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Official Report: Monday 25 January 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Weir: I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 25 January 2016.

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

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 25 January 2016.

Mr Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no objections, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.

Ministerial Statement

Outcome of the December Fisheries Council Meeting

Mr Speaker: The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development wishes to make a statement.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of the negotiations at the Fisheries Council, which I attended in Brussels on 14 and 15 December and which determined fishing opportunities for 2016. Members will find in the annex to my statement a map of fishing areas and a summary of the main total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas of interest to the local fleet.

Following the publication of scientific advice by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) at the end of June and at the end of October 2015 for our main stock, nephrops, the key priorities for the Council were developed through discussions between officials from the four fisheries administrations and engagement with key stakeholders and Ministers. Locally, I met the fishing industry task force on 5 November and, at that meeting, we agreed that area VII nephrops would remain my number one negotiating priority but that the case for Irish Sea haddock would be pressed hard.

My approach to the negotiations would be guided by the following key principles: total allowable catches should be determined by taking account of the most recent scientific data available; more stocks should be fished at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) in 2016 where possible; and we should support continued progress towards discard elimination. For our key priorities, we wanted to see TACs set for data-limited stocks on a case-by-case basis, taking account of stock trends; a TAC for area VII nephrops adjusted in line with the scientific advice and fishing patterns; a precautionary and responsible TAC for the herring stock in area VIa north; measures to recover sea bass stock that avoid disproportionate impacts on the more sustainable low-impact inshore fisheries; a balanced outcome for the mixed Celtic Sea and Channel fisheries, including cod, haddock, whiting, sole and plaice; and an agreement of an EU quota for blue whiting set at a MSY based on 45% of the total available.

Members may be aware that the landing obligation was introduced for the first time in January 2015 in pelagic fisheries for species such as mackerel and herring. Structures have been put in place to enable member states to work collaboratively to develop regional management proposals for the sea areas and fisheries they have an interest in. My Department works with others on the northwest waters group and, last year, I put forward discard plans for demersal fisheries as part of the progressive introduction of the landing obligation. This year will see more fisheries come within the scope of the CFP landing obligation. That meant that the Council negotiations were a little more complex, because the TACs for certain stocks needed to be raised to accommodate fish that must in future be brought ashore rather than returned to the sea. Our local fleet is now affected by this landing obligation in the nephrops and haddock fisheries.

The negotiations on the first day took place at a plenary session and then during trilateral meetings between individual member states, the Commissioner and the Luxembourg EU presidency. Following this, a first compromise was put to member states on the Tuesday morning. There was some movement in this first compromise on both my key priorities: nephrops went from -18% to -8%, and Irish Sea haddock went from -59% to -24%. What was being offered was still well short of what was needed and what the scientific evidence justified.

Members have been told often in statements such as this about how important the nephrops stock, commonly known as prawns, is to our fleet and the processing industry that depends on it. Each year, I have pressed the Commission for a fair deal on this stock that reflects the scientific advice and the prevailing fishing patterns by those member states that have quota shares. Inevitably, however, the Commission’s opening proposal has been based solely on the scientific assessment of VII different nephrops grounds, without regard to the how it is being fished — or rather, not fished — by some of the member states that hold quota. The relative stability share that each member state has of the TAC is fixed. For area VII the TAC is shared between Spain, France and Ireland, and we have 32·8%. These shares reflect historical fishing patterns, and there is no prospect of changing them for the foreseeable future.

Each year, I and my Southern counterpart, Simon Coveney, present a consistent and well-developed argument for setting the TAC higher than the science would suggest, in order to increase the value of our fixed share and get the quota that is needed by our fleets. I argue that the risk in taking this approach is very low, and landings of nephrops have been consistently below the level of the scientific advice for many years. The nephrops stock in area VII is stable, but there are some variances in the scientific catch advice from year to year. It is appropriate that the TAC changes in line with the change in the catch advice. This means that the TAC may increase in some years and decrease in others.

The scientific advice for catches in 2016 across all the nephrops stocks in area VII totalled 17,719 tons. This was 2% lower than the sum of the scientific advice for 2015, but the 2015 figure was 3% higher than that for 2014. These small variations from year to year are indicative of a stable stock that is being fished sustainably. In my discussions with the Commission and presidency, I said that the TAC for nephrops should decrease by just 2%, in line with the scientific catch advice. This would provide an appropriate TAC of just over 21,000 tons, to which a further uplift would be applied to take account of the landing obligation. This uplift is determined through scientific observations of the fishery and other flexibilities in the discard plan, and was agreed at 10·2%. I am pleased to say that the final outcome for the stock was to have a TAC of 23,348 tonnes, which represents a net increase of 8·2%.

It is Commission policy to follow a precautionary approach to TAC-setting where there is no analytical stock assessment available. I and fellow fisheries Ministers are strongly opposed to this approach, and we want to ensure that the Commission makes proposals using the scientific advice available rather than some arbitrary revision based on a one-size-fits-all policy. Irish Sea haddock is such a case, and this was my other key priority. The Commission, following its policy framework, had proposed a new TAC based on recent average catches and representing a 59% reduction on last year. However, in the case of Irish Sea haddock, reduced catches in recent years are not a reflection of the stock biomass, but due to other factors such as restrictions on days at sea, local fishing prohibitions to protect cod and the use of highly selective gears in the nephrops fishery.

In its scientific advice, ICES acknowledges that its advisory framework does not ideally suit this stock or any other stock that is subject to highly variable recruitment. The survey index used for the assessment of this stock is considered by ICES as being a good indicator of stock abundance. The 2015 estimate of stock abundance is the highest in the time series and more than double that of the late 1990s during the height of the fishery. The 2015 TAC was 1,181 tons, which was a roll-over based on the previous year’s TAC and was partially justified on the 22% increase in the index used by ICES. This year, that change was +118%, indicating a significant increase in stock size.

Ahead of the Council, my Department and AFBI put forward papers to the Commission presenting a case for an increase in the TAC of 20%. I pressed home points at the trilateral meeting with the Commission and the presidency and, in parallel with my counterpart Simon Coveney, I pressed for a significant uplift in the quota to accommodate the landing obligation. The final proposal from the Commission was to increase the TAC by 10% and uplift the quota by a further 355 tons for the landing obligation. This represents an overall increase of 40%.

A further significant development was a joint statement, which will appear in the TAC and quota regulation. It notes that the Commission and the Council understand that the assessment model for haddock in the Irish Sea is no longer fit for purpose, and they call on ICES to make every effort to find a suitable solution during 2016. Our scientific advisors in AFBI will be making an important contribution to those deliberations.

For many years, cod recovery plans have been in force in the Irish Sea to help build cod stocks. The fleet has made tremendous efforts to minimise cod mortality. Cod is now a by-catch fishery and our fleet reduces its impact on the stock by deploying highly selective gears in the nephrops fishery. There is no longer a directed fishery for Irish Sea cod, but fishers involved in the developing white fish fishery are skilfully targeting haddock while avoiding areas where cod is likely to be present. The latest assessment of cod stocks shows some small improvements.

The current cod recovery plan has been largely discredited. It provided for year-on-year restrictions on the number of days that could be fished in the cod recovery zone and year-on-year reductions in the TAC until stock targets were reached. Several years ago, the Council of Ministers took a decision to freeze the fishing effort restrictions provided for in the plan. The legality of this action was challenged in the European Court of Justice by the Commission and the Parliament. Its judgement was delivered earlier in December, with the ruling going against the Council, but the court allowed the effort freeze to remain for a further year to allow time for a new legislative instrument to replace the cod plan to be put in place. In a statement, the Commission said that it was conscious of the need to have appropriate provisions in place, and pledged its help for the Council and Parliament to achieve that aim.

The annex to my statement details the TAC movements to other fish stocks that are landed by the local fleet. The continued application of the cod recovery plan resulted in a 20% reduction in the cod TAC and there was a 56% cut in the sole TAC. We have a small amount of this quota, and the fish is caught as a by-catch. It is a concern for the future when this species is subject to the landing obligation and it may well have an impact as a choke species for the nephrops fleet. This is, however, a commitment to do further scientific work on the sole stock assessment. The reduction in herring of -6% was in line with the science and the maximum sustainable yield for this stock. There were welcome increases in hake and megrim and the fishing opportunities for other quota stocks remained unchanged.

Before I close, I want to give Members some more information about the landing obligation, which presents the most significant challenge for our fishing fleet. It is a ban on discarding fish overboard, but will apply only to stocks that are subject to total allowable catches. It started from 1 January 2015 for herring and mackerel fisheries and from 1 January 2016 for nephrops and white fish fisheries, but it does not apply to species like scallops, crab and lobster.

The main effect of the landing obligation in the North will be felt by the Irish Sea nephrops fleet. A recently published review by the Sea Fish Industry Authority of the potential economic implications of the landings obligation paints a bleak picture, with some scenarios suggesting that the fishery would be closed after only having fished a quarter of the days that it did compared to 2013. The key problem for the fleet is that it has small quotas for some stocks — whiting, sole and plaice, for example — caught as a by-catch in the nephrops fishery. These quotas will be quickly exhausted once the fleet is required to land them. These stocks are often referred to as choke species. However, the Sea Fish Industry Authority analysis excludes the effects of quota uplifts and the adoption of highly selective gears that may mitigate the impact of the landing obligation significantly. Our fleet has already adopted highly selective fishing gears. Huge changes have been made in the last two years to reduce catches of cod, and the selective fishing gear that is now in use also significantly cuts catches of juvenile whiting and other unwanted fish. The current gears reduce whiting catches by 50% to 65% and there is an ongoing programme of research involving scientists and the industry to make further improvements.


12.15 pm

Trials are being supported by my Department to further improve selectivity, especially by-catches of whiting. It is important to stress that an acceptable fishing gear is one that not only achieves conservation objectives but ensures that the commercial catch is not seriously compromised. The only way of achieving that objective is to involve industry experts at every step of the way to find acceptable solutions.

The challenge presented by the landing obligation is not one that can be completely solved by gear technology. The ability to use many of the flexibilities under the landing obligation depends on being able to provide robust data. This includes data on the state of stocks and discard levels, on limits to selectivity in fishing gears and on survivability.

An important first step will be to identify areas where data is missing or can be improved and, thereafter, take steps to produce this data. I believe that my Department and its scientific advisers have a good working relationship with our local fishing industry. We have had a number of very important fisheries/science partnerships with our fleet, and I want to see those expand to help fill the gaps in our knowledge.

Finally, realistic quota uplifts to account for the extra fish that have to be landed will be critical, and that was a key part of the work with the Commission around the December negotiations. The landing obligation has been a major focus of attention at the fishing industry task force, and it has raised a number of practical difficulties aside from quota restrictions and improving gear selectivity. The task force has also highlighted operational difficulties: the extra sorting time on board will reduce the amount of time they can fish; storage space on board will be used up; and there will be costs for additional fish boxes and ice to keep these fish separated and in good condition. Processors are also unhappy that extra costs will be incurred, and there are uncertainties about the effect of extra landings on fish prices.

I am committed to finding acceptable solutions to these real-world problems. I will be making financial resources available from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which is expected to come online shortly, to the catching and processing sectors and other businesses in the fish supply chain to assist with the handling, storage, disposal and marketing of increased supplies of fish landed under the landing obligation. I want to make sure that those measures receiving support minimise the cost of dealing with this material and maximise its potential value.

The fisheries task force also pointed to the need, for marketing and economic reasons, to make optimum use of landed species that are marketable and were previously discarded. New markets for human consumption are required for these species, and I am committed to making EMFF assistance available to support these investigations.

There are still many uncertainties and questions to be answered about how the landing obligation will work in practice and, indeed, the control framework that will be in place in future to provide an assurance that CFP obligations are being met. This is a work in progress, which will demand flexibility by all concerned.

I am grateful for this opportunity to inform Members about the outcome of the 2015 fisheries negotiations. In my key priorities for nephrops and haddock, the outcome was to secure an additional £1·2 million of fishing opportunities for local fishermen in 2016. Some 480 tons of additional prawn quota will be available for local fishermen in 2016, worth just over £1 million. This brings the value of the quota up to £14·2 million. The fleet will have access to around 160 tons of extra Irish Sea haddock, worth in the region of £170,000, which brings the value of the quota up to over £570,000.

I want to put on record my thanks to my colleagues George Eustice, Richard Lochhead, Rebecca Evans and Simon Coveney for their strong support throughout the negotiations.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): Thank you Mr Speaker, and I would like to thank the Minister for her statement. I refer the Minister to the paragraphs in her statement that make reference to landing obligations. The first of the landing obligations for species such as mackerel and herring came into effect last year. I understand from previous briefings by officials that the landing obligations for prawns and white fish came into effect on 1 January 2016. What assessment has been done on the real-world financial impact of these landing obligations on our fleet and the associated processing industry?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said throughout my statement, a number of challenges have been created for the local industry, and it is important that my officials and the scientists at AFBI continue to work with the task force that is in place to look at how we can best maximise the potential of exploiting the fish that they catch. What are the new markets for that? How can it be processed quickly and turned around into a profitable stock for the industry? Whilst there are certainly a number of challenges, I think that, collectively, we can take them on and work our way through them. It is important that we strive for efficiency in the industry, and I think that there will be opportunities with the new EMFF to bring forward some real, practical solutions to help the fishing industry to deal with the additional stock that they will have on board, including the fact that they might need to buy new boxes and the additional cost of having more ice on the boats. So there are a number of challenges. I think that, certainly, there will be opportunities for us to assess the industry and look to the future.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. Minster, you mentioned that you had secured a 24% increase of haddock despite the Commission recommending a 59% cut. What will this mean for the industry?

Mrs O'Neill: I was able to secure a significant increase in the basic TAC, as well as an appropriate uplift for the landing obligation to help the industry to meet it. Having started off with -59%, we ended up getting the Commission up to a 40% increase. That is something that creates additional opportunity for the industry. Producer organisations will have in excess of 160 tons of additional haddock available this year. That, in itself, is significant for the industry. It was quite a challenging negotiation to turn something around from what is almost -60% and come out at the other end with a 40% increase.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her statement. The best thing is to try to minimise discards. What encouragement or incentives — I am thinking in particular of future quota uplifts — are being used to promote use of more selective fishing gear to avoid catching small fish?

Mrs O'Neill: We all share the same aspiration, which is to avoid discards and certainly to minimise them as much as we can. The industry has shown significant leadership over the last number of years by presenting to the Commission its ideas on how we can have more selective gear. Ours was one of the first industries to take that forward as its own initiative, and it avoided a cut to our local quota as a result. That was a very positive initiative. We need to look continually at what types of gear can be used. The industry continues to work with the Department on trialling different selective gear to see what works best for fishermen on their boats, what minimises discards, and what allows them to have a sustainable fishery and make some profit out of their everyday work.

Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the news on the nephrops TAC. Given the implications for the white fish sector, will she update the House on the Irish Sea ecosystem project benchmarks and the cod tagging project?

Mrs O'Neill: I have no details on the latter two elements that you referred to, but I am very happy to respond to you in writing to give you more detail on where those projects sit.

It was a very difficult negotiation, and nephrops, or "prawns" as they are commonly known, are the most important fish stock for the local industry, so I was delighted that we were able to turn around what was potentially a very negative and detrimental cut to the industry and come out with an 8% increase. That creates a real and meaningful difference for the industry, which particularly needed it this year, given the challenges that it faces around white fish, discards, and selectivity and the other challenges to be met on the landing obligation. From that point of view, it was quite a successful negotiation.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her very detailed statement. We must offer gratitude for her work, and that of the Department, to come back with extra fishing opportunities worth an extra £1·2 million. The Minister will remember that, prior to going to Brussels, she met local fishermen. Their suggestions, among others, included developing more diverse and sustainable mixed fisheries in the Irish Sea to enable the Northern Irish fleet to be less reliant on the prawn/nephrops catch. Is the Minister satisfied that, notwithstanding the extra £1·2 million, that has materialised? Will there be a mixed opportunity, rather than depending on nephrops all the time?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. As I said, the priority for the industry is nephrops, but we do need to have a more diverse fishery if we are going to be sustainable into the future. We therefore need to develop other opportunities. It was great that we were able to turn around what was a very negative proposal for haddock and come out with a 40% increase. That, in itself, creates a bit more of a opportunity outside of the mainstay of nephrops fishing.

An issue that was not resolved at the December Fisheries Council meeting is the task force working with the Department on what the medium- and longer-term aims for the industry are and what the strategy is for the industry going forward. It will certainly include developing a diverse fishery — one that does not depend solely on nephrops. Like anything in life, if you put all your eggs in one basket, you will be very dependent on it and held to ransom. It would be to the benefit of the industry if we could get to a stage at which we have a more diverse fishery.

Mr Speaker: Before we continue, we are getting very bad interference from the sound system, which makes life very difficult for Hansard. Will Members please check that they have their phones switched off?

Mr Wells: Each January, the Minister comes to the House and reports on the high-wire act that is negotiations about our fisheries in Brussels. Will she note that Norway and Iceland have thriving, sustainable fish stocks and that they are outside the European Union? Given that, why did she lecture us last week on the dangers to Northern Ireland from the prospect of Brexit?

Mrs O'Neill: Because I have genuine concerns about a Brexit and its implications for local industry, not just fisheries but the agrifood industry. It is up to the Member whether he wants to go out into his constituency and talk to individual farmers who would lose their basic payment as a result of pulling out of Europe. Will the Tory Government replace that? I doubt it very much but, if he can give that assurance, I am sure that people would be very interested to hear it.

I can articulate my views on our position on being in or out of Europe. Are there challenges? Absolutely. Purely from the point of view of fisheries, there are difficulties when I go every December to argue the quota for the year ahead. It presents all sorts of challenges but I think that our position is far better in Europe, fighting our corner and making a case for the industry. We could debate all day our membership of the European Union and what it means.

The local agrifood industry would be decimated by coming out of Europe. What would the implications be for trade on this island? We export something like 80% of what we produce. Where would that product go? What about trade agreements? Are they going to be secured? Will that be allowed to happen? There are too many uncertainties, I believe. I will always articulate my view, as you are entitled to articulate yours.

Mr Allister: Six weeks after the event, the statement is rather stale, so I will follow up on Mr Wells's point. Surely, even as an avowed Europhile, the Minister can now see that our 40 years in the EU has been a disaster for the fisheries sector? It is but a shadow of its former self. We are told where we can fish, when we can fish and what we can fish with in our own waters by Brussels, and we are handed down quotas. Surely the Minister can see, whatever she might think of other sectors, that the fishing sector would benefit tremendously from being freed of the shackles of the EU? Is she going to deny that simple fact?

Mrs O'Neill: I have made my points consistently in this House. At every Question Time when the Member has asked me about our membership of Europe, I have always said that there are certainly challenges but that we are better placed in Europe, with strong MEP teams fighting our corner. When it comes to fisheries, every December for the past five years, I have gone out and fought our corner very articulately and come back with good news, year on year.

We need to look at it in the round. Taking agriculture for example, who is going to replace the £300 million in single farm payments, or basic payments as they are now known? Who is going to replace that in the local economy? I am quite sure that you are aware that most farmers could not survive without their basic payment. Who is going to replace the £500 million in the rural development programme, which assists local rural tourism, rural businesses and basic services in rural communities?

Mr Allister: Tell us about fisheries.

Mrs O'Neill: I tell you what: I have seen the Tories in action. I have seen what they have done over the last number of years and I certainly would not want to give anyone a guarantee that they will replace supports for rural communities, for the agrifood industry and for business.

Mr Allister: Tell us what Brussels has done to our fisheries.

Mr Speaker: Order. I will not warn the Member again.

Mrs O'Neill: That is my view.

Mr I McCrea: Without wanting to be repetitive, the Minister said that there are difficulties and challenges ahead. Anyone who knows anything of the fishing industry knows that, as the previous Member said, it has faced nothing but challenges and difficulties, given the regulations that Europe has very vociferously handed down. Will the Minister not at least concede that, whether or not she trusts the Tories and believes that they will give any subsidies to the fishing industry, there would be benefits from not having regulations coming from Europe and, in that sense, a Brexit might not be a bad thing?

Mrs O'Neill: No, I am not convinced of that. There are too many uncertainties. We do not know what would be at the other side of that. We do not know what it would mean for the fishing industry's trading patterns and for the wider agrifood industry. There is no point in rehearsing the arguments that I made previously, but there are too many uncertainties.

We do not know what will come out the other side, but the one thing that we can be certain of is Tory policy. The Tories will not be up for supporting subsidies for the fishing industry, the agrifood industry or the farming industry. They are not up for that. I do not think that any of us can stand over anything that will be at the other side of a potential Brexit, but we can stand over the Tories' track record.


12.30 pm

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. It is clear to see that there is an election around the corner, with the TUV and the DUP fighting over the "Leave Europe" stance. Perhaps one of the benefits from Europe on this — the Minister alluded to it in her statement — is the European maritime fisheries fund. Perhaps the Minister could outline what benefits that fund —

Mr Wells: Plant.

Mr Hazzard: It is not a plant. The Member is shouting "plant" from a sedentary position. As a Member who represents the fishing industry in Ardglass and Kilkeel, I know that the European maritime fisheries fund would go a long way to improving the industry. Those two ports have a specific interest in it. Perhaps the Minister could outline the benefits that that fund could have.

Mrs O'Neill: I think that the industry in that area would be keen to know that some Members are suggesting that we should send back the £13·7 million that will be available to their communities. That is the figure that we have for the EMFF programme over the next six years. That, along with local funding, will bring over £18·3 million of investment for fishermen, processors, the aquaculture sector and for the communities and people who live round the ports. That is significant investment in the time ahead that will allow us to do a lot of initiatives to help those communities and help us to deal with some of the challenges that have been identified around the landing obligations. It will be the backbone of supporting the fishing and seafood sectors up until 2020, with the bulk of the funding going towards dealing with the CFP reform measures and improving the economic future and sustainability of local fishing ports.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, to move the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

Mr Speaker: One amendment has been tabled. Members will have received a copy of the grouping list and the Marshalled List, which provide details of the amendment. The amendment deals with rate relief for community amateur sports clubs. Once the debate on the amendment is completed, the Questions on stand part will be put. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (Power for Department to increase rates reduction provided under Article 31 of the 1977 Order in certain cases)

Mr McKay: I beg to move the following amendment:

In page 1, line 8, at end insert

"(5B) Prescribed cases in regulations under paragraph (5A) shall include hereditaments which are occupied by community amateur sports clubs.
 
(5C) The first regulations under paragraph (5A) shall be made by 30 September 2016.",
 
(b) in paragraph (6) insert where appropriate—
 
""community amateur sports clubs" means registered clubs within the meaning of section 658(6) of the Corporation Tax Act 2010;".".

The purpose of the amendment is to provide relief to sports clubs so that the money saved can be used for reinvestment in sport, in our children and our young people and in the community as a whole. I want to state from the outset my appreciation of the fact that the Department and the Minister have listened to my argument about supporting our local community amateur sports clubs and adopted a position of offering extra relief to many clubs that carry out tireless work, day in day out. That is to be welcomed and will no doubt be appreciated by the many clubs that will benefit.

I was in Ahoghill in my constituency last Friday night to watch a comedy play called 'St Mungo's', which is about a local GAA club; it is absolutely fantastic viewing, regardless of whether or not you are into GAA. One of the main characters is a local man who comes home from living in London. After he comes home, he promises his wife that he will not become too involved in the local club. Within a short time, he is out at the club every night of the week, and he ends up coaching the underage players and managing and playing in the senior team. There are so many men and women who make that kind of commitment all year round and do not seek any praise or reward. Some end up divorced, and some do not. They turn so many people's lives around. They are leaders for our young people and our children; they are on the front line of our public health service; and they save government millions in recreation provision and health spending.

The money saved through this relief will be of huge benefit to the people who drive our amateur sporting clubs. I spoke to one amateur sporting club member in recent days who told me that her rural club was considering building extra facilities but rates would be a major factor and, if the annual overhead was too much, the club would not proceed with that extra facility in a rural community. That club has no licensed bar, but I know of many clubs with a bar that have great facilities. Some have facilities in rural communities that have not benefited from one pound of government funding but have provided a fantastic public service in those communities for generations. They should not be treated differently from other clubs simply because they have a bar to fundraise for their facilities, for their underage teams or for bus fares to take the players to matches. Many rugby clubs will not benefit if the amendment is not agreed. I spoke to many of them over the weekend. They deserve the relief. Ulster Rugby has produced some of the best rugby players in the world, and of course it deserves that support to ensure that more money goes to facilities to train even more world-class players.

