Official Report: Monday 18 January 2016
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that the Pension Schemes Bill received Royal Assent on 15 January 2016. It will be known as the Pension Schemes Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mrs Arlene Foster, and the Minister for Social Development, Mr Mervyn Storey, resigned their offices on 12 January 2016.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that Mrs Arlene Foster MLA, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Mr Mervyn Storey MLA as Minister of Finance and Personnel and Lord Morrow MLA as Minister for Social Development. Mr Storey and Lord Morrow each accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on 12 January 2016.
Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that the nominating officer for the SDLP has informed me that Mr Seán Rogers has been nominated as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. Mr Rogers accepted the nomination. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met and confirm that the appointment takes immediate effect.
Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate. Before I proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That, in accordance with Standing Order 79(4), Mrs Karen McKevitt be appointed to fill the vacancy on the Assembly Commission. — [Mr A Maginness.]
Mr Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion regarding Committee Membership. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.
That the Democratic Unionist Party membership of Assembly Committees be changed in accordance with the proposals laid in the Assembly Business Office by the party on 18 January 2016. — [Mr Weir.]
Mr Speaker: The Minister for Education wishes to make a statement.
Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998 regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in education format. The meeting was held in Armagh on 11 December 2015. This statement has been agreed with Minister McIlveen and is made on behalf of both of us.
Minister Damien English TD and I welcomed the results of a review of the education sector North/South work programme carried out by both Departments at a joint workshop held in June 2015, which confirmed the validity and relevance of the current work programme. We also noted that officials have agreed actions to further develop joint working and cooperation. The Council noted the scope and preparations for the delivery of the shared education theme of the Peace IV programme. Calls for funding are expected early this year.
Ministers welcomed the ongoing collaboration and engagement between the national agencies in both jurisdictions in exploring the potential for collaboration on the ERASMUS+ programme. The Council noted that both Departments will continue to work together to develop concepts that could form the basis of an ERASMUS+ application for 2016 in relation to language learning. The Council noted that Minister O’Sullivan and I had agreed to commission, through a competitive tendering process, an external provider to review the experiences in both jurisdictions in relation to our efforts to address educational underachievement. The commission will cover an 18-month period from date of award of contract to final report to the Departments. I am pleased to confirm that a contract has now been awarded.
The Council noted the publication of two North/South inspectorate reports on good practice in literacy and numeracy in May 2015 and their dissemination to practitioners. Minister English and I welcomed the continuing collaborative work of the inspectorates covering capacity-building for the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection of Irish-medium education; the ETI’s assistance with the Department of Education and Skills (DES) inspectorate’s development of expertise in preschool and early years inspections; the quality assurance by the DES inspectorate of the ETI’s review of the outcomes of its programmes promoting improvement in English and mathematics; and the ongoing programme of inspection exchanges, joint working on inspections and cooperation between management of both inspectorates.
Turning to special education, I welcome the continuing progress being made by both Departments and the Middletown centre in facilitating the delivery of the centre’s range of services since the completion of the expansion project in March 2015. Ministers noted that both Departments are making arrangements for a follow-up inspection of the centre to be carried out during 2016. We also noted the continuing progress on sharing of information and experiences between both Departments across the broader agenda of special educational needs.
The Council welcomed the ongoing cooperation between the teaching councils in both jurisdictions on measures to reduce obstacles to the mobility of teachers. This includes the waiving of fees for the assessment of qualifications of teachers accredited by the General Teaching Council for NI and the simplification of the process for applying for teaching posts in the South. Ministers noted that both Departments have asked the teaching councils to provide a qualitative assessment covering any remaining issues that have an impact on teacher mobility. This will include the impact of the introduction of the two-year postgraduate certificate in education in the South and the impact of European directive 2005/36/EC. The directive provides for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications between member states across a range of professions, including teaching. I can confirm that the assessment from the teaching councils has now been received and is being considered by both Departments. I expect an update before the next NSMC meeting.
It was noted that both Departments are considering a proposal from St Mary's University College, Belfast and Marino College to collaborate to support access to the Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge, the Irish language requirement, by applicants from the North of Ireland. Currently, a teacher from the North who does not have the Irish language requirement qualification is able to apply for teaching posts in the South. After taking up a teaching position, teachers have up to three years to obtain the qualification. Again, I want to see a response to the proposal by March 2016.
I welcome the continuing commitment to a cross-border professional learning collaboration between the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) and the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS). Their joint project, which is now under way, involves the cross-curricular use of digital storytelling in a small number of schools from both jurisdictions, using history as a basis for promoting the skills of storytelling and chronology.
The Council noted that Minister O'Sullivan and I officiated at the thirteenth annual Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) on the theme of teacher education and social justice, which took place in Limerick on 15 and 16 October 2015. Minister English and I noted the ongoing activities of the North/South education and training standards committee for youth work. The Council welcomed the ongoing work of the group established by the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Youth Council, which is supported by funding from an ERASMUS+ programme, to optimise ICT for effective youth work. Ministers agreed that the North/South Ministerial Council in education format should meet again in spring 2016.
Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for his statement covering that range of issues. I refer him to the largest portion of the statement, which was on teacher qualifications and, indeed, the effort being made to coordinate between North and South measures to reduce obstacles to teacher mobility. I note that the statement says that the Minister has tasked the teacher councils:
"to provide a qualitative assessment covering any remaining issues that have an impact on teacher mobility."
Will that assessment comprehensively cover all the issues on barriers to teacher mobility? Will it include the outstanding issue of the Catholic teacher training certificate?
Mr O'Dowd: This subject is raised during questions on every one of these statements on the North/South Ministerial Council. I am not sure that it is exactly relevant, but whether the subject is being covered, I am not sure. I will ask for it to be checked, and if the Member feels strongly enough that it should be included, I am more than happy for it to be included.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I commend the work of the Minister to remove barriers to teacher mobility on a North/South basis. However, can he update us on removing obstacles to mobility that affect undergraduates or even school-leavers, which might be a description that could be used for them earlier, on a North/South basis? I understand that Minister Farry is jointly involved in this type of work.
Mr O'Dowd: It is not my direct area of responsibility, though I am aware that it has been raised at North/South Ministerial Council meetings in education format on several occasions. I am also aware that work is continuing between the various Departments, North and South, and that several of the higher education institutions in the South have moved to remove the barriers that were in place on how they score A levels and A* grades, compared with the Leaving Certificate. They have moved to remove those barriers, and there are continuing discussions and cooperation on how to ensure that young people from this jurisdiction who wish to attend university in the South can do so on a level playing field.
Mr Diver: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to address my question specifically to educational underachievement as it is outlined in the statement. Given that a number of different sources, from the OECD to the Equality Commission and the Assembly's all-party group, are extremely concerned about underachievement, does the Minister feel that the study outlined by the commission, which is going to last for 18 months — I welcome that the contract has been awarded — will treat this very serious subject with the urgency that it merits, especially as this is a very serious situation that has long-reaching effects for our young people?
Mr O'Dowd: It is not the only scheme, measure or proposal that is in place. It is going to study best practice in each jurisdiction on tackling educational underachievement. If he reads through the statement, the Member will be aware of and see the work that is also being carried out between the Education and Training Inspectorate in this jurisdiction and that in the South.
They have been working very, very closely across a wide range of areas, in particular ensuring best practice around numeracy and literacy. That means ensuring that best practice is not only understood between the inspectorates but disseminated to practitioners in schools. At the core of that, it is about tackling educational underachievement.
Since coming into post, I have said — indeed, there were policies in place before I came into post — that the central thrust of my Department is tackling educational underachievement. One has only to look at the most recent educational outcomes for our young people, through their qualifications, where we have seen a dramatic six-point increase in the number of young people leaving school with five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The policies that are in place are beginning to work.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to continue with the Minister's theme of educational underachievement. Do we need another report about educational underachievement? Would it not be better to revisit any recommendations in the series of reports that have been produced on the issue, which date back to the 1998 strategy for the promotion of literacy and numeracy in primary and secondary schools. This is something that we need to move forward on. What is this contract worth and how much is it costing the taxpayers here in Northern Ireland?
Mr O'Dowd: I, too, am not in favour of commissioning reports or studies for the sake of it, but examining and disseminating best practice on each side of the border in relation to tackling educational underachievement represents value for money and is worthwhile.
I have studied numerous reports on educational underachievement, including the most recent, and there is a common theme running through them all, which the Member chooses to ignore, of academic selection. We need to tackle that head-on if we are serious about tackling educational underachievement. The cost of the review to each Department in each jurisdiction is £40,000, and I think that that is £40,000 well spent. Sorry, just to clarify, that is £40,000 to each Department, so it is £80,000 in total.
Mr Lunn: I know the Minister has probably had enough questions about the Irish language requirement and cross-border arrangements, but, although the statement says that teachers from the North can now apply for teaching posts in the South, it does not say how successful they are. Is there any evidence or any figures to indicate that teachers are actually obtaining jobs in the Republic on the basis that they will try to qualify with the Irish language certificate in due course?
Mr O'Dowd: I do not have those figures at hand but, if they are available, I am more than happy to share them with the Member. There have been barriers in the past to teachers from either jurisdiction travelling backwards and forwards to obtain posts, and we have been working at the North/South Ministerial Council over a number of years to remove those. At times, that work has been frustratingly slow, but we have seen progress in these last few months, so I am more than happy to investigate the numbers further, and, if there are figures available for the number of teachers who have applied and are successful, I am more than happy to share them with the Member.
Mr Craig: While it is welcome to see that teachers from Northern Ireland can now apply for jobs in the Republic of Ireland and that they are allowed up to three years to get the Irish language qualification, can the Minister explain whether there is any subsidising of the course that leads to that qualification and whether those working towards it are entitled to any time out? There is a bit of an issue around that.
Mr O'Dowd: I am not aware of any subsidising of the course, because that would take place in the Southern jurisdiction, or whether staff are allowed time off to prepare for the exam, but I will find out and inform the Member.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas inniu. Can the Minister give us an update on the deliberations of officials on both sides of the border on securing the future of post-primary education at St Mary's High School in Brollagh?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. My officials continue to engage with those from the Southern jurisdiction about the proposal moving forward, which would see continued provision of post-primary education at St Mary's in Brollagh. They are preparing a final report for my consideration and that of Minister O'Sullivan. Once that report becomes available and I have deliberated on it, I will report back to the Member.
Mr Newton: I welcome the Minister's statement. I want to refer to two areas: EU funding opportunities and educational underachievement. In the statement, the Minister indicated that he is applying for ERASMUS+ funding for 2016 in relation to language learning. There does not appear to be any application for educational underachievement. ERASMUS+ offers an opportunity for applications on the basis of personal development and, indeed, qualifications. If, as all of us in the Chamber agree, educational underachievement is significant, why are we not looking at the potential to make an EU application for ERASMUS+ funding to address that issue, as well as language learning?
Mr O'Dowd: The forward work programme for my officials and those of Minister O'Sullivan will look at opportunities for joint EU funding bids. I assure the Member that we will be looking at a wide range of areas, including educational underachievement, to see whether we can make bids for European funding in a joint manner, because that will increase the likelihood of the bid's success. We have identified languages as an area where there is huge potential for funding from Europe, and the Member will be aware that there was huge disappointment last year when we had to end language provision in primary schools because of constraints on the education budget. At that time, I undertook to investigate other methods of funding for that programme. We have identified it in ERASMUS+ funding. The Member will also be aware that we have been very successful under Peace IV in obtaining €30 million of European funding to advance shared education. Thus far, we have been quite successful in getting European funding, but I assure the Member that my officials and officials elsewhere will explore all options for European funding, including educational underachievement.
Mr Dallat: I, too, welcome the Minister's statement. As a former teacher who spent very many happy years teaching in the Republic and Northern Ireland, I am interested that there is a desire to improve the cooperation between inspectors, but surely the most important people are the children themselves. What incentives are available to encourage schools, particularly from different backgrounds, North and South, to twin or come together in a working relationship to break down the myths that still exist?
Mr O'Dowd: There is a huge opportunity through shared education projects in the funding that has been secured under Peace IV for schools from either side of the border not only to learn about the different communities and backgrounds in this jurisdiction but to share their experiences with young people in the Southern jurisdiction. There are huge opportunities there.
The role of the inspectorate is to improve educational outcomes for young people, and a number of Members have, quite rightly, asked questions about educational underachievement. The role of the inspectorate includes a challenge function and a support function. We have seen from the cooperation between the two inspectorates in either jurisdiction that, when they share and learn best practice and disseminate it in our schools on either side of the border, our young people benefit.
Mr McCausland: In his statement, the Minister welcomed the work being carried out by the Youth Council for Northern Ireland and the National Youth Council of Ireland in bringing forward a piece of work on ICT that has secured funding from the ERASMUS+ programme. Does the Minister agree that that is an example of the good work carried out by the Youth Council for Northern Ireland and of the expertise and experience that it brings to its work? Does he agree that that is one of the reasons why many of us feel that it is extremely unwise for him to seek to do away with and abolish the Youth Council?
Mr O'Dowd: I agree with the Member that it is a good example of the very good work carried out by the Youth Council, but there are questions that I have to ask myself. Do we require the Youth Council to carry out that work? Do we require the bureaucracy of the Youth Council to carry it out? Do we require 16 staff and a chief executive, the chair of a board and board members to carry out that work? I think that the answer to that question, in a very difficult financial situation, is that we do not.
We heard the debates on the radio this morning. I will not delve into the Health area. Our Executive face significant financial constraints moving into the years ahead. We will not be able to do things the way we did in previous years; we will have to do things differently. That includes removing unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. I believe that my proposal to do away with the Youth Council is the correct one, although it will be up to the Executive to decide on that. I will most certainly be moving budget lines to the Education Authority this year to carry out and to support the work of voluntary youth organisations, including for cross-border work.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement. The subject of student mobility across the island has been touched upon. While good work has been done to harmonise qualifications and to make the process easier, there rests an issue with pupil awareness of the opportunities that exist for all-Ireland student mobility. Does any EU funding give both jurisdictions the opportunity to tackle this by raising awareness of the possibilities?
Mr O'Dowd: There are clearly huge opportunities for young people to travel to either jurisdiction on the island of Ireland to continue their studies. I do not think that they have been fully exploited or, as the Member suggested, understood by students in the past. I am aware that several universities in the South are now very proactive in promoting their courses, facilities and the opportunities that they provide to students in the North; on at least one occasion, to do so, they have sponsored a major careers' event. I will ask my officials to explore whether there are options under EU funding to build on that work to allow young people to have all options in front of them before they make their choices about further and higher education.
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, to move the Consideration Stage of the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill.
Moved. — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Mr 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 that deals with reporting, scrutiny and processes, and we will debate the amendments in turn. 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 will be put without further debate. The Question 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.
Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease briefly while we change the top Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Clause 2 (General powers of the Commissioner)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 14. These amendments deal with reporting and scrutiny, including noting the initial complaint, and processes, including provisions for making an apology. Members will note that amendment Nos 6 and 7 are consequential to amendment No 5.
In page 1, line 17, at end insert
"(aa) require a professional body to provide the Commissioner with such information in relation to the number of complaints made against the members of that body as the Commissioner may specify;". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In clause 8, page 5, line 4, after "privileged" insert
"unless the publication is proved to be made with malice". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 3: In clause 17, page 8, line 12, leave out ", without consideration of its merits". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 4: In clause 19, page 10, line 18, after "apology" insert
"(which shall not, of itself, amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of any civil proceedings)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 5: In clause 29, page 15, line 26, at end insert
"(1A) The Law Society must make regulations requiring every solicitor to provide the Law Society with such information about the number of relevant complaints made in relation to that solicitor as may be specified in the regulations.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 6: In clause 29, page 15, line 28, after "(1)" insert "and (1A)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 7: In clause 29, page 15, line 29, after "(1)" insert "and (1A)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 8: In clause 36, page 18, line 12, leave out
", without consideration of its merits". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 9: In clause 38, page 20, line 18, after "apology" insert
"(which shall not, of itself, amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of any civil proceedings)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 10: After clause 50 insert
50A.—(1) The Department must not later than 3 years after the commencement of this Act appoint an independent person to review and publish a report on the implementation of this Act.
(2) Regulations under this section shall set out the terms of the review.". — [Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel).]
No 11: In clause 51, page 26, line 32, leave out "and" and insert "but". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 12: In clause 51, page 26, line 33, leave out "does so" and insert
"modifies an Act of Parliament or Northern Ireland legislation". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 13: In schedule 1, page 31, line 29, after "report" insert
", in such form as the Department may require,". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
No 14: In schedule 1, page 31, line 30, at end insert
"(1A) Without prejudice to the generality of sub-paragraph (1), a report sent to the Department under that sub-paragraph must contain information about the number of complaints made in relation to the members of each professional body during the year to which the report relates.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Mr Storey: This Bill provides for new complaints handling processes for lawyers and enhanced oversight of the regulation, which, I believe, will aid consumers, bringing confidence to users of legal services and added transparency. The role of the proposed Legal Services Oversight Commissioner (LSOC) will be an important one going forward in this area.
I want to start my remarks on the amendments by acknowledging the constructive work of the Committee for Finance and Personnel during its important scrutiny of the Bill. That work has been of great help and benefit, and I want to place on record my appreciation. That scrutiny highlighted that the general policy of the Bill was sound but identified some areas where improvements could be made to some of the detail and technical issues in the Bill. I welcome that engagement. The amendments that I move today have been drawn up working in harmony with the Committee and are a result of the important work that its members have carried out. That is an important issue for us to rehearse and repeat because, too often, we do not give credit to the working relationship between Departments and Ministers, when it is established, to ensure that we get a good and successful outcome for a Bill.
Amendment No 1 ties in with amendment Nos 5, 6, 7, 13 and 14. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I propose to deal with these together. They deal collectively with what has been termed first-tier complaints, which are complaints that are received in-house and are most relevant to solicitors. The Committee, during its work, came back time and time again to the issue of how secure the information was relating to first-tier complaints. Northern Ireland has had a historically low level of complaints against solicitors and barristers. I am sure — indeed, the legal services review group, which did a 10-month study of this issue, found so — that this is mainly due to good service provided by professionals in that area.
However, a number of consultees identified that there could be a danger that the recorded numbers of complaints — complaints made to the Law Society and the Bar — could mask a higher number made to individual practices. That, as noted, is more acute in relation to solicitors who, by virtue of regulations made by the Law Society, have to set out an internal complaints handling policy to their clients. During the evidence sessions, it was learned that the society does not have a direct method of assessing how many complaints are made in-house and that no reliable statistics are recorded of such complaints. I know that Committee members felt that this was important information, and almost all witnesses were pressed on the issue.
My Department’s initial thoughts on the matter were that the powers available to the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner were sufficient to enable such information to be gathered using the broad powers of that postholder at clause 2. I am also mindful of the views of the Lay Observer, who questioned whether a requirement to register and record every complaint could lead to a bureaucratic result. However, on balance, I am content to support the view that the Committee’s aim, which is to attempt to gain a definitive and accurate picture of the number of complaints in this jurisdiction, is a valid one. I have, therefore, agreed to make a specific power in the Bill for this aim to be realised. My officials have worked closely with the Committee and its staff in reaching a consensus, and I welcome that interaction.
The amendments taken together will achieve that aim. I will start with amendment No 14. The Committee wanted to see the LSOC submit an annual report in which the number of complaints against lawyers would be recorded. I initially felt that that could be catered for in the general reporting powers in schedule 1, but I have been persuaded to set it out more directly. The amendment will place a duty on the LSOC, without prejudice to the generality of the powers to report in schedule 1, to include in the annual report information relating to the number of complaints made in relation to the members of the relevant professional bodies during the year to which the report relates. Amendment No 13 is a technical amendment to schedule 1, which assists this particular amendment.
In tandem with the duty to report, I turn now to amendment No 1, which outlines the power that the LSOC will have to compile this information. The amendment will specify that the LSOC has the power to require the professional bodies to provide information in relation to the number of complaints made against the members of the body as may be specified. That form of words is neater and will, for example, allow the LSOC to gain a more meaningful insight into the number and types of complaints being made at the first tier. A simple numbers game may be misleading, so I have included scope for broader information to be sought from the professional bodies.
Having the power for the LSOC in isolation would also pose problems for the Law Society. The Bar is in a different position; complaints at first instance will still be made with the input of the Bar Council. Therefore, there should be no difficulty in the Bar being able to compile information in the form that the LSOC may specify. However, the society is faced with hundreds of firms of solicitors, all with their own internal complaints systems. It requires the power to retrieve the information directly from them. Amendment No 5 does that by ensuring that the society must make regulations requiring every solicitor to provide the Law Society with such information about the number of relevant complaints made in relation to that solicitor as may be specified. That mirrors the LSOC power and will allow the society to extract the information requested by the LSOC from its members. Amendment Nos 6 and 7 make consequential amendments to clause 29 related to amendment No 5. Taken together, I am satisfied that these amendments will add value to the Bill. I acknowledge the work of the Committee in drawing out the points that I have just discussed.
Amendment No 2 is a stand-alone amendment relating to the privilege afforded to the LSOC in relation to publications. The Bill, as drafted, afforded an absolute privilege to such publications. The Committee highlighted the concerns raised during its evidence-taking in relation to that and directed the Department to the equivalent provision in the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007. That legislation provides that publications of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission are privileged unless the publication is proved to be made with malice. I am content to agree with the Committee's recommendation that clause 8 contain the same proviso.
I will deal with amendment Nos 3 and 8 together as they deal with the same point. Amendment No 3 is a technical amendment; it relates to a drafting point. It was highlighted to the Committee that clause 17(4)(a) and clause 17(5)(a), when read together, could be open to different interpretation. The removal of the words at clause 17(4)(a), as outlined in the amendment, will remove that possible anomaly. That is mirrored at clause 36(4)(a) in relation to amendment No 8.
