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Official Report: Tuesday 01 March 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. The Speaker's Office has been very helpful from time to time about seeking to bring pressure on Executive Departments that fail to answer questions expeditiously. May I ask for help again in respect of four questions on the subject of NAMA, which have been outstanding for six months? The questions are AQW 48466/11-16, AQW 48465/11-16, AQW 48291/11-16 and AQW 48288/11-16. It would be appreciated if the Speaker's Office could again exhort OFMDFM and DFP to answer the questions tabled.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I will refer your comments to the Speaker. Obviously, the Speaker will look at Hansard.

Plenary Business: 29 February 2016

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The first item of business is consideration of business not concluded on Monday 29 February. I can confirm that all business was concluded.

Executive Committee Business

That the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on this motion. The use of accelerated passage is not something to be sought routinely, and nor do I take it lightly. When taking forward draft legislation, my preference is to have a full Committee procedure to enable clause-by-clause scrutiny and the resolution of any issue there and then to the satisfaction of the Committee. However, in the case of this proposed legislation, I take the view that there are compelling grounds for departure from normal procedure and to use accelerated passage.

I will now explain to the Assembly, as required under Standing Order 42(4), why I am seeking accelerated passage, the consequences of it not being granted and how I will minimise future use of the mechanism. My Department has been working on preparing an amendment to the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 for some time. Last year, my Department publicly consulted on the policy that underlies this Bill, which seeks to bring legislation in Northern Ireland in respect of compensation for compulsory purchase into line with legislation that exists in England and Wales. The terms under which compensation is payable in England and Wales are more favourable than they are in Northern Ireland. It is unfair that citizens here are treated less favourably than their counterparts in England and Wales, and I want to rectify that situation.

As part of the Fresh Start Agreement, it has been agreed by the Executive that funding will be made available to my Department for two major road infrastructure projects; the A5 and A6. It is possible that the vesting of land in respect of those projects could start as early as this summer, which makes the advancement of this legislation a priority.

That leads me to the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted. If accelerated passage is not granted, my proposed legislation will not be in place before land is vested for those major infrastructure projects and citizens here will continue to be compensated on the same less favourable basis. That cannot be right.

Faced with that prospect, it is my view that, in order to ensure equality for all our citizens, this amending legislation must be introduced as soon as possible and in advance of the vesting process. I believe that it would be a poor reflection on all of us if we did not move quickly to address a situation that will likely arise in the very near future where citizens here are subject to a vesting process and continue to be treated less favourably than their counterparts in England and Wales.

With regard to minimising the use of the accelerated passage procedure in the future, I have mentioned my full commitment to clause-by-clause scrutiny at the Committee Stage. I will take any steps that are necessary to ensure that the accelerated passage procedure is not unnecessarily sought in future.

In accordance with Standing Order 42(3), I appeared before the Committee for Regional Development on 16 February to explain the need for accelerated passage for the Bill and to outline the consequences of it not being granted. I thank the Chairman and members of the Committee for their recognition of the need to expedite the Bill and for their unanimous cross-community support in seeking Assembly approval for accelerated passage.

Members will have the opportunity to raise issues on the detail of the Bill during the Second Stage debate. In the interim, I seek the support of the House for use of the accelerated passage procedure, and I look forward to hearing Members' comments.

Mr Clarke (The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate as the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development.

As the motion is on accelerated passage only, I shall be brief on the Committee’s thoughts on the need for accelerated passage, and I will perhaps go into more detail in the Second Stage debate on the Committee’s views and concerns on the Bill.

Departmental officials briefed the Committee for Regional Development on the Bill at its meeting on 3 February. That pre-legislative briefing was extremely useful in making it clear in our minds what the Bill intends to do. On 16 February, the Minister attended the Committee meeting and discussed the reason for her seeking that the Bill proceeds by accelerated passage. She also discussed the implications of the Bill not going through the Assembly in this mandate.

The Bill is extremely important in that it addresses an anomaly that exists whereby people whose land is compulsorily acquired in Northern Ireland get approximately 10% less than they would if they lived in England or Wales. That is something that needs to be addressed, and this Bill does that, so it has been welcomed by me and by the Committee.

The need for the Bill to be in place as soon as possible cannot be overemphasised. As we heard from the Minister, the Fresh Start Agreement saw the Executive confirm their intentions to pursue the A5 and A6 road schemes. The people impacted by those schemes need to be properly compensated for their loss, but any delay to the Bill's passage means that they will lose out on that extra 10%. So, it is very important that it proceeds.

My last point also relates to timing. The Bill was not just dreamt up by the current Minister, and the anomaly between the situation here and that in England and Wales has not just happened. The Committee was informed that changes were made in England and Wales as far back as 2005, so I can only assume that the anomaly has existed since then. The matter, as the officials told the Committee, was under consideration about four years ago, and the proposal for DRD to look into the development of legislation was before the Executive about two years ago. It even got into an Executive paper around the summer of 2015.

Because it has been known about for some time, we are puzzled as to why it is coming here only now. We are perplexed that the previous Minister, the one before him or, in fact, the Department of the Environment, which had responsibility for this issue when the anomaly arose, did not take the appropriate action to bring forward the Bill much earlier. We accept the view expressed by officials that there had to be negotiations across Departments when the issue arose four years ago, but we fail to see how those negotiations could have taken so long.

There is no disagreement from the Committee about the need for accelerated passage in this case. The Committee supports the accelerated passage of the Bill.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion on accelerated passage of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill. The Bill is being afforded accelerated passage through the Assembly, a practice that my party disagrees with in principle but one to which, in the circumstances, it sees no alternative. It is critical that legislation is in place to compensate landowners who are affected by the A5 and A6 road schemes and, presumably, others, when they come along in the future. Like the Chairperson, I ask why the need for this critical legislation was overlooked. I shudder to think what else might have been overlooked as we make critical promises to upgrade the A5 and A6 roadways, for which land is required to complete the projects. It is shocking to think that there has been so much discussion and so many questions answered by previous Ministers over the years, while the basic groundwork was not done. It makes me wonder whether, at times, we are fed like mushrooms.

Let me conclude by expressing the wish that any future Assembly will not be renowned for skipping the critical steps that Bills should take before being implemented in law. In this case, as pointed out by the Chairperson, this law was enshrined in England and Wales, many years ago. The law pertains to the monetary enhancement that should arise for those affected. I doubt whether anyone disagrees with that. The loss of land is always an emotive issue; much of the land has been in families for generations. It is not easy to give up your land for a roadway, so why on earth was the basic requirement to acquire the land not attended to? While the Chairperson has placed much emphasis on previous Ministers — coming up to an election, one understands that — there is a permanent Government in this place who are supposed to look after all of this stuff, so, please, if you are listening, accept your share of the blame. We need to know who was sleeping at the wheel.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to go back to the topic.

Mr Dallat: Yes, indeed. I respect your guidance on the matter. I simply make the point, without disagreeing with you, that we need to know why we are in this position.

On a positive note, the Bill comes for consultation. We will have an opportunity later this morning to discuss the clauses in detail, but, in the meantime, the SDLP is in total agreement with the motion before the House.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Minister, first, for giving an overview of her decision to seek accelerated passage and, secondly, for how accessible she has made her office to date on any issue regarding the motion. I also welcome the comments that the Minister has made. She said that she would not seek accelerated passage unnecessarily and would seek it only if it was vital to many in the community. As she said, many in our community will benefit from what we will be talking about today in respect of the proposals for the A5 and A6 in particular.

My party has in the past been uncomfortable with accelerated passage, but today the Ulster Unionist Party will support the Minister. Hopefully, the benefits that are already available in England in Wales will be got by all in our community.


10.45 am

Miss M McIlveen: I thank Members for their contributions. I thank the Chairman and members of the Committee for the time that they have afforded me.

I wanted to pick up on one point. Obviously, Mr Dallat raised the issue of someone sleeping at the wheel, and I will highlight to him one aspect of that relating to where the power actually sits. My Department does not have responsibility for the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, which is the Order that will be amended by the Bill. In fact, DOE has responsibility for the 1973 Order.

That said, Executive agreement was sought by the previous Minister, and this has obviously been given to my Department to take forward. It is a complex area of law, and some time has been taken to go out for detailed and ongoing consultation around all the Departments. I felt that, given where we were with the Fresh Start Agreement, there was a need to move this forward and to move it forward quickly. Accelerated passage is certainly not my preference; I much prefer the Committee Stage, having sat on Committees for many years and seen the value of the contributions that Committees can make to legislation. Given where we are with this legislation and the need for it in advance of vesting, particularly for the A5 and A6, I felt it necessary to table this today.

I thank those who have contributed, and I ask for the Assembly's support for the position that this be adopted.

Mr Principal Deputy 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 the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

That the Second Stage of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill [NIA 78/11-16] be agreed.

In Northern Ireland, many Departments and bodies with statutory powers possess compulsory purchase powers to enable them to acquire land and property for specific purposes set out in legislation. The right to compensation may arise. Land and Property Services (LPS) in the Department of Finance and Personnel acts on behalf of all Northern Ireland Departments, negotiating and approving compensation payments following vesting arising from compulsory acquisition. The law on compulsory purchase is complex, but it may be helpful if I refer briefly to the existing position in Northern Ireland.

The rules for determining the amount of compensation are set out in article 6 of the Land Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 1982. Generally, compensation payable for land and property that is compulsorily acquired is valued on the basis of its open market value.

The Land Acquisition and Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 as amended by the Home Loss Payments (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 contains provisions for the benefit of persons displaced from land. Under those provisions and subject to qualifying conditions and a minima and maxima range, the current legislation provides for a qualifying person whose land has been acquired to have entitlement to home loss payments, farm loss payments and disturbance payments. Other payments for certain Housing Executive tenants and rehousing also exist. The legislation applies to all land, urban and rural.

As I indicated, the law relating to compulsory acquisition is complex, but the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill is straightforward.

The Bill has seven clauses, but it has a single purpose: to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland whose land has been compulsorily purchased are treated equally to their counterparts in England and Wales who enjoy enhanced compensation payments. The Bill does not propose to change any other aspect of the existing law relating to compulsory purchase, save as to the introduction of the mechanisms for enhanced compensation payments here and the repeal of the farm loss payment.

To bring us into line with the more favourable position in England and Wales, the Bill intends to reflect the legislative changes introduced by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, with the abolition of farm loss payments and the introduction of two new payments: a basic loss payment and an occupier’s loss payment.

Home loss payment is a sum that may be paid to a qualifying person in addition to the market value to reflect and recognise the distress and discomfort of a person being compelled to move out of their home. Home loss payment is already payable here under our current legislation and will be retained. The Bill will not have any effect on it.

Here, under our current legislation — the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 — farm loss payments are still payable under certain conditions. Owner-occupiers of land that is comprised or included in an agricultural unit and who are displaced from the whole of the land as a result of compulsory acquisition are, subject to other qualifying conditions, entitled to unlimited farm loss payments. The amount of compensation is based on average net profits. However, there are few instances of farm loss payments having been claimed in Northern Ireland.

Farm loss payments were abolished in England and Wales by the 2004 Act, which I have referred to. In keeping with the changes in England and Wales, the Bill therefore proposes the abolition of farm loss payments here and the introduction of two new additional payments: the basic loss payment and the occupier’s loss payment.

The new additional payments are calculated using the market value of a claimant’s interest. They will apply to all domestic and non-domestic property, including farms, and will not require the whole property to be acquired before they are payable. They are both subject to ceilings and qualifying criteria.

The basic loss payment and the occupier’s loss payment are not necessarily payable to the same claimant. The owner who receives the basic loss payment, which is calculated at 7·5% of the market value of the claimant’s interest being acquired, may not be the occupier entitled to the occupier’s loss payment element, which is calculated at 2·5% of the claimant’s interest being acquired. Where the owner is also the occupier, they are entitled to both and therefore receive 10%. In both instances, any entitlement to the additional payments is offset by any payment in respect of home loss payment.

Last year, my Department publicly consulted on the policy underlying the Bill and received two substantive responses, from the Ulster Farmers’ Union and from UKIP, both of which were supportive of its aims. My officials also consulted officials in all other Departments.

The issue of increased capital costs to Departments as a result of the proposed changes arose during consultations with other Departments. I acknowledge that Departments that compulsorily purchase land will be affected by the changes proposed in the Bill, and any additional costs will have to be paid out of Departments' budgets. Indeed, my Department, which makes great use of the compulsory purchase vesting procedures, will be one of the most affected by the change. However, I believe that we cannot allow a situation to continue where people here are treated less favourably than other citizens in the United Kingdom. In the interests of equity, I believe that that anomaly must be addressed. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Clarke (The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate in my capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development. As was noted during the earlier debate on the accelerated passage motion, the Committee for Regional Development received briefings from departmental officials and the Minister at its meetings on 3 and 16 February respectively. The Committee heard the very compelling grounds for departing from normal procedure and proceeding with the Bill by accelerated passage.

In considering the Bill, the Committee noted the public consultation on the proposals undertaken by the Minister. As we have heard, two responses were received to the Department's consultation. One was from UKIP and the other was from the Ulster Farmers' Union, and both were in support of the intended changes. The Minister also indicated to the Committee that she had met land agents in December 2015, where it became clear that the A5 and A6 road schemes would progress quite quickly. At the time, they indicated their support for the proposals but highlighted the point that compensation is a significant concern for them, as is the need for landowners to be treated fairly. That support, particularly from the Ulster Farmers' Union, indicates that the proposals are sensible and to the benefit of the landowners who will be affected.

As we have heard, the Bill aims to make three changes: an additional enhancement of up to 7·5% to compensate for basic loss; an additional enhancement of up to 2·5% to compensate for occupier's loss; and the removal of the farm loss payments. The Committee welcomes the increase in the basic loss compensation, which is a capital payment paid to the owner of the land or property for its acquisition. The occupier's loss is also an important element, in that it compensates an occupier of more than one year, irrespective of whether that occupier is an owner or a tenant. The Committee accepted without concern the removal of the farm loss payments, as that applies only to a farmer losing an entire farm. The farmer will be compensated under both the basic loss payment and the occupier's loss payment, so it is unnecessary to retain that payment.

It is important that the increases be put in place for the benefit of those who will lose land or property as a result of any scheme, and it is worth emphasising that those increases apply not just to the farming community affected by the major schemes that we are talking about today — the A5 and A6 schemes — but to homeowners and business owners who find themselves affected. Indeed, it may apply to other road schemes in the future. It is also important to point out that the Bill not only addresses acquisitions by DRD, although it would acquire more than others, but applies to acquisitions by other Departments. It is important to create an even playing field for those who lose their land or property, irrespective of which Department acquires it from them.

In dealing with the concerns and issues raised in Committee, I shall not rehearse comments about why the Bill was not brought forward earlier. That it was not seriously concerns me, and it concerned other members of the Committee when it was discussed.

The A5 and A6 road schemes have been mentioned a number of times today. Those two major schemes will affect many people. The Committee welcomes the assurance from the Minister that, provided the Bill passes its Final Stage before the end of the mandate, those affected by the two schemes will be properly compensated at the higher rate. The date from which people will be affected by the acquisitions was discussed in detail during the Committee meetings. Although accepting the concerns that people whose land and property has already been acquired might be disadvantaged, the Committee felt that retrospective payments cannot be made.

I have outlined the issues raised and discussed by the Committee for Regional Development, as well as the information and assurance provided by the Minister and her officials. I thank them for their cooperation with the Committee prior to the introduction of the Bill, and I speak on behalf of the Committee in supporting the Second Stage of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill.

I will now make a few remarks in a personal capacity. I welcome the legislation. There are still concerns in the back of my mind about what happened in the past and about why the previous Ministers did not bring this forward much sooner. The A5 scheme was started, albeit it was stopped again, and people could have been disadvantaged. In my constituency, the intention is to start the A6 scheme, so I welcome the Minister's movement to try to get the legislation through before the end of the mandate so that the people of my constituency and, indeed, those near the A5 and anywhere else in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged.

I am still concerned, however, that this has been about for some time and that it has taken this Minister to introduce it at a late stage to try to get it rushed through so that people near both the A5 and A6, or near any land in the future, are not disadvantaged. I support the Bill.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill. I understand the Minister's rationale for seeking accelerated passage.

The Bill is about fairness, as was brought up in Committee. There are a number of major capital projects in the planning; namely, as have been mentioned a number of times, the A5 and the A6. It is only right that the people who have to give up their land or property be given the same opportunities as people in other parts of these islands, as there is existing provision in England and Wales for compulsory acquisition.

It is important that we do not leave any obstacles in the way of the vesting process along the routes of the A5 and A6 schemes. As the Minister said, the clauses are fairly straightforward, and we support the Bill at this time.


11.00 am

Mr Dallat: As a member of the Committee for Regional Development and an MLA elected to one of the constituencies that will be most affected — hopefully — by the legislation, I welcome the Bill and its seven clauses. It will redress irregularities in Northern Ireland's legislation that place those affected by compulsory land acquisition at a disadvantage compared with people in England and Wales. As I said previously, land is precious to people, and its acquisition for public works can cause much distress, particularly when it involves the loss of the family home and of essential income. The Bill will address those issues, which is absolutely essential. It is mind-boggling that the Bill was not introduced earlier. I admire the Minister's attempts to shift responsibility to another Department, but I remind her that it is DRD that builds roads.

The seven clauses are uncontroversial, and the Assembly will, without doubt, reach a unanimous decision at this stage. Clause 1 — "Basic loss payment" — provides for an enhanced payment of 7·5%, as the Chairman outlined. That is good, and who could disagree with it? Clause 2 — "Occupier’s loss payment" — concerns payment for agricultural and other land. It outlines where the payment applies and how much it may be. A person may receive 2·5% of the value of his interest, which, by my mathematics, adds up to 10%. The SDLP is in total agreement with that. Given that so many holdings are affected by insolvency and family factors such as death, clause 3 is an important feature of the Bill that we welcome very much.

On a positive note, I pay tribute to those responsible for bringing forward the Bill, albeit at the eleventh hour. It is important that it is fit for purpose and is devoid of anomalies. On that basis, we support its progression.

Although we are debating the Bill and not the road projects, I should say that it is designed to address issues in the north-west. It would be remiss of me not to express the hope that the remaining pathways are cleared of any embarrassments and that people in that region can one day enjoy modern roadways.

With your approval, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I want to welcome the Minister's visit to my constituency last week. If I feel a little miffed that I was not told that she was coming, I accept that that is the cut and thrust of politics. The very fact that she arrived is welcome.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Minister for outlining the contents of the Bill. Clearly, it is required and is important for those affected by compulsory land acquisition. They now know that they will receive the same levels of compensation as their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom in England and Wales. It is unfortunate that the anomaly means that the 10% top-up payment available in England and Wales does not yet apply. I welcome the initiative shown by my party colleague during his term as Minister for Regional Development in initiating the proposal to bring parity and the fact that the current Minister is continuing to progress the Bill. Major roadwork projects will commence, not least after last week's announcement on the A6, so it is important that we close the gap before that work gets under way.

I welcome the fact that the Minister made reference to this summer.

Last week at Question Time, my party colleague raised with the Minister the issue of whether she will ensure that the position in England and Wales is monitored so that, in the event of any enhancements in the future, parity may remain. Hopefully, the Minister may be able to give us an assurance that this will be the case. I acknowledge that there will be a financial implication with this Bill, but it is a matter of fairness. Hopefully, this will leave those affected feeling more valued and less like the poor relations in the United Kingdom. I am glad that we are able to deliver some positive news through this Bill, and we will be supporting the Bill.

Mr Lyttle: I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to support the progress of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill. It is my understanding that this legislation is required to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales in respect of fair compensation for compulsory purchase and vesting of land. It is also my understanding that, with funding being made available for two major road infrastructure projects — the A5 and the A6 — it is possible that vesting of land for those projects could start as early as summer 2016. Therefore, accelerated passage and speedy progress of the Bill is necessary to ensure that landowners affected do receive fair compensation for any land vested as part of these major infrastructure projects.

I understand that there are landowners who may have missed out on the benefits of this legislation if their land is vested before enactment of the Bill, and this is, of course, concerning and disappointing. There has been some discussion and debate today on the reasons for delay in the delivery of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can add to her comments in more detail as to why the legislation has not been delivered sooner.

On those grounds, it appears important that the Bill progresses promptly and in a way that prevents any further financial disadvantage for landowners. I therefore support the Bill.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Beidh mise ag tacú leis an Bhille seo. I rise to support the Bill, which is very welcome, particularly in my constituency. I think that I am the only Member here who lives along the route of the A6. I was delighted with the announcements last week and, indeed, with the priority given to the Dungiven bypass aspect of it. That will be most welcome. I also travel the A6 every day, and I think that, on one occasion, I spent over an hour completing the 12 kilometres to Moneynick. I and many other thousands from the north-west welcome the Bill moving forward.

We also welcome, on behalf of our constituents, the fact that the compensation will now be based on a more favourable basis in line with other areas on these islands. The Minister has given us some clarity on the historical process of that. It is not about blame apportionment at this point, but these are schemes that have been in the mix — in the case of the Dungiven bypass — for some 50 years. Indeed, in the mid-1970s, houses were demolished, and, even in the early teens of this century, businesses have been purchased and bought up.

As the Minister said, the law on compulsory purchase is complex, but I am glad to say that the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill is relatively straightforward and will address the issues that landowners have along the two major infrastructure projects of the A5 and the A6. In the case of the A6, the whole 40 kilometres in total is affected, and there are quite a substantial number of landowners along that route. As I said, this has been in the mix for some 50 years. In those 50 years, that promise of development has actually stifled development and, indeed, the planning process. On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the A6 in particular and also the A5.

Mr Allister: I suspect that some of my constituents, not in any churlish sense but naturally, will say that it is a pity that this did not come along in time for the A26 extension, because presently, of course, those necessary works proceed and land has been taken on the old rates.

I would have to say that, if there has been any churlishness, it has been on the part of the Department in terms of the ancillary accommodation works, the belligerent refusal of necessary underpasses — I think of one case in particular — and the mindset about providing adequate access to a particularly prominent business on that route. I hope that those yet to receive the treatment on the A6 and the A5 will not have the same experience.

One of the things that the Bill proposes, of course, is the removal of the farm loss payments. The Minister said that there have been very few instances of drawdown of farm loss payments. I suspect that that is because the premise for a farm loss payment is that you have to lose the whole farm. You can effectively lose your farm business by losing 50%, 60% or 70% of your land, but you have not technically lost your farm business. I think that, if there was a gap in the law, it was that failure to adequately recognise the devastating impact that extensive land take had — though it left you with something, it effectively destroyed your farm. Therefore, I think that the direction of examination might have been more towards how we could make the farm loss payment more accessible, more realistic and more appropriate for those who de facto lose their farm, though they are left with an acre or two. The Minister referred to the very small number of instances of use of the farm loss payment, but perhaps she will tell us just what that number is. Does she agree that the real problem is the unrealistic requirement for a total loss of every last blade of grass before you get a farm loss payment?

On a point raised by Mr Cochrane-Watson, the Bill is good in bringing us up to date, but would it not benefit from an enabling clause so that, in future, it could be kept up to date? We would not need fresh legislation, maybe every 10 or 15 years, to update the rates if, by secondary legislation, they could be updated much more frequently. So, I suggest to the Minister that she should look seriously at the possibility of putting into the Bill an enabling clause so that it does not become stale and out of date and can instead be kept up to date.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank all the Members who have commented on the Bill during the Second Stage debate. A number of Members have obviously asked why this has not happened sooner. I cannot speak for previous Ministers, nor can I speak for other Departments in this instance. Having met land agents and landowners, I know that losing land can have a devastating impact, and it can have a huge impact on families and future generations. It is incredibly upsetting for many, and I want to acknowledge that in the House today. I hope that the Bill, as set out, demonstrates, in some way, my commitment to landowners who will be affected by future land schemes, in particular the A5 and the A6, which are strategic roads and are major infrastructure projects for my Department and the Executive, moving forward.


11.15 am

With regard to the changes that are possible in England and Wales and what may happen in the future, there are no proposals to change the amounts in the Bill. My officials have consulted the Department for Transport as part of the consultation process, and I understand that England and Wales are re-examining the levels of compensation they pay, but there is no clarity on that and certainly nothing that we could consider introducing within the timescales of the Bill. There is provision within the Bill to adjust the amounts by subordinate legislation, so the option exists to reflect higher payments in the future if that were considered appropriate as we move forward.

Mr Allister mentioned farm loss payments being claimed, but there has been no occasion in the recent past of the farm loss payment being claimed. My understanding is that the basic loss payment is better, in that it protects the landowners for the loss as it arises. So, in this instance, it is more beneficial to landowners.

I welcome the comments of those who contributed to today's debates, and I look forward to continued engagement with Members as the Bill progresses through its various stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill [NIA 78/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment) Bill.

That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended in respect of the Final Stage of the Employment Bill (NIA Bill 73/11-16).

Members will be aware from the Order Paper that the Final Stage of the Employment Bill is due to take place today. The scheduling was in anticipation of the Further Consideration Stage being completed last Monday, 22 February, so that the requirement of Standing Order 42(1), which is that there be a minimum interval of five working days between stages, would be complied with.

Most of the debate at Further Consideration Stage did, indeed, take place on 22 February. However, because of the presentation of a valid petition of concern on two amendments that day, the remainder of the stage was not completed until 23 February. That means that there is no longer the minimum interval required between the completion of Further Consideration Stage and the scheduling of Final Stage. In the absence of action in the meantime, the Final Stage will not now be able to take place today as expected.

While, with the Business Committee’s agreement, the Final Stage could be put back to next week or the following week, I was conscious that that would increase further the pressure on the Assembly’s time as we approach the end of the mandate. My preference, therefore, was to ask the Assembly to agree that Standing Order 42(1) be suspended for the passage of the Bill so that the minimum interval between stages no longer applies and the Final Stage can proceed today as planned. I am grateful to the Business Committee for agreeing that the necessary item of business could be added to today’s Order Paper to ensure that the Assembly can consider the issue.

I appreciate, of course, that, under Standing Orders, the Speaker has, in any case, to be satisfied that the Bill may properly proceed to Final Stage. I understand that he is so satisfied. I would be grateful, therefore, for the Assembly’s support for the motion to suspend Standing Order 42(1) for the passage of the Employment Bill. That will in no way diminish the Assembly’s scrutiny role but would allow me, subject to the Assembly’s approval, to move the Final Stage of the Bill today as previously planned. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Principal Deputy 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 Order 42(1) be suspended in respect of the Final Stage of the Employment Bill (NIA Bill 73/11-16).

