Official Report: Monday 15 February 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Weir: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: A point of order.

Mr Weir: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Over the last couple of days, there have been some erroneous and mischievous allegations against the Assembly that strike at its integrity. May I ask the Speaker questions on a couple of points? First, there has been an allegation of a secret appeal mechanism in terms of expenses. Can the Speaker confirm that no such appeal mechanism exists or has ever existed; that there has never been any challenge to the determination of the panel; that the only query that any Member can make is directly with the finance office, which has been published and in existence since the first Members' handbook in 1998; and that, during that period, no query has been brought to the Commission in that regard?

Secondly, can the Speaker confirm that when the determination was made by the panel, in March 2012, one of the provisions concerned payments to other connected parties but that the initial determination referred to contracts on or after 1 April 2012; that that mistake in the drafting was clearly noticed by the panel, which issued, in December 2012, in their own words, a fresh determination to deal with the apparent ambiguity of their first one, which, from 1 January 2013, banned any payments to parties other than those employees or pooled employees; and that, from that date, no payment was made to anybody other than employees or pooled employees?

Ms Ruane: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Allister: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am not absolutely convinced that that is a point of order. I understand, however, that Members may have questions arising. Given the significance of it, I will respond and will take further points. I have also been exercised by this, and I can confirm the facts as you have outlined them. I think that that will be a matter of record. It is of significant concern and regret to me that the chief executive was working directly with the panel on these issues. I am extremely disappointed at the publicity that has been generated, apparently at the behest of the two senior members of the independent panel.

Mr Allister: Interesting as it is that it is the DUP that rides to the rescue of Sinn Féin on the issue, given the nature of the matter and the abuse of public money, is it not time that the Assembly Commission came to the House with a statement explaining how it conducted itself and how it carried on making payments after the independent panel apparently told it to stop? When will we get a statement from the Commission?

Mr Speaker: It is of no help at all for Members, including one with the legal background that you have, to put information on the record that is clearly wrong.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: We are talking here about the entire Assembly. The fantastical theory that parties would combine and collude to give money to Sinn Féin is, I think, something that would cause even you to have second thoughts.

Ms Ruane: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, can you confirm that the Assembly Commission's finances are audited internally by internal auditors and externally by the NI Audit Office?

Mr Speaker: I can confirm that on the basis of personal experience and having double- and treble-checked it this morning before the sitting. We will now move on to other business.

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Is it further to that point of order, Mr Campbell?

Mr Campbell: No, it is a completely separate one. Last week, the Education Minister took a topical question from me in which I raised the issue of rebuilding schools in my constituency. In his reply, he stated:

"I do not recall the Member lobbying that strongly for any schools in his constituency". — [Official Report, Vol 112, No 3, p25, col 1].

Immediately after those comments were made, I checked the record of the House, which reveals that there were 17 such occasions on which I lobbied the Minister for schools in my constituency. I wrote to him immediately afterwards asking him to correct his inaccurate assertion. I then wrote to him on Thursday and asked him whether he was planning to do that in the House. Can you, Mr Speaker, confirm or otherwise whether the Education Minister has applied to you to rectify what appears to be his politically prejudiced, inaccurate comment to me last week?

Mr Speaker: In the first instance, I am sure that the Member is aware, because he is one of the most experienced Members here, that it is not for me to query how Ministers answer questions. On the latter point, I can confirm that I have had no information whatsoever — that is not to say that it has not happened — in the affirmative on any arrangements that the Minister wishes to make.

Mr Speaker: Mr Kieran McCarthy has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak.

Mr McCarthy: My petition pleads with the Health Minister and the Education Minister for much better care for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Of course, those children grow into adults and continue to need that special attention. The increasing number of children with autism who are being forced to wait 20 months and longer for assessment and statements, and the further delay in specialist care and educational support, is pretty scandalous. It is simply not good enough. As this is the final petition that I will present to you in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, and having had personal family experience of a child, now an adult, requiring special needs provision, I am extremely passionate and totally committed to the Assembly delivering on the Autism Act 2011. The last thing that a parent needs after a child's diagnosis is to have to spend time running around Departments looking for help. I appeal to both Ministers to act immediately and help all children with autism; indeed, both children and adults with autism.

I am extremely proud, along with other MLAs, to have served for many years on the all-party group on autism here at Stormont under, I may say, the excellent chairmanship of Dominic Bradley, who is in the Chamber with us. Along with Autism NI, the National Autistic Society and other parent groups, we assist, inform and help parents. We have championed the Autism Act 2011, which was new legislation to end the desperate waiting and uncertainty for parents. I have to say that progress has been very slow since 2011, and that has given rise to frustration, anxiety and, sometimes, total breakdown.

Our petition is begging for swift enactment of the legislation, the autism strategy and, indeed, the action plan. All children with autism must be treated as equal citizens and must have equal access to rights and opportunities, which have to be protected and enforced.

Over 8,271 people have signed this petition. Many are in the Public Gallery today and many have put heart-stopping comments on the petition. I pay tribute to all the parents and friends who have faced lengthy delays and waits. Their expectation in signing this petition has to be realised, and the Assembly, which is their Assembly, must deliver now. I acknowledge that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill is going through Stormont at present, and I also acknowledge the positive nature of the health board, the Public Health Agency and the early support team in each trust, but action speaks louder than words.

In conclusion, the 130% increase in calls for help to the Autism Northern Ireland helpline indicates a huge problem for us all. It is no wonder that parents are crying out for help and guidance. Let all Ministers hear that cry for help, play their part and end the nightmare for children with ASD and their parents now.

Mr McCarthy moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr McCarthy: One is for the Health Minister and one is for the Education Minister.

Mr Speaker: Thank you very much. Congratulations to you and to those who helped you to compile the petition. I will forward it to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education and the Committees.

Mr Swann: I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 15 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 15 February 2016.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I wish to make a statement on the twentieth North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting in the health and food safety sectoral format, which was held in the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on Wednesday 20 January 2016. Minister Michelle O'Neill MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting, while the Irish Government were represented by Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Health, and Dr James Reilly TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Minister Varadkar chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister O'Neill, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

We agreed that our respective officials will progress deliberations on potential additions to the current work programme and noted that officials have already commenced a review of the child protection agenda work programme. The Council received an update on the ongoing collaboration to maximise the drawdown of EU funding in the health sector and noted that our respective officials continue to seek to identify opportunities to collaborate on the drawdown of EU funds. We also welcomed a presentation from the Health Research Board on Horizon 2020 funding streams in the health sector. The Council was informed that legislation to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco products and to transpose the EU tobacco products directive is expected to come into force in May 2016.

Ministers welcomed the update on suicide prevention initiatives in both jurisdictions. The Council noted that construction of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin hospital is on target and that it is planned that the unit will open and be in operational use by late autumn 2016. We also received updates on the work of the US-Ireland R&D Partnership and on the ongoing work of the All Ireland Institute for Hospice and Palliative Care.

Ministers noted that the child protection work programme agreed at the NSMC meeting in July 2012 continues to be progressed and that a review of the current child protection work programme will be reported at a future NSMC meeting in that sector.


12.15 pm

The Council noted the Safefood chief executive officer's report and, in particular, the launch of Safefood's weight-loss app. The Council also noted the Safefood annual report and accounts 2014 and approved the appointment of four new members and one reappointment to Safefood's scientific advisory committee, as well as the appointment of Professor Margaret Patterson as chair of the committee.

Finally, we agreed that the next NSMC health and food safety meeting will be held in the autumn.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I very much welcome the progress on the radiotherapy unit as someone who visited the site last Friday. It is incredible to have it on site, and it will have a huge impact in relation to patients in the north-west who have made horrendous journeys for their cancer treatment.

Will the Minister provide a bit more detail on the work around suicide prevention? Is he thinking about the zero-suicide model being targeted, specifically when we look at the desperate need across our communities? Are we likely to see an all-Ireland approach?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Chair of the Committee for her question. This is an issue that, sadly, affects Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, all countries and regions. We have particularly seen the shadow cast by suicide in this part of the world in recent times. Even though the number of people taking their lives has fallen, we are still by some distance the region with the highest number of suicides in the United Kingdom. From talking to counterparts from the Irish Republic, I know that they are having similar problems, if not, perhaps, at the same level.

The Council acknowledged and supported the work being done by some organisations that have an all-Ireland focus. For example, the four main Christian Church denominations have been working through the Flourish project. Sporting organisations, including the GAA for example, have been raising awareness among their members on both sides of the border. As with many issues in health and social care, we have services in place to deal with the particular problems in Northern Ireland. While there is, perhaps, a higher prevalence in some communities than others of people taking their lives, we will always have to target our resources and attention at those. There is certainly no monopoly on wisdom and ideas to deal with suicide in this part of the world. We will learn from, and share with, others, including the Government of the Irish Republic, any good practice we have, and seek to learn from their best practice as well.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his statement. What other areas have been identified for North/South cooperation?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for her question. Some see North/South cooperation as something for the optics or just for the sake of it. It does not necessarily need to be of any substance. I have to say, with some pride, that the area of health is full of substance in what we have developed on a cross-border basis. It is absolutely not the case in health that we are doing things just for the sake of it or to say that we are doing them on a cross-border basis. There are lots of positive and practical examples of both jurisdictions working together to identify and meet need in a way that is mutually beneficial.

The Chair of the Committee mentioned the good example of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin, which will be on-stream towards the end of the year, we hope, treating patients from both sides of the border. I was also at Altnagelvin Hospital just before Christmas and saw for myself the 24/7 cath lab, which is providing primary percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) and coronary care for patients in the Western and Northern Trust areas, and in other parts of Northern Ireland. It will not be too long before it is also providing support for people from County Donegal.

It is estimated that around 500 patients will receive catheterisation in the cath labs in Altnagelvin.

There is scope for further development, and there are opportunities in two areas. One of those is deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's patients, which we are very good at in Northern Ireland, and there is an opportunity for us to provide that support for patients from the South. Another area that was discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting was human transplantation. There are two transplantation centres, one in Belfast and one in Dublin, which have operated with very little contact between each other over the last 25 or 30 years. That started to break down with informal contacts, and I have asked officials to formalise that more so that we can try to develop a corridor between Belfast and Dublin to increase the opportunities for human transplantation right across the island of Ireland.

Mr McKinney: The Minister will be aware of the extent of suicide in Northern Ireland. In fact, since 1998, almost as many people have died from suicide as died in the Troubles. The Minister may also be aware that Jeremy Hunt has now announced further funding for mental health throughout the UK. Will the Minister give some assurances that he will write to Minister Hunt about any Barnett consequentials that flow from that and that that money will be ring-fenced and used for mental health in Northern Ireland?

Mr Hamilton: I noticed the comments from the Secretary of State for Health and NHS England on increasing mental health spend in England. We still have a lot of work to do to get our emphasis right on mental health versus physical health. We have had lots of debates and discussions on that in the Chamber, even in my time as Minister. There is a record of good improvement from the Department over the last number of years, particularly post publication of the Bamford report. That saw not just a 25% increase in the amount of funding for mental health in the subsequent years, with more than £250 million a year being spent on mental health, but a shift away from such care being provided mostly in institutions, which, in many cases, were inappropriate and not helpful, to a more community-based type of care. That care has now switched to around 60% in the community and 40% in institutions, which is a positive move.

I noticed a report over the weekend that was aired by the BBC about mental health spending across the UK. It is interesting to note that the only country in the United Kingdom that has increased expenditure on mental health in each of the last two years is Northern Ireland, where we increased it by 1% last year and by around 2·5% or 2·6% this year. All other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom have not been able to increase that expenditure over the last two years. The Member knows the pressures that the Health budget faces, and the limitations and many demands on that spend, but he and the House have an assurance from me that I am deeply committed to promoting better mental health.

Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Minister for his statement. Given the North/South Ministerial Council's arrangements for surgical treatment of children with congenital heart conditions, will he update the House on when Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin will have the capacity to treat our children from Northern Ireland?

Mr Hamilton: That is another very good example of cross-border cooperation having practical benefits for people from Northern Ireland. The Member will be well versed in progress over the last number of years on the decision to set up the network and the funding that has been provided for it, particularly, in recent years, through the Executive's change fund. It is fair to say that the progress has probably been slower than many of us would like in getting the network fully established. That has not been for any want of trying on this side of the border. I can update the House that we recently received a costed implementation plan and business case for the full establishment of the network. It was received in the Department around 1 February, but we need, in particular, to develop sufficient intensive care unit capacity in Dublin at Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin for the approximately 140 Northern Ireland patients who would have to use those facilities annually.

There has been an issue, I understand, with opening up two further beds in the intensive care unit. I understand that the beds and the attendant equipment are there, but the issue is the staffing complement. You need six nurses for each bed, and, at this stage, there has not been the ability to provide them. If they were provided, that would allow us to move the next cohort of patients: 30, 35 or 40 urgent cases per annum could move there. That issue was raised formally with the Irish Health Minister at the NSMC meeting, and he indicated that they hoped to make some positive progress in the not too distant future. It is still moving forward. I commend all those who have been involved in the work, particularly the board and the work that it has been doing to try to make this a reality. I am still hopeful that it will be up and running very soon.

Mr Buchanan: I, too, thank the Minister for his statement to the House. I notice, Minister, that, at the meeting, there was a presentation from the Health Research Board on Horizon 2020 funding. Will you advise what success Northern Ireland has had thus far in bidding for Horizon 2020?

Mr Hamilton: As the Member knows, Horizon 2020 is a huge fund. I think that around €80 billion is available across the whole of the European Union, and aspects of that are available for health and social care. So far, Northern Ireland has had a pretty good success rate in converting applications into successful bids. I think that about 12% of bids are successful. That might not sound like a terrible lot, but it is up there with the best conversion rates for turning applications into successful bids. Long may that continue, and hopefully it will. Some very good projects are getting through and getting Horizon 2020 funding, and Northern Ireland is taking a lead on those.

I was at the launch of one such project a couple of weeks ago at the Ulster University, Jordanstown. A project to provide mobile assistance for groups and individuals in the community — project MAGIC — has received €3·6 million and is focused on improving after-stroke care. It works in conjunction with other European regions, but Northern Ireland is very much taking the lead. Another one, project NEPHSTROM, looks at novel stromal cell therapy for diabetic kidney disease. I think that Queen's University has been involved in that project, which has received €6 million. Northern Ireland is doing well with Horizon 2020 funding.

There is a suite of funding through INTERREG IVa as well, with around €50 million available for health and social care projects, particularly those focused on older people, disability and R&D. The first call for that received some 21 applications. Whether it is INTERREG funding or Horizon 2020 funding, there are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland and the health and social care system here, working in conjunction with our universities and, indeed, the private sector to avail themselves of the sizeable funding that is out there.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his statement today and for his statement over the weekend about the £2 million for autism. The people who were here this morning very much welcomed that announcement, and I hope that it will be the start of a process.

My question on today's statement relates to the standardised packaging of tobacco products. The Minister mentioned legislation:

"to transpose the EU tobacco products directive".

Can he explain what exactly that means? Does it mean that something is happening within the EU directive? Are we going against that directive?

Mr Hamilton: I begin by thanking the Member for his words of thanks on the package of additional funding for autism services in Northern Ireland. That is another area in which there has been work on a North/South basis in the past, and I hope that the additional £2 million of funding that I announced will go some significant way towards reducing the unacceptably long waiting times that have developed over the last number of years.

The knock-on impact that tobacco use has on health and social care is an issue and a problem that has afflicted every region and state. In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that we spend around £160 million a year — I think that that is a very conservative figure — on treating tobacco-related illnesses.


12.30 pm

The Member will be aware that standardised packaging will roll out right across the UK in May 2016. The transposition of the EU tobacco products directive that I talked about means that a range of measures will be brought into domestic law, including our own law. Those are things like a ban on flavours of tobacco, an increase in the size of the health warnings that appear on cigarette packets, a minimum size of 20 in a pack and the regulation of e-cigarettes. The Member will be familiar with the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) Bill — I think that I have got that right — which is going through the House. It contains clauses to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes in Northern Ireland. That is an example of how we are putting that directive into practice here.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will the Minister give an indication of how many patients from Northern Ireland will be treated in the new radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. It is an issue that I know he is very close to. In fact, the Member and I visited the construction site just before Christmas. We got our hard hats on and looked around what is going to be an absolutely fantastic facility for people in that part of the world. As the Chair said earlier, it is impossible for us to make it easy for people to get cancer treatment; it is a very difficult time in their lives. However, the fact that so many people have had to travel so far for so many years to get the treatment that they need will now be addressed by the fact that we are opening this absolute state-of-the-art radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin. We should be proud of having taken that forward in this Assembly mandate.

The Member asked specifically how many people from Northern Ireland will benefit from the centre. It is estimated that around 1,150 or so patients from Northern Ireland will use it annually. Around 385 patients from the Republic of Ireland will also benefit from the facility. I think that it is an absolutely great project. It is a good example of us working in a practical way on a cross-border basis for mutual benefit, and it will significantly improve the standard of cancer care for patients in the north-west of Northern Ireland.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I will go back to something that is near and dear to your own heart, which is Horizon 2020. Will the Minister advise how many applications the Department or trusts in his remit have submitted in relation to those streams of funding? What has the drawdown figure been so far specifically on Horizon 2020?

Mr Hamilton: I am looking here for information. I do not think that I have the precise numbers. I have figures for INTERREG Va but I do not have the full figures for Horizon 2020. I am happy to come back to the Member in writing with more specifics around that.

I recall the figure of around 12% of a success rate for applications that have a Northern Ireland lead, which, the Member will appreciate, is a reasonably good success rate. Even though it sounds like quite a low figure, the Member will know that these are hugely competitive funds and you need to be at the top of your game to get anything out of them. That is why the two projects that I highlighted to Mr Buchanan — project MAGIC, which is looking at stroke care; and project NEPHSTROM, which I think I said was with Queen's University but is actually with the National University of Ireland at Galway, but it involves the Belfast Trust, and it is looking at kidney disease — have acquired nearly €10 million between them. There is also another project — project MErCuRIC — which is led by Queen's University. It partners with the Belfast Trust and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and that got €6 million to research bowel cancer.