I will also deal with amendment Nos 4 and 10 together. The Law Society noted that the power available to the relevant complaints committee to direct that a solicitor or barrister give an apology could have ramifications elsewhere. The Lay Observer was particularly keen on the ability of the complaints committee to direct an apology; he indicated that, in his experience, that was all that was needed in many instances. These amendments will allow a practitioner to give an apology without future consequences as the apology, in itself, will not amount to an admission of negligence in any civil proceedings. That is a useful addition to the clause. It mirrors similar provisions in other jurisdictions.
I will now speak about the amendment tabled by the Committee for Finance and Personnel. It was one issue, during a very helpful interaction with the Committee, on which it was not possible to have a meeting of minds. There has been progress to date, but it is an issue where we have not been able to find a meeting of minds. My predecessor, and now First Minister, Arlene Foster, was of the view that a statutory review of the Bill when enacted is not required, and the Department, in discussion with the Committee, resisted the amendment. I share her concern for a number of reasons, which I will take a few moments to outline.
First, we are introducing, after a period of almost 10 years, legislation to give effect to a review undertaken independently by the legal services review group. Professor Bain and his team considered all the issues that led to the provisions in the Bill, and they were considered very carefully. I know that time has lapsed since then, but the evidence from the Lay Observer reports in the interim, coupled with the detailed consultation exercise carried out by my Department in 2014, points to an improved picture since the group carried out its work.
The Law Society and the Bar are now more than ready for the next stage of the process. Both have worked constructively with the Department and taken considerable steps to prepare themselves for the Bill. There is a lot of good faith from those bodies that they will make the required effort to make the new system work, and work well. My concern is that we could send out the wrong message if we say that the new system will be independently reviewed in three years' time. That is not a lengthy period. This is new legislation, and it will naturally take a little time to bed in. At this point, we do not know how long that bedding-in period will be or when the system will be operating as effectively and efficiently as we hope it will. To ask an independent person to carry out a review in three years might not be the right time. I believe that my Department — or whoever is in my Department in the future — will be much better placed to determine when the time is right for any review, outside of the normal post-legislative work, to be undertaken. That is my first point, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is about optics and perception to an extent, and also timing.
Secondly, I do not consider the amendment to be required. The Bill already allows scope for a thorough review of the legislation to be undertaken, and for it to be done at a juncture that it is considered appropriate. Let me explain: clause 4 allows my Department to request the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner to review any matter relating to the regulation or organisation of the professions. That broad power could include the general operation of the Act, and a review of it would fall within the provisions of clause 4. That would allow me, or any subsequent Finance Minister, to seek a review of the Act. There could be a number of reasons for seeking such a review, but it would also allow me or any future Finance Minister the flexibility to judge when any review should take place.
All the evidence in the coming years may suggest that the system has bedded down and is working well, which is an outcome that, I am sure, we all hope for. In those circumstances, we may not need a formal review in the next three years. Alternatively, things might not have gone as well before then as anticipated, in which case we would not need to wait three years before looking at a particular issue. It could be five, six or seven years before the matter needs to be examined again. My overall point is that we have the facility for a review in place, at a time most suited for it. Therefore, an additional statutory review, set at a particular point in time, is not required.
That leads me to my final point. Any review, if one were deemed necessary, would, under the existing provisions in the Bill, fall to the LSOC to carry out at the Department's request. The cost of that could be met by the levy imposed on professional bodies for the operation of the LSOC.
The cost of that proposed independent review would not be met by the levy — it sits outside the levy provisions — and would, therefore, have to be met by the Department. I question whether, given the facility available at clause 4, we need to have this additional, potentially costly, statutory review. In summary, I urge Members to resist the amendment tabled by the Committee. I understand the rationale for it and I agree that, at some point, the new system may need to be re-examined, but, given what we have already outlined, I do not think that a stand-alone statutory independent review after the relatively short period of three years is the answer.
Finally, I turn to amendment Nos 10 and 11. Taken together, they address a technical point raised by the Examiner of Statutory Rules in relation to the future provision outlined in clause 51. I am content to make the changes that the Examiner recommended to the Committee and which the Committee invited the Department to take on board.
In conclusion, I thank all those who have taken an interest in the Bill. When Professor Sir George Bain and his team sat down to work on this area, I doubt that they thought that almost a decade would pass before we discussed it here. It has been a long journey, but the debate has taken us closer to the aim of seeing a better system in place. I look forward to finalising the Bill in the forthcoming weeks and seeing it in operation later this year.
Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by congratulating the Minister on his appointment to the post. I am sure that he will bring that well-known north Antrim quality of financial prudence to the post, except, of course, when it comes to considering projects for north Antrim itself. I look forward to working with him for the next number of weeks at the very least.
As Chairperson, I would like to take a little latitude to refer briefly to the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill. Given that the Bill will bring about significant and long-awaited reform of the existing system for handling complaints against solicitors and barristers, the Committee considered it at length. The Committee's report noted that the proposed changes will not result in the type of root-and-branch reform leading to independent structures for legal complaints and regulation that has been legislated for in England and Wales, Scotland and that is planned in the South of Ireland. However, the Bill will provide for what has been described as a copper-bottoming of the present complaints handling arrangements here. This will include, amongst other things, a shift to layperson-led control with enhanced powers and oversight, including the establishment of the post of Legal Services Oversight Commissioner.
During our pre-introductory and Committee Stage scrutiny, we received written and oral evidence from a range of stakeholders, including the Department, the bodies representing the legal profession, expert witnesses, consumer groups and other interested parties. In addition, comparative research and evidence were collected on the arrangements for handling legal complaints and regulation in other jurisdictions. That detailed work, which was informed by stakeholder evidence collected in advance of the Bill's introduction to the Assembly and during Committee Stage, resulted in a wide range of issues being raised with DFP, upon which some helpful clarification, explanation and assurances have been received. In that regard, the Committee acknowledges the contribution of stakeholders, including the Law Society and the Bar Council, in informing the Committee's deliberations and the responsiveness of the responsible DFP official in seeking to provide clarification, explanation and assurances on issues arising from the evidence.
We set out a number of recommendations on amendments aimed at strengthening the Bill. I welcome the fact that, save for one, these have been taken on board by the Department and the Minister and are reflected in the amendments before us today. I shall speak to the specific amendments in a moment, but, in terms of the assurances received, I wish to highlight two areas at this point.
First, arising from the evidence received, the Committee highlighted to the Department a concern about the provisions under clause 30 and schedule 3, which provide that the Law Society is responsible for appointing laypersons to the Solicitors Complaints Committee. That contrasts with the provision for laypersons on the Bar Complaints Committee being appointed by the benchers, who are independent of the profession. That, therefore, achieves functional separation between regulation and representation in the case of the Bar. In response, the Department highlighted that, in law, the Solicitors Complaints Committee is a subcommittee of the Law Society, so there would be legal issues in appointing members to it from an independent body. From a policy perspective, the Department did not consider it necessary to make comparable provision to that for the Bar, instead arguing that there are significant checks and balances in the Bill to ensure that the Law Society will have to act in the most open and transparent way in making the appointments. The Committee welcomed the Department's assurances that there are sufficient protections in the Bill to safeguard against the notion that the laypersons on the Solicitors Complaints Committee could be hand-picked by the Law Society. The Committee, therefore, agreed that it was content with clause 30 and schedule 3.
Secondly, the Committee has received assurances from the Department that it will provide an improved explanatory and financial memorandum to clarify issues identified during the Committee's scrutiny.
I shall now address amendment No 1, which relates to clause 2; amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7, which relate to clause 29; and amendment Nos 13 and 14, which relate to schedule 1.
A fundamental concern of the Committee throughout its scrutiny has been on the need to capture information on the complaints against solicitors that are made at what is referred to as the first tier. We need to do that to establish a more complete picture of the number of legal complaints than that which is presented in the figures published to date. During scrutiny, members raised concerns about the extent to which the published figures for legal complaints here represent a realistic picture or merely show the tip of the iceberg. Currently, only the solicitor profession is subject to oversight from the Lay Observer in relation to complaints. The Lay Observer reports on the nature of complaints made to the Law Society but does not have the powers to investigate. The Bar is not subject to any statutory oversight.
In that regard, during evidence from the Bar Council, the Committee queried the number of complaints made against barristers. In response, the Bar Council acknowledged that there had been an increase in the number of complaints but that that was considered to be as a result of a better awareness of the complaints process rather than a deterioration in standards.
In querying the level of complaints made against solicitors, the Committee was advised by officials and the Law Society that, over recent years, the number of complaints has decreased. The reports of the Lay Observer cite that the number of complaints is, on average, less than 200 a year. However, in noting that those reports represent the second and third tiers of the existing system, the Committee questioned witnesses on the current arrangements for recording complaints made across all three tiers. In response, DFP officials advised that complaints are captured only if and when they have progressed to the Law Society — that is, to the second tier. That was confirmed in the evidence from the Lay Observer.
Arising from the evidence received, a number of other stakeholders raised issues about the figures on complaints against solicitors. The Law Centre's written submission, for example, pointed out that there is no empirical evidence on whether the relatively few complaints here is due to high levels of satisfaction with the work of solicitors, a lack of awareness of the complaints mechanisms or a lack of faith in a solicitors' body investigating its own members.
Dr Maeve Hosier, an academic based at Middlesex University who has expertise in the regulation of the legal profession, also highlighted the Law Society's acknowledgment that it does not currently have reliable information on the overall level of complaints, including those at first tier. She pointed out that the statistics that have been cited are those complaints that have been made known to the Law Society and that that may represent only a small proportion of the total number of complaints. Dr Hosier argued that it is, therefore, difficult to accept assurances that the level of complaints is of a lower order than that which has been recorded in other jurisdictions. To help to remedy that weakness, she suggested enhanced powers to enable the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner to compel the professional bodies to provide accurate information on the total number of complaints received by their members and also by professional bodies in relation to their members. It was also suggested that the oversight commissioner should be under a duty to accumulate such data annually, and that it should be made available to the Department.
From the evidence presented by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), it was noted that, under Scottish legislation, neither the Law Society nor the SLCC has the ability to monitor what happens to the handling of complaints at first tier. The SLCC stated that an amendment may be needed in the Scottish legislation to address that gap in order to provide visibility as to the true level of complaints. While the Committee was prepared to bring forward amendments to address the gap in information, the Department confirmed at the Committee's meeting on 25 November that, after careful consideration, it would bring forward the necessary amendments. In line with good practice, the Department helpfully provided the Committee with its draft amendments before the Committee undertook formal clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill.
The Committee therefore agreed clause 2, subject to amendment No 1; clause 29 was agreed subject to the changes set out in amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7; and schedule 1 was agreed subject to the changes in amendment Nos 12 and 13. I believe that those amendments will enhance the transparency of the new arrangements. In that regard, I reiterate the point I made during the Second Stage debate:
"While we must ensure that a balance is struck and that the new arrangements are proportionate, they also need to command the confidence of the general public." — [Official Report, Vol 105, No 7, p57, col 1].
In terms of amendment No 2 relating to clause 8, in its response to the Committee's call for evidence, the Law Society stated that it considered this clause to be:
"too wide and the LSOC should be subject to the same rules as any other individual."
At its meeting on 11 November, members sought clarification from DFP on whether privilege would extend in circumstances of bad faith or gross incompetence. A possible solution was noted in the Scottish legislation. In response, the Department agreed to consider an amendment to address the issue identified, and the Committee considered the draft amendment provided by the Department and agreed that it was content with clause 8 subject to that amendment.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I turn to amendment Nos 3 and 8. In scrutinising the Bill, the Committee identified a conflict in meaning within clauses 17 and 36. Those clauses make provision that a complaint, in whole or part, can be dismissed without consideration of its merits. That would suggest that a case could be dismissed by the applicable complaints committees as being without merit, when the merit was not considered. The Committee's view was supported by Dr Hosier, who in her written evidence stated that:
"it is not possible for the Bar Complaints Committee to reasonably form the view that a complaint is either frivolous, vexatious or totally without merit unless it has firstly considered its merits."
Dr Hosier usefully suggested an amendment to address that conflict, which the Department subsequently agreed to bring forward. The Committee agreed that it was content with clauses 17 and 36 subject to the changes in amendment Nos 3 and 8 respectively.
On amendment Nos 4 and 9, the Law Society highlighted a concern with clause 19 and corresponding clause 38, which make provision for the applicable complaints committee to direct that the legal practitioner issues an apology to the complainant. The Law Society suggested that the Bill be amended to remove the ability of such apologies to be used as evidence of liability in civil proceedings. The Committee pursued the issue with the Department, which confirmed that it was content to bring forward the necessary amendments. The Committee therefore agreed that it was content with clause 19 subject to the change in amendment No 4, and with clause 38 subject to the change in amendment No 9.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I will now turn to amendment No 10, which the Committee agreed unanimously to table. In my opening comments I highlighted the fact that the Committee and Department worked collaboratively to strengthen and improve the Bill. DFP's responsiveness to the Committee's scrutiny and input has been very much welcomed. The 13 amendments tabled by the Department address issues identified during that engagement, and the Committee is clearly supportive of all of them. The aim of amendment No 10 is simple: to place a requirement upon the Department to appoint an independent person within three years after the commencement of the legislation to review and report on its implementation.
While the Committee was unable to convince the Department to take forward this proposal, members were firmly of the view that it is required. DFP indicated that it was not minded to include a statutory time-bound requirement for a review, as the Minister referred to, arguing that it would be difficult to predetermine a juncture to undertake the review since there would be an element of bedding in for the new requirements. The Department also argued that clause 4 empowers DFP to refer any matters to the Oversight Commissioner for review and, if necessary, to be reported.
Whilst noting the Department’s position on the proposal, the Committee highlighted in its report that clause 4 does not provide for a fully independent review, particularly because the oversight commissioner will be a participant in the new system. While the oversight commissioner could undoubtedly provide valuable input to the review, surely any critical assessment would also need to examine the role played by the commissioner himself or herself. On the Department’s argument about bedding in, I believe that it is important to highlight the fact that the Committee’s amendment will provide flexibility over when the appointed person completes this one-off review.
I consider that the Committee’s amendment will provide an opportunity to undertake a meaningful review to take stock of how the new system is operating and to establish the extent to which the projected features and benefits are being delivered. That is particularly important, given that the Bill is not adopting the root-and-branch reform that has occurred in other jurisdictions. The Committee’s amendment is a sensible approach. It is sensible to review this legislation and to make improvements where they are identified. Whilst it can be argued that resources would be used in appointing an independent person, it can be equally argued that, in any event, good practice demands that the Department undertakes a post-legislative review. The Committee’s amendment, however, guarantees that that will take place by putting it on a statutory footing.
The case for amendment No 10 is also underpinned in the evidence to the Committee. In her submission, Dr Hosier argued that the Bill represents a "missed opportunity" and that it fails to reflect growing consensus in the global academic community that self-regulation of the legal profession is an inherently flawed model. The Justice Committee commented that the proposed new system should offer the opportunity to:
"Address the perception that the current complaints process lacks independence".
The Committee firmly believes that a fully independent review will provide vitally important assurance to the public. It will provide the professional bodies, along with the oversight commissioner, with the opportunity for input. Moreover, in concentrating minds following commencement of the legislation, it will act as a stimulus for successful implementation. As highlighted in the Committee’s report, successful implementation of the legislation will help to prove the arguments against root-and-branch reform here. Given the case outlined, I call for the support of Members when we take the decision later on amendment No 10. In so doing, I anticipate that, should the Department have any suggested operational improvements to the amendment, the Committee will be content to examine those at Further Consideration Stage, as long as the principle of undertaking an independent review is retained.
Finally, amendment Nos 11 and 12 arise from the advice that the Committee received from the Examiner of Statutory Rules. In reviewing the Bill and delegated powers memorandum, the Examiner made an observation on the appropriate Assembly procedure for orders under clause 51. The Committee wrote to DFP to highlight the Examiner’s view, and, in response, the Department confirmed that it would provide an amendment taking account of the issues highlighted. I place on the record the Committee’s appreciation to the Examiner for his advice on this technical issue. The Committee therefore agreed clause 51, subject to the changes in amendment Nos 11 and 12.
In closing, all the amendments tabled have been agreed by the Committee, and if supported by the House today will help to strike the right balance on the need for the new system to be proportionate and to command the confidence of the public. On a higher level, I believe that this scrutiny exercise will provide a further example of how local devolution, through collaborative work between the Committee, the Department and the wider Assembly, can work to deliver positively for our citizens. I close by thanking again the departmental officials and, indeed, both Ministers for the constructive way in which they approached this issue.
Mr I McCrea: In the first instance, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Finance Minister. I hope that the good work of his predecessors will be continued, and I have no doubt that it will. I know that it is a baptism of fire in the sense that he has hardly been allowed to get his feet under the table before having to deal with the next couple of days in this place. Today is not too bad, but tomorrow, I think, will be a whole lot worse. However, I know that he is up to the job, and he certainly knows that he will have the support of his colleagues on this side of the House.
In dealing with the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill, we could all go into a lot of detail about what work went on in the Committee, but the Chair went through, in some detail, the work carried out by the Committee and the detail that went into that, and I am sure that Members will be content for me not to go through everything or, indeed, much of what the Committee Chair said. I do, however, want to join him in thanking everyone who responded to the Committee's call for evidence, either in writing or orally before the Committee. It certainly was a good opportunity to hear from those in the profession about their concerns or, indeed, their issues with the Bill.
As I said, I only want to say a few words, and I will mention amendment No 10, which was brought forward by the Committee, in a minute or two. It is hoped that the Bill will make the process clearer and better for the complainant as well as the profession. That is the most important aspect of the Bill: that there is clarity and transparency for the complainant and, indeed, the profession.
I thank Michael Foster for coming along to the Committee to answer questions and to respond to queries raised during the evidence sessions. I also thank the Committee staff for their hard work in pulling together our work.
I have spoken to constituents and, to some extent, some members of the legal profession in my constituency about complaints. When a constituent comes through the door about a complaint, I am always quick to say that that is outside my remit. It is one of those things that I am nearly glad to say is outside the remit of an MLA's daily work. Nonetheless, I think that it is important that we speak to our constituents, know exactly what some of their complaints are and how they will deal with them in the process. It is good to be able to say that there is a complaints process to go through, and I believe, through this process, that the Bill will bring the necessary clarification and transparency to dealing with complaints.
It is important that the scheme is cost-effective. When the Minister is summing up, can he give an assurance that this will be cost-effective and that the LSOC will not be able to decide to increase costs at any time? Can he also give his view on whether or not — this is an important issue — there should be a fee charged to complainants, for example, which is returned when a complaint is successful, and whether he believes that should be considered at a later date?
In respect of amendment No 10, I believe that the Minister has outlined why he is opposed to the Committee's amendment. I think that it is reasonable to expect that the Bill will deal with it, to allow the new system to bed down and to allow the Minister to decide when a review is required. We will be opposing the amendment, and I encourage colleagues to do the same. The Chair referred to the good work done by the Committee, and we agree on all the amendments, bar amendment No 10. So, I support all the amendments, except for amendment No 10.
Mr A Maginness: Unlike other colleagues, I come to this rather late in the day but, of course, the Bill is rather late in the day. The Minister is a very brave man to come into the Chamber and deal with this legislation that affects the legal professions. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well in his term of office. I worked with him as Minister for Social Development and received nothing but courtesy from him, so I am sure that he will continue that in his term of office.
First, I will just make a few general points and then I will get on to the particulars. It is a local Bill; it is a local solution to local conditions, and I think that is the important thing. It has been tailor-made; it is bespoke to Northern Ireland, and that is the right way to go. Professor Bain and his colleagues emphasised that point when they produced their report. They did not, as it were, slavishly follow the Clementi provisions in Britain. It is a local solution to local problems that have arisen with the legal professions here, and I think that is a very good thing.
I take this opportunity to thank Professor Bain and his colleagues for their good and sterling work 10 years ago. We have now reached the point of almost enacting their report, and that is a good thing for the public. It will increase public confidence in the legal professions and, I believe, will assist the legal professions in dealing with complaints in a much better fashion. The principle that you should not be a judge in your own cause is appropriate to dealing with complaints in the legal professions, as it is, indeed, in other matters.
Although I am no longer in practice as a barrister, I was for many years. I declare that to the Assembly.
I support what the Minister has said in relation to the amendments. There is very little controversy. The amendments strengthen the Bill. They allow additional power for the Law Society to ascertain the number of complaints made against individual solicitors. They provide the public with greater access to information on the number of complaints. That is good because it will help the public to ascertain the level of complaints that there may be against solicitors. Of course, the Bar has a different system and does not require the sort of amendment that the Minister highlighted today. There are other amendments that are purely technical, which I will not go into.
I was interested in amendment Nos 4 and 9. Those two amendments are to clause 19 and clause 38, which deal with the Bar and the Law Society respectively. They deal with the whole idea of an apology, which, the amendments state:
"shall not, of itself, amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of any civil proceedings".
That is a very innovative provision and it is to be welcomed because it frees up the professional who has been complained against to say, "I apologise for what has happened here." In many instances, as the Minister said, that is all that is required. The person who has made a complaint just wants some acknowledgement through an apology. However, there would naturally be a reluctance because consequences flow from any apology that you are admitting to negligence in circumstances where you are making that apology. This statute, if it is amended by amendment Nos 4 and 9, will free up the professional to be able to say, "I apologise", and no legal consequences will flow from that. I think that that is innovative and helpful.
It is a provision that could be applied right across the public service, incidentally. It is one that, I think, has taken the form of an Act introduced by the Scottish Parliament. It would be particularly applicable in cases in which the ombudsman is dealing with complaints against public bodies. It is a good way of dealing with complaints from the public against public bodies. So, this is a good innovation. It is one that should be thought about carefully by us as an Assembly, and perhaps we should seek to apply it to other public services and insert it into other legislation. So, I very much welcome those two amendments.
There is some contention over amendment No 10, which comes from the Chair of the Committee, I presume, with the approval of the Committee, and that is that there should be, no later than three years after the commencement of the Act, an independent person to review and publish a report on the implementation of the Act. I see nothing wrong in principle with that. It seems to me to be fairly straightforward, but one has to balance these things, and I take the Minister's point that the period is probably too short. Three years is not a huge amount of time to elapse for a proper review of the Act. One could argue that it should be five or six years or something like that.
