Official Report: Monday 08 February 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Cochrane-Watson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Do you agree that the place to make announcements is in this House? I refer to the announcement made after 6.00 pm on Friday by the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister on his proposal to close the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive. That will have a very detrimental effect on jobs and local business. Do you agree that the Minister should have brought such an announcement to the House, prior to releasing it in the press?

Mr Speaker: I am aware that a question for urgent oral answer on that same topic was not accepted. I draw it to the Member's attention that points of order should not be used in that way. I have urged Ministers to bring forward their statements in the way that is most accommodating for Members' interests as well. However, ultimately, at the end of the day, when to issue a statement is a matter for the Minister, not the Speaker.

Committee Deputy Chairperson Appointment

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I have some announcements to make. I wish to inform the House that I received correspondence from Mr Dominic Bradley, resigning his position as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel with effect from 4 February 2016. Furthermore, the nominating officer for the SDLP has informed me that Ms Claire Hanna has been nominated as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. Ms Hanna accepted the nomination, and I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. I can confirm that the appointment took effect on 4 February 2016.

Mr Dickson: I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 8 February 2016.

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

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 8 February 2016.

Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion regarding Committee membership. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That Mrs Dolores Kelly replace Mr Seán Rogers as a member of the Committee for Education; that Mr Alex Attwood replace Mr Patsy McGlone as a member of the Committee for Justice; and that Mr Patsy McGlone replace Ms Claire Hanna as a member of the Committee for the Environment. — [Mrs McKevitt.]

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed.

Clause 13 (Assembly Executive and Reform Motion)

Mr Speaker: Order. Last Tuesday afternoon, a valid petition of concern was tabled to clause 13 during the Consideration Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill. That meant that, under Standing Order 28, the Question on clause 13 stand part of the Bill could not be taken at that time and would be required to be taken on a cross-community basis. Members will also note that valid petitions of concern have been tabled to clauses 20 and 21 and to the schedule. Each will therefore require a cross-community vote.

We will now move on to the Question on clause 13. Mr McCartney's opposition to clause 13 stand part has already been debated. Before I put the Question, I remind Members that clause 13 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes 47; Noes 35

AYES

UNIONIST:

Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

OTHER:

Mr Agnew, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dickson, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Agnew, Mr McCallister

NOES

NATIONALIST:

Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane

UNIONIST:

Ms Sugden

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McAleer, Ms McCorley

Total Votes82Total Ayes47[57.3%]
Nationalist Votes34Nationalist Ayes0[0.0%]
Unionist Votes40Unionist Ayes39[97.5%]
Other Votes8Other Ayes8[100.0%]

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr McGimpsey, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Patterson, Mr Swann

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Clause 14 (Tabling of Assembly and Executive Reform Motion)

Mr Speaker: Mr McCartney's opposition to clause 14 has already been debated.

Question put, That clause 14 stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 (Reports by the AERC)

Mr Speaker: Mr McCartney's opposition to clause 15 has already been debated.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 (Formation of technical groups within the Opposition)

Amendment No 23 proposed:

In page 5, line 15, leave out from "to" to end of line 19. — [Mr McCallister.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 16 disagreed to.

Mr Speaker: Order. I have had complaints from some Members that they cannot hear the results or the announcements from the Chair because of the background noise.

Clause 17 (Membership of Business Committee for technical groups)

Amendment No 24 proposed:

In page 5, line 21, leave out from ", where" to "parties," on line 22. — [Mr McCallister.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill, put and negatived.

Clause 17 disagreed to.

Clause 18 (First topical question to Minister from chairperson of statutory committee)

Amendment No 25 made:

In page 5, line 31, leave out from "Leader" to "Opposition" on line 32 and insert "leadership of the Opposition". — [Mr McCallister.]

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 (Establishment of Budget Committee)

Amendment No 26 proposed:

In page 5, line 36, leave out from the beginning to "1998" on line 37 and insert "budget committee". — [Mr McCallister.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Mr Speaker: Amendment No 27 has already been debated and is mutually exclusive with amendment No 28.

Amendment No 27 proposed:

In page 5, line 37, at end insert

"(2) That committee may—
 
(a) scrutinise the draft budget laid before the Assembly under section 64 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998,
 
(b) review the delivery of the budget, for example by matching spending against outcomes,
 
(c) examine the financial memorandum of each Bill introduced into the Assembly,
 
(d) examine the implications of any changes to powers to raise taxes.". — [Mr McCallister.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Amendment No 28 proposed:

In page 5, line 37, at end insert

"(2) The Budget Committee will consider quarterly budget forecasts, reports estimates and oral evidence collated from all departments and presented by a bespoke unit in the Department for Finance and Personnel dedicated to servicing the requirements/supporting the scrutiny work of the Committee.". — [Mr Eastwood.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill, put and negatived.

Clause 19 disagreed to.

Clause 20 (Renaming of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister)

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that clause 20 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Clause 20 disagreed to.

Clause 21 (Departments to be single legal entity)

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that clause 21 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill, put and negatived (cross-community vote).

Mr Speaker: I recorded only one vote No, so I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.

Mr Weir: Do you mean only one Yes?

Mr Speaker: Only one Aye.

Clause 22 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 29 made:

In page 6, line 28, leave out from "and" to end of line 29. — [Ms P Bradley.]

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 22, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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

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

Clause 23 (Commencement)

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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

Clause 24 (Short title)

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question Time begins at 2.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until then.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Arts and Leisure

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): I thank the Member for his question. It has been alleged that I and departmental officials were aware of a suggested need to purchase and demolish houses adjacent to Casement Park as far back as the summer of 2012. That is utterly untrue and unworthy of belief. As the design team for the project was not formally appointed until 3 September 2012, there would not have been any design information, even preliminary sketches, available for discussion prior to its appointment. I understand that designs were first considered by the safety technical group (STG) on 11 February 2013.

As previously stated, I was unaware of allegations in relation to concerns around emergency exiting at Casement Park prior to Paul Scott's appearance at the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on 30 April 2015. Indeed, I made that point clear in my evidence at a subsequent Committee appearance on 21 May 2015. I still stand by that statement.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for her answer, but, with respect, it is not a full answer, and that is a matter we will return to. Will she acknowledge that she should have been aware of the serious issues around emergency exiting when the then chief executive of Sport Northern Ireland, after one year in post, had a full-page interview in the 'Belfast Telegraph' in which she referred specifically to serious issues about emergency exiting? Was the Minister not aware of those concerns at that early stage?

Ms Ní Chuilín: All those allegations have been countered by a sequence of independent reports. That article has been referred to on at least two other occasions. I would assume, as the Member, indeed all Members, should assume, that anyone working with the Department, particularly around these alleged safety concerns, really should have brought them to my attention, and they did not. I say again that the first I was made aware of this was when Mr Scott appeared in front of the Committee on 30 April last year.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Minister, did Sport NI's chair, board members or staff at any stage raise any concerns with you regarding emergency exiting at Casement?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. The answer is no. No one at Sport NI — not the previous or current boards, chief executives or chairs — made me aware at any stage of any concerns that they had around emergency exiting at Casement Park. For the information of the Member and other Members, Sport NI also sits on the stadium programme sponsor board, which I chair. If people have concerns, that is the place for them to be raised, and they never raised any issues around emergency evacuation. As I said — and I say again — the first I was made aware of any such allegations or concerns was when they were raised by Mr Scott at the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee in April 2015.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. In the three years until March 2016, Sport NI will have awarded almost £50,000 from its athlete investment programme to the NI Archery Society towards costs in implementing a training and competition programme for targeted athletes. In the same period, Sport NI invested £75,000 in the society from its own performance focus programme. The investment relates in particular to talent identification and development. I am content that that support helped to provide opportunities for athletes from across the North to achieve considerable success at various international and national archery competitions during the past year. It is remarkable that four individuals won a total of 14 medals and that two teams won a gold and silver medal respectively. I take this opportunity to congratulate each and every one of them on that fantastic achievement.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for her answers to date. What is the Minister's Department doing to help all athletes in general who wish to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. It is quite important that all Members be aware that Sport NI is doing everything that it can to provide support to athletes from other sports who intend to compete in the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The performance focus programme, which also supports the employment of expertise in sports and development in the high-performance systems, has been very beneficial for athletes and, indeed, their governing bodies in the past. As well as this, the athlete investment programme provides assistance towards costs incurred by athletes to undertake the required training and competition programmes and in support of elements of the athletes' living costs, which I know the Member has raised previously. Those programmes also provide planning, sports science and sports medicine services, which have been serviced by the Sports Institute.

