the Floor in no way reflects a lack of work on the SEN framework or the SEND Bill. I assure Mr Agnew that a huge amount of work has been done in my Department on SEN and in cooperation, discussion and collaboration with other Departments — the Department of Justice, the Health Department and DEL, to name a few. Over the last number of years, they have all been involved in discussions in one form or another on the preparation for moving forward with improving our SEN services, the SEN framework and the SEND Bill. He also referred to the Children's Commissioner's report of, I think, 2012, which was critical of transitions between education and health. We were acutely aware of that.

Indeed, it has been a focus of discussions and engagement between my Department, the Department of Health and DEL. We have all-party working groups on mental health and on learning disability, and that is one of the areas that we are concentrating on. We are working to ensure that the lessons of all Departments and children's bad experiences of transition are learned from and that we improve for all young people. A recent Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report on transition flagged up the point that the Department of Education's work and policies and their outworkings on that were very good, but I accept the Member's point: DE has to be good at it, the Health Department has to be good at it and whoever else is involved has to be good at it as we move forward.

I will now deal with the area of cooperation. I touched on it when discussing amendment No 6. On amendment Nos 5 and 7, I again reflect the views of the Health Minister. He has concerns that there will be duplication of legislation between this Bill if it becomes an Act and Mr Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Bill. Members are aware of that information, and it is now up to them what they decide on that. I cannot impose, nor do I wish to impose, an obligation on another member of the Executive, but the Assembly can, because those are the rules of the game.

In my opening remarks, I asked Members not to support amendment No 8. It is not a die-in-a-ditch issue for me. Both sides of the argument want to achieve the same objective, but the debate is on how and when you achieve the same objective. Committee members have debated the matter at length. Many Members have spoken in support of amendment No 8 in the Chamber today. I think that the proposal to allow the consultation to begin in early 2016 and then to move from that point is the best way forward, but the bottom line is this: either way works. I am content to take the direction of the House on the matter.

In conclusion, I once again thank those who contributed to the debate. We now move the Bill on to Further Consideration Stage, and I hope that we move one step closer to reaching the objective set out by Mr Lunn, which is that, if we improve the lives of children and parents, we have done a good thing.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Duties of Boards of Governors in relation to pupils with special educational needs)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 33, after "'take" insert "all". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 3, line 3, at end insert

"(2A) In Article 8 after paragraph (1) insert—
 
"(1A) Paragraph (1B) applies where—
 
(a) the Board of Governors of a grant-aided school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(1B) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(1C) Nothing in paragraph (1A) or (1B) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(d) or (as the case may be) under Article 8ZA(1)(a).".". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 3, line 29, at end insert

"(3) Paragraph (4) applies where—
 
(a) the Board of Governors of a special school (school A) has prepared a personal learning plan in respect of a registered pupil at the school, and
 
(b) that pupil ceases to be a registered pupil at school A and becomes a registered pupil at another grant-aided school (school B).
 
(4) The Board of Governors of school A shall—
 
(a) seek to obtain the consent of the pupil concerned (if the pupil is over compulsory school age) or of the pupil’s parent (in any other case) to a copy of the personal learning plan being sent to the Board of Governors of school B; and
 
(b) if it obtains that consent, send a copy of the plan to the Board of Governors of school B.
 
(5) Nothing in paragraph (3) or (4) affects any duty of the Board of Governors of school B to prepare a personal learning plan in respect of the pupil under paragraph (1)(a) or (as the case may be) under Article 8(1)(d).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 5 proposed:

After clause 3 insert

"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
3A. Before Article 13 of the 1996 Order insert—
 
"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
12A.—(1) The Authority and the health and social services authorities ("the relevant bodies") shall co-operate with one another to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs.
 
(2) The relevant bodies shall share information with one another on request.
 
(3) But information about a child may only be shared with the permission of that child, if the child is over compulsory school age, or the parent of the child in any other case.
 
(4) The relevant bodies must co-operate to prepare a joint and integrated plan for exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(5) The relevant bodies may pool budgets and share resources for the purposes of exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(6) In this Article, "health and social services authorities" comprises—
 
(a) the Regional Board for Health and Social Care; and
 
(b) the health and social care trusts established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.".". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 6 is an amendment to amendment No 5, so we need to dispose of amendment No 6 before putting the Question on amendment No 5. I hope that everyone understands.

Amendment No 6, as an amendment to amendment No 5, proposed:

After paragraph (5) insert

"(5A) The Health and Social Care Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) established under Article 3 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (NI 9) must, at intervals of not more than 2 years, conduct a review, and publish a report, on how the relevant bodies have co-operated with one another under this Article.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment No 5, as amended, made:

After clause 3 insert

"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
3A. Before Article 13 of the 1996 Order insert—
 
"Co-operation to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs
 
12A.—(1) The Authority and the health and social services authorities ("the relevant bodies") shall co-operate with one another to identify, assess, and provide services to, children with special educational needs.
 