The other point that the Minister made is that it sends out the wrong message to professionals, whether it be solicitors or barristers — I am paraphrasing what the Minister has said, and I might be getting it wrong — who see this as the thin end of the wedge and think that there will be something more draconian down the line as the result of such a review. So, one has to tread carefully in relation to this particular amendment. The bedding-in period of three years could well be conceived as a fairly short time, but I understand the point that the Chair of the Committee has made, and he made it well, that there should be some element of review of the legislation to see if it is working properly, to see if there are faults there, what we can do to remedy it, and so forth. However, contrary to that, as the Minister said, clause 4 allows for the Department to request the oversight commissioner to review certain matters and to submit a report to the Department relating to the organisation or regulation of the professional bodies as the Department may specify. So, even if the amendment is not accepted by the Assembly, there is still the power — albeit with the Department and albeit that the Department does not have to conduct a review in a specific period of time — for a review of sorts to be conducted.
It might well be that the Department says that it will, over time, conduct such a review. However, it is a balanced argument, and the consensus of the Committee seems to be in favour of it. I will leave the matter there.
By way of summary, it is a good Bill. It is long overdue, as I have said before, and I think that it will be of benefit to the public at large and certainly to the legal profession.
Mr Cree: Many Members have covered the ground. The Bill is intended to reform the existing system of complaints handling by solicitors and barristers. The Minister referred to the fact that the report to the Government was made in November 2006 by a legal services review group chaired by Professor Sir George Bain. The then Minister of Finance and Personnel, David Hanson MP, whom some of you may remember, received the report and it has been considered by subsequent devolved Ministers since then. It has been in gestation for quite a long time.
Members also referred to the fact that it is not a root-and-branch reform, but it will bring a significant change to the system and establish the new position of Legal Services Oversight Commissioner. The report's findings have been translated into the Bill and address the oversight of complaints handling systems of the Law Society and, for the first time, the Bar.
It has been pointed out that the Committee took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders and published its report on the Bill last month. The detailed scrutiny by the Committee has resulted in a range of changes as a result of issues that were raised with the Department for clarification and improvement. A number of issues need to be addressed by way of amendments to ensure that the Bill is improved and, indeed, strengthened, and they are here today.
A main issue was the need to establish clarity on the true level of legal complaints in Northern Ireland, and the Minister has addressed that issue. The Department has tabled an amendment that will capture information on first-tier complaints. That was agreed by the Committee, and it looks as though it will be agreed here this afternoon.
The Committee's scrutiny of the Bill has been a fine example of how a Department has worked with a Statutory Committee to improve draft legislation. In the 12 years and more that I have been here, I have not had that experience in any other Committee. That shows that it can, in fact, be done. I add my appreciation to the Committee staff and departmental officials for the excellent way in which differences of opinion were resolved, and there were many differences of opinion at the start.
We now have an improved Bill, and the amendments have been agreed by both parties, with one exception: the amendment that would insert clause 50A into the Bill. We had quite a debate about that issue over a period of weeks, and I think that I remember saying that a period of five years would probably have answered that question. However, I certainly believe that we should have a review, and I will support the amendment as I supported it in Committee.
The Chair touched on the point that there is an understanding that the explanatory and financial memorandum that accompanies the Bill needs to contain more detail. I hope that that will be the case. The Committee looks forward to receiving that revised document when the amendments have been agreed.
On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I am quite happy to support all the amendments today, including amendment No 10.
Mr Lunn: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Consideration Stage of the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill, which will strengthen our legal sector's procedures and improve confidence amongst the public and the service to the public. I should say that, like everybody else who seems to be participating today, I am not involved with the Committee. That has never held me back in the past, so I will keep going.
I welcome the Minister to his latest post. I wish him well for the next number of weeks that he will occupy that post. We will see what happens beyond that. [Laughter.]
You might get another rolling system.
The Alliance Party is committed to having a strong justice system that offers the best value to the public and that is transparent and accountable. The Bill, as amended, will go a long way to achieving that. As others have said, the Bill's origins stem from the various policy recommendations of the review group established by Sir George Bain in 2006, 10 years ago. I am sure that if the Minister had been in post 10 years ago it would not have taken that long, but I suppose it is important to get these things right. We are where we are, and it looks to me like a good Bill. It did not seem to take so long for similar proposals to be introduced in England and Scotland.
The Bill sets out a new framework for complaint handling mechanisms which, I understand, the legal sector has, by and large, accepted. This is primarily achieved through the creation of the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner, increased layperson participation in the complaints process, pecuniary redress and increased clarity on how one can go about complaining about service received. I am sure I am not the only Member in the Chamber who has encountered constituents seeking advice on potentially complaining about service received by a legal practitioner because, frankly, they have a lack of knowledge of how to go about it.
Given the significant length of time that has passed since the Bain report, I feel that the policy proposals have received more than sufficient scrutiny and attention. I believe that the Bill is now in good shape, which is reflected in there being very few amendments tabled. I do not feel it necessary to speak on each one; I will just focus on three or four that have been brought to my attention.
Amendment No 1, to clause 2, is welcome as it ensures that professional bodies provide the newly-appointed Legal Services Oversight Commissioner with comprehensive information on complaints. This will strengthen the work that the commissioner can do and will create and increase faith in their powers of scrutiny. Amendment No 5, to clause 29, offers significant benefit; that is to say that solicitors must provide the Law Society with the number of complaints made. Having quantifiable information to hand will highlight potential recurring themes, which can be addressed, perhaps, through the training which is noted in the Bill.
I understand that amendment No 9, to clause 38, was much discussed through the progress of the Bill so far. This will offer a safeguard for legal practitioners by noting that an apology will not amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of civil proceedings. I believe that this is vital, as without that amendment it could be argued that a culture of clients taking solicitors or barristers to court could arise. The Bill seeks to offer improved quality of service for clients, and this amendment ensures that it will remain proportionate and not to the detriment of the legal sector as a whole, particularly for smaller practices. Mr Maginness referred to the recently passed Public Services Ombudsman Bill, which seeks to bring a similar light touch in the right circumstances without having a whole Star Chamber to assess what is happening in a very simple situation.
The final amendment that I wish to speak about — and everybody else has — is amendment No 10, to clause 50, which will introduce a review of the reforms within three years of the Bill passing. Like others, and the Minister, who gave a very lucid explanation of the situation, I do not see the need for amendment No 10, but it is there, and our representative on the Committee voted for it, so I do not have much option but to speak in support of it. As the Minister said, clause 4 allows him to ask for a review at any time and that the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner has to obtain one and publish it. I agree with Mr Maginness and Mr Cree, who spoke about this issue. It took 10 years to bring this law to the Floor of the House, so are we really going to review it after three years? That is not long enough to get a pattern or a real indication of how it is working. I do not know whether there is some mechanism by which that could be changed, as others have said, to five years or even to leave it to clause 4.
I am not convinced, and I do not mind saying so, about the need for amendment No 10. That will probably get me into trouble, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.]
In conclusion, the Alliance Party supports the Bill with its proposed amendments, as we believe that it affords greater transparency, public engagement and accountability to those availing themselves of the legal services of solicitors and barristers. We feel that the changes are long overdue and that they are robust and proportionate, offering value to the public. We have no problem supporting the amendments. I have a personal reservation only about amendment No 10.
Mr Lyons: I begin by warmly congratulating the Minister on his appointment to his current post. In all the time that I have known Mervyn, or the Minister, he has worked hard at whatever task has been put in front of him. I wish him well in his new role.
When we get to this stage of the debate, as a former US Senator from Arizona said:
"Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it."
With that in mind, and keeping in mind that most Members have already touched on most of the issues, I begin by saying that I very much agree with what Mr Cree said, which was that this is a good example of how the Committee, the Department and the Minister worked together to get a much improved Bill from what was there to begin with. They did so by making small changes, but changes that make the Bill better legislation. Mr Cree said that, in 12 years here, he had not seen a Department and a Committee work so well together. This is one of the first Bills that I have been involved with in my work on the Committee, and I was hoping that all of them would be like this. Mr Cree indicated that it is perhaps the exception rather than the rule. However, we will try our best to continue in that way.
The departmental amendments very well sum up what has come out of a lot of the work that we did in Committee, and that is to be welcomed. I will touch very briefly on some of them. Amendments Nos 1, 5, 6, 7, 13 and 14 all relate to information-gathering. That is very important, because the Committee received evidence about the number of complaints that have been passed on to the Lay Observer from the Law Society. We had, however, no indication whatsoever of the first-tier complaints, and, without that information, it is very difficult for us to compare the situation with that in other jurisdictions. Therefore, it is very useful for us to have those amendments in the Bill, which give the commissioner the power to compel that information to be made available so that he can report it.
It is also very important that there is clarity around privilege in amendment No 2, which will amend clause 8. Any publication by the commissioner will be considered absolutely privileged for the purposes of the law of defamation. That is important for allowing the objectives that we want from the Bill to be best met. It is very important that that amendment be included.
Amendment No 4 gives an assurance relating to apologies that may be directed to be given by lawyers concerning complaints. It is key that any apology that is given should not be used for other purposes.
To finish, I will touch briefly on amendment No 10. A number of comments have been made by Members, including Mr Maginness from North Belfast and Mr Lunn. We all agree that it is important that the new system that we are creating can be reviewed. The Minister has certainly made his case, stating that the facility for the review is in place, and in place for a time that is best suited for any review. I think that it is important that we have that flexibility. He made other arguments about the review and its cost. As the Bill stands, the cost is met by a levy that will be put in place. If a review were to be done according to this amendment, it would be outside that structure and at extra cost to the Department. Taking all those things into consideration — what the Minister and other Members have said — I oppose amendment No 10. However, I appeal to the Chair not to move the amendment. Having listened to the views of the House and the sentiments expressed, he should take that route into consideration. With that exception, I support the amendments.
Mr Storey: I thank all Members who made a contribution to the debate this afternoon, and I want to commence by making a few personal comments. I thank Members who gave their warm congratulations on my appointment. I assure you that I was as shocked as you are by it. However, I thank my boss, the First Minister, for the honour that she bestowed on me by enabling me to serve as Finance Minister in the Executive.
I served for some time as Deputy Chair of the Finance Committee. That brings me back almost to the time of the Bain report; in fact, it brings me back to 2007. Of course, the reason for my appointment as Deputy Chair was the sad death of my close friend and greatly missed brother in Christ, George Dawson. I was asked, after George's passing, to take the place of Deputy Chair. I did that with a heavy heart, knowing that I could never replace him. However, it was an honour to serve. I always appreciated the hard work of the Committee staff and the way in which they presented the arguments. I want to place that on record today.
I believe that we have taken an important step forward in shaping the legislation. The interaction with the Committee was referred to by Mr Cree, and it is an example of how we should do business. In particular, I thank the Committee Chair for his comments on the amendments. I want to deal with his comments on the amendment that he tabled on behalf of the Committee. Yes, we have much consensus on the other amendments. However, on amendment No 10, we have not been able to get a consensus.
I want to reiterate the remarks that I made earlier, taking on board the fact that the LSOC will be the central figure in the new system. It is my belief, having read the papers on coming into office — it is not simply a matter of me parroting what I have been given to say — that, when you read all that has been said, you see that the LSOC will be best placed to carry out a review, if one is judged to be necessary. It would be different if I were presenting a Bill in the House today and saying that I did not support an amendment but not able to point to a clause or schedule that gave the same outcome — the same scrutiny and the same process. If that were the case, I would feel that amendment No 10 was necessary.
Other members made a similar argument, including Mr Lunn, at the cost of being in disagreement with his colleagues. My colleague the Member for East Antrim made a point about the Chair reflecting on the issue and not moving the amendment. I place it on record that I plan to meet the Chair later today about the fact that I have just been put in post, and this may be something that we want to discuss.
The Chair also referred to the appointment of members to the Solicitors Complaints Committee. I need to clarify and place it on record that the Law Society council will not be allowed to sit on the complaints committee. I reaffirm and refer members to the fact that the Solicitors Complaints Committee can be appointed only after consultation with the LSOC and the process to appoint members must be drawn up in consultation with the LSOC. That is an important point, because this is a significant check on a possible concern that the Law Society hand-picks members. The process will follow the Nolan principles. I am happy to reiterate that assurance in the House today.
Mr McKay, as Chair, and a number of Members referred to the explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM), noting that, in some areas, it lacked the required detail. My officials discussed that with the Committee during Committee Stage and have indicated that more information will be included in the EFM. Any EFM is there to assist readers with their understanding of a Bill. Although the Bill is the principal document, I assure the Chair that I am content for further work to be undertaken on the EFM after this stage to meet the points that were raised by the Committee during its scrutiny.
The Chair also mentioned the number of complaints and papers submitted by consultees, including Dr Hosier. He noted that the amendments that I propose today will address the concerns raised to the Committee and by the Committee. The new system will not fail due to a lack of information. The amendments to the powers in clause 2 already meet the goal of the Committee and of my Department to capture this relevant information. An assurance can be given that there will be no lack of information available. The Chair referred to Dr Hosier, an academic from Middlesex University. There is a danger in taking academic arguments in isolation and not looking carefully at the specific context of the available evidence. As far as I am aware, Dr Hosier did not input into the original work that was carried out by Bain, and nor did she comment on the Department's consultation in 2014. I am not aware of her having carried out any specific research in this jurisdiction. The points in her paper to the Committee are, of course, important, but they are only one voice in a debate that involved stakeholders from across the spectrum. We went out to consultation on the legislation and collated a considerable amount of information over a period.
I turn to the points made by my colleague Mr McCrea. He asked what assurances could be given that this would be a cost-effective scheme, that the LSOC would not lose the run of things and that there would not end up being increased costs. I trust that the Bill is a measured response to the issues that were raised during the Bain review. They were given credence by the consultation that my Department undertook in 2014, which I referred to. They were raised and discussed at length by the Committee during scrutiny of the Bill. The way in which we have approached the issue is proportionate. The approach will ensure a cost-effective and value-for-money process. Much of the cost of the scheme will be in the hands of the Law Society and the Bar, as they will be responsible for operating the schemes in terms of the LSOC. It will be a modest operation but one that will have significant influence in getting complaints handled properly. Using a rough calculation and without indicating the exact methodology that we will employ, I am of the view that it will cost no more than £100 per lawyer per year. I trust that that gives him some assurance in relation to that issue.
The Member then raised an issue that has been extensively discussed: should there be a fee on complaints? That issue was discussed at considerable length. I believe that the new arrangements should be free to all genuine complainants. Not all genuine complainants will succeed with their claims, for a variety of reasons, but a lack of success does not in itself mean that a complainant has not been genuine. I do not want to discourage such complaints by setting a fee. Equally, however, I do not want to encourage vexatious or malicious complaints. There is ample provision in the Bill for a fee to be applied to those complaints. If the complainant acts so unreasonably that the relevant complaints committee deems it to be appropriate to award costs, it may do so under clause 17(4)(h) and clause 36(4)(h). In fairness, that tries to strike a balance in relation to these things.
I turn to the comments from my colleague and friend Mr Alban Maginness. I want to do publicly what I have done personally: I thank him for his contribution to the Assembly and for the way in which we were able to work together in my time not only as a Member but when I was appointed Minister for Social Development. I wish him well in his future. It is not retirement; I am sure that, for him, it will be a change of focus and emphasis. I have no doubt that he still has much to contribute to Northern Ireland, his constituency and his party. I wish him a very happy future, and I trust that our paths will cross in the future.
Mr Maginness was supportive of the amendments. He asked about amendment Nos 4 and 9, which deal with apologies. This policy was raised by the society and the Committee. As the Member noted, it is a welcome addition. The clause, as he said, will free up the professionals involved in making such an apology. As I said to the Member in relation to fees, there needs, in relation to the apology, to be proportionality in terms of the challenges that that raises. I trust that that has given some assurance that a genuine attempt was made in relation to the Bill to find a balanced approach to dealing with issues of concern.
I think that I have covered all the main issues and concerns that were raised by Members.
I welcome the consensus that there has been. Even though it has taken a considerable period of time for us to get to this point from the original Bain report, as Mr Lunn reminded us, I think this is progress, and I look forward to working towards seeing the conclusion of the Bill through the Assembly and this mandate.
Amendment No 1 agreed to.
Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 3 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 8 (Privilege for certain publications)
In page 5, line 4, after "privileged" insert
"unless the publication is proved to be made with malice". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 9 to 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 17 (Procedure for complaints)
In page 8, line 12, leave out ", without consideration of its merits". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 17, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 19 (Determination of complaints)
In page 10, line 18, after "apology" insert
"(which shall not, of itself, amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of any civil proceedings)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 20 to 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 29 (Complaints procedures for solicitors)
In page 15, line 26, at end insert
"(1A) The Law Society must make regulations requiring every solicitor to provide the Law Society with such information about the number of relevant complaints made in relation to that solicitor as may be specified in the regulations.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
In page 15, line 28, after "(1)" insert "and (1A)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
In page 15, line 29, after "(1)" insert "and (1A)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 30 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 36 (Procedure for complaints)
In page 18, line 12, leave out
", without consideration of its merits". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 36, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 38 (Determination of complaints)
In page 20, line 18, after "apology" insert
"(which shall not, of itself, amount to an admission of negligence for the purpose of any civil proceedings)". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 38, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 39 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As Question Time is fast approaching, I ask Members to take their ease until then. We will resume the Consideration Stage of the Bill immediately after Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mrs Foster (The First Minister): Since the minority ethnic development fund was introduced, it has supported hundreds of projects and groups and has been a key contributor to our growing and vibrant sector. Our support will continue into 2016-17 and beyond. There will be a call for applications to the 2016-17 minority ethnic development fund once all obligatory governance requirements have been met. We are aware that there is a desire for a seamless transition from one funding round to the next and we will work to ensure that there is no hiatus.
Ms Lo: I thank the First Minister for her answer. I am sure she is aware that, on the last few occasions, the funding process went very late in the day and decisions were not made until May or June, causing a lot of uncertainties in the ethnic minority sector. When exactly will the funding application be open, and would it not be sensible for the current funding to be extended to cover next year for all the organisations that are now receiving funding?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. I share her concern about last year, but we all know that last year was a little bit different. We had difficulties around the Budget settlement and, indeed, very many other difficulties. This year, we are very focused on the fact that a new funding round will be available. Indeed, the budget has been set for 2016-17. It is now a case of working with the various groups, of which there are many — I was interested to see the number of groups involved right across the Province — to make sure that there is no gap between this year and next. I know that, last year, they had to wait until May or June and then look for back payment. We are hoping that that will not be the case this year.
Mr Nesbitt: Refugees and asylum seekers arriving in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland can, I understand, access psychologists and psychiatrists with the special skills necessary for treating people who have been subjected to long-term torture. Can the Minister assure the House that refugees coming here will have access to the same services? If not, do the incoming Syrians know that that is the situation?
Mrs Foster: I was pleased to meet, along with the deputy First Minister, the first group of 51 refugees who came to Northern Ireland just before Christmas. Eleven of them were children, some of whom were very young. They were delighted to be in Belfast. I was very proud of our team of officials from right across government for the way in which they had prepared for those good people coming to Belfast. Indeed, we have been commended by the Home Office for the way in which we welcomed those people to Belfast and Northern Ireland. They have full access to the National Health Service and will, if they have any needs, be accommodated. We are making sure that we stay very close to the group that is here and we are looking forward to helping those people to integrate into Northern Ireland society. As I say, we are very proud of the work that has been carried out to date.
Mr Lyons: I very warmly congratulate the First Minister on her appointment and wish her well as she answers at what I believe will be the first of many Question Times as First Minister. Can she provide some more detail on who is administering the 2015-16 round of the crisis fund?
Mrs Foster: The public procurement process has been completed, and I am pleased to say that the Red Cross has been selected to administer the 2015-16 crisis fund. It has a £100,000 budget and will continue to deliver on the excellent and vital work that was carried out last year. It is good that the Red Cross has been successful in this procurement because it works right across Northern Ireland and is able to give that Province-wide support to groups, and indeed individuals, that may need to access the crisis fund. The broad geographical coverage is very good, and we are delighted that it will deliver that £100,000 budget across Northern Ireland.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I, too, take the opportunity to wish the Minister good luck in her new role. When will the racial equality subgroup be established and what is its role?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her good wishes. As she will know, we agreed the racial equality strategy just before Christmas. It was long-awaited, but we are pleased that it is now in place and are hoping that the subgroup will meet in the near future to take it forward. We are looking at a refugee integration strategy as part of that racial equality strategy. It will sit alongside it.
Mrs Foster: Following the recent judicial ruling, we are working to address the concerns of the court by developing a strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need. Significant actions have been taken forward to address poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. Through the Executive's Delivering Social Change programme, we have committed over £100 million. We have added £2 million from OFMDFM to projects jointly funded with Atlantic Philanthropies — in total worth almost £60 million over four years. This work has focused strategically on improving outcomes across a range of measures, including health, education and developing the economy.
Ms Hanna: I add my congratulations to the First Minister. It is an exciting appointment for Northern Ireland, and I wish you well.
Having a strategy is not a silver bullet. We have a child poverty strategy, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that child poverty is on the increase here. Can you confirm whether a specific and coherent anti-poverty strategy will be produced as part of the next Programme for Government?
Mrs Foster: I can indeed. We decided not to appeal the judgement of the court. Therefore, we intend to bring together a strategy. It was a technical judgement insofar as the court accepted that many actions had been undertaken to deal with poverty and exclusion across Northern Ireland but, as she said, there just was not "a strategy", as such, that brought everything together. Work is going on to make sure that the strategy will be in place, and we hope to have it in place in the near future.
Mr McQuillan: I congratulate the First Minister on what I feel will be the first of many Question Times. Will she give us some detail on what actions have been taken to tackle poverty overall?