The amendment sets out to do two things. First, it sets out, under paragraph (5A), that the prescribed cases to which the Department will provide 100% relief shall include community amateur sports clubs (CASCs). That is in accordance with paragraphs (3) and (4) of article 31 of the Rates Order, which ensure that the rate relief will apply only to the area used solely for the purposes of a prescribed recreation. That will mean that all community amateur sports club pitches will qualify for 100% relief. It will mean that all CASC changing rooms, for example, will apply for 100% relief and that all parts of CASC facilities that relate to prescribed recreation will qualify for 100% relief. Secondly, the amendment introduces a deadline that ensures that the Department will bring forward regulations before 30 September 2016. That is important. I have no doubt that the present Minister would bring forward regulations to support our local clubs, but we simply do not know who the new Minister will be after the elections. It is important that he or she is focused on getting this work done from the moment that he or she takes up office. In my experience on the Finance and Personnel Committee, the officials in the Department responsible for this area are some of the best in their field. The date of 30 September is ample time for them to introduce regulations.

I do not want to labour the arguments any further. The Assembly has discussed them at length since this was first brought to the Floor by my constituency colleague Mr Swann five years ago. My final point is this: if a club without a bar has a pitch and changing rooms that qualify for 100% rate relief, a club with a bar should also have 100% rate relief on its pitch and changing rooms. Why? Those facilities are concerned solely with sport and promoting health and well-being. It is not right or consistent that they are subject to rating because of the club room bar. That bar should be rated, not the recreational facilities.

I very much appreciate the work that has been done on this in the Department by officials, the previous Minister and the current Minister. However, there is a danger of a two-tier system being introduced. All sporting clubs, especially rugby clubs, which are particularly disadvantaged by this, deserve additional support, particularly given the current economic situation. I know of clubs that had good sponsorship in recent years but, because of the economic downturn and, in that instance, the impact on construction, no longer have that funding stream. There is an onus on us to give something back to our amateur sporting clubs. Many of the facilities have been built and funded through the support of the community. Many of the facilities have not availed themselves of government funding of any kind, so there is an onus on us, especially for future development. There are clubs out there that wish to build new stands, facilities or changing rooms, and the rates issue is holding them back. I know especially, coming from a rural constituency, how beneficial those clubs are in a rural setting where there are no other facilities of a similar nature.

Passing the amendment and the Bill will open many doors for the future development of amateur sports clubs in our communities, and that is why I tabled the amendment.

Mr I McCrea: What we thought was going to happen with the amendment has happened. I thought that we had got past this part of the debate, but we seem to be getting a touch of revisionism and trying to go back over old ground.

As the proposer of the amendment said, a long debate on this is not necessary. However, it is important that we look at the amendment. Its proposer wishes to give 100% rate relief to all community amateur sports clubs, whether they have a bar or not. He has not taken into consideration the arguments that the hospitality sector brought before the Committee, including their concern that some larger clubs host events that could be held in local hotels. The fact that clubs are able to do that means that money is taken away from hoteliers. In a sense, it is their right to do that, but it is right that they pay rates for the part of their premises that has a bar. That is the sole reason why we will oppose the amendment.

Whilst the majority of the Bill deals with the very issue the Member is talking about, namely, allowing clubs to reinvest in their facilities, teams and whatever else they do, a bar area brings in money that a club can reinvest. I have not bought into the argument that we need to accept the Member's amendment. He is passionate about the issue. However, it is not the right thing to do. We are going down the right route with 100% rate relief for those without a bar and 80% for those with one. Those with a bar do not lose anything as they already receive 80% rate relief.

The best way to take the Bill forward is to leave it as is. I understand the Member's desire to have the matter dealt with. However, given the concerns that the hospitality sector raised with us during the short time that we had to scrutinise the Bill, it should be left as it is, therefore we will be opposing the amendment.

Ms Hanna: I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. As we said at the Bill's previous stages, we are content with it receiving accelerated passage. However, we should not be in the habit of bypassing the Assembly's role.

The first clause provides the power to enhance rate relief, which we support. We will support the amendment, as we supported that provision in the private Members' Bill. I thank Mr McKay for his trailer for 'St Mungo's', which, courtesy of St Michael's Primary School PTA , is coming to south Belfast next week, so I am glad to hear that it is a good show.

If the amendment falls, at least the 80% reduction is plenty to be going on with for all the reasons that both Members who have spoken outlined. It will allow clubs to develop, and so we will support the amendment. However, we take on board the arguments in favour of both 80% and 100% and appreciate that some issues with state aid and so on led to the delay in the debate. Whether it is the sale of alcohol or the issue of profitability, we cannot let it stop us making progress on the general principle and purpose of the Bill.

We are very supportive of the second clause, which is about window displays, as I outlined last week. I have subsequently discovered that it is quite innovative, in that nobody else has tried it. That is good because there is a perception that we just borrow our legislation from other jurisdictions. We welcome both provisions and will support the amendment.


12.45 pm

Mr Cree: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I rise to complain about the amendment. It goes back a little bit to, and links into, the CASC registration. I think that, in doing that, it excludes others that are not registered. So, I think, we need some other system so that, in the spirit of such clubs, every amateur sports club has the possibility. I do not know if there is a constitution, for instance, with which these CASCs have to comply, but there is, certainly, this question from me: does it exclude some other amateur sports clubs? I think that it does. So, at this stage, I will be voting against the amendment.

Mrs Cochrane: I welcome the opportunity to speak at Consideration Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. The amendment is primarily concerned with the rating of premises that are occupied by community and amateur sports clubs. I commend Mr McKay for bringing the issue forward and for the fact that at least some of his proposal is now included in the Department's Bill.

There is no doubt that these clubs play an important role in Northern Ireland. Having grown up as an active member of a ladies' hockey club, I know the positive impact that being involved in sports can have on our physical and mental health. Such clubs also provide activities for young people, and many are involved in positive community relations work. I think that it is important that, as an Assembly, we support them in their growth and sustainability. I therefore welcome the Bill, in general, as it provides a power to enhance the rate relief for the clubs, subject to criteria being prescribed in regulations.

Looking specifically at the amendment, whilst I am sympathetic to the idea that we should increase the relief to all clubs that are currently eligible for the 80% relief, I have some reservations about whether it is fair if it is done with such a blunt tool. I am supportive of the bar areas being assessed, similar to other non-sporting club bars, and to a decision being taken then on whether the club should be able to avail itself of the additional relief in the bar area. However, that is not what the amendment is proposing, unfortunately. I am supportive of the second part of the amendment, which places a date of introduction for the reductions by 30 September 2016 to allow our eligible clubs to receive the relief as soon as possible. Again, however, that has not been drafted as a separate amendment. That makes it difficult to try to support that aspect of it, if we are not convinced of the merits of the amendment in its totality.

I will listen carefully to further contributions to see if there is further clarification on how additional support might be given in a fair and balanced manner, before I commit one way or the other.

Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Thank you to those Members who have contributed to the debate — this afternoon. I had to check to make sure that we were in the afternoon.

There is only one amendment tabled at this stage. I am in the position of having to oppose it when it is taken in its entirety. I will take some time to work through the reasons why. It is regrettable that we find ourselves in this position. There are elements within the amendment that would have been acceptable to me, and which would have fallen neatly within the stated aim of the Bill, as introduced, and my preferred policy position for consultation.

I will start positively and look at the good points within the amendment, and then we will come to the others. In looking at the positive aspects of the amendment to clause 1, I can support the express requirement to make regulations by the end of September. It is, largely, a cosmetic change, because that was my Department's intent. Nonetheless, I would be happy to put it in the Bill, if it provided Members with greater surety. Likewise, I am happy to make the express reference to "community amateur sports clubs". Again, that would be a presentational change, because that is another key aspect of my preferred policy. I have no issue, per se, with the reference being put into the Bill if Members feel that it would be of benefit.

I will move on, with regret, to outline why I cannot support the amendment in its totality.

My reason for opposing the amendment is that its effect, either intentionally or unintentionally on behalf of the Members tabling it, will to revert to the policy that was advocated by the private Member's Bill on this area, which my party and my predecessor opposed. Members will recall that my predecessor vehemently opposed that Bill and the depth of my Department's concerns with that approach. This is a different Bill, but the position has not changed.

I know that, when the Committee considered the issue, it recognised that matters were not as straightforward as Mr McKay previously outlined in advocating his Bill. The valid concerns of the hospitality industry were vindicated in its evidence session and underlined the genuine nature of its concerns, which some chose to doubt during the October debate. Indeed, anyone reading the Minutes of Evidence from those Committee sessions would have grasped the complexity of the issue at hand, the competing policy considerations at play and the lack of understanding of this issue, I think, on Mr McKay's part. If anything, the Committee consideration heavily underlined the need for the completion of the necessary due process work before the detail is legislated for.

At Second Stage, I commented on the problems associated with a blanket policy position being enshrined in the amendment; for example, the award of enhanced relief to all community amateur sports clubs. Those problems, now well-documented in the Chamber and in Committee, centre on the lack of due process work and the competition issues created by the policy approach adopted in the previous private Member's Bill in this area and the amendment being considered today. Unlike the Members proposing the amendment, I cannot dispense with those concerns. My Department would have to defend a judicial review against such a weak and ill thought-through policy and the public purse would have to fund any shaky defence associated with such a case.

The specific detail of my issue with the proposed amendment relates to the new paragraph 5B, which is drafted in a way that prevents the prescribing of conditions that would have to be satisfied before enhanced relief would be awarded. I hope that is inadvertent. The amendment has the effect of requiring all community amateur sports club cases falling within clause 1(2) to be given the relief.

Should the three Members be receptive, I would be open to a change that would retain most of the drafting in the amendment but reinstate the ability to prescribe conditions that would have to be satisfied. As Members know, I would then intend to consult on the use of that conditionality provision to limit relief to community amateur sports clubs without bar facilities and/or a liquor licence. That would be done very simply by adjusting paragraph 5B to insert the words, "subject to such conditions as may be prescribed" after the words, "shall include".

As a show of good faith and in a spirit of cooperation, should Members agree with my opposition to the amendment, I would offer the opportunity to meet with Mr McKay and others to discuss the possibility of agreeing such a further revision that could then be tabled at Further Consideration Stage. I would be very happy to support an adjustment that has conditionality reinserted, but I cannot support the amendment as it stands.

Given the issues that I cited, I ask therefore that Members simply oppose the amendment. Should the amendment pass, at a minimum, a further amendment for Further Consideration Stage would be required to revise clause 1 in line with my earlier suggestion so that it remains compatible with the preferred policy position of the Department. I appeal to Members to decline the current amendment and ask them to work with me on a revised draft of that amendment that we can all advocate in the Further Consideration Stage. If we cannot do that, the amendment stands, and I will give serious consideration to the next steps for the Bill and its continued merit.

I want to conclude by responding to my colleague Mr Cree's point about the omission of community amateur sports clubs from the original Bill. That was deliberate, because consultation will draw out in detail the issues that Mr Cree has rightly raised. That is the point that we want to get to. I want to ensure that what we have in the Bill is fair and equitable. The amendment would leave us in a very unfair situation, and I therefore ask Members not to support it.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members and, indeed, the Minister for their contributions. The nature of the debate has been ideal and is how Bills should be considered.

Mr McCrea noted concerns from the hospitality sector about this. They have been well aired in recent months. The amendment is concerned solely with areas of prescribed recreation. The additional relief will not apply to any bars, or facilities associated with bars, in any clubs. That has been made very clear by the reference to article 31(3) and 31(4). The relief will go towards the stands, changing rooms and pitches but not towards any bars.

I assure Ms Hanna that 'St Mungo's Luganulk' is a great show. I assure everybody of that, regardless of whether you are interested in GAA or not. I know that a few there were not interested in GAA but thoroughly enjoyed it anyway. I hope that everybody in the House has an opportunity to see 'St Mungo's Luganulk'. Ms Hanna welcomed the provision and the amendment, and I welcome the continued support of the SDLP for this position.

Mr Cree asked whether what is being proposed excludes amateur sports clubs. It does not, because there will continue to be relief for all amateur sports clubs. There is a need to qualify for this relief, and I believe that the Department is using the title of "community amateur sports clubs" because that is already in the debates associated with the Bill. The intent is to use the community and amateur sports clubs bar, if you like, to qualify. Amateur sports clubs that qualify for relief at the moment will continue to qualify for the 80% relief. What the amendment and, indeed, the Bill does is in addition to what is already in place. I have used the title "community amateur sports clubs". The Department is going in that direction as well, but there will continue to be 80% relief for all amateur sports clubs, regardless of whether they have CASC status or not.

Ms Cochrane said that she supports half the amendment. I hope that that sways her to support the amendment in its entirety. I suspect not. I believe that we need a commencement date for the proposals, because the Bill is so wide in scope. Indeed, I welcome the Minister's comment that he supports that as well.

The Minister raised a number of issues. I appreciate his approach to the issue and appreciate his offer, but I wish to put the amendment forward this afternoon. The Minister has to abide by the Department's position, and he is right that the former Minister vehemently opposed the private Member's Bill. Regardless of how the vote goes this afternoon, I would appreciate discussing with the Minister how to move this through the next two stages.


1.00 pm

My concern is that it appears to be a win-lose situation: if you have a bar in a club, you get absolutely nothing from some of the proposals that have been put forward, whereas, if you are an amateur sports club that fundraises through measures aside from having a bar on-site, you get the full 100% relief. The starkness of those two positions is a concern. However, I believe that regardless of the outcome of the vote, all parties and, indeed, the Department can work ahead.

I appreciate the nature of the debate and propose the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.


1.15 pm

That the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA Bill 76/11-16] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

The motion has been tabled in accordance with Standing Order 42(4) to seek Assembly approval for the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill proceeding under the accelerated passage procedure. On Tuesday 12 January, in advance of the Bill's introduction in the Assembly, junior Minister McCann and I attended a meeting of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which had been designated as the appropriate Committee to examine the Bill. At that meeting, we explained, as we are required to do, the reasons why the accelerated passage procedure is needed for the Bill, the consequences of it not being granted and the steps taken to minimise the future use of the procedure. Having provided those explanations, we answered members' questions on a range of issues related to the Bill. They included discussion about the anticipated timescale for the passage of the Bill in the Chamber and the need for it to use the accelerated passage procedure if it is to conclude its legislative stages before the end of the mandate. No member of the Committee voiced concern over the principle of the Bill, which is to reduce the membership of the Assembly by way of a reduction of one in the number of Members returned by each constituency. I now wish to explain those issues to the Assembly and to seek Members' support for the use of the accelerated passage procedure for the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill.

Reform of the Assembly's institutions, including the size of the membership of the Assembly, has been the subject of lengthy and detailed discussion and debate over a considerable period. In 2012, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee produced a report on reduction of the number of Members that identified areas of commonality broadly comparable to what is now proposed. Indeed, a reduction to five in the number of Members to be returned for each constituency was the number most commonly referred to during the Committee's inquiry on the matter.

Through the discussions and debate that have taken place on the issue, it is clear that, while there is an acknowledgement of the particular circumstances here, which provided for an Assembly that is, per capita of population, larger than its counterparts in Scotland and Wales, there is now broad consensus among the parties that there should be a reduction in its membership and that the legislation by which that can be provided should be made now and without further delay. The Fresh Start Agreement reaffirmed the commitment in the original Stormont House Agreement to reduce the number of Members returned for each constituency in time for the 2021 election and committed to having the Bill introduced in the Assembly no later than the end of November 2015 and for it to apply to any post-2016 extraordinary election.

It would, of course, have been preferable if the Bill could have been introduced in time for it to have been moved forward under the usual processes and to have avoided the use of the accelerated passage procedure. Although it had been hoped to introduce the Bill at an earlier stage, immediately following the conclusion of the Fresh Start Agreement, it was first necessary to seek the Executive's agreement to the introduction of the Bill. As a change to the number of Members to be returned for each constituency is a reserved matter, it was also necessary to seek the Secretary of State's consent to the consideration of the Bill by the Assembly. That consent was received shortly before the Assembly went into its Christmas recess, so the Bill is now being progressed at the earliest possible opportunity in this term.

Due to the stage that we have reached in the current Assembly mandate and the guarantee that the Bill will complete all its legislative stages before the end of the mandate and receive Royal Assent before the election, it is, in practical terms, necessary for the accelerated passage procedure to be used.

Without use of the procedure, we anticipate that, at best, the Bill could only reach its Consideration Stage by the time the Assembly is dissolved and the current mandate ends in late March. In such circumstances, the Bill would therefore fall, its legislative passage would cease, and the momentum for the change to be made would be lost or, at best, considerably delayed into the next mandate.

It is our belief that, were the motion to permit the Bill to proceed by way of accelerated passage not to be supported by the House and were it to fail, this institution would be out of step with the broad sentiment, both political and amongst the wider electorate, for the change to take place and for the matter to be definitively settled during the current mandate. We believe that to leave the matter unresolved into the new mandate would incur justifiable criticism. Providing for the change by means of this legislation will also provide certainty for the political parties as to the future size of the Assembly and provide sufficient time for them to consider and plan for that reduction.

There is a real public appetite for change to take place and an expectation that it will occur within a reasonable time frame. Were the passage of the Bill during the current mandate to be impeded through accelerated passage not being granted, implementation of the change would be delayed and the House would be out of step with public sentiment on the matter.

The special circumstances associated with the Bill have therefore occasioned the exceptional request to the Assembly for the use of the accelerated passage procedure. An institutional reform of this nature, which will result in a change to the size of the Assembly, is considered to be unique in the change that it will effect. As such, there is minimal likelihood of such circumstances recurring for the foreseeable future that would necessitate the use of this procedure again on this matter.

A Fresh Start has provided a basis for addressing the important institutional reform of the Assembly and has made it possible for us to move forward, but the opportunity to do so needs to be taken quickly. We ask Members for their support to having the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill progressed by the accelerated passage procedure.

Mr Sheehan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee): The junior Ministers met the Committee on Tuesday 12 January 2016. During the meeting, the Ministers outlined the purpose of the Bill and explained the need for the Bill to progress via the accelerated passage procedure. The Bill provides for a reduction in the number of Assembly Members returned for each constituency. The provisions in the Bill are in line with the agreements reached in the Stormont House Agreement and A Fresh Start. Both agreements outline a number of changes to the institutions to make them more efficient and economical while still serving the needs of the people in the region.

Members will be aware that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee examined the issue in some detail during its review of the number of Members and Departments in 2012. In response to concerns raised by Members, the junior Ministers explained that, although the Bill will not take effect until the first Assembly election after the next Assembly election, the legislation needs to be in place in the event of an extraordinary election. That could take place at any time after the May 2016 elections. Indeed, the Committee explored with the junior Ministers the implications of a possible early extraordinary election in the event of gridlock. The Committee was satisfied that the Bill does not legislate for the different circumstances under which an early election could be called, only the number of Members who could be returned for each constituency.

There was no disagreement from the Committee about the need for accelerated passage in this case, and I would like to make it clear that the Committee supported accelerated passage for the Bill. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Lyons: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is important that we give our assent to the motion and allow the Bill to have accelerated passage. My party is obviously very keen for the Bill to go through, and we will no doubt talk about that during the Second Stage debate. At the moment, we very much hope that the House gives its consent to accelerated passage.

Most Members will have had the opportunity to read the Bill, and it would not have taken them too long. It is very short and simple, and basically comes down to the fact that we are reducing the number of Members that are returned in each constituency from six to five. As I said, there will be an opportunity for us to debate that later, but, with accelerated passage, we will remove the Committee Stage from the process and the evidence sessions and clause-by-clause scrutiny that may come with that. Given that the Bill is so simple, that it has support and that we are coming towards the end of the mandate, all in all, although we do not want to use the accelerated passage procedure too often, it is right that we use it in this instance so that it can go through the Assembly before the end of the mandate. That will allow us to deliver and say to people out there that we understand their concerns about the size of this place, we are doing something about it, the legislation will be in place for the first election that takes place after May — whenever that will be — and each constituency will return only five Members.

I thank the Minister for tabling the motion in the House today, and I urge other Members to give it their support.

Mr Attwood: I will reserve most of my remarks for the Second Stage of the Bill, which will follow shortly. I want to make three points at this stage.

Like other parties, the SDLP consents to accelerated passage on a without prejudice basis, in that it should not be the norm — it is not the norm — and should be the exception. In the last days of this mandate, we find that it is not exceptional to have accelerated passage, and, on too many occasions, it is beginning to be used to inform how the business of the House is conducted. That is not consistent with best democratic standards or the best input by the people whom we represent. We need to caution ourselves that, whilst the SDLP will consent to accelerated passage in this regard, it is without prejudice, and it should be used only in exceptional circumstances. We also put down a marker that, if the next mandate is to be materially different from this one, the House, the Committees and the people of Northern Ireland need to have a full opportunity to assess all legislation that comes before the Chamber rather than rushing to legislate at the end of mandates, which is never the wisest or most sensible course of action.

I differ from Mr Sheehan in one regard. He said that the purpose behind the Bill was to make the Chamber and politics "more efficient" and effective. Anyone who thinks that reducing the number of Members in each constituency from six to five will provide a panacea and automatically make something more efficient and effective does not recognise the scale of the issues that face the Assembly and politics in the North. It may make the Assembly more efficient and effective, but to presume so is a leap of faith that is not based in logic or political reality. I will comment more on that at Second Stage.

As the last Member who spoke indicated, it is a simple Bill, but it is not a simple proposal. The architecture of the Good Friday Agreement built multiple mechanisms into the life of these institutions to recognise that which was denied to too many people and citizens of this part of the world since the partition of Ireland: the principle of inclusion. Whilst the reduction from six to five, in numerical terms, is simple, let us caution ourselves that, in doing that, we do not simply go down the road of further mechanisms that might, innocently or otherwise, lead to the removal of the principle of inclusion that was so denied to our politics for so long and to our people for too long.

Let us not make the principle of simplicity the enemy of the principle of inclusion.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for being brief in his comments but point out that he strayed into discussing the Bill. We will have a further opportunity for that.


1.30 pm

Mr Nesbitt: I am in no way tempted to pick up where the last Member left off. I will delve into those issues in the next debate.

This debate is about accelerated passage. The Ulster Unionist Party is opposed to accelerated passage for the Bill because we see no need for it. It has been coming for a very long time. The junior Minister, in her opening remarks, made it clear that there has been broad consensus on the policy intent of the Bill for a number of years, so there is no good reason why it should not have been introduced in a timelier manner, which would have meant that there was no need for accelerated passage. After all, it is not for the next election; it is for the election after that, which is in 2021 — unless the DUP and Sinn Féin know something that we do not. Towards the end of the last mandate, they were boastful of the fact that the mandate had survived full term, and, recently, of course, they were equally boastful that they had overcome existential threats. There is plenty of time, and, rather than further overloading the remaining legislative programme, which will, as I understand it, keep us here late into many sitting nights, this would be an appropriate Bill to introduce as the first item of business for the next mandate after 5 May. On that basis, we oppose accelerated passage.

Mr Lyttle: The Alliance Party agrees that accelerated passage is not a good practice. The junior Minister has set out reasons why she thinks that it is needed: in my opinion — I think that the public will see this clearly as well — the reasons for the delay were the Sinn Féin blockage of the welfare reform deal that, subsequently, it appears to have agreed in large part and the DUP Executive hokey-cokey. As a result, two important government reforms — the restructuring of Departments and the reduction of MLAs — will have gone through via accelerated passage. That is not good practice, and the Alliance Party puts that on record.

This is a relatively straightforward issue. It is a proposal to reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 and from six to five in each of the 18 constituencies. The parties agree with it in principle. Public sentiment is clearly for more efficient, more effective government, which raises this question: why wait until 2021? Why not deliver it for 2016? That is what should be accelerated rather than the need for accelerated passage.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak here today. Some Members are finding it a bit difficult to stay on topic, so I will be succinct. As outlined by other Members, we should not be accustomed to using accelerated passage, although it is certainly needed for this Bill. Some Members have suggested that we would have plenty of time in the next mandate, but we must remember that, in the past six months, there have been various amounts of instability and, at one point, some people pulled out of the Executive etc. As we do not know exactly where we will be at all times, we should take precautions. It is the right thing to do to ensure that the legislation is passed and is on the books. I look forward to the more extensive conversation that we will have and the discussion of the principles of the Bill. As things stand now, I am happy to accept accelerated passage.

Mr McCallister: Broadly, the main argument for accelerating the Bill seems to be that we do not know how stable the next term will be. It is not a tremendous vote of confidence in the Fresh Start Agreement if we think that, after the election in May, there will be another one in the autumn or the following year. I have been a Member for almost nine years, and the Assembly has teetered on the edge for a long time. I am talking about elections. Elections have never actually come early. In fact, during this mandate, we put the election off for a year. So why the rush? I agree with Mr Nesbitt's point that this could easily be the first item of business in the new Assembly. What tends to happen is that there is a rush to legislate in the last few weeks and months of a mandate and then we spend the first two years of the next mandate debating motions. This would have been a good one to start off with.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. Is it not the case that, while individuals will be thinking of putting their name forward for election, proceeding with this legislation and using accelerated passage to do it will give clarity to anybody who wants to stand that they will be standing in a five-seater constituency come the following election? Is it not much better to send out the clear message that that is how it will be, so that there is no uncertainty around the constituencies being six-seaters and all of that? I understand why some people are howling for their seats this afternoon, but is it not much better to send out that clear message?