(2) The relevant bodies shall share information with one another on request.
 
(3) But information about a child may only be shared with the permission of that child, if the child is over compulsory school age, or the parent of the child in any other case.
 
(4) The relevant bodies must co-operate to prepare a joint and integrated plan for exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(5) The relevant bodies may pool budgets and share resources for the purposes of exercising their functions in accordance with this Article.
 
(5A) The Health and Social Care Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) established under Article 3 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (NI 9) must, at intervals of not more than 2 years, conduct a review, and publish a report, on how the relevant bodies have co-operated with one another under this Article.
 
(6) In this Article, "health and social services authorities" comprises—
 
(a) the Regional Board for Health and Social Care; and
 
(b) the health and social care trusts established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.".". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 (Duty of Authority to request help from health and social care bodies)

Amendment No 7 made:

In page 3, line 33, at end insert

"(2A) After paragraph (4), insert—
 
'(4A) If, in helping the Authority in the making of an assessment under Article 15, the health and social services authority identifies any therapeutic or other treatment, or service, likely to be beneficial to the child, the health and social services authority shall provide that treatment or service to the child.'." — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 8 made:

After clause 5 insert

"Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
Nature and extent of special educational provision
 
5A. In Article 16 of the 1996 Order (statement of special educational needs) in paragraph (3)(b), after "specify" insert "the nature and extent of"’.". — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 (Child under 2: appeals against contents of statement or failure to make statement)

Amendment No 9 made:

In page 5, line 18, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 (Rights of child over compulsory school age in relation to special educational provision)

Amendment No 10 made:

In page 7, line 34, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Amendment No 11 made:

In page 7, line 36, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 12 made:

After clause 14 insert

"Orders and regulations under Part 2 of the 1996 Order
 
14A. For Article 28 of the 1996 Order substitute—
 
'Orders and regulations under this Part
 
28.—(1) Orders made by the Department under this Part (other than orders under Article 5(3)) shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(2) Regulations shall not be made under Article 8 or 8ZA unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly.
 
(3) Subject to paragraph (4), all other regulations under this Part shall be subject to negative resolution.
 
(4) Regulations made under this Part which—
 
(a) would otherwise be subject to negative resolution, but
 
(b) are combined with regulations subject to the procedure mentioned in paragraph (2),
shall also be subject to that procedure.
 
(5) Regulations and orders made under this Part by a Northern Ireland department may contain such incidental, supplementary and transitional provisions as that department thinks fit.'.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 15 and 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Before we move to the next item of business, I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes so that we can change some of the personnel at the top Table.


5.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of the Environment, Mr Mark Durkan, to move the Bill.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): I beg to move amendment No 1. When we last met to discuss the Bill in June —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I ask the Minister to just move the Bill at this stage. There are some other preliminary issues to go through first.

Mr Durkan: Apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was getting ahead of myself there.

Moved. — [Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two amendments, which will be debated in a single group. The amendments propose a change of timings and an issue of a technical nature. I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debate on the group of amendments, they should address both amendments in the group. Once the debate on the group is completed, amendment No 2 will be moved formally and the Question will be put without further debate. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 19 (Changes to restrictions on learner and new drivers)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 2.

Mr Durkan: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 20, line 32, leave out "10" and insert "11".

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In the long title, leave out

"the age at which a provisional licence may be obtained,". — [Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment).]

When we last met to discuss the Bill in June, there was a great deal of debate on clause 19, which deals with changes to restrictions on learners and new drivers. Taking on board those concerns, I gave my commitment to review clause 19. I undertook to engage with key stakeholders, including Members here who raised particular concerns about the clause and some rural groups such as the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster. My officials engaged on my behalf with Assembly colleagues who expressed a particular interest in this element of the Bill. I thank those Members for their constructive engagement. I can now update Members on that review, which has led to my tabling this first amendment.

Just before I do, however, it will be useful to give Members a quick recap of what the passenger restriction will mean for new young drivers: when they will be permitted to drive and whom they will be permitted to drive with. The passenger restriction is not a curfew. New drivers will be permitted to drive 24 hours a day from the moment they pass their test. During the period of the restriction, drivers aged under 24 who are within the first six months since passing their test will be limited to carrying one passenger aged between 14 and 20. They can carry younger or older passengers without restriction and can carry a passenger of any age for whom the driver is entitled to receive carer's allowance. Outside the restricted period, there are no restrictions on the number or age of passengers.