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

That the Employment Bill [NIA 73/11-16] do now pass.

I thank the House for its agreement to suspend the Standing Order to allow Final Stage to proceed now. I am pleased that this important Bill has reached its Final Stage today. Given that it was introduced on 7 December, it is remarkable, and a credit to all concerned, that we have been able to reach Final Stage on this first day of March. This is possibly a record for a Bill in Northern Ireland that has not been subject to the procedure for accelerated passage. That swift progress has been in no small part due to the work of the Employment and Learning Committee in facilitating a demanding timetable. I want again to express my appreciation to the Committee Chair as well as the members and staff for the detailed scrutiny that has been properly provided in spite of the short time available. I also want to thank those who gave up their time to lay the foundations of the measures in the Bill: stakeholders have engaged very positively throughout the employment law review.

The Bill establishes a framework for strengthening employment protections and supporting the earlier resolution of workplace disputes. It also seeks to strengthen the delivery of impartial careers guidance and to upskill our workforce through apprenticeships and traineeships.

A key measure widely supported by stakeholders is the establishment of a new early conciliation service to be delivered by the Labour Relations Agency (LRA). Taken together with enabling powers to deliver neutral assessment to help people to better appreciate where they stand in their case, and the strengthening of confidentiality protections for LRA services, the Bill presents a positive package of measures that will assist in broadening options to resolve workplace disputes, which can be stressful, costly, and time-consuming. None of these changes will compromise any individual’s absolute right to apply to a tribunal.

The Bill also deals with employment protections. It contains changes that deal with public interest disclosure protections to strengthen people’s confidence in reporting negligent, improper or illegal practices in an organisation.

The Bill makes enabling provision to deal with the abuse of zero-hours contracts. I regret that it was not possible to develop and properly scrutinise the detailed measures on the basis of Executive agreement on this issue, as that was not forthcoming, but an enabling power represents a reasonable way forward. That approach allows regulations to be developed that, following consultation, will meet the specific needs of Northern Ireland. I hope that the process of devising regulations can commence shortly, but obviously final regulations cannot be set in place without the prior agreement of the Executive and the Assembly.

The Bill also contains a clause to set a framework that will require employers to publish information showing whether gender pay disparities exist between employees and, where they do, to publish an action plan to eliminate them. I stand open to correction in this case, but this might be the first legislative equality matter passed under devolution rather than under direct rule. I would have preferred for this to have been taken forward in the context of the full process of consultation and scrutiny by OFMDFM, but I recognise that there was a consensus in the House that this was a desirable way forward, given, in particular, that we are leaving considerable aspects to regulations that will themselves be subject to consultation. So the House can be satisfied that we have a structured way forward, around which we will address this important issue.

Clause 20 relates to careers guidance and stems from a key recommendation in the Employment and Learning Committee report following its extensive inquiry into careers in 2013. It will require the Department to make arrangements to ensure that everyone can receive impartial careers guidance that is in their best interests. Members of the Committee wanted assurance that action would be taken, and I am content that the clause now requires, rather than empowers, the Department to act.

A refreshed careers strategy, published today by my Department and, coincidentally, by the Department of Education, sets out a coherent and forward-thinking strategic vision for the careers system in Northern Ireland. The clause supports that vision, which balances the twin goals of supporting individuals to realise their full potential and contributing to our economic prosperity, by raising awareness of employment growth sectors.

Clause 21, which deals with apprenticeships and traineeships, empowers the Department in regulations to set out the components of and conditions under which traineeships and apprenticeships will operate in Northern Ireland. That will ensure that the vision articulated in the new strategies for apprenticeships and youth training is appropriately defined. The strategies set out an ambitious programme that is designed to radically and positively reform the training and skills landscape in Northern Ireland for learners and employers. An important feature of the new model is that apprenticeships will start at level 3 — the equivalent of A level — and will allow for progression to higher professional, technical or academic pathways up to level 8, which is equivalent to a PhD. The new arrangements will help to deliver highly skilled employees in areas of importance for the economy of today and tomorrow. The regulations will underpin that work.

Those are the key features of what I hope Members agree is a positive and progressive Bill. I have not detailed every provision, but I am happy to deal with any questions that Members may have. In closing, I want to highlight the importance of the Bill in the wider economic context. It is a Bill that has taken lessons from developments elsewhere; for example, on early conciliation and public interest disclosure. However, in a number of cases, such as neutral assessment and zero-hours contracts, we have, quite rightly, accepted that devolution can deliver solutions that are better suited to the people of Northern Ireland. That is the correct approach.

In agreeing to the passage of the Bill today, we will be reaching the end of the beginning. The Bill establishes a positive framework for action, much of which will happen within the next year to 18 months. The hard work of redefining policy and developing regulations starts now. The Bill sets challenges for the future Administration in a number of areas, not least those of zero-hours contracts and gender pay. It is clearly the will of the House that steps be taken on those important issues, and I expect that the new Assembly will want to monitor closely the action that has been taken.

The measures in the Bill will contribute to Northern Ireland’s economic prospects by strengthening employment protections, providing more options for resolving workplace disputes and supporting our young people to develop their full potential. It is a Bill that is forward-looking and strengthens the framework for employment rights and skills development in Northern Ireland, and I commend it to the Assembly.

Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): I thank the Minister for his opening comments. On behalf of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I welcome the Final Stage of the Employment Bill. Its passage through the House represents the culmination of almost four years of work by the Committee for Employment and Learning on reviewing employment law, in particular the early resolution of disputes, efficient and effective employment tribunals, and measures to reduce the regulatory burden of employment legislation. On behalf of the Committee, I offer my sincere thanks to the Minister and his officials for the close working relationship that we maintained throughout the passage of the Bill, which helped ensure that the Committee scrutinised the Bill thoroughly. I also pay thanks to the Committee staff, who facilitated the work of getting the Bill through the Committee.

The Committee's views on the Bill have been outlined at the previous stages, so I will endeavour to keep my comments brief. The Committee welcomed the proposals brought by the Minister, in particular those in the original clauses 17 and 18 regarding careers guidance, apprenticeships and traineeships. The Committee in its scrutiny requested that the Department strengthen the then clause 17, relating to careers guidance, by amending the wording from "the Department may make arrangements" to "the Department must make arrangements". The Committee also called for the then clause 18, relating to apprenticeships, to be broader so as to make provision for traineeships. Both amendments were taken on board by the Department and the Minister, for which the Committee is grateful.

The Committee also felt it necessary to table two amendments of its own to the Bill. The amendments sought to introduce a duty on the Department to review the operation of early conciliation and the assessment service. The Committee felt that it was essential to see that policy intention placed in the Bill, given the concerns of stakeholders who gave evidence at Committee Stage, and the Committee was pleased to see both amendments pass at Further Consideration Stage. The Committee will place recommendations in its legacy report to request that the new Committee for the Economy keep a watchful eye over the subordinate legislation that may be introduced in the next mandate.

On behalf of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I am pleased to support the Bill. I welcome the significant interest and scrutiny of Members throughout its passage through the Assembly. As Chairperson of the Committee, I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr Buchanan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): I, too, welcome the Final Stage of the Employment Bill. I thank the Minister for getting the Bill to this stage after almost four years of it being in the system. I also thank his officials for the work that they did and for appearing before the Committee on numerous occasions, when they were asked to discuss various issues that were being scrutinised by the Committee. I also thank the Committee Clerk and the staff for the work that they did, as well as all the stakeholders who appeared before the Committee during the scrutiny of the Bill.


11.30 am

The Bill may not be perfect, and some felt that there were missed opportunities during its progress, but there are enabling powers to deal with issues that we could not get agreement on, such as zero-hours contracts and the extension of the current qualification period for unfair dismissal. Those will be brought forward at a further stage for proper scrutiny by the Committee so that we can seek agreement on them. That is the right way forward, so that, rather than holding the Bill up, we can progress it, with enabling powers attached, so that the issues can be looked at in the new mandate.

I welcome the work that has been done on the Bill and commend all who have been a part of it. I support the Bill and commend it to the House. It is good legislation for employers and employees.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I welcome the passage of the Bill and the fact that we are at Final Stage today. I commend the Minister for steering the ship of what was, at times, fairly contentious legislation, with conflicting opinions on both sides over the balance to be struck between employers and employees. The Minister has done a good job in finding consensus and compromise from all sides, for which he is to be commended.

I place on record my thanks to Committee members and staff, who carried out excellent work in scrutinising the Bill and advising the Minister on how best to proceed. I also thank the departmental officials and all those who provided expert evidence to the Committee on the best way forward. We and the Department have learned a lot from the process, and we explored other issues that are not in the Bill, which, as Mr Buchanan outlined, we may need to return to.

This has been a good process, although the Bill does not include all the measures that I wanted, and nor does it include all the measures that some Members opposite wanted. The legislation is a good compromise that we can all live with and that enhances the rights of workers here, which is very welcome.

I will focus my remarks on three or four clauses. Clause 18 deals with zero-hours contracts, and I share the Minister's disappointment that we could not deal with the issue in the Bill. It would have been much better if we had had agreement on the exact steps we should have taken to protect workers from the worst excesses of zero-hours contracts. We had lengthy debates at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. The Minister is right that it would have been better to put those in the Bill, but the next-best option is to empower a future Minister in the Department for the Economy to bring forward regulations, which will be subject to the full scrutiny of the Committee and the Assembly. That process should not be delayed too long and should be an immediate priority for whoever takes over from the Minister after the May election. It was a missed opportunity to send a message to workers and to show positive leadership to other legislators on these islands on how to tackle zero-hours contracts and how to introduce progressive legislation that would have protected workers. However, it was not to be, as we could not get agreement. We are where we are.

Clause 19 deals with gender pay, and the Minister said that this is the first time that the Assembly has approved an equality matter since devolution. If that is the case, it is to be welcomed. The fact that we agreed that we need to introduce steps to tackle the gender pay gap is positive and welcome.

The fact that employers will now have to report on the extent of the differential in pay between male and female workers within their organisation is a fairly progressive move. There is zero resistance to that in our society. Even among employers and their representatives, there is common agreement that we need to tackle this issue because it has been going on for far too long. Even though it is now illegal to discriminate against workers based on gender, it still seems to be the case that females are paid less than their male counterparts. That is an issue that we need to first identify and then follow up with the action plan that each employer will have to put in place. Also, the Executive will have to bring forward a strategy and an action plan and publish them within 18 months of the enactment of the Bill.

Requirements are now being placed on the Department with regard to careers. That is a very positive development that the Minister brought forward after the Committee initiated a review of careers advice, which was then followed up by a piece of work that the Minister commissioned from an expert group on careers. Those are all positive developments, and we are now making sure that young people, when they go through the formal education process or even when they are outside it, will be required to be given proper careers advice. All too often we hear stories that people are being given inadequate or inappropriate careers advice. So many of our young people are going to do university degrees when there is realistically no proposition that they will gain employment in that area. That is a societal problem that we need to address. Young people and their parents want to go down the road of being professionals: lawyers, doctors, architects or accountants. That is not really where the jobs are going to lie in the future. We need to make sure that young people are being empowered to make decisions that will allow them to have a decent standard of living in the future, and that means being skilled-up and qualified in areas of growth. It does not necessarily mean that we need to make our young people serve an economy in the future, but it means that young people who want to go down the road of getting a job in a growing area must be given that careers advice at a young age so that they can target their GCSE and A-level choices towards going down that path. All too often we hear examples of people realising that they want to do a certain profession but they cannot do it because, for example, they have not done the requisite GCSE to get onto the university course. So all those issues need to be dealt with at an early stage during the young person's development. The clause in the Bill that deals with careers advice is very welcome.

The only question I have for the Minister is to do with commencement. Most of the Act is subject to commencement once the Department brings in an order to make it happen. The only clarity that I seek from the Minister at this stage is whether he has any indication from the Department, however rough, as to when that may happen.

Mr Diver: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak at the Final Stage of the Employment Bill. As a relative newcomer to the House and the Committee, I have to say that I am very impressed by the stewardship of the Bill through the House, the assiduous way that the Committee has worked on it, and the way that the officials have engaged with the Bill's process to date.

Much debate has ensued over the Bill, and the number of amendments that were tabled is testament to the level of engagement that we have had in the House on these very important employment issues. There are many positive aspects to the Bill, but there were some issues on which we expressed concern. The LRA is a positive move towards handling disputes more effectively, but we had some concerns on the notion of a heavier burden on the claimant through the deposit fees etc. The outworking of the debate on the Bill and the subsequent amendments has assured us slightly, but the commitment in the Bill to review neutral assessment is particularly welcome.

As we know, there was much debate on the issue of zero-hours contracts. The SDLP expressed its serious concerns around the issue. I, personally, believe that it is shocking that we have 28,000 workers in Northern Ireland employed on zero-hours contracts, 40% of whom are aged below 25 years. That is the age group where the NEET people are as well; so, otherwise, we would expect many of those people to be in that group. So, they are particularly vulnerable, and I think that it is appropriate, as Mr Flanagan said, that we should, at some stage in the new mandate, turn our attention to addressing that issue more effectively. That is why the SDLP expressed support for the Sinn Féin amendments on zero-hours contracts and called for action to be taken. That said, I accept the Minister's comments that perhaps it might have been better had we been able to deal with that in the Bill. However, such is the injustice around the issue that I think it would have been worth trying to drive forward whatever change we could in relation to zero-hours contracts.

We recognise the sentiment behind the Alliance amendment at Further Consideration Stage that the Department be empowered to take action on those contracts. We know that some effort was made on that, but we really do urge that action be taken in the short term rather than the longer term with a very drawn-out consultation exercise.

We also welcome the Bill's enabling powers around tribunals. I know that there was quite a bit of discussion around that issue. It brings the regulations on tribunals into line with current practice, permitting the chairmen of tribunals to be referred to as employment judges. This, amongst a whole raft of procedures, will be a positive step towards creating better conditions for those who find themselves in an employment dispute so that people, rightly, can expect and hope that they will get the level of justice that they should through a tribunal. Much of the Bill follows in that way as positive reinforcement of the employment rights of the worker.

As it is late in the mandate, attempts were made to include other things in the Bill, and much of the debate became about those issues. It is clear that many more issues within the scope of the Bill remain unresolved. I genuinely hope that we will see movement on issues such as the gender pay gap and zero-hours contracts in the not-too-distant future. I look forward to seeing how the Act will look in practice, and I await the results of the review into early conciliation and neutral assessment to ensure that they are not overly onerous or unfair on the individuals concerned.

Dr Farry: I thank all the Members who spoke for their universally positive comments. I put on record my thanks to the Chair and his colleagues for all their work on the Bill; it has been a marathon process over the past number of years, and, indeed, there will be a lot of work to undertake in the new mandate. In many ways, the Bill is platform on which we can build for the future.

It is appropriate, particularly in this process, that the Bill before us at Final Stage is a shared product not just of the Department but of the Committee and, indeed, the wider Assembly, not least given the number of amendments that came in at the eleventh hour.

Members have mentioned the fact that we now have that platform. The Deputy Chair of the Committee said that the Bill is not perfect and spoke of things we may wished to have done differently had time allowed for wider scrutiny. Obviously, we find ourselves in the circumstances where we are. I believe — I am sure that the Deputy Chair concurs — that this is the best product that we have in the context of the opportunity that was available to us and in the circumstances that we found ourselves in.

I very much concur with his remark that this is simultaneously good for employers and employees. This is not about some sort of zero-sum game where a win for one is a loss for the other, or vice versa; this is about creating a situation that works in the interests of both, and, indeed, all stakeholders in our society and, more directly, in the workplace.

Other comments were made by Mr Flanagan and Mr Diver around, in particular, the situation of zero-hours contracts. That ties in with the comments of the Deputy Chair around the fact that we have the platform of the enabling provisions. I think that it is fair to reflect that the balance to be found between putting things in the Bill and in regulations is often a fine one. Obviously, our hands were somewhat forced in this context by the lack of available time at the end of a mandate to do otherwise. Nonetheless, all things being equal, there is still a balance to be found between what you put in a Bill and what you put in regulations. It may well be, in a couple of years, with the benefit of hindsight, that proceeding on the basis of regulations will be proven to be the right way to go.

The situation with zero-hours contracts and the regulation thereof is a very new area of law. Not much case law has been developed so far. We may need to return to that and to tinker and fine-tune as we go.

It will be much easier to do that through regulations, rather than needing to constantly have fresh primary legislation to address situations. We could have a situation where some unscrupulous employers are able to get around what we have put in place or where what is before us in terms of case law does not reflect the original intent of the Assembly through the original draft regulations or, indeed, primary legislation.


11.45 am

With the benefit of hindsight, this may prove to be the right way to go, albeit that it is a situation that we found ourselves in through the force of circumstance, rather than through any wider debate on that point. It is fair to say that, in some ways, it creates certainty in some aspects of what we are doing. For example, it is very clear how we are changing the law on how we approach changes in unfair dismissal. Other aspects will need to be commenced. I assure Mr Flanagan that there is no reason to hold back the commencement of these things. Once they are ready to be implemented, we will proceed on that basis. That is certainly my commitment, and I am sure that will go for any future Minister for the Economy. I hope that we will commence work in the very near future on drafting a fresh consultation on zero-hours contracts. I am sure that will be a piece of work that any incoming Minister for the Economy will want to pick up and proceed with, and, indeed, it could —

Mr Flanagan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister for his sentiments on that. Will he give us an indication whether it is his or the Department's intention to engage in some sort of collaborative working with Members before engaging in a public consultation on zero-hours contracts to try to get maximum political consensus here before that consultation is launched?

Dr Farry: I think what the Member suggests is a very wise approach. It would unfold through officials doing the work now to commence a paper that could go to the incoming Committee for the Economy once the next mandate proceeds. Being realistic, we will not see any pre-consultative approach with the Committee this side of the elections; it will be afterwards. I would like to think that the new Department and the relevant officials will be in a position to move fairly quickly to engage with the new Committee before going out to a consultation on those regulations.

I certainly take it from the Member and others that there will be a desire to see the new Department moving quickly. I have no doubt that the Member, if he is back in the Assembly, will be very keen to hold to account any future Minister, including one from his own party, for any foot-dragging on that. For my part, I certainly recognise the importance of proceeding with some proportionate regulation of zero-hours contracts. I think that sentiment is reflected on all sides of the House, but where there is a difference is probably in the scale of the regulation. That is something that needs to be bottomed out in the engagement with stakeholders.

That gives me the opportunity to reference that we have a very strong working relationship between the employer side and employee representatives, including trade unions. We have discussed many aspects of the legislation. Indeed, as we look ahead and in advance of drafting and launching a fresh consultation on zero-hours or something on the gender pay audit, there will be an opportunity for that engagement to occur between the different stakeholders in parallel with discussions with the incoming Committee. I think that spirit of collaboration has been so important in getting us where we are today. I certainly encourage any successor to continue that work because it produces very positive results. It certainly puts us in a much stronger position in how we deal with those matters than either of the other employment law jurisdictions in these islands. I think we are in a good place in that regard.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister for giving way. Having engaged through the Committee and outside it with employers and employee representatives, I know that there is huge positive sentiment for the round-table forum that was established by the Department through the LRA. Is there any mechanism for that to continue indefinitely, or is it something that a future Minister will have to re-establish? Is there some provision for it to continue without political interference in the short term?

Dr Farry: As the Member outlined, that round table happens under the auspices of the Labour Relations Agency, which is an arm's-length body of my Department. It has the capacity to continue that, so I see no real prospect of it falling. If the goodwill is there, the process should continue. It is a very valuable resource.

I thank Mr Diver for his comments on the process before us. In conclusion, I put on record my personal thanks to my officials for their work, not just on this Bill over the past number of weeks but on the whole review of employment law over the years. I believe that it has put us in a much stronger position in Northern Ireland as regards employment relations. It is important that we have a spectrum — indeed, a hierarchy — of interventions to prevent disputes in the first place and to address them when they occur as early as possible. That is very much in the interests of employers, employees and the wider economy. The Bill puts us in a very strong position. Some major innovation has gone into the process. Again, I pass on my thanks to colleagues on the Committee, and, indeed, in the Assembly, for their support, particularly in relation to the Bill, over the past weeks and months.

Resolved:

That the Employment Bill [NIA 73/11-16] do now pass.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call on the Minister of Justice, Mr David Ford, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Justice (No.2) Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group, amendments Nos 1 to 9, of technical and consequential amendments required as a result of the amendments made at Consideration Stage. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill. The Question on each will be put without further debate. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 35 (Complaints)

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 9. I call the Minister of Justice, Mr David Ford, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 29, line 2, leave out "may" and insert "shall".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 39, page 32, line 5, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 3: In clause 51, page 39, line 25, leave out "12" and insert "6". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 4: In clause 51, page 39, line 26, after "fine" insert "not exceeding the statutory maximum". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 5: In clause 51, page 39, line 26, at end insert

"(10) Schedule 3A makes special provision in connection with the operation of this section in relation to persons providing information society services.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 6: In clause 54, page 40, line 37, leave out subsection (1) and (2) and insert

"(1) A person commits an offence if he or she assaults—

(a) an ambulance worker in the execution of that ambulance worker’s duty;

(b) a person who is assisting an ambulance worker in the execution of that ambulance worker’s duty.

(2) 'Ambulance worker' means a person who provides ambulance services (including air ambulance services) under arrangements made by or at the request of—

(a) the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust,

(b) St. John Ambulance (NI),

(c) the British Red Cross Society, or

(d) the charity registered in the Republic of Ireland known as the Order of Malta Ireland.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 7: After schedule 3 insert

"SCHEDULE 3A

Section 51.

PRIVATE SEXUAL PHOTOGRAPHS ETC: PROVIDERS OF INFORMATION SOCIETY SERVICES

Exceptions for mere conduits

1.—(1) A service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of anything done in the course of providing so much of an information society service as consists in—

(a) the provision of access to a communication network, or

(b) the transmission in a communication network of information provided by a recipient of the service,

if the condition in sub-paragraph (2) is satisfied.

(2) The condition is that the service provider does not—

(a) initiate the transmission,

(b) select the recipient of the transmission, or

(c) select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

(3) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)—

(a) the provision of access to a communication network, and

(b) the transmission of information in a communication network,

includes the automatic, intermediate and transient storage of the information transmitted so far as the storage is solely for the purpose of carrying out the transmission in the network.

(4) Sub-paragraph (3) does not apply if the information is stored for longer than is reasonably necessary for the transmission.

Exception for caching

2.—(1) This paragraph applies where an information society service consists in the transmission in a communication network of information provided by a recipient of the service.

(2) The service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of the automatic, intermediate and temporary storage of information so provided, if—

(a) the storage of information is solely for the purpose of making more efficient the onward transmission of the information to other recipients of the service at their request, and

(b) the condition in sub-paragraph (3) is satisfied.

(3) The condition is that the service provider—

(a) does not modify the information,

(b) complies with any conditions attached to having access to the information, and

(c) where sub-paragraph (4) applies, expeditiously removes the information or disables access to it.

(4) This sub-paragraph applies if the service provider obtains actual knowledge that—

(a) the information at the initial source of the transmission has been removed from the network,

(b) access to it has been disabled, or

(c) a court or administrative authority has ordered the removal from the network of, or the disablement of access to, the information.

Exception for hosting

3.—(1) A service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of anything done in the course of providing so much of an information society service as consists in the storage of information provided by a recipient of the service if sub-paragraph (2) or (3) is satisfied.

(2) This sub-paragraph is satisfied if the service provider had no actual knowledge when the information was provided—

(a) that it consisted of or included a private sexual photograph or film,

(b) that it was provided without the consent of an individual who appears in the photograph or film, or

(c) that the photograph or film was provided with the intention of causing distress to that individual.

(3) This sub-paragraph is satisfied if, on obtaining such knowledge, the service provider expeditiously removed the information or disabled access it to it.

(4) Sub-paragraph (1) does not apply if the recipient of the service is acting under the authority or control of the service provider.

Interpretation

4.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purposes of this Schedule.

(2) 'Photograph or film' has the meaning given in section 51.

(3) 'Information society service'—

(a) has the meaning given in Article 2(a) of the E-Commerce Directive (which refers to Article 1(2) of Directive 98/34/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 June 1998 laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical standards and regulations), and

(b) is summarised in recital 17 of the E-Commerce Directive covering 'any service normally provided for remuneration, at a distance, by means of electronic equipment for the processing (including digital compression) and storage of data, and at the individual request of a recipient of a service',

and 'the E-Commerce Directive' means Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market (Directive on electronic commerce).

(4) 'Recipient', in relation to a service, means a person who, for professional ends or otherwise, uses an information society service, in particular for the purposes of seeking information or making it accessible.

(5) 'Service provider' means a person providing an information society service.".
— [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 8: In the long title, leave out "the possession of extreme pornographic" and insert "extreme pornographic and other sexual". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

No 9: In the long title, after "images," insert

"assaults on persons providing ambulance services,". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Mr Ford: As you highlighted, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, all nine amendments are technical and arise purely from amendments made to the Bill at Consideration Stage. Amendment No 1 is the first of two corrections to two clauses in the Prison Ombudsman provision in the Bill.

Members will recall that I made two amendments to what are now clauses 35 and 39 at Consideration Stage to require the ombudsman to inform the police of a suspected criminal offence in relation to any investigation that he is conducting. I advised the House that the wording of the amendments that were debated and voted to stand part of the Bill granted a power, rather than placed a duty, on the ombudsman to draw to the attention of police any matter relating to a criminal investigation. As I indicated to the House, the agreed policy intent was to require the ombudsman to do so and that I would bring forward a small technical amendment at this stage to correct the necessary subsections. Amendment Nos 1 and 2 deliver my stated policy intention, and the undertaking that I gave at Consideration Stage, by changing "may" to "shall" in clause 35(15) and clause 39(8) respectively.

The amendment tabled by the Chair of the Committee for Justice at Consideration Stage to create a new offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress, generally known as "revenge pornography", also left some tidying up to be done. A similar offence was created in England and Wales by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. The amendment had the support of the House and was voted to stand part of the Bill, becoming clauses 51 to 53. I indicated that I fully supported the amendment at Consideration Stage, subject to a minor amendment at Further Consideration Stage to clarify the penalty for a summary offence.