Mr McCallister: The clear message that he is sending out is that we need to accelerate the passage of the Bill because we do not have the confidence that we will survive the next term. That is the message. I have consistently been against accelerated passage, where the Executive ask the House to agree to accelerate legislation with no good reason. There is ample time. Goodness knows, after 5 May, we will have five years to legislate for this. Mr Poots's argument is that we need to accelerate the Bill because it gives clarity to those seeking election, but it gives them no clarity beyond having to face party selection or the electorate in five years' time.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: I will, certainly.

Mr Allister: Does the Member not think that it is merely a fig leaf for those who are embarrassed by the greed and squander of the House, who want to be able to go to the electorate and say, "Oh, we have reduced the number of Departments and MLAs, aren't we doing well?"? Is it not just a fig leaf for that?

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to resist getting sucked into talking about the Bill. We are talking about accelerated passage.

Mr McCallister: Again, I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Speaker. At least Mr Allister's well-made point is on the record. I am opposed to accelerated passage. It is overstretching the Executive's power always to ask the Assembly to do it, and it is completely unnecessary.

Mrs Pengelly: I am grateful for Members' contributions to the debate. I first reiterate that, at this late stage in the current mandate and given the need for the Bill to receive Royal Assent before the May 2016 Assembly election, there is no alternative to accelerated passage if the change is to be given effect before the end of the mandate. While the scope for any change to the Bill's provisions is extremely limited, the governing legislation specifies that the number of Members returned can only be reduced or increased by one. We acknowledge that it would have been preferable for the Bill to have been taken under the normal procedures for Assembly Bills; however, as I have explained, its introduction only became possible with the conclusion of the talks process and following extensive discussions and consultations on the matter.

The change outlined in the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is the most significant reform of the Assembly since it was established and complements the proposed reduction in the number of Departments, legislation for which is also currently proceeding through the Assembly. The change will result in an Assembly containing a number of MLAs that is better aligned to the size of the Administration, the range of functions over which it has responsibility and public expectations of an efficient and cost-effective system of government.

I welcome the support of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and the remarks of the Deputy Chair. The Member rightly outlines that the Bill is a very simple one. This is not a new issue; it has been extensively discussed and consulted on. I welcome Gordon Lyons's remarks. He echoed the Deputy Chair's words and reiterated the fact that this is a short, clear and simple Bill. I agree with him that this is something that people have asked for and want. It is something that people expect us to get on with and deliver.

Where Mr Attwood's comments are concerned, I will say that, absolutely, we agree that this should not be the norm. The reality of it, though, is that we have a choice to make, and that choice is very simple: we either move forward and continue to deliver or we simply do nothing in the remainder of this term. I do not think it is acceptable to people out there for us to simply sit back.

The matter that is the subject of the Bill has been scrutinised for many years. As I mentioned, it has been extensively consulted on by and discussed in the AERC. I do not agree with the Member that there is a suggestion that this will be the single thing that will create efficiency and effectiveness in the Chamber. There is no doubt that, to do that, there will need to be a range of measures put in place, but this is one of a range that I believe, and we in the Executive believe, is necessary to bring about better efficiency and effectiveness.

Where the Member's point on inclusion is concerned, I assure him that, despite this reduction, we will still be by far the most represented per head of the population across the UK. In fact, even with this reduction, we will have twice the level of representation per head of population than the likes of Scotland.

Although Mr Nesbitt asked why this could not have been done earlier and lamented the fact that it was not, let me say that the UUP did not agree it then. It did not even agree it in the Fresh Start Agreement. Therefore, if it was up to the UUP, the matter would still not be moved in the Chamber, and there would not be any agreement to move it in the Chamber. I think it is relatively ironic, therefore, that the comment has been made that it should have been brought to the Chamber sooner. I think that, for many people out there, we have talked about it, the AERC has talked about it, the Chamber has debated it, and I think people want to see us in the Chamber get on with it, work together and bring about these necessary changes.

Mr Nesbitt: Will the junior Minister give way?

Mrs Pengelly: No, I am sorry, I would like to continue.

Where Mr Lyttle's comment is concerned, I reiterate that the Bill is very simple. I know that many of these issues will be looked at in the next stage, which is to commence shortly. I am sure he would agree with me that people want to see action, not endless discussion on this. I think the point would have more validity had this not gone through the AERC process already.

On Mr Hazzard's comments, I welcome the support and —

Mr Lyttle: Will the junior Minister give way?

Mrs Pengelly: No, I am sorry, I would like to continue.

I welcome the words of support from various Members on the need for this to happen in this mandate.

Finally, turning to Mr McAllister's comments, I certainly do not agree with him that the case made here today is that there will potentially be political instability in the next mandate. Members have a job to scrutinise the legislation, and we have outlined that it is not ideal to use accelerated passage. However, I do not think it is acceptable for us to simply do nothing between now and the end of the mandate. We are here, we have a job to do, and we can get this matter processed before the end of the mandate.

It is very simple, it has been extensively discussed and there is absolute clarity in the legislation, which gives clarity for people making those choices as outlined by Mr Poots. We honestly believe that this is something that is wanted out on the ground, and we believe that people will simply say to us, "Get on with it. There is no need for further discussion. Get on with it, do it and deliver it". That is exactly what we are doing here today.

I thank Members once again for their contributions to the debate on the accelerated passage motion and for the questions and issues that they raised. As with other Stormont House Agreement matters, the conclusion of A Fresh Start has provided a basis for progressing this important legislation. The provision of good governance through a more streamlined Assembly will be the ultimate outcome of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill. We must move now if we are to grasp the opportunity to have the matter settled before the end of the current Assembly mandate. That requires accelerated passage of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill. Therefore, I ask the Assembly to approve the motion. Thank you.


1.45 pm

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

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA Bill 76/11-16] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we commence, I inform Members that questions 2 and 13 have been withdrawn.

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): As a result of the incident at Londonderry courthouse on 23 December, an independent review of security was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service. The review was carried out in consultation with the police and the Prison Service. Members will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the outcome of the review, but I can reassure the House that the security arrangements in place at courthouses are kept under review and subject to regular inspection.

Mr Diver: It was an incident that received considerable media coverage. It has to be a matter of concern for the general public. The Minister said that he is bounded by the review and what is happening there, but, in general terms, are there lessons that can be learned from an incident of that nature?

Mr Ford: Mr Diver is certainly correct: there are always lessons to be learned from an incident such as that. They may relate to the physical fabric of courthouses and other places of concern, or there may be issues with the management of individuals coming into those places. In that case, the issue would seem to be slightly more to do with the second point than the first.

Mr Campbell: Does the Minister agree that it is one thing for a high-profile escape such as that to occur but another for it to occur on television? That makes things even more difficult for him and the Prison Service. If a high-risk prisoner is going into Londonderry courthouse or any other court in Northern Ireland in future, can the Minister assure the public that they will not be put at risk as a result of that person being able to escape from lawful custody?

Mr Ford: I repeat to Mr Campbell that lessons will be learned from the issue. He referred to the Prison Service. There was no direct Prison Service involvement in that particular instance.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí sin. Mr Diver outlined the concern that there is, particularly in Derry, but it is important that, whatever the outcome of the assessment is, we do not turn our courthouses into fortresses. The idea of them being open, and people seeing them as being open, should not be reversed.

Mr Ford: Mr McCartney makes a valid point. One of the key issues with justice is that it must be seen to be done. One of the advantages of some of our more modern courthouses is that, because they have been constructed in more recent times, it is easier to manage the security of prisoners arriving through somewhere different from a yard that is effectively all but open to public view, as is the case with Londonderry courthouse on Bishop Street. Clearly, that issue does not arise in some of our more modern facilities, such as Laganside or some of the smaller courthouses.

Mr Kennedy: Given the very unfortunate circumstances of that particular case, where a prisoner was seen to be legging it on national television, will the Minister assure us that the review that is being undertaken will cover all aspects of the work of the Prison Service, the Courts and Tribunals Service and the PSNI?

Mr Ford: Yes, I can certainly give that assurance to the House, not just to Mr Kennedy. I should have dealt with that point when Mr Campbell asked his question. The television coverage did not make any difference to the unfortunate nature of the incident. It merely made it more public. The lessons are being learned and would be learned whether or not we had the benefit of a UTV camera in Bishop Street that day.

Mr Ford: The Omagh Street Safe project is one of a number of initiatives delivered by Fermanagh and Omagh Policing and Community Safety Partnership that contributes to improving community safety in the night-time economy in Omagh town centre.

Violent behaviour in and around pubs and clubs on weekend nights presents a significant problem for public health, criminal justice and town centre management. There are many factors that influence offending in the night-time economy, such as substance misuse, overcrowding, permissive social environments and competition for limited fast food and transport facilities. That leads to difficulties in isolating any one factor that impacts on improving community safety. It is clear that interventions facilitated by the Omagh Street Safe volunteers, such as the offering of advice, support and a place of safety for the most vulnerable, play an important role in diffusing potentially dangerous and serious situations.

The Omagh Street Safe project and similar schemes, such as those run by Street Pastors, are excellent examples of local people identifying a local problem, devising a solution that is valued by its beneficiaries and actively participating in its implementation and delivery.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer and for his personal interest, and that of his Department, in the Omagh Safer Streets project.

Will he detail the extent and type of support, financial and otherwise, that his Department will provide in 2016-17? I take this opportunity to commend those civic-minded volunteers who, week in, week out, show such commitment in Omagh. Their efforts have contributed to the saving of lives.

Mr Ford: I endorse Mr McElduff's praise for the volunteers who carry out such work. He, as an MLA for West Tyrone, will praise the volunteers in Omagh, and I will praise all the volunteers in similar schemes in every part of Northern Ireland.

He spoke specifically about the issue of funding, and Members will be well aware of the difficult funding situation that we are in. Nonetheless, I am happy to say that we were able to ensure that, for the remainder of this financial year, the relevant PCSP budgets have been restored and that we are doing our best to ensure that the front-line work of PCSPs is protected to a degree next year, and will receive less of a reduction than expenditure within the core Department.

One of the other key issues is the assets recovery community scheme, which has contributed to some of those projects. For example, it has provided equipment for the volunteers to identify themselves and implemented a variety of small measures that has meant that assets that have been recovered have been put to good use in helping to fight that kind of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Mr McCrossan: To follow what Mr McElduff said, I too commend the great efforts made by the volunteers in Omagh and in the many other areas across Northern Ireland. They contribute a great deal of time and effort to ensure that the public are safe. What plans are there in the Minister's Department to roll out the scheme in other areas across west Tyrone and throughout the North?

Mr Ford: I welcome Mr McCrossan to his first justice Question Time. It is not for my Department to have plans to roll out the scheme, because it was devised locally, supported by the PCSP and funded in part by PCSP funding and assets funding from my Department. All that I can do is to encourage local people to find local solutions to problems such as this, but I certainly will do that because it is one of those issues where good work that is being done in a number of schemes could be replicated in other parts of Northern Ireland. I am keen to see the Department supporting it as best it can.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for his responses so far. Like the Minister, I welcome all the work done by such volunteers. In Omagh in particular, we have concerns, and the people there do an excellent job. What training are the volunteers provided with through PCSPs and perhaps other agencies?

Mr Ford: The answer to that is a bit like the one I just gave to Mr McCrossan. How the individual schemes are run is an issue for each scheme, with support from the local PCSP. The Department does not prescribe what should happen.

One of the key issues that we are able to address through the PCSP managers' network is the sharing of good practice to ensure that people learn of how other people have run schemes if they are intent on setting up a scheme such as that run by Omagh Safer Streets and that we use the expertise that is being built up in different parts of Northern Ireland for the benefit of every part. I do not tell people what they must do, but my Department encourages people to learn best practice from each other, which is what is contributing to such successes.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Will the Minister outline the role of the PCSPs in bringing together a strategy to tackle rural crime?

Mr Ford: I am slightly lost, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker; there are questions on rural crime later in the listing. I am not sure whether I ought to go into rural crime at this point in the context of the work that is being done in relation to the night-time economy in our town centres.

Mr Ford: My Department's community safety strategy contains a commitment to make Northern Ireland, including rural communities, safer by reducing the opportunities to commit crime. The Department of Justice works closely with the PSNI, NFU Mutual, the Ulster Farmers’ Union and DARD through the rural crime partnership to deliver on that commitment.

The partnership receives detailed quarterly updates from the PSNI’s statistics branch on levels of agricultural and rural crime. That allows key stakeholders to continue to monitor crime trends and to allocate resources accordingly. I welcome the fact that agricultural-based crime has shown an overall downward trend since 2010-11, when 937 offences were recorded. At 626, the level in the 12 months from October 2014 to September 2015 is the lowest recorded.

The work of the rural crime partnership has resulted in the development and delivery of a range of initiatives that aim to tackle rural crime — for example, a funding package to encourage farmers in theft hotspots to fit security devices to their machinery. We will soon pilot, with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon PCSP, the use of a forensic marking scheme to help to prevent and detect theft from farms. I understand that the Newry, Mourne and Down PCSP has undertaken initiatives to address rural and agricultural crime, including the delivery of a freeze-branding initiative aimed at tackling livestock theft, the distribution of GuardCams to farms and homes in rural and isolated areas and trailer marking.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answer; it is very welcome. In addition to affecting the livelihood of the person concerned, crime, particularly in rural areas, can create a terrible sense of fear in the community. What is being done to address that fear? What is being done to showcase instances when police are successful in tackling rural crime?

Mr Ford: I appreciate Mr Rogers's point that, sometimes, the fear of crime is significantly more to be concerned about than the actual likelihood of it. The Member asked what was being done to highlight successes by the police: that is, to some extent, an issue for the Police Service. I certainly know that most local papers seem to have fairly good coverage of the courts in their area when we get to the point of convictions. It is also important to highlight the work being done generally under the community safety strategy on community safety issues and fighting crime and fear of crime at that low level, to ensure that people do not get unnecessarily fearful, whilst encouraging them to take appropriate steps to ensure that they protect themselves and their property as appropriate. As I said, although there have been a number of incidents, we have seen a significant reduction, and I believe that that has been brought about by the good partnership working that we have seen across a number of agencies.

Mrs Dobson: I am a representative of the neighbouring rural constituency of Upper Bann. Is the Minister aware of the increase in crime along the A1 dual carriageway corridor? What strategy is being employed to address what is a very long-term problem for people living in South Down and Upper Bann?

Mr Ford: I thought that, when I included the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon PCSP, I would have covered at least something for Members for Upper Bann. The reality is that we will at times see hotspots in criminal activity, and those can come and go at relatively short notice. The specific issue of how we address that kind of criminal activity is a matter for the Chief Constable and not for the Minister of Justice. The Department's responsibility is to support the efforts aimed at fighting crime and the fear of crime of bodies like the PCSPs and others that they work in partnership with. I have visited most of the PCSPs over the last few years and have seen a variety of work going on. A lot of that is on the importance of prevention, as opposed to dealing with crime after it has happened.


2.15 pm

Mr Ford: The CJINI report recognises the significant progress that has been made in recent years and the challenging operational environment in which implementation has been achieved. However, it is clear from CJINI's assessment and my Department's assessment that more needs to be done, which is why, in May 2015, I commissioned a scoping study of children in or on the fringes of the youth justice system. That work is being undertaken with the aim of making improvements across the whole system to deliver greater benefits for children and improving their long-term outcomes. It will build on many of the procedural and structural changes already achieved through implementation of the review recommendations, and CJINI has welcomed the scoping study as a means of furthering progress on youth justice issues.

There will be a particular focus on the complex, cross-cutting recommendations where cooperation and partnership across organisations and Departments are necessary. Commitment from within and beyond the criminal justice system has been evident from the start of the scoping study, with key stakeholders being fully engaged at steering group and subgroup level. I am, therefore, confident that we can achieve significant progress in delivering on the remaining youth justice review recommendations, either directly or indirectly, through that work.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. Does he find it most concerning that Criminal Justice Inspection has stated that there has been a loss of momentum in the implementation of the recommendations of the youth justice review?

Mr Ford: Ms McGahan correctly highlights the concern, which would be the case if there had been a complete loss of focus on those issues as opposed to a potential slight loss of momentum. Part of that is due to looking at some issues in rather greater detail than had been anticipated and taking a slightly longer timescale — for example, with statutory time limits, the legislation was more complex than was initially believed, so it was necessary to take longer to get it right. A degree of progress is being made, despite all the pressures that the Department is under. Those will come through in the coming months.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answers. It is a problem that the implementation of the youth justice review has really slowed down. I agree with the last Member that there seems to be a loss of momentum, with 40% of the recommendations outstanding. One aspect is the youth engagement clinics. Contained in that there was at least an attempt to have legal representation for young people at the clinics, which has not been achieved so far. It is a serious situation when somebody goes through a clinic without legal representation and then gets what is effectively a criminal record.

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

Mr A Maginness: Will the Minister apply his mind to guaranteeing that such representation would be achieved for young people?

Mr Ford: I will refer briefly to one point that was made. Mr Maginness referred to 40% of the recommendations not being implemented: it is the case, of course, that some recommendations require agreement beyond the criminal justice system, including agreement in the Assembly. If Mr Maginness could assist me in persuading certain Members of the House to agree to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, it would help us to make progress.

The Member makes a perfectly valid point about legal advice and the youth engagement clinics, on which concerns have been expressed. At every stage of the process, efforts are made to ensure that children and young people are made aware of the position, including the implications of decisions that they take, and to ensure that it is done in a way that uses child-appropriate language. Exactly how that is best done is still under consideration.

Mr Ford: Given the importance of the reinspection of Maghaberry prison, I spoke to the chief inspector of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland during that process. As Members will be aware, the reinspection was completed on 15 January. I have not spoken to Mr McGuigan since then, and I await publication of the report.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. I am disappointed that there has been no contact since the reinspection on 15 January. At a recent Justice Committee meeting, the director general stated that tensions between her office and senior management in Maghaberry had led to a situation in which instructions were ignored and, as a result, the prison regime was disrupted. Does the Minister agree with the director of prisons?

Mr Ford: On Mr Milne's first point, I spoke to Mr McGuigan while the second week of the inspection was under way, and I am not sure that the fact that I have not spoken to him in the10 days since is particularly a fault of mine, given the expectation that it will take in the region of three to four weeks for his report to come out. The Member highlighted the director general's reference to relationships between prison headquarters and the previous senior management team in Maghaberry, and that is clearly an issue of concern. That is one of the issues that was addressed by the refreshment of the senior management team.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Can the Minister update the House on when he last met the Prison Officers' Association (POA) about staffing at Maghaberry? Does the Minister consider that Maghaberry provides a safe working environment for staff?

Mr Ford: I cannot, off the top of my head, tell the House when I last met the Prison Officers' Association to discuss Maghaberry, but I can say that it was shortly after it last requested to meet me to discuss such issues. The Member asked whether Maghaberry was providing a safe environment: I certainly believe from the conversations that I have had with a number of people that the situation in Maghaberry is better than it was. If I said anything more than that, I would come perilously close to second-guessing the official report of Criminal Justice Inspection, and I think that the House and I should wait for that to come out in the next two or three weeks.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. A recent evidence session at the Justice Committee heard that there appeared to be major deficits in the communication between senior management and members of the Prison Officers' Association. Will the Minister advise whether he or his office has taken any measures to improve that? On the basis of what we heard, there seemed to be very limited, if any, communication, particularly on the previous report on the prison.

Mr Ford: Mr McGlone raises an interesting point, but the only bit that I can think of relating to the POA and the previous report is the fact that the three POA representatives who came to the Committee admitted that they had not read it, which made it somewhat difficult for them to discuss its contents. I do not meet any of the unions that represent staff in the justice family or, indeed, bodies like the Police Federation unless I am requested to, and I have not had a request from the POA. My understanding is that there will be regular, ongoing discussions in each of the three institutions between the POA and management staff, as is appropriate to deal with issues of concern there, but it is difficult for the Minister to know exactly what the state of discussions with the POA is when he is not invited or requested to meet it.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for the answers that you have given to us. Minister, there are those who might say in the light of and in the wake of the recent report that, since the devolution of policing and justice, prison reform has not worked or has been particularly slow. What assurance can you give the House that prison reform is on track and that you and your Department can deliver a prison service that is fit for today and for the future?

Mr Ford: Looking back at what has been achieved since the prison review team reported, we can report significant achievements, notwithstanding the fact that one report on Maghaberry in May last year clearly highlighted issues of concern. We have seen major changes through the refreshing and retraining of staff and the work that transformed Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre into Hydebank Wood College, the first such transformation anywhere in the UK. There has been a very positive inspection of Magilligan prison. We have seen work done on step-down houses for men, with the reopening of Burren House on the Crumlin Road, and for women on the Hydebank site. We have detailed plans, subject to capital expenditure being available from DFP. A significant effort is being made in education in consultation with Belfast Met and North West Regional College. There are very significant achievements.

Just this morning, I visited Magilligan prison, where I saw good work being done that is being used to educate young people from schools in the north-west area on the Holocaust. Wednesday is Holocaust Memorial Day. Prisoners, in their own time, did paintings and various bits of artwork. In one case, an old Nissen hut had the names of 600 people who died in concentration camps highlighted by prisoners putting their own effort and time into making that a suitable exhibition for training young people. It is an example of the good work that is being done, notwithstanding the challenges identified at Maghaberry last May.

Mr Ford: The contract for the provision of visitors' centres at Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood was awarded to PeoplePlus, and the contract commenced on 1 December last. As was the case with previous visitors' centre contracts, this tender was issued as an open bid facilitated by the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) of DFP. This was tendered in line with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The bids received were evaluated by an independent panel in accordance with the advertised criteria. The most economically advantageous tender was successful.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister ensure that a narrow interpretation of the tender specification is not taken? That has led to a reduction in services that can be easily restored, especially in regard to the car park and visitors' centre.

Mr Ford: Given the current financial difficulties, there was a reduction in the services that were included in the tender, which has made some difference to the services that are provided. The Prison Service, like other aspects of the Department of Justice, is under significant financial pressure. I think that Mr McKay is hinting at some of what might have been described as the extra services provided by Quaker Service and NIACRO, which were, in a sense, voluntary activity on the part of their staff and volunteers that took the contract into a better place. Unfortunately, the rules that we are required to procure services under do not easily allow for dealing with those extra points.

Mrs D Kelly: Were any social responsibility criteria added to the recruitment and selection procedure for eligibility for application?

Mr Ford: I am not sure what Mrs Kelly means by social factors, though I can guess. My understanding is that CPD carried out its work in accordance with the normal arrangements under which DFP operates. I am well aware of the concerns that have been expressed by a number of people that this has perhaps seen a diminution of the social care aspects — if that is the best way to put it — of the work that was done. It was an indication of the excellent service that was provided by Quaker Service, in particular, for very many years. It is an issue that I will address when I meet Quaker Service representatives in the near future and discuss with them the ongoing services that they will continue to provide to aspects of our custodial services.

Mr Ford: A training needs assessment last year identified a significant reduction in the projected number of training days, brought about primarily by budget reductions across the three services and the resulting impact on recruitment. In November 2015, the programme board delivered a revised outline business case that considers a range of options for the future delivery of service training, including basing some or all services training at Desertcreat. It includes a full economic appraisal of the shortlisted options and identifies a preferred strategic option.

The outline business case has been signed off by the accounting officers of the three services and the two Departments and is awaiting the Health Minister's approval to add to my own. I hope that we will shortly be in a position to circulate the business case to Executive colleagues to enable them to take an informed strategic decision on the way forward for this project.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We have time for just a quick supplementary.


2.30 pm

Mr I McCrea: Thank you, and I thank the Minister for his update. If the Minister gets the necessary approvals from the Health Minister, will he outline a timeline for this process? Whilst I am not asking him to look into a crystal ball, can he foresee any possible difficulties?

Mr Ford: I will be very brief, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I think that projects of this size always have possible difficulties, but, at this stage, the issue is for the Health Minister's approval to be given so that we can jointly present a paper to the Executive, which will then take decisions.

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

T1. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Justice when the report on the fire at Erne House at Maghaberry will be published. (AQT 3361/11-16)

Mr Ford: The report on the fire at Erne House is near to completion, and it is something that I expect to see published in the near future. I have had a brief and informal meeting with the two governors from the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) who carried it out. I am assuming that the final report will be presented within the next few weeks, so it will then become possible to look at the full implications of that fire and the lessons to be learned from it.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer so far. Can he possibly outline why it took so long for action to be taken to regain control of the block following the fire?

