Official Report: Tuesday 04 October 2016


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

Ministerial Statements

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): With your permission, Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the twenty-second meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in environment sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on Wednesday 14 September 2016. The statement has been agreed with Minister Hazzard. Chris Hazzard MLA, the Minister for Infrastructure, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Denis Naughten TD, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, who chaired the meeting.

Ministers had an initial discussion on the implications of the UK EU referendum result. They welcomed the continuing cooperation on the main sources of EU funding in the environment sector: Horizon 2020, INTERREG V and LIFE. Cooperation includes joint meetings of Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland contact points, joint training and information events in both jurisdictions and reciprocal access to partner search databases.

The Council noted that cross-border roadshow events had taken place in April and May 2016 on Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges 2 and 5. An information day for Horizon 2020 Societal Challenge 5 will be hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 7 October 2016.

The Council also noted that cooperation between both jurisdictions continues on preparations for a package of joint projects with a value in excess of €70 million, covering the terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments with the INTERREG Va programme. Ministers noted that the call for proposals under LIFE 2016 opened on 19 May 2016 and recently closed in September 2016. It was expected that a small number of proposals containing projects in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be submitted.

The Council noted that the work programme will be kept under review at future NSMC environment meetings, having particular regard to matters arising from the outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership.

Ministers agreed that, within the work programme, consideration should be given to cooperation on water and sewerage services, as well as to the opportunities for cooperation on wider environmental issues. Ministers also agreed that the proposed updated work programme will be considered at a future NSMC plenary meeting.

The Council noted that, since the introduction in both jurisdictions of a new fuel marker in April 2015, there has been a decline in reported fly-tipping incidents involving waste from fuel laundering. The Council also noted the number and cost of diesel-laundering waste clean-up operations undertaken by the relevant authorities in border counties. Ministers agreed that officials should continue to work jointly with all the relevant agencies to tackle the scourge of fuel laundering and its links to organised crime.

The Council noted that the agreed repatriation programme for 2015-16 has been completed with the removal and repatriation of waste from two illegal waste landfill sites. Site works on the first site, at Altnamackan, were completed in November 2015, and work at the second site, at Mayobridge, was completed in March 2016. Ministers noted that discussions are under way between officials from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (DCCAE) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), with a view to agreeing a work programme to complete the remaining repatriation sites.

Ministers reaffirmed the continuing need to work together and target resources at joint enforcement action against those involved in illegal waste activity. That includes the continued exchange of intelligence and information on problem areas and coordinated joint inspections.

The Council noted that pay by weight for household waste collections has been introduced in the Republic of Ireland. The publication of the three regional waste management plans in the Republic of Ireland was also noted. Transboundary consultation was undertaken with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in the context of the strategic environmental assessment process associated with the development of the plans.

The Council noted the continued investment in recycling in Northern Ireland and the latest recycling rate. That has been accompanied by the introduction in Northern Ireland of legislative measures to reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfill, as well as the introduction of further legislation to discourage criminality in the waste industry.

The Council noted that the DCCAE-commissioned study on the export of waste from the Republic of Ireland was published in November 2015 and that the consultation period closed on 14 March 2016.

Ministers noted developments in the establishment of a producer responsibility initiative (PRI) for tyres in the Republic of Ireland and that DAERA officials continue to attend tyres working group meetings.

The Council noted that, in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency offered funding of over €8 million to a total of 43 projects across a broad spectrum, including climate, water, sustainability and green enterprise, and that its 2016 research call was announced in May 2016.

Ministers noted that the report of the NSMC-commissioned all-island air-quality research study has been finalised and presented to relevant Ministers and is available through the DAERA and DCCAE websites.

The Council noted that a report on phase 1 of the all-island joint research programme into unconventional gas exploration and extraction — fracking — is expected in the latter part of 2016.

The Council noted the establishment across both jurisdictions of a collaborative evidence programme known as ShARE. So far, a programme of research has been developed, and 10 projects are ongoing. New project calls in priority areas are likely to commence later this year.

I turn now to water quality. Ministers welcomed the establishment of the new Local Authority Waters and Communities Office in the Republic of Ireland. Ministers noted that the public consultation on significant water management issues closed in the Republic of Ireland on 18 December 2015 and that the final second cycle of river basin management plans for Northern Ireland was published on 22 December 2015.

Ministers acknowledged the cross-border cooperation on the development of river trusts, including promotion, awareness and community engagement in the cross-border River Blackwater Catchment Trust.

Ministers recognised the continued coordination on the Clean Coasts and Coast Care schemes and welcomed the level of beach awards in both jurisdictions for 2016. The Council noted the continued engagement between the Department for Infrastructure, DCCAE, Irish Water and Northern Ireland Water on exploring opportunities for cooperation, including on applications to access EU INTERREG V funds. Finally, the Council agreed to hold the next environment meeting in spring 2017.

Mr McKee: I thank the Minister for her statement. Can she detail whether the announcement of a nationwide ban on burning smoky coal in the Republic of Ireland, and the desire of some officials and organisations to extend this to Northern Ireland, was discussed? If so, I hope that she did not overlook the likely impact that such a ban would have on the numbers of rural households in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. While we had that discussion, it is not my intention to bring a similar ban into Northern Ireland.

Ms Dillon (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for her statement. I note in paragraph 3 that the Ministers had an initial discussion on the implications of the EU referendum result. Can the Minister elaborate on the implications discussed, in particular the impact of the result on future cooperation on joint projects that depend on EU funding?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Chair for her question. Yes, we did discuss Brexit. At the meeting, I outlined what the immediate implications were for Northern Ireland. I highlighted that, in the meantime, existing environmental legislation in Northern Ireland will continue to apply as before, as will our current environmental policy and operational practice. I also committed that my officials would continue to cooperate and collaborate with the Republic of Ireland both before and after the UK withdrawal.

As the Chair will be aware, the Treasury has said that it will guarantee funding after we leave the EU for projects that rely on EU funds if they secure multi-year EU funding before the exit date, which will probably be in March 2019. However, projects going forward under INTERREG Va, for example, are cross-border in nature and require contributions from the Republic of Ireland. The issue for us is that the Republic of Ireland has been unable to obtain guarantees of EU funding from the European Commission; the funding position is, therefore, unclear. We are continuing to work with them in order to obtain clarity, but the UK position is clear.

The environment element of INTERREG Va is €84 million for 2014-2020, €12 million of which is match-funding provided by the two Governments, and €72 million of which is provided by the EU on a roughly 70%/30% split between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is that 30%, which is just over €20 million, that the Republic of Ireland cannot guarantee. Nine projects are in the process of applying for INTERREG Va funding, including the large shared waters enhancement and loughs legacy (SWELL) project, which is worth over €30 million and which will upgrade, or build, wastewater treatment works in the Foyle and Carlingford catchments. That is where we are with regard to EU funding.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I ask Members who wish to have a meeting in the Chamber to continue that meeting outside so that the Minister can be heard across the Chamber.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her statement. The legal disposal and dumping of waste is a major problem that causes much damage to our environment. Minister, did you have any discussions with Minister Naughten regarding the removal and repatriation of waste that originated in the Republic of Ireland?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. You will be aware of the commitment in the road map agreement with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland to undertake the repatriation of waste from illegal landfills. In total, 17 sites were identified, with an estimated total of 273,000 tons of waste to be removed. A total of 12 sites have been completed since repatriation began in 2010, and this means that a total of 93,000 tons of waste has been repatriated. However, the five remaining sites are the most significant. As you will understand, this action was initiated after threats from the EU about infractions, so it is important that this waste is repatriated. I would like the repatriation of the waste at the remaining five sites to be completed without unnecessary delay. There are issues due to financial constraints and with the Irish Republic's capacity to use its land for the waste. I have been pushing very hard to get this programme completed.


10.45 am

The Member might also be aware that a further four sites were identified earlier this year: two at Galbally, one at Ballygawley and another at Sandholes. Although they were not part of the original plan, they have been identified as containing waste from the Irish Republic, and we need to continue the conversations with them on the repatriation of that waste.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for her response to date. Regarding water quality, the statement says that the Council noted the continuing engagement between the respective Departments and their agencies on collaboration to access EU INTERREG funding. Can the Minister give any indication as to how fruitful that collaboration and cooperation has been to date by way of practical projects that have been funded?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Collaboration is important as we continue in our quest for good water quality across Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. You will be aware of the river basin management plans that have been developed. They have been useful, particularly in areas such as the Shannon area where there are shared waters. We have also been working with our colleagues in the North/South working group on water quality. It meets twice a year and other technical meetings take place. I understand that officials enjoy an excellent working relationship and discuss a number of issues pertinent to water quality. You will also be aware of the beach awards and the work that goes on across both jurisdictions on that and with good outcomes.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her statement. She will realise that the concentration on reducing the environmental impact of fuel laundering is particularly welcome to me, given the double-sided interest that I have. Can she give us any information on the involvement of the two environment agencies with the cross-border task force on organised crime?

I also note a significant number of references to Horizon 2020 and INTERREG. Is the Minister aware of information that I have received that there is a significant reluctance elsewhere in Europe for bodies to enter into consortia with UK bodies in the wake of the referendum vote? Has she any ideas as to how we will be able to continue to participate in those bodies?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his questions. I appreciate his previous role and, particularly, the work on fuel laundering. As he will know, HMRC has led on these matters given that it is financially driven crime. My officials have been working well and play a valuable supporting role, along with colleagues in the PSNI, when it comes to determining who has responsibility for dumping waste and pursuing them through the courts accordingly. My officers have also been directly involved in clean-ups of the waste left behind. That is costly and time-consuming. Between June 2012 and April 2016, the NIEA cleared more than 3,141 tons of fly-tipped, fuel-laundered waste from 423 incidents, with the overwhelming majority of the clean-up operations taking place in the border counties of Armagh and Down.

That, in itself, is not insignificant. Between May 2013 and June 2015, the NIEA has overseen five convictions for the illegal depositing of fuel-laundered waste, prosecutions that have secured £25,000 in fines. A further two cases involving fuel-laundered waste are in the courts system.

The Member also raised INTERREG and a reluctance to get involved in consortia. I have heard very little about that; only rumours. I am keen to pursue that to see whether there is any truth to it and what we can do to assist. There are obviously partnerships in which non-EU countries are significant partners in consortia. I do not see why the United Kingdom cannot be part of those as we move on.

Ms Archibald: I thank the Minister for her statement and responses so far. Paragraph 23 of the statement references the all-island air quality report. Will the Minister elaborate on what actions she intends to take based on its findings?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I am obviously still considering the report's recommendations, and if there are any that I feel are worth taking forward, I will consult with Executive colleagues, Committee members and stakeholders. The report makes a number of recommendations, including further expanding our smoke control areas in Northern Ireland; that this expansion takes place alongside policies on energy efficiency; fiscal measures to promote the uptake of low-emission fuels; publishing information and raising awareness of the issue; and, where possible, ensuring that fuel poverty does not arise as an unintended consequence of that policymaking process. As I said, we have received the report and I will consider it.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, I want to go back to fuel laundering. You referred to the volume of waste that was removed. Paragraph 13 of your statement also refers to the cost that was incurred in removing that waste. Will you update the House on how much has been paid to remove fuel-laundering waste?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I do not have that information to hand but am happy to get it to him.

Mr McMullan: Minister, earlier you mentioned two sites of repatriated waste. You said that there were four remaining sites and that there are another five. I am a little bit confused. How many sites are there? Is it nine, five or four? Will you list where they all are?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. There were originally 17 sites. Twelve have been completed, so there are currently five remaining that sit within the road map agreement. An additional four sites were identified earlier this year: two at Galbally, one at Ballygawley and one at Sandholes. The five remaining sites that are still to be cleared as result of the road map agreement are two at Newtownhamilton, one at Cookstown, one at Crumlin and one at Portglenone.

Mr Attwood: I refer the Minister to paragraphs 4 to 8 of her statement, which deal with the INTERREG, LIFE and Horizon 2020 programmes and EU funding. Will the Minister indicate, hopefully by answering yes or no, whether she endorses today's proposal from the Irish Government — it has been endorsed previously by others — that, when it comes to Brexit negotiations, to safeguard the interests of people in Northern Ireland, including their access to all those funds, there should be a legally binding agreement about the special status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit? That would — [Inaudible.]

Mr Attwood: I note what Mr Allister just said. That would guarantee special status and, potentially, special funding for Northern Ireland. We would be out of the European Union but would have a legally binding special status in respect of it.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. We will need to look at all those things as we go through the negotiations on the exit programme. In the meantime, that is not something that I will commit to today.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Minister for her statement and responses. I refer her to paragraph 24. Were there any discussions of an all-island moratorium on fracking, given the very real concerns in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone about the potential damage to tourism, agriculture and the environment?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As she will understand, a piece of research, the unconventional gas exploration and extraction report, has been carried out. This was to give us an evidence base on the issues, specifically in relation to the unique environment in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The report will not be subject to public consultation, but the Department will see it later this year and will be able to take information from it. There was no further discussion of fracking at the meeting.

Mr Allister: There are now nine waste sites awaiting repatriation, five of them known about for quite a long time, yet if I understand the Minister correctly, there is no agreed work programme to deal either with those five or the four new ones. Why is that? Is the Republic of Ireland dragging its feet because of the cost involved?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I find it unacceptable that it has been going on for so long since they were identified. I pressed the matter at the meeting and expressed my disappointment at the pace of progress on the programme. I would like to see this resolved without unnecessary delay. I understand that the issues are in relation to cost and a lack of capacity for land waste in the Irish Republic. Those two things combined are not helpful, but we have certainly been pushing to get a resolution as quickly as possible.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for her statement. With regard to EU funding, can she provide an update on the Horizon 2020 projects?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question on EU funding and, in particular, Horizon 2020. We are continuing to discuss this work with Ministers in the South. As I explained to the Chair, there is an issue with funding coming forward for the INTERREG side of things. However, we are working together to progress Horizon 2020 projects.

Mr E McCann: Is the Minister aware of large amounts of illegally dumped waste in the Derry area being carried by the truckload, in broad daylight, across the border and dumped — again illegally, apparently — in County Donegal, even as, so I understand from her statement, significant amounts of waste are being carried in the opposite direction? Is that not a bizarre situation that demands immediate attention?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, any illegal dumping needs to be cracked down and addressed with urgency. I am happy to discuss that issue with the Member.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.


11.00 am

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

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act regarding the twenty-ninth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in aquaculture and marine sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on Wednesday 14 September 2016.

The Executive were represented by Minister Chris Hazzard and me. The Irish Government were represented by Denis Naughten, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and Seán Kyne, the Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources. I chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister Hazzard, and I am making it on behalf of both of us.

Ministers noted that the Loughs Agency had undertaken an initial scoping exercise to consider the impact of the result of the UK referendum to leave the EU. We noted that the process of exiting the EU is still at an early stage and agreed to review developments at future NSMC meetings in the aquaculture and marine sector. Ministers were encouraged to hear that it is very much business as usual for the Loughs Agency.

The Council welcomed a presentation from the Loughs Agency that outlined its work programme and key objectives. It also received a report on the agency's activities, including its ongoing conservation and protection efforts and participation on the North/South fisheries liaison group.

In particular, Ministers noted the agency's nominations for tourism and visitor attraction awards; the progress made on the draft corporate plan 2017-19 and the draft business plan for 2017; the outcome of the internal audit; the update on the survival of the native Lough Foyle flat oyster; and the loss of the agency's survey vessel, the MMV Ostrea.

Ministers welcomed the Loughs Agency's role in facilitating discussions with interested parties and undertaking a feasibility study that led to the resumption of the Foyle ferry service from July 2016.

The Loughs Agency reported on its activities to promote and market the Foyle and Carlingford areas. In particular, the Council noted the angling development initiatives. Ministers also welcomed the marine tourism initiatives, including the Foyle Maritime Festival and the official opening of the Ark at Benone strand. We also noted the agency's education and outreach activities, including the maritime ambassador programme and the Foyle ambassador project.

Ministers considered a paper on the various external funding opportunities that the Loughs Agency is exploring. We noted the Loughs Agency's success to date in securing external funding. The agency's plans to avail itself of future funding initiatives, including the European social fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, INTERREG V and the rural development programme, for the benefit of the Foyle and Carlingford areas were also discussed.

The Council noted the Loughs Agency's annual report and draft financial statements for 2015. Following certification of the financial statements by the Comptrollers and Auditors General, these will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament.

Ministers considered and approved the Carlingford Area (Definition of the Mouth of the Clanrye River) Regulations 2016 and authorised the joint secretaries to the North/South Ministerial Council to signify approval on its behalf.

Finally, the Council paid tribute to the outgoing chairman of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, Mr Winston Patterson, whose second term of office comes to an end shortly.

The Council agreed to hold its next aquaculture and marine sector meeting in spring 2017.

Mr McKee: I thank the Minister for her statement. She explained that the Loughs Agency had undertaken a scoping exercise to consider the impact of Brexit. Will she provide further detail on what was established by that exercise?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The chief executive of the Loughs Agency outlined his initial views on the likely impact of Brexit on the agency's operations. The Loughs Agency, in conjunction with my Department and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, has undertaken an initial scoping exercise to consider the impact of the result of the UK leaving the EU. We were advised by the agency that its approach to Brexit is, as the statement said, very much "business as usual", particularly as formal negotiations have not yet started. EU funding will be a challenge for the Loughs Agency. It has indicated that there will, undoubtedly, be challenges ahead, but it believes that they will not be insurmountable.

Ms Dillon (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for her statement and answers so far. I will follow on from the question asked by Mr McKee: can the Minister provide further detail on the scoping exercise and tell us when it might be made available to the Committee?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Chair for her question. I understand that the Committee anticipates a number of papers from us, and certainly an update on the scoping exercise. As she will understand, it is still really very early days for any work that we are doing. I will be more than happy to share that when I have sight of it, and I will do that as soon as possible.

Mr Poots: Netting is a significant problem when it comes to maintaining our fish stocks in rivers. Are there still netting issues on the loughs? What action is being taken in that respect? I trust that the Queen of Ulster will do a very good job of monitoring illegal activities there.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The Loughs Agency has seen an increase in poaching and other illegal activity in 2016, which is unfortunate. Seizures by agency staff have risen compared with 2015. In 2015, there were 125 seizures of items such as boats, nets, rods and fish, compared with 197 in 2016, and that is only to date. It is a significant increase.

We want to move forward with prosecutions, and, to date in 2016, the Loughs Agency has taken 47 court cases: 30 relating to angling offences, eight to netting offences, seven to pollution offences and two to other types of offence. Three of those cases have successfully gone through the court system. The figure of 47 represents a rise compared with 2015, when a total of 35 prosecution cases was taken. It is unfortunate that we are in this situation, but staff are doing what they can to bring to justice those who are causing issues, particularly in areas that they have jurisdiction over.

Mr McGlone: Paragraph 12 of the statement refers to:

"The Agency's plans to avail of future funding initiatives".

I see that three of the four initiatives emanate from the European Union. Will the Minister advise what actions the Department has taken to source other measures that could be put in place to compensate for the loss of those three initiatives and how such measures would be funded?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, we noted that, and the Loughs Agency is looking for alternative means of funding. However, given the comments made by Mr Ford in response to my previous statement, the agency will be looking along the lines of being involved in consortia. As we move through the process, we will look at that and at what additional funding is required.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for this second statement. She will be pleased, I think, that following the valiant efforts of Mr McKee, Mr McGlone and Mr Attwood, I will not continue on the issue of European funding. Her statement mentions the reinstatement of the Foyle ferry service. For those of us who come from County Antrim, the Derry bypass — from Magilligan to Greencastle — is an attractive way of accessing Inishowen. Can she give us any understanding of the likelihood of being able to maintain a service on that route in the long term?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He is aware that the service has been offered for an initial three-year period, which commenced in July. Proposals include an option to extend the contract for up to another four years, and discussions on that will continue.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for her statement. Will she comment on the resources available to the Loughs Agency and whether she believes there are opportunities for the organisation to raise additional revenue?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I will reiterate the comments I made in my answer to Mr McGlone's question. Obviously, a number of funding streams have been explored by the Loughs Agency regarding European funding and they have been successful to date. In excess of €15 million has been secured with partner organisations; that is not insignificant.

The Member may be aware that I recently visited the Loughs Agency and had the opportunity to look around its visitor centre and aquarium, Riverwatch. I believe that it is an incredible and invaluable educational resource that, to date, has been available for free. The activities on offer encourage learners and visitors to learn, explore and engage but it requires some investment. Given my long interest in the Exploris aquarium in my constituency, I believe that the Loughs Agency can learn valuable lessons from how Exploris currently operates and from the lessons it learned from the past. Again, that is a vital resource for those in the area as regards education and learning. Ministers have asked the agency to look at how Exploris operates, including how it charges for the services it provides. I understand that arrangements have now been made with the Loughs Agency to meet Ards and North Down Borough Council to discuss these matters further.

Ms Archibald: With regard to paragraph 11and the Loughs Agency's successes to date in securing external funding, will the Minister outline some of those successes and whether they have all been EU-based funding streams?

Miss McIlveen: As I indicated, the agency has been successful to date in gaining in excess of €15 million working with partner organisations. The most significant of these are €4 million for marine tourism and angling development and €8 million for the integrated resource management programme across the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. As I said in my statement, the agency plans to avail itself of future funding initiatives, including the European social fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, INTERREG V and the rural development programme. This is all for the benefit of the Foyle and the Carlingford area. The agency is hopeful, given the Chancellor's recent announcements with regard to EU funding that has been successful, that these funding commitments will be honoured.