Mr McCausland: The Minister referred to support for the NI Archery Society, which I assume refers to the Northern Ireland Archery Society. I welcome the support for a Northern Ireland-focused organisation. Will she also therefore be supportive of the Northern Ireland boxing association in its efforts to secure recognition and support from Sport NI?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am absolutely not supportive of a separate boxing association, as the Member will know. In fact, I feel that not only the Chair of the CAL Committee but his colleagues and others have ended up putting some of the athletes under terrible pressure in a year in which they will be competing in the Rio Olympics. I think that that is disgraceful.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Patsy McGlone is not in his place.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. In March 2011, the Executive endorsed an investment of £36 million for subregional stadia development for football as a priority in the next comprehensive spending review period. The subregional stadia programme for soccer has a 12-week consultation, which commenced on 30 November 2015 and will run until 22 February 2016. Once the stakeholder consultation exercise is complete and the programme has been finalised, I expect it to be open for applications. That will be later in 2016, and my officials will be available to offer advice and support to potential applicants throughout the process.

Given our growing reputation and ability to attract large-scale events for sports and entertainment, there is a need for the provision of international-standard facilities capable of hosting major events. The provision of subregional training facilities suitable for hosting major events such as the Rugby World Cup is also essential. It is my intention to submit a bid for funding for a second phase of the subregional programme to meet the needs of soccer, Gaelic and rugby in the next comprehensive spending review.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her response so far. The Minister said that, whatever emerges, her officials will be available for advice and support to football clubs. Obviously, it is likely that, whatever the final announcement, it will have some element or cocktail of matched funding being required. Can the Minister give a particular assurance that there will be assistance to the clubs from her officials in helping to find that matched funding?

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is not my officials' job to find matched funding, but it is their job to try to give them assistance with information. Through discussions that I have had personally with local government and the councils and, indeed, with some clubs, I know that this is a difficulty for them. Some clubs are looking at what they can do on a geographical basis to try to make sure that there is a facility in an area. As I said, this is still open for consultation. It is important that, once clubs have established that they can apply and that they meet all the criteria, it is our officials' job to signpost them to information regarding other potential sources of funding but not to make their applications for them.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is Derry City FC eligible to apply for funding? Can the Minister give an update on the Daisyfield project?

Ms Ní Chuilín: In short, yes, it is eligible to apply for funding, and I anticipate that it will do so. I also confirm that the commitment I made to secure funding of £2 million to invest in Daisyfield playing fields, which is part of the project being taken forward by Derry City and Strabane District Council to redevelop the Brandywell Sports Centre and, indeed, the adjacent Daisyfield playing fields, will be assistance that will cover some of the costs of refurbishing of a full-sized pitch. Certainly, my officials, Sport NI and, indeed, the council have been working very closely together, and I understand that the council is considering its options for the location of the facility, which will be subject to council approval and, indeed, full planning permission.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her replies so far. Minister, just for clarification, the cost of this project for the stadia appears to be £9·75 million. Is that figure ring-fenced, and what proportion of that project cost is available for the subregional football stadia programme?

Ms Ní Chuilín: There is £36 million for the subregional programme. As I said in response to Mr Weir, clubs are already in discussions not only with each other but, indeed, with other potential sources of funding to try to ensure that they get every opportunity. I already know that there is not enough money in this to meet all the needs out there. I do not think there is ever enough money in anyone's Department to meet all the needs, but that is certainly the case with this. That is why I anticipate a third level of subregional funding to try to ensure that groups, particularly grass-roots groups, get better access to better facilities, because, to be honest, a lot of the clubs run on a voluntary basis do not have the professional wherewithal but provide vital services and support to keep young people fit, healthy and safe. I anticipate that clubs like that will need to get additional support, and I am looking at the options for what other support we can give to them, but those will not become real until the consultation closes.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her answers. Can she give the Assembly a cast-iron guarantee that, when the money comes to being divided out, it will be done fairly and squarely and that there will be no preference for either of the two major parties — Sinn Féin and the DUP — in selected teams, grounds or whatever?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I think what the Member is really suggesting is that we and the DUP would box clubs off — that is basically what he is suggesting. I would like to use this opportunity to completely refute that. It is public money, as the Member will know, and it needs to be scrutinised. That includes the decisions about how the money is spent. I anticipate that the process, which is completely open and completely transparent, will be scrutinised. Hopefully, that gives some assurance to the Member.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question, and I wish her a happy new year. As she will know — I have said this repeatedly, but it is worth repeating — the Tory Administration have, once again, imposed massive cuts on our block grant and, indeed, on our community, and my job is to try to allocate funding and to work against the worst impacts on service provision. I am content that my Department and its arm's-length bodies (ALBs) are taking every step to minimise the impacts on front-line services, particularly and including those provided by the community and voluntary sector, which does a massive amount of work, by extracting as many savings as they can from administration and overhead costs.

As the Member will appreciate, that work is ongoing, and I hope to bring it to a conclusion once I have settled on budgets by the end of this month. I am, of course, keenly aware of the work carried out by the community and voluntary sector. It is not enough for me just to give those assurances. I will certainly have to justify the budget that I settle on at the end of the month, but I want to give the Member as much assurance as possible that I will look at every opportunity to try to reduce costs so that maximum spend happens within the community and voluntary sector.


2.15 pm

Ms Lo: First of all, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you and Members of the House a happy Chinese new year today.

Mr McCarthy: Hear, hear. What is that all about?

Ms Lo: Time does not allow me to expand on that.

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

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her response. I know that she really cares about funding for the community and voluntary sector, and I thank her for her very positive comment. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that when DCAL goes into the big, new Department — the Department for Communities — the priorities for culture, arts and leisure will be high up on the agenda of the new structure?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that the consultation on the overarching arts and cultural strategy for 10 years will close this week. When I leave the Department, it is crucial that, for the first time ever, there will be an overarching strategy, and Departments will have their role to play in the delivery, investment and funding for arts and culture going into the next 10 years. I believe that that is critical, because it has been missing, and, frankly, I could never understand why there was not an overarching strategy for arts and culture in the same way that there is for sports.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. My apologies for earlier. Things seem to have proceeded a lot faster than expected, and I missed my question, so apologies for that.

In light of the important input of the community and voluntary sector, what level of engagement has there been between the Minister and senior representatives from her Department around that particular sector with a view to identifying sources of funding in the Department or to facilitating it to identify alternative sources of funding elsewhere?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. If he wishes, I will try to get to him in writing the answer to the previous question that he missed, so that he can have that. In the response that I gave to Anna Lo, and I am sure that it will come up again, I said that I have been using the consultation period to engage very actively and proactively with members from the arts and cultural sectors right across the board. My officials have been there as well, and they will respond to the consultation. I have not settled on the budget yet, but I intend to at the end of the month. Already, we are asking the ALBs, where possible, to look at how they can make savings in order for us to try to get it out to the voluntary and community sector.