Mr Ford: Mrs Cameron is now really asking me to prejudge the outcome of a report that is being commissioned independently to ensure that neither the Prison Service nor the Minister gives their opinion in advance of that independent result coming through.

T2. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Justice, following the approval for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to operate in Northern Ireland, to update the House on the NCA’s work in his constituency of Newry and Armagh, particularly any successes against those involved in fuel laundering and other tax-evading crimes. (AQT 3362/11-16)

Mr Ford: Sometimes it is not possible to have in front of you all the statistics that Members would wish at a particular point. If Mr Irwin has particular questions, I will happily see that they are answered in writing later. There is no doubt that the National Crime Agency is very active in Northern Ireland. It is supporting the activities of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and it also, of course, has responsibility for assets recovery, which was not previously the case. It will be falling to it to carry out that kind of work in conjunction with not just the Police Service but some of the other UK-wide agencies.

The National Crime Agency will also be playing a role in the cross-border task force, which was recently established. The NCA, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the Revenue Commissioners, the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic and the Police Service will be key agents in working together in that fight against organised crime across the island.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he accept that the perception in the wider community is that many of these criminal gangs can act with seeming immunity from the law?

Mr Ford: I certainly accept that there is a perception to that effect. I think that part of that perception may have been the gap before we had the National Crime Agency fully operational in Northern Ireland, but now that it is fully operational, I hope that we will see significant work stepping forward. I hope to be meeting the new director general in the near future, and I will certainly be talking to her about the necessity of ensuring that we get the best possible use of the assets that the NCA holds in Belfast to assist a range of other bodies, North and South, against the kinds of crimes that Mr Irwin is highlighting, some of which blanket his constituency in particular.

T3. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Justice whether he is aware of the findings of the recent PSNI scoping exercises into the long-term plans for police stations in Northern Ireland, particularly in the East Antrim constituency. (AQT 3363/11-16)

Mr Ford: The specific issue of the use of police stations, which Mr Beggs highlights, is an issue for the Chief Constable. The potential disposal of unused police assets also falls to the Policing Board. None of it falls to the Minister of Justice.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister agree with me that, in order for justice to be administered and delivered, it is important that there is a police presence in a large town such as Carrickfergus, with a population of over 40,000 people, so that it does not suffer from having to be policed from neighbouring districts such as Larne or Ballymena, and that, particularly when others are trying to enforce a form of policing, it is important that the PSNI has a presence in Carrickfergus?

Mr Ford: There are two different points there. It is certainly important that there is a police presence in every part of Northern Ireland. That does not necessarily mean having a building in every part of Northern Ireland. It is important that the police manage the resources they have in a way that ensures that front-line policing is protected, rather than preserving architecture across the region.

He refers to those who claim a right to police within the community, wherever they happen to be, and he is absolutely right. There can be no place for self-appointed thugs who pretend as if they are acting in the interests of the community when they are largely lining their own pockets. We need to ensure that that does not happen anywhere in Northern Ireland.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Jonathan Craig is not in his place.

T5. Mr I McCrea asked the Minister of Justice to state the cost to the public purse of providing interpreters in police stations for people who do not speak English as their first language. (AQT 3365/11-16)

Mr Ford: Again, whilst Ministers are expected to know quite a lot for topical Question Time, I do not think that it is realistic to expect that questions like that can be discussed. He talks about the cost of interpreters, and there are, of course, costs in the justice system for police station interviews and potential court proceedings. Those issues are determined on the basis of the individual's need. I do not carry around in the top of my head the figures for the total cost last year.

Mr I McCrea: Given that other countries across Europe ensure that, if a person is in that country and does not have the language of that country as their first language, they have to pay for the provision of an interpreter and, indeed, bring one with them, does the Minister have a view on whether that should be considered for Northern Ireland? Should people who require an interpreter pay to provide one?

Mr Ford: I am not sure whether Mr McCrea has had experience of having to pay for a translation into French, German, Spanish or something himself. I am not aware of the full pattern across Europe. Certainly, the pattern of charging for interpretation services is not common to the justice system or, indeed, other services like the health service in the United Kingdom. It is not something that I have been considering to date.

T6. Mr Hussey asked the Minister of Justice, following the earlier question about the reduction in agricultural crime, to state what discussions he has had with his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland in relation to cross-border agricultural crime. (AQT 3366/11-16)

Mr Ford: When I meet the Irish Justice Minister, which I do formally on a twice yearly basis, we discuss a range of issues, more around the issue of organised crime and certain aspects of the way in which we can better learn lessons. For example, the last meeting had a significant presentation from those running victims' services, North and South. We then, under "any other business", discuss a range of key topical issues. Something like agricultural crime might well feature in that. I do not think that it has formally featured in the agenda at any point, though it is, of course, an issue that is being addressed by the new cross-border task force. I have passed on a request from the Minister of Agriculture that the DARD veterinary service be added to the operational group because it clearly is an issue, alongside things like food standards, food safety and environmental crime. We need to ensure that that work is done, covering not just the pure criminal justice system but a range of other issues.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for his response so far. In relation to organised crime, it is believed that, within the Clogher valley area, which obviously covers my area of West Tyrone and goes into Fermanagh and South Tyrone, quite a few agricultural vehicles have been stolen to order. Indeed, that goes as far as even Castlederg. Will you, in future, try to ensure that that issue is raised with your counterpart and, I accept, also with the National Crime Agency?

Mr Ford: It is certainly an issue that can be highlighted if it is a key issue for ministerial attention. It is certainly an issue for operational attention.

I am glad that Mr Hussey recognises that particular point. It is also an issue where some of the work we have done, for example in promoting tracking devices in agricultural machinery, has helped fight that kind of crime, and it is not an issue that is solely confined to the Clogher Valley. Unfortunately, we have had, at times, reports of tractors stolen in County Antrim appearing in County Cork. So, there are major challenges, but part of it is around the prevention route just as much as the enforcement route. Enforcement applies within Northern Ireland and cross-border.

T7. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Justice what progress has been made on resolving the legal aid dispute between the Department and the legal profession. (AQT 3367/11-16)

Mr Ford: I am not quite sure about the precise meaning of the word "dispute". In response to Mr Weir's question, he will be aware as, I think, most of the House will be aware, that the current position is that the High Court found largely in favour of the Department of Justice, apart from one minor fee for solicitors and a slight procedural issue under which Mr Justice Maguire did not strike down the rules that were made. There is an appeal against the judicial review by the Bar Council, and we will have to await the outcome of that. However, we will continue with the position that, even after these reductions, legal aid payments in Northern Ireland remain significantly more generous for barristers and solicitors than the payments in England and Wales, the most comparable jurisdiction.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his response. Can he outline his assessment of the level of disruption that has been caused as a result of the dispute in terms of judicial proceedings?

Mr Ford: I believe that, at the moment, there are in the region of 800 cases awaiting committal to the Crown Court, given the strike action that is being carried out by barristers. We will see exactly how that is resolved when barristers are willing to return to work. I know that the Lord Chief Justice has made significant preparation, which is being discussed with officials in the Courts and Tribunals Service, as to how cases will be listed when that is the case. I believe that those who talk about their concerns for vulnerable witnesses, for those who had offences committed against them and, in some cases, for vulnerable defendants, have an obligation to carry out their work. The Department has made it clear that, in terms of the trial preparation fee, any payments made will be backdated to ensure that there is no reason why individuals should not return to work immediately. We should see that carried through if people wish to see justice being done.

T8. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the work of the assets recovery scheme fund. (AQT 3368/11-16)

Mr Ford: Since we obtained the 50% of assets recovered for the Department of Justice after a slight disagreement with the Home Office shortly after devolution, we have distributed in the region of £3 million to a variety of different schemes aimed at fighting crime and the fear of crime. Many of those have been funded through partnership with PCSPs in a range of areas. We have also seen work done by the Youth Justice Agency, the Probation Service, and some of my direct responsibility areas. All of those are key issues that have ensured that the £3million has been put to extremely good use in fighting crime, fighting the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour, and making Northern Ireland a safer place.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We have time for a brief supplementary question and a brief reply.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome that £3 million has been taken out of the hands of criminals and returned to the community. Would the Minister encourage community groups to apply for the fund via the local PCSPs before the deadline of 29 January 2016?

Mr Ford: I think I can be very brief. I will just repeat the date — 29 January is the date for groups to apply through their PCSPs. If we can continue to take assets off criminals as successfully as we have done, then I hope we will have a significant amount of money in the fund for the next financial year.

T9. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of Justice, given correspondence that he will have received from staff in the Legal Services Agency about the voluntary exit scheme, whether he has taken that matter up with the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ensure that what appears to be an anomaly will be addressed. (AQT 3369/11-16)

Mr Ford: My officials have certainly discussed the issue with officials in DFP. I have not spoken directly to the Minister but, since he is sitting across the Chamber now, he may know about it. It is unfortunate that staff in the Legal Services Agency were not civil servants at the date when the Civil Service voluntary early retirement scheme came into place and were civil servants by the time the opportunities came through for other public bodies. That is extremely unfortunate. I am told that those are DFP rules, but I am continuing to press on it.


2.45 pm

Finance and Personnel

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We will now move to questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I believe that this is the Minister's first Question Time. I congratulate him on his appointment. I am sure that Members will recognise that it is his first Question Time. I must inform the House that question 10 has been withdrawn.

Mr B McCrea: It is an honour to ask the first question to the new Minister.

Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I thank the Member for his question. When a fixed charge receiver is appointed, they take control of the management of a property, usually when a borrower has defaulted on payment. The fixed charge receiver acts as an agent of the borrower, only being liable for the rates when a property that they are managing is, first of all, occupied, generates rent payable to the receiver, or, where one of the following applies: non-domestic properties where the net annual value is below £1,590 and the frequency of rent payments is less than quarterly; and domestic properties where the capital value is under £150,000.

Mr B McCrea: Earlier today, I spoke to officials from Land and Property Services, and they informed me that perhaps two cases a week are coming before them, and almost all of those — 75% — end up in bankruptcy or payment. There seems to be no way to reach an accommodation that would help people to retain their businesses. I am quite sure that the Minister will join with me in wishing that we could find some way of reducing the cost to the public exchequer but also making sure that we have a viable property sector.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. My predecessor and my colleague in DETI have had discussions with the banks around a number of issues. I intend to meet my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment very soon, and it is our intention to meet the banks. The concern that the Member raised is something that I would be quite happy to pursue with them. I am also quite happy to meet the Member to discuss the issue further because I am aware of the interest that he has taken on this and a number of other related issues.

Mr Storey: The OECD conducted a benchmarking analysis of how our public sector compares against international settings, assessed against three overarching themes: improving strategic approaches; improving engagement with people; and improving operational delivery. It also made recommendations on six targeted core studies. Those were: improving educational outcomes for looked-after children; problem-solving justice; governance of public procurement; Delivering Social Change framework; health service commissioning; and streamlining regulation. I, along with my officials, am currently considering the draft report.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am concerned about the delay. It was originally said that the report would be published last November; we are now in late January, and that has not happened. Is he concerned that the Executive's failure to build in a wider reform of the public sector is making any of those things very difficult to deliver? In the voluntary exit scheme, he is probably going to take out of the public sector only about 10,000 people as opposed to the targeted 20,000. Across sectors like health and education, getting the reforms that he needs and linking those in to the report is proving very difficult. Is that a major concern for the Minister?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I want to see progress made in relation to the issue. However, the finalisation of the report does not mean acceptance of all its recommendations.

I have to seek the views of my ministerial colleagues. The views of Ministers will be sought and action plans developed for those areas agreed by them. We are trying to assess the report. I will then share the report with my ministerial colleagues. It is then my intention to sign off on the report and make it public.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers, and we wish him well in his new post. As has been mentioned, we are very much aware of the voluntary exit scheme that has been in place for some time for the Civil Service. Will the Minister give us an update on the progress of reform in the public sector to date, and the implications of that?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. The voluntary exit scheme has played an important role in ensuring that we are able to get to the end of this financial year in a better financial place than others had anticipated. By the end of January, over 2,410 Northern Ireland Civil Service staff will have left under the voluntary exit scheme, with a further 404 due to leave at the end of March. Overall, those exits will deliver a pay bill saving of around £24 million in this financial year.

Although the scheme was initially intended to end in March 2016, six Departments — DFP, DE, DCAL, the Department of Justice, DSD and DRD — have confirmed that they wish to facilitate a limited number of exits and make around 220 offers through a fifth and final tranche. Those who are selected for tranche 5 will receive an offer no later than the end of February, with exits occurring no later than the end of June. Applicants who do not receive an offer by the end of February will receive notification that they have not been selected. That will signal the formal closure of the VES. There are no plans to introduce a further scheme.

I conclude by saying that, when all five tranches are completed, the scheme should generate approximately £86 million in annual pay bill savings at a cost, in the form of compensation, of around £90 million.

Mr Storey: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 3 and 6 together.

The issue cannot be resolved by the Department of Finance and Personnel acting alone and will require Executive consideration. First, it is a cross-cutting issue. Secondly, there is no equal pay issue, and therefore no legal liability. It would require legislation to provide a route for payment. Executive discussion and agreement would be required for financial provision to be made. Thirdly, resolving the issue would require significant funding, and, given the already challenging departmental budgets, the Executive would need to agree where the money would come from.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, I must say that I am very disappointed by your answer. There was a debate some months ago in the House, during which agreement was reached. There was also recognition that, although there was no legal obligation, there was a moral obligation. I understood that a paper was submitted to the Executive that suggested that those affected would get a one-off payment of £6,000 — at least, that is information that they have — but that paper has been held up. It has not been presented to the Executive or tabled at Executive meetings. I ask for the Minister's comments on that.

Mr Storey: I am well aware of the issue. I have read the report of the debate that took place in the House on the matter, and I would like to see progress being made. However, as Minister of Finance, I cannot get away from the court judgement on the issue. After the issue was taken to the courts, a particular ruling was made. There is also an issue with the particular pressure that we are under, given the financial position. There would be a considerable cost to the public purse, and it concerns me how we might balance that against other demands. I accept that my predecessors, going back as far as Minister Wilson, all expressed a view. Mr Wilson outlined the legal position. I think that the latest position, as outlined by Mr Hamilton, was that there was a moral argument. I concur with many of those comments. However, I take the view that we are still in a position in relation to how we would get a resolution to what is a very difficult situation.

Mr Allister: Surely the successive delay is adding to the scandal of the manner in which these civil servants have been treated. Your predecessor told this House that, in June 2014 — just coming up on two years — a paper had been submitted to the Executive with a view to plotting a way forward. Did that paper never reach the Executive? Given that there are now supposed to be mechanisms whereby you can force an issue onto the Executive table, has that device not been used? If it has not, will the Minister, today, commit to using it?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I repeat what I said about the importance of the issue. It is unfortunate that we are in this position in relation to that particular sector of public employees. I will, having read part of the judgement on the issue, have a discussion with my officials. The Member will appreciate that I have just taken up post. The matter is in my in tray and I am well aware that it needs to be revisited. I give the House a commitment that I will endeavour to pursue this over the coming weeks.

Mr Lyons: Will the Minister outline any potential risks or implications in relation to this issue regarding the rest of the Civil Service?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. There is always an issue in relation to risk when you come to the payment of an issue like this. As these staff suffered no equal pay detriment during their service, there is, as we have repeatedly said, no legal liability. In addition, it is not possible to construct a business case for a payment for the moral argument. That is within the terms of 'Managing Public Money NI'. Therefore, any payment would be highly vulnerable both to judicial review and to criticism by various audit bodies, including the PAC. An ex gratia payment cannot be made without legal cover, and that would need to be put in place. If payment were made to these staff, other staff in different grades or organisations may feel that they also had a moral right to such a payment, even though they were also unaffected by the Northern Ireland Civil Service pay settlement. NICS staff may become unhappy with the original equal pay settlement, especially if different amounts or grades receive payment, and this could result in a new group of disaffected staff.

I trust that the Member can see, as can the House, that this is not a simple issue. It is not as simple as getting an agreement in the Executive; it has implications for a variety of other elements of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as I have outlined.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for his responses so far. This matter clearly has been going on for a long time. In fact, I think it was one of the main issues during the last election. Many of those affected have asked this question. Mr Allister asked whether a paper has been submitted to the Executive, as prepared by you or one of your colleagues. Has a paper been submitted to the Executive in relation to this issue?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. When the first Executive paper was circulated by a previous Minister of Finance and Personnel, it received a number of responses from other Ministers. However, not all Ministers have, as yet, responded, including those in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. The Northern Ireland Executive committed to introduce the devolved 12·5% rate of corporation tax from April 2018 as part of the Fresh Start Agreement.

The signing of this memorandum of understanding with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a further concrete step towards that.


3.00 pm

The memorandum of understanding will allow for timely development of the IT and administrative systems necessary for the successful implementation and operation of the Northern Ireland regime. A project board is being established with the role of overseeing this important work, which will include representation from my Department, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Her Majesty’s Treasury, and the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answer and wish him well in his new role. With his experience in education, I am sure that he will endeavour to get his sums right. The success of any reduction in the corporation tax rate will depend on creating many jobs, but that will happen only if our young people have the right skills set. Does the Minister have concerns about the skills gap and about ensuring that we have enough young people for the jobs when the corporation tax rate is reduced?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question and his best wishes. As I said to someone the other day, the first thing that I had to do when I took the post was to acquire a big calculator and the second thing was to learn how to use it. I realise the challenge that there is for me in this role; however, I will endeavour to do my job to the best of my ability.

The Member raises a valid point, which is about ensuring that while we have set the date and the rate, we have in place all the other component parts that enable us to maximise the best outcome on corporation tax. One of those elements is particularly in relation to skills. That is why last week in the Budget, I indicated that, while we have already agreed £5 million for the skills agenda, it is my intention to bring forward proposals for an additional £20 million when we have further consideration in the June monitoring round after the new mandate comes into operation.

I believe that we need to ensure that all the component parts are in place to maximise the benefits of a reduced rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. Let us be under no illusions: there were those who were brought to the party late, and there were those who were probably seen as road-to-Damascus converts on this issue. I believe that Northern Ireland can move forward and build and give a future to our young people and to the economy. Corporation tax will play a vital role in that, and skills are an equally important element of that equation.

Mr I McCrea: I join with the previous Member in encouraging the Minister to deal with the skills gap to ensure that the devolution of corporation tax can be covered in that sense. He mentioned the Northern Ireland corporation tax regime; will he outline how much that work will cost, including any ongoing administrative costs?

Mr Storey: Obviously, as with any scheme, there will always be a cost. Under the memorandum of understanding, we have built into the Budget an allocation to ensure that we deal with that; it is somewhere in the region of £4 million. We have to make sure that, when it comes to the implementation of corporation tax, we have our IT in the right place and that we have aligned all the other elements. That is why the project board will meet very soon — my officials intend to meet either this week or next week with our colleagues from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Her Majesty's Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office — and we will endeavour to put in place the regime that will deliver corporation tax as we have envisaged. We have set the date, we have the rate and now we need to make progress in preparation for it.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers so far. In furtherance of the idea of maximising opportunities and benefits from the devolution of corporation tax, will he give us an assurance that he will continue to negotiate and explore with the British Treasury how secondary benefits such as, for example, income tax coming from what is projected to be anything up to 35,000 jobs, could be, at least in part, kept here in the North?

Mr Storey: I want to ensure that we have covered all our bases. It follows on from what I said about preparations for the introduction of corporation tax. I am keen that, having taken up post, we ensure that we have given consideration to all the possible benefits. This has been described in various ways, including being a game changer for Northern Ireland. My Executive colleagues and I remain focused on the issue. We will do what is in the best interests of the economic challenges that we face and the economic circumstances that we are in. We will ensure that Northern Ireland continues to benefit from the wide variety of benefits that come from the introduction of corporation tax.

Mr Beggs: We need to attract new foreign direct investment and encourage new investment from existing companies so that additional corporation tax is raised rather than costs being incurred in the block grant at the start date. Is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient urgency, from his Department and other Departments, in promoting the advantages so that this additional corporation tax will be raised to benefit the community?

Mr Storey: Yes, I think that there is. Now that we have started on this road, we need to keep focused. As Finance Minister, I will keep the pressure on, given the work that the project board will have to do to work out the modalities following on from the memorandum of understanding. I understand that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will be going to the United States soon, and a key component of their message will be that Northern Ireland will have a corporation tax rate of 12·5% in 2018. That is a good message to send out to the United States and to the wider economic world. My colleague in DETI and I will continue to ensure that it plays an important role in encouraging foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. I have no plans or proposals to change the rating of large charities and residential homes. My Department, however, is undertaking a wide-ranging review of all non-domestic rate support to help the new Executive to decide what changes are needed to the non-domestic rating system to make it fit for purpose. This process involves asking stakeholders in all sectors to produce evidence to justify their existing support provision, which is not the same thing as signalling an intention to change policy in any particular area.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for his response. I believe that gaps in the current system have led others to make up that shortfall, which discourages investment in town centres. Equally, I do not wish that burden to be passed on to the community and voluntary sector. Where is the balance, so that occupiers do not incur an unfair rates bill every April?

Mr Storey: There are always different views on rates. My difficulty, and the difficulty with the rating system, is that, if you take money from one hand, you have to find it with the other hand. Many organisations across Northern Ireland can make valid arguments about their own circumstances. However, we have to balance all that against ensuring a fair system. I am aware of the recent revaluation and the concerns that were raised, and a number of appeals are working their way through the system.

However, I remain focused on ensuring that we have a system that is fair. We have to be cautious in any moves that we make so that we do not have a situation in which some benefit over and above others.

Mr Campbell: The Minister referred to the current revaluation. Will he update the House on its impact on empty retail and commercial premises in our towns and cities?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary. I assume that he refers to the Lisney report, published just last week. Information in the report points to the positive effects overall of the revaluation, particularly on Donegall Place, which has been described as Northern Ireland's premier shopping street, and the rebalancing of the rate burden towards out-of-town centres without having a detrimental effect on their vacancy rates. The report states:

"The adoption of the rates revaluation has also delivered much-needed help to high streets and the main shopping areas, which has had a positive effect on occupancy levels within these areas."

Are there other issues that we still need to look at? Yes. That is why, when I was in my previous ministerial role, the Department for Social Development, which has responsibility for town centres, undertook considerable investment in town centres: there were provisions for rehabilitation and revitalisation, and public realm works were carried out in many of our towns and city centres. Collectively, they point to the fact that the Executive are committed to ensuring that town centres remain live, vibrant places where people want to shop and do business.

Mr Storey: Thank you, Mr Poots, for the question. The review of the non-domestic rating system is out for consultation, a process that officially closes today. I am, however, allowing it to run until the end of the month because a number of respondents asked for a little more time to make a submission. It is too early, therefore, to state the final number of responses. Once all responses have been received and considered thoroughly, my Department will report to the Finance Committee on its findings and those of the consultation. That will prepare the way for developing options for change and for decisions to be taken by the Executive early in the next mandate.

Mr Poots: We all remember that Peter Hain, when he was Secretary of State, introduced industrial rates of 30%, with the intention of driving that up to 100% pre-devolution. Will the Minister give an assurance that it is his intention not to raise industrial rates, as, had Mr Hain's decision stood, it would have decimated our industrial base and ensured that thousands of jobs were lost in Northern Ireland?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary and for reminding us all of someone from the past, Mr Hain. The Member will be aware that my predecessor stated on a number of occasions that industrial derating will continue and that there are no plans to remove that support from manufacturing. The support provides a valuable boost to the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland, which, although growing in Northern Ireland, has not been without high-profile difficulties in recent months. I know all too well the challenges faced by my constituency. The relief is of the magnitude of some £58 million a year. It helps 4,300 businesses, and last week's Budget committed to it for 2016-17. My predecessor said that she intended to retain industrial derating, following a business rates review that is under way. I confirm to the House that I support that position and that there are no plans to remove the support, which I see as key to building and supporting manufacturing in Northern Ireland.

The wider review officially closes today, although some engagement with stakeholders has been undertaken this week at the close of the formal consultation period.


3.15 pm

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

T1. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the number of dormant accounts held by his Department and the amounts involved. (AQT 3371/11-16)

Mr Kennedy: I congratulate the Minister on his recent elevation and wish him well.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his best wishes and look forward to working with him on the issue.

