Official Report: Tuesday 19 January 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Mr Chris Lyttle has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject.

Mr Lyttle: I am very grateful for the opportunity to present the petition, which has been signed by over 2,500 people who are concerned with the planned sale of Cairn Wood forest.

Many people are involved in the campaign to save Cairn Wood forest, and I thank those who have travelled to the Assembly for the presentation of the petition. From speaking to them, it is clear that they strongly believe that, if Cairn Wood were sold to a private bidder, we would lose a valuable public asset and a haven that is enjoyed by many people from my constituency of East Belfast and from the constituencies of North Down and Strangford and beyond.

It is my understanding that Ards and North Down Borough Council was offered the opportunity to purchase the site in 2014 but, sadly, declined, despite calls by my Alliance Party colleagues to consult users and to undertake an economic appraisal to establish viability and potential costs of ownership. With the council refusing to examine the issue, it appears that Northern Ireland Water proceeded to explore the sale. That was unknown to councillors until 20 November 2015 when my colleague Alliance councillor Andrew Muir received a phone call from a constituent concerned that Cairn Wood was up for sale on a property website. Since then, Alliance's Councillor Muir has secured the support of Ards and North Down Borough Council in the campaign to stop the sale, and, last Wednesday, councillors voted in favour of his motion to call on the Minister for Regional Development to keep Cairn Wood forest in public use on the same basis as enjoyed by many people for decades.

I commend Councillor Muir for his work on the campaign and for establishing the petition, which has provided many people with an opportunity to submit their support for saving Cairn Wood. Debbie Nelson, for instance, said:

"Cairn Wood is a priceless habitat for thousands of birds and animals, one of the very few remaining areas with a population of red squirrels, protected birds of prey species and a huge wealth of flora. To dispose of it to goodness knows what fate is a disgrace.".

Sally McVeigh in Newtownards said:

"For many years, I have enjoyed walking and running in Cairn Wood. It is a place to be enjoyed by all. It is a peaceful, natural environment and should remain that way."

Ivan Greenfield in Bangor asked:

"How can someone decide to sell Cairn Wood without public consent?"

Carolyn Busby in east Belfast said:

"Cairn Wood is a dog-walking paradise."

Recently, the Minister revealed that there is opposition from various groups. I urge her to listen to those comments and to the thousands of people who have signed the petition, including, it would seem, her constituency and party colleague Jim Shannon MP. I urge her therefore to give urgent and serious attention to the issue before it is too late. As Peter Mason from Holywood stated:

"Once sold, never retrieved. Sell in haste and regret at leisure."

Let us hope that that is not the legacy that the Minister leaves in relation to Cairn Wood.

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

Mr Speaker: I will forward the petition to the Minister for Regional Development and send a copy to the Committee.

Ministerial Statement

Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development): At the outset, I should explain that I am reporting on a meeting that I did not attend. Furthermore, I apologise for the lateness of the statement getting to the Business Office.

In compliance with the requirements of section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and of Standing Order 18 of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I wish to make the following report on the fourth meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) housing work stream, which was held in Edinburgh on 4 November 2015. The report has been agreed by and is being made on behalf of junior Minister McCann, who accompanied my predecessor, Mervyn Storey, at the meeting.

The British-Irish Council identified housing as a new work stream at its summit in Cardiff in February 2009. Previous Ministers Margaret Ritchie, Alex Attwood and Nelson McCausland subsequently chaired the first three ministerial housing work stream meetings at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down in December 2009; St Mary's College, Belfast in February 2011; and at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Eland House, London in October 2013.

Minister Storey chaired a fourth ministerial meeting, which was hosted by Margaret Burgess MSP on behalf of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh and was attended by representatives from all the jurisdictions. The UK Government were represented by Peter Schofield, director-general for housing and planning. The Irish Government were represented by Paudie Coffey TD, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Scottish Government were represented by Margaret Burgess MSP, Minister for Housing and Welfare. The Welsh Government were represented by Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty. The Jersey Government were represented by Deputy Anne Pryke, Minister for Housing. The States of Guernsey were represented by Mike Hadley, deputy Minister in the Housing Department. The Isle of Man Government were represented by the honourable Juan Watterson MHK, Minister for Home Affairs. Minister Storey co-chaired the meeting alongside junior Minister McCann. Together, they represented the Northern Ireland Executive.

Ministers welcomed a presentation by John McCord from the Department for Social Development, Northern Ireland, on the report entitled 'Innovative Policy Interventions to Fund Housing Initiatives', which sets out the range of policies that are being adopted across all BIC member Administrations to fund housing provision. Ministers noted the enormous impact that the global economic downturn has had on the housing market and on the delivery of housing across all BIC Administrations. Many citizens had seen the value of their homes depreciate, resulting in their facing negative equity. Governments, too, had faced significantly reduced capital budgets and a rapidly contracted development industry, at the same time facing increased need as a result of demand outstripping supply. That combination of factors was having an adverse effect on the number of new social and affordable homes being built in the rental and private-rental sectors, as well as on the number of homes coming to the market for private sale.

Governments across the BIC member Administrations have developed policies to address that unprecedented situation. Ministers discussed the range of innovative solutions developed across member Administrations to address the unique difficulties faced by each and how those are assisting public, voluntary and private housing providers to access new and alternative funding mechanisms. Discussions included feedback from each Administration on their experience of the effects of their policy interventions and of the financial instruments used to increase the housing supply and improve the standards of the existing housing stock.

Ministers also received a presentation from Alister Steele MBE from Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association on partnership-working, which set out how the sector in Scotland has delivered by developing the relationship between government, the local authority, housing associations and stakeholders to deliver projects on the ground.

Ministers welcomed the updated housing directory, which provides details of good practice across Administrations.

Ministers requested that BIC member Administrations explore the possibility of having a common set of definitions to enable the collection and collation of common data sets to facilitate benchmarking. Ministers have tasked the group with examining how housing policy can continue to innovate to deliver increased housing supply through alternative funding mechanisms and collaborative relationships, as well as with examining housing policy's role in delivering wider regeneration and social value goals, such as inclusive communities, economic development and social enterprises. They have asked that the work sector look to provide a full report on the impact and future of innovative policy interventions to increase housing supply and an initial report on the possible role that housing policy can fulfil in delivering wider government regeneration and social value goals.

Ministers agreed that the next ministerial meeting will take place in Jersey, on a date to be confirmed.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. I also wish him well. I believe that this is the first time in this mandate that he has come to the House as Minister for Social Development. I look forward to working with him.

I understand that he was not present at the meeting and that it was attended by his predecessor, but can he tell us why the meeting focused on policy interventions to fund housing initiatives?

Lord Morrow: I thank my colleague for her good wishes. I deeply appreciate them.

Yes, I did not attend the meeting, but I understand that a number of factors, including the global economic downturn, significantly reduced capital budgets and a rapidly contracted development industry, have had a major negative impact on the housing market, particularly the supply of new homes. Governments across all BIC member Administrations have been required to develop policies to address the deficit in housing supply across all tenures and to help all housing providers across new and alternative funding streams. I hope that that adequately answers the Member's question. However, following this, we will have a look at it, and if there is something that we feel that we need to add, we will write to the Member.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also wish the Minister well in taking up his new role. I look forward to working with him, at least for the rest of this mandate, as the Chair of the Social Development Committee. Housing is obviously a key element of the work facing all of us in the Assembly, and, as I say, I wish the Minister well in his endeavours.

I appreciate that he was not at the work stream meeting, so I appreciate that he may not be able to give a full response to some of the questions that he is asked. First, it is important to acknowledge that there has been a very negative backdrop in recent years, because of, as the Minister mentioned, the global economy, the lack of capital funding for social housing provision in particular and a range of other negative factors, not least the quite significant number of people in negative equity.

It is also important to welcome the fact that innovative measures have been taken to address some of the issues, not least the Department's establishment of a task force for mortgage support.


10.45 am

Does the Minister know whether any of the Administrations at the work stream meeting considered the key role of each Government for the provision of enough capital funding to support the social housing market, given the acute housing need across these islands?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Social Development for his good wishes. I suspect that I will need them as we go forward.

Yes, my understanding is that those issues were discussed. Housing, of course, is a big, important issue. Housing is in my DNA because, at one time, I worked in the private housing sector. However, since I became a councillor in 1973, housing has been one of the major things to come across my desk. I share the concerns of Members and the Committee Chairman. I believe that good housing makes good citizens, and we should strive to get the housing issue as far up the agenda as we possibly can, because I want it to be one of our priorities.

I do not have the full answer in front of me on the issues that the Member raised, but I will certainly get in touch with him following this sitting with a more definitive response. I agree with him that they are important matters.

Mrs D Kelly: I join others in congratulating Lord Morrow on his appointment as Minister for Social Development. I too look forward to working with him.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss innovative measures to assist Governments and housing providers to find the financial means to build more houses. Is the Minister in a position to inform us, today or at a later date, about areas of best practice and models that the Department is actively considering? We know that waiting lists are rising, as are the number of people on the homeless list.

Lord Morrow: Again, I thank the Member for her compliments and look forward to working with her in my capacity as Minister for Social Development.

From the reports that I have gone through, it is significant that a common thread runs through Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in that there is great housing need. Innovative ways, I understand, have been considered, and perhaps Scotland is marginally ahead of the field in tackling the issue.

The BIC has set its mind to take a closer look at the issue. I suspect that, come the meeting in Jersey, new thinking and ideas will be brought forward collectively. Hopefully, that will assist not only here but other regions of the United Kingdom in improving the housing stock and making more houses available. We have a big waiting list not only in Northern Ireland — that is my primary concern and the primary concern of the Assembly — but in other regions like Scotland and Wales.

Mr Beggs: I too congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I am sure, however, that he did not relish his first task of reporting on a meeting that occurred two and a half months ago that he did not attend. That is not the best of starts, but I wish him well.

The report, 'Innovative Policy Interventions to Fund Housing Initiatives', covers an important area, with housing stress being a continuing problem for constituents. What practical examples that have been developed in Northern Ireland to assist in addressing housing stress were we able to promote? What practical methods, as opposed to innovative potential methods, have been delivered elsewhere that are being examined for introduction to Northern Ireland to improve the housing situation?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question and for his good wishes. He raised the matter of the lateness of the report, and, to be truthful, I raised that, too. I would like to outline to the Member that he must remember that, before we can come to the Assembly with a report or a statement, it has to be cleared by all of the jurisdictions — Scotland, England, Wales, Jersey and Northern Ireland. It has to do the rounds, and that can take considerable time. I know that it is a bit bureaucratic, and, if there is way of cutting through that bureaucracy in the time that I am in the Department for Social Development, we will certainly look at that. It was a time when each jurisdiction shared its ideas, so, hopefully, through the sharing of those ideas, we can have a collaborative way of going forward. I accept that there will be situations, quite often, that are unique to each jurisdiction and may not be suitable for that. Therefore, those are the issues that are being probed and looked at as a result of that meeting, and they will come forward in the future.

Mr Dickson: Lord Morrow, thank you for taking on the role of Social Development Minister at this late stage in the mandate. You are very welcome to that role.

Minister, in respect of the funding of housing initiatives, can you assure the House that you will not go down the road of your Tory colleagues in the sale of housing association property and that Northern Ireland will be spared that Tory initiative, which must be debated in the current round of your discussions with colleagues, to ensure that housing association stock in Northern Ireland will be maintained in the public sector and allowed to grow in the public sector?

Lord Morrow: I thank Mr Dickson. I think that I can answer yes to most of your questions. However, I will make one small correction. You talk about my "Tory colleagues". When we look closely at things, the Tories might not be any more colleagues of mine than they are of yours. Let me be very clear that I disagree on much with the Tories in relation to social issues, not least how they tackle social housing. You can be assured of that, Mr Dickson.

Mr Douglas: As a non-Tory colleague, I wish Lord Morrow all the very best in this, his second term of office.

The Minister's statement referred to the future work programme:

"They have asked that the work sector look to provide a full report on the impact and future of innovative policy interventions to increase housing supply".

What is the rationale behind the request for a further report?

Lord Morrow: I thank Mr Douglas for his good wishes. I suspect that this honeymoon period will not last forever. [Laughter.]

One day, it might change, but I will enjoy it while it is here.

I ask the Member to remember one thing: housing supply is not static, and we must strive to ensure that the policies that we introduce and the funding deployed to support them are used to best effect, achieving value for money while delivering decent, sustainable homes. Many of the policy initiatives introduced throughout the BIC member Administrations are relatively new, and the work sector must evaluate them so that we can continue to learn the lessons from all those schemes in order to continually improve and maximise the delivery of new homes.

Mr McCrossan: I also wish the Minister well in his new role. I know that this is his second time there, so it is just a matter of catching up.

Given the high levels of social housing need, which are particularly evident in my constituency of West Tyrone, what is the Minister's assessment of the current demand in comparison with the rest of the UK? What initiatives are planned to address housing need in rural constituency areas such as my home town of Strabane? I understand that you may not be in a position to answer directly straight away, considering that you are new to the role.

Lord Morrow: I thank Mr McCrossan for his kind words too. This gives me an opportunity to wish him well, as he is one of the Members to recently come into the House. I trust that Mr McCrossan will enjoy his time working for his constituents here in the Assembly.

Where housing need here in Northern Ireland is concerned, when I was first a councillor, way back in the 1970s, if there were a couple of thousand on the housing waiting list, it was deemed to be totally unacceptable. I am aware that there are now in the region of 40,000 on the housing waiting list, which seems astronomical. Of those on the list, I suspect that at least 50% are in housing stress. Therefore, there is a real issue with housing. Indeed, those in housing stress are finding it very difficult to get housed. So, for those who do not come into that category, where, oh where will they be in the whole system? I have a real concern about that. I feel that that will be a big issue for the Assembly in the new mandate in particular, because this mandate has nearly expired.

Some great things are being done, and new homes are being provided. I know that there are difficulties, not least as a result of the global downturn, but I assure the Member that, just as he is concerned about Strabane and areas like that, I too have that concern for the whole of Northern Ireland. Thank you for your question.

Mr Allister: The Minister patently is not culpable, but it is worth noting that it has taken two and a half months to make this statement. The Minister says that is because there are processes to be gone through, but this statement is in identical terms to the communiqué that has been on the BIC website for two months. So I do not understand the explanation that it takes processes to approve a statement that is in identical terms to one that has been on the record for two months. Is the truth of the matter that the BIC is seen as unimportant, given that, on this issue, in nine years there have been only four ministerial meetings? Is that because the BIC is the poor relation in intergovernmental relations for the House? Where is the substance in this statement? It took almost as long to read out who was there as what was done. Compared with the last communiqué, where is the difference in this? Where is the substance of the work being done, supposedly, in this work stream?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. I am nearly as cross as he is about the whole thing. He refers to the fact that it has taken two and a half months. I think that that is not acceptable, and I agree with that. However, in those two and a half months, there was a Christmas recess too. I already made it quite clear that it takes time to try to get clearance from all the jurisdictions and it takes more time than I would want. I assure him of this: hopefully, the next statement will not take that length of time. I accept that it is not acceptable for that period of time to have elapsed. His points are well noted.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Gregory Campbell. Gregory?