The Arts Council has been very proactive in trying to secure other sources of funding or give information in particular around council areas but also in Europe and some of the trusts. I believe that NICVA has also been very proactive, as well as some of the area partnerships. So, I believe that as much as can be done has been done.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Guím Bliain Úr faoi mhaise d’Anna fosta. I wish to express a happy new year to Anna. Anna, you are too diplomatic to mention that it is the year of the monkey where the media can insert their own joke.

One of the great difficulties of the Fresh Start was that we did not get the budget that we wanted from London. What particular steps has the Minister taken to offset the impact of those Tory cuts? I think in particular of Outburst Queer Arts Festival, which launches tomorrow. That is a newer festival in the city and a great arts event looking for funding. I wonder what steps can be taken generally to offset the impact of the Tory cuts.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Some of what I have answered to Anna Lo and to Patsy may have gone some way to answering his question, but it is worth repeating that, in subsequent Budgets, statements and Budget settlements, we have received ongoing cuts from our block grant by the Tory Government. That will have an impact on delivery. It is quite shocking, given the level of need, support, development, inspiration and aspiration that the cultural and arts sector have provided; they help to regenerate the economy and keep people well and safe and healthy. It is really important that we use the last days of the consultation to make those arguments for additional money for arts, because it has proven not only to be money well spent but that it can help to generate money.

I met Outburst festival, and I wish it all the best, but there is an example of where you put a small investment in and there will be a big return for the host city or town.

Mr B McCrea: Minister, many of the ALBs are working to budget cuts of 5·7%. Do you envisage changing that so that, for example, Libraries NI might get a lower reduction and the Arts Council might get a bigger reduction?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Basil, I am not dodging your question. I am sure that you know that I have never dodged your questions, or anyone else's for that matter. I am still actively considering those budgets, and it would be completely inappropriate for me to indicate what the settlement will be for each ALB at this stage, particularly as I am still getting in the information. I will happily keep the Member, and not only members of the CAL Committee but Members of the House, posted when those decisions have been made.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for the question. The source is the Department of Education's school census figures for 2010-11 to 2014-15, which show a remarkable 24% growth in the numbers in Irish-medium education in just five years. A similar trend applies to adult education in Irish.

The 2013 Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) survey is the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information about Irish in the 21st century. The survey indicates strong and increasing support for the Irish language, North and South, and that there is an expectation that government should do more to promote the language. My Department's initiative to promote Irish, Líofa, has been exceptionally successful, with over 17,000 people already signed up. That increase in demand for Irish and increasing public expectations that the Irish language will be properly promoted and developed by government form an important backdrop to my decision to take forward work within the framework of the Irish language academy.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that. The figures that she referred to were quoted percentages, which are relative. What were the actual figures for the Irish language academy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am sorry, but I did not hear the Member's last point. Is she asking for the actual figures?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will get the actual figures for the Member. I will get them for each of the percentages that I quoted. I see that the Member is turning her face up. If there is something that she wants to add, she can do so in writing, and I will happily respond to her.

Mr Campbell: The Minister has outlined the genesis and source of the Irish language percentages and numbers. Does she agree with me that the pursuit of any language can often be thwarted and stunted whenever people see the politicisation of that language, such as has been done by her colleagues in Sinn Féin inside and outside the Chamber on numerous occasions?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Members really stretches it beyond belief. The only people that I have ever heard politicising a language, stretching a language and causing offence to people who use that language are you and your party colleagues, and some others. If I thought, for one minute, that the Member was genuine about trying to find out what we can do as a community to work with people who have or want to have Irish as their first language; what we can do as a community not to assault and cause offence to children who are learning Irish and who are educated through the medium of Irish language; and what we can do as a community to try to get over the petty, bigoted sectarianism that they have perpetuated —

Mr Campbell: I thought that you could not answer the question.

Ms Ní Chuilín: — in the House against a language that belongs to everyone —

Mr Campbell: From somebody who said that she does not answer questions.

Ms Ní Chuilín: If the Member has any questions, I would like to hear what they are.

Mr Campbell: Does not avoid questions.

Mr Campbell: She is avoiding that one.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, or the Member shall be named.

I ask the Minister to continue with her answer, if she has anything further to say.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you. I think that I have answered the question.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her responses so far. She will obviously be very aware — her Department has been a contributor — that the Cumann Cluain Árd in my constituency has seen its biggest investment in maybe 50 years. That has been the cradle of Irish language learning for many people for many decades. Will the Minister congratulate those Irish language learners in my constituency and perhaps give examples of others?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I certainly congratulate Cumann Cluain Árd, which, when I was a girl growing up in North Belfast, was seen as one of the authorities in learning and developing the language, particularly during the decades when it was not easy. Thankfully, there are many other organisations that not only have the experience of Cumann Cluain Árd in Belfast but are growing right across the North and right across the island. In the survey that it produced last year, Foras na Gaeilge showed that a lot of people have taken up the formal learning of Irish. They are learning in places like Cluain Árd. I was absolutely delighted to make an investment in that. The Member is also lucky enough to have Ceathrú na Gaeltachta in its own constituency, the Gaeltacht Quarter. I made an investment in that through Forbairt Feirste, which is the secretariat of Ceathrú na Gaeltachta. It will be taking forward a scoping exercise around an Irish language academy.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Will the Minister outline when the House can expect the outcome of the assessment to determine levels of economic and social development and employment opportunities in relation to the Irish language? Can those levels be developed within the framework of the Irish language academy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The first scoping study that we did around some of the topics that the Member raised highlighted the need for a purpose-built, stand-alone academy. That would not just be for the Irish language but would look at the some of the same things in Ulster-Scots culture and heritage. However, it was very academically focused and actually missed the point that the Member has raised. Therefore, taking into account some of the parts of the first scoping exercise, another exercise was developed to look into not only economic regeneration, development and job creation, but learning the language and how it can be blended in. One of the big and growing gaps in the first exercise was the question of what can be done for children and young people who are leaving the post-primary sector and not going on to third-level education.

We also need to make sure that, wherever adults go to learn the language, be it classes in Strabane, Cluain Árd or anywhere else, they get the same standard and same level across the board. I am also looking forward to the results of that scoping study because, at the end of the day, the Irish language is regenerating the economy. Irish language activists are ratepayers and taxpayers too. They have rights, and I want to ensure that, collectively, we not only protect those rights but do so with an open heart.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I believe that it is of significant importance for my Department and its arm's-length bodies to raise their profile in Europe and expand European engagement, including maximising potential funding sources. DCAL, through the Arts Council, has a dedicated resource in place to help artistic, cultural and creative organisations access competitive European funding, mainly through the Creative Europe funding programme.

During the previous funding round, the Arts Council facilitated the drawdown of an average of £300,000 a year to organisations in the arts and culture sectors. Since Creative Europe was established in 2014, a number of events have been delivered by a dedicated European engagement officer to the audiovisual and creative and cultural sectors across the North, with more than 1,000 participants attending. In addition, since that time, comprehensive support has been provided to 15 projects submitted to the Creative Europe programme. To date, the Arts Council and Foras na Gaeilge have secured funding from the Creative Europe funding stream.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for her answers. I agree that the EU has been an important catalyst not just in funding terms but in the increased audience for our art and the less tangible benefits around diversity. Has your Department done any planning for how that funding deficit would be met in the unfortunate event of a UK withdrawal from the EU?