Some £7·15 million is available for Northern Ireland expenditure under the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. As part of the 2015-16 Budget, the Executive agreed that the moneys should be made available in Northern Ireland through the establishment of a new fund.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for the information. What action does he intend to take to free up the resources, and has he given any consideration to where these valuable funds may be directed? What measures will he put in place to ensure that the issue of dormant accounts does not recur?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I intend to announce a way forward in respect of the fund very shortly. It is one of those things that I want to ensure we get up and running. I believe that it will bring benefit to the recipients of what is a substantial amount of money, given the difficult and — unfortunately, we always have to use such phrases when it comes to finance — challenging times. The funds released from the reclaim fund are apportioned according to the Barnett formula, as set out in the distribution of dormant account money. As I said, there is £7·15 million available to meet expenditure in Northern Ireland, and I trust that I will be in a position in the not too distant future, given the limited time that I have before purdah kicks in, to make an announcement on the fund.

T2. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, given that, during a TV interview on the BBC last week on the proposed exit from the European Union, he said that the surplus moneys that the British Government and others often refer to would be reinvested and retained for use in local communities, whether he has received an assurance of that nature from the British Treasury to enable him to make such a claim. (AQT 3372/11-16)

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on his recent appointment.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. We are entering into an unprecedented time of debate and discussion about our future role in the European Union. My party's position on the issue of the European Union has been made very clear by the First Minister, our deputy leader and others in the party. However, we need to ensure that when a decision is ultimately made it is as an outcome of the referendum, whenever that is. Certainly, in my role as Finance Minister, I will ensure that Northern Ireland is to the fore, and kept there, in any discussions with Her Majesty's Treasury about the moneys that would come to Northern Ireland.

Mr Flanagan: The Minister did quite well in not answering the question, as is the nature of some Executive Ministers. I will try again. The Minister specifically said that the moneys that are given to local communities through European funding would be retained for their use. Can the Minister confirm whether he has received an assurance from the British Treasury with regards to that claim?

Mr Storey: The Member has now specified what he is referring to, namely European funding. The Member will know that my reference on that occasion was made at the launch of the Peace IV and INTERREG moneys. There is a commitment, whatever the outcome of the referendum, in terms of the period from 2014 to 2020. I have every confidence that those commitments will be maintained and that Northern Ireland will not lose out on the £400 million allocated under INTERREG and Peace IV.

T3. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether he agrees that the £100 million innovation fund that his predecessor, Minister Foster, announced in her Budget statement and which the Committee for Finance and Personnel was briefed on last week, will be a boon to and will help companies and businesspeople who want to fill the funding gap and get the funding to enable them to deliver urban regeneration and social housing projects, which is to be the fund’s focus. (AQT 3373/11-16)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire fosta. I congratulate the Minister on his elevation. I hope you are not regretting it yet, Minister.

Mr Storey: The Executive have a variety of funds for how we spend public money. I give an assurance to the Member that the Departments that have responsibilities for those funds will be given every encouragement to ensure that they focus on the priority spend so that we maximise the outcome from what, in many cases, is a considerable amount of money. In my time in DSD, for example, we used financial transactions capital (FTC). That is a financial model that can ensure that we give out considerable amounts of money but that also gives us in DFP the best possible outcome or payback. I assure the Member that we will continue to focus on getting the best possible value for money in those funds.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Thank you for that, Minister. An additional issue with the funds that we have, in particular the £100 million NI innovation fund, is the ability to attract funds from other areas. I was with the New York State Comptroller on Friday morning in New York. Some of our Assembly colleagues were there the night before. The New York City Comptroller and the New York State Comptroller have invested here previously through different ventures. With these funds, I wonder whether there is an ability not only to have our own money, like financial transactions capital money, going in, but a way to say to pension funds across the globe — it could be the Church of England pension fund, OMERS in Canada or New York state — "Let your money go into our kitty as well, and we will manage that for you". Is that something that the Minister might consider in the future?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary. While I do not have the detail on whether what the Member said is doable, my officials continue to progress towards the establishment of the Northern Ireland investment fund. This fund intends to help boost investment and promote economic growth in Northern Ireland. I think that those are issues that we all want to see progressed. The intention is that the fund will provide loan, equity or mezzanine finance to viable local private sector projects that cannot obtain funding from commercial banks. Funding is expected to be provided at commercial terms to avoid falling foul of state aid rules. I will come back to the Member and give him a specific answer on the issue that he raised.

T4. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel when he intends to publish the Ulster University economic policy centre report on the cost of a divided society. (AQT 3374/11-16)

Mr Lunn: I, too, welcome the Minister and congratulate him on the conduct of his first Question Time.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question and his best wishes. I miss the days of working alongside my colleague when we were on the Education Committee. However, we now find ourselves in this position.

It is my intention that that report will be published very soon. There are just some issues that I want to satisfy myself on. Having just come into post, I want to be across the content and detail of it. I trust that, in a few weeks' time, we will see that report being put into the public domain.

Mr Lunn: I know that the Minister does not disagree that there is a cost to running our divided society on its present basis, even though we may disagree on the amount of that cost. Will he give a commitment to following through on the implications of the report through shifting resources from separate provision to investment for better facilities for the whole community?

Mr Storey: The Member gave me congratulations and wished me well, but he will now be disappointed in me, as I cannot give that commitment until I have fully gone through all the details in the report. I will give consideration to what is in the report. I trust that Members expect me, as Finance Minister, to endeavour to ensure that we continue to use the moneys that we have in Northern Ireland in the best possible way to benefit the people of Northern Ireland.

I take the point that the Member makes. The duplication, in some cases, of the provision of services is a long-standing issue that has been raised consistently by his party. Going back to our education days, the Member knows my view on the way in which we have duplication of education provision. Some elements of that sector are not prepared to change, and so we have that cost. However, the reality remains in education that, irrespective of who the providers are or the number of providers, we still have the same number of children to educate in Northern Ireland.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn. Mr Dominic Bradley is not in his place.

T7. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether he agrees that the complete transfer of air passenger duty powers to the Executive, in time for the incoming mandate, should be a priority. (AQT 3377/11-16)

Mr Sheehan: I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I look forward to some battles in the future.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question and his best wishes. I appeared last week before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; the Member will be aware that it is currently undertaking an inquiry into the issue of the reduction of VAT in relation to the tourism sector, and this is an issue that has arisen. I am very conscious of the concerns that have been raised by Her Majesty's Treasury around the cost to Northern Ireland; it is estimated that it could be £100 million. We already have devolved the long-haul element of air passenger duty in relation to the Newark flight. That is a cost of somewhere in the region of £2 million that we have had to put in. I went on record just the day after I came into post as not being in the business of creating what could only be described as a sun subsidy for those who might want to spend their money in other jurisdictions during the holiday period. I am interested — I am having discussions with my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in relation to establishing a particular fund — in ensuring that we strategically look at the routes that will bring economic benefit to Northern Ireland. That remains the focus and the issue to be pursued.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We have time for a short supplementary, Mr Sheehan.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. I am sure that the Minister is aware that Dublin Airport has seen an exponential rise since airport duty was scrapped in the South. In fact, last year, 25 million passengers — I repeat, 25 million — passed through Dublin Airport. Does the Minister have anything to say about that?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We have time for a short answer.

Mr Storey: Obviously, that is an issue for the Irish exchequer; that is the decision that it made. I have responsibility for Northern Ireland in terms of our Budget. Let us remember that this is a reserved matter. The focus of our attention has been to make the case to Her Majesty's Treasury and the Chancellor. That is what we will continue to do. The benefit to the UK as an entire region over the next number of years will be somewhere in the region of £4·7 billion.

The Chancellor has a duty to look at the matter, and Her Majesty's Government will continue to be pressed on it. I await the outcome of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report.


3.30 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Mr Craig: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I apologise to you and to the House for not being in my place earlier. Obviously, I need to improve my time management skills.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you. That is on the record.

Executive Committee Business

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Go raibh maith agat, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA Bill 76/11-16] be agreed.

In their introduction to the Fresh Start Agreement, the First Minister and deputy First Minister stated:

"At the heart of this Agreement is our common commitment to a better way of doing business together."

Both the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement set out a number of proposed changes to the institutions so that they might function more efficiently and economically and better meet the needs of citizens. One of those was a reduction in the number of Departments; another — the one that we are examining today — was a commitment to reduce the number of MLAs returned for each constituency from six to five.

As my colleague junior Minister Pengelly indicated during the debate on the accelerated passage of the Bill, reform of the institutions, including the size of the membership of the Assembly, has been the subject of lengthy and detailed discussion and debate for a considerable period. Most recently, in 2012, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee conducted a review of the size of the Assembly and received representations from political parties, academics and a range of stakeholders. That review explored options for a reduction in the total number of MLAs but did not reach a consensus on the figure. That said, a reduction to five in the number of Members returned for each constituency was the figure most commonly referenced in contributions during the Committee's consideration of the matter.

From the discussion that has already taken place on the issue and as alluded to in the earlier debate, it is clear that, while there is an acknowledgement of the particular circumstances here that might justify an Assembly membership that is larger than those of the other devolved institutions, there is a broad consensus among the parties in the Assembly that there should be a reduction in the number of MLAs elected to it. That was demonstrated most recently during the debate on 23 November on the Alliance Party's motion to effect the reduction in the number of MLAs in time for this year's election rather than wait until 2021. While the motion was defeated, that was due to the question of timing rather than on the principle of the reduction, which was widely supported. It was also in recognition of the consensus that the British Government originally included the provision in the NI (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 to allow the Assembly to legislate for a reduction or increase of one in the number of Members returned by each constituency.

Members will be aware that section 33 of the NI Act 1998 provides for each of our parliamentary constituencies to return six Members to the Assembly. The purpose of the Bill that I bring before you today is to reduce that number from six to five. As I have indicated, section 6 of the NI (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 provides that alteration in the number of Members of the Assembly returned by each constituency is a reserved matter. That allows the Assembly to legislate to change the number of MLAs returned for each constituency but restricts any such change to a reduction by one. The Act also prohibits any provision being made for different numbers of Members being returned for different constituencies.

As it is a reserved matter, the Secretary of State's consent was required for the introduction of the Bill in the Assembly. It is also the Secretary of State's responsibility, ultimately, to submit the Bill for Royal Assent. That will only occur provided the Bill has cross-community support at the point at which it is passed by the Assembly.

Given the very limited scope for change in the number of Members to be returned, the Bill consists of just two clauses. Clause 1 amends section 33(2) of the NI Act 1998 by changing the number of Members returned for each parliamentary constituency from six to five. The clause also provides that that reduction will apply to the first election after the next Assembly election. Although that is envisaged as being the May 2021 election, the reduction would also be triggered by an extraordinary election that might be held between May 2016 and May 2021. Clause 2 provides the Bill's short title.

Although a small Bill, the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is nevertheless a significant one that will be seen as a measure of the Assembly's willingness to play a full part in the streamlining of our institutions of government. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Sheehan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As was noted during the earlier debate on the accelerated passage motion, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee carried out a detailed review of the number of Members in 2012. The Committee received and considered 25 stakeholder responses to its call for evidence, heard from key witnesses and commissioned and considered a series of research papers to assist the Committee in its deliberations. Although the Committee did not reach consensus on the size of the Assembly, the options considered by it for future constituency numbers and the number of MLAs per constituency in future elections were seen as being very useful.

During the ministerial briefing to the Committee, members explored the potential long- or medium-term implications for boundaries and for fair and equal representation based on proportions, populations and the electorate. The Committee heard how, because of our special circumstances, the North has more politicians per head of population than other devolved regions. The junior Ministers also explained how the outcome of the boundary review would not be known until 2018. However, it is hoped that there will still be a fair and high level of representation.

The Committee made it clear that the Bill needed to be mindful of representativeness, not just of big and small parties and independent MLAs but of gender. Members highlighted the recent work done on gender representation by the Committee and its report on women in politics. Members stressed that there was a responsibility on all parties represented here to ensure that any reduction in the number of seats per constituency proposed in the Bill did not affect the representation of women in the Assembly in the long term. There is no disagreement from the Committee about the need for a reduction in the number of Members; indeed, one member of the Committee would like to have seen it in place for the 2016 election. I support the Second Stage of the Bill.

Mr D McIlveen: In the spirit of the Bill and in the spirit of the outcome of the Bill, I will keep my comments efficient. I will not prolong the debate any longer than it needs to be.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I believe that those of us who support the Bill — both its accelerated passage and movement to the next stage — are on the right side of public opinion. I believe that it is something that the public want to see. They want to see us tightening our belts, regardless of the consequences, and it is opportune that we should do that before the end of this mandate. I do not accept the argument that this is something that we should simply kick into the long grass and sort out in the next mandate; nor do I accept the argument that this is being done out of some sense of insecurity about the next mandate. Sometimes, we just have to accept — this applies not just to political life but to business life and other spheres — that you have to grasp the nettle. Sometimes, an opportunity comes along that has perhaps not been there before and may not happen again. We have found ourselves —

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he explain how delaying the decision until 2021 is grasping the nettle?

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that it has been well explained why this cannot be implemented until 2021. I will certainly come to that in a few moments. I appreciate that there is a certain amount of cynicism in the Member's tone when he raises that. We have the decision and, if the Bill gets through, it will be set in legislation. It is going to happen. I think that the Member has to accept that. It is not exclusive to this House. It happens in other political institutions, where deals are done and reneged upon. I simply do not believe that we can allow the time to pass by on such an important piece of work as this and allow anything to happen, either foreseen or unforeseen, that may stand in the way of that. The time is right to do this. I think that, on the whole, the political will is there to do it. It is important that we do it.

On top of that, it was a fairly complicated piece of work because we had to find agreement not only amongst the parties but with the British Government, the sovereign Government, to allow us to take this forward ourselves. I think that that is right. I support the Secretary of State in allowing that to happen. It is right that there should be the opportunity to debate the Bill locally. There should be the opportunity for decisions to be taken locally. Therefore, I accept the fact that, whilst we would, in an ideal world, like to see this happening sooner than 2021, we had to find agreement within a five-party coalition system, and that is what we have been able to do.

Mr Allister spoke a little earlier about this being a fig leaf. Well, I do not know; some people in this House, maybe the Member included, might need a banana leaf at times to cover some of the things that they are trying to hide. The bottom line is that you have to accept that there is a principle of non-agreement when it comes to this issue, and not just in the Assembly. If you take a look at the Westminster coalition Government of 2010 to 2015, you see that there was an opportunity in a voluntary coalition to reduce the number of MPs, and those negotiations failed; they could not find agreement. Within this system, which those who criticise it say is dysfunctional, unable to make decisions, and all sorts of other things that are well on the record, we should take some credit from the fact that something that effectively could be described as "turkeys voting for Christmas" has been able to find relative agreement. We should take some heart from that. It is something that the electorate will look upon with favour and sympathy.

In monetary terms — this is a back-of-an-envelope calculation — if you take the salary and expenses of even just those 18 Members, we are probably talking about somewhere in the region of £2·5 million. That is not going to set the world on fire as far as savings are concerned, but it is a sign of moving towards normal politics and away from over-governance, which there has been far too much of in Northern Ireland for very many years, and it is about breaking down that culture. That will take time and commitment, but I am hugely encouraged that we seem to find ourselves in a position where there is broad agreement to do that.

I believe that this is one of the few debates in the House that the public is watching. It is one of the few debates in the House when the public care about the outcome of what happens. I sincerely hope that narrow political points of view will be set aside when it comes to the debate and the vote because I genuinely and sincerely believe that if one Member — even if it is just one — decides to vote against these changes, they will be on the wrong side of public opinion. I do not know what their reasons for doing so would be but if, because of their own political stature, they feel that this move would affect them personally or their party politically, I would say to them that they have had at least 10 years to convince the electorate that they are the people who should be stronger when it comes to an election. Therefore, it is their fault that they find themselves in a position where they may be disadvantaged. I am not one bit concerned about these changes. I would happily talk my way out of my own job if —


3.45 pm

Ms Sugden: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: Yes, I will.

Ms Sugden: This turkey certainly loves Christmas, and I would much rather that we have it now in 2016. I still do not understand why we cannot have it in 2016 as opposed to 2021.

Mr D McIlveen: I will repeat: we operate in a five-party coalition Government that have to find agreement —

Mr Nesbitt: Will the Member give way?

Mr Nesbitt: I think that the Member will find that it has been a four-party coalition Government since August.

Mr Frew: We hadn't even noticed. [Laughter.]

Mr D McIlveen: Yes, as you can see, the move of Mr Nesbitt's party was hugely impactful. I apologise and put the record straight; I must have missed that.

As we were saying, political agreement has to be found, and that is why I come back to this point. Between 2010 and 2015, a two-party coalition Government sought to find agreement on this very issue and could not do it. I think that we have to look at that —

Ms Sugden: We have agreement.

Mr D McIlveen: Does the Member want me to give way?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: If the Member wishes to ask a Member who is speaking to give way, she should rise in her place and request that.

Ms Sugden: Will the Member give way?

Ms Sugden: Apologies, Principal Deputy Speaker. You are saying that the wait for five years is because of a political agreement, yet the House will agree on it today. We have broad political agreement, so I do not quite get that argument. For what reasons are we waiting five years for this to be put in place?

Mr D McIlveen: It may sound like a semantic point, but what we are agreeing on today, I hope, is the principle that the reduction will take place by 2021. To the best of my knowledge, what has been agreed as part of the Fresh Start Agreement is that it will take effect in 2021. In effect, the Member is confusing two separate issues in that what we are voting on today is the agreement of the concept in 'A Fresh Start', which is the document that sets the mechanism in place. To be fair, confusing those two issues is perhaps not the way that this debate is supposed to go.

How do we take this forward? I hope today that there will be cross-party, cross-House support to bring these changes about. I certainly look forward to the elections in 2021, as I do to the elections in 2016, and I hope that the public will see that there has been a genuine attempt on our part to tighten the belt a little bit. The Bill to reduce the number of Departments has already proceeded to the next stage and the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is proceeding to the next stage. I hope that the public will see that some effort is being made to make this place run more efficiently. I believe passionately in smaller government, and I believe that we should continue along the road to make government as efficient and as lean as possible, and I look forward to the next mandate to see the further steps.

One thing that I find very annoying in this role is that some people in political life seem to look at politics as having an end game and think that we will get to a certain point and that is it and everything will be better. That is not the type of politics that I want to be part of. I want to be part of a system that is always seeking to improve and always trying to do things better. I hope that this is not the last debate that we have on the size of the Assembly and the size of government in Northern Ireland. With the changes in boundaries likely to happen during the next term, we may very well find ourselves in 2021 with an even lesser number, and I would wholeheartedly welcome that. I hope that there will be full support in the House for the Bill today, and I look forward to hearing how the debate develops.

Mr Attwood: As with the accelerated passage motion, I confirm that we will support the Second Stage of the Bill, but, in so doing, the SDLP and I are concerned. That was captured in virtually all Mr McIlveen's contribution, which essentially reduced the issue to the politics of the number cruncher.

Mr McIlveen's last comment was that he hoped that, by the end of the next mandate, we will again reduce the number of MLAs: the politics of the number cruncher. That was reflected in junior Minister Pengelly's contribution when she moved the motion for accelerated passage. She never once referred to the principle that informed why, in 1998, the authors of the Good Friday Agreement opted for an Assembly of 108 Members. Not once was there a reference to the principles and values that informed that decision. To corroborate that point, not once did Mr McIlveen even hint at the word "inclusion", whilst he spoke about numbers here and numbers there.

In supporting the motion, the SDLP acknowledges arguments about numbers, but it is not captured by those arguments. If we reduce our politics to the number of MLAs, Departments or this or that, we are not honouring the foundation document of this place and its values, namely the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyons: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: I will give way here and then there.

Mr Lyttle: As a party that fully stands behind and supports inclusion, how would the impact on inclusion be different in 2016 as opposed to 2021? Why does the Member believe that the change should be made in 2021 rather than 2016 on those grounds?

Mr Attwood: I will come to that point about the spirit and practice of inclusion. Whilst Mr Lyttle supports the principle of inclusion, behind his question, his thinking is clearly uncertain about what that should mean. I will come back to that point when I have developed the argument about inclusion.

Mr Lyons: I want the Member to explain a little more where he is coming from. He talks about inclusion. He might have an argument if we were talking about moving to a different type of system, but what we are doing is reducing the number of Members in a proportional system from six to five. The Bill is not a win for unionism or nationalism, but it reduces seats across the board. It will not impact on those taking part in the political process.

Mr Attwood: The Member might regret inviting me to explain further what is behind my thinking.

Mr Lyons: Further but briefly.

Mr Attwood: You did not say that; you just said "further". I will take up that invitation and also come back to Mr Lyttle's point, but before doing so I will go back to junior Minister Pengelly's contribution, reflected and confirmed by Mr McIlveen's comments. She spoke of being:

"out of step with the broad sentiment"

politically and publicly. She also spoke about being on the wrong side of the public mood. Mr McIlveen spoke of tightening our belt. That is reducing our politics to the technical and the numerical, whereas is the lesson of the Good Friday Agreement and our disputed history not that you do not reduce our politics to technocracy and arithmetic, which is, essentially, the DUP's argument today?

Why should we not reduce it to that point? Look at the Good Friday Agreement. I remember the negotiations and conversations in our party about why it should be 108 Members. Remember, at that stage, arguably, and as corroborated by the election results of 1998, in singular, narrow electoral terms, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP would have looked for a smaller number of MLAs and a smaller number of Departments because, in that space, we would have had more control. What did the Ulster Unionist and the SDLP leadership agree in the run-up to the early hours of Good Friday morning? We agreed on 108 because we believed that, after decades of exclusion, in the foundation document of the Good Friday Agreement, a message would be sent to all of our people — those who felt included and those who were excluded — that they would have their place in the new political order that was being defined by that agreement. Therefore, in the foundation document, the founding fathers and sisters of the Good Friday Agreement said that that was the basis on which we were going to proceed. Do not reduce the issue to one of simply numbers without acknowledging the arguments, reasons and grounds that led to that principle being established in the first place.

Mr Lyons: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: I will give way in a second.

The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, subject to what Mr Nesbitt might say, will end up on the wrong side of this vote, but I think that we will probably be in the same place on the argument. When it came to the number of Departments, it was Seamus Mallon who made the call for a larger number, once again to ensure as much political ownership of government as possible, unlike the previous days in this Building, when government was exclusive and owned by the Unionist Party to the exclusion of others.

Similarly, we built into the Good Friday Agreement the petition of concern to ensure that, whatever membership of this place the electorate produced, no one community would have the call over another on critical issues and issues of equality. It really is revealing that, in a debate years after the Good Friday Agreement, when a proposal on reducing the number in each constituency from six to five is endorsed, that history is not referred to in one sentence of the contributions by DUP Members, until Mrs Pengelly happened to be prompted in her reply to feel it necessary to respond to the issue of inclusion.

In supporting the motion, we come at it from not only what the right number should be in this phase of our history but what is right in terms of the principles necessary to have sustainable politics going forward.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for giving way. I might have a slightly different view on why the number of 108 was reached, because I was not in this place at that time. I cannot comment on that, but I believe that the British Government certainly had an idea about the number that they wanted so that they could give posts to smaller parties that had supported the agreement. Even if what he is saying is right, I say to the SDLP that we are not in 1998 any more. Surely, we have moved on. Even if everything that he is saying about the reasons for setting it up in the first place is correct, surely, coming up to 20 years after the event, it is time for us to reduce the number of seats.

Mr Attwood: Whilst we come at the argument differently, I do not come to a different outcome from the Member. That is why we are voting in favour of reducing the number of MLAs. What I am saying to you is this: understand the history of why we had a higher number of MLAs, a higher number of Departments and the petition of concern to protect against abuse by majorities. It is revealing, and it could be a bit disconcerting, that those reference points and the reason for inclusion seem to have been edited out of any contribution made by the DUP to this approach.

It is summed up by one of Mr McIlveen's last contributions when he said that we were overgoverned.

There are arguments about how to do government better and about how to do government in smaller segments. When I was Environment Minister, I sponsored legislation to reduce the number of Departments. There are arguments there, but this issue is about much more than just good governance and overgovernance: it touches on the very nature of politics, the quality of government and the future of our society. In supporting the motion, we come at it from that point of view, which is, I suggest, much more profound than simply the politics of number-crunching.

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


4.00 pm

Mr Nesbitt: First of all, can I say that the Ulster Unionist Party has no issue with the principle of reducing the number of MLAs? I think that, if you check Hansard, you will see that junior Minister Pengelly, in the previous debate, misrepresented the Ulster Unionist position. We have no issue with reducing the number of MLAs. We have an issue about the timing, and we have debated that from the Haass/O'Sullivan talks through to Stormont House. We also have an issue with accelerated passage, but covered that in my earlier contribution. We have no difficulty with reducing the number of MLAs because we understand that the policy intent is to add efficiency and effectiveness to inclusion.

