In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public. No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

However, Assembly business continues. Check the business diary for Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Tuesday 23 February 2016


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

Executive Committee Business

Debate [suspended on 22 February 2016] resumed.

Clause 26 (Commencement)

Mr Speaker: The first item of business is the consideration of business not concluded on Monday 22 February.

Yesterday, a valid petition of concern was tabled to amendment Nos 26 and 27 during the Further Consideration Stage of the Employment Bill. That means that, under Standing Order 28, the Question on amendment Nos 26 and 27 could not be taken yesterday and requires to be taken on a cross-community basis.

Amendment No 26 proposed:

In page 16, line 14, at end insert

"(1A) The repeal of Article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 as set out in Schedule 3 comes into operation one year after this Act receives Royal Assent.". — [Mrs Overend.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Schedule 3 (Repeals)

Amendment No 27 proposed:

In schedule 3, page 25, line 23, column 2, at end insert

"











 

 

 

Article 71.
 

 
". — [Mrs Overend.]

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that amendment No 27 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Long Title

Amendment No 28 made:

After "disclosure;" insert

"to make provision for disclosure of gender pay information;". — [Mr Flanagan.]

Amendment No 29 made:

After "disclosure;" insert

"to make provision for zero hours contracts; ". — [Mr Flanagan.]

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Employment Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mrs Michelle O'Neill, to move the Consideration Stage of the Fisheries Bill.

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

Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments. The debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 3, which deal with technical amendments to clause 6, and opposition to clauses 1 to 5 and clauses 7 to 18 stand part. Once the debate is completed, any 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 parts of the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (Sea-fishing)

Mr Speaker: The Minister has signalled her intention to oppose the Question that clause 1 stand part of the Bill. With that Question, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3, which are technical amendments to clause 6, and the opposition to clauses 2 to 5 and 7 to 18 stand part.

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

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 1: In clause 6, page 8, line 17, leave out second "boat" and insert "vessel". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 2: In clause 6, page 8, line 18, leave out "United Kingdom under Part 2" and insert "register maintained under section 8". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 3: In clause 6, page 8, line 20, leave out "boat" and insert "vessel". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I speak on the Bill in general and on my opposition to clause 1 and other clauses, as well as on the amendments that I have tabled to clause 6, I will take the opportunity to thank the Chairperson and members of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee for their scrutiny of the Bill.

The amendments that I propose to clause 6 are minor and technical, but the fact that we have a Bill to consider is a result of the Committee’s agreement to consider the most urgent and important aspect of the Bill, as well as the efforts of the Office of the Legislative Counsel, legal advisers and officials in my Department.

I am, of course, disappointed that the ARD Committee did not have time to consider more of the provisions included in the Bill that was introduced, but I recognise the clear time constraints as a result of the Bill’s late introduction in the Assembly and the finite time left for the Assembly to consider the Bill in sufficient detail. It is for that reason that I have tabled my intention to oppose all the clauses besides clauses 6 and 19.

I am, however, pleased to have worked with the Committee to retain clause 6 on the enforcement of EU rules. That clause will allow us to directly enforce most EU common fisheries legislation as is expected by the European Commission. Given that such measures are directly applicable here, there is little or no discretion available in the implementation by the Department, bound as we are to operate in a way that is fully compatible with EU law. The Commission had asked why such legislation was not already directly enforceable and had threatened to take action as a result of our inability to directly enforce legislation. Thus, the change is essential at this point. I am, therefore, pleased that the ARD Committee has recognised the importance of supporting the clause.

As I said, the amendments that I have tabled to clause 6 are minor and will amend the definition of a relevant fishing boat so that it follows the definition in paragraph 19 of schedule 2 to the 1998 Act and in article 2(2) of the Sea Fisheries Order 2002. This is simply more consistent with other legislation in the North.


11.00 am

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I will take a few moments to describe the Bill and the work that the Committee did on it. I will then describe the Committee's approach and why we took the step of placing notice of intent to oppose all of the clauses, except 6 and 19, standing part of the Bill.

The Fisheries Bill was referred to the Committee on completion of its Second Stage on 11 January 2016. The Bill, as introduced, contains 19 clauses. The stated purpose is to make provisions regarding the regulation of sea and inland fisheries. It includes powers to allow fisheries offences to be dealt with through fixed administrative penalties and to align sea fisheries enforcement powers with those already in place in England, Scotland and Wales. The Fisheries Bill amends the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, the Fisheries Act 1981 and the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. It has two distinct remits, namely inland fisheries and sea fisheries. Four clauses are specific to inland fisheries.

The main concern of the Committee was that the Bill was introduced to the Assembly so late in the parliamentary cycle, on 7 December 2015. Easter recess will begin on 19 March 2016, and the current mandate is due to end on 29 March 2016. The Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly allow the Committee 30 working days from the date of referral to consider and take evidence on the provisions of the Bill. Before the end of the 30 days, the Committee may table a motion to extend that period to a date specified in the motion. However, in this instance, had the Committee taken 30 days, it would not have produced a report until 22 February 2016. Given the current provision in the Assembly for the passage of legislation, such a timescale would not have allowed the Bill to complete its legislative stages before the Easter recess and the subsequent dissolution for Assembly elections. Therefore, the Bill would be likely to fall. To allow the Bill a reasonable chance to complete its passage to Final Stage before the Easter recess, the Committee would need to have completed its scrutiny and report by 15 February 2016, in less than 25 working days.

The Committee also took it into account that a section of the Bill dealt with issues around inland fisheries. Those matters currently fall under the remit of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development therefore requested that that Committee consider and report on those clauses as per Standing Order 64A. However, in order to consider and incorporate the findings of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure into its report, the Committee would have needed to report in a much shorter time frame, probably in and around 20 working days.

The Committee was aware that some issues in the Bill would be difficult to deal with. It was felt that time might be needed to bottom out those issues and get a solution that satisfied all. The Committee therefore had concerns that rushing the scrutiny of the Bill would result in poorer legislation. Ultimately, that would not be in the interest of the fishing industry or the communities that rely on it.

The Committee was also concerned at the urgency with which the Bill was being introduced. It wished to understand why the Minister was seeking to introduce it, given the high risk that it would fall due to lack of time. We were mindful that the Bill could be introduced in the next mandate; indeed, it would make more sense to do so as all the provisions, including those relating to inland fisheries, would fall to a single Committee, namely the new Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Additionally, the Minister omitted certain clauses on aquaculture when she introduced the Bill. We were all aware that they would prove difficult, so this was an attempt to allow the Bill a quicker and smoother passage. The Committee concluded that the clauses could also be included in any Fisheries Bill introduced in the new mandate.

The Committee recognised that some time had elapsed since the initial consultation on the policy provisions of the Bill in 2014. Members were aware that introducing the Bill in the new mandate would also allow the opportunity for the new Department to ensure that the fishing industry and other relevant stakeholders would have ample and proper consultation on the provisions of the Bill.

The Committee wrote to the Minister expressing those concerns and asking for an urgent reply. The Minister, in her response, indicated that the most urgent provision in the Bill was in clause 6. That clause concerns an amendment to section 30 of the Fisheries Act 1981 to allow the direct application of enforceable EU obligations as well as enforceable EU restrictions.

The letter indicated that there had been an inspection by EU auditors in January 2015 of procedures to enforce the EU fisheries control system. As a result, EU inspectors reported that there was no legislative provision to apply the EU fisheries control regulation directly as soon as it came into operation.

To address the concerns of the European auditors, the Department explained that a Fisheries Bill was being developed that would directly apply most EU fisheries regulations as soon as they came into operation. The EU Commission was informed that the Bill, subject to various approvals, might be passed by April 2016.

That correspondence with the Minister allowed the Committee to identify what was urgent in the Bill. However, it was a serious concern that, despite numerous briefings from fisheries officials, it was never made clear to the Committee that a pilot case had been opened against Northern Ireland. In fact, other than a vague line from officials in an evidence session earlier in 2015, the Committee was never formally informed of any problems with the EU Commission or the threat of infraction.

In Committee, members explored whether it was possible to resolve the urgent matter of clause 6 by means of subordinate legislation or in other ways. The Committee agreed to write to the Minister to ask her to consider her options for dealing with this matter. In her reply, the Minister proposed, with the consent of the Committee, to take forward at Consideration Stage only those clauses that the Committee was content that it had time to consider thoroughly. The Minister indicated that if only the provision in clause 6 was considered, she would be grateful to the Committee for having assisted in removing the threat of infraction. At its meeting on 14 December 2015, the Committee agreed that it would consider only clause 6 and clause 19, which is the short title. It arranged its work programme for the Bill accordingly.

The Committee wrote to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to inform it of that decision and to confirm whether it still wished to undertake scrutiny of the clauses relating to inland fisheries. That Committee met on Thursday 7 January 2016 and decided that it would be unfair to inland fisheries stakeholders to attempt to rush its scrutiny of the relevant clauses. The Committee and the Minister, as per a joint agreement, therefore tabled notice of intent that all clauses except 6 and 19 not stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6, "Enforcement of EU rules", amends section 30(1) of the Fisheries Act 1981 so that it applies to enforceable EU restrictions and obligations. The clause makes it an offence to catch fish in contravention of any such restriction or to fail to comply with any such obligation. It provides that those restrictions and obligations are directly applicable and enforceable against all relevant fishing boats and persons in Northern Ireland.

Clause 19 is the short title.

The Committee communicated its decision to focus only on clause 6 to those stakeholders who had responded to the initial consultation requesting written evidence on clause 6. It received two written responses, one from the Northern Ireland Fish Producers' Organisation and one from the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force. Neither indicated concerns with clause 6.

The Committee took oral evidence from the Department and the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation on 12 January 2016. The Irish Federation of Sea Anglers was invited to provide oral evidence but had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances. It provided a short written submission instead.

During oral evidence, the Department informed the Committee that there was little or no discretion available to implement EU fisheries rules and that clause 6 would bring Northern Ireland into line with England, Scotland and Wales. The Committee questioned the Department on the potential for gold-plating. Departmental officials indicated that clause 6 would reduce any risk of gold-plating and allow EU rules to be applied as they arrived. There was nothing else that the Department could do without bringing separate subordinate legislation. Before it would do that, there would be consultation and new regulations. The Committee and the Assembly would have a chance to have a say on those regulations.

In connection with the Bill's general provisions at clauses 16 to 19, the Department clarified the point that, as only clause 6 was to be progressed, there is no need for clause 16, as none of the terms defined in it relate to clause 6. There is also no need for clause 17, as the Department could not envisage any consequential amendments being required to clause 6 or related to clause 6. The Department said that clause 18 is not needed, as the Act as a whole will commence on Royal Assent. Finally, regarding the short title at clause 19, the reduced Bill, with only that clause and clause 6 remaining, meant that the name of the Act could be changed, but there was no strong case to do so either way. The Committee therefore indicated that it was content to keep the short title as it is.

I therefore indicate Committee support for clauses 6 and 19. Likewise, the Committee is opposing clauses 1 to 5 and 7 to 18 standing part of the Bill. The Committee had sight of the three technical amendments to clause 6, but that happened after the Committee Stage was completed. The Committee therefore took no position on the amendments.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. One of the provisions in the Bill is that any fisheries infractions can now be dealt with through proper administrative penalties. The Bill will see the fishing powers here brought on a par with those already in place.

Given that the Bill was introduced late, it is worth noting how it was dealt with. I take the opportunity to thank Stella and her staff for all their diligent work, and I thank the Committee for its scrutiny of the Bill. Finally, I thank the Minister, Michelle O'Neill, for her support and help. The Bill will give protection to not only our fish stocks but our marine environment. We in Sinn Féin support the Minister taking forward the urgent parts of the Bill.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, and I further commend the work of the Committee staff, the Committee and the Minister for bringing forth the alterations and amendments today and for the overall work that has been put into the Bill.

At Second Stage, I supported the broad principles of the Bill, as I believe that the fishing industry remains a crucial aspect of Northern Ireland's agrifood economy and one that is vital to my constituency of South Down. The Bill then at least sought to modernise enforcement powers to create a more coherent approach and to provide legal clarity to ensure a balance between the protection of our natural habitat and the development of our fishing industry. The Bill sought to enshrine the use of fixed administrative penalties for fisheries offences and to bring Northern Ireland more in line with Britain. I warned against not striking the proper balance between protecting our fish stocks and protecting our industry. I was also concerned about the potential for new legislation either to create a bureaucratic nightmare or to be overly zealous in the enforcement of fines. Those are concerns that I was happy to bring to the Committee's interrogation of the Bill.

Legislation is a bit like fishing. It is a tricky business, and, every so often, it will surprise you. During the Committee process, it quickly became apparent that aspects of the Bill such as inland fisheries fall outside the remit of the Committee and that, as such, it would not be appropriate for the Committee to scrutinise related clauses. To make up for that, the Committee called on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to undertake scrutiny of the clauses on inland fisheries, which are clauses 10 to 13. Unfortunately, it became apparent that that Committee would not be able to complete proper scrutiny in such a limited time frame.

This highlighted another problem for the Committee, which was that, this late in the mandate, there was simply not be enough time for the Bill to pass through the Chamber with the necessary amount of scrutiny and that any further delay would cause the Bill to falter and fail entirely. Therefore, the loss of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure scrutiny role left the Bill in a precarious position, and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development believed that a Bill on fisheries would be better served in the next mandate under the expanded remit of the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.


11.15 am

The Minister, however, explained that the Fisheries Bill included one crucial aspect that needed to be passed as soon as possible and that a failure to do so would be detrimental to Northern Ireland as a whole. The Minister revealed that the Bill was not as robust as it could be, having omitted references to aquaculture entirely; she noted that that was to ensure a smooth passage. As the Bill faltered, it was revealed that the Bill was necessary to comply with EU procedures and to create a parallel legislative provision for Northern Ireland that would apply EU fishery control regulations as soon as they came into effect. Clause 6 brings such provisions to Northern Ireland.

