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Official Report: Monday 05 October 2020


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

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Mr Matthew O'Toole has been given leave to make a statement, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24, on the death of Derek Mahon. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Mr O'Toole: Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this Matter of the Day to mark the passing of one of Ireland's great poets.

Derek Mahon was the son and grandson of Harland and Wolff shipyard workers. Born and raised in Skegoneill in north Belfast, he and his family later moved to Glengormley. He was schooled at Inst and then Trinity. He belonged to an extraordinary generation of Ulster poets who came of age in the years before the Troubles. Born within a few years of one another were Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Stewart Parker and Seamus Deane. Mahon, like the others, found a subject in the unique predicament of this place and our history. In 'Camus and Ulster', he wrote of:

"Our northern land of rain and haze
Our cherished foe".

In 'In Carrowdore Churchyard', a poem written at the grave of another Ulster poet, Louis MacNeice, he wrote carefully about the ambiguities and complexities of this place. He wrote of what he called a "fragile, solving ambiguity" that poetry could represent. In this Chamber, and in this part of the world, we could all reflect on the fragile but healing quality of ambiguity.

Mahon's own life contained ambiguities. An Ulster Protestant from a working-class background, most of his adult life was lived in the far south of Ireland, specifically in Kinsale. Much of his work is inspired not just by the beauty but by the beautiful banality of places across this island, from Rathlin, to Achill, to, perhaps most memorably, a disused shed in County Wexford, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole this great writer as simply a poet of the North's Troubles or even simply of Ireland. He was a genuinely international figure, as evidenced by the attention paid to his passing all over the world. He lived and wrote in the US and France. He won numerous awards and honours in Ireland and internationally, but this year saw perhaps the greatest honour for any writer of verse: to bring solace and inspiration to tens or, indeed, hundreds of thousands of people.

Earlier this year, as we faced into the pandemic, his beautiful work 'Everything is Going to be All Right' acted as consolation to people across Ireland and, indeed, around the world. In the weeks to come, we may be in need of some more of that solace.

Mahon wrote:

"The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right."

In passing on our condolences to his partner and his family, let us give thanks that an artist of such profound talent came from this place and used his talent in such a wonderful way.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Christopher Stalford. I welcome you, the Principal Deputy Speaker, back to the House following your recent bout of illness.

Mr Stalford: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that. It would be hard to describe Derek Mahon's life as anything other than a life well lived. Speaking as someone who comes from and has lived in the city of Belfast his entire life, I think that we can all be very proud of the contribution that a native son of the city has made to the world of literature.

Derek Mahon came from a similar background to me. He came from a working-class family. His father and grandfather worked in Harland and Wolff shipyard and his mother worked in a linen mill. He was educated at Inst, Trinity and the Sorbonne. He travelled extensively in France, Canada and the United States of America.

He had a lifelong friendship with Michael Longley, whom, as a member of Belfast City Council, and along with Mr O'Toole's predecessor, the now Member of Parliament for South Belfast, I was honoured to nominate for the freedom of the city of Belfast.

Mr Mahon had dozens of collections published, and his contribution to literature can never be overestimated. It is rare to have three biographies of one's self written in one's own lifetime. That has occurred in Mr Mahon's case and is demonstrative of the high esteem in which he is held. My constituency colleague Mr O'Toole made reference to Mr Mahon's poem, 'Everything Is Going To Be All Right'. In the context of the times in which we are living, it is important that we remember those sentiments.

On behalf of my party, I extend our deepest condolences to his family and his many friends at this very sad time.

Ms Ennis: Derek Mahon is arguably one of the finest poets that Ireland has ever produced. A contemporary of Seamus Heaney, as Matthew O'Toole pointed out, his influence on Irish poetry and the literary world is immense. Through these uncertain times, the power of Derek Mahon's words in his famous poem 'Everything Is Going To Be All Right', in the line in which he says:

"The sun rises in spite of everything"

gives comfort to many of us as we face the daunting challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On behalf of the Sinn Féin team, I extend our sincerest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Derek Mahon.

