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 07 June 2016


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

Assembly Business

Committee Chairperson Appointment

Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that I have received the resignation of Mr Declan McAleer as Chairperson of the Audit Committee. The nominating officer for Sinn Féin, Mr Martin McGuinness, has nominated Mr John O'Dowd to fill the vacancy with effect from 6 June 2016.

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Resolved:

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 7 June 2016. — [Mr Swann.]

Opposition Business

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

Ms Hanna: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises that the experience of children in the early years of life has multiple impacts on development, health and educational achievement; believes that there should be a common, cross-departmental approach to funding, inspection, registration and access to child and family support services; calls on the Minister of Education to develop and bring forward an early education and care Act and a care and early childhood development strategy with resourced and supported training, qualifications and a professional development strategy for the entire early years workforce; and further calls on the Minister to bring forward proposals for the provision of free preschool childcare for children aged three and four years to a minimum of 20 hours per week to be in place in the 2016-17 financial year, and for an increase in provision to 30 hours per week from the 2017-18 financial year.

Childcare and the impact on childhood development, work-based equality and economic and social well-being are exactly the sort of subjects that the Assembly needs to tackle. We hope to see detail and progress on this in the next version of the Programme for Government.

We have taken on board feedback from policy experts and private providers of childcare and, looking at the departmental changes, tried to bring forward a comprehensive and viable set of proposals. We are focusing on the preschool year as expansion of that provision is probably the path of least resistance. We believe that it facilitates more people into work and would also be a strong start to expanding more comprehensive support for families into the private sector. The SDLP has been campaigning on the issue for quite some time, including the publication last September of our document, 'A Better Deal for Working Parents'. As an aside, those proposals were developed alongside Executive discussions on welfare reform. I bring that up because our proposals are inextricably linked with reform of work, more work, better-paid work, better working conditions and a better calibre of work.

As a working mum of two preschool-aged children, I understand acutely the choices that parents face in finding quality and convenient childcare. Costs are by far the biggest barrier for people who want to return to work. I believe that the average is £164 a week, which is just shy of half the median income here, but £200 a week for a child is by no means unusual, and wages are not rising to match this cost. Many people are working until Wednesday or Thursday of the working week just to cover the cost of their childcare, and many people are back in the workplace just to keep their foothold in the labour market and their skills current.

The gender pay gap, which substantially decreases lifetime earnings for women, including their pension and National Insurance contributions, can in many cases be tracked back to the gaps that women in particular, who take on most of the caring duties, take to raise their children. To ensure that women are properly represented in public life and in the public and private sectors, we need to invest in childcare and ensure that women in particular do not have to make a choice between a fulfilling career and the knowledge that their children are being well looked after and developed during the working day.

As well as support and investment in this provision, families need choice and flexibility. Every family is different, and many use a mixture of public, private, voluntary and family support. Traditionally, of course, many parents stay at home to keep a home and a family, and, if that is their choice, that should absolutely be facilitated and celebrated.

Happily, there is now an acceptance that childcare is a privilege and a duty for mums and dads equally. There is also an understanding that people who work, even people who work full-time, will still develop perfectly warm relationships with their children. In fact, whether and how their mum in particular works outside the home can have a strong impact on the world view of girls and boys and their understanding of their place in the world and the options and aspirations available to them.

Many people want to work part-time and flexibly, and a lot more can be done to encourage that and incentivise employers to be family-friendly. Allowing parents to have fulfilling and stimulating work is key and has benefits far beyond the financial remuneration. Focused, structured learning through play in early years obviously has lifetime value — we will expand on that — but the patience, understanding and love that children receive at home are still the best guarantee that they will flourish. Allowing their parents to be stimulated and remunerated outside the home is key in that. The socialising effect of guided, structured play in early years has very obvious benefits in cognitive behaviour, reasoning and concentration, and there are obvious positives on that throughout their educational and working life.

There are, of course, economic impacts far beyond the household budget. Greater childcare provision can be a key catalyst in bolstering the economy and retaining a skilled workforce. In households where both parents want to continue to work, there is a multiplier effect, with a further worker being hired for childcare provision.

All those people pay tax, and, without childcare, those two or three workers are folded back into one, and labour productivity and the tax base shrink accordingly, so there are comprehensive and compelling reasons why it cannot just be left to the market but should be invested in from public funds. We need urgent action from the Executive and a revised strategy, legislation and funding to get the best start for children.

In response to an Assembly question last June, the then Education Minister, John O'Dowd, indicated that he would introduce an early years Bill before the end of the mandate. That did not happen, but we hope that it can be picked up by the incoming Minister. The Bill can be complemented by the incoming childcare strategy and functions, which we do not believe were effectively delivered on under OFMDFM.

A number of streams can be used to fund the proposals. The current spend on preschool childcare provision is £56 million a year, and the Department of Education has said that an increase to 30 hours a week would cost an extra £42 million. England is spending an extra billion pounds on childcare, and, if the Conservatives can look after working families, it should be in the ambition of the Assembly as well. There will be direct Barnett consequentials, and we believe that they should be spent specifically in this area of provision.

To get to the point of the 30 hours' free childcare that we would like to get to, the initial step would be to increase the minimum number of free preschool hours from 12·5 to 20 hours a week. As well as reducing the direct cost of childcare to families, it would remove a key barrier for those seeking work. For many families who get a nursery place — in my constituency, getting your first-choice nursery place is probably the exception, not the rule, and getting a full-time place is the same — there is very little paid work that a parent can do in the two and a half hours between drop-off and pickup. While I understand that the preschool year is not just about childcare, it definitely facilitates more people going into work. You can go out and do some meaningful and remunerated work in that time without having to buy into childcare.

We believe that the transformative effect and potential of the initiatives justify the investment. We recognise that capacity is a big issue for the physical infrastructure and staffing, and that we need to improve training and outcomes, which will increase the quality of provision.

Research by Save the Children has identified key factors that will influence how a child does educationally by the age of five. First, what their parents do at home is key. Poverty, and the stressful effect of family poverty, is the second element, and the third element is the quality of early years provision. The better educated the provider, the better the educational outcomes will be. To attract skilled and qualified staff, the sector must become better paid and better respected.

It is no coincidence that caring work is predominantly done by women and is lower paid across many sectors. That has to change. It is vital, intense work. I am sure that we all complain about the long days here, but anybody with small children will tell you that a day in this Building is probably a walk in the park, although I suspect that some of the conflict resolution strategies employed would be the same in both.

We have listened to the views of and feedback from the sector, including those providing childcare on a commercial basis, and we acknowledge that there needs to be support for them. One of the areas is a reform of the regulatory regime. It imposes unfeasible standards that do not drive outcomes but drain investment from innovation and any potential savings that could be passed on to parents. This is absolutely not about letting standards slip so that the facilities are not safe, but, at the moment, they are potentially inspected by more than one authority. We think that cutting out some of the duplication in the inspections will generate savings for the private provider and the public purse.

In conclusion, we think that childcare is a deeply sound financial investment, and I believe that all parties can agree on that when they look at the very obvious benefits. If we fund this now, put in place the proper strategy to address it and increase over the term of the mandate the benefits for families, we will see benefits for years to come. I commend the motion to the House.


10.45 am

Lord Morrow: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, which is of some considerable importance, and I welcome the fact that it has come before the Assembly at a very early stage. I also welcome the Minister of Education. I think that this is his first time responding as Minister, but if it is not, it is the first time that I have had the opportunity to publicly welcome him. I look forward to him carrying out his duties, which I know he will bring great professionalism and expertise to, and I warmly welcome him here today.

On the motion before us, I listened carefully to what Carmel Hanna said, and I am a bit surprised that she now equates a day in the Assembly with "a walk in the park". I suspect that that one will turn round and bite her some day. Those of us who stay here, including Members from all parties, sometimes from 10.00 am, after leaving home at 7.00 am, and stay until 10.00 pm or 11.00 pm do not see it quite as Carmel Hanna does when she calls it a "walk in the park". Anyway, that is her definition of a day in the Assembly; it is certainly not mine.

Having said that, I do not believe that anyone in the Chamber today is against the fact that childcare is critical to the protection, development and nurturing of a child. I think that that is very important. It is good to see that the whole thing has now been collated and brought together under one Department; I think that that will pay dividends in the future. It is now under the remit of the Department of Education, as I already said. That is a very positive move, as it keeps the welfare of the child throughout their learning career under one Department. It also allows each section of education to flow smoothly into another, from preschool right through to primary school and on through to post-primary. As I said, I have full confidence in the Minister.

Research tells us, and those of us who are parents and grandparents know first-hand, that the early years are formative, and children are very impressionable and sensitive to their environment while they develop. It is therefore vital that their development be encouraged and supported to allow the best for them as they set out on their tentative first steps in life's journey.

Throughout my previous remarks, it will be noted that I have focused on the child's welfare, and that is the key to childcare. Childcare is an important factor for parents, and they are entirely correct in wanting to provide the best possible environment to ensure that their children develop socially and educationally. In order to show my commitment to the issue, I want to highlight my part in taking the matter forward.

In the short time that I was in the Department for Social Development, I discovered that there was going to be a gap in funding for childcare in women's centres, and I had some lobbying from Members, not least — I have to say this, although she is not with us anymore — Dolores Kelly, who pushed the issue considerably. However, Dolores is not here any more. The rationale for providing funding is to contribute to the reduction of child poverty as well as to allow parents to avail themselves of other opportunities and to contribute to their communities, thereby tackling disadvantage.

The fund that I put in place, or rather continued with for the gap year, as I call it, supports 14 women's centres in the delivery of 88,000 two-hour childcare slots each year at a total cost of some £880,000. I was pleased to be able to announce that. I believe that it will pay a good dividend in the communities in which the women's centres operate and provide that service. The fund was to close on 2 March 2016, but that has now been deferred until at least the same date in 2017 as a result of the action that I took. It is not known whether it will be a decision for the Minister for Communities or OFMDFM because we are waiting for the strategy to be developed. We have not had it, but I suspect that we will get it during this financial year, and I look forward to that.

I have some concerns about the free childcare provision for parents who might earn up to £100,000.

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

Lord Morrow: Oh yes. You want me to sit down; right; I will do so in a moment. I do have concerns, and I wonder whether Carmel Hanna is on the same page as me: does she feel that it is acceptable for parents who earn up to £100,000 to be provided with free childcare? I have no doubt that the SDLP will deal with that one.

Mr Speaker: As this is the first occasion on which Catherine Seeley has had the opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that the convention is that maiden speeches are completed without interruption — that is, unless the Member makes remarks that are likely to provoke an intervention.

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise to the Member; I think that I called her "Carmel". That was her wonderful mother. It is Claire.

Ms Seeley: I want to take this opportunity to say how honoured and humbled I am to be in the Chamber as a voice for the constituents of Upper Bann. As a former teacher, and as the party spokesperson on childcare, children and young people, it gives me great pleasure to speak on today's motion. I begin by paying tribute to the many community groups, schools and individuals in my constituency of Upper Bann who work tirelessly to give our children the best start in life, particularly those in rural and most socially deprived areas. Upper Bann is blessed with proactive and empowered groups from Scotch Street to Tannaghmore and Loughshore to Taghnevan.

I also take this opportunity to commend the previous Minister of Education, my constituency colleague Mr John O'Dowd, whom we owe huge gratitude to for his unprecedented level of investment in early years education. I hope that our new Minister of Education places similar emphasis on early education, given the benefits to the child and to wider society.

I must say that I am somewhat disappointed with this motion. Its focus on three- to four-year-olds ignores and disregards the negative impacts that even younger children face. Research clearly demonstrates how early language ability, particularly at two years, makes a strong contribution to emotional and behavioural functioning. Good early language skills, especially for children growing up in poverty, underpin educational achievement. There are proven links between speech, language and communication difficulties as a risk factor and predictor to neglect, abuse, school exclusion and early school departure. Currently, 7% of our children — two in every classroom — have speech, language and communication needs. That increases to 50% of children from our most socially deprived communities. This threat to the development of expressive and receptive language skills impacts massively on interpersonal relationships, environments and services. Interventions should therefore take place as early as possible, particularly when the child has been identified as vulnerable. We must shift the focus from crisis intervention to prevention and early intervention. Such an effective approach to early years education and intervention will contribute strongly to promoting and upholding children's rights as identified in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Sadly, not every child who needs it enjoys early intervention. A postcode lottery currently dictates levels of intervention. Many harder-to-reach children, particularly vulnerable two-year-olds, remain under the radar, with intervention coming so late that its impact is significantly weakened. We must redirect resources to ensure that intervention happens as early as possible for those who need it the most.

During a first Holy Communion service that I attended at the weekend involving my nephew and his P4 St Patrick's Aghacommon class, children were described as the mums and dads of tomorrow and the builders of tomorrow's society — two very poignant points. Early intervention provides us with a key opportunity to shape the North's future. It is a strong platform for future success, creating smarter, safer, healthier and wealthier societies, and is crucial if we are to break the cycles of poverty and inequality, but this will require a renewed level of ambition. Children should be valued and provided for at the centre and heart of service delivery. We must first address the needs of those children whose lives, opportunities and ambitions are threatened by poverty, poor health, poor attainment and unemployment. We must prove flexible and be responsive to the needs of our children, irrespective of age, race, religion, gender or, indeed, postcode.

In the long term, we must increase spend on early care and childhood development to bring the North into line with international OECD standards. Finally, we must make efforts to strengthen support for parents, particularly those parents living in poverty.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mrs Rosemary Barton, as this is the first opportunity Mrs Barton has had to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption — that is, unless the Member makes remarks that are likely to provoke an intervention.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech today. It is my privilege to represent the area in which I was born, grew up and was educated. I am truly humbled to be here, and it is with honour and respect that I will endeavour to serve the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the most scenic area, I believe, of Northern Ireland. I come to Stormont with a background in education and as a post-primary teacher in mathematics. Thank you, also, to all the staff here in Stormont, who have been most helpful, warm and welcoming in my first days.

I want to take the opportunity to pay my respects to my predecessors Mr Tom Elliott MP, Mr Neil Somerville and Mr Alastair Patterson. Mr Tom Elliott, who, I am sure, many of you know, was an extremely capable MLA who had a never-ending supply of energy when it came to helping and supporting his constituents. His attention to detail on the Committees on which he served is well-documented. However, I believe he will be most-remembered for his calm, affable and reassuring manner when dealing with issues in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Mr Neil Somerville, his successor, had a background in tourism, and he was eventually succeeded by Mr Alastair Patterson in January 2016. Alastair was an extremely hard-working member of the Environment Committee and will be remembered for the quick and efficient manner in which he conducted business.

In moving on to the motion, I welcome it and congratulate the SDLP on the work it has done on this important area of public policy. I wish to elaborate on the benefits of interdepartmental cooperation. Research over the years has shown how necessary this collaboration is, and health and education must develop in tandem. Poor health impacts on educational achievement, while a lack of educational achievement has a greater impact on our preschool children and their development.

There is increasing recognition that the first few years of a child's life lay the foundations for cognitive functioning and behavioural and social tendencies, together with their physical health. Therefore, it is imperative that there is a cross-departmental approach to the development of early education and childhood care through intervention programmes and family support services. Only this morning on the radio we heard the Ulster Teachers' Union general secretary talk about the removal of finance from preschool provision in special needs.

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

The cost of childcare provision is prohibitive. Many parents struggle to pay household bills and mortgages, even though both are working full time. According to the Northern Ireland childcare cost survey 2015, published last November by the Employers for Childcare Charitable Group, 46% of parents, including 52% of mothers, reduced their hours or left work due to childcare costs, in comparison with 32% of fathers. This shows that mothers still bear the brunt of the caring responsibilities. Free preschool childcare for three- and four-year-olds must be provided by a professional workforce.


11.00 am

Last year, the former OFMDFM only spent one third of its £12 million intended for investment in childcare, leaving £8·6 million unspent, even though the cost of full-time places in childcare had risen —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member bring her remarks to a close? Thank you.

Mrs Barton: — to £164 —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Can I ask the Member — you will allow her extra time to speak, I presume, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker — about the importance of awareness of financial assistance for parents?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute. I am giving a little bit of leeway because it is the maiden speech.

Mrs Barton: Last year, as I said, the former OFMDFM only spent £12 million of its intended investment in childcare, leaving £8·6 million unspent even though the cost of full-time childcare places has risen. The motion before us calls for professional development for the entire early years workforce. In that regard, I would like to highlight the work of Save the Children in highlighting the importance of expertise in language development and skills to help parents with their children's development.

In supporting this very reasonable motion —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close, please.

Mrs Barton: — I appeal to the Minister of Health and the Minister of Education to get their act together to make sure that adequate resources are targeted.

Mr Lyttle: I am delighted to have his opportunity early in the mandate to speak on such an important issue as early education and childcare. I gave a commitment to the people of East Belfast that I would work to ensure that this Assembly mandate would be more open, more engaged and more relevant to the issues that affect the people in my constituency. I believe that early years education and childcare is of extreme relevance to families, our society and our economy. I commend the proposer of the motion for bringing it forward.

We know that quality childcare and early years education is absolutely vital to the development of our children and to allow families to access the training and employment opportunities that they need to provide a good quality of life for their family and to obtain the skills and ability to contribute to our economy. It is also absolutely vital to ensure educational attainment for everyone in our community; to ensure equality of opportunity; to tackle poverty; to ensure that we meet the additional needs of children in our community, especially those with a disability; and to deliver on children's rights.

It is disappointing, therefore, that we continue to see families in our community struggle to access and afford childcare. As has been mentioned, the Employers for Childcare 2015 cost of childcare survey, which I was privileged to sponsor the launch of here at the Assembly, found that the average mortgage payment for families in our community is around £139 a week, yet the average full-time childcare place is as much as £164 a week. That is unsustainable, and it is therefore totally unacceptable that the DUP/Sinn Féin Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister could spend only £4 million of a £12 million childcare budget for 2011 to 2015 and that it has yet to publish a full childcare strategy.

We also know that families are struggling to access their first choice of preschool early years education place in our community, and our current system provides for, by and large, two and a half hours a day. That is 12 and a half hours a week of free preschool early years education, and there is no statutory childcare provision for free. The best systems in the world have around six hours a day, which is around 30 hours a week, of integrated preschool education and childcare provision. Therefore, it seems that the OFMDFM Bright Start childcare framework and, indeed, the Executive's early education and childcare provision is wholly inadequate in comparison with that best-practice approach.

I, therefore, on behalf of the Alliance Party, support the motion. I welcome the recognition it gives to the centrality of early years education and childcare to development, health and educational achievement and the call it makes for improved provision of funding, inspection, regulation and access to those services. I support the call for legislation on the matter from the Minister and for improved training for our dedicated workforce in this area.

The motion calls for preschool, I presume, early years education and childcare provision in the preschool year of 20 hours per week in this financial year, rising to 30 hours per week. The Alliance Party in principle supports that increase, but we make an additional call on the Minister, if he is in any way minded not to deliver that particular call as a matter of urgency, to at the very least introduce an urgent, open and independent review of early years education and childcare and urgently scope the cost and viability of introducing that more comprehensive and integrated model. I also hope that he will set out the childcare budget for us today, and perhaps he would be able to deliver where OFMDFM was unable to, despite persistent calls for a full public awareness campaign on the financial assistance that is already available to families in our community by way of, for example, childcare vouchers, which many families are still unaware of.

I think it is an Executive disgrace that much of the work in this important area of provision has been left to the independent sector. The community and voluntary sector and social enterprises like Employers for Childcare, which delivers a family benefit advice service —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Would the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Lyttle: I think it is high time that our —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Swann: The Member mentioned the voluntary and community sector. Does he agree that it is picking up the slack that the statutory sector is not picking up at the minute?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up. I call Ms Carla Lockhart. As this is her first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Ms Lockhart: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. Right at the outset, I thank those around the Chamber and the Building for their very warm wishes from my taking up this role in the devolved Assembly. I thank my DUP colleagues for their advice and help along the way. It is an enormous privilege and honour to represent and serve the good people of Upper Bann. I thank from the bottom of my heart the many thousands of people who saw fit to put their trust in me to be their voice right at the very heart of this Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor Stephen Moutray, who I worked for and alongside for many years. Stephen served the people of Upper Bann for 10 years, and I know that he laid a great, firm foundation for me to build upon. I take this opportunity to wish him well in his business venture. Like Stephen, I want to be a strong advocate for Upper Bann in the House, and I want to work alongside my colleague Sydney Anderson in doing that.

As a young female business graduate, I do not want to be a token female. I do not want to be remembered for what I wear, the way my hair is or what my shoes are like. I want to be remembered for the energy, passion, drive and new way of thinking that I bring to the Assembly in trying to make Northern Ireland a stronger, more vibrant place for its residents. I want to make Upper Bann a great place to live, work and do business. I want to see our children and young people find the right pathway in life so that they can succeed and integrate into our evolving society. I want them to find jobs locally and have access to a world-class healthcare system, and I want our infrastructure to improve for our residents so that they feel safe no matter where they go within the constituency.

I would describe Upper Bann as an economic driver for Northern Ireland. It is the largest manufacturing base outside Belfast, it has a growing agrifood sector and is making strides in the life sciences industry. The cultural, tourism, musical and sporting offer that Upper Bann presents is outstanding and is one that I am immensely proud to represent.

Upper Bann has had its difficulties in days gone by and has suffered at the hands of terrorism. I do not want to see our history being rewritten and I will continue working with the many victims of terrorism who live in my constituency. I want to look towards a bright new future for Northern Ireland and I want to be part of Arlene Foster's team in delivering that bright and prosperous future. I assure the people of Lurgan, Portadown and Banbridge that I will be a very plain-talking, hard-working, conscientious and compassionate MLA who wants to represent all the people of Upper Bann throughout my tenure in the Assembly.

That leads me nicely to the motion on the much needed and essential childcare provision for my constituents. Education and child development are areas that I take particular interest in, and anyone who knows me will know that I am committed to fight for better provision, particularly in special needs education and post-19 provision, for the people of Upper Bann. The motion brings a focus to childcare that I welcome.

In my constituency of Upper Bann, families are still the lynchpin and the firm foundation on which our society is built. Childcare provision in society is undoubtedly a key priority, because we all know that society is changing. Work patterns are changing. There are mums, dads, grannies, grandas and carers, and there is a desire for lifelong working and to go back into education. It is important that those of us in government form an achievable, tailored and sustainable childcare provision that meets the needs of this changing everyday family life.

I have had one Education Committee meeting so far, so I cannot claim to know everything about education, but what I do know —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Ms Lockhart: — is my own family history with my sister. Her needs are different to those of a single dad. Grannies are maybe left to care —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up. Can I ask her —

Ms Lockhart: I look forward to working with the Minister as he seeks to bring forward the childcare strategy for this area.

Mr McElduff (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): As I indicated in the House yesterday, our Committee has been reconstituted only recently, therefore, I will not be in a position to articulate an agreed Committee position at this stage. I will restrict myself to a few more general remarks.

The Committee has had one meeting so far, and we have already spent quite a lot of time, and intend to spend a lot more, considering early years issues. Whether it is about special school or preschool provision, the early years pathway or mainstream preschool places, this is a subject that will undoubtedly exercise our Committee and we will, of course, engage with stakeholders and with a number of our constituents.

