Official Report: Monday 21 November 2016


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

Speaker's Business

Mr Speaker: Members, on Friday afternoon, I received a media query to ask whether I would recuse myself from any future decisions on Assembly business in relation to Charter NI and the social investment fund. I replied to make it clear that I had already done so. I had, in fact, made it clear to my office on 24 October 2016. However, it is only right that the Assembly is the place where I should make a fuller statement on the issue. It is not normal that any Speaker would speak to the House about constituency interests, but I recognise that I should do so today.

I make it clear that, while I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as adviser to Charter NI. My involvement with Charter NI, as an organisation working on the ground in my constituency, has been no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice from its elected representative. I have supported Charter NI in projects that it is working on for the benefit of my constituents. All Members know that they will act similarly for organisations in their constituencies. Similarly, like Members from other parties, I was appointed as a constituency member to my local steering group for the social investment fund.

When a first question for urgent oral answer was received in relation to Charter NI on 24 October 2016, I gave consideration to whether I should take the decision. Given the time pressure, I proceeded to take the decision, but, in doing so, made it clear to my office that, if future decisions were required, it would be prudent for me to delegate to avoid any perception of conflict. As a consequence of that, when a second question for urgent oral answer was tabled on 8 November, the decision was delegated to the Principal Deputy Speaker, in line with the instruction given to my office on 24 October. The Principal Deputy Speaker then considered the procedural advice and made a decision on the basis of it.

With hindsight, I accept that it would have been better had I followed my initial instincts and also delegated the first question. I apologise unreservedly to the House for not having done so. Members can be assured that I will err on the side of caution in the future.

In accordance with the direction I gave to my office on 24 October, should any further procedural decisions be required relating to Assembly business around the social investment fund in East Belfast or Charter NI, I will again use the ability to delegate, which has been given to me under Standing Order 5(2). The Speaker's Office is diligent in recording when such decisions have been delegated, but, for the future, when a decision or oral question or similar item is communicated, if it has been delegated, the Member will also be made aware of that when receiving the answer.

I am advised that it is unusual for there to be a direct conflict between a Speaker's constituency role and procedural decisions that may have to be taken. There are occasions when issues might come up related to our constituencies or other interests when the Deputy Speakers or I are in the Chair. In most circumstances, those are not problematic, but Members can be assured that, when a perceived conflict arises, we take account of it. For instance, it was very clear last week that questions on the social investment fund may feature prominently during questions for oral answer to the Executive Office today. I made clear to my office on Friday morning that I needed to consider whether it would be wiser for me not to be in the Chair for those questions as would normally be expected, and I will not be.

I want to make some additional points. Members may be aware that one of the issues I have been frustrated about in recent weeks has been trying to get across that the political reasons Members may give for accepting an item of business or, indeed, speculate as to why it has not been accepted, are not the same as the procedural considerations the Deputy Speakers and I take account of. That is why Members may sometimes reach different conclusions. In my letter to party leaders on 21 October, I made clear that the best way for me or, indeed, any of us to assure our independence and impartiality is to base our decisions on our procedures and precedents. While Members may not always like the outcomes, they can be assured that that is the approach I have taken.

I want to remind Members that I informed the House last week that I intend to bring forward new rulings on Matters of the Day and questions for urgent oral answer in the new year to make Members aware of the factors I will take account of. I have clearly noted the increased demand in this new mandate, and Members can expect that to be reflected in the new ruling.

Finally, I want to remind the House that, like other Members, I am elected to represent a constituency, but I am more constrained in how I can do that. For instance, I cannot raise constituency issues on the Floor or make public comment on areas of political debate. As someone who has always found working for constituents the most rewarding part of being an elected representative, I will admit that this is one aspect of being Speaker I have found particularly difficult. As I said, Members can expect me to be extremely cautious in the future in relation to where my responsibilities as Speaker and a constituency Member interact. I will be having further discussions with my officials on that. However, I ask Members to be conscious that I, too, have constituents to represent.

I have clearly heard and understood the concerns that Members raised. I hope that a number of points are now on the record to make it clear that lessons have been learned and steps taken for the future.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be of assistance if guidance was given to Members that their membership of the steering committees under the social investment fund should be declared on the Register of Members' Interests?

Mr Speaker: I think, Mr Allister, that I will seek advice on that — you can also seek advice on the matter — from the Clerk of Standards.

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In your statement, you said that there are occasions related to constituency or other interests where there would not be an issue that would be problematic in making a ruling, and you then referred in that regard to perceived conflicts of interest. I suggest that you consider that, where there are issues that might be problematic, and indeed where there may be perceived conflict of interest, it might be a better course of action for you as Speaker to take the advice of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Speakers in order to ensure that there is a full hearing among you and your colleagues in relation to rulings that might be made when it comes to issues that might present as perceived conflicts of interest and where there are indeed issues that are problematic.

Mr Speaker: I will reflect on your comments, Mr Attwood, but I do have to say that I have confidence in the Speaker's team in the Assembly.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: Before I call the Minister to make her statement, I remind her that Standing Order 18A(2) requires her to make a written copy of it available to Members at least 30 minutes before delivering it in the Chamber. The Minister has failed to meet this requirement this morning. The Business Office received the statement only at 11.49 am. Therefore, in accordance with Standing Order 18A(2), I ask her to state the reason for this prior to making her statement.

Ms Sugden (The Minister of Justice): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I apologise to the House for the lateness in supplying the Business Office with my statement. It was an administrative oversight on our part. I will ensure that it does not happen again.

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Ms Sugden: I wish to update Members on matters relating to mental health in the Northern Ireland Prison Service following recent deaths in custody.

First, my thoughts and sympathy are with all those who have been affected by the recent deaths in Maghaberry Prison. Every death in custody is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for bereaved family and friends. It greatly affects prison staff, particularly those officers who have worked with these vulnerable people and have come to know them. It is also a tragedy for other inmates who are affected, too.

As Justice Minister, I take extremely seriously the responsibility that is placed on me to care for every individual in custody in Northern Ireland. It is a very sad fact that the prison population includes groups of highly vulnerable people and, for some, the confinement regime itself presents a significant burden on their mental health.

Since November 2015, there have been five deaths in custody in Northern Ireland, four relating to mental health issues. On 17 November 2016, the prison population totalled 1,533. Of these, 417 were recorded as having a mental illness, and a further 740 prisoners were recorded as having an addiction. That amounts to just over 75% of the prison population.

The needs of those who are in prison are complex. In comparison with wider society, disproportionately higher numbers of prisoners present with mental health problems and personality disorders. In addition, the problems that are associated with alcohol and substance misuse, mental illness and generally poor coping skills are all higher among the prison population. Research also tells us that people who are in custody are more likely to have either undiagnosed or unmet health needs. For many, their first mental health diagnosis occurs only when they are in custody.

The Prison Service supports vulnerable prisoners through the supporting prisoners at risk (SPAR) process. This helps staff to identify at an early stage behaviours that suggest that a prisoner may be in personal crisis and in need of additional and immediate support and care. The emphasis is on individualised care of the prisoner and engagement to understand what is causing the distress.


12.15 pm

The SPAR process is designed to be a short-term crisis, first-aid management tool; it is not designed to provide long-term care or to address underlying issues such as poor mental health or historical trauma. The process provides for an immediate plan for keeping the person safe, a swift assessment of the concerns causing the crisis and a pathway for longer-term interventions and support to prevent or reduce a recurrence.

However we portray it, the custody environment is not designed to deal with those experiencing severe, chronic mental health issues. Whatever level of training we provide to staff, they remain prison officers. The Northern Ireland Prison Service cannot meet the challenge alone. We need the ongoing help and support of the Department of Health, other Departments and partners across the justice system and in the wider community. Prison officers play a vital role in assessing and supporting vulnerable offenders during periods of crisis. Countless lives have been saved by prison officers who identify prisoners at risk and care for them successfully. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work that they do around the clock to keep prisoners as safe as possible in very challenging circumstances.

The management of the Prison Service, governors and their teams work tirelessly to reduce the rate of self-harm and to prevent suicide. Identifying and supporting prisoners with mental health issues remains a high priority for the Northern Ireland Prison Service. However, not every episode of self-harm can be prevented. Tragically, some suicides will happen despite the best efforts of staff. The Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which deliver healthcare in prisons, are committed to providing effective services to vulnerable people in custody. The Health Minister and I want to reassure the Assembly and the public that we are working together on this issue.

Following the most recent tragic death at Maghaberry, a meeting was held on Friday 18 November to develop a community response plan. It followed the same model that is adopted when there are potential clusters of suicide in the community. The aim of using that approach is to detect a potential suicide cluster and thereby prevent further deaths by suicide. Full investigations into the circumstances of the recent deaths at Maghaberry are ongoing. Whilst it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings of the Prisoner Ombudsman or a coroner's inquest, I believe that it is crucial to act immediately. I also believe this is the first time that this model, which has been used successfully in the community, has been adopted in a prison in Northern Ireland. The objectives of the work are to identify and support those potentially at risk through timely and coordinated support from all sectors; to coordinate local and additional resources through the response period; and to monitor and evaluate the response put in place.

Furthermore, the Prison Service is working in partnership with the South Eastern Trust to review suicide and self-harm policy. The new policy is still in development, but it is likely to adopt a two-strand approach to the management of prisoners at risk. The first strand is called proportional response, and that encompasses the essence of providing keep-safe care through positive staff engagement and immediate response and intervention if required. The second strand is called tailored support, and that will provide a multi-agency approach to prisoner-specific, medium- to long-term care. All mental health and therapeutic care streams will be managed in partnership with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust and facilitated by the Northern Ireland Prison Service through tailored support.

The Department of Health and the Department of Justice are continuing to liaise in respect of a joint healthcare and criminal justice strategy, covering the health and social care needs of people at all stages of the criminal justice journey — whether they are suspects, defendants or are serving sentences — in Northern Ireland. The draft criminal justice and healthcare strategy and action plan have been through consultation, and an analysis of the responses has been completed to inform the final strategy. It is an excellent example of how Departments can work together. I expect it to be finalised, agreed and brought forward for implementation as a matter of urgency.

Minister O'Neill and I have agreed to conduct an immediate review of vulnerable people in custody. Officials from both Departments are working together to define the structure, scope and time frame of that review. I know that Members appreciate the scale of the challenge in respect of mental health in prisons and the need for joined-up partnership working to address that challenge. I hope that Members also agree that, at a strategic and operational level, steps are already being taken to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals in custody.

Mr Beattie: I welcome the statement from the Justice Minister. I honestly believe that she is working towards dealing with the issue. It is good to see that she is working with the Health Minister to deal with the issue because it needs a joined-up approach. That must be welcomed. I have spoken to her on a number of occasions; she is absolutely sincere. I applaud her for the work that she has done so far.

I have raised this issue before: the SPAR process that she talked about is effective only if we have the right level and number of prison officers. Sadly, we are lacking that.

I have raised that concern before. The Prison Officers' Association raised the issue of manning levels with the First Minister and asked for action. That was on 10 October, and I do not believe that there has been any action taken.

If I may, I will say another thing to try to add value.

Mr Speaker: Mr Beattie, I ask you to come to a question.

Mr Beattie: Sorry. Has the Minister considered a system of trauma risk management for immediate management of prison officers after an incident?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question and for his continued interest in the area. We have spoken on a number of occasions, not least on the issues that he raises today. I welcome that support.

Yes, there are issues in prisons with staffing. It is something that some of the representative organisations that I have met have raised with me. Indeed, we are trying to find ways to better facilitate that, but it will not be easy. It will not be a challenge met overnight, but I do understand that there are serious consequences. To give the Member reassurance, I can say that it is something that I have a focus on. I am keen to support prison officers, and we have had a conversation in recent weeks on how I have been trying to do that. I will announce in the next few weeks further support for prison officers around extending help from the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust (PRRT) both to serving and retired prison officers. I believe that there will be positive benefits from that; namely, helping with our sickness absence rates. Hopefully, that measure will enable us to have the full quantity of prison officers so that we can better care for prisoners.

I am pleased that the Member recognises that the issue is something that I am keen to tackle. We have a number of challenges. I cannot tackle those challenges overnight regrettably, but I am working towards doing it and am keen to listen to prison officers as much as possible to see what we can do to move forward.

Mr Frew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I thank the Minister for her statement, albeit it was late. I welcome the content of the report. The community response plan seems to be common sense. I also welcome the review of the suicide and self-harm policy and the work on the draft criminal justice and healthcare strategy and action plan. Even with that multilayered approach, is it still the case that psychologist reports are being, at worst, ignored and, at best, left uncommunicated? Is medication being prescribed quickly enough, and are the drugs dispensed getting to the prisoner patient quickly enough? Will the Minister reassure me and the House that that issue will be looked at seriously and urgently? Will the reviews, strategies and action plans help deal with psychoactive substances? We know them to be a real problem in our prisons, contributing to the desperate behaviour of prisoners and the state of their mental health. Will support for prison staff be ingrained in all these policies and action plans?

Ms Sugden: I will address the last question first. There absolutely needs to be support for prison staff, because, ultimately, anything that we do will begin with them. I have said that in the House many times before. Prisoner officers are critical to trying to address this particular problem. I will seek to support them as much as I possibly can, whether that be through training or personal support for them.

The Member raised a valid point about the use of psychoactive substances in prisons. Those, as well as the use of other drugs and alcohol misuse, contribute to a lot of the problems that we are seeing with mental health in prisons. The review of vulnerable people in custody that I announced today will look at those particular issues. It is something that we are keen to address. One death in custody is one too many. It is deeply regrettable that we have had two deaths in a couple of weeks and four over the past year. The nature of prisons is that they are very challenging. I want to do as much as I can to stop this happening again, but I am not sure that it will be the case.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister and welcome this collaborative approach. What outcomes do you hope to achieve with the Health Minister and the criminal justice system around repeat offenders and those who are going through a revolving-door process in our prisons? They are mainly young people with mental health issues and psychoactive substance addictions before they enter prison.

Most of them, when they enter prison, are locked up for 23 hours a day; we heard that at the Justice Committee on Thursday past. Some of them are using psychoactive substances as an escape and release from being locked up for 23 hours a day.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. What I would like to see out of the review and this collaborative working is that health and social care for people in the criminal justice system should be there before, during and after their time in custody. The Member is right to suggest that there are incidents of reoffending because we are, perhaps, not most effectively putting in the appropriate supports for people who find themselves in custody. When they go back into the community, they do not perhaps get the support that they got whilst they were in custody. Therefore, it is one of the vulnerabilities that is manifested when they come out.

This approach needs to be a holistic one between the Health Minister and me and other agencies along the route right throughout the criminal justice system and in the community, where support also needs to be in place. We need to take a critical look at health and social care in prisons. I hope that the work that the Health Minister and I will take forward will reveal some of the areas that we can address effectively.

Mr Attwood: Last week, during a long meeting, the Justice Committee looked at a report into one of the tragic incidents in the prison. It was confirmed that — Mr Frew indicated this — it took eight days between a prisoner being prescribed an increase in medication and that being actioned. Given that there is meant to be joined-up work between the health side and the prison side, were the systems that are currently in place today to be stress-tested is the Minister confident that those sorts of incidents would not arise again? Will she give a guarantee that, in taking forward the community response plan, she will involve in that work people from the independent third-sector voluntary and community organisations that deal with self-harm and suicide at the front line and not just involve those who represent public bodies?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Absolutely. I think that we can do better in terms of the work between the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which provides healthcare in my prisons. Since becoming Minister, and with my relationship with the Health Minister, there has been an increase in partnership working. Even in respect of the Programme for Government, when we talk about collaborative working, there is that essence of moving forward. We are in a much better place than we ever were before in terms of working together.

We are announcing today that we will strengthen that even more. We need to be mindful of the fact that whilst people are in our custody they should have the same access to health and social care as they would outside custody. In my mind, that is their basic right. There is a real opportunity to get this right so that people in custody get the service that they are entitled to.