Ms Ní Chuilín: As the Member has pointed out, there is a lot of concern and anxiety around the whole Brexit argument. My Department is, along with others, looking into what the implications of that would be. I think that the sectors and the community should be heard. I heard some of the debates among the business community both in England and here, and 80% there and 90% here are for us not withdrawing but staying as we are. I think that, if you were to apply that same question across culture, arts and leisure and the community and voluntary sector, the figures would be similar. We are still trying to work through potential scenarios and look at how any gaps that are created can be met, if at all.


2.30 pm

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

T1. Mr Swann asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on what steps her Department is taking to buy out or close down salmon nets, given that, in response to a recent question for written answer, she told him that she had paid over £300,000 to a salmon nets licensee. (AQT 3441/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: As the Member will appreciate, this has been an elongated process, particularly for the families concerned. This business has been in families for generations, and we want to be as fair as possible within the guidelines for spending public money. I do not have any definitive response about what to do about the remaining salmon net owners. I will respond to the Member in writing, but I will give him as robust an answer as I possibly can because I am aware that he is working with some of them in his constituency.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for her open answer. She is well aware of the work that was done on salmon fisheries, especially with regard to catch and release. If that amount of money has been attributed to the nets owners, and there is still more money outstanding to be paid to them, will she advise us whether she has any sort of counterbalance to give to angling clubs, which voluntarily took up catch and release at the start in order to drive the conservation of salmon.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Like the Member, I commend the angling clubs because they have enthusiastically and genuinely not only helped with the mandatory catch and release as it is now, but continue to act as guardians of the waterways. I understand that there is some concern, given the level of protections that they are engaged in, that some of the netsmen seem to be unwilling to engage in that process. I understand the sensitivities around the issue, but, notwithstanding that, I will try to get the Member the answers that he has asked for as quickly as I possibly can. I definitely hear what he is saying.

T2. Ms Ruane asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the Scéim Pobal Gaeilge programme. (AQT 3442/11-16)

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. An dtig leis an Aire eolas a thabhairt dúinn faoin dul chun cinn atá á dhéanamh i Scéim Pobal Gaeilge?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. This is something that remains fairly topical in communities. The new arrangements for Scéim Pobal Gaeilge, which will see an increase in the number of groups from 19 to 25 to 27, will happen after July this year. I am thankful that the work that I have done with my counterparts will ensure not only that the scheme is extended but that there will be an increase towards some of the running costs. If you are looking for an example of what works on the ground, helping people who are learning Irish but also helping families and communities to get services through the medium of Irish, it is Scéim Pobal Gaeilge.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. What approach are her counterparts, Ministers McHugh and Humphreys, in the South of Ireland taking in relation to Scéim Pobal Gaeilge?

Ms Ní Chuilín: We agreed the revision of the scheme, so they are happy with that. We are still looking at what additional money we can get for Foras na Gaeilge, specifically for this scheme. We are looking at ways in which the groups that applied to the scheme can access other funding from Foras na Gaeilge and perhaps an increase in some of the running costs. Some of the running costs that have been awarded by Foras na Gaeilge to the groups will, potentially, inhibit them from operating, and that was not the original intention. We are having discussions and, hopefully, we can conclude this before we leave our respective offices. I know that officials in both Departments are working very closely on this as we speak.

T3. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in light of some of the problems that have arisen with Casement Park, whether the GAA is seeking an alternative venue. (AQT 3443/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am not aware of any alternative venues, and there should not be any. The Member and some others in his party are in the awful position of lobbying for the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, and there are other Members who are anti-GAA, anti-Casement Park and anti-west Belfast, and they do not want the investment going into that area. Not only am I completely unaware of any other venue, but if it is not Casement Park it is not anywhere.

Mr Weir: It is good to see that a wide range of alternatives is being considered. In light of some of the difficulties, what actions are being taken by her Department to find a solution and resolve the issues between local residents and the GAA?

Ms Ní Chuilín: There are several residents' groups. I know that the Member's party is working with the Mooreland Owenvarragh Residents' Association (MORA), as it is perfectly entitled to do. I met with MORA in the past, and I met with other residents' groups, and, indeed, other businesses in the community whose premises have been on the doorstep of Casement Park for generations. I will ensure that, when the pre-consultation period takes place in March, anyone with concerns will have them heard by the Ulster Council and, where appropriate, they will be rectified before any formal planning application is submitted.

T4. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how much funding she has allocated to the commemoration of the Easter rebellion. (AQT 3444/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: A package of funding was made available by my Department for the decade of centenaries. I will get the Member a figure for this year, for the Easter rising and the Somme, as it is 2016 that we are talking about. I will get him a figure for how much is being spent, and what some of my Department's ALBs are doing as regards exhibitions, talks and discussions. Given the opportunities we had to go to lectures and events in other commemorations, I would like to ensure that all Members from all parties feel that they can go to, for example, the Linen Hall Library or the Ulster Museum, or whatever the case may be, to hear about certain aspects of the Somme or the Easter rising at first hand. I will get the Member those figures in writing.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I look forward to getting the figures; I will be interested in them. Given the rebellion's divisive nature, its attack on the state and democracy, and the fact that it had little or no support across Ireland, in particular in what is now Northern Ireland, is this the best use of public money?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member has his own perspective on history. From my perspective, I believe that the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister — and now the Member's party leader — and I entered into support for a decade of centenaries that included them all. There are certain aspects of the Member's history, and that of his community, that I feel are not palatable; I certainly do not feel that they were democratic. However, I am big enough to recognise that we need to celebrate and commemorate these events from the position of respect, and of dealing with facts, and a position from which we hope to regenerate — and generate discussions to, hopefully, build — good relations. Hopefully, the Member will have that in mind when he asks the question about something like this, because I have had feedback from the community — not just his, mine too — and it is up for this.

T5. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, who said at the beginning of Question Time that she is coming to the end of her reign in the Department, whether she agrees that the recent controversy about the sports complex in Dungiven was shameful and should never have happened and whether she is satisfied that the money now set aside for that project is ring-fenced and that a future Minister with responsibility for culture, arts and leisure will not unravel it. (AQT 3445/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am content that the money has been ring-fenced. Just to make sure, I will repeat that again: the money is ring-fenced for my Department for a sports facility. I think it is incredible — and that is as much as I will say — that, in 2016, we still have people who would rather cut off their nose to spite their face. I think it is ridiculous that, with public money, we are still looking at an us-and-them situation rather than at addressing need. I believe that the investment in Dungiven will benefit the people of the town and the outlying areas. The people I met came from across that community and the Member's constituency of East Derry. If there is any hint, or any saying of funny business, or that nothing is going to happen, that will not happen with my money.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her very positive answer. As someone who spent 33 years in Coleraine — the same time that our Lord spent on this earth — it was heartbreaking to see the performance that went on. Does the Minister agree that, 18 years into an Assembly, we should have matured beyond this sniggering at each other's misfortunes and beyond putting energy and synergy into trying to deprive a community of a space that it needs?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I agree with the Member that, 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, there is an expectation that things should have moved on. Sometimes, when you look at issues or events that have happened, it is a real flashback to perhaps even further back than 18 years ago. People who want to go back to the past are severely deluded. There is no going back; we are all going forward. Some may need to be dragged forward, but forward they will go. At Dungiven, as with any other sports facility, it is about need, not creed. The days when people invested in facilities and then tied up the swings are well gone.