A lot of projects from FP7 and Horizon 2020 are working their way through the system. My message is that I think Northern Ireland is exceptionally well placed to benefit from Horizon 2020 funding. We have a very vibrant research and development sector in health and social care and in partnership with our universities. Our universities are very clued in and switched on to the potential, particularly around health and social care, of availing themselves of some of the vast amount of Horizon 2020 funding that is out there.

Mr Swann: The Minister referred to the drawdown of EU funding. Will he clarify whether he has had any requests or whether his officials are looking at any collaborative approach across the borders in regard to Duchenne muscular dystrophy?

Mr Hamilton: I am not aware of any, but I will contact the Member with any particular details to clarify that. Indeed, if the Member is aware of any projects or potential projects where charities or others are working in that space and think that there is an opportunity, he should please let us know, and we will certainly get them in contact with the right people to try to take forward their ideas.

Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. Have all the various staff members been appointed to the very welcome radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin?

Mr Hamilton: The Member will know that there have been issues across Northern Ireland, particularly sometimes in the Western Trust, in getting the requisite staff to look after the various services that are provided. It has been a challenge to get the appropriate numbers of staff, particularly at consultant level, into Altnagelvin to be able to look after the radiotherapy centre properly. My understanding from the Western Trust — I will clarify it with the Member if I am inaccurate — is that it has been running a fairly aggressive recruitment programme — indeed, it is an international recruitment programme — to try to get people in to staff the radiotherapy unit. From speaking to the chief executive of the trust a few weeks ago, my understanding is that that has been successful.

The fact that we have invested so much in a state-of-the-art radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin, which has all the best equipment and a fantastic team that is well networked and is international in its focus, is something that, in and of itself, attracts the best people to it. That is something that I want to see in Northern Ireland, not just in cancer care but across a range of different specialisms.

Mr Allister: Although it was not mentioned in the statement, I note that, in the communiqué, there was discussion about the European Court of Justice's decision to strike down the Scottish Government's attempts at minimum pricing for alcohol. Does that mean that the Department's proposals in that regard are now dead in the water? Does the Minister agree with me that, if the people of the United Kingdom were wise enough to exit the EU, we would be freed from the shackles and restraints of the European Court of Justice and could pass our own legislation on these issues without interference?

Mr Hamilton: That was a very admirable attempt by the Member to get that subject matter into the questions on the statement. Minimum unit pricing has been considered carefully by my Department for some time. We have obviously looked at it in a broader UK context, but we have particularly looked at it in a cross-border context to see what impact it would have on one jurisdiction if the other moved ahead with it, and so on and so forth. To that end, a study was carried out by, I think, Sheffield Hallam University, and its outcomes have been published recently.

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

The Irish Government have indicated their desire to move ahead with minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and we continue to monitor that. We do so in the context of the judgement in the recent Scottish case. That was an interesting judgement in that it was not clear one way or the other whether it was legal. It pushed it back to the Scottish Court of Session to take a decision, and I am not sure where it is in its consideration.

It is an issue that we have carefully considered and that we have to carefully consider. It is worth noting that, whether it is a minimum unit pricing on alcohol or a sugar tax on sugary drinks that some are calling for, none of those interventions are, in and of themselves, a silver bullet that will resolve all the issues with the overconsumption of alcohol or sugary drinks. We have to be very careful about moving forward with policies like that and to make sure that they are grounded firmly, or else there is a risk in some cases of doing more damage than of achieving positive outcomes.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call on the Minister for Social Development, Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill.

Moved. — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Housing (Amendment) Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage.

The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

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

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to group the eight clauses for the Question on stand part followed by the five schedules and the long title. There are no objections.

Clauses 1 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 5 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I invite Members to take their ease for a moment before we commence the next item of business.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Speaker: Good afternoon again. I call the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to move the Consideration Stage of the Rural Needs Bill.

Moved. — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Speaker: I must inform the House that a valid petition of concern was presented today in relation to amendment No 5 for the Consideration Stage of the Rural Needs Bill. Under Standing Order 28, the vote cannot take place until at least one day has passed. The vote will therefore be taken at the beginning of business tomorrow, Tuesday 16 February. I would also like to remind Members that the vote on amendment No 5 will be on a cross-community basis.

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments — amendment Nos 1 to 14 — dealing with the duty on the public authority, including defining "public authority"; due regard; training and monitoring; and reporting. We will debate the amendments in turn. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (Duty of public authorities to consider rural needs)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendments Nos 2 to 14. Members should note that amendment No 3 is consequential to amendment No 2; amendment No 4 is consequential to amendment No 3; amendment No 13 is consequential to amendment No 2; and amendment No 14 is consequential to amendment No 1.


12.45 pm

In page 1, line 2, leave out "consider" and insert "have due regard to".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 1, leave out lines 7 to 9 and insert

"any body or person listed in the Schedule.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 3: In page 1, line 9, at end insert

"(2A) The Department must, at least every three years from the coming into operation of this section, review the list of bodies and persons set out in the Schedule and, if it thinks it appropriate, amend the Schedule to—
 
(a) add a body or person to the Schedule;
 
(b) remove a body or person from the Schedule; or
 
(c) modify any entry in the Schedule.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 4: In page 1, line 15, at end insert

"(4A) An order under subsection (2A) may contain such transitional provision as the Department thinks appropriate.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 5: In clause 2, page 1, line 19, leave out "may" and insert "must". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 6: After clause 2 insert

"Training
 
2A. The Department may take such steps as appear to it to be appropriate to ensure all staff who develop, adopt, implement or revise policies, strategies and plans receive training connected with identifying and meeting rural needs.". — [Mrs Dobson.]

No 7: In clause 3, page 2, line 6, at end insert

"(aa) include this information in its annual report; and". — [Mrs Dobson.]

No 8: In clause 3, page 2, line 8, leave out "prepare" and insert "publish". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 9: In clause 3, page 2, line 9, at end insert

"(aa) its assessment of how each public authority considered rural needs; and". — [Mrs Dobson.]

No 10: In clause 3, page 2, line 12, at end insert

"(2A) The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development must, on or after the day on which the report is laid before the Assembly, make a statement to the Assembly about the content of the report.". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 11: In clause 4, page 2, line 14, leave out from second "with" to "securing" on line 15 and insert "to secure". — [Mrs Dobson.]

No 12: In clause 5, page 2, line 19, after "appoint" insert

"but no later than 1 June 2017". — [Mrs Dobson.]

No 13: After clause 7 insert

SCHEDULE SECTION 1.
 
PUBLIC AUTHORITIES FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS ACT
 
A Northern Ireland department
 
A district council
 
The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland
 
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools
 
The Education Authority
 
A Health and Social Care Trust
 
Invest Northern Ireland
 
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
 
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive
 
The Northern Ireland Library Authority
 
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board
 
The Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-Being
 
The Regional Health and Social Care Board
 
The Sports Council for Northern Ireland". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 14: In the long title, leave out "consider" and insert "have due regard to". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Irwin: It is my pleasure to speak today as the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. Before I present the Committee's position on the amendments, I will take the opportunity to outline the work that the Committee did in its scrutiny of the Bill and highlight some of the issues that came out of that scrutiny. I thank the Committee members for all the work that they did on the Bill. Considerable hours of Committee time and dedication of members went into the scrutiny, and the Committee Clerk and her staff put in a big effort.

I also want to mention the previous Deputy Chairperson, Mr Joe Byrne, who has since retired from the Assembly. He was heavily involved in the initial scrutiny of the Bill and took a deep and very informed interest in its provisions.

Following the Bill's introduction on 9 November 2015, the Committee wrote to key stakeholders and inserted public notices in the 'Belfast Telegraph', 'The Irish News' and the 'News Letter'. A total of 19 organisations responded to the request for written evidence, and a copy of the submissions that were received is included in the Committee's report. The Committee also commissioned the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe) to provide research on the content and implications of the Bill. Those papers are also included in the Committee's report.

On Tuesday 24 November, the Committee held an all-day meeting to take oral evidence on the Bill from relevant stakeholders and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. On that day, the Committee heard from the Department; local rural support networks; the Rural Community Network (RCN) and the Rural Development Council (RDC); the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives NI (SOLACE NI); and the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA). The Committee also agreed a motion to extend the Bill's Committee Stage until 26 January 2016.

The Committee had discussions with departmental officials on the Bill's key issues at its meeting on 1 December 2015. As a result of the evidence gathered and its consideration of a range of issues, the Committee agreed to ask the Minister to bring forward amendments on certain matters. Those matters were, first, the strengthening of the duty to consider rural needs and, secondly, the inclusion of public bodies other than Departments and local government in the Bill. The third matter was an amendment to clause 2 to leave out the word "may" and insert the word "will". The fourth and final matter was in connection with transparency and accountability on reporting arrangements in clause 3.

I will speak about all those matters in more depth later. For now, I wish to note that the Minister agreed with the Committee on the need for those amendments. She forwarded the text of amendments to the Committee but made the Committee aware that the amendments in connection with the strengthening of the statutory duty and the inclusion of additional public bodies represented a policy change and therefore needed the agreement of the Executive. To be clear, that concerns amendment Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 13 and 14. At our meeting on 9 February 2016, the Committee received a letter from the Minister indicating that Executive agreement had not been obtained for those amendments. Officials could not explain in detail why that was the case. The Committee debated and ultimately agreed that, as it had initially sought the amendments about strengthening of the duty and the additional public bodies, it would table them in its name. The letter from the Minister indicated that she would table the amendments that did not require Executive approval.

Before I complete this introduction, I wish to make a very brief reference to some of the other issues that were discussed but on which the Committee decided that no amendments were required. The Committee, aware that there were concerns regarding the apparent lack of teeth in the Bill, explored the issue of sanctions and enforcement. It is a central provision of the Bill that public authorities comply with the new duties that are imposed by it. To that end, there will be monitoring and reporting arrangements on how public authorities comply with that duty. However, as was pointed out by stakeholders, there is no means of enforcing the provision, nor is there any sanction for non-compliance. The Committee deliberated on the issue, and it reflected on the fact that it had achieved amendments to clause 1 in connection with the strengthening of the duty on public authorities to have due regard to rural needs and on the naming of additional public bodies.

The deliberation took account of the amendment to clause 2 that would strengthen the duty of the Department regarding the provision of guidance, advice and information. Reference was also made to the amendments to clause 3 to strengthen the transparency of the reporting arrangements. The Committee agreed that, together, the amendments, if accepted by the Assembly at Consideration Stage, would strengthen the Bill. This would address some of the concerns around lack of enforcement, while not imposing a separate and potentially costly enforcement mechanism.

Another matter discussed by the Committee was clarification of the definitions and terminology used in the Bill. Many of the stakeholders who provided evidence to the Committee expressed reservations regarding the definitions in the Bill, with a focus on clause 6 and the definition of rural needs. The Committee deliberated on the issue, noting that it was highly desirable that DARD would work closely with all relevant public bodies on definitions. The Committee noted a letter from the Minister that confirmed the intentions of the Department in that regard. The Committee was therefore content that DARD would provide supplementary advice and guidance on definitions to public bodies.

Other matters raised and discussed by the Committee included the need for training and the provision of baseline information to be used to review the effectiveness of the Bill. The nature of the cooperation arrangements was also discussed. The issue of whether the Bill should make provision for decisions relating to the closure of rural schools was raised as well. However, after due consideration and deliberation, the Committee decided that it would not pursue those matters by way of amendments or other means.

I now move to discuss the amendments dealing with the "due regard" matter — amendment Nos 1 and 14. I want to make it clear that I speak as Chairperson and represent the views of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. After its initial consideration of the Bill, the Committee had concerns about clause 1. The issues identified were also reflected in many of the responses received to the Committee's call for evidence. The principal issue was the need to strengthen the statutory duty that the Bill would place on certain public authorities. As drafted, the Bill imposed a duty on public authorities to consider rural needs. The evidence presented to the Committee suggested that this was quite weak. There was concern that it would not result in any action being taken to protect rural communities from the adverse impacts of policy decisions. Practically all of the voluntary and community groups that we heard from voiced the same concern. Many of those who responded suggested that the duty to consider should be replaced by a duty to give due regard. The Committee considered the two aspects of, first, strengthening the due duty and, secondly, dealing with adverse impacts identified as a result of undertaking a consideration of rural needs.

After detailed discussions with DARD officials and amongst members, the Committee decided not to look to amend the Bill to address the issue of mitigating adverse impacts. When it came to considering the strengthening of the duty, the Committee obtained further information on the section 75 duties. The duty to have or give due regard has the advantage of having been legally tested in the context of Section 75 equality and good relations duties in the courts. Broadly speaking, a "due regard" duty means that consideration must be given in advance of a final decision being made, not afterwards, and it must be done with an open mind to achieve the goals set out in statute. The Committee deliberated on the matter and, after some debate, agreed that it supported the inclusion of this higher threshold of statutory duty in the Bill. It will require public authorities to take rural needs into account and give the duty the required weight when making policy. However, it will not impose a requirement on authorities to undertake their functions in a particular way or to achieve a specific outcome or result.

The Committee succeeded in securing an amendment from the Department to strengthen the duty. However, as the amendment would have resulted in a change from the original policy proposals agreed, it required Executive approval. As I indicated, the Committee heard at its meeting on 9 February that the Minister had not obtained the approval of the Executive, and, after a fair amount of debate, the Committee voted to table the amendments. As Chairperson, I fulfilled my duty and put my name to the amendments.

I now present the Committee's position on the amendments dealing with adding other public bodies or persons: amendment Nos 2, 3, 4 and 13.

The Committee was concerned about the provision in clause 1 that will allow the Department to impose a statutory duty on other bodies. As it stands, only central and local government will fall immediately under the remit of the Bill once it is commenced. However, the Bill gives the Department the power to specify, through subordinate legislation, the bodies to which a duty will extend in the future.

The Committee considered the Department's rationale for adopting the phased approach to extending the duty. The Department provided a two-part explanation: first, it allows time for further consultation with the bodies that will be subject to the duty; and, secondly, the Department stated, it was difficult to know which bodies should be listed in the Bil and time was needed to refine and clarify that. However, the Committee remained concerned at the omission of named non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) from the Bill, especially given the fact that so many of our public services are delivered by those arm's-length bodies. During the discussions about which bodies should be listed in the Bill, reference was made by various stakeholders to the Local Government (Community Planning Partners) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015. Draft regulation is being considered by the MLAs on the Committee for the Environment. It contains a schedule listing organisations that will be required to participate in the local government community planning process. Stakeholders indicated that it would be appropriate to adopt that list and include the organisations named in the schedule in the Rural Needs Bill.

The Committee considered the list, which includes the PSNI, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Education Authority, health and social care trusts, Invest Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service board, the Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Library Authority, the Tourist Board, the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being, the Regional Health and Social Care Board and the Sports Council. The Committee also commissioned the Assembly Research and Information Service to produce other lists of potential bodies that could be included. The lists of every NDPB in Northern Ireland proved to be very extensive and long. It was apparent that picking and choosing public bodies from such lists would present its own difficulties. I should point out that the Committee considered other ways of addressing the issue and noted that the Bill, as it stood, allows for other public bodies to be added at a later date.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: Can the Member explain why the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which can be very intrusive in rural life, is not included in the list? Is it not the case that amendment No 2 removes, at line 9, the catch-all capacity to add further bodies to the list?

Mr Irwin: As far as I am aware, other agencies can be added to the list. The Member reads it differently, but I am told that they can be added. The planning agency is one that could be added, and maybe it should be. The Member makes a valid point in that regard.

The Committee acknowledged that this approach would have certain advantages, namely that it would allow proper thought to be given to what bodies could be added. It would also allow time for such bodies to prepare for taking on the additional duty.

One other area that caused minor difficulties for some members of the Committee was the lack of consultation with the public bodies that may be added to the Bill. There was discussion of whether it was fair to add public bodies to the Bill and not give them any warning or time to prepare for that duty. It was asked whether it was fair not to take time to talk and get opinions on the pros and cons of having a duty to consider rural needs; for example, such bodies might need to consider whether any additional financial or administrative resource was required to comply with the duty.

I should make it clear that the Committee probed the issue of the cost of the Bill to central and local government. In our questioning of both DARD and local government representatives, we asked questions around the additional financial or administrative resource that might be required.

DARD officials informed the Committee that, overall, it was not expected that the duty would be very onerous or expensive to carry out.


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The Committee also considered the use of a mechanism that named those public bodies in the Bill but allowed a gap of one to two years before the provisions of the Bill applied to them. After significant discussion, the Committee decided to go back to the list suggested by the majority of those who provided evidence to the Committee. This list, as I mentioned, was taken from the Local Government (Community Planning Partners) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015. The list has the merit of creating a cross-cutting element. It would bring together the bodies that expect to work together in a local government community planning process. There is, after all, an expectation that all those involved in the community planning process would have to consider the needs of rural dwellers in a council district.

The Committee, therefore, requested that the Minister bring forward an amendment to add those bodies to the Bill. The Committee did not request any delay in the application of the provisions of the Bill to those bodies. The Minister concurred and provided the amendment, which the Committee considered and subsequently agreed.

The current Bill names Departments and local government as falling immediately under its remit. It has provision for other public bodies or persons to be added at a later date by subordinate legislation. The amendments would act to remove the reference to central and local government and other persons specified at clause 1(2). The amendments would then create a schedule to the Bill naming Departments, local government and the additional bodies that I referred to, such as the PSNI, education bodies, health trusts and Invest Northern Ireland. For members' information, these are all listed in amendment No 13.