The Member is absolutely right about the community and voluntary sector. The community is not just the statutory organisations; it is the community that people in custody go back to. I believe that the community and voluntary organisations are best placed to provide that support because they know these people best and they know their communities best. There is a real strength in the community and voluntary sector along with this work, so yes, I can give that assurance.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her statement. It refers to a proportional response and the need for:

"immediate response and intervention if required."

In the recent case of self-harm, prison staff and senior prison staff stood by for over half an hour and watched while a man slashed his own groin and then blinded himself manually. Is the Minister satisfied that, whatever comes out of this review, prison staff will be encouraged to take the initiative and take responsibility when required and stop this sort of thing if it is being observed rather than wait for somebody to give them guidance?

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

Ms Sugden: I certainly hope that, whatever comes out of the review, we can provide a more immediate response so that incidents such as the Member described do not happen.

This has to be tackled with a holistic approach. Officers need to be given the right training and skills to deal with this in the immediate environment, and we need to look at the healthcare side to ensure that we do not get to that point.

It has to be a full review of mental health in prisons. Our Prison Service saves lives on a day-to-day basis, and that cannot be overlooked. However, more work could be done, which is why this review comes at a very appropriate point.


12.30 pm

Mrs Cameron: I very much welcome the statement from the Minister of Justice. We had a lengthy Committee meeting on Thursday of almost five hours, and two hours were spent speaking to the health trust on the Sean Lynch case of serious self-harm. During the meeting, I asked a psychiatrist, Dr Bownes, about psychoactive substances, and I was quite distressed when I realised that mental health is an additional factor to these substances. I specifically asked whether, if a prisoner did not present with mental health issues and took these substances, the outcome could be the same, and the answer was yes. How will the Minister rid the prison estate of these substances, which are attacking brains, which was the answer I was given?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. Psychoactive substances are completely dangerous and have the repercussions that you have suggested. Tackling drug and alcohol misuse in our prisons is a challenge; indeed, an amnesty has been conducted recently to rid prisons of these substances. The point of the amnesty was to highlight the danger of the substances. This is about educating prisoners about drug use and putting other procedures in place for people who bring substances into prisons. It is something that we need to strengthen, but I am assured at this stage that we are doing what we can. I take the point about psychoactive substances, and the two very much go hand in hand, whether it is the misuse of drugs or mental health problems. It is something that we need to look at, and it will form part of the review we have announced today.

Mr McCartney: The complexity of what we are dealing with cannot be overstated. In the last Question Time, I mentioned the assessment of prisoners as they came in, particularly to Maghaberry, and whether it was effective enough. Also, on resources and the use of resources, the Anne Owers prison review team was very specific that better deployment of resources could be brought into place with the three mini-prisons in Maghaberry. I have stated that I think that that proposal has been, at best, ignored and that there is a degree of resistance to it. Will the Minister revisit it? Perhaps it will allow her some resource as she goes forward.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. The SPAR process, as I have outlined, is a very immediate short-term approach to tackling mental health in prisons; it was never intended to provide a long-term solution for dealing with prisoners in our care. Certainly, any approach taken forward will need to have more focus on prisoners who present with mental health problems; 75% is not an insignificant number. This is something that we need to take very seriously; indeed, I hope the review that we have announced today alongside the Minister of Health will take into account how we can best tackle this moving forward. I am keen to look at what we need to put in place to ensure that this is not as much of a problem in the future.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for her statement. Earlier, my colleague mentioned the psychologist's report either being ignored or, at best, not being committed to. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that during the review, which I welcome, she will look at this particularly difficult area?

Ms Sugden: Yes, I certainly can give that assurance. We need to look at this area — it is deeply complex — and how we can best address it.

I am quite happy to have as full a review as we need to on the issue, and, if that includes providing a report or anything further, I am quite happy to do that, too.

Mr Butler: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I welcome many of the short-term measures that you have embarked on, especially in conjunction with the Health Minister. You talked about the lack of training and the appropriateness of prison officers looking after people who have been diagnosed with mental health issues. Notwithstanding that, those subject to custodial sentences will find themselves looked after by prison officers. Are you satisfied that the training, specifically the induction training that our prison staff get, is appropriate at the moment? If not, are you looking to address that in the short term as well?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. I am quite happy to look at that. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the most recent deaths, we sharpened our focus on the current training to try to understand whether it was appropriate in terms of what we can do to try to ensure that, in the short term, such deaths do not happen again. I think that we need a wider review of prison officer training, but, as my statement said, it will not be for prison officers alone to tackle the issue. Prison officers, as you know, are there to do a job of caring for people in custody. We need that work to very much coincide with the service that the trust provides through health and social care in our prisons. I think that it is appropriate that we also look at it as part of the review to see whether there is anything that we can do. I believe that we need to better support prison officers in the job that they do so that they can better care for prisoners in custody. I am happy to look at that from the perspective of looking after prisoners but, most of all, from the perspective of supporting officers in their job.

Mr Poots: I understand your apology, Minister, and I am sure that the statement not being received in time was nothing whatsoever to do with you.

Obviously, the Minister inherited a circumstance in which there are not as many prison officers on the ground as there should be. Does she recognise the importance of having an adequate number of prison officers in the interests of the prisoners and, indeed, the prison staff? The mental health issue does not affect purely prisoners; given the stress that prison officers are under, many of them have severe mental health issues and are off sick at the moment.

Ms Sugden: I very much recognise that we have challenges in the Prison Service, particularly with sickness absence among prison officers. I am keen to look at and address that. I want to understand the problems in my prisons so that I can best address them. I have been speaking to the various representative bodies, and they have outlined those concerns to me. I cannot tackle it overnight, but I am giving it my immediate focus and will hopefully be able to get some satisfactory outcomes as soon as possible.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. I think that it is very encouraging. I want to focus on those prisoners who are engaging in the process. As Members will know, people with mental health issues have a low mood, and it is very hard for them to engage, let alone sustain their engagement, in therapies and support services. How will you tackle the wider cultural issue in prisons and make the mental health of prisoners everybody's business and responsibility?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. The fact that, since I have become Minister, we have had an awful lot of focus on mental health in prisons demonstrates my commitment to trying to make it an issue that is very much on everybody's agenda and which is a priority for everyone. You raise a very important point about the complexities of mental health in prisons, given that there are those who do and those who do not engage in the process. I think that, to an extent, that is where the difficulties with tackling mental health issues in prisons come in. I believe that we need to take a more holistic view of health and social care in prisons and that, working with the Health Minister moving forward, we need to have a focus on that. I give an assurance to the House and to the Member that we need to have a focus on it.

I reiterate: 75% is not an insignificant number; in fact, it is quite a significant number, and it would be remiss of us if we did not put a focus on this. It is something that I am keen to do moving forward, and I hope that my statement has confirmed that to the House.

Mr Beggs: The recent Prisoner Ombudsman's report indicated that drug misuse has been a factor; indeed, that is an issue that officials highlighted at the Justice Committee on Thursday as inhibiting clinicians and mental health professionals in treating prisoners. Does the Minister recognise that there are regional variations in preferences for drugs? We apparently have a regime that follows the model in Scotland, where cocaine and opiates are preferred. There have been trends in drug misuse in our prisons with psychoactive substances, in particular, becoming more prominent. Will she ensure that we have modern technology with appropriate testing for the drugs that cause the problem?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for raising the issue. There is, indeed, a problem with drugs in prisons, but there is also a problem with drugs outside prisons. He is right to suggest that we need to have a focus on it. We very much have to tailor-make our approach to addressing drugs in prisons in a way that is specific to Northern Ireland. As the Member rightly points out, the preference for drugs in Northern Ireland is different from other parts of the United Kingdom.

I am happy to look at it. I recognise that it is a problem, particularly because it goes hand in hand with mental health issues, and it would be remiss of us if we did not look at the problems around substance misuse while looking at mental health problems.

Mr Ford: I also thank the Minister for her statement. I particularly welcome her references to the commitment of the Minister of Health to work closely with her on these issues, something that was not always the case in the relatively recent past. Will the scope of the review that she has announced today include the specific issue of the potential establishment of a secure psychiatric facility, or will it deal solely with existing prison facilities?

Ms Sugden: We are at the very early stages of the review that we intend to take forward. We need to look at all the opportunities and options within our remits to understand how we can best address the problem. It is not something that we will not look at; indeed, in taking forward the review, we need to look at everything and understand what is best for Northern Ireland.

Mr E McCann: I put it to the Minister that there has been a broad welcome around the House for her statement. Does she understand that, out in the community, as we say, many people will take it with a pinch of salt? They will get the feeling that we have been here before. There have been tragedies and scandals, promises of investigations and statements that lessons have been learned, yet, as we have seen in recent days, the same thing happens again.

Given that we have had all the praise for our prison officers, will the Minister explain what consideration of staffing can explain the fact that prison officers watched while one prisoner used his thumbs to gouge his eyes out and others killed themselves? Why can they not be held to account like any other public servant? Is it not arguable that prison officers in Northern Ireland have received a bit too much support —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I think that the Member has asked his question.

Mr E McCann: — too automatically, when we should look more objectively at these things?

Ms Sugden: No, certainly not. Up to this stage, we have needed to better support prison officers. My saying that we should do that is not just about prison officers; if we better support prison officers, we will better support the prisoners in our care. That is where it begins, because, ultimately, prison officers are at the forefront, day-to-day, of looking after individuals in custody.

I have never been before the House to announce a review such as this, and I am keen to take it forward. Mental health in prisons is an issue that features regularly in discussions in the House, and it would be irresponsible of me, as the Minister, if I did not address it in a robust and efficient way. One death is one death too many, and I certainly do not want it to be on my conscience that I did nothing about it.

I assure the Member that, alongside the Minister of Health, I am very serious about taking the review forward. I do not think that we can highlight individuals when discussing the wrongs and rights of this. We need to take an entirely holistic approach, and I reiterate that that begins by supporting prison officers because they will better care for the prisoners in our custody.


12.45 pm

Opposition Business

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

Mr McGlone: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the risks to multiple streams of funding posed by withdrawal from the European Union; further notes that over 70% of all European funding to Northern Ireland falls under the common agricultural policy and other rural funds, which provide approximately £350 million each year to farmers, representing 87% of annual farm income; acknowledges that the agri-food sector accounts for 3·25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added, which equates to £1·1 billion at basic prices and approximately 71,500 local jobs and that existing strategies in these sectors, such as Going for Growth, make no provision for the withdrawal of European Union funding; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline how she intends to uphold the First Minister’s commitment that farmers can be provided for as well, if not better, if Northern Ireland leaves the European Union, and to detail how she will develop a strategy to provide for and secure the long-term sustainability of the agricultural and agri-food sectors to ensure no loss of assistance to farmers arising from the withdrawal of existing European Union funding.

I speak in support of the motion as a representative of a predominantly rural constituency. I am very aware of the importance to farmers of the current funding that is available to them as a result of our EU membership. I am also aware of the concerns amongst farmers about the future. Those concerns and that lack of security are also about the viability of their farms and livelihoods if the Executive fail to secure replacement funding for what will be lost if we are forced to leave the European Union. That applies not just to our farmers but to businesses and the agri-food sector as they prepare their business proposals. None of these people leaves it to the last minute to develop their proposals for job creation, additional investment and the likes; they prepare them over three, four, five or six years along with their propositions, business plans etc. The availability of funding is integral to that.

As the motion states, over 70% of EU funding to Northern Ireland falls under the common agricultural policy and other rural funds. That amounts to approximately £350 million each year to farmers, which is 87% of the annual farm income. The agri-food sector is worth over £1 billion at basic prices and supports around 71,500 local jobs. We know that the Executive Office is aware of those facts, as they were in their letter to "Dear Theresa":

"A further key issue for us is the agri-food sector, including fisheries which represent a much more important component of our regional economy than it does for the UK as a whole. This is reflected in the fact that approximately 10% of UK receipts from the CAP accrue to Northern Ireland (accounting for the majority of our EU funding) and a large proportion of our food and agricultural output is exported to other EU and non-EU countries. Our agri-food sector ... is therefore uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding, and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade."

Our Minister of Agriculture, when she welcomed the UK Minister for farming to Northern Ireland in October, said:

"In 2015, total farming income would have been negative without subsidies".

The response from the UK Minister for farming did not make it into the local Minister's press release, unfortunately, but, luckily, journalists were present to report that he told the sector stakeholders at the meeting that the agriculture industry would have to:

"move away from the notion of subsidies".

When the UK Minister for farming tells the Executive that:

"We want to ensure a thriving future for a food and farming industry that is innovative, competitive, profitable and resilient",

Members should know and the farming industry will know that he means that there will be cuts in the funding available to the agriculture sector when the UK leaves the EU.

What we have here is the conundrum of a Government in Westminster who are driven towards low food costs but, at the same time, given what this Minister has said, ostensibly want to remove the subsidy for farming. I do not know how those two equate. I have not met a farmer yet who can answer that question, and they are the practitioners on the ground.

The UK farming Minister would probably prefer there to be no subsidies and, therefore, no cost to the Treasury. That, of course, would devastate our farming industry and our agri-food sector and, indeed, because of its heavy reliance on agriculture, our economy. It would, in particular, decimate our small farmers. Agricultural land and the food it produces would be increasingly under the control of fewer and fewer large landowners, and that is not the type of society we have here. Rural Northern Ireland and, indeed, rural Ireland, by its very history and development, is traditionally smallholding.

As the local Minister of Agriculture said, our farmers are at the heart of our agri-food industry, which has an annual turnover of almost £5 billion and 20,000 employees. We are not just talking about the loss of standing programmes of EU funding; there is also the provision of a package of measures aimed at addressing emerging financial difficulties experienced by farmers, particularly those in the dairy sector. I am sure I am not on my own in attending meetings with farmers, some very substantial, particularly in the dairy sector, where they say they find it very difficult to make ends meet in the production of their quality produce. That sector recently has included the provision of EU milk production reduction aid and exceptional adjustment aid from the EU. Access to those emergency funds would also be lost if we leave the European Union; instead, it will be the responsibility of the Executive to respond to the needs of a farming sector in financial difficulty, and they will have to find the funds to support farmers in need.

The guarantee on EU funding for the agriculture sector that the British Secretary provided relates only to pillar 1 funding. In its letter to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Treasury said it will reassure:

"the agricultural sector that it will receive the same level of funding that it would have received under Pillar 1 of CAP until end of the Multiannual Financial Framework in 2020".

The Assembly can, I hope, agree on the scale of the challenge the Executive face with the loss of EU funding in the agriculture and rural sectors. To date, the Minister's response has been to create a Brexit consultative committee. I hope — we will probably hear more from the Minister — that, at this time, thoughts are being given at Executive level at that consultative committee to the development of a strategy — a strategy that does not leave us in a situation where our farmers and our agri-food sector, come 2020, drop off the edge of a cliff financially and otherwise. That has to be avoided at all costs. Irrespective of what people's views are on Brexit or not to Brexit, we must at all costs avoid that situation.

The Executive seek to influence the negotiating position of the British Government in the EU as a whole and with the Irish Government in particular. That must be done. The British Government will decide on their negotiating position on their own, whatever committees the devolved regions sit in on. We will be told what that position is when the negotiations with the EU have concluded. By then, it will be too late. That really will be too late. My colleague Margaret Ritchie and I attended a meeting with Michael Creed recently with members of the Ulster Farmers' Union. We have a supportive friend in Minister Creed and, indeed, in his deputy Minister, Andrew Doyle. We collectively need to work more with them.

The SDLP opposed Brexit. We campaigned to stay in the European Union, and we continue to argue against Northern Ireland being dragged out of the EU against the clearly expressed wish of the people here. The deputy First Minister and his party colleagues can issue as many press releases as they like, but that will not be the argument put forward by the Executive in their discussions with the British and Irish Governments. The Executive have a responsibility, therefore, to plan for the future. The DUP and Sinn Féin have a responsibility to alleviate the concerns of those in the agriculture sector who are fearful for their livelihoods, their jobs and, indeed, their farms.