T6. Mr Allen asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, given that the timescale for this year’s Budget process is very tight and will not allow for the usual consultation, whether she has any plans to seek comments from key stakeholders. (AQT 3446/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Two fairly big consultations are under way in my Department: one on the subregional programme for soccer; the other on an overarching 10-year strategy for arts and cultures. They have been very beneficial, and people did not talk just about those subjects. Those who attended the meetings were from the community and voluntary sector. They represent a wide range of needs and used the opportunity to raise other concerns. As I said in answer to previous questions, that process has not been completed. It will be complete at the end of this month. My aim for the process will be consistent with the position that I have adopted in my Department: I will protect people, particularly the vulnerable, as much as I can.

Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she anticipate any reduction or ending of school and community engagement programmes as a result of budget cuts?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am not aware of the specific programmes that the Member has in mind. If he puts his concerns in writing, I will try to have them responded to. I repeat: my job is to try to protect people, particularly those who have had difficulty in the past in accessing front-line services. Through DCAL and its arm's-length bodies, I will try to make them a priority as best as I can.

T7. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on Libraries NI’s proposals for the redevelopment of the library in Enniskillen. (AQT 3447/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is aware that we are in the final stages of looking at the proposals for that. I hope that that exercise will be completed, if not by the end of this month, by the beginning of next. I will keep Members informed.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister may be aware that, in Cookstown, the South West College campus is co-located with the library, which presents obvious synergies for the community and the student population. Does she accept that such synergies could be generated in Enniskillen, with the co-location of the Enniskillen library on the site of the proposed South West College at the old Erne Hospital site in the town?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Without coming down on a preferred site — the Member has been very detailed on his preferred option — I accept his point: to ensure the best use of public services, they should, as far as possible, be developed in parallel, if they are not to be neighbours. We have that in mind. In fact, Libraries NI, one of the ALBs in DCAL, has gone a long way not only with users of its service but with other Departments in having libraries as a focus and making them venues in which people can access other services that they find difficult or are reluctant to access elsewhere. In that way, we can maximise public investment and make a bigger return for ratepayers, taxpayers and people. In so far as we can do that, I am open to looking at it, but it is not appropriate for me to comment on the specific proposals that the Member mentioned.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Gordon Lyons to ask his question quickly, as we are running out of time.

T8. Mr Lyons asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, given that she will know that last week was National Libraries Week, when he had the pleasure of visiting Whitehead library, and that libraries are more than just places to go to to borrow books, what action her Department is taking to ensure that people are aware of the different services that are provided and to ensure the sustainability of local libraries. (AQT 3448/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is aware that, in the past, I have given a higher level of protection to libraries than to other ALBs in my Department because the services offered in libraries have an overarching aspect. They are about more than borrowing books. Information and generating awareness are key, and libraries have been very good at that. Not only have they brought in additional people who have become members, but they have brought in people who did not even know that the services were there in the first place.


2.45 pm

Education

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1, 2, 13 and 14 together.

I believe that it is in the best interests of learners here to continue with the well-established grading using letters. Requiring all GCSEs here to be graded in that way will avoid unnecessary complexity. It is very disappointing that some organisations are choosing to put commercial interests ahead of the needs of our young people and will no longer offer their GCSE qualifications here. I assure pupils and parents that our young people will continue to be able to access a wide range of subjects and courses from CCEA, WJEC and other awarding organisations.

My Department has written to schools with initial guidance, including arrangements for pupils who are already working towards 9-to-1 GCSEs in maths and English literature provided by awarding bodies that have now decided to leave us. Further guidance will be provided shortly on the alternatives available to fill the gaps that emerge in the range of GCSEs on offer as a result of their decisions.

It is, of course, important, that qualifications offered here are relevant and appropriate for our young people and our economy. It is also vital that qualifications offered here continue to be recognised by universities and employers across these islands and beyond. Systems are already in place to allow comparisons to be made between exam outcomes here and in other jurisdictions across these islands and beyond. My decision on GCSE grading does not change any of that.

Mr Kennedy: I listened closely to the Minister's answer. A key selling point for the Northern Ireland education system is that, traditionally, our pupils get better A-level, AS-level and GCSE results than their compatriots in England and Wales. Does the Minister agree that we should protect that record, and does he agree that it is essential that we should compare and benchmark our performance against other parts of the United Kingdom, especially in key subjects?

Mr O'Dowd: Yes and yes, but none of the decisions that I have made to date will change that. We will still be comparable to England, Wales, Scotland and the South of Ireland. None of the decisions that I have made negates or does away with such comparability across these islands. It is vital that we measure our education system against those of our nearest neighbours or other jurisdictions. It is also vital that we are able to measure our education system against the leading education systems in the world. While I fully understand — it is only natural — why we compare our results at the summer awarding time with England's, we have to move beyond that. That is nothing to do with this decision, I have to say. We have to compare with the leading education systems across the world and ensure that our students match them.

Mr Dallat: I listened carefully to the Minister's answers. Does he agree that it is bad enough having two examination systems on this small island without introducing a third one? Does he also agree that, when employers assess people for jobs, they may not be as knowledgeable about the grades as the Minister is or as I am as a former teacher?

Mr O'Dowd: The reality is that we have two qualification systems on this island, and we now have divergence in GCSE grading on these islands. Wales has maintained the alphabetical awarding system, as have I. As you are aware, England has moved to a 9-to-1 system, and Scotland has its own qualifications. That is the reality of the situation and the reality of devolved government. Devolved institutions will make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of their students.

Employers now deal with qualifications from across Europe. The debate about Brexit and our relationship with Europe is relevant here, because, with the influx of European workers into our economy, employers — particularly major employers — deal with qualifications from a range of European countries. Our universities deal with a range of qualifications not only from Europe but from around the globe, and all manage perfectly well.

Mr Anderson: Minister, what discussions did you have with teachers and their representatives on this issue before you made your decision on the grading change?

Mr O'Dowd: Consultation on this matter took place over a 12-week period. There were consultation responses from teachers, teachers' organisations, parents and pupils, the business sector and other sectors. As with many consultation responses, there was a variety of opinions, whether among teachers or other professionals, about how you maintain qualifications and score those qualifications. However, the key message coming from the consultation responses is that we want to maintain, and ensure that there is no confusion around, the publication of examination results with a variety of numbers and alphabetical scoring on the one awards sheet that is given to pupils.

Mr Weir: In addition to the general concerns that have been raised on this matter by myself and others, I ask the Minister to comment specifically on the computer science GCSE. At the weekend, Professor Crozier of Queen's University expressed a concern about the removal of the more technical computer science GCSE, which is currently provided by the English boards, and that the current CCEA ICT computer science one is less technical and will leave Northern Ireland students at a disadvantage. What assurance can he give that a computer science GCSE that matches what is there from England will be put in place?

Mr O'Dowd: CCEA is developing a new GCSE in ICT. Importantly, CCEA is developing it in conjunction with local employers and industry leaders. The way forward in qualifications is to develop them in conjunction with employers and leading academics in the subject. I am confident that the new GCSE that will be introduced by CCEA will have the same rigour and fortitude as the one that the professor commented on over the weekend. We also have a very rigorous A level in ICT that is recognised by universities and others. I listened carefully to the concerns raised over the weekend, but I am satisfied that the course of action that we have taken will not put our students at a disadvantage in any subject, including computing.

Mr Allister: The Minister must have known when he made his decision that English boards were not going to establish a separate marking system for Northern Ireland students. Therefore, he knew — and presumably wanted — that the outcome would be to reduce the choice for schools and pupils in Northern Ireland. Is his agenda not as obvious as it is political?