Fortunately, it was determined by the Committee and the Minister that that aspect of the Bill must be passed and, as such, the Committee agreed to focus its scrutiny on clauses 6 and 19 and forgo that all other clauses stand part of the Bill. I believe that that was an appropriate decision when we consider that, following the departmental restructure in the new mandate, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and its subsequent Committee will have the appropriate remit to deal with all aspects of fisheries, both inland and at sea. I can only hope that I am part of the next Assembly and continue to speak for the people of South Down on this very important matter. Regardless, the Committee determined that it would oppose the Question that clauses 1 to 5 stand part of the Bill. Clauses 1 to 5 relate to sea fishing, the size of fish, the provision of licences and joint enforcement procedures.

The Committee determined that it would support the Question that clause 6 stand part of the Bill, while not specifically taking a position on the amendments. As noted, the clause relates to the enforcement of EU rules and amends section 30(1) of Fisheries Act 1981 so that it applies both to the enforcement of EU restrictions and enforceable EU obligations. The clause essentially makes it an offence to defy such restrictions or obligations. The amendments to clause 6 clear up the language and create a new clarity. In particular, amendment Nos 1 to 3 expand the language of the Bill by moving from "boat" to "vessel", broadening the meaning of fishing vehicles.

The Committee agreed to oppose the Question that clauses 7 to 18 stand part of the Bill. Clauses 7 to 9 relate to penalties under other Acts — the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 and the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 — and offences. Clauses 10 to 13 relate to inland fisheries, which fall outside the Committee's remit. Clauses 14 and 15 relate to fixed penalty notices, and clauses 16 to 18 are general clauses related to the Bill. Finally, the Committee agreed that it would support clause 19, the short title, which is simply a requirement to ensure the Bill's progress.

Many may be surprised to see the Bill, which, if I may say so, seems to be thoroughly gutted, to the point that it now focuses entirely on EU obligations and enforcements. I believe that, in our current context, that was entirely appropriate in order to ensure that Northern Ireland is not punished for infractions. Furthermore, I believe that, while other aspects of the Bill remain entirely necessary, they must be scrutinised fully to allow for better legislation.

Mrs Dobson: I welcome this stage of the Fisheries Bill. After this morning, the Bill will be significantly smaller than that which was first proposed. Whilst I understand the reasons, I am disappointed that the Minister and her officials effectively forced the Committee into adopting this position by giving us so little time for proper scrutiny. It was not the case that the Department was hamstrung by delays with the consultation. Indeed, there was a full year between the end of the consultation in 2014 and the Bill's eventual introduction in the Assembly. In fact, I have still not really heard an explanation for that delay from the Department.

I know that the industry expressed a certain degree of concern about the gap between the consultation and the later progress of the Bill, so perhaps the Minister could explain DARD's reason for that gap. It is regrettable that the Department, with all its personnel and expertise, was unable to bring it forward any sooner. Instead, it waited until the very last opportunity, and that resulted in today's raft of joint opposition to clauses from the Minister and the Committee, which is effectively gutting the original Bill.

Whilst the legislation also sought to ensure adequate protection for our marine and inland aquatic environments, its main priority was, in fact, an apparent last-minute panic to ensure that we meet our European Union obligations and, therefore, avoid the risk of further major infractions. Of course, this is not the first time that DARD's inaction, incompetence or mismanagement — whatever the reality may be — has brought infraction fines to the door of the Executive. Indeed, the Department is still to tell us what recent communication it has had with Europe on that issue.

I am aware that the Commission was made aware in January 2015 that DARD was in the process of bringing forward legislation. However, I wonder whether the subsequent 12-month delay was noticed and whether that is why the Bill, or even just clause 6, could not wait until the start of the next Assembly mandate. Nevertheless, we are where we are, and the Department and Minister clearly think that this clause cannot wait. I, therefore, support the removal of all the other clauses, if only to ensure that the taxpayer is not left footing the bill of further incompetence from the heart of this Executive.

Mr McCarthy: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I will speak in favour of passing the amendments and in opposition to clauses in the Bill. I put on record my thanks to the Committee staff for their help and support in getting us to the Consideration Stage of this very important Bill.

I go along with the comments that were made by the Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee and other Members who outlined the Committee's attitude to the Bill in its original draft. I concur with the view that it would be much better to introduce a Bill of this scope after the election, when the new Committee will have adequate time to scrutinise it. That scrutiny is valuable because the Bill was a significant piece of work and the fishing industry is so important to us in Northern Ireland.

As someone from the Ards peninsula representing the fishing village of Portavogie, I am aware of the industry's economic value to all the small coastal communities around that area. Such legal reforms need consultation with the communities. As a result, I will vote to remove those clauses listed on the Marshalled List. I am confident that the new Committee will rapidly take to its scrutiny and development role on the Bill.

I am aware of the pressing reasons why clause 6 remains in the current legislative vehicle. There are timing and financial imperatives why it needs to be passed. As a result, I will support its retention.

The fishing industry is a vital component contributing to the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland, and I take this opportunity to thank all those fishermen who risk their lives day and daily and who have stuck with the industry through thick and thin, working in very dangerous conditions to support it. Despite the setbacks that have been endured over the years, there are signs of improvement, and it is vital that the Assembly supports the industry at every level.

I will also support the three amendments to clause 6, which are relatively technical and will improve the current wording.

Mrs O'Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee and all the other Members who contributed to the debate. The Chair rightly, I think, reflected the concern of the Committee about how late the legislation came to the Assembly. I absolutely understand that. Of course, the legislation had been in planning for some time. The Executive agreed the policy in March last year. At that time, it could not be envisaged how long the drafting might take and how long it would take to get all the necessary clearances. That said, I am grateful to the Committee for the work that has been undertaken in considering clause 6, despite the limited time available to it, and I hope that all the other outstanding matters will come forward in the near future.

On the issue of EU sanctions, my Department became aware of the problem of potential non-compliance with the common fisheries policy in 2014 and, therefore, included a remedy in a policy consultation for a new fisheries Bill at that time. My officials referred to the risk of Commission action in a presentation to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in April 2015 and formally set out the timetable to deal with that in the autumn, which the Commission has subsequently accepted.

As I said in my opening remarks, the amendments I tabled to clause 6 are minor and technical. The changes will simply align the definition of a fishing boat with wording already used elsewhere in legislation.

In closing, I again put on record my thanks to the Chairperson and other members of the Committee for their contribution to the debate. I call on Members to support the amendments.

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the opposition of the Chairperson and the Minister to clauses 1 to 5 has already been debated. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group those clauses for the Question on stand part.

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

Clause 1 disagreed to.

Clauses 2 to 5 disagreed to.

Clause 6 (Enforcement of EU rules)

Amendment No 1 made:

In page 8, line 17, leave out second "boat" and insert "vessel". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 8, line 18, leave out "United Kingdom under Part 2" and insert "register maintained under section 8". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 8, line 20, leave out "boat" and insert "vessel". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 18 disagreed to.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Fisheries Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister for Social Development, the Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, to move the Bill.

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

Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments, which details the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are three groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 6, 8-10, 12, 16-26, 32, 38-43 and 46-51, which deal with the licensing of HMOs. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 7, 11, 13-15, 36, 37, 44, 45, 52 and 53 and the Minister for Social Development’s opposition to clause 83 stand part. Those amendments deal with technical and drafting changes. The third debate will be on amendment Nos 27-31 and 33-35, which deal with the register and information.

I remind Members who intend to speak during the debates on the three groups of amendments that they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group has been 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 all that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.


11.30 am

Clause 3 (Cases where person is treated as occupying accommodation as only or main residence)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2-6, 8-10, 12, 16-26, 32, 38-43 and 46-51. These amendments deal with the licensing of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Members should note that amendment No 12 is consequential to amendment No 9. Amendment Nos 18 and 19 are consequential to amendment No 17. Amendment No 21 is consequential to amendment No 20. Amendment Nos 47, 48, 49, 50 and 51 are consequential to amendment No 46. I call the Minister for Social Development to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

In page 2, line 35, after "residence" insert "there".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

Nos 2-6, 8-10, 12, 16-26, 32, 38-43 and 46-51.

I should explain at the outset that I intend to comment on the more significant substantive government amendments to address concerns that were raised during Committee Stage. I am also bringing forward a small number of consequential and technical amendments that have arisen. My amendments have been arranged in three groups and have been discussed in some detail during the Social Development Committee’s clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill, apart from amendments to clause 78, which have recently been copied to the Committee Clerk. I am pleased that the Committee was able to support the amendments, and I thank its Chair and members for their constructive scrutiny of the Bill.

The amendments that relate to group 1 are as follows. Two amendments to clause 3 will add seasonal workers to the list of people considered to be occupying a property as their only or main residence. This subsection is solely aimed at those who have some other address that might arguably be their only or main residence. This change will now provide protection for people engaged in seasonal work.

On and after the introduction of the licensing scheme, any properties pending or already registered under the Housing Executive registration scheme will be automatically passported to the licensing scheme for the purposes of regulation. As a result, a pre-existing HMO operating under the registration scheme will not be subject to the same planning controls as a new application. A series of amendments have been made to clauses 9, 20, 21 and 67 to reflect this.

I propose two amendments to clause 10. This clause sets out the matters that are relevant for deciding whether an owner or managing agent is a fit and proper person. My amendments concern the inclusion of the word "locality", because the original draft conflicted with the findings of the 2005 judicial review as landlords have no power to deal with inappropriate tenant behaviour outside the HMO. With the amendments, the word "locality" remains but is now specified in the Bill as extending only to the living accommodation and its associated surroundings. I should say at this stage that the Attorney General has raised one competence issue for clause 10. He would like the reference to immoral purposes removed from the definition of antisocial behaviour at clause 10(7)(b). As this was raised after the deadline for the tabling of amendments, it is my intention to bring this amendment forward at the next stage. I ask Members to note the current amendment on that basis.

I put forward a series of amendments to clause 28. A number of concerns were raised about the process for obtaining a new licence for a change of ownership that may put tenants at risk of homelessness. My amendments will now allow for greater flexibility on change of ownership of a property by building in a specified period of time to obtain a new licence. Following on from the changes to clause 28, a readjustment has been made to clause 29 to ensure that the same practical process for the transfer of a licence will be replicated on the death of an owner.

As a result of a change to the definition of managing agent, on which I will shortly expand further, a number of amendments are proposed for clause 33 to ensure that the full range of HMO management activities are captured.

I further propose a number of amendments to clause 88. My amendments make several changes to the previous draft, which inadvertently captured and required letting agents to be included on the licence application.

A letting agent's duties are limited to viewing and letting the property, which may include collecting the initial first month’s rent and deposit, and therefore it is not essential for the letting agent to be listed on the licence application. Further clarification will be provided in regulations and guidance to assist councils in the operation of the scheme. A further amendment to clause 88 removes the reference to cousin in relation to "relative" in clause 88(3)(c). It is my view that three student cousins living together may have the same risks as three unrelated students sharing. This will reduce the risk of some student HMOs being inappropriately excluded from regulation.

I also propose some amendments to schedule 2. Concerns were raised that having a process of publicly displaying planning notices at the accommodation would single out HMOs, which may have implications for the safety of future tenants. My amendments will remove paragraphs 2 to 6, which relate to the public display of a notice. An additional amendment provides a power for my Department to make regulations and the process to be used for the use of a notice procedure to the making of HMO applications. As this regulation contains a significant level of technical detail, and is aimed at the operational side of the licensing scheme, it is my view that the future process would benefit from further engagement with the councils before its introduction; hence, it is more appropriate for inclusion in regulations than within the Bill.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First of all, I thank the Minister for bringing the Houses in Multiple Occupation Bill to Consideration Stage. I am speaking on behalf of the Committee for Social Development.

As the Minister alluded to, the Bill was a long and complex one for consideration, with 91 clauses and eight schedules. It raised a wide range of issues, some of which were not directly related to the Bill. So, with your indulgence, Mr Speaker, it might be worth saying a few things up front on what the Bill is not about, because of the strength of feeling of a number of residents who have been impacted very negatively by their experiences, but it is not only residents.

The Bill is not about planning matters. In other words, it does not relate to the number of HMOs or any question of over-provision of HMOs in areas. Neither does the Bill seek to deal with antisocial behaviour of tenants in HMOs, although the Committee has made some recommendations relating to that issue in its report, and I will come to those in due course.

The Bill’s purpose is to enable better regulation of houses in multiple occupation. It introduces a system of licensing and new provisions about standards in housing. It also streamlines the definition of a house in multiple occupation and clarifies existing law. The proposed licensing system will mean that a person is acting illegally if they are not licensed to operate a property as a house in multiple occupation. That is a fundamental change to the existing system of voluntary registration and one that, I think, we can and all do very much welcome.

Members will note the high number of amendments to the Bill: there are 54 in total. The Committee had been told that a significant number of the amendments would be consequential, but, at least technically speaking, that is not the case. However, a large majority of the amendments are not substantive, as the Minister said. I will, therefore, be directing my comments on behalf of the Committee to those amendments that are substantive issues.

I am glad to say that many of these amendments were proposed a result of the discussions the Committee had with officials and stakeholders during the Committee Stage. I would like to thank the Department officials for their proactivity in that regard. Explanation and clarification often sufficed in respect of concerns raised by the Committee, and where this did not, the Committee was content with amendments proposed by the then Minister to address those concerns. These engagements were very positive and, in relation to the Department, reflect a mature, collaborative approach between the Committee and the Department to address a complex Bill in a relatively short time. Suffice it to say that the Committee was, therefore, content with the amendments presented by the Department during Committee Stage, and we support the amendments today in the House.