There are around 24,000 children attending mainstream preschool provision in the North. This seems to represent engagement by about 95% of all parents and reflects the provision of places to 99.9% of parents who engage with the preschool process to the very end. The Education Authority (EA) advises that there are roughly 15,000 places in part-time provision and 9,000 in full-time provision. There has been a significant variation in the availability of full-time early years provision. For example, recently available figures show that 78% of early years provision in Belfast in 2013-14 appeared to be full-time whereas in some rural areas, most — 90% in one case — appeared to be part-time. The Department’s approach up to now was to expand good quality part-time settings. I think that this was based on evidence-based established research that argues that there is no measurable educational advantage when comparing full-time to part-time preschool places.

The motion proposes several things which, I think, would also resonate with the Children’s Services Co-operation Act and, indeed, with aspects of the Department's Learning to Learn strategy.

The motion also proposes a significant increase for free preschool provision for 60% of children this year and a further increase for all children the following year, 2017-18.


11.15 am

Many Members will find merit in most aspects of the motion. The Committee would want me to seek clarification from those who tabled the motion, and perhaps from the Minister, on the impact of the proposals on the quality of preschool provision, particularly in the non-statutory sector, given the rapid and substantial increase suggested. I mention the non-statutory sector because an Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report in the last mandate suggested that greater support was needed for that sector to improve early identification of and intervention in special educational needs.

I also ask that, in the winding-up speech, the relevant Member — the Minister might also do this in his response — details the anticipated impact that the proposals might have on the extension of the foundation year to preschools to ensure better linkages between preschools and primary schools.

From a party political point of view, I am satisfied that my colleague Catherine Seeley, MLA for Upper Bann and our party's spokesperson on childcare, children and young people, has dealt adequately with our party's position.

From a constituency point of view, I extend early notice to the Minister that it might be good practice on his part, at some point during his stewardship of the Department, to visit a rural exemplar of childcare provision in Eskragh in County Tyrone. I like to mention Eskragh here quite often; it is very important to a whole lot of people. Genuinely, Eskragh childcare centre is an exemplar of rural provision. From a Committee point of view, I will recommend that we take a look at that as well. Certainly, it would be good practice on the part of the Minister to look at his diary and put Eskragh in there somewhere.

Mr Logan: I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He will, no doubt, do a fantastic job.

I support the motion; it is a good motion. I recognise and do not need to be told that the experience of children in early years plays a key role in their development and their health and educational achievement. The early years provision is beneficial to both the child and the parent. The child is at a crucial time for learning, language development, social skills development and learning through play.

It is also right that parents have the opportunity and the option to go to work and be economically active. Going to the workplace has many benefits other than financial ones; it helps in many different aspects for parents. It helps parents to build confidence and skills, and it has social advantages for them. Childcare should not be an obstacle for those parents. In the Programme for Government framework, outcome 14 clearly gives a commitment to providing high-quality preschool education, and that is welcome. We also need to look at better ways of supporting single parents with childcare.

I am speaking as a member of the Education Committee, and it should be our desire and end goal to provide the best possible opportunities for our young people. Those opportunities need to be sustainable and affordable, and we need to look at these things through a long-term lens. I am aware that this is an SDLP motion, and we are well aware that it had a well-costed manifesto. Claire has pointed out some of the costs involved with implementing what the motion calls for. I am interested in where she envisages that money coming from. Apart from the money side, has any consideration been given to the facilities that house these places? Some small facilities run morning and afternoon classes to facilitate as many children as possible. Without investment, those facilities would have to drop their numbers.

Mr Swann: I declare an interest as I have a three-year-old son who has a preschool place at Kells and Connor Pre-School. That facility not only is an exemplar but was graded "outstanding" in a recent ETI inspection.

I pay tribute to Sarah Woods and her staff for the service that they deliver, providing preschool care and places in a small rural village. There are many examples like Kells and Connor and Eskragh all around Northern Ireland, where small voluntary and community providers have been put under severe pressure in the last year. In my constituency of North Antrim, I have had cause to help out Mother Goose in Ballycastle, Ballee in Ballymena, High Kirk preschool in Ballymena and the Country playgroup just outside Kells, all of which were hit with a reduction in places. All were oversubscribed because of the quality provision that they were providing, and all had one thing in common: their rural or edge-of-town provision made it difficult for parents to access other choices. That is why I seek further guidance from the Minister on the press release that was issued by his Department on his behalf. It states:

"Overall, 99.9% of children whose parents applied for a pre-school place ... have been offered a funded pre-school place."

I have been here quite a while and know that maybe the wording of that press release hides unanswered questions. I would like the Minister to clarify how many of the 99·9% were offered their first choice or even their second choice, rather than just being offered a place somewhere on the scheme? When parents apply for a preschool place, one of the things that is emphasised on the sheet is parental choice, but I have dealt with many families since the end of April, and I still get queries from some whose child is not yet placed. Where does parental choice fall into the provision? How important is it that that is taken into consideration, especially in rural provision? At the end of the last mandate, we passed the Rural Needs Bill, which put an emphasis on Departments and the Education Authority to put in place measures to ensure that rural needs were supported. I am concerned that the press release does not give the full picture of what is out there at the minute. A number of MLAs will know that this is a seasonal problem that we all face.

When moving the motion, Ms Hanna referred to the average cost of childcare being £164 a week. The average in my constituency is £172 a week. It is even harder in a large rural constituency to find affordable childcare places. That is why the motion is timely and well balanced. I am glad that it is getting support from most of the parties in the House so far. My party colleague — I congratulate her on her maiden speech — referred to the special educational needs support currently available through preschools. We have heard that departmental officials are being brought before the Committee again because of misleading the Committee. That is a very serious charge. If proved accurate, not only have the Committee and the House been failed but children with special educational needs and their parents have been failed.

I think that Ms Lockhart referred briefly to special educational needs provision at post-19. One of the standards that was held up to us throughout that inquiry was school and preschool places. There was excellent provision for young children with special educational needs, but there is a real fear among parents at the minute that that provision is slowly being eroded and done away with.

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: I will.

Mr Poots: Does the Member recognise that the first educators of children are the parents and that good work is being done by not just the Department of Education but the Department of Health, which has the family nurse partnership programme to reach out to parents who are really struggling? Also, through the strategic investment fund (SIF), parenting classes and programmes are offered through some of our schools, particularly in Lisburn. I encourage Members to take a look at what is happening there.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Swann: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I agree with the Member in that preschool places build on the foundations that the family has provided for training blocks and all the rest. Preschool is a good identifier of young children with special educational needs. Many parents miss the warning signs and indicators, whereas the professionals, be they in the voluntary and community sector or the statutory sector, are trained to pick up on those and provide support.

I want to get back to something that Mr Lyttle was coming to when his time was up: the contribution of our voluntary and community sector. The one thing that all the groups in my own constituency that were finding it hard to get additional places and additional funding and places extended, which I mentioned earlier, have in common is that they all come from the voluntary and community sector. They do not come from the statutory sector where the places —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member bring his comments to a close?

Mr Swann: — seem to be being moved to.

Ms Mallon: Naturally, I support the motion. One of the greatest challenges facing us in the Assembly is to empower people out of poverty and to create a society not where your life expectancy, educational level, employment, income and quality of life are dictated by your postcode but where there is equality of opportunity for everyone to realise their full potential. If that is the type of society that all of us in the House desire, we must prioritise and invest in the catalyst for change that is early years.

I will take a moment to look at the facts. In 2002-03, the child absolute income poverty rate was 25%. Fast-forward to 2013-14, and it had risen to 26%. The Child Poverty Act set a target of achieving a two-thirds reduction in the number of children living in absolute income poverty from 135,000 in 1998-99 to 46,000 by 2011. In short, it has failed. The truth is that, in 2013-14, the number of our children living in absolute poverty was more than twice that target figure. A staggering 112,000 children here were living in poverty. According to Save the Children, based on current trends, 38% of children here will be living in poverty by 2020.

Every child deserves to grow up free from the threat of poverty and with better life chances and opportunities than the generation that went before them. My party colleague Claire Hanna, in proposing the motion, outlined a number of early years actions that, as evidence gathered by experts locally and internationally shows, play a key role in giving a child the best start in their early development and, as a result, a better start in life. I intend to focus on the aspect in our motion of free childcare provision for children aged three and four. Specifically, I want to draw attention to the connection between child poverty and childcare.

As Employers for Childcare have documented, childcare impacts on the rate of child poverty in three ways. First, the lack of available childcare is a barrier to employment for parents. Secondly, the high cost of childcare places pressure on families' income. Thirdly, childcare is very important for early intervention, particularly regarding the development needs of children. I will examine those connections in turn.

The employment and economic benefits are self-evident. Greater childcare provision can act as a catalyst in bolstering the economy, retaining a skilled workforce and bettering the lives of families in Northern Ireland. In short, both parents continue to work and a third childcare worker is added to the labour force, all of whom pay taxes. No one can refute the fact that the high cost of childcare places significant pressure on families' income. This was well documented in a 2015 Northern Ireland childcare cost survey, which has been referred to by a number of Members.

I move to the third connection between childcare and poverty: the advantages to the development of the child. That was recognised and very aptly summed up by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) in its childcare study in 2015. Children who are unable to access good-quality childcare miss out on the chance to enhance cognitive skills such as language development, logic, reasoning and concentration, thereby reducing their academic potential with consequent effects on employability in later life. The benefits to the child, their family and the economy from the provision of subsidised preschool places is well evidenced.

Within the limited time constraints that I have to make my contribution, it is not possible to respond to all the issues that have been raised. No doubt Alex Attwood will do that when winding up. However, turning to the question of finance that has been raised, many of the proposals in the earlier part of the SDLP's motion are cost-neutral.

In respect of free places, financing could be sourced from the childcare fund, which has merged with the social change central fund.


11.30 am

Critically, during the Programme for Government negotiations, we pressed the head of the Civil Service and departmental officials again and again about the availability of financing for free preschool places within the Barnett consequential following the extension of 30 hours' free places for two years in England. I hope that the Minister can bring some clarity to that query.

Mr Agnew: I take this opportunity to congratulate my North Down colleague Peter Weir on his elevation to the post of Education Minister. I look forward to five years of blaming him for every failing in our education system. I am delighted to welcome him to the post.

The motion conflates two connected but to some extent separate issues: early years provision and childcare. Most of the debate has focused on childcare, which I will come to at the end, but I want to speak a bit about early years provision.

As has been rehearsed in the Assembly a number of times but is worth repeating, intervention and investment in the early years of a child's life is the single most effective thing we can do to tackle disadvantage in our society and ensure that every child has equal opportunities. We rightly put a lot of focus on education; it is extremely important in a child's development. However, the reality is that, if a child starts school behind their peers, the likelihood is that that child will never catch up and will always remain behind. So it is important, in calling on the Education Minister to take action on these issues, that we emphasise that he must do so in conjunction with the Minister of Health in particular. Any early years education and care Act must be cross-departmental. The Minister has good experience of that. I know that, in consideration of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, he proposed amendments to ensure cross-departmental working. I am sure that he will practice what he preached when he was Chair of the Education Committee.

One of the key issues in early years provision that has been touched upon today is speech and language development. Early detection of speech and language difficulties and, importantly, providing the services to help a child overcome those difficulties is key. It is a startling statistic that approximately one third of our prison population has speech and language difficulties. The victims of a lack of provision in early years become the perpetrators in adulthood. We have to break that link and ensure that we do not condemn children to those difficulties in later life. We have got a lot better at early detection; we now need the services that should follow. Giving a parent a diagnosis increases stress and worry. Yes, it informs them and it is important, but I know that, if the services do not follow, a lot of those parents can feel somewhat abandoned.

The issue of childcare is obviously key, both socially and economically, and I welcome the call for the increase to 30 hours of free provision. It was in the Green Party manifesto. However, the Minister will have choices to make, even if he is to commit to investing more in childcare. As well as the increase in the number of hours, there is some evidence to suggest that it might be more helpful, or at least also helpful, to increase the number of weeks in which there is provision. As a parent, I have to nip out this afternoon to pick up my child from school because the after-school club is not on today and our childcare provider cannot pick him up until the usual time. There is the difficulty that school holidays can bring. I am in the fortunate position where both of us work and we have the money to afford private childcare as well as the publicly funded, but for many parents who cannot, that will be a significant barrier to work.

So, I would like to ask the proposers whether they see the 30 hours as a priority, or one of a number of priorities, because there are also the issues of extension to two-year-olds and investing in the skills and valuing the workforce, because it should not be, as it sometimes is —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Agnew: — a case of, "Well, you haven't done well academically; you could consider childcare". We need to value childcare providers.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr McCann, I think it only fair to inform you that, given time constraints, we will not be able to give you an extra minute if you choose to take an intervention.

Mr E McCann: OK; the implicit advice is not to take an intervention, I suppose. Let me say, first, that I support the motion, of course, and I commend Claire Hanna and her party for bringing the issue forward at such an early stage of the mandate. I hope the fact that it has been given this priority in coming to the Floor indicates that it will, as so many have said, be given appropriate priority by being brought forward in a Bill and having these matters put into effect.

All experience and evidence show that the two main factors determining educational attainment over a lifetime are poverty and childcare and early years learning. That point has been made, but the point that I would like to make is that those things are very closely connected. We have been talking about private provision, state provision and the generally prohibitive cost of childcare, but, put simply, the simple fact is this: the better off you are, the more chance you have of getting early years schooling for your children. It is common sense. That has been true for a very, very long time. That is still happening today, the same as it happened in previous years. It happens at a time — at the end of a period, I hope — when the state provision of childcare is under threat. It is under threat across the water, and I believe it is under threat here too, because money's too tight to mention when it comes to many of these issues. I have no doubt that we are going to hear, in the course of the year, that many of the aspirations contained in the motion are absolutely admirable, but they are simply not affordable. I am concerned that this aspiration, even if it is a commitment, would come into the pattern of the Programme for Government, which is a series of aspirations and supposed mechanisms for attaining those aspirations. The Programme for Government is not set up to state a time-limited series of measures that will bring this about. That is not the type of structure that we have got so far from the Programme for Government.

I am keeping a good eye on the clock, but let me say this, in the time available: this is a woman's issue, primarily. For all that we say that things have changed and that there is more equality now and so forth, all experience and investigation shows, overwhelmingly, that it is women and women's work opportunities that suffer when there is not adequate provision. As I said, we are supposed to be in an equal society, but everybody in the House will know that women do most of the child rearing and most of the housework. It is not unusual to hear a man boasting of the fact that he hoovered the stairs, for once in his life, and, when it comes to childcare, there are still many men who say it is not their business. There are many men who have never changed a nappy and seem to be boastful about that. The fact that we have to mention that is an absolute shame and disgrace, and it illustrates that some of the assumptions behind the distribution of childcare and everything to do with children operate to the detriment of women in society.

This will be my last point, if I can get it in. The absence of childcare affects the oldest in society, in many instances, because the people in the family who replace the childcare tend to be grannies and some grandas. So, at the time of their life when people ought to be able to say, "I've certainly done my stint at child rearing; I can now relax and get on with the rest of my life", they find, heavens above, that it is all starting over again.

They do it, no doubt, with affection and love for the children. Nevertheless, they should not have to do it. Very simply, the point that I am making is that, when we talk about the effects, and they are very strong, on the potential development of children, we should keep in mind that those effects stretch from earliest years right through to the oldest years of our citizens.

I hope therefore that we are going to see, in as short a time as possible, a Bill that will bring this about so that we can then discuss priorities, spending priorities and all the rest of it. This, however, should have the highest priority.

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): I welcome today's debate, particularly the tone of it. In following the Member who represents the largest all-male party in the Assembly, I say that it is very good that he has chosen to widen his field by addressing the motion's gender issues.

I also commend the three Members who were making their maiden speech for their contributions. When I visited Omagh for two events last week, I indicated to the Chair of the Education Committee that Omagh is perhaps a little bit too widely drawn for him and that Eskragh has now come on to the horizon. I suspect that it may not be the last time that the Chair of the Committee gives a particular invitation to specific parts of West Tyrone.

I agree with the thrust of the motion, which is really about the importance of childcare. To widen the issue a little bit, and to use the words of Catherine Seeley, it is also about the importance of early intervention with children to ensure that we have the best education results.

For many children, high-quality childcare provides a stimulating developmental experience: one that builds confidence, social skills, eagerness to learn and willingness to engage positively with others. That has been a consistent finding of evaluative research focusing on childcare and other early years interventions. It is something that there is a large consensus around.

We are all familiar with the existing and emerging research evidence that shows that 90% or more of brain development happens before the age of five. There may be some who observe the Chamber at times who feel that it stops at the age of five. Nevertheless, early years experiences, particularly in preschool years, are critical to the development of skills such as language and communication, issues that a number of contributors raised. It is the time in a child's life when stimulation is vital. High-quality childcare can provide that. It can provide our youngest citizens with exactly the right type of cognitive and social development that they need in order to thrive. It can set a child on the right path for a lifetime of achievement and personal well-being.

With childcare, the focus is always going to be on children, but childcare is also a key issue for parents. I know that high-quality childcare provision can support parents, not just in their employment goals but critically as their child's first and ongoing educator. Many parents have advised us that, without childcare services that are accessible, reliable and, above all, affordable, they would simply not be in a position to work, would not be able to work as much as they need to, could not work at the level that they are best suited to or could not train or study for work.

I am sure that everyone is familiar with the Executive's draft childcare strategy that was launched a number of years ago in the first phase and with the draft version that was issued for consultation last year by OFMDFM. You will know that the strategy has two aims. First, it aims to give all our children the best start in life, preparing them for lifelong well-being and achievement. Secondly, it aims to enable all parents, but especially mothers, to join the workforce, or to train or study so that, in time, they can join the workforce. I believe that those two aims fit well together. They fit well together because each, in its own way, has the potential to deliver positive social change: one in the short term and the other in the long term.

Let us talk about parents. If, through having better and more affordable childcare, more parents are able to work, clearly that is for society's good. As for children, if, through having quality childcare facilities, we are able to nurture their ability to learn and socialise, we will counter at least some of the ill effects of disadvantage and deprivation: ill effects that create barriers to learning that, in turn, can lead to educational underachievement. It is therefore highly appropriate that, in the reorganisation of Departments, childcare policy now sits firmly in the Department of Education. Childcare's new departmental home presents an opportunity to align childcare services with wider early years initiatives, thereby improving children's access to a wider range of high-quality early experiences which will lay important foundations for learning.


11.45 am

Turning to the motion, I recognise that many parents can find the price of childcare a barrier to taking up employment. The research and consultation undertaken to inform the development of the childcare strategy has brought it home to us that there are many parents — indeed, we had widespread consultation — who are simply priced out of the childcare market. We also know that many parents who can technically afford the childcare services they need still struggle greatly to pay for them. In Northern Ireland, childcare can sometimes cost a family as much as a quarter of its income, which is much higher than almost any other OECD country with the exception of, I think, Switzerland. We are aware that some families report that their childcare costs more than their mortgage payments or that the cost of childcare cancels out an entire second salary. That is something we have been trying to address through the first phase of our childcare strategy. As many of you know, making childcare services more affordable is one of its objectives.

The first phase of that strategy was launched some three years ago. Since then, it has supported more than 3,000 low-cost childcare places — childcare places priced significantly below the regional average. In parallel, the strategy has successfully promoted childcare vouchers and other types of financial assistance. Chris Lyttle made reference to the promotion of that. All childcare settings that are assisted under the school-age childcare grant scheme must promote financial assistance with the cost of childcare. To that end, the strategy is working closely with Employers for Childcare. There is also a key challenge in some of the childcare schemes that are promoted through HMRC, and we will be working with them to try to promote that more.

It is my intention to bring a full, final strategy to the Executive in the forthcoming months, having taken full account of the current context of many consultation responses, the new opportunities that now exist to align childcare and early years initiatives and the Programme for Government.

I will turn to a few aspects of the motion in a moment. I want to deal with a few of the points that have arisen in the debate. It may not have been appropriate for my colleague Lord Morrow, when he mentioned Ms Hanna, to call her Carmel. As mistakes go, in a situation where we are dealing with childcare, to mistake a daughter for her mother is one of the better ones that could be made in the House. Ms Hanna talked about an early years Bill. At a previous stage, an early years Bill had been considered by the Department. As I understand it — this is where I think things would need to change — that was not to deal in any way with childcare entitlement; it was to deal with other aspects of it. As we move forward and particularly as we progress the childcare strategy, I will give consideration to what underpinning needs to happen with legislation.

Mention has been made of the Barnett consequentials. Those, indeed, have already been granted, but they are unhypothecated in their nature. I will come back to the particular scheme in England at a later stage. Mention has been made by a number of speakers, Claire Hanna first of all, of inspection. Inspection is handled in part by the ETI, which will inspect the quality of education provision, but largely the onus also lies with the Department of Health, which will lead on minimum standards, and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), which will inspect childcare in non-statutory preschools.

As indicated when I was Chair of the Education Committee, and also, I understand, from Mr Agnew's Bill, we will try to make sure that we have a much more joined-up approach, particularly to health and education. I think the key test of that will not necessarily be simply whatever cooperation happens between Ministers or, indeed, at the top level, but in ensuring that practitioners on the ground are delivering.

Mention has been made of the Executive childcare fund. Of the original £12 million, there is no underspend and, so far, £8·5 million has been allocated to cover the costs of projects supporting childcare through the Bright Start school-age childcare grant and childcare for children with a disability.

Mr Swann asked a specific question about the admissions process. We should highlight that it is important to realise that parents are not asked for a choice; they are asked for a preference. He mentioned a press release that indicated that we have had a record low number of parents who have not been able, after the two stages, to find a place. It is down to, I think, 16 places, and that number is reducing. He asked very specifically about the number of preschool admissions that were placed in the first preference setting. For 2016-17, 87% of the applications were placed in their first preference setting.

I do not have the figure for second preferences, but I am sure that we can get it for him. However, where he does realise the point —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Weir: To be honest, I have a number of other items that I want to try to get through, and I want to be fair to everybody. The issue of balance of supply is worked through with the preschool education advisory groups that come through the EA. We have now reached the point where, broadly speaking, we have coverage across Northern Ireland to ensure that there are enough places. The issue is that, at times, there is a disjoint between locations and the level of demand. That will require a longer-term solution, but we are looking to see where there are particular pressures and what might be described as "hotspots" to see what we can do with flexibility to try to deal with that issue.

Nichola Mallon talked about the childcare strategy. That has provided over 3,000 low-cost childcare places and has been very specifically targeted at children living in low-income households and areas. Good, at least, is being done there.

I will turn to a couple of aspects of the motion. It calls for the safeguarding of funding for childcare. I can give the assurance that we will safeguard that, even by the simple fact that it has moved from OFMDFM to DE. Despite the many pressures in my Department, I will not be looking to raid the childcare fund for any other purpose. From that point of view, we will ensure that it is protected. I will also give a very strong assurance that we will be producing a carefully considered, policy-driven childcare strategy that is responsive to the consultation. We hope to bring that to the Executive very soon. The policy will be well thought through, which will ensure that it is properly reflected upon. One thing that I will not do is simply make policy commitments on the hoof. While I do not rule out some of the things that have been put in place with regard to the exact timings, and there is very clearly, for instance, a need to upskill the workforce on that side of it, I will not give commitments ahead of the strategy, because I think it would be inappropriate to do so.