Mr Swann: Minister, in an earlier answer to a Member you mentioned the success rate of the Loughs Agency in tackling poachers and removing nets. How is the work progressing in your Department to extend the Loughs Agency's remit into other waterways? There used to be a conflict of interest between the old DCAL fisheries division and the Loughs Agency in certain parts of waterways. Will you give an update as to how that is progressing?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, we were on the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee at that particular time. If there are any issues, I am keen that they are resolved. However, I understand that the Loughs Agency is stretched as it is with the remit it has. If there are opportunities to share work and experience, we will certainly encourage that.

Mr McMullan: Were there any talks at your meeting regarding the territorial powers of the Loughs Agency, with regard to the British Government and Irish Government giving it powers to license aquaculture on the Lough? This has been going on for a while and I have listened attentively this morning about environmental projects that actually cannot go ahead unless the power is given to Loughs Agency to license aquaculture on the Lough.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As he indicated, this is a historical issue, and, because it is a jurisdictional issue and is primarily regarding Lough Foyle, it is a reserved matter.


11.15 am

I am reassured that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been engaging with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and that steady progress is being made in an attempt to find a compromise on the jurisdictional issue. Like the Member, I am frustrated at the lack of progress and the impact that it is having on the licensing of aquaculture activities on the River Foyle. I reiterated my frustration at the meeting, and I welcome the fact, as did Minister Naughten, that steady progress is being made, but we are looking for a speedy resolution.

Mr Attwood: Would the Minister agree to table a report in the Assembly Library outlining what the Department is doing, in a dedicated way, about the aquaculture and marine sector and the environment sector on the issues that are likely to arise from Brexit, and what remedies the Department is looking at for those matters?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. We are still working through those issues, so I am not in a position to table any report, but when we have the findings, we will speak to the Committee in the first instance and go from there.

Mr M Bradley: Minister, fishing is very important to the Northern Ireland economy. Have there been any discussions over the summer months regarding pollution, and can the Loughs Agency help in any way to alleviate pollution?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. At the meeting, we had a report from the Loughs Agency on pollution incidents in their area of jurisdiction, and pollution is, unfortunately, on the rise: a total of 100 incidents were dealt with in 2015, compared with a total of 150 to date in 2016. The Loughs Agency was directly involved in dealing with a recent major pollution incident that killed in excess of 1,000 fish in the River Faughan.

Reducing pollution is one of my ministerial priorities. I believe that the Loughs Agency has a responsibility to work closely with farmers here and in the Irish Republic to reduce pollution, and the inevitable fish kills that follow, in the catchment areas. Ministers have asked the agency to work with the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Irish Farmers' Association with a view to preventing pollution incidents by raising awareness of the issue among farmers and educating them through early intervention. As a consequence, the number of fish kills will hopefully reduce. I am pleased to say that the Loughs Agency has already made contact with both farming unions, and a meeting is expected in the very near future.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Thank you, Minister. That concludes questions on the statement.

Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): We now move to the next item of business. As the next four motions relate to amendments to Standing Orders, I propose to conduct the debate as follows: to group the four motions as detailed on the Order Paper and conduct a single debate. I will ask the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures to move the first motion. The debate will then take place on all four motions in the group.

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech; all other Members will have five minutes. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the question on the first motion relating to Standing Order 3. I will then ask the Chairperson to move formally the motions relating to Standing Order 23(3); Standing Order 30; and new Standing Orders 100 to 109. I will put the question on each of these motions without further debate. I remind the House that cross-community support will be required for each. If that is clear, I shall proceed.

Leave out Standing Order 3 and insert

"(1) At the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, members having met at the place and time appointed for that meeting -

(a) the Clerk shall read the notice sent under Standing Order 2(2) convening the meeting; and

(b) the outgoing Speaker shall take the chair.

(2) If, for any reason, the outgoing Speaker cannot take the chair, it shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting.

(3) Members shall then take their seats in accordance with paragraph (7)

(4) All members shall have the opportunity to take their seats before any other formal business is conducted in the Assembly.

(5) A member shall not participate in Assembly proceedings or have title to the privileges of office until the member has taken his or her seat.

(6) The decision of the Speaker or Acting Speaker as to whether a member has taken his or her seat shall be final.

(7) A member shall take his or her seat by -

(a) giving the undertaking set out in section 40A(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and

(b) after the member has given that undertaking, by signing the Roll of Membership.

(8) A member shall give the undertaking by signing a document provided for that purpose.

(9) At the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, the document referred to in paragraph (8) and the Roll of Membership shall be located in the Chamber.

(10) Where a member does not take his or her seat at the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, he or she may do so thereafter by arrangement with the Speaker and in accordance with paragraph (7).

(11) After signing the Roll a member may enter in the Roll a designation of identity, being "Nationalist", "Unionist" or "Other".

(12) A member who does not enter in the Roll a designation of identity shall be deemed to be designated "Other" for the purposes of these Standing Orders and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

(13) A member may change his or her designation of identity only if -

(a) (being a member of a political party) he or she becomes a member of a different political party or he or she ceases to be a member of any political party;

(b) (not being a member of any political party) he or she becomes a member of a political party. Any such change takes effect immediately after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.

(14) The Clerk shall draw up a list of the party affiliations of the members. Each member shall have the opportunity to confirm or correct his or her affiliation as stated in that list.

(15) A member may change his or her party affiliation at any time. Any such change takes effect seven days after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.".

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

Leave out Standing Order 23(3) and insert

"(3) Any papers or accounts not subject to a requirement to be laid or presented to the Assembly which are deposited in the Assembly Library shall be published in accordance with law." — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

After Standing Order 30(3) insert

"(3A) Where the Speaker is of the opinion that a Bill is a Hybrid Bill, the Speaker shall direct that the Bill be referred for Preliminary Scrutiny in accordance with Standing Order 101.". — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

After Standing Order 99 insert

"100. Stages of Hybrid Bills

(1) Subject to Standing Order 106, the Assembly stages of a Hybrid Bill are -

(a) Preliminary Scrutiny Stage: consideration as to whether the Bill satisfies the conditions at Standing Order 101;

(b) Introduction and First Stage: introduction of the Bill to the Assembly;

(c) Investigation Stage: initial investigation by a Hybrid Bill committee into the principles of the Bill, and the period during which objections must be lodged;

(d) Second Stage: general debate on the Bill with an opportunity for members to vote on its general principles;

(e) Committee Stage: detailed investigation by the Hybrid Bill committee and opportunity to propose amendments to the Bill, followed by report to the Assembly;

(f) Consideration Stage: consideration of and an opportunity for the Assembly to vote on the details of the Bill, including amendments proposed to the Bill;

(g) Further Consideration Stage: opportunity for members to consider and vote on amendments proposed to the Bill; and

(h) Final Stage: passing or rejection of the Bill without further amendment.

101. Preliminary Scrutiny Stage

(1) A Hybrid Bill shall not be introduced in the Assembly unless the standard conditions and any applicable information conditions are met.

(2) The standard conditions are that –

(a) there is proof of need for the Bill;

(b) no suitable alternative to the matter proceeding by way of a Hybrid Bill is demonstrated;

(c) there has been sufficient consultation with those who may be affected by the Bill;

(d) the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly; and

(e) the Bill would not impose any charge on the Consolidated Fund.

(3) The Speaker may direct that one or more of the information conditions apply to the Bill.

(4) The information conditions are that –

(a) The Bill is accompanied by an explanatory and financial memorandum;

(b) The Bill is accompanied by a statement in writing signed by the Promoter, to the effect that, in the Promoter’s view, the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly;

(c) The Bill is accompanied by an environmental statement; and

(d) The Bill is accompanied by such other documents as the Speaker may require.

(5) The explanatory and financial memorandum must be in such form as the Speaker may direct and must set out –

(a) the issue the Bill is intended to address;

(b) the consultation undertaken;

(c) the options considered;

(d) the option selected and the reason therefore; and

(e) the cost implications of the proposal.

(6) Paragraphs 6 to 8 of Standing Order 30 shall apply to Hybrid Bills as they apply to Public Bills.

102. Introduction and First Stage

(1) When the Speaker has signified to the Promoter that a Hybrid Bill may be introduced, notice of introduction on a sitting day may be given by the Promoter.

(2) The Bill shall be accompanied on introduction by –

(a) the statement of legislative competence;

(b) the explanatory and financial memorandum, setting out the matters at Standing Order 101(5); and

(c) such other documents as the Speaker may require.

(3) On introduction, the Bill’s title shall be read to the Assembly, and this shall constitute the Bill’s First Stage.

(4) After the Bill’s First Stage, the Bill shall be ordered to be printed and the Bill shall stand referred to a Hybrid Bill committee for its Investigation Stage.

103. Investigation Stage

(1) Investigation Stage shall commence when the Bill is referred to a Hybrid Bill committee.

(2) Investigation Stage shall last at least 60 working days.

(3) The committee shall carry out an initial investigation into the general principles of the Bill and report its opinion on the Bill to the Assembly.

(4) Investigation Stage is concluded when the committee reports to the Assembly.

(5) On the report being made to the Assembly by the committee, the Bill shall be set down in the list of pending future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

104. Objections

(1) Any objections to a Hybrid Bill must be lodged within 42 working days, beginning with the day on which the Bill is referred to the Hybrid Bill committee for Investigation Stage.

(2) An objection to a Hybrid Bill received outside the objection period may be lodged only if that objection is approved by resolution of the Assembly, and may not in any case be lodged after the Investigation Stage is concluded.

(3) The Hybrid Bill committee shall consider an objection lodged in accordance with this order and admit it if –

(a) the Objector has shown that his or her property or interests are directly and specially affected by the Bill;

(b) the objection is in such form and accompanied by such information as may be required by the committee; and

(c) the objection is accompanied by such fee as the Assembly Commission may determine.

(4) An Objector may take no further part in committee proceedings unless the objection is admitted.

(5) An Objector cannot subsequently raise any issue not contained in the initial objection.

105. Second Stage

Standing Order 32 shall apply to Hybrid Bills as it applies to Public Bills.

106. Treatment as a Public Bill

Where no objection is received or admitted to a Hybrid Bill during Investigation Stage, the Bill shall be treated as a Public Bill and shall proceed in accordance with Standing Orders 33-42.

107. Treatment as a Hybrid Bill

Where an objection to a Hybrid Bill is received and admitted during Investigation Stage, Standing Orders 88 to 95 and Standing Order 97 shall apply to that Bill as they apply to a Private Bill; and Standing Order 37A shall apply to that Bill as it applies to a Public Bill.

108. Hybrid Bill Committees

(1) The Assembly shall establish a Hybrid Bill committee in respect of each Hybrid Bill proposed to be introduced in the Assembly.

(2) Each committee will discharge the functions conferred on it by Standing Order 103, and, where applicable, the functions conferred on it by Standing Orders 88 and 90.

(3) A member with a personal or constituency interest in the Bill shall not be eligible to sit on the committee.

(4) The committee shall consist of five members, and have a chairperson and deputy chairperson elected by the committee.

(5) The quorum of the committee shall be three. Members linked by a video-conferencing facility shall not count towards the quorum.

(6) All questions at the committee shall be decided by a simple majority. Voting shall be by a show of hands unless otherwise requested by a member of the committee. The chairperson shall have a casting vote.

(7) Members of the committee shall normally attend all meetings of the committee and may be absent from a meeting of the committee only in exceptional circumstances.

(8) A Hybrid Bill committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

(9) A Hybrid Bill committee may permit the Promoter or an Objector to cross-examine any witness giving evidence to it.

109. Interpretation

(1) In these Standing Orders, "Hybrid Bill" means a Bill which affects a particular private interest in a manner different from the private interest of other persons or bodies of the same category or class.

(2) In Standing Orders 100 to 108 –

"Objector" means a person objecting to a Hybrid Bill;

"Objection period" means the period of 42 working days following the referral of a Bill to a Hybrid Bill committee;

"Hybrid Bill committee" means a committee established in accordance with Standing Order 108;

"Promoter" means the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce a Hybrid Bill.

"Statement of legislative competence" means a statement in writing signed by the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce the Bill, which states that in the view of the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce the Bill, which states that in the view of the member, the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly.". — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to bring these motions to amend Standing Orders to the House today. Members will be aware that there are four motions in the Order Paper. The first motion relates to the undertaking given by Members before taking up their seats. The second is on the publication of papers deposited in the Assembly Library. The other two motions make provision in Standing Orders for hybrid Bills. This may seem a strange combination to bring together, but it is purely for expedience rather than there being any link between them.

The first motion relates to the undertaking given by Members before taking up their seats and will amend Standing Order 3. The background to this proposed amendment is the Fresh Start Agreement, which required all Members to give an undertaking before taking up their seats. In giving the undertaking, Members set out their commitment to uphold the rule of law and non-violence. Subsequent legislation, the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act 2016, provided that the procedures for giving this undertaking should be set out in the Assembly’s Standing Orders. The Act also made specific provision for a transitional procedure for the giving of the undertaking by those Members elected to the Assembly following the 2016 elections. In considering this matter, the Committee examined the interim procedure used by Speaker McLaughlin at the start of this mandate. The Committee agreed that this procedure should be adopted by the Assembly going forward and codified in Standing Orders.

Today’s motion to amend Standing Order 3 gives effect to the Committee’s decision and sets out the procedures for the giving of the undertaking by Members, which includes Members printing their name, entering the date and signing the page provided on which the undertaking is printed. The giving of the undertaking is supervised by Assembly officials. A Member is not permitted to sign the Assembly’s Roll of Membership unless he or she has given the undertaking in accordance with the procedure.

The next motion is to amend Standing Order 23(3), which relates to the publication of papers deposited in the Assembly Library. There has been some ambiguity about whether to publish deposited papers on the Assembly website. The preference of the Assembly Library is to publish all deposited papers on the Assembly website, except where there is a lawful reason not to publish. This is consistent with the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. The Committee considered this matter and agreed to amend Standing Order 23 to clarify this position.

The final two motions make provision in Standing Orders for hybrid Bills, and perhaps I could set out the background to the proposed amendments. A hybrid Bill is a Bill with the properties of both a private and public Bill. It is a Bill introduced by an Assembly Member and affects a particular private interest in a manner different from the private interest of other persons or bodies in the same category or class.

Standing Orders currently make provision for public and private Bills, however they are silent on Bills with hybrid properties. In December 2015, the former Speaker wrote to the previous Committee on Procedures requesting that consideration be given to the development of Standing Orders for hybrid Bills. This was as a result of a submission of a Bill with hybrid properties. The previous Committee considered this matter in detail and agreed to bring forward amendments. However, as the draft amendments were not available before the end of the mandate, it was agreed that this should be included in the Committee’s legacy report. The current Committee considered the work undertaken by its predecessor and agreed to take the matter forward in accordance with that Committee’s recommendations.

On 13 September, the Committee agreed the draft Standing Orders on today’s Order Paper. The proposed new Standing Orders 100 to 109 draw on the existing Standing Orders for public Bills and private legislation. They clearly set out the procedure for dealing with hybrid Bills by the Assembly. The amendment to Standing Order 30 is a consequential amendment that gives effect to the Committee's decision that there should be a Preliminary Scrutiny Stage before a hybrid Bill is introduced in the Assembly.

The four motions before the House are straightforward. On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend them to the House.

Mr F McCann: I support the motions. The Chair has quite adequately set out the reasons for them, so I will be brief. Obviously, the motions are in relation to the signing of the declaration and the placing of papers in the Library. On the hybrid Bills, I have to mention my former MLA colleague Bronwyn McGahan, who brought the initial motion in relation to the Garrison Ely Trust Bill to highlight some of the injustices that face many groups that are struggling to get finance and resources. That was in relation to the creation of the Garrison Ely Trust as a charitable trust for the public benefit in relation to specified lands in County Fermanagh. I wanted to just place on record where this came from. She put a lot of time and effort into the Bill. I am glad that, today, we will see the fruition of her work.

Mrs Barton: I welcome the opportunity to speak on these changes to Standing Orders. Of course, the changes to Standing Order 3 have their roots in the so-called Fresh Start Agreement, which was set against the backdrop of two brutal murders on the streets of Belfast last year. In the subsequent talks, the Ulster Unionist Party put dealing with paramilitarism at the top of its agenda. While the eventual agreement led to commitments such as those that we are implementing today regarding an undertaking to act lawfully, it totally ignored the elephant in the room: the IRA still exists, it still has access to weapons, and the army council oversees Sinn Féin strategy. Sinn Féin would not admit it, and the DUP does not want to talk about it. It still will not.

I welcome the amendment to Standing Order 23(3), which should provide clarity on the requirements of the Assembly Library to publish information. I reiterate my opinion that all information, unless there is a strong reason not to publish, should be made fully available in the interests of transparency.

I also welcome the provision for hybrid Bills. Its has resolved a maybe uncommon but important discrepancy in the Standing Orders; thankfully, it will allow private and public legislation to be brought through the House.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his presentation about these changes today. There are three important elements. Whilst they are maybe not groundbreaking, it is most important that they be enshrined in our Standing Orders so that they are codified for us.

I will speak first about the undertaking. Whilst it has been a practice of the Assembly, it is important, given the importance of the issue, that we have it in Standing Orders so that everybody is required to do that. Being wed to exclusively peaceful means and adhering to the law of the land is very important and exceptionally basic. I do not think that anybody in the House would argue that we should not sign up to making sure that that happens.

The change to Standing Order 23 will make sure that as much as possible is placed in the public domain in the Library here in the Assembly. Openness and transparency is the bedrock of any democracy. I am sure that we will hear about that on several occasions today. That is critical. It is important for the public to have faith in what we do, so they should be able to see the information that we see when we discuss and debate matters. Having as much information in the Assembly Library as possible for the public, in the interests of openness and transparency, is a very good thing. I welcome its being placed in Standing Orders.


11.30 am

I do not proclaim to be an expert or entirely to understand the ins and outs of hybrid Bills, but, unfortunately, the one thing that I do know is that the accompanying note from the Executive Office states that it is highly unlikely that we will ever use them. However, the fact that they are there and that we have the capacity for them and the ability to use them means that we will have more available means to pass laws that will, hopefully, help people in Northern Ireland.

This is a general tidying-up exercise to ensure that Standing Orders reflect the work that we do in the Assembly, and the SDLP is happy to support that.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Procedure Committee's motion to amend Standing Order 3 on MLAs undertaking support for the rule of law; Standing Order 23 on the publication of Assembly Library papers on the Assembly website; and Standing Orders relating to hybrid Bills.

It is only right and proper that all MLAs make clear their support for the rule of law, their commitment to work collectively with other Members of the Assembly for a society free of paramilitarism and paramilitary activity, and absolutely towards the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations, and to challenge paramilitary attempts to control communities. It is somewhat concerning that there remains a need to make this undertaking explicitly clear so long after significant ceasefires and decommissioning. I have some concern as to how exactly MLAs will be held to account on this undertaking. I believe that there is more work to be done in that regard.

With Standing Order 3, I want to note the Alliance Party's ongoing concern about and objection to the fact that the Standing Order maintains the provision that a Member of the Assembly is required to sign a roll of designation of identity being nationalist, unionist or other. I believe that it is an indictment on the Assembly that the mechanism is incapable of reflecting the increasingly diverse and layered identities of people in Northern Ireland and that it builds and institutionalises a wholly inaccurate binary reflection of identity in Northern Ireland. It contradicts the Executive strategy to build a united community in Northern Ireland, and I believe that it is a barrier to true peace building in our community.

Standing Order 23 addresses the publication of Assembly Library papers on the Assembly website, which makes common sense. The standard and quality of Assembly research papers produced in the House are, at times, extremely high and are always useful to our debates, and their publication will expose the issues that we are working on to members of the public. It is consistent with the principle of openness and transparency that should reign in the Assembly and the Executive. I agree with my Ulster Unionist colleague that, regrettably, it does not always reign for the Executive.

We have seen significant information on the implications of Brexit, and an investigation into links between achievement and deprivation commissioned by OFMDFM in 2012, a draft report for which was submitted to OFMDFM in December 2015, with important findings that, almost a year on, have yet to be published. I hope that we will also see the spirit of openness and transparency established for the Assembly by Standing Orders today in Executive practice.

On the Standing Orders relating to hybrid Bills, I agree with my colleagues that this is a common-sense provision.

The Alliance Party is content to support the motions.

Ms Gildernew: I concur with the points made by my colleague Fra McCann, and I want to clarify this for the House. Mr McGrath said that he did not think that the hybrid Bill Standing Orders would be used. I assure the House that they will be used. I have had extensive discussions with the Ely Trust and hope to introduce a hybrid Bill in this mandate to sort out the outstanding issues. I want to put down clarification of that. I have been looking forward to the Standing Order going through so that we can proceed with that as soon as possible.

Mr Attwood: Clearly, all three proposals are useful. Of course, the difference — the yawning gap — that could arise between what is on paper and what happens in deed is what should most preoccupy us. Let me give you one example: there is now a commitment on Members to uphold the rule of law "in word and deed", which comes from Fresh Start. Another element of Fresh Start was additional moneys.

Mr Poots: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Would the Member mind pulling his microphone towards him? We cannot hear him.

Mr Lyons: Keep it where it is. It is OK. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Mr Attwood, some Members cannot hear you, or perhaps do not want to hear you.