If the Minister of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs intends to uphold the First Minister's commitment that, if Northern Ireland leaves the European Union, farmers can be provided for as well, if not better, we need to hear detail. We need to hear how she will develop a strategy, potentially along with her colleagues in the Department for the Economy, to provide for and secure the long-term sustainability of the agriculture and agri-food sectors. If there is to be no loss of assistance to farmers arising from the withdrawal of the existing European Union funding, the Minister needs to set out her red lines for negotiations with the British Government. Farmers and everyone in the agriculture sector need to know what those red lines are or if red lines have been developed.

As the Minister knows, she has a responsibility to protect our farmers and the agriculture sector as a whole from the austerity that this British Government have a record of imposing in other areas of spending. People need to know what the strategy is. The economy needs to know. Agri-food and agriculture families need to know about it. Our rural areas need to know about a pending and developing strategy. Everyone says that to me. Let us start to develop the strategy now and not leave it until it is too late.

Mr Poots: It is a privilege to speak on the issue. First of all, Northern Ireland farmers voted overwhelmingly to get out of Europe. That is something that the House needs to reflect on when it debates agriculture and rural affairs.

Mr Ford: I am grateful to Mr Poots for giving way. I wonder if he could give us any shred of evidence on which to base the statement that he has just made.

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

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving me an extra minute. All the polls suggest that around 80% of farmers voted to get out of Europe, which strikes me as overwhelming. If the Member was talking to farmers in his constituency, he will know that that was overwhelmingly the case. When I went round the doors during the election before the referendum, farmer after farmer was saying, "We want to get out of Europe". Why did they want to get out of Europe? Because, over the 45-odd years that we were in Europe, it managed to invent something like 2,800 regulations affecting farming. That is one for every week that we have been in Europe. Farmers have been regulated to death. Farmers could not get on with the work that they needed to do, because they were so busy looking at the regulations. They were in fear of some mandarin coming to their farm as a result of the European regulations.

Ms Dillon: Thank you very much; I appreciate you allowing the intervention. Does the Member not agree that numerous agri-food sector stakeholders have said to the Committee, "We need those regulations to remain in place in order to secure the quality of our food moving forward and to be able to gain access to markets"? I also know that from my meetings with stakeholders over the summer months.

Mr Poots: I am not sure what regulations the Member wants to keep in place, because many of the regulations that are being applied are not practical and, as a consequence, actually damage the industry. They create an inability for farmers to operate as profitably as they should be —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Poots: — and they are not contributing to the environment in the way that they should. I note that the Member's name is on the Order Paper: maybe, when he is on is feet, he can clarify whether he voted to leave or stay in the EU.

Mr Swann: It was not going to be part of my contribution, but I am happy to say that I voted to leave. I was going to ask the Member about the regulations. He knows as well as I do that farmers often complain that the regulations are not coming from Europe, and the problem is our Department's interpretation and implementation of some of the regulations.

Mr Poots: European auditors were over the week before last, ensuring that the regulations were being applied. Northern Ireland has already been fined as a consequence of not applying the regulations as Europe saw fit. In Michelle Gildernew's term as Minister, we were hit very heavily with fines that we have been appealing ever since. Do not be in any doubt that Europe applied those fines.

Where do we go in looking forward? The decision has been made to get out, and farmers backed that decision. Why did farmers back the decision? I attended a debate with Martina Anderson one day, and she could not get it that farmers do not want handouts. Farmers do not want handouts; they want to make a bit of money from the work that they do. They want to be properly paid for their labours, as opposed to waiting for a cheque coming in every December.


1.00 pm

That cheque is very useful and helpful, and it always beats a poke in the eye. Nonetheless, farmers want to be freed up to make a bit of money from their own farms and hard labours, as opposed to being environmental custodians who are paid to do that. They will be environmental custodians, by the way, because they have been doing that for many generations. In that respect, farmers want to get out and sell their produce. The UK imports £21 billion more in food than it exports. Everybody should be able to see the opportunity that exists. If Europe is silly enough to insist on imposing tariffs — I think that Juncker and a few of them are — it will lead to many more millions of pounds flowing into the coffers of the UK and out of those of European countries. In that instance, we would have an opportunity. Say, for example, to make things simple, there was a tariff of 10%. If the price of beef were £4 per kilo here, it would be £3·60 per kilo in the Republic of Ireland; if milk were 25p per litre here, it would be 22·5p per litre there. That would put the Northern Ireland farmer at an advantage, not a disadvantage. People talk about soft and hard Brexit. For the agriculture sector, a hard Brexit would probably work well because of the £21 billion difference between what Britain buys and what it sells to the rest of Europe. That would put Northern Ireland farmers into an advantageous position.

In terms of aid, everybody knows that the deal that was done in 2013 will not be repeated in 2020 because the accession countries are going to get more money. Consequently, the UK would be contributing more and getting less. Farmers were going to be worse off under the 2020 deal in any event. I am glad that we can make our own deal, and we will work with people like George Eustice, who has an ear for what the farming community wants, to get the best deal possible for Northern Ireland farmers.

Ms Archibald: I am pleased to contribute to the debate, and I support the motion. I believe that the development of the strategy to ensure the future sustainability and, indeed, survival of one of our most important sectors must be a priority. The contribution of the agri-food sector to the economy of the North is outlined in the motion. Though I will not rehearse it, it most certainly must not be understated. Our farmers depend very much on payments received, which amount to some £265 million per year in basic payments. The single farm payment, and other payments such as those from the agri-environment schemes and the areas of natural constraint (ANC) scheme, ensure that farmers have the means to survive. Without those, as Mr McGlone outlined, farm incomes would have been negative last year and in four of the five previous years.

Continued levels of support must be ensured to secure the future sustainability of farming and the agri-food industry. For Sinn Féin, the best way to ensure it is through the negotiation of special circumstances for the North to remain as part of the EU in an all-island solution. That has been our consistent position. In that scenario, the North would remain subject to the common agricultural policy and current system of payments, which is in place until 2020, when the new arrangements will be negotiated. There are, of course, many critics of CAP and some criticisms are genuine, though I doubt that many would disagree with its overall objective, which is to:

"increase agricultural productivity and thus ensure a fair standard of living for agricultural producers; stabilise markets; assure availability of supplies; and ensure reasonable prices to consumers."

These are entirely relevant to our farmers still, and many of the stakeholders, as Linda outlined, have presented to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, again and again, outlining the need for fair prices and market stability. They also highlight the need for continued support to farmers and the importance of environmental schemes.

I am sure that many of the issues that are being raised currently in terms of the priorities for the agri-food sector post-Brexit will form part of the negotiations over the direction of CAP post-2020. However, the difference is the policy objective of those doing the negotiating. The importance of agriculture has always been a priority for the EU. Part of the criticism of CAP is the amount of the EU budget that goes towards it. The same importance and policy priority is not placed on agriculture by the British Government, who have repeatedly argued, including in the previous CAP negotiations, that direct payments do not represent value for money.

In October of this year, George Freeman, the chairman of the Conservative Party policy board, said that once people realise how much cash was being sent spent on farming subsidies, they would want it to be diverted to hospitals, unless Ministers could make a strong case for how the money was being spent. Referring to farming subsidies post Brexit, he said:

"in no sector is the shake out from Brexit going to be more profound and there is a lot of negotiating to do ... There is quite a big piece of work to be done to explain to the public properly why the British agricultural industry is a key strategic sector for the UK — which I don’t think has been explained well."

He went on to say that the Government would protect payments to unprofitable hill farmers but other areas were "likely to change". He said:

"We are going to end up supporting bits of farming that clearly would not work without some support. I just think the British electorate would say 'hang on a minute, we understand why marginal hill farmers, and people who could not exist without support, need some help'. But they may have a problem with 'you mean we have to write a big cheque every year that we used to turn a blind eye to when it was Europe".

From our perspective, I guess that, if we were being optimistic, we could take comfort from the recognition in his comments that some types of farming will need to be supported, but the overall sentiment on the level of budget being directed towards farming supports is far from encouraging.

Earlier this month, George Eustice, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, outlined his vision of the future farming policy under five basic criteria, which included promoting food security and maintaining a high standard of animal welfare. In his final criterion, he stated that, if farmers were given a fairer share of the value of the supply chain, they would not need the subsidies that they now depend on. That point is more than a little bit ambitious. It is difficult to see how that could be achieved, certainly in the shorter term. Indeed, many predict that, without subsidies to farmers, food prices would escalate to cover the cost to producers.

There is also the issue of trading and of competing with the EU, as recognised by the House of Commons paper on the policy impacts of Brexit. It highlights the uncertainty around the kind of future CAP that UK farmers will be competing with, as the policy is currently being simplified and will be reformed for 2021.

Therefore, the signals coming from the British Government are not encouraging. The Minister has her work cut out for her to develop a strategy that will secure the future of our agri-food industry under the finances available from the British Government. It is my belief that any future strategy must encourage sustainable production and best agricultural practice, have a strong focus on —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Ms Archibald: — the importance of harmonising farming practices with good environmental management and provide adequate support for the sectors of farming that struggle to be profitable on the land available to them. Achieving —

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

Mr McKee: I welcome the opportunity to take part in today's debate. No matter what way we voted in the referendum, we all have an obligation to work quickly and effectively to ensure that our farmers are supported after the UK leaves the European Union. It would be easy to assume that most farmers voted "Remain", given the fact that up to 87% of Northern Ireland's total farming income comes from the single farm payment, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, during the referendum, I spoke to countless farmers in south Down who were so frustrated with what they considered to be unwarranted and excessive regulation that they were voting "Leave", even though they knew that there was nothing decided on what a future support model for agriculture would look like.

Many farmers voted to leave for many different reasons. It is therefore unfortunate that some people are unfairly trying to tag them to the phrase "Regrexit" and that individuals, such as the privileged Earl of Sandwich, are taking it upon themselves to make sweeping statements about farmers having voted without understanding the consequences. Farmers knew exactly the gravity of what they were being asked to vote for, and those who voted "Leave" should not be dismissed so arrogantly, as they probably had more dealings with Europe over the past 40 years than most other groups of people here.

Nevertheless, few sectors of the local economy face being affected as much as our local agri-food industry. It is therefore disappointing that not even the most basic preparations were put in place before the referendum by the Minister, her Department or DEFRA. Whilst I very much welcome the subsequent commitment from Philip Hammond that the Treasury will make up the shortfall in EU funding to farmers, it is nothing more than a stopgap. Last year, the UK received around £3 billion of support, and, of that, almost 10% came to Northern Ireland. Therein lies the danger, however, because if Northern Ireland were to receive only a proportion of future funding through the Barnett formula, we would be looking at receiving only approximately one third of what we receive at present.

The comments of George Freeman, the MP in charge of the Prime Minister's policy board, were concerning, and I hope that they were not a reflection of where the Conservative Party is heading on the issue. He is most likely not the only Member of Parliament who would like to see funding for our farmers being diverted elsewhere, as previous Labour Governments were also in favour of reducing key agricultural subsidies.

There are some people who think that Brexit is an opportunity to end agricultural subsidies. They make all sorts of claims ABOUT how other models work best and ask why one sector should be given support over another. However, the same people often overlook the vast sums of money that could be considered subsidies that are granted to other sectors. For instance, the Executive have already spent well in excess of £60 million on small business rates relief, and our universities receive hundreds of millions of pounds in public funding. I am not arguing against that, but it is important to remember it to dispel the notion that farmers are in some unique and privileged position. The reality is that most developed countries, whether they are in the EU or not, provide some form of public funding for farming communities, and I fully expect that to continue to be the case in Northern Ireland.

A key priority for the UK Government should now be to support and maintain a strong farming industry at home. The advances in our outputs, the continuing penetration into new export markets and the sheer level of innovation mean that the industry, at a high level, is almost unrecognisable compared with only a decade or two ago. For many farmers who continue to work the land, the industry remains uncertain. Price volatility over recent years has demonstrated starkly just how unpredictable making a living from it can be; indeed, over recent times, the only certainty that some farmers had was that, come December, they would receive their single farm payment. There now exists a policy vacuum that needs to be addressed quickly. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to the concerns raised in today's debate.

Mr Ford: I should probably start by declaring an interest, as my household is a beneficiary of EU funding.

I welcome this motion from the two colleague parties of Opposition. I am not sure whether it is an indication that on Opposition days we can expect motions to become longer and longer as both parties get every point they want into them. The motion is, nonetheless, a comprehensive and appropriate one that I will support, although it might have been improved if an amendment that I had suggested, which referred to the potential threats to trade, had been included.

The motion correctly states the size of EU funding to Northern Ireland agriculture as £350 million a year. It does not state the proportion of the UK funding that we receive, although Mr McGlone, in proposing the motion, made the point, which Mr McKee repeated, that Northern Ireland gets 10% of UK funding. That is the first potential threat to Northern Ireland agriculture: if the Treasury were to operate on a start-afresh basis and our funding was allocated on the basis of the Barnett formula, we would be talking about 2·9% and not 10%.

We have the much trumpeted guarantee of the equivalent of EU funding levels until 2020, which, given that it will take until 2019 at the earliest for the UK to leave the EU, is not much of a long-term guarantee. All the evidence is that the UK Government are likely to seek to reduce the funding that they provide to agriculture, so there is a severe likelihood that, after 2020, we will receive something less than 10% of something less than £350 million. If there is any political support for agriculture in the Conservative Government, it certainly does not go to the grass-based farming of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the less-favoured areas of England; it is entirely concentrated on the arable farmers of southern and eastern England. There is a significant threat.

Of course, there are other issues. It is not just about farming; there are key issues with the other jobs that farmers provide either upstream or downstream. A massive number of jobs will be affected, whether in the small-scale hardware-type businesses that supply farmers and cater for their day-to-day needs or in the major, in many cases multinational, food processors. We all know about the concept of an economic multiplier in jobs being provided, but what we do not always acknowledge is that the multiplier can go downwards as well as upwards. If farming goes down, there will be a severe threat to businesses in our high streets, small local agribusinesses in rural areas and to some significant employers of large numbers of people.


1.15 pm

The third threat we face concerns cross-border trade. It is simply not realised how integrated food production has become on this island over the last 40 years. We are a long way from the economic war that de Valera tried to wage in the 1930s, pretending that Ireland could be entirely sufficient without dealing with the UK. Every week, thousands of pigs come north for processing. Virtually every week, thousands of cattle go south. At this time of the year, tens of thousands of sheep go south. Millions of litres of milk go north and south between production and processing. All of those potentially face major difficulties with the likelihood of a hard border being imposed in the event of a hard Brexit. All those people run the risk of suffering in a way that would be just as significant as the loss of direct subsidy, if they cannot trade in the way that they have been used to.

Whilst there is some potential for the development of new processing facilities in a way that would meet the needs of producers on both sides of the border, all of that is at an economic cost. It is the opportunity cost of failing to maximise the use of the facilities that already exist at the expense of buying others. The potential difficulties in cross-border trade could increase the monopoly powers of some who buy the produce of farmers.

There is also the wider threat of access to EU markets. People may moan all they like about regulations, but, if we are to export, we need to see people adhering to the current level of regulation.

All of that suggests that the motion should be supported, and there is a real need to see the Executive providing us with a lead.

Mr Irwin: I am interested in the debate as one who, as a farmer all his life, has had to grapple with the ever-increasing and ever-encroaching grip of the European Union on our agriculture industry and, critically, on our farmers and their families. It is clear that no one in the UUP or the SDLP has listened much to the people they allegedly represent. Certainly, they have not paid much attention to those in the farming community who, like me, are sick, sore and tired of the EU's meddling and bureaucracy. The Opposition — or so-called Opposition — still appear to struggle with the fact that a democratic vote, namely the referendum, delivered a result that will eventually see the UK, of which Northern Ireland is an important part, leave the European Union. Despite some current delays, I believe that the process will gather pace and that the negotiation phase will be an important procedure to ensure that Northern Ireland is best served in a post-Brexit landscape.