Mr Stewart: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I pay tribute to Derek Mahon and send our sympathies and thoughts to his family. As has already been said, Mr Mahon has joined a long list of Ulster greats among writers and poets. It has often been said that he:

"wove together history, personal demons and quiet contemplation in works that could be dark"

but that often, in true Northern Irish fashion, "spoke of renewal" and positivity. He was a leading Irish poet, whose verses could be lyrical, pessimistic, sombre, witty and classically structured but full of contemporary things. Although his passing is tragic, his work will live long in our memories. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

Mr Blair: All of us who love poetry in Northern Ireland and, indeed, many beyond will be saddened to hear of the death of Derek Mahon, who was one of our great writers. It particularly hits home for those from north Belfast and south Antrim, as his early poem 'Glengormley' originated in the area. It says:

"By
Necessity, if not choice, I live here too."

As one who lives there too, on behalf of my Alliance Party colleagues, I extend our deepest sympathies to Derek's partner Sarah, his three children and those across the arts sector, who will of course mourn his passing.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. No further Members wish to speak, so that concludes the Matter of the Day.

Assembly Business

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

Resolved:

That Mr Philip McGuigan replace Mr Seán Lynch as a member of the Committee for Finance; that Ms Emma Rogan replace Ms Emma Sheerin as a member of the Audit Committee; and that Mr Seán Lynch replace Mr Colm Gildernew as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. — [Mr O'Dowd.]

Executive Committee Business

That the Pension Protection Fund (Moratorium and Arrangements for Companies in Financial Difficulty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The rule that we are considering today is, of course, very technical, so it will be helpful to provide a bit of background. The pension protection fund provides compensation for members of eligible occupational pension schemes where the sponsoring employer is insolvent and the scheme has insufficient assets to pay benefits at the fund compensation levels. If a qualifying insolvency event occurs in relation to an employer with a pension scheme eligible for protection by the pension protection fund, the scheme will enter an assessment period to enable the pension protection fund to assess whether or not the scheme is eligible to transfer into the fund. Under pensions law, during the assessment period the rights of trustees or managers of the scheme in relation to any debt due to them by the employer are exercisable by the pension protection fund. In light of COVID-19, the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 made changes to the corporate insolvency regime and created new processes, including a moratorium, which offer breathing space and flexibility to give companies an opportunity to explore rescue options free from creditor action. Under pensions legislation, similar corporate rescue processes are treated as insolvency events. When such an event occurs to an employer with an eligible occupational pension scheme, the pension protection fund assesses the scheme and, amongst other things, takes over the scheme's trustees' or managers' role as a creditor of the sponsoring employer. A moratorium is not included as an insolvency event. Therefore, the normal safeguards within the legislation are not engaged.

These regulations provide specific protection for pension schemes and, by extension, the pension protection fund during a moratorium pursuant to the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. They provide the pension protection fund with creditors' rights in certain specified circumstances, when a company in a limited liability partnership, relevant cooperative society or community benefit society obtains a moratorium from creditor action under the new process. The regulations ensure that a moratorium does not leave pension schemes and the pension protection fund without appropriate protections in place. They enable the pension protection fund to take on the scheme trustees' or managers' role as a creditor during the period that a moratorium is in force in specified circumstances. However, the scheme trustees or managers are not completely excluded, as it is recognised that they also play an important role in protecting members' interests to provide the appropriate balance. Before the pension protection fund participates in a decision-making process to the exclusion of the scheme trustees or managers, it is required to consult with them.

As I said from the outset, it is somewhat technical, but I hope that Members appreciate why these regulations are necessary.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered this statutory rule at its meeting on 9 September. As the Minister has said, the statutory rule provides specific protection for pension schemes and the pension protection fund during a moratorium in accordance with the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989.

The Pension Protection Fund operates across the UK and provides an important safety net for members of defined benefit schemes. The regulations provide that, during any period in which such a moratorium is enforced, the creditors' rights of the scheme trustees or managers are to be exercised by the Pension Protection Fund in certain circumstances, after consultation with the scheme's trustees or managers.

The Committee notes that the regulations make provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to that already contained in regulations made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in relation to Great Britain. The Committee is content to recommend that the Assembly approve the regulations.


12.15 pm

Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for her detailed outline of the regulations before us today and the Committee Chair, Paula Bradley, for the further clarity that she provided. As we have heard, the regulations are highly technical in nature and are necessary as a result of the changes made to the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act. Those changes were made in response to the pandemic. During these uncertain times, it is important that additional measures are put in place to help businesses to stay afloat and protect jobs, and the moratorium is one such measure. It is equally important, however, that that does not negatively impact on current protections for pension schemes and, indeed, the Pension Protection Fund, and the regulations seek to address that issue. I support the motion.