Mr Attwood: Clearly, Mr Poots wants to hear me, which is a first, and I welcome that. I will not repeat what I have just said because I will cover it now anyway. The commitment entered into by Members is to uphold the rule of law "in word and deed", and it arises from Fresh Start. At the time of Fresh Start, we were one of the parties that circulated to other parties its papers dealing with criminality and paramilitarism. We did not hear of or see many papers from other parties, save from the Alliance Party, but we put forward very firm proposals about what that code should look like. To some degree, the new code reflects some of that thinking and, no doubt, the thinking of others.

Fresh Start also agreed new funding to deal with the issues of the rule of law in Northern Ireland. In that regard, the National Crime Agency was asked to bid. This is relevant to the work and to our obligations arising from the code. The National Crime Agency (NCA) —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Order. Let me remind the Member that the debate is on amendments to the Standing Orders agreed by the Committee on Procedures. It is not on anything else. I have been reasonably flexible. I ask the Member to bear that in mind.

Mr Attwood: I will bear it in mind, and I will bring my point to a close very quickly. On the last day of October 2015, the NCA was asked to put a bid in for work to do with the rule of law. It was, if you like, to help Northern Ireland society, and all of us, deal with the issues of the rule of law, including to ensure that we live up to the code that we are now subscribed to. The NCA was subsequently advised by the British Government to withdraw that bid. Over the summer, the new Secretary of State advised Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, that that letter from the head of the NCA, in October 2015, in which she asked for new moneys, was for illustrative purposes only.

The NCA's bid was to help Northern Ireland society deal with the rule of law and help us to live up to our commitments to the rule of law in this new code. However, the NCA was sent chasing its tail when it came to new moneys to deal with organised crime in the North of Ireland. Whatever all that was about, it was not good enough because it interferes with the commitment of the parties and Members of the Assembly, in word and deed, to the rule of law. The NCA, in my view, was acting with one hand tied behind its back. I hope that, very quickly, the NCA will get additional funding in order to ensure that what we commit to in word in this new code is the reality when it comes to the life of our citizens in Northern Ireland. If not, people will again be chasing their tail when it comes to funding and strategies to deal with the enduring issue of organised crime in the North, not least the issue of assets, both current and historical.

I look to the NCA and the police to support Members in their commitment to the code of practice on the rule of law to deal with assets, including historical assets.

I will move on. I welcome the moderate progress being made on hybrid Bills, but progress needs to be made on the management of Bills, not least and in particular the equal marriage Bill and having ownership of that Bill in the name of more than one Member. I look to the Speaker: given the advances being made on the management of Bills that were referred to by members of Sinn Féin in particular, we must see progress being made on the management of Bills where there is more than one Member and more than one party wanting to co-sponsor a Bill in order to demonstrate to wider society that there can be ownership of policy in the Assembly across all or most of the parties in it —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): The Member's time is up.

Mr Attwood: — in a way that advances people's lives.

Mr Poots: I thank the Committee Chairperson for outlining the changes to Standing Orders, and I thank the Members who have spoken to them.

The motion to amend Standing Order 23(3) will remove any ambiguity in relation to the publication of papers deposited in the Assembly Library. Mr McGrath welcomed the greater openness.

The final two motions will make provision in Standing Orders for hybrid Bills, and the Chairperson outlined those provisions.

I will respond briefly to some of the issues raised by Members. Mrs Barton referred to the "so-called Fresh Start Agreement". There is nothing "so-called" about it: it is the Fresh Start Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party might not understand that because it ran away. Paramilitarism was not at the top of the agenda because they were not there to set the agenda. I remind her that they were happy to sit in government when the IRA was regularly carrying out punishment beatings and when 12 people were shot by Direct Action Against Drugs. She need not come here forgetting the past and whitewashing the past in that respect.

My Lyttle raised a valid point about holding Members to account on the undertaking. If he wishes to raise that further, I am perfectly happy to continue to look at it, because it is important that we get it right. He also referred to designations. Again, I will give him some latitude. He is relatively young and might not realise what took place in the past, but the Alliance Party was one of the most significant advocates of the Belfast Agreement, which, of course, established the designations in the first place. He may want to take that up with the former leadership of the Alliance Party, most of whom have moved on now, in absolute fairness.

Unfortunately, we missed the first 27 seconds of Mr Attwood's speech, but we got the rest of it. I assume that the first 27 seconds were the best part of it, given what I what heard after that. He referred to the undertaking. I point out to him that some of us have issues with politicians who campaign to get terrorists released from prison, with politicians who name play parks after terrorists and, indeed, with politicians who carry the coffins of terrorists. Perhaps we can look at that in terms of the undertaking. He also made considerable reference to the NCA operating with one hand tied behind its back. Of course, it did not operate at all for quite a number of years after it could have been brought into Northern Ireland because of the shenanigans of Mr Attwood and his colleagues in holding that organisation back. We see the benefits of the good work that it does now in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the amendments to Standing Orders. I encourage the House to give them its full support, and I commend the proposals from the Committee Chairman today.


11.45 am

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that all four motions require cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

Leave out Standing Order 3 and insert

"(1) At the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, members having met at the place and time appointed for that meeting -

(a) the Clerk shall read the notice sent under Standing Order 2(2) convening the meeting; and

(b) the outgoing Speaker shall take the chair.

(2) If, for any reason, the outgoing Speaker cannot take the chair, it shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting.

(3) Members shall then take their seats in accordance with paragraph (7)

(4) All members shall have the opportunity to take their seats before any other formal business is conducted in the Assembly.

(5) A member shall not participate in Assembly proceedings or have title to the privileges of office until the member has taken his or her seat.

(6) The decision of the Speaker or Acting Speaker as to whether a member has taken his or her seat shall be final.

(7) A member shall take his or her seat by -

(a) giving the undertaking set out in section 40A(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and

(b) after the member has given that undertaking, by signing the Roll of Membership.

(8) A member shall give the undertaking by signing a document provided for that purpose.

(9) At the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, the document referred to in paragraph (8) and the Roll of Membership shall be located in the Chamber.

(10) Where a member does not take his or her seat at the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, he or she may do so thereafter by arrangement with the Speaker and in accordance with paragraph (7).

(11) After signing the Roll a member may enter in the Roll a designation of identity, being "Nationalist", "Unionist" or "Other".

(12) A member who does not enter in the Roll a designation of identity shall be deemed to be designated "Other" for the purposes of these Standing Orders and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

(13) A member may change his or her designation of identity only if -

(a) (being a member of a political party) he or she becomes a member of a different political party or he or she ceases to be a member of any political party;

(b) (not being a member of any political party) he or she becomes a member of a political party. Any such change takes effect immediately after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.

(14) The Clerk shall draw up a list of the party affiliations of the members. Each member shall have the opportunity to confirm or correct his or her affiliation as stated in that list.

(15) A member may change his or her party affiliation at any time. Any such change takes effect seven days after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.".

Resolved (with cross-community support):

Leave out Standing Order 23(3) and insert

"(3) Any papers or accounts not subject to a requirement to be laid or presented to the Assembly which are deposited in the Assembly Library shall be published in accordance with law." — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

Resolved (with cross-community support):

After Standing Order 30(3) insert

"(3A) Where the Speaker is of the opinion that a Bill is a Hybrid Bill, the Speaker shall direct that the Bill be referred for Preliminary Scrutiny in accordance with Standing Order 101.". — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

Resolved (with cross-community support):

After Standing Order 99 insert

"100. Stages of Hybrid Bills

(1) Subject to Standing Order 106, the Assembly stages of a Hybrid Bill are -

(a) Preliminary Scrutiny Stage: consideration as to whether the Bill satisfies the conditions at Standing Order 101;

(b) Introduction and First Stage: introduction of the Bill to the Assembly;

(c) Investigation Stage: initial investigation by a Hybrid Bill committee into the principles of the Bill, and the period during which objections must be lodged;

(d) Second Stage: general debate on the Bill with an opportunity for members to vote on its general principles;

(e) Committee Stage: detailed investigation by the Hybrid Bill committee and opportunity to propose amendments to the Bill, followed by report to the Assembly;

(f) Consideration Stage: consideration of and an opportunity for the Assembly to vote on the details of the Bill, including amendments proposed to the Bill;

(g) Further Consideration Stage: opportunity for members to consider and vote on amendments proposed to the Bill; and

(h) Final Stage: passing or rejection of the Bill without further amendment.

101. Preliminary Scrutiny Stage

(1) A Hybrid Bill shall not be introduced in the Assembly unless the standard conditions and any applicable information conditions are met.

(2) The standard conditions are that –

(a) there is proof of need for the Bill;

(b) no suitable alternative to the matter proceeding by way of a Hybrid Bill is demonstrated;

(c) there has been sufficient consultation with those who may be affected by the Bill;

(d) the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly; and

(e) the Bill would not impose any charge on the Consolidated Fund.

(3) The Speaker may direct that one or more of the information conditions apply to the Bill.

(4) The information conditions are that –

(a) The Bill is accompanied by an explanatory and financial memorandum;

(b) The Bill is accompanied by a statement in writing signed by the Promoter, to the effect that, in the Promoter’s view, the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly;

(c) The Bill is accompanied by an environmental statement; and

(d) The Bill is accompanied by such other documents as the Speaker may require.

(5) The explanatory and financial memorandum must be in such form as the Speaker may direct and must set out –

(a) the issue the Bill is intended to address;

(b) the consultation undertaken;

(c) the options considered;

(d) the option selected and the reason therefore; and

(e) the cost implications of the proposal.

(6) Paragraphs 6 to 8 of Standing Order 30 shall apply to Hybrid Bills as they apply to Public Bills.

102. Introduction and First Stage

(1) When the Speaker has signified to the Promoter that a Hybrid Bill may be introduced, notice of introduction on a sitting day may be given by the Promoter.

(2) The Bill shall be accompanied on introduction by –

(a) the statement of legislative competence;

(b) the explanatory and financial memorandum, setting out the matters at Standing Order 101(5); and

(c) such other documents as the Speaker may require.

(3) On introduction, the Bill’s title shall be read to the Assembly, and this shall constitute the Bill’s First Stage.

(4) After the Bill’s First Stage, the Bill shall be ordered to be printed and the Bill shall stand referred to a Hybrid Bill committee for its Investigation Stage.

103. Investigation Stage

(1) Investigation Stage shall commence when the Bill is referred to a Hybrid Bill committee.

(2) Investigation Stage shall last at least 60 working days.

(3) The committee shall carry out an initial investigation into the general principles of the Bill and report its opinion on the Bill to the Assembly.

(4) Investigation Stage is concluded when the committee reports to the Assembly.

(5) On the report being made to the Assembly by the committee, the Bill shall be set down in the list of pending future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

104. Objections

(1) Any objections to a Hybrid Bill must be lodged within 42 working days, beginning with the day on which the Bill is referred to the Hybrid Bill committee for Investigation Stage.

(2) An objection to a Hybrid Bill received outside the objection period may be lodged only if that objection is approved by resolution of the Assembly, and may not in any case be lodged after the Investigation Stage is concluded.

(3) The Hybrid Bill committee shall consider an objection lodged in accordance with this order and admit it if –

(a) the Objector has shown that his or her property or interests are directly and specially affected by the Bill;

(b) the objection is in such form and accompanied by such information as may be required by the committee; and

(c) the objection is accompanied by such fee as the Assembly Commission may determine.

(4) An Objector may take no further part in committee proceedings unless the objection is admitted.

(5) An Objector cannot subsequently raise any issue not contained in the initial objection.

105. Second Stage

Standing Order 32 shall apply to Hybrid Bills as it applies to Public Bills.

106. Treatment as a Public Bill

Where no objection is received or admitted to a Hybrid Bill during Investigation Stage, the Bill shall be treated as a Public Bill and shall proceed in accordance with Standing Orders 33-42.

107. Treatment as a Hybrid Bill

Where an objection to a Hybrid Bill is received and admitted during Investigation Stage, Standing Orders 88 to 95 and Standing Order 97 shall apply to that Bill as they apply to a Private Bill; and Standing Order 37A shall apply to that Bill as it applies to a Public Bill.

108. Hybrid Bill Committees

(1) The Assembly shall establish a Hybrid Bill committee in respect of each Hybrid Bill proposed to be introduced in the Assembly.

(2) Each committee will discharge the functions conferred on it by Standing Order 103, and, where applicable, the functions conferred on it by Standing Orders 88 and 90.

(3) A member with a personal or constituency interest in the Bill shall not be eligible to sit on the committee.

(4) The committee shall consist of five members, and have a chairperson and deputy chairperson elected by the committee.

(5) The quorum of the committee shall be three. Members linked by a video-conferencing facility shall not count towards the quorum.

(6) All questions at the committee shall be decided by a simple majority. Voting shall be by a show of hands unless otherwise requested by a member of the committee. The chairperson shall have a casting vote.

(7) Members of the committee shall normally attend all meetings of the committee and may be absent from a meeting of the committee only in exceptional circumstances.

(8) A Hybrid Bill committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

(9) A Hybrid Bill committee may permit the Promoter or an Objector to cross-examine any witness giving evidence to it.

109. Interpretation

(1) In these Standing Orders, "Hybrid Bill" means a Bill which affects a particular private interest in a manner different from the private interest of other persons or bodies of the same category or class.

(2) In Standing Orders 100 to 108 –

"Objector" means a person objecting to a Hybrid Bill;

"Objection period" means the period of 42 working days following the referral of a Bill to a Hybrid Bill committee;

"Hybrid Bill committee" means a committee established in accordance with Standing Order 108;

"Promoter" means the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce a Hybrid Bill.

"Statement of legislative competence" means a statement in writing signed by the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce the Bill, which states that in the view of the member of the Assembly who proposes to introduce the Bill, which states that in the view of the member, the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly.". — [Mr Lyons (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Private Members' Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.

Dr Farry: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its concern at ongoing problems with openness and transparency from the Executive and the implications for public trust and confidence.

The motion provides an opportunity to make clear the growing unease at matters around openness, transparency and accountability on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive. We have deliberately kept the motion on a high-level basis to allow for a free-flowing and wide-ranging debate. We have consciously tried to avoid getting bogged down in any particular remedies as such, but have no difficulty with either of the proposed amendments. However, it is important that we highlight a range of issues in the debate.

Over the past few months, we have seen numerous breaches of what should be the accepted standards of good governance, including disregard for Assembly processes, unnecessary secrecy, control freakery and cronyism, to name just a few.

I suspect that those today who will seek to defend the Executive will claim that their antics are little different from what happens in other Governments. So let us be clear: what is happening here is at the extreme end of the spectrum of what is supposed to pass for democratic government.

We often hear the mantra, "We won the election", but democracy means more than just majority voting. It about good governance, human rights and the rule of law. Others may dismiss this debate as part of the Stormont bubble, but this stuff really matters in terms of the nature and quality of outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland.

Good governance, including effective scrutiny, lends itself to better value for money and maximises the best use of resources, allowing more to be done in terms of investing in the key drivers of our economy or expanding public services. Indeed, there is a persistent trend of DUP and Sinn Féin MLAs on Assembly Committees being reluctant to countenance scrutiny of their own Ministers. This has had a particular effect on the Committee for the Executive Office and its predecessor, the Committee for OFMDFM, as a majority of members come from the ministerial parties.

There are numerous examples of decisions or the handling of issues that give substance to this motion. Let us take, for example, the appointment of the Executive press secretary. Before the opponents of the motion start to engage in "whataboutery", in terms of what other parties have done, let me be clear that the issue at stake is not that the Executive chose to headhunt somebody, let alone that that person is David Gordon. Rather, the concerns are that the First Minister and deputy First Minister thought that it was appropriate to use the royal prerogative in an area already covered by legislation and did not use one of the already generous special adviser allowances to accommodate the post, which happens in other jurisdictions.

Turning to the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) scandal, it is a matter of some bewilderment that the DUP and Sinn Féin chose to close ranks to water down what would have been a more far-reaching motion in the Assembly. The issues at stake here are not just criminal; they also relate to the degree of due diligence around public appointments and the approach to decision-making within Stormont Castle.

Also in the news this past week was the failure of the First Minister (FM) and deputy First Minister (DFM) to disclose in a timely manner the document on the implications of Brexit, prepared by their civil servants almost a year before the referendum. A lot has been said about this in public, but one particularly troubling aspect is that it took a freedom of information (FOI) request to produce it. The FOI request was tabled in February, and while most normal public bodies would take regard of their duties to produce documentation within 20 working days, it was only released on the rather convenient day after the referendum. The processing of FOI requests is governed by statute, and compliance is not supposed to fit in around political convenience. This is not an isolated example. The response rate of OFMDFM, in particular, to FOI deadlines is appalling. Of course, it is conceivable that they have used the royal prerogative to change the freedom of information legislation to exempt themselves from this requirement and just have not told us.

The pattern of no respect for compliance with FOI deadlines is replicated in the time taken to answer questions. The protocols governing the timescales for responses are readily flouted with impunity. Again, some Departments and Ministers are serial offenders, with — surprise, surprise — OFMDFM, now the Executive Office, as the worst offender. Yet, some Ministers, from a range of parties, have proven in the past that it is possible to respect deadlines around FOI requests and questions; those Ministers include David Ford and me.

In terms of Ministers offering themselves for accountability, we also see a reluctance to make major announcements in the form of ministerial statements to the Assembly, so providing Members with the opportunity to question.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I have listened to him now for about four and a half minutes, and I presume that the myriad of problems that he is describing never occurred at DEL when he was the Minister?

Dr Farry: Indeed, that is the point. I made numerous statements to the Assembly, to the point where the Chair of my Committee was almost frowning at the number of times he was forced to come in to receive and listen to them.

Mr Swann: I will add to the Member's contribution. I admit that, as Minister, his openness to the Employment and Learning Committee left many other Ministers in the shadow, including a lot from the DUP. I am not sure how often the FM and DFM appeared in front of the OFMDFM Committee in the last mandate.

Dr Farry: I stress that this is spontaneous coordination across the opposition. [Laughter.]

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. The record can be checked, but, if my memory serves me correctly, I think that there was a period of more than a year in which the First Minister and deputy First Minister failed to even report to the Committee for OFMDFM in the last mandate. Hopefully, that is something that will change.

Dr Farry: I congratulate Mr Stalford on a very successful intervention. [Laughter.]

Another case of secrecy that risks becoming counterproductive is the way in which the Health Minister is currently sitting on the Bengoa report. This report was commissioned by the previous Minister, with a key desire to build a cross-party consensus on a generational change in Health and Social Care, and all of the main parties were engaged and consulted in the development of the proposals. This report has been with the Minister since the start of the summer, and there seems to be no intention of publishing it until the Department has agreed its own response. This approach strikes me as missing an opportunity to continue the informed debate and to build consensus, particularly given the current state of the health service and what is at stake with public finances.

Poor governance extends more widely to the nature of the Budget process. The Budget for this financial year was presented to Ministers outside the two lead parties with 20 minutes before it was actually adopted. To be clear, I am not talking about the draft Budget but the actual final Budget. The Executive may well have been facing an incredibly tight schedule that was not of their making, but there was still space for some structured engagement with key stakeholders. There was an air of getting the matter out of the way in order to progress the DUP leadership transition. We are now facing a similar situation for the next financial year. Even with the tight timescale arising from the autumn statement, lessons need to be learnt from last year. However, the indications are not encouraging.

Drilling down into Budget changes also becomes more difficult when we look at the issue around monitoring rounds, and what happened in June is a lesson that we have to avoid. There was a lack of detail from the Finance Minister, and, indeed, a lack of engagement more generally with Committees. The Public Accounts Committee is now doing its job in trying to get to the bottom of the ongoing problems arising from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's black hole on public finances.

We also have a growing culture of major financial decisions being taken without approval of a proper business case. I do accept that there are some cases where ministerial directions are appropriate, but that argument becomes weaker when the scale of resources increases. Concerns have been expressed at the decision-making process, including consideration of value for money and opportunity costs, related to the subsidy to United Airlines and also the financial support to the City of Derry Airport. Perhaps the most serious example in this regard was the decision of a Sinn Féin Minister to relocate DARD, now DAERA, to Ballykelly without a business case. This actually cost more than the status quo and does create major questions around business continuity. The dawning that this project is in difficulty reflects the dangers of not fully exploring all of the risks through a business case.

I will finish with the issue of the social investment fund (SIF), which is a walking recipe for bad governance. The fund seems to exist as a means to bypass the normal purposes of distributing and of how government engages with the community sector and delivers on employability and deprivation issues. The attempt seems to be to direct funding to particular favoured organisations. It has been dogged by delays and controversies, and, in particular, the recent announcement in regard to east Belfast sends out a terrible message in the aftermath of the Fresh Start commitments on addressing paramilitarism. Perhaps we might be better off if the social investment fund were wound up, with the money being invested in our health service.

The issues that are addressed by the social investment fund are not unique or new but are things that could have been addressed in the past by my Department — the Department for Employment and Learning — and the Department for Social Development through proper procurement measures, which can engage with the community and voluntary sector. When we end up bypassing those procedures, a whole range of risks are being borne by government, and we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

Mr Agnew: I beg to move amendment No 1:

At end insert

"; and calls for the creation of a standards commissioner for the Executive to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code.".

It is the height of arrogance and disrespect that, when we are debating a motion around transparency, openness and accountability, the Executive Office, with its four Ministers, could not send one to respond to this debate or even, indeed, one from the suite of Ministers that we have in government. We call on the whole Executive, and any one could have answered on behalf of the Executive, yet not one is here today to answer the criticisms that have been made.

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will give way.

Mr Swann: Will the Member agree that, potentially, the response from that empty glass sitting up there could be more beneficial?