As Mr Attwood says, if you go back to 1998, the primary objective was to be inclusive and to get everybody into the political tent by saying, "You don't need violence. Politics, democracy and peaceful means can achieve your objectives. Come into the political tent and make your argument here in this Chamber, down the hill at the Executive table in the castle and to the voter". Inclusion was what it was all about in 1998. We have come a long way since then, and people demand more than simple inclusion. They want efficiency and effectiveness. We are ready to move on, and, indeed, we have done so over the last 18 years. Let us recall that the predecessor to the agreement was a set of talks at the Forum for Political Dialogue where no fewer than 10 parties were elected by the people to bring forward what turned into the 1998 agreement. It has always been a very big political tent because it had to be to be inclusive and to wean people onto the political process. We are now ready to take the next step. We have no difficulty with the principle. The logic is in the initiative. There is no issue.

Why now? We have already made the point that this will take effect in 2021, unless something dramatic and unwelcome happens between 6 May and 2021. This will take effect at the election after the next election. I know that Mr McIlveen was talking about the reasons why it could not be done before 2021, but, actually, it may be done before 2021. It could actually happen this year, if a second election were to be called during 2016.

Mention was made of the boundary review for Westminster. It will be 2018 before we know the effect, but we anticipate that 650 MPs will become 600 and, potentially, 18 Northern Ireland Westminster constituencies will become 16. One of the questions we asked during the negotiations at Stormont House was about the potential implication for the Assembly. Do we remain coterminous with Westminster if we drop from 18 to 16 Westminster constituencies? If we do, do we drop not from 108 MLAs to 90 MLAs, as proposed in the Bill, but to 80 MLAs? I am not saying it is a bad thing to go to 80; I am not saying it is a good thing to go to 80. I am asking this: what is it? Mr Poots, in the earlier debate, talked about the desirability of giving certainty to the voters and to candidates. Where is the certainty about whether we remain coterminous with Westminster constituencies after the boundary review that, we believe, is to come in 2018? Perhaps the junior Minister will address that key question in closing the debate.

One other point is that being effective and efficient is not predicated simply on size. Yes, as I said, there is logic in saying that you may become more effective and more efficient with smaller numbers. We will support that today, but we also need a culture change — a change in mindset and a change that means that we stop obsessing about the inputs of government and start concentrating on the outputs and outcomes of government. It seems to me that we overcomplicate matters. Members will not be surprised to hear me make one illustration. OFMDFM promised the people that, in this time of austerity, it would spend £80 million on poverty, ending in March last year, by which date it had spent £1·5 million. Why? It was because it did not consult and could not deliver. We have to change the mindset, we have to change the culture and we have to start delivering. If this helps, so be it, and we will support it.

Mr Lyttle: This has been one of the most surreal debates that I have been involved in during my time in the Assembly. I think every contributor so far has said that they support the principle of reducing the number of MLAs in line with this proposal from 108 to 90; that is, from six MLAs to five MLAs for each of the 18 constituencies. Yet, to date, I do not think that anyone has adequately explained why that needs to wait until 2021, rather than for the next election in May 2016. I am happy to give way to people so that they can make a better effort at explaining it, because I genuinely have not heard an adequate explanation.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Alliance Party. Junior Minister Mrs Emma Pengelly rather skilfully misrepresented my position in the last section of the debate as wanting to have more talk on the issue and skilfully presented her position and that of the DUP as wanting to get on with it. As I say, their getting on with it amounts to delaying the issue until 2021, which, to date, I really have not understood.

The Alliance Party has long supported a reduction in the number of MLAs. We support the proposal that has been set out. We see no significant impediment to that reduction taking place for the next Assembly election in May 2016. It would appear that this is a reasonably straightforward issue. All parties appear to agree in principle, the public sentiment is for more efficient and more effective government and the parties seem to agree on that as well. It is, of course, for the principle of inclusion to continue to be at the heart of our power-sharing Government and Assembly in Northern Ireland, but it is absolutely for more efficient and more effective government that delivers here and now in 2016. So I ask this again: why is that being delayed until 2021?

If I am being fair to them, I think, from Mr McIlveen's contribution, that the DUP has suggested that it perhaps supports the change for May 2016, although no one has made that clear. They seemed to imply that disagreement from other political parties was what was holding them back on the issue. Again, I give them an opportunity to make it clear, because as it stands, their position is to delay this until 2021.

The SDLP and Mr Attwood spoke at length in relation to the important principle of inclusion. That is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, and it is a principle that the Alliance Party stands over wholeheartedly. He said that we should not, therefore, reduce the issue to one of numbers. I agree with him, but, at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to delivering inclusion and a shared society here in Northern Ireland, was also writ large the task for all of us to stand over solely peaceful and democratic means and to encourage and facilitate integrated education and mixed housing. How does Mr Attwood assess the offices that have been primarily responsible for those particular issues, most notably OFMDFM, which has included, at times, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP? What has their delivery towards inclusion been on those particular issues, which are equally as important as how this Assembly and Executive are made up?

The Ulster Unionist Party, I think, supports the proposal in principle, but, again, I see no adequate explanation as to why it needs to be delayed until 2021. For me and my party, the rationale is clear and strong: Northern Ireland is over-governed. We have substantially more MLAs per head than Scotland and Wales. It has been said that we have a unique context as a deeply divided society. We agree with that, but we think that it is just as important that OFMDFM delivers a robust good relations shared future strategy for the whole of Northern Ireland to build a united community, just as much as the numbers in this Assembly.

The reduction should also take place in line with the reduction in Departments and the rest of government reform here in Northern Ireland. Perhaps, most importantly, at a time when this Executive and Assembly are seeking to distribute scarce resources, this reduction, I understand, could save around £11 million over five years. Some may say that that seems like modest savings, but resources could go a very long way for a lot of hardworking families here in Northern Ireland. The saving could be £11 million over five years. My understanding is that the childcare budget for 2011 to 2015 was around £12 million. That puts into perspective the scale of savings and resource reallocation that the policy could make here and now in 2016, if the parties showed some courage and leadership on this particular issue.

The Alliance Party —

Mr Attwood: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Attwood: I will just answer two questions that the Member raised. The first is, in the context of 1998-2002, when there was still terror on our streets, there were still people robbing banks and one party would not even sit round the Executive table, it is a bit inappropriate to be naysaying the achievements of the UUP and the SDLP in those very turbulent circumstances. I am mindful of the work that was done at that time on dealing with the past and dealing with the future, and I do not think that it is accurate to diminish and degrade that contribution.

The second point is that the principle of inclusion comes down to a matter of judgement about when is the right time to make the right interventions to reduce or increase numbers of Departments or MLAs. It is a matter of judgement. I respect your judgement that you think that it should be now. I think that you should respect the judgements of others, especially people who come from a particular experience of exclusion.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. I absolutely respect the hard work that has taken place to build peace in Northern Ireland. I genuinely remain at a loss as to the difference between 2016 and 2021 and the impact that the change would have on inclusion here in our society. If there is a concern that it will impact on inclusion here in 2016, what will have changed by 2021? That is my question.

There are other equally, if not even more, important tasks for the Executive and the Assembly in order to build a united community here in Northern Ireland. I was specific in responding to the challenge for having in any way brought disdain on achievements that were made. I specifically asked about that explicit aim of the Good Friday Agreement to encourage and facilitate integrated education and mixed housing. How have we done in relation to that key element of promoting inclusion and a shared society in Northern Ireland? Mr Attwood mentioned that he had heard no mention of the importance of inclusion. I have not heard any great deal of detail about how else we will deliver that in Northern Ireland, outside of the numbers in the Assembly.


4.15 pm

In conclusion, the Alliance Party is clear that the Bill will be for the common good. It will also be in the interests of effective power-sharing government and in favour of well-resourced, efficient public services for everyone in our community, now in 2016 rather than delaying it until 2021.

Mr Frew: I, of course, support the Bill. I believe that it ticks a box in the aims and objectives of this party and, indeed, this House as we move forward.

I have heard the debate today. It went right back to the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. I understand the reason for that architecture. I lived at that time; I grew up in that era and can see why the British Government were so keen to have as inclusive an Assembly, let alone an Executive, as possible. I note the points of historical fact from the SDLP and, indeed, the Ulster Unionists about how that progressed and the rationale and logic of how that happened.

Maybe some of us are not, but most of us are, devolutionists, and we want devolution to work as best as we can. You go down a series of roads, and, sooner or later, you have to ask yourself what needs to change. What reform has to take place? Whilst I do not support the Good Friday Agreement and what flowed out of that, we accepted the referendum result and where we were at that time and in that space. This party has worked tirelessly ever since to get to a point where we can change and reform this place and other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to the point where it serves our people better. Of course, when I talk about our people, I mean the people of Northern Ireland whom we all represent, day in and day out.

One of the greatest things about devolution is how we in Northern Ireland can help our businesses. I worked on building sites for 20 years, and I saw how businesses had to go small and grow big when business dictated it. There was no fat in business. Why should there be fat in the business of the House when we are representing those businesses out there in the public? There should be no excess at all when we are representing our people. We should be as lean and efficient as possible.

I now want to address some of the issues that Mr Lyttle and others raised. They asked, "Why not now?". We want it as quickly as possible. In fact, we want it yesterday. When you work a system in which you have a five-party coalition — we have been informed today that there are four parties, not that we noticed much — and that is so difficult to work, you have to use your skills and your agility —

Mr Lyons: To convince.

Mr Frew: To convince and to even cajole to get agreement. That is basically the nub. It is not rocket science. Why is it 2021 and not 2016? It is because of a consensus agreement — the Fresh Start Agreement. I wish that we could do it sooner. I would do it yesterday. But we are where we are, and we are making progress.

There are some in the House who criticise everything and anything but have not moved one inch to make things better, to form relationships or to make agreements that will make it better for our people.

They are not doing themselves any good, and, more importantly, they are not doing their constituents any good and not making the country any better.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. The points that he raises are valid. Back in 1998, some of the big parties then argued for inclusivity, on the basis that we needed to help the Women's Coalition, the PUP, the UDP and other parties get over the line. It is quite remarkable that today Members of some of the same parties are arguing for inclusivity on the basis that it will keep them in a job. The general public expect better of us. It is not about us but about us as servants of the public. We, as servants of the public, have a duty to make this place more efficient, even if it hurts us. I know that some people do not like being the turkeys that are voting for Christmas, but Mr Frew is quite right. The DUP was ready to go for 2016. Others held back, and, because of the consensus arrangement — the agreement — that we arrived at, we are prepared to tolerate 2021. Therefore, we are sympathetic to Mr Lyttle, but we would have preferred 2016. I wish, however, that all the other parties would get on board with this and seek to drive the situation forward.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. What are we scared of? What are we frightened of? There are those who are saying, "We need an inclusive Government. We maybe should not reduce the number of Members because of that inclusivity". It is like a shroud. It is like the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement itself, when we have moved on so much. Remember this: do not trade democracy for inclusivity. The people know all too well whom they want to vote for, and the people vote for them. That is why we are all here. No one in the Chamber should fear democracy. If you do, you have to ask yourself the hard questions.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. I would like clarification here. The point is being made that the DUP would have supported the change being made in 2016 and would have put that into the Fresh Start document. If that is the case, can the Member confirm that it was Sinn Féin that was against it? It is only Sinn Féin and the DUP that support Fresh Start, so it is between the two of you.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his intervention. We are not here today to debate the Fresh Start Agreement. We are not going to go over each negotiation or each painstaking day.

Mr Nesbitt: You raised it.

Mr Frew: What I am saying is that you walked away from an agreement and an Executive. Why? Because it suited you, you thought, politically. [Interruption.]

That is why you walked away. Let the people judge.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. The Member has perhaps forgotten that the Chair is up here. Can you make your remarks through the Chair?

Mr Frew: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I love the cut and thrust of this place when it is lively, and I welcome all contributions and take interventions when I can.

We are here to serve the people. We are here to help business. Let us be as lean as we possibly can. There is no fat in business, so why should there be fat or excess here? That is a massive point. People are right when they say, "Do not equate the size of this place with its efficiency". They are absolutely right, because one thing that I have learnt since I have been here is that the cogs turn very slowly. You do not get that out in the real world. The cogs turn too slowly and they need to speed up.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. We understand that the reason why the DUP supports 2021 for the change to be made is that it was unable to get agreement for 2016. It might want to reflect on why people were unable to agree with them about 2016. I ask the Member whether he sincerely and genuinely thinks that it would be helpful if we got more of an explanation from those parties as to why they have concerns about 2016 rather than 2021.

Mr Frew: I am happy enough for the Member to pose any question that he wants to any of the parties involved in any of the negotiations since the Good Friday Agreement. If he is asking me to second-guess what is in the heads of other parties around this place, when we have struggled for the last five years to achieve that, he is asking for a bit of an impossibility.

Do not equate size with efficiency; we have been in a five-party coalition Government for most of this mandate and it is very clear that, when parties, Ministers and individual MLAs do not make the hard decisions, our people suffer. Politicians are here to make hard decisions and when they do not make them, our people suffer. We are here to do that, and this is only one of them; the reduction in the number of Departments is another.

I will love to see the day when we get to a point where we are grown-up enough to have a voluntary coalition. However, as my colleague said, it does not end there. When we tick the box to say that we have landed in utopia, it does not stop there. We will keep working hard to evolve this place into something even better than it is. Those things have to happen. Of course we are over-governed in this part of the UK, and we know the reasons for that. We also know that there was a level of democracy here at council level that was the only level in this Province; it was either the councils or Westminster.

As devolutionists, this is a great place to be. This is a great adventure for Northern Ireland. This place is designed to help our people and our businesses, as I keep on saying. It is important that we evolve with our people. That is why I think that the reduction is good. It means that we make savings, although not a lot. Should we be more efficient than we are? Of course we should. Should we equate the numbers with efficiencies? No, we should not, as Mr Attwood pointed out, but let me tell you this: we need to get to a place where hard decisions are made and Ministers stop acting in silos. The lesser parties in particular seem to think that it is OK just to sit on their hands and not agree anything for political reasons. You have to ask yourself whether that is serving the people best.

I am all for inclusivity and consensus politics but we all come to the table with a responsibility, which is to serve our people. It has really frustrated me, this term, when decisions have not been taken for political reasons, and I would like that to stop. I support the passage of the Bill and I look forward to the day when I see it. Why is it going through now? Why can we not just wait until the next mandate? The simple reason is that it is the Members and the parties in this mandate who have made this agreement. Let us get it agreed, banked and set in stone now, and we can think about progressing it even further in the new mandate with existing and new Members. Let us not lose this part of the Fresh Start Agreement. Let us bank it, secure it and move on to deliver even more for our people.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the Bill, as have others before me. When we are discussing this issue — sometimes, the debate has gone in a certain way — there is a danger of falling into the trap of populism and being seen to do this because there is a feeling out there that we need to get rid of MLAs just for the sake of it. We need to take seriously some of the public commentary around issues of delivery, how the spirit of power-sharing has not been here in the last number of years, the standard of debating and the standard of politics in this part of the world. There is also the lethargic nature of this place and the bloatedness of the system. I do not think that this short, simple and very clear Bill is going to tackle all that; a reduction in the number of MLAs, which is what we are discussing today, is not a silver bullet but it will go some way towards tackling that.

We are going into a different phase now where we need to re-engage with the public, and I think that there is a certain social contract in play here where people want to see a more efficient — certainly in keeping with the principles of 1998, with inbuilt inclusivity and diversity — but certainly a more efficient body up here.

There has been some discussion about why 2021. Why not now? When we look at this — Alex Atwood was right — we have to remember why the numbers are here, why we have the system that we have, and it is about inclusivity and diversity. If these changes are going to have a big impact on gender profile, on age profile, maybe ethnic monitories, then for me, in the next few years, it is time for political parties to really take on board some of the changes that they themselves need to make, because it is not just the system that is changing here. All too often, when you look at the demographics of this place — comment has been made that this Chamber is too male, too pale, and too stale — we need to be wary that any changes that we make do not exacerbate that situation. If parties need to adapt over the next few years to meet those needs, then they have time to do so. That is why I think this run-in is something that we need to have.

The other thing that was mentioned was that it is a coalition Government and a coalition agreement that we have set our principles on. It is better to have this come in in 2021 than to have no agreement whatsoever, or for this issue to be passed on further down the line and never to get agreement on it. It is a case of not celebrating, because we have an agreement in place here, it will change in 2021, and parties now have to look at themselves and their different constituencies and what changes they may need to put in place to ensure that diversity and ensure inclusiveness are built in.

There has been a lot of talk in years gone by of the "ugly scaffolding" of the Good Friday Agreement and this place ever since. Perhaps this is one particular way of taking down some of that scaffolding, while keeping the principles of inclusivity and 1998 at the heart of the process, so I will be supporting this.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that whilst my colleagues and I support the reduction in the number of MLAs by 2021, we have heard a number of people say that we are over-governed and all the rest of that and perhaps we have some understanding of that? Does the Member also agree with me that when we talk about being over-governed, we also have to recognise that in the quango world out there there are more than 2,000 people currently appointed on public bodies? A number of those bodies are very important, because they are tribunals, or other types of bodies, but a lot of them were established under direct rule. There is no logic for a lot of those quangos to remain in existence, and while we are talking about being over-governed with 108 MLAs and so on, we have 2,000-plus people appointed to public bodies, and many of those people have no accountability whatsoever. They are delivering a lot of money from the public purse, they are delivering a lot of services; many of them are very good, but there is also a number of people in quangoland, which, in my opinion, also needs to come to an end in due course.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his comment. I was coming to the end of my speech, but I think that the Member raises an interesting point, and it is an issue that I do not doubt will be discussed in the next mandate. The previous Member talked about the wheels of change turning very slowly, and there are a variety of reasons why that is the case, but it is not always politicians who are the reasons behind why those wheels turn so slowly. However, again, just to recap —

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. His party has just made a case for why there should be no reductions in this institution for the next five years but sweepingly criticised "quangoland" for not making reductions. How does that stack up?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that the points are related, but the Member has taken it in a different direction, and I do not think that you are representing the point that was being made. It was a fair point — that if we are going to look at how we are doing things, it is important that we look at everything in the whole. I will finish there and say that I will be supporting this today.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Members, maybe it is opportune to remind you as far as possible to confine yourselves to the Bill before us; otherwise I can see midnight looming.

Mr Lyons: I very much welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. This is a good day for the Assembly, and it is good that we have got to the point at which there is agreement so that we can reduce the number of MLAs.

The Bill is important, and it has my support for a number of reasons. First is the comparison between the Northern Ireland Assembly and other devolved legislatures. In Scotland, there are 40,000 people for each MSP; in Wales, there are 50,000 people for each AM; and, in Northern Ireland, we have an MLA for every 17,000 people. Comparatively, those figures do not stack up well. I do not care what anybody says; it is extremely hard for someone to defend that kind of difference and variation in the numbers of elected representatives.

My second reason is in relation to savings. That has been touched on already, and anywhere between £2 million and £2·5 million are the ballpark figures so far. Let us be honest. We talk about the savings that can come from reducing the number of MLAs. Certainly, £2 million or £2·5 million is an awful lot of money, but we should not think that that can solve all our problems or that huge sums will be released so that we can deal with all the pressing problems that we face as a society. However, as a number of Members said, if there is room for fat to be cut, it should be cut. That is why I welcome the fact that the Bill will result in savings, because that money can be freed up to spend on other things.

The third reason why I support the Bill is that I do not believe that the Assembly will do its job any less well simply because we have fewer MLAs. We will continue to be able to carry out our functions and do the job that is expected of us. The scrutiny of Departments and Ministers will continue, and that work will go on in a way that is no different from the way that it is currently carried out. We can look at different places across the world, and I mentioned Scotland and Wales. Wales has only 60 Assembly Members, and no one criticises their work based on the number of elected representatives. Look at the number of state legislators in the United States, where they are much fewer. Most of them have fewer than 100 members in their lower chambers, and not a lot of complaints are made about their work.

I also want to touch on another issue, which I intended to mention anyway. Mr Attwood referred to the original purpose of having 108 Members. As I said, I was not active in politics in 1998, but I believe that one core reason why the number of 108 MLAs was reached was not to do with what was good for government. It was nothing to do with reaching or agreeing to a certain number in order to maximise the efficiency of the Assembly's work. However, if you read some of the accounts from that time, the reason why we have 108 MLAs was to ensure seats for the smaller parties. Some of those have been mentioned: the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), the PUP, the Women's Coalition and other parties were involved in the negotiations.

As I said, I may take a different view from Mr Attwood as to why that number was agreed on, but I think that we both agree that it was to include more people in the democratic process and ensure that various parties were represented in this place. Regardless of the reasons for the number of MLAs at that time, it is clear that we have moved on. It is no longer 1998, and, to be fair to Mr Attwood, he realises that, which is why he supports the Bill.

We have moved past that, have we not? At least, we should be moving past that to making decisions about government, Departments and the number of MLAs on the basis not of what is right, pleasant or good for politicians but what is good for the people of Northern Ireland.

I will touch on some of the points made and the possible objections mentioned. Inclusion comes up time and time again. It is important to put on record that we will still have a PR system. It is proportional and representative of the people who go to the polls. I could understand the concerns if we were moving to a first-past-the-post system, but we are not; we are simply reducing the numbers. By and large, the make-up of constituencies will still be reflected. In addition, I do not think that the change will affect the representation of unionism or nationalism — that will remain the same — or benefit one or two parties over the others. It would be very foolish of any political party to agree on a number of Members because it thinks that it will have a certain effect on that party. A party might do well in one election and not in the next; or a party might not do so well in one election and very well in the next. A party might benefit, or not, from any changes. Therefore, changing the number on the basis of one's own political calculations would be a very short-term thing to do.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that there may be legitimate concern about the DUP's commitment to inclusion when our now First Minister refers to colleagues as "rogue" Ministers and that there are barriers such as that for us to overcome?

Mr Lyons: I will not go back over old ground. The First Minister made very clear that she was referring to decisions that had been made previously. Although this is not the topic for now, and I do not want to incur the wrath of the Deputy Speaker, it is important that Ministers act appropriately and do not stray from the proper decision-making path by getting the support of Executive colleagues.

Some people might say, "You are setting the bar too high: a reduction from six to five increases the number of votes that a candidate needs to be elected." However, the bar is not really being raised by that much. At present, if you get roughly 14% of the vote, you are in on the first count. Not everybody gets in on the first count; in fact, some do not get in at all. The Bill will increase that percentage to about 16% or 17%. If you get one in six votes, you are in on the first count; if you do not, there are transfers. We are not setting the bar so high that we are making it difficult for the smaller parties.

I will touch briefly on what Mr Hazzard said about gender equality and wider inclusion. I, personally, am strongly opposed to including gender quotas because I believe that they are insulting. I do not think that reducing or, indeed, increasing the numbers would necessarily have an effect on the gender make-up of this place. It is not down to us to legislate on that, but, as political parties, we must ensure that we create the conditions that support and encourage greater diversity within our structures. That is what we should be focusing on. A reduction in the number of seats will not determine the gender make-up of this place.

I welcome the Bill as part of a wider package of reforms. It will be good to have fewer Departments and fewer MLAs. We were told for many years, until quite recently, that this would never happen and that we were wasting our time. It was said to us, "Because of the system that you operate in, you will never get it. You are tied into this system, and you might as well forget about any changes." However, we have made the point. We have been consistent in arguing for these reforms and changes, and we have succeeded. It shows the benefit of keeping going in making your argument and your case. I very much welcome these changes. It is an encouragement as we want to progress further into the future and take down some of what was called that "ugly scaffolding".


4.45 pm

To finish, I would like to comment on a point raised by my colleague Mr McIlveen. He said that the people of Northern Ireland are listening intently to this debate. What I would say is that the people of Northern Ireland will very much be listening to this debate if we do not agree to the changes that are in front of us. If we do not agree to these changes and to what is set out in this Bill, people will rightly be very annoyed. They will be disgusted, because we are not making the progress that we should be making. I do not think that there will be great celebration if this Bill is passed. I think that, instead, an awful lot of people will be saying, "That should have been done a long time ago."

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Member for giving way. Would the Member also agree with me that, whilst some people have tried to hold to the virtues of the 1998 agreement and the structures and progresses that were supposed to be set in place in that, another time was missed in that argument, namely 2007 when the electorate also decided that it wanted reform and a better way of doing government in Northern Ireland? Would he accept that those arguments have been missed in some of the contributions today?

Mr Lyons: The Member has said it more eloquently than I can, and he makes a very good point.

I have very clearly set out why I support the Bill. In many ways, I wish that I did not have to speak on it. In many ways, I wish that these changes had already been made before I came into this place. The reform of Stormont needs to continue. I hope that that message goes out there. I hope that the message also goes out that, although we are focused on working on these issues, we are also working on the issues that really matter to people out there. It is about jobs. It is about the economy. It is about the state of public services. That is where our focus should be because that is what matters to the people whom we represent.