I will highlight some of the issues that we will have to face with regard to 20 hours and 30 hours provision, just to highlight them. On the issue of 20 hours a week, there is a distinction between preschool education and childcare. I assume that when we are talking about 20 hours and 30 hours, it is a wrap-around of the two and that we are not simply talking about 20 hours in addition to preschool provision. Mr Attwood may clarify that at a later stage. We are in a position where offers of childcare places for 2016 have already been made and accepted. I am not sure how easy, or indeed preferable, it would be, even if, suddenly, this was doable, for us to simply ask parents to readjust the arrangements they have made for 2016-17. Additionally, we are in the position where, at present, 39% of preschool places for children aged between three and four are at 20 hours or above. So, we have already met the target, if you like, for nearly 40%. The remainder are, largely speaking, for around 12·5 hours provision. The direct indication of in-year cost would be £15 million. There may be a good argument that this would be money well spent, but, again, it is important that Members indicate, if they are seeking another £15 million, whether that will simply be from an almost inexhaustible supply of money that will be sought from the Executive or whether the proposers are looking to make cuts in the Education budget to be able to provide it, because that is the direct implication.

The implications go beyond this and towards capacity building, which will need to take place immediately if we are to meet that provision in 2016-17. There are also capital issues involved. As indicated, a number of available facilities are run on a split-level basis, both morning and afternoon. So, there would need to be a significant capital involvement. I take Mr Agnew's remarks very much on board when he talks about the weeks that are being provided, because the £15 million is on the basis of providing 20 hours a week for 38 weeks. In England, one of the things that they have looked at, in their revision, at least, is whether provision could be spread over a longer time period; but if 20 hours a week were to be provided for 52 weeks a year then, given the fact that there is no provision during 14 weeks of the year, that £15 million would probably be double or maybe more. Again, those choices have to be made. I am simply highlighting them.

As mentioned by Ms Hanna, if we were to move to 30 hours provision a week, then the estimate, purely on the basis of it being for 38 weeks, would be £42 million. Again, if we move to 52 weeks, we might double or treble that figure. Both Ms Hanna and Ms Mallon mentioned the English scheme in their initial remarks. It should be remembered that the English scheme is not universal. We provide universal care. In England, people get 15 hours, and they get an additional 15 hours if they meet certain qualifying bits, which includes two parents working. If we were to replicate the English scheme, two parents who between them earned £160,000 or £170,000 would be provided with additional childcare facilities via the state, but a single parent who was doing part-time work would not qualify.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Minister draw his remarks to a close?

Mr Weir: From that point of view, there are caveats. I am not opposing the motion or seeking to divide. We need to have a very important debate. I look forward to bringing forward the childcare strategy in the coming months.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Alex Attwood to make a winding-up speech. You have 10 minutes.

A Member: You do not have to use it all, though.

Mr Attwood: I might not. First, I publicly congratulate the Minister on his appointment. If you were to go round the Chamber, I do not know whether everyone would say it publicly but many would say privately that the Minister has intelligence and a degree of independence. We hope that, despite some of the things he said in his reply to the debate, he will deploy those skills in his term in office and demonstrate — as, to be fair, his predecessor did — that he knows the difference between being in government and being in power. When you look at the profile of our Ministers over the various mandates, it is very clear who knew the difference between being in government and being in power and who measured up to both requirements.

I also congratulate all the new MLAs who made speeches: Ms Seeley, Mrs Barton and Ms Lockhart. I include in that Ms Lockhart's comment that the motion "brings a focus" — to use her words — to the childcare issue.

Lord Morrow said that we now have one Department that captures issues for young people and children in one place. That creates a new space and a huge opportunity to shape issues for children and childcare in a way that we have not done before. The measure of this Minister and this Department will be whether, to borrow a phrase from yesterday, there is a paradigm shift for all the reasons that Members outlined. Will there be a paradigm shift, or will we just have the further ad hoc management of childcare issues that has been the practice to date? Will we have something that is much more coherent and cohesive so that all our children, whom we cherish, have the opportunities that they are entitled to and ensure that, as Mr Agnew indicated, every £1 invested in childcare can avoid the £17 that is invested later in remedial interventions? That economic fact, independent of the much bigger reasons why we should address the issue, should concentrate minds on the overall issue.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way and wholeheartedly agree with his analysis that a paradigm shift is needed in how Departments approach the issue. Does he share my concern that the Minister's insistence on dealing with early education and childcare separately, rather than the way in which the experts say that we need to integrate early education and care, causes concern as to whether that paradigm shift will occur and there will be a commitment to the increased hours that are needed?

Mr Attwood: To be fair, the Minister is only in office, so, in his response, there was a sense of the Civil Service rather than the political. We should give the Minister the opportunity for the political to prevail and for the Civil Service approach, which is characterised by the default position — there was a sense of this in the Minister's reply — and "Why can't we do?" rather than "We must do" seemed to be the approach that was reflected in the Minister's words. I will come back to that.

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

A number of years ago, a principal in west Belfast told me that children at the age of four were coming into her school who did not know what a pencil was.

I have two children in primary school, and many Members have or have had children in primary school. The horror of the fact that a principal said children aged four were coming to school not knowing what a pencil was demonstrates why we need a paradigm shift. Such a shift happened in the 1980s in New Zealand, where it was recognised that, in order to deal with all the issues of children, young people and adults, you had to invest in the nought-to-six category. In a couple of weeks' time, at a conference in Enniskillen run by Early Years, one of the architects of that strategy — maybe it has already happened —


12.00 noon

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I attended part of that conference, as did some of the Members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and it was last weekend.

Mr Attwood: I stand corrected.

The conference brought one of the architects of the New Zealand strategy to Northern Ireland so that he could explain what the paradigm shift was and what investing in children from birth to six years old meant to their lives. Given what Nichola Mallon and Eamonn McCann said about the relationship between poverty and childcare, if we are to deal with growing child poverty — as I said yesterday, one independent study suggests that, by 2020, absolute and real child poverty in Northern Ireland will be over 30% and touching upon 35% — we need to learn from the New Zealand experience, which was that breaking the linkage between poverty and child development requires investing in childcare. That requires a paradigm shift that was not reflected in some of what the Minister said.

The motion has five elements: there are proposals for legal intervention, strategy, regulation, development of the childcare workforce and money. Given that the Minister was not able to touch upon all those issues, I ask that he come back to the Committee and the Chamber with a comprehensive answer in respect of each and all of the five elements.

It was Minister O'Dowd who said previously that there would be an early years education and learning Bill. I do not find it satisfactory, Minister, that your reply to that proposal was that that would not deal with childcare provision. It was not meant to deal with childcare provision; it was meant to put into statute a model of funding, supervision and coordination for the delivery of all education and care services for the voluntary, community and statutory sectors. The intention of that Bill is different from the one that you indicated.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I appreciate that. The position regarding any legislation is that I will want to consider the Childcare Act in England, for instance, which took two years to prepare. The point is that we want to make sure that whatever is there is fit for purpose. If it is to be underpinned by legislation, it will not happen immediately.

Mr Attwood: If there is a working model of the Bill in your Department, work it up and bring it to the Floor so that we can create certainty.

Mr O'Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: I will give way to the Member.

Mr O'Dowd: Maybe I will bring some clarity to the situation. I was working on a "year early" Bill that referred to children who may not be ready to start formal education; it was not an "early years" Bill. There is a distinct difference between the two. The Bill was to deal with the exceptional circumstances of a child who is not ready to start formal education by giving parents permission to delay starting their formal education for a year.

Mr Attwood: That is the case: that was the name of the Bill. However, the intention of the Bill was to provide the statutory basis that I outlined to the House.

I look forward to hearing the Executive's childcare strategy and to enhancing that strategy in order to integrate into it, in the fullness of time, the other elements of education policy that touch upon the lives of children and young people. Now that we have a Department that has a more comprehensive and expansive mandate, we need a more comprehensive and expansive childcare strategy. At the same time, take the opportunity, as was done in DOE, to develop better regulation, if necessary through a Bill, in order to ensure that all who provide childcare have a much more coherent system of dealing with the regulation of their units in terms of the nature, role, remit and responsibilities of the providers of childcare services, and so on and so forth.

In conclusion, I want to deal briefly with the issue of money, as Phillip Logan mentioned it. As we know, the Programme for Government that went through yesterday is light on detail yet the SDLP was criticised for this motion, which is expansive on detail. Ms Seeley might want to explain that inconsistency some time in the future. Nonetheless, as part of the Programme for Government, there was a commitment on flagship capital projects, roads, the children's hospital, and other capital developments. The question to the Minister and the Executive is this: should childcare and its proper management and funding not be a defining flagship project for this Government in this mandate? If we can, rightly, commit upfront to funding for various capital projects over the next five years —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member bring his remarks to a close, please?

Mr Attwood: — should we not also have a commitment to funding childcare as a flagship project over the next five years, not least if the money that we are talking about is £40 million?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises that the experience of children in the early years of life has multiple impacts on development, health and educational achievement; believes that there should be a common, cross-departmental approach to funding, inspection, registration and access to child and family support services; calls on the Minister of Education to develop and bring forward an early education and care Act and a care and early childhood development strategy with resourced and supported training, qualifications and a professional development strategy for the entire early years workforce; and further calls on the Minister to bring forward proposals for the provision of free preschool childcare for children aged three and four years to a minimum of 20 hours per week to be in place in the 2016-17 financial year, and for an increase in provision to 30 hours per week from the 2017-18 financial year.

Private Members' Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Lyons: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to focus on creating more and better jobs in Northern Ireland and to bring forward an updated economic strategy alongside the new Programme for Government 2016-2021.

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to take this opportunity to welcome you to your new role and to wish you well in it.

I am delighted to bring the motion to the House. It is the first private Member's motion that I have brought to the Chamber, and it is important to note that it is on the issue of creating more and better jobs for people in Northern Ireland. You will all be aware of our five-point plan that we went to the electorate with during the election campaign. Of course, we received a very large endorsement from the electorate and received a mandate, and I am very pleased to bring this issue to the Floor of the Assembly today.

Jobs are incredibly important. Jobs are of huge importance for the future prosperity of Northern Ireland. Of course, jobs are important as well to the local economy and to the different areas that we represent. High employment is good for the economy overall, but jobs are obviously hugely important to individuals as well. They are important for their own economic prosperity but also very important for their general health and, indeed, their mental health. Studies have shown that unemployment means that you are more prone to poor general health and poor mental health, so it is important that we focus on this issue and give it the time and attention that it deserves. That is why we have brought the motion to the House today. I know that we discussed this issue in part yesterday, but it does us no harm to talk about it again and to focus specifically on jobs and then on the wider economic strategy.

I stand here this afternoon very pleased with and very proud of the record of the Executive in the last mandate. You only have to look at some of the targets that were set five years ago to see how they have been achieved. We can say that there has been real success. When you set out with a plan to create 25,000 jobs and you create 40,000 jobs, you cannot call that a failure. When you say that you want to attract £1 billion of investment and you attract £3 billion of investment, you cannot call that a failure. When you say that you want to get £300 million of investment in research and development yet manage to get £585 million, you cannot call that a failure.

Look at the salaries in some of these jobs, and how much higher so many of them are in comparison to the Northern Ireland average; that is something we should welcome. If you want to look at the most important figure of all, leaving all those things to the side if you wish, take the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland. It has gone down from 60,000 in 2011 to under 40,000 today. That is something we should be pleased with and proud of, but we need to keep working; we do not rest. I am particularly pleased that, in my constituency, unemployment has fallen by a third over the last five years. As I said yesterday, these are not just numbers. These are real people who have benefited as a result of the actions that the last Executive took and that, I hope, this Executive will also take.

One of the major successes of the last number of years has been the devolution of corporation tax powers. That will be hugely beneficial to our economy, as long as we are bringing in the skills that are necessary for our young people in particular. We have had successes but we cannot rest. We need to keep progressing, and that is why we are calling today for the Minister and the Executive to bring forward an updated economic strategy.

I will spend just a little bit of time outlining some of the things that I would like to see in that strategy. The first thing, which I hope everybody in the House wants to see, is a rebalancing of the economy. We know that we are heavily dependent on the public sector in Northern Ireland. We want to change that. We want to grow our private sector. We want to see more people employed in the private sector and more people with jobs and higher incomes.

As I have already said, we need to focus on the skills of our people and ensuring that our people have the skills that are necessary in order for them to succeed in the workforce. We are in a new economy compared with where we were even 20 years ago, never mind 50 years ago, so we need to ensure that our people have the skills and talents to succeed. I am well aware, and other Members will be well aware, of how jobs can now be so easily exported to other parts of the world, especially those jobs that we perhaps depended upon in the past. So it is important that we have the best-skilled and best-trained people.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree with me that one of the great achievements of the last Executive — an Executive whose legacy we heard being disrespected and challenged yesterday in the House — was the decision to freeze university tuition fees, thereby helping to contribute to stopping the brain drain of talent out of Northern Ireland and keeping our most talented young people here to contribute to our economy?

Mr Lyons: Absolutely; I completely agree with my colleague from South Belfast. That is going to be key in the future — that we ensure that we keep people here. I think we all want to see that. We want to see our young people —

Mr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyons: I am sorry, I cannot give way. I do not think I am getting any extra time, but hopefully we will be able to hear from the Member later on.

So we want to see competitiveness, as well as increasing the skills of our workforce. We want to give support as well, I hope, in this economic strategy to some of our smaller businesses, giving them the help that they need to grow and to become larger businesses.

I will briefly mention the importance of infrastructure. We were fortunate in the last mandate to see in East Antrim the construction of two roads: the A8 to Larne and the A2 to Carrickfergus, both from Belfast. Local employers have said that that has been hugely beneficial to them and that there is added potential there, which we hope to exploit.

Can I ask the Minister to look into the issue of broadband? I know that Members from across the House will also want to make sure that that issue is addressed. This is not for just homes. For example, there is a business park in my constituency that would love access to higher-speed broadband. We hope that there will be measures within the economic strategy that will address that issue.

I turn to the amendment in the name of Mr Eastwood. We certainly will not be opposing the amendment. In many ways, it is perhaps just another way of saying what we have already said in so far as the Member talks in the amendment about:

"high-value, highly skilled and highly paid jobs".

I would like to think that that is somewhere much the same as "more and better jobs", which we have outlined in our original motion. We certainly do not disagree with that at all. We share that goal, and we want to see that happen. In government, our party will certainly be working to ensure that that happens through our economic strategy.


12.15 pm

The Member mentions at the end of his amendment the need for a regionally balanced economy, and I certainly share that aspiration. We want to see that happen, and we do not want to see all the jobs concentrated in one place. I hope that the Member will understand that we need a degree of realism in all of this as well. We cannot have a perfectly balanced spread of jobs, and, naturally, some jobs will go to certain places. I think that we had a debate in the Chamber in the last mandate, and some Members were bemoaning the lack of jobs in north and west Belfast compared with south and east Belfast. I think that one of the reasons why there are so many jobs in east and south instead of north and west is because of, for example, the harbour estate in east Belfast and the fact that the city centre takes in south Belfast. There will be disparities, but I do think that it is right that we take measures, where we can, to ensure that there are jobs that can be spread out in different parts of the country. We have to understand that, when investors come, especially those with foreign direct investment, they are looking for specific things. We cannot always just push them towards a corner if that area does not have what is needed for jobs to grow and if it does not have the things that they are looking for.

I hope that Members will not think that there is a conspiracy going on here. I hope that Members do not use the word "discrimination" when it comes to the current distribution of jobs. From my point of view, I would rather, obviously, that constituents of mine have jobs in their constituency. However, I would rather that some of my constituents have to travel to Belfast for a job —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member bring his remarks to a close, please?

Mr Lyons: — than not have a job at all. I hope that we have placed on record the importance of creating more and better jobs. I understand where the Members in the SDLP are coming from with their amendment, and, on that basis, we will be happy to accept it.

Mr Eastwood: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "creating" and insert

"high-value, highly skilled and highly paid jobs in Northern Ireland and to bring forward an updated economic strategy alongside the new Programme for Government 2016-2021, which focuses on achieving a regionally balanced economy.".

I thank the party opposite for its support for our amendment. We could table lots of amendments and lots of motions, and we could write lots of draft frameworks and all sorts of things, but what we want to see from now on is change and action. I am not going to use the word "discrimination". I do not think that I have to, because we have had decades upon decades of a lack of investment west of the Bann, and I think that we now see the results of that. It is good that we should have more and better jobs; of course it is. We need more and better jobs. I am not talking here about directing investors by saying that they have to set up in Derry, Strabane or Enniskillen. What we are saying is this: let us ensure that those investors do have the things that they require in the areas that have been left behind. Let us ensure that mistakes such as the act of discrimination from more than 50 years ago, denying the city of Derry a proper functioning university to ensure that we could attract that type of investment, are not compounded and compounded and compounded by us not doing something about it.

In coming at this, we are glad that we have found some common ground. This is a good way for us to begin this new era of opposition. What we want to see now is more than just motions; we want to see actions. I have to be honest and say that, yesterday evening, we were treated to an analysis of the election results. We know who won the election. We know how many seats we have, and we know how many seats Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party have. We can all read, and we were all there for the counts. Let me be very clear: it will be a fundamental mistake for people in this House to think that that election was an election that said that everything is fine over here and, "Don't worry about us. You have our support".

Let us look at the election. Sinn Féin did not win in Foyle; they lost a seat in West Belfast and they lost a seat in Fermanagh. One of the many stories of the election was an enormous amount of frustration and anger in places like my own city, parts of Fermanagh and west Belfast, where people say they are fed up with government just existing. Government now needs to, once and for all, tackle the inequalities that have been fostered in the last few decades. I am fed up with looking at the faces of sad parents who have spent years educating and supporting their children and, basically, raising them for export. I do not know how many Christmases I have had to go to airports to pick people up and to leave them off because they cannot find, in my city, the quality of life and employment that they would like.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way, and whilst I do not accept all of the fundamentals of his critique, I do accept some. Bearing that in mind, and how desperately bad he tells us the situation is, was it not a catastrophic mistake on his part that, when he had the opportunity to put his shoulder to the wheel and play his part in the Government of Northern Ireland and fix the problems he has identified, he shirked that opportunity?

Mr Eastwood: I did not shirk any opportunity. Throughout the election we said to people that if we could — by the way, nobody from your party or any other contradicted me when I said this — we would spend two weeks negotiating a draft Programme for Government; not a whole detailed Programme for Government, but a draft programme with some actions that we could sell to the people. If we could not achieve the change that we needed to see in that Programme for Government, then of course we would go into opposition and hold the Government to account in a constructive way. That is what we did; we are not shirking any responsibility. We are being very responsible, in fact, in giving up the opportunity to be in the Government so that we can hold it to account from outside, and we look forward to that developing. This is the beginning of a harmonious relationship that we can develop in the coming years.

What do we need to do to change the lot of people in my constituency to ensure that they are not being raised for export, to try and keep them here to contribute to the economy? We need to invest in the fundamentals. It is great that two great infrastructure projects have gone to east Antrim. We noticed that it had happened, but the areas west of the Bann, like my city, like Strabane, like all parts of the west that have been left behind, have not had big infrastructure projects. They now need to see tarmac on the road as early as possible — not for a few miles, but all of the miles.

We talk about corporation tax; we are big supporters of the devolution of corporation tax. It has been our party policy for about 30 years. We support the harmonisation of tax powers across this island. Look at the speed of the recovery across the border. Why has that happened? It is because there is an open economy and because they have invested massively in higher and further education, as well as reducing corporation tax. We have promised a reduction of corporation tax whilst, at the same time, cutting our investment in student places. Yes, of course, as Mr Stalford pointed out, we froze tuition fees. In fact, they have gone up by more than the rate of inflation, and we now have an opportunity to reverse that. However, we have a bigger opportunity to invest in places, because the first thing on an investor's score card for an area is not tax, it is skills.

I know that we have been starved of the opportunity to drag investors to my own city, because why would you go there when we do not have a university and about 10,000 people doing the right type of course? Why would you go if we are looking at 3,500 undergraduate places? We need to invest in our economy up front to allow cities like mine to get on with creating an economy, keeping our people here and attracting people to come and set up businesses and live here. That is what we want to see; that is what we think is important. That is the benchmark on which we will judge the economic strategy and the Programme for Government.

I cannot end before making the point that on 23 June we will be faced with a very real and difficult choice. If people in the Assembly believe that we can, on the one hand, leave the European Union and, on the other, turn around our economy, they are living in cloud cuckoo land. Investors who want to come here want to come because of the access to the market of 500 million people. It is not 1·8 million, not even 60 million: it is 500 million people. The connections with our partners in the South and the cross-border opportunities that we have will be all lost if we vote for a Brexit.

I know the DUP are against us remaining in the EU, but they are not really that against it, because they are not making that much of a big deal of it. They let Sammy out of the traps every now and again to talk about how dangerous it will be, but there is not a big Front Bench campaign coming from the DUP, because I think they know. They go to America as well, they talk to investors and they talk to higher and further education institutions. They know the benefits of remaining within the European Union. We know them as well. If we are serious about turning around our economy in Derry, Strabane, Fermanagh or Belfast, the idea that we can cut corporation tax on one hand, cut student places on the other and leave the European Union if we had a third hand, is bizarre and wrong. It would be absolutely stupid and reckless, and I hope that we do not do it.

We are getting very close to the point of reducing corporation tax. I ask the Economy Minister — I welcome him to his position — to address this if he can at this early stage: what scoping work has been done to work out how we are going to fund the reduction in corporation tax without affecting front-line services? I hope the Minister is in a position to answer that question.

I welcome him to his position. I welcome that, once and for all, we have all the important parts of the economy under one roof. I think that was a good reform of our institutions. It also rings very loud and clear to me and everyone out there that this Assembly and Executive have now recognised that we cannot build an economy unless we invest in further and higher education. I hope this Minister and this Executive recognise the failure of closing down courses and cutting university places whilst trying to invest in the economy.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Murphy: I welcome the debate, although, as the Chair of the Economy Committee, I find myself in a somewhat invidious position. We have been debating for about two days matters relating to the Committee's remit, yet the Committee has not had an opportunity to debate those issues itself. Nonetheless, I congratulate the members of the Committee who have been out of the traps very early in getting some of these economic debates secured in the Assembly. No doubt, when the Committee goes on to consider and deliberate on the matters that are being debated today and in the manufacturing strategy debate and, indeed, the Programme for Government debate yesterday, the debates that we have had in the Chamber over the last two days will inform that.

I am sure the Committee will want to ensure that the views expressed not just by members of the Economy Committee but broadly speaking and those of a wide spectrum of stakeholders are taken into account when we are working on a draft economic strategy to complement the draft Programme for Government. No doubt, given the nature and intention of the Programme for Government process, that presumes that there will be the widest possible input from stakeholders.

Of course, it is logical to assume that the economic strategy will be a part of the Programme for Government strategy. I am not quite sure why people thought yesterday that it was necessary to have a manufacturing strategy outside the Programme for Government strategy and the economic strategy. Nonetheless, consistency is perhaps not something that is in large measure in this institution. Members will expect, as will I, as Committee Chair and, I am sure, Committee members, the Minister to engage as widely as possible when forming a strategy, not least with the Committee itself.

I will repeat what I said yesterday during the manufacturing strategy debate. We cannot simply develop a strategy that ignores the realities of the global economy and the balances and links between our economy, the economy in the South, the economy in Britain and the economy in Europe. I share the points made by the last speaker about the upcoming referendum and the very close link that we have with the European Union and the economic ties that we have there.

An updated economic strategy may also require a review of the current job promotion model that we use. Again, that is likely to be a priority for the Committee. Such a strategy, as other Members alluded to, has to take into consideration the potential reduction in corporation tax.


12.30 pm

The previous economic strategy published in March 2012 stated:

"The Strategy is being launched at a time of sustained uncertainty in the global economy and we recognise the impact this continues to have on businesses and individuals".