My review of the clause focused on three main areas: evidence, mobility and complexity. A number of Members asked for further evidence of the need for a passenger restriction and the time of day when collisions occur. Over the last number of months, officials have worked with statisticians, reviewing and building on the information available. I hope that all Members will have received a short paper that sets out the stark evidence in support of a passenger restriction.

Between 2010 and 2014, a driver aged between 17 and 24 was deemed responsible for 88% of the 14- to 20-year-old passengers killed when travelling with a driver who was responsible for the collision. The proportion of passengers in that age group who were killed or seriously injured by a 17- to 24-year-old driver was 77% — 138 teenage passengers killed or seriously injured while travelling with a young driver deemed responsible for the collision. That is 138 families left devastated by the loss of a loved one or the impact of coping with their life-changing injuries. There is a particular problem on rural roads —

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Durkan: Certainly.

Mr Allister: How many of the 14- to 20-year-olds who, sadly, lost their life would have been saved by virtue of this legislation, in that it would have been illegal for them to be in a car had the law been applied? Can you tell us that?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I do not, unfortunately, have that detail here; I will try to get it in time for my winding-up speech. This is about forming driving habits and behavioural change. The first six months after a driver, particularly a young driver, passes their test are extremely important in establishing what type of driver they will be. The first six months are when a young driver is particularly vulnerable to collision. That is borne out by statistics that I will try to get in time for my winding-up speech.

There is a particular problem on rural roads, where 78% of those 14- to 20-year-old passengers — 107 young people — were killed or seriously injured while travelling with a young driver deemed responsible. At Consideration Stage, I heard concerns about mobility, particularly in rural communities. As part of the review, I met representatives from the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster. Both groups indicated general support for the Bill but put forward concerns about the impact that the passenger restriction could have on mobility for their members and for rural communities more generally. They asked me to consider the effects of social isolation in rural areas and the impact of the passenger restriction on young people's ability to travel for education purposes and to attend after-school activities, church and sporting events.

In the Consideration Stage debate, Members raised issues about the complexity of the clause. I asked officials to explore those issues with Members. I understand that, although Members expressed concerns similar to those already raised, they acknowledged the difficulty of achieving a balance between simplifying the clause and retaining exemptions for family members etc in order to avoid placing even further restrictions on mobility.

In the review, I welcomed the support from all involved for the removal of the 45 mph speed restriction, which is a key element of the clause. I think that we can all agree that the ability to train learners to drive up to posted speeds so that they are ready to handle the challenges of driving alone makes absolute sense.

The more contentious element of the clause is the passenger restriction. I considered the feedback from the range of meetings held and appreciate the sentiments and arguments put forward, particularly the need to ensure that mobility is not restricted unduly. I have listened carefully to the concerns about the perceived disproportionate impacts on rural communities. In doing so, however, I have been mindful of the robust evidence of the extent of the road safety problems on our rural roads.

Indeed, Sandra Overend's amendment at Consideration Stage was, I believe, brought in to try to lessen the impact of the passenger restriction on young people's mobility, particularly their ability to travel for education purposes, sports practice, and so on. I can, of course, appreciate the rationale behind that, but Members will recall that I opposed the introduction of any time-limited passenger restriction, and I still firmly believe — the evidence supports this — that a 24-hour passenger restriction would have had the greatest impact on reducing deaths and serious injuries among younger drivers and their peer-age passengers. However, as I said when we last debated the Bill, the passenger restriction cannot be based on effectiveness alone. It has to be about the balance between road safety and mobility. It was clearly not the will of the Assembly to have a full, 24-hours-a-day passenger restriction, and I respect that decision.

Members will also recall that I urged caution around voting to bring in a time-bound passenger restriction that omitted the highest-risk hour, 9.00 pm to 10.00 pm. I remain concerned that a 10.00 pm restriction may inadvertently increase the number of fatalities as people speed during the most dangerous time of the day — between 9.00 pm and 10.00 pm — to drop off their passengers quickly, so as not to break the law by having passengers in the car at 10.00 pm.

At one point, I considered bringing forward an amendment to include that hour and to commence the restriction at 9.00 pm, and that is certainly what the road safety evidence points me towards. However, I have accepted the representations made on behalf of rural communities and decided to bring forward an amendment to commence the passenger restriction at 11.00 pm rather than 10.00 pm. I want to put some clear blue water between that high-risk hour between 9.00 pm and 10.00 pm and the time that the passenger restriction starts. I believe that it makes sense to move the start time to 11.00 pm so that those young drivers and their friends who are still out at social events, work, and so on, can make their way home safely and without the need to resort to risky behaviour to beat the clock. Based on my engagement with the farming groups, the feedback from my review and the comments made by Members at Consideration Stage, I believe that 11.00 pm will represent an acceptable time.