I would like to highlight a number of points that are of relevance to the Bill and to stakeholders by referring to some recommendations the Committee made in its report. I will then specifically address the amendments in group 1.

In addition to agreeing the amendments brought by the Department, the Committee made a number of recommendations in its report. A number of them relate directly or indirectly to addressing the antisocial behaviour of tenants and the responsibility of landlords to assist with that.

Obviously, we all know of, and have heard about, the antisocial behaviour perpetrated, often in the name of students, in houses of multiple occupation. Certainly, there is a strong public perception of it. Everyone has heard about the whole issue in the Holylands in the last number of years. Of course, having been a representative of that area for a number of years, I am very mindful of it. I am also equally struck by the fact that the vast majority of students in those houses are very well behaved and, not only that, are exemplars of good citizenship. Nevertheless, there has been an issue associated with HMOs, and residents have been very negatively impacted by it.

Therefore, to the Committee's mind, the development of purpose-built managed student accommodation has the potential to help address that problem. Well-managed properties, such as those with tenancy agreements that include behavioural standards for tenants, could alleviate the pressure on residential areas where there is currently over-provision of HMOs. Where these should be situated is, of course, a planning matter, although Belfast, for example, has a HMO subject plan which, at least, underpins such planning applications. The Committee believes that this approach should continue, even though such buildings will not be technically designated as HMOs when the Bill is in force.

The Committee also recommends that there should be robust arrangements in all HMO tenancy agreements to help address antisocial behaviour by tenants and seeks the Department’s agreement that this should be included in the guidance to accompany the Bill. Indeed, we have also suggested that the Department should liaise directly with the PSNI and the Department of Justice to address this matter in the time ahead.

The Committee believes that the inclusion of behavioural standards in tenancy agreements must be mandatory to ensure consistency, and that breaching them would be, ultimately, grounds for eviction if the rules continued to be blatantly ignored. The Committee recommends that this proposal should be considered in a wider review of the private rented sector.

Landlords and managing agents should also be required to attend training on any code of practice developed, in order to raise professional standards in the sector. Indeed, the Committee recommends that an accreditation scheme should be developed for landlords and managing agents and that, once such a scheme is established, they must be accredited under it before they can apply for, or be named as, the managing agent on a licence.

Before moving on to the amendments, I point out that the Committee supported a system that was cost-neutral to councils. It would be helpful to get the Minister’s up-to-date position on that matter.

We need to recognise that HMOs are an essential part of the housing sector. They provide comparatively cheap accommodation for people who cannot afford to rent their own place. However, a property that is rented to several unrelated individuals, perhaps for only part of the year, presents health and safety issues, as well those relating to standards. These are the issues that the Bill aims to address. They include, for example, the number of people that the property is suitable for, the facilities in the property, the size of room etc.

I am sure that the vast majority of HMO landlords aim to provide a high-quality, safe environment, with the number of tenants being appropriate to the size of the property, and with the appropriate quality and number of facilities. However, there is sufficient concern about the sector that suggests that a voluntary approach to regulation is far too light a touch and is not acceptable. There has been evidence of poor quality standards in some HMOs which present health and safety risks to the tenants, and legislation is required to address those issues. I, and the Committee, believe that the Bill will help to address those issues.

I turn to the amendments in group 1, which relate mainly to licensing. There are 34 amendments in the group and the Committee is supportive of them all. As I said in my opening remarks, I intend to focus on the key amendments under our consideration.

Amendment Nos 1 and 2 relate to clause 3, which relates to:

"Cases where person is treated as occupying accommodation as only or main residence".

The Committee listened to concerns about the absence of seasonal and migrant workers from the clause, and raised that with the Department. The Department indicated that it was always its intent to capture these groups in the clause, based on an assumption that, due to their transient nature, any accommodation could be taken as being their main residence and, therefore, the groups did not need to be specified. However, because seasonal workers may have an address other than their main address — they may stay elsewhere while they are working away from home — the Department decided to amend clause 3 to specify seasonal workers. The Department did not include migrants, as it is assumed that they will have only one main residence. The Committee is content with that explanation and the amendments.

Amendment Nos 5 and 6 relate to clause 10, the "Fit and proper persons" test. The Committee welcomed the introduction of a fit and proper person test to an owner or managing agent of a HMO under clause 10. There were originally some concerns regarding the inclusion of the word "locality" in the clause, which the Minister referred to earlier, and which suggested to the Landlords’ Association that landlords would be responsible for the antisocial behaviour of their tenants, even if that took place outside the curtilage of the property.

The Committee, however, was content that the word locality applies only to a definition of living accommodation as detailed in clauses 2(5)(a) and 2(5)(b). The amendment to clause 10 is a slight reworking of the original clause to refer to "relevant living accommodation". The Committee was content with those amendments, but it had quite a number of reservations. As I said, the incoming Minister will be asked to liaise directly with the Department of Justice and the PSNI to try to resolve these matters on a more satisfactory basis for local residents in particular.


11.45 am

Amendment No 8 relates to clause 20, "Renewal of licence", and it is important. The renewal of licences in areas where there is already over-provision was raised in Committee. In other words, some residents wanted to try retrospectively to reduce the number of HMOs in any given area, and I can understand why. The Bill will allow councils to prevent new HMO licences being issued where there is already over-provision in an area. The argument was made, however, that the renewal of a licence in an area of existing over-provision should not be denied because of that. The Bill does not seek retrospectively to address over-provision of HMOs in areas by denying owners a licence purely because it is up for renewal. That appeared to the Committee to be simply unfair. The Committee was, therefore, content with this and other aspects of amendment No 8.

Amendment Nos 16, 17, 18 and 19 are substantive amendments to clause 26 to ensure that the changes brought about by amendments to clause 28 — "Change of ownership: effect on licence" — take into account all joint ownership cases. New subsection (5) reflects a situation in joint ownership in which a licence transfer occurs as a result of new ownership, and one person who was a licensee before the transfer continues to be an owner after the transfer has taken place. That gives councils the powers to vary a licence in such circumstances following an application to renew the licence by the existing licensee and the new owner. The Committee was content with the proposed amendments to clause 26.

Amendment Nos 20 and 21 relate to clause 28, "Change of ownership: effect on licence". The Bill as introduced did not allow for licences to be transferred when there is a change of ownership. The Committee recognised that that would cause uncertainty for tenants of such a HMO and the proposed new owner. Clause 28, as amended, allows for the transfer of a licence as long as the proposed new owner applies for a licence before the transfer takes effect. A council, of course, still has to consider an application in the normal way, and a transferred licence will cease to have effect at a particular date if a new licence is granted or if the application is refused. That approach, however, at least builds in more time for tenants and a proposed new landlord when there is a question over the licensing of a HMO. This is all about guaranteeing security.

Amendment Nos 22 and 23 relate to clause 29, "Death of sole licence holder: effect on licence". The Committee acknowledged stakeholders' concerns that the three months referred to in the clause may not be sufficient to wind up a licence holder’s estate. The amendment satisfied the Committee that it would afford councils greater flexibility to extend this period if necessary.

Amendment Nos 24, 25 and 26 relate to clause 33. The Committee was content with the amendment that clarifies that it is an offence for an owner to appoint someone to act as a managing agent if that person is not named on the licence and that it is an offence for a person to act as a managing agent if they are not named on the licence. That ensures that the licence must have a bona fide representative named as a managing agent, who will act in a legal capacity for a HMO. The agent must also be named on the register, which should bring greater transparency as to who the responsible parties are for each and every HMO. That is to do with accountability about who owns a property. The Committee, therefore, was content with the clause as amended.

Amendment Nos 40 to 43 relate to clause 88, "Interpretation". During discussions with the Department, officials noted that the original definition of a managing agent would also inadvertently include a letting agent, as a letting agent often accepts the first month’s rent. Subsequently, a letting agent has nothing further to do with the management of a property. Amendment Nos 40, 41 and 43 clarify that issue.

The Committee was content with the amendments and the agreement from the Department to clarify in guidance the requirement to notify tenants who the managing agent is.

Amendment No 42 removes "cousins" from the definition of "relative", and the Minister has already dealt with that. The Committee was content with the amendment.

Amendment Nos 46 to 51 relate to schedule 2. Amendment No 46 makes a significant change to the schedule regarding the publication of an application for a HMO licence. That relates to the information required to be included in the HMO register under clause 62, the amendments to which will form part of the group 3 debate. The key issue in amendment No 46, however, is that the detail required in the giving of notice for making a HMO application will be included in regulation, and that may incorporate the level of information required to be published, how that is to be publicised, the role of the council in the process and the consequence of failing to comply with the requirements of the regulations.
The changes stem from landlords' concern about the level of detail to be included about them in the HMO register and the potential threat to their security. The Committee noted that the Department will consult councils and other stakeholders when drawing up the regulations, which will, of course, come before the Committee for Social Development, or, more appropriately, the Committee for Communities, for scrutiny in the time ahead. The Committee was content with the amendment.

Amendment Nos 47 to 51 are consequential to amendment No 46, and the Committee is content with those. That is all that I have to say as Chairperson on the amendments in the group.

I will now make a couple of brief comments as an MLA. The Committee was very conscious of and alive to the concerns raised by a range of stakeholders, not least the residents whose lives have been very negatively impacted on by the over-provision of HMOs in a number of areas. The Committee listened to all their concerns. As local representatives, many of us have had direct experience of trying to intervene and intercede on people's behalf. Members of the Committee are satisfied with the good work done by the Committee, its officials, departmental officials and the Minister, who took on board if not all the concerns, certainly the vast majority.

We believe that this is a good Bill and, as I said in my opening remarks, a comprehensive one. It is about raising the standards for housing conditions; ensuring maximum accountability for tenants and landlords; and ensuring far greater health and safety for people who live in HMOs. The Bill does not deal with antisocial behaviour per se or the number and density of HMOs permitted in any street, so the Committee has made and will make very strong recommendations that those matters be taken forward with the relevant authorities by the incoming Department.

Mr Douglas: I will make a few comments as a member of the Social Development Committee. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to Consideration Stage, and I agree with the previous contributor that there was huge scrutiny at Committee Stage. As a result of that and the Chair's analysis of the amendments, I will keep my remarks to a minimum.

Our party supports the amendments tabled by the Minister and is pleased that, as a result, there will be better regulation of houses in multiple occupation.

I thank the Chair for his leadership and fellow members of the Social Development Committee for the way in which the Bill has progressed. Personally, I found it to be a very positive experience. I see that some of the DSD officials are here today, and they were more than helpful in directing and supporting us to get the Bill to this stage. I thank the Committee Clerk and officials who also guided us along the way.

In my East Belfast constituency, the ever-changing social demography has led to an increase in the demand for HMOs as an affordable housing option in the rented sector.

I certainly agree with the Chair that we come across situations where there are major difficulties. However, I hope that the Bill will provide major change as well as help and support for MLAs who deal with some of these difficult issues.

I want to say a few words about licensing. I am pleased to say that every house in multiple occupation must be licensed under the Bill. That is a huge change. I welcome the introduction of a system of licensing and new provisions on standards in housing that will mean that a person is acting illegally if they do not have a licence to manage a property as a house in multiple occupation.

I agree with the Minister on clause 10, which relates to the fit-and-proper-person test. Those people need to be fit and proper, because many of us have experience of fly-by-night landlords who are not licensed and cause huge problems in communities. I certainly agree with the Minister in relation to clause 10.

This licensing Bill brings fundamental change to the existing system of voluntary registration that I welcome. The Bill will introduce a new mandatory licensing scheme that will bring Northern Ireland into line with other UK jurisdictions. Again, I pay tribute to the Minister for the amendment to clause 88 in relation to relatives. There is the same risk for three cousins living in the same house as three unrelated people sharing the accommodation.

We met a number of residents' groups, including the Holylands residents' group, which raised many concerns. We have tried to take account of some of those concerns in these clauses. Again, I thank the Minister for bringing significant and substantive government amendments to address concerns raised by the Committee, reflecting those of residents. Some of those concerns were also raised by Housing Rights Northern Ireland. I believe — I hope I am right on this — that they raised a number of major issues, every one of which has been incorporated into the Bill.

I am pleased to support all the Minister's amendments. It is good legislation, and it will make a difference.

Mrs D Kelly: I join others in thanking the Committee and departmental staff for their assistance during the passage and consideration of the Bill. Like others, we think that the Bill will make landlords more accountable and protect tenants and the communities in which the HMOs are situated. I would like to put on record our thanks to Minister Morrow and his predecessor, Minister Storey, who tried to work alongside the Committee and have listened not only to the Committee's concerns but to those raised by stakeholders, who also played an important part in enabling us to better understand the impact of the legislation and, indeed, the reality of living in HMO areas.
Our party supports the Bill. We think that it has been a good piece of work. I will speak on one or two amendments in particular, but the Chair did an excellent job of detailing and explaining the Committee consideration of the amendments. We particularly welcome amendment Nos 1 and 2. Amendment No 1 is technical. We are also very supportive of amendment No 2, which is aimed at people who have another address that, arguably, is their main residence. That is particularly the case with seasonal and migrant workers, who are afforded much better protection. We also welcome the fit-and-proper-person test, which is critical. We all know, as representatives, how difficult it is to track down landlords at times. Both the registration of landlords and the additional accountability mechanisms in respect of HMOs will make our jobs and the jobs of others much easier when trying to secure property, and they will ensure that tenants work with the local community and are integrated well into it.