Mr O'Dowd: No, it is not political — it is educational. I note that no one who has presented me with questions thus far has presented me with an educational argument not to take this decision. You have chosen a political question rather than an educational question to confront me about my decision, but I await someone challenging me for educational reasons. It was an education decision based on sound data, consultation and the needs of our local students. It would be a very unfortunate position for any Minister to start making decisions based on the commercial needs of companies that provide services to Health, Education or any other Executive Department. We have to make decisions that we believe are in the best interests of our young people. If commercial enterprises wish to follow, well and good. If they do not, so be it.

Mr O'Dowd: CCMS has a statutory duty to promote and coordinate, in consultation with the trustees, the planning of effective provision of Catholic maintained schools. The statutory development proposal process facilitates extensive consultation and has two distinct stages. Prior to publication, the onus is on the proposer, in this case CCMS, to consult the boards of governors, teachers and parents of the affected schools. The Education Authority also has a duty to consult all other schools likely to be affected. Once a development proposal is published, a two-month objection and comment period begins, during which anyone can make their views known directly to my Department. I endeavour to engage with concerned or interested parties during this stage to listen to their views on a proposal before I decide whether to approve it.

The 2015 strategic area plan for post-primary schools states that the trustees recommend the phased development of two large single-sex schools in Enniskillen. The statutory development proposals to support that intent have not been published. Until they are, neither my Department nor I have any role.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. This issue affects people across Fermanagh, not just Enniskillen. The four schools in question — St Michael's, St Joseph's, St Fanchea's and Mount Lourdes — all provide excellent education to the students who attend them. At what stage will the Department and the Minister, whether he or his successor, become involved in the process to ensure that the views of the local community are heard on the matter and that a decision in the best interests of the young people of Fermanagh is reached?

Mr O'Dowd: The only point at which I or the next Minister will become involved is when development proposals are published in relation to the plans outlined by CCMS in one of its documents. At that stage, it is opened up to two months of consultation, where the Minister will engage with locally interested parties, including the schools and others, on the issue and take on board evidence, verbal and written, from the various parties on the matter. Only after that two-month consultation can a decision be made.

Mr Patterson: The Minister will probably be aware that there is a widely held view across Fermanagh that schools in the controlled sector have been treated very differently from those in the maintained. The controlled post-primaries in Kesh, Ballinamallard and Lisnaskea have all been closed, with the promise of a new build in Enniskillen, which, in reality, is some way off. Does he understand the frustration when local people see what is clearly an unfair approach taken with other valuable schools, such as the one in Brollagh?

Mr O'Dowd: I do not accept your view on that matter. I have been involved in wide-scale consultations with a cross-section of the community in Fermanagh over my tenure as Minister. I was the Minister who brought forward the new build for Devenish College, and I was the Minister who defended that new build when representatives from Fermanagh told me that it would never happen. I am sure that it was very desponding for the board of governors of Devenish College to hear elected representatives in the Chamber tell me that a build would never happen. The build is happening. Devenish College will rise up as a new school in the near future. Work is already taking place on site to deal with the difficult lay of the land in that area.

The delay in dealing with and improving educational facilities in the controlled sector in Fermanagh has as much to do with those who refuse to accept the need for change as it has with those who want to promote change. The judgement last Wednesday or Thursday shows that the decision that I made in relation to Portora and Collegiate was the correct one. The judge rejected 29 of the, I think, 32 original points of appeal, several of which were dropped during the case. The judge rejected every point of appeal brought forward and said that the Minister's decision was correct and rational. We now have the programme for change that is needed in the controlled sector, and I am determined to back it up with investment in new schools for the controlled sector in Fermanagh.

Mrs D Kelly: On the principle of shared education, have you, Minister, added any caveats or conditions that schools must comply with to avail themselves of shared education funding, such as having to participate in Key Stage 3 assessments?

Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the Member to her role as education spokesperson; I look forward to locking horns with her. This is an issue that goes back several months. I have included the caveat that schools should report on levels of progression. Why would I not? Why would I not insist that schools report on levels of progression when we are talking about a significant investment of public funds in a scheme that is about shared education and ensuring that it not only creates changes in our society but delivers high-quality education?

Several of the unions objected. I engaged in great detail with them, and we have now come to a compromise position; we are working our way through the levels of progression. Engagement with the unions will continue. That will be only for the betterment of creating levels of progression that all schools and unions are comfortable with. It will also ensure that the Education Department, the Executive, the Assembly and all the others tasked with looking after public money can be satisfied that it is well invested.


3.00 pm

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

Mr O'Dowd: Since 2013-14, my Department has cooperated with the Department of Education and Skills in the South in running an all-island history competition for schools to commemorate the decade of centenaries. As part of the Ireland 2016 programme to commemorate the events of 1916, of which the Easter rising is one, three all-island schools’ competitions will be held this year in history, drama and art. The cross-curricular nature of those competitions provides opportunities for pupils to learn about that important period in our history. Additionally, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is working on a 1916 mutual understanding programme for schools, with the objective of providing curricular support and materials for teachers and learners that will allow them to explore the history and legacy of events associated with the 1916 year of centenaries, including the rising and the battle of the Somme. I have agreed to provide funding of up to £45,000 for that work by CCEA in 2016-17.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In commemorating 2016 as a year of centenaries, with its important milestones and historical anniversaries, can he assure us that schools will feel as comfortable about looking at the 1916 Easter rising as they might about looking at the First World War?

Mr O'Dowd: The all-Ireland competition we are running with the Department of Education and Skills in the South and the funding I am providing to CCEA are to ensure that schools can look at both significant events of 1916, with the centenaries of the rising and the battle of the Somme. There are schools that will choose to look at both events, and there may be schools that will choose to look at one or the other.

I know that, with my children, the conversations around the dinner table range from the 1916 rising to the First World War. I think that is very interesting. In fact, one of my sons asked me whether I was around during the First World War, and I had to convince him that I was not. There are opportunities for schools to look at both the major events of 1916 going through 1916 or to look at singular events. I encourage them to look at both.

Mr Hussey: Does the Minister agree that great care must be taken to not glorify the mistakes of history? For example, in the Easter rising, one of the first killed was a Dublin Metropolitan Police officer who was killed in cold blood.

Mr O'Dowd: Events in history are issues that there are always differences of opinion on. It is clear that death occurred on the streets of Dublin, as it did around the banks of the Somme. There are many studies and views on whether either of those battles was necessary and whether the great loss of life, be it in the First World War or the Easter rising and the proceeding war of independence, was inevitable or necessary. I want to ensure that schools have an informed debate, are comfortable in that debate and engage with each other. Yes, we should learn from the mistakes of history, but it is not only schoolchildren who need to do that: adults in the Chamber would do well to learn from the mistakes of history too.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his answer. In Ulster in 1916, there was no rebellion. The rebels gathered in Tyrone, and, apart from two of them shooting themselves when their guns went off accidentally, they simply went home on the train afterwards. Will the Minister assure us that that information will be incorporated into the same material?

Mr O'Dowd: The history of the rising will be interpreted by and taught through schools. I do not provide the material to schools and say, "You must teach it in this way". The information they get is open to interpretation by the schools.

The Member will be aware that there was a rebellion in the Six Counties: the UVF was still armed to the teeth. They still had the guns they landed in 1913 and were still threatening war against the British state if home rule was, in their words, imposed or if partition did not take place. So, there was a rebellion. It was a rebellion on the other side of the argument, perhaps, but there were certainly those who were hoarding guns — [Interruption.]

Mr O'Dowd: There were certainly those who were hoarding guns; there were those who were planning an armed uprising; and there were those who were threatening to carry out violence against the king and his forces. The Member may want to write that out of history; I do not.