Through my busy constituency service, I receive many calls from farmers from across the Province, and many of the matters they bring to me focus on issues regarding EU rules and regulations and the application of those rules. There are never calls with cheers of support for the EU, I can tell you; rather, they are calls regarding the pitfalls and the reams of paperwork in complying with the lengthening list of EU directives. As my colleague said earlier, is it any wonder that polls told us that 80% of farmers were voting to leave the EU?

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Mr Irwin: I will, yes.

Mr Poots: Will the Member recognise that another important element of the food industry is fishing — I tried to get Mr McKee to give way, but he would not — and that 80% of Irish fish are caught in British waters, 50% of Danish fish are caught in British waters and the Spaniards are never out of British waters? There is a huge opportunity for the food industry in terms of fishing as we go forward out of Europe.

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

Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for his intervention. Certainly, fishermen look forward to being out of Europe. They have suffered horrendously under Europe.

The argument presented by the Opposition hangs its hat on the issues of the EU budget and what benefit the agri-sector gains from EU membership. It is therefore worth noting that Commissioner Hogan has given a basic maths lesson on the economics of EU membership. At the time of campaigning, the "Remain" camp made a big deal of the impact that leaving would have on support for farmers. It was not difficult to work out that giving €20 billion to the EU and receiving less than €10 billion in return has not been a good deal for the UK. The fact that Mr Hogan now warns of a €3 billion black hole in the European budget is further proof of the ridiculousness of this system. Mr Hogan, in a recent interview, offered only two possible solutions to plug this gap: the generation of new sources of income, which will necessitate new agreements by member states and cost member states more; or a cut in EU expenditure. Surprise, surprise, he suspects that the latter will be the choice.

So there you have it. For years, the UK has been forced to pay vast amounts into the EU while getting a vastly reduced return, and this latest announcement from Mr Hogan is certainly no advertisement for continued membership. The result of our exit from the EU will be that member states end up paying more into the EU to get even less in return or, alternatively, they can decide not to pay any more but still get less in return in order to plug the black hole. It does not sound like a great system, does it?

Brexit has presented a very real and important opportunity to bring about a system that benefits our agri-food industry in Northern Ireland and a system of support based on the realities of food production here. We have a quality of produce that is second to none. Our standards of production are excellent and far exceed the standards in many other countries. Our farm-gate to plate traceability mechanisms are also of an extremely high standard. These are huge positives for our industry in competing in a post-Brexit landscape.

Since Brexit, most farm-gate prices have increased substantially. Pig prices, cattle prices, sheep prices and milk prices have all increased over the last number of months. When I was speaking to the Ulster Farmers' Union the other day, it told me that pensions have been boosted big time because of Brexit. Theresa May has guaranteed support for farmers going forward, and I am content, as a farmer, that the type of support system made available post-Brexit will encourage growth and, crucially, be less bureaucratic. Indeed, these mainstays of any future system have already been committed to by DEFRA, and I know that our Executive, including Minister McIlveen, will ensure that these principles of growth, promotion and assistance are adhered to.

Ms Dillon: Neither Mr Poots nor Mr Irwin indicated whether their party will support the motion. Given the wording of the motion, I think that it would be difficult for all parties in the House not to support it, because I imagine that, regardless of our position on the EU referendum, we all want the Minister to do the best she possibly can to support our farmers in the future.

The agri-food sector is, without a doubt, one of the most important, if not the most important, sectors in our economy and, as such, must be protected. I met numerous stakeholders over the summer months and many concerns were raised, from funding to workforce issues. The workforce issue has not been acknowledged yet today. Many of the workforce in the agri-food sector are non-nationals and come from other EU countries. The big concern that a lot of businesses raised with me was about their workforce and how they will sustain that into the future. Concerns were also raised around regulation and legislation, and, as I mentioned, those in the agri-food sector have raised their concern that the regulations will be changed or reduced, which would affect the quality of our food and the reassurance that we could give about the quality of our food to countries in and outside Europe.

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Ms Dillon: I will.

Mr Poots: There are regulations that require farmers to ask the Department for permission to clean out a drain, to cut down a tree that is more than six inches in diameter or to plough their fields at this time of the year. Does the Member honestly believe that those regulations are good and beneficial for the environment? Most farmers think that they are an absolute nonsense?

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

Ms Dillon: Go raibh maith agat. First, it is the sectors out there that tell me we need the regulations. I am not saying that everything that comes from Europe is perfect: there are many difficulties and challenges with Europe. I accept that. However, this is what the sectors are telling me, including the Agri-Food Strategy Board.

Mr McGlone: Thanks very much to the Member for giving way for a very brief point. Would the Member accept that a lot of what we are hearing about growth is based on the growth of our export markets and that many of the states that anticipate the exports will demand the same standards, particularly in food regulation?

Ms Dillon: Absolutely; that is the very point stakeholders made when I met them.

What this would mean for cross-border movement of livestock and produce is another big concern for all the sectors. Less regulation and red tape for farmers was quickly exposed as a red herring by those I met for all the reasons outlined, including concerns about the quality assurance of our food. Really what they told me is that the one thing we have going for us, as a small region, is the quality of our food and the standards it meets.

Our producers in every sector, whether arable, beef, pork, lamb or poultry, are facing significant challenges due to volatility in the market, and they rely very much on financial support. Farmers are being asked to apply now for funding under the farm business improvement scheme, but, in order to establish the long-term viability of any plan for their farm, these farmers need income security and we have no idea what support, if any, will be given in future. I am deeply concerned about how farmers will be supported into the future, what access there will be to other markets and what tariffs might be in place. We are relying on the British Government to step up to the plate, because we will not have any say on future funding measures.

Let there be no mistake: we are all acutely aware that the Executive are already struggling in the face of Tory cuts, so there will be no excess in the Executive Budget to offer support to farmers. Those in the British Government who campaigned for "Leave" talked about targeting savings at the health service. I do not recall them saying that money saved by Brexit would be targeted to support farmers in the North. Our party's position on the EU referendum has been very clear. One of the reasons why we argued and continue to argue for the North to remain in the EU, in an all-island settlement or however it works itself out, is that the big losers will be our farmers, agri-food sectors and rural communities, which have not been mentioned today. More people than farmers rely on support from the EU in rural areas.

We need to be clear that the future income of farmers is very uncertain. I call on the Minister to seek assurances and to give detail on what future support might look like. We need that detail soon. Farm businesses cannot forward-plan in the current climate of uncertainty and in an information vacuum. The Minister also needs to review the Going for Growth strategy in the light of the EU result. We have to look again at how other markets will be targeted. There are also other issues such as labelling. All this was raised with me when I met stakeholders, not least the Agri-Food Strategy Board.

Mr Anderson: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. We all recognise that the agriculture sector plays a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland economy, with approximately 70,000 people employed in the agriculture and food processing sectors. The Minister for DEFRA, George Eustice, has recently noted that food and farming are worth more than £4·8 billion a year to the Northern Ireland economy. I have no doubt that, moving forward, the agriculture sector will continue to play an important part in our economy, providing resources and employment to many of our people.

As a rural dweller myself, I have regular contact with many farmers and food producers, and the view of the overwhelming majority during the referendum campaign was that the United Kingdom would be best served by leaving the European Union. Many made the point that they are massively restricted by European over regulation and that by leaving the European Union a new dynamic could be shaped, providing the agriculture sector with more freedom and opportunities.

Some people are of the view that there is much uncertainty about leaving the European Union, but we have to recognise that, had the people of the United Kingdom decided to remain in Europe, our future financial support arrangements would, indeed, be far from certain.


1.30 pm

Since the referendum, there has been a range of positives for the agriculture industry. We have seen, for example, farm-gate prices improve, partly due to exchange rate movements. As such, there have been improvements in the price of sheep, cattle and milk for local farmers. In line with this, I welcome the fact that, in recent weeks, the Treasury has guaranteed structural and investment funds for projects that are signed up to the point at which the UK leaves the European Union. That follows a commitment that was given in August to maintain current levels of CAP support until 2020. I echo the Minister's recent comments on the matter, particularly on the fact that we now have the chance to develop support structures that are more tailored to our needs and not restricted by unnecessary bureaucracy.

I take this opportunity to commend the Minister for her work to date on Brexit. It is encouraging that, during her short time in office, she has met Cabinet Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, as well as engaging with counterparts from other devolved Administrations and the Republic of Ireland. The Minister has always projected the need for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard and listened to clearly as we move forward. I particularly welcome the fact that she, along with the Economy Minister, has set up a Brexit consultative committee to provide a forum to engage effectively with representatives from agri-food bodies, farming unions, trade bodies and environmental stakeholders. This committee will be useful because it formalises discussions between the Government and key industry stakeholders so that open discussions and debate can be taken account of as policy and negotiating positions are developed.

I am fully aware that future trade and support arrangements will be very important for the agri-food industry. That can be highlighted by the fact that approximately 70% of the output of the food and drinks sector is sold externally. Whilst there will be challenges as we seek to secure the best deal as we leave the EU, it is important that we do not overlook the opportunities that, I believe, will be presented. Open trading arrangements should continue with existing markets. There should be a much more progressive approach to developing new markets across the globe. I believe that we should seek to develop trading arrangements that are advantageous to Northern Ireland. We also now have the chance to create a new support scheme after leaving the EU that should have less red tape and be much less problematic to operate than the scheme that is in place at present.

The people of the United Kingdom have given a clear and indisputable mandate for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It is now vital that all political representatives, no matter which side they were on during the referendum campaign, focus their energies on securing the best deal for everyone. I know that the Minister will continue to engage with key stakeholders in the weeks and months ahead, ensuring that Northern Ireland's interests are put forward in a constructive manner. I wish the Minister and the Executive well as they seek to ensure the best deal for Northern Ireland.

Mrs Barton: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion. Agriculture is the main land use in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Across much of the constituency, farming is the most important industry and source of income. We must never lose sight of that. Whilst other areas of rural Northern Ireland can sometimes depend on the public sector, for instance, to support households and the local economy, in the south-west we are seeing a concerted withdrawal of those types of jobs. What we are being left with are local businesses being supported well below the average level by Invest NI and an Executive who are not fully committed to meeting the local infrastructure needs of the area. Whilst I have no doubt that the local well-educated entrepreneurial workforce will continue to make the area work for them, it reaffirms the importance of the area's agriculture industry.

Northern Ireland agriculture is facing a tough new era, and the farmers whom I represent are facing it even more so. Those farmers are primarily grassland-based, producing beef, dairy or sheep. A large percentage of land is under the severely disadvantaged area (SDA) land categorisation. On that point, as the Minister is here, it would be remiss of me not to urge her to expedite the decision on the future of the ANC scheme. Whilst many farmers are beginning to wonder what support will look like after 2020, many farmers in Fermanagh in particular are already wondering what their support will look like after next year.

It saddens me to say it, but I believe the Executive are displaying a real lack of understanding of what farming on marginal lands really means in a practical sense. No matter the type of farm or land, the vast majority of farmers are united in their anxiety about what post-2020 will bring. It is essential that the local Department and DEFRA at Westminster get the next model right. Whilst I fully understand that that will take time, and the Chancellor, to be fair to him, has provided a bit of breathing space up to 2020, five months after the referendum, claims by our local Department and Minister that it is too early to know are starting to run a bit thin. Whilst it is clear there was a failure by the local Executive to even consider a Brexit vote, that does not really matter any more; what matters now is certainty for local farmers. Right now, there is a dearth of it.

There are over 6,000 farm businesses in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which is a far greater number than in any other constituency in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of those are in receipt of support from the basic payment scheme. They are not only making a living off the land but tending and supporting it. We have some of the best scenery in the country, but that would be impossible were it not for the farmers, whose animals keep the fields grazed and carefully maintain the vast areas of local habitats. The vast majority of farmers are not simply making a living from the land; they are the custodians of the land. Therefore, it is essential that the UK Government recognise the continued importance of and need to be financially supporting our local farmers. Never before has it been so important for farmers in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to have a representative in Parliament who is prepared to take his seat and work for the greater good of the constituency.

I have one final point I wish to make. The agri-food industry has thrived on the free movement of European labour. We need only think of towns such as Dungannon to realise how dependent local businesses, such as Moy Park, are on access to such labour. As such, I urge the Minister, in her discussions with the UK Government, to ensure that the concerns of those sorts of businesses, as well as those rightly concerned about the border, are reflected.

Mr O'Dowd: By this stage of the debate, the facts and figures of the cost of European Union membership, exports etc have been reeled out by various Members. However, I want to put on record that the UK's contribution to the EU is not £20 billion; it is, in fact, £11 billion, with around £5·4 billion coming back. The North is actually a net winner in that, because we benefit more as a region from membership of the EU than perhaps others.

What is at the heart of the debate? What message are we looking to send out? We are all trying to reassure farmers and rural communities that they will be OK. I cannot offer that reassurance, because I simply do not know. You could argue that, if we remained in the European Union, the next CAP round of funding would be a very difficult negotiation. If we had a Government in Westminster that were linked to or had a significant interest in rural and farming communities, we would be in a better place. We do not have a Government in Westminster that are linked to or have a significant interest in farming and rural communities, so we are at a disadvantage going into the next CAP negotiations. The Irish Government in the past have assisted in those negotiations, but, in the absence of CAP, we are relying on the same British Government, which have not been to the forefront of negotiations on CAP, to look after farming and rural communities.

Are we confident that that will be the case? I am not. I am certainly not confident that we have a Government in Westminster who are interested, as much as every side of this House, in the farming and rural community. One only has to look at those who are now gaining access to Downing Street. Nissan, headed by a French-born Brazilian businessman who runs a Japanese company, has greater access to Downing Street than any member or representative of the farming community. Large international banking organisations headed by citizens from throughout the world have greater access to Downing Street than any representative of the rural or farming community. What does that tell me? It tells me that the future interests and economic drive coming from Westminster will not be based on agriculture and rural communities.

Mr Poots pointed out that there is a £22 billion difference between what we export to Europe and what we import from Europe. How will we fill that gap? How long will it take to rebalance an economy and to turn that round? Who will support farmers in increasing their production as necessary to turn that deficit round? Will the Pootses, the Irwins, the Fords or the McMullans still be in farming after that? I do not know. I suspect that the strategy will be greater and greater movement towards large farm production and to production isolated from the traditional farming landscape that we see in this society, where we still have many smaller rural part-time producers. I suspect that we will see a movement towards larger and larger farms. Who will be the losers in that? Our rural communities will be the losers in that context.

There are uncertainties around remaining in the EU, without a doubt, but there are completely uncharted waters in leaving the EU. We know that 87% of farm incomes are supported through EU contributions and that over 87% of our agricultural produce and agri-food produce is exported. What have we done? We have put at risk 87% of farmers' income, and no one in the House can guarantee that it will be replaced, at whatever level. The tariffs on agricultural produce being exported are crippling, and there is a reason for them being crippling: every nation wants to protect its agricultural and farm producers.

We have placed an almost impossible obstacle in the way of our farming and rural communities. The farming and rural communities out there need to listen to the fact that no one in the Chamber can guarantee their futures. They need to make their voices heard loud and clear on this subject.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr O'Dowd: Reassurances and wish lists are for Christmas. We need reality checks — in the Chamber and outside the Chamber.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): The next speaker is Mr Maurice Bradley. As it will be Mr Bradley's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is a convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption. As a cautionary note, however, Mr Bradley, if you choose to express views that might provoke an intervention, you are likely to forfeit that protection.

Mr M Bradley: It gives me great pleasure to speak on the motion today. While this is my maiden speech, I do not intend to digress from this important issue too much, as it is an issue of importance to the people of East Londonderry. I ask Members to bear with me and afford me the opportunity to make a few comments about my journey to this place.