12.00 noon

Mr Agnew: That is effectively what we are getting. That highlights the point that is being made in this debate, as mentioned by the proposer: we have an Executive who say, "We have the votes. We have the power. We don't have to". If I ever again hear a Minister say to me, "We don't need legislation for this", because this Executive have shown that, if they are not required to do something, they will not do it. There is no respect, no accountability and no openness, and that has to change if we are to have a genuine thriving democracy and our devolution is to meet the standards of other devolved regions and other Parliaments.

Accountability requires transparency, and, for Ministers to be accountable, we have to know about the decisions they are making and how they are making them. Over the summer, we saw a number of issues that we would not even have known about were it not for investigative journalists bringing them to light. The appointment of David Gordon was announced but the process was kept hidden, and it was Sam McBride's work that uncovered the mechanism used. The Brexit document, which the proposer mentioned, was uncovered after a freedom of information request. The legal responsibility was ignored until it was convenient to publish the information. We have heard the First Minister say that she never saw that document. I put it to her that, if I knew that a referendum of such significance to Northern Ireland was coming up, I would have been asking my officials, "Have you done any work on the outcomes of this?". There are two possibilities: the First Minister saw the document and chose not to publish it, or she never asked to see it, in which case she is not on top of her brief on such a major issue.

Mr Lyons: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems to me that Mr Agnew is accusing the First Minister of misleading the House with the comments that she made yesterday with regard to that document. Would you be able to rule on that?

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order, Mr Lyons, but you have made your point on the record.

Mr Agnew: I made the point that there were two possibilities; I did not say which one was true.

We have a situation in Northern Ireland where business cases, which are ordinarily published at Westminster, sometimes do not even exist. Let me look at issues that arose over the summer. Where were the business cases for the bailout of City of Derry Airport and the Newark flight? Where did that money come from? Where was the accountability to the Assembly? We are operating with lower standards than should be expected of a devolved Government.

I am a former member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and the ministerial code of conduct came up time and time again in that Committee. I was checking the figures, and, in the last mandate, the Standards and Privileges Committee received five complaints against Ministers. On each occasion, we were unable to investigate and had to tell complainants that there was no process for investigating their complaint. The only recourse for the general public is a judicial review, which is prohibitively expensive for most people.

As Members, we are held to the Northern Ireland Assembly's code of conduct — rightly so — and we have an independent process for the investigation of complaints. On this, Ministers in the Executive have nothing to fear if they are acting with probity and integrity. It works against both the complainant and those who are complained about. I alleged a breach, for example, when the First Minister, who was then the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, licensed an area for fracking. It turned out that her husband owned land within that licensed area, and I argued that that should have been declared. She argued that such a declaration was not required, and I argued that there had been a breach of the code. What is left is suspicion among the general public. Arlene Foster, the First Minister, who was the then Enterprise Minister, can declare her innocence and I can allege her guilt, but we never get a conclusion or satisfaction.

If I am making a spurious allegation, that should be brought to light. There should be an independent process, and I should be put in my place and told, "That was a scurrilous accusation". Equally, if a Minister has acted inappropriately, there should be an independent, transparent process of investigation. Ministers should be held to account, as Members are, for their actions in the role as Minister. What is the point of having a ministerial code of conduct if there is no mechanism for investigating breaches of it? It is not worth the paper that it is written on.

That is a historical case. We have it again with the allegations around the Brexit document. I come back to the point that I cannot stand here and say with absolute certainty that the ministerial code has been broken. I suspect that it has. I say to the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and every other Executive Minister, "Open yourself up to independent, transparent and fair process". If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. That is what I hear from the Benches opposite quite regularly. If that is the case, why do the Executive not come forward with a proposed amendment to the ministerial code to initiate a process by which these allegations can be heard and adjudicated upon in an independent manner?

Often, the stumbling block in these cases is cost. However, we already pay in the region of £60,000 a year for the role of our Commissioner for Standards and its office. That could be the cost of a single judicial review that would have to be taken to investigate allegations of breaches of the ministerial code. There is a way of doing this: we can extend the role of the Commissioner for Standards. We have the mechanism and model in place, because that is how we investigate Members. If we are to meet the levels of democracy, accountability and transparency that we want, we cannot continue to have the situation in which I, as a Member, am open to scrutiny but a Minister of our Government is not open to the same level of scrutiny.

Mrs Little Pengelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will give way.

Mrs Little Pengelly: Does the Member accept that there are a number of different accountability mechanisms set up under the Assembly? One of those is the Committees, and they legitimately scrutinise Ministers. [Laughter.]

Members may laugh, but there are procedures there. The Member has made some comments about the First Minister, Arlene Foster. The First Minister spoke to the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee about this matter. She made it clear, publicly and to the House, that she considered that she had no conflict of interest. She outlined that to the Committee, a Committee with the role of scrutinising that Minister.

Mr Agnew: I am sure that every criminal would love to be able to go court and say, "I am sure that I have done nothing wrong, Mr Judge". Would that not be a wonderful judicial system?

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: Very briefly.

Mr Allister: Is the parallel not in fact that it would be like having the criminal law but no courts to adjudicate on whether there had been a breach? We have a ministerial code but no process to adjudicate on whether there is a breach. It is as farcical as that.

Mr Agnew: It is indeed. I repeat the point that the then Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister was very clear that she felt that she had not breached the code. I was very clear —

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

Mr Agnew: I will indeed. I was very clear that I felt that she had. What we need is a process to decide who is right.

Mr Nesbitt: I beg to move amendment No 2:

At end insert

"; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to acknowledge these concerns and to outline to the Assembly how they will ensure, in the future, that the mandate of the Assembly is respected.".

As I move amendment No 2, let me also make clear that we support amendment No 1 and thank those who tabled the motion. Fundamentally, it comes down to this simple question: who represents the primary authority? Is it the judiciary? Is it the Executive? Is it the media, the so-called fourth estate? Is it the Chamber? I put it to you, Mr Speaker, that it is the Chamber and the 108 Members herein because we are the lawmakers. As we know, Members of the Executive can be law amenders.

Let me put it on the official record of the House that I have discovered that the deputy First Minister, the self-styled proud and principled republican, has conferred upon himself the powers of a monarch to change the law, not once, not twice, but no fewer than three times in league with the DUP First Minister. On all three occasions it was to make appointments. We have yet to get to the names of the other two, but clearly it was so important to them to get the right person, as they saw it, that they changed the law. For a republican to give himself the power of a king is nothing short of perverse, as perverse as booking a fine-art establishment in Birmingham to sip champagne with the Conservative Party that you have spent years deriding for its austerity.

Of course, Executive Ministers are not just law amenders; sometimes they ignore the opportunity to amend the law without reference to their Executive colleagues. Sammy Wilson, as Finance Minister, could have said to his Executive colleagues, "The law on defamation in England and Wales has been changed, and we could adopt it with a legislative consent motion". He did not, and, three years later, we find the current incumbent of the Finance Ministry, Mr Ó Muilleoir, sitting on a report, commissioned from Dr Andrew Scott, that recommends a change in the law, yet the Minister continues to sit on it. The Minister of Health sits on the Bengoa report, even though we hear this morning on our radio, read in our newspapers and see on our television screens, about hospital waiting lists, not of a year or a year and a half but of two years and more.

The defamation law was important for scrutiny, because we rely on the media, and that point was made during the debate. We do not have a second Chamber, as they do in Dublin and London, and until the last couple of months, we did not have an official Opposition. I note that the First Minister will apparently set down her champagne flute long enough to praise the development of an official Opposition in this House and admit that it has forced the two parties of the Executive to raise their game. That is a good thing, and I think that we can all agree on that.

Openness and transparency is not just for the Chamber; it is also for the Committees. Mr Lyttle, who was Deputy Chair of the Committee for OFMDFM in the last mandate, made the point that there was a time when we went for over a year without hearing from the principals, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. He could also have told the House that the Committee had to threaten to use its legal powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to force them to come to the House. It was not just about the principals; it was about the information flow. There were late cancellations of briefings by officials, late responses to requests from the Committee for information, and the late delivery of papers, which was so ridiculous that, one Wednesday, we received a sheaf of financial information at 1.55 pm — five minutes before the Committee was due to consider that information. Nobody can say to me that that is good government.

Looking ahead, if those two parties are to achieve outcome-based accountability government, which will involve cutting across two or more Departments, we must not allow our Statutory Committees, whose job is to assist and advise Ministers, to fall behind and remain in silos. It is a role, Mr Speaker, that I know you are already giving consideration to, as must the Chairpersons' Liaison Group and we, as MLAs. There is no point in waiting for the Executive to advise us, because they could not even be bothered to turn up for today's debate.

Looking back, when we had all those difficulties in the last mandate with late delivery, cancellation and all the rest, I went privately — I was interested in sorting it out rather than grabbing a headline — with the permission of the Committee, to see the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. This is what happens: you go to the east wing of this Building and have a private chat and say, "Here is a problem". They direct you to the west wing and say, "That is where the problem lies". So, you walk the 365 feet from one wing to the other and have a private chat and are told, "Actually, the problem lies at the east wing, because we have cleared it here at the west".


12.15 pm

It is not just about us in this Chamber or this Committee. What about the people out there who rely on us? Let me give you an example. A social economy organisation contacted me recently. They wanted to brief me about a development that they imagine could reimagine a famous area in this city. It seems to me to be a very good plan, but, of course, they need finance, so they applied for a grant from the Executive. They were unsuccessful and were advised:

"the application has been determined to be of merit it has not been considered of sufficient strategic priority to progress at this time."

They wrote and asked whether there had been a scoring matrix. There had been, and, my goodness, what did they score on their contribution to strategic objectives? Five out of five. What did they score out of five on the contribution to an existing strategic plan or scheme? They scored five. They got a perfect 10 on their contribution to strategic development, yet, in the previous letter, they were told that it was a lack of "sufficient strategic priority" that was holding them back. The two letters were signed by the same person. One stated that there was a lack of strategic vision but the second stated that it was because of the cocktail of funding: that was the problem. Yet, they know that there is a prior example of a very similar scheme in another city in this country that had exactly the same cocktail of funding. This is not open, and this is not transparent government.

We certainly support the motion; we certainly support our amendment and that of Mr Agnew. It is just wrong that Members of the House are under greater scrutiny and threat of sanction than members of the Northern Ireland Executive. It is one of those fundamentals that, at any moment, can further undermine public confidence in our devolved institutions.

This was supposed to be a new era for the Executive. Maybe it is, because the shutters seem to have come down more firmly than ever before down at Stormont Castle. My Committee used to pore over monitoring rounds and take briefings on what was being bid for, but those are now a mystery to the other Members of the House because the DUP and Sinn Féin have decided, for their own purposes, not to disclose monitoring bids any more.

A moment ago, Mr Agnew focused on the existence of the paper on the implications of a Brexit. I listened very carefully to the First Minister's responses yesterday and, on two occasions, she said that neither she nor her predecessor had seen that paper. What she did not say was whether the deputy First Minister had seen it.

Dr Farry: Or her SpAds

Mr Nesbitt: That was not clear or transparent government. As the Member said, she may not have seen it because those surrounding her chose not to let her see it.

Mr Irwin: The motion from the Alliance Party comes just a few short months after the DUP, as the largest party in the Executive, was returned once again as the largest party in Northern Ireland. It must be pointed out — [Interruption.]

There is a reason for that, I am sure; the electorate make the decision. It must be pointed out that the motion also comes a few months following the Alliance Party's departure from that same Executive.

Having walked the streets of Newry and Armagh for weeks before May's Assembly election, I was encouraged by the support of voters for the DUP. Many on the doorstep took the time to outline their support for our role in the Executive.

The vision of the First Minister and my party leader, Arlene Foster, for Northern Ireland resonated with the electorate. The positivity of what she presents, matched by her enthusiasm for the role of First Minister, is proving that Northern Ireland will continue to thrive within the United Kingdom under her leadership.

As the opening weeks of the new term have shown, the Opposition are struggling to come up with any meaningful business. What in effect has been seen from the Opposition is opposition within the Opposition. In other legislatures where an Opposition is present, there is normally a degree of collaboration and an understanding of purpose; however, for reasons best known to these parties and individuals involved in the Opposition, that level of understanding has been very much lacking. The motions tabled on what was termed Opposition day were on issues not within the power of the Executive, rendering the benefit of the motions marginal. Then the Alliance Party tabled this motion today.

The accusation of lack of openness and transparency stands at odds with the record of my party's involvement in the Executive — [Laughter.]

— and with the many developments overseen across the DUP Ministries. Even — [Interruption.]

Even in recent days, there has been significant progress in my constituency. The Communities Minister, Paul Givan, made a very important announcement of the creation of additional jobs at the Armagh Social Security Agency offices, an announcement that has been very well received in the wider Armagh area. The Alliance Party raises the issues of public trust and confidence in their motion. In response, I have given an example of the type of evidence that garners public trust and confidence. Local to me, and in response to a concern I raised, Minister Givan delivered a solution to a problem that was brought to his door. Localised delivery on issues that matter most: that is what people want.

The issue for those engaged in trying to form a meaningful Opposition is that they know that the electorate they say they represent wants Northern Ireland to flourish. People want positive politics. That is the very message the DUP took to the doorsteps, and it was endorsed wholeheartedly. Indeed, the Opposition parties got their answer from the electorate just a few months ago.

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Mr Irwin: I will. [Laughter.]

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way, and I note the hyenas in the corner. I am interested to know, in the interests of transparency, whether anything was held back in relation to the fitness of the infrastructure at Magilligan prison. Perhaps, at a later stage, the Alliance Party can tell us how fit for purpose that facility is, even for refurbishment.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for his intervention. Indeed, that will be very interesting.

I believe that the Opposition have a grave dilemma. I fear that they will slip into the trap of opposition for opposition's sake. That, of course, is a decision for them. In the meantime, the DUP will continue with its plan for delivery, and we will ensure that Northern Ireland moves forward and thrives.

Mr Maskey: I rise on behalf of Sinn Féin to reject the motion and the amendments. I will make a number of points, and maybe we could have a respectful discussion; but that is in the gift of the Speaker, not me.

Stephen Farry, on behalf of Alliance, proposed the motion and spoke to it, but it is very interesting that no one, apart from some on the sidelines, said that there has been anything illegal, inappropriate or wrong in the various decisions that have been taken or in the delay or non-production of documentation at any given time. The issues that Stephen Farry raised are really policy matters and manifesto commitments that parties have made, and you either agree with them or you do not.

For example, the decentralisation of her Department by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the means to do that were raised as being somehow inappropriate. The fact of the matter is that it was a commitment given to the electorate and delivered upon. Whilst I accept that there may be arguments against that, there are many very good arguments for it. The fact of the matter is that it was a policy decision that was taken in the interests of the people who were served by the Minister and, I suppose, the Executive as a whole.

To also suggest for one second that the current Minister of Health is sitting on the Bengoa report is actually quite disgraceful. I accept that, in his presentation, Mr Farry was, for the most part, very respectful in his contribution, but I think that it was very wrong to imply at all that the Minister is sitting on the Bengoa report.

Dr Farry: Where is it? Will the Member give way?

Ms Bradshaw: Will the Member give way?

Mr Maskey: No, you will all have plenty of time. You will have your Opposition days. You will have all sorts of opportunities to ask your questions. I have to try to condense what I have to say in just a few short minutes.

What I am saying is that there are issues, whether they be the Bengoa report, decentralisation or Executive funding programmes like SIF. All the Executives, from the initiation of the Assembly in 1998, have had a variation of Executive programme funds, which allowed, in the first instance, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party to establish the Executive funds by which they could cross-fertilise ideas and fund bigger programmes, including support for children's programmes and all the rest. The fact that this Executive and the previous one, which had Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP involvement, have had Executive programmes is hardly a surprise, because it has been the practice since the day and hour that the Assembly was formed in 1998-99.

Likewise, Mr Agnew referred to the decisions about support for the New York flight and City of Derry Airport. Mr Agnew is entirely entitled to his opinion on whether to oppose the financial and other support for those initiatives — the airport and the flight. He is entitled to have that opinion, but so, too, the Minister and the Executive are entitled to take some positive action to address those issues. I dare say that the vast majority of people right across the North and maybe further afield will also very much welcome the fact that support was given to both the New York flight arrangements and the City of Derry Airport. Those policies are delivering for people.

I have to say that, on quite a number of occasions in the last mandate, as a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — Mike Nesbitt, the former Chair of that Committee, will know and, I presume, would concur — I supported him in calls to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that the Committee was treated respectfully and properly and was given papers on time and proper briefings. I raised that myself within my party.

As everybody around this table knows, we have had three or four years of significant debate in the public around what was then called the "dysfunctionality" of the Executive; an argument that was put forward by both parties that have proposed amendments this morning. We all discussed that dysfunctionality argument. Part of their problem — and I think that it has been proven — is that, first of all, the public rejected their arguments about where the fault for that lay. Quite clearly, whether people like it or not, Sinn Féin and the DUP have been returned as the two largest parties. The two parties who are making the loudest noise about dysfunctionality are those that were rejected as Government parties because people did not trust them to solve the leaks, the permanent and systemic leaking, from the Haas talks, the Stormont House talks and Executive meetings; leaks which were coming from those parties —

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

Mr Maskey: — which were not designed to inform the public but to put themselves in a better light.

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

Mr McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. It is a very important debate because, over the past number of months, despite this being a new mandate and the various pledges that were made in the Fresh Start Agreement, we have seen the Executive — the Government parties — close the gaps with regard to providing information, rather than loosening the strings. It is more autocratic leadership than joint leadership. In an era of openness and effective democracy, we have already seen in this mandate the Executive shut down rather than open up government. There are issues surrounding a hidden Brexit paper, the use of prerogative powers to appoint a press secretary and allegations linking a certain political party to the dealings of the NAMA Project Eagle sale. They have all undermined the democratic processes of the House. They may fly in the face of due process: I will not even mention the rule of law.


12.30 pm

Only last week, we heard, through the excellent work of 'The Detail' with an FOI request, that a 15-page document was drawn up by the European policy and coordination unit in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that listed 20 ways in which an EU exit would hit the Northern Ireland economy. The document noted:

"we could lose access to: €862million in Structural Funds and European Social Fund ... €2.5bn in Common Agricultural Policy funding ... and loss of access to competitive EU funding".

If we are operating with an open and transparent Government, we have to ask ourselves this: why was that document not released? Was it not, surely, in the public interest? The only conclusion that I can come to is that it was at odds with the DUP's ridiculous position on the referendum and that it certainly did not want it. Sinn Féin, who supposedly wanted to remain but did not even register as a campaigner, was happy to go along with the DUP agenda.

I do not agree with the deputy First Minister's claim that the statistics were already in the public domain. The unit that compiled the report had expert knowledge of the EU and its relationships with the North. The information did not make its way into the public domain, despite being clearly in the public interest.

Then, of course, we have the monitoring round bids, with information about departmental priorities being made available for Committees to scrutinise. In our new era of openness and transparency, that has been closed down. We are shut out. We are told, "You're in the Opposition now. Just get on with it". I have to say, I love the DUP and Sinn Féin's approach to openness and transparency: they tell you nothing.

When we then look at the recent appointment of David Gordon as the Executive's media spin doctor, we see that further issues about secrecy and transparency arise. Prerogative powers are meant for the most serious of issues: in this case, they were used to bypass employment law. That is not what the powers were designed for, and it is ironic that Sinn Féin, a supposedly republican party, was happy enough to bow to the Queen and accept her royal prerogative.

Perhaps the biggest financial crisis facing this institution and the wider North has been the NAMA sale and Project Eagle. Serious allegations have been made against certain Executive parties. There have been moves to prevent the House from conducting a Committee inquiry, despite legal advice that there was no conflict here with the NCA criminal investigation. Again, we have to ask ourselves this: what is being covered up?

I was looking forward to the spirit of openness and transparency and to hearing what the Ministers would say. Unfortunately, we do not have a Minister from our Executive brave enough to come down and hear what they do not want to hear: that the public of the North are interested in openness and transparency. I fear that the public might perceive it as a tactical and wilful obstruction of the House and its processes that no Minister would come down and give us a response.

I welcome the amendments. The amendment proposed by Mr Agnew, which was tabled jointly with my SDLP colleagues, calls for a commissioner to investigate breaches of the ministerial code. I support that, especially —

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

Mr McGrath: — concerning the withholding of the EU document. I also welcome the joint Ulster Unionist/SDLP amendment, which calls for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to act. That is very welcome. I urge the House to support the motion and the amendments.

Mr Stalford: Today, we could be talking about health, education, roads, jobs or anything, but, instead, the bold, brave Opposition, under the leadership of the Member for Strangford, are interested in an insiderish political bubble-type story that will not put one loaf of bread on anyone's table. That, I think, speaks —

Mr Allister: It puts bread on your table.

Mr Stalford: That, I think, speaks — Do you want me to give way?

Mr Allister: It is interesting that we do not have a Minister, but we have a collection of wannabe Ministers here to impress those in whose hands they think their future lies. When the Member pontificates about not debating all those issues, that of course, is a mere distraction from a party that has made a lifetime's existence out of failing to come to the House —

Mr Speaker: I remind the Member that interventions should be short.

Mr Allister: — with statements.

Mr Stalford: No one will ever accuse the Member of being a wannabe Minister, just a wannabe.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Stalford: The fact is that they had the opportunity to use their precious time in the Assembly to talk about issues that are of real import to the people out there, and, instead, this is how they decide to use their time.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: No.