12.00 noon

I also welcome some of the concerns that have been raised by landlords. They play an important role in providing a housing mix at a time when there are huge numbers of people on waiting lists. That does not, as others have said, apply just to students. We all know the high costs of accommodation, particularly in our cities. Therefore, we have to listen to the landlord fraternity as well to ensure that people will provide accommodation not only to students but to workers and professionals living in our city centres in particular.

On the other amendments in group 3, while there was significant concern from landlords about the amount of information on the HMO register linking them to their properties, the SDLP believes that access to such information is a matter of public interest, and we agree with the Committee's position that sufficient information should be made available to ensure that residents can address concerns regarding HMOs. The amendments seem to be a good middle ground in ensuring the safety of landlords and their families whilst providing a suitable amount of information to those with a genuine interest in the property. I note as well that statutory bodies will still have access to the full register.

Amendment No 33 inserts a new clause relating to the sharing of information between councils. We believe that giving councils the power to share information amongst themselves for the purposes of carrying out statutory functions will prove to be beneficial to the smooth running of the new HMO system. We all know how the Data Protection Act has in some ways disabled the sharing of information amongst statutory agencies. I think this will give greater clarity about the responsibilities of councils in sharing information to have better safeguards for tenants and local communities.

Amendment Nos 34 and 35 are related to amendment No 33 and insert a new clause into the relevant —

Mr Speaker: Can I point out that those are group 3 amendments?

Mrs D Kelly: Sorry; I beg your pardon. I am ahead of myself.

Mr Speaker: I was trying to catch your eye. We are doing quite well, but you are doing even better. [Laughter.]

Mrs D Kelly: I will cut back later on then, Mr Speaker. Apologies for that. In conclusion — I need not draw this out needlessly — I very much welcome the legislation, the passage of the Bill, the scrutiny and the cooperation and collaboration between the Department, the Committee and, indeed, the stakeholders.

Mr Beggs: I, too, put on record my appreciation of the work of our Committee in helping to coordinate our scrutiny; the departmental officials, who were frequently there to answer many questions; and the range of people who came to give oral evidence and those who provided written evidence. There was a good balance to enable us to take account of all points of view.

Having considered the Bill in detail during the Committee's scrutiny and having received wide-ranging evidence, I continue to support it, its general thrust and the amendments that have been tabled by the Minister. They are largely a result of discussions with the Committee. Many of them are technical amendments that are consequential to some of the changes that have been agreed. There has been a useful engagement between the Committee and the current and preceding Ministers. That has been beneficial in trying to improve our legislation.

Bearing in mind that the legislation is designed to improve the lot of tenants and to recognise the additional risk that occurs with those living in houses of multiple occupation, it is important that there is licensing, which is the main aspect of the group 1 amendments. I agree with others that it is good that there is a fit-and-proper-person measurement to ensure that we have responsible landlords looking after their tenants. I will not comment on every amendment and clause but will just try to pick out some of the key changes.

I notice that amendment No 2 includes:

"A person who occupies living accommodation for the purpose of engaging in seasonal work".

Again, that could have been an area that would have been overlooked. Risks would have existed to seasonal workers from poor, or even unsafe, accommodation. It is right that we include them in order that they have that degree of protection.

I note the Minister's comment about the Attorney General, and that he intends to leave one of the amendments to a latter stage because of some concerns. Hopefully, that issue can be resolved.

There are several amendments on the transfer of the licence — I am looking at amendment Nos 17 and 20 — which is an important aspect. I certainly view the changes that have been made regarding the transfer of the licence as being beneficial to everyone. It is not in the interests of the tenant or the landlord if a licence cannot be transferred. We have to remember that if it is not able to be transferred smoothly, there will not be permission for the house to remain as a house of multiple occupation. Potentially, some of the tenants would then lose their homes. It is important that, where change does occur for whatever reason — for example, as a result of financial changes with the landlord, or the landlord becoming deceased — there is a smooth mechanism of transferring ownership so that, ultimately, the tenants do not suffer.

Representation was also made to us that, should someone decide to sell the property, it was important that there was a degree of security and that the licence would transfer with that ownership. It is right that we have built that provision in through the amendments. Were that not the case, we might have found that some buildings had to be emptied before they were sold, or there might have been very limited interest in purchasing such buildings, given that there was a great deal of insecurity about what might follow the sale. Again, the new owner will have to pass a fit-and-proper-person test like everyone else.

Amendment No 43 in particular is worthwhile. There is often confusion as to who is responsible for managing an agent, and the Bill helps to clarify that. Amendment No 43 followed a representation being made by some of the letting agents who highlighted the fact — and this is something I was not fully aware of — that frequently a letting agent may just be responsible for the letting. In the past, the tenant might have assumed that the letting agent was also responsible for reporting ongoing maintenance issues to the landlord. This gives clarification that there is such a thing as a letting agent who simply lets the property, with all the maintenance and ongoing responsibility for managing that house still lying with the landlord or his managing agent, who may be a different person. That information will be available to the tenant so that there is clarity and no confusion. That will allow those who have engaged in the letting of properties to continue, but there will be clarity for tenants so that, if they have issues with their property, they must go either to the landlord or to those who have been appointed as his letting agent.

As others have said, we have reached a high level of consensus and a balanced viewpoint. That should bring about improvement in the standards of houses in multiple occupation. Also, it should bring about benefits for neighbours, because responsibility will fall to be managed within the property, very clearly, with regulations there. As others have rightly said, landlords cannot be expected to manage behaviour outside of the property that they own, and it is a reasonable balance that that was not included.

All in all, this is a good piece of legislation, and I hope and expect that it will improve the lot of tenants, bring about a greater degree of clarity and bring about improvement in the lives of tenants and their neighbours.

Mr Dickson: I, too, thank not only the current Minister but his predecessor, our Committee Clerk and officials, and officials from the Department for the work that they did as we prepared our report. I acknowledge the suggestions that were taken up by officials and the way in which the Minister has brought forward all of the amendments. Colleagues from the Committee have already spoken. The Chairperson and three other members have spoken on the value of the amendments, some of which are technical, and others propose changes that are important for the competence of the Bill. I do not intend to add further to that debate. Suffice it to say that the Alliance Party is supportive of the Bill at this Stage and will continue to support it to Final Stage.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also thank the former Minister and the current Minister for the work that they have done with the Department to bring the Bill to the House today. You will be happy to hear that I had a long-winded, drawn-out speech, but Alex threatened me at the start of the process and said, "Look. Just keep it as short as possible".

Legislation on houses in multiple occupation has been brought to the Assembly a number of times over the past number of years. It is a live issue out there. I think that many people have had concerns about the management, running and conditions that exist in such properties. I happen to believe that we could have dealt with a lot of this back then, but we adopted a light-touch approach when there should have been a more robust effort to try to tackle and deal with HMOs, as there has been with this Bill. I know of many communities, not only in this city but in other parts of the North, that have suffered as a result of mismanagement, poor conditions and being unable to get in touch with landlords.

I went through a number of the amendments, and some jumped out at me. The question of a fit-and-proper-person test is essential in trying to get to terms with some of the difficult problems that exist. The explanatory notes give a fairly detailed rundown on what would be expected or the types of people who would not be fit to be a landlord. The other issue that came across was the terms of the letting agencies and letting agents, and that came through, at times, during the questioning of people who came to the Committee to give evidence and the Department. I believe that this should encompass everybody, but it was explained to us that there may be letting agents whose only contact is the first month's rent and, after that, they have no control.

I had a concern, which I raised with the Department, in and around the private rented sector, because I had viewed them as two sides of the one coin: one may provide multiple lettings, but the other provides single lettings. In the past, both have led to the destruction of the residential nature of many communities in this city because of over-provision. I believe that both should have been tackled at the same time. No matter where you go, whether it is when canvassing or when you bump into people, one of the big concerns that people tell you about relates to how you deal with antisocial behaviour. Whilst the Bill may not deal entirely with antisocial behaviour, there are built-in mechanisms that may allow tenants to go to landlords and expect a return by way of them dealing with the problem.

Sinn Féin obviously supports the Bill. We support the amendments, but we look forward to additional information and an additional Bill coming so that everything will be tightened up and life made easier for tenants and, at the end of the day, landlords.


12.15 pm

Lord Morrow: It was interesting to note that everyone spoke on a positive note and was very complimentary. I was just saying to my colleague here that it is a pity that every day is not like this. I suspect that it will not be.

Mr Speaker: Van Morrison might write a song.

Lord Morrow: Yes.

I thank all those who have taken part. I have listened carefully to what they have said. As I said, most of it was complimentary and welcoming of the Bill and what it is trying to do. I believe that it will do all the things that it says and that, as a result, the situation will be better as we go forward.

The introduction of mandatory licensing of HMOs will ensure that higher physical and management standards are adopted before an HMO can be classed as licensed. The policy intention is to prevent new areas becoming overprovided with HMOs in future; it does not have the scope to reduce overprovision in existing areas with an already high number of HMOs, such as the Holylands. My Bill will give a council the discretionary power to refuse to grant an HMO licence if it considers that there is or that the granting of a licence would result in overprovision for the locality. As planning is now devolved to the 11 councils, the Department will liaise with them on the detail of how HMO overprovision can be prevented. The most straightforward way to achieve this is likely to be the inclusion by councils of thresholds similar to those in operation in the HMO subject plan for Belfast in local area development plans.

Turning to antisocial behaviour, which the last Member to speak mentioned, the Committee report recommended that guidance should be completed by the Department to address antisocial behaviour. I can confirm that the guidance for landlords will include model tenancy agreements that will specify and outline acceptable tenant behaviour and detail tenant activities or practices that a landlord would not consider tolerable. Landlords will be encouraged to ensure that tenants are aware of their responsibilities and any possible consequences should they breach the conditions. Antisocial behaviour is also being given further consideration in my wider private rented sector review, which is presently under way. That review will also explore initiatives to raise professional standards in the private rented sector.

In relation to funding, the Department has set up a stakeholder group to take forward the transfer and will work with councils on funding arrangements. A business case will be required to estimate the cost of the transfer of the HMO function to the 11 councils. Councillors will decide how best to deploy the budget as to whether they will each assume the service or agree a suitable shared service delivery model. I will ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to councils for them to operate the new licensing scheme effectively.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 36, at end insert

"(2A) A person who occupies living accommodation for the purpose of engaging in seasonal work is to be treated, at all times during that person’s residence there, as occupying that accommodation as the person’s only or main residence.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

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

Clauses 4 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 (Breach of planning control)

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 6, line 37, leave out paragraph (b). — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 6, line 39, leave out "and (i)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 (Fit and proper persons)

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 7, line 34, leave out from "living" to end of line 35 and insert

"relevant living accommodation whilst in the accommodation, or". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 6 made:

In page 7, line 37, leave out subsection (7) and insert

"(7) In subsection (6)—
 
'anti-social behaviour' means—
 
(i) acting or threatening to act in a manner causing or likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance to a person residing in, visiting or otherwise engaging in a lawful activity in residential premises or in the locality of such premises, or
 
(ii) using or threatening to use residential premises for immoral or illegal purposes;
 
'relevant living accommodation' means living accommodation of which P is or was the owner or managing agent.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 10, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 11 to 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18 (Revocation of temporary exemption notice)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 7, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 11, 13 to 15, 36, 37, 44, 45, 52 and 53, and the Minister for Social Development's opposition to clause 83 stand part. Members should note that amendment No 45 is consequential to amendment No 44, and that amendment Nos 52 and 53 are both consequential to amendment No 20. I call the Minister to move amendment No 7 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move amendment No 7:

In page 12, line 11, leave out "under section 67" and insert "in accordance with section 67(4)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

Nos 11, 13 to 15, 36, 37, 44, 45, 52 and 53.

Amendment No 7 and the others in the group provide the technical and drafting amendments for the Bill. In revisiting clause 28, as mentioned under group 1, it was noted that, in order for it to operate effectively, a technical alteration was also needed. That has resulted in the amendments to clause 26.

I propose two amendments to clause 78. The need for the amendments has been brought to my attention only recently and, hence, was not discussed at Committee Stage. The policy intent has always been that the power of entry with a warrant would extend to any property outside of the HMOs in question owned or operated by the owner or managing agent. The current drafting of clause 78 would not allow it to operate like that in practice. Two amendments, replacing the words "the" with "any" at lines 15 and 18 of clause 78 will ensure that the clause operates as originally intended.

I give notice of my intention to oppose the Question that clause 83 stand part of the Bill. During Committee Stage, members made it clear that they were uncomfortable with that provision, as it was their view that it might result in a tenant having to continue to pay rent for substandard accommodation. After further consideration, it was noted that the provision was not required as it would be covered under common law in Northern Ireland. The redraft of the Bill now reflects that change.

I have two amendments to schedule 1. I agree with the concerns raised by the Committee and am grateful to it for raising this important issue for buildings that would no longer be treated as HMOs with my officials. The amendments bring housing association and Housing Executive properties that are contracted out to voluntary bodies, such as a hostel or women’s refuge, back under HMO definition. All those types of property hold some of the most vulnerable members of society. It is my belief that they would continue to benefit from being regulated under the HMO regime.

Mr Maskey: I do not intend to say very much on the group 2 amendments. We have covered quite a lot of ground, and the Minister has already referred in some detail to aspects that the Committee raised because most of the amendments are technical and drafting amendments.

I will, however, draw attention to clause 83, as did the Minister, and the Minister's opposition to the clause. The Committee had real concerns about clause 83, which would ensure that the tenancy agreement remains in place, and therefore that the tenant continues to pay rent, even in situations where landlords have not fulfilled their obligations under the legislation. The Committee was concerned that that potentially undermined the rights of the tenant in seeking redress for a landlord's failure to address substandard accommodation. As a result of the Committee's reservations and with reference to the view of the Attorney General that the clause was not required as the provisions are covered under common law, the Department fortunately decided to remove clause 83. The Committee welcomes that and is also content with the remaining amendments in this group.