First, I pay tribute to Gregory Campbell MP, my predecessor. Gregory is a well known political figure, especially in East Londonderry, which he continues to represent in Parliament. I am honoured to follow his footsteps into the Assembly, a place that he has been very familiar with since being elected to the 1982 Assembly. Gregory will, no doubt, be missed in this place for his wit and ability as a Member as well as a former Minister.

I ought to say a few things about me. I have worked in the newspaper industry since 1969. I have been active in local football as a player, coach and legislator, and I am a founder member of Coleraine FC Academy. I also served as a councillor, alderman and mayor on the old Coleraine Borough Council for almost 19 years. I am proud to have been elected at the May Assembly election, along with my colleagues, Adrian and George, to represent East Londonderry for the DUP. It is a tremendous honour, and I thank all those who voted for me and the DUP, which retains its pole position as the leading party in the constituency, having the first three candidates elected at the count. I am fully aware that the electorate has put a great trust in me, and I know that there is a great responsibility to represent them on issues such as this one concerning agriculture.


1.45 pm

East Londonderry is a beautiful constituency that stretches inland from Coleraine to Dungiven and includes the beautiful coastal stretch from just beyond the mouth of the River Bann to Lough Foyle. It is a vibrant and friendly place, rich in culture and history, Coleraine being the first known human settlement in Ireland.

Members are only too aware of the importance of agriculture to our economy. Food and farming are worth £4·8 billion a year to Northern Ireland, and the sector employs some 70,000 people. My party, which holds the Ministry responsible for agriculture, knows only too well the importance of securing the best for farmers in Northern Ireland. That is why our Minister, Michelle McIlveen, met the farming Minister, George Eustice, back in October to ensure the best possible deal for our agri-food sector post Brexit.

Our First Minister, my party leader, the Rt Hon Arlene Foster, has, since 23 June, been about putting Northern Ireland first in this debate. As a result, with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, she has ensured that Northern Ireland will play a key part in the negotiations that lead to us leaving the European Union. That is welcome and demonstrates that we are not shying away from responsibility to our farmers and other agri-food sector workers. We all want the best outcome for Northern Ireland, and, in order to ensure that we get that outcome, we must all work together to achieve that rather than use the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union for political ends.

The United Kingdom is to leave the European Union. That is what the people have said, and, while the House might be divided on the issue, no amount of political point-scoring will change that. Our national Government have guaranteed farming subsidies until 2020, in line with current EU policy. Beyond that, whether we are in the EU or not, the future remains to be determined. However, we must all ensure that our farmers and agri-food workers are not left behind.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I call Mr Gerry Mullan, who will have a full five minutes but no extra minute for interventions.

Mr Mullan: Like previous Members who have spoken, as an MLA for a constituency with a strong agricultural presence, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Our agri-food industry is a key driver for the Northern Ireland economy, with the farming and food processing industries generating turnover in 2014 of around £5 billion. The Going for Growth strategy is hugely important, as it is a long-term road map for the future of the agri-food and drinks industries. It would be remiss of me not to thank all the individuals and agencies involved in the strategy, including the Department, the Agri-food Strategy Board and the many local businesses and individuals who are directly involved in the delivery of the strategy. I welcome the progress that has been made in the sector, especially when taking into account the 2016 implementation update concerning the farm business improvement scheme, the business development groups, Farm Family Key Skills and the Food Fortress scheme. All of those are positive developments and must be welcomed.

There needs to be a reality check here, as the agri-food strategy is hugely predicated on access to the single market, EU funding streams and EU programmes in order to meet its targets. The single market is particularly important to Northern Ireland's food and drink industry, as it sells a much higher proportion of its food and drink exports to the EU — 83%, compared with the UK average of 60%. Northern Ireland's food and drink export trade with the EU brings in over £1 billion to the economy. Meat exports account for over a quarter of that export value at £280 million, with dairy and eggs a close second at £240 million. Therefore, the future outside the EU will be extremely tough for Northern Ireland's farming community. There is no point in any political party here today pretending otherwise.

For decades, our farming community has been reliant on EU funding streams to stay afloat in a very unstable and unpredictable market, and it is that exact funding that has facilitated growth in the agri-food sector. CAP payments alone have amounted to some £2·5 billion in the last 10 years, which represents around 70% of all EU money received by the North. Those subsidies —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Mullan: Yes, I will.

Mr Allister: Will the Member comment on the misinformation and gross exaggeration in the motion, which claims that approximately £350 million each year comes to farmers from CAP? If whoever drafted the motion had troubled to walk into the Business Office and pick up the resource accounts of the Department, he would have discovered that, for the latest year, 2015-16, the figure is £258 million. Why is the motion trading exaggerations and misinformation?

Mr Mullan: I thank the Member for his intervention. He has a very short memory. If he remembers a big red bus with figures on the side of it, he will know the meaning of misinterpretation and putting out inaccurate figures.

To continue, those subsidies support 25,000 farms in Northern Ireland and an almost 50,000 strong agricultural workforce, whose futures are now very uncertain. Undoubtedly, we now face huge uncertainty around what relationship Northern Ireland will have with the EU, including the Republic of Ireland, and whether farmers will face crippling tariffs to sell their goods and excessive red tape due to rules around inspections and, as was mentioned, labelling.

Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGlone: The Member mentioned red tape, which has already been raised today as an issue. The Committee has been given research that shows that much of the red tape emanated in the first instance from Westminster, and, to go back to a point made earlier, it is down to its interpretation by the local Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I remind the Member that he has only 15 seconds. As I indicated, there is no additional time.

Mr Mullan: My goodness. What is clear, Mr Deputy Speaker —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): What is clear is that the Member's time is up.

Question Time begins at 2.00 pm. I suggest that the House take its ease. This debate will continue after Question Time, when Minister McIlveen will be called to respond.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: We will start with listed questions. Before I call the Member to ask the first question; in response to points of order that have been raised in recent weeks, I remind Members that, in accordance with Speaker's rulings, supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the lead question but it is for Ministers and not the Chair to decide whether they will answer questions.

Mr McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): The Member will be aware that a meeting between us has now been arranged. I look forward to hearing his views on how alleged breaches of the ministerial code should be investigated.

Mr Agnew: I thank the deputy First Minister for agreeing to meet me. I am sure that he will be aware that that had not yet happened when the question was submitted. He may be aware that I originally proposed the extension of the powers of the Commissioner for Standards in the previous mandate and that, unfortunately, my proposal was blocked by —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?

Mr Agnew: — the DUP. When the deputy First Minister responded to me on the matter the last time, was he speaking on behalf of himself and the First Minister?

Mr McGuinness: My answer today is quite clearly on behalf of the First Minister and me; we have agreed to meet the Member. There have obviously been previous discussions in the Assembly about extending the role of the commissioner but that did not find favour with the Assembly. If there is a complaint against a Minister, the Assembly has the power to gather signatures from 30 people. The matter can then be brought to the Assembly and it will be for the Assembly to decide what action needs to be taken.

The important thing is that I conceded during the previous Question Time that it was an issue for the Member and that we were willing to discuss it. We have agreed to have the meeting. If any others in the House feel as strongly as the Member, we are very willing to include them in that meeting if that is acceptable to the Member.

Mr Nesbitt: On the broad question of standards, does the deputy First Minister think that the role of the Speaker has been damaged by current revelations and, indeed, by his statement to the House earlier?

Mr McGuinness: I do not think that that is an appropriate question in the context of the question that has been asked by Steven Agnew. I note that there is an opportunity for a Member of the Ulster Unionist Party to ask a question during topical questions. If that person chooses to ask that question at that time, I will answer it.

Ms Boyle: Is the Minister satisfied that the current mechanisms relating to alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct are fit for purpose?

Mr McGuinness: More importantly, the Assembly has decided that they are fit for purpose. The First Minister and I are in agreement that the current mechanisms relating to how alleged breaches of the ministerial code are dealt with, as provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, are fit for purpose. They provide the appropriate level of safeguarding that, when an allegation is made that a Minister had breached an element of the ministerial code, such an allegation will be dealt with appropriately, robustly and fairly.

Members will be aware that the Assembly, rather than the First Minister and I, ultimately has the authority to adjudicate on alleged breaches of the ministerial code. Section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for a motion for a resolution of the Assembly that a Minister or junior Minister no longer enjoys its confidence due to a failure to observe the terms of the ministerial pledge of office. As I said, that mechanism can be triggered with the support of at least 30 Members and can result in the exclusion of a Minister from office for a period of time, a reduction in their remuneration or censure in the Chamber.

The current arrangements have, thus far, found favour with the Assembly, but we are absolutely open to further discussion about that.

Mr McGuinness: With your permission, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, junior Minister Fearon will answer the question.

Ms Fearon (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Our Department will soon commence a review of the current Race Relations Order and other relevant legislation. We remain committed to achieving racial equality here and want our legislation to be a model for other jurisdictions. Our 10-year strategy sets out an ambitious but achievable programme to take this forward. Clearly, this will be an extensive piece of work, and it is important that we have legislation that is thorough enough to meet current and future needs.

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra. I thank the Minister for that answer. I take the opportunity to commend the Minister on the work that is being done with refugees. Will she provide an update on the 2016-17 crisis fund?

Ms Fearon: I thank the Member for his question and for recognising the good work that is being done for Syrian refugees relocating here. Just last week, junior Minister Ross and I met the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and, just today, we received a letter expressing his gratitude and commending us on the work that is being done. He was very touched by the experiences of refugees living here and wanted to pass on that message regarding their experience under our operation.

The crisis fund and the minority ethnic development fund are key delivery mechanisms of the racial equality strategy, and the Red Cross is responsible for administering the £100,000 budget of the crisis fund. It is there for vulnerable migrants, destitute refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups. It is there for people who are in a crisis situation, providing immediate and very precise help to get them out of a hole by giving them food, clothing, heating, electricity or short-term accommodation. The crisis fund makes a real impact; in fact, it has made such an impact and been such a success that Scotland and Wales are looking to replicate the model.

Mr McPhillips: Will the Minister outline why the Executive Office failed to send anyone to respond to various international human rights treaty reporting bodies, one of which concerned racial equality?

Ms Fearon: The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has commended the racial equality strategy and our approach to several things. I am happy to write to the Member with more information if he wants to come back to me with specifics.

Mr Kennedy: The junior Minister will be aware of criticisms from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and others about the non-participation of the Northern Ireland Executive in international reporting cycles, for example the International Covenant —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to a question?

Mr Kennedy: — on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Will the junior Minister undertake to ensure full participation in future reporting cycles?

Ms Fearon: Absolutely. The rights and entitlements that our ethnic minority communities have here are hugely important to us. I have already said that the UN has commended our approach to refugees, so I see no reason why we would not participate fully in upcoming committees.

Ms Armstrong: Given that the Executive have not progressed any form of equality legislation since 2007, how can we be confident of progress during this term?

Ms Fearon: I thank the Member for her question. One of the key actions identified under the racial equality strategy is a review of current race relations legislation. Legislation has to be a priority, and reviewing that legislation is a massive piece of work, but it is important that we get it right. For me, that will be time well spent. We very much hope to see new racial equality legislation in place in the 2017-18 financial year.

Mr McGuinness: The consultation on the draft Programme for Government was launched on 20 October and will run for eight weeks until 23 December. It is clear, even at this early stage, that there continues to be strong support for the use of an outcome-based methodology and developing the programme and the opportunities that it affords for collaborative working and helping to make people's lives better. It is clear that people and organisations are on board with our approach, and we are greatly encouraged by the levels of engagement from every sector. Over 800 responses were received to the earlier consultation conducted on the draft Programme for Government framework, with almost all indicating support for the approach being taken.

The programme agreed by the Executive is highly cross-cutting and collaborative, with joined-up working across departmental boundaries and with dynamic partnerships being formed with local government, the community and voluntary sector and the private sector. It is a new way of doing government, and the Executive are committed to ensuring that it translates into better services and better outcomes for all. We want this to be a Programme for Government in which everyone plays a part. People can do that right now by engaging in the consultation and by telling us about the things that matter most to them and how we can make them better.

Ms Bunting: It appears that the collaborative approach has been successful. Will the deputy First Minister outline how he and the First Minister will continue that approach with other organisations, including the business sector?

Mr McGuinness: The extensive consultation that took place in the first stage will now continue during the next phase, and we are heartened by the interest and the support that there is in relation to how we move all of this forward. As I have clearly indicated, there is now a further public consultation on the full Programme for Government. That is under way and will run until 23 December. The First Minister's and my aim is to have a final version approved by the Executive and endorsed by the Assembly after we have had the opportunity to consider the funding position around the end of the year. To that end, we will engage with as many groups and individuals as possible on the Programme for Government framework over the course of the consultation.

As with the consultation process, we want as many people as possible to have their say. Work will continue, led by senior officials in relevant Departments, to identify key stakeholders and partners and to further refine the delivery plans to help to ensure that we put in place the collaborative partnership and actions needed to deliver against the desired outcomes. The Executive will also shortly consult on an economic strategy, an investment strategy and a social strategy, and further development of each of those will be coordinated with the Programme for Government and the Budget process.

Mr Aiken: Page 25 of the Programme for Government makes it clear that Northern Ireland goes into energy deficit by 2020. Is there any commitment to an early explicit statement by the Executive that the integrated single energy market is being pushed forward vigorously and the North/South interconnector will be built?

Mr McGuinness: Of course, that is something that we are tremendously interested in, not just us here but, obviously, the Government in the South. I suppose the Member will be aware that planning applications have been made North and South and are under consideration. We await the outcome of that with considerable interest.

Mr Lynch: Can the Minister outline who was involved in the process to develop the framework for the PFG?

Mr McGuinness: The parties to the Fresh Start Agreement last autumn agreed that a Programme for Government framework adopting an outcomes-based approach would be developed. All of the parties on the previous Executive were involved in a detailed process to develop the draft framework, and the parties continued to engage actively throughout the development phase until the framework was concluded after the election. None of those involved in the process expressed reservations during the engagement period, so the parties that are now expressing opposition to the draft Programme for Government framework are either being opportunistic or did not understand the process in which they were engaged. It was significant that the Ulster Unionist Party chickened out of membership of the Executive. It left the Executive, and, of course, the SDLP, which was part of the process of deciding on this way forward, without any objection, decided in the aftermath of the election that it would chicken out of the Executive also.

Ms Bradshaw: Why are there no numerical targets against any of the indicators in the draft? How credible does the deputy First Minister feel that the Programme for Government is, if the public are not able to measure whether progress will have been made?

Mr McGuinness: The public have declared themselves totally satisfied, in the main, with our approach in relation to the outcome of the first consultation, which drew in something like 810 submissions.

All those matters will be considered as we go forward in the second phase. In the aftermath of that, we will have a further conversation about how we take the whole process forward. I am satisfied that the public are content thus far. I have not heard that criticism from anybody in the group of 810 who made submissions. I am quite willing to listen to what they have to say. In the time ahead, there will be opportunities for people to have their say on these matters.


2.15 pm

Mr McGuinness: The First Minister and I are listening carefully to the arguments in the Miller and Dos Santos application before the High Court in London and in the McCord, Agnew and others applications in Belfast. At present, however, all relevant lines of argument are being ventilated by the existing parties.

Mr McGrath: The deputy First Minister will be aware that Nicola Sturgeon has respected the majority will of the people of Scotland in supporting the legal case brought forward to the Supreme Court. We need a wee bit more information other than another case is doing it.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?

Mr McGrath: Why are this Government not supporting that initiative?

Mr McGuinness: In this instance, it is quite clear that the Member is asking a question that he knows the answer to. The answer is quite clearly that, in the run-in to the referendum, our partners in government were on a different side of the debate from us. That is like the fact that the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, who are now a combined Opposition, are on opposite sides of the debate, with the Ulster Unionist position being that the people have spoken — the context that they speak about is the UK — and that you should get on with it. It is quite clear that the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists are divided on the issue.