That speaks volumes. The motion refers to "ongoing problems". The definition that I have of "ongoing" is "continuing or still in progress" which means they must have started at some point. I presume that that means that they started when the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance and the SDLP were in the Government.

Mr Stalford: Well, if they started then, why did you not speak in the House on them? The fact of the matter is —

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: No. The fact of the matter is that the problems are not as they describe. The fact is that we are now having an attempt by three parties, two of which decided to walk away from their opportunity to serve in the Government. Instead, we are having time wasted with stuff like this.

The Member from South Down referred to royal prerogative powers being used. I asked him to give way, and he refused. I am glad to take the opportunity to remind the Member that, when the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were the largest parties in the Chamber, Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon, the then First Minister and deputy First Minister, also used those powers in making a public appointment. There are probably very few people who were here at that time, but I do not recall hearing then the outrage that we hear from others now about the use of royal prerogative powers.

When they say that there is not proper accountability or scrutiny in the House, what they are really saying is that they are not up to the job. This is supposed to be the Opposition. This is supposed to be the power —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: I will give way to Robin in a few seconds. [Interruption.]

I like people from North Antrim. It is Mr Allister and then Mr Swann. I like North Antrim: it always sends a good DUP squad here.

I hear people saying that there is no proper scrutiny in this place: they are saying that they are failures at the job of opposition. When they say that they want information and access to this and that, they are really saying that they want the Government to do the job for them. Having elected to be irrelevant and on the sidelines, they now want the Government to assist them because being in opposition is too much like hard work.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much. You know what we want. As the Opposition, what we really want is for Ministers to answer us and for them to appear in the Chamber and actually respond to the Opposition rather than hiding away at champagne receptions. Thank you for giving way.

Mr Stalford: I am happy to. There have been numerous references to the champagne reception. Look, Robin, I promise I will get you an invite for next year. You were out with us — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, the Member must be heard.

Mr Stalford: I think we should make it an annual occurrence. Given the rate at which people are leaving the Ulster Unionist Party to join the DUP, Robin might be with us next year, so he would be more than welcome.

Today, the Opposition, when they decry the inability to hold Ministers to account, are effectively admitting that they are not up to the job. Some comment was made about the social investment fund. I would like to respond to it, and I have spoken about it before in the House. The greatest criticism that I have of the social investment fund is that it took too long to deliver it. I accept that it took too long to deliver.

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

Mr Stalford: Yes. I will say that the social investment fund is delivering and will deliver massive improvements to some of the communities that I represent, and those projects were selected independently and fairly.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Lynch: I oppose the motion and the amendments. We are all for openness and transparency — [Laughter.]

Yes, absolutely — and we are all for inclusive and positive government. It is ironic that the parties that are laughing walked away from the Executive and are now complaining that they do not know what is going on in it. When they were there, they adopted a negative agenda, opposing almost everything and routinely voting against every —

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lynch: No. — every initiative and every Budget. I could accept that if they had proposed alternatives, but they did not. It was a political strategy to oppose everything; a failure to demonstrate any kind of positive or collective leadership. We had the election, as other Members mentioned, on 5 May. The electorate had its say and, as a result, the same parties find themselves taking up the negative agenda in opposition on the Back Benches. They walked away from the responsibilities of governing and delivering for the people who elected all of us to the House.

Last week, we had what looked like an Opposition day in which two of the three motions tabled were not in the competence of the Assembly. Yes, I want to see rural banks stay open, particularly in Belleek in my constituency, but it is misleading to raise people's expectations when we could not resolve the issue in the Assembly. It was the same with the changes to pensions that impacted women born in the 1950s. It is an important issue, but it is one that cannot be dealt with in the Assembly. There was a motion on roads maintenance, and a Member — he is not here today — from my constituency, led the House to believe that there had not been a pound spent on the roads in Fermanagh in decades. The reality is that the new Minister, Chris Hazzard, announced a roads initiative worth millions of pounds that is being rolled out on 56 roads in Fermanagh at this moment. That is positive, constructive leadership, dealing with real issues that affect people's daily lives, not carping from the sidelines. Not once during the debate did the Opposition come up with a constructive idea.

The SDLP walked away from the Health portfolio; it was handed to them, but they refused it and sat on their hands. When I hear SDLP Members raise issues in my constituency, whether it is the GP crisis, adult learning funding, or services in Enniskillen, they should let everybody know from the outset that they were offered the portfolio but did not take it; they want to sit on the sidelines.

Mr Nesbitt: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lynch: No, I am not giving way. It reminds me of someone who refuses to take the post of manager of a football team but continues to criticise from the sidelines. A well-known and successful GAA manager once said, when asked about his detractors, "Empty vessels make most noise".

These two parties were elected to deliver, and that is what we are doing.

Mr Lyons: I know that the Members who spoke today do not like to be reminded of the fact, but this is seen as — I think that Mr Farry mentioned it — a "Stormont bubble" issue. It is seen as something that does not really affect the lives of the majority of the people whom we represent. When I think back over the last week and the issues that —

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyons: No, I will not. The issues that people have raised with me have been about broadband, special needs education, social housing, agriculture, road safety and all those other things. I defend the right of the Alliance Party and others to bring whatever motion they want before the House; that is their right, and they have the opportunity to do so. However, I do not think that it is an issue that is high in public concern. Perhaps that demonstrates why the DUP had a good election while some of the parties to my right did not. I also know that those Members do not like to be reminded of that, because they get very annoyed when they are reminded about the electoral mandate that we came to the House with. When we spend time speaking about these issues, we lose some of the trust and confidence of the public.


12.45 pm

The public think, "Here they go again, talking about process and issues that appear to pertain to what is going on in that Building rather than what is going on outside". That said, the Member has taken the opportunity to table a Motion, and we will address it.

Members spoke about openness and transparency in this place. A lot of the scrutiny of the Executive and legislation has to take place at Committees, but the same Members will say, "Oh, but we're not very good at doing that" or, "We are not able to do that" or, "We haven't had success in doing that". Use the powers that you have, and, if you do not believe that you have the powers, ask for the powers. We hear so much about constructive opposition, but all we have had today is a whingeing session from the other Members. What is this all about today? This is all about opposition. This is not about the Executive, and it is not about openness and transparency.

Dr Farry: It is.

Mr Lyons: No, this is about the Opposition struggling to come to terms with the fact that they are no longer in government. They have had one foot in and one foot out of government over the last number of years, and now —

Mr Ford: Will you give way?

Mr Lyons: You have all had your time, and I am sure that you will have time later, Mr Ford, and you can respond to me then.

Mr Speaker: The Member has indicated that he is not willing to give way. Members should not persist.

Mr Lyons: We have an Opposition that is struggling to come to terms —

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyons: I will not give way to Members until I get through a few more of the points that I want to make. This is about opposition and the poor quality of opposition. What is it over the last number of days that the Ulster Unionist Party has crowed about most and been most concerned about? It is the fact that the DUP is hosting a champagne reception at the DUP — sorry, the Conservative Party — conference.

Mr Nesbitt: You are one.

Mr Lyons: I never stood on an electoral platform with them, so the Member should be very careful.

That is what this is all about: the fact that they have nothing of any substance to bring. They focus on issues of process. The Opposition, and I wish them well in their task, need to learn to do their job a little bit better. They need to learn not to rely on journalists or the Executive to do their job for them — that is what is happening.

I am sure that, if Members have any positive suggestions about how we can be more open and transparent, those will be listened to, but they should not expect others to do their job for them.

Mr Swann: Before I talk on the motion or the amendments, I would like to respond to Mr Stalford's invitation to join the DUP. It is not the first I have received, but I will give him the same answer as I gave every other one, "Never, never, never". [Laughter.]

That came from north Antrim as well.

The currency of leadership is transparency, and if we use that to measure the Executive's response today, the Executive are bankrupt. They have failed to send a single Minister to address the issue of openness and transparency, and the concerns raised by a significant number of Members in the House. That is where the failure lies.

Openness and transparency are the key weapons that the people of Northern Ireland have, and the Opposition in this place have, to hold this Government to account. If you fail to deliver openness and transparency, that engenders in people the sense that there is, by default, dishonesty and corruption. That is where this place, if we do not look to the openness and transparency that can be delivered, is in danger of going today.

I listened to the DUP and Sinn Féin contributors; they want to deflect from the real concerns — concerns that their MLAs have raised in the House and in Committee at different times. Mr Lyons spoke about using powers. The OFMDFM Committee was nearly forced to use those powers to bring OFMDFM to account and to bring Ministers in front of it. It should not have to; that is the point. The Ministers should be open and transparent about their policies and beliefs and about what their Executive are trying to deliver. They should not hide behind royal prerogative or monitoring rounds, which no longer come before Committees, no matter whether Committees ask for them, Mr Lyons. I assure you that they have asked. We have been told, "No, you're not getting the monitoring rounds; you'll see them when they're done" — like the last time. That only came about —

Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Member giving way. One of the great arguments about opposition was that people wanted to move towards a more Westminster style of doing things. That is precisely how things are done in Westminster with the monitoring rounds. Similarly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer generally gives the Budget to the Leader of the Opposition about 45 minutes before he delivers it in the House of Commons.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I accept the Member's intervention. Opposition is about making this place more open and transparent. If the Executive take that backward step and use other places as a reason to hide what they are doing, they are wrong. They should use the procedures that were established in the House and practised by his Ministers in the past in regard to monitoring rounds. It was only when the current Executive came about that monitoring rounds started to become secretive and were done behind closed doors.

Dr Farry: I am thankful to the Member for giving way. If the DUP wants to use Westminster as its benchmark, does Mr Swann agree that, in Westminster, it would not be tolerated if papers were late for Committees, Ministers were not showing up frequently and announcements were being made by press release as opposed to on the Floor of the House of Commons, where Back-Bench MPs can hold Ministers to account?

Mr Swann: I fully accept the Member's contribution. This place is not Westminster. If it were as simple as that, we would be drinking champagne with the DUP. [Laughter.]

Mr Irwin hailed his Communities Minister, who came to Newry and Armagh and made the great job announcement. That was great for your constituents. What about the other offices that were closed? The representatives in the House, including representatives from your party, did not get a chance to ask your Minister about those. Do you know why it was not done in here? It was because they did not have the answers. It is about giving sweeties to the people to try to keep them happy. It is about subterfuge rather than being accountable politically to this place.

I have some sympathy for the DUP and Sinn Féin contributors today. It is obvious that they are the Lobby fodder of their parties. Their Ministers failed to show for this debate today to be held accountable. Much has been said about us not using this time to debate broadband or special needs. The point of the motion and the amendments is that, when it comes to debates on broadband or special needs in the House, or when projects are being delivered by Ministers, we, as elected representatives, have the opportunity not just to question but to contribute to those debates and shape that policy. The special needs inquiry that was put through the Employment and —

Mr Speaker: I call on the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr Swann: — Learning Committee prior to devolution is something that should be delivered in the House by Ministers.

Mr Poots: We have heard quite a bit from the Opposition today about issues of transparency. My colleague Mr Stalford pointed out quite correctly that it is the job of the Opposition to probe and question and to seek out and find information. It is not the job of the Government to hand it all to them — [Interruption.]

It is the job of the Government to deliver and ensure that delivery is carried out. Very often, releasing information in advance of that can inhibit delivery. Very often, people will come in and seek to exploit things for party political interests as opposed to the interests of the public. It is incredibly important that those people who are in government carry out their work in a way that is proficient and ensures that delivery happens. Delivery on the ground is fundamentally important to the public, not the issue that is being raised.

Mr Ford: I am grateful for the fact that at least one Member of the DUP has the grace to give way, and I thank Mr Poots for that. Mr Poots and I have been in this House since 1998. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act specifies that the role of Committees is to "advise and assist" Ministers. Perhaps Mr Poots will now explain how that is to be their function if they are not given any information by Ministers.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his intervention. I had rather hoped that he would deal with the issue of Magilligan, which I mentioned earlier, but he failed to tell people what is going on.

Mr Ford: I will do it later; do not worry.

Mr Poots: I welcome that because I think that there could be something interesting in relation to it.

Nobody is suggesting that Committees are not given information. Who is actually suggesting that Committees are not given information? I found in my past role that, sometimes, Members can get information that was not previously made available to Ministers. Sometimes civil servants do not want all the information available to go to Ministers, so I always welcomed good, probing questions being asked that got to the issues and that could assist a Minister in the execution of their duties.

Mr Allister asked many questions, and he referred to wannabe Ministers. Mr Allister is, of course, a wannabe leader of unionism, which has never happened for him, and he is a wannabe MP, but Ian Paisley showed him a very clean pair of heels when he made that attempt. We will not be taking any lectures from Mr Allister about wannabees.

Mr Allister: You are a sacked Minister.

Mr Poots: I had six and a half years of it, so I did not do too badly. They took a brave while to catch me on. [Laughter.]

We are here today, and what we are interested in as a Government, as an Executive and as a party of government is delivery for the people of Northern Ireland. Breast cancer and the issues around that were raised earlier. Those are the issues that are fundamental, and Mr Durkan, in fairness, has a question down on that. I know that the Opposition are just finding their feet, but they appear to be clambering about and taking a stab here and there without any real coherence. They appear to be somewhat leaderless and rudderless, and having Mr Nesbitt as leader of the Opposition is somewhat worrying for those of us who would like to see an effective Opposition in this House because, after all, he is a failed political leader. In virtually every election that he goes into, he comes out with a worse result.

Mr Agnew: I appreciate the Member's giving way. There has been an attempt to turn this into something that is only relevant to the people in this room. When Arlene Foster issued a licence for fracking in Fermanagh, there was a public petition, which I presented to the Assembly, there were protests and there was huge public interest. The complaints that came to the Standards and Privileges Committee against Ministers were from members of the public. This is an issue of importance to the public.

Mr Poots: The Member has raised many environmental issues, and many of them I disagree with. I would much prefer that, if there were resources available here in Northern Ireland, we look at that and see whether we can use those resources for the population in Northern Ireland, as opposed to importing oil from regions in the Middle East and Africa and gas from Siberia and so forth, where, very often, much poorer environmental conditions apply. If you are looking at the global earth, it would be much better to do the thing right here than import it from somewhere else and ignore what is going on. Perhaps Mr Agnew will reflect that in his green policies. Is it just green here in Northern Ireland, or is it green elsewhere?

Those are issues that we are very happy to take on and debate. The issue that is in front of us today is, for the general public, a non-issue, and it has been brought forward by a somewhat rudderless Opposition.

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

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Infrastructure

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We start with listed questions. Questions 8, 9 and 11 have been withdrawn.

Mr Hazzard (The Minister for Infrastructure): The A2 Belfast to Bangor road is part of the strategic road network and carries around 45,000 vehicles a day. My Department has long-term plans to improve a number of the junctions along this route to improve road safety. A route study was carried out on the A2 in 2011, and a number of junction improvements were identified. Two particular schemes at A2/Ballyrobert Road and A2/Ballymoney Road have been taken forward to detailed design. Progression of those schemes will, however, be subject to the satisfactory completion of the statutory processes, the availability of funding in future years and prioritisation.

My Department also has a proposal in its strategic road improvement programme to upgrade the Sydenham bypass between Dee Street and Tillysburn from a dual two-lane carriageway to a dual three-lane carriageway. That is now at the third stage of a three-stage development process.

At this time, the Executive have identified a number of flagship projects, where indicative funding has been agreed for future Budget periods. Unfortunately, the Sydenham bypass upgrade/widening is not one of those projects, and its progression is dependent on the availability of finance through future budgetary settlements.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. As he mentioned, the A2 is an extremely busy road, with 45,000 users going through sections of the road over a 24-hour period. Sadly, this year, we have already had two fatalities on that section of road. Does the Minister recognise that we also have two other very dangerous junctions — at Carney Hill on the Devil's Elbow and at Larch Hill — where residents take their lives in their hands as they leave and enter their homes every day. What plans has he in place to address those issues?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his question and his interest in road safety. I do not have specific information to hand on the two junctions, but let the Member be aware, if I can put him at ease, that road safety is a priority for me and my Department. We constantly keep road safety on all our roads under review. The A2 is a busy road, and, as I said, it carries 45,000 vehicles a day. If there are issues like that on which the Member wants to correspond with me, he should please feel free to do so.

Mr Chambers: I welcome the news that the Minister has given us that there are plans to improve some junctions on this busy road. I am disappointed to hear about the Sydenham bypass because that would have made a big contribution to traffic progression. Has the Minister any plans to provide any more physical central traffic separation to prevent crossover collisions, which, given the speed and sheer volume of traffic on this road, can prove fatal?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member. Indeed, there is also a very unfortunate situation with fatalities on the A1. I know that Members are well aware of the urgent need to upgrade the likes of the A1. We have a £50 million safety plan in place over the next number of years to address that. Whilst the A2 does not receive the same amount of attention with regard to previous fatalities, the issue is on the horizon all the time. We keep road safety on all our major roads under review, but there are no current plans to look at this. The Member referred to the Sydenham bypass. These upgrades would be in the region of £40 million to £50 million, so it would be a significant investment. As we go forward looking at different capital projects, that is something I have to bear in mind.

Dr Farry: I want to add to the list that my colleague Gordon Dunne very wisely mentioned: the junction at the turn-off into the Kinnegar area in Holywood is also very dangerous. Is the Minister prepared to consider the long-term future of the Rathgael Road in Bangor, which is a feeder onto the A2 dual carriageway? It is an extremely busy road. Technically, it is a rural road, but it has seen massive housing developments in recent years and, indeed, is a feeder for the outer edge of Bangor onto that road. Can we manage the traffic in that area better?

Mr Hazzard: The Member referred to the Kinnegar Road. Changes were made recently to the signal timings for the pm peak between Redburn Square and the Esplanade to allow easier egress from Redburn Square turning right towards Bangor. On the specific question on the Rathgael Road, I do not currently have any plans to look at what the Member is asking for, but, as I said to Mr Chambers, if the Member wishes to correspond with me on that, perhaps we could look at options for the time ahead.

Mr Hazzard: In 2014, the Strategic Investment Board carried out a review of street lighting. It recommended that my Department implement a pilot project to retrofit sodium street lighting units with LED replacements in response to the ongoing street lighting resource pressures to achieve energy and maintenance savings. It was agreed that the Craigavon and Banbridge areas would be used as a representative pilot.

The completion of the LED pilot has seen the replacement of over 15,000 sodium street lighting units with new low-energy, long-life LEDs that produce good-quality white light. It is estimated that the LED pilot will provide annual savings of around £360,000 in electricity, carbon and maintenance costs for an investment of around £3 million. The pilot also allowed my Department to gain direct experience of how it can best deliver the necessary surveys, the design specification of LED equipment and the procurement of the equipment, as well as to assess the LED technology in a wide range of residential scenarios.

I acknowledge that concerns have been raised by residents, elected representatives and councils about the loss of generalised lighting to the front of houses, gardens, pathways and front doors. However, it is the Department's responsibility to light adopted roads and footways only. In all, it has been a worthwhile pilot that delivered on its aims to provide savings and a better understanding of LED street lighting.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that you are well aware, Minister, that the pilot scheme was rolled out across Craigavon and Banbridge with little or no consultation. I am sure that you are also aware of the many complaints regarding the level of lighting now in place. I know that adjustments have been made in certain places, but are you really satisfied — you said that maybe it is a good scheme — that the lighting scheme as it exists is acceptable? Do you intend to roll it out right across Northern Ireland?

Mr Hazzard: I want to take greater stock of the assessment of the pilot before we consider rolling it out right across the North. You referred to the complaints. As of 26 September, there were 268 complaints, typically in relation to reduced lighting levels and the level of light spilling into residential gardens. All complaints received are individually recorded and assessed, with lighting levels checked against the required standards. An assessment of the lighting levels at each of the sites found that 199 were within the appropriate levels that the Department aims to provide, and 69 were, indeed, adjusted to come up to that level.

Mr Hazzard: The Executive's Programme for Government (PFG) is focused on outcomes that will support a prosperous economic future for all the people of the North. The Executive have already committed to the delivery of four flagship infrastructure projects: the A5 and A6 major road schemes, the Belfast transport hub and the Belfast rapid transit programme. I have been clear that my top priority is redressing the infrastructure deficit, particularly in the west. Projects like the A5 and A6 are critical to addressing that historical imbalance. Regarding the latter, I was delighted to announce recently the £160 million investment in the Randalstown to Castledawson phase, making a difference for 18,000 commuters daily. Advance work has now begun, and I will monitor the progress of the project very closely indeed.

I am very keen to promote active travel and will shortly publish a strategic plan for greenways. It will set out an ambitious 25-year plan to develop a greenway network right across the North. My plan will aim to give people ready access to a safe, traffic-free environment for health, active travel and leisure. I want significant investment in greenways during the current mandate. Developing the greenway network will contribute to several PFG outcomes through delivering active travel infrastructure, reducing congestion, improving air quality and providing a safe and accessible recreational resource for healthier, active lifestyles.

Finally, progressing North/South projects such as the Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster canal will be a key priority in the years ahead, as set out by the Fresh Start Agreement. Following the recent North/South Ministerial Council plenary, which was held in July, officials North and South have been engaging with stakeholders associated with both projects to advance construction and to source suitable funding. I met the Narrow Water bridge campaigners in Warrenpoint in the summer, and I recently co-chaired the newly established Ulster canal advisory forum with Minister Heather Humphreys.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. You very astutely referred to the Narrow Water bridge, which, I am sure, you pre-empted as the subject of my supplementary question. You talk about the years ahead. Will you give a clear answer: do you see the Narrow Water bridge being delivered during this mandate?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for her supplementary question and for her compliment about being astute. With that in mind, let me continue to be astute. I will certainly endeavour to do all that I can to ensure that projects such as the Narrow Water bridge, the Ulster canal and the A5, as outlined in the Fresh Start Agreement, progress as we all would wish.