Mrs Foster: As I indicated in my first answer, a lot of good work has been taking place, and that was acknowledged by the judge in what he said about the strategy. The social investment fund is committed to projects with associated costs of around £58 million profiled over a number of years, so that is really beginning to ramp up now in making a difference. We have a £26 million package in six new Delivering Social Change signature projects, including an additional teachers programme, which was identified in relation to literacy and numeracy. That made a huge difference in society. It was running for only two years but perhaps it is something that we need to look at again. We rolled out nurture units to help to support the social, emotional and behavioural development of our young children. We had an extended schools programme.
So a lot has been happening over the past four to five years in trying to deal with real difficulties in society. Sometimes we look for strategies and to make sure that we have a strategy in place, but, on this occasion, a lot of actions have been there to show that work has been ongoing.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. I also wish the Minister well for the future in her new role. An dtig liom iarraidh ar an Aire cén obair atá ar siúl faoi láthair le dul i ngleic le bochtanas agus díothacht leanaí? The Minister mentioned child poverty, so can she specifically outline what work is planned to tackle child poverty and child deprivation?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her comments in relation to my appointment. We have commissioned research and, indeed, engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in relation to the new child poverty strategy 2014-17 based on an outcomes-based approach. That is something that we are trying to embed across government, and it is something that we are looking at for the new Programme for Government so that we are looking at the outcomes that we can achieve as opposed to how we get there. Once we work out what we want to see happening, we will all work together to deliver on those outcomes. I think that there is no better place to start than with child poverty because we want to try to eradicate child poverty in a way that, up until now, we have not been able to do.
Mrs Foster: Under the agreed departmental restructuring plan, policy and funding for victims and survivors, including sponsorship and oversight of the Victims and Survivors Service and the Commission for Victims and Survivors, which is currently with our Department, shall not be transferred but is to remain within the remit of the new Executive Office. As such, we do not anticipate that there will be any negative impact on services for victims and survivors. Indeed, we believe that there will be a continued focus on the collaborative design programme, which will bring further improvements to services for victims and survivors.
Mr G Robinson: I welcome the First Minister to her first Question Time and thank her for her answer. Will the First Minister support calls to ensure that there is no budget reduction to the Victims and Survivors Service, which is essential?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, for his good wishes. Funding for 2015-16, the current budgetary year that we are in, has been increased, with over £14 million being provided to support the victims' sector. That is the highest ever opening budget that we have had for victims across Northern Ireland. I have consistently fought to protect victims' issues and victims' budgets, and I will continue to do that in this Department. I believe that we will be proactive in that area in the coming year and in the years to come. From my perspective, funding for victims and survivors will continue to be a priority for the new Executive Office if I am returned as First Minister.
Mr Dallat: I also wish the Minister all the best for the future. The Minister, of course, has personal experience of the past. Does she agree that there has to be a new synergy and a new energy to represent the needs of victims and survivors? In particular, does it amaze her that Scappaticci, alias Stakeknife, has never been questioned about the crimes that he allegedly committed?
Mrs Foster: Let me thank the Member for his good wishes on my appointment. As far as I am concerned, as regards the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the issue of victims is one that will continue to be to the fore.
On the very specific issue that he has spoken about, as I understand it, directions have now been given on that matter. I think that it underlines the issue of funding to deal with legacy cases, particularly for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. When it is directed to become involved in a historical case, it is only right from my perspective that it should have the funding to deal with that case; otherwise it will have to take funding from other areas of its budget. Of course, I do not think that anybody wants to see that happening. That is an ongoing issue that we need to discuss with our own Government in relation to funding because, as he knows, the £150 million that was set aside for dealing with the past has not been drawn down because that issue remains in abeyance. I think that we really do have to get real. If the police are being ordered to look at particular issues, they should have the funding that comes with that.
Mr Lyttle: I congratulate the First Minister on her appointment and wish her well for the future. How disappointed is she that the Fresh Start deal failed to deliver a comprehensive framework on legacy issues for victims and survivors in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I think that many of us — indeed, probably all of us — were disappointed that we were not able to get agreement on the legacy issues. I have to say that great work has been carried out. We were very close to having a comprehensive agreement on dealing with the past. That is why I think that it is important to continue to engage with our own Government, with that of the Republic of Ireland and, most importantly, with the victim sector to try to move the issue forward. In doing so, we have to be honest and open about the chances of doing that at a particular time. I have been asked whether I think this will be sorted before our next election, and I have to be honest with victims and say that I think it is not going to happen before the next election because there is an election coming in the Republic of Ireland and we have an election in May. I just do not think that we are going to be able to deal with those issues in the short timescale that we have.
Mr Kennedy: I join others in congratulating the First Minister on her recent elevation and wish her well. Does she agree that it is essential that the Executive and the Assembly deliver real, tangible benefits for victims and counter any attempts to rewrite the history of the Troubles?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his welcome. Indeed, I share his concern that there are some who are engaged in trying to write a particular narrative about what happened here and, indeed, across the island over this past 30 to 40 years. Some are trying to rewrite what happened in 1916, for goodness sake; so, we should not be surprised about all of that. However, I assure him that I will resist any attempt to rewrite what happened in the past.
Mr Douglas: I also welcome the First Minister to Question Time; long may she reign.
Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Emma Pengelly to answer this question.
Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): A dedicated team has been established to take forward the development of design plans for the Urban Village projects and the implementation and completion of capital build. Local coordinators have already been appointed in four of the Urban Village areas, and recruitment is under way to identify a suitable candidate for the Fountain and Bogside Urban Village. The local coordinators are actively engaging with communities and stakeholders. A total of £1·79 million worth of capital has been allocated to projects in the Urban Village areas, with a further £1·7 million in revenue committed to the delivery of the programme in this financial year.
Mr Douglas: I thank the junior Minister for her response. All politics being local, can she give us an update on developments on the Newtownards Road, please?
Mrs Pengelly: Yes. As the Member will be aware, I am greatly enthusiastic about the Urban Village initiative. I think that there is huge potential for it to really transform communities. It is about top-to-toe transformation, particularly focusing on capital and tackling dereliction and long-standing problems in key areas that have been outstanding in recent years, if not decades. I am pleased to say that the East Belfast Urban Village, which has been renamed "Lower East Side", is progressing very well. He will be aware of a number of consultations and community events to try to identify the actions required for the local area. We are optimistic that a draft plan, which is already being drawn up, will be in a position to be shared more widely in and around March this year.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also take the opportunity to wish the First Minister all the best. Comhghairdeas, as they say in Irish. Can I ask the junior Minister to expand on how the Department will work with local councils in running those Urban Village programmes?
Mrs Pengelly: With the proposed transfer of regeneration functions to local councils, it is critical that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on behalf of the Executive — Urban Villages is a Northern Ireland Executive programme — have very close contact with them. There are powers that local councils have that will be very useful in expediting the types of work that we want to see. We have been in constant contact with both council areas that are impacted on by the five Urban Village projects. We have invited representatives from both councils to sit on our project management board, and they came along in the past couple of weeks to a meeting that I jointly chaired. Input is invaluable, and we will continue with that relationship as we progress with the development plans and into the delivery stage of Urban Villages.
Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Emma Pengelly to answer the question.
Mrs Pengelly: We are aware of the inquiry chairman's decision to conduct a targeted consultation. The full rationale was set out in his public announcement of 4 November 2015. The historical institutional abuse (HIA) inquiry is independent of government, so this is a matter for the inquiry chairman to address. We cannot answer on his behalf. The Member may wish to write to the inquiry chairman seeking further information. We look forward to receiving the inquiry's report and recommendations in January 2017. However, I highlight the fact that the terms of reference make it clear that, ultimately, the nature and level of any potential redress is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the junior Minister for her response, but, given that Sir Anthony Hart has now stated that he is in favour of redress for victims of institutional abuse, does the First Minister not accept that that makes it untenable not to introduce similar provision via the HIA inquiry for victims of non-institutional abuse who fall outside the remit of the current process?
Mrs Pengelly: As the Member will be aware, in relation to those other matters, there is a scoping paper on the options available. The paper will go to the Executive this week, I understand, so we await the outcome of that discussion.
Mr Poots: Is the inquiry currently operating within budget, and is it expected to be completed within budget? Secondly, in other jurisdictions where redress has been made to victims, it has, more often than not, been the perpetrators rather than the state who have paid it. I assume that anything that is done will look at those who have been the perpetrators of the abuse.
Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for his question. On the budget for the HIA inquiry, I am pleased to say that we took some time in the design of the inquiry to ensure that its focus would be on the needs of the victims and survivors and that, for example, huge legal bills would not be the main story coming out of it. As I have highlighted, we also have an independent chairperson who has been very responsible in the management of that budget. I am pleased to say that, year on year, the inquiry has come in just under the projected cost, so the inquiry is being run efficiently and effectively.
On the matter of redress, you are absolutely right. In terms of the inquiry and redress process in the Republic of Ireland, for example, there was a considerable contribution by the Roman Catholic Church, for example. Those are all issues that will need to be considered in due course, depending on how the Executive decide to move forward.
Mr A Maginness: Sir Anthony Hart has said that there should be financial redress. Given that he has said that and given that some of this will ultimately lie with government, would it not be right and proper for government now to scope out the nature of such financial redress and be prepared for it so as to prevent delay and frustration on the part of victims who deserve it?
Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for his question. In preparation for the historical institutional abuse inquiry and in the project design, we looked at a range of other jurisdictions, not only their mechanisms for such inquiries but their redress mechanisms. Therefore, we have some information on that. As the chairman of the inquiry highlighted, he has undertaken a consultation process, and I assume that the outcome of that, specifically in relation to redress, will be shared with us, so it would be pre-emptive for us to commence scoping now. We will await that report and make a decision on actions on the back of that.
Mr Dickson: I thank the junior Minister for the answers that she has brought to us so far. Junior Minister, you referred to the options paper for non-institutional abuse: when will that be presented to the Executive? Have you scoped out any costs involved in delivering that aspect of any future inquiry?
Mrs Pengelly: My understanding is that that paper has already been circulated. If that is not the case, it is due to be circulated very soon, with the aim of it being presented at the next Executive meeting. There are set costs with inquiries, as the Member will be aware, and we have the costings for this one. Although the final cost depends on the number of people who come forward to the inquiry, the set costs remain the same. The number of people is a small variable in the overall cost, which is likely to be in the millions — possibly above £10 million — for any new statutory inquiry, regardless of the number of people. However, that detailed work will take place after decisions are made. There is a range of issues with the data and information available to us on issues outside the scope of the current inquiry. One of the options highlighted in the paper is that more work will need to take place, perhaps by some experts, on the scale of the issues to be tackled.
Mrs Foster: The Department of Finance and Personnel is working with the Open Government Network to develop a contribution to the UK open government action plan. OFMDFM officials are involved in that development process. Open government principles have the potential to support the aims of the current reform agenda, in particular by supporting greater Executive accountability for the delivery of outcomes and by fostering greater collaboration across government and across sectors. Those developments are, therefore, timely, as we look forward to the restructuring of the Executive Departments and the transition to a more outcome-focused Programme for Government.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the First Minister for her reply. Like others, I offer my congratulations to Mrs Foster on her appointment as First Minister and wish her every success in ensuring that Northern Ireland is a fair, just and prosperous society as we move forward. Will the First Minister commit to publishing the quarterly monitoring of the various Departments so that the implementation of the plan can be easily seen?
Mrs Foster: As I said, the plan to work with the organisation called Open Government comes at a very good time. In my previous Department — DFP — just a few days before I left, I looked at how we were going to use this platform to continue the work that we had started on restructuring government here. It is a great opportunity to talk about the things that have been a success in Northern Ireland, including the digitalisation of a lot of our services across government. People can now access government services from their home by digital means. There is more that we can do on open government, and I look forward very much to working with my colleague in DFP to make sure that we drive this reform agenda through the open government partnership.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish the Member well in her new post. What progress has been made in establishing a civic panel?
Mrs Foster: As the Member will know, the Stormont House Agreement envisaged a new civic engagement model that is based on the establishment of a compact civic advisory panel. The steps for the establishment of the panel were set out in 'A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan'. It anticipates a panel of six people being established by the Executive, with members, including the chair, being identified and appointed by the Department. It is expected that the panel will seek the views of a wide range of representatives and stakeholders. Whilst there will be only six people on the panel, they will go out across civic society. We are considering and identifying panel members for those posts.
Mr Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.
T1. Mr F McCann asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the report undertaken by the junior Ministers to examine the impact of Tory cuts on the community and voluntary sector. (AQT 3321/11-16)
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also join Members in congratulating the First Minister on her elevation. I wish her well in her job.
Mrs Foster: As the Member rightly identified, the Executive tasked the junior Ministers to do that. That happened after NICVA and the wider voluntary and community sector alerted us to a difficultly and that a problem was developing, whereby all our Departments were making savings or cuts to the wider voluntary sector, and it was sustaining hits from across the piece.
The junior Ministers took forward that work, and an action plan has been developed in conjunction with NICVA and the wider voluntary sector. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has approved the action plan. It has been sent around our Executive colleagues, and there have been some responses.
Mr F McCann: I thank the First Minister for her response. We all know the excellent work that is done by the community and voluntary sector. Much of it could be life-saving in areas of high deprivation. Are you confident that the action plans that are now being discussed will help and that we will see those sectors coming out the other end of the cuts that are taking place?
Mrs Foster: I am. It is a very good example of collaborative working. NICVA and the wider community sector identified a problem. Instead of standing outside and complaining about it, they came to government and looked for a solution, and we worked with them to try to provide a solution through the action plan.
I understand that a wide range of Ministers came back with comments on the action plan. I am hopeful that it will be a useful piece of work and an example of how we should work with different sectors. If a very specific issue is raised, sectors should come forward, and we will try to work with them to find a solution. That has worked on this occasion.
T2. Mr G Robinson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the implementation of the Fresh Start Agreement. (AQT 3322/11-16)
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. We have made very good progress on the implementation of the Fresh Start Agreement. In the interests of open government, the progress has been published on the OFMDFM website. We met our Government to discuss strand one issues last week. We met the Republic of Ireland Government to discuss strand two issues and have shared the progress that has been made. I am pleased about the progress that has been made. We will continue to push ahead and make sure that the Fresh Start Agreement is implemented.
Mr G Robinson: I thank the First Minister for her answer. Does she believe that the Budget will put Northern Ireland on a stable financial footing?
Mrs Foster: Given my previous role, I would, of course, say yes. The monitoring and the Budget for next year have been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, which means that we will meet our Budget this year and, indeed, next year. With welfare reform and all the other pressures that I stood here and talked about in June having been dealt with, we are on a good route map with the Budget. I look forward to the introduction of the Budget — I think that it is tomorrow — by my friend the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
T3. Mr Lyttle asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether OFMDFM will, for families in Northern Ireland, match the UK Government commitment to deliver 30 hours’ free childcare rather than the 12 hours that, he understands, is available currently. (AQT 3323/11-16)
Mrs Foster: As the Member will be only too aware, we have just finished the consultation in relation to the childcare strategy for OFMDFM. That finished, I think, around the end of November, and we will continue to work our way through the responses to that consultation, including any that make reference to the Westminster Government's proposals in relation to free childcare. As he is also aware, childcare is due to transfer to the Department of Education after the next election.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the First Minister for her response. Given that she will be aware that the cost of childcare for families in Northern Ireland continues to be a significant expenditure, I ask the First Minister when will the full childcare strategy be published and will it include specific action plans, with clearly identified budget items? Will the Executive maintain the full level of funding for the women's centre childcare fund in 2016-17?
Mrs Foster: The women's centre childcare fund — correct me if I am wrong — is a matter for the Department of Social Development. I know that it is something that the Minister is looking at, because I had cause to speak to him about it with regards to a women's centre in my own constituency. As for the childcare strategy, it is certainly our hope that it will be agreed before the end of this mandate. I think it would be right and proper to do that, particularly since childcare will transfer to the Department of Education under the new arrangements for leaner government.
As a working mum, I have a particular interest in childcare costs and in making sure that childcare is available to all those who wish to be in work. Therefore this is a policy that I take a particular interest in, so he can be assured that this is one that I want to see agreed before the end of this mandate.
T4. Mr A Maginness asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in relation to the events of 1916, which will be commemorated and celebrated, depending on your political point of view, here in Ireland, North and South, whether the First Minister will clarify her position and whether she will agree to attend commemorations of, or events surrounding the commemoration of, the Easter rising in 1916 in Dublin or elsewhere. (AQT 3324/11-16)
Mr A Maginness: I take this opportunity to congratulate the First Minister on coming to office. In all my dealings with her, particularly as Chair of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, she has showed great professionalism and great courtesy, and I am sure that will continue.
Mrs Foster: First of all, I thank the Member for his very kind comments in relation to my appointment to this office. I suppose what starts as a new era for me ends an era for him. He has served the constituents of North Belfast for a long time, and I wish him well in his retirement.
In terms of the issues surrounding Easter 1916, I was asked a very specific question by one of my local journalists as to whether I would attend the commemorations in Dublin for that event. I indicated that I would not, and that is still my position. I have since indicated that I am very aware that the events that happened in Dublin at Easter 1916 were part of a wider context of what was going on, not only on this island but in these islands and further afield at that particular time. I am more than content to attend — in fact, I am looking forward to attending — lectures, symposiums and discussions in and around the year that was in it in relation to 1916, within the whole context of what was going on at that particular time. So whilst I will not be attending the official commemorations or indeed any other commemorations in relation to what happened in Dublin at Easter 1916, I will of course be reflecting on everything else that took place in that year.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the First Minister for her kind remarks. Her answer to my original question was a wee bit like the curate's egg: it was good in parts. Does the First Minister agree with me that a proper and in-depth historical analysis of the events surrounding the Easter rising and, indeed, other events throughout 1916 should be appropriately visited by her and other Ministers from different parties so that people here, North and South, may derive some lessons from what happened in the past and be educated in the history of those events?
Mrs Foster: He will be pleased to know that I agree with him. I do hope that we take the opportunity. There are very many young people in Northern Ireland today who, frankly, have no cognisance of what we are talking about. They are more interested in what is going on in 2016 than in what happened in 1916. If we are to look backwards, that is all very good and we should do that. I will do that, and I have already taken up an invitation to attend a Church of Ireland event in Christ Church in Dublin in February on what was going on in 1916, and I look forward to that very much.
I think our focus, as I said standing here last week when I accepted the nomination to be First Minister, should definitely be on the future for this place. We have talked a lot about anti-poverty strategies and child poverty strategies, but we need to see action for young people who live in Northern Ireland so that they are very proud of this place, just as I am proud of this place.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
T5. Mr Givan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister can state how much she values education, particularly as he must put on record his thanks to her for making Pond Park Primary School in Lisburn her first engagement outside of this Building as First Minister — the school was very appreciative of the time that she spent there and, to pick up on some of the themes that were raised during that visit, it was inspected only last year and received the highest grading possible of outstanding, with its focus on educational underachievement given particular mention. (AQT 3325/11-16)
Mr Givan: I welcome the First Minister to Question Time, and I wish her well for the future.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question and for hosting me at Pond Park Primary School last week. I have already put the card up; it makes me look very thin, and it is very good that I am perceived that way by the young people at Pond Park. It was a lovely event and a lovely occasion. I talked a lot last week about hoping to inspire and motivate young people in Northern Ireland, but when I went to Pond Park the reverse happened; they inspired me. They were absolutely tremendous; we listened to them singing and to what they were doing in class, and it was really a fabulous visit.
All I want is for every child to have the same opportunities as those children in Pond Park have. I know that my good friend and colleague the junior Minister has taken educational attainment under her wing and has recently written to all schools across Northern Ireland to take their views on issues to do with educational underachievement. This is an issue that we intend to keep looking at, because we really do believe in our young people and we want them to succeed.
Mr Givan: I thank the First Minister for that response. I know that she will be in Lagan Valley again next month and will visit the Resurgam Trust. That is a group that has pioneered a scheme to tackle educational underachievement. The social investment fund recently allocated half a million pounds to the scheme, particularly targeting working-class Protestant communities. Will she assure us that that funding through the social investment fund will be secured in future and that we will not listen to those parties like the Ulster Unionists, who campaigned vociferously against such a fund?
Mrs Foster: I know that there have been some teething problems in the roll-out of the social investment fund. The fundamental issue about the social investment fund is that it is making a real and tangible difference, not just to communities but to individuals right across Northern Ireland. I am looking forward to visiting the Resurgam Trust because, not only does it fit in with the delivering social change agenda from OFMDFM, it points to the Fresh Start Agreement as well. We want to help those groups to transition into the mainstream of society in Northern Ireland, and I very much look forward to being a part of that visit so that I can see what is actually happening on the ground and the tangible difference that we are making in Lisburn.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): I thank the Member for his question. I welcome the publication, in November, of InterTradeIreland's 'Mapping the Potential for All-Island Sectoral Ecosystems'. I launched it with my fellow Enterprise Minister, Richard Bruton, at the North/South Ministerial Council on 2 December 2015. The detailed report, which is the first of its kind, maps geographic concentrations of firms in the same sector across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and it makes recommendations on how the full potential of these ecosystems can be realised through new cross-border initiatives.
To assess whether there are economic merits to developing sectoral ecosystems on a cross-border basis, InterTradeIreland carried out a more detailed case study analysis on three identified growth sectors: medical devices, pharmaceuticals and software. The case studies have identified potential opportunities for cooperation for mutual benefit, particularly in areas such as research and clinical trial coordination; opening up opportunities to advanced training of staff on a cross-border basis; and widening sub supply goods and services markets. I will be discussing the report and its recommendations with my counterpart, Richard Bruton, at the next North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Buíochas fosta leis an Aire. I want to thank the Minister for work he has been doing on funding with InterTradeIreland over the past month and a half, and also for his comprehensive answer to the question. Minister, you have probably read the entire report, whereas I have only read the summary and conclusions. Right at the end — in fact, the last sentence of the last paragraph — the report refers to the software sector. It states how software industries on the island are located in Dublin and Belfast, and mentions the energy and potential of that Dublin-Belfast corridor for software. Minister, when you talk about taking it forward, I ask you to make it a priority to provide the funding and resources to allow us to do more detailed work on this, and to give the backing to InterTradeIreland for those sectors, to create the jobs that we want to see North of the border in particular.