Accordingly, amendment Nos 3 and 4 adjust clause 51(9)(b) to provide that the penalty available on summary conviction is imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both. That ensures that the penalty is consistent with that available on summary conviction for other hybrid or either-way offences in Northern Ireland.

Amendment No 5 inserts a new subsection (10) into clause 51 to give effect to a new schedule 3A to the Bill that is needed to support the provisions in clauses 51 to 53. The new schedule, which is inserted by amendment No 7, replicates provisions in schedule 8 to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 and will ensure that the provisions operate as intended. The Chair of the Justice Committee has indicated that he it is content with those revisions.

Almost finally, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I now turn to Mr Frew's amendment at Consideration Stage that sought to create a new offence of assaulting and obstructing certain emergency workers. The amendment was supported by the House and voted to stand part of the Bill, becoming clause 54. As with the Committee amendment on revenge pornography, I was content to support Mr Frew's amendment, but I did indicate that there were a number of definitional issues with his clause that would need to be addressed at Further Consideration Stage. I am pleased that my officials have liaised with their colleagues in DHSSPS to address those issues. The changes set out in amendment No 6 deal with them and, I understand, have the support of Mr Frew.

Finally, amendment Nos 8 and 9 make some further, purely consequential amendments to the long title as a result of the addition of the provisions on revenge pornography and attacks on ambulance workers at Consideration Stage.

As I indicated at the beginning, the amendments are all purely technical, taking forward the will of the House as expressed at Consideration Stage, and I am happy to commend all of them to the House.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Committee. As the Minister indicated, the group of amendments is largely technical in nature. The amendments are intended to tidy up and improve the drafting of some of the amendments that were made at Consideration Stage. The Department wrote advising the Committee of its proposed amendments back on 24 February. The Committee noted the proposals and the text of the amendments at its meeting last Thursday and had no issues to raise.

Amendment Nos 1 and 2 are minor changes to clauses 35 and 39 to standardise the requirement for the Prison Ombudsman to inform police of a suspected criminal offence, which was supported by the Committee and the Assembly at Consideration Stage, across all the functions of the ombudsman.

Amendment Nos 3, 4, 5 and 7 relate to clauses 51 to 53, which make provision for the new offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress — commonly referred to as "revenge porn" — brought forward by the Committee. The Minister indicated at Consideration Stage that some drafting amendments might be needed at Further Consideration Stage. The amendments, which the Committee is content with, will adjust the penalty available under clause 51(9)(b) for a summary conviction to make it consistent with other Northern Ireland hybrid offences. It will therefore provide for six months' imprisonment or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both. In response to advice from the Office of the Attorney General, a new schedule 3A to make provision for providers of information society services, which is needed to give effect to clauses 51 to 53 of the Bill, will also be inserted.

I put on record my thanks to the officials, who have kept me informed of the process over the past number of weeks as they sought to tidy up the amendments. Indeed, they kept the Committee informed as well.

Amendment No 6 makes a number of minor technical changes to clause 54, which creates an offence of assaulting and obstructing certain emergency workers, to ensure legislative clarity. The changes remove references to "obstruction", which is already covered under the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006, and define the term "ambulance worker". I pay tribute to my colleague Mr Frew, who brought forward the amendment at the previous stage. The Minister always comments on the working relationship between the Committee and the Department. There is an example of where a positive and constructive amendment was brought forward. The work done between the Member and the Department was very good and has made sure that we get a resolution that everybody is satisfied with.

Finally, amendments 8 and 9 are consequential minor changes to ensure the long title of the Bill reflects the new provisions in it.

I will leave my comments there. I am happy to support all the amendments tabled.


12.00 noon

Mr A Maginness: I have very little to add to what the previous contributor and the Minister outlined, save to say that, in amendment No 6, the Minister has proposed a useful amendment to the definition of an ambulance worker. It tidies up Mr Frew's amendment, which creates an offence to assault or interfere with an ambulance worker or anybody who assists an ambulance worker. The definition of an ambulance worker has been more widely and broadly defined as someone working under the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust, St John Ambulance Northern Ireland, the British Red Cross or the charity registered in the Republic known as the Order of Malta Ireland. That is a fairly expansive list that incorporates the type of personnel whom the House envisaged being covered in this clause. That is useful and helpful in giving added protection to emergency workers in what I would broadly call the Ambulance Service.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member talks about protection for those in the Ambulance Service. Will that take in those who are trained to work with defibrillators?

Mr A Maginness: I am not certain. In fact, I doubt whether they would be covered. The Minister might be able to shed further light on that. Certainly, if they came under the categories that I mentioned, they would be covered. Mr McMullan raises an interesting point. That category of person may be more difficult to define.

Mr Ross: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: Yes, indeed.

Mr Ross: It is worth noting that, when the Committee talked about this issue, the discussion was about those who respond to emergency calls. Unfortunately, we have had media coverage of a number of incidents in which, particularly but not exclusively, young people stoned emergency vehicles as they responded to emergency situations. That is why it was felt that this was a prudent move in the Bill. We have not seen individuals coming under attack from local communities when they have been using defibrillators, so that may be a different issue. However, the Member raised the issue, and the Minister will perhaps want to respond to it.

Mr A Maginness: I understand what the Chair is saying. Nonetheless, Mr McMullan raised an interesting point that is worthy of further consideration.

I will conclude by once again congratulating Mr Frew for bringing forward this aspect of the legislation. It is very worthwhile and adds additional protection to those in the public sector who serve us in emergencies. They deserve our respect, support and legal protection.

Mr Kennedy: I join others in taking this opportunity to welcome and endorse the proposed amendments, which essentially tidy up the Justice (No. 2) Bill. On amendment No 6, I was interested in the exchange between Mr Maginness, the Committee Chair and others about the terms that are being used and how all-embracing they are. I wonder whether the Minister, in consultation with the Department of Health, considered the term "and/or paramedics". It seems to me that "ambulance worker" covers part of the work but not its entirety. However, I am generally content with the amendment.

The new schedule on what is termed revenge porn is entirely sensible.

I commend all those who have promoted that and ensured its final inclusion, and I welcome the consensus that was reached on it between the Minister, the Department and the Justice Committee. The Chair of the Committee, in particular, was a strong advocate of the schedule being included. Revenge porn has become a very serious matter of concern in our modern society, and I hope very much that the measure will at least give some protections to people and some warning to those who are prepared to engage in such disgraceful activity.

Generally, this is a stage that we can all welcome. I am minded to paraphrase the words of Young Mr Grace in 'Are You Being Served?': we have all done very well.

Mr Frew: I have been a member of the Committee throughout the Bill's passage. I want to talk about amendment No 6, tabled by the Minister, which has tidied up my previous amendment, and some of the issues around that. First of all, I thank the Minister for his diligence on the issue and his support in latter days in moving the amendment forward to produce something that is tighter and better for ambulance workers and to clarify the definition of an ambulance worker, which is very important. I also put on record my appreciation and thanks to his DOJ officials and the DHSSPS officials who were involved in shaping and amending the original amendment to make it much better. I also place on record my thanks to Lord Morrow, who originally came up with the idea of amending the Justice (No. 2) Bill to accommodate and add protection for ambulance workers. He must be commended for that. I simply took the baton from Lord Morrow, and I appreciate his work and due diligence in that regard.

Whilst I talked at the start about obstruction and assaults, it was clear, looking back at previous legislation, that obstruction of ambulance workers was already covered to some degree. It was very important that we stuck to assaults, so that we would not do harm or mischief to any previous legislation or allow an anomaly to be created. I am glad that that has been closed.

I am glad too that we have been able to get the definition and add to it the various societies and charitable organisations that do sterling work in our community. Amendment No 6 refers to assaults on:

"an ambulance worker in the execution of that ambulance worker’s duty".

That wording is very important, because it is not always the case that ambulance workers will shoot off with blue lights blazing and go out to an event, horrific as it might be, whether it is a —

Mr Ross: I thank the Member for giving way. Perhaps I misunderstood the issue that Mr McMullan raised earlier. He may have been talking about the first responders who are out in cars with defibrillators and are working in rural areas, as opposed to those who use them in a leisure centre or somewhere like that. If that is the case, he has raised an interesting point about whether those individuals would also be covered, as they are effectively doing emergency call-outs as well. Maybe that is something that the Member wishes to comment on.

Mr Frew: Yes, I thank the Member for his contribution. I was coming to Mr McMullan's contribution on that.

I will finish the point that I was going to make about an ambulance worker's duty. It is clear that there are many occasions — I spoke about this in the previous debates on this — on which ambulance drivers and ambulance workers can be plonked down into a scenario. . They can be placed in a stadium or at an event. They do not have to be in an emergency setting for an emergency to take place or for them to assist people or, very importantly, for them to be attacked and assaulted. That is why the wording is as it is.

I will address Mr McMullan's point. As the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Alastair Ross, has stated, he raises a very valid point. It is something that I have struggled with for many weeks when dealing with this. Where do we stop? Where do we stop allowing protection for the staff? My wish in respect of this sort of work is that, some day, we will have protections like this for staff who work in an emergency department setting. However, that was too big an issue to grasp within the time frame of the Bill because there are many issues surrounding it. If you protect everybody who works in an emergency department, you could be protecting people who are not emergency staff. They could be clerical workers. There could be all sorts of ramifications around that. That was a challenging period for me when trying to define it. We also have home help health workers who go out, sometimes daily, to assist patients who live at home or the elderly and vulnerable in the community. That is a very challenging role that we need to look at with regard to protection.

I move now to specific points on defibrillators. It is clear that, nowadays, defibrillators are being put in everywhere. That is to be welcomed, whether they are on a high street, in a community centre or at a swimming pool. We know also that the Ambulance Service employs a system whereby a text message is sent round first responders, who either have defibrillators in their vehicles or go to where there is a defibrillator and then to the area where there is a casualty. Mr McMullan raises a very good point. There is a very good first responders scheme in the glens of Antrim; I am sure that that is what was on his mind as he talked about this. I do not think that I want to cover defibrillators at the swimming pool, where someone goes and grabs the defibrillator, but the Minister may well wish to explore whether they would be protected in a system that has been set up by the Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust, which is a care trust. I cannot see any scenario in which someone would want to attack a Good Samaritan — a volunteer — coming to their or someone else's aid with a defibrillator. I hope that that would never happen, as I wish that no assault would ever take place on ambulance workers. He raises a good point; I give him that. It is something that I have not given real thought to. I ask the Minister to look at it. There is a challenge in what we cover and what we cannot cover, but —

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. Mr Ross, I did not explain it too well at the start; my apologies. I am talking about the first responders scheme. Those people are trained under and have to work to very rigorous guidelines set down by the Ambulance Service. The Member is right: there is one in the glens of Antrim, and I think that there is one in Islandmagee. They are spread around, and they work with manual defibrillators and the kiosks outside. I am talking about the first responders who work under the guidelines of the Ambulance Service.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for that, because he raises a valid point. Of course, we know that they respond to a text message that is sent through an automated system when someone calls 999.

On a lot of occasions, those volunteer first responders get there well before the ambulance crew and staff. He raises a very good point, and I know the Minister will look into that.


12.15 pm

I know that we are at Further Consideration Stage, but I do not want to let this drop at this point. If I am fortunate enough to be elected to the next mandate, I will explore that further and look to see how we can encapsulate that and protect other emergency staff members in accident and emergency rooms up and down this Province. I will also explore any other areas where I feel it may help to protect people who provide a valuable service to our community on a daily basis. Whether that is in the form of a private Member's Bill next time round, I will certainly explore all avenues.

Mr Attwood: I think it was yesterday that Mr McCartney, I think, quoted Mr Kennedy as saying:

"Everything has been said, but it has not been said by everybody." — [Official Report, Vol 112, No10, p72, col 2].

I think this is one of those occasions, so, save for the Minister's reply, I concur with all the comments that have been made by other Members.

Some Members: Hear, hear. [Laughter.]

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I did not think I would be up for another hour or so.

I welcome the Further Consideration Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill, particularly the need to deal with fine defaulters. We are satisfied that the Bill addresses the issues. We would have liked it to be a little stronger. However, we feel that the most vulnerable will be protected.

We sought as strong a role as possible for the Prison Ombudsman, but placing it on a statutory footing is to be welcomed.

On amendment No 6, which has been debated, we welcome support for the protection of ambulance workers in the execution of their duty. I think the definition has been fairly well tidied up. As Mr Frew said, "Where do you stop?" I think that amendment will be welcomed by those who work on the front line. Again, I think it will be a work in progress for those in the future. We support the Bill in its future stages.

Mr Ford: I endeavoured to make a brief introduction on those nine technical amendments. I shall endeavour to make a brief winding-up speech, though I will not as brief as Mr Attwood was.

There are really only two points at issue. The first is that I appreciate the remarks, led by the Chair of the Committee, on the constructive way in which the Department and the Committee worked together. On this occasion, he got in his praise before I got in mine, but it is only right, as part of the good working relationship that we have, that he should occasionally get the chance to lead on it. I think that we are effectively discussing only one amendment of the nine is an indication of the good work that was done by my team and the Committee's team in the background to ensure that the Committee Stage dealt with most of the issues in a way that ensured that we are now at a very easy stage.

Let me turn to amendment No 6. First of all, in specific response to Mr Kennedy's point, my understanding is that a paramedic is an ambulance worker who provides services under the instruction of the Ambulance Service trust and is therefore completely covered. The more interesting point is perhaps volunteer first responders. My understanding, and I will caveat this heavily because I do not have specific legal guidance on it, is that a first responder who is called out by the Ambulance Service trust is a person carrying out duties as defined in clause 54(2); therefore I believe they would be covered. Part of the issue, which was perhaps where Mr McMullan was starting from, is that first responders are at a relatively early stage of development in Northern Ireland. Certainly, I had contact with some on Islandmagee a few years ago. Mr McMullan talked about first responders in the glens. No doubt, all Members are avid followers of me on social media, and they will have seen four weeks ago that I received a training course in CPR as part of a visit to Hampshire from a member of the Southern Ambulance Service, who was there in a uniform but purely as a volunteer and is part of the full working relationship in that trust. We are at a slightly different level, and I would be cautious about intruding on the responsibility of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but my understanding is that the definition is written sufficiently widely that anybody who is called out by the trust will carry out the duties as defined in subsection (2). If that is not the case, Mr Frew can take it up with my successor or with the next Minister of Health in the next Assembly as to exactly how that will be dealt with.

He is quite right when he talks about a wide range of people. He talked about home helps going into individual houses. In my previous career as a social worker, I know that you can sometimes feel at risk going out late at night on your own to a difficult mental health or childcare case. So, there are genuine issues that may need to be explored, but what we have done in the work between Mr Frew, the departmental officials and our colleagues in Health is ensure that we tighten up the issue of paramedics and first responders. I think that that is the key point. Other than that, there was nothing but uniform praise, so I should probably say nothing else.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Clause 39 (Investigations requested by the Department)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 32, line 5, leave out "may" and insert "shall". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Clause 51 (Disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress)

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 39, line 25, leave out "12" and insert "6". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 39, line 26, after "fine" insert "not exceeding the statutory maximum". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 39, line 26, at end insert

"(10) Schedule 3A makes special provision in connection with the operation of this section in relation to persons providing information society services.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Clause 54 (Offence of assaulting and obstructing certain emergency workers)

Amendment No 6 made:

In page 40, line 37, leave out subsection (1) and (2) and insert

"(1) A person commits an offence if he or she assaults—

(a) an ambulance worker in the execution of that ambulance worker’s duty;

(b) a person who is assisting an ambulance worker in the execution of that ambulance worker’s duty.

(2) 'Ambulance worker' means a person who provides ambulance services (including air ambulance services) under arrangements made by or at the request of—

(a) the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust,

(b) St. John Ambulance (NI),

(c) the British Red Cross Society, or

(d) the charity registered in the Republic of Ireland known as the Order of Malta Ireland.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

New Schedule

Amendment No 7 made:

After schedule 3 insert

"SCHEDULE 3A

Section 51.

PRIVATE SEXUAL PHOTOGRAPHS ETC: PROVIDERS OF INFORMATION SOCIETY SERVICES

Exceptions for mere conduits

1.—(1) A service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of anything done in the course of providing so much of an information society service as consists in—

(a) the provision of access to a communication network, or

(b) the transmission in a communication network of information provided by a recipient of the service,

if the condition in sub-paragraph (2) is satisfied.

(2) The condition is that the service provider does not—

(a) initiate the transmission,

(b) select the recipient of the transmission, or

(c) select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

(3) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)—

(a) the provision of access to a communication network, and

(b) the transmission of information in a communication network,

includes the automatic, intermediate and transient storage of the information transmitted so far as the storage is solely for the purpose of carrying out the transmission in the network.

(4) Sub-paragraph (3) does not apply if the information is stored for longer than is reasonably necessary for the transmission.

Exception for caching

2.—(1) This paragraph applies where an information society service consists in the transmission in a communication network of information provided by a recipient of the service.

(2) The service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of the automatic, intermediate and temporary storage of information so provided, if—

(a) the storage of information is solely for the purpose of making more efficient the onward transmission of the information to other recipients of the service at their request, and

(b) the condition in sub-paragraph (3) is satisfied.

(3) The condition is that the service provider—

(a) does not modify the information,

(b) complies with any conditions attached to having access to the information, and

(c) where sub-paragraph (4) applies, expeditiously removes the information or disables access to it.

(4) This sub-paragraph applies if the service provider obtains actual knowledge that—

(a) the information at the initial source of the transmission has been removed from the network,

(b) access to it has been disabled, or

(c) a court or administrative authority has ordered the removal from the network of, or the disablement of access to, the information.

Exception for hosting

3.—(1) A service provider is not capable of committing an offence under section 51 in respect of anything done in the course of providing so much of an information society service as consists in the storage of information provided by a recipient of the service if sub-paragraph (2) or (3) is satisfied.

(2) This sub-paragraph is satisfied if the service provider had no actual knowledge when the information was provided—

(a) that it consisted of or included a private sexual photograph or film,

(b) that it was provided without the consent of an individual who appears in the photograph or film, or

(c) that the photograph or film was provided with the intention of causing distress to that individual.

(3) This sub-paragraph is satisfied if, on obtaining such knowledge, the service provider expeditiously removed the information or disabled access it to it.

(4) Sub-paragraph (1) does not apply if the recipient of the service is acting under the authority or control of the service provider.

Interpretation

4.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purposes of this Schedule.

(2) 'Photograph or film' has the meaning given in section 51.

(3) 'Information society service'—

(a) has the meaning given in Article 2(a) of the E-Commerce Directive (which refers to Article 1(2) of Directive 98/34/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 June 1998 laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical standards and regulations), and

(b) is summarised in recital 17 of the E-Commerce Directive covering 'any service normally provided for remuneration, at a distance, by means of electronic equipment for the processing (including digital compression) and storage of data, and at the individual request of a recipient of a service',

and 'the E-Commerce Directive' means Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market (Directive on electronic commerce).

(4) 'Recipient', in relation to a service, means a person who, for professional ends or otherwise, uses an information society service, in particular for the purposes of seeking information or making it accessible.

(5) 'Service provider' means a person providing an information society service.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

New schedule agreed to.

Long Title

Amendment No 8 made:

Leave out "the possession of extreme pornographic" and insert "extreme pornographic and other sexual". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Amendment No 9 made:

After "images," insert

"assaults on persons providing ambulance services,". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Wells: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, I wish to record the historic occasion on which Mr Attwood made his shortest and best speech ever in the House.

On a more serious issue, we have once again seen an excellent example of the Assembly working at its best. The Committee, the Minister and the Department have worked together to produce excellent legislation that protects so many in society. The Assembly is constantly criticised by the media for not passing enough legislation: in the past two weeks, the Assembly has passed a record amount of legislation and there has not been one word about it in the media. Can you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, alert the media to the fact that there is a lot of positive work going on in the Assembly that they, for some reason, seem totally reluctant to report?

Mr Kennedy: Is that a point of order?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that it is a point of order, but I was remarking to the Clerks this morning about harmony having broken out across the Chamber in this area.

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Let me deal with this one first.

Mr Wells, your words are noteworthy, and I have no doubt that the Speaker will pick up on them.

Mr Attwood for a point of order.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Member for his kind comments about me. [Laughter.]

While we acknowledge that the media have a responsibility to report the good news, they also have a responsibility to report the bad news and should not be subject to the aggression and hostility that we have seen over the past 24 hours.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No doubt the Speaker will have noted your words as well, Mr Attwood.

Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr G Kelly (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee on Procedures on its review of public petitions procedures [NIA 305/11-16].

I hope that, since we have set a standard so far today, we might be ahead of ourselves.

The motion before the House today introduces the Committee's report on the review of the public petitions process. It looked at how public petitions were presented and managed in the Assembly and whether the process could be improved in any way. The way in which public petitions are brought to the Chamber at the moment is well understood in the Assembly; so, too, is what happens to them, because the Speaker explains that when he receives them. After that, though, there is little information published or feedback given on what happens to them. Petitioners and Members often have to follow up on outcomes themselves. That has been done in the past by asking Assembly questions or writing directly to Departments.

It is perhaps less well known that the Assembly is the only legislature on these islands that still relies completely on a paper-based, MLA-sponsored public petitions process. In this age of Twitter and electronic media, that seemed strange and raised concerns with the Committee. I want to mention in particular Mairaid McMahon, who highlighted that and gave valuable assistance to the Committee in reaching stakeholders through the Make it Happen programme. Having considered the information provided, the Committee agreed to give specific attention to the use of electronic submissions of public petitions or e-petitions in its review of the process. Stakeholders who responded to the Committee's call for evidence were similarly concerned by the lack of an e-petitions process. Their responses were unanimous in suggesting that introducing an e-petitions facility would be beneficial. Perhaps more surprisingly, all but one stakeholders were of the view that the current MLA-sponsored approach was well understood and still fit for purpose.


12.30 pm

After the Committee examined data on the outcomes of public petitions submitted in the last few years, it found that stakeholders' views were supported by the evidence. Examples existed of public petitions that raised public awareness of issues and others that increased engagement between Departments and action groups or individuals. Some had even influenced policy direction in the Departments to which they were referred. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Committee recommends that the existing process be retained. However, it is also of the view that the process should be enhanced by adding an e-petitions facility that does not require MLA sponsorship. To make such a process effective and to complement the existing process effectively, a different set of requirements was needed. To identify and refine what those might be, the Committee looked at models operating effectively in other legislatures. It has sought to choose best practice from those to design the model recommended in the report.

Because it was aware of the possible cost of implementing such a scheme, the Committee first assured itself that existing IT and communications infrastructure could design and support an e-petitions process, and it considered the restrictions. Once that was done, the Committee considered the criteria that could be used to decide whether an e-petition was within the competence of the Assembly and whether it would be considered. Those are referred to in the report as admissibility criteria. Models in other legislatures showed great consistency in the admissibility criteria that they used. The Committee noted that those had proved effective and were applicable to the circumstances of the Assembly. For that reason, the Committee recommends that they form part of the Assembly model.

In all other e-petition models examined, once a petition has passed the admissibility criteria, it is published on the website to gather signatures. Once it reaches an agreed number of signatures, it is considered valid, and action is taken by the legislature. The report suggests that for the Assembly model. However, the Committee needed to consider how many signatures the so-called threshold should be. In other models, thresholds varied from one to 100,000. However, because the circumstances of the Assembly are different from all the other legislatures, an area-specific solution needed to be found. The Committee considered the relatively small geographical area served by the Assembly and the fact that there would be no dedicated public petitions Committee here. It ultimately agreed on and recommends a threshold of 100 signatures. The Committee was of the view that, since public petitions with fewer signatures could still be accepted through the existing MLA-sponsored process, no detriment would be caused by that threshold. However, it was sufficient to show that some level of public support for the petition is still required before it is actioned.

The final aspect of the model proposed concerns what will happen to an e-petition once the threshold of 100 signatures is reached. While the Committee wanted the model to offer a more visible outcome, it also wanted to make use of the existing Committee system without overburdening it by specifying the actions that Committees should take. The recommended process is the result of balancing those two aspects of that vision. The report therefore recommends that valid e-petitions are managed in the Business Office in a way similar to the way in which statutory rules are managed. The Business Office will identify the relevant Statutory Committee and pass the e-petition to it. If the matter is cross-cutting, a resolution on which Statutory Committee will take the lead will be agreed before the e-petition is sent on. Once received, the e-petition will be included in that Committee's agenda. However — perhaps most importantly — no action will be prescribed. The Committee considered that possible Committee actions could be to note the petition and take no further action; to refer it to a Department; or to conduct a full inquiry into the matter and bring a debate to the Chamber. However, what happens in practice will be for the relevant Committee to decide.

In formulating the model before the House, the Committee took account of the burden on resources that developing the system would have.

It has mitigated this by suggesting that the system be automated as far as possible. This has the added benefit of ensuring consistency when processing e-petitions. The Committee has also recommended that the process only be introduced after the summer recess of 2016. This allows time for development work during dissolution and refinement during the 2016 summer recess.

Before I bring my remarks to a close, this is perhaps a good time to thank the staff for the work that they have done to assist the Committee in bringing the report to the House. In closing, the Committee has given a great deal of consideration to the structure and function of the model before the House today. It suggests that the combination of paper-based, MLA-sponsored systems and an e-petitions facility will offer greater opportunities for raising media and public awareness, as well as greater opportunities for engagement with the legislative process. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend the motion and the report to the House.

Mr A Maginness: This report from the Procedures Committee is to be welcomed. I think that it adds to the current system of petitioning of the House. If you reflect upon it, you will say that it has been effective in many ways because the public have a direct opportunity through an MLA, in the first instance, to petition the House and to bring that petition to the Speaker and then have it forwarded to the relevant Department. I do think that the Departments take petitions seriously. I do not think that it is a matter of form. I think that they are concerned about the level of opinion that has been expressed in those petitions. On a number of occasions, I myself have brought petitions to the House.

The public presentation of petitions to the House is important. In the early days of the Assembly, the petition was simply presented, and there was no speaking on behalf of the petitioners by the sponsoring MLA. Now that has changed, and the MLA is able to make a three-minute speech on the petition. I think that that is very helpful in highlighting the petition and the issue that the petition is concerned about. Those who are behind the petition are able to watch it from the Public Gallery. They get a sense of ownership of this body, and it is a good direct contact between the public and the Assembly. That should be encouraged. I do not want to exaggerate the importance of the petition system, but I do think that it is a good thing for people to be able to access the Assembly directly, albeit through the good offices of an MLA.