The Committee was also conscious of the need to retain flexibility to adapt to changes in the future. The Committee felt that it was important that any list of bodies added to the Bill should be subject to regular review. This would allow public bodies to be added to the list and defunct NDPBs to be removed as appropriate. So, in addition to adding named organisations, the Committee requested an amendment requiring that the list be reviewed and amended as necessary at given intervals. This is amendment No 3.

The Minister agreed and provided the amendment to the Committee. She suggested one further amendment to make transitional provision for these bodies. This is amendment No. 4. The Minister indicated that she was willing to provide these amendments but that, as was the case with the previous amendments inserting "have due regard to", Executive approval was required. At its meeting on 9 February, the Committee heard that the Minister had not obtained Executive approval for these amendments, and, after a fair amount of debate, the Committee voted to table the amendments on additional public bodies. As Chairperson, I fulfilled my duty in putting my name to the amendments on behalf of the Committee.

I will now move on to present the Committee's position on amendment No 5. When the Committee considered evidence from stakeholders, there was a concern relating to the need to strengthen the wording of clause 2. Many stakeholders suggested that the first line of clause 2 be amended from:

"The Department may take such steps"

— as originally drafted — to:

"The Department will take such steps".

The main reason appeared to be a concern that there was nothing in the legislation to compel anyone to have regard to the guidance, advice or information.

The Committee discussed this with DARD officials, who asked the Committee to note that the intention is that clause 2 provide an enabling power, which will have a broad scope. Nevertheless, after due consideration, the Committee agreed that it required an amendment to clause 2 with the effect of deleting "may" and inserting "will". The departmental officials indicated that the Minister was content to take this amendment forward. The Committee noted that the amendment will strengthen the role of the Department in providing support for rural proofing and the implementation of the Bill. The Committee noted and had no concerns with the advice that the wording of such an amendment be "must" rather than "will". The Committee, therefore, supported that amendment.

I will now present the Committee's position on amendment Nos 8 and 10, which relate to clause 3, "Monitoring and reporting". Clause 3 imposes a statutory duty on public authorities to compile information on the exercise of its functions under clause 1 and provide that information to the Department. In addition, it places a statutory duty on the Department to prepare an annual report. This report will contain the information sent to it by the other public authorities and details of the exercise of DARD's functions under the Bill. Clause 3 also requires that the report be laid before the Assembly.

In consideration of the evidence provided, it became clear that many stakeholders agreed that the provisions under clause 3 required strengthening in order to ensure accountability and transparency. There was a suggestion from several organisations, including the Rural Community Network, the Rural Development Council, the Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE) NI, that the clause be amended to require the Minister to make an annual statement to the Assembly assessing the impact of the Rural Needs Bill. The Department's report informed the Committee that, in principle, the amendment could be made to provide for a ministerial statement on the monitoring report. However, legal advice provided to the Department indicated that it would not be appropriate for such a statement to cover the impact of the Bill, as this would require a judgement to be made on the extent to which public authorities had discharged their duties. The Department felt that making such an amendment would go beyond the intended monitoring and reporting arrangements and create a false sense of the accountability of public authorities to DARD. The Committee deliberated on the matter and agreed that the amendment that required the Minister to provide an annual statement was desirable. However, the Committee did not want such a provision to be prescriptive and felt that it should read:

"allow the Minister of the day to decide what any such statement should contain".

That would allow the Assembly to receive an account of how rural needs were being considered by Departments and other public bodies in the policymaking process. It could also act as an incentive to encourage Assembly Statutory Committees to undertake scrutiny of the issue. Having clarified this position, the Committee requested that the Department consider such amendments. We were pleased that the Minister agreed to the amendments requiring the Minister to give an annual statement to the Assembly. The Assembly will, therefore, have the opportunity to question the Minister every year on the whole range of issues relating to the Rural Needs Bill and its operation in practice. It will also open up the opportunity for Statutory Committees of the Assembly to hold their Department and appropriate arm's-length bodies to account. A further amendment was proposed to require the Department to publish the annual monitoring report. The Committee indicated that it was content with the two amendments.

I have presented the Committee's position on those amendments agreed by the Committee and tabled in the name of the Committee and the Minister. The Committee has no position on any of the other amendments.

I will say, as spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist Party, that we have some concerns. We have concern with amendment No 5. Replacing the word "may" with "must" creates a problem for us. We believe that it goes too far and is too prescriptive. We also have issues —

Mr Swann: I thank the Member very much for giving way. I realise that he is speaking now as a member of the DUP. In the Committee deliberations on this amendment, it was the Committee that asked it to be strengthened by moving from "may" to "will". The Department came back looking for it to be strengthened from "will" to "must". Why does the Member's party have such a concern about strengthening what the Bill will deliver? It is perverse that the DUP is using a petition of concern, which was originally envisaged as something to protect minorities. I am concerned that there is a perception from that side of the House that the rural community is no longer a minority that needs protection, which is the basis of the Bill.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for his comments. As a party, we looked at that in detail and feel that it creates an issue for us. That is the decision we have made. The Member may have another opinion, but that is the opinion of my party.

We also have concerns about amendment No 6, in the names of Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann. It could create a very heavy financial commitment so we have concerns about that and will not be agreeing to it.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for giving way. The whole issue around some of the amendments — I have looked at them — is to give more and stronger protections to rural communities and people living in rural areas. I, like you, am one of them. I would like to hear more on what the DUP rationale is. It appears that we are going to a point of being anti-rural. I am sure that that is not your logic, but that seems to be the conclusion.

Mr Irwin: That is certainly not the case. I have been a rural person all my life. We are absolutely not anti-rural. The situation is this: when we look at amendment No 6 in the names of Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann, we believe that it could be very expensive and it is not necessary. We also feel that amendment No 9, which is in the name of the same two Members, creates a considerable duty that could be very costly. That is the position of my party on those issues and we will be voting against those amendments. I look forward to hearing from my fellow MLAs on the Bill.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. A key concern for many of our rural stakeholder organisations over the years has been the sustainability of our rural communities. We have witnessed, on a continual basis, the pressures on our public finances, which have put this issue centre stage. There is a growing sense of concern in rural communities that further potential cuts or reductions in services could end up having a disproportionate effect on those communities and how they are serviced.

At present, the cost of living in the countryside is much higher than in urban areas. Wages, travel to work, fuel, house prices, rates and some of the planning laws are just a few of the issues that continue to stifle rural life on a weekly basis. We continue to lose more and more of our young people to emigration, either out of the country or to the cities, due to the lack of continuous employment, suitable public transport or suitable inward investment. One of the biggest drivers of our rural life going into the future will be the new councils. They now have powers over planning, community well-being and community plans. Councils must now put rural proofing in their future plans and policies. Indeed, councils have, in the consultation, supported the proposed Bill.

The Executive adopted rural proofing in their second Programme for Government in 2002, including a commitment to:

"ensure that the rural dimension is routinely considered as part of the making and implementation of policy, by a new process of 'rural proofing'."

Since then, DARD has played a key role in supporting rural proofing actively across the Executive. In 2005, DARD commissioned a study of rural policy. The final report highlighted:

"a level of disappointment with the application of rural proofing and the extent to which it has been able to effectively influence decision-making ... In particular there are concerns regarding the lack of resources/funds to address issues identified as a result of undertaking the rural proofing process coupled with perceived difficulties".

The Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Michelle O'Neill, introduced a public consultation on the proposed Bill for the introduction of rural-proofing legislation. Between February and March 2015, nine public consultation meetings were held across the North of Ireland in key areas. There were written responses, and representatives of public bodies and individuals came before the Committee to give their views.


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As a result, the Rural Needs Bill was introduced in the Assembly on 9 November 2015. It completed its Second Stage on 17 November 2015 and was referred to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. The Committee Stage was finished, and the Committee ordered its report to be printed at its meeting on Tuesday 26 January 2016.

The content of the Bill was framed by the information that was given by the public at all the public meetings, in the written submissions and by the representatives of public bodies who came to give evidence at the Committee. So, nobody can say that the consultation or the Bill was framed by one party or two parties; it was framed around the public. It was informed by the public meetings that we had, not only the ones that we had at the Assembly but those that my party had publicly over the last two years.

We had coming before the Committee representatives of public bodies, such as the Rural Community Network, NILGA, SOLACE, the Ulster Farmers' Union and NIAPA to name but a few. Those are people who are at the coalface of rural life and know what it is like to make a living and live every day with the cuts to budgets and with austerity. Those are the people who took the stories to us, and we have to be thankful to each and every one who came to the Committee to give that information and to the people who made written submissions. Those people cannot be thanked enough. Their knowledge and support for the Rural Needs Bill is very clear; it is something that is needed.

In all of the consultations, there were no objections from anyone or any public body. There were times when people questioned different aspects of the proposed Bill, but when the issues were all teased out, there was genuine support for the Bill.

The Bill should unite the Assembly. We are putting together a framework that will see better regulation of government funding and public services and will give a better quality of life to those who choose to live in a rural environment. That is something that we have looked for for years. I said earlier that it is more expensive to live in a rural area than an urban area, and that is borne out by all the costs. If anybody wants to question that, you can answer them quite well.

Young people from rural areas who are on benefits are made to travel 18 and 20 miles to sign on. They have to take public transport to do that, which comes out of their benefits. There is a raft of examples like that. Even for those who are disabled, we have very little in our local areas. Everything is centralised. The centralisation of services and sporting facilities means that we have to travel. The disability group in my area has to travel 42 miles, and those who have been chosen for the Special Olympics team have to travel a 75-mile round trip just to train.

Sinn Féin will support all of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee's amendments. Also, we will support Michelle O'Neill's amendments. Whilst recognising the good intentions of Mrs Dobson and Mr Swann in their attempt to strengthen the Bill, Sinn Féin will oppose UUP amendment Nos 6, 7, 9 and 11. The reasons for that will be explained by my colleague Mr Milne. As I said, the Bill should unite the Assembly.

Mr Swann: What is the Member doing on amendment No 12?

Mr McMullan: My colleague Mr Milne will come back on that.

I ask the Assembly to keep it in mind that we must unite on the Bill. We cannot use it as a form of politics in any way. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Consideration Stage of the Rural Needs Bill. I look forward to working alongside the Committee for the remainder of the mandate as Deputy Chair. Unfortunately, I was not in that position during Second Stage, but, fortunately, my colleague Joe Byrne was able to voice the SDLP's position on the Bill.

If I may, I will give a brief idea of my overall feelings on the purpose of the Bill. I assure the Chamber that that will be relevant to my thoughts on the proposed amendments. The Rural Needs Bill seeks to ensure that public authorities and central and local government consider rural needs when making policy decisions. That is in keeping with the Assembly's belief that policy decisions must be properly proofed to consider their impact on rural areas and communities and, when appropriate, be adjusted to mitigate any damaging outcomes. At the previous stage, my colleague outlined the SDLP position, and today I will echo that and state my belief that there should be a strict adherence to rural-proofing policies and that the Assembly, through legislation, must ensure that every Department considers adverse impacts on rural communities when deciding policy.

Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?

Mr Rogers: I will, yes.

Mr McGlone: Does the Member accept that that has been the big issue and problem with rural proofing, in that, before, it was like grandma and apple pie, as it considered it but did not really do anything about it? The major point in and the nub of the issue for those living in rural communities is that we do not want another wish list. We do not want more grandma and apple pie; we want to see productive delivery.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Member for his contribution, and I reiterate that point. As the previous Member mentioned, our youth have either migrated or emigrated in their hundreds and thousands. In times of austerity, it seems to be the rural areas that get the biggest pinch, whether that is through the closure of our rural schools or of accident and emergency facilities at night, which is the case in my local hospital, the Downe. Rural areas get hit very hard.

The Bill is relatively short and, in broad strokes, seeks to enforce the duty on government and public authorities to consider that rural needs be enshrined in the guidance required to ensure that the duty is upheld and that the data is compiled to assist in determining rural-proofing progress. I believe that the amendments go some distance to modify the Bill to guarantee that those intentions are met.

At the previous stage, the SDLP voiced its concern about the availability of rural research and how subsequent databases can be used to ensure accountability and improvements in rural proofing. In that regard, I welcome the Minister's amendments, such as amendment No 8, which will ensure that annual reports are published for the public's benefit. Without an annual report, it becomes difficult to evaluate services on offer. If you cannot evaluate services, how can you improve them?

Regardless of the outcome of this stage today, I reiterate that clear communication from DARD is vital for the success of rural proofing and to ensure that communities are protected. DARD must be willing to step forward to enforce rural proofing so that it is not simply given lip-service but that all Departments and bodies fully respect it in policy formulation.

Moving on to the amendments, let me say that I do not believe that they are in any way controversial. In many ways, they serve to secure accountability, create greater clarity and overall improve the operation of the future Act. There are 14 amendments, six from the Agriculture Committee, three from the Minister, and five from our UUP colleagues. Amendment Nos 1 to 4 have been put forward by the Committee and seek to modify clause 1. Clause 1 relates to the duty of public authorities to consider rural needs, and amendment No 1 will replace the word "consider" with the words "due regard" and should ensure that public authorities place appropriate weight on determining rural needs.

Amendment No 2 will replace the original outline of a public authority so that the schedule can determine what will be considered a public authority under the Act. That will help to determine specific organisations and people.

Amendment No 3 will introduce a review mechanism under clause 1(2) for what constitutes an appropriate public authority under the schedule, to be enacted at least every three years. It will give the power to amend the schedule to replace, remove or modify any entry in it. The amendment will ensure that the Bill will contain all relevant organisations and people necessary for its operation and will ensure that any future Act is not constrained.

Amendment No 4 relates to the previous amendment to allow for any transitional provision that the Department may find appropriate to the operation of clause 1(2). Amendment No 5 has been proposed by the Minister and is an amendment to clause 2, which seeks to provide guidance, advice and information on rural needs and the proper implementation of rural-proofing policy. The amendment will change the wording from "may" to "must", bringing in tighter language and placing a direct duty on the Department to provide guidance, advice and information on rural needs.

Amendment No 6, tabled by Mrs Dobson and Mr Swann, relates to clause 2 and seeks to replace the entirety of clause 2(a). In operation, it is similar to the Minister's amendment but instead places an emphasis on the need for the Department to provide training on identifying and meeting rural needs to all staff who develop and implement policies related to rural proofing. There is therefore a bit of a conflict between amendment Nos 5 and 6. Amendment No 5 will place a harder duty on the Department to provide a person with guidance, advice and information on rural needs. However, it remains broad, and presumably guidance, advice and training could manifest themselves as training. The UUP amendment uses softer language but is more specific on who needs guidance — the relevant policymakers — and introduces the need for appropriate training.

Training would clear up the confusion on how to develop, implement and review rural-proofing policies. Arguably, the UUP amendment is superior, as it includes a specific need for training, which is crucial to ensuring that rural needs are being identified and dealt with appropriately.

Clause 3 imposes a statutory duty on public authorities to compile information and develop reports based on the data. The UUP's amendment No 7 relates to clause 3 and, I believe, seeks to ensure that the information compiled by public authorities on their duty to consider rural needs appears in their annual reports, which will subsequently appear in the Department's own annual report.

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

The Minister's amendment No 8 further seeks to ensure that such information under clause 3 is in the public domain. The amendment clears up language — the wording is to change from "prepare" to "publish" — to ensure that material is compiled and brought forward publicly.

Amendment No 9 would place a new duty on the Department to prepare an annual report assessing how each public authority has considered rural needs. In combination with the Minister's amendment No 8, that would mean that the Department must publish that assessment. That would be useful, as it would allow public authorities to review their practices and see where they are succeeding or failing to meet rural needs and where they can improve their facilitation of such needs. The operation of those amendments will ensure greater consideration from organisations and greater progress in rural needs development.

The Minister's amendment No 10 will place a direct duty on the Minister to make a statement to the Assembly following publication of the rural needs annual report. That will allow the Minister to outline the content of the report and demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses in policy development. That will ensure greater accountability and give a greater level of recognition to rural needs.

Amendment No 11 refers to clause 4, which relates to the cooperation between the Department and other bodies. The amendment would create tighter language in that regard. It would place a clear duty on the Department to secure cooperation and exchange of information between public authorities.

Amendment No 12 relates to clause 5 and the commencement of the legislation. It seeks to ensure that the legislation is in operation no later than 1 June 2017. I agree with the amendment's sentiments, which are to ensure that the legislation is not left to wallow and will be in operation to serve the needs of rural communities as soon as possible. That clearly shows that the Assembly is dedicated to rural proofing and recognises the importance of rural needs.

The final two amendments were tabled by the Committee and relate to two of the earlier amendments. As such, I have already spoken on their general function. Amendment No 13 would introduce a new schedule that states that the Act will consider the organisations listed as being public authorities. They include Departments, district councils, the Chief Constable of the PSNI and health and social care trusts. As discussed earlier, those will be changeable through amendment No 3. Amendment No 14 would alter the long title of the Bill, along the same lines as amendment No 1. As such, it would change the phrasing of "consider" to "have due regard to". As with previous amendments, I support those two amendments.

The SDLP supports the majority of the amendments, but we reserve the right to consider future amendments at the next stage.

Mrs Dobson: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this stage of the Rural Needs Bill. As I said in the Second Stage debate, it is essential that the Bill carry weight and be much more than a mere box-ticking exercise. Although the previous rural White Paper action plan included a lot of positive sentiments, unfortunately, I, like many, felt that it focused more on show than on substance.

The lack of targets and measurable outcomes meant that it always had the potential to become just another dormant Executive strategy.


1.30 pm

I, like many Members, know at first hand that living in the countryside has many wonderful benefits, not least the tranquility, but it has, undoubtedly, its challenges. Public transport and access to essential public services are very often much reduced, compared with that available to our urban-dwelling neighbours. People in the countryside do not expect to have a GP clinic in every small village, but, when changes are being made to existing provisions, they should expect that their additional challenges are at least considered. On a side note, that certainly did not happen in my home village of Waringstown, where the branch surgery was, first, temporarily and then permanently closed without any notice to patients. The same goes for schools. Whilst our amendment to the Bill on a presumption against rural school closures was not accepted, it is my hope that it will be, in some other legislation.