Mrs Palmer: Will the Minister reassure the House that the York Street interchange, which will dramatically improve the flow of traffic in greater Belfast for commuters and commercial traffic from across Northern Ireland, will not be sacrificed to secure funding for other projects that are likely to have a smaller impact on traffic numbers?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for her question. I can confirm that none of these projects will be sacrificed so that smaller priority projects, as the Member outlined, can go ahead. There is no doubt that the recent European referendum result has cast doubt and has created fresh challenges and hurdles that the Department would rather not have had to face. That is something that I have to take stock of when I look at my priorities going forward.

Mr Robinson: Will the Minister state whether he will consider as a priority the dualling of the A37 Coleraine to Londonderry road at Gortcorbies, including the Greystone Road and Broad Road A37 junction roundabout scheme, to aid in attracting inward investment to the north-west of the Province and to help road safety?

Mr Hazzard: I am more than happy to consider any project if it has the advantages that you have outlined, such as opening up the north-west to tourism and economic growth. However, I have no plans to progress any dualling schemes on the carriageway that you have mentioned.

Mr F McCann: The Minister has partially answered my question. I welcome his commitment to cross-border projects, but are there any additional projects besides the ones that he has laid out that will be prioritised before the end of the mandate?

Mr Hazzard: Yes, certainly. I referred to the greenway project and the strategy. A large section of the greenway will connect to existing greenways in the neighbouring counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan and in Louth in our part of the world around Carlingford lough. The Ulster canal, the A5 and the Narrow Water bridge are outlined in the Fresh Start Agreement, but we also have a great opportunity to expand our rail connections and look at the Derry to Dublin rail infrastructure. Where possible, we should look to join up the great work of our local ports. There is a great relationship between our ports, and that is something that we will look to enhance in the years ahead.

Ms Bradshaw: What independent advice has the Minister received in developing his priorities?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for her question. I receive lots of advice day and daily. One of the drawbacks of having a social media account is that there are lots of experts telling you what you should do and which projects deserve more money than others. It is something that we take on board. My Department is stacked with officials who are experts in their field, from greenways to developing road and rail infrastructure. I listen to advice day and daily, and never more so than in setting out my priorities for addressing the infrastructure deficit west of the Bann. You have only to talk to Members who travel daily from the west into places like Belfast to know the real need to move forward in a balanced way.


2.15 pm

Mr Hazzard: My Department undertakes an annual programme of carriageway reconstruction and resurfacing works commensurate with the availability of financial resources. Article 8 of the Roads Order 1993 places a duty on my Department to maintain all public roads and footways in a safe and serviceable condition. To this end, Transport NI operates a system of regular safety inspections to ensure that essential response maintenance is identified and completed as necessary.

In accordance with its policy document, 'Road Maintenance Standards for Safety', Transport NI inspects the condition of public roads. The information collected, along with consideration of a number of other factors including road usage, general surface condition, structural deformation, public inquiries and public liability claims, is used in the preparation and prioritisation of Transport NI’s annual reconstruction and resurfacing programme. These programmes are subsequently presented by Transport NI to the various councils at their spring and autumn meetings.

I am pleased to say that additional capital funding was prioritised by the Executive for structural maintenance as part of the June monitoring round. I listened to concerns about the deterioration in rural roads, and I announced a £10 million package for rural roads initiatives to target maintenance measures at around 1,000 locations on our rural road network. Work on those schemes is now well under way.

I assure the Member that I will continue to discuss with Executive colleagues the requirement for additional baseline funding for structural maintenance as part of the next capital budget.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer so far. Can he explain why my constituency is having the least capital structural maintenance expenditure spent on it, with the likes of Beechfield Drive and William Street in Donaghadee, which are well over 40 years old and falling apart, being ignored?

Mr Hazzard: Transport NI, the Department and I have to prioritise on the basis of need. When you break areas down into a list, one part of the world will be bottom of the list and another part will be top. With that in mind, I do not want to suggest that the Member's constituency, by any way of sorts, is losing out. It is a reflection of need. As I have laid out, criteria are set for the divisional managers and teams to assess this. Be under no illusions: there is no sleight of hand. I have no doubt that the Member's constituency is well represented by active Assembly Members. As I said, the Department looks at need, and I have no doubt that the constituency will receive money on an equal basis.

Mr McAleer: The Minister referred to his rural roads initiative, which has been very welcome, nowhere more so than in the western division. Is he in a position to give us an update on how that is progressing?

Mr Hazzard: Following June monitoring, the Department embarked on a £10 million rural road initiative to address the rural roads in the worst condition and therefore help to reduce a backlog of rural road resurfacing and repair needs. It is estimated that around 1,000 locations on the rural road network will be improved. The funding was allocated to the four Transport NI divisions on the basis of need, using a range of weighted indicators. Northern division got £2 million; southern division got £3·5 million; eastern division got £500,000; and western division got £4 million. Work is well under way, with around 350 locations receiving intervention thus far.

Mr Durkan: I congratulate the Minister on the work that has been done on road maintenance, although sometimes I wonder whether Transport NI fixes the potholes or just moves them around so that you cannot memorise them. Does the Minister have a ballpark figure for the cost to the Department through claims for damage caused to vehicles due to poorly maintained roads?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member. Let him rest assured that the Department is not moving potholes about. Unfortunately, there is a considerable backlog in road maintenance. An awful lot of roads, especially in rural areas, certainly require maintenance, and it is something that I will prioritise over the years ahead.

I do not have the specific figures on claims in front of me. This issue has been in the press over recent months, and I will be keeping a focus on it in the time ahead.

Mr Hazzard: Following consultation in 2015, the former Department of the Environment introduced new regulations that increased the technical road speed limit of agricultural tractors from 20 mph to 24·8 mph. These regulations came into force on 18 April 2016. The consultation was well supported, and the increase in the speed limit took account of the design capabilities of modern tractors. The new regulations align the speed limit for agricultural tractors in the North with those in the rest of Europe and ensure that farmers here are not disadvantaged. Although the consultation document suggested that further increases in tractor speeds were being considered, I currently have no plans to further increase construction road speeds for agricultural tractors.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I am pleased to hear that that has now changed. However, I ask that the Minister keeps that under review. Obviously, a lot of the tractors that are on the roads nowadays are capable of going at higher speeds safely. Further to the answer that he has given to me, has he any update on the weight limits for tractors and agricultural vehicles?

Mr Hazzard: There are a number of pieces of legislation, and we will keep the issue under constant review. As technology advances, it would only be right to do so. I will have to correspond with the Member. I do not have the information about the weight.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Gerry Mullan.

Mr Mullan: Mr Deputy Speaker, the Member has just asked the question that I was going to ask.

Mr McElduff: I think that the Minister indicated that the speed limit was 20 mph. Can he clarify that? Secondly, there is a practice in the country where tractors very often cause tailbacks. I am all for the farmer, of course I am. At the same time, I wonder whether there is a convention or a law in place restricting the number of vehicles behind a tractor before it might be expected to pull in and give way to the traffic. Is it eight, is it nine or is it 10? It is a very important issue.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his question. I can clarify that the speed limit was previously 20 mph before the legislation. I am not aware of any specific legislation detailing the number of vehicles that can build up behind a tractor before it should pull in. Coming from a rural community, my experience is that our farmers are very much part of the community. They do not want to be the cause of long tailbacks, and, very often, they do find a suitable place to pull in. Long may that tradition continue.

Mr Hazzard: The A32 Omagh to Enniskillen improvement strategy includes a number of improvement schemes to enhance the transport links between the towns and improve access to the new acute hospital in Enniskillen. The main focus is to upgrade the worst sections of the route to improve comfort for ambulance services and to reduce journey times. Schemes at Shannaragh and Drumskinny have been completed at a combined cost of approximately £10 million, and two further schemes are currently being developed at Cornamuck and Kilgortnaleague.

The Cornamuck scheme involves the provision of 1·4 kilometres of realigned single carriageway and is estimated to cost in the region of £6 million. A public consultation into the draft orders and the environmental statement for this scheme has recently been completed, and no significant issues were raised. The direction order was made in March 2016, which affords the route alignment planning protection. The scheme at Kilgortnaleague involves the realignment of approximately 2 kilometres of single carriageway, and it is anticipated that it will cost in the region of £7 million. It is hoped that Transport NI will be in a position to identify the preferred alignment for this scheme in 2017.

I have tasked my officials to begin drawing up a new suite of transportation plans, covering key parts of the road network, including the A32, and this work is ongoing. This will set out a long-term programme of investment and provide an opportunity for all strategic road projects across the North, including upgrades to the A32, to be considered for future funding.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I am sure you are aware that the improvement of the A32 has been ongoing for six, seven or eight years and has been held up due to funding issues. Will the Minister consider transferring capital funding that was originally set aside for the delayed A5 project to the A32?

Mr Hazzard: Very succinctly, no.

Mr Lynch: I hope the Minister has a longer answer to my question. He talked about addressing the imbalance in the west. When will the draft orders for the Enniskillen bypass be made, and when will construction happen?

Mr Hazzard: The preferred alignment for the A4 Enniskillen southern bypass was announced in June of last year. Work is ongoing to prepare the environmental statement and the draft statutory orders. It is anticipated that those will be published in 2017, which may lead to a public inquiry. Subject to the successful completion of statutory procedures, construction of the bypass will be dependent on Budget allocations awarded to my Department.

Mr McPhillips: Will the Minister give us an update on the £600,000 that was allocated to address flooded roads in areas of south Fermanagh?

Mr Hazzard: There are a number of roads — up to 65 — in the Fermanagh area benefiting from various road maintenance works. I was on site just beside the Share centre last week, looking at some of the works that are progressing. If the Member wants to correspond on any particular road, I am more than happy to do so.

Mr Hazzard: The A29 North/South link corridor extends from Portrush through Dungannon and Armagh on to the border with County Louth. The section from Coleraine to Armagh is a trunk road. The strategic road improvement programme was established through the regional strategic transportation network transport plan and enhanced by the investment delivery plan for roads in 2008. That programme includes the A29 Carland bridge realignment scheme, which my Department has delivered at a cost of £5 million, and the A29 Cookstown eastern distributor scheme.

The A29 Cookstown eastern distributor involves construction of approximately four kilometres of new single carriageway from the Dungannon Road roundabout south of Cookstown to a proposed new roundabout on the Moneymore Road at the north of the town. The preferred route was announced in 2010. However, development of that significant project has been deferred owing to financial constraints.

The upcoming revision of the regional strategic transportation network transport plan and the development of local transport plans in conjunction with councils’ local development plans provide the opportunity to refresh the strategic roads improvement programme in line with the latest technical evidence, local development pressures and the Programme for Government priorities of economic growth and social equality.

I am keen for my Department to progress the A29 Cookstown eastern distributor scheme. I am engaging with officials about progression of the scheme’s development to the next stage, the publication of the draft statutory orders and the environmental statement.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We have time for a quick supplementary.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for detailing that. Will he give consideration to providing things like overtaking lanes or slow lanes along the A29 so that the business and rural traffic can flow nicely together with commuters, because it is a very important road?

Mr Hazzard: Yes. Whilst many of us jump to the very quick conclusion that we want dual carriageways and motorways everywhere, very often two-in-ones and passing lanes are very successful in alleviating congestion, especially in rural settings. That is something that I am more than happy to give consideration to.

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

T1. Mr Mullan asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether his Department plans to subsidise the Magilligan to Greencastle ferry service, as it does for other ferry services in the North, given that he will be aware of the benefits that it provides for local people and for visitors to the area and the fact that there remains a lot of concern about its long-term sustainability. (AQT 276/16-21)


2.30 pm

Mr Hazzard: This is something I am certainly more than happy to look at. I have not looked at it yet, and it is not sitting with me at the minute. We have a number of services that are vital to their communities, whether it is the Rathlin Island service or the Strangford lough service. There is an undoubted potential to link the north coast with the Wild Atlantic Way. You talked about the Magilligan ferry: it is certainly an issue I am more than happy to correspond with the Member on.

Mr Mullan: Minister, do you maybe plan to raise the issue at the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting?

Mr Hazzard: I had not planned to do so, but, in the light of some of the other issues we will be discussing, I am more than happy to. There is a transport sectoral meeting happening shortly, and I am more than happy to raise it under the heading of any other business.

T2. Mrs Overend asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether he has spoken to the Construction Industry Group of Northern Ireland to allow it to prepare for an infrastructure stimulus, in the light of his earlier comments about his priority strategic projects. (AQT 277/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: I have spoken to a number of stakeholders right across the construction industry. The message on coming into post was very clear: the year-on-year budget allocations and one-year budgets are not sustainable going forward. When we look at large-scale infrastructure capital projects, we see that we need to get as much strategic and long-term thinking as possible involved. That is certainly why the forthcoming four-year capital budget will give us the ability to think a wee bit more strategically about our capital projects. I know the industry is very content that that is the way forward.

Mrs Overend: I urge the Minister to speak directly to the Construction Industry Group of Northern Ireland if he has not spoken to it already — I believe he has not. The Minister will know that Mid Ulster is a hub of not only manufacturing but construction employers. When I speak about Mid Ulster, I speak not only for the construction industry but about the infrastructure improvements we want there. On that basis, can the Minister give a commitment that, and a timescale for when, Cookstown can expect a bypass?

Mr Hazzard: I have an open door, and I will speak to everybody and anybody over the next number of years about how we can advance in a very strategic way a number of our infrastructure projects. I will be turning more specifically to Mid Ulster and the Cookstown bypass in the Adjournment debate this evening. I think that is timely. It is a project with merit. I, along with Francie Molloy MP and various MLAs, met the delegation to discuss the need for the bypass in Cookstown. Coming from an area like South Down, I am only too aware of this; we have a county town in Downpatrick that suffers similarly. Our manufacturing industry is calling out for the likes of these distributor roads, which I think could unlock economic growth in areas outside Belfast. As I said, it is a project that I want to advance over the next number of years. I hope that is something we can do.

T3. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister for Infrastructure, in a return to her earlier question, given that his answer left her a little bit bewildered, whether he anticipates that the Narrow Water bridge will be delivered in this mandate, albeit that she would like to embrace the succinct yes/no answers that the Minister is issuing today — a yes would be nice, but a yes/no answer would suffice. (AQT 278/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: As, I think, was pointed out by your colleague, another one-word answer, of course, is, "Maybe." There are other one-word answers we could go for. We are constituency colleagues, and we know very well the huge significance that this project would have in unlocking tourism and economic potential in the north Louth and south Down areas. I am working actively with people in the South and with my Government colleagues in the South to advance this project. Officials, North and South, are sitting down with the Narrow Water bridge stakeholder group this week and next week to advance proposals. We have to take into consideration that the environment we operate in has changed since 23 June, but that does not mean we cannot do all in our power to deliver these sorts of projects. I am absolutely determined that this is a project we will see delivered.

Ms S Bradley: I genuinely welcome that you are determined to see it delivered, as I hope it will be. You rightly point out that the political landscape has changed. Does the Minister acknowledge that there is now greater emphasis on the House and our Departments to deliver on this bridge? I know the Southern Government are firmly on record as being supportive of it, but, in the absence of any European funding, the pressures will be added to us.

Mr Hazzard: Again, it is not for this House but for our counterparts in Dublin. Councils also have a big role to play, as they have done magnificently so far. The memorandum of understanding between Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne District Council and the leadership that chief executives have shown in recent years have been very important. The Narrow Water bridge project is important, as are our large infrastructure plans for the southern relief road, which would be of huge benefit to the town of Newry. There are big plans for that part of the world, and I hope to do all that I can in the years ahead to advance them.

T4. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Infrastructure to account for the strategic planning that went into the timing of various road schemes in East Belfast or to at least accept that there could be a review of that process, given that he might be aware that, in recent years, there have been a significant number of roadworks in East Belfast, with Transport NI working on the Belfast rapid transit scheme, Rivers Agency working on flood alleviation and Power NI working on electricity supply upgrades to the Ulster Hospital, all of which were extremely important schemes, albeit that the cumulative impact has been prolonged congestion and significant disruption to businesses in the area. (AQT 279/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: I came into post in May and was not involved in any of the planning stages. I have looked at the impact of some of those works to date, and I believe that there has been a considerable increase in those using public transport to get from East Belfast to the city centre. We need to take stock of the impact of these works in the round. I have no doubt that works can be troublesome, especially for traders, and, as we approach the Christmas period, we need to see as much work completed in advance of that as possible. I am happy to look at the issues in the round. If there are specific needs to address as the works advance ahead of, as you mentioned, the introduction of the rapid transit scheme in 2018, I will be happy to correspond with the Member on any issue.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his response. We certainly give our full support to the ongoing sustainable transport works. The important point is on the cumulative impact of a wide range of different works, and I welcome the opportunity to correspond with the Minister on that. Will he advise businesses in the area whether there are any opportunities to avail themselves of any type of compensation if there is evidence of significant loss of revenue as a result of disruption to business?

Mr Hazzard: The Member may want to pick up the issues of rate relief or assistance on this with the Finance Minister. I think that I am right in saying that, in particular circumstances, certain traders have, at times, gone down this avenue. If the Member wants to raise anything with me or to discuss any particular works, he can certainly feel free to do so.

T5. Mr Maskey asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether the Executive have taken a position on the water framework directive and the issue of water charges. (AQT 280/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: Yes. Recently, the Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen, and I presented a joint paper to the Executive, which received the Executive's support, on continuing our policy of no domestic water charges for local people. We have been clear in the Executive about continuing our opposition to water charges. We told the people that we would continue to oppose domestic water charges, and we have done so.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for that very welcome statement and confirmation of the Executive's position to support people on water charge impositions. How does that reflect on other jurisdictions? I am thinking particularly of how the Irish Government are dealing with water charges.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his supplementary. All this boils down to being straight with the people. If you are opposed to domestic water charges, you have to stand up and, where it counts, have to be there to play the ball. I am aware of a recent Sinn Féin motion in the Dáil to discuss the issue, and some parties ran away from the responsibility. Outside the House, they campaign against domestic water charges, but, when it really matters, they run away. I am proud to say that this Executive continue to oppose domestic water charges. We do not flip-flop on the issue. We say that we oppose domestic water charges, we do oppose them and we continue to oppose them.

T6. Mr Middleton asked the Minister for Infrastructure, after welcoming his confirmation that the A6 and the A5 are in his top five priorities, for an update on the proposed Waterside transport hub and the potential refurbishment of the old Waterside station to bring it back into use. (AQT 281/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: I will be in Derry later this week to talk to officials about the plans for the transport hub. It is an exciting project. Negotiations with landowners about the specific site are in progress and, I believe, are, thankfully, coming to a close. We will make an announcement on that in due course.

A transport hub for Derry, like a transport hub for Belfast, has the potential to be a real catalyst for economic growth in both regions. I am certainly excited by that prospect.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate that there are issues with land and agreements to be reached on properties. Can he give any time frame for when he foresees such a project being brought into use?

Mr Hazzard: I do not want to say anything outside the negotiations that are going on with landowners — I certainly do not want to spoil those waters — but I think that, in the weeks ahead, the Member will be delighted with the announcement. The people of Derry are looking forward to the project. It has been touted for some time, and, as I said, we look forward to delivering it. When I am in Derry on Thursday to speak to officials, I will be keen to hear what progress has been made.

T7. Mr Agnew asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the ongoing pilot schemes that he referred to in answer to a recent question for written answer on residents’ parking schemes for Bangor and Holywood. (AQT 282/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: I do not have the information at hand about the specific residential schemes that you have mentioned. We are progressing with a couple of residential schemes, and I discussed those with officials last week.

The current policy, which came into force in 2007, has been an issue to date, and I have tasked officials to look at it. There is demand in many areas for these parking schemes, and we need to meet that demand in a number of areas. We will need a policy that equips us with the legal arguments to take cognisance of objections but move ahead in a fair-handed way.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for his answer. One of the first questions that I asked in the Assembly, in 2011, was about residents' parking schemes. The issue then was the hold-up in Belfast: now, five years on, what reassurance can he give my constituents that the hold-up in Belfast will not mean that we never get to North Down?

Mr Hazzard: Let me reassure the Member that that will no longer be an excuse. When I came into post, residents in Derry made exactly the same complaint: that their scheme was being held up because we could not get agreement in Belfast. We decoupled the schemes straight away and were able to launch a pilot in Derry. I want to judge each case on its merits. It should not be a case of one town being held up because of another town when there is absolutely no resemblance to the case in hand.

T8. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister for Infrastructure to assure the House of his commitment to the Belfast transport hub. (AQT 283/16-21)

Mr Hazzard: Absolutely. As I outlined to your colleague, the transport hubs in Derry and Belfast are much needed. If we look at the Europa bus centre, we see a transport hub that has stood the test of time and done a fantastic job but is coming to the end of its life — I do not think that it is out of place to say that. Translink is getting the best value that it can from the site that it has, but we are coming to a time when we need a modern, fit-for-purpose transport hub. I am certainly determined to help to deliver that in the years ahead.

Mr Humphrey: I am pleased to hear the Minister say that. He will be aware that tremendous investment is required in deprived areas such as the Lower Falls and Sandy Row. Will he agree to work with Ministers across the Executive and Belfast City Council to ensure that the investment that he talked about and other investments in the area will go towards making people's daily life there much better?