We have now moved a step forward in this report, where the public can e-petition the Assembly. It is right and proper, given the advances in technology and all the safeguards that there are in modern technology, to use that medium to petition the Assembly and the relevant Departments and so forth in the Executive.

This is a very significant step forward, and I concur with the Chair of the Committee, Mr Gerry Kelly, in congratulating Mairaid McMahon, who as an individual citizen brought forward this idea to the Procedures Committee. The Procedures Committee, in fairness, recognised that this is a new way of dealing with the business of the House and, I think enthusiastically, supported this idea. I give credit to the Committee collectively in relation to that. Here is an individual citizen who was able to influence the workings of the House, and I think that she is to be congratulated on that.

I agree with and support the report, but I just have one reservation about it, and that is the threshold. I think that the threshold, which is 100, is probably a little bit high. We are dealing here with an arbitrary figure of 100. In some jurisdictions, it is much lower, and in others, it is enormously higher, but then you are dealing with a massive population such as in Britain. Nonetheless, I think that 100 is probably a little bit high. I would have preferred to see a much lower figure, but that was the collective wisdom of the Procedures Committee, and I have to accept that.

I believe that this process will be ongoing, and we will, I am sure, reflect on how effective the new system is. I want to give it my full support and that of my party. I hope that it will work out to be another way in which we can engage with the public and the public can engage with us.

Mr McCarthy: Like others, I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly in support of the review of public petitions procedures. As a member of the Procedures Committee, I would like to put on record my thanks to the other Committee members and, indeed, to the leadership of the Committee, shown by the Chair, Gerry Kelly, who was ably supported by the Committee Clerk and her staff. With everyone working together, decisions and recommendations were easily reached and agreed. Grateful thanks are also to be expressed to all those outside groups that contributed to our deliberations.

Petitions, in my opinion, are a very useful weapon for the general public to get their message across to people, organisations, Departments, Ministers — right up to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, as far as this place is concerned — or, in fact, to anyone at the top of any organisation in the hope that common sense will prevail and that the issues raised in a petition will be acknowledged, and no detrimental action will be taken against the wishes of those petitioners. It has been my experience that organisers of petitions usually resort to that method of appeal on an issue as a last resort, crying out for help when all other methods have failed. I have to say that, if they are well organised and if a fair request is being made, success can be achieved with petitions.

I have been successful with my case in the Assembly. I presented a petition to the Minister of the Environment, Mark Durkan, when an appeal was made some time ago to save Exploris. I am sure that Members will remember that. Members will recall how Exploris in Portaferry was doomed to closure because the local council could not afford the losses incurred. The people, both local and from far and wide, who had a commitment to keep an aquarium in Northern Ireland, rose up and organised, among other things, a petition, with thousands of people asking the Assembly to acknowledge Exploris as a regional facility and therefore contribute to funding its renovation and modernisations, thereby retaining a wonderful aquarium in Portaferry.

I am delighted that I was able to present that petition. As Alban Maginness said, I was able to use three minutes' speaking time to put the case across to Mark Durkan and others. Supporters of Exploris will be forever grateful to Mark Durkan, our Executive and the new Ards and North Down Borough Council for listening to the plea, through that petition. The new Exploris should be open to the public this summer, so there has been a very successful outcome. I appeal to all Members of the Assembly to make a point of visiting Portaferry when Exploris opens, where they will see what a petition can do.


12.45 pm

Only a few weeks ago, I presented a petition to the Speaker pleading for more resources to assist and enable children and adults with autism to lead a good, normal life. Thankfully, on that occasion, our Health Minister listened and acted by awarding some £2 million to be invested immediately in services for autism. That was very much welcomed by the parents and teachers of youngsters with autism, thus bearing out the value of petitions.

I am grateful that our recommendations agreed that the existing public petition process should remain fit for purpose and that the current process should be retained.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCarthy: I will surely.

Mr Wells: The Member may recall from his experience on the Health Committee that I laid a petition before the House about 18 months ago asking for the meningitis B vaccine to be introduced for children in Northern Ireland. A huge number of people signed that petition. The irony, of course, was that, by the time the petition was referred to the Department of Health, I was the person making the decision about whether the meningitis B vaccine should be introduced. One of the issues I took into account was the fact that that vast petition had been forwarded by the Meningitis Research Foundation and that public opinion was very much in favour of it. The money was found, the meningitis B vaccine was introduced and children's lives will be saved as a result.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCarthy: Thank you very much. I am very grateful to the Member for reminding me of that. I know there have been other such cases with petitions, and that was certainly a very welcome one that the Member was involved in.

Our Committee examined the procedures that are carried out in other legislatures, including London, Dublin, the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. They were all very detailed in how they operate, and we were grateful for their input.

I welcome the report and acknowledge its recommendations. I fully support the efforts that have been made by all to reach a conclusion on this very important issue.

Mr G Robinson: I believe that public petitions play an essential role in connecting the House with the public. They are a mechanism that allows people's concerns to be brought directly and in substantial numbers to MLAs and Ministers.

The review was comprehensive, and the recommendation to introduce online petitions is a positive step forward in developing the direct link with the public. While not everyone is comfortable with the latest technology, the traditional MLA-sponsored petition will still be an option. The two models running side by side will give people the opportunity to use whatever model is best suited to them and to the cause the petition is aimed at highlighting.

I believe the recommendations that require a threshold of 100 signatures for an online petition and petitioners to be over 18 and on the electoral register will not adversely impact the numbers wishing to participate electronically. I hope that proposed development will ensure that younger members of society will feel that they have a channel of direct contact with their government. It is they who are our future, and their outlook has to be considered in future legislation.

I also welcome the recommendation that the implementation date for the online system will be no earlier than September this year. I see that as a target date, but I believe that, if it takes longer to have the online system operational, we must accept that. I want an effective system, not a half-hearted one. I commend the report to the House and pay tribute to the Committee staff for the excellent work they do on behalf of the Committee.

Mr Lyttle: Whist I am no longer a member of the Procedures Committee, I have served on it, and I welcome the work that has been done by it on this matter. I imagine that other issues will continue to dominate the media headlines today — some are very serious issues — and it is because of those that the House needs to redouble its efforts to restore public confidence in our processes, engage the public and facilitate opportunities for them to feel included and have the power to influence the laws and policies that are created in this place. I think public petitions are an extremely important way of achieving that aim.

Public petitions have a long history. It states in the Committee report that the House of Commons first appointed a Committee for motions on griefs and petitions in 1571. That shows just how long-standing and important a process public petitions are in including our public in the democratic process. We have had a useful debate today, highlighting some of the extremely important issues and causes that the petitions process of the Assembly has allowed Members to bring to the House on behalf of our public. I think most recently of a petition presented by my colleague Kieran McCarthy on behalf of Councillor Kellie Armstrong and thousands of parents of children living with autism. I do not know whether it was a coincidence, but, on the same day or the day before, that petition was met with an announcement by the Minister of Health on investment in autism services. In addition to other important issues mentioned here today, that shows the power that public petitions can have in giving a voice to the public and effecting real change in resources, policy and law in the Assembly.

I have been privileged to present petitions on ovarian cancer awareness in conjunction with the late Una Crudden, a fantastic and well-respected campaigner on the issue, that resulted in an ovarian cancer awareness campaign. I first wrote to the Speaker about public petitions in November 2012 to request a review of the public petitions process at the Assembly and that consideration be given to a more formal process similar to those in other legislatures on these islands. That was further to receipt of a petition from WAVE Trauma Centre regarding greater recognition and services for those injured or bereaved as a result of violent conflict in Northern Ireland. The lack of any follow-up mechanism to that led me to believe that a more formal process could help to clarify for the public petitioner and the recipient how to complete the procedure and what outcomes to expect.

MLAs have the right to present petitions to the Assembly, but, as other Members have said today and as is contained in the report, other devolved legislatures have more formal processes, and Westminster has a long-standing e-petitions process. It is good to see a recommendation for an e-petition facility to permit the submission of petitions without requiring the sponsorship of an MLA or political party.

The issue has also been acknowledged in the Assembly engagement strategy, published in May 2010, which highlighted how petitioning had been used effectively in other legislatures. I contacted the Speaker to seek an update on what work was being done to progress the issue. I suggested that a statutory duty on petitions receiving a response from the relevant Committee, Minister or Department should be considered. I also suggested an opportunity for petitioners, where relevant, to give evidence to the relevant Committee and the establishment of an online e-petitions system containing information about the process, templates for responses, and I suggested that any changes would require the Assembly to —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr Lyttle: — actively promote petitioning. For all those reasons I think that it is positive to see these developments today. I should like to hear slightly more about what action will be taken as a result of the public petitions process, as that is an area that needs to be enhanced.

Mr Clarke (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): I welcome the opportunity to conclude on today's debate on the Committee report on the review of public petition procedures. I thank the Committee Chairperson for his opening remarks and thank all the other Members who have contributed.

As the Chairperson has said, the purpose of the review was to examine the effectiveness of the current procedures and to establish whether they could be improved in any way. Whilst the review has established that the public petition process appears to be fit for purpose, it is clear that the process could be enhanced by the inclusion of an e-petitions facility.

An important aspect of the proposed process is that e-petitions would not require sponsorship by any political party.

We heard from various Members in the debate, each of whom in turn welcomed the process, albeit perhaps from different slants, and spoke about the dynamics that it will bring about. Alban Maginness said that it was good to allow people to have access. He talked about the steps forward made through the process. We can all agree that we are trying to make the process more transparent.

We also heard from Kieran McCarthy, who has left the Chamber. Perhaps he is away to open Exploris, I do not know. It is still open to debate as to whether his petition concerning Exploris had a good outcome or otherwise. My colleague George Robinson also talked about the positive steps forward, and Chris Lyttle went into an awful lot of depth on the history of petitions.

I will now make a couple of remarks of my own. There was talk today about the threshold, and I have to say that I am a wee bit concerned about that. I will support the report, because it has gone through the Committee and has enjoyed support. Sometimes, however, we can build up expectations for individuals, and a threshold of 100 is, to my mind, still considerably low. Given some of the public campaigns that have been launched in my time in the Assembly, a threshold of 100 signatures to trigger a petition is quite a low figure. I take Chris's point about having a mechanism to drive petitions, but we could see ourselves working to an agenda of petitions rather than on the legislative business that we should be doing. That does not mean that we should not take on board what others have to say, but I am concerned that a trigger at 100 signatures is quite a low figure, given that the trigger in other legislatures is much higher.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Deputy Chairperson for giving way. I agree that we may need to re-examine the issue, because it struck me as being quite a low figure. In Westminster, for example, 10,000 signatures are required for a response from the Government and 100,000 signatures are required to trigger a debate in the House of Commons. Will there be a mechanism for the Committee, or other mechanisms of the House, to review some of those suggestions?

Mr Clarke: I can only go on what is in the report as it is today. I am sure that, at some stage in the next mandate, if someone wants to review it, there will be an opportunity to do so.

The low threshold is one of the dangers. The other danger that was discussed — some of us got our way on it, thankfully — was that people wanted the public petitions process open to other jurisdictions outside Northern Ireland. It was important that, if we are talking about Northern Ireland and what affects the people of Northern Ireland, it should be open only to those who have an input, and people outside this jurisdiction should not enjoy that. That is why we put a caveat in the report — this is important — that those individuals who decide to launch a petition and who want to shape some of the ideas that we might discuss here must also be on the electoral roll. Sometimes, the biggest champions among the general public are those who do not have a voice because they do not vote. It is important therefore that they be on the electoral register before they can set up a petition.

I am conscious that we are running out of time, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, so, in closing, I want to say that the key recommendation in the report is that the existing public petitions process should be enhanced by the introduction of an e-petitions facility. I commend the report to the House.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I cannot put the Question, because we are not currently quorate. I will ask the Clerk to ring the Division Bells.

Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.

House counted, and, there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Principal Deputy Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.

Upon 10 Members being present —

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee on Procedures on its review of public petitions procedures [NIA 305/11-16].

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

The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Questions 1 and 5 have been withdrawn.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): I am considering the merits and feasibility of making a further major capital announcement before the end of the current mandate for projects to proceed in planning for the primary sector. The school managing authorities were asked to submit a limited number of priority proposals for consideration. Due to the demands on the Department of Education’s capital budget, all projects that are prioritised by managing authorities for investment are considered by my Department against a protocol to determine the projects that should proceed in planning at that time. A similar protocol that was developed for the last major capital announcement in June 2014 will be used to gateway score the projects and, ultimately, produce a prioritised list of those for announcement.

Mr Ross: The Minister said that he was considering whether to make an announcement before the end of the mandate. Given that he has announced that he will not be the Education Minister post-May and that perhaps a different party might occupy that post, will any announcement made before the end of the mandate hold true after the election, or will schools such as Islandmagee in my constituency, which has been waiting patiently for over a decade for a new build, have any confidence that such an announcement will be followed through after May?

Mr O'Dowd: I understand why the Member asks such a question, but, if you follow that through to its logical conclusion, no Minister should make any announcement from this point onwards, because no one knows who will be in a Ministry following the May election or which party or personality will hold a Ministry. I am trying to ensure that we have a rolling programme of school development and builds in the years ahead. From my time in the Department of Education, it has become obvious that you need to pre-plan these things a couple of years in advance. Any new Minister would be perfectly entitled to review a capital announcement, but I caution anyone in the post that, if he or she wishes to continue the investment in schools, the economy and the construction industry, those programmes of work have to be allowed to develop, and it could take 18 months to two years to deliver some of them.

Mrs D Kelly: As a fellow constituency representative, the Minister knows about the particular difficulties of St Ronan's College in Lurgan and the campus being split over three sites. What is the situation with the new build for St Ronan's? Will the Minister also update me on the new build at Lismore Comprehensive School?

Mr O'Dowd: The new builds for St Ronan's and Lismore are moving along as planned. Business cases etc are proceeding, and the schools are involved in detailed discussions with the relevant authorities on developing those building programmes. As you know, Lismore will move onto the site behind its current location. St Ronan's will be built on what is known as the St Michael's site, although, before that, it will decant onto what is known as the St Paul's site. The decant could take place in December this year, but I think that the school does not want to do that midterm, so it may wait until September 2017 to decant onto the St Paul's site. Both those schools are proceeding as planned.

Mrs Dobson: Does the Minister recognise the frustration in the community when announcements about new capital projects are made, but years pass with nothing happening on the ground? What does he believe is the root cause of that?

Mr O'Dowd: If you are spending significant amounts of public moneys, you have to go through quite a lengthy list of things such as procurement, business cases and site identification before you can lay one brick on top of another. I understand that it is frustrating, and one reason why I as Minister have decided to make limited announcements at each stage is to ensure that we progress builds to a point at which they are on site within a reasonable time. The previous direct rule Minister, for instance, made an announcement of over 110 new school builds. He did not have the money to build them, and there was no possibility of many of those schools being built within a 10-year time frame. So, yes, I understand the frustration, but I believe that my Department has now put in place measures that ensure that schools go on site in a timely fashion.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the £4 million investment in Strandtown Primary School in east Belfast, as part of the school enhancement programme delivered by the Minister. I ask him what benefits he thinks it will bring to the more than 1,000 pupils at the school.

Mr O'Dowd: One of the areas in which, I think, the Department of Education has been innovative and has delivered radical change to the schools estate is in developing the school enhancement programme. I have been delighted, over this last number of months, to visit numerous schools that have had up to £4 million spent on their school estate. It has revitalised and refurbished the school estate and ensured that it is fit for purpose going into the future. Strandtown will be no different. That investment in Strandtown will provide much-needed facilities for that school. It marries in with the recent development proposal that I approved for the school, and it will ensure that the school's facilities are fit for purpose going into the future.

Mr O'Dowd: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 3, 9 and 10 together, and I request an additional minute, which, I think, is in order.

It was the teacher unions that brought this idea to me in 2012. At the time, I did not have the funding to develop this proposal further or to implement it. Most recently, I secured agreement from the Executive for the public sector transformation fund to be used for the scheme. Some £33 million was secured on the basis that the overall aim of the scheme is to refresh the teaching workforce, through the release of teachers aged 55-plus, and recruit recently qualified teachers. While the scheme is not about saving money, in line with all schemes funded by the public sector transformation fund, the funding was secured on the basis that the scheme would release cost savings.

The scheme will provide up to an additional 500 teaching job opportunities that would not otherwise exist. In addition to those new jobs, in the last five years, there have been in the region of 500 permanent teaching posts and in excess of 250 meaningful temporary teaching posts, which are jobs of six months or over, coming onto the job market annually. However, for those 750 job opportunities, teachers with the least experience — that is, the most recently qualified — have often been sifted out before interview, effectively eliminating them from those opportunities. I ask this: where is the equality for them? Who speaks for them?

I have been challenged to open up the scheme to any teacher without a permanent post. If that is what some Members want me to do, I could take that proposal to the Executive. However, you need to understand that, by doing that, the scheme will not refresh the teaching workforce; not provide job opportunities for those who have experienced the greatest difficulty in securing meaningful employment; and not save any money. In fact, it will cost the public purse an additional substantial amount of money, on top of the £33 million already secured to fund the scheme.

If I am able to secure agreement from the Executive — and it is a big "if" — I can assure the House that the scheme will not run again; it will be a one-off, because to do it the Executive will have to cut other services. Or, the scheme can run as intended, with the job opportunities open to those teachers who have qualified most recently. This year, the scheme would run as a pilot with every chance of being successful; then it could run again, given that the public sector transformation fund is available for the next few years. That is, if the scheme runs as currently outlined. However, if some Members are lobbying actively for the scheme to be opened up to everyone, I will have to bring a paper to the Executive to seek agreement to fund it in that manner.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will understand the despair that exists among so many teachers who have been qualified for three years and more that they are not going to have access to the 500 teaching opportunities that the Minister referred to. I think a model could be developed that could be more inclusive. Independently of that, has the Minister sought legal advice? Is he prepared to share it with the Assembly, or at least to share with the Assembly the broad content of that legal advice in terms of equality and human rights implications?

Mr O'Dowd: Yes, I have received legal advice, and, like every other Minister, I will not be sharing my legal advice with anyone else, because it is confidential and relates to — [Interruption.]

Mr O'Dowd: The Member is still asking a question. I am not sure. Mr Deputy Speaker, should I sit down again to let him finish?

Mr Attwood: Do you want to give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will not be sharing the legal advice with anyone else because it is confidential. However, I am confident that the legal advice backs up the case for change that I have outlined.

The Member and many others keep referring to a three-year time limit. That is a proposal. I have consistently said that from day one, although there are some who have chosen not to listen and others who have used the proposals around the scheme to advance their political careers. The Member's party is very guilty of that, I have to say. [Interruption.]

They have given misinformation to concerned teachers; they have given them misdirection; and they have given them information that is false, wrong and which is leading them down the garden path.

I have also received advice from the Equality Commission, and I am satisfied that those discussions are fruitful. We will continue those discussions, and when a final proposal is agreed by me, it will be presented to the Equality Commission for its views. All those discussions are ongoing.

The Member said he is confident that another inclusive scheme can be developed. I can develop a scheme that will allow all teachers to apply, but it is going to cost the Executive money. Since I got agreement from the Executive in the first place to fund this scheme up to £33 million, I am going to have to bring a paper back to the Executive and ask them whether they are prepared to fund a scheme that will allow all teachers to apply.

I turn to the Member's concerns about equality. What about the teachers who are at most disadvantage? I am talking about those who have qualified in the last three, four, five or six years. Who is speaking for them? Where is their equality? Who is speaking up for their job opportunities? The Member has chosen one side of a very complex argument —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Minister's two minutes are up. Could I encourage everyone to address the Chair to ensure that Hansard is able to pick everything up?

Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, can you put a timescale on when this scheme will be rolled out? Have you reconsidered the number of years from when teachers have finished college so that others can apply for it as well?

Mr O'Dowd: I am actively considering the option of extending the scheme, as I said from day one. The initial announcement was that those who had qualified in the past three years would be able to apply, but I have always said that I am looking at the broader parameters of the scheme. We are considering the implications for teachers who have qualified in the last four, five or six years and how they are able to access employment. Those who cry equality should want to ensure that those who are at most disadvantage — those who have qualified recently — are given an opportunity to apply for meaningful posts. I am also looking at the cost implications of that. This is going to take a number of weeks. There are some in and outside the Chamber who are calling for the scheme to be opened up to everyone. If that is to happen, I am going to have to bring a paper to the Executive. That will add to the time frame.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his response. I would be interested to hear about the discussions with the Equality Commission that the Minister said are ongoing. One suggestion that has come to me recently relates to teachers who are outside the three-year limit and whether they would be willing to take a pay reduction so that they would be treated along the same lines as those who are newly qualified within the three years. I wonder whether the Minister would take that into consideration, because they would then qualify for the limited funds that the Minister is allocating to this scheme.

Furthermore, does the Minister recognise the fundamental problem that there are too many teachers being trained —

Mrs Overend: That is probably a couple of questions. If the —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members are entitled to one question. Please complete.

Mrs Overend: Why does the Minister insist on topping up the number of places for teacher training at a time when we are critically short of nurses and engineers?

Mr O'Dowd: I will take those questions in reverse order. We have reduced the number of teacher training places over the last number of years. As I have said in the House before, the more we reduce our teacher training places, the more students leave these shores and go to England, Wales or Scotland for teacher training. Then, many of them come back here seeking employment. So, the more we reduce our teacher training numbers, the more who leave. If the Member is suggesting we reduce them further, she is actually saying we should close our teacher training colleges. I do not think that is a sensible proposal.


2.15 pm

On reducing the salary of all teachers to the start of the main pay scale or maybe halfway up the pay scale, I think we would be opening a Pandora's box in public-sector pay. I do not wish to open it because I believe that, once we start breaching agreements on pay with public-sector workers — they are teachers in this case — we should ask this: where does it end? Do we do what they are doing in the South, where they are bringing in newly qualified teachers on a completely different pay scale than those who qualified a year or two previously? I am not prepared to go down that road. I know the SDLP was canvassing in the South for a party that does that, but I am not prepared to go down that road and I am not prepared to mess about with public-sector pay agreements.

Mr Weir: It is good to see that we are ending in a spirit of bonhomie. I will try not to give the Minister a multiple-choice question. He indicated that the initial proposals came from the teaching unions. Will he outline the discussions he has had with the unions since the announcement of the scheme to try to find a way through this to provide a reasonably satisfactory answer about a final scheme?

Mr O'Dowd: We have established a working group between the employers and the teaching council. Discussions on the scheme are ongoing around that table. I have had formal discussions with the trade unions about a range of other issues that they presented. We touched on that. Indeed, I presented myself to the teacher unions conferences. There was one on Friday; I know the Member spoke at it on Saturday. There are a range of those over the next number of weeks. I am measuring opinion from them as well. I think the Member will reflect that mixed opinion is coming back from the membership on how the scheme should proceed.

I am listening to the informed views of people on this matter. I am separating them from some of the more ill-informed commentary that comes across at times. I am looking at options available to me and the Executive. I keep coming back to this point: the Executive set aside £33 million of the public-sector transformation fund to fund this scheme. I cannot deviate from that unless I get agreement from the Executive. Deviating from it in the manner in which some are calling for would mean that it would cost the Executive a significant amount of money over a number of years. If we went down that road and the Executive agreed it, so be it, but I think we would be losing an opportunity for the scheme not only this year but next year and the following year, where you could allow up to 1,500 teachers to retire early and up to 1,500 positions to be filled. As I said, I am listening. The final proposals will be published as soon as possible.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers. In his answer on bringing about the scheme, he talked about the disadvantage that newly qualified teachers have. Does he agree that the scheme is something like social clauses on capital build, where we insist on advantage being built in to ensure that the long-term unemployed get good, proper advancement as well?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member makes a very good point. There are those who tell me I am breaking equality legislation, I am breaking the law or I am actively involved in discrimination, even though, on a daily basis, Departments are involved in discrimination. You have to have a justifiable reason to be involved in that discrimination; it has to have a broader positive outcome for society or the project that you are involved in. I find it difficult, I have to say, when people argue for equality but ignore the teachers who have qualified in the years up to the last six and find it the most difficult to find employment. When we introduce a scheme for it, only one side of the argument is heard, broadcast or shouted through.

I am involved, as you said, in a programme of work that is trying to give advantage to the most disadvantaged in finding full-time employment. That is the core of the scheme. I will work my way through it, but the Member makes a very good point. The Executive do it in other areas of work; we put stipulations in multimillion pound contracts to ensure that we give those at most disadvantage an opportunity in the workplace. I find it difficult when people support that but have some sort of moral objection to this.

Mr O'Dowd: Since May 2011, my Department has provided a range of support and investment to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education. I have responded to the growing demand and approved the establishment of three nursery units, four new primary schools and a new post-primary school. The sector has been supported by a major programme of infrastructure development. Over £28 million of investment has been made or is planned for major capital works projects and a £2 million accommodation fund provided to tackle poor accommodation in developing schools.

I have ensured that key policies have been adjusted to meet the needs of the sector. For example, in transport, we have provided express services from Downpatrick, Maghera and Crumlin to Coláiste Feirste. Key examples of bespoke, sector-specific support and investment provided by the Department include reform of the common funding formula; bespoke governor training; additional annual funding to CCEA to develop high-quality learning materials; and funding to establish an Irish-medium leadership development group. The results are clear: today, over 5,000 children benefit from Irish-medium education, and it is the fastest-growing sector. Further inspection evidence clearly demonstrates that successful Irish-medium schools and units provide high-quality teaching and learning in schools closely connected to their community.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Minister for his answer. I take the opportunity to acknowledge that this is the Minister's final Question Time and commend him on his performance in this mandate. An dtig liom iarraidh ar an Aire cur síos a dhéanamh ar fhás na hearnála Gaeloideachais agus, ar ndóigh, ar an dóigh a bhfuil sé ag gabháil ar aghaidh sa lá atá inniu ann? The Minister outlined a number of development projects in the Irish-medium sector: would he like to comment further on its continuing growth?

Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta. The sector was largely driven by a community of Gaeilgeoirí dedicated to the promotion of the Irish language and Irish-medium education. We have seen that turn into the delivery of high-quality Irish-medium education, and parents outside the Gaeilgeoir movement are attracted to the idea of educating their children through the medium of Irish, not only because of the language but because of the high-quality education provided through it. There is also the fact that learning through the medium of Irish equips the child to pick up other languages as well. All those positives attract parents into the sector. I commend the professionalism of our principals, boards of governors, teachers and classroom assistants, but — I have said this about the integrated sector — for it to continue to succeed it has to hold on to its community roots.

Mr Patterson: I note with interest the Minister's comments. Does the Minister recognise that sustainability and affordability must also be taken into consideration when making decisions on Irish-medium against official advice and the recommendations of his ministerial advisory group, as in the case of Dungiven and, possibly, the Lisnaskea project, if it goes ahead? Many people will come to the conclusion that he has made decisions on political and not evidence-based grounds.

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. This may come as a surprise to the Member: I am a politician and nothing other than a politician. The Member will find that Ministers, by their very nature, are politicians and make political decisions. Every Minister in the Chamber does likewise, as they should. We should not be ashamed of practising politics; it has many positives and benefits for our society.

The Member's commentary on my decisions on investment gives me the opportunity, at my last Question Time, to thank the officials in the Department of Education for their sterling work over the past five years. Our society is much the better for the calibre of the officials in the Department of Education, but they all know, when they offer me advice, that I, as Minister, will make the decision. Sometimes that decision will be in agreement with their advice; at other times, it will not. They all understand that perfectly.

I stand by each of my decisions on Irish-medium education on the basis that they were the right and proper thing to do to develop Irish-medium education. I take into account in every decision that I make the related costs.

I take into account all the issues that the Member raised before I make a decision. I believe that the decisions that I have made to date are the right and proper decisions, and I have no doubt that the Irish-medium sector will continue to go from strength to strength.

Mr Lunn: I do not have a difficulty with the Minister's duty to "facilitate and encourage" the Irish-medium sector and the integrated sector, but I ask him to comment on the fact that, for the shared education movement, he has an additional duty to "promote" as well as "facilitate and encourage". Does he think that that is equitable? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Bhall as an cheist. There is clearly a different emphasis in the legislation. I know that the Member made attempts during the journey of the Shared Education Bill to bring equality, certainly for the integrated sector. However, if we were going to change the legislation across the Board, I think that we would have to change it for both the integrated and Irish-medium sectors.

We will find out as time progresses whether the term "promote" is to the advantage of the shared education sector — which would not automatically mean that it was to the disadvantage of the integrated or Irish-medium sectors — or whether it has little or no impact. Only time will tell us that, but I am sure that at the next legislative opportunity that the Member has, he will be raising the matter again.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Mr O'Dowd: The Fresh Start Agreement makes provision for up to £50 million of capital funding each year for the next 10 years for a programme of investment in shared and integrated education projects. I welcome that funding to help provide new and upgraded accommodation for the schools in the integrated sector and to help incentivise good-quality shared campuses. Discussions are progressing well with the NIO, Treasury and the Department of Finance and Personnel to determine the parameters within which that additional funding can be utilised. I am not yet in a position, however, to be able to announce how the funding will be allocated.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the situation of Priory Integrated College: its proposal for a new build is locked in with a restructuring of the schools estate in Holywood. Should Priory be eligible for funding through Fresh Start, can the Minister give me any guidance as to whether that can be tied in with other infrastructure funding to ensure that the whole scheme is completed and that Priory does not lose out because it is tied in with other Holywood schools?

Mr O'Dowd: The new funding under the Fresh Start Agreement certainly gives us an advantage in situations such as Priory's. If you were planning, for instance, on using some of the Fresh Start money for Priory, you would plan in such a way that you were using other funds to open up the other building programmes that are needed in and around the area to ensure that Priory could move ahead. Although I cannot make definitive announcements today, I never thought I would use the sentence:

"Discussions are progressing well with the NIO, Treasury and the Department of Finance and Personnel".

There are three diverse groups, and I do not always agree with any of them. However, I have to say that discussions over the past while have been very good and very progressive, and it is clear to me that all partners around the table want to ensure that the money is delivered and that projects are delivered on the ground. If the Member can just be a bit patient, he may hear some good news in the weeks ahead.

Mr O'Dowd: Since coming into office, I have been determined to take action to break the link between social disadvantage and educational underachievement through the weighting of school funding and through targeted programmes such as extended schools, the full service programmes and nurture units. I have provided additional resources to schools serving those most at risk of underachieving. Funded programmes have been implemented to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes, including the Delivering Social Change literacy and numeracy signature programme, the special educational needs (SEN) literacy project and the strategic development fund to area learning communities. I have also provided funding to support programmes aimed at improving school and community links. In addition, the Education Works programme that I launched in 2012 highlights the vital role that parents can play in helping their children do well at school and improve their life chances.

Other programmes to address educational underachievement include the revised SEN and inclusion framework, full implementation of the entitlement framework, Sure Start and the early years fund. Since 2011, over £220 million has been invested in supporting programmes and initiatives aimed at addressing educational underachievement. In addition, in 2014-15 and 2015-16, I provided an additional £10 million to school funding to support schools with high proportions of pupils identified as being socially disadvantaged.


2.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of our period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Education how greatly it concerns him that young adults in Northern Ireland are in the bottom half of the league tables for literacy and numeracy, as compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which reflects educational standards across the world, from the richest countries to the poorest, bearing in mind that this is the last time that John O’Dowd will answer questions as Minister of Education, with him not seeking renomination to the post. (AQT 3581/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: It concerns me greatly. The Member will be aware that, particularly in my last five years of office, we have seen dramatic growth in the educational attainment levels of our young people, particularly those who are from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, last year, we saw a 6% growth in educational attainment in our education system. So, we are beginning to see change. We are beginning to see the fruits of policies being implemented, delivered and pursued.

Those policies are not always popular. The Member will remember only too well the common funding formula saga. At every Question Time, I was challenged by every other party on the Floor of the Chamber about diverting funds from schools to those schools most in need. I think that that, set against a very negative approach by some in the political sphere and a genuine concern by some in the education sphere and others, was the right decision, and it will continue to have benefits in years to come.

Mr Dallat: Following on on the theme of Mr O'Dowd leaving us, what advice would he give to his successor to ensure that, in the future, our young people, particularly those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, have a fair chance of a good, well-paid job or to aspire to further education? I say that in the full knowledge that the Assembly is now in its eighteenth year, and people who were born only at the start of that period have now left school —

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

Mr Dallat: — without literacy and numeracy skills.

Mr O'Dowd: The Member will also, therefore, acknowledge that there is a change and that the outcomes for our young people are improving year on year. We are beginning to see the benefits of a local Assembly, a local Administration and a local Minister who is held to account by the Committee, the Assembly and the Executive. I would give this advice to any incoming Minister: we have in place a suite of policies that can and will continue to have benefits for our young people, so work with your Executive colleagues to ensure that the Department of Education continues to benefit from Executive investment over and above other Departments. I acknowledge that other Departments, apart from Health, are taking a greater hit to ensure that investment in education takes place. I would also ask the new Minister to continue to work against the major fault line in our education system: academic selection.

T2. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Education to state the number and percentage of empty school places in Northern Ireland. (AQT 3582/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: I do not have up-to-date information in front of me. However, the Member will be aware that, during my time as Minister, I have been working through the area planning process to deal with what has been described in numerous reports in the last decade as an unsustainable schools estate, and that we have to restructure our schools estate to ensure that we have sustainable schools that can provide the education that Mr Dallat and others in the Chamber so desperately want for our young people.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. While he does not have the figure with him, he must surely acknowledge that it is way short of the 10% recommended in Bain many years ago.

This is his last Question Time as Education Minister: in the light of that, what will he do to make sure that his Shared Education Bill fulfils one of its purposes, namely the efficient and effective use of resources? How will he ensure that the Education Authority uses the Shared Education Bill to drive a less fragmented planning process and use it as a tool to make sure that we have the efficient and effective use of resources?

Mr O'Dowd: Area planning is the most effective and efficient way of delivering change across our schools estate. We now have every sector sitting around one table, planning the schools estate. It has not been perfect or easy, but we are taking on mindsets and changing them. There are vested interests in every aspect of our society — education is no different — but I see a willingness and a change of attitude from five years ago. In September 2011, I stood in the Chamber and read out my statement "Putting Pupils First". At the very heart of that statement was a proposal for an area planning-driven process. There was deep concern across the Chamber and across the education sector about that, but now we have buy-in to the fact that there needs to be change and a realignment of our schools estate and that there needs to be greater sharing to achieve that. I am optimistic about area planning. We have the right recipe; we just have to make sure that it moves forward properly.

T3. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister of Education what funding from his departmental budget he will use to ensure new school builds throughout Northern Ireland. (AQT 3583/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: Our capital budget for this year has increased on last year's, and I am quite pleased with the outcomes of our capital budget. Last year, our capital budget was £147 million; this year, we start off with a much increased budget. I think that it is around £180 million, but I will confirm the figure for the Member in writing. We have a significantly increased capital budget, which means that we can move forward and catch up on the backlog of minor works, move forward with the school enhancement programmes that have been delayed, announce further builds for the primary school sector and make significant changes to our schools estate.

Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he ensure that existing schools in the East Londonderry constituency will be given the funding for new builds, where required, such as Millburn Primary School and Killowen Primary School?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member rightly refers to schools in his constituency, and he regularly lobbies and campaigns for schools in his constituency. We will continue to move through the building backlog that we have. I am conscious that, if I make a statement on new builds before the end of the mandate, I will please a few and disappoint many. We have to continue to chip away to ensure that we continue the building programme. Every time we introduce a new batch of new builds, the list gets shorter and more schools move closer to the opportunity to get a new build. As I said earlier, I will encourage the next Education Minister to work closely with his Executive colleagues on the budget. In that budget, I include capital, because, not only do new builds improve the schools estate, they make a significant impact in the economy through the construction industry.

T4. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Education, in light of his earlier answer when he said that 5,000 children are availing themselves of Irish-medium education, how many pupils attend the Irish-medium school in Dungiven. (AQT 3584/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: Approximately 17 pupils attend the Irish-medium school in Dungiven. The Member will be aware that it is the only post-primary Irish-medium school in that entire area. The only other facility is in Coláiste Feirste in Belfast, so it is only right and proper that we facilitate Irish-medium education in that area. There is a significant number of naíscoileanna and bunscoileanna — nurseries and primary schools — in that area, which will allow for Coláiste Dhoire to grow and to become a school that, hopefully, all Members will pay a wee bit more respect to.

Mr McQuillan: Minister, it sounds as if it does not have very much support in the area, if only 17 pupils are going to it at the minute. Will you break that number down and tell us how much it costs per pupil to have that school in Dungiven, compared with a school in, say, Limavady?

Mr O'Dowd: I do not have the figures in front of me, but I am more than happy to supply the Member with them. Perhaps, we should supply the figures on how much it would cost to bus the children to Coláiste Feirste in Belfast or how much it would cost for the children to travel other distances to continue to be taught through the medium of Irish. Many in the Chamber tell me that they support parental choice: these pupils' parents want their children to be taught through the medium of Irish. Why is that seen as such a threat to you and others? Why do Members, such as you —

Mr McQuillan: It is about value for money.

Mr O'Dowd: It is not about value for money; that is a convenient argument. Why do Members such as you get so prickly about these matters? Why do you not visit the school and put some of those questions to the board of governors, the principal, the teachers and the pupils? You will find that those people do not have horns. They come from all walks of life and have different opinions in life, but they have one thing in common: they want to be taught through the medium of Irish. I am proud to say that I facilitated them. I am proud of that fact. When we look at the growth of Irish-medium post-primary provision in the Belfast area, we see that the numbers started in single figures. We now have a school with over 600 pupils, and it is one of the highest-performing schools at GCSE. The education quality is quite good. Members should not get so prickly about these matters. It is about young people being taught through the medium of Irish. The Department of Education is, rightly, facilitating that, and I am proud to facilitate it.

T5. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of Education what he has been doing and what he intends to do in the remaining weeks of the mandate to address the imbalance in the distribution of special schools in the greater Belfast area, with a particular deficit in the north Belfast area, which is an issue that is often brought to Mr McCausland’s attention by the parents of children who attend special schools. (AQT 3585/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: The Member will be aware that we carried out an area planning review of special educational needs provision, including provision in the Belfast area. That report is with the EA, and the EA is working through it. It is also looking at some of the learning centres that we have in our schools etc to match up the services being provided across the North. Active work on that matter is ongoing to ensure that we have a network of special educational needs schools that are accessible to parents and pupils and to ensure that they are sustainable into the future.

Mr McCausland: Does the Minister agree that, whilst parents and others in rural areas may look at distances and think that, if something is happening in Belfast, it is easy to get from one part of the city to another quickly, if you happen to live in north Belfast, it is probably as quick to get to Ballymena as it would be to get from north Belfast to a school in south Belfast? Has the issue of traffic density, particularly at the rush hour in the morning, when children are going to school and so on, been taken into account?

Mr O'Dowd: I take on board the Member's comments. Some of my colleagues from Belfast constantly remind me of travel times, regardless of distance, across Belfast in the mornings and afternoons when the schools are running. Accessibility is being taken into account, and that has to take into account travel times, whether that is in Belfast or elsewhere.

T6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Education how he can justify the fact that, in the Ards and north Down area, no new schools have been built since 2011, while 56 have been built in the rest of Northern Ireland, including four in Lurgan, which happens to be in the Upper Bann constituency. (AQT 3586/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: The schools in the Upper Bann constituency have been waiting for decades for new builds.

Mr Dunne: So have we.

Mr O'Dowd: Yes. I just happen to be in the right place at the right time with regard to that matter. [Interruption.]

Mr O'Dowd: I assume that the Member refers to Holywood in particular. He knows the equation that we are trying to solve in Holywood. It is the domino effect of trying to get one school moved off a site, to get another school moved on to a site etc, etc, etc. I can assure the Member that I have been trying to work that domino effect through with the budget that we have. I refer the Member to the question asked earlier by Mr Agnew on the matter. I think that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.


2.45 pm

Employment and Learning

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I inform the House that question 3 has been withdrawn.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will group questions 1 and 6, and I would like an additional minute for the answer.

Enabling Success, the Executive's strategy aimed at reducing the level of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland, was officially launched on 20 April 2015 by my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, the strategy has been developed in close partnership with other Departments, including DSD and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and with Invest NI.

The implementation of the strategy over the proposed 15-year period is based on 11 key projects that are to be managed and resourced on a cross-departmental basis. A research-mapping exercise of economic inactivity service provision in Northern Ireland, aimed at the strategy's key target groups, has been completed.

The Department for Social Development is leading on a pilot project in the new Derry City and Strabane District Council area. That project is based on early and more intensive engagement with new claimants of the employment and support allowance benefit, who are the biggest single group of clients categorised as economically inactive.

However, due to the ongoing pressure on budgets, the Executive have not allocated any significant funding to date, including for the 2016-17 financial year, for the more general implementation of the strategy. At this point in time, therefore, Enabling Success remains largely unresourced and its implementation severely hindered.

On the proposal that economic inactivity will become the responsibility of the new Department for Communities, it is my personal view that it would better fit within the new Department for the Economy. However, to reiterate the key issue, the scope and scale of the strategy and the major challenges therein means that those issues can be addressed only through the total and combined commitment of all of the Executive and Departments, along with a host of other key stakeholders from every sector.

Mr Swann: I am still concerned that the Minister is stating that the economic inactivity strategy is largely unfunded. Our current level of economic inactivity is sitting at 27·2% compared with 22% in the UK. Does he think the next Executive or the Minister for the Economy will tackle that more seriously than the current Executive and Ministers have done?

Dr Farry: I certainly share the Member's concern about the fact that there are no resources for it. I would not say that we have not been taking the issue seriously. The fact is that it has been a structural problem for Northern Ireland for the best part of three decades. It is only in the current mandate of the Assembly that we have had Northern Ireland's first strategy on this. It is also the first such strategy in any part of the UK. Obviously, there is no point having strategies if they sit on the shelf. It is certainly my concern — I share the Member's concerns on this — that it is not being implemented. This remains a major structural problem within the economy. It is something that we have to get to grips with one way or another for the lost lives of those who are affected and because of the impact on the economy of not fully utilising all the resources available to us.

Mr Patterson: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Does he agree that there is a contradiction in the responsibility for the ESF being retained within the new Department for the Economy, whilst measures to tackle economic inactivity, which are often supported by the ESF, will be the responsibility of the Department for Communities?

Dr Farry: Again, it is worth stating that I have been on record on many occasions saying that all the employment service should be integrated within the Department for the Economy. That way, you have the full synergies that arise. Obviously, the case for going into the Department for Communities is based to an extent on ease in different compliance issues, but I think those can be worked across two Departments if necessary. There is a much greater prize of ensuring that what we are doing is fully linked to the needs of the economy, and it is within the setting of the Department for the Economy that you can do that. It involves, for example, working closely with employers proactively on not just economic inactivity but a host of other strategies to help people to enter and remain in the labour market.

It goes without saying, however, that this has to be something that is addressed on a cross-departmental basis so that, no matter what structures are put in place in the end, all of the Executive need to put their shoulders to the wheel to address this particular issue. I think it is in that light that we need to look to the future.

Mr Allister: We continue to have the highest level of economic inactivity in the whole UK and we are supposed to have a strategy, but it is sitting on a shelf, totally unfunded and unfunded by an Executive that can find £500 million to supplement benefits but no money to encourage a strategy to get people who are economically inactive into work. Does that not say everything about this miserable, failed Executive?

Dr Farry: I am not sure whether there was a question directed at me in that comment or whether it was a largely rhetorical statement. However, let me say this: we do not have a "so-called strategy" sitting on the shelf; we have a strategy and it is on the shelf. I accept that that is the case and that it is not where we should be. Indeed, I have shared, although I might have expressed it differently, some of the concerns voiced by Mr Allister and others about the relative priority that we make. We help those who are vulnerable through a host of spending interventions, of which welfare payments is only one. We also have to be mindful of ensuring that we are not simply keeping people on welfare but ensuring that we are providing a ladder to allow people to take advantage of other opportunities.

The economic inactivity strategy should be viewed very much in that regard where we are helping those who are most vulnerable by trying to give them assistance. So, in some ways, you can make a case that economic inactivity is a much more benign form of how we address the fact that we have a lot of people who are on welfare in Northern Ireland as opposed to the more punitive approach that has been forced upon us by the UK Government. The strategy should be viewed in a positive light.

One small light on the horizon, however, lies in the fact that, in the Fresh Start deal — people know the attitude of my party to that overall — there is a notion that there may well be savings to be found from tackling error and fraud in social security and that there is potential for that money to be, amongst other directions, aimed at resourcing an economic inactivity strategy. So I will urge those who follow in my footsteps to keep a close eye on that as one potential funding opportunity for the future.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that the Minister will accept that a significant proportion, if not the majority, of people who are economically inactive want to get into work. Does he accept that there exist many barriers preventing people from taking up a job, such as a shortage of affordable and accessible childcare, as well as the availability of jobs in some parts of the North?

Dr Farry: I do accept that, and that is the rationale for having a strategy. We do not accept this as a static situation that must for ever be a feature of the Northern Ireland economy or, indeed, our society. The strategy targets those groups for which there are potential barriers. That includes those with work-limiting disabilities, who tend to be male and older than the population average as a whole, and those with caring and family commitments, who tend to be female and younger on the whole, and childcare is one of several issues for them. We had hoped to do pilot testing involving the community and voluntary sector on some projects and, no doubt, that would have touched on childcare. However, when we talk about the cross-Executive approach, what can be done on the wider childcare policy and resourcing will also have an impact on economic inactivity, whether directly through the strategy or on a free-standing basis.

Dr Farry: The science festival ran from 18 to 28 February. I am pleased to say that, once again, it has exceeded expectations. Over 120 events took place across Northern Ireland, attracting leading figures from the science world, such as Professor Robert Winston; a leading psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman; and Robert Schukai from Thomson Reuters who delivered the Turing lecture. Last year's event attracted over 50,000 visitors, and, following discussion with the organisers, we anticipate that when the final numbers are confirmed, even more will have attended this year.

My Department is the principal sponsor of the festival, and I regard it as an excellent vehicle for promoting the STEM agenda. That is vital, as the skills barometer indicates that skills and jobs related to science, technology, engineering and maths will be central to our future economic success. We must ensure that a pipeline of suitably skilled people will be available to fill those roles.

The festival's events help to show how STEM skills form the backbone to a range of exciting careers and interests. The aim of the festival is to make science accessible and fun. So events such as exploding custard, the science of 'Star Wars', and life as an astronaut are designed to appeal to a young audience to encourage them to look at science and STEM in new ways.

This year also saw the first STEM quest challenge, which was a STEM-related quiz for school pupils, which attracted over 80 teams.

It is very encouraging to see young people enthused by subjects that will form the basis of our future prosperity. I have no doubt that the festival has succeeded in enthusing and inspiring people here about STEM study and careers, and I am pleased to have committed to supporting the festival for another three years.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his fantastic response. Indeed, I want to thank him for all the answers that he has given to the Assembly during the mandate, unlike the Member behind me, who had very little to say.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Would you like to ask a question, Mr McCarthy?

Mr McCarthy: I want to pay tribute to Mr Farry for his sterling work —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can we have a question, please?

Mr McCarthy: — despite the fact that they wanted to do away with his Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. Mr McCarthy, please pose a question.

Mr McCarthy: If it had not been for the heckling from my left, I would have been able to pay more tribute to Dr Farry.

Can the Minister tell the Assembly that the festival has been so successful that, regardless of who is the Minister come the next mandate, it will be carried on for the benefit of all the young people in Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments, which I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, were not scripted in the least. They were spontaneous and from the heart, even though I am going slightly red.

In response to Mr McCarthy's question, let me stress that, when the proposal was initially brought to the attention of the Department, it was hoped that the festival would attract 10,000 visitors. That target was very quickly exceeded. This year, we are set to break through the very successful figures from last year. The festival is really capturing the imagination of a whole cross-section of the population of Northern Ireland, and it is done for the very important reasons of investing in the future of our economy and making sure that we are enthusing young people about science and the exciting opportunities that flow from that into the future. I have no doubt that any future Minister for the Economy will wish to support it, but I have given a commitment to the festival organisers of at least a further three years of government support for the endeavour. That is not just about managing the risk but about allowing them to go out with a solid foundation and to attract more and more commercial sponsors, in the knowledge that there is a solid commitment from government. It has to be a partnership between government and the private sector, which will benefit from the STEM skills. I have no doubt that that will help to ensure that the festival becomes a self-sustaining feature on the calendar for many decades to come.

Mr B McCrea: Despite the heckling from the man in front of me, I shall ask a question of the Minister in two parts. First, would the Minister care to tell us what was his personal favourite of the many events at the Northern Ireland Science Festival? Secondly, one of the events that I was at talked about the huge increase in video as part of the Internet and how the fibre-optic networks are now at capacity. Does he think there is any strategic necessity for Northern Ireland to invest in further fibre-optic networks?

Dr Farry: There are probably two aspects to that. I certainly took the opportunity to drop in at a number of different events, as I know the Member did. I thank him for his support in that regard, as it is important that we support the festival directly.

There is also the ongoing challenge of ensuring that we are investing in science more generally. In some respects, I have a responsibility for skills, and we have been investing very heavily in STEM. It has been a feature of not just my Department but, to be fair, the Department of Education, DCAL and others. We also have to look to the infrastructure around science. As a Department, we can work with the universities directly, but there may well be other investments that fall elsewhere. There is no doubt that having a single Department for the Economy will bring a much sharper focus to that, but it is important that we invest in the key growth sectors in technology to make sure that we remain not just competitive but to the forefront of future developments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Paul Givan is not in his place.

Dr Farry: I was recently pleased to announce changes to how part-time undergraduate students will receive financial support. Under present arrangements, they can access grants of up to £1,230 for their tuition fees. Those are called fee grants. They can also access smaller grants of up to £265 to support them with course-related costs such as books and equipment. Both of those grants are income-assessed, however, and, to be eligible for the maximum fee grant, the student's income must be below £16,843. Although those grants can be really important sources of support for students from lower-income backgrounds, about three quarters of our part-time students are not eligible to receive them.

Furthermore, even the maximum fee grants are often not enough to cover the full cost of tuition fees.

Last June, I launched a consultation on options to improve the part-time support package. Following that consultation, I announced a decision to introduce a top-up tuition fee loan for part-time students. That solution will protect grant-based support for those who need it most while allowing students to top up those grants with loans, should they need to, to the equivalent value of full-time tuition fee loans, depending on a student's intensity of study. That combination of grants and loans for part-time tuition fee support is unique in the UK. It will vastly improve access to financial support for part-time students and ensure closer parity with their full-time counterparts.

Introducing that improved support is not only a matter of social justice but an economic imperative as we contend with increasing skill demands and the need to upskill and reskill our existing workforce. The new loans, subject to the Student Loans Company implementation, should be available from the 2017-18 academic year.


3.00 pm

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. That is a welcome change in policy and practice. Once again, Northern Ireland leads the way in employment and learning. What outcomes does the Minister envisage under that welcome change in practice?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments and for recognising that we are being innovative in Northern Ireland with the grant and loan approach, which is not offered in other parts of the UK. We have a relatively small part-time study footprint. We are trying to widen higher education to a much broader range of students from different backgrounds and age groups. We are moving away from the notion that a student is an 18- to 21-year-old in full-time higher education, so it is important that we encourage people into higher education.

It also allows us to support emerging strategies, in particular the new apprenticeship strategy, where we are looking to provide the skills that companies require. It will now be possible to do a degree-level apprenticeship whereby someone is employed and learning on the job while studying at university. That would be part-time study, so it allows us to offer wider support in the implementation of the strategy. In that way, we will deliver fresh opportunities not only for students but for local employers and, therefore, our economy.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister accept that the change will enable people in work to avail themselves of part-time courses to enhance their skills and qualifications?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for the question. I very much agree with him. It is about widening higher education to a range of groups. That will support people in work to avail themselves of higher education.

Across the UK, we have seen a major drop in the number of people doing part-time study with the support of their employer. That was, perhaps, one of the first casualties of the economic downturn over the best part of the past decade. Hopefully, through what is a revised form of support, we will encourage and facilitate much greater numbers of people to avail themselves of part-time higher education. If we are to be competitive, we have to upskill our population, so this is critical.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he explain why he introduced the four-year limit before students start to repay loans?