Mr Campbell: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was unaware that I was going to be called. The Minister is not long in office and has been reporting on a meeting at which he was not present. Would he agree with me that the housing stress in West Tyrone that he mentioned is applicable across Northern Ireland and that the housing associations will need to concentrate their minds on that in 2016-17?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member. He has done very well, given that he did not get prior notice that he was going to be asking a question.

If we had housing stress in just one area, we could target that area more directly. Unfortunately, housing stress goes right across Northern Ireland, so it is a big issue. I think that it will be tackled only by more innovative ways forward. That is the task and the challenge for me, my Department and whoever my successor will be. They are going to have to really get to grips with housing stress, housing need and the housing waiting list, because, quite frankly, it is just not acceptable. Having said that, we must not let that blind us to the fact that there are many good things happening and houses are being provided. We need to do even more. We can and, hopefully, we will.


11.00 am

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Police Pensions (Consequential Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

I introduced the Police Pensions (Consequential Provisions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 in February, following a request by the Department of Finance and Personnel, further to that by HM Treasury, to amend the Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. However, during the drafting of that legislation, the Department of Finance and Personnel asked for the removal of a clause relating to the protection of increases in guaranteed minimum pensions after the abolition of contracting out, as the abolition of contracting out had yet to be provided for in the Northern Ireland legislation. Schedule 13 to the Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, introduced in June 2015, now makes provision for the abolition of contracting out by way of amendment to the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993.

The Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 modifies the definition of "cessation date" and specifically introduces a date of 6 April 2016 for the abolition of contracting out for salary-related schemes. The changes are technical in nature to ensure the protection of guaranteed minimum pension benefits for members who have transferred from the 1988 or 2006 police pension scheme into the 2015 police pension scheme. The draft consequential provisions regulations before the House today have been the subject of a targeted consultation. The consultation ran from 2 October to 6 November and no specific comments were received. The regulations have been subject to an equality screening exercise and no equality issues were identified.

On 3 December last year, the Justice Committee agreed that it was content with the draft regulations, and it is with its support that I bring the draft regulations before the House today. I commend the draft regulations to the House.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I will speak very briefly on the motion today on behalf of the Committee. As the Minister has already outlined, the statutory rule makes a technical amendment to existing rules for police pensions contained within the Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, following the introduction of the Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. In line with other public pension schemes, the amendment is required to introduce the protection of increases in guaranteed minimum pensions following the abolition of contracting out.

In December, the Committee noted the detail of the proposed changes and considered the statutory rule itself more recently at the meeting on 7 January 2015. The Committee noted that the policy intention of the rule relates to the protection of guaranteed minimum pension benefit for police officers who transfer from the old to the new pension schemes. At our meeting on 7 January 2015, the Committee agreed to recommend that the statutory rule be affirmed by the Assembly and therefore supports the motion today.

Mr Ford: I am beginning to think that I should perhaps tell Lord Morrow that it is possible for a honeymoon to last longer than the first half hour. As usual, when we deal with these technical matters, I thank the Chair for his input. In particular, the Committee gives detailed consideration to some of those quite arcane and technical points at times. In thanking the Committee and the Chair for their input, I again state that I am complying with the requirements of DFP to ensure that we have the appropriate arrangements to deal with the new Public Service Pensions Act. On that basis, I again commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Police Pensions (Consequential Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

Mr Speaker: Given our very efficient and rapid progress, can we just take our ease until the next Minister comes along?

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel. You are very welcome.

That the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Maybe the next time, you will ask the Minister of Justice to speak a little slower and that will mean that our passage here will not be just as quick.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion, which will provide enabling powers for two commercial rating measures. There are two substantive clauses in the Bill. The first provides a power to enhance rate relief for community amateur sports clubs (CASCs), subject to criteria to be prescribed in subordinate legislation, which will be subject to affirmative resolution of the Assembly.

The second allows commercial window displays to be disregarded from occupation for rating purposes and is essentially an anti-blight measure suggested by businesses and advanced by my Department. The measure is untried anywhere else in the United Kingdom and is time-bound in the new clause to the end of 31 March 2017 with the potential to extend further.

My predecessor appeared before the Committee on 17 November 2015 to explain to the Committee, as required under Standing Order 42(3), why it is necessary for this particular Bill to proceed by way of accelerated passage and the consequences should it not be granted. Minister Foster had a productive session with the Committee, and I thank the Committee members and Chair for the responsible way that they recognised the need to expedite the process for the Bill and also for the Committee's support in seeking Assembly approval for accelerated passage.

The use of accelerated passage is not something that any Minister takes lightly. I believe that the best way to take forward legislation is to have a full Committee procedure in which legislation can be scrutinised and any outstanding issues resolved to the satisfaction of the Committee. That is undoubtedly the way in which legislation should be advanced. There were a number of factors, however, that prevented my Department bringing the Bill forward to the Assembly through the normal passage procedure. I will take the opportunity, as required under Standing Order 42(4), to explain to the House why I am seeking accelerated passage, the consequences of it not being granted and how I will minimise future use of the mechanism.

There have been delays outside my Department's control in bringing forward the Bill. Essentially, the policy process in relation to the Bill commenced immediately following commitments made during a motion in the Assembly in 2011. From that point, the issue was taken up by DCAL as the policy-competent Department, which then referred the matter to Sport NI.

The whole concept of community amateur sports clubs and their status for tax purposes, including the matter of their treatment for rating purposes, then became the subject of a recent state aid case in GB taken against Her Majesty's Government. The decision was then not reported until 30 April 2015. It remains an issue for the Department, and a final assessment needs to be made so that we do not fall foul of state aid rules. However, it is no bar to the Department taking forward an enabling power in that regard. Just as it was preparing to do so, the Department was then held up by further issues from the recent private Member's Bill on rate relief for community amateur sports clubs, which fell at Second Stage.

Members will already be aware of my party’s position on that Bill, and I do not intend to go over that old ground today. Needless to say, it had the effect of further delaying the Department’s Bill. That has all contributed to the need for accelerated passage if the Bill is to be passed in this mandate. I want to assure Members that the Bill will come to them as soon as possible following Executive-level clearance.

The commercial window displays disregard will now see the light of day, which is a signal to the business sector that we continue take the ideas promoted by it very seriously. The provision will help to improve high streets and shopping areas at the earliest possible date. As Members know, the enabling power relating to relief for community amateur sports clubs will permit the further consultation work on the substantive changes to be made through subordinate legislation to take place, and my predecessor informed the Committee that I intend to undertake a targeted eight-week consultation on the issue as early as possible. Early Royal Assent may enable both changes to be made in the 2016-17 rating year, subject to the consultation outcome and Land and Property Services administrative requirements.

I reiterate that accelerated passage is not an attempt to shield the Bill from proper scrutiny by the Committee or the Assembly. The Committee has been aware of the Bill's content since September of last year and has had briefings on the policy content in meetings dating back to April last year. The Bill is short, and I trust that the content is not contentious in any way; there are now significant safeguards built in by way of enabling powers; and any final policy on the sports clubs policy will not be implemented without a debate in the Assembly.

Turning now to my obligations under Standing Order 42(4)(c), as I have indicated, where possible, I believe that legislation should be taken through the normal process, as that ensures that due process is followed and the Committee is afforded adequate time to scrutinise a Bill clause by clause. I will take all necessary steps to ensure that the accelerated passage mechanism is not exercised unnecessarily . I resort to that approach in exceptional circumstances, which I have outlined.

Bearing in mind that Members will have the opportunity to raise issues on the detail of the Bill during Second Stage, I seek the support of the House for accelerated passage for the Bill and look forward to hearing Members' comments. I look forward to the Assembly showing the same all-party support for accelerated passage that was demonstrated by the Committee.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will not labour the debate any longer than is necessary; we have enough ahead of us today as it is.

The Department originally briefed the Committee on the Bill on 9 September and advised that it intended to seek accelerated passage. The Department also informed the Committee that it would consult publicly on the proposed regulations on enhanced rate relief for premises that are used solely for certain prescribed recreations that are to be made under clause 1. In evidence to the Committee on 17 November, the Minister at that time outlined the reasons for accelerated passage and the need for the changes to take effect. The Department also advised that it is minded to propose that the enhanced rate relief applies only to community amateur sports clubs that do not have liquor licences.

I will not rehearse the detail of the Committee’s deliberations at this point, as that can be covered when we consider the principles of the Bill during the next debate. Suffice to say that the Committee decided that it would be supportive of the Minister’s proposal for the Bill to receive accelerated passage.

I should point out that the Committee was mindful that, if accelerated passage is granted by the Assembly, it will mean that the Committee will not have the opportunity to scrutinise some important issues during the normal Committee Stage. In view of that fact, the Committee agreed that, in advance of the Bill's being introduced to the Assembly, it would schedule oral briefings from panels of stakeholders, including representatives of the main amateur sporting bodies and applicable business-sector representatives on the proposals for enhanced relief for certain CASCs that will flow eventually from the Bill. I shall outline the findings from the evidence in the next debate. However, on behalf of the Committee, I wish to support the motion that the Bill be granted accelerated passage.

Mr I McCrea: Like the Chair, I will be short. At this point, I suppose that there is very little to say other than that the Committee agreed to support accelerated passage being granted. It was not necessarily something that everyone in the Committee was happy about, and I do not think that anyone in the House is happy about agreeing to accelerated passage because of the work that Committees do in scrutinising legislation.

Whilst there was an element of scrutiny in the previous private Member's Bill, certainly with respect to amateur sports clubs, there was a slight concern that we were not getting enough time to deal with the other part. But I think it is proof that Committees are willing, where necessary, to grant accelerated passage, and in this case I think it is one of those pieces of legislation that is necessary, certainly in respect of the timing. I will have more to say in respect of the later debate, but we will certainly be supporting accelerated passage and hoping that it passes without any difficulties.


11.15 am

Mr Storey: I thank the Chair for his comments, and also Mr McCrea. He makes a valid point in relation to the work of the Committees. Not wishing to rehearse all that was said in this House yesterday when we discussed the Legal Complaints and Regulations Bill, I think that is another example, and there are others in this Assembly, where we have demonstrated that when a Department and a Committee work together we can actually have an enhanced outcome in relation to the original policy intent. We look forward to hearing the detail of the concerns raised by the Chair when we move into the Second Stage of the Bill in a few moments' time.

I thank Members for their help in bringing it to this stage, and I thank them for their contributions.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

That the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] be agreed.

I very much welcome the opportunity to open the debate on this short Bill, which brings forward two targeted measures to amend legislation pertaining to the commercial rating sector. I have touched upon some of these issues in the preceding debate, so I ask Members to bear with me if some points are reiterated within this Second Stage. However, given the day that it is — the Chair has alluded to the fact that we may be here for a considerable number of hours — I have no doubt that, as Minister for Finance, I will later hear many arguments repeated and repeated and repeated in relation to these issues, so I suppose, Mr Speaker, that you can forgive me for indulging in a bit of repetition for a moment.

Before turning to the detail of the Bill, I want to take the opportunity to thank the Finance and Personnel Committee for its policy work on this issue in recent months. I also think it is an important issue for our citizens and for the public. If the public took the time to see the huge amount of work that our Committees carry out, I think that they would really appreciate the invaluable contribution that Committees make. This is no less the case in terms of the policy work on this issue in recent months. In particular, I want to thank the Finance and Personnel Committee for the helpful evidence sessions that it held with sports bodies and the hospitality sector at the end of last year.

I also want to express specific thanks to the Chair of the Finance Committee. The new sports and recreation relief power within this Bill, and the subsequent subordinate legislation will, I believe, serve to complement much of his work in this area in recent years. I also want to take time to acknowledge the fact that the Chair of the Committee has actively supported the accelerated passage motion for this Bill, both earlier today and at a related Committee session back in November when the new First Minister, as the then Finance Minister, put her case for an accelerated process. I commend him for his responsible cross-party approach to the Bill, drawing a line in the sand on previous disagreements in this area despite his own clear policy preferences. That is appreciated, and sometimes that does happen where a particular Bill happens to be a private Member's Bill and there is a disagreement. However, I think we are endeavouring to find a way through the differences. Today is an attempt to find that agreed position.

The Bill concludes a much broader range of rating legislation taken forward by my Department through this mandate and takes the opportunity presented in the closing months of the mandate to progress some final adjustments in respect of commercial rating.

I will start this debate by providing an overview of the Bill's contents and the policy background before moving into the detail of the clauses. First, I will deal with the new sport and recreation provision. Members will be aware that my party has long had an interest in securing provision in this area, on the proviso that the final policy is a measured one that weighs up the interests of the wider body of commercial ratepayers.

Earlier in this mandate, during a debate on this issue, a commitment was given to examine the relief provided to community and amateur sports clubs. As was noted in the accelerated passage debate earlier, my Department's work on this commenced straight away. The first step was to engage with DCAL, the policy-competent Department in this area. There followed a period during which the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister undertook her own analysis of the policy options available in this area alongside Sport NI with a view to reporting back to DFP. That work effectively ceased, however, when a private Member's Bill consultation was launched by the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister's party colleague Mr McKay. As a result of that intervention, my Department had to turn its attention to the specific proposals advocated in Mr McKay's Bill. My Department highlighted several concerns with the approach taken in those proposals.

Many of the issues raised by my predecessors were not new; indeed, they were central to the 1979 Lawrence report on this issue. They were raised again by the Northern Ireland hospitality sector, which had notable concerns about the proposals in Mr McKay's Bill. Put very generally, the hospitality sector raised competition issues with Mr McKay's proposals. Those issues centred on the fact that any proposal to enhance sport and recreation relief to 100% could have the effect of placing licensed sports clubs — those with a liquor licence — in such an advantageous position so as to affect trade in the wider licensed hospitality sector. Those concerns were relayed on numerous occasions.

I do not propose to outline again the detailed issues at play in balancing those considerations today. Members can read about them in their own time in the Finance Committee's minutes of evidence. If they want to take some time during this afternoon's Budget debate, I am sure that would be one way in which they could spend their time profitably. Suffice it to say that my Department will also be moving to undertake the required outstanding consultation work on its preferred policy in this area in line with the progression of this Bill. The consultation work with the wider business sector will aim to fill in the gaps in due process that were unattended to in the process undertaken by Mr McKay.

The private Member's Bill consultation also broadly coincided with an important EU state aid case taken against the UK Government in respect of the preferential treatment of community amateur sports clubs in the rest of the UK under corporation tax and business rates. The case was taken by the Association of Golf Club Owners in 2013. That state aid case effectively halted development on all areas associated with any policy change in this area between the filing of the complaint and the judgement, which was not received until the end of April 2015. Following the judgement, my Department moved to finalise a Bill with an enabling power to enhance sport and recreation relief to 100% in certain prescribed cases.

The introduction of the Bill was again delayed by the introduction of the competing private Member's Bill just prior to the summer recess. The Member introduced his Bill in the full knowledge that a departmental Bill had been prepared. My predecessor, who is now the First Minister, correctly viewed the option of introducing a second Bill on the same policy area at that stage as undesirable in terms of the impression it would give of the Assembly as a legislative body. To that end, this Bill comes before you today under the accelerated passage process so as to complete its passage before the end of the mandate. No alternative was open to us.