Mr Hazzard: Absolutely. We are not simply talking about a piece of infrastructure that will stand with its back to the communities. It will be open just as much to the rear, to the Grosvenor Road and Sandy Row communities, as it has to be in order to be successful going forward. I was recently in Rotterdam, where the central transport hub is a centre of community activity, and there is no reason why, through working with Belfast City Council, we cannot have something very similar in the newly envisaged living quarter in Belfast.


2.45 pm

Justice

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Question 10 has been withdrawn.

Ms Sugden (The Minister of Justice): During the financial year 2015-16, 60 members of prison operational staff retired on medical grounds. The breakdown is as follows: one occupational support grade; four custody prison officers; 40 prison officers, including specialists; three prisoner custody officers; and 12 senior officers.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for her response. Previously, I asked the Minister for details of prison officers who had retired as a result of injury on duty and was informed that the information could not be provided, as it was confidential. Can the Minister advise me why it is confidential? Can she assure the House that she will take steps to find out how many prison officers have been retired as a result of an injury on duty? Clearly, the employer should know that.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his response. The reason it is confidential is that my Department is looking into correspondence issues relating to injury on duty. I am not at liberty to give any more information at this stage.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I ask her to recall that, on 20 September, she said, in answer to a question, that she had had a conversation about the Sean Lynch report. Can the Minister share with us today whether she called a meeting to discuss the report with the Prisoner Ombudsman or senior management in the prison? If so, when does she expect the recommendations of the report to be implemented?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. We accept the Prisoner Ombudsman's report on the case of Sean Lynch. I understand that the Northern Ireland Prison Service has given a commitment, alongside the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, to look at putting those recommendations forward. I alluded at my last Question Time to how we dealt with prisoners with severe mental health issues. I have spoken to the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service about how to better support prison officers when prisoners present with exceptional problems, as Mr Lynch did.

Mr Poots: Is it not a mark of shame on the Prison Service that so many prison officers are retired on medical grounds? Given the Prison Service's duty of care to its officers, is it appropriate that people coming out of hospital are, within a week of coming out, being harassed and harangued about getting back to work, when they have a serious illness?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. As I have said in the past, the Prison Service is an exceptional environment. It really is like no other job, and prisons are often in quite isolated areas. We need to be mindful of all those things. The Member is right to suggest that a high level of our sickness absence is related to anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses. Moving forward, I am keen to look at that so that I can better support prison officers. I have reiterated time and time again that, in my tenure as Justice Minister, I will look at how to better support prison officers, with the aim of reducing sickness absence. The wider impact is that other officers are under pressure if there are not enough staff to carry out the duties. I alluded to the care of the prisoners, and we need to be mindful of all those aspects. That starts with training prison officers and better supporting them to carry out their duties to the standard that we expect.

Mr Milne: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Can she give us an assessment of the level of sick leave in the Prison Service and how it impacts on front-line services?

Ms Sugden: The recent Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) report identified significant levels of sickness absence throughout the Northern Ireland Civil Service, particularly in the Prison Service, which probably has the worst.

It represents an absence rate of about 8·5%, which is still significantly high. Indeed, the measures I have already outlined in the modernisation programme, looking at how we can better support prison officers in the job that they do day to day, will hopefully try to address that sickness absence rate.

To reiterate: working in a prison environment is unique. It is like no other environment. A lot of the people whom prison officers care for can be quite challenging and that puts a lot of strain and stress onto prison officers. To address sickness absence, we have to look at how we can better support prison officers so that they feel better equipped to do their jobs.

Mr Allister: Does the Minister accept that those anxiety levels and the resulting consequences for prisoners are greatly accentuated by losses of control in prisons, such as that which was seen at the weekend when, in Quoile House, three prison officers were left to deal with 100 marauding prisoners on the landings and had to retreat to the circle? Meanwhile, there were fires in Erne House and Bush House. Is the loss of control and the failure to keep control in the prison not a big contributory factor in the huge dropout rate amongst prison officers?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, how he presents the situation at the weekend, as read in the local press, is certainly not the detailed report that I received. Yes: we can acknowledge that there was a mechanical fault that led to the opportunity for prisoners to come out of their cells, but it was no more than 13 prisoners in any one instance. My understanding is that only six were ever out in the prison at that stage and that it was very much under control. What has been suggested in the press is not what has been detailed to me.

Ms Sugden: On 15 June 2016, I wrote to the former Home Secretary asking that the undercover policing inquiry be empowered to look at evidence relating to the undercover activities of English and Welsh officers in any jurisdiction where it is considering a case in England and Wales and the operative has subsequently crossed a jurisdictional boundary. On 22 July, I received a response that indicated that she had considered the proposal but had concluded that it was not possible to accommodate it in the inquiry's existing terms of reference. The letter also noted that the Home Secretary did not intend to amend the terms of reference as this would require further consultation and delay the progress of the inquiry. I have since made further representations to the new Home Secretary.

The Metropolitan Police Service wrote to my officials on 15 June indicating that they were in the process of reviewing all material relating to the subject of the inquiry in order to progress current investigations and provide full and transparent disclosure.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for that response. Will she comment on media reports about the Attorney General's pledge that no one will face prosecution based on evidence given at the inquiry? Does this mean that former officers will not be prosecuted for anything that they may disclose during the inquiry?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his supplementary. As I am sure he will appreciate, these matters are between the Attorney General and the chairman of the inquiry. However, it is a matter of record that, at the request of the inquiry chairman, the Attorney General has given an undertaking that individuals providing certain evidence to the undercover policing inquiry could do so without fear of prosecution.

Mr Attwood: The Pitchford inquiry deals with the activities of undercover officers. The Minister knows that a number of inquests that might touch on the activities of undercover security personnel are currently delayed in the High Court. Given that, is it not time for her, as Justice Minister, to advise the British Government that they should go ahead and release money to enable inquests to be handled and managed by the Courts and Tribunals Service and High Court judges in Northern Ireland rather than wait and wait for an Executive decision on the matter that is not coming?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his supplementary. As Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, I am a member of the Northern Ireland Executive. Indeed, I am frustrated that we have not yet secured funding for the legacy inquest project that the Lord Chief Justice has proposed, but it is something that I am working on, as Justice Minister, along with my Executive colleagues, to see whether we can secure funding for legacy inquests.

As I have told the House before, time is not on our side when it comes to legacy inquests. The people who we need to be working towards in securing this project that the Lord Chief Justice proposed are the victims of those families, and time is not on their side. So, yes, I can assure the Member that I am keen to work with my Executive colleagues on that, but I cannot do this alone. I am a member of the Northern Ireland Executive, and I am keen to work so that we can start moving things.

Ms Armstrong: Minister, given the apparent involvement of police officers from England and Wales in undercover activities in Northern Ireland directly linked to the activities being investigated by the Pitchford inquiry, will you continue to pursue this with the Home Secretary?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. Yes, I will continue to pursue this with the Home Secretary. Indeed, before Question Time, I wrote to the Home Secretary, again asking her to reconsider whether she would extend the terms of reference to Northern Ireland, where it is cross-jurisdictional. So, yes, it is something that I am keen to keep pursuing.

Ms Sugden: I welcome the continuing interest in this matter, which is an area that I am already focused on. As was mentioned at my last Question Time, we are in a post-conflict society, and a lot of people, including prison officers, have been directly or indirectly affected by the trauma of the Troubles. This, in many cases, has impacted on their mental health, as I spoke of earlier. As I also mentioned, a quarter of our prisoners have mental health issues, so I am very conscious of the mental health issues affecting prison officers and prisoners.

There are a number of support mechanisms available to prisoner officers. These include a dedicated staff welfare service, access to the occupational health service and a confidential counselling service provided by Carecall. These services are provided to staff to supplement the support and treatment available through the National Health Service.

I am keen look at this issue and focus on the support available to prison officers. For the Prison Service to fulfil its aims in relation to the management and rehabilitation of offenders, I am clear that we must provide appropriate care and support for the staff carrying out this challenging work. My officials continue to seek to improve the working environment and support services that are available to staff within available resourcing constraints.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her answer. In response to the first question, the Minister mentioned that prison officers are working in an exceptional environment. Given the challenging work environment, and the trauma experienced by prison officer staff on a daily basis, does the Minister consider six Carecall sessions to be sufficient provision for those suffering from conditions such as PTSD?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question and, indeed, her continuing interest in this area. I am not sure that the provisions that we have in place are enough to support prison officers in relation to their mental health and the daily pressures that they face.

One of the biggest legacies of our Troubles — throughout Northern Ireland as well as within prisons — is mental ill health. The Troubles, as I said at the outset, brought a lot of trauma to many people's lives, and that has now resulted, I think, in mental health issues, particularly amongst an older population who went through it themselves and saw that trauma at first hand. Now, as they are getting older, perhaps even retiring, these experiences are manifesting as mental health problems.

In this new environment, moving forward, I am really keen, as I have reiterated time and again to this House, that prison officers should be supported, and we do need to be mindful of how they are dealing with the very challenging circumstances that they are faced with day in, day out in their job.

Mr Butler: I welcome this discussion on Prison Service staff. I would like to declare two interests: I worked for the Prison Service for four years, so I am talking from a practitioner's perspective; and I am my party's spokesperson on mental health. We talked about Carecall and the six calls that staff are entitled to. I can verify that it is a unique job, and I welcome what you have said about support. It is a unique experience to work in any of the prisons that we have. However, whilst Carecall is a very good service — and I am not taking anything away from it — would you agree that perhaps there is a need for something more specific to the needs of prison officers and their mental health? Do you have any plans to develop any such system?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, I welcome him to the House. I think this is the first opportunity that we have had to engage on the Floor.


3.00 pm

Yes, there is now an opportunity to look at this in a much more holistic way, and I have instructed my officials to look at how we can better support prison officers. As I said in response to question 1, and to Mrs Cameron's question, we will encourage better rehabilitation and care of prisoners if we start with prison officers themselves. They are much better equipped to do the job that they do but, equally, they need to be considered in terms of the support around them. In answer to your question, I have already instructed my officials to look at this and see how we can do it better. We are talking about a potential modernisation programme which not only looks at the issues around mental health but also looks at their family life, opportunities around shift working and how they can best manage that so that they can have that proper work-life balance, which is also very important when we are looking at mental health issues. It is something that I am quite keen to address. I visited Hydebank Wood with the Health Minister last week. That demonstrates our commitment to work together on these issues, as it is one of her priorities as well. Looking forward positively, we are keen to tackle it. I welcome any input from Members on how they feel that we can best do that. After all, we are all in this together.

Mr Durkan: What precise mechanisms have been put in place by the Department and, indeed, in the Department, to ensure that the Prisoner Ombudsman's recommendations arising from the Sean Lynch report are implemented faithfully and in full?

Ms Sugden: Since the report was published quite recently, at this stage my Department, alongside officials from the Department of Health, will take time to consider the recommendations. As I have said in answers to previous questions, we accept the report and that lessons need to be learned from this very tragic case. We will look carefully at those recommendations to see how we can best implement them. It is something that we need to take proper time and consideration over, because the outcome was very, very tragic.

Mr Lyttle: Since her appointment, what specific actions has the Minister taken to improve the health and well-being services that are available to prison officers, given the urgent, bespoke and acute needs that they face?

Ms Sugden: At this stage in my ministerial role, I am very much about listening. I come to the House not as someone bringing my own baggage or ideas that I have plucked out of thin air, but as someone very keen to listen to stakeholders on the ground. They can best advise and put forward ideas that best represent them. Certainly, I am very keen to listen to the views of the Prison Service, through the representation of the Prison Officers' Association and anyone else who wants to put forward their views. Elected representatives also have a role; if there are concerns around the welfare of prison officers and, indeed, prisoners, I would be really keen to hear that. Indeed, a lot of Members have been forthcoming in doing so. Right now, it is very much a listening exercise. I want to ensure that I get this right, and I cannot do that by plucking ideas out of my own mind; I have to listen to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I just want to advise Members that if they wish to ask a question they should continue standing, please. Otherwise, I have no way of knowing if the question has already been answered.

Mr Kearney: Maith go leor, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sheas mé trí huaire i ndiaidh a chéile. Go raibh maith agat, cibé ar bith. Gabhaim buíochas leat, a chara, as ucht na bhfreagraí go dtí seo. Thank you for your answers to date, Minister. Do you agree with me that all prison staff, prisoners on both the integrated and segregated wings, families of prisoners and visitors to the prisons deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and that those principles, and adherence to those principles, are at the very foundation of ensuring that we have a prison system that is bereft of stress and creates the best conditions whereby we can ensure that appropriate interventions are made to address prisoners who are suffering with mental illness and mental conditions.

Ms Sugden: Yes, of course. I believe that all people, whether prisoners, prison officers, prisoners' families or people that are engaging in the prison environment are treated with dignity and respect. From my perspective, the judgement about them coming into the prison environment was made in the courts. Certainly, the role of prison is to better rehabilitate and provide care for prisoners. So yes, I agree with the comments the Member made, and I think it is this good and fundamental basis we need when we are thinking about how we move forward on better care for prisoners and prison officers.

Ms Sugden: There is a significant body of evidence from Northern Ireland and worldwide that demonstrates the benefits of restorative practices within a criminal justice context, and community-based restorative justice plays an important role in this. Since the government protocol was agreed in 2007, the two accredited community-based restorative justice schemes in Northern Ireland have made positive contributions to keeping their communities safe, repairing relationships and helping to reduce the harm caused by antisocial behaviour and offending. They are also key partners for statutory justice organisations, including the Probation Service and the police. Without their expertise and community presence, many of our criminal justice disposals would lack that restorative element and would be poorer for it.

That positive work was recognised by the Fresh Start panel report 'Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime'. It consequently made a number of recommendations that involve the accredited community-based restorative justice groups in their delivery. All the recommendations have been accepted in the Executive action plan, and my officials will be working with the groups to implement them. In addition, representatives from both accredited groups are helping to inform the drafting of an overarching adult restorative justice strategy that my Department is leading on and that will be published for consultation in 2017.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Minister, do you believe the two restorative justice organisations you mentioned in your answer, although not by name, are making a difference? Can there be stronger linkages between those organisations and the police?

Ms Sugden: Yes, indeed. Restorative justice is an almost controversial practice, and at the outset it received an awful lot of criticism. But I think that here and across the world restorative justice has proved to be an important element of our criminal justice system by connecting with communities and trying to get to the heart of the problems behind why people commit offences and crimes.

Where working with the PSNI is concerned, I understand there are good working relationships with the community-based restorative justice groups, but if we need to look at those to strengthen them, I would be very keen to hear the Member's comments on another occasion about how he feels we can best do so.

Mr McGrath: Can the Minister explain why she intends to bring forward no new primary legislation before June 2017, which will be one full year after the start of the mandate?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. It has nothing to do with the question asked by Mr Humphrey. I am certainly looking at my priorities for the next five years, and there are a number of areas I have identified, including domestic violence, mental health, children and young people, women, and crimes against older people in particular. I will very much weave them into the responsibilities my Department has as a whole, and I think the next five years will be really exciting. The last mandate, in my opinion, was very much about transition, and I think that right now we are going to transform. This will be the mandate of delivery, and I am keen to see it through.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I will just remind Members that supplementaries should relate to the original question. Of course, it is at the Minister's discretion whether she chooses to answer. On that occasion, she did with aplomb.

Ms Sugden: Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will take questions 5 and 9 together.

Animal cruelty really is a disgusting crime. I fully recognise the Members' concern, and I appreciate that the Members who asked the questions have taken the opportunity to raise the debate inside and outside the House. Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the independent judiciary, which must take account of the relevant facts and circumstances of any case.

The limited nature of my Department's role in animal welfare issues is to ensure that a suitable legal framework exists that provides courts with appropriate powers to deal with all cases of animal cruelty. That includes ensuring that the maximum penalties are available to the courts where appropriate.

Following the joint review of the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act 2011, undertaken by the former Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and my Department, legislation was brought forward in the Justice Act 2016, which increased maximum penalties for animal welfare crime. The relevant provisions commenced on 1 August 2016.

In addition to increasing the maximum penalties available, my Department provided additional powers to the Director of Public Prosecutions to allow him to refer animal cruelty cases to the Court of Appeal, if he considers that the sentence handed down in certain Crown Court cases is unduly lenient. Those changes provided Northern Ireland with amongst the toughest maximum penalties for animal cruelty of any jurisdiction on these islands.

Decisions on the appropriate sentence are entirely a matter for the independent judiciary. In making these decisions, judges are guided by guideline judgements from the Court of Appeal and sentencing guidance. I understand that the Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland, which is the body responsible for judicial training, is to receive a briefing from DAERA and councils on animal welfare issues.

In 2015, 78 cases of animal cruelty were disposed of at the courts in Northern Ireland, 48 of which resulted in a conviction. In 2016, 44 prosecutions have been disposed of at court, 32 of which resulted in a conviction. As yet, there have been no prosecutions under the new provisions.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for her answers. Does she agree that the current need is not for new laws but for a more rigorous application of existing laws? Does she welcome the assurance that I received from the Director of Public Prosecutions last week that he stands ready and willing to exercise his new powers to refer unduly lenient sentencing to the Supreme Court? Does she also agree that we should have zero tolerance of anybody convicted of animal cruelty walking free from court, laughing and jeering at the PSNI and animal lovers?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his comments. I agree entirely that we should have zero tolerance. The Member is right to suggest that the current legal framework, particularly the new one that has been in place from 1 August 2016, is certainly robust enough. However, how that is applied in the courts is a matter for the independent judiciary. I am pleased to hear that the Member met the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has given a commitment to ensure that, if sentences are unduly lenient, there will be an opportunity for redress.

Mrs Little Pengelly: The Minister will be aware of the Kirkwood family, whom my colleague referenced, in my constituency of South Belfast, who, despite carrying out what the judiciary called:

"one of the vilest examples of premeditated abuse",

got a suspended sentence and an animal ban. Just two weeks ago, that family, despite the ban, was caught with animals, which re-emphasises the need for a register. Will the Minister commit to meeting me on the issue, which has progressed through the private Member's Bill that I intend to bring forward?

Ms Sugden: I am more than happy to meet Mrs Little Pengelly about the issue. I acknowledge the opportunity she has taken in the House to raise the matter. The case that she outlined is disappointing. With the current legal framework, it will be up to the independent judiciary to deal with individual circumstances. The purpose of the House is to raise debate on issues like this and to read the public feeling on this issue. As Mr Nesbitt said, there needs to be zero tolerance for people who deliberately commit animal cruelty offences. If we need to look at the legal framework, which I am responsible for, I am happy to do that.

Ms Dillon: The report on the review of the implementation of animal welfare legislation made 68 recommendations. I accept that 68 is quite a number, but will the Minister update us on how many recommendations have been implemented in full?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. I do not have that information to hand, but I am happy to write to her and outline where we are with the implementation of the recommendations. I will follow that up in due course.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We now move to topical questions.

T1. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the situation at Maghaberry prison, given that, at the weekend, 100 prisoners were accidentally simultaneously released on to landings, with only three prison officers, who were placed in great danger, to provide supervision. (AQT 286/16-21)


3.15 pm

Ms Sugden: As I said to Mr Allister in a previous answer, I have received a detailed account of the incident at Quoile House in Maghaberry at the weekend. It is right to say that a technical fault, which lasted for 50 minutes, meant that prisoners were not contained in their cells. Despite what was reported in the media, I understand that prisoners did not run riot throughout the prison; it was certainly contained. As I said to Mr Allister earlier, it was a rolling mechanical fault, which meant that only 13 prisoners had the opportunity to be out of their cells at any one time. I understand that six was the highest number of prisoners out of their cells at any one time. Whilst the fault is certainly regrettable, these things happen. I appreciate that there is nervousness about what could have happened. We will take it away and learn from it to see how we can prevent anything like that happening in future.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure that one quote from a prison officer will touch the Minister as much as it touched me:

"Nobody wants to highlight the risk, and how vulnerable we are."

Will the Minister commit to talking directly to prison officers about this issue to find out about the dangers, their needs and whether the staffing levels are inadequate, as my colleague Doug Beattie said to the Minister?

Ms Sugden: I am very mindful of the vulnerability that prison officers can feel in the challenging and often dangerous environment in prisons across Northern Ireland, not only Maghaberry. I have met representatives of prison officers through the Prison Officers' Association. The Northern Ireland Civil Service handbook prevents me from directly meeting prison officers. If elected representatives have an understanding of the issues that prison officers face, I would be more than happy to meet them so that I can better understand those issues and find a way of addressing them.

T2. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Justice whether she would like to take the opportunity to condemn the Sinn Féin Members of the House who recently gave succour to convicted terrorists through their visit to Maghaberry prison, where, amongst those they visited, were the murderers of Constable Carroll; and to state whether she accepts that such visits and the accompanying utterances are ready-made propaganda for the terrorists who are at war with this Province. (AQT 287/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Any elected representative is entitled to visit prisoners in custody. However, we need to be mindful of the public message and victims. I remind all Members of the House, in the messages that they send out, to be very mindful of the other people involved.

Mr Allister: On messages, does the Minister have any comment to make on the fact that, recently, an individual with a previous terrorist history, who was convicted of possession of a submachine gun with intent to endanger life — the most serious offence of possession of which you can be convicted — was gifted a mere four and a half years in prison? Does that not suggest a message that we are only half-hearted in fighting terrorism?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. No, I do not think that we are half-hearted in fighting terrorism. Northern Ireland has come an awful long way given its troubled past. There are certain elements of our troubled past that we need to address head-on; otherwise, we will never address them. It will be a huge failure on the part of the Executive and every Member of the House if we do not address those issues. There needs to be some sort of truth element in the post-conflict society that we now find ourselves in. I do not underestimate that challenge, but we need to be brave because we represent the people of Northern Ireland. I appreciate that a lot of people throughout Northern Ireland are hurting, but it is our job to see whether we can find the best way to move forward. That will not always be the easiest way, but it is something that we have to commit to in the best interests of everyone whom we represent right across Northern Ireland.