Dr Farry: It is pragmatic to ensure that what we do is fair and workable for those who will take advantage of this. In the main, we have sought to ensure that we were in line and in parity with the full-time counterparts, but that will not always be the case. People will be in work while they do this, which might be a slightly different context from those in full-time study. It is important that we also reflect that in how we construct the repayment framework.

Mr Dallat: At the risk of upsetting Kieran McCarthy, I ask the Minister whether he accepts that, historically, the technical education system provided a second chance for many people who slipped through the net first time round? Does he agree that many people — single parents, perhaps — need a package to re-engage with higher education? Will he encourage his successor, whoever it is, to look seriously at part-time graduation and make sure that people can afford it?

Dr Farry: I agree with the Member on all of the points that he has made, apart from the bit about upsetting Mr McCarthy, who probably agrees with the comments that the Member made as well. He is very resilient, our Mr McCarthy.

The Member is right: this is there to appeal to a wide range of people from different backgrounds. There is a major issue of widening participation on the back of this, where we can better support people in a range of work or, indeed, domestic contexts. That includes, for example, as the Member outlined, single parents, who may see doing a full-time degree as impossible to combine with their caring commitments. Part-time study then becomes a very viable option. Equally, there may well be people who feel obliged to engage in the world of work, given their domestic circumstances, but want to improve their life chances and to do a degree. Hopefully, we will facilitate them as well.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members to ensure that they speak into a microphone for the benefit of Hansard.

Dr Farry: I am pleased to report that all 66 projects under the 2014-2020 programme are now fully up and running, with the programme providing funding of £112 million, which will significantly contribute to the programme’s overall target of supporting 42,000 people. Many of the projects have been operational since April last year, while some other EU-funded programmes from the 2014-2020 funding round, both here and in other parts of the UK, have yet to initiate their application processes. As the first year of the programme draws to a close, I am also pleased at the level of match-funding support that my Department has been able to provide for a significant number of projects.

In order to ease cash flow issues for the new projects, I have agreed to my Department implementing an interim measure whereby 100% of the European social fund and DEL contribution in unpaid claims is paid now and vouched later. Applying this process has alleviated the initial financial pressures that the projects have experienced, and work continues apace to ensure that all claims are subsequently fully vouched in line with audit requirements. In tandem with this, the Department has brought further staff into the ESF managing authority to assist with the vouching of all claims. I am confident that this combination of short-term measures has gone a significant way to addressing the backlog of claims and will soon bring the managing authority to a position where it can efficiently vouch each individual claim as and when it arrives.

My Department’s key priority in developing any element under the current programme is to ensure that the participants receive the best possible training and education available to them. The primary rationale is to ensure quality throughout education and training, and we cannot and should not lose sight of the fact that it is the participants in ESF projects and, therefore, the quality of training that they receive that should remain our primary focus. My officials are working with ESF providers to develop a policy paper to examine where any justifiable flexibilities may lie in relation to the teaching qualification requirement. They are working to conclude this exercise before the end of March. However, it is important that the rationale for the introduction of this requirement is clearly understood.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for his response thus far. Does the Minister share the stakeholder forum's concerns that there is a lower level of teacher qualification available in FE colleges here than is required to deliver ESF?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comment and question. We are fully alert to the comments that we have received from a range of stakeholders around the teaching requirement. This has been put in place not out of any notion of creating an unfair or high bar but to ensure that people right across the training and education landscape are trained by people who are suitably qualified. That said, we are conscious, probably in two different directions, of the need to consider potential flexibilities. One is around the timescale in which people can avail themselves of the need to get qualifications and the capacity of the system to respond to that, although I am assured that the capacity is there nonetheless. The second aspect is the question of whether there are circumstances where the requirement for the teaching qualification is not making any sense. We are talking about, for example, some very narrow recreational activities or some health and safety aspects. We are potentially looking at that, and those are some of the issues that we are reviewing with a view to having an outcome before the end of March.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Raymond McCartney is not in his place.

Dr Farry: I am pleased to report that my Department has made significant progress in implementing the new system of youth training and apprenticeships.

The new youth training pathway offers great opportunities for participants to gain the skills they need to enter the workplace and provide a strong foundation for long-term employment and education. In September, 16 traineeship pilots were launched across a range of occupational areas, including engineering, ICT, construction, health and social care, business administration, and hairdressing. Approximately 250 young people are taking part in the pilots. Initial feedback has been extremely positive.

Implementing the strategy will establish a high-quality network of providers capable of delivering the off-the-job training associated with traineeships. Further education (FE) colleges, employer providers and other high-quality non-FE providers who meet our quality standards can be part of that network. Through the new model, employers and participants will be in the lead, having the choice of which provider to use, supported by impartial advice from my Department's Careers Service to ensure that the young people make informed choices.

The content of traineeships will also be guided by employers. We have already set up employer groups to help us develop a new training system through a series of sectoral partnerships and an overarching interim strategic advisory forum. Future traineeships will be available via a web portal that will allow employers to advertise, and participants to find, suitable opportunities. I have assigned a £15 million budget for the next financial year to drive the continued development of the new systems of apprenticeships and youth training through 2016 and beyond.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for that quite comprehensive response. Is he in a position to give us any further information on the policy commitment to support and give additional flexibility to young people who may have disabilities or caring commitments or are leaving care?

Dr Farry: The Member will appreciate that we have a range of interventions in that regard. For example, there are flexibilities in the current Training for Success programme for young people with a range of disabilities and those with caring responsibilities. Beyond Training for Success, those flexibilities are also reflected in how FE colleges and universities respond to the particular needs of young people.

In the new system, a very heavy focus is being placed on meeting the individual needs of young people, and there will be a much stronger focus on pastoral support. The very particular issues or barriers that young people face will be factored into the approach that will be taken by employers and, indeed, the various training providers. That has been very much hardwired into the strategy and will be a key focal point for implementation over the years ahead.

Dr Farry: At this time, my Department has no immediate plans for major capital investment in the Newry campus of the Southern Regional College. However, my Department is currently providing £91 million of funding for the college to develop new campuses in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon. In developing the outline business case for the project, the college decided that its estate in Newry should not be included within the scope of the business case as it had received previous investment and was in a condition to meet the needs of the college.

The Department has limited capital funding available to meet the needs of all six FE colleges, and funding is allocated to projects on the basis of need, as evidenced by approved business cases. Over the next four years, my Department will provide funding for major construction projects in four of the colleges. In addition, the Department allocates capital funding to colleges to carry out minor works across their estates. Colleges are able to set their own priorities for minor works, providing their statutory and legal requirements in relation to health and safety and other areas are met.

Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am aware of the continuing development right across Armagh, Craigavon and Banbridge, with the colleges proceeding with planning applications for development. Would the Minister support the college if a future business case were to be presented, should an opportunity occur with the freeing up or release of Newry Sports Centre, which would help to consolidate the campus's provision in the city of Newry to a level that would match the investment that other areas are currently seeing?

Dr Farry: I certainly understand the logic and rationale for seeking further investment in the FE estate in Newry, and I would not discourage the college, in any shape or form, from making representations. However, to be realistic, we have a fixed amount of capital coming down the tracks. At present, the amount of potential investment in the FE estate is probably going to exceed any likely future capital allocation to the new Department for the Economy.

To put this into context, in addition to the three campuses in the Southern Regional College area alone — Banbridge, Armagh and the new one in Craigavon, which replaces the colleges in Lurgan and Portadown — we have recently approved a business case for the Northern Regional College, which has not had any major investment for quite some time.

There is also a major development advancing in Enniskillen, we have recently concluded an investment in Bangor and there are potential plans for the North West Regional College's campuses in the north-west. A lot of capital projects are building up in the works, which is good in many respects because we are investing in a modern estate, but, being realistic, I do not see Newry advancing to the front of that queue. There is a lot of backlog in the system to work through already. But, by all means, the college can keep making the case.


3.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of our period of time for — [Interruption.]

Order. That is the end of our period for listed questions. We will move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr Hazzard asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline what he and his Department have done to create modern apprenticeship routes for our young people, specifically in South Down where construction plays a large part in the local economy, and to state whether there are viable options for our young people in relevant construction apprenticeships going forward. (AQT 3591/11-16)

Dr Farry: Starting from the general first, we have new strategies in place for apprenticeships that will run from level 3 through to level 8 and for traineeships at level 2. Those will be fully operational from September 2017, and we are in the pilot phase for different aspects of those.

At present, we have the outgoing ApprenticeshipNI and Training for Success contracts. Those are very deliberately designed to ensure that we are providing opportunities for young people and the skills required by employers. We expect that employers will now be in the driving seat in determining where training will occur.
We are working to put a sectoral partnership in place that will relate particularly to the needs of the construction sector. The Member will be aware that there is a strong infrastructure in place through the Construction Industry Training Board, for example, and through different groups that lobby on behalf of the sector. That will push well for the development of new frameworks in those areas.

As demands change in key sectors, employers are incentivised to respond to ensure that we meet their particular demands. The infrastructure will be in place to facilitate that.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat. On that, are we going to ensure that an equal number of opportunities are open to young women? Obviously, there is a need to address gender imbalance in construction apprenticeships specifically.

Dr Farry: Absolutely. Indeed, gender and some other equality issues are key features within the apprenticeship and youth training strategies. We want to ensure that we are open to people from all different backgrounds, and, in particular, are trying to break down some of the stereotypes that revolve around some jobs.

To put it into a wider context, today I was at the Titanic building for the launch of National ICT Day as part of the Bring IT On campaign, as we are trying to encourage more schoolchildren to consider careers in the IT sector. That is another area where the sector has been very heavily male dominated historically. If we want to truly compete in the global marketplace, we need to make sure that we are fully bringing through the local marketplace of talent. That is not exclusive to either gender, depending on which occupation we are looking at. Construction fits into that just as much as anything else.

T2. Mr Dunne asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what he is doing to ensure that Bombardier, as a major employer, continues to offer apprenticeships and real opportunities, and to note that the work that he has done to address job losses is appreciated. (AQT 3592/11-16)

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for the question. As the Assembly will know, Bombardier has historically been one of the flagship companies for apprenticeship training in Northern Ireland for many years, and it has very regrettably taken the decision to suspend its apprenticeship programme.

By coincidence, I am meeting representatives of Bombardier tomorrow morning to discuss some of those issues, including what can be done with training opportunities. We do not want to lose that route of bringing more young people into the aerospace sector, which is so important to the future of our economy.

I have also had a meeting with the trade unions about this, and they are obviously concerned as well about the loss of the apprenticeship programme with the current suspension and what it means for refreshing and replenishing the workforce.

So there are issues that we want to put to the company over the coming days, and I am more than happy to write to the Member after the meeting to give him a more detailed read-out as to the direction in which things will be moving.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his work over the past term, especially the good work that he did on the delivery of a theatre at the South Eastern Regional College in Bangor.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Dunne: Does he fully realise how valuable a Bombardier apprenticeship is to a young person in that it is a great start in life? Will he do all that he can to try to retain those opportunities? We had a commitment from Invest NI that it will continue to talk to Bombardier on —

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

Mr Dunne: — the issue so what we want is an assurance that you will do likewise.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has asked the question. The Minister please.

Mr Dunne: Thank you.

Dr Farry: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am very impressed by the way in which the Member has embraced the arts in the last number of years. As someone who was historically viewed, by his own definition, as a bit of a philistine, he has now, no doubt through his role on the Committee, reached the dizzy heights of being a connoisseur of the arts. [Laughter.]

The Member will know what I am talking about.

Moving on to a very serious point, I am absolutely committed to working with the company to ensure that we do everything that we can to get that pipeline of young people coming through. It is important that we have a critical mass of trained apprentices for the aerospace sector.

My Department and Invest NI will work very closely with Bombardier on the current situation, and we hope that we will turn the situation around. We have already had assurances that Bombardier will have a long-term future in Northern Ireland. However, beyond Bombardier, we have a much wider supply chain and we also have the potential to grow the sector over the next 10 to15 years, with the potential for a billion-pound industry to emerge in Northern Ireland. So it is important that we do everything that we can to ensure that we have the skills base. Invest NI shares that aspiration, and my officials are working very closely with it to address the situation with Bombardier. We have a number of ideas that we want to put to it tomorrow morning, and I will get in touch with the Member afterwards to outline where the matter falls.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Caitríona Ruane is not in her place.

T4. Mr Diver asked the Minister for Employment and Learning — after, on behalf of the SDLP, thanking him for his work in difficult circumstances, given the challenges in further and higher education — whether, in light of his earlier comments about the very welcome support for part-time undergraduate students, he envisages that support for postgraduate students will be forthcoming in the new mandate, given their importance to our economy. (AQT 3594/11-16)

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments. We have already discussed part-time study, but there is also a need for us to encourage more people to engage in postgraduate study. Already a number of studentships are awarded through the universities to support people, primarily to do PhDs. That is important. We have seen major developments, over the past number of years, in where Northern Ireland stands in the knowledge index, which creates the number of PhDs per capita across the 12 regions of the UK.

We have consulted on one very particular issue that faces us all in the UK on how we encourage more people to do taught master's degrees and, subject to receiving Treasury approval within the next couple of weeks, it is my intention to make a similar announcement to the one that we made about part-time study in relation to master's degree study.

Mr Diver: I thank the Minister for his answer. In overall terms, Minister, do you think that there is any potential for this to affect the broader levels of support available for graduate and postgraduate students?

Dr Farry: What we are proposing for part-time and master's degree study is additional to the existing student support regime. We hope to access loans from the Treasury through annually managed expenditure. We are waiting for a sign-off on that before we proceed with any formal announcement on supporting postgraduate study.

There is a much wider issue with student support and its sustainability. I think that there is a broad consensus in the Assembly that we want to facilitate students as best we can and that we do not want to tinker with the student support system, whether for tuition fee loans or maintenance grants.

That comes at a price, however. The money is not being spent in England on those, so we do not get the Barnett consequentials coming across. We therefore have to find those resources out of our own budgets. There is always an ongoing challenge to ensure that we are directing the necessary investment to our different institutions. We have fallen short in that regard over the past number of years, and I have deep concerns about the sustainability of our higher education system as a result. Some very difficult decisions will have to be taken, and it looks likely that the most viable political route for the Executive is to ensure that we are channelling sufficient resources into the system more directly, as Scotland has sought to do. That will be a challenge, and it has to be an immediate priority for the incoming Executive in May.

Mr Dickson: I, too, congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has developed his Department during his time in office. Whoever your successor is will have a hard job to follow. If it is you, it will be an easy job to follow.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): May we have a question, please?

T5. Mr Dickson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning how the free English classes that he helped to deliver to immigrants to Northern Ireland will contribute to their overall integration into our society. (AQT 3595/11-16)

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comments. As the Assembly will appreciate, a number of people have come to Northern Ireland either to seek asylum or as refugees. The refugee population, although not exclusively, has people from Syria. We need to see a cross-departmental response, and I believe that the Northern Ireland Executive are very much seized of that. It is important that all Departments play their part. Our commitment to free English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes is very much part and parcel of that. That applies to all asylum seekers and all refugees, irrespective of where they have come from, and, hopefully, we will make that commitment.

In particular at this time, as we are seeing a lot of fear and division emerge across the world, including in Europe, it is important that Northern Ireland say with a loud and progressive voice that we want to welcome refugees to our shores, that we will very much value them and that we want to see them play an active role in our society.

Mr Dickson: I appreciate the Minister's answer. Given the contribution that those who come into Northern Ireland from outside can make, they will undoubtedly add to the skills mix. Is he satisfied that, with the requirements for a reduced corporation tax rate, we will have the required skills mix, including among those who have emigrated to Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: There is an issue for us, particularly around immigration. We need to look to flexibilities in the existing immigration policies that pertain in Scotland but not currently in Northern Ireland. We are very much driven by the needs and the definition of the economy in the south-east of England rather than the needs of Northern Ireland. We will meet our skills requirements through people coming to Northern Ireland from elsewhere. In many ways, that is a positive sign that we are open to the rest of the world and attractive for people to come to, and we can take encouragement from that. We also have to ensure that we are developing the local skills base.

As a full supporter of a lower level of corporation tax, believing that it can transform our economy for the future, it is nonetheless important that we have a proper plan in place to make sure that it will be a success. It will not be a success without that plan. That means investing in infrastructure and in the right level of skills, and that requires us to ensure that we are investing in our colleges and universities and in apprenticeships in sufficient volume to meet the expectations of potential employers, either inward investors or those from Northern Ireland who wish to grow right here in their domestic economy.

T6. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the careers education and guidance strategy that he launched today, given that, as a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning that proposed a review of careers guidance in 2012, Mr Lyttle welcomes the Minister's work in that area. (AQT 3596/11-16)

Dr Farry: As the Member will be aware, the Minister of Education and I launched 'Preparing for Success 2015-2020', which is the joint careers strategy between our Departments. It is the culmination of quite a lot of work over the past number of years. I recognise the Member's contribution as a member of the Committee and that of the entire Committee to the inquiry that it took forward as part of that policy development piece, right through to the Employment Bill, which passed its Final Stage this morning. We have seen the evidence that that inquiry produced, not least in the new statutory duty on the Department around careers advice.

We also had an independent panel, chaired by Brian Ambrose from Belfast City Airport, which brought business and educationalists together to produce recommendations. We are trying to service the needs of individuals, to provide them with informed and impartial careers advice and to ensure that companies are confident that we are investing in the foundation stone of the economy and that they get advice in areas that are relevant to their emerging needs.


3.30 pm

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

Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have seven minutes.

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Employment and Learning on the inquiry into post special educational need (SEN) provision in education, employment and training for those with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland [NIA 306/11-16]; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to liaise with his relevant Executive colleagues to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

Before I start, I want to make a few personal comments about the inquiry. It is about the needs of young people with special educational needs. Let me quote the following:

"One of the great things that any community can do is not teach tolerance, but live tolerance, not talk respect, but live inclusivity."

I hope that, by the end of this, we can look on these young people not as special needs young adults but as young adults with specific needs whom we have a responsibility to support. I thank all the Committee members who took part in the inquiry. It was not an easy subject to engage with, as some of our visits and the personal testimonies that we received were heart-wrenching. In his absence, I highlight and acknowledge the work of Pat Ramsey and his contribution to the initial stages of the inquiry. I also thank the Committee staff, and I pay tribute to Vincent Gribbin and Cathie White for their work in facilitating the Committee's work during the inquiry. My main thanks go to the young people and their parents. They are the reason why we undertook the work, and I hope that the report is used and its recommendations taken on board. The parents of children with special needs create their own world of happiness and believe in things that others cannot yet see. I hope that, through the inquiry, others will see the crucial need for our recommendations.

It gives me great pleasure, as Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, to move the motion, which calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to liaise with his relevant Executive colleagues to implement the report's recommendations. I appreciate the Minister being here today to respond. The Committee's legacy report will recommend that the Committee that retains scrutiny responsibility for this matter in the next mandate requests that the relevant Departments respond to the recommendations and keeps the progress under review.

Given the wide-ranging nature of the inquiry and the large number of recommendations, the Committee agreed to divide sections of the report among the members. Each member of the Committee will talk to different parts of the report and to the relevant recommendations.

We agreed to conduct the inquiry to address the concerns raised by Committee members and by advocates for individuals with learning disabilities and their families that, once those individuals leave full-time education, where they have received long-term support, they find themselves with little help and few options for what they do next. We critically examined post-school provision in Northern Ireland, including consideration of the current policies, programmes and opportunities available in Northern Ireland, for those with learning disabilities leaving education. We also looked at issues raised regarding the transition planning process.

On initiating the inquiry, the Committee became aware that there have been a number of reviews on the matter over the years and a number of action plans have been agreed by Departments to improve services. However, it also became obvious to us that the issues still existed. Although action has taken place, it has been mainly procedural in nature. The numerous barriers facing young people with learning disabilities as they leave school and try to lead a productive life remain. This is a complex area of policy-making, involving numerous services across a range of Departments. We listened to the heartfelt pleas of parents and carers for better services and provisions for their loved ones. We also heard from Departments about the efforts they are engaged in to support people with learning disabilities when they leave school.

At this point and on behalf of the whole Committee, I thank all those who engaged with the inquiry. The energy of parents who fight tirelessly for their loved one's right to lead a full life is inspirational. I also thank the many organisations and schools that opened their doors to Committee visits to show how they work to develop and support those with learning disabilities. Thanks also go to the officials from the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Health who, the Committee could see, work hard to provide the best services that they can.

We received 53 written submissions, and we held five evidence events: two with stakeholders, two with individuals with learning disabilities and one with parents and carers. We considered 21 research papers that we commissioned from the Assembly Research and Information Service, as well as a range of academic and departmental publications. The Committee visited 14 schools and organisations across Northern Ireland and visited services in Manchester. We also considered exactly what was meant by a "learning disability". The most widely endorsed definition is this: a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information or to learn new skills, a reduced ability to cope independently or an impairment that started before adulthood with a lasting effect on development.

On reviewing the evidence, it was clear that there were distinct areas of concern. The report outlines those and includes the Committee’s recommendations on how best the Executive could improve provision. We believe that, if the recommendations are accepted and acted on across government, they will create a system that meets the needs of those who rely on it.

I turn to the content of the report. With regard to the transition process, the evidence showed that there were two conflicting views: first, that there was no real issue and, secondly, that there was an issue but the main concern was that there was no provision after the transition process for a lot of people to move into. These problems are outlined in the report, and they include a lack of information sharing and a process, which is meant to be a long gradual one, that, in reality, is years of paying lip service and then a last-minute panic for parents to find post-school provision.

It was evident from submissions that further education colleges and vocational training were central and vital in the plans of people with learning disabilities and their families. However, despite their crucial role, the evidence highlights that access to appropriate educational courses is inadequate to meet the need and that there is a structural problem at the heart of the provision. A specific problem is that further education cannot be considered the solution for everyone with a learning disability, and yet there is a lack of alternative provision.

A range of evidence received by the Committee emphasised the importance of ensuring that there is a person-centred approach to post-SEN services and that the provision offered meets an individual’s needs. It is our view that the need to provide an individualised service for the most vulnerable in our society remains an absolute priority for any modernised or reforming day service.

Following on from that, another important issue highlighted in the evidence was the need for proper progression for learners in post-school provision. The aim should be that the levels of provision are appropriate for the individual as he or she develops. There were repeated examples of individuals repeating courses, so that they had something to do during the day or engaging in courses and training where there were few beneficial outcomes for them or which were inappropriate for their level of ability. In addition, there was no structure for continual development.

The aim, as we see it, is to strive towards making work-ready individuals. This, for some, may be a far-off aspiration, but the provision on offer should be bringing individuals along that path. For some, the starting point may be independent living or improved communication and social skills; for others, it may be only supervised experience of the workplace, but all have the right to receive help to get to that point.

One of the overarching concerns relayed to the Committee during the inquiry was the lack of coordination across government. This is something that we all understand and witness in our daily work. Time after time, in all Committees, there are calls for better cross-departmental working. The Committee inquiry found that, although there are many cross-departmental strategies and action plans that aim for better coordination, and although there are localised examples of good practice in cross-departmental working in providing services for those with learning disabilities, the criticism remains that communication and service provision across Departments is inadequate. Not only does that waste time in arranging provision and create frustration and aggravation for parents and carers, but, all too often, it is inefficient and prevents effective working.

The evidence suggested that more can and should be done in the community setting to support those with learning disabilities. In looking at this issue in an economic climate of limited resources, we see that the better utilisation of what already exists is the perfect answer. Historically, learning disability — all disability for that matter — was kept out of sight. We visited a number of schools and facilities, and, as a rule of thumb, the older the establishment, the higher the wall that surrounds it. However, there are examples of good practice. In some communities, local churches and charities are opening cafes staffed by individuals with learning disabilities — places where, once you walk through the door, you can see the pride and the sense of worth of the individuals working there.

Another major obstacle for post-19 provision has been the availability, or otherwise, of transport for getting those with learning disabilities to post-19 provision. The lack of viable transport options, particularly in rural areas, adds another significant barrier to those trying to access services. Those who are not yet able to travel independently can become housebound.

One of the strongest arguments made to the Committee was for post-school provision, where demand currently outstrips supply. The evidence to the Committee suggests that demand for further education (FE) provision is not currently being fully met, and submissions referred to the number of individuals with learning disabilities who end up not in employment, education or training. What provision is available is largely part-time, some of it for just a few hours a week. Parents and carers are trying to fill their loved one's week by transporting them around a number of services. There is a lack of consistency and security in that. There is also evidence suggesting that demand will only increase in the coming years, creating a challenge that Departments need to plan for.

As I mentioned, the aim of post-school provision should be to move those with learning disabilities ever closer to employment via education and training. For some, this may be a long road; others are nearly job ready but face the barrier of not being able to find work experience. We heard evidence from Mencap that young people with a learning disability are twice as likely to be not in employment, education or training as those without a learning disability, and only 17% of people with a learning disability are in any form of paid work, compared with 46% of disabled people and 80% of the general population.

For those who could be deemed to be further from the workplace — those with severe learning disabilities and, more so now, those with complex health needs — the main route after school has been to day-care centres. However, evidence presented to the Committee suggests that these establishments are ill-equipped for training and education purposes.

During the evidence sessions, some parents raised concerns that, as currently structured, day care will lead to children's learning beginning to regress due to a lack of stimulating activities and opportunities for continued learning. Those with communication issues, who throughout school have learnt to use signs and other non-verbal means of being understood, find that the staff are not trained in these systems and are left frustrated and, often, silenced.


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For parents moving their loved one from school into adult services, it is a frightening, unsettling and bureaucratic nightmare. The school environment is set up to provide all-round care; the young people are looked after from when they go in the door until they come home. The staff are trained to look after their needs, and they often have access to a speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist and a school nurse. It is a massive shock, after investing so much time and resources into providing a protective environment for those individuals, when that disappears almost overnight. Some evidence emphasised that all post-school providers need to ensure that they can fully meet the wider support needs of their students or trainees by having appropriate measures in place to ensure that they are appropriately supervised.

Turning to the transition process, a specific issue raised with us was that individual schools and the Education Authority have a statutory responsibility for the process. However, once an individual leaves school, the school and the authority no longer have the responsibility or control to ensure that the transition plan is followed. Some evidence suggested that the statutory responsibility to carry out and enforce the transition plan should sit with DEL or Health, as they are the Departments that provide adult services. Therefore, we recommend that DEL undertakes a review to establish where departmental responsibility for the transition process should lie in the Executive.