Ms P Bradley: Like the Chair, I do not intend to speak very long as these are technical and drafting amendments, but, as this is my first opportunity to speak at Consideration Stage, I join my Committee colleagues in thanking all those involved in the HMO Bill. I thank the Minister and, of course, his predecessor Minister Storey for the work that was done. I thank the Clerks, the Department and all those who gave oral and written evidence. It certainly went some way to helping us to form and shape this very important Bill, which we believe is there to protect tenants.

I want to draw attention to what the Minister said about schedule 1 in his opening speech. The amendment will help those with vulnerabilities, especially those in hostels or women's refuges. I am sure that everyone will agree that we welcome that being brought back under HMO licensing, because we know that the HMO Bill is there to protect those tenants. Who do we need to protect more than the most vulnerable in our society? I welcome that amendment.

Mrs D Kelly: I will keep it even briefer, Mr Speaker, and just say that I welcome the Minister's comments on clause 83. He has reflected on the Committee's concerns.

Mr Beggs: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I want to put on record my support for the general technical and drafting amendments and briefly comment on amendment No 37. Whilst it is a very minor change of the word "the" to "any", it can be quite significant. The change will enable a council to apply to a lay magistrate to issue a warrant. A significant amount of information will have to be provided to convince a magistrate that it warrants such an investigation, but we have to recall that the difficulty or the evidence may not just be in one premises, and widening that to any living accommodation will allow evidence to be collected that may be beneficial to tenants. Therefore, I support that amendment, which would widen court access. Again, it is with a suitable warrant should evidence be available to justify it. I am content with the technical and drafting amendments in this group.

Mr Dickson: I will try to be even briefer, Mr Speaker. I support the amendments.

Mr Speaker: That was very brief.

Lord Morrow: I thank all those who have spoken and been very positive. It makes my job very easy today and leaves me very little to say other than to thank the Chair, the Deputy Chair and all the Committee members again for their very constructive approach. They obviously see the merits in what we are trying to do. I will leave it at that.

Amendment No 7 agreed to.

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


12.30 pm

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 (Renewal of licence)

Amendment No 8 made:

In page 13, line 10, leave out from "sections" to end of line 11 and insert

"the following provisions do not apply to applications to renew—
 
(a) sections 8(2)(a) and 9 and paragraphs 8 to 10 of Schedule 2 (breach of planning control);
 
(b) sections 8(2)(d) and 12 (overprovision).". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 20, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21 (Application to renew: effect on existing licence)

Amendment No 9 made:

In page 13, line 19, leave out paragraph (b). — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 10 made:

In page 13, line 25, leave out

"if the council refuses the application on any other ground"

and insert "if the application is refused". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 11 made:

In page 13, line 28, leave out "under section 67" and insert "in accordance with section 67(4)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 12 made:

In page 13, line 33, leave out subsection (3). — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 21, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 22 to 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26 (Joint licence holders)

Amendment No 13 made:

In page 15, line 21, leave out "(2)(b)" and insert "(2)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 14 made:

In page 15, line 22, after second "the" insert "owner or". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 15 made:

In page 15, line 23, after "particular" insert

", in a case falling within subsection (2)(b)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 16 made:

In page 15, line 28, leave out from first "in" to end of line 32 and insert

"(a) there is a transfer of ownership of a licensed HMO,
 
(b) as a result of the transfer one or more joint licensees (but not all of them) cease to be an owner of the HMO,". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 17 made:

In page 15, line 35, leave out subsection (5) and insert

"(5) Where—
 
(a) there is a transfer of ownership of a licensed HMO,
 
(b) as a result of the transfer there is a new owner (or more than one), and
 
(c) at least one person who was a licensee before the transfer continues to be an owner after it,
 
the new owner (or any of them) may apply to the council to be added as a joint licensee.
 
(5A) The council must—
 
(a) treat an application under subsection (5) as an application to renew the licence made jointly by the existing licensee and the new owner, and
 
(b) if it decides to grant the application, vary the licence accordingly.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 18 made:

In page 15, line 41, after "subsection" insert "(5A) or". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 19 made:

In page 15, line 43, at end insert

"(8) In this section—
 
'transfer of ownership' includes the creation of a new estate;
 
'new owner' means a person who is an owner after the transfer but was not an owner before it.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 26, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28 (Change of ownership: effect on licence)

Amendment No 20 made:

In page 16, line 7, leave out subsections (1) and (2) and insert

"28.—(1) A licence may be transferred to another person only in accordance with this section.
 
(2) Accordingly, except as set out in subsection (2A), where—
 
(a) there is a transfer of ownership of a licensed HMO,
 
(b) as a result of the transfer there is a new owner (or more than one), and
 
(c) no person who was a licensee before the transfer continues to be an owner after it,
 
the licence ceases to have effect on the date of the transfer.
 
(2A) If—
 
(a) there is a transfer of ownership of a licensed HMO, and
 
(b) before the date of the transfer, the proposed new owner (or any of them) applies for a licence in respect of the HMO (a "new licence"),
 
the licence which is already in effect in respect of the HMO ("the existing licence") is to be treated as being held, from the date of the transfer, by the person or persons who made the application for the new licence ("the transferee").
 
(2B) But the existing licence ceases to have effect on the date mentioned in subsection (2C).
 
(2C) That date is—
 
(a) if the transferee’s application is granted, the date from which the new licence has effect (determined in accordance with section 19(1) or (4)(a));
 
(b) if the transferee’s application is refused—
 
(i) one month after the last date on which the decision to refuse the transferee’s application may be appealed in accordance with section 67(4), or
 
(ii) if such an appeal is made, one month after the date on which the appeal is finally determined.
 
(2D) Subsection (2B) and (2C) are subject—
 
(a) to sections 23 (revocation) and 27 (surrender), which provide for a licence in certain circumstances to cease to have effect earlier than as provided by this section, and
 
(b) if the transferee dies, to section 29, which provides for a licence in certain circumstances to cease to have effect earlier than, or later than, as provided by this section.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 21 made:

In page 16, line 12, leave out "subsection (2)" and insert "this section". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 28, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29 (Death of sole licence holder: effect on licence)

Amendment No 22 made:

In page 16, line 22, after "period" insert

"for which the licence has effect beyond the date". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 23 made:

In page 16, line 28, leave out subsection (5) and insert

"(5) Subsections (1)(b) and (2) are subject—
 
(a) to sections 23 (revocation) and 27 (surrender), which provide for a licence in certain circumstances to cease to have effect earlier than as provided by this section, and
 
(b) if the personal representatives of the licensee transfer ownership of the HMO, to section 28, which provides for a licence in certain circumstances to cease to have effect earlier than, or later than, as provided by this section.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 30 to 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33 (Agents not named in licence)

Amendment No 24 made:

In page 18, line 23, leave out from "do" to end of line 24 and insert

"act as a managing agent in relation to the HMO, and". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 25 made:

In page 18, line 28, leave out paragraph (a) and insert

"(a) A, on behalf of the owner of a licensed HMO, acts as a managing agent in relation to the HMO,". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 26 made:

In page 18, line 32, at end insert

"(2A) For the purposes of this section, a person acts as a managing agent in relation to an HMO if the person—
 
(a) does, in relation to the HMO, any of the acts mentioned in paragraph (i), (ii) or (iv) of the definition of "managing agent" in section 88(1), or
 
(b) engages in any other activity or course of activity which constitutes, or assists in, the management of the HMO.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 33, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 34 to 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 62 (HMO register)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the third group of amendments. With amendment No 27, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 28 to 31 and amendment Nos 33 to 35. Members should note that amendment No 30 is consequential to amendment No 29 and that amendment Nos 34 and 35 are both consequential to amendment No 33. I call the Minister to move amendment No 27 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move amendment No 27:

In page 32, line 32, leave out "its register available for public inspection" and insert

"any entry relating to an HMO available for inspection, by any person who falls within subsection (8A) in relation to that entry,".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

Nos 28 to 31 and 33 to 35.

Lord Morrow: Group 3 provides the amendments to the clause relating to the HMO register and associated information. I am content that my amendments to clause 62 will ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the public interest in the information publicly available and the safety and security of landlords and their families. The reference to an individual receiving a copy of the register is removed, leaving only access to an extract from the register, and the person making the request must have a genuine interest in the property. Those new amendments will take account of concerns raised, and the arrangements in the new Bill will now mirror that which is in place under the present HMO registration scheme.

My Department intends to provide further clarification in guidance for councils. When examining how councils would operate the HMO register in practice, it was felt that the Bill would benefit from some strengthening. A provision was drafted to ensure the adequate exchange of information between councils for the purposes of HMO regulations. That has been achieved through the amendment that introduces clause 73A.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Amendment Nos 27 to 31 relate to clause 62 on the HMO register. The Chartered Institute of Housing, the Landlords' Association NI and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors all voiced concern about the potential threat to landlords' safety should their names, property addresses and contact details be included in the register and made available for public consultation. That obviously generated considerable debate in Committee. The Committee acknowledged the concerns that were expressed but took the clear view that it was a public interest matter and that sufficient information should be made available to ensure that residents can address their concerns regarding an HMO; for example, where there is antisocial behaviour of tenants to the landlord and/or managing agent.

Amendment Nos 27 to 31 seek to strike a balance between those two interests. Amendment No 27, for example, will allow access to an entry in the register, rather than to the entire register. The person must also have a genuine interest in the property, as defined in amendment No 29. Importantly for elected representatives who have regularly been involved in these matters and have to deal with complaints from constituents about HMO-related antisocial behaviour, the Department confirmed that it will also be able to access a relevant entry in the register. That, the Committee believes, strikes the appropriate balance between addressing the security concerns of landlords and providing access to a relevant entry in the register to a person who is concerned with the information in that entry. The Committee is, therefore, content with the amendments.

On amendment No 33, the Committee welcomes new clause 73A, which provides for the sharing of information between councils in respect of their functions under the Act. Amendment Nos 34 and 35 are consequential to amendment No 33.

With that, a Cheann Comhairle, I conclude my comments on behalf of the Committee on the group 3 amendments. We support the amendments.

Ms P Bradley: I will also be brief with my comments. On the new subsection proposed to clause 62, the Minister said that a balance had been struck, and I think that is exactly where we wanted to get to. As the Chair said, there were witnesses who threw up concerns about the clause and how it would affect them. We heard not only from landlords and those who represent landlords but from Housing Rights. Again, as I say, the balance most definitely has been struck. I support the amendments.

Mrs D Kelly: As I pointed out, there has been good collaborative working and a bit of listening has been done. I welcome that balance. This is the way to go to get good legislation. If there is a bit of compromise, everybody gets what they want. It is certainly very good legislation overall.

Mr Beggs: As others have said with regard to amendment Nos 27 to 29, it is difficult to get the balance right in providing information about a house in multiple occupation, such as who manages it and who owns it etc. The original wording was that it would simply be publicly available, but, as indicated by others, representations made to us indicated that there was genuine concern from some about their security. As a result, I am in agreement with the amendments, which will ensure that all residents have straight access to it without any difficulty and others who can show that they are sufficiently concerned with the information in the entry will have access too.

It is a good balance. The information will be available to those who need it, and a degree of privacy will be afforded to landlords.

With regard to the new clause proposed in amendment No 33, I support sharing information between councils. It is a simple thing, but relevant information may be held by one council that would be useful to another. This seems to be starting, in a small way, to do joined-up government. I welcome the amendment and support the other technical and consequential amendments in the group.


12.45 pm

Mr Dickson: I wish to be brief on the matter, but I want to refer to the points that Mr Beggs made, particularly with regard to access to information about landlords. It is clear that we should strive to have maximum openness. However, it was reasonable for the Committee to listen to the concerns that were raised. At the end of the day, openness should not equate to nosiness, and it should be relevant to those who wish to have and require to have the appropriate information. We are content to support all the amendments.

Lord Morrow: It sounds like consensus has broken out again. It demonstrates what some have said: when there is collaboration with the Committee, it paves the way for a good end.

I am grateful to Members for their contributions and am pleased with the consensus of support for the Bill across the Assembly. I thank the Chair of the Committee and the Committee members for the positive way in which they have scrutinised the Bill and for, as I explained in my earlier remarks, agreeing to the proposed amendments.

As I indicated earlier, a stakeholder group has been formed to take forward the transfer and will work with councils on funding arrangements, including potential set-up costs. Future monitoring arrangements for HMOs will be discussed and agreed with councils. It is envisaged that a new reporting/governance framework for councils will be put in place. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, district councils will thereafter need some time to complete the preparations necessary to administer the new licensing scheme. Therefore, the main provisions of the Bill will come into operation on a date appointed in an order made by my Department following liaison and agreement with councils.

That concludes on the government amendments. However, with your permission, Mr Speaker, I will briefly address some recommendations made in the Social Development Committee’s report, particularly those linked to the guidance that my Department is preparing to assist councils with the new scheme implementation. The Committee recommended that the Department provide guidance to address antisocial behaviour in HMOs. I confirm that my Department intends to provide guidance for landlords that will include model tenancy agreements that will specify and outline acceptable tenant behaviour and detail tenant activities or practices that a landlord would not consider tolerable. Landlords will be encouraged to ensure that tenants are aware of their responsibilities and of any possible consequences should they breach the conditions.

Antisocial behaviour is also being given further consideration in my wider private rented sector review, which is under way. That review will also explore initiatives to raise professional standards in the private rented sector. A stakeholder group has been set up to take forward the transfer and will collaborate to publish an appropriate code of practice and guidance for councils, landlords and managing agents to help them meet the requirements of the regulations. I reassure members that my Department will provide the support and funding required for councils to operate the HMO function effectively.