I am glad, however, that the Minister has taken the Bill forward. Whilst it is difficult to see anything in the Bill that anyone would disagree with — I may refer to that in closing — I felt that parts of it could have been improved and strengthened. As a result, Robin Swann and I tabled a number of amendments, several of which, I was glad to see, appear in the Marshalled List. Those amendments, as we know, are amendment Nos 6, 7, 9, 11 and 12. I will take each of them in order. However, given that none of them is particularly technical, I hope that they will be fairly self-explanatory to Members.

Amendment No 6 is probably one of the most important amendments. Therefore, I was somewhat bemused by Mr Irwin's comments that it was, he felt, expensive and not necessary. In my opinion, if staff are going to have a role in identifying and meeting rural needs, it is essential that they have the capacity and the awareness to allow them to generally understand the challenges that our rural communities experience. The training does not necessarily need to be that onerous or burdensome — or expensive, Mr Irwin — but it does need to be wide enough to ensure that staff in positions of importance are properly informed on the issues relating to the impact on rural areas of Northern Ireland that they will be addressing.

Amendment No 7 places a duty on public authorities to include in their annual reports information on how they have complied with the legislation. It will not be good enough to say simply that they have considered the needs of our rural population; they will need to detail how.

Amendment No 9 places a duty on the Department of Agriculture to give its assessment on how each public authority has met its obligations under the legislation. As the sponsor of the Bill, and the Department with lead responsibility for implementing it, DARD must surely be prepared to take some responsibility for enforcing it. The first step of that must be to keep an overview on how public authorities are responding to it in practice. In addition, I hope that it will be a clear desire of the House to ensure that when a public authority falls below expected standards, DARD will not be found wanting in its criticism of it.

Amendment No 11 is fairly minor but important. It proposes a change of emphasis from hoping to secure cooperation between public authorities to placing a duty on the Department to secure it. There have been too many instances over recent years of Departments and arm's-length bodies working in isolation from each other. A typical example was the widely discredited area planning and viability audit processes in our school sector. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) continues to operate within its individual area of interest, showing no regard whatsoever for anything that the Education Authority or the previous boards were doing. My amendment will place a responsibility on DARD to try to coordinate and handle the sharing of information.

Our last amendment, amendment No 12, simply puts in the Bill a date, 1 June 2017, by which these new responsibilities will commence. I fully trust that the Bill will come into operation well in advance of that date, but the amendment will act as a safeguard, just in case.

In addition to our amendments, I, unlike other Members, support those that have been tabled by the Chair of the Committee and the Minister. Amendment No 1, for instance, will place a higher threshold on statutory duty, and despite the Department's protestations, I hope that it will appreciate why a general duty to consider was not sufficient in this case.

I am disappointed that the DUP decided that it was necessary to table a petition of concern against amendment No 5. I am still waiting to hear a credible reason for that. The purpose of the amendment was to tighten some of the language and indeed, when the Minister herself advised the Committee that she would support it, she acknowledged that it further strengthened the Bill.

The only other amendment that I want to comment on is amendment No 13, which lists the public authorities. It is an important one. Bodies such as the Education Authority and the Health and Social Care Board provide absolutely key public services. Whilst they may operate outside the Department, I believe that it is important that they are named in the Bill.

In closing, I want to say that I am disappointed that the Minister's party cannot support our amendments, given the fact that Oliver McMullan recognised that they were designed to strengthen the Bill. Finally, in trying to strengthen the Rural Needs Bill for our rural communities, you just cannot win with the DUP: 'A Fresh Start', but the same old "say no" DUP.

Mr McCarthy: I very much welcome the Rural Needs Bill. There is no doubt that rural dwellers, whilst enjoying our wonderful green and fresh environment, face many drawbacks and endure extra expense and, indeed, inconvenience. I will speak briefly, as there is not a great deal of controversy about the Bill — at least, there ought not to be. We all want to see rural dwellers enjoy life and, indeed, continue to contribute to ensuring that our landscape and farmland are preserved for generations to come. I do not intend to oppose any of the amendments, as I am of the view that they contribute to improving the outcome of the Bill.

I do have to express my dismay at the DUP's use of the petition of concern on the Bill. Surely rural needs affect all of us regardless of our community, where we are from or where we go to church on a Sunday. They affect everyone living in the community. Coming from a rural community, I know the challenges which face all rural areas. I know that they do not happen on the basis of religion. Surely that is a total misuse of the petition of concern. There may be a debate about whether "may" or "must" is appropriate, but I do not believe that it warrants a petition of concern.

I simply want to pass comment on one of the amendments, amendment No 3, which puts in place a reporting mechanism. That is essential for ensuring that we correctly assess rural needs. As that is a new process, it will provide a valuable learning experience. I hope that it will inform not just the Assembly but the various Departments and public bodies which are required to assess those needs. I hope that the report will spread best practice.

Other amendments make smaller but equally important changes, and I will support them as well. Hopefully it will be a relatively simple process. I hope that the Bill will continue its progress through the House.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I would like to take the opportunity to speak in support of a number of the amendments and on the broad thrust of the Bill.

Six hundred and seventy thousand people live in rural areas. We feel very strongly that the Rural Needs Bill will go a long way to help to address their needs. Living in a rural area has a lot of issues and challenges. Those have been well talked about today, and I have no need to go into them in any great detail. I will say that during the course of deliberations on the Bill in the Committee, and indeed in our stakeholder engagement, we heard a very strong view from rural stakeholders that whilst rural proofing has been an Executive commitment since 2002, it did not really work: it was a bolt-on or something like a tick-box exercise, and there was a need for it to be included in legislation.

They feel very strongly about and are very excited by the fact that the Bill has come into place.

It is important to point out that our bringing in such legislation is a first for Europe. Indeed, our counterpart in Leinster House, Martin Ferris TD, is simultaneously bringing in a rural needs Bill. This will be the first country in Europe to have Rural Needs Bills to provide legal protection for people who live in rural areas.

During the process, we spent hundreds and hundreds of hours deliberating, discussing and negotiating. Indeed, on 24 November, we spent an entire day taking evidence. It is important to reiterate the thanks to Stella and the team in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for helping to facilitate that. Indeed, thanks very much to the organisations that responded to the consultation and to groups like the local rural support networks, the RCN, the RDC, NILGA, SOLACE, the UFU, NIAPA and, indeed, to the DARD officials who made themselves available to the Committee to answer questions and to provide clarity as and when required. The organisations that came before us to make presentations represent thousands of people who live in rural areas, such as farmers, rural dwellers and non-farmers.

I will recap on some of our positions on the amendments. All the amendments — certainly all those that have come through the Committee — came from the grass roots. They came through rural stakeholder organisations. They did not come from political parties, individual MLAs or any section of the community; they came from the grass roots and from people who are on the ground working every single day for the betterment of rural areas. We felt that the people are having their say on the Bill, and that is the way we moved on. There was consensus in the Committee on how we moved through the amendments.

With amendment Nos 1 and 2, there was a strong unanimous view from all rural stakeholder organisations that we met that "consider" should be replaced with "have due regard to" and that groups should be listed in the schedule. The local rural support networks felt strongly that groups should be listed in the schedule. Indeed, during a previous debate in the Chamber, Mr Allister said that groups should be referenced. There was a suggestion — it may have been from SOLACE — that we should refer to the draft local government order 2015, which specifies the community planning partners, and those are the groups that are listed in the amendment. Of course, amendment No 3 allows that to be reviewed every three years.

Amendment Nos 6 and 7 have been tabled for debate today by the Ulster Unionists. Amendment No 6 requires DARD to train all staff. Is that all staff in the Civil Service or all staff in public authorities? That needs to be clarified. I should also point out that DARD provides training —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: Go ahead, yes.

Mr Swann: The amendment states that it is:

"all staff who develop, adopt, implement or revise policies, strategies and plans".

It is very detailed as to whom we think the Department may take steps to train. While a lot of attention has been paid to the good work that the Bill will deliver, it is important that all staff at all levels throughout the bodies and organisations that will now be named in schedule 1 have the ability to understand the implications and requirements of the legislation.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for that clarification. I am reading the amendment: it refers to "all staff". There will be severe resource implications if the Department is required to train all staff.

On amendment No 7, we feel strongly enough that the duty to report and the monitoring arrangements are included in clause 3.

Amendment No 9 calls for DARD to assess how each public authority considers rural needs. There may be an implication for DARD standing in judgement of other Departments. We do not want to create anything like a false sense of accountability, as William Irwin mentioned.


1.45 pm

In amendment No 12, the time limit for the commencement of the Bill —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: Yes, go ahead.

Mr Swann: Our desire in amendment No 9 was to give to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development an appropriate duty to have due regard to other Departments to make sure that they live up to what it requires of them. The Bill was brought about by the Minister's desire to make sure that rural communities are looked after and developed by all public bodies. This amendment was to give DARD the ability to make sure that other Departments and organisations fulfil their commitments and roles — as already required, although not in legislation, in the rural White Paper action plan. That is the requirement behind the amendment, and the Member and his party have been asking for that. Mr McMullan said that our amendments strengthened the Bill, so I am slightly surprised and disappointed that the Member's party is not supporting this amendment.

Mr McAleer: The point about amendment No 9 is that is places quite a high duty on the Department. The Minister will, no doubt, pick up on that. You do not want to create the false expectation that DARD has the legislative power to stand over other Departments and hold them to account.

Amendment No 12 concerns the time limit for the commencement of the Bill. We are content to support that amendment, but stakeholders — I believe that it was SOLACE — made the point that it would be desirable to give public authorities a lead-in time to get themselves ready to implement rural proofing so that you could stagger it. I was one of those during the Committee briefings who said that rural proofing was not a new phenomenon. It has been around for a long time, so it should not be new to public authorities. In that respect, we are content to support amendment No 12.

Amendment No 13 lists the public authorities in the Bill. That is the useful thing about having a debate: the last time this issue was raised, it was brought back to the Committee, this suggestion was made and now we have it in front of us.

We feel that the Bill is good news for rural communities. It is very much informed and driven by the grass roots, and it is important for the Chamber to reflect on that. It is good news for the 37% of the people of the North of Ireland who live in rural areas. A point that I made during the last debate is that we see the Bill as part of a package of measures to improve their quality of life, including CAP reform, the £623 million rural development programme and, indeed, the protection of the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) budget.

We see the Bill as a huge step forward to achieving a fair and equable rural society. It is incumbent upon us as legislators to make and shape the Bill to make it as effective as we can for the people whom we represent.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like the Chair of the Committee, I thank the DARD staff and Committee members for their hard work. I thank the stakeholders, who gave up a tremendous amount of time and produced a lot of good, valuable stuff for the Committee in helping it to make its decisions.

I am in favour of all the amendments tabled by the Committee and amendment No 5 tabled by the Minister, Michelle O'Neill. We are against amendment Nos 6, 9 and 11, which were tabled by Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson and Mr Robin Swann. I am content that the amendments put forward by the Committee and the Minister will enhance the Bill, particularly amendment No 2, which seeks the inclusion of public bodies and persons, as opposed to just Departments and public authorities.

I recognise the intention of Mrs Dobson and Mr Swann to strengthen the Bill, but, after scrutiny, I feel that their amendments would lead to duplication, sometimes confusion, and impose a duty on DARD that is unrealistic.

We are against amendment No 6, which calls for training for all staff subject to the Bill, on the grounds that it is already covered in clause 2, as explained by my colleague Declan McAleer. In fact, it is enhanced by amendment No 5 from the Minister. Although we are content that amendment No 6 is covered in the Bill, we do not feel that we could go against Mr Swann and Mrs Dobson on it.

Potentially, amendment —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: This is a technical point. I know that I will not convince you on this, but I want to point out the difference between what is in the Bill and what is in the amendment. Clause 2(a) says that the Department can "provide any person with guidance". The provision of guidance is not the same as training. That is where we were going specifically with amendment No 6 and the new clause. It is all right being given the piece of paper that says what rural needs are about, but our amendment involves somebody sitting down with the officials and explaining to them what their duty is.

Mr Milne: I thank the Member for his intervention. You make your point well, but we are of the opinion that amendment No 6 is superfluous. We feel that we can go ahead and support amendment No 7.

Amendment No 9 potentially makes all those subject to the Bill accountable to DARD, and, as it does not have the power to impose sanctions, it would become meaningless. Amendment No 11 proposes that DARD must secure, rather than make arrangements with a view to securing, the cooperation and exchange of information from all of those subject to the Bill. This, however, raises its responsibility to an unrealistic level and has the potential to change the focus from a failure to comply with the legislation to DARD's inability to make them comply.

The Bill, as others have said, is necessary to ensure that the needs of rural dwellers are considered when policy and public services are being developed, implemented and delivered. As my colleague Oliver McMullan outlined, rural dwellers' experience of public services differs in many ways and in many areas to that of their urban counterparts. During this process, the contributions made by the various stakeholders have highlighted difficulties faced by rural dwellers when it comes to assessing services and opportunities, employment and the cost of living, to name but a few. They also raised the negative impact that the current model of measuring deprivation has when it is applied to rural areas. That subject was debated at length in the House a few months ago.

The Minister, the Department and the Committee have put a focused effort into identifying and tackling poverty, social isolation and disadvantage in rural areas. This Bill will be a welcome addition to all who are engaged in that work. The legislation builds significantly on the commitment made by the Executive in 2002, and I hope that it will give confidence to those working and living in rural areas.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Before I speak on the amendments in the group, I will start by taking the opportunity to thank the Chairperson and the members of the Committee for their very detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I am very grateful to the whole Committee for its support to secure the Bill's passage through the Assembly within the current mandate. I also want to pay particular thanks to the many stakeholders who have contributed to the Bill and its development. As many Members have said, their advice and contributions have been invaluable. I also want to thank and acknowledge other Executive Ministers for the positive support that I have received for what I believe is a really important Bill.

Following its scrutiny of the Bill, the Committee has tabled a number of amendments that I believe will strengthen this legislation and will help to ensure that consideration of rural needs becomes an integral part of policy development and service delivery across all sectors of government.

With your indulgence, Deputy Speaker, before I address the amendments in detail, I would like to remind the Assembly why this legislation is necessary. As a rural dweller, I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing our rural communities. In meetings with farmers and other rural dwellers, I often hear about the plight of the most vulnerable, be they elderly people who can often feel isolated and alone, young people who feel that they have limited opportunities because of where they live, or people with disabilities who face challenges that are exacerbated by living in a rural area. I am conscious that our rural communities are facing even greater challenges due to the impact of reduced budgets on the delivery of public services. It is therefore crucial that government continues to focus on the needs of rural dwellers to ensure they are not unfairly disadvantaged.

Although the Executive first committed to rural proofing in 2002, the existing requirement for Departments to assess whether their policy proposals are likely to have any adverse impacts on rural dwellers is non-statutory. While there is evidence of some good practice in rural proofing, the consistent message we have heard from rural stakeholders is that rural proofing is not currently undertaken in a consistent or systematic way. There are also concerns about a lack of transparency in the process. I firmly believe that this legislation will address the issues that have been highlighted by stakeholders, both by placing a statutory duty on public authorities to take rural needs into account when developing and implementing government policies and strategies and delivering public services, and by providing the appropriate mechanisms to support and monitor the exercise of that duty. The legislation will not only provide a firm basis for the effective and consistent consideration of rural needs but demonstrate our commitment to the fair and equitable treatment of people in rural areas.

I will now turn to the proposed amendments to the Bill. Amendment No 1 deals with the nature of the duty in clause 1. Clause 1, as introduced, places a statutory duty on public authorities to consider rural needs when developing, adopting or implementing policies, strategies and plans and when designing and delivering public services. Amendment No 1 changes that to a duty for public authorities to "have due regard to" rural needs in relation to their policy development and service delivery. A duty to "have due regard to" rural needs is a higher level of duty than one to "consider" rural needs. It would require public authorities to give an appropriate and proportionate level of consideration to rural needs in carrying out their policy development and service delivery functions, without restricting their ability to take decisions on the exercise of those functions or prescribing the outcome of any policy or strategy.

Although a "due regard" duty would have some additional resource implications for public authorities, I believe that any additional resource commitment would be proportionate to the better outcomes that it can achieve. The exercise of a "due regard" duty does not have to be an overly bureaucratic process, and the guidance that DARD issues, under clause 2, will assist public authorities in understanding and discharging their obligations. I also believe that a "due regard" duty strengthens the rural proofing process, which is about the systematic consideration of whether any given policy or strategy is likely to have a different impact in rural areas because of particular circumstances or needs; the proper assessment of those impacts, if they are likely to be significant; and consideration of whether to adjust a policy or strategy to meet those particular rural needs and circumstances. Let me be absolutely clear: the amendment strengthens the process of consideration; it does not affect the autonomy of the final decision maker.

I welcome the amendment tabled by the Committee Chair. I know that, in deciding to table that amendment, the Committee had listened to the wide range of stakeholders who wanted the Bill to be as robust as possible. I believe that it and the related amendment — amendment No 14 — which would change the long title of the Bill to reflect the change to the nature of the primary duty in clause 1, will achieve that aim. As I have indicated, I wish to support the amendment; I have indicated that to the Committee on a number of occasions. I have sought agreement from the Executive on the proposed amendment. However, that agreement is yet to be obtained.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Amendment No 2 and the related amendments — amendment Nos 3, 4 and 13 — each concern the application of the Bill to public authorities. Clause 1, as currently drafted, defines "public authority" for the purposes of the Bill as Departments, district councils and any other person appearing to DARD to exercise functions of a public nature that DARD may specify in subordinate legislation. Amendment No 2 proposes to change the definition of "public authority" to be those persons included in a schedule to the Bill, to be inserted by amendment No 13. That would mean that all those public bodies that are listed in the draft local government order, as well as Departments and district councils, would be included in the Bill. Those bodies are the PSNI; CCMS; the Education Authority; health and social care trusts; Invest NI; the Fire and Rescue Service; the Housing Executive; Libraries NI; Tourism NI; the Public Health Agency; the Health and Social Care Board; and Sport NI.