Members will be pleased to hear that the second policy given effect to by this Bill had a much smoother development process. The idea was put forward by Mr Peter Murray of the Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry. The policy goal was modest and would see a policy put in place to permit commercial window displays advertising shops and businesses. Its result would be to help the appearance of town centres while simultaneously highlighting other businesses in the immediate area. Building on this idea, my Department undertook a targeted consultation on the issue last year and reported on the issue to the Committee in April, after which the Committee signalled that it was content with the policy, subject to any refinements thought necessary by the Department in developing the legislation that we see before us today.

Let me be clear: no one sees this micro-policy as the answer to the issues presented by vacant units on our high streets. That trend is rooted in several factors outside the control of the rating system, let alone this Assembly. It is an issue for Members, for me as an MLA for my own constituency and for all of our colleagues in this Chamber. The issue of vacant properties persists, and it remains a challenge for us today. However, we can play our part. The empty shops rates concession had its origins in an idea put forward by my colleague Mr Sammy Wilson and also by the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. It has since been replicated all over the United Kingdom and has now seen 525 new businesses occupying premises in Northern Ireland.

We also took forward our own revaluation exercise in Northern Ireland. Lisney commented on the effects of this process in Belfast only last week, stating that:

"Occupational demand in Belfast city centre's prime retail area has experienced a notable increase in 2015, as improved consumer sentiment and the rates rebalancing took effect."

I think that is something to be noted; it is something to be welcomed. It is something which, I think, indicates that progress has been made. I view this short Bill as the completion of a cycle of primary legislation associated with commitments made by my predecessors during this Assembly term.

Turning to the detail of the legislation, clause 1 provides a power for the Department to increase the rates reduction under the article 31 sports and recreation exemption in the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 in certain cases. Article 31 of the 1977 Order provides for a reduction of 80% in the normal rate in respect of certain hereditaments which are shown in the net annual value (NAV) list as being used solely for the purposes of a prescribed recreation. A prescribed recreation is a recreation, whether conducted outdoors or indoors, which, in the opinion of my Department, demands an appreciable degree of physical effort and which is of a kind specified by DFP by subordinate legislation. Such prescription is periodically reviewed and can be found at present within the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007.

Subsections (1) and (2) of the clause will insert a new paragraph (5A) into article 31 of the 1977 Order which enables my Department, by regulations, to provide that the reduction in the normal rate provided under that article may be increased from 80% to 100% in cases prescribed in regulations.

Subsections (1) and (3) of the clause provides that the regulations made as a result of the new provision will be subject to affirmative resolution control by this Assembly.

Members will wish to note that I am presently minded to use such powers to increase the level of rate reduction from 80% to 100% in the case of hereditaments in which intoxicating liquor is not sold.

That is dependent, however, on further research and analysis by DFP, and on consultation with stakeholders and others. My Department will soon be launching a consultation on the issue in order to be in a position to utilise the new enabling power in due course. The consultation will fill in the gaps in due process left from the previous initiative associated with the private Member's Bill and the useful sessions undertaken by the Finance Committee on the policy area.


11.30 am

Clause 2 ensures that, where shop fronts or shop window displays are used in empty retail premises, ratepayers will effectively continue to receive 50% empty property relief or an exclusion, if that is applicable. Without that, rates would otherwise be charged at the full occupied rate. It is a measure that was originally trialled in 2012, on foot of a suggestion from Belfast Chamber of Trade. The suggestion related to non-commercial window displays. However, the new clause extends the potential use to commercial window displays. The provision is initially time-bound but can be further extended should the policy prove to be successful.

The clause outlines the properties that will be covered and provides that the depth of the window display must not exceed 1·5 metres, while the area of the window display must not exceed 5% of the floor area of the part of the building fronted by the window display. The geographical area to be covered by the regulations will be laid out in subsequent legislation by the Department, in line with the provision's commencement. Given the ongoing issue of empty shops, the clause will play a small part in allowing shopping areas to be made more vibrant and attractive to shoppers and in promoting nearby businesses, without any ratepayers being penalised.

Clause 3 and the schedule give effect to consequential repeal provisions.

The remaining clauses simply deal with the interpretation and commencement of the Bill’s provisions. I look forward to the support of the Assembly in taking forward those important measures.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Minister. Before I proceed, I want to draw the House's attention to an issue that I have had to address before. Members will note that officials sit in the Officials' Box, and they are there for a very specific purpose, which is to provide support and advice on matters of detail or issues that may arise in the Chamber. They are not, under any circumstances, there to provide contact or communication with Members during a debate. Their role is completely non-party political. They provide support to the Minister. Unfortunately, this morning, a Member spent several minutes in the Box with officials, and I noted that. That Member need not expect to be called to contribute to the debate, because I have no way of judging what the content of that conversation was. Members should take note of that, because I intend to ensure that it does not happen again.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was going to have a wee chat with Brian there later on, but I think that I will hold my whisht for now, Mervyn.

Mr Speaker: Do you want to speak here? Be careful about that.

Mr McKay: A Cheann Comhairle, as I mentioned in my contribution to the previous debate, it may be useful to outline to Members the Committee's preliminary scrutiny of the principles of the Bill, in the context of supporting the Department's request for accelerated passage and to inform the contributions of Committee members to the debate.

I start by addressing the more straightforward of the two substantive clauses, which is clause 2. DFP wrote to the Committee in November 2014 regarding a targeted consultation. That followed a proposal put forward to disregard the commercial use of window displays in empty shops in determining rateable or chargeable occupation.

Although it was noted that all respondents were supportive of the proposals, it was pointed out that some concern was expressed by the ministerial advisory group, which felt that there should be stringent controls or safeguards to limit abuse or prevent an unfair competitive advantage. In response to Committee queries on that point, DFP advised that it was not minded to include such controls since the operation of the scheme would be as simple as possible, but safeguards could be built in through subordinate legislation. The Minister may, therefore, wish to pick up on that point later in today's debate.

We must continue to look for innovative measures to help to support and nurture businesses in our towns, which have, over recent years, been blighted by the economic downturn, as a result of which many businesses continue to struggle, as Members will be well aware. The provisions in clause 2 are, therefore, a very welcome development.

I move on to the enabling provision in clause 1. The Committee was advised that the Department will propose in its consultation on the regulations that the enhanced rate relief be limited to community amateur sports clubs (CASCs) that do not have liquor licences. In noting that the estimated cost of this enhanced relief would be in the region of £750,000, members sought to establish the number of clubs that would see this benefit. In response, departmental officials advised that the calculations were based on an estimate of the 70 to 80 clubs that currently qualify.

To inform the contribution of its members to today's debate, the Committee agreed to schedule oral briefings from a panel of the main amateur sporting bodies and umbrella groups as well as from applicable business sector representatives. Those briefings took place before the Christmas recess, and the discussions focused on the merits or otherwise of the Department's proposed approach in the regulations that CASCs with licences to sell alcohol would not be able to avail themselves of the enhanced relief — the additional 20% on sporting facilities — despite paying 100% rates on the bar area. That raised the issue of whether the sporting facilities of licensed clubs will, in effect, be penalised compared with those of unlicensed clubs.

The Committee questioned the sporting bodies in particular on the perception that clubs with licensed premises may have a competitive advantage over the hospitality sector. The sporting bodies, including Ulster Rugby, the GAA, the IFA, the NI Sports Forum and Sport NI, highlighted a number of points in response. Amongst other things, they pointed to the social and economic value that CASCs bring to their communities and made the argument that CASCs with licensed premises reinvest any profits in improving their facilities, which exist for community benefit. A notable point that arose from the evidence was that, of the 46 rugby clubs, only two or three do not have bars. It was clear, therefore, that the Department's proposed regulations under clause 1 would not provide any major benefit to local rugby clubs overall.

From the other perspective, in the evidence from Hospitality Ulster and some local businesses, the Committee heard concerns that, in some instances, licensed CASCs openly have regular weekly functions to generate income and that that can impact on the ability of local bars and restaurants to compete.

One area discussed during the panel briefings was the potential for applying a revenue or receipts threshold when assessing rates relief to licensed CASCs. At its meeting on 9 December, the Committee discussed the issues with departmental officials, including whether there would be scope to empower local government with similar powers to those applying in Britain. This would leave councils, which have local knowledge, to apply the enhanced relief. The Committee commissioned the Assembly Research and Information Service on that point, and its research was circulated to members just in time for today's debate. I am sure that the Committee will wish to share that research with the Department.

It would be useful if the Minister could comment on that and on the other issues that I referred to when he makes his winding-up speech. In particular, it would be helpful to have clarity on the envisaged timetable for the subordinate legislation under clause 1 and, more generally, on how the delegated powers will operate, including whether they will be consistent with provisions in the Rates Order.

I will now make a few comments from a personal position and on behalf of Sinn Féin. I appreciate the Minister's kind words this morning.

Regardless of the fierce disagreement at Second Stage of the private Member's Bill — there is no need to rehearse those arguments — we should continue to try to seek consensus on this issue.

My concern is that there is a possibility of creating, in effect, two tiers of community and amateur sports clubs. As the Committee found out, there is a disproportionate impact on rugby clubs, almost all of which find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. That said, I recognise that the Department has moved on the issue. In its proposals, as outlined by the previous Minister, it uses the CASC criteria, as I proposed, and introduces 100% relief as proposed — just not for clubs with bars. In light of that, I am considering bringing forward amendments to try to address the imbalance. That imbalance is not in the Bill, which is quite wide in scope, but in the policy direction that the previous Minister outlined.

In conclusion, the Bill is a move in the right direction. Whilst there are still differences between my position and the Department's position, given that Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage are coming up, there are opportunities to have further discussions and conversations about where we can reach consensus. It may not be possible at the end of the day, but the Assembly will have an opportunity to debate this further and vote on which way it feels the Department should move forward on community and amateur sports clubs.

Mr I McCrea: I will start from where the Member has just ended. I am a wee bit concerned by the news that he intends to table amendments. We talk about not getting an opportunity to scrutinise legislation, never mind getting an opportunity to see the amendments. I hope that he will share those amendments with the Committee to, if nothing else, at least give us an opportunity to consider them. I appreciate that he has carried out a piece of work on community and amateur sports clubs and should know the issue inside out by now. I know, however, from speaking to clubs, especially those that do not have a bar, that they are crying out for this.

As the Member said, there is an issue with clubs that have a bar, but I believe that this is the right way to go. I think that the situation is unfair, and, even if we learnt nothing else from those in the hospitality sector who compete against larger clubs that host events, as well as against hoteliers and whatnot in the locality, we learned that we need to be mindful of that. We hoped that the Department and the Minister would work alongside those in the hospitality sector to see whether there was some way of dealing with the anomaly, as they see it, of charging according to income rather than the building.
I have no doubt that the Member is very passionate about this, but I believe that keeping the position that clubs with a licensed bar get only 80% relief is the right way to go. I have no power over the Member and cannot stop him tabling amendments, but I hope that he takes that into consideration and brings any amendments to the Committee so that we at least get a bit of an idea of where he is going.

For me, clause 2 is equally, if not slightly more, important. Whilst the rating of sports clubs is already at 80%, it will move those that do not have the bar up to 100%.


11.45 am

In respect of town centres and shopping centres, the Bill will allow:

"commercial window displays to be disregarded from occupation for rating purposes."

For me, we need language that ordinary people can understand. I know that there are technical terms in the legislation, but, for someone like me, it is important that we put it in terms that people will understand. From my understanding of it and if I put it in terms that I understand, if there is an empty premises that is receiving reduced rates and a shop nearby wants to advertise in it, it is deemed as occupied and is therefore charged 100% rates. Should the Bill be passed today, it will hopefully give that a 50% reduction and bring it in line with the empty shops. I think that is certainly a good thing. I believe the business community brought it forward to the Minister's predecessor. She listened and acted, and I think it is a good thing that the Minister is bringing it forward here today. Hopefully, it will see our town centres and shopping centres being revitalised, especially vacant shops.

This is a good piece of legislation. Accelerated passage is not something that we wanted to do. It is disappointing that we could not resolve this in the previous private Member's Bill, but, nonetheless, we are where we are. I certainly support the passage of the Bill.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for his introduction. We have a long day in front of us, so I will not labour the points. There are about 20 Bills, I think, going through at various stages, and if we did not give this one accelerated passage, it would not make it through. It is a good Bill. They are good provisions, and we support them, but I do not think we should overuse the accelerated passage tool. Some of the blame for its current use has to be placed with the dysfunction that has characterised the Assembly for much of the mandate.

We welcome the provisions. There are wider issues about our rating scheme. It is the one tool that we have, and we use it a lot. We are in danger of rating schemes becoming illegitimate. When there are so many exemptions, other people are picking up the slack and it loses some legitimacy. I have submitted a detailed response to the live consultation on that, which primarily reflects the views of traders in my constituency.

Window displays are useful, and they can take the bad look off dereliction. Anything that allows people to use those spaces creatively to mitigate the effects of empty premises is welcome. In my previous job, we used empty shop fronts for exhibitions and so on, and that can be done, whether it is other businesses, voluntary groups or anything that can enhance the area. However, we do not want to overplay the Potemkin village aspect of things; we need entrepreneurship and real vibrancy back on our high streets. Just covering up dereliction is not something that we want to do, but it is useful.

We also fully support the community and amateur sports club provision. This is the departmental version; we supported the private Member's version too. We want the consultation to proceed, and we hope that the subordinate legislation on that will come forward sooner rather than later.

Mr Cree: I support the Second Stage. The Bill, as other Members said, contains two provisions. The first is an enabling provision to grant enhanced rate relief under article 31 of the 1977 Order to certain premises used for recreational purposes.

The second relates to the use of certain window displays in empty shops. The scheme has been operating as an interim measure and appears to have worked well. Clause 2 will extend the application until 31 March 2017.

Clause 1 attempts to create a situation where sports premises can attract 100% rate relief.

As has been referred to, the Bill is similar to a private Member's Bill that recently fell at the Second Stage. Licensed premises will not be entitled to the additional relief, and regulations to clarify the eligibility conditions will be produced by the Department. They will, of course, be subject to affirmative resolution by the Assembly in due course.

The situation in the rest of the United Kingdom is similar to what is being proposed. England and Wales allow registered charities 80% relief on rates for premises that are wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes. Registered community amateur sports clubs receive 80% relief on the rates for premises that are wholly or mainly used for the purpose of the club or for other CASCs. In Scotland, mandatory rates relief is given to registered charities and registered CASCs where the premises are used wholly or mainly for charitable or club purposes. In addition, a discretionary relief is available that may make up the remaining 20% in England, Wales and, indeed, Scotland. The Assembly is playing catch-up. I support the Bill's Second Stage.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. I am standing in for my party colleague, and Committee member, Judith Cochrane who cannot, unfortunately, be with us this morning.

The Bill seeks to amend the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 in two ways: first, by amending article 31 and permitting a reduction in rates for hereditaments that are prescribed as recreational by DFP; and secondly, by amending schedule 8A to the order by inserting that window displays do not constitute an occupied building, therefore making the owner eligible for empty property relief.