Where the First Minister and I are united is on the fact that we were able to write to the British Prime Minister outlining a series of grave concerns that we have about the implications of Brexit for how we protect the interests of the people whom we represent. The good news is that, during the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, which I will speak to when I give a report on it in the Assembly tomorrow, we were able to put in place a high-level working group of civil servants in our Department, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs to take forward the work that we will have to deal with in the time ahead. From my perspective, we are consistently getting very confusing reports out of London. They are confusing not just for people in the political process but for the general public and people in the business community. As we go forward, it is very important that the British Government at least tell the devolved institutions what their objectives are in the context of a negotiation with the European Union. Thus far, they have failed to do so.

Mr Stalford: Does the deputy First Minister agree that it is the sign of a responsible and mature Government that, regardless of whether you were for "Remain" or "Leave", you work with the situation as you now find it?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?

Mr Stalford: Does he agree that that is what a responsible Government should do rather than, in a similar vein, refusing to meet the future president of the United States of America?

Mr McGuinness: As we go forward, the implications of Brexit for all of us and for the people whom we represent, whether it is the business community, the agri-food industry, the community and voluntary sector or our educational institutions, place a massive responsibility on those of us who had the courage to go into government together to ensure that we deal with the set of circumstances before us. As I outlined, we dealt with it by writing to the British Prime Minister. I noted that, on this morning's 'Good Morning Ulster', the leader of the SDLP described that as weak, which is absolutely ridiculous. He then criticised us because of the length of time that it took the Prime Minister to respond. It was the Prime Minister's responsibility to respond; it was not our responsibility. What we have been doing is getting on with the work. We have given instructions to all our Departments to be up to speed on all this in the time ahead. Our contribution to the North/South Ministerial Council and the formation of a high-level working group shows clearly that we are very active in trying to deal with a set of circumstances that denies us, for example, full information about where the negotiations will go if and when article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is triggered.

Mr Smith: What discussions has the deputy First Minister had with the First Minister regarding the Supreme Court appeal? Are they any closer to producing an agreed, joined-up post-Brexit plan for Northern Ireland?

Mr McGuinness: I think I outlined during previous answers that the First Minister and I are very much engaged in the process of ensuring that we work with the Irish Government to protect the interests of all the people who live on this island.

In terms of the court case, I will go back to my previous answer to the SDLP. The Member asked a question he knows the answer to. In politics, I think that is OK, because the DUP was on one side of the debate in the run-in to the referendum. We were on the other side of the debate. That is democracy; that is politics. I have to live with that, even if I did not appreciate it. But I have to deal with the outcome of all that, and I think the First Minister and I have been very sensible in how we are trying to deal with the situation and are ensuring that, by working closely together through all of our Departments and with the Irish Government, we do everything in our power to ensure the issues we raised in the letter to the Prime Minister do not affect us negatively. Those are things like the border. We do not want any border between North and South. We want support for our agri-food industry and our education establishment. We want future funding for our institutions.

As regards the common travel area, we can look at the number of businesses in the North that are totally dependent upon people who have come from eastern Europe to work. They work very positively and productively within our businesses. For example, Wrightbus in Antrim has something like over 20% of its workforce from eastern Europe. Those are critical issues that we are very exercised about, and, in fact, rather than sniping from the sidelines, we are actually doing something about them.

Mr Lyttle: Does the deputy First Minister agree that a legislative consent motion should be brought to allow the Assembly the opportunity to debate and consider the terms of any article 50 proposal?

Mr McGuinness: I speak on behalf of the Office of the First and deputy First Minister. Whether our partners in the Government favour that is a matter for themselves. Speaking personally and on behalf of my party, not on behalf of the DUP, I would absolutely be in favour of a legislative consent motion.

Mr Allister: Happily, the deputy First Minister is helpless when it comes to stopping the United Kingdom from leaving the EU. Let me ask him this straight: has he any approval from his partner in the Government, the DUP, for a status for Northern Ireland that would dilute our leaving in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr McGuinness: I think the entire process we are engaged in is in a state of flux. Nobody — neither me, the First Minister, the Member who has just spoken nor any other Member — can put hand on heart and say that they know what the final outcome of all this will be. One thing is for sure: we have a duty and responsibility to protect the interests of the people we represent. Again, speaking personally, I would be in favour of a designated status within the European Union. [Interruption.]

It is a matter for all the parties. The Member would not, obviously, be in favour of that and believes the overall vote should take precedence over the fact that the people here in the North voted to remain and the people of Scotland voted to remain. That creates a problem for the British Government, and it also creates a problem for the European Union, which is the fact that we have, in these devolved institutions, a very clearly expressed wish by the electorate that they see their future is in Europe. As far as I am concerned, in the upcoming negotiations everything is on the table.

Mr McGuinness: The most recent Joint Ministerial Committee meeting took place on Wednesday 9 November, and the last North/South Ministerial Council meeting took place on Friday 18 November 2016.

At the Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, we outlined a number of the issues that are of particular importance to us. We made it clear that we expect to see engagement on those and other matters intensify and deepen over the coming weeks and that we are determined to work together to champion the interests of the people we represent.

We had a very good meeting with the Irish Government on Friday at the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) plenary in Armagh. I will be making a detailed Assembly statement tomorrow morning, Tuesday 22 November, on our discussions.

Ministers have also had discussions at various NSMC sectoral meetings that have taken place in recent weeks and months, and that engagement is ongoing. Indeed, both Governments have agreed that the North/South Ministerial Council plenary should meet again in the first quarter of 2017. In light of the UK referendum to leave the EU, the focus for Executive Ministers throughout all of these discussions has been to ensure that our unique position is recognised and our requirements are understood on how we can ensure the best possible outcome for all of our people.

Ms J McCann: I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that you have already mentioned the different engagements, but can you elaborate on what engagement has taken place with the Irish Government, particularly to identify issues of mutual interest and to exert joint influence on the British Government and the EU?

Mr McGuinness: As I said earlier, there is ongoing engagement between officials up to the head of the Civil Service level. Specifically, we are engaging with the Irish Government through the North/South Ministerial Council, and the respective Administrations have been carrying out an audit of border issues. That was discussed at the plenary meeting last Friday, 18 November. We will also engage further on Brexit via the British-Irish Council (BIC). The next BIC meeting is scheduled for next week in Cardiff.

Mrs Overend: Can the deputy First Minister explain his assessment of the approaches of the devolved Administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh?

Mr McGuinness: It is not my duty or responsibility to speak on behalf of Scotland and Wales. I only have authority to speak on our own behalf. There are other factors at play, particularly in relation to Scotland, which I am sure the Member is acutely aware of. No doubt, the First Minister and I will have further conversations with our ministerial colleagues during the next BIC meeting. I think I said it was next week; in fact, it is the end of this week. In all of those discussions we are very conscious of the responsibility that devolved institutions have to the people whom they represent. In Wales, the people of Wales voted to leave; in Scotland, the people of Scotland voted to remain; the people here voted to remain; and, of course, the people in England voted to leave. That leaves us with a very challenging situation to deal with. No doubt, the reports that are coming out of London, almost on a daily basis, about the apparent inability thus far of the British Government to have a collective view as to how to approach these negotiations are also exercising the devolved institutions.

Dr Farry: The deputy First Minister and I agree on the need for special status for Northern Ireland, but does he also recognise that if this is to get traction with the whole community, including with unionists, it has to be sold in very pragmatic terms around the interests of Northern Ireland and, therefore, be decoupled from wider constitutional aspirations and the issue of a border poll?

Mr McGuinness: Obviously, the situation that we are dealing with is hugely challenging; of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. The issue on the constitutional position revolves around the reality that we have a scenario in which we have just been through a referendum which has, in some sense, decided the direction of travel for the British Government — a situation that we have to deal with. As I said in my earlier answer to the Member for North Antrim, as far as I am concerned, everything is on the table. Nobody can put their hand on their heart and say exactly how this negotiation is going to work itself out or where we are going to find ourselves in a year's time or two years' time during the course of any negotiation. All of the reports out of Europe clearly suggest that it looks like it is going to be a hard Brexit, and that seems to be accepted by a lot of commentators and, indeed, many within the political process in London. If it is a hard Brexit, I think it is going to have very dramatic repercussions for devolved institutions, particularly ourselves who are in this unique position of having a land border with a country that is in Europe.


2.30 pm

In the time ahead, in the discussions that we will see happen between our officials and between the First Minister and myself and the Taoiseach, the best way forward for us is to work very closely together so that we can reach an outcome that can then be put to the British Government and the European Union as the combined wisdom of both Governments, North and South. The top priority for us is protecting the interests of the people that we represent — I am talking about the people represented by every single Member of this House.

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

T1. Mr McNulty asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister stands by his call on the Charter NI CEO to stand down. (AQT 496/16-21)

Mr McGuinness: This is a very unfortunate situation. The difficulty about where we find ourselves is the impact this is having on a fantastic programme — the social investment fund (SIF) programme — that will bring enormous benefits to people all over the North by getting young people into employment and preparing a pathway for them, supporting families and supporting educational initiatives and many other initiatives that are born from the desire of local communities who make the decisions on what projects they want pursued. The fact that we have had this debate over the last couple of weeks has been very unhelpful indeed.

I was at Altnagelvin hospital this morning with our Health Minister, looking at the new radiotherapy unit. I was asked by the BBC, in the aftermath of that visit, what my position was in relation to our Speaker. I was able to tell them that our Speaker would make a statement at 12.00 noon. The Speaker has made the statement, and I accept it.

I stand by my remarks that Dee Stitt should recognise the damage that has been done to Charter NI and the local community in east Belfast and that he should stand aside. I do not for one minute believe that he will do that as a result of me saying that, but there is a responsibility on him to sit back and recognise the damage that has been done to an organisation that he is part of. He also should think of the bigger picture. In the steering groups and the different initiatives that have been undertaken all over the North —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the deputy First Minister to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr McGuinness: I will just finish on this point: there is a considerable concern among many of those groups that their funding could be frozen. That is very, very sad. Of course, it will not be frozen, but that is a big difficulty.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the deputy First Minister of the two-minute rule. If the Department needs time to respond, it can request it.

Mr McNulty: Has the deputy First Minister discussed the issue with the First Minister? What action will the Executive take if Mr Stitt continues in position?

Mr McGuinness: I have discussed the issue with the First Minister. Our ability to take action in relation to Charter NI is very limited under employment law. However, I reiterate the point I made earlier: the best outcome would be for the person in question to recognise that his contribution in the time ahead would be a negative one and would not be in the interests of Charter NI, the people of east Belfast or the many other groups throughout the North who are working away on delivering tremendous projects for local communities.

T2. Mr Kearney asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister agrees that, given it is 12 months since the Fresh Start Agreement, all political parties and sections of society have an incredibly important role to play in the development and promotion of reconciliation and healing. (AQT 497/16-21)

Mr McGuinness: I absolutely agree with the Member. Twelve months on from the signing of the Fresh Start Agreement, it is incumbent on all of us — every political party, the community and voluntary sector and everybody in a position of influence in the community — to recognise the importance of the process of reconciliation. I have been on the record a number of times in recent months stating my view that the next stage of our process has to be reconciliation. Tremendous work is taking place in the community, but people in leadership positions also have a huge responsibility to challenge themselves over whether enough has been done to inspire more and more people in local communities to recognise the importance of reconciliation.

I say that knowing that there are people in our society who are not interested in being reconciled. I think, however, that they are very much a minority and that the overwhelming mood of our people is for the continuation of what is a successful peace process into a phase of reconciliation. I have no doubt that, given the right leadership, more and more people will rally to that flag.

Mr Kearney: Go raibh maith agat as an fhreagra sin, a LeasChéad Aire. Minister, do you agree that the reconciliation and healing agenda must be placed at the heart of government and public policy, both in this region and in the context of the all-island institutions?

Mr McGuinness: I absolutely agree. It is critical that we in these institutions play our full part in showing leadership to people in the community on what is undoubtedly the best way forward. This is a process that has inspired the ending of conflicts in other parts of the world. We recently had a visit from President Santos of Colombia, who told the BBC and anyone else who was interested in his story that he was inspired by the peace process here. That is a credit to everybody who contributed to that process and, in my view, to every party in the House, but we need to go further. We need to recognise that there are challenges ahead, not least in how, on an ongoing basis, we reconcile what was for a long time a very divided community. My party is certainly up for that, and it is incumbent on all of us to challenge ourselves consistently.

I have gone out very far in challenging republicans, I suppose, over our contribution to reconciliation. Some people do not like what I have done, and I respect their view. One of the arguments put to me is that I should not do that because there is no reciprocation. My answer is that that is not a good reason for me to stop. If you are genuine and sincere about reconciliation, you have to do everything in your power to make it work. I do that work on the basis that we will eventually get it right.

T3. Mr Beggs asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, in relation to the Charter NI employability scheme, the deputy First Minister accepts that fewer people on the ground benefit when there are multiple layers and large administration costs, given that he said that benefits can result from the scheme. (AQT 498/16-21)

Mr McGuinness: The Member will be aware that we went out to consultation at the beginning of all of this. It is one of the most consulted-on programmes that we have ever been involved in. The process was open and transparent. The whole purpose of the SIF project was that we would have not a top-down approach but a bottom-up one, empowering people in local communities to decide for themselves what communities required as a priority. Putting in place such a process incurs costs. That is unavoidable if it is to be conducted properly. Our civil servants have been meticulous, even to the point of criticism from some that it has taken too long to put this in place.

We are now in a position in which the £80 million has been effectively allocated to projects. As we go forward, we can consistently ask ourselves whether there are ways that we could have improved that during what was a pilot scheme, for want of a better word.

Mr Beggs: The deputy First Minister alluded to the many, many years that it has taken for the funding to reach the ground, and he again says that it is important to get things right. This is language that we have heard before.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member come to his question?

Mr Beggs: Will he accept that the process has been fatally flawed and that there are inappropriate processes and a lack of accountability for the decision-making that went along with it?

Mr McGuinness: No, I will not accept that it was fatally flawed; in fact, practically every party in the Assembly, including the Member's, has been involved in the process from the very beginning. It is interesting to note that, even though people have now seized on what is a very sad situation in east Belfast in an effort to criticise the overall SIF programme, when the First Minister and junior Minister Fearon went to Enniskillen last week for the opening of a £900,000 investment from SIF, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were tripping over themselves to get into the photographs.

T4. Mr M Bradley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, in light of technology giant Google’s announcement last week of plans for a new building in London — a vote of confidence in the UK as a technological hub — they envisage any spin-off for Northern Ireland given that the Project Kelvin interconnector in Coleraine provides the most secure connection between Europe and America. (AQT 499/16-21)

Mr McGuinness: Obviously, we are keen to see this developed. Project Kelvin does tremendous work. The First Minister was recently in the United States, and I followed that with a visit of my own to the west coast of the United States and met our west coast advisory group, which is a tremendous group of people based in Silicon Valley. We continually seek to ensure that we can attract foreign direct investment that will benefit us in the new digital age that we live in. It is an ongoing body of work for us, for our bureau in Washington and for Invest NI, and we are very focused on trying to ensure that, when opportunities are created, we can take advantage of them.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the deputy First Minister for that answer. Given the connection that we have in Coleraine and the opportunity to sell Northern Ireland plc across the IT sector, I am hopeful that Coleraine could play a role in adding to the sector and attracting much needed investment into the area. Are you aware of any firms interested in investing in the Coleraine project?

Mr McGuinness: I am conscious of what is potentially a huge development at Ballykelly, which I think will bring enormous benefits to people in the north-west, including Coleraine, Limavady and my city of Derry. I was there recently speaking to the purchasers of the site. They have huge plans for the site, and I am very encouraged by what I hear. Obviously, we are consistently, through trying to attract foreign direct investment, focusing on an aspect of work that the First Minister and I are agreed on: to ensure that companies that are interested in coming here recognise that there is a big world outside Belfast, including the north-west. We are publicly on the record as having stated that. That will very much be a focus of our Programme for Government in the time ahead in terms of the issue of decentralisation.