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Durkan: Certainly.

Mr Lunn: I hear what the Minister says about the feedback, the review, and so on. Can he tell us what the reaction of the PSNI concerning enforcement has been to all of this during the review? I take his point about accident statistics and those killed and seriously injured: that is evident. How is this to be enforced? What is the police's view?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. The reaction of the PSNI to the proposals has been consistent throughout. It accepts and admits that there will be difficulties with enforcement. However, as I outlined when addressing Mr Allister earlier, this is very much about effecting attitudinal, and then behavioural, change and improvement in drivers and road users. How do the police enforce, for example, the wearing of seat belts? How do they enforce against the use of mobile devices when people are driving?

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lunn: I am sorry, but I do not accept that comparison at all. If someone is not wearing a seat belt or is on a mobile phone, it is pretty obvious. It is not so obvious what age somebody is at that particular time of the day, and that is the problem. That goes for the relevant additional driver provision as well. I am not sure that the police are enthusiastic about this at all, although I recognise the good intent behind it.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that intervention. He is not convinced that the police are sure about this, but I am not sure what he bases that on. I am convinced that they are, through continuous engagement — personally and through my officials — with the PSNI on the issue. The PSNI is a valued and valuable road safety partner of the Department. We work very closely with it on a range of our road safety activities.

However, Members should note that, although I am proposing this amendment, I do not want them to underestimate the very real risks posed by and to young drivers carrying young passengers.


5.30 pm

The additional evidence that has been produced over the last number of months only reaffirms for me the important role that a passenger restriction has in protecting drivers and their passengers in the early days of driving without supervision. By restricting the carriage of multiple peer passengers until six months post test, I believe that drivers will have gained valuable additional experience and will be more ready to deal with the distraction that carrying passengers inevitably creates. Although the restriction will now be applicable only at night, I still believe firmly that it will save lives.

I have discussed with my officials other ways of tackling this passenger problem in parallel to the legislation being brought forward. I have asked them to ensure that dealing with driver distraction forms an integral part of the programme of training and that the restrictions are clearly communicated to young drivers in preparation for and on passing their test. Furthermore, I will consider how best to educate young drivers on the risks of driving with peer passengers and whether we can start that process of education before the passenger restriction becomes operational.

I was pleased to announce in October that a number of projects would be progressed this year, funded by my Department's road safety grant scheme. These grants seek to engage and empower individuals and organisations to practise good road user behaviour. It is particularly pertinent that one of those projects, Love your Passenger, Love Yourself, relates to what we are discussing today. It will highlight and bring home the real and devastating effects that careless drivers can have not just on themselves but on friends and families. Very sadly, as the two fatal collisions in recent months involving young drivers with peer passengers show, the risks are very real and something that we as legislators should not shy away from.

I appreciate that I have spoken for quite some time now; I am almost done but I want to reflect on a few additional points and explain why, despite an extensive review of the clause during which every point raised was considered thoroughly, I have not brought any other amendments. The crux of the matter is that the majority of the issues raised were mutually exclusive. I was criticised for the complexity of the restriction, yet the very purpose of that complexity — the exemptions for family members and suchlike — was to ensure that mobility was not unduly impacted. I considered a number of ways to reduce the complexity, including removing the exemptions or not permitting any passengers, and, whilst some of these amendments would certainly have assisted concerns regarding enforceability, there would have been a considerable impact on mobility. Based on the feedback that I have had on the meetings held with officials and the meetings that I have been involved in, I believe that there is an acknowledgement that balance is difficult to achieve and that any attempt to make the measure simpler would have the unwanted effect of reducing mobility. Clearly, members do not want that.

So what are we left with? We have a passenger restriction that is perhaps not as stringent as I would have liked but will, nonetheless, almost certainly save many families the devastation of losing a loved one. We have a passenger restriction that is balanced. Young people will be free to drive at any time of the day or night on passing their test, but we will offer them some protection as they gain experience by applying a restriction in the first six months post test, when the risk is most marked. During those six months, the new driver is still afforded a high degree of mobility, with freedom to drive themselves but with limitations on carrying multiple passengers between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am.

What we have is, I believe, a balance that has not been stumbled upon or hashed together; it is a delicate balance that we have had to carefully consider and work together to achieve. What we have is an approach that is appropriate and proportionate to the problem.

I now turn to amendment No 2, which amends the long title. This amendment is required to reflect the fact that no changes are being made to the age at which a provisional licence may be obtained, as agreed at Consideration Stage.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): On behalf of the Environment Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Further Consideration Stage of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill. The Committee