Amendment No 27 agreed to.

Amendment No 28 made:

In page 32, line 35, leave out from second "a" to "who" on line 36 and insert

"an entry relating to an HMO to any person who falls within subsection (8A) in relation to that entry and". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 29 made:

In page 32, line 36, at end insert

"(8A) A person falls within this subsection in relation to an entry if the person appears to the council—
 
(a) to have an interest or prospective interest in the HMO,
 
(b) to be a resident of the HMO, or
 
(c) to be otherwise sufficiently concerned with the information contained in the entry.
 
(8B) In subsection (8A), an "interest" is—
 
(a) a freehold or leasehold estate;
 
(b) a mortgage, charge or lien.
 
(8C) The council must, on the request of any statutory authority—
 
(a) make its register available for inspection by the authority;
 
(b) supply a certified copy of its register, or of an extract from it, to the authority.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 30 made:

In page 32, line 38, after "(8)" insert "or (8C)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 31 made:

In page 32, line 39, after "an" insert "entry in or other". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 62, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 63 to 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 67 (Appeals)

Amendment No 32 made:

In page 36, line 14, leave out from "unless" to end of line 16. — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 67, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 68 to 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 33 made:

After clause 73 insert

"Sharing of information between councils
 
73A.—(1) A council may provide to any other council any information held by the council in connection with its functions under this Act.
 
(2) Information may be provided under subsection (1) only on the request of the other council; and may be used by that council only in connection with its functions under this Act.
 
(3) This section—
 
(a) has effect notwithstanding any restriction on the disclosure of information imposed by any statutory provision or rule of law, and
 
(b) does not limit the circumstances in which information may be used or provided apart from this section.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 74 (Failure to comply with notice under section 71, 72 or 73)

Amendment No 34 made:

In page 41, line 17, after "73" insert

"or a request under section 73A". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 74, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 75 (Unauthorised disclosure of information obtained under section 73)

Amendment No 35 made:

In page 41, line 31, after "73" insert "or 73A". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 75, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 76 and 77 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 78 (Powers of entry: with warrant)

Amendment No 36 made:

In page 43, line 15, leave out "the" and insert "any". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 37 made:

In page 43, line 18, leave out "the" and insert "any". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 78, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 79 to 82 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 83 (HMOs occupied in breach of Act)

Mr Speaker: The Minister's opposition to clause 83 has already been debated.

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

Clause 83 disagreed to.

Clauses 84 and 85 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 86 (Regulations and orders)

Amendment No 38 made:

In page 47, line 8, after "14(3)" insert "or paragraph 2 of Schedule 2". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 86, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 87 (General notices)

Amendment No 39 made:

In page 47, line 21, leave out "or paragraph 2(4)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 87, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 88 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 40 made:

In page 48, line 16, after "accommodation" insert

"(but this is subject to subsection (7))". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 41 made:

In page 48, line 18, leave out sub-paragraph (iii). — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 42 made:

In page 49, line 5, leave out ", niece or cousin" and insert "or niece". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 43 made:

In page 49, line 26, at end insert

"(7) Where—
 
(a) a person ("the agent") has introduced a prospective tenant or other occupier to the owner of accommodation,
 
(b) the prospective tenant or other occupier enters into a tenancy or other occupation agreement under which periodical payments are to be made in respect of the occupation, and
 
(c) the agent (acting on behalf of the owner) receives the first of those periodical payments,
 
then, for the purposes of the definition of "managing agent" in subsection (1), the receipt by the agent of that payment is not to be regarded as the receipt of rent or another payment from that occupier.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Clause 88, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 89 to 91 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 (Buildings or parts of buildings which are not houses in multiple occupation)

Amendment No 44 made:

In page 50, line 12, leave out heads (a) and (b). — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 45 made:

In page 50, line 18, at end insert

"(2) A building where the person managing it is—
 
(a) the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, or
 
(b) a housing association registered under Part 2 of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.


1.00 pm

Schedule 2 (Applications for HMO licences: requirements and procedure)

Amendment No 46 made:

In page 52, line 36, leave out paragraphs 2 to 6 and insert

"2.—(1) The Department must make regulations providing for the giving of notice of the making of HMO applications.
 
(2) Regulations under sub-paragraph (1) may in particular—
 
(a) require the applicant to cause notice of an application to be displayed on or near the HMO in question, or to cause such notice to be published in one or more newspapers circulating in the locality of the HMO;
 
(b) permit or require the council to cause such notice to be displayed or published, either at the council’s expense or at the applicant’s expense;
 
(c) specify information which must be displayed or published in or together with notice of an application, which may include notice of a right to make representations about the application and of the manner and period in which such representations must be made;
 
(d) specify requirements as to the form and manner of notice of an application, and the period for which it must be displayed or published;
 
(e) provide (subject to such conditions as may be specified in the regulations) for exceptions from any requirement to display or publish notice, in particular where the council is satisfied that displaying or publishing a notice would be likely to jeopardise the safety or welfare of any persons or the security of any premises;
 
(f) provide for the consequences of failing to comply with requirements imposed by the regulations (and such consequences may include permitting or requiring the council to cease to consider the application in question).
 
3. The council must send a copy of any application for an HMO licence to the statutory authorities.". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 47 made:

In page 54, line 29, leave out "paragraph 2, 3 or 5" and insert "regulations under paragraph 2". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 48 made:

In page 54, line 34, leave out from "is—" to end of line 39 and insert

"is to be set out in, or determined under, regulations made by the Department". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 49 made:

In page 56, line 10, leave out "paragraph 2, 3 or 5" and insert "regulations under paragraph 2". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 50 made:

In page 56, line 32, leave out "paragraph 2, 3 or 5" and insert "regulations under paragraph 2". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Amendment No 51 made:

In page 57, line 1, leave out from "paragraph" to "5" on line 2 and insert "regulations under paragraph 2". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Schedule 4 (Variation and revocation of HMO licences: procedure)

Amendment No 52 made:

In schedule 4, page 64, line 37, leave out "under section 67" and insert "in accordance with section 67(4)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 5 (Part 4 notices: further provision)

Amendment No 53 made:

In schedule 5, page 67, line 12, leave out "under section 67" and insert "in accordance with section 67(4)". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]

Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Schedules 6 to 8 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Houses in Multiple Occupation Bill, and the Bill stands referred to the Speaker. Thank you all very much.

The Business Committee agreed to meet five minutes ago, so I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 1.04 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Social Development

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The following questions have been withdrawn: 7, 8, 13 and 14. Daniel McCrossan is not in his place to ask question 1.

Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development): New housing benefit notifications were launched in September 2015 for new claims and change of circumstances. That followed consultation with tenants' groups and advice sector agencies, such as the Housing Rights Service. The new housing benefit notifications were improved and simplified with a number of modifications, including expanded notes to include illustrative examples of how charges are calculated and explanations of some of the terminology used; clearly showing the amount of rent, rates and housing benefit due to the top of the notification; a single housing benefit notification is now issued setting out the latest circumstances rather than multiple notifications, if changes have taken place; and claimants are reminded in the notes that they can request a formal decision notice or written statement of reason, if required.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for his answer. I have many elderly constituents who continue to struggle with letter after letter from the Housing Executive, which, despite recent changes, continue to be complex and confusing. That often leads elderly tenants into arrears through absolutely no fault of their own. What assurances can the Minister give that those letters will eventually be provided in plain English to help those who simply wish to live in their home and pay the correct amount each month?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for her question and for her supplementary question. I share her frustrations. We all have constituents who come to us confused because they get a lot of literature that is very difficult, at times, to interpret. I can tell the Member that a concentrated effort is being made to regularise and pull all this together into a single document, and I hope that, as a result, she and her constituents will see a marked improvement in the service and that tenants will receive a document that is easily understood. If the Member has a particular case that she wants to talk to me about, I am happy to do that.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his response. Will the Minister outline to the House the effects of the changes regarding the backdating of housing benefit?

Lord Morrow: I thank Mr Douglas for his question also. In his summer Budget, the Chancellor announced that from April 2016 housing benefit claims would be backdated for a maximum of one month. Under the existing provision, claimants can request the backdating of housing benefit for six months. The decision to reduce the period to one month is in line with changes in GB. When universal credit is implemented later this year, it will provide for only one month's backdating of claims, provided that the claimant can demonstrate good cause.

Lord Morrow: I recognise that certain aspects of liquor licensing law in Northern Ireland are in need of reform. The proposals outlined in the 'Way Forward' report require changes to primary legislation. Since my appointment in January, I have focused on competing priorities such as welfare reform and two housing Bills, and, unfortunately, at this stage, there is insufficient time to progress a Bill to amend the law in the current mandate. Any changes to the law on liquor licensing will fall to the new Department for Communities to consider after the Assembly election in May.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer and for engaging with me recently on my private Member's Bill on licensing. During the Bill's legislative progress, it became clear that a number of issues were not consulted on in 2012, such as microbreweries, under-18s on licensed premises and so on. Will the Minister ask his Department to progress a much wider consultation process so that, in the next mandate, better, more modern legislation can be taken forward?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for her question. As a result of her work on the issue, a lot of matters have come to a head. There is no doubt that there is a strong case for taking a holistic look at licensing legislation in Northern Ireland. At the expense of repeating myself, however, I have said that that will not be done in this mandate. It will be an issue for whoever is here the other side of the election. I suspect that, in the new mandate, the matter will be given consideration, because it is somewhat overdue. No matter what stance you take, liquor licensing is important. I may not always agree with the Member or other Members on what is the best way forward, but we have to move forward in order to deal with the issue.

Mr Maskey: I do not expect the Minister to project into the next mandate and to speak for people in that mandate. Does he not agree, however, that it is regrettable that, notwithstanding his Department's previous consultations with wider sectors, we have not had a holistic review of licensing legislation in the current mandate, given its importance to tourism and local job sectors?

Lord Morrow: I hear what the Member says, but the House is often accused of not doing legislation. However, the very reason that that legislation is not going through in this mandate is the pressure on the legislative timetable. I am sure that the Member will agree that no Member would expect me to deal with in four and a half weeks what could not be achieved in four and a half years.

Mr Easton: Why has the Minister not brought forward a gambling reform Bill?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Minister may or may not wish to answer that question.

Lord Morrow: I could give the short answer again — lack of time and the pressure on the legislative timetable — but, during the current mandate, my Department was faced with competing priorities, such as welfare reform, which is a very big issue, and two housing Bills, which I referred to. My predecessors and I were therefore unable to progress a gambling Bill as intended.

Mr Dallat: I offer no criticism whatsoever of the Minister, but he will realise that the Executive have had the issue of reform of the licensing laws on their table since 2012. As we speak today, tens of thousands of young people are being told that they have committed a criminal offence because they are on licensed premises after 9.00 pm, when, in fact, those premises are not selling alcohol, have a controlled environment and have staff trained in child abuse issues and all the other things. Will the Minister assure the House that that crazy situation will not last for much longer?

Lord Morrow: I hear what the Member says, and I hear the frustration in his voice. As a previous contributor said, however, I cannot give any guarantee of what the new Assembly will do following the election, because I do not know who will be here.

If someone could stand up today and tell me who all 108 Members will be, I would be interested in talking to them outside the Assembly. The point has been made, and well made, that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. I do not think that anyone, neither I nor previous Ministers, is trying to hide from that. Not least among the issues that need to be addressed is the very one that the Member raises, and there is a responsibility on the future House and Assembly to do so. Like him, I look forward to it being addressed.

Mr McCallister: I hear what the Minister says and am grateful to him for his replies outlining that his difficulty is that there is such a short period left.

I would like to draw his attention to the microbreweries that have grown up over the last number of years. In my South Down constituency, there are a number that really need legislation to make their business viable and make sampling days an attractive part of our tourist product. That really needs to be looked at and I urge the Minister to leave that with his Department and his successor. Will he pledge to do that?

Lord Morrow: I can give the Member one pledge: that I will leave it to whoever comes behind me. I have no bother giving that pledge. I am not quite sure that that is the answer that he wants, but, yes, he has my pledge that I will leave it to the next Minister. We can turn this round 101 times, but we will come back to the same situation, which is the time factor. The point is well made that the matter has to be addressed, and I do not think that anyone is shying away from or in denial about that.

Lord Morrow: At the outset, it is important to state that we fully expect some existing disability living allowance (DLA) recipients who suffer from conflict-related injuries to migrate successfully from DLA to the personal independence payment, now known as PIP, and they will not need to avail themselves of the mitigation measure. I emphasise that the proposal referred to is not from my Department, nor is it mine; it was one of the many mitigation measures recommended by the working group led by Professor Evason, which published its report on 18 January. The report and its recommendations were endorsed at an Executive meeting on 21 January, and I have been asked by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take forward the implementation of all the report's recommendations.

In her report and in more recent evidence to the Social Development Committee, Professor Evason explained that her rationale for including this in the package of mitigation measures was that it was intended to address a concern that the new personal independence payment assessment may not fully capture the consequences for claimants in Northern Ireland of conflict-related injury, particularly mental health issues. Professor Evason recommended that, in that scenario, existing DLA claimants who are refused the personal independence payment but score four points be awarded an additional four points to confer entitlement to a supplementary payment for one year only — it is not an entitlement to the personal independence payment.

Mr Allister: Whatever the obfuscation about the genesis of the proposal, the fact is that it has been adopted by the Executive and the Minister, and it is he who will bring forward the regulations to implement it. Is the Minister not ashamed that he intends to bring forward a proposal whereby a terrorist — a victim maker — who injured himself by his own hand in planting a bomb will possibly be in the position of benefiting from an extra four points in order to secure and maintain his benefits? If the Minister is not ashamed of that, he should be, because it is an obnoxious and obscene proposal.