I turn now to clause 1. I am sure that Members will recognise the general concept, as it was spoken about in the Chamber on 20 October 2015. At that time, the principle was contained in the private Member's Bill, as mentioned, of Mr Daithí McKay, Chair of the Committee, and was to lower the rates paid by community amateur sports groups. Whilst my party colleague Judith Cochrane spoke in favour of the private Member's Bill that day, she also highlighted some of her concerns. On that point, I put on record my support for the proposal, given the significant benefit it would bring to sports clubs around Northern Ireland. It would demonstrate that, at a legislative level, we are appreciative of the benefits they bring to physical and mental health, the positive community spirit they can nourish and the divisions in communities that they can break down. Through the rates reduction, sports clubs, which can provide so much public service but have faced greater overheads in recent years, can reinvest money to develop and expand their reach and activities.

I turn now to clause 2. We have something vastly similar in nature but different in scope. It demonstrates support for businesses operating in difficult times. Within that clause, which amends schedule 8A, we have a recognition of hereditaments that are empty, but which avail themselves of a shop window, as having unoccupied status. That acts as an incentive to maintain the facade of an unoccupied business, which is something that our current system fails to do. At present, as I understand it, commercial properties that are unoccupied but have a window display are ineligible for 50% empty property relief. That is financially detrimental to business owners who could seek to start up another business in that property. In addition, it does not act as an incentive to maintain the facade of the unoccupied building and support surrounding businesses.

In conclusion, clause 2 will demonstrate to the business sector and the public that the Assembly fully supports SMEs in Northern Ireland. Moreover, I believe the quoted figure of £750,000 to be a small sum to pay if it supports existing businesses. Indeed, that measure will act as encouragement for those who have gone out of business to maintain an attractive window display. As a result, surrounding businesses will not suffer the loss of income that is so often the case in areas that have been struggling. To elaborate further on this point; I have spoken to my party colleague in East Belfast and the positive impacts that such a measure had during the Giro d'Italia in 2014 were confirmed to me. During this time, unoccupied shops were given an attractive facade, with a positive financial impact being noted by local businesses in the area.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Rates (Amendment) Bill that has been brought by the Department of Finance and Personnel. I believe that it will bring positive outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland at a community and indeed business level.

Mr Middleton: As this is my first time speaking since the new Finance Minister has been in place, I want to welcome him, thank him for all the work that he did in his previous role and wish him well in this role. I trust that he will do as good a job in this post as he did in his previous one.

Of course, I rise to support the Bill and the comments of my colleagues who have spoken before me. I believe that it is a good-news Bill; one that should be non-contentious. For that reason, I plan to keep my comments brief. We had several very useful evidence sessions with various sports organisations, be it Ulster Rugby, the GAA or the IFA, to name a few. We also heard from the hospitality sector of course. In hearing from these organisations, it is important that we get balance in doing all that we can to support sports clubs in the difficulties that they face whilst also supporting the hospitality sector and ensuring that there are no unfair advantages.

Clause 1 allows the Department the power to increase rates reduction and, in some cases, exemption in relation to amateur sports clubs that do not have a liquor licence. That will harmonise the treatment of such clubs with that of community halls. It is also positive that the clause will not preclude clubs from gaining full relief if they obtain occasional licences. I know of quite a few clubs in my constituency, Foyle, that hold charity fundraising events and other specific events. They will be eligible for that.

Under clause 2 on shopfronts and window displays, those commercial and non-commercial premises will continue to receive 50% empty property relief. I think that that benefits not only those who own empty shops, but existing businesses in allowing them to advertise. Ultimately, we want to see empty shops being filled. I think that this will be a welcome step to try to encourage city centres to be more vibrant and user-friendly. Thankfully, we are starting to see a lot fewer empty shops in towns and city centres. In my constituency, we saw the benefits of window dressing during the UK City of Culture year in 2013. The place looked well and was attractive to tourists.

There are no issues with clause 3 or the rest of the clauses. I support the Bill and encourage everybody to unite behind it.

Mr Swann: I congratulate the Minister on his new role. He will be aware of what I am bringing forward here. He mentioned earlier that he will hear arguments repeated time and time again. I can assure you, Minister, that you have not heard this argument repeatedly; not in the past four years, today or, probably, in the next four years. With regard to the Bill and the opportunity that presented itself following Daithí McKay's private Member's Bill on rates relief for community amateur sports clubs, I feel that there has been the exclusion of one particular sport from the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. That is the sport of pigeon racing. Clause 1 refers to the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. It is that order that actually sets out the prescribed definition of recreations as recognised by LPS. As I said, they are set out in the 2007 order. I am well aware that pigeon racing is not recognised as a sport either by Sport NI or currently by DCAL, but that is an issue that I am working on with them both at a Northern Ireland level through the Northern Ireland Pigeon Association and a UK level through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been in support of that.


12.00 noon

I am trying to take the opportunity through the rates relief Bill to amend the LPS hereditaments order from 2007, because it is disingenuous that some sports are listed under that 2007 prescribed activities list but are not recognised as sports by Sport NI. I feel that there is an opportunity to introduce pigeon racing in that, and that would allow it to avail itself of the 80% rate relief that is currently there or potentially give the Minister the opportunity, through regulation, to bring that up to 100% rate relief. By bringing this forward as part of the Bill, I am also giving the Minister an opportunity to be a trailblazer and a champion for pigeon men and women across Northern Ireland.

I could go on at great length about why I believe pigeon racing should be recognised as a sport and how I hope it will be in future. The European sports charter sets that out quite clearly. The Minister referred to it and to where his Department takes guidance from. That definition allows sport to be described as:

"improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels."

I believe that that scope is wide enough to include pigeon racing.

Some of the Minister's officials have recommended that pigeon clubs take the opportunity to become charities. I do not think that that is a realistic possibility for many clubs across Northern Ireland due to their membership and demographic, especially the age range. It would exclude more clubs than it would allow.

In his opening comments, the Minister mentioned the possibility of bringing forward changes in regulations rather than through the Bill. He will know that, at this minute in time, I am minded to bring forward an amendment to the Bill, but if I could have a conversation with him and see that it might be better done under regulations, I am prepared to do that for the sake of the sport. When he is taking forward his targeted consultations — I think that that was the phrase that he used in his opening comments — and when his departmental officials are drawing up a list of the groups that they will specifically target for that consultation, I ask him to include the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the Northern Ireland Pigeon Association, the Irish Homing Union, northern region, the Ulster Federation and the East Down Combine of pigeon clubs. I want to put a marker down that, through the progress of the Bill, I would like to take the opportunity that has been presented to include pigeon racing under its scope.

Mr McCallister: I had almost forgotten that Mr Swann was an avid follower of pigeon racing, but I am sure that my constituents will be glad to hear his comments as I have quite a few who are involved in it.

In welcoming the Minister in one of his first appearances in his new role, I will use a sporting term. I am not sure whether he views it as promotion or a relegation, but, being a member of the Finance Committee, I view it very much as a promotion. It does not get any bigger in politics than being on the Finance and Personnel Committee and being Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Issues raised by the Buttercrane centre gave development to a policy area in the Minister's Bill. It is one great example of how responsive the Assembly and Executive can be when businesses identify a problem and lobby and campaign. We and they can then change the policy and identify where it could make an impact. From listening to the debate, there certainly seems to be widespread support for that being how we improve. I am sure that the Minister's constituency is no different from mine.

With the revaluation and the change in councils, rates have been a major issue across my constituency over the past 18 months and there have been concerns about the amount to be paid. Businesses in small towns like Rathfriland or Kilkeel are struggling with rates and now see them as a major burden. We will have to continue to look at that. I am very supportive of what the Minister proposes for vacant shops and shop windows and how we can do that to support small businesses.

I turn to community amateur sports clubs. In Committee, I was supportive of some of the early contributions of Mr McKay on his private Member's Bill. I am very supportive of the concept, because of the work that our community amateur sports clubs do. Tens of thousands of people give of their time and talent every week to coach, work and support, whether it is cutting the grass, playing or whatever, to build a club. The benefit that that gives to our communities is enormous. On the Health Committee a number of years ago, we looked at suicide and self-harm. The link between good physical health and good mental health is long-established. Community cohesion and health and well-being are things that we should support.

The Minister's dilemma is probably how he finds the balance between what is affordable and what we can do to support genuine community amateur sports clubs and, on the other hand, how we make sure that that does not disadvantage businesses in towns that are paying rates at full value and may be struggling in some cases to meet their rates bill.

I am supportive of where the Minister is going with this. My one big concern, which, I suspect, he will know — Mr McKay touched on it as well — is around rugby clubs. Recently, I have been in a few rugby clubs, even in his constituency. I urge him to see if there is anything we can do to give more support to the 46 or 47 rugby clubs that may get only limited benefit from the changes. Those clubs are very much in the community amateur sports clubs bracket. They run events in-house to raise money to reinvest in their facilities and equipment to keep the team going. We all know the enormous cost of keeping four or five teams out on the road and playing in tournaments. That is a real drain on any club's resources. How can we help? Is there something that we need to look at to extend it to rugby clubs? At the minute, one of the downsides of this might be that we do a lot to help a great many clubs and that is to be welcomed, but we leave rugby — a major component of our amateur sports sector — without the help and support that it would otherwise qualify for.

On the whole, I welcome the Bill and its progress to date, but with that one issue around rugby clubs and whether we can look at other ways to mitigate that or bring them into the bracket.

Mr Storey: I thank Members for their contributions. The comments have been interesting. We have gone from Mr Swann taking flight in relation to pigeons to Mr McCallister advocating — rightly so — for rugby clubs, as well as other comments. I trust that I will come to each in turn in a few moments.

First of all, I want to address the issues raised by the Chair. Again I place on record our appreciation and thanks to the Committee and the Chair for the way in which they have approached this issue. The Chair raised the issue of controls and safeguards, particularly the window displays provision. I want to give him some assurance on that. The Bill contains a power to limit the area to which the new power applies. Likewise, as I noted, the Bill is subject to a sunset clause to allow for a trial period, so I think that that, in a sense, gives us some specific focus in relation to the duration. Might we look at extending it? First, we need to see how it goes in the trial period. My successor or I, whoever it will be, will then give consideration to the future of that issue.

The Department will also shortly undertake the targeted specific consultation for an eight-week period on the use of the enabling power. It will set out the details of the scheme in the subordinate legislation. That covers, to some degree, the issue that Mr McCallister raised. That will give opportunities to sports clubs to comment on the proposals and to give their view.

I will deal with the issue of rugby clubs. I think that it was the Chair who gave us the figures on the number of rugby clubs that had licensed premises, and I think that there are only two or three that do not. Those that do are in receipt of 80% relief from their rate, so I do not think that it is a fair representation to say that one element of amateur sport provision, particularly one that makes an invaluable contribution to our communities, is somehow now disadvantaged and is not being given the same priority or importance: it is. Under the existing rules, they have that 80% relief, and I think that they value and appreciate that.

The Chair asked when the sport and recreation enhancement regulations would be in place. The regulations will be taken forward following the commencement of the Bill. That is, in turn, dependent on the date when the Bill receives Royal Assent. As I stated, in-year implementation during 2016-17 may be possible, subject to the consultation outcomes and the view of Land and Property Services. Obviously, there are considerations that we have to take into account as far as land and property is concerned.

The Chair also referred to local government. While I take the Member's point regarding local government discretion, this issue needs to be treated with care. As a previous Minister for Social Development, I know all too well the concerns that local government has at this time in relation to giving local authorities additional powers. There was a mixed view out there on the regeneration powers. Some said that they wanted those powers and were disappointed that we had made the decision not to proceed. Others took the view that, because of the change from 26 councils to the new 11 councils, there is a bedding-in period and there are many challenges. The Member, who comes from the same constituency as me, will know that, in our council, where previously you were dealing with four authorities, you are now dealing with one. It is a particular challenge, and we see played out on an almost weekly basis the issues between Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Limavady. It becomes very parochial, and I suppose that is also a huge challenge for the other authorities.

I am sure that the Member would not want a system that risks or inadequately places another pressure on local government. That issue needs some more time to be thought through. The other issue is that we will want to do it in consultation with local authorities because we would not want to just present it to them and not give them the opportunity to raise concerns.


12.15 pm

She is not present, but I thank Claire Hanna for her comments about my appointment. I look forward to carrying out my role and my responsibility to the best of my ability. It is a daunting task; however, that should never put you off trying to raise the bar for your personal achievements in life, and I thank the First Minister for giving me that privilege.

The Member raised the issue of empty retail units and asked what more we were doing on that. As I said in my opening comments, we all face this in our constituencies, to a lesser or greater degree. What I would say about the commercial window display is that that is only one measure. The issue of vacant retail space is complex and has many causes, and a variety of initiatives will be required to address it. The answer most likely lies outside the rating system, but I trust that we have endeavoured to our do our part. We led the way with an empty shops rates concession, with 525 businesses getting up and running in Northern Ireland with a 50% discount off their rates for the first year.

Elsewhere, we have seen the beneficial effects of the re-evaluation exercise in getting prime retail areas back into occupation in Belfast city centre. I am well aware that it is always a challenge — I think that Mr McCallister referred to this — for Ministers and Departments to get policy and practice as fair and as equitable as is possible. I know that, as a result of the revaluation, elements of the retail sector have spoken to us, even prior to me taking the post of Finance Minister, about their belief they were treated unfairly, with a huge jump from what they had paid previously to what they were now being asked to pay. I am conscious of those issues. That is why there is an attempt in the Bill to be as balanced and as fair as we can, although I think that Mr Swann might not appreciate that that is the case. We have that challenge.

Ms Hanna also referred to clause 1 and asked whether there were wider plans for reviewing the policy. I have to have an open mind. Having come into the post, I take on board much of what has been done heretofore. However, when other issues come our way, whether it is an issue of rating or whatever, it is only right and proper that we have an open mind. The review has a far-reaching remit, and we will look at all aspects of non-domestic rating in the round. I am aware that, in my constituency, for example, conversations and meetings have been held. We have taken note of some of the comments made by some of the retailers in our constituency, particularly those about Ballymena. I also note the point raised by the Member for South Belfast about accelerated passage, and I think that I have addressed those issues.

Mr Cree raised concerns around community amateur sports clubs and policy in GB. Community amateur sports clubs in the rest of the United Kingdom get the same mandatory relief — 80% — as sports and recreation facilities occupying those properties. To qualify for discretionary top-up relief in GB, providing up to 100% relief, a community amateur sports club must satisfy additional criteria set out by the local authority. There is that slight variation, and it cuts across local government. Slight additional criteria are set out by the local authorities.

Mr Middleton also raised the issue of empty retail units. I think that we have covered that in our response to other Members.

Let me come on to the issue raised by Mr Swann about pigeons. It is no anomaly that Mr Swann raises an issue to do with pigeons, but I am not going to make a play on words about his name. I am happy to meet him to have a discussion, because he raises a concern, as we all have to do as public representatives when we are lobbied on an issue. If you have a particular interest or have a particular organisation come to you, it is right and proper that we give due consideration to whatever that issue is. However, the Bill may not be the best vehicle for extending rate relief to pigeon clubs.