Much of the evidence, especially from parents, indicated that, during the transition meetings, it was often the case that decisions could not be made or their questions could not be answered, as the appropriate officials were not in attendance. It is for that reason that we recommend that DE ensures that all relevant bodies, based on the individual young person's needs and progression plans, are invited to and attend the transition meetings.

Another issue facing parents was that, once their child left school, the transition process ended and there was no one at hand to sort out any issues or, if a placement was not working out, to organise an alternative. In addition, after a year on a course, individuals were often back at square one with nowhere to move on to. The view of parents was that all the work was placed on them. To help those parents, we recommend that DEL and DE coordinate to ensure that the transition process continues past the stage of leaving school. It should remain in place to assist the young person with onward progression from a training or further education course into employment. Linked to that, there is a need for closer partnership working with the voluntary and stakeholder groups that can support people in further education, training and employment.

During the Committee's evidence gathering, it heard a number of people calling for a bespoke college —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Swann: — for people with learning disabilities that would provide a more supportive environment.

Lastly, the Committee recommends that a consultation be carried out by DEL on the demand for a bespoke local college model, establishing a small number of specialist training centres across Northern Ireland.

I commend the report to the House and look forward to the debate.

Mr Hilditch: I support the motion, which brings this very important report to the House. I thank everyone who has been involved in putting the inquiry together and bringing it before us today, none more so than Cathie White and her team in the Employment and Learning Committee, who worked tirelessly on the report.

From reading through the recommendations in the inquiry, it seems there is no doubt that the opportunities throughout Northern Ireland for those with special needs are patchy. Therefore, policies, procedures and practices need to be improved to maximise opportunities to support the transition from education to job opportunities or voluntary work for those with special needs, alleviating the worry and concern of them and their families.

In regard to the demand aspect of the inquiry, evidence from Beechlawn and Sperrinview special schools gave the Committee much concern. Their evidence related to the fact that demand for further education provision is not being met. Submissions referred to the number of individuals with learning difficulties who end up not in employment, education or training. Evidence also revealed that that will increase in the coming years.

Beechlawn School gave the Committee some daunting figures. It said that, at present, 47% of its enrolment is pupils with autistic spectrum disorder and that, in three years' time, that is predicted to rise to potentially 90%. It warns that, in the post-16 provision, it can meet the needs of those pupils, but it is concerned that, at post-18, there is a lack of specialised and supported provision for many people whose needs can be complex.

Therefore, with this evidence in mind, the Committee made recommendation 25 that DHSSPS assess the impact of the decreasing day-care places for people with learning difficulties and what alternative provision the Minister and his Department make or intend to put in place. Will he consider the shift from transitional segregated services to integrated and take on board that some trusts have reduced, or have plans to reduce, the number of building-based facilities in a general move towards smaller satellite-type services in the community and independent third-sector partnerships?

The inquiry also revealed that those on benefits find it difficult to engage in placements and volunteering opportunities, as they are anxious that doing so might have a detrimental impact on their benefits or, at the very worst, stop them altogether. In particular, there is a reluctance to engage in short-term voluntary placements, as that affects long-term quality of life through provision of benefits. It also noted that those coming off benefits have problems with the 16-hour rule — again through unrest caused by thinking that their benefits may be interrupted. Sperrinview backed that up by saying that many families have to leave work to look after those with special needs. As money is tight, they simply cannot entertain losing £1 from the household income. Potential opportunities to engage with work are overlooked.

Evidence in the inquiry suggested that universal credit has the power to help. Another valid point was that "work" needs to live up to its name and reputation by offering partakers in it some form of benefit, whether financial, mental, social or emotional. I ask the Minister for his views on how he sees the introduction of universal credit easing the problem.

Overall, the Committee has made the recommendation that DSD and DEL ensure that they work together and that one Department does not take away the good offered by another.

Finally, people with learning disabilities are valued citizens; they must be enabled to use mainstream services and be fully included in the life of our communities. I look forward to the Minister's response to hear how opportunities and support for those with special needs can be bettered in the future, taking account of individuals' needs and assisting them to be as independent as possible.

I support the report.

Ms McGahan: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I thank you for the opportunity to address the House on the report. I thank the Chair, staff and other Committee members. I am pleased to recommend the report for adoption. I am also pleased to have been involved in most of its development, especially through meetings with stakeholders and the formulation of the recommendations with the help of advocates for those with learning disabilities and their families who, once their child leaves full-time education where they have had long-term support, find themselves with very little help and few options. I am immensely proud of the role played by Sperrinview Special School, Dungannon and others in the inquiry and thank them for their advice and guidance. I especially welcomed the opportunity to attend evidence sessions and study visits, including at Sperrinview and Parkanaur College, Dungannon.

Having critically examined post-school provision in the North and given consideration to the current policies, programmes and opportunities for those with learning difficulties on leaving education, I wish to focus my comments on the important element of transport provision. Transport should be based on the rural community transport model and be able to cross areas, such as from Cookstown to Dungannon or Dungannon to Armagh. At present, transport issues between those towns prevent young people from safely accessing opportunities in neighbouring towns. There is a need for transport that is escorted, door-to-door and flexible if the most vulnerable individuals are to be afforded a degree of independence in travel.

In their submissions, the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) and the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) made reference to barriers and possible barriers to participation for key stakeholders. Those included the lack of independent travel skills, transport provision and funding issues, especially given the rural nature of the SELB and WELB areas. Community transport schemes are in place but are heavily oversubscribed.

Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, as it was then known, dealt in its submission with the important issue of boundaries and coterminosity. It pointed to the need for the provision of good-quality services to take account of coterminosity. It stated that Dungannon currently sits in the South West College area with Enniskillen, Omagh and Cookstown. However, for education, health and transport, it is located in the Southern Trust area. That has major implications, in that, even if Omagh were available — it is not, owing to distance — for vulnerable people to travel to, the transport provision would not be accessible across that boundary area.

In the section of the report dealing with the transition process, it is stated:

"Sperrinview Special School believes that over the past ten years there has been a deterioration in the transition process and the opportunities available to the young people leaving school in their catchment area. It says: 'In previous years it had a strong and effective transition process from school to post 19 provision, although still with limited opportunities. In recent years, this process has become increasingly more difficult and less effective, and opportunities for any young person with severe learning disabilities leaving school have become even more limited.'"

The Committee critically examined post-SEN provision in the North, including consideration of the current policies, programmes and opportunities available for those with learning difficulties leaving education, with particular focus on those with moderate and severe learning disabilities, as per the SEN category. The Committee has made recommendations where appropriate on how policies, procedures and practice can be improved in order to maximise opportunities to support the transition from education for those with learning disabilities and to alleviate the worry and concern of their family.

The report, which is before us for adoption today, recommends:

"DRD increases the support for local transport solutions in rural areas to increase access to training and employment opportunities for those with learning disabilities ... DRD coordinates with other Departments and arm's length bodies, to ensure the better use of transport services/adapted buses and staff from all providers to support those with learning disabilities ... DRD and DE embed the provision of transport into the transition process and in the development of programmes for those with a learning disability, to ensure that when post school options are considered, that transport is factored in."

A section of the report reviews the legislation that governs the transition process in the North, and that was included to help underpin the statutory duties on the Executive and Departments. However, it was also included because the Committee emphasised that, if it felt it necessary, it was willing to bring forward legislation to change or strengthen current legislation.

I echo the call by the Accessing Support, Provision, Inclusion, Respect and Equality (ASPIRE) group in Dungannon for us to deal with transport issues between towns that prevent young people from safely accessing opportunities in neighbouring towns. Again, there is a need for transport that is escorted, door-to-door and flexible if the most vulnerable individuals are to be afforded a degree of independence in travel.

I recommend the adoption of this much-awaited report.

Mr Diver: I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the inquiry into special educational needs provision in Northern Ireland. As a latecomer to the process, I fully acknowledge the contribution of the Committee, and of the officials as well. I particularly thank the Chair of the Committee, Mr Robin Swann, for his very kind comments about my predecessor, Mr Pat Ramsey, who is incredibly passionate about the subject. I am sure that Pat will be heartened to hear those words today.

I will focus my comments on recommendations 32 to 35, which deal with work experience, opportunities to work and day-care provision.

Recommendation 32 states that DEL, as part of its new strategy for people with disabilities, canvasses local businesses and industry for work placements and work experience. That would have the added benefit of opening up an engagement with businesses to detail what government needs to do to support businesses to take on this role more readily. The main thrust of the evidence heard by the Committee on this issue focused on the importance of work experience and the current lack of provision. It was found that there is a need to provide work experience for young people in schools so that they can be better prepared for working life.


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The Committee heard from parents, who are delighted when work experience is available in a school. Unfortunately, that is not happening enough. An overriding concern of parents is that they know that they will have to source work experience for their child when they leave school. I think that we all agree that situations can be stressful enough for the parent of a child with a special educational need without the added stress of having to source work experience without assistance.

The Department pointed to a number of barriers to getting employers to provide work to a young person with a learning disability. Perhaps they are not confident about working alongside a young person with a learning difficulty or cannot offer the necessary time that it would require to support them. Social enterprises are offering real opportunities for young people with a learning difficulty to find work experience. The House should do all in its power to support them in this endeavour. The Committee's recommendation gets to the heart of those problems and urges the Department to engage with employers to find appropriate work experience opportunities for young people with a learning difficulty. Furthermore, under the new strategy for people with disabilities, DEL should continue to support employers, social enterprises and any other employment group that is already providing work experience.

There are two recommendations on opportunities for work for people with learning difficulties. Recommendation 33 urges the Department to review the adequacy of the support that it currently provides to people with learning difficulties in their place of work. Young people with a learning disability are twice as likely to be NEET as those without a learning difficulty. It can often be very difficult for them to get and sustain work. Too often, work carried out by people with learning disabilities is described as work experience and does not lead to a real pay package or a real job role at the end of the day. One of the key findings in the report, as noted by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), is that, while government employment schemes have worked, they do not often lead to lasting and rewarding employment engagement. An evaluation of the Workable (NI) programme found in 2010 that only 9% of participants moved to an unsupported employment role.

Recommendation 34 is focused on the idea that DEL develops a coordinated service, securing placements and seeking employment opportunities for those with learning disabilities, to which they could get buy-in from local employers. In evidence groups, it was argued that it is inefficient to have several Departments carrying out the same role — that is, securing placements and seeking employment opportunities. It was suggested that employers buy into a central authority. This authority would have even greater authority as it would represent many Departments, and having all the programmes in one place would lead to a more streamlined and ultimately successful provision of placements. It is very clear that employers need help with providing work experience and placement opportunities for those with learning difficulties. I hope that the report can be a helpful step to securing that.

In the final recommendation that I will speak to, the Committee recommends that the Department of Health reviews and continues to monitor its day opportunities model and works with the relevant Departments and health and social care trusts on the development of continued learning and progression in a day-centre environment. Day opportunities and alternatives to day-care provision are increasingly important to people with a learning difficulty. There are numerous worries about day-care opportunities for people with learning difficulties. Yesterday, we had a very passionate plea on the steps of the House in relation to those. The worries include the policy direction under Transforming Your Care and the fact that day centres are ill-equipped. Transforming Your Care's direction may be putting pressure on parents not to send their children to a day-care centre. The TYC principles of greater care closer to home are praiseworthy in themselves, but a different set of circumstances applies to those with a learning difficulty and their families. There is quite clearly room for improvement in day-care settings and for alternative provision.

The report is a very welcome step towards improving work opportunities and day opportunities for young people with a learning disability. I commend the Committee for the work that it has done and, importantly, those who gave evidence that aided its completion.

Mr Weir: I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for Education in order to comment on the relevant findings of the inquiry report. The Education Committee has not taken a formal position on any of the recommendations. However, the Committee recently considered many similar issues during the Committee Stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and its scrutiny of special schools area planning. The relevant inquiry findings fall into two groups. The first relates to cross-departmental working and information sharing. Several recommendations apply, particularly recommendations 15 and 26.

On the subject of SEN information, the Committee was quite surprised by the recent findings from the report on phase 2 of the review of allied health professions. It referred to poor or inconsistent information in respect of SEN statemented children in mainstream schools. The Committee also noted with disquiet similar findings in the review of special schools, where it was suggested that the level of special educational need amongst children was not just as well understood by the Education Authority as might be expected. It was those kinds of concerns that prompted the Committee to include explicit reference to information sharing in its recent amendments to the SEND Bill. Therefore, we have no difficulty in supporting the Employment and Learning Committee's recommendation 26, with the usual caveats relating to data protection and the consent of parents and, where appropriate, children and young people.

The Education Committee, in its consideration of SEN support in schools, strongly advocated formal statutory obligations on DE and Health to cooperate. A key part of that duty was the inclusion of a robust review mechanism. The inquiry notes that, and recommendation 15 appears to replicate not only the Education Committee's thinking on the matter but its initial amendments to the SEND Bill. The final version of the SEND Bill differs somewhat, but in principle it is the same as the relevant findings of the Employment and Learning Committee. I expect that the Education Committee members would have no difficulty in giving their support to that recommendation as well.

The inquiry report also refers to transitions, and, for education, that can mean from and to primary schools but also from post-primary education to further or higher education or employment. During the Committee Stage of the SEND Bill, a number of stakeholders suggested amendments, which were designed to improve support for children undertaking educational transitions, particularly between schools and FE and/or HE institutions. There were lots of ideas on the subject, including extending statements to age 21 and beyond.

As the inquiry report indicates, legislation makes provision for the preparation of transition plans for young people with SEN statements over the age of 15. The Department of Education advised that there is already a well-embedded statutory transition planning process in our schools. It further indicated that the education transition coordinator's role included cooperation with the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Department also suggested that wider linkages, including with the Department for Social Development, were planned. Also planned is work with the Education Authority and other partners to strengthen transition performance. At the time, the Education Committee accepted those assurances. That said, I expect that members will have no difficulty with the spirit of recommendations —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Swann: One of our recommendations that I highlighted was that DE should ensure that all the relevant bodies and people attend the transition meetings. The evidence we were getting from the families was that, although the process is in place, the right people are not attending.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Weir: I accept that. Whilst we accepted the assurances we got from the Department of Education, I think that members of the Committee will not have any difficulty with the spirit of recommendations 2 and 3, which call for better transition practices and a continuation of support beyond school. We recognise the need to make sure that the right people are at the table at any one time. That links quite well with the Committee's view on the importance of sharing transition plans between education providers so that, when a child starts a new school or transfers to another school, the provider is not starting from scratch. It is important that those lessons are learned.

As this might be the last time that we hear about a Committee for Employment and Learning report, I conclude my remarks as Chairperson of the Committee for Education by thanking the Chairperson of that Committee and his colleagues for the report. Robin, you can bank that while you have the chance to.

The Committee has consistently found the Employment and Learning Committee's reports on careers advice and other subjects to be welcome and informative. I think that there has been a good working relationship between the two Committees. I commend members of the Employment and Learning Committee, particularly my former colleague Pat Ramsey, who is missed today, on their diligent scrutiny, not only in this inquiry but during this mandate. I wholeheartedly support the recommendations of the Employment and Learning Committee report.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Ms Anna Lo, whom I should have called last.

Ms Lo: No problem, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise as the Alliance Party member on the Employment and Learning Committee. I thank all of the stakeholders who participated in the inquiry, as well as the Committee staff for their hard work throughout the process of producing this very comprehensive report. I pay tribute to the Chairperson for his wonderful leadership throughout almost two years of the inquiry. I was in the Committee for only part of it, but I certainly appreciate the hard work that was put in by the Committee, particularly the Chair.

The Committee visits took us from Belfast to Manchester, and a large number of places in between, to better inform us of best practice. I was particularly impressed by our visit to the Springvale employment and learning centre in Belfast. We went to look at its post-18 transition programme, which works with a number of schools in the Belfast area. The transition process begins at age 14. The pupils at special schools come to Springvale as part of their school week. During that time, they get a chance to see what is on offer and what they are interested in, before leaving school. This is the first year of the post-18 course, and there are 23 students involved in the pilot. The college provides a coordinator and classroom assistant for some students, with provision tailored around the individual's needs to ensure a greater chance of progression in their training. The students also have their own common room, where they can socialise and share their experiences with others. In fact, I booked and went for a hair appointment with two of the students in order to give them some encouragement. I must say, they did a great job.

I will make some references to recommendations 5, 6 and 31 of the report. We find recommendation 5 to be particularly important and positive, following evidence received by the Committee that emphasised the necessity of a person-centred approach to the provision of post-special education services. For instance, stated in the Clanrye submission is the desire of parents not to have the young person forced into a one-size-fits-all training model. We agreed with them that an individually specialised service, delivered by caring staff, is required. That is supported by academic research, such as a review commissioned by NICCY into services for young people with learning difficulties. It highlights the importance of such an approach, particularly in arranging further education and day care for young adults. That recommendation is, therefore, significant.

We believe that the system of self-directed payments must be reviewed, as outlined in recommendation 6. It has been pointed out by the National Autistic Society that, in England, there has increasingly been movement towards personalisation and self-directed support in the provision of services to those with learning difficulties. That system enables those who need it to have support, information and assistance at a time and in a way that is right for them. We feel that such a positive move must be implemented here and that the DHSSPS should, therefore, consider how that can be taken forward.


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We believe that recommendation 31 is necessary, as during the inquiry it became evident that, in Northern Ireland, we are lagging behind England in the provision of best practice. It has also been suggested to us that there is a need for further investigation of international best practice to inform our development of provision for those with learning difficulties. Although we have identified many examples of good practice across Northern Ireland, such as effective community-based approaches in regional areas, we must ensure that we do all we can to improve upon that.

I believe that the recommendations outlined in the report are valid, formed as a result of a thorough inquiry and will be beneficial to young people with special educational needs. I support the motion.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will speak on the Committee report into special educational needs provision in education, employment and training for those in our society with learning difficulties. I thank the Committee staff, who have done an excellent job in organising and pulling together all the information collected along the way, and all those who gave evidence and hosted our many visits. I echo what Anna said about the leadership shown by the Chair of the Committee, who guided us through every level of it, with the help of the Committee staff. That not only made the inquiry worthwhile but in many ways allowed us to get all the information that we needed.

The purpose of the inquiry was to highlight the many difficulties there are for young people with learning difficulties and to make a series of recommendation that we believe would make life better for them, their families and those with responsibility for the provision of services. The 44 recommendations, if accepted, could, we believe, offer a road map and new beginning in the provision of post-19 education, training and employment. I add that this has been a journey for me personally and that there has been a major learning curve along the way. The decision to begin an inquiry into post-19 special educational needs provision probably had its beginnings in another inquiry, during which it was highlighted in the presentations we received the injustice that exists out there towards citizens with varying degrees of learning difficulty.

Whilst on that journey, we had the privilege to speak to teachers, classroom assistants, principals of schools, parents, children and young adults. We learned that a huge amount of good practice exists out there. In schools, we witnessed the dedication and commitment shown by educators and families alike. We saw some great practice in operation during the many visits that we undertook. We also spoke to people, who, in different community settings, work in under-resourced circumstances but, in the end, make the most of their circumstances to provide excellent services.

We spoke to parents who explained how difficult it is for them working within the present system, especially in the process of transition for children moving to adult services, which they believe has let them down in many ways. Some believed that the transition at 18 may not suit everyone. Some felt that remaining in the system their loved ones had grown up with and become used to might offer the best solution for them. Some argued that 25 might be the age to transition, certainly for some people, if not for everyone. Others believed that the process hampered the smooth transition from children's to adult services and left many parents and teachers alike concerned that a process that was supposed to be beneficial and deal with moving from one system to another had broken down in a number of cases.

As the Chair said, the Committee, for the purposes of getting through the recommendations, allocated different sections of the report to each member. I was allocated the section under the heading "Progression", which begins at recommendation 7. The Committee recommends that there be a review by the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning to ensure that college courses below level 1 are adequately funded. In recommendation 8, the Committee recommends that the Department for Employment and Learning's funding process, for all its service providers, should support courses and training that provide life skills for young people with learning disabilities. The Committee also recommended that the Department for Employment and Learning, as part of its employment strategy for people with disabilities, review its programmes, with a view to making them more transparent and applicable for those with learning difficulties, including those with complex and high support needs.

On recommendation 10, the Committee recommends that the Department for Employment and Learning increase the number of training and employment opportunities available to those with learning difficulties by improving its support, training and incentives for employers.

On recommendation 11, the Committee recommends that further education colleges develop a more strategic approach to building relationships and partnerships with social firms to help to develop courses and work experience opportunities to assist the transition from classroom into work. The Committee also recommended that further education colleges and training providers should take into consideration the local labour market and possible avenues for employment when developing courses.

That finishes my element of the report, but I would like to add that we have an opportunity here. Through the recommendations, we can make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society, their families and those who work with them. I hope that they do not end up on the shelf when the new Assembly sits but become the guide for good practice. If we fail to grasp that nettle now, we will do a disservice to those with learning difficulties and their families, who look to us as legislators to make the laws that will make life much better for a wide range of vulnerable people.

Mr Anderson: I rise as a member of the Employment and Learning Committee to support the motion and the report to which it refers. I wish to place on record my thanks to the Chairman, the Committee Clerk, all the staff, and all those who engaged with us during our consultation and consideration of the issues covered in the report.

This is an important report. Our inquiry into post-school provision for those with learning disabilities highlighted a number of areas of concern as well as evidence of good work that is going on. Our aim is to ensure that meaningful progress is made. Our investigations into the issues led to the report's 44 recommendations. It is a cross-cutting report that will require action on the part of a range of Departments and other statutory agencies.

I will speak to recommendations 17 to 21, which deal with social inclusion. We must ensure that everything possible is done to tackle social exclusion and to integrate those with learning disabilities more and more into mainstream society. In recommendation 17, we suggest that the Department for Employment and Learning broaden the remit of post-school education services in order to provide better support for physical activity and wider personal training for people with learning disabilities.

The evidence presented to us emphasised the centrality of the community, but it also indicated that there were problems. For example, facilities can be located separately from the community in industrial estates or on the edge of towns. Geographical location can, therefore, increase the sense of social exclusion.

Concerns were expressed that day-centre opportunities can tend to be quite inactive, and that can contribute to obesity and other health risks. There is a need for access to community leisure facilities to promote healthy lifestyles for mental and physical health. Sperrinview Special School believes that those in day centres should access recreational courses, which should be extended into the community, for example, trips to leisure centres and visits to cultural events such as exhibitions and concerts. Sperrinview believes that that should be seen as part of education.

Further education colleges pointed out that many of their courses are based in the community and that they work in partnership with local communities. By way of example, they told us about schemes for community gardens, sustainability, and growing your own food.

I now turn to recommendations 18 and 19. In recommendation 18, we suggest that Departments and local councils should coordinate to conduct an audit of affordable local assets and facilities to raise awareness among providers of what is available.

Recommendation 19 suggests a joint development and roll-out of awareness-raising and training courses for front-line staff in community services and leisure centres.

We acknowledge that local community bodies are developing their own innovative solutions to increase community involvement for those with learning disabilities.

Two examples are given in the report: the Level Ground coffee shop in Dundonald Elim church hall and the Bobbin cafe in Belfast City Hall, which is part of the NOW project. Those sorts of initiatives are very worthwhile, as they are giving training and employment opportunities to those with learning disabilities. The Committee was also encouraged by the range of business organisations that employ people with learning disabilities. That is to be commended.

During evidence, it was suggested that community facilities are not being used as well as they might be and that there is clear room for improvement. One example of good practice is that highlighted in paragraph 227. In Armagh and Dungannon, community access workers were appointed to the Health and Social Care children's disabilities team, and greater links have been developed with the local schools so that school facilities such as swimming pools can be used. That has enabled partnership-working with parents and voluntary organisations such as Mencap. It was particularly encouraging to learn that the schools' A-level pupils were also able to offer support. In general terms, the evidence suggests that there needs to be a community element to service provision, building on local knowledge of opportunities, facilities and transport.

I will now turn to recommendations 20 and 21. During our evidence sessions, we became aware that rural areas are not as well provided for as our cities and bigger towns. A representative of the health and social care trust told us that the trust on its own cannot provide the desired level of support. Councils and other statutory organisations must be fully aware of their remit from the outset and be clear about what they are providing. Opportunities must meet the needs of the target audience.

In its consideration of rural and local provision, the Committee visited the farm of Mr and Mrs Dolan in Garrison in Fermanagh. The Dolans are involved in a social enterprise, supported by the health and social care trust. The Dolans' farm provides training and work for a group of people with learning disabilities. There are opportunities to work on the farm in a safe and supervised environment. The work is both physical and educational and is based on small groups. We welcome such an innovative approach. Recommendation 20 therefore suggests that DEL engage with the health and social care trusts to develop the social farming initiative so that it might become a mainstream option. Recommendation 21 recommends that the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) provide training and support to those involved in the likes of social farming.

That is all that I have to say. I again thank everyone involved in the report, which I consider a great piece of work for the future. I commend the report to the House.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by paying tribute to all those who supported the Committee in carrying out the work and who helped us MLAs gain a better understanding of the issues facing people who have special educational needs. I pay tribute, as many colleagues have done, to the people who came forward and presented their personal stories and gave us their personal experience of how the system had failed them or of how it could have been set up better to meet their needs.

Personally, I have learnt a lot from the deliberations that we have had over the past number of years and from looking into the issue. It has been very helpful. I thank the Committee staff, who carried out an amazing amount of work to put the report together and kept us right, and all the outside experts who advised members and Committee staff. I also thank the departmental officials, from a range of Departments, who were willing to come before the Committee and keep us right, even when we did not agree with what they were saying, which was nearly all the time.

In setting the context, some Members outlined how we arrived at this. As MLAs for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, my colleague Bronwyn and I received an awful lot of correspondence and lobbying from people, mainly parents, in south Tyrone. Bronwyn had a very good working relationship with them and was very much across the detail of the extent and range of problems facing people in rural areas in trying to access services that do not exist in the first place. Even when they do exist, there is a major barrier to trying to access them.

It was because of those people and their effective lobbying of MLAs from all parties that the Committee engaged in the process. I pay tribute to them and to the MLAs who listened to them, took their serious concerns on board and became champions for them. For me, that is effective working for an MLA: engaging with a section of society that generally is not heard and does not necessarily respond to public consultations. As I look through the report and its 44 recommendations, it is fair to say that those people have now been heard. There is now a substantive report that needs to be acted on, and there is cross-party support for urgent action. The message that we are sending to the permanent government — the Civil Service — is that we now expect solutions to be brought forward. We have identified, along with the stakeholders, the parents and the people who use the service, the range of problems and complexities. We now expect solutions, and the Chair of the Committee has indicated that MLAs will keep a watchful eye on this.