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


2.15 pm

Mr Allister: Will the Minister undertake to exempt from the regulations he brings those terrorists with self-inflicted injuries?

Lord Morrow: Let me say to the Member that he may feel that he is the only person in Northern Ireland, and certainly, the only one in the House, who has any conscience on these issues. Let me say this: I suspect that, if you jag us brave and deep, you will find that my views are not much different from yours. However, I suspect the question has more to do with gaining some cheap political points than trying to deal with real issues. Unfortunately, as a Minister, I have to deal with real issues; I do not have the luxury of being critical of everything that comes across my desk. I wish sometimes that I did, but let me assure the Member that, whether there are inadequacies, it is my intention to do everything in my power to ensure that those who are deserving of it, get it, and those who are not deserving of it, do not get it.

Mr Attwood: I ask the Minister to clarify a point he made in his opening answer, when he said, as I understand it, that it was anticipated that some people — some claimants— who had suffered conflict-related injuries would migrate across to PIP. It has always been the assumption, Minister, that the vast majority of people migrating across to PIP with conflict-related injuries would do so. Are you now sending a message to victims and survivors that it will be a smaller, rather than a larger, number of those with conflict-related injuries who will migrate to PIP than was believed to be the case heretofore?

Lord Morrow: Let me make this very clear to the Member: where those who have suffered — the innocent victims — are concerned, there is no attempt on my part or by my Department to deprive them of any benefit they are entitled to. What I want to say to the Member, who at one time sat in a similar seat as I, is this: if he has a case that he wants to talk to me about, let him come and talk to me. I will look forward to hearing about it, but I suspect I will not.

Lord Morrow: I had a very successful meeting with the Member and the chief executive of Shankill (Lurgan) Community Projects (SLCP) on 3 February. Amongst the issues we discussed was an application from the SLCP for social housing enterprise funding from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The application requested assistance for capital renovations of five flats at Mount Zion House that are owned by Choice Housing, as well as funds for furniture and professional fees.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive informed the SLCP via email on 5 February 2016 that its application was unsuccessful. A letter detailing the decision will follow, outlining the reasons why and how the Housing Executive’s social investments team can engage with it going forward. In addition, I have asked my officials to continue to engage with the SLCP to consider alternative solutions for the five vacant properties at Mount Zion House.

Mrs D Kelly: Yes, the Minister did visit, and I am very grateful to him for spending so much time with the largely voluntary board of Shankill (Lurgan) Community Projects. I am pleased to hear that he will keep his eye on the ball with the progress of this case. There are 150 people in the area of north Lurgan on a waiting list. Does the Minister agree with me that it is of the utmost urgency that the Housing Executive and all others involved in this case put maximum effort into ensuring that these apartments — I think there are 18 in total, with five requiring remedial work — are put back into immediate use to alleviate the severe housing crisis in north Lurgan?

Lord Morrow: I say to the Member that housing is a very emotive issue in Northern Ireland. There is a big demand for social sector housing. We have a waiting list that is running at some 40,000, of which about 50% is stress housing. Where opportunities arise that we can avail ourselves of to ensure that vacant properties are used to the maximum, I have no hesitation in supporting those. I know that it is easy to say that standing here today, and that it is quite another thing to put it into action. However, I give the Member an assurance that this will be looked at and, if it is at all possible and viable to do it, it will be done. There is no merit whatsoever in properties sitting vacant while people are sitting on waiting lists for a long time.

Lord Morrow: With the new state pension being introduced from 6 April 2016 and affecting anyone reaching state pension age on or after that date, my Department has launched a multi-channel advertising campaign that initially ran through October 2015. This campaign has proved successful, showing a significant increase in online activity as viewers sought further information. A second phase of the same campaign was scheduled to take place from 15 February, and, again, will be delivered across various advertising platforms. This phase will run continuously until the end of March.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for that information. The Minister will be aware of the concerns right across the community. Can the Minister be definitive about what changes we might actually expect?

Lord Morrow: The Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 makes provisions in relation to the introduction of a new state pension, with an option to allow current pensioners and people who reach state pension age before 6 April 2016 to increase their income in retirement by making a new class 3A voluntary National Insurance contribution. This additional pension amount will be known as state pension top-up. Furthermore, the requirement to have 35 qualifying years' National Insurance contributions or credits to receive the full new state pension amount, the accelerated timetable to increase state pension age to 67, and the introduction of a bereavement support payment and changes to private pensions —

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire. Can the Minister advise us what resources will be provided to the advice sector to help people, particularly pensioners and those who are about to be pensioners, work their way through what can often be a very complex maze of entitlements?

Lord Morrow: That is an important issue. Support will be put in place as this rolls out. I say to the Member that, if he has concerns around this one and he knows where there are issues arising in his constituency, I want to hear about them. As an Assembly, we have a duty and responsibility to the elderly in our society. It is well said that a society that cannot look after its elderly and its very young is not a credible society. I stand behind that remark.

Mr Patterson: I thank the Minister for his responses on this issue. Does the Minister accept that significantly more people — up to some 80% of those reaching state pension age in 2016-17 — are not going to have a better outcome under the new system? Would the Minister share my concerns that the change in the restriction on women drawing down from their husbands' National Insurance contributions could result in some not receiving a pension at all?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. This is the first opportunity I have had to welcome him publicly to the House. Like myself, he represents probably the best constituency in Northern Ireland, namely Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and I look forward to working with him on issues ahead.

I share his concerns, but I want to say something that I suspect he already knows: pensions are not a devolved matter. They are arrived at in London. Therefore, as a region of the United Kingdom, we are subject to the same pension control and conditions that prevail in London. Therefore, we do not set the rate of pensions.

There was an attempt here some years ago to raise the rate of pensions. I think it was the Alliance Party that came up with a suggestion that pensioners should all have an increase of £5. Not one Member spoke against that until we asked the Alliance Party, "Where will you get the £5?". They said they did not know, and they are still working on that one. That was about 10 or 15 years ago, and they still have not come up with the answer. However, I share the concerns that you voice.

Lord Morrow: The Housing Executive has advised that anyone can buy mobility scooters privately, even if they do not meet the criteria for statutory wheelchair provision. In such circumstances, the Housing Executive would consider providing a ramp, but only after a thorough assessment of need by the occupational therapy service. If the occupational therapist makes a recommendation for a ramp for a wheelchair user, the Housing Executive will undertake the work to the standard specified by the occupational therapist, subject to technical feasibility.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he give an indication of the condition of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's stock?

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. The joint DSD/NIHE Asset Commission has provided the Housing Executive with accurate, comprehensive and robust data on the condition of its stock and a holistic understanding of its long-term future investment needs. As a result, the Housing Executive has drafted a new asset management strategy that sets out its long-term investment approach. That change of direction to adopting active asset management principles allows the Housing Executive to consider its investment priorities strategically in light of the likely funding that will be available and to focus on those assets with a clearly sustainable future through demand and rental income.

Lord Morrow: The Housing Executive has advised that, for insulation schemes in North Down, a cavity wall insulation scheme has been programmed in the Strand Avenue area in Holywood as a result of particular issues arising in properties there. Watts Group plc has been appointed as the consultant for the scheme, and consultation with the residents is due to be carried out within the next two weeks. The Housing Executive then expects to advertise and tender during March and April. The scheme is due to commence on site in May.

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

T1. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Social Development to state where in the Fresh Start proposals it identifies the number of new affordable homes to be built this year and in the next four years, given that a report published today has said that £6·7 billion is needed to update Housing Executive stock over the next 30 years, with £1·5 billion required over the next five years. (AQT 3541/11-16)


2.30 pm

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member. I am not sure where he gets his figures or his information from. I understand that Savills has been carrying out a comprehensive report, and I look forward to getting sight of that report. I do not know whether the Member has already got sight of it, but, if he has, he is certainly ahead of me. Let me be very clear: there are very big challenges ahead in relation to housing in Northern Ireland. We will have to be more imaginative in the way that we fund the issue in the future, because there has to be a big change — a step change — in our attitude to social sector housing in Northern Ireland.

Mr McNarry: Being ahead of the Minister is certainly something. Will he say that, as the Housing Executive cannot borrow money and housing associations are already heavily committed financially, he will not propose high rent increases, regardless of whether he has got this report today?

Lord Morrow: The Member puts his finger on the issue. I am not proposing high rent increases. As a matter of fact, within the past few days, I have proposed a zero rent increase. I suspect that there will be those who will criticise me for that, and there might even be those who will say that it is the right thing to do. There is never an easy way forward on this one. I will make a statement in the not too distant future around the whole issue. I am sure that the Member will look forward to that, and he will, undoubtedly, want to ask questions when that day comes.

T2. Mrs McKevitt asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the progress of welfare reform. (AQT 3542/11-16)

Lord Morrow: Welfare reform is a very topical subject, and it is something that I have been devoting a considerable amount of my time to since I took over in Social Development, just four weeks ago or thereabouts. The regulations coming from the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order are being prepared by my officials, who continue to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to enable the welfare reform regulations to be taken through Westminster. The first measures are planned to commence in May 2016, with subsequent measures anticipated to commence in June, the autumn and early 2017. I can assure the Member that it is very active at the moment.

Mrs McKevitt: Will the Minister explain, in relation to welfare reform, how people with mental health issues will be assisted when the mobility element is included in the mitigations? That is a major concern for a lot of people in my constituency.

Lord Morrow: That is a very good question too, if I may say so. There are two mobility activities considered in determining entitlement to PIP: planning and following a journey and moving around. Planning and following a journey covers the difficulties experienced by people with learning difficulties, mental health problems or sensory impairment. Furthermore, in such a scenario, people with mental health problems may score four points in the planning and following a journey criterion.

T3. Mr McCausland asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the work that is to be undertaken by the Housing Executive to deal with finlock guttering on houses in Silverstream and Tynedale in North Belfast — an issue that affects houses in East Londonderry as well — given that he will be aware of water penetration into those homes as a result of defective guttering over many years. (AQT 3543/11-16)

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. Finlock guttering has been very much on the agenda in my Department of late. This is not a straightforward matter. We are grappling with a combination of two types of ownership: those who own their home and those who rent their home. Very often, while people live in different houses, they live under the same roof. Therefore, we have to work on a solution for how it will be done in a way that creates the least disturbance. The Member will undoubtedly be aware that, during his time as Minister, the problem was also in existence. I know that he worked hard to bring it up the agenda, which he did. I continue to do that to bring a result. It is something that I will concentrate on — I have done so in the past and will do so in the future — to get a solution to this difficult and vexed problem.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he rightly says, during my time with the Department for Social Development, we did not merely get it up the agenda; we actually got it onto the agenda. For 10 years, the Housing Executive had denied that there was an issue of defective guttering. I am concerned that, in the last number of days, it has emerged that 15 houses had their guttering replaced some years ago, which would seem to suggest that, all those years ago, there was an acknowledgement and an understanding in the executive of the nature of the problem; yet, publicly, it persisted in saying that it was a matter of condensation in the houses. Will he ask the Housing Executive to investigate how that happened so that we have a clear understanding of why there was such a long period of denial?

Lord Morrow: The Member makes the point well. I can tell him that I have already asked the Housing Executive to provide a report on that to me. I am aware of the situation as the Member has outlined it. I look forward to receiving the report from the Housing Executive. When I do, I will make it available to the Member.

Mr Swann: I congratulate the Minister. I think this is the first exchange we have had since he took up post.

T4. Mr Swann asked the Minister for Social Development when personal independence payments will be introduced in Northern Ireland. (AQT 3544/11-16)

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. I am not sure whether I have taken a question from him before, but he has decided to ask a good one. I cannot give him the exact date when that will be, but I will write to him when I get it and make it available to him. Hopefully, that will be with him within days rather than weeks.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Minister. I appreciate your efficiency. Have you any detail on whether new claimants will be assessed under the current rules and regulations that are used for DLA?

Lord Morrow: The situation is changing. I am sure that the Member knows that. Therefore, it would be unwise for me to speculate at this moment. However, as I have said, my officials are working virtually night and day to bring the matter forward as swiftly as they can. It is an issue that has to be dealt with in a very expeditious manner. I assure the Member that, just as he might have concerns around it, so do I, as a constituency MLA, because what affects his constituents affects mine, too.

T5. Mr Ross asked the Minister for Social Development what maintenance programmes are planned for the Monkstown estate in the near future; an estate that, last week, he viewed with the community association and was shown some of the Housing Executive stock where many people are living in pretty desperate conditions that are in urgent need of maintenance. (AQT 3545/11-16)

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. The Housing Executive has advised that, overall, it has 502 properties in Monkstown. The Monkstown estate has benefited from a variety of schemes including external cyclical maintenance, double glazing and kitchen replacements worth a total investment of nearly £2·4 million in the past few years.

Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for that answer. I encourage him to look at the current maintenance need in the area and get speedy progress on it. Specifically with regard to Abbeytown Square in the estate, what money has been spent there and what plans are there for development or schemes in that area?

Lord Morrow: I do not have the amount of money that was spent in relation to Abbeytown Square, but the last external cyclical maintenance scheme was completed in 2009-2010 and the last kitchen scheme was completed in 2013.

T6. Mrs Hale asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the Dales flats in Seymour Hill. (AQT 3546/11-16)

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for her question. In relation to the Dales, which the Member speaks about, I understand that there have been two recent reports. When I talk about recent, I mean one as recent as November 2015 and another as recent as October 2015. I am aware that there are problems with damp, condensation and other issues. Therefore, once the report comes through, which I expect virtually any time, I, too, will want to speak to the Member about it.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that you have not had a chance yet to visit the Dales to see the dangerous and disgraceful state of them. The Housing Executive has been finding ways to say no to doing any updates rather than finding a way to say yes. I have been to have a look, and it is so bad: there is damp rot and spores are growing on the walls. People should not have to live in those conditions. Windows were poorly fitted 20 years ago, and the heating system does not work, which is forcing people into fuel poverty.