Responses to my Department’s public consultation on the policy proposals for the Bill indicated unanimous support for extending the scope of the legislation beyond Departments and councils. The importance of including arm’s-length bodies that discharge public functions was also highlighted by key stakeholders and by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee during the Bill’s Committee Stage. I believe that extending the provisions of the Bill to all the public bodies that are listed in the schedule will provide consistency and cohesion in the application of rural proofing across government, particularly given the new community planning arrangements.

The commencement provisions in the Bill, as currently drafted, provide flexibility in relation to when its various provisions would come into force. That will allow for sufficient time for the additional public authorities that would be included as a result of those amendments to prepare for their new statutory duties coming into force.

Mr Speaker: Minister, I am very sorry for interrupting you at this time. As you know, Question Time is scheduled to begin at 2.00 pm. This debate will continue after Question Time, when you will have the opportunity to complete your contribution.


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mrs Foster (The First Minister): The focus of the ministerial subgroup on regional opportunities has, to date, been on the north-west, but it has always been our intention that, as its work progresses, it should consider the measures required to promote economic opportunity across other areas of Northern Ireland. That will include, in due course, infrastructural and economic needs and opportunities in the south-west, including County Fermanagh.

Mr Flanagan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. I take the opportunity to congratulate her on her elevation to the position of First Minister and wish her well in the time ahead.

Will the First Minister accept that it would make some sense for the next meeting of the regional opportunities subgroup to take place when the Executive come to Fermanagh for their meeting and that the focus of that meeting should be about potential infrastructural and other economic interventions that the Executive could make to create economic opportunities in the county?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, for his acknowledgement that the next Executive meeting will be in Enniskillen in the town hall on 25 February. The fact that we are bringing the whole Executive to County Fermanagh is even better than bringing the regional opportunities subgroup of the Executive to Fermanagh. We will have the whole Executive there. I hope that they take the opportunity to get out and about in County Fermanagh to make some visits. Who knows? We may even have some announcements made when they are there as well. I hope that the initiative of bringing the Executive closer to the people who elect us will make it more relevant to people on the ground and will allow some of my colleagues from the east of the Province to visit the most beautiful county in Northern Ireland.

Mr Campbell: As part of the regional opportunities group, will the First Minister endeavour to make sure that Northern Ireland has the best possible mobile phone network across all parts of rural Northern Ireland so that people can communicate by phone, text and other social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, and can do so effectively, safely and without the prospect of running up a huge bill, directly or indirectly?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. As the Member is probably aware, in my previous work in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, we made a number of interventions in relation to mobile phone and broadband coverage. I very much welcome the fact that my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment recently announced another broadband intervention. Two pilot areas have been identified, one of which is County Fermanagh. I encourage everyone to look at the broadband pilot and to take advantage of what is available to them.

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Pengelly to answer the question.

Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 2 and 10 together.

Social investment fund momentum is growing. Some 25 projects valued at £37 million have commenced, 10 projects are operational, and many hundreds of participants are already benefiting from early intervention and employment projects. It is making life-changing differences to people and communities facing disadvantage. No groups in Upper Bann are waiting for SIF funding from OFMDFM; indeed, there are four projects, with commitments of around £6·3 million, expected to impact on Upper Bann residents. They have all received a letter of offer from OFMDFM, and it is now over to the lead partner to progress further.

Good progress is being made. For example, Work IT has recruited participants, sustaining infrastructure and new directions of appointed design teams, and the community sports programme has received a letter of offer.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the junior Minister for the answer and update. I note that the southern steering group last met on Tuesday 1 December. Will the junior Minister explain, given the long delays with the fund and the impending end of the Assembly mandate, whether the groups will meet more frequently to move processes along?

Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for her question. I am not sure whether the Member is aware, but the steering groups are independent of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The hallmark of the scheme was that it was a community-up scheme; it is not dictated to or influenced by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is up to the local steering group to meet, and I presume that it meets when it feels that it needs to meet. The Member may want to raise the issue of the local steering group with her party colleague and other members of the group.

Mr Anderson: Junior Minister, now that all the projects are being progressed, can you confirm that the social investment fund objective of ensuring a wider benefit for all the traditional schemes, such as DSD's neighbourhood renewal scheme, has been achieved?

Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for his question. When we were designing the social investment fund, we listened to the frustrations of many people — community organisations and communities — who felt excluded from the very tight criteria of a number of schemes, such as the neighbourhood renewal scheme in the Department for Social Development. They made it absolutely clear, in particular to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, that there were considerable needs around dereliction, community halls, employment, childcare and educational underachievement that were much wider than simply the 10% most deprived areas in the multiple deprivation indexes. Therefore, now that we have looked at all the projects that have come through under the scheme, I am glad that there will be a much wider impact. I am glad that places such as Portadown, Banbridge, Fermanagh, Markethill and large parts of my constituency of South Belfast can now benefit from the scheme, when before they were excluded. It has taken time to achieve that, because it is a different way of working, but I am glad that those areas will benefit and will see progress made on the ground.

Mrs Foster: The renegotiation of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union is being taken forward by the Prime Minister and a select group of Ministers in Whitehall. The deputy First Minister and I will meet the Foreign Secretary on 1 March 2016 and will raise matters with him face-to-face. The issue directly affects everyone in Northern Ireland, so we have specifically requested engagement from the UK Government. Unfortunately, the request has not secured a meaningful response on the detail. We have been kept informed of developments but have not been involved.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the First Minister for her response, and I share her obvious frustration at the dismissal of concerns, not just those of the people in the North. The people in Scotland and Wales are suffering from the same sense of being ignored and, to a certain extent, being treated with contempt by the British Government.

Given that the proposal seems to be for a referendum fairly close on the other side of our Assembly election, does she share my concern that there has not been a proper debate about the disastrous consequences of the British Government and, essentially, the people of England deciding to leave the European Union, particularly for here and for people in our farming communities, people along the border area and people in business? Those very serious consequences have not been debated properly and will not get the opportunity to be debated if we are forced into a referendum soon after our election.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Our concern with the date of the referendum being so close to the Assembly election is that all the issues relating to the European referendum would come on top of the Assembly election issues and there would be a lack of clarity on those issues. I accept that people have said to me, "Do you not think that we can make up our mind about the Assembly elections and the European referendum?". That is absolutely right. However, I have to take cognisance of the fact that the European Union referendum campaign will be a national campaign. Therefore, it will get national attention and will be on our screens a lot of the time at the same time as we are fighting an Assembly election, when we no doubt want to set out our visions of where we would like to see the Assembly and Northern Ireland going in the next four years. It is a problem and is something that we will have an opportunity to discuss with the Foreign Secretary. It may be too late at that stage, because, of course, we are very aware that the Prime Minister hopes to close off the negotiations this coming weekend. I regret that: if the Government are to give respect to the devolved Administrations, they should be listening carefully to what we have to say.

I hear what the Member says about the substance — we probably have differing views on that — but I think that we can all agree that we need a very clear debate about the referendum. Unfortunately, I do not think that that will happen.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister's colleague the Enterprise Minister spoke in the House recently about the options that could be available if the United Kingdom were to withdraw from Europe. The Norwegian, Swiss and Turkish models were discussed.

Can the First Minister share with the House her assessment of the pros and cons of those various options for Northern Ireland?

Mrs Foster: I think it is important that we have a very clear referendum. The Member may prefer different types of models, and it is up to him whether he prefers a Swedish model as opposed to a Turkish model, and I cannot comment in relation to those issues. What I can comment on is the fact that we need a very clear debate on the implications of remaining and the implications of leaving. Unfortunately, we have not been able to have that debate yet. Of course, we have to wait for the conclusion of the negotiations, but it looks very likely that the negotiations will be completed this weekend, and then things will become very clear.

Mr Givan: Will the First Minister confirm that, whatever the United Kingdom's relationship is with the European Union, she will ensure that we continue to benefit from the most important relationship of all, that being Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom?

Mrs Foster: Of course I will continue to make sure that the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is to the fore of all that I do. As the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, the union is critical to our future, and we must make the most of it. Indeed, when we go across the world, part of our selling point is that we are part of the United Kingdom and benefit from the regulatory system that the United Kingdom gives to us. That includes the currency issues as well. Absolutely, I agree with the Member that, going forward, this is a critical relationship and will remain so.

Mrs Foster: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer Questions 4 and 5 together.

Lead Departments are undertaking an outcomes-based approach to the individual success of the initial six programmes announced in October 2012. More detailed reports on particular projects are anticipated from lead Departments in due course.

Three further signature programmes, jointly funded with Atlantic Philanthropies, are progressing well. These are in the areas of early intervention transformation, dementia services and shared education. In line with the Programme for Government commitment, OFMDFM is currently evaluating the success of the Delivering Social Change framework. It is hoped that the evaluation findings will be available in the near future.

Mr Lyons: I thank the First Minister for her answer so far. Can she give me her specific assessment of the success of the literacy and numeracy programme?

Mrs Foster: The literacy and numeracy programme is a critical part of the Delivering Social Change framework and was completed in June of 2015. It is hoped that we will have the full evaluation very soon, but already we know that some 18,653 — a very specific figure, I know, Mr Speaker — primary and post-primary children have received additional maths and English support as a result of this programme. I think it has made a phenomenal impact in terms of additional help and support. On average, 85% of those pupils have achieved or, indeed, exceeded their individual target level in literacy and numeracy. So we have made a big impact with the literacy and numeracy programme. I also very much welcome the fact that we were able to employ over 300 recently graduated teachers to assist with that programme.

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the First Minister for her answers so far. The Minister will also be aware that another central component of the Delivering Social Change initiative was the nurture unit programme. Can the Minister give us an indication of the impact so far of the nurture unit programme?

Mrs Foster: This is another fundamental part of what we were trying to achieve. In the short time that I have been in this post, I have had the opportunity to visit a couple of these nurture units, which are placed in primary schools. They have made a big impact for the children who have been able to avail themselves of them. Over 400 children have attended a Delivering Social Change nurture group. There are other children as well, in the 20 schools, who can benefit from the short-term support available in the nurture room. Indeed, when I was going around the various nurture units, I was lobbied very hard to make sure that these nurture groups continue.


2.15 pm

I know that the Department of Education is looking at funding to allow that to happen, because it recognises that this early intervention has made a big impact on getting kids ready for schooling. Before this, there was a real difficulty with that and, in fact, many children were being presented for school who were not ready for it at all. These nurture units have made a real difference to those children.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. How will any review or evaluation of the Delivering Social Change programme help to inform any new Programme for Government process?

Mrs Foster: As I have indicated, we are hoping that the evaluation is looking at the outcomes. I have mentioned a couple of figures relating to the number of children we have been able to interact with, either through the nurture groups or through literacy and numeracy. We are looking at the impact that those schemes have had on the children and whether the children have improved since they were involved in those schemes. The early evidence indicates that they have benefited from the interventions. You have to understand and remember that the framework approach under Delivering Social Change was a completely new way of bringing these projects to fruition. The idea was to make an intervention and, if the intervention was a positive one, that it would be mainstreamed, perhaps through other Departments. I hope that that is what is going to happen in this case.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the First Minister's responses so far, particularly in relation to the improvements that she has indicated in literacy and numeracy. Does she agree, given that we have 250,000 people between the ages of 16 and 64 with serious literacy and numeracy problems, that this particular issue should not be dependent on charities, even ones as noble as Atlantic Philanthropies?

Mrs Foster: The way in which we are working with Atlantic Philanthropies is to have a co-design, so that it comes in and works with us and then we design a programme that is good for society. We have talked a lot recently about the fact that government cannot do everything, but we need to identify what we can do along with partners, perhaps in the private sector or the third sector, that can make a real difference, and this is a good example of that. Atlantic Philanthropies is an absolutely marvellous organisation that does a lot of good in our society. The fact that it is working with us, through OFMDFM, will make a real difference, and I welcome the approach.

Mrs Overend: I thank the First Minister for the detail that she has provided this afternoon. Given the success of the literacy and numeracy programme, can the First Minister indicate whether the Minister of Education made a case for it to be streamlined rather than closed down last year?

Mrs Foster: As I have already indicated, the whole idea behind these programmes was that we would have an intervention and evaluate whether that had made a positive impact and then, hopefully, other Departments would come alongside and take them up. It was never intended that OFMDFM would continue to fund literacy and numeracy or, indeed, nurture units, because there is a recognition, of course, that those belong in another Department. Once the evaluation has been completed overall on Delivering Social Change, it will then be a matter for the Minister of Education as to whether he wants to take the issue forward.

Mrs Foster: The former First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the deputy First Minister wrote to Lord Alderdice, Professor Monica McWilliams and John McBurney in December 2015 with the terms of reference for the three-person panel which is to bring forward a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups before the end of May. The deputy First Minister and I subsequently discussed the matter during our quarterly review meeting on 14 January with the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. On Tuesday 9 February, the deputy First Minister and I met Lord Alderdice, Professor Monica Mc Williams and Mr John McBurney to discuss their work to date.

Mr Allister: Does the First Minister still think that one of the signatories to 'A Fresh Start', namely her partner, Sinn Féin, is inextricably linked to the still-active IRA, as she said in September? If she does still think that, does that amount to an acknowledgement that she is in government with the IRA, Army Council and all?

Mrs Foster: The last time I looked, my partner was somebody completely different, but that is another matter. I refer the Member to various parts of the Fresh Start Agreement; I do not know whether he has had the opportunity to read it yet. That agreement clearly states that no party to the agreement will accept:

"authority, direction or control on our political activities other than our democratic mandate alongside our own personal and party judgment."

It is clear to me that we have set out a very good road map to deal with paramilitarism, which has not been dealt with to date and which I regret. In Fresh Start, we have set out a clear road map to deal with the issues, including a strategy to disband the paramilitary organisations that have been referred to. A task force has been put in place, and a Pledge of Office, which, I understand, is being put into legislation at Westminster as we speak. As far as I am concerned, there is a very clear road map ahead. The Member may want to go backwards, but I want to move forwards.

Mr Allister: With the IRA.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Order.

Mr I McCrea: The Secretary of State recently made a speech about the role of paramilitary groups during the Troubles. Does the First Minister agree with the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State and that it is time that paramilitary organisations went out of business once and for all?

Mrs Foster: I could not agree more with the Member, and I welcome the Secretary of State's speech last week. Over the past couple of months if not years, there have been attempts to try to rewrite what happened here over the past 35 to 40 years. It is important that the facts remain, which are that 90% of those who were murdered in Northern Ireland were murdered by terrorist organisations. It was not the state that caused those terrible deaths, and it is important that we remember that when we have a narrative about what happened in the past. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, there will be no amnesty and no rewriting of the past, and we will provide support for victims in their search for justice.

Mr Attwood: The Minister referred to the legislation at Westminster and the Pledge of Office. Clause 7 states:

"to support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed and to support all efforts to uphold it;".

Given the new Pledge of Office, does she agree that there should be no doubt whatsoever that that includes endorsing, in word and deed, the activities of the National Crime Agency in the North and the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland?

Mrs Foster: I can give a very short answer to that: of course it does. Indeed, the Member refers to paragraph 2.5 of the 'A Fresh Start', and those words will be faithfully translated into the legislation, which, I understand, is to get its Second Reading next week.

Mr Beggs: It was of course as a result of the actions of the Ulster Unionist Party that paramilitarism made its way to the highest point of the agenda. Following the paramilitary murders last autumn — and just last week in Dublin, there were murders involving paramilitaries from this part of the world — does the First Minister agree that the community wants more concerted and concrete action to show how paramilitarism is being undermined and removed from our society?

Mrs Foster: I find it absolutely bizarre that a member of the Ulster Unionist Party can stand up, without laughing, and say that that party brought the issue to a conclusion when it was not even there. The Fresh Start Agreement is a good start to dealing with paramilitarism and criminality, and I look forward to the time when the Ulster Unionist Party admits that it made a mistake and should have stayed and dealt with the issue instead of walking away.

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Pengelly to answer this question.

Mrs Pengelly: The Urban Villages team is undertaking a programme of engagement in each of the five urban villages. Stakeholder engagement workshops are taking place until March 2016. The outcome of the engagement will be the creation of integrated development frameworks for each urban village, which will detail, in priority order, the capital and revenue projects identified from the extensive stakeholder engagement. Funding for Urban Villages in 2016-17 will be allocated following consultation with all Departments to identify the funding required to progress headline actions, of which Urban Villages is one.

Mr Lunn: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. Will she perhaps give us a bit more detail about the timescale for all that, particularly in view of the intervention of the election and the summer recess? It could be Christmas before we know it.

Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for his question. Through the Strategic Investment Board, we have appointed a team and a director to coordinate the work, which will continue regardless of the election. It is led by a professional team comprising construction experts, urban experts and regeneration experts. They have been involved in detailed engagement with community organisations and have held community consultation events to really talk to residents, retailers and businesses.

I am confident that this work will continue regardless of the election cycle. The aim is to have the development frameworks produced by the end of March, so we are about six weeks away from having those draft plans. There will be an extensive process of consultation. We want the communities to own those plans and see their ideas reflected in them. We want the plans to be workable and be able to be phased in. Once we get the plans, they will inform funding decisions on the way forward, probably scheduled over the next two, three and five years, to give us some indication of the drawdown that we need. We expect this to be a largely capital programme. However, at the very heart of this is, under Together: Building a United Community, building the social capital of these communities, so there will be a project or revenue element on encouraging identity, confidence and community spirit within it.

We are already working on some projects, including those on events, cultural identity, education and capacity building, while consulting on what capital works are required. In many of these areas, there is a need for capital investment.