T3. Ms Mallon asked the Minister of Justice whether she is aware that, in the absence of a specialist unit for children and young people who are suffering acute mental health and addiction issues, they very often end up in custody suites for their own safety, if not in A&E, sitting with police officers for hours; and, if so, does she think that that is in the best interests of those vulnerable children and young people, and is the best use of PSNI time. (AQT 288/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I completely understand what the Member alludes to, and I am not sure that it is. One of the biggest tragedies of the justice system is that it is almost the failure department when every other part of our public services has already failed. In order to tackle that, we need to look at more upstream approaches so that those people do not find themselves in custody.

I find that a lot of young people in custody have a mental health or addiction problem, usually resulting from a trauma earlier in life. Do I think that the best place for them is custody? I am not sure, but the difficulty is this: if they are not in custody, where else can they go? I have committed to working alongside the Health Minister to see if there is a way that we can address this. I do not think that, when we put people, particularly young people, in custody, it helps their situation. If anything, they are probably at the beginning of a downward spiral, and that is not good enough.

We need to look at the best needs of our children and for a safer community and a safer society. When those people are finished in custody, I do not want them going back to the starting block where they began before ending up in custody. We need to look at more upstream approaches. What the Member mentioned is something that the Health Minister and I have been discussing.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Minister for her answer. As she said, given the overlap between mental health and addiction issues and youth justice and the criminal justice system, will the Minister raise the need for a specialist treatment unit for children and young people with addiction and mental health issues in her discussions with the Health Minister?

Ms Sugden: I am happy to discuss a number of issues. If the Member is keen to join in any of those discussions, I will be keen to hear her views, as it is something that we need to address. I find that the criminal justice system is a vicious circle. It begins with trauma in the home that then manifests itself in addiction or mental health issues, which is why domestic violence is one of my overarching priorities. We see the manifestations of that in the issues that we have been talking about. We need to look at a wider holistic approach. It should not be a case of satisfying criminal justice outcomes; it should be looking at why we are getting to that place in the first instance.

T4. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Justice, in a follow-up to Nichola Mallon’s question, to give her view on the care policies and procedures in prisons and the training that prison staff receive to aid their looking after people in custody, particularly those with complex mental health needs. (AQT 289/16-21)

Ms Sugden: As I outlined, up to half my prison population presents with mental health issues, so there is an issue around the care that we provide when they are in custody. As I have said in a number of answers today, we can look at how to better care for prisoners when they are in our establishments by looking at the training that prison officers receive and how they can better deal with prisoners with mental health issues. That starts with prison officers and their mental health issues; we cannot look at each issue in isolation. Moving forward with our prisons, I am keen to ensure that we have a system that is fit for purpose. That comes from the perspective of looking after the prisoners in our custody and the prison officers.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for her response. There are issues, in that people with mental health problems end up in prison when what they need is treatment and support. I know that that is an issue for the criminal justice system at the other end, but, while people are in custody, I am not convinced that there is enough training and awareness given to prison staff on mental health needs. I encourage the Minister, the Minister of Health and anyone else to ensure that that is the case. In many instances, people end up on a conveyor belt. They get a custodial sentence and end up in prison, but what they really need is treatment. I am not convinced that the awareness is there even to recognise that they need treatment in the first place.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Conor Murphy. Sorry, Minister.

Ms Sugden: You are fine, Deputy Speaker.

I agree. The working relationship that I have with the Health Minister and the conversations we have had in recent months have very much centred on the issue you are talking about: how we can better provide healthcare both within prisons and for people coming into prison. Is prison the right environment for them? I am not sure, but there has to be a balance between community safety and the public perception of what prisons are for and, ultimately, rehabilitation. You are right to point out that this is a conveyor belt. It is almost a vicious circle that begins with an offence and then spirals because people find themselves in custody.

One of the sad things we find is that a lot of the offenders who find themselves in custody get onto a path where their lives are quite organised. They are on the right medication and receive a certain amount of support. The difficulty is that, when they come out of custody, they go back to square one because the support mechanisms are not in place. We have to take an approach that looks at why people find themselves in custody, looks at them whilst they are in custody and then looks at what happens when they come out of custody, so that we can stop them going round and round that circle.

T5. Mr Murphy asked the Minister of Justice whether, with all the discussions she has had recently, she is satisfied that an event such as the tragic death of Patrick Kelly from Omagh, which the Prisoner Ombudsman’s report has stated should have been prevented, will not happen again, given that her responses show that she is clearly exercised about the duty of care for prisoners in custody. (AQT 290/16-21)

Ms Sugden: To be honest, I cannot really answer that question. We have received the Prisoner Ombudsman's report of late, and there are lessons to be learnt and recommendations to be put in place. I certainly hope that this will not be the case again, and my sympathies extend to everybody involved in these tragic circumstances and their families.

Moving forward, we have to have a robust system to ensure that it does not take place again. That starts with looking at the recommendations that the Prisoner Ombudsman has put forward and at the wider issues that I have discussed at length in the Chamber today. We cannot look at these issues in isolation. If prison officers are to give better care to prisoners, they need to be supported as well. That is why I am always keen to package the two together. It is an important area of work. We must stop families losing people; it is not good enough and it is something that I am keen to address along with the Health Minister, who has just joined us in the Chamber.

Mr Murphy: I thank the Minister for her response. I listen to what she says, but of course there is a duty of care to the prisoner on the prison authorities. I welcome and appreciate the conversations she may have with the Minister of Health in that regard, but the Southern Trust also has a role in this. Can the Minister ensure that it will play its role in making sure that there are no further instances like this in prison?

Ms Sugden: I do not like to speak on behalf of the Health Minister, who is sitting in the Chamber. We have met on a number of occasions recently, and I think it is fair to say that we are both committed to looking at the issue of healthcare in prisons and for prisoners. As you rightly say, we have a duty of care towards prisoners, but we also have a duty of care towards prison officers. I am keen to address this by taking very much a parallel approach, because they will all be better impacted and we will see the benefit of it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We can take a quick question.

T6. Mr M Bradley asked the Minister of Justice for her views on the recent drugs amnesty at Maghaberry prison, to state what prompted the amnesty and to list the drugs that were handed in. (AQT 291/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Anyone who takes illicit substances puts themselves at risk. It is no secret that drugs are a problem in prisons as well as outside them. We will continue to face that problem day on day. Governors will use a number of tools at their disposal to keep prisoners safe, and that can include an amnesty, which will protect life, so that we can, perhaps, seize or take drugs out of circulation. The governor at Maghaberry used the limited amnesty for those reasons, because there was a concern around particular drugs that had harmed prisoners. That amnesty almost had a dual purpose. It was about taking drugs out of circulation, but it was also done to raise awareness among prisoners that the drugs are dangerous.

When a governor takes an approach like that, it really does suggest and highlight how dangerous drugs are. If we want to ensure the well-being of prisoners, that needs to be raised with them, as well as trying to take drugs out of our prisons.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Time is up. I ask Members to take their ease, please, while the Speaker takes the Chair.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)


3.30 pm

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Mr Speaker: Mr Mark Durkan has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually from their seat. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.

Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Health, following a departmental report, which indicated that over 93% of patients in the Southern Health and Social Care Trust area waited more than the target of 14 days for a first consultation following an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer, to outline what immediate intervention her Department is taking to address cancer waiting times.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Health): I am aware that the Southern Health and Social Care Trust is experiencing challenges in meeting the 14-day target for urgent referrals for suspected breast cancer. I regret any delays that are being experienced, and I wish to assure you that everything is being done to ensure that those referred are being seen as soon as possible. The provisional figures for September show a marked improvement in performance in the Southern Trust, with 77·6% of urgent referrals seen within the 14-day target. That is as a result of trusts working together to provide additional clinics. In addition, the trust has extended its working hours, and that has facilitated the operation of a fourth breast clinic.

Increasing pressures on cancer services, due to an ageing population and increased referrals, inevitably create a pressure on our health services. For example, between 2014-15 and 2015-16, an additional 10,348 people were referred as red flag because of suspected cancer. Of those 10,348, over 3,000 were red-flag referrals for suspected breast cancer. That is why we need to reform the health and social care system. Longer term, we need to ensure that we have a sustainable breast service in place to ensure that patients are seen within the timescale set. A workshop is due to be held on 26 October with all trusts to identify longer-term solutions for providing a sustainable breast service across the North, given the staffing challenges in breast services right across the piece. Despite those challenges, it is positive that the five-year survival rates for breast cancer — the most common cancer in women — continue to be better than those in England, Scotland and Wales, and I am determined that that trend will continue.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for her answer. In the light of the awful figures we heard today; the increase in the number of people suffering from cancer, as she outlined; the data gaps in treatment; the fact that people here do not have the same access to life-improving drugs as those living with cancer in other jurisdictions; and the concerns about the workforce for cancer treatment, does she accept that we should have a cancer strategy for Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: I have raised that issue in the House before and discussed it on the back of a debate in the Chamber, where I said clearly that I would look towards developing a cancer strategy. I think that what we have seen over the last number of months, particularly in the Southern Trust area, has been shocking. I think that it is unacceptable that any woman has to wait any longer than is absolutely necessary. The targets are challenging, and they are challenging for a reason. That is to make sure that we deliver the very best outcomes that we possibly can for any woman who finds herself referred for breast cancer assessment.

We need to continue to do more. I think that this also points to the fact that we need to continue to deliver real, meaningful transformation. I listened with interest this morning to some of the commentators in the media. What Margaret Carr from Cancer Research said was so apt and so appropriate. She said that waiting lists are a symptom of a bad system — a system that is not working. That is what I have been consistently saying to the House, and what I am setting out in my transformation piece is how we are going to deliver better outcomes for people. That is the real test that we need to apply to ourselves in delivering better outcomes for all those people who need any element of our health and social care system.

Mrs Dobson: These waiting times are symptomatic of the human tragedy engulfing the entire Northern Ireland health service. Such shocking performances would see heads roll in other regions, yet again we have a Minister who refuses to take any responsibility. I pay tribute to the amazing staff — the doctors and nurses who are working day in, day out. Will the Minister detail how many of the 215 out of 224 suspected breast cancer patients in the Southern Trust who were not seen within the target of 14 days were subsequently given a breast cancer diagnosis?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said, I do not think it is acceptable that we have the situation that we have. As chair of the all-party working group on cancer, the Member is very aware of the workforce challenges that there are, and which were a particular problem in the Southern Trust area. As I said, this all points to the reason why we need to transform health and social care. We have to deliver better outcomes. We have a responsibility as an Executive to deliver better outcomes, and I am certainly up for that challenge. In the next number of weeks, I will announce my direction of travel for what we need to do differently to deliver those better outcomes.

Just so that everyone is very clear, this is a report that I published last Thursday. I published the report and the statistics, because I think that we need to keep putting in the public domain where the health service needs to do better. I published these statistics for that reason and will continue to do so. It is so important that we tackle waiting lists. I said from the very first day I took office that we need to tackle waiting lists, transform health and social care and give mental health parity of esteem alongside physical health. Those are the challenges that I have. I took my position in the Executive knowing that I have many challenges, but I am certainly up for delivering better outcomes. I look forward to all the parties in the House working with me to deliver the transformation that we need to deliver.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I thank the Minister for her answers thus far, and Mr Durkan for tabling the question. I also welcome the Minister's views on a cancer strategy, which is something that I have been fighting for. I listened to the piece on the radio this morning and heard someone saying that we had been a victim of our own success. In a way that is good news, because people are becoming more aware, but that is no comfort to the people who are waiting.

From what I can see, the Belfast Trust seems to be pretty much on time with many of its appointments. Is there any way of sharing services in the trust to alleviate some of the pressures? On the back of that, I know that breast cancer is not the only area where we have severe waiting lists; urology is another one. Is she going to take steps in that area also?

Mrs O'Neill: One of the things that I have been doing is making sure that the trusts start to work more in partnership together. There should be no competition between trusts; it should be about the best outcomes and how they can work with a neighbouring trust to deliver better outcomes for people. There has been a turnaround in the Southern Trust. It is important to say that, in this month alone, over 95% of urgent referrals in the Southern Trust have been seen within the 14-day target.

It is important that no Member of the Assembly has a knee-jerk reaction to media reports. I am not for one minute suggesting that the Member opposite has done that. The report was published last Thursday. I put it out there in the public domain last Thursday, and I made it very clear that the statistics are not good enough. I said that in the Department's accompanying press release.

At the end of September, the Belfast Trust's 14-day performance was at 99%. There is 1% still to go there, and that is what we need to work towards. The Northern Trust was at 99%. The South Eastern Trust was at 100%. The Southern Trust, obviously, has had a problem, and it was at 78% at the end of September. However, I am told that, as of today, it is up to 95% based on its performance of the last week. The Western Trust is at 100%. This is testimony to the clinicians and the people who are working on the front line delivering first-class health services. I know for a fact from my engagement with those people that they are devastated whenever they hear knee-jerk reactions to the service that they are providing. These people are providing excellent services, and those are the targets that they are meeting. Do we fall down in some of the other categories? Yes, the health service does, and that is why we need to do more.

Mr Sheehan: I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed the most up-to-date position on the red-flag referrals and the targets that have been met. Given that this is breast cancer awareness month, what is her Department doing to raise awareness of breast cancer?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. This is breast cancer awareness month, and it is important that we continue to raise awareness. The figures I referred to and the fact that over 10,000 more people have been referred show that the awareness campaigns are working. The Public Health Agency is urging all women to be breast aware and to think about attending screening when invited. I use this opportunity again today to encourage all women to do so and to consider attending. We all know that prevention and early intervention are key in saving lives from breast cancer. Regular breast screening reduces the risk of death from breast cancer. On average, one life will be saved from breast cancer for every 200 women screened.

I encourage all women, particularly those over 70, to consider contacting their local breast screening unit to arrange an appointment every three years. Many women do not realise that the risk of breast cancer continues to increase with age. It is so important that we continue to raise awareness. Some good things are happening in our system, including the fact that, despite all the challenges we have, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is better here than in England, Scotland and Wales. That does not mean we can rest on our laurels; it means that something is working and is good, so we need to do more of that and more of the same. I think the fact that so many more people are being referred into the system is because the awareness is starting to really kick in and people are starting to take it on board.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for her answer. This is not the only area where I have been advised there are issues with red flag referrals. For example, I have recently been advised that red flag referrals for ovarian cancer are also taking longer than the two weeks, often taking up to three or four weeks. What can the Minister do to reassure people that they will be seen within the two-week period? What specific work has been done to fully implement the service framework for cancer prevention, treatment and care?

Mrs O'Neill: I will work in reverse. We are reviewing the service framework, and I hope to have that information in November, which will then allow us to decide and best inform how we take forward a potential cancer strategy, if we decide that is the best course of action. I do not have statistics with me on ovarian cancer, but I am very happy to provide them to the Member. It would be the same scenario if we were in the situation of people being referred and not being seen within the targets. As I say, I believe in these targets. They are very challenging for a reason. We should never reduce the targets. We should continue to keep the pressure on and make sure the service responds to the need. That is the challenge for me as a Health Minister.

I keep saying this over and over again, but I cannot say it enough: if we do not change how we do things, we are not going to deliver better outcomes. That is certainly what I am committed to doing in the months and years ahead.

Mr Carroll: The Minister might have seen the recent 'Nolan Live' show where a member of the audience detailed a horrific wait for the treatment of abscesses in her child's mouth. That is one of many cases we have seen. Further investigation shows that waiting times for west Belfast are significantly longer than in other areas for treatment for a range of ailments. Will the Minister detail her plans to try to address that postcode lottery?

Mr Speaker: Before the Minister comes to answer the question, I will say that the question for urgent oral answer was on breast cancer. It is for the Minister to decide whether she will answer that.

Mrs O'Neill: I know you are new to the House, so I will be kind insofar as to say that that comes back to the bigger picture of waiting lists. We have to deal with the waiting lists issue, and the only way we will tackle that is by transforming health and social Care. Many bodies of work have been done over the last number of years. Things have gone well, other things have not gone so well and some things have not been implemented the way they should be. I have received a panel report that looks at the burning platform that is health and social care. I intend over the next number of weeks to set out my stall on how I am going to deliver better outcomes for every individual. That is what we should be about. Whether it is dental waiting lists, referrals for autism assessment or breast cancer referrals, it does not matter what it is. If it is happening to you, it is the most important thing in your life. We need to get to the point where we have appropriate referrals in a timely manner so that people are assessed and getting the help they need. That is the transformation and priority piece I am involving myself in.

Mr Allister: It seems to me that the fact that these figures got so bad suggests there was some deficiency in the departmental or other oversight, because surely the purpose of oversight is to identify and arrest the trends. Therefore, is anything new being done through oversight to identify and arrest such trends in this trust or anywhere else?

Mrs O'Neill: The problems we are talking about today in the Southern Trust are on breast cancer referrals, but I have consistently said that waiting lists across the piece, no matter what someone is being referred for, are not acceptable, are not tolerable and cannot continue. They have continued to grow year on year, and one of the main reasons they have continued to grow is because we have an outdated system that is trying to deliver 21st-century health and social care, and it is not happening. We need to reform the system to allow us to get better outcomes. I want to get to the point at which we can stand in the House and talk about real, positive service developments that make a real difference to people as opposed to talking continually about the negativity around waiting lists.


3.45 pm

As I said, it is the most challenging thing for you as an individual if you are on a waiting list and are in pain, or if you have child who is ill. For whatever reason, you may be on a waiting list, and we have to get waiting lists down. I look forward to working with every Member to make sure that we get to that point. We need to invest in health and social care. We need to invest in people's outcomes. We need to tackle the root causes of why people get sick in the first place. The correlation between deprivation and outcomes, whether that be cancer, tooth decay or many other conditions, is so stark. We need to tackle it with and invest in early intervention and prevention, and we need cross-departmental working. The new-style Programme for Government will be a lot more fit for purpose to allow us to do that and to deliver many more better outcomes.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for her responses so far. Minister, I hope that you will agree that, on the day when there is a debate about openness and transparency, the very fact that you published these figures shows that you as a Minister and others in the Executive want to be open and transparent. I am sure that you are equally concerned about the issue in that trust. Will you join me in expressing disappointment that some today have wanted to sensationalise the issue by suggesting that heads will roll when you have just indicated in your answer that survival rates in Northern Ireland are higher than anywhere else in the UK?

Mrs O'Neill: It is really important that there is never a knee-jerk approach. As I said, I published these figures last Thursday, and it has taken until today, six days later, for the matter to come to the House as a question for urgent oral answer, which begs the question about someone's genuine approach to dealing with the issue. There is genuine concern out there about waiting lists and referrals, which I accept. I met Cancer Focus yesterday, and this is one of the issues that we discussed. There are genuine concerns that we need to address. Nobody should wait any longer than the ministerial targets that have been set out, and, if that continues to happen, that is where we have to take real and meaningful action. Those trusts are working hard. I think that the Southern Trust has turned the picture around. It has faced down the challenges that it has had. Is it acceptable when it happens? No, it is not, but we have to keep driving change forward and making sure that people work together and deliver better outcomes.

Mr Butler: I thank Mark Durkan for tabling the question for urgent oral answer, and I thank the Minister for coming in to address it. I welcome those statistics being published last week, which do not make good reading for anybody. I agree with Dr O'Hagan, who this morning described the situation for urgent cancer treatment as "horrendous". Mr Durkan asks about the immediate interventions that your Department will take. My colleague wrote to you on a specific issue being faced by the Southern Trust, and your answer referred to long-term solutions. Today, you also referred to solutions in relation to sustainable breast cancer clinics and services. What are your solutions, Minister, especially on workforce planning? You talked about the long-term plan —

Mr Speaker: I ask Mr Butler to come to his question.

Mr Butler: Yes, certainly. It is around workforce planning and the determination that you say you have to give us solutions.

Mrs O'Neill: I am always trying to find solutions. I am always trying to deliver better outcomes for people. We will do that by transforming how we deliver health and social care, so, regardless of what we are talking about, it is about delivering better outcomes. It is about early intervention and prevention. Some challenges, particularly in the Southern Trust, have been about workforce planning, but that is not specific to the Southern Trust. Right across the board, there is difficulty with the recruitment of radiologists and consultants. Despite the fact that the Southern Trust went out to recruitment, it was not able to be successful in recruiting anybody to those posts. It is out again to recruitment, and, hopefully, that will start to alleviate the situation in the trust. In the meantime, we are working with the other trusts to make sure that they are able to provide additional clinics and to support people and have them assessed within the timescales, particularly the 14-day target. As I said, the figures now speak for themselves on being able to turn the picture around.

Workforce planning in general is a major issue right across health and social care. It is something that I certainly want to tackle in the time ahead. If we are to transform health and social care and have more investment in the community, we have to make sure that the workforce are fit for purpose and supported, and are doing the job that they do best. That job is to engage with, treat and help people. I am certainly committed to ensuring that we have an overarching workforce plan, which will be key alongside service delivery, service reconfiguration and a change in how we do things. Key to the success of all that is being able to make sure that the workforce are brought along with you and that they are up for the challenges and the change that needs to happen.