History does not scare me. Learning about history does not scare me. Learning about the mistakes of history does not scare me. Learning about other people's perspectives on history does not scare me. What scares me is when we make the mistakes of history.

Mr O'Dowd: Following the Executive's agreement of the 2016-17 Budget on Thursday 17 December 2015, which was subsequently passed by the Assembly on 19 January 2016, I am working through the impact of the Budget 2016-17 outcome on the education sector and have not yet come to any final decisions in relation to that. The budget settlement for education is challenging, partly as a result of the real-terms reduction to the Executive’s resource budget by the Westminster Government. However, the position for education is significantly better than previously anticipated. My aim is to have reached final decisions on my Department’s budget allocations within the next number of weeks to allow for early notification to schools.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that schools work to a three-year budget cycle and that, as it stands, they do not know what their budget will be for the 2016-17 year. Has he given any consideration in the five years in which he has been Minister to doing something about that and to change it?

Mr O'Dowd: Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but do I recall the Ulster Unionist Party challenging the Executive over their four-year CSR Budget and calling for a year-on-year Budget settlement, rather than producing a four-year Budget at the start of the mandate? I think that the Ulster Unionist Party and, I believe, your colleagues in the SDLP opposed a four-year Budget at the start. We are in a one-year Budget cycle because we are facing into an end-of-mandate election. There will be an election in May; there will be a new mandate; and there will be a new Executive. It will be up to the new Executive, if they so wish, to approve a Budget period over four years. Schools will then have certainty around what their budget will be like for the coming period on the three-year plan. We are in a unique position. As I said, the election is coming. We have to set the Budget, and there is nothing we can do about it at this stage.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister give us a little more information on what impact the increased capital budget will have on schools in the 2016-17 financial year?

Mr O'Dowd: The increase in the capital budget is a good news story for Education. We have seen a significant increase in the capital budget for the Education Department both in normal capital and the injection of money from the Fresh Start Agreement, which committed £50 million per annum for shared and integrated education and, indeed, shared housing. Hopefully, we will be able to work our way through a significant part of the minor works backlog that has built up this year. We are moving ahead with a significant new school build programme and a school enhancement programme (SEP). Indeed, I hope to be in a position in the coming weeks to announce several more projects that will move onto site shortly.

Mr O'Dowd: I am committed to ensuring that the schools estate plays its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy efficiency. I, therefore, continue to consider investment in gas conversions, within the budget available to me and within the availability of the natural gas network. In the 2014-15 financial year, I invested £10 million on a range of energy efficiency projects across the schools estate, including the conversion of oil-fired to gas-fired heating in 16 schools.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome the fact that he is looking at energy efficiency in our schools. I had a recent meeting with Firmus Energy, which is a provider in the south Antrim area. I was alarmed to find out the number of schools that had not converted to gas. Given that we hear, quite often, in the headlines about schools from which oil has been stolen, I appeal to the Minister to do more in areas where gas is available. What assurance can the Minister give that he will do more for the schools in each of the constituencies where gas is available to give them security of supply?

Mr O'Dowd: I note the Member's comments on security of supply, but, at the moment, given that oil prices are so low, I suspect that many schools are quite happy to continue with oil-fired central heating. I also note the comments made on green energy, energy efficiency, and so on. As he will know, energy markets fluctuate. Gas is also at a reasonable price at the moment. World affairs can have a major impact on gas prices as well, so, as regards predicting future prices, it is a topsy-turvy sort of economy. My Department works with the Education Authority and the other managing authorities on conversions. Moving forward, we will make budgets available as we can to ensure that our schools have the most up-to-date energy systems.

Mr McMullan: Can the Minister tell us the number of schools that currently operate with gas-fired heating?

Mr O'Dowd: Currently, 739 sites in the education estate are connected to the natural gas network. Those include schools, school meals accommodation, youth clubs and administration buildings. I will provide the Member with a full breakdown in writing of the schools involved.

Mr O'Dowd: For transfer in 2016, 62 post-primary schools are using children's results in unregulated tests as a basis for year 8 admissions. Although some schools appear to be wedded to the outdated notion of testing children for admission, an increasing number of grammar schools have chosen to abandon academic selection.

St MacNissi's College dropped selection in March 2010 when it amalgamated with two other County Antrim schools to become St Killian's College. Loreto College in Coleraine has been operating successfully as a non-selective grammar school since September 2012. St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh has abandoned academic selection. St Ronan's College in Lurgan, which opened in September 2015, operates as a non-selective grammar school.

More Catholic grammar schools have announced that they are exploring the possibility of moving in the same direction. Loreto Grammar School in Omagh and Omagh Christian Brothers Grammar School have signalled that they wish to move away from academic selection on a phased basis, while plans are being developed in Fermanagh that could lead to the end of academic selection at Mount Lourdes Grammar School and St Michael's College in Enniskillen. St Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel is also exploring the possibility of moving away from academic selection. Furthermore, I will shortly be making a decision on a development proposal for the phased ending of academic selection at Dominican College in Portstewart.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister referred to a number of schools in the Omagh area that have forwarded proposals to move away from academic selection. Can he outline the impact that he believes that will have on educational provision in the local area?

Mr O'Dowd: Given that those development proposals are live, in the sense that there is now pre-consultation, after which they will move to publication, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on them specifically, but I note that, in other areas where academic selection has been brought to an end, schools and the educational outcomes of their young people continue to prosper. That proves that you do not require academic selection to have a high-quality education system for our young people.

Mr Diver: I thank the Minister for the information provided on those schools that are trying to move away from the transfer test. Specifically, however, what support is being given to schools that are attempting to move away from the practice of transfer tests?

Mr O'Dowd: It will depends on the case and on whether it was an amalgamation or a closure and the beginning of a new school. It will depend on how the schools move away from academic selection. It is noted that the schools that have taken that step forward have not seen the predicted decline in numbers or in support from the local community. They have not seen the predicted decline in academic results or, indeed, educational results of young people. I encourage the boards of governors out there that are not considering ending academic selection to sit down and have a real conversation about how they believe they are contributing to the educational well-being of the entire community, not just some in the community, because I believe that those schools that have taken that step forward have shown the doubters that world-class education can be and is provided in the absence of academic selection.

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


3.15 pm

T1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Education what he plans to do about the millions of pounds that have been wasted by boards of governors that have, against the background of teachers unable to find jobs, overcrowded classrooms and bad maintenance, rather than create posts, suspended teachers for up to three years, only to bring 99% of them back into service. (AQT 3451/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: We have an education system and education legislation that devolve a significant amount of power to boards of governors. Boards of governors are the employing authority of schools and deal with their day-to-day management. The management of staff in schools is the responsibility of boards of governors. Therefore, it is the responsibility, first, of the managing authorities, whether it be the Education Authority or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), and boards of governors to ensure that suspensions are dealt with as quickly as possible and that the rights of staff who are suspended and the rights of those who have made allegations against staff are respected and protected. Once you get into that, you can end up with quite significant delays in dealing with sometimes very complicated accusations against staff, or vice versa, and that is when you end up with lengthy suspensions. I believe that more can be done to shorten the length of suspensions. That would improve the morale of the staff who are suspended and, for those who have made accusations, would ensure that the issue is dealt with quickly. It would also save money for the public purse.

Mr Dallat: Mr Principal — sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker — you might be Principal Deputy Speaker in the next Assembly.

I am not sure if I am hearing the Minister right but, attempting to be positive, is he telling us that the monitoring of this was totally deficient in the past and that he will ensure that there is monitoring of all schools? I understand that many schools are not monitored at all. Will he convince the world at large that the squandering of £4·2 million in the past five years will not be repeated?