Mr Dunne: I thank the junior Minister for her answers. Will she advise what plans other Ministers have to maximise support for Urban Villages from other funds that may be available?

Mrs Pengelly: I thank the Member for his question. There are two very distinct elements of the Urban Villages programme. One is the additional funds that will be given centrally through the Together: Building a United Community fund, particularly in support of tackling dereliction, physical regeneration and some of the project support that I mentioned. The second element of it, though, is to help many of those communities to be better coordinated and to maximise existing external funds. That may be identifying a plan of action and looking at where the most appropriate fund for that may be. It could, for example, be European funding, funds from the Department for Social Development, or the Department for Communities as it will become. It could be from local government, or perhaps funding entirely external to government. We want to be able to support these communities directly, through the Northern Ireland Executive, and maximise the benefit through better coordination and the identification of other opportunities.

Mr Speaker: That is the end of time for listed questions. We move to topical questions.

T1. Mr Kennedy asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their reaction to the Chief Constable’s recent comments on dealing with the past. (AQT 3481/11-16)

Mrs Foster (The First Minister): I have to say that, when we comment on the past, we all need to be very careful that we are not adding to the trauma that many live with daily. Some of those whom I met recently recounted to me that, when something is said — it may not be a big moment to the person who said it — the victims who hear it are deeply hurt, and many can be re-traumatised. I certainly do not agree that a line should be drawn under the past.

We have to deal with the issues. We have to go through the processes and we will continue, as I have said over the past couple of days, to support the victims in getting justice if that is what they want to do. Indeed, the Member knows, having dealt with victims' families at close quarters, that some want the truth, others want justice, and others simply want it all to go away. For those who want to continue the search for justice, we must continue to support them.


2.30 pm

Mr Kennedy: I thank the First Minister for her answer. Can the First Minister confirm that no discussions or negotiations are taking place at present with any other parties on the issue of dealing with the past?

Mrs Foster: We indicated after the Fresh Start Agreement that we would continue to discuss issues, particularly with victims' families and various groups. Those discussions continue; indeed, I have a number of meetings today with families and victims' groups. We want to listen to what they have to say to us, so it would be wrong to say that no discussions are taking place. The outstanding issue that prevented agreement in Fresh Start on dealing with the past is one for discussion between Sinn Féin and our Government, as I understand it. Those discussions may well be continuing but, as far as I am concerned, I am engaging with and listening to the various victims' groups.

Mr Speaker: Mr Chris Hazzard is not in his place. I call Mr Trevor Clarke.

T3. Mr Clarke asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given the First Minister’s work on the reduction of corporation tax, what they will do to attract jobs to Northern Ireland when the rate is lowered. (AQT 3483/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. It is not a question of waiting until April 2018, which, as he knows, is the date set for the devolution and reduction of corporate tax in Northern Ireland; we have to start selling the proposition now. Invest Northern Ireland is currently setting about a programme to let the rest of the world know what is happening here in April 2018 and, when I go to the United States in March with the deputy First Minister, we will undertake some visits in relation to this very positive story for Northern Ireland. We will speak to companies that, heretofore, we have not been able to attract, not just about the proposition that we already have but about the fact that we are going to have a lower rate of corporate tax. Those meetings will take place in March in and around the St Patrick's Day events.

Mr Clarke: I thank the First Minister for her answer. I am sure that the First Minister will use the opportunity in America to demonstrate, through the lower corporation tax and other incentives, that Northern Ireland is the best place in Europe for investors to come to.

Mrs Foster: We will not just talk about corporate tax, although that is a new tool, but about the fact that we have a low cost base in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland; the fact that we have a very young, able and skilled population; and the fact that, when companies come, staff are very loyal and work very hard for them. We have a very good story to tell, and that is why we have been able to attract the number of jobs that we have over the past five years — indeed more jobs at any time than under any other Administration here. We have a good story to tell, but now we have an even better story to tell, and I look forward to telling it.

T4. Mr Maskey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given that, last week, the SDLP proposed taking £800,000 from the OFMDFM budget to be allocated elsewhere, to outline what the removal of that £800,000 would mean to services provided by OFMDFM. (AQT 3484/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I did not hear that last week. People always want to dip into the budget of OFMDFM but you have to understand, as I am sure the Member does, that our budget in OFMDFM has been cut by 5% from its baseline last year and that our resource is therefore just a little over £59 million. Taking close on £1 million out of that would certainly have an impact on other services.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for her response. Will she join me in reminding people that the Department provides essential services to asylum seekers and refugees, as well as to people who are reliant on the Department's very important services, for example the Victims and Survivors Service?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. He will know that we have allocated more money to, and indeed protected, the Victims and Survivors Service, so that is certainly not one that we would be entertaining. It goes back to the point that I used to make frequently when I was Finance Minister. We have a fixed Budget. If you take money from the pot that we have, understandably enough, money will have to be cut from another service that is delivered. People should remember that when they make pleas for more finance for x, y or z. That is all very good, but could you tell me where you want the cut to fall? That is the key issue when you are arguing about a fixed Budget.

He mentioned ethnic minorities. I am very pleased to say that the ethnic minority fund is now open for applications. That issue was raised at my last Question Time. I am glad to say that, as of last Friday, that fund is now open for applications.

T5. Ms Hanna asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to confirm when parties would be required to notify or to confirm their intention to take up Executive places, given that paragraph 1 of ‘A Fresh Start’ states, "and before the FM-DFM are selected and the d’Hondt process runs, representatives of the parties who are entitled to take up places in the Executive and who confirm their intention to do so will meet to resolve the draft Programme for Government". (AQT 3485/11-16)

Mrs Foster: Certainly. In recognition of that commitment, in the past, d'Hondt had to run within seven days of the election as far as I can recall. Under the legislation that is going through Westminster, it will be 14 days. That will give us a little bit more time to come together and decide on the way forward. So, 14 days will be the period before we run d'Hondt. We will need to know in that period whether or not parties are going to take up positions in the Executive.

Ms Hanna: Do you intend this provision to be in place in the next mandate; ie this May? If so, will that be reflected by amendments in the legislation going through Westminster?

Mrs Foster: The 14 days is actually in the legislation, so, yes, I intend that that will be operative after the Assembly election. The thinking is that it will give us time to have conversations and look at the Programme for Government work. As you know, work in relation to that is ongoing, but obviously it would be disrespectful of the new mandate if that were finished before the election. That work will be completed during that period as well. It will be 14 days, and then we will have our new Government in place.

Mr Speaker: Mr Jonathan Craig is not in his place. I call Mr Gerry Kelly.

T7. Mr G Kelly asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the First Minister’s views on the news that the NIO approved a request from the PSNI to withhold documents relevant to the murder of 15-year-old Arlene Arkinson, bearing in mind that this murder has never been described as a conflict-related death. (AQT 3487/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I am very conscious of my answer to Mr Kennedy's question at the start of topical questions. I certainly do not want to add to the very obvious distress and trauma that the Arkinson family is going through. It was one of the most horrific murders, made all the worse by the fact that Arlene's body was never found. Here we are having the inquest nearly 22 years later. It is a very difficult time for the family. I hear what the Member says about the public-interest immunity (PII) certificate. I am a little unclear as to whether the coroner has the right to make a judgement on the appropriateness of that PII certificate. I am reading conflicting reports on that, but I know that it is causing a lot of distress.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire le haghaidh a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. I agree with her about the sensitivity of this. However, it has come to public attention in a very dramatic way. I also agree with her about the family, but it is on having listened to the family on the radio this morning that I am asking about this. Does she believe that the refusal of access to these documents could compound the family's difficulties and grief?

Mrs Foster: The Member understands that I do not have sight of any of the documents that he is referring to, so it is impossible for me to make a determination on that issue. Obviously, it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Office and the Minister who made the determination as to why he made that determination. Therefore, I advise the Member to raise those issues with him.

T8. Mr McCrossan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister is confident that future funding will be secured for the development of the A5 beyond this year’s Budget and to state whether this project will be a top priority in the next Programme for Government. (AQT 3488/11-16)

Mrs Foster: As the Member is probably aware, we identified seven strategic capital projects in our Budget for 2016-17, recognising, of course, that we could not set the Budget for those strategic projects because we were dealing with only a single year. One of those strategic projects is the A5.

Mr McCrossan: Thank you for your answers so far, First Minister. During the transport Minister's announcement of the consultation, she said that the development of the A5 would be subject to the successful completion of statutory procedures. How confident is the Minister that such procedures will be overcome and that the A5 will be delivered for the people of the west?

Mrs Foster: I hear my colleagues saying "DRD". It is a matter for the Department for Regional Development. Obviously, I am not au fait with all the statutory processes that have to be gone through to allow the road to proceed. All I can say to the Member is that that is a commitment that all of the Executive have signed up to. It is in our Budget as a strategic proposal, along with the A6 and a whole list of other issues. I think that it is something that will happen for the people of the west. We want to see all of Northern Ireland benefiting from good infrastructure, which means good roads, good broadband and all the other elements that some people in this country take for granted.

Mr Speaker: Mr Paul Frew is not in his place.

T10. Mr Flanagan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what sort of meetings they intend to have with political and business leaders during their trip to America in March. (AQT 3490/11-16)

Mrs Foster: It is Mr Flanagan's lucky day: he starts and finishes today's Question Time with me.

We intend to have meetings organised by Invest Northern Ireland on the issue that I was speaking about: corporation tax. We will have some political meetings as well. We will have the Northern Ireland Bureau breakfast, which is always a highlight. I am very much looking forward to that and to bringing the good news from Northern Ireland that we have stable government that is looking forward to and planning for the future and that people should look to us to invest.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the First Minister for her answer. I applaud her efforts to send out the positive message that we now have stable government. Will she give me a commitment that, as part of her meetings with political leaders in America, she and the deputy First Minister will raise the plight of citizens from this part of Ireland who are living in America and are deemed to be undocumented and highlight the continuing campaign to get them the ability to travel back to Ireland and then go back to America legally?

Mrs Foster: If there are any residents of Northern Ireland who have difficulties in the USA, I am certainly happy to speak about those matters. If the Member will share the information with me, I will be able to take the issue up.

Mr Speaker: Time is up. Well done, Minister, on getting through them all. Members should take their ease until we change the top Table.

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


2.45 pm

Environment

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): The road safety strategy recognises cyclists of any age as vulnerable road users and includes a range of actions that relates to cyclist safety. A new cyclist safety television campaign, titled "Don't forget", was launched in April 2014, where cyclists and drivers are encouraged to take personal responsibility for their behaviour on the roads and to give other road users due consideration. The core message of the campaign is this: "Respect everyone's journey".

The campaign messages are addressed more fully in the online campaign, which is available on the NI Direct website, where each scenario in the ad is developed, and more detailed advice is provided to drivers and cyclists alike. The campaign has been supported by outdoor, digital and social media activity. A cyclist safety education pack that is based on the television campaign has been developed and made available to all schools and other interested organisations. It includes an eight-minute DVD, which provides a wealth of advice for cyclists. Some clips from the DVD are also available on YouTube; namely, on the use of cycle lanes and on HGV and cyclist blind spots.

Each year, my Department offers the cycling proficiency scheme (CPS) to every school in Northern Ireland. This year will be the second year of the new enhanced CPS being delivered in primary schools. During the most recent CPS season, approximately 400 schools and over 7,000 pupils participated.

A cycling skills and cycling safety guide, developed jointly by DOE and DRD, is available in hard copy and online and provides information on the benefits of cycling, basic safety requirements and the rules of the road. I recognise the continuing challenges of reducing casualties on our roads and will take forward further actions as appropriate from my Department's ongoing analysis and research of road safety issues.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I was in the wonderful Victoria Park in east Belfast recently to support Sustrans Northern Ireland in its cycling proficiency and safety scheme for children with from autism, which is a wonderful scheme. The Minister mentioned schoolchildren going through some of the safety training. Only in some schools — not all — are P6 pupils afforded that opportunity,. Is the Minister interested in looking at the potential for widening the scheme to include all P6 pupils in Northern Ireland?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. Cycling is something that he is very passionate about, and I had the pleasure — well, the experience — of being out on the bike with Mr Douglas and trying to keep up with him as he cycled through his constituency one afternoon. It is important that we make the cycling proficiency scheme available to anyone, or to any school that wishes to avail itself of it. Therefore, I will certainly look into the issue. I will look at who is being denied access to the scheme and why they are being denied access. It is vital that we get all our road safety messages out to as wide an audience as possible. Where there are keen learners, it is important that we take advantage of that.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his response and his keenness for cycling, which I very much support. What impact will the recent budgetary allocations and reductions have on road safety programmes?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her question. I have to confess that my keenness for cycling pales in comparison to that of her party colleague the former Minister for Regional Development.

Undoubtedly, the budgetary constraints that have been faced by my Department, the Executive and the Assembly have had, and will continue to have, an impact on the amount of money available to me, as the current Minister, or to any future Minister with responsibility for road safety, to spend on road safety. One thing that those constraints has caused us to do, however, is to look at how we are spending the money that we get for road safety. Doing that has enabled us to be a bit more inventive. We have increasingly looked at social media as a means of getting out our road safety messages to the traditionally hard-to-reach audience; namely, young people who are less inclined to sit and watch 'Coronation Street' and are more likely to be up in their room online.

That is proving to be very successful so far, and the feedback that we are getting from young people shows that it is proving to be quite popular. Time will tell how effective it proves to be. We should continue to look at new media as a means of getting out the messages.

The Member asked specifically about the impact of last year's Budget cuts on our road safety spend. I saw a reduction in the £1·8 million that I was able to spend on road safety to £1·1 million.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer and readily accept that my bicycle is gathering rust in the garage, which is a pity. Does the Minister agree that the safety of cyclists on the roads is so serious that studying it should not be an option in schools but should be compulsory, so that every child who attends a school should have an opportunity, by right, to participate in road safety studies?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As I said, I do not think that anyone should be denied the opportunity to learn how to stay safe on our roads. It is important that we explore every avenue to get the message to as many people as possible about how they can stay safe on our roads. It is shocking to think that some people are being denied that. Unfortunately, there are many children across our school estate who do not have access to bicycles. That is something else we should look at.

The safety of cyclists is extremely important, as is, as I said, the safety of all road users. While, a couple of years ago, we saw an increase in casualties and fatalities involving cyclists — that was perhaps attributable to the huge increase in the number of people choosing to cycle on our roads — in the last couple of years, we seem, fingers crossed, to be seeing a downward trend in that. That suggests that motorists are more aware of cyclists on the roads and, indeed, that cyclists may be becoming more aware of their responsibilities as road users.

Mr Durkan: My Department has undertaken some further research into the matter, and I have accepted that there is an issue to address. Therefore, my officials are examining this in conjunction with the Department's legal advisers. I have made a commitment to the Environment Committee that a legislative amendment will be made within this Assembly mandate to ensure that no negative impact is experienced by taxi operators or customers in rural areas. I expect to be able to advise the Committee of my intended course of action before the end of this month.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his response. It is good to see that there will be a response within this mandate. Getting the detail right on a lot of the regulations as well as the implementation for the taxi industry has been very difficult at times. What monitoring arrangements are being put in place to make sure that what we have is fit for purpose so that we may need to look at whether any tweaking needs to happen in the future?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question, and I think his description of this process as "very difficult" is perhaps the understatement of the day.

It is important that we monitor it, and the Member will be aware of the timelines that have been set out for the implementation of regulations. That monitoring has started already. Over the past week or more, I have been inundated with calls and have had several meetings with people at various levels of the taxi industry: drivers, taxi company owners and the providers and manufacturers of meters. I am already looking at some of the dates we set out to see what room there might be to push them back to ensure that this transition, important as it is, is managed and carried out in a way that does not make it too difficult or impossible, as, in fact, has been the case many times, for drivers to comply with what is being asked of them.

Mr Patterson: I thank the Minister for his responses so far. In relation to the taxi regulations — as he is aware, they have generated mush heated debate at times — one area that has received little attention is how they will work on a cross-border basis. Can the Minister explain whether taxis coming from the Republic will have to conform to the modifications being forced on Northern Ireland taxi firms?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. He has pointed to one of the aspects that makes this such a complicated area to legislate in and for. Currently, the cross-border arrangement for taxis is, in my opinion, unacceptable. That applies across all vehicles that might be classed as taxis, including wedding cars, for example, which are classified as taxis under the legislation, albeit as class C taxis.

For many years and with just cause, I believe, a blind eye has been turned by the authorities on both sides of the border to cross-border taxi journeys. I have raised the issue with the Transport Minister in the South previously, and I would like to see something in legislation to enable the smooth carrying out of this business across borders for our constituents. I know that many of my constituents — well, they are not my constituents any more because they live maybe five minutes away in County Donegal — would be inclined to lift the phone and ring a taxi office in Derry to come and get them and bring them into Derry, which is, strictly speaking, not permissible. However, it is what people do, and it is what works for them. It is also what works for drivers, and it is ridiculous that it should not be allowed.

Ms Lo: I appreciate that the issue of dead miles came about only recently and the Minister has agreed to bring an SL1 to the Committee by the end of the month. I also understand that he has just had a meeting with the Consumer Council on the issue. Maybe he can brief us on the steps he is taking between now and the end of the month to bring forward the SL1. Will there be an option for taxi drivers to opt out of the dead miles regulations?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Chair of the Environment Committee for that question. I have not yet had the meeting with the Consumer Council to which she refers; it is possible that I may meet the council in the near future on the issue as we try to get a robust and workable way forward. I am aware — I alluded to it in my initial answer to Mr Weir — of the difficulty that this will cause for drivers and, ultimately, passengers and customers, particularly in rural areas. That is why I have given the commitment to bring something to the Committee in the next couple of weeks on how this can and should be resolved.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answers. Only a Minister like Mr Durkan, who has the patience of Job, could have successfully concluded this legislation. I welcome the dead miles recommendations and look forward to them. Will the Minister outline the net benefit to the consumer in relation to the overall taxi changes?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Maginness for that question and for the compliment. However, I point out that the process is far from concluded, and I believe that the legislation, which was initially passed by the House in 2008, will soon be due to be reviewed. It ought to be reviewed as soon as possible once the regulations are in.