Unfortunately, this context has not changed that much; we still live in a time of global economic uncertainty, and we cannot ignore the impact of that on the North. Again, as in 2012, we need to use all the economic levers and drivers at our disposal, and we must invest in innovation, R&D, skills and diversification in our economy.

The Economy Committee will continue to take briefings from the arm's-length bodies and the Department, and I am sure that we will challenge very strongly to make sure that the Department contributes to the Programme for Government, meets the outcomes already outlined in the draft Programme for Government framework and develops them in a way that grows, in a balanced, regional way, a very prosperous economy, bearing in mind the global economic circumstances we face.

Speaking on behalf of my party, I have no difficulty with the amendment proposed by the SDLP. In essence, everything in the amendment is already contained in the Programme for Government framework. I listened to the leader of the SDLP outlining the reasons why, after two weeks of intense negotiations, it decided to abandon its opportunity to be in the Executive, where it could have had an input into all this, and walk away from Programme for Government negotiations. However, at the first opportunity to amend a motion in relation to one of the central planks — the economic strategy — it has simply come forward with amendments that already exist in the Programme or Government. Outcome 1 is about prospering through a strong, competitive regionally balanced economy; it states:

"This outcome is about increasing the productivity and success of local business in a sustainable and responsible way, ensuring that growth is balanced on a regional basis."

That will ensure:

"growth benefits people in all parts of the region."

It is already in there. Indicators for better-paid jobs are there. The amendment, which is in contradiction of the position that was adopted yesterday, says that the economic strategy should sit alongside the new Programme for Government. Surprisingly, the manufacturing strategy should not. I do not understand the logic of that.

If that is the type of constructive opposition that we are to expect, it is certainly opposition without substance. They have simply said, "We don't want to be part of the Programme for Government negotiations because there's no substance in them, but we'll bring forward amendments and debates. That's our contribution to trying to create a better economy and societal change in terms of protecting the vulnerable; simply by producing some meaningless amendments in the debate. That's our contribution to constructive opposition". That may be so, but it is opposition without any degree of substance.

Mr Aiken: I pass on my regards to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your elevation.

I am sorry that Mr Lyons has left the Chamber because I was going to praise him. One of the strange things with constructive opposition is that we are able to praise areas that have been done well. One of the most interesting things is the growth, particularly in the economy, of companies in the rest of Northern Ireland over the last couple of years. That has been a particularly strong thing. We should also give praise where it is due, such as to the innovative, adaptive and agile companies that have done so much, against the tide of some of the poor business decisions that have been going on in Northern Ireland, and have made a success of themselves.

There is one particular area that I would like to focus on. Echoing the words of our fellow leaders of the Opposition, I want to talk about the issues particularly around the idea of skilled jobs. I am not playing Northern Ireland down; this is not a Northern Ireland put-down issue. We need to face some of the realities on the state of our ability to produce highly skilled and highly paid jobs in Northern Ireland. The provision of a skilled workforce and support for greater funding for research and development were issues that we, as an Opposition, wanted to see in a strategy for manufacturing. We wished to see it as a separate strategy because we wanted to see it being the driving force of the future of the Northern Ireland economy and not being frittered away in some form of the Civil Service "at ease" or losing it in what else is going on in the government process as well. One of my major concerns is the considerable underinvestment in our higher and further education sectors. I am an ex-CEO of a major Irish university, and it is an issue that our universities, our business sectors, our unions and I are very acutely aware of. Indeed, to quote the noted academic and commentator Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University:

"Almost uniquely in the developed world, Northern Ireland is disinvesting in higher education".

We do have a brain drain. Mr Stalford was very clear in saying that we seem to have stopped the brain drain, but we have not, and the figures show that to be the case. Indeed, with the level of funding for students in Northern Ireland being £1,000 less than everywhere else in the United Kingdom, we should be looking at it as a matter of disquiet or even disgrace that our Government have stood over a steady reduction in the potential to upskill our workforce while our competitors in Manchester, which sits —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Aiken: If you do not mind.

In the university standings, Manchester is at 56, Edinburgh is at 24, Glasgow is at 76, and Dublin is at 160, and those universities have taken the opportunity to invest in wealth-creating centres. Indeed, from looking at the recent record, you would presume that our universities are seen as a burden rather than an asset.

It is also noteworthy that our universities are dropping down and not rising up the global rankings. Northern Ireland no longer has a university in the global top 100. We barely scrape into the top 200. This is a significant problem not just for our reputation but for our competitiveness and attractiveness as a centre for FDI and innovation. However, I am not doing Northern Ireland's university sector down. It is noteworthy that, when collaboration between our universities and industry works, it works well, but there is just not enough of it. There appears to be a marked reluctance to boost this cooperative and mutually beneficial approach.

The state of modern apprenticeships is also a concern that should be raised higher up our national risk register — that is, if we even have a national risk register, which we should have. There are shortages in skilled workers in the building sector, so, even if we did need to build a lot of social housing, we would not have the workers to do it. They are already being employed on HS2 and major works in the Northern Powerhouse. That, as well as a shortage of skilled technicians working in the farm and agribusiness sectors, is an impediment to achieving an effective economic strategy. We also need to send the message that the apprenticeship route is not some form of second-class educational approach. Apprenticeships should be valued as much as the degree route. As an Assembly, we should be promoting that view and investing in further education colleges. We are also conscious of the costs of potential additional expenditure. However, we need to ask this question: can we afford not to do this? Can we afford not to invest in our higher education sector as well?

I want to talk about issues of regional investment or lack thereof. I will not revisit the opportunity lost by not rebuilding the new Ulster University campus in Londonderry, where it should have been. However, as a transformational point, higher education can make a significant change

Finally, in the few seconds that I have left, I point out that this will all be moot if we do not vote to remain in the EU. Come the end of this month —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Aiken: I am just about to finish.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Aiken: — we could be in a position where all this is moot and all our plans for future economic development would no longer be successful.

Mr Lunn: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your appointment.

We will support the motion and the amendment. On the motion, the Executive have already stated on several occasions that a new economic strategy would be developed in conjunction with the Programme for Government, a new Budget, a social strategy and an investment strategy. The amendment provides additional emphasis on the critical aspect of skills. I will, however, shortly make a few qualifications about regional balance.

The Alliance Party shares the aim and ambition of making Northern Ireland the most innovative and dynamic regional economy in Europe, but, to do this, we can no longer rely on what made us prosperous in the past. We must invest in the skills infrastructure and harness the creativity needed to ensure that our economy is fit for the 21st century. Improving our level of productivity is an essential part of any new economic approach. Alliance believes that, despite the challenges facing the economy, Northern Ireland has the resources to emerge from this period of austerity stronger and more competitive. We have an enterprising and resilient business base, a youthful and well-educated population, a strong manufacturing base, excellent research and innovation attributes, a world-class telecommunications network, strong international links and unique natural and cultural resources. Our strengths obviously outweigh our weaknesses. However, despite some good developments on the economic front over the past five years, there have been missed opportunities, and Northern Ireland has not been transformed in line with its full potential.

As others have said, any discussion of our future economic prospects has to reflect the current uncertainty posed by the EU referendum and the implications that would flow from a vote to leave. The single market provides us with massive trading opportunities and the scope to grow our exports. Access to markets is the biggest issue for investors looking at Northern Ireland. If we left, there would be a real danger that investments would go elsewhere. The vast majority of economic experts strongly recommend a "Remain" vote, as does the Alliance Party and all the parties here except for the DUP. I cannot help thinking about and reflecting on what Mr Eastwood said, and I think that he is right: the DUP secretly knows that the population of Northern Ireland will make the decision for it. The DUP can take its stand, but it knows what the result will be.

We support the development of a robust interdepartmental economic strategy that should focus on job protection and creation in the short term, as well as set out a clear long-term strategy for increasing productivity and competitiveness and build on our key strengths. A central element of that strategy must be a plan to invest in the key economic drivers, such as skills and infrastructure. That imperative is particularly acute in the context of a lower rate of corporation tax. However, that, in isolation, cannot and will not be a silver bullet. The lessons from elsewhere are clear: it will work only in the context of supporting investments. Indeed, there needs to be a lead-in time. We have become increasingly concerned at the absence of a proper plan around the lower rate of corporation tax — the clock is ticking. Mr Murphy spent half of his speech berating the Opposition, but I would like to know whether Sinn Féin is totally committed to the principle of a reduction in corporation tax.

Following on from yesterday's debate, I think that we should also ensure that there is a strong manufacturing focus in a refreshed economic strategy. One of the critical areas of intervention needs to be skills. Over the past five years, we have seen the development of a wider range of policies and programmes to develop skills, including higher-level skills, to make them more relevant to the economy and bring people closer to the labour market. However, that work has been limited by a lack of resources and, more recently, budget cuts. Investment needs to be scaled up, and we estimate, as has been said before, that we need a step up through which an additional £85 million each year would be spent on skills by 2019-2020. In particular, that would allow us to address the current funding gap in higher education, continue to freeze tuition fees for local students and expand our provision of high-level skills.

It is also important to qualify the point on regional disparities. We have a responsibility to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland has economic opportunities and there is economic and social vibrancy in all parts of the Province, including Londonderry, but we need to be careful to balance the overall size of the Northern Ireland economy and its internal distribution.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Lunn: Yes, indeed. If we overmanage the latter, we risk compromising the former. I will leave it at that.

Mr T Buchanan: It is the desire of every Government to increase and strengthen their economy, which is the backbone of every society. Due to the many factors that drive it forward, it is essential that improving the economy is at the very heart of the Programme for Government. If Northern Ireland is to be successful on a global scale and punch well above its weight on the world stage, it is imperative that we as a Government focus on the creation of more and better jobs and job opportunities in Northern Ireland.

It is no longer an option to stand back and watch our educated young people leave our shores with the age-old complaint that there are no jobs back home for them. When we ask our young people where they want to work, their answer is usually the same: they love Northern Ireland and want to remain within our shores, but there are simply not the job opportunities or the right type of job to keep them here. I acknowledge the tremendous work that the Executive did over the last five years. We heard the mover of the motion quote the figures for the jobs created and the new employment opportunities, but more needs to be done. We cannot take our eye off the ball. The foundation has, I believe, been well laid, and we must continue to build on it. The children and young people in our schools, colleges and universities today are the workforce of tomorrow. It is the responsibility of everyone in the House, along with the Executive, to make the tough choices to ensure that their future is secure here in Northern Ireland and they have the opportunities to forge successful a career in their chosen field of work at home.


12.45 pm

A successful economy does not come in isolation but is built on partnership between government, industry and education. Working in partnership will not only deliver a highly skilled workforce capable of meeting real business needs but will underpin economic growth by opening the new opportunities that are required. However, it is no secret that, in many places and in many areas of employment, employers bemoan the skills gap among our young people. We are all well aware of that. I mentioned this yesterday, and I come back to it again: throughout the last Assembly term, the Committee for Employment and Learning looked at the skills gap and worked on those issues. That is not to say that our young people have no skills; however, they do not have the right skills to meet the job opportunities that arise. That is the issue that we need to address. We do not want to come to the Chamber to put our young people down; that is not what we are doing. Our young people are well skilled, but they are not skilled in the right way to meet the opportunities that arise in the job sector. That is something that we need to look at with our universities and employers to ensure that our young people are skilled in the fields that meet the job opportunities that will arise when they come to Northern Ireland.

Another issue that we need to look at is improving our infrastructure, which is a big issue. There needs to be an improvement of the roads infrastructure in my constituency of West Tyrone. In the last Assembly term, there were efforts to bring forward the improvement of the A5. It is still sitting there, not as a fault of the Executive but due to other issues. We need to look at the roads infrastructure. Broadband, which is another huge issue in West Tyrone, was also mentioned. We have excellent broadband cover and facilities in Omagh, but, when we move out into the rural areas, where we have small businesses and the farming industry that need broadband cover, it is not there. That is something else that I ask the Minister to look at.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for giving way. We have talked a lot about broadband and road infrastructure, which are important, but does the Member agree that another part of our infrastructure is aviation and the links that we have with London; for example, the importance of good transport links and being able to move people and freight? Does he agree that the lack of a decision on aviation capacity in the south-east hurts not only the rest of the UK but Northern Ireland, which is dependent on air links?

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

Mr T Buchanan: Absolutely. I could not agree more with my colleague. The transport network and infrastructure is another issue that I have in my notes. Again, that needs to be looked at. I ask the Minister to take that and all the issues on board as we seek to move forward. A lot of work needs to be done in this term of government. We need to be radical in our thinking and open up long-term thinking in the House —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr T Buchanan: — and the Executive. It is our opportunity to work together to bring forward good for Northern Ireland and to sell Northern Ireland on the world stage and say, "Here's what we have on offer. Come and be one of us".

Mr Maskey: It is OK, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mrs Little Pengelly: I welcome the motion and add my voice to the very strong case for the updating and bringing forward of a revised economic strategy. In many ways, my wonderful constituency of Belfast South is a manifestation of what we want to achieve. We have the highest level of third-level-educated residents. We have relatively high wages; relatively low unemployment; fantastic businesses, including start-ups; and fabulous universities and schools. We have excellent commercial and retail centres, such as the Lisburn Road, Stranmillis Road, Ormeau Road, Finaghy and many others.

Just a few months ago, I was hugely humbled to be asked by the South Belfast Partnership Board to be the South Belfast economic champion. What is clear through that work and my actions on the ground is that, despite the headline figures, challenges remain. South Belfast, like so much of Northern Ireland, can be a game of two halves. We have much educational excellence, but we also have levels of low educational attainment and underachievement. We have excellent retail areas, but we have challenges in relation to rates, parking and tough trading environments. We have great schools and universities, but with a need for resources and support if they are fully to play the role that they want to play in growing our economy. Achieving our objective of growing the economy will require two things to come together. Yes, absolutely, we need good and high-value jobs, but we also need a workforce with the necessary skills and tools to be able to access those jobs. We need to be able to create jobs, but also for those jobs to grow and expand.

I have just come from a meeting of the all-party group on tackling educational underachievement and promoting educational excellence for all. This is a critical part of building our economy. In that group, and right across the parties, there is a very wide consensus on what we want to achieve. We want every child to succeed, but we need to have a hard conversation about what success is in that context. To me, success is a young person with the necessary tools and skills to be able to get a reasonable job with a reasonable wage. Creating the jobs will be part of the economic strategy, but we need to give young people the necessary tools and skills to be able to access them.

Growing our economy will require a wide range of initiatives and actions — a highly skilled workforce; increasing educational achievement; the supply of quality jobs; attracting investment — but it will also require support for our local, indigenous businesses to allow them to grow, providing the conditions for business start-up and, critically, encouraging those entrepreneurs who will take the risk and create the jobs that we want and need to see. It is only though all those initiatives working together that we will build the vibrant, innovative, entrepreneurial and dynamic Northern Ireland that we all want to see.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): This is Mr Chambers's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, so I remind the House that, as it is his maiden speech, it is the convention that it be made without interruption.

Mr Chambers: Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a privilege and an honour to have this opportunity today to make my first contribution to the proceedings of the House. I hope that it will be the first of many opportunities.

I am extremely grateful to the people of North Down, who voted for me to represent them in the Assembly. I pledge to represent all the citizens of North Down with the vigour and commitment that they would expect from me. I was born and reared just a short distance from this iconic building, in the shadows of the gantries of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Indeed, my father worked there for some time, along with thousands of others, building some of the finest ships in the world. I am proud of my east Belfast early-year roots. In 1973, however, I moved to Bangor, and, having lived there since then, my family and I are very proud to call North Down our home. I have been a local government representative in North Down for nearly 25 years, and I am very proud of some of our achievements in local government over that period. I know that there are others currently serving in the Chamber who will share that pride in things such as the Aurora leisure centre, the restoration of the Walled Garden in Bangor and the public realm work that has been carried out, including the upgrading of play parks, community halls and, indeed, our new community hub, which is due to open soon on Hamilton Road in Bangor, and the leisure facilities in Holywood.

North Down has the reputation of being the gold coast, but it also has areas of deprivation. One of my challenges will be to try to make North Down a gold coast for every one of its residents. The redevelopment of Queen's Parade will need all the support and encouragement that the Assembly can offer. Hopefully our new Education Minister will be able to find the money to finally enable urgent rebuilds of a number of school campuses that are not entirely fit for purpose. I know that Minister Weir has been heavily involved over the years in lobbying with the rest of us to make the dream come true for Priory Integrated College in Holywood, St Columbanus' College in Bangor, and Bangor Central Integrated Primary School. Perhaps Invest Northern Ireland will look beyond the gold coast reputation and send some much-needed manufacturing jobs in our direction.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the contribution to North Down and this House made by our former MLA, Mr Leslie Cree MBE. I wish Leslie, now retired from public life, and his family every happiness for the future. Knowing Leslie, I will not be surprised if he finds some voluntary public service work to keep himself busy.

In Bangor, we are very fortunate to have a first-class further education facility, the South Eastern Regional College (SERC), which is managed and staffed by a highly motivated group of tutors. This college has risen to the challenge in the past of tailoring courses to suit upcoming opportunities like those presented when the Aurora leisure complex was opened. Going forward, we cannot afford to starve places of further education like SERC of funding if we expect them to step up and provide the training required to fill future skill set requirements. Lack of funding in this area will be an impediment to the growth of our economy. We must be prepared in this House to speculate to accumulate for our people.

Workplace apprenticeships are also vital to prepare our workforce for future opportunities. Everything must be done to give employers incentives to provide and facilitate apprenticeships. We must also look hard at our infrastructure. Our road and rail network requires detailed planning and financial resources. Our broadband network, which we have talked about, has many black spots in Bangor. There are some huge challenges to be confronted in an economic strategy, and my party has no hesitation in supporting the motion and the amendment. I am disappointed that an Opposition motion to create a manufacturing strategy was rejected by the House yesterday, as I think it would have complemented this motion.

Over recent days, I have heard much comment from Executive spokespeople about the complaining and whingeing coming from those in opposition. Today, the word "disrespect" was even mentioned.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

Mr Chambers: I get the feeling that there is such an obsession with opposition that we are actually seeing the birth of an opposition to the Opposition. We need to be aware that every healthy democracy has an opposition to scrutinise and critique the performance of government. My party will not be found wanting in pursuit of our opposition duties. However, in conclusion, what we will not be doing is apologising —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Would the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Mr Chambers: — for carrying out our duties as part of an official opposition.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.00 pm today. Therefore, I propose by leave of the Assembly to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. We will return to the debate on the economic strategy, when the next contributor will be Mr Daniel McCrossan.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.58 pm.


2.00 pm

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

Mr McCrossan: Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your new role. I support the amendment to this very important motion, not only as an MLA for West Tyrone but as the SDLP spokesperson for infrastructure.

In the North of this island, the east-west divide remains as stark as ever. Nearly 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement and peace, there has been a failure to address the serious skills and infrastructure deficits that have squandered long-term strategies and crucial business regeneration west of the Bann. Information that was obtained by 'The Detail' last year shows this stark underinvestment in deprived communities across Northern Ireland, but particularly in the west and rural areas. This is something that we have known for some time, but the figures are absolutely overwhelming. In the last three and a half years, over 80% of funding that was offered by Invest NI for indigenous businesses was made to those in the east. This comes despite the well-documented, historic underinvestment in communities west of the Bann, where villages and towns teeter on the brink of instability. West Tyrone has received only 2·1% of the overall financial assistance that is available by Invest NI, so it is no surprise that this inequality is haunting my local community and has done for decades.

Regional inequality is evident if we look at Ards and North Down, for example, which has the highest rates of employment and economic activity at 73·8% and 76·2% respectively. This is in stark contrast to my area of Strabane, which held the lowest level of employment at 56·6% and of economic activity at 66·5%. It comes as no surprise that my town of Strabane in the constituency of West Tyrone consistently tops the UK deprivation charts year on year, and that is having dramatic repercussions for people. Strabane is falling foul of chronic unemployment and decades of underinvestment. I see this each and every day across my constituency. There is multigenerational neglect, with people stuck in a cycle of poverty, left with little hope and no aspiration. Young people are leaving in their droves to find greater economic opportunities elsewhere, simply and sadly because they see no future here, certainly not west of the Bann. This may be a difficult pill for this House to swallow, but one that we must collectively deal with and fast.

Those are the ones that got away. Each week, I hear about the awfulness that is faced by some young people across my constituency — their depression, anxiety and frustration, which sometimes leads to high levels of addiction and alcohol and drug abuse and, sometimes, given the reality, suicide. This awfulness could have been avoided had there been meaningful work and had they been given some hope and aspiration for a better future here at home, close to their families and in their own communities. This underscores the failure of successive Ministers to spread the wealth-generating potential of the North across all those who live here.

In this mandate, regional imbalance is supposed to be a key priority for the new Programme for Government framework, but if the last Programme for Government is anything to go by, with almost half of the targets not delivered, I do not have much confidence that the new one will deliver positive change.

The new framework does not have any specific targets, measurables or increments on how it will change the economic fortunes of the people across my constituency and others that have suffered from decades of neglect. We were even told last year that Ministers here were taking responsibility for the generational neglect of the north-west and the west. The ministerial subgroup on economic inactivity for the north-west has met only twice since then, the second time with 24 hours' notice.

It is not just job opportunities that are lacking in West Tyrone. One of the big disappointments in many rural areas is that we still lack a proper road infrastructure, and that directly contributes to regional imbalance. Motorways, such as the A5 and A6, will allow all businesses from all over the North greater access to markets, boost travel efficiencies and allow skill bases greater movement. For all that was promised, what we are left with is a £100 million allocation from the Stormont House Agreement and a flurry of activity on a very small section of road.

Only £13·1 million was given to the A5 this year, and with two consultation processes already, I hope it is not another empty promise of proper investment. I sincerely hope that the money does not end up within another monitoring round.

A necessary skills base remains absolutely vital to the development of a competitive and healthy economy while allowing people to personally prosper. New skills open new opportunities and grant people the tools they need to succeed. Businesses rely on skilled workforces to allow them not only to make —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr McCrossan: — a profit but to expand and grow in a new region.

I will finish on this point. Economically, there needs to be a targeted approach from the Assembly on the areas of most need, which are in infrastructure and jobs, and the leadership needs to come from here.

Mr Hamilton (The Minister for the Economy): I welcome the debate and the opportunity to respond to the motion and the amendment. The motion calls for the Executive:

"to focus on creating more and better jobs in Northern Ireland and to bring forward an updated economic strategy alongside the new Programme for Government".

An ambition to create more and better jobs for all our people is one that I am sure everyone in the Assembly will support. Refocusing the current economic strategy will afford the opportunity to ensure it is aligned with the outcomes set in the new Programme for Government framework and takes account of changes within our economy. I assure Members that my Department has already commenced that work.

Members may be aware that the Executive's economic strategy was published back in March 2012, with a long-term vision up to 2030 of:

"An economy characterised by a sustainable and growing private sector, where a greater number of firms compete in global markets and there is growing employment and prosperity for all."

The economic strategy was designed as a living document to be reviewed and adjusted on an ongoing basis to ensure that, as a region, we can respond to and exploit national and international market opportunities and meet the challenges created within a global economy. That said, I believe that the long-term vision articulated in 2012 remains very much valid today.

The aim of the economic strategy is to improve the economic competitiveness of the economy through a focus on export-led economic growth. The strategy further recognises that regional disparities exist and that we need to ensure balanced growth across Northern Ireland. It also recognises the importance of cities as drivers of economic growth. Belfast and Londonderry are key population and economic centres and, as such, will be catalysts for growth across Northern Ireland.