Mr O'Dowd: I wonder whether the Member has ever made any representations on behalf of a suspended teacher.

Mr Dallat: Yes, you know I have.

Mr O'Dowd: Right, OK. Therefore, you accept and defend the right of suspended teachers to be treated fairly and equally under employment legislation and under the rules that govern their school. Where do you draw the line with the £4·2 million that you say has been wasted? Is it that the money was not wasted on the staff you represented but that it was wasted on the staff you did not represent and on that side of the argument? Where do we draw the line?

I am being told by schools that they have to go through these procedures and that they are honouring the rights and entitlements of the teacher or member of staff, and honouring the rights and entitlements of the person who made the complaint. Once you get into all that technical stuff, it can end up being very protracted. Was it monitored properly in the past? I think that it could have been monitored more closely. I have asked my officials to bring forward more proposals on how we ensure that monitoring goes on and how we support schools and boards of governors to ensure that they have all the information and support at hand to deal with these matters as quickly as possible, but the bottom line is that people have rights and entitlements under the law and, when it comes to suspensions, you will find that they quite rightly use them.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask that all remarks are made through the Chair so that Hansard is able to pick everything up appropriately.

T3. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Education why approved school enrolment figures are not included on the Department’s Schools + website. (AQT 3453/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: I do not know. That is the honest answer. We provide data through the Education Authority and give a school profile on every school. That should provide enrolment numbers at schools, their budget position, the number of children entitled to free school meals etc. That is available through the Education Authority's website.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for the confession that he does not know. I ask him to check on that website as soon as possible. Such very important information should be listed on the website.

Mr O'Dowd: I certainly will check for the Member. It may be that we are relying on the school profiles that, as I said, are published for every school on the Education Authority website, but I will follow the matter up.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Alastair Ross is not in his place.

T4. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Education to comment on the BBC headline news story, "NI students ‘among poorest skilled’ in developed world countries", which referred to an OECD report, albeit wrongly interpreted. (AQT 3454/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: The Member has answered her own question in many ways. I believe there was a printing error or other mishap in relation to the report and the details that were given to the media. The media, quite rightly, reported the information that they were given, but that was wrong, and it did present our students in a very dim light, which was unfortunate and unacceptable. I have already received a letter of apology from the OECD in relation to this matter, but it should never have happened in the first place.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that. I appreciate that OECD sent the Minister an apology, but the damage may be already done as regards how far this story has gone across the world. It was on the BBC UK website. How far has that gone? What has the Minister done or what does he plan to do to get the message out across the world that Northern Ireland students are highly skilled, because that report really could be damaging to the Northern Ireland economy?

Mr O'Dowd: I am not always a great defender of the media, but as soon as the BBC was made aware of this matter, it published the OECD's retraction on its website. I published a statement welcoming the clarification around the qualifications and abilities of our young people and expressing my severe disappointment with OECD in relation to the publication of the figures.

It did make headlines, thankfully for only a 24-hour period. However, the correction is now in place, and we will be able to allay anyone's fears or investors' fears in relation to that matter. The figures that OECD provided were completely wrong and did a great disservice to our young people. The apology that I received from OECD is not necessarily to me but to our young people and students, who performed so well in their studies. At any opportunity I have, I will certainly ensure that anyone's misconceptions about our education system will be corrected.

T5. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Education for an update on the progress being made on major refurbishment and capital rebuild projects in primary and post-primary schools across Northern Ireland and particularly in East Londonderry. (AQT 3455/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: As I said in previous answers, we have a significant building projects going on in capital and school enhancement programmes. There are a number of programmes in the Member's constituency. We have Rossmar School, a special school in Limavady. We have Our Lady of Fatima, formerly Craigbrack, Listress and Mullabuoy primary schools in Derry. Those are the two projects that are jumping out at me at the moment. If there are any more, I will certainly inform Mr Campbell in writing.

Mr Campbell: I notice that the Minister was looking down his list with increasing concern that he was not getting any more than the ones that were there. He did not seem to have difficulty in getting capital sums to support capital works in Dungiven for three local children for an Irish language school in East Londonderry, so can the same vigour and concern apply to the maintained and controlled sectors as was applied there, and with much more relevance and poignancy for the numbers of pupils and parents concerned?

Mr O'Dowd: With regard to investment, I could stand here and read out the list of projects that are being built across the North, and the Member will find that there is equality and fair play for everyone. In relation to the Member's constituency, perhaps he would like to inform me which schools he has been lobbying for and which I have turned down. I do not recall the Member lobbying that strongly for any schools in his constituency, and that may be the case.

When we come to a capital announcement, I go to the previous education boards, the CCMS and other managing authorities and ask them to bring forward a list of priority schools under their management. We will then run that through the system and match the schools that come out the other side with our budget at that time. We have made a significant investment in the various schools across the North over the last number of years, and we will continue to do so. Perhaps the Member would like to write to me in relation to the schools he feels have been left behind in his constituency.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): William Irwin is not in his place.

T7. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Education, given that an earlier question referred to conversion from oil to gas in greening the school estate, and the fact that a great school in west Belfast, St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School on the Glen Road, has a wind turbine, whether he is aware of any other conversions within the school estate to wind energy and away from fossil fuels. (AQT 3457/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: No, not off the top of my head. A number of schools have been very innovative in their energy consumption and preserving energy. Our new-build programme, I have to say, is very energy-conscious and very energy-efficient in ensuring that schools are able to monitor the amount of energy they are using, and that they are even able to reduce energy consumption over that period of time. I do not have, at hand, a list of the schools that have converted to wind energy.

Mr Attwood: That is very understandable. DOE runs a scheme whereby virtually every primary school in Northern Ireland is an eco-school. Given the challenge of climate change and the greening of the public estate generally in Northern Ireland, is it not time that there are interventions to encourage schools to seek planning permission and build wind turbines as part of their contribution to environmental change?

Mr O'Dowd: As you said, the vast majority of our primary schools have the eco flag flying from them. Schools are very active in relation to these matters. If the Member is suggesting that the Department should take it on as a project, it would mean that we would have to let go another project somewhere else. It would also require investment in those matters, which means that we would have to let something go somewhere else. All of these are competing priorities. I believe, at this stage, that the best way forward for our school estate is in relation to investment in its capital upgrade and its building infrastructure upgrade, and we are having quite good success in relation to that.

T8. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Education whether he will commit to meet the parent representatives and board of governors from Little Flower post-primary school in North Belfast, who recently met with him and his colleague Nigel Dodds, in light of the fact that the board of governors is united that the school should be retained, with a petition recently presented to the Assembly, albeit that, sadly, however, CCMS refused to meet the parent representatives and the governors. (AQT 3458/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: If the Member cares to write to me on the matter, I will certainly take it under consideration. There are proposals around a development proposal for that area. It may not be the case, but, if my memory serves me right, the consultation for that area may have closed around 19 January. If that is not the case, we can facilitate a meeting if the Member writes to me.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for that response, and I will certainly endeavour to do that. It is my understanding that the parents of pupils at Little Flower and those of pupils at St Patrick's are keen on the retention of both as single-sex post-primary schools in north Belfast. He should be aware that this is a viewpoint that is widely held across the community in north Belfast and, obviously, in particular, by the parents of the pupils attending both schools.

Mr O'Dowd: I take the Member's comments on board. Changes in the school estate can often result in a keen interest from the community, which is a good thing. I always take on board the views and commentary of local parents and local representatives in regard to that mat