I will quote article 31 of the 1977 Order, which details prescribed recreation. Maybe the Member will think it through, and we will then have a discussion on it. It states:

"'prescribed recreation' means a recreation, whether conducted indoors or outdoors, which in the opinion of the Department demands an appreciable degree of physical effort and which is of a kind specified"

by DFP through subordinate legislation. We will, I think, get into a bit of a debate about where the appreciable degree of physical effort comes from. In that case, it comes more from the pigeon than from the pigeon owner. I am happy to give way to the Member.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for that point. Bearing in mind the business that is to take place over the rest of the day, I said to the Minister when I was making my contribution that I could get into that debate at length. I am sure that he is aware that the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order 2007 already covers activities such as model powerboating, model airplane flying and wildfowling. In my belief, it is about the racing, flagging and training of pigeons, not the actual physical racing, in which it is the pigeon rather than the owner that competes. I will give the Minister that. There are, however, activities already covered that involve the same degree, if not a lesser degree, of physical activity as that of the owner of the pigeon, but I am not going to get into that debate today.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will come back to him shortly to confirm when we will meet. We will have a lengthy discussion on the issue. He makes his point well. It is not my place to put that issue aside and not give it the consideration that it deserves.

In conclusion, I thank Members for their contributions to the debate.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I did not think that you were coming to a conclusion so quickly.

You mentioned the local authorities. Is the Minister aware of the real concerns of seven local authorities that have lost some £3 million in the past year? They will be even further disadvantaged. There has been a meeting between the authorities and the Environment Minister, but will you reconsider the loss to those local authorities, which will probably put them further into poverty?

Mr Storey: The Member is right about the concerns that have been expressed. An element of that refers to the work of and the decisions taken by the Environment Minister. The authorities have been speaking to the Minister about that. In my previous role, I gave commitments and was in the process of working with local authorities on another element of their budget. I am now in the position of Finance Minister, but, in all these things, I am more than conscious of the concerns that they have. As Finance Minister, as, I trust, I did when in DSD, I will have an open-door policy for local authorities and anyone else who comes in with concerns. The Member makes the point well on their behalf.

I commend the Second Stage of the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: I call junior Minister McCann to move the Consideration Stage of the Departments Bill.

Moved. — [Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]

Mr Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. After putting the Question on clause stand part, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the three schedules for the Question. I will then put the Question on the long title.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Departments Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours for the debate. The Minister will have up to 45 minutes to allocate as he wishes between proposing and making a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have seven minutes. That does not preclude Members who take an intervention from being awarded an extra minute. I remind Members that the vote on the motion requires cross-community support.

That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2016-17 as announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on 17 December 2015 and set out in the Budget document laid before the Assembly on 13 January 2016.

I am pleased that one of my first duties as Finance Minister is to bring to the House today the Budget for 2016-17. In any Administration, it is the Budget that underpins the delivery of services and, ultimately, plays a key role in the success or otherwise of those services. In agreeing a Budget for 2016-17, the Executive have provided a stable and balanced platform on which incoming Ministers and their new Departments will be able to build. It provides support for our key public services, helps protect the vulnerable in our society and paves a way for the new Executive to agree a multi-year Budget from 2017-18 to 2019-2020, which will reflect the priorities in the new Programme for Government.

The Budget process has not been without its challenges. It seems as though, when I come into post, there are always challenges. There were challenges when I came into post in DSD, and there were challenges when I came into the Finance Department. However, I think that we have endeavoured and, over the past number of months, have been able to overcome those difficulties and deal with those challenges. Those challenges came from the constrained timescale due to the late spending review announcement and the fact that it was produced on the basis of nine future Departments. It is testament to the collegiate approach of Ministers and their officials that it has been possible to agree a Budget within the timescale necessary to fulfil the commitment in the Fresh Start Agreement. That has taken considerable effort and work on everybody's part.


12.30 pm

It is regrettable that we were not able to have the usual extensive public consultation. However, I am aware that my officials have engaged with key stakeholders, and I am sure that other Departments have been doing likewise. In addition, the Executive have agreed that new Ministers will have the flexibility to realign departmental budgets to reflect their priorities in the first monitoring round of the year. That means that there will still be an opportunity for Assembly Committees and other stakeholders to influence those decisions.

I do not intend to rehearse the detail of my predecessor’s written statement on the Budget. Members now have a Budget document that provides additional information. I would, however, like to make a few key points before we debate and vote on the 2016-17 Budget.

Members will be well aware of the financial environment confronting us in 2016-17 and in the years that follow. The spending review outcome may not have been as bleak as was originally feared, but we still face significant real-terms reductions in funding. It is impossible continually to do more with less. Therefore, the challenge facing the Executive is to ensure that we do the right things. That will mean confronting difficult decisions on what the public sector should and should not do. In that context, it is imperative that the reform and transformation of the public sector, which commenced under Budget 2015-16, continues and that the process is allowed to progress.

As well as funding under the spending review, the Budget includes the significant additional resources provided for 2016-17 under the Fresh Start Agreement. In addition, the Executive agreed to provide £135 million to top up welfare arrangements for Northern Ireland and £5 million match funding to tackle paramilitary activity. Of that funding, £60 million related to tax credits is no longer required for that purpose. While £30 million of that has been used to fund other pressures, the remaining £30 million has been set aside for further Executive consideration following the outcome of Professor Evason’s work. Where appropriate, the Fresh Start —

Mr Attwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Storey: I have only commenced. I know that the Member would like to use the debate as an opportunity to revisit the Evason report, whether I still work to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and all those issues, but perhaps he will just give me the opportunity to progress. I have no doubt that he will raise those issues later in the debate, when I will give him the answers that he probably knows I will give him anyway. That will leave him in the position of putting those points on the record, which is what he wanted to do in the first place.

I return to the overall funding that is available. The level of funding means that Departments will inevitably face a reduction in resource DEL. The Executive agreed a limited number of allocations to help to address the more significant pressures facing the key public services. They include £133 million to the Department of Health; £15 million to the Department of Justice for legal aid; £20 million to the Department for Infrastructure for road structural maintenance; £40 million to the Department of Education; and £5 million to the Department for the Economy for the skills agenda.

In addition to the £5 million provided for skills as part of this Budget, I would also like to state my commitment to providing a further £20 million for skills. This will be funded from the first £20 million available in the June monitoring round.

Although this allocation cannot be ratified until the incoming Executive consider the June monitoring paper from the Finance Minister, I feel it is important to provide education institutions with this early indication that the Executive recognise the importance of the skills agenda, especially in light of the upcoming devolution of corporation tax powers, and that significant funding will be provided. I want to give the House this assurance because I have seen comments in recent days in relation to this issue and concerns have been raised, and we have also seen the comments from the vice chancellors of our universities.

I have a task of work to do over the next number of weeks, and I, as well the Finance Minister after me, whomever they may be, will also have the task of ensuring that we have made all necessary preparations to maximise the benefit of the devolution of corporation tax. A key component of that will undoubtedly be in relation to the skills agenda. I think that is something that we need to keep focused upon.

Although this Budget relates only to 2016-17, the Executive have also agreed a number of flagship projects, where capital funding has been agreed up to 2020-2021. This will provide the certainty needed to progress these important projects.

I am sure that a number of Members speaking today will undoubtedly disagree with this Budget. That is their right as Members of this House. There will always be differing opinions on Budget allocations. That is true in times of prosperity as well as times of austerity. There will always be those who are prepared to stand up and say what services should be funded. There are not so many who are prepared to listen to the reality that we have finite resources and that extra funding for one thing means less funding for another or more taxes for everyone. I, more than most, having come into this post in recent days, am aware of those particular issues.

Mr Speaker, this represents a balanced Budget with no overcommitment for the first time in many years. That is an improvement on the situation in which our opponents and critics had us last year. Although the outcome may prove challenging, it is better than previously anticipated. Departments should also be well placed to meet these challenges as a result of the decisions already taken by the Executive on voluntary exit schemes and departmental restructuring.

To quote Jack Lew, the United States Secretary of the Treasury:

"The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations".

I hope that is what I have presented to this House today.

I commend this Budget to the Assembly.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. At the outset, I should point out that, by convention, the Committee for Finance and Personnel normally undertakes a coordinated scrutiny of the draft Executive Budget. On previous occasions, this has resulted in a cross-cutting report containing contributions from all the Assembly Statutory Committees and other stakeholders. The purpose of this is to influence positive change and add value to this debate. This has not, however, been possible on this occasion, due to the circumstances surrounding this Budget, which the previous Minister described as extremely challenging. The normal consultation process has been set aside.

The Committee received a briefing from officials on the overall budgetary position but, due to the time constraints that applied, the briefing focused on process and outcome. During the briefing, departmental officials explained that the construct of this Budget had been a unique exercise, with three distinct variables added to a very tight timescale. Those included the political context of the Fresh Start Agreement, the lateness of the Treasury’s spending review and the challenge of planning the transfer of functions order to merge 12 Departments into nine.

Mindful of the time constraints, I pressed the departmental officials on the scope that exists for Assembly Committees to influence any changes to this draft Budget. The officials helpfully pointed out that, despite the shortcomings in the process, it would still be possible for Committees to have influence. This could be during the upcoming June monitoring process, when the new Ministers will have considerable flexibility to reallocate resources and capital within their specific departmental budgetary envelopes.

Several other cross-departmental issues were discussed during last week’s briefing from DFP. These included what consideration has been given to revenue-raising measures and the need for robust action to avoid any year-end underspend exceeding the Budget exchange levels, especially in light of the absence of any overcommitment being carried into this Budget. The officials emphasised how challenging the Department’s own budget allocation for 2016-17 will be. Committee members were also keen to explore the implications of the voluntary exit scheme for DFP as a Department. The Committee will be monitoring the practical outworkings of losing 10% of DFP staff, the implications for sick absence, the savings realisation in respect of space reduction and the implications of additional functions and associated staff being transferred from OFMDFM.

The draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Budget process, which the Committee and the Department have been preparing jointly, should be moved forward apace. It needs to be workable and it is long overdue for a number of reasons, which the Minister, as well as other Members, will understand. I look forward to the Department engaging with the Committee with a view to seeing a finalised draft MOU being considered and agreed, by the Executive and the Assembly respectively, in time for the next Budget process.

Amongst the external factors that will need to be addressed is the impact that the timing of the Treasury’s spending reviews have on the Budget processes of the devolved Administrations. I welcome the fact that the previous Finance Minister joined her counterparts in Scotland and Wales in raising that concern with the Treasury. However, I believe that further influence will need to be brought to bear on this matter going forward.

I will now make a few comments from a party position. As we face elections and the making-up of a new Assembly, we need to look forward not only to this financial year but to the next five years. There are a number of challenges on which the Assembly and Executive have done well in terms of the deal that was put forward, but we need to ensure that we get a fair deal on corporation tax. In the time ahead, the Executive also need to consider air passenger duty. A number of stakeholders in that sector and in tourism noted their concerns about the fact that there is a differential across the island. That has an effect; and we and the Executive recognised that when we addressed the issue of the long-haul rate in response to the decision around the New York route.

We need to look at how we can have a level playing field across the island when it comes to air passenger duty in order to ensure that Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and the City of Derry Airport all get a good deal and that we can open new routes. New routes into the North are not just about holidaymakers; they are also about economic growth and building business connections, because there is a dearth of connections, especially to Germany. That is something that needs to be addressed as well as the transatlantic routes that the Executive have already dealt with.


12.45 pm

On corporation tax, we need to have a strong position on the taxation benefits that will go to London as a result of any reduction in corporation tax to 12·5%, as has been mooted. I believe that the principle has already been accepted by Treasury in regard to the Scottish Government that, if a taxation policy changes and there are additional revenues due to London, they have a duty to ensure that the devolved Administration are compensated to some extent.

Those are two major issues that I believe that the Executive and the incoming Minister will need to look at.

Due to the lack of time that I have, I will conclude. The fair deal that has been put forward — the Fresh Start Agreement — has been a good deal. Others Members from my party will address these matters, but we now have a start ahead of us for the A5 and A6. That is good for rural areas. We will deliver infrastructure for all those rural commuters, and, of course, the A26 continues apace as well. That is a great result for the city of Derry. It is a great result for all those along that route. I know that some parties will try to ignore that fact, but from what I can see in the Budget —

Mr Eastwood: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKay: I have no time, unfortunately. From what I see before us today, it is a good deal for those west of the Bann and for those in Donegal. I will close on that point, and I look forward to the debate.

Mr Speaker: I gave a certain leeway to the Chairperson of the Committee. Other Members should not expect the same generosity.

Mr Easton: I rise to support the Budget and to speak on the Health aspect of it. The Health budget has been increased to £4·88 billion, the highest ever allocation of funding for Health. With an extra £226 million of capital expenditure for Health projects, this equates to £130 million of uplift or around 3%. It is the best settlement of any Department, reflecting and recognising its priority status. It also takes the Health budget to over half a billion pounds, nearly half of the entire Budget for Northern Ireland. That does not mean that there are not problems ahead for our Health budget, as we face an ever bigger demand on our health services from the public. The Health budget is not just about receiving more money; while welcome, in itself it does not resolve the pressures that we face. We need to invest further in reducing waiting lists, and we have already seen a commitment to that, with around £40 million being allocated in the last monitoring round to tackle elective care and outpatient waiting lists. On waiting lists, it is worth remembering why there was an increase in waiting times: it was down to £120 million being handed back to Westminster in fines for not implementing welfare reform. That is the truth of the matter.

We need to continue to reform and innovate to stay ahead, such as through Transforming Your Care. That process needs to continue to be implemented, and I would like to see that happen at a faster pace. We also need to ensure that funding for Transforming Your Care is in place to fully develop what is promised. I also believe in invest to save, and I believe that more funding is needed to ensure that schemes such as electronic medical records are put in place to cut costs and save on bureaucracy.

The Department of Health has three main responsibilities: Health and Social Care, public health and public safety. It is important that, on those three main responsibilities, everybody in the Assembly has the same aim as me: to build a world-class health and social care service for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to drive up the quality of health and social care for patients, clients and carers; to improve outcomes; to safeguard the vulnerable; and to ensure that patients, clients and carers have the best possible experience in every aspect of their care and support. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want, and that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

There are key challenges ahead for Health for the 2016-17 period, with new drugs becoming available to treat medical conditions and an ever-increasing elderly population, which we all welcome but which brings added pressures and increased costs in delivering primary, secondary and social care services. There are also increased pressures facing us. Cost pressures in the Health budget represent a 5% to 6% increase, largely down to pay and non-pay inflation and continued development in healthcare technologies and treatments. There are ongoing challenges on our waiting lists. In recognition of those challenges, the Executive have protected Health and Social Care through its Budget allocation for 2016-17. However, the Department and its arm's-length body will have to identify savings in order to supplement the additional Budget allocations.