Creating jobs alone can be only part of any solution to achieving balanced regional growth. As Mr Murphy pointed out, it is key and central and is in the draft Programme for Government framework.

Mr Aiken: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hamilton: I will, yes.

Mr Aiken: I welcome the 2012-2030 document, as it was. One of the key underpinnings of that document, which was a brief protecting the business community at the time, was the continued membership of the United Kingdom within the European Union. Would the Minister care to comment on whether the potential change of Northern Ireland and the UK leaving the European Union would have a significant impact on any future economic strategy?

Mr Hamilton: The Member perhaps recalls it better than I do. If he does, he gets a mark for that. I am not sure whether it had that as an underpinning of the economy in Northern Ireland, although it was a fact and continues to be a fact, and we will see after 23 June whether that remains the case.

I understand the points that are made by many within the business community about the concerns they have of the potential of leaving the European Union. Business wants certainty, and there would of course be a degree of uncertainty if Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, were to leave the European Union. Equally, I listened to many of the same business organisations say they are looking for a range of interventions, and, indeed, yesterday and again today, some Members asked the Executive to make a range of interventions, and I am sure they will continue to do so at Question Time and in other economic debates that we will have in this place. However, many of those interventions are hampered due to the fact that we are members of the European Union and because of state aid rules in particular. So on things like energy and rates, which the Member mentioned yesterday, if we wanted to offer or afford further relief in industrial derating, that is prohibited by state aid rules. There are a range of areas, and some sectors, such as the fishing industry, for example, which has a base in my constituency, believe that their business, markets and opportunities have been thwarted by being part of the European Union.

I do not accept either that an economy the size of the United Kingdom's, being the fourth or fifth largest in the world by whichever barometer you wish to use, would not be able to survive outside the European Union. Yes, there would be change, and I understand the concerns that some have about that, but I think that it is a lack of ambition to believe that an economy the size of the United Kingdom's, of which Northern Ireland is an integral part, could not do well, thrive and survive outside the European Union.

I congratulate the Member on his inventiveness in introducing that at this point, but I was going to address some of the points that Mr McCrossan and his party leader raised about regional imbalance and lack of growth. I understand the points made by Mr McCrossan and, indeed, Mr Eastwood. Sometimes there can be a perception, a feeling, or, in their argument, a reality that there is an imbalance in growth. Yesterday, I was talking to one of our largest inward investors in recent years, a company called Allstate, which, of course, has a presence not just in Belfast but in Londonderry and in the Member's home town of Strabane. I am sure that he, like all Members in the House, would like to see more companies like that investing in his constituency, but I think he should acknowledge, as I am sure he does, that that is a very welcome investment in Strabane. We would like to see that investment by Allstate and companies like it increase not just in Strabane but in all parts of Northern Ireland.

I want to address specifically the point about regional imbalance. We have to accept and acknowledge that the bulk of our population resides in the east of Northern Ireland, particularly in and around greater Belfast. If you look at figures for Invest Northern Ireland support in the 2011-12 to 2015-16 period, you will see that, in the east of Northern Ireland, 282 jobs per 10,000 of the population were supported, while in the west of Northern Ireland, 301 jobs per 10,000 of the population were supported. So, if you take it on a per capita basis and look at not just where the pounds are going but where they are going in respect of where people are, you will see that there is a higher figure in the west of Northern Ireland. If you look at the figures for 2015-16 specifically, you will see that, in the east, there were 28 jobs per 10,000, while in the west, there were 55 jobs per 10,000. Over the last five years as a whole, 64% of the 42,500 jobs supported by Invest Northern Ireland were outside Belfast. So, the perception that all the jobs, or the majority of them, are going to Belfast does not bear scrutiny when you look at the facts.

I accept that creating jobs alone can be only one part of any solution to achieving balanced regional growth. It will therefore be important to continue with investment in the key drivers of economic growth: innovation; research and development; and skills. We know from research that businesses that are innovative and invest more in R&D are more likely to be successful in global markets, employ more people and pay higher salaries; in other words, they provide more and better jobs.

Before dealing specifically with the refocus of the economic strategy, it might be helpful if I briefly outline some of the progress made on it to date. At the time of the development of the economic strategy in 2011, the local economy was faced with many challenges. In line with many other regions and nations, the economy had been adversely impacted by the global economic recession that had partially reversed some of the positive trends that we had been experiencing up to that time.

Since the publication of the strategy in March 2012, our economic recovery is now well established on a number of fronts. That is most evident by improvements in our labour market statistics. In April, there was a further fall of 600 people claiming unemployment benefits, bringing the total to almost 24,000 fewer since the strategy was launched. In the local economy, we have seen over 38,000 additional jobs, and our employment rate has increased to 69%, up almost two percentage points over that period. Economic inactivity also stands at its lowest point since it has been measured, although there is still some distance for us to go to bring it in line with the UK average.

In the modern workplace, qualifications and ongoing training are becoming more and more important in enhancing people’s ability to access better employment opportunities. We have been providing opportunities for people to move up the skills ladder, with almost 300,000 qualifications achieved through higher education, further education and ongoing training over the last Programme for Government period.

In 2013, Northern Ireland’s private sector output growth was above the UK average. While that slipped in 2014, it still remains above the level of private sector growth here when the economic strategy was launched.

The most recent data reflects a more positive position across all our main sectors. The services and manufacturing sectors have shown growth in output and jobs, whilst the construction sector — our most impacted sector during the downturn — has posted impressive growth since 2012, albeit still remaining below its previous peak reached in 2007.

The vision set out in the economic strategy in 2012 was long term and reflected the reality that a major rebalancing of the local economy, with a larger, stronger private sector, would take some time.

Positive progress has been made and is reflected across a range of indicators. However, I am clear, as are the Executive as a whole, that much more remains to be done if we are to develop a strong, vibrant, sustainable economy that can provide opportunity and prosperity for all.


2.15 pm

I turn now to the refocusing of the Northern Ireland economic strategy. I have stated that the strategy was designed as a living document, and, when it was drawn up, it was done in anticipation of a positive decision to reduce the rate of corporation tax. The powers to lower the rate of corporation tax to 12·5% from April 2018 have been secured, and this provides a major policy stimulus for making a significant impact on the Northern Ireland economy. I view corporation tax as a key economic lever that can help us to achieve long-term economic goals and ultimately help to secure greater economic growth and more and better jobs for our people. The refocus of the economic strategy will afford an opportunity to ensure that existing policies and strategies are revised and that any necessary new ones are developed to ensure that we can maximise the potential economic benefits of a lower rate of corporation tax.

The addition of reduced corporation tax to our existing investment proposition of talent and value added has the potential to make Northern Ireland the most attractive location in western Europe for new foreign direct investment. The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre has reported that the reduction in the corporation tax rate could lead to an increase in investments from businesses involved in areas such as manufacturing or large-scale research and development, creating in excess of 30,000 new jobs by 2033. Invest NI will continue to focus on attracting high-value FDI jobs, and the agency is working with my Department on detailed research aimed at informing and developing specific, targeted propositions for those sectors to which Northern Ireland continues to offer excellent investment opportunities.

In the strategy, we acknowledge that corporation tax is an important lever to transform our economy but will not in itself be sufficient to make the total transformation that we need. We must continue with efforts to improve other areas in the economy, which will ensure that we can maximise the potential gains from corporation tax, creating the conditions for local private sector growth and economic competitiveness. To achieve this, we must work to strengthen our performance in each of the five key rebalancing themes set out in the economic strategy. We will specifically seek to strengthen innovation and R&D capabilities to support investments; ensure that the supply of skills meets the demands of our economy; deliver business growth across the region; compete globally for high-value investors through targeted promotion and support; and ensure that the appropriate economic infrastructure is in place to meet the needs of new investors. The economic strategy represents an integrated approach to developing and growing our economy. The refocused strategy will continue to encourage and be based on collaboration. To be successful, we have to ensure that we have an effective partnership involving the public, private and voluntary and community sectors.

The motion calls for the Executive to focus on creating more and better jobs in Northern Ireland. To do so, it will be important that the refocused economic strategy aligns with the new outcomes-based Programme for Government. The new approach to the next Programme for Government is out for consultation. This Fresh Start commitment is a marked change from previous Programmes for Government and will require greater collaboration and working together, not just within and across our departmental boundaries but between the public, voluntary and private sectors. This is not only a real challenge but a great potential opportunity.

New thinking and new working methods will be required to deliver progress working together, not just in the Executive but with all partners, including local government, our arm's-length bodies and, importantly, the private sector. This approach to the PFG is completely aligned with the refocus of the economic strategy. No one Department will be able to deliver progress on its own, so collaboration will be essential. This will transform the way we work.

The outcome to which the motion specifically refers is to have more people working in better jobs. I see this as increasing the number of people working in jobs that are sustainable, well paid and offer opportunity for development and advancement. It is also about ensuring that employment opportunities exist at all levels for our people and encouraging our talented people to remain here for employment and progression up the skills ladder. We must also attract the best talent to Northern Ireland, including attracting back those who have moved abroad, by creating high-value job opportunities.

In supporting the motion, I want to ensure that there is clear alignment between a refocused economic strategy and the outcomes set out in the Programme for Government. Having more people working in better jobs will be about attracting high-quality employers and encouraging growth of indigenous businesses to offer good, sustainable employment opportunities. We will need to ensure that our workforce has the right high-quality skills to meet the demands of employers now and into the future. This will mean that we must work to improve the skills profile of our workforce and the prospects of the future workforce by improving educational outcomes.

The refocus of the economic strategy will give us the opportunity to explore in more detail the issues identified by the next Programme for Government, outline how their delivery can contribute to growing the Northern Ireland economy and, ultimately, deliver more and better jobs for our people.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Glaoim ar Sinead Bradley. I call Sinead Bradley to wind.

Mrs S Bradley: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your elevation. I also congratulate the Minister and look forward to working with you both.

A common thread across the debate has been the need for the development of infrastructure — road and digital — alongside the development of skills. Many also expressed concern that an exit from Europe would have serious detrimental consequences for the Northern Ireland economy.

Gordon Lyons said that he had no particular objection to the amendment and recognised the need for a distribution of jobs on a regional basis. Despite this, he stated that foreign direct investors may wish to locate in more developed areas, where their requirements are not compromised in any way.

Colum Eastwood referred to decades of lack of investment west of the Bann and the need to address and tackle the inequalities that exist. Only when that is done, he believes, will foreign direct investors be drawn to such areas, which are in need of high-value jobs, and the export of our young people can finally stop. Mr Eastwood highlighted the lack of tarmac and the need for a large infrastructure commitment west of the Bann. He described as "stupid and reckless" any promotion of the "Leave" Europe campaign with regard to our Northern Ireland economy. He closed by asking the Minister what scoping work had been done to fund the reduction in corporation tax.

Conor Murphy shared the concerns raised by Colum Eastwood about Europe. He mirrored the view of his Government colleague Gordon Lyons when he said that he had no objection, in principle, to the amendment. However, he did not recognise any added value in being specific about high-value or high-skilled and highly paid jobs, as they were, in his interpretation of the draft Programme for Government framework, sufficiently indicated. Mr Murphy also expressed some confusion over the economic strategy sitting alongside the new Programme for Government, given the calls yesterday for a specific manufacturing strategy. He did, however, say that issues had been brought to the Floor without the opportunity for discussion at Committee. Perhaps the sequence of events rolling forward will help to give clarity to such Members, and Mr Murphy will then be less unaware of the arguments made in support of a specific manufacturing strategy.

Peter Aiken answered Mr Murphy and explained again the need for that manufacturing strategy. He then moved on to the business in front of us and expressed concern at the underinvestment in the higher and further education sector and how that is now reflected in poor world rankings. He called also for a national risk register.

Trevor Lunn said that he supported the motion and amendment. He highlighted the need for updated skills and investment in infrastructure. He warned that a supportive plan needed to be put in place around the reduction of corporation tax.

Tom Buchanan referred to the skills gap. He described a mismatch, in that the skills being developed are not always right for the jobs that are there. He also referred to the need for improved broadband infrastructure.

Emma Little Pengelly cited many of the challenges to growth, such as rates, car parking etc. She highlighted the fact that people require the tools and the skills to become economically active.

Alan Chambers delivered a very measured and considered maiden speech — congratulations on that, Alan. He referred to the need for more investment in the "gold coast" of North Down, and for funding in SERC and other places of education.

Daniel McCrossan referred to the regional imbalance, particularly in Strabane and West Tyrone, describing it as "multigenerational neglect". Unfortunately, he expressed his lack of confidence in the framework document that we now rely on to develop the Northern Ireland economy.

The Minister addressed many of the issues raised and looked directly at the issue of regional imbalance.

He did try to make a distinction between perception and what might be considered reality.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Mrs S Bradley: Yes, surely. He did recognise the need for growth in the industry. I would like to close by saying that it may be an opportune moment to suggest —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mrs S Bradley: — the need for a ministerial subgroup to address further —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mrs S Bradley: — problems that exist.

Mr Dunne: I too welcome the opportunity to speak, and I call on the Executive to focus on creating more and better jobs and to bring forward an updated economic strategy alongside the Programme for Government.

As I said yesterday, I was delighted that the number one outcome in the draft Programme for Government is that we prosper through a strong, competitive and regionally balanced economy. This puts the economy as the top priority for our Executive. Creating more and better jobs is crucial as we seek to move this country forward and build a better Northern Ireland. Just as Northern Ireland is proudly taking to the field in France in the coming days, we take inspiration from our football team in how we can take on and compete with the world's best. May I take this opportunity to wish the Northern Ireland team well as they put this country on the world stage? They are a real inspiration and are true ambassadors for this proud country. I am sure that you would fully endorse that, Principal Deputy Speaker.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I would appreciate it if the Member would stick to the subject in question.

Mr Dunne: It is very much the subject, as part of tourism, which I move on to. Tourism continues to grow, and I believe that we can see even greater growth here. Tourism is an exciting avenue that we must continue to embrace and develop. The success of world-famous events being hosted locally such as the Irish Open, the Circuit of Ireland rally, the North West 200 and the Giro events highlight how we can attract spectators and competitors to our shores and put on first-class events showcasing the very best of what we have to offer as well as creating jobs and stimulating our economy and tourism sector. One has only to visit the Titanic Quarter on a Saturday afternoon to realise the success of our story with the numbers of tourists and holidaymakers. This can be further linked in with spreading visitors to neighbouring areas like north Down, including the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, which is a real jewel in our crown and should be further promoted.

The introduction of corporation tax at 12·5% in 2018 will be a vital lever available to us, and Invest NI needs the right support and resources to prepare for this new tool. Promoting Northern Ireland around the world through trade missions is a very valuable way of selling this country and attracting foreign direct investment and also of broadening the horizons of our existing businesses. Having spoken to a number of small local businesses that have been working with Invest NI on trade missions, they really value those trips, which have allowed them to grow their export base, develop their business and, ultimately, create jobs.

Developing our apprenticeships is also vital, building on the work between our universities, our colleges and our schools and developing the STEM subjects. Research and development is another key ingredient to growing our economy and creating jobs. Our thriving agrifood sector, in this year of food and drink, is another example of a vital sector with even more potential.
We also need to get the right infrastructure in place, as has been mentioned several times today, to invest in our roads and transport networks and to ensure that we are connected to the rest of the world through broadband and better mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas. Despite the challenges to our economy, we must redouble our efforts to improve our economic competitiveness, grow our private sector, rebalance our economy, and, ultimately, get more and more people out of unemployment queues and into real and lasting jobs.

I think that we have had a very useful debate. I will now summarise some of the points that have been made, many with enthusiasm.


2.30 pm

Conor Murphy, who spoke as the Chair of the Economy Committee, made the point that we need to focus the Programme for Government on job creation and said that, as Chair, he would work with members of the Committee to develop a strategy on the economy.

Steve Aiken — it is Steve Aiken, I understand —

Mr Aiken: So it is.

Mr Dunne: Good. He recognised the value of our universities and colleges and the need to upgrade skills, especially amongst our young people.

Mr Lunn also recognised the need for a skills upgrade and had some concerns about the future as a strong base for manufacturing and our access to markets. He also recognised the need to support further investment opportunities with the introduction of the new rate of corporation tax and the benefits that will flow from that.

Mr Buchanan made the point on the need for upgrading skills and the gaps that there are within our young people in the workforce. He talked about today's young people in their schools and colleges being the workforce of tomorrow.

Mr Lyons recognised the good work of the Executive in meeting targets — in fact, exceeding targets — through Invest NI in the previous mandate.

Mr Eastwood mentioned the need for more jobs in Londonderry — I believe he said "Londonderry'"; I just cannot remember. I remind him that 70% of manufacturing is done outside Belfast.

Emma Little Pengelly made the point about south Belfast. It sounded very much like north Down that she was talking about, but she mentioned the educational excellence and the mix of underachievement; the need for a growing economy; the need for high-value jobs; and addressing educational underachievement.

Alan Chambers made his maiden speech, and made it well. He recognised the needs of the north Down area — as a representative, I fully endorse that. He recognised the need for more workspace and the need to develop apprenticeships.

Mr McCrossan was, I think, the most negative of all. It would be difficult to attract new investors or new visitors to an area having such a negative record put forward.

We have had a very useful debate, and a lot of good points have been made. I hope that we will move forward on it.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to focus on creating high-value, highly skilled and highly paid jobs in Northern Ireland and to bring forward an updated economic strategy alongside the new Programme for Government 2016-2021, which focuses on achieving a regionally balanced economy.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have ten minutes to propose and ten minutes to wind up. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mrs Dobson: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the continuing crisis in hospital waiting times, with 376,382 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, diagnostic test or inpatient treatment as of 31 March 2016; further notes that, whilst there has been some limited improvement over recent months, the situation remains considerably worse than 12 months previously; expresses deep concern that the number of outpatients waiting longer than the maximum permitted time increased from 15,000 to 100,000, over 500%, during the duration of the last Assembly term; accepts that targets are set in the interests of quality and safety of patient care and that, with every delay, there is a risk of ailments progressing and patients coming to harm; and calls on the Minister of Health to detail what action she proposes to take to address this unprecedented crisis.

Whilst I am glad we are debating health matters so early in the new Assembly mandate, I take no comfort from the subject matter. Given its seriousness, this is the second time within nine months that I have brought forward a motion on this issue. Just like the debate my party led last September, the overall intention of today's is not to make party political points nor is it to apportion blame. Instead, it is to reiterate to the new Minister, who I wish well with what is undoubtedly the hardest job in the Executive, the sheer scale of the crisis affecting our local patients.

No one in the Assembly will disagree that there is a crisis engulfing our local health service. The most obvious sign of that is, as the motion states, the fact that over 376,000 people were waiting, as of the last official publication of waiting times. That is over 20% — over one in five — of our population. Whilst I welcome the slight decrease in the sheer numbers of people waiting over the maximum permitted times over recent months, the improvements were made only following last-minute funding allocations not through any degree of political leadership or anyone taking control of the wider causes.

On that point, I ask the Minister again specifically about the status of the £30 million announced by Simon Hamilton on 6 March. Whilst the Executive had agreed to allocate £40 million, virtually no record exists of the subsequent allocation. Can the Minister confirm that that money was received and that it is being spent? Nevertheless, the overall crisis is unprecedented; it is far worse than any since the restoration of devolution over 15 years ago. It has even taken the breath away of health experts in other parts of the British Isles.

Whilst I am not asking the new Minister to comment on this — it would not be fair to do so as it was before her time — it is worth remembering the words of Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, towards the end of last year. He said that heads would roll in England if hospital waiting list figures were on the same scale as those in Northern Ireland. This is not a blip, and it is not a minor issue; it is the single biggest issue that the Assembly is facing.

So I was pleased yesterday morning to learn that the Minister decided to make a last-minute statement on the issue — whether that was related to the timing of today's motion is immaterial — but I was disappointed by the tame tone of it. In my opinion, it did not generally recognise the severity of the problem. When she was asked by my colleague Robbie Butler whether she accepted that delays meant that patients were coming to harm, I was surprised to hear the Minister assert so definitively that they are not; that they are all under the protection of their GP. Well, if a GP suspects cancer and refers the patient for an urgent scan but that scan is badly delayed, does the Minister still think that the patient is being protected from coming to harm? Of course not. That is a simple example, but it is one that is heartbreakingly too common at present. I am sure that I am not alone in the Chamber in having a considerable number of such cases passing through my constituency office.

In addition, yesterday's comments go against what the experts are saying and what the Minister's own board said last year. Let me quote directly from the 2015-16 draft commissioning plan. It said that spiralling waiting times could lead to severely delayed diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses, with suspected bowel cancer patients particularly at risk. It stated that such delays for assessment and treatment were very significant and that it was possible that, in some cases, increased waiting times for assessment may result in a delayed diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening condition, with a reduced likelihood of a successful outcome. Perhaps, the Minister should reflect in future before making such conclusive statements.

Of course, it is not just cancer patients that avoidable delays are especially detrimental to. The waiting times for cardiology and orthopaedics mean that there are patients finding themselves in increasingly perilous situations whilst all the time having to endure the unimaginable pain and distress of waiting. I do not intend to go over how we found ourselves in the situation where our hospitals are clearly teetering above collapse, as the staff working in them regularly tell me, although I will make one comment: the previous Health Minister and those around him tried to build the narrative that the problems in our hospitals were a direct result of the previous debacle on welfare reform. Let me be clear, especially for the benefit of new Members: they were not. In the year when our waiting lists really got out of control, the fine for failing to implement welfare reform was £87 million. The overall black hole in the Executive's finances was £212 million in that same year. The penalties certainly did not help the waiting times, but they did not cause them either. Short-term funding announcements simply do not work; they especially do not work when trying to run a health service from year to year. Emergency monitoring round allocations worked for only so long before even they proved to be inadequate. All the time, genuine measures such as shifting more care into the community and advancing the broad agenda of TYC appear to have fallen by the wayside.

It can often be forgotten that the issue of waiting times running into month after month is not just an issue that affects our hospitals — far from it. Little in the health service can happen in isolation without impacting on another service. As well as heaping worry onto families, increasing waiting times have been increasing pressures on our GP surgeries. Primary care is a gateway to our health service. However, the continued management of pain and symptoms for those who have been left waiting for a long time for an appointment is heaping further pressure onto an already over-pressurised primary care system. If the patients are feeling the pressure of being left in an endless queue, so, too, are our health professionals at all levels. That has been very much in the media today. This is a major challenge for the new Minister, and one on which, if it has not done so already, the Royal College of General Practitioners will want to have its say. I know that it has an important message to deliver: addressing the major challenges facing the entire primary care system will benefit the entire health service.

I know from speaking to GPs that they face the daily challenges of repeat prescriptions, increased complexities of patient conditions and the effect of the deep-seated worry that comes with an ill patient being left waiting. We desperately need to move to a sustainable model to allow our health service to plan for the future. My party awaits the findings and recommendations of Professor Bengoa and his team. However, I and my party are firm in our belief that decisions about the future of our health service must be made on the grounds of what is best for patient outcomes and well-being rather than focusing inflexibly on buildings and organisation charts. Too much time has been given to the flawed assumption that, if hospital sites close, it would free up endless resources elsewhere. It will not; the savings would be negligible given that the single biggest cost is medical staff salaries and that the consensus is that we need more staff, not fewer. It is the same for the abolition of the Health and Social Care Board: whilst, on paper, it looks like streamlining, moving staff from one administrative body to another will ultimately do little to improve patient outcomes. We need genuine reforms, not ploys. I look forward to working proactively with the new Minister.