The other aspect of Ballykelly is the fact that, for the first time in the history of the state, we will have a Department — DAERA — effectively located outside Belfast on the Ballykelly site. That, in itself, will bring further encouragement to people in the area that we are putting a focus on the need for decentralisation.

Mr Lynch: As my question involves the social investment fund, I declare an interest as a member of the western steering group.

T5. Mr Lynch asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister will give reassurance that the social investment fund will be delivered for communities as intended. (AQT 500/16-21)


2.45 pm

Mr McGuinness: I do not have a shadow of a doubt that the projects that have been undertaken by steering groups and local communities will make a massive difference in the effort to tackle underachievement, disadvantage and marginalisation. The First Minister and I have visited projects in recent times. Indeed, we were in Fermanagh only last week for the unveiling of a fantastic new extension to Fermanagh House. I have gone to different parts of the North and have spoken to people who are very focused on employability and on getting young people on a pathway to employment. We are talking not about a couple of dozen but hundreds who are involved in these projects all over the North.

It is clear that the social investment fund is making a massive contribution to tackling underachievement. The beauty of it is that it is not us telling local communities how they should go about choosing their projects; the local communities choose the projects themselves. I reiterate the point that, in the face of opportunistic criticism in recent times, all major parties in the Assembly have been represented on the steering groups. It is quite ironic that, in the aftermath of the controversy in east Belfast, people are taking potshots at those who are doing great work all over the North. That is very unfair.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Unfortunately, there is not time for a supplementary question; time is up.

Economy

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Mr Hamilton (The Minister for the Economy): My Department has ongoing discussions with the communications industry on issues affecting consumers across Northern Ireland, including in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. My officials meet regularly with representatives of the major telecommunications providers, which operate in this privatised and independently regulated market. Ongoing investment by mobile network operators has led to increases in mobile coverage across Northern Ireland, however I recognise that services still need to be improved. In Northern Ireland, 99·3% of premises are in areas where there is outdoor 4G coverage from at least one operator, and 3G coverage is among the best in the UK.

There are regular meetings with BT to discuss the roll-out of broadband under the contracts managed by my Department. In June, BT reported that 5,607 premises have benefited from the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and 1,390 have taken up new broadband services. BT also reported that the superfast roll-out project has improved services to more than 500 premises in the Fermanagh and Dungannon areas. The contract with BT has a mechanism whereby funding can be reinvested when take-up of services exceeds a certain threshold or underspends are identified. This is currently around £3 million and we have begun clarifying where these funds might be used.

It is important to recognise that where fixed-line broadband is not viable, other technology alternatives are available. In particular, for premises that continue to have access to services of less than 2 megabits per second, my Department offers assistance with the cost of installing a basic broadband service using satellite or wireless technology. It ensures that no household or business that meets the eligibility criteria need pay more than £400 to access a broadband scheme over a 12-month period.

We will continue discussions with the telecoms industry and with other interested parties, especially through the consultation phase of the draft Programme for Government.

Mr McPhillips: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline the approach his Department is taking to recover some of the £258 million clawback owed to the UK Government by BT on broadband contracts? Will he outline whether he will direct these funds to rural areas?

Mr Hamilton: The figure that the Member quotes of around £250 million is perhaps the totality of the potential clawback across the United Kingdom. Gain share, or clawback as it is sometimes referred to, comes in when uptake exceeds expectations for the broadband improvement contract that was initially agreed with BT. As I mentioned, the estimated figure for Northern Ireland is around £3 million. We are in a process of identifying where that might be best spent. Obviously, that will have to be consistent with value-for-money principles and targeted to where there is most need. As we have already invested, as I outlined to the Member, in his constituency, which I recognise as an area that has issues with getting acceptable broadband speeds, I am sure that some of that £3 million will be invested in his constituency. At this stage, I am not able to say how much or where, but I am sure that we will target some of that £3 million at Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your answers thus far. Are you aware of concerns raised by the border councils through their Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) report 'Fibre at a Crossroads'? In particular, it outlines many practical solutions to providing greater connectivity and achieving equitability recompense from BT for its failure to adequately support my constituents.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to make sure that their questions are short.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for her question. A couple of weeks ago, I met a delegation of ICBAN representatives, which was led by my party colleague Councillor Paul Robinson, who came to discuss their 'Fibre at a Crossroads' report with me. We had a useful discussion. I have a lot of sympathy for the points that they made about ensuring that people in border counties, particularly Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and other parts of Northern Ireland have acceptable broadband speeds. While the Member is critical of BT — and I have been critical of BT sometimes in the House — we have been able to make a substantial investment in the broadband infrastructure across Northern Ireland. Some £64 million has been invested across Northern Ireland since 2008. As I pointed out to Mr McPhillips, some 5,600 premises in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency have benefited from the broadband improvement project, and 1,390 have taken up new broadband services.

I also point out to the Member and the House, as I have done on other occasions in the Assembly, that whilst there is a focus, as there is in the ICBAN report, on getting fibre into premises, at this time, alternative technologies such as wireless and satellite broadband are available. Support is provided through my Department for alternative technologies for those who cannot get an acceptable broadband speed through fibre or cannot get fibre at all.

Lord Morrow: Have the black spots and gaps in broadband provision in Fermanagh and South Tyrone been identified? Will the Minister give his reaction to the proposed changes by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Minister can choose which question he answers.

Mr Hamilton: I very much welcome the news last week that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken a decision to reform or change the rules on advertising broadband speeds. The Member and the House might recall that, some months ago, I wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority particularly on the issue, which had been brought to my attention by Members such as Lord Morrow, of the perception in parts of Northern Ireland, because of advertisements that appeared on billboards, in newspapers and on television, that broadband speeds of 30 megabytes per second and beyond were achievable. However, in parts of Northern Ireland, such speeds are not accessible. People were buying broadband packages from providers and paying the same as what I pay for having that sort of speed in my home, and I do not think that that is fair. That was the basis upon which I wrote to the ASA, and I am glad that it has identified the problem and will change the rules next year.

This is, in part, an infrastructure problem. The Member mentioned black spots. In respect of the £3 million of gain share that I mentioned in response to Mr McPhillips, we are in contact with councils to get them to do an audit of their area to identify where there are black spots with a broadband speed that is not acceptable. I think that Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, if it has not started, is about to start its audit. I look forward to getting that information back because I believe that councils will be in a good position to identify where there are weaknesses and black spots. That will then help to inform where we spend that £3 million of clawback that we will get as a result of the broadband improvement project.

Ms Gildernew: I suggest that the Minister spend some of that £3 million in BT70, because my children are about to divorce me.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to her question?

Ms Gildernew: I listened carefully to the Minister's answer. What more can he do to maximise connectivity to black spots and hard-to-reach areas?

Mr Hamilton: We have made a lot of investment over the last number of years. As I pointed out before, some £64 million has been invested in broadband projects since 2008. That helped to give Northern Ireland the competitive advantage of being the first region with 100% broadband capability in the whole of Europe. We have not maintained that advantage in recent times in spite of the considerable investments that we have made. I want to regain that competitive advantage. It is not just about helping households to get a good speed of broadband; it is also about helping our economy. I have visited some companies, including some in the Member's constituency, that sometimes struggle to get the speed that they require to do business in an increasingly closely connected global economy. I want to make sure that those businesses have that competitive edge. We are looking at options that, although some considerable investment would be required, would give Northern Ireland back its competitive advantage in broadband connectivity.

Mr Hamilton: The apprenticeship levy will be introduced in April 2017. The collection of the levy is a reserved matter for the UK Government. It will impact on all employers with an annual pay bill in excess of £3 million. Her Majesty's Treasury announced on Monday 14 November 2016 the apportionments for the devolved Administrations. Northern Ireland will be allocated £76 million, £79 million and £82 million over the next three years. However, Her Majesty's Treasury has removed £52 million due to a reduction in funding for existing apprenticeships in England and a further £29 million reduction to the public-sector contribution to the levy, which will result in a £5 million pressure on the overall block grant. Importantly, approximately £80 million was spent by the Executive on work-related training for businesses, including apprenticeships, in 2015-16. Over the past four years, £86·5 million has been invested in apprenticeship training alone.

It is important that employers have access to the appropriate skills training, particularly in the form of apprenticeships. I want to ensure that support for skills is based on a quality offering and value for money. I intend to consult employers and other interested stakeholders to seek their views on the implications of the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in Northern Ireland. That consultation will be designed to take the temperature of the business community and focus thoughts regarding the needs of businesses in terms of skills and apprenticeships.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Steve Aiken. [Interruption.]

My apologies; I call Naomi Long.

Mrs Long: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. The Finance Minister and the Economy Minister have set out an approach that will, effectively, mean that businesses will pay the apprenticeship levy but there will be no additional investment in skills as a result. Is there any scope for the Minister to undertake to ring-fence money for additional spending on professional, technical and vocational skills, so that we do not end up with a disgruntled sector that feels that it is paying additional money as an apprenticeship levy but is not getting anything additional in return?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to keep their questions brief.

Mr Hamilton: I thought that the first answer was so comprehensive that it answered all the Member's questions.

To be completely frank and honest, I think that the apprenticeship levy is a bad thing. It is called a "levy", but it is a pretty brutal and crude tax on businesses in Northern Ireland that, as the Member identified, already pay through other taxes for skills training provided by government and others. The Member is right to point out that, since taking office, I have been in very close contact with the Finance Minister in regard to this. What we receive back from Treasury through that levy/tax is incredibly important for the next steps and what we can provide for employers.

As I mentioned in my original answer, whilst the Treasury, in typical Treasury style, tells us, "Here's £76 million that you're going to get next year", it is taking some £52 million off us with the other hand. When you take the public-sector contribution of £29 million out of that, we are in a net negative position of £5 million. One interpretation of that is that it is eating into the £80 million-odd that we pay annually for skills training for businesses.

I am completely aware of the concerns of many employers. I have been very much in close contact with businesses about this since taking office. I want to take their temperature — that is the purpose of the consultation — and ask employers and other stakeholders what ideas they might have and what they think of the current skills training that we provide for businesses. It will then be a matter for the Finance Minister and me to discuss, particularly with regard to the Budget that will come to the House before the end of the year, what we might be able to do to ensure that skills training of the highest quality is still provided for businesses in Northern Ireland.


3.00 pm

Mr Aiken: I thank the Minister for his comments so far. A lot of the questions have been answered, but one of the things that many of the companies that I have been talking to and that you have been talking to —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member come to his question?

Mr Aiken: I am getting to the question.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member come to his question?

Mr Aiken: Despite the considerable disquiet among Northern Ireland businesses about the shortfall in skills training — [Interruption.]

Wait for it. How does he envisage that our companies will not be penalised —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member take his seat for a minute? I would like the Member to be able to make his point, and I ask him to ask his question.

Mr Stalford: Brevity is a skill.

Mr Aiken: Thank you very much indeed.

This is the question: how will we ensure that many of the Northern Ireland companies that will pay this tax, particularly the ones that have the majority of their business in Great Britain, will not decide to move their headquarters and training there because they see this as very much a case of double taxation?

A Member: Well done.

Mr Aiken: Thank you.

Mr Hamilton: I think that my bad influence is rubbing off on Members during my Question Time with the lack of brevity in some of the questions, never mind the answers that I provide.

That is one of the concerns that I have always had with the levy, and it was also a concern for the previous Minister for Employment and Learning. At this stage, whilst I have concerns and there are employers who are in the space that the Member talks about, I have not yet heard from anybody specifically saying that that was their intention. As is often the case, it is much more sophisticated than that. Whilst they may feel that they are being double taxed, those employers are based in Northern Ireland for a range of reasons, particularly, in relevance to the question, reasons why they continue to provide training from bases here.

As I said, I do not like this tax or levy. It is punitive and harmful. You can clearly see how harmful it is to Northern Ireland's public finances. I have a challenge on my hands to ensure that we continue, given the reductions, to maintain the level of spending on apprenticeships and other skills training for businesses. Be assured that, given the centrality of talent and a skilled workforce to Northern Ireland's proposition for inward investment and the growth of local businesses, I will be determined to do that in what will be a very difficult budgetary climate.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his comments, particularly for placing on record our concerns on the apprenticeship levy. Will he outline to the House how much his Department invests annually in apprenticeships, given the important role that they play in the economy?

Mr Hamilton: My Department continues to invest a considerable amount in apprenticeships and in a reformed apprenticeship programme that seeks to have a higher quality of apprenticeship, learning lessons from places like Germany, Switzerland and Austria. I want to maintain that high quality, regardless of what the Government do on the levy and regardless of what they do, in my belief, in watering down what apprenticeships are in England. I am onside with Scotland and Wales in wanting to maintain very high-quality apprenticeships. We have been investing considerably over the last number of years. In the last financial year, just short of £20 million was invested in level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships, and, with higher-level apprenticeships, which are an incredibly important new part of the offer that we make in apprenticeships, some £1·1 million was invested at levels 4, 5 and 6. Over £20 million annually has been invested in apprenticeships alone.

I visited Deloitte last week, and it has almost acted as a pioneer in taking forward higher-level apprenticeships. It shows that sectors that you would not ordinarily associate with apprenticeships are now getting involved and taking on apprentices at that higher level. If there is a good side to the apprenticeship levy, I hope that it is that it encourages many employers not traditionally involved in apprenticeships to look at the options, and there is, of course, government support for that.

Ms Archibald: Last week in his statement, along with the Minister of Finance, the Minister outlined that the apprenticeship levy was of no benefit to the North, and again today he said it was a bad thing. Will you make that case to the British Treasury?

Mr Hamilton: Yes. The case has been made, and I know that my colleague the Finance Minister has been dealing directly with the Treasury. I have raised similar concerns through the Department to the various Departments that have looked after the issue. It has now shifted back to the Department of Education. I am seeking a meeting with the Department of Education to discuss a range of issues, but I will, obviously, take the opportunity to raise concerns about this issue as well. It is something we have been lobbying on, and I know other devolved Administrations have been doing likewise. I know they feel very similarly to us about the damage they believe this is doing not only to public finances but possibly to skills training for businesses moving forward.

Mr Hamilton: I have not yet met the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), but I hope to be in a position to do so in future. My officials meet representatives from that organisation on a regular basis to discuss a wide range of issues affecting the higher and further education sectors in Northern Ireland. Officials from my Department's further education division have met the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland to facilitate the provision of training for newly elected student members of college governing bodies and attend an annual induction event for all new governing body members. My officials have also met representatives of the body to discuss a variety of issues related to higher education.

Mr McGlone: Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his response. Does he not agree that, given his level of interaction with various universities and the like, it is crucial that he meet the students' representative bodies about issues such as education, for a start, but about the likes of services and fees as well?

Mr Hamilton: As I pointed out to the Member in my initial response, I have no issue meeting NUS-USI, and I hope to do so in the not too distant future. As the Member will appreciate, my diary is busy and could be filled time and time again with the range of requests I get, but I hope to meet NUS-USI in the not too distant future.

Mrs Overend: Will the Minister outline whether he has had any discussions on the back of his engagement with key stakeholders in the higher education sector? What are his views on any increase in tuition fees, considering the shortfall of over £50 million in university funding?

Mr Hamilton: I have had a range of discussions with the universities and others about the financing of the sector. I am very clear — I have been on record saying this in the House and elsewhere — that I want to see the higher education sector, which is important not just for education but for the future growth of our economy, financed on a sustainable footing moving into the years to come. There are, clearly, pressures on my budget in higher education, and I want to have a sensible and mature discussion, particularly in the context of the upcoming Budget, about how we might sustainably finance the HE sector in the years ahead.

Mr T Buchanan: What is happening with Northern Ireland postgraduate students whose loan applications were incorrectly proposed by the Student Loans Company?