In the Budget, we will see £232 million for capital expenditure for health projects to implement a capital investment programme that helps to maintain and develop the health estate and other assets in support of service delivery and reform projects. Money has been found by the Executive in joint investment programmes with Atlantic Philanthropies to deliver improved services for people with dementia and their carers. We also see £16 million set aside for the Mother and Children's Hospital and £3·9 million to take forward Desertcreat as a flagship project. We see the completion of the north-west regional cancer centre in Altnagelvin Hospital and two new primary care and community centres in Banbridge and Ballymena delivered by a DUP Minister. There is also the continuation of the redevelopment of the Ulster Hospital and Altnagelvin Hospital. The capital budget also gives important investment in ICT, medical equipment and the fleet and estates of the Ambulance Service and the Fire Service. There is also a further £10 million in transaction capital allocations for further GP infrastructure. Overall, we see a real-terms increase in funding for hospital, general medical, pharmaceutical, ophthalmology, health support, public health and paramedic services.

There are still many challenges ahead for Health. However, with the forecast for the Northern Ireland economy to grow by 1·6%, corporation tax being devolved to Northern Ireland and the voluntary exit scheme, we will, hopefully, see the potential for more funding to become available from the Executive over the next year or two, which I would like to see going to Health. Finally, I pay tribute to our doctors, nurses and all our health staff, who do such a wonderful job across Northern Ireland. We owe you a deep debt of gratitude, and we appreciate you all. I support the Budget.

Ms Hanna: I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the SDLP on the Budget. However, I do not really welcome the content of it, which, I think, limits the scope of the discussion. Others have said that it is a Budget that lacks planning and serious analysis. I know that nobody reads a document like this to be entertained, but it is turgid and lacks imagination and some of the finesse that devolution should have put onto it.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland faces the biggest challenges at the moment: challenges to fix the economy and deliver for young people so that our brightest and best minds do not have to keep leaving in the numbers that they have in the past decade. The challenge is to grow our economy and private sector to deliver the services that we need, but this Budget seems, in every sense, to have given up. The challenges of 21st-century infrastructure and 21st-century jobs are just not addressed at any point in this lengthy document.

Northern Ireland has shown that we can overcome big challenges and fix big problems. We have a strength, a resilience and an approach that we go around the world talking about, but none of that spirit of creativity, resilience and possibility is evident in this document. It does not outline any serious initiative in the fight against poverty or educational underachievement or in harmonising our infrastructure with that of other jurisdictions.

While seeing fit to borrow nearly three quarters of a billion pounds to kill jobs through the Civil Service redundancy scheme, the best that Sinn Féin and the DUP seem to be able to do for resource spending, tourism, employment and skills and student support is a cut of £24 million. We are borrowing to kill off jobs and taking away millions from exactly the sort of fund that is designed to create the skills and improve the infrastructure to increase those jobs. We have put a lot of eggs in the corporation tax basket, despite the fact that those rates are harmonising almost organically, and we are failing to learn the lesson that it is not just cutting corporation tax that will make the change; it is consistent investment in skills and infrastructure.

We have given up on any serious development of our infrastructure to make it fit for purpose.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for giving way. She has perplexed me slightly, because she said twice that there is not enough about investment in transport infrastructure. It is very clear that the money for the A5 and A6 is of great benefit to the economy. There are lots of other things. She has drawn a very negative picture. Surely she should be a little more cheerful at the start of a new year and see the good things in the document.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Member for his intervention, which I was happy to take, as I think that it is good practice. I am glad that you brought up the A5. Look at the detail. The chronic underinvestment in education is now manifesting itself in the geography that is evident in this document. We have these seven flagship projects identified, at a cost of just over £1 billion. On my reading, there is £100 million up front for these costs: we have shown how we are paying them in the first year, but it does not take an accountant to work out that the rest has not been filled in.

You talk about the Belfast to Derry road. It is a dual carriageway from Randalstown to Crawfordsburn. That is all it is. Your ambition for the north-west extends to exactly 8·7 miles. I do not think that is what people in the north-west are looking for from this Executive. We have seen it all before. I am sure that election pledges and leaflets are being designed for the north-west that talk about the road from Belfast to Derry, as they did in 2011. People have heard it all before, and this Budget does not in any way fill in the blanks on how you are going to do it.

Mr McKay: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hanna: No, I will not, because I have a few things to get through. I have only got three minutes; maybe I will find the positives in your Budget in that time, but I do not think so.

There are other areas that they have given up on —

Mr McKay: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Member referred to the A6 from Randalstown to Crawfordsburn. It is actually from Randalstown to Castledawson roundabout. The Member would do well to read the document before passing comment on that piece of infrastructure.

Ms Hanna: Yes, as I say, the education cuts affect geography. I am glad that you have conceded that that is, in fact, the length of your ambition for the much-heralded road from Belfast to Derry.

It is not just in infrastructure and in roads that the Budget has given up. It has given up on the fight against criminality. Before, prison officers in Northern Ireland lived in fear of being attacked in their homes; now they live in fear of being attacked in the very prisons where they work. We have the infamy of Maghaberry being described as the worst prison ever inspected by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. We rely on an effective policing service, but ours is taking a 2% cut, while still addressing a lot of the manifestations of the past which the Executive have failed to deal with over many years and after many opportunities.

We rely on a strong and efficient court system, through which people can see their case progressing. However, on Monday of this week, 871 cases were awaiting trial in the courts. That is 871 victims who have not had the opportunity to access justice and have the anxiety of waiting for their case to go through, and that is happening while courthouses across the North are earmarked for closure.

Most disappointingly, as well as justice and roads, you appear to have given up on children and young people. The Budget has a reduction in spending on youth services — a drop of 5·4% — and what looks like a tiny increase in resource spending for schools themselves. We do not even have a figure in the Budget for capital spending on youth and children's services next year. I cannot imagine a Budget that not only does not appear to invest in our children and young people but does not have any indication of what we are going to build for them in the lifetime of the Budget. The childcare provision outlined, at 12·5 hours per week, falls behind the commitment announced by the Conservatives. It is a bad state of affairs when David Cameron is looking after working families better than this Budget. Is that the best we can do?

We are asked to support a Budget that appears to have given up, designed by First Ministers who have given in. They have basically taken by rote what has come across from the Treasury; there is no influence, or no obvious influence, of devolution in what we have added. There is no imagination. We have a new First Minister, and I am glad to see that, but collectively the First and deputy First Ministers, as the longest-serving Ministers in Stormont history, do not have very much to show for it and appear to have lost their fight already.

There are alternatives. HS2 across the water will have a Barnett consequential of £600 million coming our way in the next mandate. We could use that to improve infrastructure but, on the evidence of this Budget, we cannot be very confident that we will.


1.00 pm

The Northern Ireland investment fund of £100 million will not be available until the end of 2016. We want to be confident that that will be focused on social and economic good. The reinvestment and reform initiative, which was an SDLP initiative, is being treated like a credit card; it is being maxed out on borrowing. It was envisaged to be spent on infrastructure, and that is not happening.

We will not be supporting this Budget. We are not ready to give up and give in. I do not think that people would appreciate it if we did that on their behalf.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time. Mr Leslie Cree will be the next Member to speak when we return to this debate after Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Employment and Learning

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): STEM subjects are and will continue to be essential to our economy. That has recently been verified by the skills barometer, which identifies a strong demand for mid- and higher-level skills in STEM subjects. My Department is funding a number of approaches to raise the profile of and create opportunities for STEM study and careers; for example, through STEM supplements in local newspapers and career booklets across a range of STEM sectors.

I am pleased to say that, after the success of its inaugural year in 2015, I have agreed to extend my Department's sponsorship of the Northern Ireland Science Festival over the next four years. My Department has also supported a report by the STEM business group called 'Addressing Gender Balance — Reaping the Gender Dividend in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)', which contains a number of good-practice guidelines aimed at addressing the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers. Over this Assembly term, I have supported over 1,400 additional STEM undergraduate places at our colleges and universities.

As part of the Budget preparation process for 2016-17, I submitted bids for the resources required to meet our skill shortages under a reduced rate of corporation tax. Looking ahead, there will continue to be enhanced funding for the majority of STEM subjects delivered at our colleges and universities, and I will continue to support them in rebalancing their subject provision towards economically relevant subjects. I will also continue with the implementation of our apprenticeship strategy through the funding of additional higher-level apprenticeship pilots in areas of economic relevance.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his response, and I welcome the initiatives that are taking place. One of the weaknesses at times is the lack of realisation of the careers availability in STEM subjects and the disjoint with careers advice. Will the Minister outline any initiatives that are taking place to ensure that we upskill our careers advisers in schools to ensure that there is greater awareness of the opportunities for careers in STEM subjects?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments and his question. Given his role as Chair of the Education Committee, he will be aware that careers spans my Department and the Department of Education. My Committee conducted an inquiry during this Assembly term. More recently, we have had our own review of the careers strategy. We have an implementation plan across the two Departments. Shortly, we hope to publish the formal strategy for careers over the next five years. That is being finalised across the two Departments. I am sure that, as my Committee holds me to account in that respect, the Member will do likewise with his Minister.

Mr Swann: In regard to numbers, especially the numbers going into colleges to study STEM subjects in higher education, has the Minister looked at increasing the maximum student number (MaSN) cap for HE colleges?

Dr Farry: The difficulty with raising the MaSN cap is that we do not have the resource in that regard. Obviously, that is something that we would like to see, and it should be considered in future Budgets of the Executive. In our current provision, we have had a rebalancing of the offer over the past number of years in the direction of STEM, particularly in what we term "narrow STEM", which are the maths, physics and computer science subjects. As we have wrestled with some budget cuts over the past number of years, we have worked with the colleges and universities to protect those narrow STEM subjects from the cuts that have happened elsewhere.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his responses so far. I ask him for an update on his efforts to attract more females to study STEM subjects and take up employment in that sector.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for the question. That will be the subject of some questions further on. In my answer, I alluded to work that we are undertaking in promotional activity through a number of projects. We work closely with the Equality Commission in that regard. It remains a structural difficulty in our economy. While we have strong participation rates in further education and higher education across both genders, with women more represented than men, we still see significant segmentation in the choices that people make. Some may argue that that does not really matter and that people have different preferences, but it matters when we look to the areas of the economy that are set to grow the most over the coming years. Unless we fully utilise the talent base in Northern Ireland in terms of the pipeline of skills going into those areas, we will not live up to our full potential. There is a real importance in ensuring that we have the proper balance. It is important that we encourage all people to influence others to think, particularly at an early age, about a range of careers and that we try to tackle some of the stereotypes that may have channelled people in different directions.

Mr Diver: I thank the Minister for the information so far on STEM. How much of the extra £5 million allocated to apprenticeships in the 2016-17 Budget will be used for STEM?

Dr Farry: It is not just a case of how much of that £5 million will be allocated to apprenticeships; that is part of a much bigger pot. The Member will be aware that, this morning, the Finance Minister indicated that another £20 million would be available for skills in the future Department for the Economy through the Budget exchange scheme. All of that goes into a pot to support skills, and it includes higher education, universities, mainstream further education and apprenticeships. One thing that I am seeking to do, in working out with Jonathan Bell the budget for the new Department for the Economy is to ensure that we have a dedicated mainstream budget for the new higher-level apprenticeships. Previously, that has been funded through the change fund, which was not baselined. Therefore, it is important that we now move ahead with a proper budget for apprenticeships baselined for the future Department, and we are doing that. Obviously, the £5 million will be an aspect of ensuring that we can achieve that.

Dr Farry: Belfast Met's Leading the City to Work initiative is the college's commitment to working in partnership with stakeholders to transform lives and to contribute to the economic and social success of Belfast and Northern Ireland. The initiative reflects the further education sector's challenging dual role, which was set out recently in the further education strategy, Further Education Means Success, in which colleges are pivotal to the development of a strong, vibrant economy through the provision of professional and technical skills, as well as having the responsibility of helping fight poverty and supporting social inclusion. Increasingly, colleges will work collaboratively and in partnership with other organisations in the public, private, and voluntary and community sectors to deliver their services to learners, employers and communities to maximum effect.

Working alongside Belfast City Council, the college has delivered the Achieve programme, encouraging young people to participate in STEM-focused FE programmes and SME support programmes, including Generate, which is focused on supply chain opportunities in the renewables sector, and Super Connected, which provides support to access high-grade broadband connectivity. The college is one of the lead partners, alongside the council, in the Springvale multi-agency group, has an increased involvement in the design and delivery of learning solutions in, for example, the Girdwood community hub and works on the Urban Villages programme to better understand and target specific pockets of educational disadvantage.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Mar is gnách, a LeasCheann Comhairle, gabhaim buíochas leat agus leis an Aire as an fhreagra chuimsitheach sin. I thank the Minister for a comprehensive response. I know that he has done groundbreaking work with Belfast City Council and Belfast Met on the Leading the City to Work programme and the E3 campus.

Given that the work that the Belfast Met carries out is often with those who are on the margins and those who perhaps did not have other education opportunities, given the fact that there are 20,000 students there and given the fact that Marie-Thérèse McGivern and her team have devoted themselves to making sure that Belfast Met is central to the education story of the city —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member come to his question, please?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: It is 110 years since Belfast Met was established. Will you look at finding a way this year — you have only a few weeks left, or maybe you will be back in a bigger post — to mark and celebrate its contribution to the city and all our successes over that period?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments and assure him that my current post is big enough. I am not too sure what he is alluding to.

In so far as the Member was asking a question, I agree with his comments about the important partnerships that have been built between Belfast Met and the city council. It is important that we celebrate the contribution of Belfast Met. Of course, the current college is not 110 years old; it is of a much more recent vintage. Many of its predecessors go back to the turn of the last century, so it has a long and illustrious history of supporting vocational and technical professional education in the city of Belfast. When we look at how we are advancing the economy today, many of us, including the Member, make allusions to the Belfast of the turn of the last century and how it was a world economic powerhouse. In many sectors, it was world-leading. It was not just close to the top but at the very top. In many ways, that inspires us to achieve the vision that we have for the future of Northern Ireland to be one of the best regions in the world and one of the top performers in sectors in which we have comparative strengths.

Dr Farry: The skills barometer was launched on 12 November 2015 at, strangely enough, Belfast Met and is the result of work that the Ulster University economic policy centre completed on behalf of my Department. Skills mismatches are often cited as a key barrier to economic growth. I was, therefore, keen to ensure that the Department and the wider Executive had the most robust and up-to-date information on skills requirements, thereby enabling policymakers and educationalists to make informed choices about the allocation of funds and initiatives.

The skills barometer is innovative, groundbreaking and something that we should be very proud of. It provides a detailed understanding of the skills requirements of our economy up to 2025, with forecasts of supply and demand. Importantly, the barometer provides the Department with a level of detail and sophistication that no other macroeconomic model has been able to provide. A key feature is its flexibility as a policymaking tool that can be adjusted to take account of changes in order to understand the skills implications of different policy measures.

The results indicate that, under the higher economic growth that accompanies a lower rate of corporation tax, there will be a significant undersupply of skills in the economy as a whole. Extra investment in skills is required to meet the shortfall, and the barometer estimates the size of this requirement. The results indicate a strong need for people with intermediate and graduate-level skills, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths-related subjects, reflecting the anticipated growth in ICT, professional services and advanced manufacturing.

The barometer will be updated annually to ensure that forecasts are based on the latest data. However, there is the ability to update it more frequently to take account of any unforeseen circumstances.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for a very comprehensive and good overview of the skills barometer. He identified that, perhaps in a strange way, the report found an oversupply and an undersupply of skills. Will he outline the steps that the Department is taking to address both scenarios?