Ms Seeley: I begin by thanking the Minister for her attendance here yesterday. It is encouraging that, this early on, she is presenting herself in front us to deal with these ever-important issues. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to our front-line staff, many of whom I met out on the canvass trail, who are at their wit's end given the increasing pressures on them in the NHS. I am delighted that, in her statement yesterday, the Minister detailed many of the existing pressures that we are all very aware of, including increasing demand, financial constraints and, most importantly, a slowness to bring about radical change and reform to our health service. I concur wholeheartedly with her sentiment that our biggest problem is the way in which we currently deliver services.

An overhaul is required, and I look forward to Professor Bengoa's report.


2.45 pm

I believe partnership will prove crucial, be that partnership with the Education Department here in the North to address pressures on our health service that could have been prevented through increased awareness or, indeed, partnership with our counterparts in the South so that we share best practice and build on collaborative service developments. I ask the Minister to assure the Chamber that that will happen and that she will consider the development of a unit in the Health Department, like that in Scotland, to deal specifically with waiting times. I also seek assurances from the Minister that she will treat mental health issues and the waiting times in that service with equal concern.

I wish the Minister well in her role and look forward to the response in the coming weeks to the current crisis. I am confident that her intervention, along with the backing of the Executive, will prove fruitful.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion proposed by Jo-Anne Dobson and pledge the SDLP's desire and determination to play a constructive role in dealing with what has been and can only be described as a crisis. I take the opportunity to wish the new Minister well. This is one of many major challenges facing her, but I also believe that there are many huge opportunities that she has.

I am not one who usually dwells too much on statistics. All too often, the focus is on numbers, and we can lose sight of the fact that each of the statistics is a person. In this case, it is a person waiting for treatment, a person in pain or a person whose life may be put on hold as they wait for confirmation that they will be seen, treated and, hopefully, cured. Today, however, we cannot ignore the statistics. They are totally scandalous. Almost 400,000 people are waiting for a first outpatient appointment, diagnostic test or inpatient treatment. That is four times the population of the Derry urban area.

This is not a problem that has developed overnight, and it will not be solved tomorrow. We need to examine the factors impacting on waiting times, and we need to address them all strategically. There are many contributory causes, and, clearly, the funding constraints facing the Health Department and, indeed, all Departments are a major one. Those pressures are obviously compounded by the huge and ever-increasing demand, a demand that is clearly already outstripping capacity. We should rightly celebrate the fact that people here are living longer — that is, I suppose, evidence that our healthcare system is working in some way or other — but, with that ageing population and the increase in chronic conditions, more pressure is placed on our hospitals, which are bursting at the seams, our Ambulance Service and, as we heard today, our general practitioners.

We cannot look at the waiting list issue as a hospital-only problem. All areas of our system are inextricably linked. We must look at what is being spent where and ensure that strategic long-term planning and investment are forthcoming if the issue is ever to be tackled meaningfully. We all want to see patients get fixed quickly, but we cannot continue with this quick fix approach of lurching from one monitoring round to another in the hope of getting funding to, in some cases, throw at the private sector or the independent sector to pick up the slack. While I, like everyone here, I am sure, have people close to me who are delighted and relieved when they get a letter telling them that their procedure will be carried out, albeit privately, this system is not sustainable and is not satisfactory. We should be investing in our health service, not eroding it, and private companies should not profit from people's suffering. Urgent action is needed in staff recruitment and retention. Nowhere is it required more than in the Western Trust area, where last year £13 million was spent on locum doctors. That is almost as much as in three other trust areas combined.

Transforming Your Care was heralded as the road map to better healthcare, and while, at the time of its publication, the SDLP agreed with the destination set out in that road map, we also emphasised the need to ensure that we had the fuel to get there. As it is, we have barely got off the forecourt. The implementation of the plan needs investment. Rather than investing to save, the Department seems to have been just cutting to save. The failure thus far to implement TYC sees patients stuck in hospitals due to lack of care packages and, essentially, bed-blocking and exacerbating the waiting list crisis.

While much has been made and will be made of the financial cost of tackling extensive waiting lists, what about the costs of not doing so? Many people, while waiting so long for treatment — Mrs Dobson touched on this — develop further health issues, such as mental health issues. They can gain weight due to the impact on their everyday activities and abilities, and there can be further complications. There are also financial implications for those who are out of work as a result of their condition and those who might have no option —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Can the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Durkan: — but to claim benefits or at least try to claim benefits while out of work.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak will be Paula Bradshaw. As this is her first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Ms Bradshaw: It is appropriate that I make my maiden speech on waiting lists, a subject raised probably more often than any other on the doorsteps.

In the past, as a city councillor. I worked on many cases with my predecessor Anna Lo, as we tried our best to get that crucial operation or vital diagnosis. Anna, of course, rightly earned a reputation as someone who cared deeply about every case. She recognised naturally that the people bringing cases to her were not just numbers on a page. It was that human touch, more than anything else, that enabled her to break the mould. Anna was also keen to work across all divides, which is why she was so beloved in South Belfast. She attracted support from every corner of the constituency, and hers are certainly big shoes to fill — not literally, admittedly.

I am also proud to know every corner of the constituency, having spent the last two decades working at the grass roots. In my opinion, South Belfast is the most cosmopolitan part of Northern Ireland, and to have this opportunity to represent it and the people in it during the forthcoming period, with exciting developments awaited from Great Victoria Street to Carryduff, is a real privilege.

On the subject of waiting lists, I commend and support the motion at the outset and thank the proposers for bringing it to the Floor. We should not forget the narrative behind this. Someone waiting for a potential diagnosis of a neurological condition, for example, is being left with the worry and concern about that for the entire duration of the wait. If that person has multiple sclerosis (MS), dementia or Parkinson's disease, to name but a few, they will spend all that time without vital medication, support or even expert information, and their general health will also certainly deteriorate because of the uncertainty. Families and circles of friends are, of course, badly affected too. That is the narrative that we are talking about: not numbers on a page but real lives being lived. It is truly horrifying that anyone would have to wait for a year and a half in such a situation.

It is worth emphasising that the problem, which is worse here than anywhere else in the UK by any reasonable comparison, is the product of an unreformed health service. We have seen money being thrown at the problem in recent months, and yet there has been only a slight improvement. Let us be clear: we do not have endless amounts of money to throw at it. Reform is necessary. Certainly, we need to do all we can to help those on waiting lists now, but we should also be reforming now, to make sure that by the end of this decade no one will face a wait of anything like the length currently being experienced by so many.

It would be interesting to hear from the Health Minister the details of how much of the money allocated to the problem by her predecessor was in fact spent directly dealing with waiting lists. Further, I was concerned to hear in the Health Minister's statement yesterday that she feels that her ability to tackle the issue seems to depend on successful bids in the June monitoring round. The fact is that there will be very few successful bids in the forthcoming monitoring round, a consequence of the previous Executive's inability to make tough financial decisions, even when the case was clear.

That, of course, speaks to the general failure, which we can predict, of the Executive to get serious about general public sector reform and, not least, tackling and reducing the cost of division.

The appalling situation with waiting lists is a direct consequence of inaction on reform. The Minister now has her opportunity to make her mark, and she may rely on us in the Alliance Party to be constructive, if she pursues reform in the manner long known to be necessary. She is about to receive a report and recommendations from the expert panel that will tell her exactly what her predecessor heard from Donaldson, who told him what one of his predecessors had heard from Compton. So it goes on. We have had enough reviews, reports, commissions and panels. How many of them do we need to tell us the same thing before we embark firmly on the reform process?

On these Benches, we will not oppose for opposition's sake, but we are absolutely opposed to waste, inaction and undue delay. Too many people have waited too long for action on reform to make our health service fit for purpose for the thousands of patients currently waiting for vital treatment.

Mr Clarke: At the outset, I apologise for the Committee Chairperson, who has hopefully left the Building by this stage. She is sick this afternoon. She was down to speak. Hopefully, she does not need an appointment with a GP or a hospital. However, she is sick, and I report her apology.

I do not want to underestimate the motion in the name of Jo-Anne Dobson. It is crucial, and, as the Member who has just spoken said, it has been a topical issue for many of us on the doors and, even before we got to the doors, in our constituency offices. As was said yesterday, we should not politicise the issue because it affects everyone in the community, regardless of community background or where you come from.

The Member who has just spoken referred to the challenges in those reports. It is valid to say that the reports have been completed and things have to be done. It is worth noting that, every time a report comes out, some political parties come at it from an angle of opposing aspects of it. It was encouraging to hear the Member who has just spoken say that it is a case of reform and that we need to reform these things. However, people need to realise that, when we reform things, it brings about change and some of the changes are things that most Members have opposed when Ministers have tried to bring about change.

I do not underestimate the importance of what Ms Dobson said. I fully support and recognise what she said: as stated in the motion, something is required. There is a bit of blue-sky thinking, and we have to tackle this. I do not envy the Minister her task in relation to this. This will come about only if we are all brave when courageous decisions have to be made. We have to support the Minister in those decisions, should that be through Transforming Your Care or other things that have been mooted in the reports.

Whilst we have to be critical of the health service, we have to commend those who work in it in challenging and difficult times. Some Members have mentioned getting more staff. I would have been critical about getting more staff until I met the chief executive of the Northern Trust recently, who said that the trust had had recruitment campaigns for more staff but people did not apply. Maybe that means that the chief executive or the trust have to look at different ways to recruit individuals. It is unfair, however, to assume that the Northern Trust is not recruiting, given that it went out to competition and people did not apply.

Unfortunately, I have needed the health service a considerable number of times over the past number of years. Among the things that I have seen are difficulties with GP appointments and with Dalriada D-Doc sending people to A&E. All those things add more pressure on the health service. We all have a responsibility to bear, not just as politicians but as members of the public, in how we access the health service and whether we are doing so in the correct manner. Do we need to use these people on every occasion? We have an excellent pharmacy in my village of Randalstown, and it can treat people with minor ailments. We are all familiar with A&E departments. I have been in an A&E department when there has been a crisis. When staff come out and tell folk, "We're under severe pressure tonight. Can you go away and come back tomorrow?", I am amazed at the number of people who can step up and walk out of A&E.

That says to me that some of those people should not have been there in the first instance.


3.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

I have no issue with the motion as worded. I took encouragement from the Minister's statement to the House yesterday. I took encouragement from her suggestion that there was a decrease in waiting times from December to March. I wish the Minister well, but I cannot offer her any advice. As the Member who spoke previously said, there have been various reports, but, as I said earlier, people caused previous Ministers problems with the outcomes of those reports and are suggesting different ways of doing things.

I wish the Minister well on this. It needs to be tackled, but it is not just something for the Minister but something for all the parties to get together on, in order to depoliticise the matter of health and address the particular issue.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. This is an important issue, and we in Sinn Féin are more than happy to support the motion. Waiting times for hospital appointments, tests and admissions for inpatient elective care have been persistent problems for successive Health Ministers that they have sought to resolve, and I welcome the Minister's statement yesterday, in which she described excessive waiting times as "completely unacceptable". I also welcome the announcement that she is actively engaged in seeking additional funding as the first step in beginning to tackle the problem. I do not see how anybody can take issue with that approach. The Minister was also right to link excessive waiting lists to the operational ways in which we deliver health services and to the need for change.

To date, interim solutions have been sought by allocating additional funding to tackle what has been characterised as the "backlog". As well as interim solutions, however, we need long-term solutions, and I know that the Minister has her eye on that longer view. I am also interested in hearing from the Minister what proposals and solutions she has received from the Opposition parties about dealing with waiting times. As the Member who spoke previously said, we need more from MLAs than just statements and platitudes here in the Chamber. We need action, and we need it from all parties' offices. We need to see proposals. We need to see that constructive opposition, in order to provide a solution that is in the best interests of all the people whom we represent, not just platitudes in front of the cameras.

A recent audit report put the cost to the health service of missed appointments at more than £11 million a year, and the hospital cancellation rate is significantly higher here than it is in Wales or Scotland. Far too many of those cancellations were down to clinicians rather than patients. Indeed, recent research from health think tank the King's Fund identified the importance of whole-system analysis and sustained action over time as a way of achieving sustainable reductions in waiting times. Its analysis puts great emphasis on the importance of clinical ownership and involvement as being vital to improving outcomes. As somebody said already, our staff in the health service — those on the front line — are our greatest asset. I have every confidence in them working with the Minister to deliver the best possible outcomes for their patients. That will not be easy over the next five years. It will be extremely difficult in the context of the cuts to public services that we have faced for the past five years and will certainly face for some time into the future from the Tory Administration in London. We should never forget that fact, because that is why the health service is facing the difficulties that it is facing now: cuts are coming year on year from the Administration that was originally supported by some of the parties in the Assembly.

We need short-term investment to deal with the waiting times, but we need a holistic, long-term solution, and that requires backing from politicians here, from senior civil servants and from clinicians. It also requires a mature and constructive conversation between all stakeholders. I therefore urge parties to follow through on what they are saying today. Let us see the constructive opposition. Let us see the proposals coming forward, not only platitudes here in the Chamber. Let us see some papers coming from the Opposition parties to the Minister so that we can all find a solution to this great difficulty that we have with waiting times and ensure that we secure the best outcome for all those whom we represent.

Mr Nesbitt: I am happy to support the motion and to commend my colleague and health spokesperson, Jo-Anne Dobson, for the very constructive approach that she has taken in introducing the motion and in pledging to work collaboratively with the Minister on this issue. I wish the Minister well in what is, perhaps, the single most challenging portfolio in the Executive. Certainly, to judge from my own canvass on the doorsteps, health issues were number one, and I have yet to meet anybody else who was out canvassing in April and May who felt that anything other than health was the most frequently mentioned issue. It was number one on the doorsteps but, regrettably, not for d'Hondt. It was the last Department to be picked, and I believe that the Ulster Unionist Party was the only party ever to take it as a first choice, when Reg Empey plumped for Health in 2007, but there we go.

I ask the Minister to look holistically at these issues, and particularly at emergency departments. The previous contributor asked why people end up there, and it is important that we build our understanding of who sends them there and what their motivations are for sending them down that particular pathway. Of course, we also need to focus not just on people entering the emergency department but on how they exit, because there is, obviously, an issue with flow.

I will take the opportunity to lobby the Minister on a couple of issues. I have no doubt that she will be lobbied, if she has not been already, by the Downe Hospital to say that there is a facility in Downpatrick that could do a lot more in outpatient delivery. That could be one way of easing pressure on waiting lists, as well as using the ward facilities at the hospital for people who no longer need to be in an acute bed but are not yet ready to make it all the way back home, so a sort of step-down facility is available in Downpatrick.

It should be no surprise to the Minister that I am going to take the opportunity to ask her to focus during her term on mental health. We have, quite frankly, perhaps the most appalling per capita rates on planet Earth. It is clearly partly a legacy issue, and there is a triple win there if the Executive deal with mental health as it deserves to be dealt with. We will tackle the legacy issue. We will say to people who are trapped on benefits and do not want to be on them that we will help them into a more fulfilling lifestyle. If we make those people economically active, we rebalance the economy. So, it is a triple win, and it is high time that it was given the priority and the resources needed.

Let me make this pledge to the Minister on resources to tackle waiting times for mental health: I would be happy, as would this party, to support a common approach to London for additional ring-fenced funding on this issue, because it is a legacy issue. If the Prime Minister is prepared to put £150 million into dealing with the past in terms of truth and justice, surely the mental health legacy issue is deserving of at least that funding from London. It is not covered by the block grant; there are no Barnett consequentials, so he need not worry about what he would need to do for Scotland, Wales or any region of England. The Labour Party has already committed to the concept that mental health is the one area where Northern Ireland can argue for additional, ring-fenced, hypothecated funding. Ivan Lewis, as shadow Secretary of State, made that clear with the publication of the Heenan-Anderson Commission report into long-term poverty in Northern Ireland. I know that his successor, Vernon Coaker, will support an approach for additional funding for mental health issues in Northern Ireland.

Mental health is an issue on which the Executive and the Assembly can take positive action that can convince the people of Northern Ireland that it is worth having devolved institutions here on the Stormont estate. People know that I feel passionately about it., so passionately that not only have I asked Jo-Anne Dobson to stay as our health spokesperson, but I have asked Robbie Butler, who will make the winding-up speech in the debate, to become the Ulster Unionist spokesperson specifically on mental health. I look forward to hearing from him in a few minutes when, no doubt, he will explain why he is so passionate about this issue.

Mr McGrath: I rise today, hopefully in quieter circumstances, to support the motion because I care deeply about the health service of Northern Ireland in general and in my own area of south Down in particular. I worry about the excessive waiting times and the impact that they are having upon people who must wait. It appears that, in some instances, the sick are getting sicker as they have to wait excessive time for treatment. It is therefore timely that this motion is being heard so early in this Assembly mandate.

I met senior officials from the Department of Health just two weeks ago. I kid you not: in response to my suggestion that the health service is not working and is failing people, they seemed insulted that I should say such a thing. They told me that the service was not broken, that they did not need any extra money and that essentially all was rosy in the garden. I think that, Minister, you will have your job cut out convincing senior officials that there is actually a problem, never mind getting them to address it.

The issues span the full length of the service. Some of them have been mentioned. They include long queues at accident and emergency; waiting times for elective operations; excessive waiting times for ambulances, especially in rural communities; inequality when it comes to GP appointment waiting times; long waiting times for appointments with consultants; and so on. The health service, which our own officials — public employees — tell us is in great shape, is certainly anything but.

We have a cycle of problems in emergency care. The ambulance takes too long to arrive. Then you have to wait in a queue outside the emergency department. You eventually get inside, only to have to wait on a bed, which could be a trolley in a corridor, before you eventually get seen by a doctor. Then you have to wait to get up onto the ward. When you want to be discharged, you have to wait until your home care package is in place. If it is not, you have to remain in hospital, not for vital and much-needed healthcare but merely because nobody is available to care for you when you get back into the community. Bed-blocking is prevalent in the community and is costing tens of thousands of pounds. More importantly, it is denying early medical intervention to those who need it. At discharge, you have to wait a lifetime to get your medicine, and it can take forever for the ambulance to bring you back home again. It is not a pretty picture. Even if the health service officials do not accept that, I certainly do.

I do not think that it is the problem of an individual person. We have a cocktail of problems. We have a population that is growing older and presenting more often with more complex needs. Our staff find the other side of the world much more attractive to work in than here. We have the cutbacks to our budget through the Tory cuts agenda, which is implemented by our Executive. The problems are manifold.

My constituency has local problems, too. As has been mentioned, we have the £65 million Downe Hospital, which was built and opened only a few years ago, yet, time and time again, the trust has removed services from that hospital: 24-hour accident and emergency cover was removed; coronary care has been removed; most of the non-elective surgery is gone. Again, it goes on and on. The hospital has never really had a chance to get opened. As an enhanced local hospital, it could be fantastic support as part of a network of hospitals providing specific care and easing the pressures on our level-1 hospitals.

We are, from time to time, regularly told that it is the safe delivery of services that counts, not the buildings. To me, that is Civil Service speak for, "We could not be bothered to come up with a more imaginative reason". It is the catch-all excuse that is used for cuts to services. I would say to Members that they should be aware when they actually hear it that it may not be the actual reason. I cannot help but think that solutions must be found. The population, as significant contributors through their taxes and national insurance payments, deserve to have the well-paid officials at the top remove their heads from the sand and start solving the problems.

We await the results of the review by Professor Bengoa. I was part of the political panel that met him earlier this year. Whilst he did not say anything that we could disagree with —

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

Mr McGrath: — I hope that he does say something that will actually sort the problems out and that it does not become just another expensive method of kicking the can down the road. I support the motion and would like to see resolutions to the problems highlighted quickly in the interests of patients.


3.15 pm

Mr Aiken: I support the motion proposed by our health spokesperson, Jo-Anne Dobson. I want to welcome the Minister and wish her all the best in what must be one of the most difficult appointments in Northern Ireland.

I have a few small points. First, can we look at comparing our waiting lists of 376,000 and 20% of the population? Can we have a statement on how that compares with the rest of the regions in the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland, Wales and the devolved regions in England, where the National Health Service is doing so well? Can we also have a look at what is happening in the Republic of Ireland? In that way, we would be able to put some context into these horrendous figures and see where we are.

In relation to waiting lists and the key role of the trusts, can we have, and I noticed the Minister mentioned it yesterday, early sight on the thinking of the future of the trusts and any restructuring? As she is probably aware, or should be very aware, there is an enormous issue of morale going on within the National Health Service at the moment and between the trusts. Any comments are likely to add to their uncertainty and may effect the efficiency of the National Health Service and where we go.

Finally, a point —

Mrs Palmer: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Palmer: Does the Member agree that urgent action is required to reduce the waiting times for patients requiring spinal surgery and referrals, and that even urgent cases are still waiting from October 2015 to see orthopedic consultants?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Aiken: I would indeed agree with the Member. I think that anything we can do to reduce waiting lists and improve the flow of patients through the hospital system should be organised as quickly as possible.

I also ask the Minister to pass on my personal thanks to the staff of Antrim Area Hospital who, despite ever-increasing waiting lists, reduced resources and the rest, have actually been very successful in improving the health of my constituents, particularly in South Antrim. I would also like the Minister to pass on my personal thanks to the Northern Health Trust and Antrim Area Hospital for the recent help given to my family.

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Health, Mrs Michelle O'Neill to respond. The Minister has up to 15 minutes.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Health): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion and the comments that have been made so far.

Yesterday, I made a statement to the House, as my first piece of business, on the issue of waiting lists. This is a priority for me as Minister for Health and an issue that we need to tackle as quickly as possible. Excessive waiting times are totally unacceptable and, after listening to Members contributions today and in yesterday's debate, I think that everybody understands the reason why we are in the position that we are in and identifies with the fact that there has been an increase in demand for services. We need to address those challenges by investing a lot more in preventing illness and promoting healthy lifestyles. That will require a much-needed focus on reducing health inequalities so that, no matter where you live, you will have the same chance of a long and healthy life. We have to promote healthy lifestyles further to avoid pressure on services. Furthermore, we need new developments, and medical technologies and drugs are also increasing in demand and raising costs, which means that we must use the limited resources that we have in a wise manner.

I welcome the tone of the debate so far, and Members are suggesting that they want to work with me constructively in order to tackle this major issue, and I hope that will be the case. I am open to listening to suggestions. I listened to some commentary today about the short-term issues and that it is not good enough to just throw money, in monitoring rounds, at the issue. We have to deal with the immediate issue of actually getting patients seen. In order to do that, I will not apologise for bidding into the monitoring process to achieve additional funding. The fact that the Executive gave additional funding to the Department of Health towards the end of last year meant that 80,000 patients actually received treatment. That, for me, is something that we should not shy away from, and I will not apologise for bidding for additional funding — I have to deal with the here and now.

I have a vision for the health service that we shift the focus from acute care and move to the point where we invest heavily in preventative measures and in tackling the root causes of why people get sick in the first place. Catherine Seeley pointed out that I need to work more with other Departments, and I am certainly up for that. I think that there are many challenges in relation to poverty, isolation and all those other things that we need to tackle, and I want to tackle those constructively with other Departments. If we are able to tackle those things and stop people from needing and depending on the health service further down the line, only then are we actually going to make a difference. We are continually going to have this conversation around waiting lists and challenges in the health service, of which there are many. I am two weeks in post and I have identified many areas where we need to reform, make things better and reconfigure services. When I look to the future, I look at what we can do in the short term. That is about trying to deal with the massive and unacceptable lists. When I look to the future, I have to look at where we want to be and how I can chart my way forward.