Mr Allen: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. The Ulster Unionist Party recognises the need for reform of the current structures. Indeed, we want to see more cost-effective, streamlined government that delivers for all our people. How can we sit here and ask the people to bear the brunt of cuts and tighten their belts if we are not prepared to do that also? It is welcome to see that we are. Members have already alluded to the fact that people will be listening to and watching this debate with interest. They are watching and listening with interest, and they want to see other reform measures, such as an official opposition and reform of the petition of concern, brought forward.

I recognise the rationale of 1998, although I was only 10 years of age, when the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP stepped above the parapet in order to try to deliver a better Northern Ireland so that people such as myself would not have to grow up seeing the bomb and the bullet on the streets. They stepped out and did not hide in the shadows. They reached out to deliver a better Northern Ireland. I recognise why they set the bar at 108 MLAs. They wanted to make an inclusive and representative government for Northern Ireland, and they did that to the best of their ability.

We are where we are, and, when 2021 comes, we will see a more streamlined government. We will see a reduction from six to five MLAs in each constituency. We have heard calls for that to happen now, or even yesterday. It will happen when it happens. Indeed, I would have encouraged the Member to bring forward an amendment if he were really so serious; maybe that is a suggestion. It is important that we do not just pay lip service to the other reform measures and that we see those, too, coming forward as swiftly as possible.

Mr Allister: I have no issue at all with reducing the number in each Assembly constituency from six to five. I think that 108 always was and still is a preposterous number of MLAs for a small place like Northern Ireland. Even reducing it to 90 leaves us grossly oversubscribed with relatively highly paid MLAs in proportion to the size of our population and in contrast with the other devolved regions. I have no issue with reduction.

I have always thought it would be better to align the constituencies with the local government boundaries. Local government, too, deals with devolved issues. We control those boundaries in the sense of legislation, so it always struck me as being logical and rational that, given the interplay between local government and the devolved institution here, the correct alignment was with the council boundaries. If you had done that, you could have had six for each and doubled up the number for Belfast. That would mean in or about 72, with maybe some mathematical adjustment required to ensure balance so that no constituency was undersubscribed or oversubscribed with MLAs. You could have kept six for each council area, had twice that for Belfast and ended up with 72, which would be more than enough. Aligning them with the parliamentary boundaries makes it a matter beyond your control. They will change. I heard Mr Nesbitt musing about whether, when they change to 16, we, too, will go down. Section 33 of the 1998 Act is pretty clear: we will. Therefore, there is an external operation beyond our control that can adjust the membership of the Assembly, whereas, if the alignment were with local government, that would have brought stability and continuity and would have brought control within these institutions. But that is not the perceived wisdom of those who matter, so we are where we are.

Mr Givan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: The Member makes a valid point about the external influence on our boundaries. Does the Member feel that the Assembly should take responsibility for the boundaries, whether that is to align with council or in the future to say, "We're retaining 18 constituencies at five. Should Westminster reduce to 16, we will retain those 18"? Is that something the Member thinks the Assembly should devolve?

Mr Allister: You would arrive at a very incongruous position where you had 11 councils, a fluctuating number of parliamentary constituencies — it is probably going down to 16 — and a different number of Assembly constituencies. I would have thought you would want to minimise the overlap and the contradiction of that. You might have people who are in one parliamentary constituency, a different Assembly constituency and a different council constituency. If you blended them with the council boundaries, I would have thought that you would have the natural continuity, touching on the subject matters that we mostly deal with in the House, with the affinity with the councils. It would not be healthy to end up determining our own number of parliamentary constituencies for the purposes of the Assembly and it then getting out of kilter with the actual parliamentary constituencies of Westminster. That would be, to use the colloquialism, a bit of a dog's dinner that we should avoid.

I made the point — I will repeat it because it is valid — that the Bill is a fig leaf to enable its primary proponents to say, "We have done the right thing; we have reduced the number of MLAs" in the context where they know that the public appreciation of this place is at a very low level indeed. Therefore, there is an anxiety to be seen to do the right thing. That comes off the back of having very much been seen as doing the wrong thing. We had my proposal before Christmas to reduce the number of special advisers so that it was in line with other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, the DUP and Sinn Féin joined together to protect their own interests and retain the ludicrous situation where we have the same number of special advisers in OFMDFM as services the entire Welsh Government. Embarrassed and caught out on issues like that, with the squander that it represents, there is anxiety to be seen to be embracing this Bill as a token of doing something that can divert and distract attention from the obvious squander that is sustained in respect of the institutions.

It is also a distraction from the fact that when we discuss the institutions — we have tinkered with the number of Departments and are now tinkering with the number of MLAs — we have run away, with no intention of ever addressing it, from the huge issue of the democratic deficit that centres on the subject of mandatory coalition. On 5 May — just over 100 days' time — people in devolved regions across the United Kingdom will go forward to elect their next Assembly. As is the case anywhere else in the democratic world, the people of Scotland and Wales will be allowed to change their Government. Whether they choose to do so is a matter for them, but they have the option, perish the thought in a place like this, of voting a party out of government. In Northern Ireland, because of the iniquity of mandatory coalition, you just have to hold on to a handful of MLAs and you are guaranteed, as of right, a place in perpetuity in government. We are —

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: In a moment. We are wholly denied the right to change our Government and vote a party out of government. The Bill is, in part, an attempted distraction from the failure to face up to and address that huge, glaring democratic deficit in the operation of these institutions.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. It was Herodotus who said that man's greatest torment was having the knowledge of everything but the power over nothing. Does the Member agree that, over the last number of years, he has stated that we would never get agreement on a reduction in the number of MLAs? He talked about a Sinn Féin veto and said that we would never get agreement on a reduction in the number of Departments. Now that we have delivered that, how will he deliver what he is talking about? I do not see any effort from where I am sitting. We are trying to correct the mistakes of the Good Friday Agreement: when will he make that effort?

Mr Allister: It is abundantly clear that there are vested interests for parties that guarantee that, despite having the trivial distraction of having to fight an election, no matter what the election throws up, they will stay, as of right, in government. The attraction of that has overcome parties in the House, particularly the two big parties, which have taken that to themselves as a cushion against democracy. In spite of what the people might do if they were afforded the opportunity, as they are everywhere else, you simply deny them the opportunity, safe in the knowledge that that keeps you safely ensconced —

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: When I have dealt with your point.

That keeps them safely ensconced in government, as of right and for ever. That is the glaring democratic deficit of these institutions. That is the thing that marks these institutions out as unique across the world: the open defiance of basic democratic norms. You can have an election, but you cannot change your Government. They have a view like that in North Korea, but, sadly, that is the view in Northern Ireland under these institutions. The Member said that I said they would never get these changes. I doubt if I said very much about these trivial changes, about changing the number of MLAs; my focus has always been on the main issue. He said that I spoke of a Sinn Féin veto: the Sinn Féin veto is the reason why it is not happening in May. It is the Sinn Féin veto that has pushed this to 2021 —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. I implore the Member to, as far as is humanly possible, stick to the Bill.


5.00 pm

Mr Allister: You see, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are those in the House who set out to mislead me, and I fall into that trap from time to time. [Laughter.]

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way:

Mr Allister: There they go again. I will take the risk, once more.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): My remarks apply equally to all Members.

Mr Frew: I will stick strictly to the Bill. The Member knows well our stance on voluntary coalition, as I know his. My point is this: what effort is he making? How would he achieve it? I can quote the Member from past debates:

"None of it will happen, because a veto was surrendered to Sinn Féin. We will talk incessantly about our "aspirational desires" to see the number of MLAs reduced; to see the number of Departments reduced; and to move to voluntary coalition. However, those who talk in those terms know full well that it is not going to happen, because they made sure it would not by surrendering the veto on it to Sinn Féin.". [Official Report, Bound Volume 76, p105, col 1].

It is happening; it is happening in this mandate. We have agreement. Where is the effort from the Member? How will he achieve his goal of a voluntary coalition?

Mr Allister: It is not happening. We are not one inch closer to voluntary coalition than we were in 2007, when his party signed up to mandatory coalition with the promise to the party's rank and file that they would only have to stomach it for eight years and then there would be voluntary coalition — a false promise, they knew from the start.

How would you achieve it? It is simple: by the DUP having courage and integrity — fading recollections, no doubt. It would be achieved by saying, after the next election, "We've tried mandatory coalition. We've tried it for two long mandates. It has failed and failed miserably. It has been an experience of lurching from crisis to crisis, because government that is based on not having to agree anything in order to be in government inevitably results in no agreement when you are in government". The DUP should have the courage to say at that point that, having tried mandatory coalition for more than long enough and seen it not working, it still wants devolution but devolution that works and that, if it is to be there, it will be on the basis of voluntary coalition. I invite them to take that stance. If they did, they would soon discover that, if the alternative was losing all the niceties and the baubles of the House, the chauffeur-driven cars, the Chair of this, the Chair of that and the Minister of this, the people would recognise that, if they wanted devolution that was going to last and work, they would have to pay the price that people pay anywhere across the democratic world of voluntary coalition.

That is how you get it — by forcing the issues. So long as you sit back in the comfort of your ministerial limo, recognising that it is mandatory coalition that puts you there, it will never change. It is a question of not having the will to change it. That is the Member's party's problem; it does not have the will to change it. They are too comfortable with it, too happy with it. Yes, they can go on with the hyperbole: "Oh yes, we would love to change it. Oh yes, we will change it", but they are very content and are never prepared to take the stand that would force the change by drawing a line and saying, "We're not going back to mandatory coalition. We want to keep devolution, but it's going to be on a voluntary basis". Let devolution come about then. It would come about in those circumstances.

I think the unelected Member for East Antrim wanted to be heard.

Mr Lyons: Yes, I am the unelected Member for East Antrim, but I still have the right to stand in the House, and I will. I will not be stopped.

Perhaps I can give the Member the opportunity to display some humility on the issue. He was wrong. It is here in black and white. The Member said we would not get a reduction in the number of Departments. He said that we would not get a reduction in the number of Assembly Members. He said that, yet we have got it here. The Bill is going through the House. Will the Member not welcome that progress? Even for once, can he not welcome the progress that has been made?

Mr Allister: I started my speech by saying that I had no issue with reducing the number from six to five. I went on to say, in fact, that I would love to see the number reduced even further. I have no issue with reducing the number of Departments. What I previously said, if what you read out is correct, was —

Mr Lyons: So Hansard is wrong.

Mr Allister: — that there are three issues and that they are all joined together. Those are the number of Departments, the number of MLAs and voluntary coalition. That is the pledge that you made. You are not one inch nearer to producing voluntary coalition. You — sorry, not you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the Members who raised the point — have not got the vision, means or desire to advance that and end mandatory coalition. They have no plan as to how to end mandatory coalition. Certainly, by perpetually propping it up and going into it, even to the stage of being willing to sweep murder under the carpet — that is what they did: swept murder under the carpet — they have no manifestation of interest in ending mandatory coalition.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. The Member will resume his seat.

Members, I asked you, in the nicest possible way, to address your remarks to the Bill. We have the added problem now of Members making remarks from a sedentary position. That is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. May I plead with the Member, please? The election has not yet been announced. Will you stick to the Bill? I will ensure that those who seek interventions will do so as well. We can then go on and show some respect to the business that comes after this debate. The indicative timings are now hopelessly skewed. Thank you.

Mr Allister: I will draw my remarks to a close and thereby dissipate the chances of being led astray again by those who would intervene. [Laughter.]

I do think, "Yes, fine; let us reduce the number of MLAs", but that is not the core issue. That is not what makes this place dysfunctional. It is not because we have 108 MLAs rather than 90 that this is the most dysfunctional Assembly and Government in western Europe. It is not the numbers that make it dysfunctional: it is the system. That is the point that I am making: that this is but a distraction from addressing that core issue — the system issue — of how the Belfast Agreement devolution works. That is the issue that is not being addressed, and it will not be addressed, because there is too much self-interest in not addressing it.

Mr McCallister: After that bit of a spat between old friends, I am not seeing much sign of a reunification.

Like others in the debate, I have no issue with the number of Members being reduced to 90. I take Mr Allister's point that, whatever the number of Members is — whether it be 108, 90, 72 or 64 — that is not causing our dysfunctionality. Basic things such as not having a properly worked out and agreed Programme for Government or collective ministerial responsibility make the Executive look dysfunctional and all over the place on every issue.

Other points have been made in the debate. People always tend to compare the size of the Assembly with the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. We also have to bear in mind that local government in Great Britain is a very different model from what we have. In Scotland, local government employs something like 100,000 people, compared with maybe 10,000 in Northern Ireland. Even allowing for Scotland having over twice our population, that is still significantly bigger, because it has different functions. Some local authorities in England are in charge of education, and virtually all of them in Great Britain are in charge of social care. Local government here is not. Recently, the Department for Social Development did not devolve certain powers to councils, so you are not always comparing like with like, and each devolved settlement across the UK involves slightly different powers. This is one of the most powerful devolved institutions in the UK, with powers over welfare, albeit we handed that bit back for a brief time to get that done.

Members have talked about efficiencies and some have mentioned removing some of the scaffolding around this. Changes are happening. Reducing the number of Departments has an impact on the d'Hondt calculation and will change that, and reducing the number of MLAs will have an impact. There is a wider implication. I was opposed to accelerated passage because, given that a five-year mandate is starting in May, there are many other things that we could have looked at, including Mr Allister's point about where you align your boundaries. Is 90 the figure that we will agree? If so, let us stick to 90. Let us not be buffeted by outside forces or by the very likely reduction in Westminster seats, which then cuts the Assembly down to 80 Members. We should guard against those changes.

Whether we set up separate constituencies or take Mr Allister's point about local government, there are merits in looking at that. A proper Committee Stage would have been very useful to examine thoroughly what size the Assembly should be. The Welsh Assembly has 60 Members. There has been a campaign for a number of years to increase the numbers in the Welsh Assembly because, as it gets more powers and devolution takes hold, that Assembly sometimes struggles with 60 Members to carry out all its functions and properly scrutinise the areas of government that it wants to scrutinise. There is an argument that the Welsh Assembly should be bigger despite Wales having a more powerful local government than we have.

If you were to align the boundaries with local government, the council area that I live in — the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area — would probably need more MLAs than some other councils like Fermanagh and Omagh because there is a significantly larger population, but all those numbers could be quite easily worked out. If we were to elect 72 members in the way that Mr Allister suggested or from a different constituency make-up, should we be using a list system to encourage others into it and to help encourage more women into politics? Our Scottish and Welsh colleagues also do those things. We should have been looking at those issues in doing this. It is just unnecessary to accelerate a Bill, debate it and have Consideration Stage next week when the Bill will not take effect until a 2021 election, especially when there is a broad consensus in the Assembly. Yes, this is making some changes that are tied in with the changes in the Departments Bill. It is making changes, albeit cautious ones, but it is making changes nonetheless. There is broad agreement on this, so why are we rushing it at this late stage?

Whatever boundaries are eventually agreed should be there for a much more stable and longer-term future. In the 1982 Assembly, by the time the new boundaries were introduced in 1983, there were Assembly Members and MPs and possibly those in council areas all over the place and so, to use the old phrase, it was very much a dog's dinner.


5.15 pm

Boundaries should be set up on a much more stable basis and not dictated by outside events that could change. If the Assembly is saying that 90 Members is the figure that we think broadly gives us the safeguards that Mr Hazzard talked about, with representation in most constituencies built in, that is what we want to see. It will be automatic: if we reduce Westminster seats under this, we will reduce the number of Assembly Members because those constituencies will not exist. We should be looking at all those issues.

In the broader scheme of things, reducing the number of Members is a reform that I welcome, even if it is slow and painstaking. However, it is not the panacea for all our problems. We need to get into a proper place of having a functional Government and a robust opposition holding them to account, as well as being an alternative for voters.

Reducing the number of MLAs does not provide a great cost saving. According to Mr Allister's special advisers (SpAds) Bill, the £92,000 cost of a special adviser is almost the salary of two MLAs. It is only £4,000 short of what two MLAs are paid. Bar a few, most MLAs are elected; SpAds are not elected and are unaccountable. Those are the types of reforms that we should be looking at.

I welcome the Bill as part of the package on that, but it should be going through a Committee Stage. The Bill should have been the first item of business when the new Assembly returned in May. If it had been introduced then, it could have been given the time and consideration that it merits. While it is a brief Bill, it has major consequences and should have been given time and space to develop. Despite all the challenges faced by the Assembly since I became a Member in March 2007, it has not had an early election yet, and I do not think that there is a major likelihood of having an early election in the next term with all the rebooted relationships that Fresh Start gave us.

I am happy to support the broad principles of the Bill.

Ms Sugden: This Bill represents another step in post-conflict Northern Ireland. I was 12 years old in 1998, and whilst some of the details are a wee bit hazy, I do remember it as being quite fraught. I suppose that the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was to ensure peace and inclusivity. I am not sure about the numbers, but maybe 108 Members was necessary back then so that everybody could be part of the peace process and have an opportunity of it.

However, sacrifices were made to ensure peace, and we are seeing the outworkings of those sacrifices 18 years later. As Members said, there is a democratic deficit here. Whilst this is not a numbers game, there are people here making up the numbers. That is not good for the people of Northern Ireland.

Whilst it should not be about crunching numbers now, 18 years later is the time to start looking at this from an efficiency point of view. Start looking at it for the purpose of this place in respect of representing the people of Northern Ireland. If we are not doing that, why are we here? We can look around the Chamber and realise that some people are not doing that, so now is the time to move on.

Some Members said that we are on the right side of public opinion on accelerated passage, but accelerated passage takes away the public's voice. The purpose of the Chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to act as the scrutiny body of the Northern Ireland Executive. Therefore by fast-forwarding that and taking those scrutiny powers away, you are not representing the people. You are representing government, and government is not there to represent: MLAs are, so I do take exception to that.

I come back to a point that I mentioned earlier. It has been revealed why the date is 2021 and not 2016: parties in the House feel threatened that they will be undermined if we take this forward now. Do not get me wrong, the election on 5 May will be a generational watershed for the Assembly because new Members are already coming through and being co-opted. They will not have an opportunity to build a profile between now and May, so perhaps the opportunity in five years' time to establish stability in those parties is why we are leaving it to 2021 and not doing it in 2016. This is not turkeys voting for Christmas because Christmas is 5 May 2016. Right now, we are trying instead to get the goose involved, and we can then live our lives out in the next five years and be happy to be secure in our positions five years from now.

As other Members said, boundary changes would have been of great value. I represent East Londonderry, and, as the Deputy Speaker will realise, it is a bit of an odd constituency because of the way in which administrative bodies work in it. I represent two council areas — Derry City and Strabane District Council and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council — two health trust areas and two Education Authority areas. That makes my job challenging, particularly as an independent. To put it in that context, the reduction in the number of Members to five will be quite difficult, so we need to look at the issue in a wider context and call it for what it is. A spade is a spade. We are not doing this in 2016. We are doing it in 2021 because parties feel threatened. Perhaps that is a valid reason, but it says to me that we are not as politically stable as we thought we would be. It was the same with the review of public administration. It never went as far as was always intended, because it was felt that, if we gave Assembly powers to local government, it would destabilise this place. There would not be enough powers to share out. That is not political maturity. That says that we are quite a long way off, and putting it off for another five years is another example of that.

There is no Member who will not support the Bill, and, whilst I will support it, it is important to the debate that we say what this is all about. It is not about reducing us from 108 to 90. We will do that, and the public know that we will. We would probably be shooting ourselves in the foot to say otherwise. We have to come back to the crucial point of why we are not doing it in 2016, which is that parties feel threatened. That is a job for the parties. On 5 May, they have to convince the public to elect them. If they cannot do that, why are we manipulating the system so that they have a better opportunity in five years' time?

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I am grateful for Members' contributions to the debate. Some have been valuable and, indeed, informative. Reforming institutional structures has been a declared objective of government here for many years, and reducing the number of MLAs has been recognised as a key element of reform. The Bill represents a major element in the process of reform. The issue addressed in the Bill has been the subject of a review and report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee in 2012. The British Government also consulted on the size of the Assembly in August 2012. It was the subject of further detailed consideration during the political process leading to the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014, and it featured in last December's talks process, which led to the Fresh Start Agreement.

This is a straightforward Bill with a simple purpose: to reduce the number of MLAs in the Assembly from 108 Members to 90 Members through each of the current 18 parliamentary constituencies returning five Members rather than six. The arrangements will apply at the first election following the forthcoming Assembly election in May this year. It represents a major plank in the Government's declared objective of reforming our institutional structures.

I will cover some of the points that some Members raised Hopefully, I will cover the main points. Pat Sheehan, the Deputy Chair of the Assembly and Executive Committee, outlined the work and the consensus of the Committee in its 2012 report. He highlighted the potential implications, particularly for some of the smaller parties. He stressed the responsibility on all parties to ensure that the reduction would not result in a reduction in the number of women elected to the Assembly.

David McIlveen outlined that the consensus and the political will are here now to reduce the number of MLAs in the next election, in 2021. He hoped that narrow party politics, some of which we heard again today, could be set aside in the debate and vote and that Members could support the Bill.

Alex Attwood explained the reasons and unique circumstances that led, following the Good Friday and subsequent agreements, to the number of MLAs that we have, and he talked, in particular, about equality and diversity issues. He emphasised that waiting until 2021 would give parties the opportunity to examine and address any impact on the equality and diversity issues that might come up.

Mike Nesbitt mentioned the 2018 parliamentary boundaries. I know that he is not here, but I have to say that the Bill cannot deal with constituencies, nor can the Assembly legislate to change from Westminster constituencies to another system, unless it is the will of this Administration to ask the British Government to examine that. If that is the way that people want to go, that is what they have to do.

Chris Lyttle asked for an explanation of why we are waiting until 2021, and I think that other Members asked the same question. I reiterate that it is to give parties the opportunity to examine and address any equality issues that might be anticipated as a consequence of the Bill, and the time to put in place the measures needed to address those issues. That is the main reason.

I emphasise that we had a debate and vote on this not so long ago, and the consensus was to make the change in 2021, not 2016. I think that the balance between making an immediate change and dealing with concerns about the impact on diversity and, in particular, gender equality has been emphasised here today. Parties need more time to look at those issues and to work to promote more female candidates, for example. I know that some Members touched on that. When we look around the Assembly — we have had debates about this — we need to see that it is more representative of society. The fact that over half the population are women needs to be represented in the Assembly as well.

Paul Frew talked about the importance of consensus and of Ministers not working in silos.

Chris Hazzard said that the Bill gives parties the ability to adapt to meet the needs of being a more diverse and representative Assembly, which, I think, everybody would agree with. He also mentioned that one of the principal reasons why 2021 was chosen was to give parties the time and opportunity to examine issues of equality and diversity.

Gordon Lyons talked about some of the financial gains that would result from the Bill, and I think that it was Andy Allen who talked about hoping to see other reforms coming forward in conjunction with it.

Other Members had quite a negative view of the Bill. We listen to the woes and the negativity, and we hear all the time from Members such as Jim Allister and John McCallister about the dysfunctionality of the Assembly. If you go out and ask communities what they want, they will say that they want to see Members working together in the Assembly, coming to a consensus, getting work done and changing the quality of life out there. No one can predict how Assembly elections will work out, but the people will get their answer. Sometimes, when Members talk about voters, they can be quite — I do not know how to describe it — disingenuous and insulting. People vote for the people whom they want to vote for. Voters know exactly what they want from the Assembly and from their Assembly Members. We have to respect how people vote and the choices that they make.

I finish by thanking Members for all their contributions to the debate and for the questions and issues that many raised. I hope that I have been able to answer them to their satisfaction.


5.30 pm

A Fresh Start has provided a basis for addressing some of our most intractable issues here. It has made it possible for us to move forward on an area that will benefit good government and society as a whole. That is what it is about; it is about people in our community, it is not about us up here. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA Bill 76/11-16] be agreed.

That the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [NIA Bill 46/11-16] do now pass.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Iarraim oraibh tabhairt faoin Bhille SEN agus le glacadh leis. The Bill, as it stands today, represents a culmination of the Education Committee's scrutiny and the voice of the Assembly. Tá an Coiste Oideachais agus an Tionól i ndiaidh a bheith ag éisteacht le tuairimí na ndaoine sin a bhfuil suim acu sa Bhille. Both the Education Committee and the Assembly have listened to the views of those interested in the Bill. I thank Committee members, other MLAs, and all those who took the time to make their views known, for their important contributions to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill.

The Bill plays a key role in strengthening the special educational needs (SEN) framework. The SEN framework aims to ensure that children with special educational needs get the support they need to reach their full potential at our schools. It is based on the individual needs of the child, and the Bill further strengthens the role of the child. Put simply, the aim of the Bill is to bring positive changes to the lives of children with special educational needs, who represent around 20% of pupils in our schools.