Mr Bell: I align myself fully with the Member's comments about improving the technology sector in Northern Ireland. It is a knowledge-based sector that, in many cases, is growing exponentially. In some areas — I am thinking of the knowledge-based sector in the Science Park and others — it is growing by up to 30%, which is huge growth. We must maintain that momentum, and we will do anything and everything that we can to deliver more jobs in Northern Ireland. As Members will know, I have maintained the baseline for InterTradeIreland, because when something is delivering for Northern Ireland companies, I want them to continue to deliver. I think the Member will be pleased to note that I have approved an additional bid for 2016 of £206,000 for InterTradeIreland. That is subject to the InterTrade board's ratification.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers to date. Can the Minister give us his assessment of the collaborative business network programme established by Invest NI and designed to help the industry sectors? I think we all recognise the good work of InterTradeIreland.
Mr Bell: I acknowledge the good work that the Member has highlighted. In Northern Ireland, the clustering approach has underpinned Invest Northern Ireland's collaborative business networks programme, and that has seen the development of more than 30 networks.
The collaborative network programme was launched in September 2011. It has funded networks across a variety of industry sectors aligned to the DETI matrix thematic priorities, including connected health, data analytics, IT skills, renewables, digital media and aerospace. That programme fully supports SMEs to collaborate with others, particularly larger companies and higher education institutions, to develop capacity and capability and, ultimately, to derive business benefit from those involved in and supporting the wider Northern Ireland economy.
Mr McCrossan: What steps does the Minister plan to take to enhance the data collected in the Northern Ireland census of employment, analysis and policy conclusions through the geocoding of firms and the recording of firm size?
Mr Bell: I welcome the Member to the House. We will use all the data available to us to help target our resources to support firms. I am very keen that we support both large and small-scale firms. We look to initiatives right across Northern Ireland. We will take the best intelligence to support those firms and utilise all our data analytics to the full.
Mr Speaker: I inform Members that question 6 has been withdrawn.
Mr Bell: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 7 together.
The Year of Food and Drink 2016 is a significant opportunity to positively influence the perception of Northern Ireland's food offering in key areas such as tourism and also in our export markets. We aim to generate £10 million of positive PR and increase exports by £30 million.
The direct answer to Mr McKinney's question is that Tourism Ireland outlined its plans for promoting Northern Ireland, including the Year of Food and Drink, at the NSMC tourism sectoral meeting on 2 December 2015. Tourism Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland and DARD are also committed to the delivery of that initiative. Tourism Northern Ireland has coordinated a series of dedicated industry and event roadshows across Northern Ireland, and Invest Northern Ireland will assist local food and drink businesses to export by organising Northern Ireland group stands at 10 food and drink exhibitions and other regional events across Europe, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. DARD will be supporting the Year of Food and Drink 2016 through the regional food programme.
We are on the back of another highly successful launch at the Ulster Hall and I think that we are on the right trajectory to show the potential that our food and drink offering has.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am glad that he enjoyed that launch; some of us were surprised not to have been invited to it. How does he plan to measure the success of the Year of Food and Drink 2016 project?
Mr Bell: The first thing that we look at is sales of £4 billion per annum. We also look to measure it against the agrifood industry, which is our largest manufacturing sector and provides us with about 10% of all private-sector employment. I say to Mr McKinney that not only do I want to measure it against that but I actually want to build on that. The Year of Food and Drink offers a whole opportunity to differentiate and celebrate indigenous local food and drink. Mr Wells's constituency is South Down. I know that they were looking specifically at the food and drink offering and tourism offering on the back of the success of the Irish Open and other initiatives. The Irish Open attracted well over 100,000 paying spectators.
I will mention to the Member one particular initiative that I found out about only at the weekend. The Whitewater Brewery at Kilkeel has a new craft ale which is called Maggies Leap. I helped to launch it at the Irish Open and I understand that at least five pallets of that new craft beer are heading for Asia to celebrate the Chinese New Year. So, not only are we being successful locally, we are also being successful in international markets.
Mr Wells: I welcome the announcement by the Minister on this campaign. As he is aware, south Down, in particular, offers an excellent product through its fishing industry. Is there anything specific in this campaign that will target the prawns, the vast majority of which are produced by south Down trawlermen, and other whitefish, which are also very high quality, being produced out of places such as Kilkeel and Annalong?
Mr Bell: Of course. The reality is that we will showcase, not only those that the Member has mentioned, but all our indigenous, sometimes award-winning and even internationally award-winning food offerings, from Comber potatoes to our eels. We have heard the great news that some major programmes on the BBC, with millions of viewers, are now coming to Northern Ireland. We have a unique opportunity to boost our tourism figures along an upward trajectory. I have not spoken to all our hotels, but I have spoken to many of them, and I know that they are quite happy with the healthy occupancy figures and the number of cruise ships that we are attracting. All that shows that Northern Ireland has something unique and very special. What we want to do is to show where Northern Ireland's strength lies. Its opportunity for differentiation is regionally produced, distinctive, provenance-based local produce, not just for our agrifood or markets, but for people to enjoy as part of their tourism experience.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the detail. Northern Ireland food and drink is something that I am very passionate about and that, I think, can be sold very easily. To provide comparisons, can the Minister tell me what the current level of food and drink exports from Northern Ireland is that he hopes to increase by £30 million? What was the spend last year, for instance, on promotions of Northern Ireland food and drink for export? How many exhibitions did we go to last year, given that he wants it to be 10 this year?
Mr Bell: I do not know which of the three questions to answer. We should focus on the aim. I welcome the Member's passion for the subject. The comparisons that I want to see at the end of this year are whether we have generated £10 million in PR — £5 million in Great Britain and overseas, £2 million in Northern Ireland and £3 million in the Republic of Ireland; have increased our export sales by £30 million; have increased by 5% the level of visitor satisfaction with Northern Ireland food and drink as measured by the Northern Ireland visitor attitude survey; have 10 new food experiences delivered and developed, whether consolidated food buyer, producer network or clusters; have 10 new applications for protected geographical indication (PGI) status progressed with DARD, with at least two approved by the Commission by the end of 2016; and have increased the number of entries to the Great Taste Awards, to 105 companies that won 400 stars. That is what we are looking at in terms of the umbrella identity.
Four Year of Food and Drink 2016 roadshow events were partnered with Food Northern Ireland. They were attended by approximately 350 delegates. Tourism Northern Ireland also supported, through the tourism event funding programme, an additional scheme specifically for food and drink at those events, and a total of £300,000 has been allocated for that scheme.
Mr McCarthy: I remind the Minister and, indeed, other Members that there are more than two fishing ports in Northern Ireland. There are Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie, which Mr Wells seems to have forgotten about. The Minister mentioned the Comber potato. I remind the Minister that unless he joins with the Minister of Agriculture to do something in relation to the Comber spud, there will be none left, because of the prices that the growers are getting — 14 pence a kilo, yet they are being sold in the supermarkets for £1. There is something strange and very wrong. Will the Minister try to do something about that?
Mr Bell: I certainly understand that. I disagree about the Comber potato: I believe that it has a great future. We had the Comber Potato Festival, and we were there on the Saturday morning. Over the summer, everybody saw the interest and the quality of the product. Everybody can understand that the Comber potato has not only a great present but, potentially, a great future.
The Member raises a very important point about food producers. I have asked Invest Northern Ireland to continue to work alongside all the food and drink companies of all sizes and from all subsectors to ensure that they get the best price for their pure, natural, quality produce. This year provides an opportunity to promote quality produce both at home and in markets outside Northern Ireland. We will work alongside local food and drink businesses to export by organising Northern Ireland group stands at the 10 food and drink exhibitions, including major exhibitions such as Gulfood in Dubai in February, SIAL in Paris in September and other regional events where we can across Europe, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. Ultimately, however, to export and sell we need to support producers, and we will continue to work with DARD on how we can do that.
Mr Speaker: I am getting a bit concerned that questions are now being asked with a very long introductory passage, which also, at times, provokes a very long answer from the Minister. All of that is to the disadvantage of those who are on the question list. I may intervene if I feel that Members are not getting to their question quickly enough.
Mr Bell: I understand that the former Visteon site is under the ownership of Fold Housing Association. I am aware that Belfast City Council recently approved a planning application proposing a mixed-use development, including housing and business uses on this former industrial site. If it is the wish of the promoters, Invest Northern Ireland would be willing to market any suitable business property through its online database. The property could also be included within property searches, in line with specific investor requirements.
Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for that response. Obviously, there are difficulties surrounding developments like this. However, given the Minister's support for this initiative, could he at least make contact with or accept contact from Fold Housing Association to explore further opportunities for economic development on the site?
Mr Bell: I will certainly instruct my officials to do that and work alongside the Member, as we want to see and be part of anything that brings jobs to Belfast. When I look at Glassmarque Design and Chemtest, to name just a couple, I see where the success in west Belfast is already, and it is not least because of the quality of the workforce there.
Mr McCrossan: What measures will the Minister put in place to ensure that efforts are made to attract economic investment and that they are made a priority in areas of greatest disadvantage?
Mr Bell: The first thing that we want to do is to ensure that we get the jobs to Northern Ireland; that has to be our priority. We will always target and showcase particular areas for the unique skills that might be there because of the cluster of areas. We have asked all our 11 councils to look at the unique selling points of their area, and we have asked Invest Northern Ireland to look at Northern Ireland as a whole. The Executive asked it to deliver a very ambitious target of 25,000 jobs over the past four years, which, as you know, it has massively exceeded. If any Member has a particular concern, they should come and talk to me. We will look with Invest Northern Ireland at what is unique and special for that area and see where we can make the networks to deliver jobs and investment to Northern Ireland.
Mr Bell: During the period 2011-12 to 2014-15, with Invest Northern Ireland support, businesses based in areas east of the River Bann promoted 27,116 jobs and created 20,451 jobs. During the same period, with Invest Northern Ireland support, businesses based in areas west of the River Bann promoted 9,679 jobs and created 7,416 jobs. It is Invest Northern Ireland's role to support companies that bring forward investment projects on the basis of merit, irrespective of where they are based. "Jobs promoted" are jobs that a company expects to create in future years; "jobs created" are jobs that have actually been filled at that point in time and may relate to investments secured in earlier years. Therefore, it is not possible to directly compare jobs promoted and jobs created in the same period.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I am somewhat alarmed that for every job promoted or created west of the Bann there are three comparable jobs east of the Bann. That presents us with a significant social and economic challenge. Does the Minister accept that areas west of the Bann require additional focus from his Department and Invest NI? Will he indicate to the House when the regional opportunities subgroup of the Executive intends to next meet to discuss the issues and the opportunities that present themselves in places like Fermanagh and Tyrone?
Mr Bell: Without that body meeting, I have been specifically looking with a number of businesses in the west at what exactly we can do. It is important to note that we have been working alongside Fermanagh and south Tyrone in terms of the regional start initiative (RSI), which encourages potential entrepreneurs to produce a business plan as one of the key early steps to a new business. Under local government reform, a number of economic development functions transferred to the 11 councils, including local start-up provision. The councils have requested that Invest Northern Ireland continues to manage the RSI until March 2016, with the potential flexibility up to October 2016. That will help all of us to shape how enterprise can be delivered in the particular areas. The regional start initiative continues to operate successfully. The Member will note that, by November 2015, the western regional contract of RSI, which includes Fermanagh and south Tyrone, had delivered 2,251 business plan approvals. The Member can look to Westland Horticulture, Dunbia and, particularly, Teleperformance for some significant involvements and confidence of investors in the area.
Mr Lyons: Does the Minister agree that subregional targets for Invest NI would be wrong as they would actually stifle investment? Is it not right that private companies should be given the support they need to establish and develop their business in the areas that work best for them?
Mr Bell: It is vital that we allow private-sector companies to choose. They will choose, anyway. Government cannot force a private-sector company. I do not think that anybody in the House would be saying, "If you can get the jobs to Northern Ireland, don't take them unless you can get them to x, y or z". We have to show our best features. We will do that, and we will outline particularly unique prospects for certain areas. Ultimately, however, private companies will be allowed to make their own decisions. The Northern Ireland Executive Programme for Government focused on job creation for Northern Ireland as a whole; it did not include a subregional target. Invest Northern Ireland's targets flow from the Programme for Government. The job creation targets are also focused on Northern Ireland as a whole.
As I said to Mr Flanagan, we will work with councils to help drive business development on an equitable basis throughout Northern Ireland and with an increased subregional focus. We will participate in and encourage the development of subregional plans that are informed and delivered by local people through the council and ensure that they are locally led strategies to deliver the best results for those areas.
Mr Allister: May I say to Mr Flanagan that, if he represented North Antrim, he would know that there is no preferential treatment for east of the Bann? On the basis of the figures that the Minister gave him, Mr Flanagan should perhaps reflect on the population sizes of east and west.
Does the Minister have any sense of the disproportionality that arises from the fact that, in the past five years, according to his Department's figures, there have been 976 foreign direct investment (FDI) visits to Northern Ireland but only eight to North Antrim? Does he recognise the disproportionality that that speaks to?
Mr Bell: We seek to bring investment to Northern Ireland. When I look at schemes that the Member has not mentioned, I see the Department's success with Wrightbus, which tripled its profits, and the new investment that has come in from London to the area. Many people whom I know in North Antrim are working on world-leading products in the likes of Randox and Schrader, where hundreds of new jobs have been created. I will continue to show the Member that there are companies — Moy Park and many others — with which we are seeking to encourage the development of export markets in order to build businesses and build jobs. I think that the Member will realise that we market Northern Ireland as a whole. We want to bring jobs to Northern Ireland. Unemployment in Northern Ireland today sits at roughly a third of the European Union average and a third of the Republic of Ireland average.
Together, let us get a passion for Northern Ireland. I will certainly work alongside the Member to try to deliver for his constituency, as I will do for my own and every other constituency, but we have to develop a passion for Northern Ireland in order to attract foreign direct investment. To answer the Member's question on proportionality, Northern Ireland has attracted more foreign direct investment per head of population than any other part of the United Kingdom. Some 75% of the companies that have come to Northern Ireland have subsequently reinvested. That is a huge vote of confidence in our product and in our people.
Mr Bell: Manufacturing is hugely important to the Northern Ireland economy. It makes a significant contribution to export levels and to research and development in Northern Ireland, both of which are central to wealth creation. According to the latest 'DETI Economic Commentary', from October 2015:
"Manufacturing has continued to post strong growth, with output up 3.2% over the past four quarters".
Output is up 3·2% over the past four quarters. Over the past year, the sector also added 1,870 jobs, which brings the total number of manufacturing jobs to more than 80,000. Having taken the number of manufacturing jobs to more than 80,000, we should be cognisant of the fact that that is the first time that Northern Ireland has achieved that since 2008. However, a number of major redundancies have been announced, and there is no room for complacency. My Department and Invest Northern Ireland will continue to do all that we can do to support investment, create jobs and promote competitiveness in the manufacturing sector.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Swann for a very quick supplementary.
Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer and for his acknowledgement of the number of manufacturing jobs that have been lost in my North Antrim constituency. Will he join the manufacturers, the employees and the residents of Ballymena on 6 February at the "Rally for a Future" that is being organised by Unite the Union?
Mr Bell: I have already joined a lot of residents, the manufacturing sector, a number of new businesses and Unite the Union at a very productive meeting. I did that under the radar because there are obviously a lot of commercial sensitivities attached to where there have been job losses. I can tell you that we have been looking specifically at the sites that were lost and developing the product that is there. Without breaking any commercial sensitivities, I can say that we have been looking at where some of the existing successful businesses are in the area and at what we could grow on those sites. I will keep that constituency — as I will keep all of Northern Ireland — very firmly in my mind as we seek to take forward a unique proposition. Remember that we can tell the rest of the world that, if they invest in Northern Ireland, they will have about 85% of the business costs of the rest of the United Kingdom and 95% of those of the Republic of Ireland. They will have a talent pool to draw on that, in many cases, is second to none, and, from 1 April, they will have the most competitive corporation tax rate in the United Kingdom. I encourage the Member and all others to join me as we take that message right across the globe to continue that trajectory of attracting more foreign direct investment per head to Northern Ireland than any other part of the United Kingdom, including London.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. I am sure that you were not inviting all Members to go across the world with you at the one time.
T1. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on plans to enhance the broadband service in rural areas generally and in Newry and Armagh particularly, given that he will be aware of the problems being experienced by many rural dwellers, including those in the Newry and Armagh constituency, in obtaining adequate broadband provision. (AQT 3331/11-16)
Mr Bell: There are specific difficulties in rural areas. We can provide coverage for those areas, but I am acutely aware of the speed of that coverage. I am acutely aware, too, that, even when we say that we can provide 100% broadband coverage, very often, many people cannot get it due to the pressure, if it is satellite broadband, on particular beams. I am going through a number of postcodes with my Department to see what we can do in specific areas. We will put the information on our website so that everybody can see it, and, if the Member wants to give me the postcodes of areas where there are specific concerns, I will seek to address them.
Where there is no fixed-line provision, we have looked at other initiatives. Some other avenues are still commercially sensitive as regards what we could do to get broadband provision into those areas. There has been a pilot provision through particular satellite systems. There will be a challenge. Our broadband improvement programme has helped tens of thousands, and we have the superfast broadband improvement project. All of those deliver for many businesses, but I am acutely aware that there are pockets that experience significant difficulty. Going by my postbag and the people whom I speak to at a specific time, saying that we have 100% coverage is being increasingly challenged. I will look specifically at what we can do for those areas, particularly on satellite provision.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply, but may I draw his attention to the very inadequate broadband provision in the Glenanne, Enagh, Clady, Milltown and Altnamackan areas of my constituency, amongst others? I have received correspondence from BT indicating that those areas will not be included in the Northern Ireland superfast broadband extension programme until December 2017. Will he undertake to review that timescale, and is he willing to meet me to discuss the matter?
Mr Bell: I will certainly meet the honourable Member and the people who are particularly affected. Often, I like to see what the provision is at first hand, so I will try to find time to look at a number of rural areas where there is significant difficulty. I know that the UK Government are committed to giving everyone across the UK a legal right to request a 10 megabits per second broadband connection by 2020.
It is envisaged that that will be achieved through the introduction of a new universal service obligation, which will be established by statute and implemented by Ofcom. I understand that the UK Government will consult publicly on those plans early this year. My officials are working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to make sure that the specific interests of Northern Ireland are articulated, and the Member articulated the concerns in his area very well. We have made it known that our preference is for a universal service obligation that aligns fully with the ambition of the European Union digital agenda.
Mr Speaker: Question 2 was withdrawn within the appropriate time frame.
T3. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his assessment of the performance of Invest NI in attracting foreign direct investment in the last 12-month period. (AQT 3333/11-16)
Mr Bell: The Member will know that 2014-15 was a record year for overall jobs promotion in Northern Ireland. Of the 13,785 new jobs that were promoted, 5,661 were from externally owned companies. A total of 1,047 were in 25 companies that are new to Northern Ireland. We will continue to target the priority sectors of ICT, financial services and business and professional services, combined with seeking to grow the life sciences sector. The past 12 months have been good. We have to look to where the challenges will come and at the opportunities for the next period.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his very positive answer. Can I further press him and ask what difference the new rate of corporation tax will make to attracting foreign direct investment?
Mr Bell: It has been said that it is potentially a game changer, and all of us have to get behind Northern Ireland plc to attract jobs. Economists have told us that, in a 15-year period, we can grow the economy by 10%. They have told us that we can add up to 30,000 new jobs. I am working alongside DEL to make sure that we have the skills sector, which is challenging but necessary to get those jobs in. Invest Northern Ireland believes that a lower rate of corporation tax will enable Northern Ireland to compete for and win a wider range of tax-sensitive investment projects and get more than we currently have. We will build on Northern Ireland's success with foreign direct investment that I outlined. The lower rate of corporation tax will open doors and make Northern Ireland one of the most competitive and attractive investment propositions in western Europe for new foreign direct investment. A lower rate of corporation tax will also provide a boost to local profitable firms as they will have additional finance to invest in their growth and, hopefully, create more jobs and investment in the Northern Ireland economy.
T4. Mr McKinney asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, while not wanting to burst his balloon, for his assessment of the weekend comments from Professor Paddy Johnston of Queen’s University who said that we are not investing significantly in graduates consistent with our corporation tax ambition. (AQT 3334/11-16)
Mr Bell: I have taken a lot of cognisance of what Professor Johnston said. I also spent a considerable time with Professor Nixon, the vice chancellor at Ulster University, looking specifically at what we need to do alongside DEL initially and, ultimately, in the new Department for the Economy. If the Office for Budget Responsibility's assessment is accurate, we know that our economy will be growing and, hopefully, as the economy grows, we can allocate more of that money to where it is needed. I also know that the First Minister, when she was Finance Minister, held a very recent meeting with the Minister for Employment and Learning specifically on those areas, and we will seek to address the challenge that is raised to match the corporation tax investment that will come.
Mr McKinney: The Minister will be aware of the further £12 million of proposed cuts to higher education in the Budget. How will that impact on the strategic objectives of his Department and the future Department for the Economy in introducing corporation tax?
Mr Bell: The challenge for us is to work within the Budget allocation. We have a block grant. We can challenge that allocation, but we also have to work within it. When I sit around the Executive table, there are many competing priorities. The Member has been challenging for increased health spending. In nearly every area that I can think of, from roads infrastructure to agriculture and right through to my Department, if you gave me more money, I could spend it profitably and efficiently for Northern Ireland, but we have to realise that we cannot spend the same pound twice. We have to look at the resources that we have, the challenges coming down the line and the successes that we have had. With difficult resources, we are still well below the European Union average for unemployment. We are still attracting more foreign direct investment than any other part of the United Kingdom. I will give you a quote from a senior executive of Allstate:
"I came for the costs in Northern Ireland, but I stayed for the people."