I really look forward to Professor Bengoa's report because that will be key. I agree that there have been a number of reports. Let us now use Professor Bengoa as a step forward. I will use that to develop my vision. I will put that vision to this Assembly, and I hope that all parties can support that vision. I do not think that we are all speaking with a forked tongue here. I believe that people are genuinely interested in trying to work together and deal with the many challenges in the health service.

If anybody has ideas, I want you to come forward and talk to me. I am a Minister who is open to discussing those issues.

Mrs Dobson: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs O'Neill: If you let me just get through a bit and then I will let you come in towards the end.

As I said, the way that we deliver services has to be transformed, and I intend to focus my efforts on making that transformation. I listened today to some contributions from Members, and we are all guilty of looking after our own constituencies and talking about the services in our areas. It is not about buildings; it is about how we provide services to people. I would much prefer to offer people the best possible service that we can offer. That is where we need to focus our attention.

I want to focus my efforts on reshaping our health and social care sector to make sure that we are as effective as we can be. There must be a firmer grip on the strategic direction of healthcare delivery in the North to ensure the best possible healthcare for all our patients.

As I said yesterday, the work of Professor Bengoa is critical. I will speak to him when he comes next week, but he is also offering to speak to all the parties, and I know that other parties have taken that opportunity in the past and I encourage you to do so again. Hopefully, he will produce his final report towards the end of June, and I will be keen to come back to talk to the Assembly about how we move forward with that.

There are also areas for strong cooperation with my colleagues in the South. We will need to build a strong partnership. We have seen where all-island working in the past has been able to deliver for healthcare services, particularly in relation to children's services in Dublin and Belfast. We need to build a lot more on that, find efficiencies where we can and work together to make sure that we provide a first-class health service for all the people on this island.

Mr Aiken: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs O'Neill: I said that I would give way to Jo-Anne Dobson first. I will let you in towards the end.

We all have to rise to the challenge and make the changes that are necessary to ensure that we get a health service that continues to deliver for those in greatest need. The message is very simple: we cannot stand still. We must evolve to survive.

Like others, I recognise the hard work, professionalism and skill of those staff in the health and social care sector. I said that I would engage with front-line staff from day one, and I am glad to have been out on the ground meeting staff. They are the people who are best placed to tell us about the challenges that they encounter every day as they go about trying to look after people and give the best possible care. I very much look forward to continuing to work with staff to chart our way forward. Whilst I have a vision and I want to get political leadership and have other parties signed up to that vision, we need to have our healthcare workers and staff signed up to that vision and believing in it because they are providing the service. That will be my job of work over the time ahead.

Members referred to the fact that this is not a blip. It is certainly not a blip: we can see that. I referred to the fact that June monitoring is not the solution, but it is the solution in the short term, and 80,000 patients have benefited as a result of that. Over the next number of weeks, I will be in discussions in relation to June monitoring and making further bids to allow me to do that. The recent investment means that, for those waiting for their first outpatient appointment, the greatest reduction has been in those waiting for more than 52 weeks, which is down by just under 25% since December. Those waiting for more than 18 weeks is down by 18% and those waiting over nine weeks is down by just under 18%. That is to be commended, but there is a lot more to do and a long way to go.

Looking to the future, I think that the investment is not enough. The issue is not just with money. Money will help us to be able to get some people seen immediately, but it is not just the issue in the longer term. I want to invest in transforming the health service. I want to invest in health inequalities. I want to work with other Departments to be able to head off the issues before they become acute.

Looking to the future, I will continue to hold trusts to account and work with the Health and Social Care Board. You will remember from yesterday that I pointed out the fact that the board has been tasked with creating the five-year plan for elective care. I intend to make sure that I take full control of that and take the lead in holding trusts to account on the work that they are doing, making sure that they are doing everything possible for elective care.

I fully understand why the motion has been brought to the House. It is for the same reason as I chose to make a statement yesterday: the current situation with waiting lists is not acceptable to me. Waiting lists are still far too long, but it is clear that the recent investments directed towards waiting lists are making a difference. It will take time and significant non-recurrent and recurrent investment to bring waiting lists back to an acceptable level whilst trying to increase capacity to meet demand.

Mrs Dobson: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs O'Neill: The reality is that we do not have the capacity in the health service at this time to deliver for people in the manner in which we wish to. I want to get to the point where we are not using the private healthcare sector, because I believe that is money that we could invest in increasing capacity in the health service. Whenever we look towards having a health service that is free at the point of delivery and free for all, we need to seriously address the root causes of why people get sick. Only when we get to that stage will we truly have a health service that is on a sustainable footing.

I will give way to Jo-Anne Dobson very quickly.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for giving way. I want to raise a point I raised yesterday, again in my speech and now for a third time. Minister, this is specifically about the status of the £30 million announced by Simon Hamilton on 6 March. Whilst the Executive previously agreed to allocate £40 million, virtually no record exists of the subsequent allocation. Can the Minister confirm that that money was received and is in the process of being spent?

Mrs O'Neill: As I pointed out in my statement yesterday, tackling excessive waiting times is obviously high on my agenda for improvements. The additional £30 million that was committed by my predecessor was obviously an important step in allowing us to reach the 80,000 people whom I referred to. It will support up to 25,000 additional assessments and some 12,000 additional treatments across a wide range of specialities, including orthopaedics, gastroenterology, neurology and ENT. Importantly, it will see a £10 million investment in diagnostic services, building capacity to support up to 50,000 additional tests to help meet increasing demands, as well as supporting seven-day services. Trusts have also been asked to put in place arrangements to continue to undertake additional in-house activity during the first quarter of 2016-17.

Again, I go back to the point that, on its own, that investment is not enough. The money will allow us to get treatment to those people as early as we can, but it is not enough. This is not simply a money issue. I am asking the Assembly to support me in transforming the health service and to be constructive. As I said, I listened to the contributions to the debate, and, although they were by and large constructive, sometimes a bit of political point-scoring slipped in. I ask Members to rise above that to help me to help people and to transform the health service, because that is certainly the job I am committed to in the time ahead.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Robbie Butler to conclude and wind up the debate, for which he has 10 minutes, I point out that this is Mr Butler's first opportunity to speak as a private Member. Therefore, the normal convention of the House will apply, which is that a private Member's maiden speech is not interrupted. However, if you make remarks that are deemed to be very controversial, you may, in fact, lose the protection of the House on that. I call Mr Butler.

Mr Butler: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Just before I begin my maiden speech, I would just like to make the House aware of some breaking news that a man and two children have been struck by lightning in Lisburn and taken to hospital. I am sure that, as a group, we wish them well in their recovery.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Butler: Mr Speaker, I look forward to the day when I do not have a piece of paper in my hand to deliver a speech in the House, but you will forgive me for my nerves. It is a privilege to address you all in the House as an MLA. I also think it is important that the first topic I am speaking on is the greatest challenge facing the Executive at present: the very serious crisis in our local health service.

As a former councillor in Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, I acknowledge that I have limited knowledge of the procedures of the House. However, I have spent over 20 years as an employee and manager in the public service. Training and experience in that capacity have taught me that working together for the common good can be achieved only by recognising respect for all. As a Christian, I believe there is no place for hatred or bitterness towards those who express opposing views; indeed, I suggest that angry and aggressive positions adopted in that regard suggest an inability in people to defend their position and are an attempt to appeal to an audience.


3.30 pm

I am here to represent all the people of Lagan Valley — I was born in Lagan Valley and continue to live there — and I will give my best to do so. I am a proud member of the Ulster Unionist Party, which has a rich heritage in Lagan Valley. The party enjoyed a return to form there with me and my running mate Jenny Palmer enjoying electoral assurance from the voters. I would like to thank the electorate of Lagan Valley for their unequivocal support and their vote of confidence, and I would like to put on record my commitment to the role of scrutinising and holding the Executive to account for their actions, inactions and performance in this mandate. Our collective duty is to work tirelessly, represent the concerns of the community and remember that we work for them and not for ourselves.

Northern Ireland is a country that we should all be proud of. We could remember that 42 United States presidents had their roots in Ulster. We have produced leaders in sport: in golf, rugby and boxing, to name but a few. As mentioned earlier, the national football team is preparing for the Euros in France, and I wish them great success. If we consider the achievement of our country's football team, perhaps we, as a House, can draw on their process for working together to make this country great again.

I hope we can all agree that health is an issue that is far too important to get caught up in political wrangling. The 376,000 people referenced in today's motion deserve better. I was delighted and honoured to be given the role of spokesperson on mental health for the Ulster Unionist Party. My party recently produced a policy paper on mental health, and no one can deny the shameful statistics that have been published on this country's atrocious rates of suffering due to poor mental health and well-being. The legacy of the Troubles, terrorism and associated criminality contribute heavily in this regard, and, coupled with poor government strategy and direction, that is leading to the social inequalities and social deprivation that blight our society.

There are problems with our waiting times that do not simply apply to physical ailments. For instance, regionally, at the end of March 2016, the number of patients waiting longer than nine weeks to access adult mental health services had increased compared with the position at the end of March 2015. At the end of March 2016, 338 patients were waiting longer than nine weeks, which was an increase of 201 compared with the previous year.

My various roles whilst working in the Fire and Rescue Service taught me that, although intervention is a vital component to ease the suffering and save the lives of those affected by trauma, the most effective strategy must be prevention. It is to that end that I would like to see a process developed that delivers an infant mental health framework that identifies and addresses issues at children's earliest stages, coupled with a compulsory educational element for schoolchildren that looks at social and emotional learning and will complement the development of our children into healthier and happier adults. I give my personal and party commitment to raise the profile of mental health and well-being with the Minister and the Health Department and to seek parity of funding that will ensure that those who suffer are afforded the care required to help them live their life to their full potential.

The need for timely access to professional medical assistance is fact and cannot be a point for debate in the House. Sadly, my constituency of Lagan Valley has suffered over the last two mandates with the removal of the 24-hour accident and emergency facility, which was replaced by almost office-hour access. Patients are unarguably being put at greater risk through lengthy waiting times that contribute to poor health and increased recovery times. Sadly, earlier this year, in Lagan Valley alone, 2,944 people were waiting longer than 18 weeks for their first consultant-led appointment. That is 2,944 people whose physical and mental health suffer, not due to their own actions but because they cannot gain access to a specialist or a consultant within the prescribed 18-week time frame. I look forward to working with my party colleague Jo-Anne Dobson and, indeed, all members of the Health Committee, who I know share a common vision to see a healthier community with a greater sense of well-being for others.

I listened attentively to what was being said, and it was probably one of the best sessions that I have sat in on. I believe that there may indeed be a collective will in the House to see increased health and well-being for all the people of this community.

My colleague Jo-Anne Dobson opened the debate and pointed out a number of well-documented statistics. Perhaps the most startling of those is that over 20% of the population is on extended waiting lists. I do not think that there was a Member who disagreed with that. However, she was disappointed by the Minister's response to my question yesterday. Jo-Anne pointed out that there were increased pressures on carers, professionals and the healthcare system, and she called for genuine reform.

Catherine Seeley praised the Minister and front-line staff. She called for an overhaul of the health service and welcomed Professor Bengoa's report. She looked forward to possible cross-departmental strategies, which I like the sound of, given my call for education as an essential component.

Mark Durkan supported the motion and stated that statistics cannot be ignored because they are not statistics but people. He said that the statistics were scandalous and that demand was fast outstripping capacity. Mr Durkan ended by saying that investment, not profit, was the way forward.

Paula Bradshaw gave her maiden speech, and I congratulate her on that. You did not seem to have the nerves that I had, Paula. She paid tribute to Anna Lo, the former MLA for South Belfast, and commended and supported the motion. She spoke about the psychological burden of the lengthy wait that people were forced to endure.

Trevor Clarke said that it was an issue that had been topical on the doorsteps throughout the canvass. He reminded us that reform requires change, which I think we would all accept. Trevor had no issue with the motion. He encouraged the Minister by saying that he looked forward to working with her and hoped that health would be depoliticised.

My leader, Mike Nesbitt, said that the number one issue had to be health. That was the number one issue on the doorsteps pre-election. Regrettably, it was the last Department to be selected in the d'Hondt process, which we all noted. That was disappointing, given that it was the number one issue for the electorate. I was glad to note that he raised the profile of mental health. I have already stated that I am privileged and proud to take on that mantle. I hope that other Members will take on board the importance of mental health and where we need to put it within the Health Committee.

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

Mr Butler: I cannot really talk about the Minister because I do not have much time to finish the winding-up speech, but I thank her and look forward to working with her.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the continuing crisis in hospital waiting times, with 376,382 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, diagnostic test or inpatient treatment as of 31 March 2016; further notes that, whilst there has been some limited improvement over recent months, the situation remains considerably worse than 12 months previously; expresses deep concern that the number of outpatients waiting longer than the maximum permitted time increased from 15,000 to 100,000, over 500%, during the duration of the last Assembly term; accepts that targets are set in the interests of quality and safety of patient care and that, with every delay, there is a risk of ailments progressing and patients coming to harm; and calls on the Minister of Health to detail what action she proposes to take to address this unprecedented crisis.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]

Adjournment

Mr Speaker: The proposer of the topic has 15 minutes, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately five minutes.

Mr Lyons: I am pleased to have been able to secure this Adjournment debate. Tourism in East Antrim has huge potential, but I do not think that that potential has been exploited to the extent that it could. Mr Speaker, you and the Minister will be glad to hear that I do not intend just to say wonderful things about my constituency or take you on a tour around East Antrim, although I am sure that I will be able to fit that in at some stage. However, we do have some real asks for tourism and real actions that we would like to see to ensure that the tourism industry in East Antrim can thrive.

Tourism in East Antrim has long had much to offer. Carrickfergus Castle has been around longer than any of us, and the Antrim coast road has been there even longer. East Antrim has been able to offer an awful lot to visitors to that part of the world. However, things have changed recently. I hope that all Members will be aware of the Gobbins cliff path, which opened last August and is again open to visitors after a brief closure. This has completely changed the potential for tourism in East Antrim. A key part of our tourism offer now has the potential to bring in even more tourists.

Many years ago, I worked on the north coast at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and at the Giant's Causeway. Back then, busloads of folk came up from Dublin for the day. They went to the causeway or to the rope bridge and then headed back to Dublin. They spent very little money up here. There was no overnight stay; they were shipped in and shipped out. I want that to change, and it has begun to change as Titanic Belfast brings more people up to Northern Ireland and keeps them here for longer. Instead of tourists coming up to Belfast and heading straight up to the north coast, I want them to go via Carrickfergus, via the Gobbins, via Larne and via the Antrim coast road. I want tourists to spend more time here, especially in East Antrim, and I want them to stay in local accommodation so that we can increase what we can do in tourism.

I believe that we now have the tourism product and a lot to offer. We have the castle, which I am very glad is now in the control of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. I hope that changes can be made to its opening times and to what is offered there so that it can attract more visitors.

From the castle, tourists can go up the coast to the beautiful town of Whitehead. They can then go to the Gobbins and, on the way back from there, get an ice cream from The Rinkha. Mr Speaker, if you have never been there and had an ice cream, I encourage you, and other Members, to do so. I know that the Minister is very keen on ice cream from The Rinkha.

Mr Kennedy: Do you have an interest to declare?

Mr Lyons: For the record, I have received no free ice cream from The Rinkha or anything else that I might have to declare — I thank the Member for that.

Tourists can then make their way on up through Larne and further up the Antrim coast road. Perhaps, in a few years' time, they will even be able to stop off at Magheramorne. Not only is 'Game of Thrones' being filmed there but there are great plans for a diving centre and a cycling centre. I have no doubt that Mr McMullan will want to mention Cushendall and more of what is up there in the glens, which is a beautiful part of the world and has much to offer tourists.

I say to the Minister today that we very much believe that we have the product to offer to tourists who want to come to Northern Ireland, but we now also have the infrastructure. As I already mentioned in the Chamber today, we were very pleased that, during the last mandate, we were able to secure the construction of the A8 and A2. Mr Kennedy might like to say as something about that, but we are very pleased that the Finance Minister and the Minister for Regional Development worked together and put those projects in place. It now means that there is ease of access to East Antrim, via both Larne and Carrickfergus, from Belfast. That has been very positive. We have the product and the infrastructure — we just need the tourists to be able to come. A lot of that comes down to marketing, and that is where we ask the Minister to come in and help out.

First, we ask for the Minister and his Department to work very closely with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council over the coming months.

We would appreciate the Minister, or some of his officials, meeting the council as it develops its tourism strategy and seeking to get a strategy in place from a council level that will help as it promotes mid- and east Antrim to people in Northern Ireland, and indeed, the world.


3.45 pm

I would also like the Minister to speak to Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland about what steps can be taken to promote the fantastic attractions and the tourism product that we have to offer. There are various signature projects across Northern Ireland: the Giant's Causeway, the Mournes, St Patrick and Titanic Belfast. We believe that we have something really special to offer in East Antrim, specifically, the Gobbins. When it was first opened in 1902, there were more visitors to it each year than to the Giant's Causeway. Due to the limitations on site, and because of the nature of the bridges and the tunnels, it is hard to get huge numbers down there. However, there is still huge potential to increase the number of visitors to make it a real hub for tourism. I ask the Minister to consider whether the area could become another signature project and ask Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland what further steps can be taken to show the world what we have to offer. We have wonderful scenery — the Gobbins and the castle — some fantastic restaurants and great food and drink on offer, and we ask for that to be given consideration.

I invite the Minister to East Antrim. I know that he is a regular visitor, especially during the summer months, but I would like to invite him so that he can see The Gobbins for himself. When he speaks to other people in the industry, he will be able to give a first-hand account of what is offered. We look forward to him visiting us.

Finally, we understand that tourism is not isolated; we do not think of our tourism strategy in terms of specific areas, as much as I would like the Minister to emphasise the importance of East Antrim as part of the overall Northern Ireland product. We need to take steps to help tourism more widely in Northern Ireland, which will also benefit East Antrim, and there are a number of issues that we need to discuss.

The first, perhaps, is connectivity; we need to be better connected with the rest of the world, and we are really pleased with some of the movement that has taken place on that so far. We have more flights from more destinations coming directly to Northern Ireland, and that is extremely helpful as we seek to make it as easy as possible for people to come here. We ask that the Minister continue to raise that issue to ensure that more people come to Northern Ireland.

Earlier, I spoke in the Chamber about the importance of links with the south-east of England, and with Heathrow in particular. We have made it clear as a party that we want to see Heathrow expanded as, we believe, we need to have access into that hub airport so that more people can visit us. We have again, as a party, raised the need for UK-wide action on air passenger duty, which is very restrictive and actually dissuades people from travelling here, and we want to see people move as freely as possible.

There is also the issue of tourism VAT, and we ask the Minister to raise this with his counterparts in Westminster; it is an issue that needs to be dealt with at that level. It is really a tax on tourists; a tax on holidays; a tax on those who would come here; and a tax on accommodation providers. We would like to see some action taken on that.

With regard to Tourism Ireland — we have raised this point before — it is responsible for marketing Northern Ireland outside the island of Ireland, and we want to ensure that Northern Ireland gets its fair share of coverage and promotion, because we have so much to offer.

Berkeley Deane Wise started a resurgence of interest in tourism in East Antrim when he opened The Gobbins at Cliff Path a hundred years ago. That is what we want to see happening again. We have already outlined, and I have no doubt that other Members will outline, what we have to offer. We want to see that resurgence happening again. We want to see more people coming to East Antrim so that we can improve our local economy, as well as show people in the world what we have to offer.

Sometimes people say that tourism is the poor relation in terms of jobs compared with other sectors in our economy, but tourism sustains many jobs across Northern Ireland. It is not just about those who are directly involved, such as those working in tourist attractions such as the Gobbins; shops, restaurants and other businesses along the way all benefit from more people being in East Antrim and in other places and from people spending more money. We should never look at tourism as some kind of poor relation. We should see tourism as a sector and an industry that has huge potential and that can really deliver more prosperity and more opportunities for our people.

I extend the offer once more to the Minister to come along to see what East Antrim has to offer. If he does that, he will be well positioned to go out and sell it to the rest of the world.

Mr McMullan: Ireland is one of the most popular tourist destinations, and one of the must-see parts of any holiday is the Antrim coast road and glens. Other sites include Carrickfergus Castle, the Gobbins in Larne, Glenarm village, Cranny Falls in Carnlough, Glenariff forest park, the picturesque village of Cushendun and my own village of Cushendall, which is one of the most recognised places to call to and has one of the biggest festivals in Ireland with the Heart of the Glens festival.

Despite that immense beauty, those attractions are still not being promoted on an all-Ireland basis. The previous Member gave a very good overview, but not once did he mention the tourist product in the South of Ireland, which is vital to our economy and to tourism here. Our tourist sector has the potential to attract increased investment — for instance, through the rural development programme — which will help to generate increased revenue and, ultimately, lead to an increase in jobs.

Our landscape and natural features are already on the world stage after events like the Giro d'Italia bike race, where the Antrim coast road was seen across the world. Who could ever forget that iconic scene of the horses racing across the beach in Carnlough following the cyclists? We never capitalised on that, which is our failure. If that had happened anywhere else, the scene would be used and used and used, but we did not use it. 'Game of Thrones' is now being filmed in Larne, Glenariff, the Antrim coast road, Carnlough, Glenarm and the caves in Cushendun. Those destinations are just a few of the tourist sites, but they must be marketed and marketed properly.

Tourism NI, along with the two councils — Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council — must put a programme together. It is not that long ago that I contacted one of the two councils that I mentioned, and they still had not put their tourism strategy together, nor their tourism staff. Councils should have all of that in place, because tourism is our biggest earner. Putting all these programmes together must come with budgets. We must generate and increase visitor spend. If councils put their policies together, they must put their budgets together, because this cannot be landed on the Minister's office or the tourist organisations alone; we must do our bit as well.

Two of the biggest attractions not yet promoted here are the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East. Those two trails have proven highly successful, but they are yet to be promoted here. Why? Because both of them stop at the border. Ireland's Ancient East has been remarkably successful; it promotes all the main sites to see on the east coast of Ireland. It comes the whole way up the east coast but stops.

We are part of that east coast of Ireland. Why can we not get that over the border? I ask the Minister to look at that. The Wild Atlantic Way should be connected to the Causeway coast and glens, right through the Giant's Causeway and round the island of Ireland.

The Member mentioned the A8. That A8 now connects the whole island of Ireland; it can now bring the visitor from as far away as Cork and Kerry right up to here on our motorways, right to our doorstep. We have the port of Larne sitting on our doorstep. We have all those things, but we do not seem to be able to get them out there and manage them.

Why should everything stop at the border? Let us try to bring the visitor to our east coast. It is the same with the Wild Atlantic Way; that must be brought in, too. Members, we must promote our domestic product as well as the international product. To be successful, the Assembly, along with the councils and tourist organisations, must work together to ensure that we maximise the tourist experience for the benefit of all the providers in East Antrim. Those providers are relying on us to get the product right; we must maximise the product that we have so that we attract more visitors to the area. The more visitors, the more spend, the more jobs, so we must involve the whole island of Ireland. We cannot be secular and look from here to England or anywhere else, because England is going to the South of Ireland as much as it is coming here. We must open up as an all-Ireland product. The potential is there if we just have the nerve —

Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for giving way. I believe that the Republic of Ireland is key as well. I am quite happy for people visiting the Republic of Ireland to come up to Northern Ireland; that is great. However, the problem with Tourism Ireland is that, sometimes, we feel that — like you have just said with the Wild Atlantic Way — people are going to the South but are not coming up to Northern Ireland. That is what we need to work on to make sure that we are getting the visitors up here as well, or, sometimes, instead of down there; that is OK with me, too.