Dr Farry: There are probably fairly few areas in which there is an over-provision at present. It might be the case with particular university subjects — there are some broader areas. I would say with a degree of hesitation — I am not particularly looking to open up another debate — that teaching is one area in which there is an oversupply at present. There are clear pressure points in science and technology and in nursing. It is interesting to note that one of the top five areas is manufacturing, despite a lot of bad news over the past number of months about redundancies. That reinforces the point that Northern Ireland still has a very strong future in manufacturing. Indeed, there are future pressure points. We estimate growth in manufacturing over the coming years.

I stress to the Member the importance of ensuring that we have sufficient investment in skills to meet the demands. I want to put on record my appreciation to the Finance Minister for providing an additional resource for skills for the future Department for the Economy. That will make some difference. However, I also want to stress that there is a very long way to go in ensuring that we have a sufficiently strong skills base and skills pipeline to ensure that we meet the full demands of the economy, particularly in the context of a lower level of corporation tax.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister update the House on the work of the financial services academy to provide people with the skills necessary to gain employment in the growing financial services sector? How many jobs has his Assured Skills programme managed to deliver?

Dr Farry: First, with Assured Skills generally, my Department, as Members know, works in conjunction with Invest Northern Ireland on its programmes. Obviously, skills are a key component in how we attract and sustain investment in Northern Ireland, so it is important that we have that skills narrative and, more importantly, that we have the tools to respond effectively and provide the particular skills that investing companies require. We can put in place a number of particular programmes for companies and for sectors. In that regard, we have rolled out a number of academies over the past number of years. Having started by focusing on ICT, the academies are spreading to different ranges of activity. Indeed, the area of financial services is one that we are doing some work on currently. Overall, we have supported the creation of several thousand jobs across Northern Ireland through Assured Skills over the past number of years, and the Assured Skills programme will come into its own in the context of the lower rate of corporation tax.


2.15 pm

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he clarify the way in which the skills barometer and associated data is shared with businesses?

Dr Farry: The Member makes an important point. The skills barometer is not simply a tool for government. However, I stress, in that context, that evidence-based policymaking is critical, and we now have a very strong skills evidence base. The barometer is also there to be used by businesses and, indeed, by students, parents and other stakeholders in society when they are planning for the future. It is available for businesses in how they can relate to where emerging skilling requirements will be in the economy. I also highlight the importance of young people using the skills barometer as part of their careers engagement to see where opportunities lie. People will have their own interests and passions, but it is important that young people make informed choices. We want to try to encourage as many young people as possible to build their futures in Northern Ireland and, in doing so, to study in the areas that will be most relevant to the future of the economy.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Thank you, Minister, for your responses to date. Are you convinced that the new proposed Department for the Economy will recognise the benefits of, and utilise, the skills barometer?

Dr Farry: I have no reason to doubt that that will be the case. The creation of the new Department for the Economy is a very sensible measure. Indeed, it has been supported by virtually every party in the House, including the Member's party. It is important that we bring all the different levers and programmes that support our economy under one roof. While there is some very strong cooperation between my Department and DETI and Invest Northern Ireland at present, you will always get a certain lack of synergy from having separate Departments and separate Ministers. There should be an improvement through everything coming under one Minister and one Department.

Obviously, skills will be at the heart of our future economic model, no matter what way you look at it, and it is important that we have evidence-based policymaking, as I stressed when I responded to the previous question. The skills barometer provides that. We have had great interest in the skills barometer from a wide range of stakeholders and, indeed, from other Departments. The message is very clear and understood, not just across the Northern Ireland Civil Service but across our civic society as a whole.

Ms Sugden: How have the FE colleges and the two universities responded to the skills barometer in providing skills identified?

Dr Farry: The colleges and universities are using the skills barometer to plan future provision, and that will play an increasing role as we look ahead, particularly in the context of tight and scarce resources. It is important that all our education and training suppliers are using their resources as smartly as they possibly can. As I said previously during Question Time, we have already seen a rebalancing of the offering in our colleges and universities, and that is set to continue as we look ahead. Universities serve a broader role than simply being the providers of graduates for particular jobs. They have a much wider function in supporting civic society and supporting learning and knowledge, but it is important that they appreciate their role in supporting the economy and that they seek to maximise provision in that direction.

Dr Farry: My Department funds the Law Centre Northern Ireland to provide access to legal advice and representation on employment matters. The project provides specialist professional advice and advocacy through to the industrial tribunal process free of charge to those who otherwise would find it difficult to secure access to justice. That support is provided across Northern Ireland and is focused on the most vulnerable employees.

Employment tribunals seek to ensure at all times that the principles of the justice system are adhered to in all cases that come before them. Allowances are made for inexperienced individuals who represent themselves. This is done to ensure that the tribunals' overriding objective, namely that parties are on an equal footing, is preserved.

The Department also funds the Labour Relations Agency to offer conciliation before or during tribunal proceedings.

While the process does not include directive advice, it can provide parties with the information and assistance that they need to help them to resolve outstanding issues. The Employment Bill will extend that process so that most people facing a tribunal claim will have the offer of early conciliation before lodging a tribunal claim.

Mr Murphy: I thank the Minister for his answer. He states that the advice is available across the North, but he will understand that the Law Centre, which does excellent work in this regard, is based in Belfast and Derry, and that leaves a substantial hinterland in which it is more difficult to access that type of personal legal advice and assistance. I am sure that he will acknowledge that a lack of that is a key access-to-justice issue. Has he plans or are there opportunities in his Department to further resource that provision of assistance to make sure that as many people as possible can avail themselves of it across the Six Counties?

Dr Farry: I would not want to rule out additional resource at this stage, but it is important to bear in mind the context of what we face with the resourcing of employment law interventions in general. The Department has a tight budget, and we face budget cuts, and that includes the regulatory services under which employment relations fall.

I interested in and take on board the Member's comments and may engage with the Law Centre to see whether it is picking up subregional disparities in access and whether there is a problem. If we are not adhering fully to equality of access across Northern Ireland, we will seek to address that.

It is important that Members are aware that, on the back of the creation of the revised early conciliation service under the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), which is part of the Employment Bill, there will be additional pressures in relation to the LRA itself. So we have to find additional resource to ensure that we can fully support what should be more efficient and effective interventions for employers and employees that, where possible, will avoid the much more confrontational engagement that you find in a tribunal.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. Would he agree that it might be advantageous to make industrial tribunals more friendly to the public? Take them as far away as possible from the gowns, wigs, oaths and all the trappings of those big courts that scare the life out of people. What is being done to make industrial tribunals friendly to ordinary people, who, perhaps, would not need a battery of legal support if tribunals were doing what they were originally supposed to do?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his question; it opens up a far-reaching debate in many respects. Tribunals are a legal process. While the original intent was that people would not go there with batteries of lawyers on either side, that is their entitlement in a legal process and things have moved in that direction, although not every employee or employer will choose to have legal representation or be able to afford it.

The process in tribunals is not that of a court; it is that of a tribunal. What we are now terming employment judges, and indeed the panels, are keen to ensure that they can dispense business in an efficient and effective manner. It is worth putting on record our appreciation of the great strides made in recent years on case management to ensure that cases progress efficiently.

It is important to recognise that we are trying to move as many cases as possible outside the tribunal process and have them addressed through different forms of alternative dispute resolution, which is in the interests of employees and employers. Ultimately, there will be cases that need to go to a tribunal, and it is people's right to take a case to a tribunal. Where possible, however, we want to avail ourselves of more cost-efficient and effective interventions at an earlier stage.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Thomas Buchanan is not in his place. I call Leslie Cree.

Dr Farry: My Department is responsible for funding initial teacher education training. The Education Minister is responsible for early and continuing professional development and determining the number of teachers to be trained each year.

The Grant Thornton report, which I commissioned as part of a two-stage review into initial teacher education, analysed the cost of teacher training in our universities and university colleges against comparators in the United Kingdom. The findings at that time were that the cost of teacher training here was significantly more than in the comparator institutions and significantly higher in the university colleges than the universities. Students undertaking a course in initial teacher education here can complete either a one-year PGCE or a four-year Bachelor of Education degree.

At Queen's and Ulster universities, which deliver the postgraduate certificate, my Department currently funds at a rate of just over £4,000 per student while, at Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College, which deliver both the postgraduate certificate and the Bachelor of Education degree, my Department currently funds at £5,380 per student per annum. All courses attract a student fee of £3,805. The variance between the universities and university colleges is due to the additional premia paid in respect of their status as small and specialist institutions. In reality, it is primarily paid to ensure their sustainability.

Members will be aware that I proposed the removal of the premia as part of my Department's 2015-16 budget. I do not believe that we can afford such an inefficiency. As I have highlighted before, it is bizarre that it costs more to train a teacher here, when we have too many, than an engineer, of which we have too few. We have to get our priorities straight, and the 'Aspiring to Excellence' report proposes several options that would be more efficient and would also improve quality.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for his reply. We all recognise that teaching is a fine and valuable profession, but the Minister will be aware of figures produced by the General Teaching Council that state that 23% of recent teaching graduates obtained work in Northern Ireland. The rest of them went elsewhere. Why, when budgets are so tight, are we continuing to produce so many teachers to export elsewhere when, as you said, we need engineering and medical graduates here? Have the Executive discussed why the statistical-based teacher-demand model — that is quite a mouthful — is being topped up each year?

Dr Farry: I am grateful for the Member's supplementary question. Again, it opens a whole range of different issues. The Member and the Assembly will be aware that the teacher-demand model is run by the Department of Education. As I alluded to at the start of my answer, the Department of Education and, indeed, the Minister set the numbers for entry. I have, on many occasions, stated my opinion that those figures are unrealistically high and that we are simply training too many teachers. At times, we are artificially training too many teachers in order to ensure the sustainability of the teacher training colleges rather than promoting an agenda of reform towards, in my view, what should be a single teacher education system for Northern Ireland.

The teacher-demand model, in terms of the Executive, is something that I cannot directly comment upon but, obviously, Members will be aware that, last year, I did propose the removal of the premia that is paid to the teacher training colleges. I think that virtually every other party in the Assembly took a different view on the matter and felt that that was a more worthy expenditure of resource than directly investing in our other colleges and universities to support the particular skills requirements that we need to address in our society.

Mr Lyttle: There are a number of important factors in relation to teacher training, including economics and public finance. Does the Minister think that it is fair to the dreams of the individual who sorely wants to teach in Northern Ireland that we are training far too many teachers in Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: I fully respect that people will want to pursue their passion and that people will have a passion for teaching. We will always have some replacement demand for teachers in our society so there will always be some opportunities in the system but, yet again, we are simply training too many teachers. It is important that anyone who does go into teacher training is realistic about that. Indeed, the skills barometer pointed out those figures very clearly for us.

The Member also alluded to other factors. As we look to the idea of a different system in Northern Ireland, it is not simply an issue about cost; it is also about how we should aspire to train our teachers together. We talk about shared and integrated education but, if we cannot get our teachers trained side by side, it will be very hard for us to credibly promote changes in how we teach our children together. It is also quite clear that, the more that we link our teacher training into the context of the university setting, with that access to high-quality research and that multidisciplinary framework, the further we will also improve the quality of the future provision of our teachers. That is also very much in the interests of the children of Northern Ireland.


2.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of our time for listed questions. We now move to topical questions, and I call Bronwyn McGahan. I call Bronwyn McGahan.

Ms McGahan: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker; you will have to pass me.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): OK. We will move on.

T2. Mr Boylan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the Armagh campus of the Southern Regional College. (AQT 3342/11-16)

Dr Farry: All the campuses of the Southern Regional College are moving ahead. At this stage, we are looking to contract for the design issues. Obviously, there are three colleges in question — Armagh, Banbridge and the new build in Craigavon to will replace those in Lurgan and Portadown. I stress that, while good work has been done and this should be a priority for the Department, we are still dependent on finance being identified for future capital bids. Work has been undertaken to ensure that we can proceed as quickly as we can when money becomes available.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's answer. What is his Department doing in conjunction with the Southern Regional College to make apprenticeships more accessible to enhance our skill set?

Dr Farry: Southern Regional College has shown great leadership on higher-level apprenticeships and has taken advantage of funding opportunities under the change fund in this current financial year. As I mentioned to Mr Diver, we are hoping to have that mainstreamed in future budgets under the Department of the Economy.

It has been very proactive in working with local businesses, and I highlight the work that it has done with Norbrook in Newry, which clearly has requirements for lab technicians. That was pioneering work on higher-level apprenticeships in the life sciences. It has also been very proactive on accountancy apprenticeships, as well as in ICT and engineering. Those are the things that are happening across the board in some of our other colleges.

T3. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, given the apprenticeship levy that has been introduced by the British Government at Westminster, to clarify the actual benefit that there might be for industry and potential workers here in Northern Ireland. (AQT 3343/11-16)

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his question. In the spirit of what you would term, "topical questions", that is extremely topical, given that I was in Dublin yesterday meeting my Scottish and Welsh counterparts to discuss the apprenticeship levy and how we are going to approach meetings with Nick Boles, the UK Skills Minister, in early February on the needs of the devolved regions to ensure that what comes forward works for our particular context. It is, indeed, somewhat ironic that the three of us went to Dublin to talk about such matters, but that seemed to be the most convenient location. We have some very deep concerns about what is being proposed and what has emerged to date. We do not think that it has been entirely thought through. Indeed, as with many decisions taken by UK Governments, particularly the current one, the interests of the devolved regions are often an afterthought.
In England they have a very clear agenda on the number of apprenticeships, and they have an artificial target of three million. They are essentially badging anything that is remotely associated with training as an apprenticeship. At least the three devolved regions have their own different apprenticeship strategies, which are much more clearly focused on quality and establishing brands. There are potential difficulties, in that a number of our local companies would end up bearing the levy at a rate in excess of their ability to train in conjunction with our local apprenticeship strategies and, indeed, our youth training strategy. That will create a source of tension. In turn, it is unclear how we are going to see support for SMEs, which will not pay the levy because they are too small to meet the criteria. It is also proposed that it be levied against the public sector, which will be an interesting challenge for all of us. At this stage, it is the intention of the three devolved regions to formulate a common position and to make representations, first, to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, in due course, to encourage our respective Finance Ministers to have similar discussions with Her Majesty's Treasury to ensure that we can seek to ameliorate the worst aspects of the apprenticeship levy and that what is proposed works in the interests of devolution.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Dr Farry: Sorry.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for a very interesting reply. It is one of the ironies of Anglo-Irish relationships that the meeting of the triple alliance took place in Dublin. Long may that continue, and long may the Minister continue to attend such meetings and encourage such a triple alliance.

The Minister pointed out the difficulties and the unintended consequences of the levy, particularly in the public sector, but there must be great added value with the levy. Will he outline how that might affect us here in a beneficial manner?

Dr Farry: In theory, the levy sounds like a good idea in that it adds value and is associated with training. The difficulty is that it is essentially coming across as a tax on business. A particular difficulty is that it will not be added value. It is likely that, on the back of the proceeds of the levy, the Treasury will cut the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That will see a negative Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland, alongside Scotland and Wales. You could argue that we will get the same amount of money back from the levy, but there will be significant administration fees, so a lot of resource will leak out of the system. We see something coming through that is complicated, of very little benefit, and it probably has potential costs. While it is important that we highlight the importance of investment in skills, what was a good idea on paper is turning out to be a bit of a nightmare. We will need to have a very difficult engagement with the UK Government on the issue.