The challenge to all of us around the Chamber is to deliver against the attractive offering of talent, cost and competitive tax and to use our budget as judiciously as we can to ensure that we get the most investment from it.
T5. Mr F McCann asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in light of the recent cuts to the block grant, whether he would consider establishing an economic and social consultative body in the North, which would involve important stakeholders in shaping a new economic and social approach to effectively target the patterns of inequality and underinvestment across the region. (AQT 3335/11-16)
Mr Bell: The Northern Ireland Executive collectively are looking at where we need to raise people out of poverty. That has been done at the start, through assisting young people to get better grades at school, and through targeted intervention in numeracy and literacy through the childcare strategy that you heard about earlier. We have to focus on and keep as our priority the Northern Ireland economy. While I speak of the good things that we have done, all of us are conscious, as the Member pointed out, that we have 27% in that area, according to the last figures that I looked at on the economic inactivity index. We have to see what we can do in those areas.
Sometimes I get challenged for bringing in jobs that are below the private sector median, but the other challenge is to get people on the first step of the ladder. Last week, I was in Ballymena where the wonderful new company Apeer is promoting 25 jobs. It has the potential to grow in the UK market. What you are seeing there is young people being able to access a pathway into employment that, hopefully, can lift them out of poverty.
Mr F McCann: I thank the Minister for his response, but does he not also accept that a new approach is required to build positive alliances between business organisations, employer organisations, the trade union movement and civic stakeholders, among others, to help to shape an economic and social policy and strategy to bring more jobs to the region?
Mr Bell: I think we both agree on the goal; we might disagree on the methods. I have been meeting businesses, as well as the CBI at local and UK leadership level, and they have a specific corporate responsibility and are seeking to help in particular areas that they are working in. I note the excellent work that Business in the Community is doing. I spent time with the trade unions last week. I will continue all those individual alliances to achieve the specific goal that we have to drive down economic inactivity and increase the number of jobs in Northern Ireland.
T7. Mr McMullan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether he wishes to congratulate the GAA on UNESCO’s ruling that the game of hurling has been designated heritage status. (AQT 3337/11-16)
Mr Bell: Certainly, I congratulate it. I have met the GAA on a number of occasions, most recently with the deputy First Minister as we put forward the whole sport offering that Northern Ireland has, with GAA, rugby and football all joining together. Northern Ireland has had some unique sporting moments. We are just off the back of probably one of the most successful Sports Personality of the Year shows in Belfast. The Northern Ireland team has qualified for Europe. I will skip over the weekend's Ulster rugby result. Of course I congratulate the GAA, and I will work with it in how it develops sport and in how it develops and supports the sport and improves the economy of Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker: I am sorry, but we do not have time for your supplementary. That brings us to the end of topical questions. The House will take its ease while we change the top Table.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on amendment No 10, which amendment was:
After clause 50 insert
50A.—(1) The Department must not later than 3 years after the commencement of this Act appoint an independent person to review and publish a report on the implementation of this Act.
(2) Regulations under this section shall set out the terms of the review.". — [Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel).]
Question put, That amendment No 10 be made.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 51; Noes 35
Mr Agnew, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Diver, Mrs Dobson, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Gardiner, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hussey, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Overend, Ms Ruane, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Cree, Mr McKay
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
Question, That amendment No 10 be made, put and agreed to.
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 51 (Further provision)
In page 26, line 32, leave out "and" and insert "but". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
In page 26, line 33, leave out "does so" and insert
"modifies an Act of Parliament or Northern Ireland legislation". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Clause 51, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 52 to 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 (The Legal Services Oversight Commissioner for Northern Ireland)
In page 31, line 29, after "report" insert
", in such form as the Department may require,". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
In page 31, line 30, at end insert
"(1A) Without prejudice to the generality of sub-paragraph (1), a report sent to the Department under that sub-paragraph must contain information about the number of complaints made in relation to the members of each professional body during the year to which the report relates.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.
Schedules 2 to 5 agreed to.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
I ask the Assembly to take its ease for a second or two while we change the top Table.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes have been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.
The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive: if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.
That this Assembly notes the crucial and life-saving role of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) in responding to fires, road traffic collisions, other specialist rescue incidents and in providing community safety education; expresses regret that it has not been considered a front-line service by the current Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; further notes with concern that changes to service delivery have compromised the safety of the public and the officers who deliver the service; believes that any future changes to service delivery should not compromise further the safety of the public or the officers; further expresses deep concern at the major deterioration in attendance times over the last five years, particularly delays in the first appliance reaching high-risk cases; notes that projected cuts to the service have already resulted in up to seven stations being identified for downgrading, four other stations identified as being high risk not being upgraded, and warnings of further reduced response times; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to change his position and appreciate the importance of the service so that there is no further risk to public safety.
It is with no pleasure at all that I move the motion on such a serious issue and one that contains such serious warnings. Before I get to the substance of the debate, I warmly welcome our colleagues from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service who have come to Parliament Buildings today, many of whom join us in the Public Gallery. It is my hope that their presence will not only serve as a reminder that the cuts have left no constituency untouched but show that behind the statistics are men and women who face increasingly difficult circumstances in their endeavours to keep the public safe. It is my genuine hope that all the parties that wanted to be photographed with the firefighters outside the Chamber will support the motion inside it.
No one in the House should be under any illusion about the pressures being applied to the service. In what I believe to be one of the starkest warnings so far, the interim Chief Fire and Rescue Officer, Dale Ashford, sent a letter dated 9 December 2015 to a senior official in the Department of Health. In the letter, Mr Ashford stated:
"A budget reduction of either 5% or 10% within the 2016/2017 financial year would have a devastating impact on the operation of the Fire and Rescue Service. It would not only result in the Service failing to meet its statutory requirements but would also impact on response times to emergency incidents and the level of resilience in Northern Ireland. The service would seek to mitigate the impact on the Public and Firefighter safety, and the risk analysis of actions required to deliver a 5% saving within one financial year would result in unacceptable risk levels."
I will say it again, "unacceptable risk levels". It is there in black and white. The most senior fire officer in the country — a man with nearly 30 years' experience of protecting our community — is, effectively, pleading with government to show some sense. Can the Assembly really sit back and let such warnings go unheeded?
Therefore, it was with some bewilderment that I read the DUP amendment to the motion. The very first line in it stresses the importance of the Fire and Rescue Service as a key front-line service. The proposers of that amendment are absolutely right, but I suspect that even some on the DUP Benches will be aware that the reason the Fire and Rescue Service is even facing a further cut next year is because it is not considered to be a front-line service by the Health Minister. Members, that is the crux of the issue. The Executive previously decided to protect front-line services in the health budget but then the Minister, for whatever reason, decided that the Fire and Rescue Service did not deserve or merit that protection.
It is my genuine hope that the DUP amendment, rather than representing a mere drafting oversight by the party, is an indication from the Minister that he has, at last, listened. If it is not, and is only being used as a cynical or tactical exercise to save face politically, then shame on that party and on the proposers of the amendment.
In a briefing circulated last week, the Fire Brigades Union — a body that, we can all agree, has done a first-rate job in highlighting the severity of the problem — laid out exactly what is at risk. It summed it up thus:
"The cuts of the magnitude proposed would see potential station closures, station downgrades and firefighter numbers slashed."
Indeed, the briefing it prepared and circulated to all MLAs should have been enough to send shivers down the spine of any Member who took the time to read through it.
Unfortunately, much of what will be talked about today would have already been known this time last year, when the 2015-16 Budget allocations were being decided. In fact, some may recall that the Ulster Unionist Party attempted to amend last year's Budget to increase the Fire Service's allocation by £1·5 million by using some of the untouched funding in the social investment fund. The DUP dismissed that amendment and even tried to suggest that we were taking money away from community groups. Look, however, at what was revealed only last week: OFMDFM has managed to spend only £4 million of the £80 million in the fund. Do the MLAs who got so worked up about our amendment last year still think that leaving the money to languish in the central pot was better than investing it in our rescue services? I ask each of them to reach down into their consciences to answer that one. Of course they do not; they were blindly following party orders.
The Fire Brigades Union warned last year what would happen with a further cut. Unfortunately, we are now in the unenviable situation of having an even more understaffed service as well, with several towns across Northern Ireland being classed as high risk, having no full-time fire cover. Sometimes, the Assembly hears examples of postcode lotteries and this is a prime example of one where people's lives are being placed at risk. Not only do we not have enough full-time firefighters but with the proposed cuts, redundancies would be inevitable and I suspect that not all of them would be voluntary.
The list of potential downgrades includes Armagh, Antrim, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Omagh and Newtownards, and extends to Portadown, in my constituency. Last February, I visited the crew in Portadown and had previously visited Dromore station and joined the large animal rescue squad based at Newcastle fire station on training. Sitting here today, we can have very little comprehension of the scenes that these brave men and women are faced with in the course of their duties. Many of them live in the communities that they serve. It is difficult to put into words the emotions that they must go through in the course of their duties. They are very clear about their priority, which is to save lives. Their message to me, on numerous occasions, has been that they have already been working hard to deliver efficiencies in recent years but that these should be agreed and not forced.
If Members have not already done so, I urge them to spend some time out with those fantastic men and women. As I did, you will learn some very important lessons about duty, honour and respect, and I firmly believe that such lessons should go both ways.
Another alarming consequence of what we are talking about today is the deterioration over recent years in attendance times. We are all well aware that the service deals with far more than house fires. As the motion states, it plays a key role in responding to road traffic collisions, and, over the years, those priorities change. Whatever the circumstances, however, when a life or a person's safety is imminently at risk, there simply cannot be any delays. In response to an Assembly question from my party last year, the Minister confirmed that, in 2011-12, when the overall service revenue budget was £81 million, 77% of the first appliances in high-risk situations arrived within the first target of six minutes, but, unfortunately, by 2014-15, that had fallen to only 59%. Equivalent drops occurred for the second appliances, both in high- and medium-risk situations. I remind the House that, in the years since 2011-12, the service's budget has been cut by almost £12 million, and that is even before inflation is factored in.
If the Minister attempts to argue later that budget cuts have not compromised the safety of either the public or the service's personnel, aside from that being widely discredited, I ask him to explain what he thinks is responsible for people having to wait longer before emergency help arrives.
I hope that this is a worthwhile debate, and one that the House uses to send this clear message to Simon Hamilton: the current situation is simply not good enough. In fact, what he appears to be on the verge of doing for next year will only make things many times worse. I urge the Minister, in all sincerity, to think again. A service that protects us deserves itself to be protected.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Leave out all after "education;" and insert:
"recognises the close collaborative relationship and interdependent function between the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the health service; believes that this constitutes a critical front-line and support role; further believes that the cuts proposed will compromise public safety by downgrading fire stations and increasing response times, especially within rural areas, as well as compromising the safety of fire officers; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to seek Executive approval to ring-fence the NIFRS budget consistent with its front-line service function.".
I welcome the opportunity, as health spokesperson for the SDLP, to move this amendment on such an important issue. I stress the need to have proper funding for our Fire and Rescue Service so that it can provide a vital front-line service that is best able to protect the public and ensure that firefighters' own safety is not put at risk.
I take this opportunity to offer my condolences to the family and friends of Ellen Finnegan, who tragically lost her life at the weekend in a fire in Castlewellan. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ellen's family at this time of great sadness and despair. Unfortunately, in that case, it was too late for the Fire Service to make a difference, but I pay tribute to the many firefighters across Northern Ireland who make such a significant contribution to our society.
We are all very aware of the dangers of fire and of how dependent we are, when disaster strikes, on the skills and courage of our firefighters. They put their lives at risk to protect the public, and their professionalism and dedication to saving lives never fails to impress me. I am sure that that applies to all in the Chamber and to the wider public.
Firefighters provide a vital and extremely important front-line service, and they are there at every fire and every incident across Northern Ireland. I am glad, as has been said, that so many of them have come to Stormont today to voice their very real concerns in person at the detrimental impact that next year's budget will have on their ability to provide that service.
Last year alone, firefighters responded to a total of nearly 23,000 emergency incidents across Northern Ireland. Those include road traffic collisions, rescues and flooding, which we have all recently witnessed. Firefighters also respond to fires, of course, and building collapses — the list goes on. Firefighters really are on the front line when emergency situations strike and the public's lives are put on the line.
No incident better exemplifies their dedication and bravery than their attendance at a scene, just before Christmas, involving one of their own, Eugene McNally, who died in tragic circumstances in a crash on the A1. It is, therefore, vital that the Assembly shows its appreciation of the invaluable services that the Fire Service provides.
I thank Mrs Dobson and Mr McGimpsey for tabling the motion. However, we believe that the flaw at its heart is their understanding that the Health Minister alone has the remit or authority to ring-fence funding for the Fire Service. During last year's budget deliberations, we heard from the Minister's predecessor, Mr Wells, that the decision to give the Fire and Rescue Service budgetary protection as a front-line service was for the Executive and that the Executive had made the decision. That is why we have tabled an amendment to today's motion. The SDLP believes that the Fire and Rescue Service is a front-line service that wholly deserves the same budgetary protection as other vital front-line health and social care services. That is why it was extremely important to table the amendment.
When you look at the Department's definition of a front-line service, provided by Mr Wells, the then Health Minister, it is easy to see why one would call the Fire and Rescue Service front-line and why its budget deserves to be ring-fenced. In answer to a question from me, he replied:
"The front line in health, social care and public safety is a quite complex concept. It comprises a closely integrated team of staff who have direct contact with patients, clients and families, together with other staff who provide a wide range of critical support activities". — [Official Report, Vol 101, No 3, p32, col 1].
On every call-out, the Fire Service is directly involved with the public in providing life-saving services. Last year alone, the Fire Service attended 720 road traffic collisions, working in close collaboration with the Ambulance Service and other health professionals to ensure the best possible outcome for patients. After a crash, the patient will not get out of a car and to a doctor unless the Fire Service releases them. That is why it is the front line in a very practical way. Without this work, many here who have been involved in accidents would not be alive today. I ask the Minister and his Executive colleagues to explain why the Fire and Rescue Service faces a budget cut as a non-front-line service.
It is also arguable that the Fire and Rescue Service engages in vital health promotion and in public safety activities relating to prevention and early intervention in cases of an emergency. Last year alone, it carried out 7,000 home fire safety checks and installed 5,000 smoke alarms, some for the most at-risk and vulnerable people. As our older population continues to grow, so does dementia, and that is a vital link for those who might find themselves unable to recognise the danger that is in their home, even when it reaches crisis point. For me, there is no logical conclusion other than to designate the Fire and Rescue Service as a front-line health and safety service, and this needs to be recognised and supported by our Executive by ring-fencing its funding.
I turn to the DUP's amendment and the importance that it places on ensuring that any service cuts do not compromise public safety. I met the Fire Brigades Union and listened to the views of the Chief Fire Officer. They sent out a very severe and stark warning that further budget cuts would place communities across Northern Ireland at risk. The DUP amendment calls on the NIFRS to be categorised as front-line but does not draw the connection to the budget. Neither does it draw the connection to the depletion of the service. Over the last five years, our Fire and Rescue Service has had to deal with year-on-year cuts to its budget. From 2011-12 to 2015-16, the NIFRS budget was cut by £12 million or 14·5%. The proposal is to cut it by an extra 5·6%, meaning that, since 2012, the Fire and Rescue Service will have faced a budget cut of 20%. As Mrs Dobson said, there is a real question about provision, and that is not just provision of the health and safety aspect but provision when it comes to saving lives.
The cuts have already had a detrimental impact on the ability of the Fire and Rescue Service adequately to cover certain areas. There are now real concerns about areas like Strabane, Downpatrick, Dungannon and Enniskillen, which are without full-time cover. In 1984, an assessment was done of fire cover needs. It recommended that Fire Service cover in places like Enniskillen should be full-time. None of that has happened. It has been retained throughout most of the last 31 years.
The Fire Brigades Union and the chief executive have said that a further 5·6% cut, as proposed in the new budget, would mean not only that the service would be unable to meet its statutory requirements but that it would severely impact on response times to emergency incidents and the levels of resilience in Northern Ireland. This cut would lead to the loss of 67 full-time firefighter posts and the closure of three one-pump stations or one full multi-pump station and one one-pump station. Will the Minister point out in his remarks which stations those will be? How can the Minister ensure that there will be no risk to public safety? It is worth repeating that question: will the Minister give us a guarantee today that, as a result of the budget cuts, there will be no risk to public safety and firefighter safety?
The Minister, in justifying his cuts, will tell us that there is no operational threat, but the warnings from the key Fire Service unions suggest otherwise. I cannot accept the DUP amendment, consistent as it is with attempting to recognise the front line but not underscoring the budget need as a result. The Fire Service here also has additional statutory obligations that include flooding, rescue and large animal rescue. Those, by the way, are in addition to what fire provision is in the rest of the UK. We have additional statutory responsibilities here.
Over the past couple of years, I have tried to emphasise, particularly in discussions on budget reductions and reorganisation, that we need to think strategically. I believe that the Fire Brigades Union and those in charge would be willing to look at options on potential invest-to-save programmes. However, in the meantime, people's lives are being put at risk as a result of these budget proposals.
Leave out all after "education;" and insert
"considers the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS), along with the Ambulance Service and policing, to be a key front-line service; believes that any change to service delivery should not compromise the safety of either the public or the officers who deliver the service; further believes that staffing levels and service improvements should have a strong evidence base and be rigorously risk assessed; welcomes the 26% reduction in Fire Service mobilisations undertaken in Northern Ireland since 2010-11 but cautions that a range of important factors specific to Northern Ireland means direct comparison should not be made with the reductions of 22% in funding and 14% in whole-time equivalent posts made in England over that period; recognises the significant potential offered by partnership and joint working with the Ambulance Service and the broader health and care sector; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Service and Public Safety to ensure the scope for such collaboration is prioritised by his Department and NIFRS; to further ensure that enhanced emergency capability is provided where need is identified in south Down and the west of the Province, including Enniskillen and Dungannon stations; and to ensure that any proposals for efficiency savings required by the Executive will be considered only where they do not compromise public or firefighter safety.".
I begin by paying tribute to all our firefighters throughout Northern Ireland, who serve and protect our communities daily. They often put themselves in danger to protect members of the public and property. It is great to see so many firefighters gathered here this afternoon.
Whilst I tend to agree with a section of the motion, I propose the DUP amendment on my behalf and on behalf of DUP and Health Committee colleagues. This amendment better reflects how we can best assist and support the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to improve it. Nobody in the Chamber will doubt the brave work that our firefighters do. In my Foyle constituency, I have worked closely with many of our local fire officers in several locations. I have seen at first hand the fantastic work that they do, whether at the Crescent Link station in Londonderry, which last year responded to over 600 incidents ranging from major fires to road traffic collisions, or the Northland station, which responded to over 1,200 incidents.
Anything that we agree to or support in the Assembly must never compromise public safety. Any savings proposals, of course, should be prioritised on the basis of minimising the impact of service delivery, and the Health Minister has been outlining that for a considerable time. He has also stated that any changes to service delivery will be risk assessed to ensure the continued safety of the public and firefighters.
The seven stations referred to are not being downgraded as a result of the budget. The Fire Service risk assessment found that it would be better to change the crewing rota of the seven stations and be able to introduce whole-time crews at the four stations at Strabane, Enniskillen, Dungannon and Downpatrick. I am aware that this is out for consultation that will close in the not-too-distant future. The response to that, of course, will be a matter for the Fire Service to assess. It is dangerous to suggest directly that the reduction in the budget will compromise public safety and the safety of fire officers.
With our amendment, we hope that —
Mr Middleton: No, I am not going to give way.
We hope that the Assembly will support our amendment to the motion and publicly confirm that we consider the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, along with the Ambulance Service and policing as well, to be key front-line services. We believe, of course, that any change to service delivery should not compromise the safety of officers or the public. We also welcome the 26% reduction in Fire Service mobilisation undertaken in Northern Ireland since 2010-11, but we urge caution against comparison with the figures in England, as of course there are specific factors here in Northern Ireland.
Mr Middleton: No, I am not going to give way.
We want to further ensure that enhanced emergency capability is provided where need is identified, such as in south Down or the west of the Province, including Enniskillen and Dungannon stations, ensuring that any proposals for efficiency savings required by the Executive will be considered where they do not compromise public or firefighter safety.
On previous occasions, the Minister has stated publicly that joined-up working and collaboration is key in the Health Department. Ultimately, it offers significant potential. That is something that I want to see in not only the Health Department but every Department in the Executive. If anything is to be achieved by the Assembly today, it should be about reaffirming our commitment that public or firefighter safety must not be compromised. That, too, has been reaffirmed by the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, which, when publishing the consultation on the proposed new changes, stated:
"We have clearly identified a change in the risk profile of Northern Ireland and we need to adapt and remain flexible to the changing needs we face."
Like all our front-line services, when the need changes, the services must be flexible to adapt. I have full faith that the Health Minister is doing all he can to support our front-line services, including the Fire and Rescue Service.
I hope that parties will not use this issue as a political football but will work together with the Minister to do everything possible for our health service. I hope that Members will support our amendment.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this opportunity to speak in what is an important debate. I acknowledge not only the members of the Fire Service who are here today but the role of the proposer of the motion in bringing it to the House today. I am pleased to have the opportunity, as Sinn Féin's health spokesperson, to speak in what is an important debate. I do not think that anyone in society could be in any doubt as to the life-saving and vital role played by our Fire Service. I support the motion and, indeed, the amendment tabled by Mr McKinney, Mr Diver and Mr Dallat.
I listened to the Member who spoke previously in relation to the DUP amendment. I question whether anybody can stand, hand on heart, and say that a budget reduction of £12 million is not having a detrimental impact on the service. I suggest that the Members opposite reflect long and hard on that. Clearly, the evidence in front of us today and on a daily basis on our streets and in our cities and towns points to that detrimental impact.