Throughout the long development of the new legislation, the driving force was a desire to improve the experience of the taxi-using public here by bringing our taxi law up to date. You will recall that the original raft of subordinate legislation included provision for a single-tier system. This meant that any taxi could be hailed at any time by anyone across the North. Following the annulment of that legislation last February, my officials worked closely with the Environment Committee to establish common ground on which to base new draft legislation, which has now passed successfully through the Assembly and will become operative at the end of May.

Key aims of the reform of the industry are improved accountability, so that taxi users can be sure that they are being charged an appropriate rate, and improved access to taxis in general for ordinary taxi users, wheelchair users and other customers with a disability. I am happy to say that the new regulations will go a long way towards achieving those aims. It also means that passengers will be protected by the introduction of a mandatory maximum fare, and the introduction of meters into all cars will mean that passengers can see what they are being charged, safe in the knowledge that it will not be above the maximum fare stipulated.


3.00 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I remind the Minister to speak through the Chair and through the mic so that Hansard can pick up all the remarks.

Mr Durkan: There have been three fish kills on the Glenavy river: in June 2014, in October 2015 and in December 2015. The offender in the June 2014 incident received a formal caution and paid compensation to the local angling club. The 2015 incidents are under ongoing investigation concerning a recurrent pollution source.

A file is being prepared for submission to the Public Prosecution Service regarding polluting premises discovered in follow-up investigations to the October 2014 fish kill on the Sixmilewater at Ballyclare. It was not possible to link fish mortalities conclusively to those premises.

Investigation of the major fish kill on the Ballymartin water in August 2015 is nearing completion.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. I also thank him for his continued support and his endeavours to get to the bottom of some of the issues. Government bodies could be the inadvertent cause of pollution, because they have no control over what comes into their site but do have control over what happens going out of the site. Will they also be subject to major investigation by the Department?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question and, indeed, for raising the issue again. I have worked closely with him and his constituency colleagues on the issue. I like to think that the work that we have done with local elected representatives and, most importantly, anglers in that area could be replicated across the North, because it is important that the NIEA and other government agencies build relationships with angling groups. It should not be a gamekeeper/poacher-type relationship, if you pardon the analogy. There is a lot to be gained through working in partnership. Let me assure the Member and the House that no person or organisation, be that government or otherwise, will be immune from investigation or punishment should they be found to be the cause of fish kills or any pollution-type incident.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Minister, thank you for your answers to date. Unfortunately, there is a long history of fish kill and pollution incidents in South Antrim, particularly in the Sixmilewater, and industrial sites have allegedly been the culprits. Have there been prosecutions, and has investment in the infrastructure, particularly in the industrial sites in the Mallusk area, been encouraged, supported and overseen by the Department?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. First and foremost, it is not within the remit or gift of my Department to provide financial support for infrastructural improvements. However, we can and do provide advice to people in that regard. While I am on the subject of providing advice and education, let me say that that is precisely what my Department and officials have been doing over recent weeks and will be doing for months to come with regard to the industrial estates that the Member referred to. My officials are visiting premises to examine how they do things and to point out where and how they could do things better. Hopefully, that will reduce the risk of potential future pollution incidents. A similar exercise had been carried out in the area a few years ago, but it is always good to refresh memories and remind people of their responsibilities and the simple actions that they can take that can have major environmental benefits.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call Mr Rogers, I remind the Member that this is a constituency-specific question.

Mr Rogers: It is about fish kills. Thanks for your answer, Minister. What do you see as the main cause of fish kills, and, following on from what the previous Member said, what action is there, beyond issuing advice, to minimise them?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question on fish kills in that constituency. Fish kills can have several causes. It could be natural causes, which include post-spawning stress or the deoxygenation of the water due to the breakdown of naturally occurring organic matter and the stirring up of anoxic sediments during stormy weather. Fish kills can be caused by human impacts on the natural environment, including the release of organic materials such as slurry, silage, effluent, sewage or even milk. Disease causes fish kills, as can stress following the restocking of a river.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is committed to preventing pollution and fish kills throughout the North and is looking critically at its previous and current pollution prevention programmes with a view to identifying whether anything extra can be done. Following the most recent fish kill on the Ballymartin river, an extensive resurvey of Mallusk industrial estate, which I referred to in the previous answer, is under way. Work is also being undertaken on business premises adjacent to the Glenavy river.

NIEA continues to pursue robustly polluters throughout Northern Ireland through enforcement action. A core reality, however, is that, regardless of how much pollution prevention or enforcement work is undertaken by the agency and, indeed, other agencies, there will remain a small risk of some catastrophic failure, accident or criminal act leading to pollution, so there cannot be an absolute guarantee that pollution or fish kills will never happen again.

Mr Durkan: Responsibility for dereliction spans a number of organisations in central and local government. In particular, district councils have powers under the Pollution Control and Local Government Order 1978 and other local legislation to deal with dilapidated and dangerous structures. They also have primary responsibility under planning legislation to deal with listed or historic buildings in conservation areas that have deteriorated to the extent that their preservation may be at risk.

DOE has specifically addressed some of the concerns raised by residents of the Malone area by producing supplementary planning guidance, 'A Design Guide for the Malone Conservation Area'. That non-statutory guidance was prepared with the aim of encouraging a well cared for historic environment by promoting the retention of authentic historic fabric and the use of appropriate materials and historic construction methods for repairs and alterations. It also seeks to promote development that will reinforce the character of the area and townscape to safeguard the landscaping of the area.

In more general terms, I have also initiated a review of the legislation and powers available to district councils to deal with dilapidation. Much of this legislation dates back to the 19th century and is often restricted to a specific geographical area, leading to inconsistency in the powers available to councils across the North. It is a very complex area of legislation, and I am considering a range of options to make it easier for district councils to carry out this important function effectively. While much of the responsibility for direct action on dereliction falls to the relevant district council, I am committed to supporting that action wherever and whenever that is appropriate.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas fosta leis an Aire as na geallúintí sin, go háirid as an athbhreithniú atá beartaithe aige. I thank the Minister, especially for the review that is promised and for underlining his commitment.

I think, Minister, you will agree that there are some parts of Belfast, including the Malone conservation area, where dereliction is really spoiling the entire environment. I came out of St Bride's Church on Saturday and saw beautiful listed homes derelict at Sans Souci Park and Wellington Park. As we come to the end of the mandate, Minister, will you meet some of the residents of that area to discuss your ideas and your commitment and to perhaps put together their ideas and those of other Departments to see what could be done in the time ahead about that dreadful dereliction?

Mr Durkan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta. I thank the Member for the question. I also thank him for the virtual tour of his constituency. I would be happy to take him up on his offer to meet groups or individuals from the constituency who have an interest in preserving the rich built heritage that they are so blessed to have there. It is vital that we take what steps we can collectively to ensure its conservation. I am happy to have that meeting.
Some Members will be aware that a second survey is ongoing of the whole of Belfast. We are now three quarters of the way through that, and the final quarter that has not been commenced yet is south Belfast. Work will commence on that surveying exercise in the coming months. That will give those with an interest in our built heritage in south Belfast a very good opportunity to engage with my officials and the expertise that is retained in the NIEA.

Mr Durkan: My Department's objectives for minerals development are set out in the strategic planning policy statement for Northern Ireland. The objectives seek to facilitate sustainable minerals development through balancing the need for specific minerals development proposals against the need to safeguard the environment. My Department will seek to minimise the impacts of minerals development on local communities, landscape quality, built and natural heritage and the water environment, and, where development occurs, secure restoration of the site at the earliest opportunity.

I am aware that Dalradian Gold Ltd is in the process of developing a proposal for a gold mine outside Greencastle in County Tyrone. Since July 2015, I have introduced a statutory obligation on prospective developers to consult with the community before any major planning application is submitted to my Department. I consider that engagement an essential component in addressing community concerns and environmental impacts at an early stage in developing a project. When an application is submitted to my Department, it will also be subject to the normal procedures of consultation, and any representations received will be taken into account in determining the application.

Proposals for minerals developments, including proposals for gold-mining, will also be subject to a wide range of consultation to assess the impacts on the environment, including on air, soil, water quality, wildlife habitats, landscape, sites of archaeological and historic interest, and on people. Applications for planning permission will be expected to be accompanied by robust environmental information to allow an assessment of the impacts of mining and, where required, by an environmental statement. Whilst there are clearly a number of environmental challenges in developing such mining proposals, those are matters that fall to be addressed through the planning system. I am satisfied that the system will allow community concerns to be highlighted and addressed through the range of measures highlighted.

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

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. First of all, I should say that the recent proposal by Dalradian to develop a processing plant at Greencastle using cyanide has caused huge local concern. I welcome the local group here today. In other examples throughout the world where these things have gone wrong, there have been devastating consequences, not just for the local area but much further afield. Does the Minister share the concerns of the local people from that area?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Sorry, Minister, time is up. We need to move on. [Laughter.]

Mr Durkan: Yes. Yes.

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

T1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of the Environment for his assessment of the effect that the new Department for Infrastructure will have on road infrastructure and road safety and to state whether he agrees that there are potential benefits for road safety. (AQT 3491/11-16)


3.15 pm

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. The functions carried out by DOE will be split across three new Departments. I am on record, as are party colleagues of Mr Lunn, voicing concern about where some of those functions might end up and the fear that maybe our classic environmental protection function might be subsumed into another Department rather than amalgamated with one.

On the issue that Mr Lunn is referring to, its new home in the Department for Infrastructure is where it truly belongs. It is nonsensical — Mr McCarthy might recall me referring to this in a previous Question Time — that the Department with responsibility for road safety has been separate from the Department with responsibility for implementing road safety measures. Those being realigned in the new Department for Infrastructure is only a good thing and can and should lead to improved safety on our roads.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. Would he then agree with me that this initiative might give impetus to the obvious desire to do away with gap junctions on our existing dual carriageways? I notice that the new dual carriageways are being constructed without gap junctions.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question, but he is proceeding before the light is green. The Departments have not changed yet, and, as of yet, I am Minister of the Department of the Environment and it is not within my remit to answer questions on measures that are the responsibility of the Department or Minister for Regional Development. That does not normally stop people from asking me about them, be they Assembly Members, colleagues in here or members of the public.

However, it is important and will allow us to look at and establish the causation factors for many of the collisions on our roads — many of the casualties and, sadly, fatalities — and maybe work more closely not just within the new Department but with our road safety partners and emergency services to get a more collegiate and collective approach to dealing with these issues.

T2. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of the Environment why, for vintage wedding cars, he did not introduce conditions similar to those in England and Wales, with exemptions for vintage wedding cars, given that, at a meeting with representatives of the wedding car industry, he agreed that he would be light-touch when it came to the regulation of the use of vintage vehicles, which are perhaps driven only a couple of times a year, albeit that the new regulations require the drivers of such cars to be fully PSV’d taxi drivers. (AQT 3492/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I know that this issue is close to the Member's heart. My personal experience of wedding cars has been a negative one — a joke. However, I do recall meeting the Member and representatives of the wedding car industry. A lot of exemptions in the legislation have been introduced for wedding car drivers. They are classed as class C taxis. Indeed, some of them are very classy when you have Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and what not.

I do, though, agree that there are still concerns. For example, part-time wedding car drivers who might drive 20 days a year in their profession are expected to undertake continuous professional development or training as well as pay the full price of a licence. I said earlier that this legislation will be due a review. It was passed in 2008, and it is a sad indictment of the Assembly that the regulations are being implemented only now. I imagine that the review will commence as soon as this summer. I think that wedding cars will be looked at, especially as we do not have to reinvent the wheel: we can just look at other jurisdictions and see how they dealt with this matter.

Mr Dickson: Minister, the reality is that the regulations came in only a couple of weeks ago. You have completely and utterly failed the wedding car industry, and, much further than that, you have disappointed many brides and grooms. Quite simply, you have driven the wedding car business out of business, particularly when it comes to the use of vintage cars. Will you agree, yet again, to meet me and the industry to see whether we can hammer out a solution and a settlement of the issue?

Mr Durkan: Oh. I am happy to meet any Member and representatives from any industry. I am conscious that this is the second successive Question Time in which a Member from Alliance has accused me of failing something. He must be dying to get into the press with something. I know that it has been a quiet four or five years for the Member. [Laughter.]

However, I am certainly happy to meet him. I do not accept that I have failed; I think that I have succeeded where others have failed in getting this through. I will be the first to put my hand up, as I did during Question Time proper, and say that this is not perfect. However, I will work with Members and with the industry to get it as close to perfect as it can be.

T3. Mr McKinney asked the Minister of the Environment to comment on the recently announced termination of the renewable heat incentive scheme. (AQT 3493/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I think that all Members will probably have been inundated with correspondence about the announcement by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment of the termination of the scheme. Like, I am sure, most Members, I have concerns about it. I have particular concerns as Minister of the Environment about potential impacts on our ability as an Assembly to meet our emissions reduction targets. That is something that I have reflected on, and I will make direct representation to the Minister on it.

Mr McKinney: Of course, this is not the first time that we have had implications around those targets affected by action by the Department of Enterprise. Combined with the earlier ending of the ROC support scheme, there will be a further impact, so what conversations can the Minister now have to ensure that we make a meaningful contribution to mitigating climate change against this backdrop?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the questions. While I have responsibility for our climate change policy and for meeting the targets in the Programme for Government and elsewhere, including by the UK and by Europe regarding emissions reductions, energy policy is the responsibility of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I spoke to Mr Lunn about my inability to speak for other Ministers, and the same will apply here. However, I will take the opportunity to give some sort of overview of where we stand with regard to our targets. Current projections indicate that we are close to the target of a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and that was agreed in the Programme for Government. However, its achievement remains challenging, and decisions such as the two referred to by the Member on the renewable heat incentives and the ROCs will make it even more challenging. It is something that we need to look at again collectively as an Executive.

T4. Mr Cochrane-Watson asked the Minister of the Environment for an overview of the traffic safety campaigns the Department is involved in, not just for bicycle safety, in light of the fact that, on 20 December 2015, he received a phone call to inform him of a fatal traffic collision in which a pedestrian was killed, and, unfortunately, he knew the pedestrian and the driver, with talking to both families one of the most difficult things he has had to do. (AQT 3494/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. He recounted his experience as a community or elected representative of dealing first-hand with a grieving family who had just lost someone on our roads. The key message across all road safety campaigns coming out of my Department has to be — I used the phrase earlier — "Respect everyone's journey". Everyone has to respect everyone else's journey. When I say "everyone", I mean all road users, be they drivers, cyclists or passengers in vehicles, who need to know not to distract the person behind the wheel. Indeed, pedestrians have a responsibility, too. We had a campaign on that in the not so distant past. Pedestrians have a duty to ensure that they are seen, for example. If people are out walking or running on these dark evenings, as many are, they have a responsibility to wear high-vis gear, for example, to make life easy for motorists and so forth to see them.

In the next couple of weeks, I will launch another couple of road safety campaigns. I spoke to the Member's colleague earlier about the use of social media: there will be a couple of social media campaigns targeted, again, primarily at young people. We have been looking at a couple of the major causation factors of collisions involving young people, one of which is the use of handheld devices or mobile phones while driving. The other one is in-car distraction, when a younger drive has passengers on board, and how easy it is to become distracted. You need only be distracted for a split second for there to be disastrous consequences on the road.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Thank you for your answer to date, Minister. Have you got a commitment or an understanding in the financial programme that you have that the money to promote and highlight road safety and to educate the community will be ring-fenced so that that work can be carried on by the new Department?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question and, again, for his interest in the subject. It is fair to say that everyone from every party and none in the Chamber would like to see that money protected. Although I have not had or even sought that assurance to date, I think that I or whoever the new Minister in the new Department is will be able to count on support from Executive colleagues and, indeed, the Assembly for that.

Let us not forget that over the past number of years — say, 30 years — we have had tremendous success in driving down the number of fatalities on our roads. Three years ago, we had a record low. However, unfortunately, we are seeing the figures creep up again, and that is not where we want to be. We need to redouble our efforts in that regard and take every action possible to ensure that as few lives as possible are lost and that fewer families are left devastated as a result of death on our roads.

T5. Mr Hussey asked the Minister of the Environment, in the light of Mr McAleer's question about the mine at Rousky in Gortin, whether DOE has sufficient experience and knowledge to deal with the complexities of mining, including intricacies such as those at Rousky and the use of cyanide. (AQT 3495/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. He lost out on the opportunity to ask a supplementary to Mr McAleer's question.

I am satisfied that my Department has the experience, skills and capability to deal with any proposal that may be submitted for a gold-mining project. Any application for planning permission will be expected to be accompanied by, as I said earlier, robust environmental information; to demonstrate application of best available technology; and to meet recognised international mining industry standards. My Department will also engage in specialist consultation with an extensive number of agencies and rigorously scrutinise all the information that is submitted in assessing all impacts of the project.

Mr Hussey: I thank the Minister for his response so far. I am sure that he is aware of the concerns of the people of Cavanacaw, where a similar mine was granted permission, including concerns about a lake of poisonous liquids. Can you again give me an assurance that that will be followed up on robustly?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: You have time for a quick answer, Minister.

Mr Durkan: OK. I give the Member the assurance that any such concerns that are raised with me or my Department are looked into and dealt with robustly.

Mr Craig: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I am almost tempted to call you Father Newton because, for the second time this month, I find myself confessing to not being in my seat. I apologise to you and the House. Unfortunately, I was in a meeting with Lord Morrow, which overran, and I did not get back in time, so I apologise to you and the House, and I hope that you can absolve me of my sin.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the Speaker will note your remarks. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment before we move on to the next item of business.