Mr Speaker: I will allow the Member an extra 30 seconds.

Mr McMullan: Thank you.

I thank the Member for the intervention. I agree with you. Take my village of Cushendall. From nothing, we started up what is now recognised as one of the biggest festivals in Ireland. It goes for a full week. That was done by local people getting together and recognising that there was a product. People are now taking their holidays to coincide with the festival. That can be done anywhere if the will is there to do it.

Mr Beggs: Tourism is of growing significance to the Northern Ireland economy. When there was instability, tourists did not want to come here. Thankfully, that has changed; we now need to try to maximise the opportunities that arise with the growing number of tourists coming here. The Titanic centre in Belfast and the new Giant's Causeway centre have proven to be very successful, but one of the difficulties with them has been that they have tended to be day-tripping locations for people coming from the Republic or perhaps coming off a cruise ship. We need to get people to stay overnight and look at other opportunities that are here. I certainly believe that East Antrim, which is located on the famous, spectacular Antrim coastline, is well-placed to try to make use of the potential that exists and build on those two successful centres.

The East Antrim landscape is beautiful, and we have a fantastic history, particularly with Carrickfergus Castle. Of course, Carrick, at one stage, was the capital of Northern Ireland, and so much of its history is there to be seen. The council has provided a very useful museum. The castle, which was built in 1177 by John de Courcy, is a feature that offers greater opportunity for tourism. The Department, the Executive — there can be different Departments involved — and the local council all need to see how better we can utilise such a facility to maximise the opportunities, so that it can become more flexible and so that the showing available can better demonstrate the history and become an even better attraction.

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


4.00 pm

It is fascinating that it was seized by the Scots, the Irish and the French and even played a small part in the American war of independence, with John Paul Jones having a skirmish off the coast — quite remarkable. It was, of course, the site where King William III landed when he came to Ireland. He went on up to stay at the White House in Newtownabbey. It is part of the Williamite trail on to the Battle of the Boyne. There are opportunities there for tourism. Indeed, this Saturday is the annual celebration of the landing of King William III in Carrickfergus. Any tourist who goes along to that will have a fabulous day. Period costumes, horses, bands — what a spectacle. If you were on holiday in any other part of the world and came across an event such as that you would find it unbelievable that it is all being provided free. That is wonderful for tourists who visit.

We then have the picturesque town of Whitehead with the Victorian tea rooms. That is the location of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, which provides steam journeys for rail enthusiasts. Of course, as others said, there is the Gobbins cliff path, which is quite a spectacular walk in the natural environment. It is receiving great reviews from those who have walked it and has proven very popular. There are many other fantastic facilities available, vistas that, in the past, people were not really as aware of as they should have been. Visitors who see them cannot help but be impressed. I think of Portmuck, Brown's Bay, the Woodburn dams in Carrick and, of course, Glenoe waterfall and Ballygally.

Moving on down the coast, we have Glenariff Forest Park, where there are similarly wonderful walks. There is the new glamping facility, where £1 million has been spent to provide camping as you have never known it. Again, that is a wonderful facility. In the village of Glenarm, we have the Dalriada Festival each summer, which is growing and is very popular. There are the glens and the beauty down in Carnlough, Cushendall, Cushendun and Waterfoot, where people escape from the hustle and bustle of modern Belfast and go into a wonderful environment with friendly folk. As others said, 'Game of Thrones' is providing opportunities, given the many sites that have been used in East Antrim. There are great opportunities, but I think the Department with responsibility for tourism needs to work closely with other Departments and councils to make the most of them and promote the East Antrim area.

Mr Dickson: There may be many things in East Antrim that separate its elected representatives, but one thing that will certainly unite us this evening will unite us is extolling the virtues of East Antrim as a tourist destination. It does not matter which party or which part of East Antrim you come from. I hope that the Minister will be delighted to hear a united voice when it comes to extolling those virtues, but, equally, there are things that we would like the Minister to do. As other Members made reference to, there are other things we think need to be done to enhance the tourist uptake in East Antrim to make us the number one go-to place for a tourist who visits Northern Ireland. 'National Geographic' magazine has cited the Antrim coast road as one of the must-see places in the world. I think if we are on that list, we have definitely got some things right in East Antrim.

The role of councils is vital. They have been charged with a very heavy burden in developing tourism. Reference has been made to whether they are up to speed or not up to speed in delivering that, but they have now had a full year in operational mode. We should probably recognise that, strictly speaking, the constituency of East Antrim also includes Antrim and Newtownabbey Council with the spectacular Loughshore park and the facilities that it provides and the areas all the way to the coast and glens. So, we actually have three councils, one with not so much responsibility perhaps but two with very clear and very large responsibilities. Whatever their level of responsibility, I hope that the Minister ensures that we have a great deal of cooperation between those councils in delivering for us. So, I think that cooperation between the councils is vital, and I am sure that the Minister's Department wants to oversee that, not just in respect of East Antrim but in respect of tourist facilities and activities across Northern Ireland.

I thank my colleague Mr Lyons for bringing the debate and for reminding us about the virtues of 'The Rinka' ice cream. My wife and I enjoyed ice cream there on Friday evening. We should not forget that Mid and East Antrim not only has 'The Rinka' for ice cream, but is the manufacturer of some of the best ice cream in Northern Ireland because Maud's has its production facilities in Carrickfergus and plenty of retail outlets across the area as well.

I have been in places such as Carnlough. Indeed, one morning not that long ago in Carnlough, I spoke to a couple of bus drivers who had brought visitors to that village very early in the morning. I asked them where they had come from and where they had set off from; and they had actually left Dublin at 7.00 am. They were in Carnlough by 10.30 am. They were looking for a cup of tea and facilities at that time and were heading on to the Giant's Causeway. It caused me to think, Minister, about how we could ensure that those folk perhaps had better spent that bed-night somewhere in East Antrim, rather than taking the stretch from Dublin to there in one go. I do not want to decry the amazing tourist opportunities that there are on the whole island of Ireland, but, of course, we want to be very selfish and ensure that we get the maximum spend from tourists as they come to us in East Antrim.

I need to be careful about what I say with regard to this, but it is important for us to note the benefits that membership of the European Union has had for us in developing the tourism take in East Antrim. We have benefited from substantial grant aid, whether for the Gobbins, the A2 and the A8 road schemes or the refurbishment of the train from Dublin to Belfast. All those have been benefits of our European membership. Perhaps I have just got as far as I might get in extolling the benefits of EU membership for us in the tourism take.

While I am on the subject of the train, I will suggest that one of the things that the Minister might want to take up with his colleagues is connection times between the Dublin train and those that go from Belfast into East Antrim as far as Larne. It is very frustrating for business commuters, and I am sure it must be equally frustrating for tourists, to arrive and discover that there is no connecting train service and there may be a substantial period of time to wait.

The bottom line is this: like all tourism products, unless you keep refreshing them and putting them in front of a world market, you are not going to be able to attract new and more visitors. I hope that that is what the Minister will tell us about this evening: how much he is enthused by wanting to market not only Northern Ireland but particularly the tourism advantages of East Antrim.

Finally, I have one other negative point about tourism; it is our archaic, outdated licensing laws. That is another aspect that we need to look at in this mandate of the Assembly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): It is worth reminding the House that there are, of course, other ice cream providers.

Mr Hilditch: I thank Mr Lyons for securing this Adjournment debate on tourism in East Antrim. I also welcome the Minister and thank him for giving up his time this afternoon.

Probably not that long ago, we had the opportunity of a very similar Adjournment debate in the last mandate. It is good that we can continue the theme from the outset of the new mandate. We can put down markers for the next five years. Make no mistake: politicians will need to work together, at central and local government levels, to create the environment that will allow private sector partners to deliver a product that can go a long way to boost the economy in East Antrim.

Some may think that today's Adjournment debate is slightly premature, but it links perfectly with the last debate, just over a year ago, when the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister said that the new super-council of Mid and East Antrim must continue to work alongside Invest NI to drive economic development in the area. That first stage is about to come to fruition, with the finalisation of the tourism strategy in the coming weeks. It is a real opportunity to showcase and maximise the attraction of the likes of the Causeway coastal route, the Gobbins path, Carnfunnock and Carrickfergus Castle, to name but a few attractions.

I believe that, in the coming years, a number of actions should flow from that strategy, including master planning, for example, using the Gobbins as the focal point. A master plan could be developed, linking in the immediate area of Islandmagee and Blackhead into the existing master plans to the south in Whitehead and Carrickfergus, and similarly to the north through Larne, Glenarm and onwards up towards the glens.

Partnership is key to moving forward between government, the private sector and the community and voluntary sector. While the days of the old regional tourism partnerships (RTPs) are at an end, it is imperative that collaborative working between councils continues. While Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is at the centre of the constituency, there is a vital role for the Causeway and Antrim and Newtownabbey councils, and even Belfast City Council, to link into projects moving forward. The RTPs served their purpose, but now a modernised framework must be put in place to benefit the constituency and serve a wider unified area.

I welcome the commitment of Tourism NI and the commitments of a previous Minister. It is also encouraging to see some of the recent developments from the private sector. I am acutely aware of the priority given to the Causeway coastal route by some of our well-established tour companies, particularly those that link into the cruise ship boom. Another recent development has been the launch of the East Antrim coastal tourism hub, a project delivered by Carrickfergus Enterprise. It was funded by the coastal communities fund element of the Big Lottery and helps service providers in Carrick, Larne and Newtownabbey to develop their businesses in reaching out to visitors and in encouraging more spend in the area and, at the same time, provides mentoring to develop their businesses. There have already been tangible benefits from the project by way of job creation.

It is not all whistles and bells. There have been issues of concern in the industry. One of the biggest blows, particularly to the accommodation providers, has been the demise of the Troon ferry. That has resulted in a real downturn in trade from the very natural linkages with Scotland. We have heard about North/South links, but there are also east-west links. Those linkages with Scotland provided the accommodation sector with a traditional trade that it relied on. I hope that that will be to the fore in any strategy or planning.

As was said, the infrastructural developments of the A2 and A8 have helped with the better movement of people coming into the area, but signage is a bugbear with many in the industry. If the rigid rules governing signage were to be given some thought, it would be very much welcomed by those who want to put their facilities on the map. Hopefully, a future strategy could help to deal with those matters.

Finally, I highlight the issues around hosting events in the area. Previous events have been important to the local economy, particularly in Carrick and Larne where, under the old council's programming, they were crucial in attracting visitors to the area, even just as day visitors, because the spend is equally as important. Those towns were able to reap the economic benefits derived from good programming. While we still have a few big-ticket events, like the Dalriada Festival, and even, in the Ballymena area, golf's Northern Ireland Open, a focus should be given to the smaller, more localised events that are often run by local organisations, clubs and volunteers. We have witnessed Departments walk away from potential growth events like the Lughnasa Fair and the ladies' international soccer tournament in Carrickfergus. Very small sums of investment are required, despite the fact that such events have the potential to achieve government targets, if delivered right.

There is a real opportunity to develop cultural tourism through the events. One only has to look at the weekend past, with the Bruce anniversaries, the tented village, and knights jousting in the shadow of Carrickfergus Castle. There were thousands of spectators, many of whom were from all over the world, courtesy of the cruise ship/bus link-up tours. Each of them got an experience of some of the best that Northern Ireland has to offer. Again, this weekend, as was said, the annual pageant of the landing of William at the same location will attract many thousands of people to the area. I think that that is the only day of the year that I have hair, if anybody wants to come along to see that.

We have touched the surface for the potential of tourism in East Antrim. It is only with a collaborative, cross-departmental and partnership approach that we can raise the bar and make it work.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): It may well be worth a visit to see you with hair.

Mr Attwood: Mr Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment to the role. Obviously, I am not an MLA for the area, but I spent much of my childhood there. We had day trips from Greenisland up the Antrim coast and holidays in Ballycastle, so that may give me a little bit of insight. The clock is not on, so I am sure that I will get an extra bit of time.

When I was in government in the old DOE, I was down at an event in Armagh Planetarium, and I had to introduce a guest. I finished my introduction by looking over my left shoulder at the guest and asking whether he agreed with me that the scale, wonder and beauty of Northern Ireland's natural, built, archaeological, Christian and industrial heritage was greater in this part of Ireland than in any parts of these islands.

When you interrogate that assertion, which I very much believe, I think that it is true for each and all the parts of this part of Ireland that the scale of our industrial, natural, built, archaeological and Christian heritage is bigger than that in any other part of these islands. It is no less true for East Antrim, and for all the places that have been named by other MLAs. From south of Carrick, through Carrick and up to the glens, you can see therein the scale and wonder of that heritage, including, in one way, lesser-known opportunities such as the salt mines at Kilroot. I spent a summer working in those salt mines in Carrickfergus — voluntarily, I might add — loading the boats as they came in from Belfast lough. That in itself is untapped potential of the experience in East Antrim.


4.15 pm

However, if east Antrim, south Down, the north coast or Derry are to measure up to the potential that it offers for visitor numbers and visitor spend, there are a number of issues that the Minister and his Department will have to grapple with. I would like to name some of those, as I think that they all impact East Antrim. Mr McMullan rightly referred to the latest interventions from Fáilte Ireland for its tourist product — namely, the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East — but said that they stop at the border. Here we are in Northern Ireland with the jewel in the crown of Christian heritage on this island and, arguably, in the world, save for the Holy Land — namely, St Patrick — yet it is not part of the Ancient East. The Minister's constituency has a beautiful and wonderful spot, Nendrum, yet it is not part of the Ancient East. Similarly, for the north coast, when it comes to the Wild Atlantic Way, the glens of Antrim are not part of that experience.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he not concede the point that the DUP has been making on the issue, which is that Tourism Ireland is not properly promoting and including Northern Ireland in some of its tourism projects? Does he think that that is a fair criticism and that action should be taken to address it?

Mr Attwood: The Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East are Fáilte Ireland not Tourism Ireland, but I will come back to the point that the Member makes.

If we are to maximise the opportunity, we have to embrace the branding and marketing opportunities, and those include the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.

The question to the Minister is this: will he be the Minister who makes the paradigm shift, who looks at the marketing opportunities on this island, be they in tourism or in many other aspects of his brief, and says that, if we do not punch and market and gather together, we all lose together?

Mr Dickson touched on a point about infrastructure. When I was Minister of the Environment, I made a somewhat controversial decision that was challenged by the National Trust, which failed in its legal challenge, on the proposed golf course up at the Causeway. The thinking behind that decision was not the golf course, however. The thinking behind it was the lack of infrastructure and not having a five- and a six-star hotel. Mr Dickson is right: visitors come from Dublin, race up to the Giant's Causeway and leave again because there is nowhere to say. If we do not build hotels outside greater Belfast — greater Belfast is clearly developing successfully; it is the other areas that are not, and those include East Antrim and the glens — you will not have visitors coming and an increase in visitor spend. You will not have that unless you grow the infrastructure.

I agree also with Mr Dickson's comment about licensing. We have to get a grip on it. We have to recognise that the businesses — the pubs, the clubs and the hotels, wherever they may be, including in East Antrim — are begging for the issue to be decisively dealt with. I sat in government and saw the interests of sectors that were not economic prevail over the interests of sectors that were economic and which created jobs. I ask the Minister to show his authority in that.

I welcome the fact that it now appears that we will get a tourism strategy. I look forward to what it might be, although I worry that if it has been sitting around for a long time, will it be published in a reheated version or in the expansive version that it needs to be? To be fair to the Minister, there are very few Ministers in this part of the world who have had ministerial portfolios in Health, Finance and Economy. Will this tourism strategy be a reheated version of what was not published before, or will it be something that measures up to the needs of this debate?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I thank the Member. I did, of course, allow an extra minute because of the intervention.

Mr Hamilton (The Minister for the Economy): I begin by congratulating my party colleague, Mr Lyons, for securing this Adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue, particularly at such an important and exciting time for tourism in Northern Ireland.

Tourism is now recognised as a key economic driver in Northern Ireland. It attracted 4·5 million visitors in 2015, generating a total of £760 million for the local economy. Of that, £541 million was brought into the economy from external markets, making tourism a £541 million export sector. Tourism supports 43,000 jobs, representing one in every 18 jobs in Northern Ireland. Those jobs are spread right across our region, as the tourism and hospitality industry is an easily accessible market that generates jobs in every constituency and at every skills level.

As one of Northern Ireland’s key service sectors and economic pillars, the tourism and hospitality industry offers one of the best opportunities for Northern Ireland to strengthen its economy, and it is still an industry in the early development stages with huge growth potential compared to our nearest neighbours. There is still huge growth potential in our tourism and hospitality industry. Tourism represents 5·2% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added (GVA) and supports 5·4% of jobs in the total workforce. These figures are much lower when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom where the figures range from 8% to 10%.

The latest tourism figures for 2015 point to continued overall growth in local tourism. We had a record number of external visitors last year. A total of 2·3 million visitors from outside of Northern Ireland enjoyed our local attractions, landscape and hospitality last year, bringing £541 million into the Northern Ireland economy. However, there is still much to be done for us to reach our full tourism potential.

I intend, as the previous contributor indicated, to bring forward a new tourism strategy for the next 10 years to drive growth in this important sector. I want to work across government, as encouraged by many contributors this evening, and with the industry to build an internationally competitive and inspiring destination of which we are all very proud. The new strategy will set the future direction for tourism within the context of a refocused economic strategy. There is a new appreciation of the potential for tourism to contribute to the growth of the Northern Ireland economy and to deliver on jobs and investment. Growing visitor numbers from our external markets provides an opportunity for significant economic growth through new money coming into our economy. Tourism is, in effect, an export business.

All areas of Northern Ireland can benefit from a growing tourism sector, and, as we heard today, many of those attractions exist for visitors across the East Antrim constituency. I visit the area frequently; it has many great tourism assets, some of which I will turn to shortly, including Carrickfergus Castle. I can confirm that the pageantry around King William's landing and other events on that theme that happen over the summer, and which were mentioned by Mr Beggs and Mr Hilditch, are great attractions and are one of the things that draw me and my family to the area. I can testify that it is indeed worth the trip for anybody, whatever their background, to go to Carrickfergus this Saturday to see Mr Hilditch in period costume. I would visit Carrickfergus this Saturday just to see him. In fact, he has on occasions frightened my children with his wig and his period costume; it is well worth the visit for that alone.

The east Antrim area is a key part of the Causeway coastal route, and this represents a huge tourism opportunity for the area. Both Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland actively promote the route, encouraging visitors to slow down and enjoy key sites along the way, including those which are located in the east Antrim area. East Antrim has iconic visitor attractions with the potential to be showcased in international markets.

I will take up Mr Lyons's offer and his invitation to visit the Gobbins, which I have not visited yet, on the one condition that, I think, was a running theme throughout the debate: the condition that he take me to the Rinkha afterwards for an ice cream.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): That is absolutely shameless. [Laughter.]

Mr Hamilton: It is pretty shameless. The ice cream is very good, I have to say. It is part of my job to promote local food and drink as Minister for the Economy.

Mr Lyons: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Deputy Speaker not to have tried the ice cream? Should he not try the ice cream before he comments on it?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I am not sure that that is a point of order. All I say is that I am not yet in receipt of an invitation to try the ice cream. I might be open to that.

Mr Lyons: The invitation is there.

Mr Hamilton: I have sort of forgotten what we were talking about there. We will have to have an Adjournment debate on ice cream at some stage.

The Gobbins is an exciting and exhilarating project that provides a truly unique coastal experience. That uniqueness is key to it; it is an experience that nowhere else in Northern Ireland or indeed many parts of the world will have. It is a compelling reason, therefore, for visitors to come to the area. The Gobbins has proved very popular with international travellers and has featured strongly in Tourism Ireland campaigns in Great Britain and, indeed, overseas. In addition, the east Antrim area is featured regularly on the itineraries of visiting international media from across the globe.

I recently took the opportunity to help Tourism Ireland highlight its third major 'Game of Thrones' campaign to promote Northern Ireland as a filming location for the hit TV programme. The campaign is timed to coincide with the sixth season of the series and builds on the success of last year's social media campaign, which reached up to 100 million potential visitors. Forgive me if I get this wrong: is "Shillanavogy" correct? I did not want to sound like a direct rule Minister when reading that out. Shillanavogy valley, Cairncastle and the Cushendun caves, which are all 'Game of Thrones' filming locations, are highlighted in the campaign.

I am delighted that businesses in the east Antrim area have embraced WorldHost. Glenarm, in particular, was awarded WorldHost Village status in March 2016. I am pleased to hear that Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink is also being widely promoted, with Jamie Oliver's hugely popular Food Tube channel filming in Glenarm. The Seaview Hall in Glenarm is another tourism heritage project providing a unique craft visitor attraction. I am pleased to note that Tourism NI provided financial assistance, alongside the local council and other funders, to renovate and regenerate the derelict old school hall.

Investment is also being made in new tourism product for the area. A £3 million project is under way to transform the existing Whitehead railway site into a major visitor attraction. This investment will deliver a living engineering museum that will provide an educational and interactive experience. I look forward to the official launch, which is planned for early autumn. It will complement the many tourist attractions along the Causeway coastal route, encouraging visitors to stay longer in Northern Ireland and spend more in our economy.

The aforementioned Carrickfergus Castle is another iconic attraction in the east Antrim area. With continued product development and marketing, it has the potential to be a strong attraction for out-of-state visitors. The east Antrim area also hosts a number of significant events, many of which were mentioned during the debate. Tourism NI provides support for the Dalriada Festival, which had a wonderful food offering this year. Lots of other smaller events were mentioned by contributors. One that I recalled as Members were talking was the Carrick Sevens in Carrickfergus, which is one of many successful events in that area but is a particular one that attracts hundreds of visitors from all over Ireland and beyond annually. It is now a firm fixture in the calendar. There are many reasons for East Antrim to be proud of its tourism assets and potential.


4.30 pm

Tourism NI recognises the significant potential of the east Antrim area and is co-funding the development of a local tourism strategy in partnership with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Tourism Ireland also works closely with major ferry operators, and a cooperative marketing campaign in partnership with P&O Ferries was launched in April to promote travel to Northern Ireland this summer via the Cairnryan to Larne route. The campaign included radio, newspaper, digital and social media ads, targeting potential visitors from Scotland and the north of England.

Tourism NI is also working with local tourism businesses in East Antrim and along the Causeway coastal route through a mentoring programme to help them collaborate and collectively maximise the opportunities on offer from Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI in out-of-state markets. I encourage local businesses to work closely with our two tourism bodies and the local council to maximise the tourism potential for their area.

In closing, I again congratulate the Member on securing the debate. He raised some specific points about the area, which I will respond to in due course in writing. I congratulate him for highlighting the real tourism assets that the East Antrim constituency has to offer.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I raise the point yet again that contempt has been shown for the House by the fact that, while the House has been meeting this afternoon, the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Justice Minister have seen fit to introduce and make announcements about the paramilitary panel report outside the House rather than coming to the House. When will the House get respect from Executive Ministers by making this the place of announcement, not other places outside the House?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I have carefully noted the Member's point. It is now on the record, and I will refer it to the Speaker for further consideration. Thank you.

Adjourned at 4.32 pm.

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