The Chief Fire Officer is very clear on the effect that the cuts are having. It has been well documented. In relation to this financial year, the figures clearly demonstrate that the Fire Service is a cost-effective service. As it stands, the service in my constituency, for example, can no longer primarily crew aerial appliances. It cannot do that in Derry or Belfast. That means that appliances designated to save lives from multistorey buildings are often left in stations with their trained crews out on other appliances dealing with incidents. An example of this in my city just last year was a very serious blaze in a Chinese restaurant. Crews had to leave the incident to go back to their station to get the appliance. Those are very clearly risky situations for the crew and, indeed, the wider public. In my view, that is simply not acceptable.
It was alluded to that the Fire Service has additional statutory responsibilities, such as rescues from serious flooding, and that it has not received any additional funding for those statutory duties. I think that we have to reflect on cost. The cost of the service here breaks down to 11p per day, compared with 13p per day in Britain. That represents real value for money because, unlike regions within Britain, which rely on drawing on the resources and personnel of neighbouring regions to meet large-scale emergencies, the service here is largely stand-alone, with some, but very limited, cross-border cooperation.
I reflected on and thought an issue that was brought to my attention by the service to be quite stark. The Fire Service here must stockpile foam because, if it runs out, as has happened, electrical fires will have to be left to burn until more foam can be brought from Britain by ferry. I ask anyone in the Chamber to suggest or indicate that that somehow will not have a detrimental impact or will not at least increase risk.
We need to reflect on the facts. They are stark, and some Members alluded to them. Injuries are up 43 to 559, the highest they have been in five years, and rescues are up 29 to 208, also the highest in five years. In addition, attendances to road traffic collisions have increased by 34 to 701.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Member. I heard her speak about the statutory duties. I represent a large rural constituency. Would she care to comment on what impact proceeding with the savage cuts to the Fire and Rescue Service could have on constituents involved in the like of large animal rescues, when the lives of farmers and farm families might be endangered in rescue attempts?
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, he is absolutely right, because part of this conversation is about addressing the fact that this service provides a front-line service. I call on the Health Minister, and have called on previous Health Ministers, to define, once and for all, what front-line services are and to include the role of the Fire and Rescue Service in that. Any such package on any proposed changes to the Fire Service —
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: — needs to be proofed to do exactly that. I support the motion and I support the amendment proposed by the SDLP.
Mr McCarthy: I must say, five minutes to discuss such an important issue is much too short a time. Anyway, at the outset, let me say, loud and clear, on behalf of myself, the Alliance Party and the wider community that what we have in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service are some of the most courageous people who put their lives on the line to do the job of their choosing. That is, as has been said, to save life and limb whatever the circumstances, even to the point of sacrificing their own life. That is what I call dedication to the people whom they serve. That can only be described as a front-line service and must be regarded as such. Anyone who says or thinks otherwise is, in my opinion, in denial and living in cloud cuckoo land. I welcome members of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to the Building this afternoon.
We have only had to listen to, watch and read the headlines in our local media over the last week to learn about the horrific loss of life of a firefighter of some 25 years' experience. Mr Joe McCloskey lost his life in 2003. That has pained and tortured that family for all those years. We offer our sympathy to the McCloskey family and, indeed, to any others who have so grievously suffered the loss of a totally dedicated fireman. That is what constitutes a front-line service.
The Assembly would do well to ever remember the ultimate sacrifice made by Joe McCloskey.
As has already been mentioned, over the weekend, unfortunately, a serious fire in Castlewellan took the life of a young girl, Ellen Finnegan. We offer our sincere sympathies. Again, we pay tribute to the firefighters for the excellent work that they did in trying to save the life of that young girl.
We all accept that there are budgetary constraints right across the Department. At the same time, we must accept the huge budget reduction for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service over the past number of years; as I understand it, there has been a funding reduction of some 14·5% over the last four years. This is bound to have a dramatic effect on the ability to deliver the service that the organisation wishes to offer. It is important, indeed vital, for the Department and the whole community to remember that this is not solely the Fire Service: it is the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, which sees personnel attend many life-threatening incidents, including car accidents. Again, only last week, there were severe flooding incidents. They attend serious transport incidents and farming incidents and many more possible disasters, such as medical and cardiac emergencies, all to save lives and prevent tragedies. That requires funding.
In relation to value for money, it has to be recognised that, at present, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service is one of the best performing in the UK, with an average cost of £38·72 per head compared with the average across the water of £43·69 per head of the population. There can be no doubt that any further proposed cuts to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service budget of around 5% or 6% — maybe even more — would have devastating consequences for every one of us who lives in this place. The last thing that anyone would wish for would be station closures, even station downgrades, or firefighter/rescuer numbers to be dramatically reduced. I wish to put on record my acknowledgment and appreciation of the efforts of the Fire Brigades Union to highlight and convince government and MLAs here at Stormont of the dire consequences that will surely follow if the Minister and his Department cannot sit down with the representatives of this vital service to prevent disaster and move forward together to secure lasting agreement.
I am aware that the Department has requested a response, as you would expect, from the head of the Fire and Rescue Service to the Department's plans and proposals for 5% or 10% cuts or savings during the 2016-17 financial year. A detailed reply has been forwarded to the Department, outlining what has taken place over the past years and the limitations on what can be done —
Mr McCarthy: — to further reduce the budget. Invest in strategy. I appeal to the Minister to listen to senior officers —
Mr McCarthy: — and make sure that there is sufficient funding for the Fire Service.
Mr Buchanan: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I support the amendment that has been tabled in my name and those of my colleagues. I am glad to see a number of officers in the Public Gallery. At the outset, I commend the officers and management of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, who, over the years, have provided an excellent service for the people of Northern Ireland. These are men and women who continually put their own life at risk each time they are called to the scene of a road traffic accident, house fire, flooding incident or any other emergency. I know that there are many people right across Northern Ireland today who owe their life to the work of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.
Unfortunately, there are cases where there have been fatalities. While we express our sincere sympathies to all families in that situation, we must never forget that the officers of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service who attend such scenes also have to live with that experience and that trauma on a daily basis while they do their job, not knowing what challenges they will have to face the next time they are called out to some of those incidents. I know that that can be very stressful for those officers. I do not think that anyone in the House this afternoon will argue that this is not a key front-line service, alongside our ambulance and policing services. I do not think that I have heard anyone say that today. As a party, we are no different in that. We believe that this is a key front-line service, alongside our Ambulance Service and our Police Service. As a party, we believe —
Mr Buchanan: — that any change to service delivery must not compromise the safety of either the public or the officers who deliver the service. That is why we will give careful consideration to the outcome of the consultation on the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service's changing risk profile.
I want to deal with some issues in the motion. It says:
"projected cuts to the Service have already resulted in up to seven stations being identified for downgrading".
I do not think that that is factually correct. The fact is that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has been carrying out a risk assessment on the delivery of an effective and efficient service based on the changing risk profile of Northern Ireland.
Mr Buchanan: It is based not on the budget but on the risk profile of Northern Ireland. The process was under way before anyone knew what the budget settlement was, and, as yet, my colleague the Health Minister has made no decision on the 2016-17 financial allocation to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.
Acting Chief Fire Officer, Gary Thompson, said:
"We have clearly identified a change in the risk profile of Northern Ireland and we need to adapt and remain flexible to the changing needs we face. We are confident that this proposal would enable us to make the most effective and efficient use of our operational resources aligned to the risk profile of Northern Ireland."
The service will not be impacted on by the proposed changes. In fact, Mr Thompson believes that the proposals to match the risk levels with the appropriate resources will provide an enhanced preventative protection and emergency response while maximising the use of the resources that the service has.
Mr Buchanan: However, we cannot be complacent about what is a vital front-line service. I have listened to the concerns of officers about moving forward into the future, and that is why I call on my colleague the Health Minister, Mr Hamilton, to work with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in partnership with the Ambulance Service and the broader health and care sector to ensure that enhanced emergency capability is provided where identified and where required. I also call on him to give an assurance that any proposal for efficiency savings required by the Executive will be considered only where they do not compromise public or firefighter safety across Northern Ireland.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé ag tacú leis an rún agus le leasú an SDLP. I support the motion and the SDLP amendment.
A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, níl aon dabht go bhfuil ról ríthábhachtach ag na seirbhísí dóiteáin agus tarrthála. There is no doubt that the role of the Fire and Rescue Service is crucial, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to it for keeping us and our community safe. It is an essential service that needs to be available at all times to deal with emergency fires, the rescue of people in road traffic accidents and other dangerous situations. The personnel who carry out those services save lives and provide a vital role in educating the public about fire prevention.
The Minister has stated that he will not preside over unsafe fire and rescue services. However, there is grave concern in the sector that services are being downgraded to such an extent that levels of provision are no longer safe and that it is not regarded by the Minister as a front-line service.
The Fire and Rescue Service recently carried out a five-year assessment and found that the risk in 11 station areas was not being covered by current provision. Four stations are being recommended for an increase in the number of full-time firefighters — Dungannon, Enniskillen, Downpatrick and Strabane — but it is proposed that other stations in Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Portadown, Armagh, Newtownards and Omagh will have their opening hours cut from 12 hours to 10 hours a day.
Tá siad ag moladh go ndruidfear roinnt staisiún ag an deireadh seachtaine. There is a proposal to close some stations at weekends and reduce the opening hours at others while maintaining 24-hour cover. They are content that that is an appropriate level of cover for the level of risk in the North. Tá dearcadh iomlán difriúil ag ceardchumann na mbriogáidí dóiteáin sa Tuaisceart. The Fire Brigades Union in the North takes a completely different view. The union represents over 95% of uniformed staff; therefore, its views can be accepted as a representative voice for firefighters. It is saying that there could be risk to life if the proposals to cut opening hours are implemented.
Over the last number of years, the budget for the Fire and Rescue Service has reduced by 14·5%, and it could be in line for further cuts of 5% to 6%.
Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Would the Member acknowledge the response given by the acting Chief Fire Officer to the Department when he said that the proposed cuts of 5% or more are neither practical nor safe? Given those words from a high-ranking official, would the Member agree that for the Minister to go against that would be absolute folly?
Ms McCorley: I thank the Member for that intervention. I totally agree that those levels of cuts are unsafe, and I foretell huge risks to the safety of society here.
The fear is that there will be insufficient money to run a service that is capable of ensuring safety and efficiency. The belief, indeed the fear, is that this will ultimately mean that lives and property will be in danger. Currently, there is no recruitment and there are 60 unfilled posts. That must be having a negative impact on response times and the weight of response. Given that the number of accidental house fires increased last year, we can only regard this situation with huge concern. Added to that is the burden of rescue from flooding, which also falls to the Fire and Rescue Service. As we have seen, such incidents have become more common and look set to stay so, so that is another pressure on an already tight budget.
At the weekend, as other Members referred to, we witnessed the tragic death of Ellen Finnegan in Castlewellan as the result of a house fire. Nobody can imagine the pain that the family is going through, and we offer our condolences to her family and friends. We absolutely do not want to see an increase in the risk of such tragedies because the budget set aside for the Fire and Rescue Service is below what is required to run a safe and efficient service.
This service is far too important to be downgraded in any way. Yes, we can always look for efficiencies but not at the expense of lives. The budget for the Fire and Rescue Service needs to be guaranteed, as is right and proper for what is a necessary front-line service. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Poots: It is regrettable that we are having this debate. Nonetheless, we will be able to get some things out into the public domain at this stage with respect to the Fire and Rescue Service, and in that sense it will be useful.
The Fire and Rescue Service is something that I have had a lot to do with for a considerable period. I have had many meetings with the Fire Brigades Union over the last five years and have had many things highlighted to me about risk to public safety and so forth. I generally find that the Fire Brigades Union is a pretty measured group of people. Consequently, we seek to pay a fair degree of attention to what they have to say.
Over the last number of years, certainly there have been considerable cuts to the Fire Service. A lot of that would have related to the management of the Fire Service. It was no secret that there had been a long period of very poor management and leadership of the Fire Service. Many people would have seen the Fire Service as lions led by donkeys. We did have a period of colossally bad leadership in the Fire Service, when the people on the ground were doing absolutely sterling work — excellent work — and the people at the head of it were not doing their jobs well at all. As a consequence, for quite a number of years, the money that was allocated to the Fire Service was not spent and could not be spent, and, consequently, the numbers were reduced.
We are now looking at further austerity and further problems with budgeting, and we are hearing a case being made that this will do significant damage to the Fire Service. I think that there will be an opportunity for discussions to take place and for us to hear what the Fire Service and the Fire Brigades Union have to say and to make decisions based upon that.
I look at quite a number of the circumstances where the Fire Service has gone out, and you look at the serious road traffic collisions that have taken place. The skills that are available nowadays have absolutely changed, even from 10 or 15 years ago. We look at the call-outs in various difficult situations around chemical spills and so forth, and we look at many tragic situations, including the one at the weekend just past where a young woman in Castlewellan lost her life in the most terrible circumstances. Our hearts go out to that family and, indeed, to all the other families that have suffered bereavements recently as a result of fire. That is a very difficult task to ask any individual to carry out. We hugely appreciate the work that the Fire and Rescue Service does. We appreciate the work that it has carried out with non-life-threatening situations over the last number of weeks in helping to deal with floods and helping families that were caught in very difficult circumstances. We recognise all of that.
We also see that there are massive opportunities for the Fire Service as first responders in picking up some of the work, at an early point, that perhaps other first responders have not been available to get to as quickly. There is an opportunity to continue to develop the skills of fire and rescue personnel in delivering those services and the possibilities of closer collaboration between the Fire and Rescue Service and the Ambulance Service. I welcome the fact that those two services are to remain in the one Department because I think that that is appropriate.
This is a time for listening, it is a time for reflection, and it is a time for paying attention to what people are saying to see how we can work through these difficult situations. We are living in a period of significant austerity and significant challenges, and we have to find our way through this. We will find a way through it, and we will find a way through it —
Mr Poots: — without putting unnecessary risk on the public with the work that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service does.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I will speak in favour of the motion and the SDLP amendment. I commend the proposer for bringing the motion to the Floor of the House. Indeed, I commend the good work of the Fire Brigades Union, which does an excellent job today and always did in keeping Members up to speed with the issues in the Fire Service.
I welcome the firefighters who are with us today to the Assembly. We owe them enormous gratitude; they provide a fantastic service. I could not do the job that they do, and I am not sure that any other Member could do what they do. They have seen their share of hell. The many road traffic collisions, the fatal accidents and the many incidents where people have been injured beyond imagination have already been referred to. They have to deal with that and take it home at night, and the least that we can do is provide them with the resources that are needed to ensure that they can save as many lives as possible.
The Fire Service is a changing service, and we are not comparing like with like. I am always very critical of the notion that whatever happens with the equivalent services in England, Scotland and Wales, we just have to copy and paste it here. Quite clearly, that should not be the case here.
The Chair of the Health Committee has already referred to the fact that, in cooperation with the South, we do not have the same resources as other services in England, Scotland and Wales, which are surrounded by services with a similar capability. So we need to bear that in mind.
The Fire and Rescue Service sometimes, in my view, gets forgotten about, lying within the Department of Health, because, as the name suggests, the Department of Health is primarily about health, hospitals and front-line services for health. I think we need to remind the Minister that this is one of our most important services and that it needs resources. He needs to look at these figures for what they are, because it is quite clear that road accidents and the demands on the Fire and Rescue Service are increasing. Therefore, it actually needs more resources, not fewer.
The argument will always be put that there are different agencies and different Departments, and that we are all facing pressures from the Tory cuts; but the Fire and Rescue Service has felt the squeeze in each and every one of the last five years. There comes a point where you have to say that you cannot cut any deeper. There are services in which there is always fat to be cut, but cutting a service like this will lead to increased time getting to a road traffic accident or a fire in which someone may lose their life. With incidents like that, it comes down to seconds and minutes. The more resources it has, the better its chance of saving someone's life.
As a rural representative, I feel that this is even more critical and more important in rural areas. For nearly a decade, I have been calling for a new fire station in Ballycastle, and I know that my colleague Oliver McMullan has been doing the same for Cushendall. So the rural areas named in the research paper do not need to face any more cuts.
As for the overall Health budget, everyone will be well aware that Health has over half of the entire Executive Budget, so what the Fire and Rescue Service is asking for is buttons in comparison with the entire Budget. The budget for the Fire and Rescue Service is small within the Health budget; therefore, this is not a big ask.
In closing, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, the Assembly needs to send out —
Ms Boyle: In speaking about rural stations, does the Member agree that Strabane station, which has been highlighted as a priority station, should be enhanced? I want to take this opportunity to commend Strabane fire service for its good work at the weekend following a house fire in the Ballycolman estate in which a family narrowly escaped with their lives and lost their family pet. Given that Strabane has been identified as a high priority area, consideration should be given to it. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McKay: Thank you. I agree entirely with the Member. If you look at the towns here: Strabane; Dungannon; Downpatrick; Enniskillen; Portadown; Armagh; Newtownards; Omagh; Carrickfergus; Antrim and Coleraine, you will see that they all have excellent services in their own right. The Assembly has gone against Ministers before. On a previous occasion, the Assembly made it clear that the pension deal for local firefighters was not good enough. What we have on the table here, with a cut to the actual front-line service itself, is not good enough. I urge Members to support the motion and the SDLP amendment —
Mr McKay: — and to put the message loud and clear to the Minister that these cuts are not acceptable and will have a direct impact on people's lives.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As this is the first debate in which the Assembly will hear from Mr Gerard Diver, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption, that is unless Mr Diver provokes an interruption in the remarks that he uses.
Mr Diver: Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I support the SDLP amendment, to which I put my name, in support of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, and I will come back to that in a moment.
First, however, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor in the Assembly, Mr Pat Ramsey. Pat served the people of the Foyle constituency with distinction from 2003 until the end of December, and I am honoured to take his place in the Assembly. His hard work, dedication and relentless ability to work on behalf of his constituents are things that I hope to emulate and replicate in my work here. I look forward to it.
Returning to today's debate, I pay tribute to the firefighters in the service who have often risked their lives for the safety and protection of others. As has been said in the Chamber already, they put their lives in danger, day and daily, on our behalf. We would do well to remember that when we are talking about percentages and trying to save money in the overall Health budget. The fact that the Fire Service is as much of a front-line service as any other is often overlooked. Other than the conventional putting-out of fires, as has been mentioned, the Fire and Rescue Service performs a multitude of other roles, day and daily. Those include the horrific traffic collisions that they have to attend, the work that they have done in recent times, particularly on the issue of flooding, and building collapses. In fact, as my colleague Fearghal said, over the past year, the Fire Service has responded to almost 23,000 incidents. That is a monumental workload for any organisation, and we have to pay tribute to that.
We have seen the devastating impact that the most recent local flooding incidents — those in the past few weeks — have had. Importantly, we have seen how acting quickly, which the Fire Service was able to do, played such a key role in the protection of homes and businesses by helping to prevent harm and to limit damages that occurred to property. Any reduction in its budget may lack foresight, as a suite of services that have cross-departmental significance will be affected.
Let us look at the Fire Service budget specifically. From 2011, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has had to operate in spite of year-on-year cuts. There has been no decrease in demand, and, as a result, the Fire Service has been stretched through operating in a harsher budgetary climate every year. In that time, its budget has been cut by 14·5%. That represents, as has been said, over £12 million between 2011 and 2016. We heard Mr Buchanan say that there is no statement yet about further cuts in the Budget that is to be discussed tomorrow. I am afraid that we do not have that confidence at the moment. We wonder about what is to come. If, as is suspected, there may in fact be another 5·6% cut, the Assembly must ask itself whether it is content that, during the current mandate, it will have removed one fifth of the Fire Service's budget. That is something that we all have to think about. Furthermore, the Fire Brigades Union has said that the planned 5·6% cut would mean that the service will be unable to fulfil its statutory requirements. We must act now. That 5% cut would also lead to the loss of 67 full-time firefighter posts and the closure of three one-pump stations, or one multi-pump station and one one-pump station. Even the slightest cut can make a significant difference.
Ms McLaughlin referred to the situation in our constituency of Foyle. The Northland Road fire station recently had to downgrade its VEMA aerial appliance. It could not be manned 24 hours a day, being used only on request. That led to a reduction in personnel of three and to protracted waiting times for using the aerial appliance on fires. The VEMA appliance was often used to good effect. For example, during the recent Brickkiln fire, which was a huge fire in our city and district that burned for approximately one week, it poured water on to the blaze from a high level without firefighters having to enter the building and put their lives at risk.
The SDLP amendment to the motion, proposed by my colleague Fearghal McKinney, first asserts that the Fire Service constitutes a critical front-line service and calls on the Minister of Health to seek Executive approval to ring-fence its budget. We already have a Fire Service that can operate extremely efficiently in harsh budgetary conditions.
Mr Diver: It has demonstrated as much. I would like people to support the SDLP amendment before the House.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: In my early years, I was brought up by my grandfather, a retained firefighter for 30 years. I know the sacrifice that the men and women in the service make and the sacrifice that their families make, and I am humbled by them every day. I was honoured when, 18 months ago, former Minister Jim Wells made me a member of the Fire and Rescue Service board. I was part of the board that implemented some of the cuts — reluctantly. We went to the Department — the Chief Fire Officer then was Chris Kerr — and we said, "That is it. Enough is enough. Operationally, you are now going to be unsafe". Do not listen to my words; listen to the words of the current Interim Chief Fire Officer, Dale Ashford, who talked of the "devastating impact" and "unacceptable risk levels". Something not touched on is that the reduction in training for these fine men and women could lead to a risk of corporate manslaughter. That is what we face through further possible cuts to the service.
When I joined the Fire and Rescue Service board, one of the most important tools for senior management was the Gartan system, which looks at operational availability. Is the House happy that 19 fire stations breached safe operational availability this morning? The DUP Member who moved the amendment rightly praised the men and women of Northland and Crescent Link fire stations: is he comfortable with the fact that, at 9.12 am today, those two stations were in breach, meaning that they did not have enough operational strength to meet the needs of his community? In my constituency, Ballyclare was in breach, and Carryduff, which, I believe, serves the Minister's constituency, was in breach at 9.12 am. I could go on. Is it acceptable, when we are looking at further cuts, that 19 local fire stations breached operational safety this morning? I inform the House that that is a good day. Gartan has shown me when 30 stations have breached. That is unacceptable.