3.30 pm

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

Executive Committee Business

Clause 1 (Duty of public authorities to consider rural needs)

Debate resumed on amendment No 1, which amendment was:

In page 1, line 2, leave out "consider" and insert "have due regard to". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos

2 to 14.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Amendment No 3 makes provision for DARD to review the list of bodies and persons included within the definition of "public authority" for the purposes of this legislation. DARD would be required to undertake a review at least every three years and would also have a power to amend the list if it considered it appropriate to do so. That would ensure that the list of public authorities is kept under review and that there is scope to extend the Rural Needs Act to other public authorities in the future.

Amendment No 4 is consequential to amendment No 3 and allows DARD to include transitional provision in any order that would amend the list of public authorities and would facilitate the extension of the Act to other bodies. I support amendment Nos 3 and 4.

Amendment No 5, which I have tabled, concerns DARD’s proposed statutory role in providing support for matters connected with rural needs, which is set out in clause 2. The clause, as introduced, makes provision for DARD to have a power to take such steps as appear to it to be appropriate to provide guidance, advice and information about issues connected with rural needs, and to undertake, commission or support research into matters concerning rural needs. Amendment No 5, which was suggested by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee to further strengthen DARD’s role, changes that to a duty on DARD rather than an enabling power.

I have listened to the debate today, and based on the petition of concern that has been lodged, I am minded to not move amendment No 5. However, I believe that the issue, as identified by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, identifies that DARD has the enabling power.

I come now to the first of the amendments tabled by Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann. I am grateful to the Members for their contribution and for their detailed scrutiny of the Bill, which has resulted in a number of amendments being proposed. I welcome the spirit in which those amendments have been tabled, aimed at building capacity across government for undertaking rural proofing and improving the transparency and availability of information on rural proofing. However, for a number of reasons, I do not intend to support some of the amendments.

Amendment No 6, tabled by Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann, proposes a new clause to provide DARD with a power to take such steps as appear to it to be appropriate to ensure that all staff involved in the activities set out in the clause receive training. The current rural proofing training was developed by DARD and is available to officials in Departments who are involved in policymaking. It is my intention that my Department will review and update that training for staff in all public authorities to which the legislation extends to reflect the obligations under the Bill when it is enacted. It is my view that the amendment is unnecessary as it gives DARD a power that it already has. Therefore, I will not support that amendment.

Amendments Nos 7, 8, 9 and 10 all relate to clause 3, which sets out the proposed arrangements for monitoring and reporting on how public authorities have discharged their duties under the legislation.

Amendment No 7 would require public authorities to include information on how they have exercised their duty under clause 1 in their annual reports. This amendment appears to be aimed at maximising the availability and transparency of information on rural proofing. However, I have concerns that it is unnecessary and could lead to some duplication of effort, as clause 3 already contains a requirement for DARD to publish information that is provided by all public authorities in an annual report. It is my view that a single report containing information on all public authorities is the simplest way of achieving the aim of making information available in a transparent and consistent way. Amendment No 8, which I will come onto in a moment, will help achieve that aim by requiring the publication of the annual monitoring report.

Amendment No 10 will place a duty on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to make a statement in the Assembly on the content of the annual monitoring report. I believe that those requirements, combined with the requirement to lay the report before the Assembly, will provide the required level of transparency. Therefore, I intend to oppose amendment No 7.

Amendment No 9, which has also been tabled by Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann, would require DARD to include in its annual monitoring report its assessment of how each public authority considered rural needs. This amendment seems to be aimed at ensuring that there are appropriate accountability mechanisms in place in relation to rural proofing. Whilst I support the principle of ensuring that public authorities are properly accountable for fulfilling their duties under the Bill, I have concerns that the amendment could potentially create a false accountability of public authorities to DARD. That would be an undesirable and unintended consequence when the intention of the monitoring and reporting arrangements is to enhance transparency and accountability. Therefore, I oppose amendment No 9.

Amendment No 8, which I tabled and have briefly mentioned already, places a duty on DARD to publish the proposed annual monitoring report, as well as laying it before the Assembly. I believe that this amendment, which was suggested by the Committee, will address the concerns expressed by some stakeholders during the Committee Stage that the arrangements currently set out in the Bill do not offer enough transparency. Amendment No 10, which I tabled, was suggested by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. Again, as I have already mentioned, it places a duty on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to make a statement in the Assembly on the content of the annual monitoring report. I believe that this would enhance the monitoring and reporting arrangements and would help raise awareness of the importance of taking account of rural needs and of the availability of information concerning how public authorities have done that. I call on Members to support amendment Nos 8 and 10.

Amendment No 11, which has been tabled by Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann, relates to clause 4, which provides for DARD to make arrangements for cooperation and the exchange of information. The amendment proposes to change the wording in clause 4 from "with a view to securing" to "to secure". The intention here, I believe, is to strengthen the arrangements for cooperation and exchange of information. Cooperation and exchange of information, including, for example, sharing good practice, is in the interests of all the public authorities that will be subject to the Bill. I hope that we can work collaboratively to ensure equitable treatment for our rural dwellers. However, the proposed amendment raises the level of duty on DARD, and it would be impossible for DARD alone to absolutely secure cooperation and exchange of information. DARD cannot do that alone. My Department does not have sole responsibility for rural areas, nor will it have all of the solutions. It is therefore vital that we all work together, both within and outside of Government, to seek to deliver better outcomes for rural dwellers. Therefore, I intend to oppose amendment No 11.

Amendment No 12, again tabled by Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann, requires that the provisions of the Bill are commenced no later than 1 June 2017. I, too, am keen to see the legislation brought into force at an early stage. It will be important to ensure that the necessary supporting framework, such as guidance and training, as well as the new monitoring and reporting arrangements, are in place prior to the new duties coming into force for the public authorities affected.

I envisage that the provisions of the Bill can be commenced for Departments and councils approximately a year after Royal Assent. During the Committee Stage of the Bill, there was discussion on a later roll-out date for other public authorities to allow them sufficient time to prepare. If amendments No 2 and 13, which relate to the inclusion of additional public authorities in the Bill, are passed today, as I hope they are, the effect of amendment No 12 would be that it would apply to all the public authorities listed by 1 June 2017 at the latest. That would limit the scope for a phased approach to implementation.

If amendment Nos 2 and 13 are not passed, the Bill will be commenced for Departments and councils by 1 June 2017 at the latest, and DARD can bring forward subordinate legislation at a later date for other public authorities. I am not opposed in principle to a time limit for the Bill’s commencement; however, the precise date of this time limit will have implications for my Department and other public bodies.

I am willing to support the proposed amendment on the understanding that I may wish to bring forward a further amendment at Further Consideration Stage to change the specified date, depending on the outcome of today's proceedings.

I have spoken about amendment Nos 13 and 14, which are consequential to amendment Nos 2 and 1 respectively.

That concludes my comments on the amendments. Once again, I thank the Chair and members of the Committee not only for their contributions to the debate and but for their contributions throughout the legislative process of the Bill.

Mr Irwin: I thank Members and the Minister for their contributions, which have been wide-ranging and covered all aspects of the Bill. It has been interesting and informative to sit here today and listen to the views and opinions.

In light of the manner in which Members presented their position on the amendments and the detail covered in the debate, I will try to be relatively brief. I will try to cover broadly the topics discussed and make particular reference to the amendments.

There are 14 amendments, and the Bill has seven clauses. The Bill is relatively short and has a somewhat modest objective. That objective is to impose a duty on certain public authorities to consider rural needs, and that is the crux of the two fundamental matters that Members have debated and on which we are about to vote: the nature of the duty to consider rural needs and the authorities that should be covered by it.

Amendment Nos 1 and 14, which is consequential, will, if voted through the Assembly, change the nature of the duty on public authorities from that by which they "consider" rural needs to that by which they "have due regard to" rural needs. That amendment would impose a higher duty on public authorities

Many Members spoke in support of the amendments that would strengthen the duty from "consider" to "due regard". Those included Oliver McMullan, who talked about the ineffectiveness of rural proofing to date and the importance of putting the practice on a legislative footing. Strengthening the duty to "due regard" is an important step in ensuring an improved quality of life for those living in rural areas. Mr McGlone echoed those sentiments, noting the weaknesses of the current rural-proofing process and the need to ensure that the new statutory duty will prove productive. Mr Seán Rogers also commented on the importance of rural proofing but added that he would like mitigation for adverse impacts to be included in the Bill. Mrs Dobson spoke about the need to strengthen the Bill in this way, as it is important to ensure that rural proofing is no longer simply a tick-box exercise. Mr McCarthy also supported the amendment, believing that it will ultimately serve to improve the outcome of the Bill. Finally, Declan McAleer made an important point, highlighting the fact that the amendments reflect the call made by many of the grass-roots organisations that gave evidence to the Committee that the duty be strengthened.

The second substantive set of amendments — amendment Nos 2, 3, 4 and 13 — deal with adding specified public bodies to the Bill. There has been good discussion on this issue in the Chamber, including by Mr Allister, who wanted to know why the NIEA had not been included in the list of additional bodies to be added. Mr McAleer noted that the list of bodies in amendment No 13 was suggested by stakeholders, with particular reference to SOLACE. Mr McMullan referred to the new role of councils in community planning and how rural proofing would fit with that role. Mrs Dobson also spoke to this set of amendments, noting that all public bodies listed in amendment No 13 provide key public services, and, as such, they needed to be included in the Bill. Mr Milne and Mr McMullan also spoke in favour of adding these additional bodies, and Mr McCarthy indicated that he was content with the list.

Other Members spoke ably about the amendments in the names of Mrs Dobson and Mr Swann. Those amendments cover a new provision on training staff to identify and meet rural needs. They also cover the inclusion of information required to demonstrate that public authorities have fulfilled their duty to consider rural needs in their annual report.

A further amendment would place a duty on the Department to make an assessment of how each public authority considers rural needs. Mrs Dobson also spoke clearly about the need to cooperate and quoted many examples of public bodies not doing so. She said that this lack of cooperation was not in the interests of rural communities.


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These matters were brought to the Committee's attention during Committee Stage, and the Committee decided not to move forward with amendments. Mrs Dobson put forward a clear rationale for why she and Mr Swann believe that these amendments are necessary. In summary, she stated that they will strengthen the Bill and ensure that it carries weight and that DARD must take some responsibility for how public authorities carry out their duties. She also noted that it is essential that those involved in rural proofing are trained so that they are informed of the impact that decisions may have on rural communities.

Mr Milne and Mr McAleer put across their party's position on why they do not support these amendments. Mr Milne, in particular, wanted to recognise the good intentions behind them, but he believed that there was some duplication with existing provisions. He also noted that some of these amendments had potential resource implications that had not been allowed for. He made specific mention of amendment No 9, stating that it took DARD in the direction of having to sit in judgement on other Departments, which could ultimately create an expectation that DARD would stand over and make other Departments behave in certain ways.

I hope that I have provided a fair representation of all the views expressed today. That concludes my remarks, and I look forward to the outcome of Consideration Stage.

Amendment No 1 proposed:

In page 1, line 2, leave out "consider" and insert "have due regard to". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 1, leave out lines 7 to 9 and insert

"any body or person listed in the Schedule.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 3 has already been debated and is consequential to amendment No 2, which has been made.

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 1, line 9, at end insert

"(2A) The Department must, at least every three years from the coming into operation of this section, review the list of bodies and persons set out in the Schedule and, if it thinks it appropriate, amend the Schedule to—
 
(a) add a body or person to the Schedule;
 
(b) remove a body or person from the Schedule; or
 
(c) modify any entry in the Schedule.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 4 has already been debated and is consequential to amendment No 3, which has been made.

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 1, line 15, at end insert

"(4A) An order under subsection (2A) may contain such transitional provision as the Department thinks appropriate.". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Amendment No 5 not moved.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 6 proposed:

After clause 2 insert

"Training
 
2A. The Department may take such steps as appear to it to be appropriate to ensure all staff who develop, adopt, implement or revise policies, strategies and plans receive training connected with identifying and meeting rural needs.". — [Mrs Dobson.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 3 (Monitoring and reporting)

Amendment No 7 made:

In page 2, line 6, at end insert

"(aa) include this information in its annual report; and". — [Mrs Dobson.]

Amendment No 8 made:

In page 2, line 8, leave out "prepare" and insert "publish". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Amendment No 9 proposed:

In page 2, line 9, at end insert

"(aa) its assessment of how each public authority considered rural needs; and". — [Mrs Dobson.]

Question put and negatived.

Amendment No 10 made:

In page 2, line 12, at end insert

"(2A) The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development must, on or after the day on which the report is laid before the Assembly, make a statement to the Assembly about the content of the report.". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 (Co-operation with other bodies)

Amendment No 11 proposed:

In page 2, line 14, leave out from second "with" to "securing" on line 15 and insert "to secure". — [Mrs Dobson.]

Question put and negatived.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 (Commencement)

Amendment No 12 made:

In page 2, line 19, after "appoint" insert

"but no later than 1 June 2017". — [Mrs Dobson.]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill. [Interruption.]

Clauses 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. I ask that, if you wish to retire from the Chamber, you do so quietly.

Amendment No 13 is consequential to amendment No 2, which was made.

New Schedule

Amendment No 13 made:

After clause 7 insert

SCHEDULE SECTION 1.
 
PUBLIC AUTHORITIES FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS ACT
 
A Northern Ireland department
 
A district council
 
The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland
 
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools
 
The Education Authority
 
A Health and Social Care Trust
 
Invest Northern Ireland
 
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
 
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive
 
The Northern Ireland Library Authority
 
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board
 
The Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-Being
 
The Regional Health and Social Care Board
 
The Sports Council for Northern Ireland". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

New schedule agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 14 is consequential to amendment No 1, which was made.

Long Title

Amendment No 14 made:

Leave out "consider" and insert "have due regard to". — [Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Long title, as amended, agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Rural Needs Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You said, if I heard you correctly, that the Rural Needs Bill stands referred to the Speaker. Surely there is a Further Consideration Stage of the Rural Needs Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will seek clarification, but my understanding is that the Speaker is part of the process of scheduling it for the next appropriate stage. We will seek clarification, as the Member has indicated, and ensure that there is clarity on that.

That the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill [NIA 50/11-16] do now pass.

I welcome this final opportunity to speak about the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill, which relates to certain aspects of the regulation of lawyers, particularly how complaints against lawyers are handled and overseen. The new statutory framework for legal complaints set out in the Bill, coupled with the enhanced oversight by a Legal Services Oversight Commissioner, will be of considerable value to consumers in Northern Ireland and those who avail themselves of legal services.

The scheme set out in the Bill will shift the responsibility for complaints away from professionals — lawyers — and more into the hands of laypersons. That was the key message that came out of the Bain report. That group found that the system here was working quite well but that it would benefit from a copper-bottoming of various aspects, most particularly in relation to complaints. In doing so, the group, and, with the Bill, we, as lawmakers in the Assembly, have recognised that devolved Administrations are best placed to make decisions about issues at a local level. Bain could have easily followed the recommendations and reforms that were occurring elsewhere but instead adopted proposals that he considered to be tailored for the issues arising here. That approach has been commended by many in the Assembly throughout the progress of the Bill. I, once again, place on record my thanks to Professor Bain and his team for that work. It has, as has been noted at various junctures, been a long wait for the proposals to be enshrined in law. I am pleased that we have arrived today at a stage where that journey has almost ended and that we have a statute that is appropriate, proportionate and has our stamp on it.

It was the now First Minister, my colleague Arlene Foster, who introduced the Bill in the Assembly in June of last year. At the time, she indicated that the Bill would help to raise the profile of regulation and enhance how complaints are handled. The Bill was referred to the Committee, and I place on record again my thanks to its members for their work on the Bill. The Committee Chair welcomed the Bill at its Second Stage but indicated that the Committee would look closely at how it could be improved. That proces-+s, which was undertaken mainly in the autumn, was a very constructive one, and it has led to the Bill we have in front of us today.


4.15 pm

The work of the Committee led to a number of amendments that I was content to bring forward at Consideration Stage and which have helped to improve the Bill. With those additions, we will have an Act that is strong and fair and will greatly assist anyone who has a problem with their lawyer and help them to get a satisfactory resolution. The Committee came back to the issue of first-tier complaints. The Bill, as amended, has reflected on that issue and will lead to improved outcomes in that area. I commend the work of the Committee and the interaction it has had with my Department, which serves as another good example of how a Department and a Committee can work together in a constructive manner in the delivery of good legislation.

I draw my comments to a close by welcoming the Bill. At times, the process has been lengthy and frustrating, but the journey has, nonetheless, been worthwhile. Its final destination will see it become what the Member for North Belfast Alban Maginess described at an earlier stage as a good piece of law. It will lead to an improved complaints handling regime for lawyers, bring more openness and transparency and deliver a proportionate and fair outcome to all involved in the process. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As Members are aware, this Bill will bring about significant and long-awaited reform of the existing system for handling complaints against solicitors and barristers. What has been described as a "copper-bottoming" of the complaints handling arrangements here will include, amongst other things, a shift to layperson-led control, with enhanced powers and oversight, including through the establishment of the post of Legal Services Oversight Commissioner. The commissioner will, therefore, play a key role in overseeing the complaints process and, through this legislation, will hopefully have sufficient powers and the necessary teeth to take further action where the required standards have not been lived up to.

A fundamental concern of the Committee throughout its scrutiny was on the need to capture information on complaints against solicitors made at the "first tier’" and whether the published figures represent only the tip of the iceberg and do not present a full picture. As the Minister said, arising from the Committee’s concern, the Bill was amended to take account of that and empower the oversight commissioner and the Law Society to require members of the profession to provide reliable data on the number of complaints. Whilst I suspect that that may mean an increase in the number of recorded complaints, that will equalise over time and provide a reliable baseline of information. This primary legislation will also lead to important subordinate legislation, including on the levy that will be payable by barristers and solicitors, who will fund the costs of the oversight commissioner’s office. That will require close scrutiny in order to ensure that the costs