4.30 pm

This is detailed and complex work. We are dealing with issues across the spectrum, from complex health needs to the provision of services in rural areas and everything in between. The advice that the experts gave us was helpful, as was the advice from service users. Among the stakeholders who came forward and identified problems, there was not always agreement on the solutions. The Committee took the issues in the round and tried to identify sensible and pragmatic solutions. I am hopeful that, when the many people who take a keen interest in the subject read the report, they will be content with the work that we have commenced and the recommendations we have called on the Department to bring forward.

I have written here "The majority of my remarks will focus", but I have already used four of my seven minutes, so it will not be the majority. I was mandated to speak about the requirement for coordination between Departments. The most common frustration that I heard through all our engagements was that, no matter what we were told, there is still a silo mentality between Departments and agencies. There is not one overarching Department or agency that takes responsibility and says, "We'll deal with that". Everybody says, "Not my problem" or "Transport is not a problem for me. Somebody else has to sort that out". That is where we need better coordination. We need people to work better together and to come up with solutions instead of finding reasons why something cannot be done. There needs to be a complete change of mindset as to how we get something done instead of saying why we cannot do it. That has been a frustrating aspect of the inquiry for the people who are heavily involved in campaigning and lobbying to get these changes.

Four recommendations fall within the parameters of "coordination". The big one, which is not really the one that you would expect, is that we fully support the development of local forums or hubs to bring together not only key stakeholders from the statutory and voluntary sectors but families and key employers in an area, who must also be involved in the process. There is no point in statutory and voluntary organisations talking to each other if they are not reflecting the views of the service users and the employers and the opportunities that exist in an area. We want to see the establishment of those forums and hubs to meet the needs of those people, to allow open conversations to take place and to allow people to feed back what is going right or wrong with the service provision.

I pay tribute to the staff who provide first-class services for people with special educational needs. Their ability to deliver is restricted by what would be called the "system". We owe them a debt of gratitude for having the patience to still work within that deeply flawed system. We owe it to them to change the system so that it meets the needs not only of the people who use it but of those who work in it.

There is no doubt that money is a problem. You could spend as much money as you could find on this area, and it would still not be sorted. However, that is not the only problem. A change in how we value and treat people with special educational needs is an issue across society. Those issues are well reflected and identified in the inquiry report.

It has been a very rewarding piece of work personally. I do not think that there are any votes in work of this nature, but I think that the effort that MLAs from the Committee have put into it has been hugely rewarding for us. I commend the report to the House.

Mr Newton: I also thank the Committee because, as we in the Education Committee were working through the special needs Bill, we were aware of the work being done by the Committee for Employment and Learning. Indeed, in many ways, there was a synergy between the two pieces of work, and there certainly was for the pupils who were reaching the time of transfer from the special needs school on to, hopefully, work or education or perhaps to some other facility.

I will start by saying that I learned of one major thing that, I think, is an impediment to the pupils in special needs schools achieving their full potential so that they can move on to education or training beyond school age. Members of the Committee had contact with Fleming Fulton School, Tor Bank School, which gave evidence to the Committee, and Glenveagh School, which met members of the Committee informally. One thing that each of them raised was that they are not in full control of the school budget. Unlike a mainstream school, a special needs schools is not allocated a full budget for the year so that it can make use of the budget in the way it professionally sees the needs of the school to be determined; indeed, it does not have control of the outplaying of that budget. I have not had a satisfactory answer from the Education Minister in the Chamber about that impediment. The Committee has taken the opportunity to write to the Minister about it. That is a matter that needs to be addressed so that, when people move on to training and further education, they are best prepared for it.

I only got the report a few minutes after it was launched, and the work that has gone into it is obvious. The report only becomes valuable if it results in action. We are where we are at this time and in this mandate, and it really is about what happens in the next mandate and under the next Minister. It behoves us as MLAs to make sure that specific action comes out of it.

I want to speak about recommendations 10, 11 and 12. They are important recommendations, but those three in particular do not stand alone and need to be coordinated. I speak as someone who has been supportive of a charitable organisation that does extremely valuable work in the area: the Orchardville Society. The Orchardville Society has recognised that, as budgets are reduced, it needs to take specific actions. It has taken actions along the lines of the formation of social economy businesses. Those social economy businesses, some of which have been going for a time, offer opportunities for full-time or part-time employment to those making the transition.

The Orchardville Society offers not only a job but, initially, the training by which skills can be acquired so that a student can make the transition into full-time or part-time employment.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. It is very coincidental that I have in my hand a pamphlet on what you are speaking about. I have been invited to a meeting tonight to hear what Orchardville has to offer, in conjunction with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Board, operating from Dundonald House. I am gratified to hear the Member singing the praises of Orchardville, because that is exactly what will help and encourage families like mine to get what is available.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Newton: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It has taken the opportunity to perform, in association with employers, statutory bodies and stand-alone business enterprises. I think that you will be surprised when you hear tonight what Orchardville actually does.

Unlike Anna Lo, I did not have an opportunity to have my hair cut by anyone from that background. In fact, I would not really be much of a challenge; they would not have to demonstrate much skill to cut my hair. I do, however, eat in Espresso East, which is a cafe run by the Orchardville Society, and I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and Mr McCarthy that the food there is second to none. So, opportunities are there to be grasped, but organisations need the support to provide them.

That brings me to recommendations 10, 11 and 12, which are where those opportunities need to be picked up. Minister, there is lots that you could do in a coordinating role. However, others have a coordinating role as well, especially when we think of the huge leverage that business organisations have. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Business, the Sector Skills Councils and, indeed, larger organisations can all, in a coordinated way, offer opportunities, along with DEL, to address these issues. The Minister does support industry and businesses, and these organisations are in receipt of financial aid.

One of the things that the House has been extremely keen to push forward is ensuring that any contracts awarded contain social clauses. Social clauses should also include those coming from a special needs background. By doing that, and by coordinating recommendations 10, 11 and 12, we can make a huge difference in the future to those suffering from special needs.

Ms Sugden: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to discuss the specific recommendations from the Committee's inquiry into post-special educational needs provision in Northern Ireland. Like others, I will begin by commending the work of my Committee colleagues and the Committee staff for the considerable work done on such an important inquiry. I specifically pay tribute to the Chair, Robin Swann. I think that he has led this particular inquiry with a lot of passion and genuineness, and it is clearly very important to him.

These young people often find themselves at a cliff edge when making decisions about the next steps of their life. We do have a net, but it is full of holes, and, unfortunately, too many people are slipping through, which is devastating for the young people and their families. I am personally quite interested in this issue. A woman, Clare, with learning disabilities — she will not mind me discussing her during this debate — works with me in my office, and one of the big concerns is what will happen to her if I do not get elected in May or if her mother passes away — she is an elderly lady, so that might happen — in the next five to 10 years.

A lot of such concerns have characterised this inquiry. People are concerned about what will happen to their kids or young people if and when they are no longer around. That all comes into this. So, I hope that the recommendations in the report will be seriously considered by the Department, moving forward into the new mandate. If the Minister takes away anything from this debate today, I hope that it is that he should, between now and May, use his influence to ensure the inclusion of these recommendations in the new Programme for Government.


4.45 pm

I will speak to recommendations 26 to 30, which emphasise the need for high-quality information. I do not really think we need to go into too much detail about why more information is important. Knowledge is power, and, in this case, it is empowering for these young people, who certainly need our help.

The need for more information spans three issues. First, we need better and more accessible information to ensure that individuals with learning disabilities and their parents and/or carers can make informed, correct choices for their life moving forward and to ensure that participation. After all, it is their life and they should play a part in it. Secondly, there is a need to track the progression of individuals post-education. Thirdly, there is a need for systematic data collection to assist the monitoring and evaluation of programmes and projects to ensure that needs are met through the transition process.

Collectively, recommendations 26 to 28 endorse the need to collect, collate and share data. When speaking to them during the inquiry, representatives of the sector felt that, without robust data collection in particular, it is impossible to illustrate what young people with learning disabilities do when they leave school or to identify any barriers they face in maybe going into further education or into finding employment or training programmes that could lead them into employment. I think that is important, and I stress that we need to share information and create a central knowledge platform so that parents and carers can access that for their children.

What also came out of the inquiry — this is important to note — is that, whilst it is acknowledged that there are social workers and transitional workers in place, there are not enough of them, and to get the best transitions for their young people, parents are having to do that work themselves. That is simply not good enough. Whilst we cannot provide full support through a social worker or transitional officer, we need to ensure that that information is available. It should not be disjointed and should be available in one central place.

Another revelation from the inquiry is that support seems to be inconsistent for young people whilst in education and then seems to be non-existent post-19. It is that cliff edge. Young people are getting lost, and, if anything, this is a group of people we need to support more than others.

Whilst parents are taking on that burden of statutory services that are too stretched to be provided by other agents, they are faced with the same hurdles that seem to characterise this government. That means that people are not able to pass on information to one another or collectively work together. It is the silo mentality that has been discussed by other Members. We are getting caught up in the red tape. In fact, the only people who are suffering from this are the young people.

Moving forward, one of the recommendations of the Committee is for all Departments to collect and share data on those with learning disabilities to better support individuals, plan services and decrease duplication. That duplication is happening across the board, and we are wasting resources when we could be putting them to better use.

Recommendations 27 and 28 almost follow on from that data collection in pulling things together. The Committee commissioned a piece of research from RaISe that mapped the services that are available across Northern Ireland. Recommendation 28 suggests that the Department should use that mapping model to provide a platform for parents and carers of young people with learning disabilities.

Recommendation 29 says that DEL should deliver a functional tracking system for young people leaving education. One of the big difficulties is that they fall off that cliff edge and then are lost. We do not know what is happening to them. Those in the sector, including Mencap in particular, told us that it is vital to collect that data, but, following on from that, we need to monitor and evaluate it so that we can ensure that DEL-funded or other Department-funded programmes address the need that we identified in the first instance. There is a lack of such a tracking system.

Finally, recommendation 30 suggests that transition planning should begin at 14 so that Departments such as DEL and Health can assess the numbers coming through and plan on a more long-term basis. That means that, when individuals get to that age, the right services are in place at the right time.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the report, which brings the Committee’s inquiry to a conclusion. I commend the Committee for this substantial piece of work, in which it has been engaged for the best part of the past two years. Through it, the Committee has listened to the views of many individuals and organisations and has collected and assessed the evidence provided. I wish to pass on my congratulations to the members and staff of the Committee for their endeavours. I also appreciated the opportunity afforded to my Department to brief the Committee and to attend stakeholder events during the very wide-ranging inquiry, which cut across a number of Departments.

The Committee will agree that these issues are very complex and affect some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. Parents are rightly focused on what is in the best interests of their children; they do not distinguish between which Department is responsible for what programme or which Minister is accountable for which service. Parents see their children as having particular needs and government as having a moral, as well as a formal, obligation to provide whatever support is necessary. Indeed, it is not only government but society in general that has an obligation to those young people. We should not underestimate the role that the community and voluntary sector plays in helping the statutory sector to deliver specialist programmes and services. Often, the community and voluntary sector is much better placed than either government or the statutory bodies to understand, support and generate meaningful progress in disadvantaged sections of our society.

Before I make some more detailed comments, I want to assure Members that I will ensure that my Department continues to work in partnership with others to deliver, where possible and with the resources available, the best service that we can to meet the needs of people with a learning disability or learning difficulties. In particular, I want to give Members the commitment that, before its meeting on 16 March, I will respond formally to the Committee with my Department's initial position on each of the report's recommendations. I am very conscious that we are coming to the end of the mandate, and I do not want to leave the issue hanging. Given that the Committee has put so much work into the report, I believe that it deserves, where applicable, a formal response to each of its recommendations from the Department as well as some indication of where we stand and the potential way forward on each of them. That is not an indication that we will accept all of them, as there may be issues that we want to highlight. However, it is important that we give a formal response and that there is a formal handover to my successor, who will have direct responsibility for employment and learning in the new Department for the Economy.

I also wish to say to the Committee and to all Members that, given the cross-cutting nature of the report, I propose to circulate the recommendations to my Executive colleagues and will ask that the Committee report be tabled at the next meeting of the Bamford subcommittee, where colleagues will have the opportunity to further discuss the recommendations. The report is cross-cutting and, whilst the Employment and Learning Committee has, quite rightly, spearheaded this inquiry and taken on the mantle on behalf of many others, there is a collective responsibility on all Departments to provide services for young people that are fit for purpose.

As regards the transition planning process, it is important that any decision on post-school provision should involve a number of statutory bodies in conjunction with parents and carers and the young people themselves. Leaving full-time education and the stability that it provides is a major step in any young person’s life. However, for these young people and their families, it is in many cases made all the more difficult as the young person, due to their disability, finds it difficult to cope with change.

My Department’s services are provided on a pan-disability approach. The key aim is to ensure that the needs of all people with special needs or disabilities are individually identified and addressed in the most effective way. I am committed to the development of a highly skilled, flexible and innovative workforce that will contribute towards social inclusion and economic success.

The Department's programmes and services aim to meet the needs of individual clients, with additional support, including extended eligibility criteria and additional funding, offered to people with significant barriers, such as a learning disability. A key aim is to ensure that people with special needs or disabilities are identified and, as appropriate, provided with personalised support. The Department's delivery of those services contributes to the overarching OFMDFM disability strategy.

My Department offers a wide range of services to students leaving special schools, from job searches to training programmes to more formal education. Care is taken across the board to ensure that services and facilities are open to people with disabilities, including special educational needs and learning disabilities, and can be easily accessed by them. The Department will always welcome the opportunity to make any improvements that are necessary.

The Committee's extensive report contains 44 recommendations in total, 32 of which fall to DEL solely or jointly with other Departments. From my perspective as Minister for Employment and Learning, I and my officials will want to give careful consideration to the report to establish whether there are areas in which my Department's services can be improved. With regard to my Department’s contribution to date, I hope that Members will indulge me for a few minutes as I outline a few improvements that I have taken forward over the past couple of years to help improve our offering.

There has been an increase of £1 million — to a total of £4·5 million — in the funding for students with learning disabilities through the further education additional support fund. That was in recognition of the importance of enabling access and providing support to students with learning disabilities to meet their goals in education, progression to employment or training or towards independent living. The ring-fenced funding for FE colleges enables them to provide the additional support required to allow students with learning disabilities to participate in mainstream FE provision or in discrete provision. Two and a half million pounds of that fund is used to provide additional technical and personal support, while £2 million is used to accommodate discrete provision in smaller class sizes.

Regarding social clauses, the Minister of Finance and Personnel agreed to my request to include an additional clause in public-sector contracts to:

"provide employment, training and skills development opportunities for people with a disability."

That, of course, includes those with learning disabilities.

In a spirit of collaboration, my Department chaired an interdepartmental group on transitions that resulted in a transitions action plan being drafted. In May 2015, my Executive colleagues agreed the action plan, which sets out a range of proposed actions across government that aims to deliver improved support for people post-19 with severe learning disabilities. The action plan was monitored for the first time in September 2015. It represents a baseline position for Departments and identifies scope for change. The action plan is very much a living, breathing document, and the potential is there for it to be reviewed on an ongoing basis.

I suggest that, as we present the findings of the Committee to the Bamford subcommittee of the Executive over the coming weeks or months — whenever the next meeting is scheduled — the action plan should provide the basis on which we can integrate the relevant recommendations and then have the ongoing monitoring of progress. In some respects, what has been happening behind closed doors in the Executive and in the process with the Committee may well readily come together in a revised and enlarged process. Given that this is an issue on which there is total unanimity on the importance of and need for improved services, I encourage Members and political parties across the House to make a commitment that we will seek to ensure that there is proper coordination and that we will use that vehicle as a means to take on board not just the Committee's recommendations but some of the existing practice in a much more holistic way.

In the time available, I also want to highlight the work of my Department's Disability Employment Service (DES) and the fact that we are moving ahead. Over the coming weeks, I hope to announce a new employment strategy for people with disabilities that has been developed in close consultation with key stakeholders from the disability sector. It aims to build on the success of existing disability employment services and will focus on the needs of those with significant disability-related barriers to work.

I also want to highlight some more recent developments in order to give a flavour of how the strategy will address several other key recommendations that are my ministerial responsibility. On the transition process after leaving school, the new disability employment strategy proposes much of what has been recommended in the report, but delivery will need input from other key players.


5.00 pm

My Department’s Careers Service offers support to young people beyond school, in particular to young people who are not in education, employment or training, with a new strategy launched today. The continuation of the transition process past the stage of leaving school has a clear potential to impact on resources, but it must remain a key priority.

The report also recommends that my Department make its programmes more transparent and applicable for those with learning disabilities, including those with complex and high support needs. I assure Members that the new strategy will take that into account. There will also be a disability stakeholder forum, with a proposal that user group hubs will have a two-way link to the group. The forum will also have members who have disabilities, including learning disability.

The Committee's report rightly flags up the need for more robust data collection and information-sharing systems to enable the tracking of young people, including those with learning disabilities. My Department has been exploring this area of work for some time, and we continue to advocate the use of the unique learner number to facilitate tracking the destinations of young people.

Work experience and job placements are important aspects of increasing skills and building confidence, and the strategy will also help to facilitate engagement with local businesses in encouraging them to consider the benefits of taking on young people with learning disabilities. In addition, the Careers Service will play a critical role in that work experience, including new portals and websites to ensure that we have proper visibility and equality of access.

I know only too well, from my engagement with young people with learning disabilities, their families and through representations that I have received from elected representatives, that this is an increasingly important matter for them and requires a concerted cross-departmental effort if we are to deliver better-quality services. I very much welcome the report, and, as I said, I give a commitment that I will formally respond to the Committee before the end of the mandate, so that members can at least see, on an interim basis, how government envisages taking forward the recommendations from a very detailed report and an extremely worthwhile exercise.

Mr Buchanan: I pay tribute to the Chair of the Committee, as Members have done throughout the debate, for the way in which he led the Committee through the entire process. I also thank the Committee Clerk and the staff for the enormous amount of work that they put into bringing the report together.

In taking on the inquiry, the Committee acknowledged that there were huge problems for individuals with learning difficulties and their families when they leave full-time education, where they have had long-term support. They then find that they have very little help and few options on where to go and what to do next. It was recognised that help is available until the age of 19, but it then drops off in many instances, leaving those vulnerable young people with no option or outlook for the future and having to remain at home with elderly parents and relatives.

In addressing those issues, this inquiry and report represent one of the best pieces of work that has been done during the term of this Assembly. It has not only shone a light on where the difficulties lie but brings forward 44 recommendations to help to address problems that have been ongoing for many years. I believe that, when the recommendations are implemented by the relevant Departments in the new mandate, they will make a significant difference to the lives of those who need it most.

Committee members focused their remarks on various aspects of the report and recommendations. Before I turn to their remarks, I will focus for a few moments on the legislation issues and the report's recommendations. From the outset of the inquiry, the Committee agreed that it would not shy away from bringing forward legislation, should that be deemed necessary, to improve post-school provision for those with learning disabilities. The Committee looked at the legislation in England and Wales and considered a range of evidence on possible legislative options, as well as commissioning research papers from the Assembly's Research and Information Service.

The two main recommendations submitted to the inquiry, which the Committee considered, were to extend the age limit for state support from 19 to 25 and to create a commissioner or champion for learning disabilities.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way, just for a second. Does he agree with me that this is a fantastic report, particularly for youngsters with learning disabilities? Hopefully, as the Minister says, if it is acted upon, it will make such a difference to the community that we all represent. Does the Member agree that if Stephen Nolan, Mark Carruthers or Conor Bradford got ahold of this, they should advertise it and let the public know that this place has produced a fantastic report on behalf of people with learning disabilities?

Mr Buchanan: I think the Member makes a good point, but you can be sure of one thing: that is not the type of news that those people want. They want to point to something that is much more negative than this to say that we, up here, do not really do anything that is of benefit to the people.

In the evidence that the Committee received, some pointed to the fact that those with learning disabilities do not have the same opportunities at 19 years as others and said that Northern Ireland should adapt to support people with learning disabilities until they are 25 years. Others felt that consideration should be given to the potential for a college for 19- to 25-year-olds with learning disabilities, which would provide greater opportunities for them to develop their lifelong skills. At a joint briefing, Department of Education officials pointed out that a proposed increase in statementing to age 25 was such a fundamental change that it would be difficult to stand over and assess. They did not think that it was the right way to go.

The Assembly research service provided evidence of the benefits to be gained from piloting initiatives, such as internship programmes, as well as the independence to be gained from FE programmes, as this can have important social benefits for people with learning disabilities, allowing them to develop and carry on their friendships. The National Audit Office identified the savings made to the public purse in the long term when investing in support for young people with learning disabilities in the short term. It appears to be a prudent use of limited resources, especially in the context of ongoing financial constraints and challenging spending decisions for the future.

The Committee recommended that DEL undertake an assessment of the English legislative model and consider its applicability to the Northern Ireland setting. It recommended that the Department of Education and DEL should assess the potential long-term savings made by investing in support for young people with learning disabilities.

One view received in the Committee's evidence was that a commissioner for people with learning disabilities should be established. Throughout the evidence-gathering and many visits to schools and post-school provision, the Committee was left in no doubt about the work that goes on daily on behalf of individuals with learning disabilities. There was no escaping the fact that many parents are fighting a battle a day to get what should, by right, be provided for them. Many feel that they have to struggle, on a daily basis, for rights that are freely available to everyone else but not to them. Again, the Committee's recommendation is that DEL, DHSSPS and OFMDFM should ensure that advocacy services for those with learning disabilities are adequately resourced to ensure that there is a strong vocal presence, engaging with and challenging government on a case-by-case basis and at policy level, to ensure equal rights and access to the services.

Another issue highlighted was the problem found by people with learning difficulties that, when it came to employment, employers shied away from employing these individuals. DEL highlighted that it had established a dedicated social clause team to engage with successful employers and ensure that there was a single point of contact supporting employers to access the supply chain. The Committee's recommendation was that DEL should lead the way in introducing work experience and employment opportunities into a social clause structure, with a view to such practices being rolled out right across all the Departments.

I turn to what Committee members brought forward in the report. It is a very detailed and lengthy report, and it is very good.

My colleague Mr Hilditch raised the issue of parents having to negotiate the benefits system when trying to help their loved ones and friends and find training opportunities that do not see them losing their benefits. That is one of the big issues. Because of the way the system works, people can lose out on their benefits if they seek to help someone else with a learning disability.

Ms McGahan highlighted the problem of transport provision for those with learning disabilities. She used the example of the Dungannon area and said that she knew, from her experience, of the transport issues facing those in rural areas. If you come from a rural area, you know exactly the problems and difficulties in the coordination of transport services in those areas. We see so many different transport provisions, yet and all they are not utilised to their full potential. A lot of work needs to be done to address those issues.

Ms McGahan also mentioned the transition process for pupils leaving Sperrinview Special School and the frustrating experience that leaves young people with little choice for continued education. That frustration came across when we made our visits and spoke to people during the inquiry.

Mr Gerard Diver talked about the need to ensure good work experience and spoke of the barriers that employers face when offering places to young people with learning disabilities. He noted that this applied to employment opportunities as well, and he noted the Committee's recommendations that more could be done to support employers in taking on individuals with a learning disability. The Departments need to look at how we can better support employers in taking on those with learning disabilities, what incentives we can offer them and how we can help them to do that. If we are serious about the report and its recommendations, that area needs to be developed.

My colleague, the Chair of the Education Committee, Mr Peter Weir, highlighted the recommendations relating to the Department of Education, especially with regard to better cross-departmental working. He supported the recommendations on the transition process.

Anna Lo was impressed by Springvale training centre and its post-18 transition programme. She thought that recommendation 5 was very important and said that, from the evidence, there must be person-centred approach, which she said was very important for the future education of those young adults. Of course, a person-centred approach is the way forward for people with a learning disability. For people who need help and support, it is a person-centred approach that will take them forward and give them the confidence that they need to move into employment and into supported living. Ms Lo also said that there was lots of good practice in Northern Ireland but we must ensure that more is done. That is absolutely correct: more work needs to be carried out in these areas.

Mr McCann talked of the dedication of the staff who work with young people with learning disabilities and highlighted the Committee's recommendations around the issues of better planned progression to ensure that the young people continue to learn and develop after leaving school. Again, a good point that was raised is that more work must be done in the area.

My colleague Mr Anderson noted the cross-cutting nature of the report, across not just Departments but their agencies and other sectors. He talked of the need to widen the definition of education provision to include physical activity, the need for better awareness-raising to support people with learning disabilities in community locations and the better use of community facilities. He highlighted the use of the social farm, which, of course, the Committee visited. Unfortunately, I did not get there that day, but I talked to the folk here about it later. The social farm development and the work that it does for young people with learning disabilities is worth seeing. It is worth seeing exactly what that provides.


5.15 pm

Mr Flanagan spoke about coordination and the difficulties some individuals have in finding someone in government who takes responsibility. He highlighted a problem there. My party colleague Mr Newton spoke of the vital role of the social enterprises in supporting people into work. He highlighted the work of the Orchard Vale Trust. He also spoke of the need to use social clauses to open up many more opportunities.

Ms Sugden spoke about better information gathering to ensure that young people are represented, know what services are available and, more importantly, know what is right for them. She also highlighted the mapping exercise carried out by Assembly research and said that it was a model that could be used by the Departments.

As I said at the outset, I believe this is one of the best reports that has been brought forward. As one Member mentioned, perhaps Mr Nolan and other people in the media will pick it up, look at it and bring it forward. Of course, not forgetting the Minister, we are glad that we have his support. He said that, by 16 March, he is going to bring a report back to the Committee and respond to the recommendations. We look forward to that. We assure you, Minister, that you have our support all the way on this issue. We hope that, in the next Assembly, whoever is in ministerial positions will pick the report up, take it forward and implement it in full. We will then begin to see on the ground the difference this place makes for the people who really matter to us in Stormont.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Employment and Learning on the inquiry into post special educational need (SEN) provision in education, employment and training for those with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland [NIA 306/11-16]; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to liaise with his relevant Executive colleagues to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

Adjourned at 5.17 pm.

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