I will also highlight some statistics brought to us today by the Fire Brigades Union, and let us not argue with them. Its injuries are up by 43 to 559, which is the highest in five years; rescues are up by 29 to 208; and, very sadly, fatalities are up by 15 to 46. An awful lot of the good work that the service did was in education and raising awareness, and it did that through the media of television and radio and, on many occasions, when officers gave their own time to go into schools and meet community groups on a one-to-one basis. Sadly, an awful lot of that work has, due to operational needs, now been cut back.
I support the motion tabled by my colleague and the amendment tabled by the SDLP. I urge all those who were so pleased to welcome the fire officers in the Great Hall and get their photograph taken with them to support the men and women who are here today.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): First, I join practically every contributor to the debate in personally thanking our brave firefighters and acknowledging their dedication and professionalism in carrying out often dangerous duties daily to protect life and property across Northern Ireland. That has been particularly evident recently in their responses to a number of serious fire incidents that have been mentioned by Members today, road traffic incidents and the widespread flooding in parts of our Province in the last number of weeks.
The Fire and Rescue Service is a vital front-line service. The very nature of its work dictates that. I have no issue with what has been said about that and have not decided otherwise. It is not, as the motion asserts, a service under attack. In providing its services, the Fire and Rescue Service must be efficient and effective in providing the best possible fire and rescue service informed by a sound evidential base and risk analysis. Public and firefighter safety will not be compromised.
We must recognise that there has been a continuing reduction in emergency calls received and mobilisations of firefighters to reported incidents. Some 22,781 incidents were mobilised in 2014-15, and that was down 5·3% on the previous year and down 26% on 2010-11. The long-term trend of reduced mobilisations and reductions in the number of dwelling and secondary fires year on year in Northern Ireland mirrors that in England. In England, that has been matched by a 22% reduction in central funding for fire authorities and 14% fewer full-time staff being employed by English fire authorities since 2010. In Northern Ireland, the comparative figures are approximately 9·7% and 3·3% respectively, which is a far more favourable situation. The reduction of incidents combined with the development of up-to-date risk profiles provides an opportunity for the Fire and Rescue Service to review how and where it deploys its resources across Northern Ireland to address the risk to the public and ensure firefighter safety in delivering its services. It cannot stand still.
The professional opinion of the Fire and Rescue Service — not mine but that of the Fire and Rescue Service — on the level of current risk suggests that the existing whole-time firefighter resource could be rebalanced appropriately and proportionately across Northern Ireland to address better the level of risk to the public and to firefighters. Having listened to the debate, I think that two issues have been conflated. The first is the proposals made by the Fire and Rescue Service, which I will come to now, and the other is concerns about cuts in next year's budget, which I will come to later. The professionals' view is that the proposals that are out for consultation would result in improved cover in rural areas and in areas west of the Bann. That would apply to stations like Downpatrick, Dungannon, Strabane, as was mentioned during the debate, and Enniskillen. One of the main benefits outlined in the Fire and Rescue Service proposals is a significant increase in the number of life-threatening incidents that could be attended by whole-time firefighters across Northern Ireland as a result of redeployment.
As I mentioned, the proposals are out for public consultation, which will run until 7 March. I encourage people to look carefully at the proposals and provide feedback to the Fire and Rescue Service. The Fire and Rescue Service must continually look for new and better ways to deliver its services while ensuring that firefighter and public safety continues to be the priority. I recently met the chair and the Interim Chief Fire Officer of the Fire and Rescue Service, and I know how keen they are to explore opportunities for new ways of working, particularly in joint approaches to improving front-line emergency services and tackling wider societal issues, including health and well-being.
Mr Hamilton: No. Firefighters working with other emergency responders have the potential to relieve pressure in other areas of the health and social care system, and I know that such joint approaches have been trialled successfully in several English fire and rescue authorities. Working in partnership is at the very heart of the Fire and Rescue Service's activities, and, going forward, I believe that collaboration is key. Continuing to work with and build on partnerships with other agencies will be vital.
Emergency response standards must take into account the most recent available evidence base and risk assessment. The Fire Service considers that the current emergency response standards, which were introduced 10 years ago, are no longer fit for purpose. Existing emergency response standards are under review, and any changes will be subject to public consultation.
The Fire and Rescue Service faces many challenges in the coming months and years. Unlike Health and Social Care, its budget has not been protected by the Executive. I have yet to take any final decisions on the 2016-17 financial allocation to the Fire and Rescue Service. That is an important point that was, perhaps, deliberately ignored by some during the debate. The 5% and 10% reductions that were talked about were carried out as an exercise not just by my Department but by all Departments on the instruction of the Department of Finance and Personnel in planning for what was a difficult Budget, as Members will know very well.
I reiterate that no decisions have yet been taken in respect of the Fire and Rescue Service's budget for next year or, indeed, any aspect of the Health and Social Care budget at all, and none will be taken that jeopardise or endanger firefighter or public safety. No proposals have been made, other than the evidence-based changes that have been put forward, suggested and proposed by the Fire and Rescue Service itself. They are changes that are not — I repeat, not — about efficiency or savings but rather are about delivering services more effectively. Those proposals are being consulted upon by the Fire and Rescue Service, and it clearly states a point ignored by some in their contributions:
"No stations face closure or a reduction in the number of fire engines based there as a result of the proposals being put forward by the Fire and Rescue Service."
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I think there has been some scaremongering today and some talk of "savage cuts", which was I think, one of the things said by one of the Members, but, at this point in time, as I have said before, there are no budgetary proposals in place for the Fire and Rescue Service or indeed for any other aspect of the Department's budget.
While I mention budgets, I think it is worth turning to some of the points that were —
Mr Hamilton: — mentioned about the budget. Everyone says in this chamber that they understand the budget pressures that my Department and the whole Executive are facing, but we do not always hear in this Chamber, or sometimes outside of it, a demonstration of an understanding of the pressures that my Department's budget and the Executive's Budget as a whole are facing. I would be quite content if there was full protection afforded to my Department's budget. I would be quite content if the Executive agreed that — as, indeed, one of the amendments is suggesting — but I also have to be, as I would urge the whole House to be, realistic about these things in a situation where we are facing considerable downward pressure in the actual resource that we have and, indeed, all the other pressures that the Executive are facing.
More money for one service would come at the expense of money from another service. I heard Daithí McKay in his contribution saying that what he was looking for, which he did not define, was not a big ask. I suppose that is true in the context of not just the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Department's budget but the whole Executive Budget — a Budget, of course, which he and his party have supported. He was like other contributers to the debate. There is a Budget debate tomorrow at which similar contributions will be made. There will be all sorts of asks for money for here and there and this, that and the other, but precious few ideas as to where the money should come from. The Member was no exception to that, nor were Members from the SDLP or any other parties that asked for more money for the Fire and Rescue Service. There were no bright ideas about where and what other Departments the money should be taken from or, in the event that there was no protection offered to the totality of my Department's budget — let us not forget that my Department got the most generous Budget settlement of all the Departments for next year, coming at the expense of significant reductions in other departmental budgets — there was no suggestion made as to where else within Health and Social Care that money should come from in the event of there being no protection for my Department's budget. So there are no suggestions; just the usual, as I have become well used to in this and previous jobs, asking for more money but not suggesting where that money might come from.
While we are on the point of finances, in respect of the Fire and Rescue Service's budget, which I acknowledge has been reduced in its opening position over the last number of years, Mr Poots mentioned reductions in budgets from £81 million in 2011-12 down to £73 million this year. He rightly mentioned that, for many of those years, there had been considerable underspend within the Fire and Rescue Service. If we are debating more money for the Fire and Rescue Service, I think it is important to bear in mind what its financial performance has actually been over the last four years. Over the last four years there has been an underspend of some £13·2 million by the Fire and Rescue Service, including an underspend of £2·7 million last year, which was the year in which some parties in this House were seeking to give more money to the Fire and Rescue Service. When you are asking for more money, it is sometimes worthwhile bearing in mind financial performance as it stands. I am sure that the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel will be interested in those points on underspend within the Fire and Rescue Service.
As I said, I have yet to take any final decisions on the 2016-17 financial allocation for the Fire and Rescue Service but, in common with all public services, it needs to continually demonstrate that service delivery is based on a sound evidence base, with deployment of its resources in line with the appropriate professional risk assessment and ensuring the continued safety of the public and firefighters.
In closing, I fully appreciate the importance of the Fire and Rescue Service, and my position on the service is quite clear. The services that it provides must be of the highest quality, with a focus on prevention and protection. Its resources must be allocated across Northern Ireland based on the professional assessment of risk. It must continually look for new and better ways of delivering its services, challenging what it does and how it does it while engaging and consulting with the people it serves. The potential for greater partnerships and collaborative approaches to the provision of emergency services must be further explored and developed to deliver better outcomes for the public.
We must look to the future and continue to support and build a modern and efficient Fire and Rescue Service that its staff and firefighters are proud to work in and that the community has full confidence in. My Department will continue to work closely with the Fire and Rescue Service to ensure that it provides a professional, responsive and value-for-money service. Firefighter and public safety remain my priority. My focus is on ensuring that the health, social care and public safety services that are provided are safe and effective while seeking to achieve financial balance for my Department.
Mr Easton: I support my party's amendment. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service protects and serves the entire population of Northern Ireland. It responds to fires, road traffic collisions and many other emergencies and is a vital front-line service. It operates four duty systems for firefighters to deliver emergency response and to carry out prevention and protection activities. On whole-time cover, stations are crewed 24 hours a day all year round by firefighters on full-time contracts. On variable crewing cover, stations are crewed by firefighters on full-time contracts for a 12-hour period from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm all year round. Outside those hours, variable crewed stations are crewed by retained duty system firefighters who are contracted to travel from their home or place of work to the fire station. On retained duty system cover, those stations are crewed by firefighters who are contracted to travel from their home or place of work to the fire station to enable them to respond to incidents.
The current whole-time firefighter and variable crewing day shift start and finish times are incompatible, which inhibits the efficient movement of firefighters from one duty system to the other to meet any deficiencies in crewing levels. It is proposed that realigning day duty shifts across the service will enable firefighters to be moved more freely for, in the first instance, temporary coping mechanisms due to crewing shortfalls and, secondly, to redeploy resources if required on a longer-term basis to meet emerging changes to the risk profile of Northern Ireland.
To meet the needs of the community, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has to continually monitor and measure all risks to ensure that our service delivery remains effective and efficient. A risk model has been developed using analysis of five years of incident data from 2010-11 to 2014-15. This model weights life-risk incidents and takes account of all other emergency response incidents. Data on the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service response to incidents shows that the overall demand for emergency response has decreased by 2·7% from 2011 to 2014-15. However, the overall number of fatalities and casualties from 2011 to 2015 has increased.
Following analysis of emergency incidents in 2006, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service introduced a variable crewing shift to cover the hours from 11.00 am to 11.00 pm each day. That was an attempt to provide a faster response while enabling crews to fulfil statutory duties of community engagement to drive down risk.
Mr Easton: The agreed shift pattern also considered, to a lesser extent, the impact on firefighters' family life. At that time, a new variable crewing shift system was introduced as a phased upgrade to seven fire stations from a retained duty system crewing model to one that included a whole-time firefighting element for particular periods of the day.
Up-to-date risk analysis completed by the Northern Ireland Fire Service has identified a number of retained stations where the risk to the community would benefit from an enhanced emergency response and that operational demand in those retained stations is similar to or even higher than that within existing variable crewed stations. The Northern Ireland Fire Service believes that moving to a day-crewing system is —
Mr Easton: — and its ability to free up 28 posts for redeployment provide a more cost-effective and efficient service model. The proposed change to a day crewing model supports an increased spread of the whole-time emergency response from the seven variable crewing stations to 11 areas.
Having visited Bangor Fire Station on several occasions and having seen at first hand the excellent work our firefighters do, I give them my full support and gratitude. The Fire Service is, of course, a front-line service, and we all accept that. The seven stations referred to are not being downgraded, and it is not because of the budget. Careful assessment of risk by the Fire Service found that it would be better to change the crewing rota at the seven stations and be able to introduce whole-time crewing at four stations: Enniskillen, Dungannon, Downpatrick and Strabane. That is currently out for consultation and is based on the Fire Service's own risk assessment.
Mr Easton: Having spoken to a representative of the Fire Brigades Union, I know that they did not want the debate to become political. They wanted to continue working with the parties to resolve any issues. Nothing has been decided by the Fire Service on their own consultation, and nothing has been decided on the budget for the following financial year.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the opportunity to wind up the debate on our amendment, and I thank the Ulster Unionists — Jo-Anne Dobson in particular — for tabling the motion in the first place. Later, I will make reference to one fireman who lost his life; indeed, Kieran McCarthy has already done that.
At the outset, let me say that, being an old codger about this place, I am astonished that, for the first time, not a single member of the party opposite gave way to an intervention. That absolutely destroyed the opportunity for the cut and thrust of politics and to develop the arguments. Let me say this —
Mr Poots: Will the Member give way? [Laughter.]
Mr Dallat: You do want to give way?
Before I go any further, I commend the men and women in the Northern Ireland Fire Service at ground level. I can think of no more courageous act than entering a burning property in the pursuit of saving lives and, indeed, going to road traffic incidents where people are severely injured or, indeed, dead or dying. Like other Members, I believe that firefighters are special people with great inner strength and resilience to carry out those tasks, and I wholeheartedly salute the men and women who do that.
As I said at the outset, I want to pay tribute to one fireman in particular, from Dungiven: Joe McCloskey. As Kieran McCarthy said, last week the Attorney General published a report indicating that he knew the identity of the person who gave the order for that man to go onto the roof from which he consequently fell to his death. Later, on Thursday, I had a phone call from a retired police officer who confirmed that what the Attorney General had said was true. I make a plea to the Minister and the senior management of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service who are present in this Building and indeed to anyone else who will support the McCloskey family in bringing to a final conclusion a dreadful event that for them was devastating. Mr Poots earlier described the Fire Service, which I am sure was a very good service for years, as "led by donkeys", and I could not agree more: that is exactly what it was. It was the donkeys who made the decision not to grant the independent inquiry that would have brought out the truth. I make no apologies for labouring that point because it is important on a day like this, when we pay tribute to our firemen and firewomen, that we acknowledge that there is one outstanding injustice that needs to be cleared up. I particularly appeal to the Fire Brigades Union, who are also present in the Building, to remember their former colleague and renew their endeavours to ensure that justice is done.
I am sure that the Minister was waiting for me to come to issue of money. We probably do not have enough time today to deal with it, but, in his Department alone, £50 million a year is spent on substitutes because people are off work. I will not zone in on his Department alone. Members know that £4·2 million went to substitute teachers for sitting at home. Of the 106 who were suspended, only six were sacked. The Assembly is in no position to say that savings cannot be made. For God's sake, the first port of call is surely not the emergency services. Those of us who have lived through the past know all too well the contribution that they made to protecting life and limb and property through the darkest days. There are other issues that the Minister, quite frankly, has not addressed —
Mr Dallat: Coleraine is going down. Cushendall, Ballycastle —
Mr Beggs: Does the Member agree that any proposal to reduce the number of full-time fire officers will increase response times and lead to more problems, injuries and deaths?
Mr Dallat: I thank the Member for his intervention. Perhaps our DUP friends realise that they could have had an extra minute to make their case. Of course there are long-term consequences to the path that we are on, and in the future, when it is recognised that this is a disastrous course, it will take years and years to put it right. The service, both full-time and retained, serves the whole community and —
Mr Dallat: Of course. I will indeed, exactly on the dot.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank all Members who contributed to a very interesting and very good debate. A lot of issues have been brought forward as far as the proposed efficiency cuts to the Fire and Rescue Service are concerned. The first thing that we have to say — we all acknowledge this — is that we have a very good Fire Service in Northern Ireland. It is professional, dedicated to delivering a service to the people of Northern Ireland and it routinely, on a daily basis, provides a service that saves lives and prevents injury. It is a service that is and has been under pressure for some time. It is a service that has gone as far as it can in taking those pressures. The Fire and Rescue Service itself is saying that enough is enough. When Edwin Poots says that we have to stop and listen, we need to listen to our Fire Service, to our personnel, to the crews who have taken time off and come here in their own time to emphasise that they feel that they are not being fairly and properly treated and allowed to deliver the service that they expect and want to deliver.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Member for giving way. Again, I pose a question to the Member. The Minister is here and heard what was said by the acting Chief Fire Officer in response to the Department, which was that cuts of 5% or more are neither practical nor safe for the people of Northern Ireland. The Minister heard that. I give credit to the Minister for acknowledging it, but it is his actions from this day onwards that matter.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Member. Yes, I agree. It is not safe or practical for the public, but it is also not safe for the fire crews themselves. We must always remember that the safety of crews is paramount. When I was Minister, and no doubt when Edwin was Minister, we operated under a principle of safe to manage. That was having the optimum crews and optimum supervision, whatever was needed, to attend an incident. It appears that that guiding principle has slipped. It is this old issue: if the rescuers who go in to rescue get into trouble, who rescues the rescuers? They must have the support. There must be an absolute guarantee of the principle that, as they put their lives on the line and risk their own safety, we have backup and support for them. It appears to me that that is not the case at the moment.
It is quite clear that the funding has been going down. It was £81·6 million in 2011 and £69·7 million in 2015, we are now down to around £65 million. The funding is going down, and it is preposterous to try to say that that will not compromise the service, a crew or the public. Anybody who says that is really not working their way through it. We have seen the number of personnel going down. There were 915 full-time personnel in 2011, and that has gone down to 845 and now 817. We now have 100 fewer. So, we are trying to provide a service to the people of Northern Ireland with less money and fewer personnel. That has been reflected in the response times. The response times are not as good as they used to be. In 2010, 75% of incidents were responded to within six minutes, and that is down to 59%. We are aware of this from discussing ambulances. It is just as clear with the Fire Service that —
Mr McGimpsey: I will give way in a moment.
It is just as clear that response times are key for the Fire Service. The faster the response time, the more likely a successful outcome in dealing with the incident.
There is another issue here that I want to deal with. It has been stated that there are 26% fewer mobilisations, yet the numbers of fatalities and injuries are rising. That suggests to me that the incidents that they are going out to are more serious, which actually argues against the point that Simon Hamilton is making with this reduction. They are clearly dealing with more serious incidents, and, therefore, they need support. The Fire Service is a very efficient organisation. Its cost per head of population is less than that in the rest of the UK. It is the most efficient fire service in the UK. As Maeve McLaughlin said, it is not able to borrow from other fire services in the way that the services in England, Wales and Scotland are. It has to stand alone. It gets some support on occasion, including very welcome cross-border support, but the fact is that it has to stand alone.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree with me that it is unacceptable that we see upwards of £55 million over the last five years having been paid to senior consultants as clinical excellence awards — in essence, bonuses — at a time when we are faced with a Fire Service that is quite literally struggling to save lives? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McGimpsey: Without getting into that argument, there is a national pay deal as far as consultants, doctors and nurses and so on are concerned, and woe betide us if we break away from that. Clinical excellence awards are a different issue, but there are clearly available funds to deal with the proposed cuts. The Minister tells us that no decision has been made. Tom Buchanan tells us that no decision has been made on downgrades at Portadown, Armagh, Newtownards, Omagh, Carrickfergus, Antrim and Coleraine. I suggest that you tell the Fire Brigades Union that because that is not its view. Presumably you have, and it does not believe you.
We are also looking at a proposal that will put four major towns — Strabane, Dungannon, Downpatrick and Enniskillen — at higher risk. We were told by the Minister and by Mr Buchanan that that is not the case. Somebody needs to tell the Fire Brigades Union — presumably somebody has, and it does not believe you. It is clear that that very professional service understands what is coming. It knows what is proposed, never mind what we are being told here today.
Some excellent points were made by Members. The amendment from the SDLP is quite acceptable to us; we are happy to support it. We are not happy to support the DUP amendment. Gary Middleton and Tom Buchanan appeared to speak against their own amendment with the arguments that they made. They settled down by saying, "Oh, we will support the DUP amendment", but all their arguments appeared to be in a contrary direction. Either they are walking on both sides of the street at the same time or they do not believe what they have been told. That is an important issue.
We have a proposal, suitably amended, and we call on all Members to support it. I am told that the Fire Service has been underspending. There are a number of reasons why you underspend: it may be that it was not allowed to spend, or it may be that there are vacancy controls in place that prevent it from spending money on recruitment to replace personnel. Of course, 80% of its budget goes on personnel. It may be that that is one of the areas in which it has been prevented from spending its budget. Never mind that; we are now looking at cuts and reductions. It is disgraceful that we are doing so. We have a first-class Fire Service. Let us not do any more damage to it than has been done recently as far as cuts are concerned. We need to keep it in place. Every one of us, including the Minister, the proposer of the DUP amendment and so on, will need that support at some time in our life. We all want to make sure that it is in place.
Therefore, I implore everybody to support the amendment unanimously. There should be no cuts — we are told that they are not even happening anyhow — to the Fire Service budget. We should look to repair the damage that has been done over the past number of years. Our population is rising. The risks are rising. The incidents are more serious. The fatalities are rising. The injuries are rising. We have an opportunity now to give the Fire Service the support to address that.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that, if it is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the crucial and life-saving role of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) in responding to fires, road traffic collisions, other specialist rescue incidents and in providing community safety education; recognises the close collaborative relationship and interdependent function between the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the health service; believes that this constitutes a critical front-line and support role; further believes that the cuts proposed will compromise public safety by downgrading fire stations and increasing response times, especially within rural areas, as well as compromising the safety of fire officers; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to seek Executive approval to ring-fence the NIFRS budget consistent with its front-line service function.