Minister, I want to give you these photographs to show you how bad it is. I cannot believe that people are living in such a state. What can you do to help the residents of Seymour Hill?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can I highlight to Members that this is not the norm for Question Time? You are entitled to hand information to the Minister, but that can be done outside Question Time. I do not wish to encourage other Members to replicate such actions. Minister, I will allow you an opportunity to answer.

Mrs Hale: I apologise.

Lord Morrow: The Member has handed material to me, which I will look at. [Interruption.]

A quick glance at it tells its own story. As she said, I have not been out on the site, but my predecessor, Mr Storey, has and has assessed it, and he, too, declared that it is a matter of some urgency. Those pictures confirm what Mr Storey and the Member have said.

T7. Mr McMullan asked the Minister for Social Development what plans his Department has to improve the social housing stock in rural east Antrim, especially along the Antrim coast and glens. (AQT 3547/11-16)

Lord Morrow: I suspect that rural east Antrim, which he spoke about, is no different from rural Fermanagh and south Tyrone, rural west Tyrone, rural Armagh or any other rural area. Having said that, I suspect that it is not any better than those areas. I assure the Member that there is a continual appraisal of all social sector housing not only in his area but across Northern Ireland. I look forward to getting a report on the condition of our social sector housing not only in his constituency but in my constituency and in the constituency of everyone else represented in the House.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for that answer. The housing stock has not improved in the last 15 or 20 years in the Antrim coast and glens area. Will you look into that because we keep coming up with the only two sites in the whole area, which are not available, and other sites that are? I would be only too happy to have a meeting with you to discuss it. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his question. The Member could forward to me at the earliest possible opportunity his concerns outlining the estates and houses that he has raised here today. He did not mention them exactly, but he has said that they are on the coast, and I suspect that the coast is a fairly long distance. If he can send me that information or make me aware of it, we will certainly have a look at it and see what has to be done or what should be done.


2.45 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends the period of questions to the Minister for Social Development.

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Questions 4 and 7 have been withdrawn.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Hillsborough forest has over 225,000 visits annually, during which £1·7 million is spent on travel, food and drink. A survey in 2014 found that 88% of visitors rated the forest as very good or excellent; 99% said that they would probably or definitely recommend the forest as somewhere to visit; and 17% thought that the quality of the forest had improved in the past three years. However, 11% thought that it had become worse and suggested a need for toilets, better signposted walks, a play park, and dogs to be kept on leads and not allowed to foul the public areas.

Most visitors therefore think that Forest Service does a good job in Hillsborough, but it is clear that visitors also expect more. Resources are limited, so I have encouraged Forest Service to seek partners to share the burden. That seems to me to be an essential role for local government because most of the benefits fall to local people. I understand that Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council has had some early meetings to consider the potential for improvement, and I hope that that will develop into a more formal partnership.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for her detailed answer and for all the statistics. Given that multiple Departments are involved in the management of Hillsborough forest, can she tell me what discussions her Department has had to ensure that the environmental conditions and the tree health are robustly monitored?

Mrs O'Neill: I think that it is fair to say that we have a very robust plant health strategy in place. Our Forest Service officials are on the ground. I know that, in the past, you have expressed concerns about the forest, and hopefully those have been resolved through the discussion that you have had with my officials.

For me, one of the key positive things that we have been able to develop over the past number of years is to open up our forests to people and to ensure that there is more recreation in them. We have been very successful in doing that alongside our partners, particularly, when it comes to recreation, and working with our local councils. There have been a number of very successful projects, and I hope to see recreation continue to grow and, indeed, flourish into the future. The forest that you speak about has more potential. There is some scope to do work on some of the issues that have been highlighted, but a partnership approach will be very much key to that work.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister share the concerns of the protesters who are currently protesting against oil exploration at Woodburn forest in Carrickfergus?

Mrs O'Neill: I am aware that there is considerable public interest in the drilling proposals that are ongoing at Woodburn, and it is a matter of record that I am personally opposed to the exploration of fracking. However, to be very clear, forests at Woodburn are managed by Forest Service. They are on land that is owned by the Water Service, not Forest Service. I previously gave a commitment to the House and publicly that there will be no fracking on Forest Service land, and that remains my position. This is a matter for the Water Service and my colleague the Minister for Regional Development to comment on, particularly concerning the arrangements for access by a drilling company. The considerable public interest has shown that people have a legitimate concern about the environmental implications of any such drilling and any proposed action that may come about as a result.

Mr Patterson: Can the Minister provide an update on present staffing levels in Forest Service? Does she accept the concerns of many existing staff about its future ability to manage forests, given the shrinking and ageing workforce?

Mrs O'Neill: First, I am sure that the Member will join me in congratulating Forest Service for moving into his constituency. Last week, I was up there to open officially the new Forest Service headquarters. I am very passionate about decentralising public-sector jobs. Something like 39 staff have now come on to the site, with the opportunity for up to 80 staff to move on to the site over the next number of years. For me, that is a very positive development.

I do not have a breakdown of the age structure of the workforce. I am confident, however, that all that needs to be done is being done and that our staff are on the ground, working with communities, working with their partners in councils and doing everything that they can not just to maintain the plant health of our forests but to open up the forest to wider social and recreational use. I commend Forest Service for making that shift and for working with me, the Department and my predecessor to have a completely different strategy on forests. I think that it has been very successful.

Mr Lyttle: Can the Minister provide an update on the potential Forest Service acquisition of Cairn Wood and assure the Assembly that she will do all she can to ensure that that outstanding natural environment remains within public ownership?

Mrs O'Neill: Forest Service is preparing the business case for the transfer of land that is owned by Water Service at Ballysallagh. It is too early to say what the preferred option for Forest Service will be, but I expect that it will require considerable involvement from partners, particularly Ards and North Down Borough Council, working with the Forest Service to turn that into a reality. I am aware that there is considerable public interest in the matter, but it is for Water Service and my colleague the Minister for Regional Development to comment on the current plans. I understand where the Member is coming from, and I will support that in trying to do all that we can.

Mrs O'Neill: Delivery of the agreed actions in the Executive's response to Going for Growth spans a number of Departments. DARD has a role in taking forward over 40 actions supporting improved animal health and welfare, innovation, market access and environmental sustainability. However, the key action for the new Department is the farm business improvement scheme, which will be delivered via the rural development programme (RDP). The farm business improvement scheme is a package of measures aimed at knowledge transfer, cooperation, innovation and capital investment to improve competitiveness and productivity in farming. The Executive agreed to prioritise the agrifood sector for support and to provide up to £250 million of capital and resource funding over the lifetime of the RDP for the farm business improvement scheme, subject, obviously, to approved business cases and, which is key, industry demand.

Expenditure on the scheme has been profiled out to 2023. It is anticipated that up to £200 million will be available to support on-farm capital investment. Remaining funding will be allocated to the knowledge transfer, cooperation and innovation programmes, which will assist farmers to clearly identify their needs ahead of any capital investment and to make informed decisions about developing their businesses.

My departmental budget allocation for 2016-17 includes £5 million in capital funding to support the implementation of Going for Growth actions, including £2 million for the farm business improvement scheme. The first phase of the scheme — knowledge transfer — launched in November 2015 with business development groups. I was happy to announce recently that all eligible applicants — over 3,200 — would be offered a place in the groups. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to launch further phases of the farm business improvement scheme, including farm family key skills training and support for capital investment. Business cases are being finalised, and schemes will launch as soon as possible once those are approved.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for her answer. How have the recent announcement on renewables obligation certificates and the early closure of the renewable heat incentives impacted on farms that would have sought that funding, particularly in relation to their energy costs?

Mrs O'Neill: One of the biggest challenges in the agrifood sector is that our manufacturing companies in that field pay really high energy costs. NIFDA — the Food and Drink Association — launched its manifesto today, and it particularly picked up on the fact that that is one of the biggest challenges that the industry faces. Thankfully, work is ongoing in DETI, which will, hopefully, report in the next couple of weeks and put proposals to the Executive as to how we can help the industry. I am keen to see that work because, of the continuing challenges across all the agrifood sectors, one of the biggest is the margin that farmers receive for what they produce. If we are going to be serious about trying to improving that margin, we need to look seriously at how we can reduce production costs for farmers, processors and all the people in the supply chain.

In relation to renewable heat incentives, we had that discussion in the House over the last number of weeks. I think that there are implications. Thankfully, instead of an abrupt end to the scheme, some companies have been able to adjust and, hopefully, finish the work that they had contracted to do. There are implications for the wider industry, but we need to be positive about the agrifood industry. We need to embrace the challenges and the opportunities. The chairperson of NIFDA today spoke about positivity and going forward and working together — government and industry — in taking on all the challenges. I am certainly up for playing my part in my Department and in the Executive.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for her responses. When does she hope to open the first tranche of the farm business improvement scheme to applications?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said, we are working our way through the business cases. I am delighted that over 3,200 people have come to the business development groups. That was the first tranche and the first stage of the scheme. I said from the start that we needed to take it forward in a coordinated manner, and that was the best way to do that. As soon as we have the business case, which will certainly be before the end of the mandate, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement on the capital element of the farm business improvement scheme.

Any farmers who are considering making any sort of capital investment on their farm may wish to start thinking about what they will need to do in advance of that, such as assessing the needs of their businesses and getting ready for the scheme when it opens. We are making sure that we disseminate all the information about the capital element of the scheme as soon as it comes forward, and we are very much doing that through working with the business development groups. As I said, I am so delighted to have seen over 3,200 people come forward. It shows that there is a desire in the industry to invest in farms and to look at production to see what farmers can do for themselves. The scheme will allow them to be more productive in the future. It will allow them more collaboration and working with others, and it will have tremendous benefits for the wider farming industry.

Mrs Dobson: When will the Minister provide the detail of the list of eligible items that farmers can apply for under the farm business improvement scheme so that they can begin to prepare for expenditure for later this year?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said, we are working our way through the detail of all that. That is part of the business case. As I have always said to farmers, the rule of thumb is that it will not be like the previous scheme, where there was a list of eligible items; this time, it needs to be a bit more creative in helping people to deliver for products that they need on farm and that will help them to become more efficient. We have been working with the farming industry on the detail, and we have been communicating this as we go through. We have taken a phased approach. I have communicated that message. People are eagerly awaiting the agreement for the business case, when we will be able to go out and say what it is. We will communicate that through roadshows and other methods to make sure we get the message out there on what is available and how you can go about applying. I very much think that the farm business development groups have been key to communicating all that.

Mrs O'Neill: Financial corrections imposed on my Department by the European Union since 2008 amount to €78 million. However, the actual financial cost to my Department is lower, at €59 million, due to the fact that the recovery of overpaid moneys to claimants is taken into account by the Commission. The total amount of disallowance should be considered in the context of the funding that we receive from the CAP. During the period from 2007 to 2013, we received €2·2 billion under pillar 1 and a further €329 million under pillar 2 before any matched funding. Over the 2014-2020 budget period, pillar 1 payments to our farmers will amount to €2·3 billion. In addition, €228 million of EU funds will be devoted to our rural development programme, resulting in a total planned expenditure under the CAP of €2·53 billion.

Mr McNarry: I am somewhat astounded — actually, flabbergasted — by the amounts. These are fines and penalties. The Minister said little about the reasons or whether there had been repetitive failures. Given that she might elaborate on that, can she also tell us what, in fact, she is doing to stop future fines and penalties of this nature?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I think we have done a considerable body of work. If you remember — I have said this to the House on numerous occasions in the past — the reasons for disallowance at different times, particularly in how Europe conducted its audits a number of years later and then applied things retrospectively, has led to challenges. However, year-on-year I can certainly point to improvements and have been able to bring that disallowance down. I do not have a breakdown of the figures, but I am happy to provide it to you. We have certainly been able to make a significant difference in the amounts of disallowance that have been applied.

As I said, I have talked up the amounts that we receive year-on-year here in single farm payments and the rural development programme, and we continue to have a programme in place that will lead us up to 2020 and will see €2·53 billion coming into the local economy. I think we can all be very clear that the farming community needs that and the wider rural community needs it, as it is investment in basic services, rural business and rural tourism. All those factors will benefit us immensely, and the wider rural community will benefit immensely from the contribution of €2·53 billion in planned spend from the EU budget.

Mr Campbell: This is not a question about the EU, as the people of the United Kingdom, in the next three months, will decide that, but the issue relates to our membership of the EU.

The Minister will be well aware, I am sure, of the considerable time that officials in her Department have to spend when they are facing EU restrictions, bureaucracy, guidelines and the fines issues, which has just been mentioned.


3.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can the Member come to a question?

Mr Campbell: Can she elaborate today or, if not today, subsequently in writing on the timeline for all of her departmental officials to analyse those things to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: I can assure the Member that my officials spend their time making sure that we distribute the funding in as quick a manner as we possibly can. The year-on-year improvements in getting single farm payments into farmers' pockets are very clear; the evidence is there to back up what I am saying.

I often hear this argument about regulations. Anybody who thinks that regulations are going to disappear post-Brexit are absolutely deluded. There will always be regulations in place. If we were to start out tomorrow not as a member of the European Union and wanted to trade with it, we would have to abide by the regulations from Europe to get into that market. It is delusional, to say the least, for people to use the argument that coming out of Europe will mean that there will be no regulation for farmers. Going forward, we need to look at the fact that there is £2·53 billion available for our local economy. [Interruption.]

Where is that money going to be replaced from? I can be very assured —