The Bill will make it a duty for the Education Authority (EA) to have regard to the views of the child when making decisions about their special educational needs. It gives new rights to children over compulsory school age, recognising their growing independence. The Bill is to be followed by new regulations and a code of practice, and when all three elements are in place we will provide a more responsive SEN framework that will benefit children and their parents in their interactions with the Education Authority and schools.

In developing the Bill and the new SEN framework, the overarching principles are that every school shall have an inclusive ethos, that early and timely intervention is key, and that schools and teachers will need training to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. In turn, I believe that we should focus on learning outcomes for children with SEN, which should be agreed in consultation with the parents and the child. Transparency, accountability and reduced bureaucracy will ensure that everyone involved in the SEN world has confidence in the new SEN framework.

The Bill being moved today strengthens and adds to the duties of the Education Authority, boards of governors, and the health and social care authorities. Whilst not intending to rehearse all the clauses in the Bill, including those amended at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, I will say that the Education Authority will have some important new duties. It must publish a plan of its arrangements for special educational provision, in particular a description of the resources and advisory and support services to be made available. This plan will provide greater clarity for schools and parents about what is available. The authority will also be required to seek and have regard to the views of the child when making decisions about special educational needs.

Children with special educational needs are a very diverse group, with different needs and different views on the support they need to reach their potential at school and prepare them for adult life. Putting the views of the child at the centre means acknowledging that no two children are the same and that one size will not fit all.

For boards of governors, it means the appointment of a learning support coordinator, with responsibility for coordinating provision for children with SEN. The Education Committee proposed an amendment at Consideration Stage, to which I agreed, which provides that teachers take all reasonable steps to actively identify and provide for the needs of the pupil with SEN. I see this as having the effect of strengthening the duty on schools for pupils with special educational needs.

The requirement for each child with SEN to have a personal learning plan is new. During Consideration Stage, the Education Committee amendment, to which I agreed, was voted through. Specifically, it provides for the personal learning plan to be transferred to a new school in order to assist in planning to meet the child's special educational needs within the school.

The Education Committee also recommended a number of cooperation-related amendments at Consideration Stage, which I later refined at Further Consideration Stage to align the amendments with the rest of the Bill and with wider education legislation to remove duplication with other legislation and avoid unintended consequences. Whilst recognising that the Children's Services Co-operation Act makes provision for cooperation between Departments, the Education Committee took the view that there should be increased cooperation between Education and Health in identifying, assessing and providing services to children with educational needs.

The Assembly agreed to my refining amendments at Further Consideration Stage. The Bill, therefore, provides for increased cooperation in identification, assessment and provision and provides a new duty on health and social care bodies to provide services identified by them as likely to be of benefit in addressing the child's special educational needs.

These are important amendments, and they widen the scope of the Bill. I believe they have the capacity to bring real improvements to the lives of children with special educational needs.

Mr Agnew also brought an amendment at Further Consideration Stage to address cooperation between Education and Health on transition planning for children with statements. I recognise the importance of that and duly supported that amendment at Further Consideration Stage. The transition from school life can be a stressful time for young people and their parents, and transition plans are an important way for all agencies who will be involved with the young person to plan in partnership for the future. As such, I think that the amendment will be especially beneficial to those young people who will rely on provisions from health in their adult life.

The Bill is very important in providing the legislative changes necessary to support a new special educational needs framework. The Education Authority will develop training for EA staff, boards of governors, principals, teachers and learning support coordinators on the new framework. Appropriate training will be delivered to all schools and boards of governors during 2016-17.

In conclusion, I thank the Education Committee for its scrutiny, which ensured that moving from Consideration Stage to Further Consideration Stage and now to Final Stage was strengthened on each occasion. I thank all of you who contributed to the Bill. The package of the Bill, new regulations and a code of practice will create a new SEN framework that will ensure that every child with SEN has the support that they need to reach their full potential at school.

The legislation will have an impact on every child who goes through our education system here. Ensuring that every child who has special educational needs gets the support that they need as early as possible will have positive benefits not only for the child and their parents but for the whole school community. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I will make a few remarks as Chair of the Committee for Education.

As we just heard, I think everyone will accept that this is a very important Bill. It supports a revised special educational needs and inclusion framework. It is designed to maintain an inclusive ethos in schools; ensure early identification, assessment and provision of support; reduce bureaucracy; build on the capacity of educators; and take into account the views of pupils and parents.

The number of children with special educational needs appears to be increasing. That has been ongoing for a number of years. That provides budgetary and resource pressures for schools and the Education Authority and policy challenges for the Department. For members of the Committee, those pressures and challenges are very real, and what we must keep uppermost in our minds is that they are most acutely felt by parents and children.

Many parents place their faith in the SEN assessment and statementing process and then come to a representative organisation, or even to their local MLA or councillor, when it appears to be going wrong. As I said at Consideration Stage, many parents have complained about a complex process with poor coordination and a lack of communication between education and health providers. It is the Committee’s hope that the Assembly has done something very positive in the Bill to address those serious complaints and concerns.

The Committee is particularly happy with those amendments to the Bill that are designed to improve the statementing process, whether that is through better specification of support in statements, the improved obligations to provide consistent services or the general duty on Health and Education to cooperate. All those have been tackled in the Bill.

It is fair to say that there was initially a little bit of scepticism from the Department on some of those amendments. In the end, between the Committee and the Department, we came to a positive understanding. It seems that we have agreed a better Bill, and I suspect that that will be acknowledged across the Chamber.

The Bill as introduced contained other measures, including the introduction of statutory personal learning plans and new voluntary mediation arrangements. The Committee generally welcomes those changes and believes that they will form an important part of the new SEN and inclusion framework. It would be remiss of me not to remind the House that there may be some elements of the Bill with which Members were a little less content. Those included the pilot scheme that transfers SEN rights from parents to children below compulsory school age and also changes to the SEN statementing process, which may alter the balance of support that is provided to children between schools and the Education Authority. In many ways, the Committee will keep a watching brief and await the relevant secondary legislation with interest.

I would also like to record the Committee’s thanks to our many stakeholders, those who made written submissions and, indeed, those who attended our briefing events, made submissions or gave formal oral evidence. Those stakeholders should be congratulating themselves today. As they lobbied the Committee, articulated so eloquently their concerns and, indeed, quite often, their first-hand experiences and made so many useful and innovative suggestions, the Committee was able to translate those into amendments, and the Assembly will now hopefully pass those into law. It can be a long process, but I have to remind those organisations, particularly those that attended the Committee’s briefing event on Health and Education cooperation almost one year ago, that the Assembly and the Committee have listened, and hopefully they have made a difference.

While I am congratulating everyone, it is timely to note that this would appear to be the first time that an education Bill has undergone a Committee Stage and then successfully proceeded to Final Stage. I am not suggesting that the change of Chair had anything to do with that, and it may be more to do with the circumstances surrounding the Bill, although it is noticeable that we have two other Bills that may make it on to the statute books by the end of this term. I commend the Minister, his officials, Committee members and the House on that significant achievement. It is important to say that, with this Bill, we have seen good cooperation between the Committee and officials, and the contribution of Members within the Assembly. In that sense, we have seen something of a virtuous circle.

Education matters can be difficult, controversial and hard to get to agreement on. Members of the House have demonstrated their willingness to overcome obstacles where that is for the benefit of all our people, and particularly for our children. It seems to have gone so well that we may be able to complete those other two items. I do not want to give any false hopes to the Minister, but we are hopeful about that. From a Committee point of view, I commend the Bill to the House.

I will now make a couple of brief remarks in my capacity as a DUP MLA. It is very positive legislation and a good example of where there has been ongoing work and, indeed, a sense of listening between the Committee and the Department. As indicated, we have tried, where possible, to address the concerns and frustrations of parents. It is a very significant Bill. From the perspective of families throughout Northern Ireland, the impact of special educational needs is critical to their lives. As the Minister indicated, getting your head around the complexities of the issue is always quite difficult. It is not a simple case of a child either having a special need or not having a special need. There is a very broad spectrum and a wide range of issues that affect children and, indeed, where the levels of help are required is critical.

As we move ahead, it is crucial that we translate the Bill into good practice. There is no doubt that a lot of the frustration out there has been over the lack of early intervention and the breakdown in cooperation on the ground. We have taken very positive steps to address those issues in the Bill. Inevitably, while the Bill provides a very positive platform for a way forward, much of the crucial detail will be brought about in regulations and the code of practice. Given the nature of the subject, that is both inevitable and not to be feared. There will be a critical job, I suspect, in the new mandate, given the timescale, for the Education Committee to try to ensure that we get those regulations right — and there was good cooperation with the Department in being able to get early sight of those regulations — and ensure that there is delivery on the ground.


5.45 pm

The key test of this Bill will be how experience changes for pupils and parents throughout Northern Ireland. With this Bill, we have made a very positive step forward, and it provides a platform for improved practice. Hopefully that help is getting to parents and pupils throughout Northern Ireland. Therefore, as Committee Chair and an individual MLA, I commend this Bill, at Final Stage, to the House.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like the Chair of the Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and, indeed, the opportunity to speak at this Final Stage. I think this is a very important development. I want to thank the Committee Clerk and support staff. As the Chair of the Committee has outlined, this was, at times, a very complex Bill. We are dealing with very complex issues, and the Committee was very grateful for the support that it was given. We are also grateful to the witnesses, organisations, parents and, indeed, children that we engaged with over time, not just as individual MLAs but as a Committee as a whole. They made this a very worthwhile exercise, and we gleaned so much more information out of it.

As the Chair has outlined, the Committee, through engagement with the Minister and the Department, has widened the scope of the Bill, and I think the Bill is better for it. I think of this as an example of good politics and politics working well in this place, and that is a welcome development. I see signs of that with the Addressing Bullying in Schools Bill that the Committee is looking into at the minute. There are parallels. The SEND Bill and the Addressing Bullying In Schools Bill have real, positive, significant, critical reform at their very heart. They are about addressing the real needs of children here and now. I think it is no accident that, to a large extent, any issues of politicking or anything else are left totally aside, and the Committee gets on with the good work of scrutinising the Bill and doing what is right. I think that is to be welcomed.

What we have now is a legislative framework that is robust and fit for purpose. As the Minister outlined at the start, the principles at the heart of this include placing the child at the centre of the process, supporting the parents through the process, an inclusive ethos, early intervention being key, and building the capacity of schools, boards of governors and school communities to meet the needs of the children. I think that is vital going forward.

Another big positive out of all of this, which leads on from Mr Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Bill, is the building of cooperation between DE and the Department of Health. I think that can only be a positive thing, and I have no doubt that the Committee — perhaps I will be fortunate enough to sit on the next Education Committee as well — will keep a close eye on how that develops and where we need to take it to in the future.

The focus on mediation and the development of personal learning plans is a very positive reform also. On the whole, this is a legislative toolbox — I think that is the best way to look at it — with guidelines and secondary legislation to come. There is a real platform here for excellent reform. That is what we have seen. Again, it is a legislative toolbox, and let us hope that the secondary legislation to follow will equip schools, parents and children to be able to gain the sort of education qualifications and success that they want.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Final Stage of this very important Bill. Firstly I would like to thank the Clerk, the Education Committee, the Department and all those who contributed. It has been a long process — 11 months from the introduction of the Bill to the Assembly — and, during Committee Stage, we heard in-depth evidence from over 30 organisations, which helped to shape our thinking on the Bill.

The Bill is intended to give effect to the legislative change that is necessary to support the policy for a revised special educational needs and inclusion framework. We all know and have seen the evidence that the number of children and young people with special educational needs and statements is on the increase. I believe that this Bill will help to ensure they are not left behind and that it will benefit their parents and their carers at the same time.
At an earlier stage, I said it was important for the system to be transparent and easy for users to navigate. I hope that this turns out to be the case.

That transparency can be facilitated through the revised code of practice, a document that will be invaluable to children, parents, boards of governors and the Education Authority. There is a need for appropriate staff development not only for learning support coordinators but for all staff.

The Minister emphasised the point about early intervention. The assessment of special educational needs children is important so that they can achieve their full potential. The benefit of the Bill is that it aims to keep the child firmly placed at the centre of the process. Its effectiveness will be measured at the point of delivery. While I commend the work done in our schools and the external help from education and health specialists, the current service is unfortunately failing a significant number of special educational needs children. Early intervention is not working for everyone. When it takes up to six months to get a referral to an allied health professional or an educational professional, that is not early intervention.

This is an important Bill for the children in our schools, the parents of children with special educational needs and our teachers. During the Bill's progress, I mentioned the SDLP's support for advocacy for children or parents through the special educational needs process. We are glad to see that that is catered for in the Bill.

The most notable amendment to the Bill relates to Mr Agnew's private Member's Bill, which ensured proper, increased cooperation between the education and health sectors. As the Chair of the Committee said, there is a wide spectrum of special educational needs. Some will require the support of a statement, but many will not be statemented, and their needs must also be met. I pledge my support and that of my party for the Bill, and I welcome the positive impact that it will have on our young people, their parents and schools.

Mrs Overend: I am pleased and parents and teachers across Northern Ireland will be pleased that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill has reached Final Stage. I am sure that every Member in the Chamber has, at one time or another, been asked to assist a child who needs help at school, needs to get a statement or needs to get answers because of a lack of communication or a lack of joined-up action by the people involved in the long and complex process of meeting the special educational needs of children. The complaints that I have received include these: "Why has my child not been referred for assessment yet?"; "What is taking so long for my child to be assessed?"; "Why is my child not getting the help that he or she needs at school?"; "Why is the process so slow in my area compared with others'?"; "Why is there not enough support for teachers and parents who are dealing with children with special educational needs?"; and "If early intervention is the answer to so many educational outcome problems, why does action for my child take so long?".

The Bill places the obligation or duty to look after the special educational needs of pupils on boards of governors. Indeed, there is concern and there are questions about whether boards of governors will be adequately trained to provide confidence to parents of children with special educational needs, as well as to reassure those who serve on a board that they will be able to carry out their duty. We will look to the regulations and guidelines that will follow the legislation to ensure that real improvements in the process are realised.

I am pleased that amendments were made to the Bill to increase the cooperation between the Department of Education and the Health Department, as well as the safeguards and the checks and balances to ensure that that happens. Of course, the Children's Services Co-operation Bill progressed during the deliberations on this Bill, and that was very welcome in respect of cooperation.

Consistency across all areas of Northern Ireland is another aspect of special educational needs that has been lacking, and I hope that that is something that the Bill will bring. I represent Mid Ulster, where there are families who are choosing schools in one board area over another in a neighbouring area because the statementing process is shorter. That is not exactly something that we want to see continue. The Bill's intention to reduce the time limits for the assessment of need should be a change for the better. Transitional arrangements and the making of personal learning plans are very welcome; indeed, the issue was discussed at length, and we saw no reason why good practice at one school should not be shared with another school that any child with special educational needs attends, provided that the child or the child's parents agree with that happening.

Ask teachers whether there needs to be a better process in place to meet the special educational needs of children at their school. Ask any parent of a child requiring special educational support whether we need to provide that help faster and more efficiently, and you will be told yes, yes and yes. The Bill, which was nine years in the making, will be welcomed as progress. Regulations and the code of practice will follow, and I welcome, as will fellow MLAs, the opportunity to scrutinise them.

I add my thanks to the departmental officials, the Committee Clerk and officers in the Committee and all those who discussed issues in Committee and provided feedback for the scrutiny of the Bill. I have said this before, but nothing shines a light on the issue better than each personal story from a neighbour or constituent who comes into our constituency offices. I sincerely trust that the Bill will reduce problems and increase efficiency in providing good educational opportunities for our children who have special educational needs. Time will tell whether that is a success, and I hope to start hearing a different story in my constituency office. As Ulster Unionist education spokesperson, I support the Bill.

Mr Lunn: Like everybody else, I support the passage of the Bill through its Final Stage. It has taken a long time. Mr Rogers referred to 11 months, which is the period since we first looked at the Bill. Mrs Overend, rightly, mentioned nine years, which is the period from gestation to completion. When we started talking about the Bill, I did not need glasses: I do now.

I do not want to repeat what everyone else has said. Everybody has found a reason to welcome the Bill and, obviously, I do as well. I just want to refer briefly to a few provisions, for instance clause 4, which places a duty on the health and social services authorities to cooperate, identify, assess and provide services to children with special needs. When we first talked about that, it is fair to say there was some resistance from various quarters. The Health Department was not too keen on it, but, following the passage of Mr Agnew's Bill, it readily agreed to the conditions that were laid down in that Bill. However, we felt that it was still necessary for us to put something into ours, and we were probably right about that. It removes any ambiguity about the obligations involved.

Clause 5 requires the authority to provide the services or treatment likely to be beneficial to the child should such be identified during the making of an assessment. That, equally, is to be welcomed. The reduction in time limits, the general streamlining of the assessment process and the statementing are also very helpful.

I could also refer to the provisions around boards of governors' duties, appeals, the rights of the child, mediation, the reduction in bureaucracy, which I think the Minister mentioned, the portability of the personal learning plan, transferability — I could go on. I think that we have been following the right procedures in this place and have come up with good legislation. It will lay down a template for improving the service overall. Mrs Overend is right: we have all had complaints for years about the system, including the bureaucracy, the slowness and the general strain of trying to put a child through the process. The Bill, when it becomes an Act, will make a genuine contribution to improving the system.

I do not really need to say much more than that. I also thank the Minister for his constructive and cooperative approach to the Bill. He has referred to the changes that he agreed to. It is not always the situation between a Committee and a Minister, but there has been a good level of cooperation around this. I do not know if anyone else has, but I commend the departmental officials, some of whom are with us, who came to the Committee on several occasions and, likewise, adopted a constructive and helpful approach for which we were grateful.

We look forward, as a party, like others, to the regulations and the codes of conduct and so on, when they come forward. Sometimes, the devil is in the detail, but we are off to a good start with the Bill. Parents, teachers and children will welcome what we are doing today.


6.00 pm

Mr Agnew: It is right to say that we have made great strides in the identification of special educational needs. Particular credit has to go to our teachers, both in primary and nursery schools. The problem with that is, of course, that it puts extra pressure on services. The test of the Bill will be whether the follow-up services happen more quickly and are improved once identification has been made. We talk a lot about early identification, but if the identification is early and the support is slow there will inevitably be frustration for the families involved.

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

There are two aspects to that. There is the statementing process itself; we hope that, as a result of the Bill, it will become more efficient and simpler. However, as Mr Rogers said, there is also support needed for those who may never require a statement but are identified by their teachers, family, health worker, or whoever it might be, as having special educational needs. We must ensure that support is still provided, even in the absence of a statement. Certainly, from speaking to teachers and principals, I think that that is where the challenge comes for them: being able to provide the extra resources that become available without a statement being in place. Perhaps the personal learning plan can be part of that solution. Inevitably, we will always seek additional resources, and it is not one or the other; it must be both.

I welcome that, through the Committee Stage, the cooperation amendments have been brought forward and, in particular, that the requirements to cooperate between the Department of Health and that of Education are in place. At Further Consideration Stage, the Minister referred to correspondence between himself and the Health Minister. I am sure that it was not the first time that that had taken place on this issue. It is necessary that, at ministerial level, and also culturally between the two Departments, we have joined-up working, communication and, indeed, shared purpose.

I thank the House and the Minister for supporting the amendment that I made in relation to cooperation for transitions. It is an issue that has come up; it certainly came up when my Bill was going through the House. That was the issue of transition to adult services: the need for a parallel approach by the Department of Health and that of Education and the extra anxiety that could be added to a child and family. I welcome that amendment, and I think that when the issue of special educational needs moves outside the Department of Education, whether it be to further or higher education or outside the mainstream education settings, for example, in criminal justice, we should not lose sight of the needs of children or young adults with special educational needs.

I think that there may probably be an over-representation in the criminal justice system of people with special educational needs. I think that a measure of the success of this Bill would be if we can address that and ensure, through early intervention and support, that we keep our children in mainstream education and help them to thrive in that setting. The frustrations and challenges of some of the conditions covered by the term "special educational needs" should not lead a child to being diverted from achieving their full potential.

I welcome the Bill. Throughout the discussions, Members referred to many constituency issues. I suspect that the Bill alone will not solve all of them, but I certainly see it as a positive step forward and a help. Resources are necessary to solve some of the problems in special educational needs provision. We cannot solve those by legislation, but, in combination with putting the required resources in, getting the processes right will ensure that children with special educational needs are properly catered for.

I welcome the Bill as a positive piece of the equation. The test will be improvements for families and when we hear of positive experiences rather than the problems that our constituents come through the doors to tell us about. I look forward to that.

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who contributed to today's debate and those who have taken an interest in the legislation as it passed through the Assembly. I am glad to see Members' interest in the Bill and their agreement on the importance of getting the system right for children with special educational needs.

Members quite rightly point to the fact that the next step on the journey is regulations, and I have no doubt that the Committee will take a keen interest in them when they are laid before it. If we approach the regulations as we approached the Bill, we will have success at the other end. There has been a great degree of cooperation between members of the Education Committee and my Department to ensure that the SEND Bill meets the needs of the young people whom it is designed to serve.

Apart from Mr Lunn, I have been associated with the Bill for longer than any Member. I have been involved with it since the start of my time on the Education Committee nearly eight years ago. It has been a long journey, and I emphasise that the length of the journey has not been dictated by various political upsets in this part of the world. Ensuring that the SEND Bill is fit for purpose has been very complicated, but I believe that we are about to deliver.

I do not want to hold the House back any longer than necessary, but I thank my officials, past and present, for the significant work that they did on the Bill and for cooperating with the Education Committee, as its Chair and others mentioned. I also thank officials on the Education Committee for their work in making the Bill a reality.

The process has been lengthy and complicated, but it has never been confrontational. We are now putting in place the firm foundations that will ensure that young people with special educational needs and disabilities in our schools get the proper access to services in those schools that they deserve. The Bill gives those young people a new start and their parents a certain degree of confidence that there is a modern legislative framework that backs up the services the young people require.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [NIA 46/11-16] do now pass.

That the Water and Sewerage Services Bill [NIA 51/11-16] do now pass.

I do not intend to go into all the detail of this important Bill, as the Assembly has already given it careful consideration. The Bill is vital, not least because it will ensure that my Department can continue to pay a subsidy to Northern Ireland Water after March this year in lieu of domestic charging.

However, the Bill is about much more than that. It also contains important governance and environmental improvements that will result in considerable benefits to the water sector and the general public.

The Executive approved a wide-ranging set of proposals for the Water and Sewerage Services Bill on 15 January 2015, and its introduction was agreed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 8 June 2015 by urgent decision procedure. The Bill was introduced on 16 June 2015 and has benefited from detailed scrutiny by the Committee for Regional Development and other Members during its earlier stages. Now that it has reached Final Stage, I record my sincere thanks to the Chair, Deputy Chair and members of the Committee for Regional Development for their effective scrutiny of this important Bill and the recommendations contained in the Committee's report. I was pleased to be able to act on those recommendations and incorporate amendments at Consideration Stage to address them. I am confident that the Bill has improved as a result of that work. Indeed, I am grateful for the wide support shown for the Bill and for the contribution made by Members and other interested parties at Committee Stage and in all the debates during its passage through the Assembly.

Numerous stakeholders were closely involved in the development of the Bill. In particular, I thank the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency for their invaluable contributions. At Committee Stage, evidence was heard from representatives of those organisations and the construction industry. I have listened to that evidence and taken on board the concerns expressed during their evidence sessions and by the Committee itself. I have, therefore, ensured that the Bill addresses one of the main areas of concern and amended it to make it clear that the suitable alternative means of dealing with surface water, which are referred to in the Bill, include natural features and other arrangements that are commonly known as soft sustainable drainage systems or soft SuDS. Sustainable drainage is a key concern, particularly in light of the recent flooding events, and my Department will continue this important work and engage with key stakeholders to investigate how a full range of SuDS can be progressed. However, a lot of good work has already been done, and I am pleased that my Department has included soft SuDS in a number of its major road schemes. My Department also hopes to publish 'Sustainable Water — A Long Term Water Strategy' later this year. That will be another means of working towards a sustainable water sector of which SuDS is a key part. With this in mind, I was happy to broaden the references to sustainable drainage in the Bill to make specific reference to soft SuDS.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association also provided useful input to the Committee's consideration of the Bill. I appreciated its input and, having listened to the evidence, added councils to the list of statutory consultees in respect of the cessation or relaxation of the duty to install water meters in domestic premises.

This important Bill provides necessary and sensible measures. It ensures that payment of the subsidy to Northern Ireland Water in respect of domestic customers can continue and takes forward important governance and environmental improvements that will result in considerable benefits to the water sector and the general public. To that end, I commend the Bill to the House.