That is not the only area where we see such difficulties. We have also seen difficulties in the higher education Green Paper, which is about suiting the interests of higher education in England and goes off on a tangent from the direction of travel in the three devolved regions. There are also other knock-on implications for us.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Pat Sheehan is not in his place.

T5. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister for Employment and Learning whether he will commit to retaining the maintenance grant for students here. (AQT 3345/11-16)

Dr Farry: I am happy to assure the Member that I have done so. The maintenance grant is not under threat on my watch, and, to be fair to others, I do not think that it will be under threat in any future Assembly. We understand the importance of supporting widening access to higher education, and the maintenance grant goes a long way in that regard. Obviously, what is happening in England is proceeding in a rather underhand way and is creating tensions at a political level. It will be important, especially if we see a negative Barnett consequential. That outcome is as yet far from clear, because we are not entirely clear whether the maintenance grant is being scored as a spending provision or a tax provision by the Treasury. If we see a negative Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland, I expect that the Executive will absorb that collectively, and we will continue to support access to higher education, particularly for the most disadvantaged students.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that maintenance grants are a critical component of his Department's widening participation strategy?

Dr Farry: Yes — very much so. They are also a very significant resource commitment. We are talking about a figure in the region of £70 million a year. Unlike tuition fee support, which is resourced through annually managed expenditure moneys and is not part of our block grant, maintenance grants come directly out of our block grant.

It is a major commitment, but it is certainly worthwhile. It is important that we fully mobilise all the talent in our society if we are to have a successful economy.

T6. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, in light of conversations he has had with training providers and practitioners in north Belfast and greater Shankill, whether he will consider reviewing the policy on the current restriction on level 1 training funded by the European social fund. (AQT 3346/11-16)

Dr Farry: First of all, that is not currently viable because we have an operational programme agreed by the European Commission, and we have programmes funded under that premise in the current phase of the European social fund (ESF). It is also worth stressing to the Member that there is a rationale for the decision that we have taken in the context of a squeeze on budgets. We are trying to ensure that we reduce duplication as much as possible. We recognise that the community and voluntary sector has a comparative advantage, in particular around level 1, and, in that regard, we are trying to focus their efforts when accessing the European social fund in that direction. They are part of a wider system, and it is important that they link with progression routes that are offered in further education, higher education and employment, so that we have the ability for people to move on from that crucial first rung on the ladder to ensure that they attain the skill requirements that the modern economy requires.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am disappointed by it. I have had conversations with those providers on the practicalities of delivering and positively changing lives, and I do not think that is being maximised. I urge the Minister to consider a review of it as we come up to April and the annual review, and I extend to the Minister a warm invitation to visit Impact Training, Shankill Job Assist and Shankill Women's Centre, where he can hear at first hand the concerns and views of people on the ground.

Dr Farry: As the Member will be aware, I have visited in the past and had a very enjoyable engagement with a number of people in that regard. A review will not be within our discretion, considering where we are with the programme, but we seek to engage with all the providers. There is a forum through which my Department engages bimonthly with all the ESF providers. Indeed, the most recent meeting occurred, I think, on last Wednesday or Thursday. Those issues are being discussed on an ongoing basis and will continue to be.

T7. Ms Fearon asked the Minister for Employment and Learning when he will bring forward changes to the way in which students receive their student support payments. (AQT 3347/11-16)

Dr Farry: At this stage, it is difficult to put a timeline on that. We are having difficulties with the Student Loans Company, and the Member may have been listening to the comments that I made to Alban Maginness recently. One of the other difficulties that we have with the UK Government is that they have overburdened the Student Loans Company with changes to student support. We are being advised that the 2017-18 academic year will be the first year in which we can introduce such changes.

The Member will be aware that we have carried out consultation on the frequency of student support. In principle, we can change our frequency of payments, but there will be a cost, and it will be a six-figure sum. The issue is whether Members are prepared to divert resources from other aspects of higher education to see more frequent student support. I leave that as an open question, but that, in turn, will potentially put pressure on actual student places, and some people may miss out on higher education as a consequence. A choice has to be made. I am open to that debate, but I rather suspect that it will fall to a future Minister to make that decision. That is the timeline around which a decision can be taken in that regard.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer, although I do not accept that it is a toss-up between places and the way in which we change student support payments. Does he agree with me that the current system, whereby three payments are made over the course of the year, is not the best way forward?

Dr Farry: We have had the consultation, and I have an open mind to change. Powerful arguments for change were made by a number of stakeholders, so, all things being equal, we will probably want to have that move, but I stress again to the Member the issue of cost. Indeed, although extra money can be brought into higher education from elsewhere, whether from my departmental budget or the Executive's Budget, it is worth pointing out that we have major structural deficits in higher education. We still fund too few students in Northern Ireland. We have other priorities. It is not simply a case of protecting what we have versus investment in more frequent payments; we also have to look at investing in more student places. We send too many people away from Northern Ireland owing to a lack of options here. All of that has to be taken in the round, but it is something that can be done. The policy work is there, so a decision can be taken if someone is minded to do so.


2.45 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the time allocated for questions to the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Education

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I advise Members that question 2 has been withdrawn.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): On the basis of the information currently available to me, the start date for construction of the new Edenderry Nursery School is likely to be March 2016, with a six-month contract period. The project will deliver a new double-unit nursery school for 52 pupils on a new site at the junction of Lanark Way and Mayo Link, which is in the vicinity of the existing school. Construction work will be taken forward under the Belfast strategic partnership agreement between the Education Authority and the strategic partner, Amey FMP.

A supporting business case for the project has been approved, and the purchase of the new site is complete. The total cost of the project, including lands, is in the region of £1·2million. The existing Edenderry Nursery School is located in the grounds of Glenwood Primary School. Therefore, the delivery of the project not only provides much-needed additional space for both schools but provides the new Edenderry Nursery School with new accommodation on a separate site and its own identity, which will allow it to forge stronger cross-community links due to its location.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer. My colleague Brian Kingston and I had a meeting with the chief executive of the Education Authority on Friday, and she confirmed that. I thank the Minister for the announcement of the investment in the area.

The Minister mentioned that this will free up space in Glenwood Primary School. He knows that I have raised that issue with him before. Will he advise the House when work might start on the extension and refurbishment of Glenwood Primary School? It is the hub school for the greater Shankill area, and the work is much needed, as the Minister will know. In the view of the governors, teachers, local politicians and, of course, parents —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has asked his question.

Mr Humphrey: — it is important that the school should be on the current site.

Mr O'Dowd: I do not have the details for Glenwood Primary School in front of me, but I am happy to forward more information to the Member. He will know that I am acutely aware of the issues in and around the area after a development proposal was received and after discussions with local community representatives and schools about how we strategically plan education provision there. I am delighted to have moved on with the Edenderry Nursery School project, and I hope to be in a position to move on with other projects in the area as soon as possible.

Mr O'Dowd: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 together.

The Investing in the Teaching Workforce Scheme is under development in collaboration with the teaching unions and employers, and criteria for the scheme are still to be finalised. It is intended that it will be launched in early spring 2016 after all options have been explored. All relevant criteria will be published at that stage.

While I acknowledge that some disappointment has been expressed about the proposed parameters of the scheme, it must be remembered that it will have the potential to provide up to 500 permanent teaching posts for recently qualified teachers and up to 500 teachers will be able to retire early. In the absence of the scheme, neither will happen.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for his answer. The scheme has caused upset. I do not think that we can consider them new posts; they are obviously just replacement posts. The scheme will not create new employment.

After 10 years of the Minister's party holding the education portfolio, will he comment on whether young teachers in training or those who are considering teacher training have been told that they should not expect a job in the field? Can he give any advice on what work they should hope to get after their qualifications have been achieved?

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for her question. They are new jobs. Those jobs would not come online for perhaps five or 10 years. No other Department has been able to introduce a scheme to release 500 jobs on to the market in the next financial year. No private investor, foreign or domestic, has been able to produce 500 jobs in the next financial year. Yet, parties inside and outside the Chamber are manipulating the genuine concerns of some teachers on the matter and have acted irresponsibly in the hope of advancing individual and party political careers.

I am on record as saying that I cannot and will not give advice to individuals on what career choice they should make. That said, anyone taking up a career in teaching should carefully consider all the issues, including whether they will be able to obtain full-time employment at the end of their training period. I think that that is a sensible thing for a Minister to say. The career choice that people make is a matter for them. There is a wide range of options available. All I am doing is putting down a marker by saying to young, or not-so-young, people that they should consider all the options going forward. I know that, if this scheme goes ahead, 500 more newly qualified teachers will get a job this year than would have been the case. If the scheme does not go ahead, 500 newly qualified teachers will not get a job, and 500 teachers over the age of 55 will not retire early. I have been proactive in trying to assist newly qualified teachers in obtaining employment. I am also respecting the wishes of individuals who are close to retirement, and who wish to retire, by allowing them to do so in order to revitalise and refresh our teaching workforce.

Mr Ross: I understand why the Minister is attracted to a scheme to help newly qualified teachers to find permanent work, but he will be aware of a number of concerns about the proposals. Has he taken advice on the equality issues with such a scheme? If so, has that led him to reconsider any aspect of it?

Mr O'Dowd: My officials have met the Equality Commission, I have received written advice from the Equality Commission, and all those matters are under careful consideration. I have also received legal advice on the matter, and that is also under careful consideration. All those factors are playing into the decision-making process.

The term "discriminatory" has been used, and perhaps understandably so, but it is being used in such a way as to suggest that I am in breach of not only the letter of equality and employment legislation but of the spirit of that legislation. I am confident that I am not. I am confident that proactively targeting a group of newly qualified teachers, who have the greatest difficulty in finding employment, is not in breach of equality or employment legislation. It is not in breach of the letter or the spirit of the law. It has to be remembered that the group of teachers finding it most difficult to get employment are those who qualified most recently, in the last number of years. I have not yet set the number of years, but I am looking at it very carefully. I am also looking to ensure that the criteria are lawful and in line with equality legislation.

Mr Swann: This seems to have been brought about because of too many students graduating from our teacher training colleges. Has he reduced the number of places in 2016-17 at Stranmillis University College, St Mary's University College and other providers to try to address the imbalance?

Mr O'Dowd: I do not see this question being answered by closing our teacher training colleges.

Mr Swann: That is not what I said.

Mr O'Dowd: In fairness, that is what you are saying, because, if we further reduce the number of trainee teachers, we are, by default, closing our teacher training colleges. That is a fact.

I am not directly referring to the Member, but I think that it is somewhat unfair for those who call for equality in employment legislation and equality of opportunity to have said in recent days, "We have trained too many teachers. Close one or both colleges". What that really says to me is this: "I have my qualifications, I have my opportunity in life, and I have my teaching degree — everybody else can go".

Mr Lyttle: No one said that.

Mr O'Dowd: There were a number of comments from the Floor. If Members wish to check articles on various social media sites, they will find that that is exactly what has been said. It has been said in the broadcast media as well and in correspondence to me. There are those who call for the closure of our teacher training colleges. Do we train too many teachers? In 2004-5, we trained 880. We have reduced that number by over 30% and now train in and around 500. We are reducing the intake of our teacher training colleges — we train 580 teachers.

We can control the flow of student teachers into our local teacher training colleges, but we cannot control the number of students who go to England, Wales, Scotland or the South of Ireland to train as teachers and then arrive back here to register with the General Teaching Council and seek employment as teachers. We cannot control that. We can close our teacher training colleges and advise all our young people who want to train as teachers to go to England, Scotland, Wales or the South of Ireland, but we will lose the economic driver, which is the teacher training colleges, and the opportunities that those teacher training colleges give us to train teachers in our curriculum needs.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Trevor Lunn, and I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Mr Lunn: I am absolutely astonished by the Minister's assertion that to replace 500 existing jobs with 500 replacement teachers equates to 500 new jobs. That is his arithmetic here. The number of teachers being trained seems to be a big issue today. Why does he not use the numbers determined by his own teacher demand model — the model that is used by his Department — and stop this nonsense of training far too many teachers?

Mr O'Dowd: Whatever arithmetic you look at, the optimum output of the scheme is that 500 older teachers will leave their posts five to 10 years earlier than they would have previously. Five hundred recently qualified teachers will have employment opportunities that they did not have.

Mr Lunn: They are not new jobs.

Mr O'Dowd: They are new jobs and new opportunities. They refresh the teacher workforce and target a group of teachers who are finding the most difficulty in gaining employment in our society. They are new jobs. I could use the voluntary exit scheme, which is funding this proposal, to pay off 500 teachers and not replace their jobs because the education budget — a question will be asked about this later — is under severe pressure. Severe challenges exist in the education budget, but what I have achieved, in cooperation with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Executive, which voted on the funding of this scheme, is the use of the voluntary exit scheme in an imaginative and different way in order to create employment where it might otherwise have been lost. You can describe it in any way, but, in my book, they are new jobs, and I believe that those who fill those posts will see them as new jobs.

The teachers who retire early will be very glad to be vacating their posts and allowing other teachers into them. For the reasons that I outlined to Mr Swann, I do not agree with the idea that it is nonsense to train teachers. Those who are proposing the closure of our teacher training colleges need to look beyond the end of their noses. It is quite clear that, despite even what I said earlier in relation to employment prospects, many of your young people want to train as teachers. They will leave these shores and go elsewhere, but many of them will come back here and still seek employment as teachers.

Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. How does he prevent teachers who avail themselves of this scheme at the age of 55 from going back in again and subbing, blocking up the system from the other end?

Mr O'Dowd: Over the last number of years, because of changes that we have made in how retired substitute teachers are paid, and the guidance that we have issued to boards of governors, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of retired teachers coming back into the system as substitute teachers, because it is financially not viable for them to do so. The guidance that we have issued to boards of governors encourages them to seek newly qualified teachers to act as substitute teachers, rather than going back to retired teachers. It may be that, in some subject areas, it may be beneficial for a school to use a retired teacher, and schools will use them in those circumstances, but the changes to the way in which substitute teachers who have retired are paid and the guidance that we have issued to boards of governors have meant that there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of retired teachers returning to substitute teacher cover.

Mr Allister: Surely the Minister can see that the intended bias towards recently qualified teachers — those who have qualified in the last three years — will have the impact of discriminating against experienced teachers who have not yet found a permanent post. It amounts to writing off those teachers with more experience and those, perhaps, at a stage of life with more responsibilities, who need a job even more. Surely the Minister needs to review that situation and ensure that replacement teachers come from that quota of teachers who have not found permanent jobs, rather than discriminating within that quota.


3.00 pm

Mr O'Dowd: Mr Allister knows fine well the language he uses in talking about discrimination. The question that needs to be asked, Mr Allister — you should know this fine well as a barrister — is this: is the discrimination legal? Is it acceptable and legal under the terms of employment legislation and the Equality Act? That is the question, and I am sure that you have asked yourself this question —

Mr Allister: You are admitting it is discrimination.