Mr Hamilton: The postgraduate students whom the Member mentions have been treated disgracefully. Those were postgraduate loans for English-domiciled students that were introduced by the UK Department for this year. They wrongly approved loans to 85 ineligible Northern Ireland students. A review found that 54 were eligible, but there are still 31 who are ineligible, 18 of whom actually received a payment. They are all important, but those 18 are the particularly important ones, because when those people received that payment they spent that money on equipment, accommodation or whatever it might be to help them to do their postgraduate studies.

Whilst it is a matter for the UK Department for Education, Student Finance England and the loans company, it is their errors that have caused distress. I have written to Jo Johnson, the Minister of State in the Department for Education, and to the Student Loans Company asking them what they are going to do to satisfactorily address the issue, which is not in any way, shape or form the making of the students from Northern Ireland who have been affected.

Mr McAleer: Can the Minister tell us which stakeholders in the further and higher education sector he has met?

Mr Hamilton: I cannot give the Member a comprehensive list, but I have met Ulster University and Queen's University, and I am meeting the Open University this afternoon. In the broadest definition of the HE sector, I have met quite a few other stakeholders. As the Member will appreciate, there are a huge range of stakeholders across the HE sector, all of whom I will want to keep in very close contact with, particularly our universities, as I grapple with a range of issues, some of which have been mentioned here at Question Time.

Mr Hamilton: The generation capacity at our three conventional power stations, existing interconnection, including the restored Moyle interconnector with Scotland, and the additional 250 megawatt capacity at Ballylumford that became available in January of this year ensures we have enough capacity to meet all electricity demand forecasts to 2020. Emissions legislation could further impact on the Kilroot coal-fired plant, in particular, from 2020. My Department is working closely with the Utility Regulator and the system operator (SONI) to consider how best to ensure our security of supply after this point. If it is considered necessary, I will agree on further actions to safeguard our electricity supply.

The second North/South interconnector will be considered by the Planning Appeals Commission in February next year, and this project, along with other plans such as the proposals by Evermore Energy for a new gas-fired power station in Belfast, battery storage by AES, the Gaelectric compressed air energy storage project and the Islandmagee gas storage project, has the potential to contribute to our future security of supply.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that the Ulster Unionist Party is proposing a motion on energy to the Assembly tomorrow. Will he take the opportunity tomorrow to indicate what his plan B is, should there be a further planning delay in the North/South interconnector?

Mr Hamilton: I look forward to the debate tomorrow. It provides the House with an opportunity for a debate that, I hope, is proposed in that spirit. If it is, I will certainly respond in kind. This is a challenging issue. The Committee visited SONI last week and will have got a very clear indication of the seriousness of the issue and the many challenges that face us. If the motion is brought to the House tomorrow in that spirit, I will respond in kind.

The Member is fairly new to the Ulster Unionist Party, but he already has that fatalistic tendency that runs through the Ulster Unionist Party like a stick of rock. He has written off the interconnector before it goes to the Planning Appeals Commission hearing next year. The Member is right: it is an incredibly complex issue. I want it to run through its planning process properly, and we will leave it to that. I am committed to the principle of the interconnector . It is essential not just for our security of supply in the longer term but, moving forward, for making any integrated single electricity market viable. It is an incredibly important project, and we, as a Department, have a record — not least in terms of the short-term contract that was put in place with AES when the Moyle interconnector was agreed — of stepping in when there have been problems and taking decisive action.

The Member's party is always keen on talking about plan Bs and resigning itself to failure right from the start, but this is not something I will do. I will work away to make sure the interconnector happens, as it is such a vital piece of infrastructure for electricity and security of supply in the short and long term.

Mr Robinson: What does the Minister intend to do to support the future development of renewables in Northern Ireland?

Mr Hamilton: There is already considerable support for renewable electricity in place, and Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO) support will remain in place until 2037. It has been a successful policy for increasing renewables-generated electricity. In 2005, before the NIRO was introduced, electricity consumption from renewable sources was about 3% in Northern Ireland. That has now grown to 25·4% at the end of last year, and we are well on course to meet our 40% electricity consumption by 2020.

There is already a considerable amount of renewable energy on the grid. There is also a considerable amount with offers, and some more will receive offers. I believe that we will not only meet our 40% target but, when all those offers are met and are on grid, have the ability to generate 100% of peak demand electricity from renewable sources, which is around 1,800 MW per year.


3.15 pm

In many respects, it has been a successful policy. It has, in reflecting on what future policy might be, had an impact on the grid, which is a scare and precious resource. At present, there are no storage options, although I mentioned some possible storage options in my original answer. Of course, as with everything, we need to consider the cost of a replacement for the NIRO. Previously, NIRO costs were spread right across all UK consumers, so Northern Ireland got a reasonably good deal out of that. Any replacement will be across just Northern Ireland consumers, and that will, of course, have an impact on the affordability of electricity in Northern Ireland. I obviously have to carefully consider that in the future development of renewables policy.

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

T1. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister for the Economy to give an absolute guarantee that the teaching excellence framework (TEF) is in no way intended as a link to tuition fee levels in Northern Ireland. (AQT 506/16-21)

Mr Hamilton: The teaching excellence framework, as I understand it, does what it says on the tin. It is about raising the standards of teaching in our universities. One criticism that I can recall from even before taking up this post is that, whilst universities rightly and understandably continue to focus on research — we want to see our universities continue to do that, and there is some promising progress in that regard — there is a view that there has perhaps been less focus on teaching standards. We all want to see the very good balance between teaching and research remain. I say to the Member that, in terms of future sustainable financing of the sector, the teaching excellence framework is not one of the things that has been considered in that context. What I want to see is the sector, which, as I mentioned previously, is a very important sector not just to education but the wider economy in Northern Ireland, put on a sustainable footing for the future. That is obviously at the forefront of my mind as I consider the issue of financing our universities.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he also give a guarantee, although what he said was far short of a guarantee, that the TEF will not be used as leverage to remove the tuition fee cap in Northern Ireland? Will he consider responding to the calls to put a TEF panel in place in Northern Ireland?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Minister can choose which question to answer.

Mr Hamilton: I think that I counted about four, but I will do my best. I think that the teaching excellence framework is a good thing in and of itself, and I do not think that we should get it into a situation where it is mired in other debates. I want to see the sector sustainably financed. We need a good, strong university sector in Northern Ireland. I am very mindful and cognisant of the concerns expressed by that sector and how it believes that it is falling behind its counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, elsewhere. I want to ensure that Queen's University, Ulster University and the Open University, which are doing a good job in Northern Ireland, particularly in their research and how that is aligning better with our economic needs, have the finances now and into the future to allow them to continue to do the good job that they have done already.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Nelson McCausland is not in his place.

T3. Mr Stalford asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the steps his Department is taking, as part of an outward-looking economy, to allow Northern Ireland to attract further international trade. (AQT 508/16-21)

Mr Hamilton: The Member will be aware of two things that I have announced in recent times to try to enhance trade. We are starting from a very strong base already. We had a 9·5% increase in exports from Northern Ireland in the last year, and we are the only UK region to post an increase. New figures are due out very soon. That was backed up by the Ulster Bank's purchasing managers' index (PMI). It talked about a "surge" — I think that is the word used — in exports in the last number of months. Not wishing to prejudge those statistics in any way, shape or form, not least because I do not want egg on my face, there has been some good anecdotal evidence on the progress made over the last number of months in respect of exports.

I have put in place a trade accelerator plan that is looking at building on that success. It also has the aim of encouraging more exporters to get into selling their goods and services outside the region for the first time. Even though we have had that 9·5%, increase, it has been on the back of a decrease in the number of exporters. There has been really good performance, but we want to see more people selling their goods and services outside Northern Ireland, and the trade accelerator plan is aimed at doing that. It is providing more support for exhibitions, market study visits and trade missions.

We are also in the process of developing an international trade plan, which is entirely about making Northern Ireland an outward-looking trading nation, getting an increased Invest NI presence in key markets and setting up a trade advisory board to assist me in developing new export strategies. We are also undertaking a whole range of different endeavours to try to capitalise on the growth that we have and, indeed, the huge opportunities that will exist in the years ahead.

Mr Stalford: Minister, the strong connection that many people in the United States have to Northern Ireland is one asset. There has been change in the political scene in America recently. What assessment does the Minister have of the election of a new president and its ability to impact on Northern Ireland's trade with the United States?

Mr Hamilton: The Member is right to note that there has been change in the US, with the surprising and unexpected win of Donald Trump. These are very early stages in Mr Trump's Administration. In fact, he is not in post yet, so he does not even have an Administration in place.

The Member is right: the US is an incredibly important trading partner for Northern Ireland. It is our second biggest export destination, and we sold around £1·5 billion worth of goods to the US in the year ending June 2016. That was a staggering 74% increase year-on-year and a really tremendous achievement by Northern Ireland exporters. It is also an incredibly important source of inward investment, with around 175 US-owned companies operating in Northern Ireland, employing around 24,000 people. The president-elect has said many things, but he is not in post yet and has not taken his agenda to Congress. I wish him every success in his job and think that we should give him a chance, because we all need America to succeed. Northern Ireland has benefited from America's success in the past, and we want to benefit from its success in the future.

The Member and the House will understand that, even if the new president reduces corporation tax, as he has indicated, it is not just for tax reasons that many companies from the US invest in Northern Ireland. It is about skills, and I am increasingly aware of the importance of skills in attracting companies from all around the world. Take, for example, a cybersecurity firm called Black Duck. It is a Massachusetts-based company that has invested in Northern Ireland. It is expanding its business to here, which will create around 50 new jobs. It looked at opportunities in the US but decided to come to Belfast and Northern Ireland because of the skills of the talented people here. It is a much wider issue than tax, and, whilst we hope to reduce our rate of corporation tax to get us into other markets, we have to keep an emphasis on the importance of skills in our economy.

T4. Mr Mullan asked the Minister for the Economy to outline whether our universities will be subject to further budget cuts following the Chancellor's autumn statement and in his own budget for 2016-17. (AQT 509/16-21)

Mr Hamilton: The Member is asking me to prejudge two things. He is asking me to prejudge an autumn statement that is to be made tomorrow, although I accept that, if you have read every newspaper that has been published today and listened to every news bulletin, you will probably have much of what is in the autumn statement in your hands or in front of you on the television screen. He is also asking me to prejudge the discussions and deliberations that will take place in the Northern Ireland Executive.

I note from what the Prime Minister has said today that she intends to see an increase of £2 billion in research and development expenditure. That will be a good thing for universities right across the United Kingdom, and, hopefully, for Northern Ireland. That will build on our success that was demonstrated in figures published last week on research and development that showed a 24% increase in R&D expenditure in Northern Ireland. That took us up to around £750 million worth of expenditure by businesses, the public sector and universities. Universities accounted for around a quarter of that total increase, which was around about a 9% increase. If there is money coming from the autumn statement for research and development, I hope that our universities will be able to benefit directly from it.

Mr Mullan: Thank you, Minister, for your answers so far. Hopefully, this time, you will not need a crystal ball. Will the Minister outline what assessment his Department has undertaken with regard to EU funding to higher education? There are great concerns in my constituency that a withdrawal of EU funding for research will result in redundancies and in the closure of courses.

Mr Hamilton: There is a range of European funds that our universities and colleges have accessed down through the years. This issue will be part of the negotiations that will begin at some stage next year. I understand the Member's concerns, however I point out the guarantees that the Chancellor has given, particularly in respect of Horizon 2020 funding. So, anything that is approved whilst the UK is still a member of the European Union will be guaranteed beyond our exit.

I have said before in the House, and I will repeat it, that Horizon 2020 is a project that is not limited to European Union member states. There are about a dozen states outside the European Union — Turkey, Norway, Israel and others — that have availed of Horizon 2020 funding in the past. In fact, the state that had the highest per capita spend of the predecessor of Horizon 2020 — FP7 — was Israel. So, there are opportunities, even after UK exit from the EU, for us to avail ourselves of funds like Horizon 2020.

T5. Ms Lockhart asked the Minister for the Economy to join her in welcoming the recent growth announcement by the Upper Bann-based company Almac and to say what support his Department gives to similar manufacturing firms to help them reach their full potential. (AQT 510/16-21)

Mr Hamilton: I join the Member in congratulating Almac on its growth. Here is an example of a firm that is part of a growing life and health science cluster in Northern Ireland, which is outward-looking, is selling more, and had a 50% increase in its exports over the last year. Almac is a core element of that growing and important sector to our economy, so I congratulate it on its success. We want to see local firms growing in Northern Ireland, but we also want to see them expand their reach internationally. Even though this investment is in the US, it will solidify and support jobs in Northern Ireland and, importantly, in the Member's Upper Bann constituency.

The manufacturing sector, in spite of what some in the House, and some outside it, will want to say, is a strong sector in spite of some recent notable setbacks: employment in the sector has increased by over 4% in the last year. Support offered between 2011 and September of this year by Invest Northern Ireland (INI) has accounted for nearly £300 million of assistance; that is 7% more than the assistance that has gone to the services sector. Sometimes, there is a perception that the services sector does better from INI support. That is not the case. That investment of nearly £300 million has promoted 14,000 new jobs over the last five years and has had a total contribution of around £1·9 billion of investment in the local economy. So, a range of support has been made available and will continue to be made available for manufacturers like Almac and others who are growing their businesses, selling outside Northern Ireland, and looking to expand.

Ms Lockhart: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will the Minister assure the House that he will continue to prioritise the skills that manufacturing businesses require? It is evident when I am out there that they want us as a Government to look at the skills set that they require.

Mr Hamilton: I know that there are issues with a range of companies in the Member's constituency operating in very different sectors. As I have said today and previously, I am acutely aware of the importance of skills to Northern Ireland's proposition not just for inward investment but for the expansion of indigenous companies. So, I absolutely want to ensure that, as we look to a future where we have a reduced rate of corporation tax, that is not the only thing that we are going out to the world to offer. We also have to offer a strong pipeline of skilled workers. That will include helping companies in the Member's constituency as well as those prospective inward investors who, if the evidence to me is anything to go by, are increasingly coming to Northern Ireland. The differentiator as to why they are coming to Northern Ireland over other locations is the skilled workforce that we have.


3.30 pm

T6. Mr M Bradley asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on the enterprise zone in Coleraine. (AQT 511/16-21)

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask for a very quick answer.

Mr Hamilton: The pilot scheme for the new Coleraine enterprise zone was formally designated by Her Majesty's Treasury in August 2016, just a few months ago. It offers enhanced capital allowances and is the only enterprise zone in Northern Ireland that offers 100% enhanced capital allowances for qualifying expenditure in the first year. A company called 5Nines, which operates and develops data centres, already has planning permission for the site. That planning permission goes back to 2013. As a Department, we will put in place a monitoring and evaluation plan to identify emerging benefits that could be derived from the enterprise zone. I see it as an important part of the growing tech sector in Northern Ireland which is employing around 30,000 people. It is growing across Northern Ireland, in the north-west, in Belfast, in Newry and in all parts in between.

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Ms Nichola Mallon has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should continually rise from their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically for a supplementary.

Ms Mallon asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what audit has been carried out by the Executive Office on all aspects of the social investment fund to date.

Mr McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): All organisations in receipt of departmental funding are subject to governance and financial management checks to ensure their capability to manage public money. This includes, first, a review of the organisational structure to ensure that a board and appropriate management structures are in place and, secondly, a review of the financial and governance processes to ensure that the necessary policies and procedures to manage and account for funding are in place and implemented effectively. This process involves on-site visits and ongoing verification throughout the duration of the project to ensure compliance with policies and implementation of the necessary checks to account for all expenditure. Full checking and validating of spend by lead partners is carried out by the Department, which includes supporting evidence of costs incurred and payments made. The social investment fund (SIF) programme is also subject to normal internal and external audits, which include sample auditing of individual project spend.