Mr Speaker: As there are no further Members to speak, I call the Minister for Communities, Ms Carál Ní Chuilín, to wind up the motion.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Very briefly, I thank the Committee for its support. I think that everyone realises and recognises that the additional protections are necessary, so I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Pension Protection Fund (Moratorium and Arrangements for Companies in Financial Difficulty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two while we change the Table.

Private Members' Business

Mr Beattie: I beg to move

That this Assembly agrees that all victims of crime deserve to receive the same support following a criminal offence being perpetrated against them and during any judicial proceedings; and calls on the Minister of Justice to conduct a feasibility study into the appointment of a victims of crime commissioner who would act as a focal point, champion and advocate and bring forward best practice in dealing with, and supporting, victims of crime.

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

Mr Beattie: For every crime, there is a victim. There is no such thing as a victimless crime. Therefore, in our society, we have thousands of victims who suffer physically, mentally and emotionally. They are victims of antisocial behaviour, scams, burglaries, assaults, muggings, fraud, domestic abuse, drink- and drug-driving and murder. Of course, there are underlying reasons for crime: socio-economic reasons such as poverty, disadvantage and disengagement, drug and alcohol abuse, our divided society and mental health issues. Addressing the causes of crime is fundamental to creating fewer victims. I am happy for those to be pointed out during the debate to allow for balance and understanding. However, the motion is about looking at crime through the eyes of the victim. Only through the prism of the victim can we understand what they are going through.

The Assembly will know that I have raised the issue on multiple occasions: on the Floor, in debate, in questions for oral and written answer and at the Justice Committee. The motion is not a vanity project or a hobby horse subject. It has been born out of listening to victims and trying to understand what they are going through as the investigation progresses, as a perpetrator is found or, indeed, not found, in the court case and in what happens next. All those things happen after the crime takes place, and the victim has to deal with them on a rolling basis.

In 2017, I spoke to Charles Little. I know that the Minister has spoken to Charles. His family lost their parents — Michael and Marjorie Cawdery — to a brutal murder carried out by a mental health patient. They are not alone in this. The murderer, Thomas Scott McEntee, was a mental health patient, and the failure to deal with that issue directly led to the murders. From speaking to Charles Little, it was clear that he had to go through a lot of the processes in dealing with the murder of his family members alone. They had to walk the path alone. They had to move out of their home, as it was now a crime scene, and they had no help in moving out.

They had to fight to understand what had happened to their family members and for any information that they could get as to who was responsible. To their credit, they do not hold Mr McEntee solely responsible for the murder of their loved ones.

We can all highlight victims who have not had the support that they deserve. Every one of us could do that, ranging from people who have been burgled to people who have fallen victim to a scam and other issues. Peter Dolan's son Enda, who was just 18 years old, was killed by a drug- and drink-driver. Those were horrific, horrendous circumstances, and many Members have spoken to Peter Dolan and will know that. Peter needed help when his son was killed, and he needed support during the court case. He needed understanding as he fought for a tougher sentence for the perpetrator. He still needs that today; he has not stopped being a victim. The perpetrator will be released after four and a half years behind bars for the killing of Enda, and Mr Dolan will have to deal with that again.

Those are the issues that we need to look at. How do we provide those people with whole-life support? In July this year, the Criminal Justice Inspection released a report on victims and witnesses that highlighted the fact that many victims do not understand their rights and do not know how to access support. There was the obligatory recommendation that the police and the victim and witness care unit need more training. Of course they need more training, because training and development are endless. The report also concluded that there was too much emphasis on process, which hindered meaningful engagement with victims and the impact that the crime was having on them and their families.

A Victim Charter is in place, but who champions it? Who makes sure that it is up to date and fit for purpose? New legislation to support victims of crime and their families was announced in the Queen's Speech in December 2019. That new legislation is being driven forward now by Alex Chalk MP, with the Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales promoting the voice of the victim to inform that legislation. Who is doing something similar for Northern Ireland? Who is promoting the voice of the victim at the highest level?

The charity Victim Support NI does a fantastic job — I know that Members will mention it — but it needs support. Who is or could be liaising with Alex Chalk MP about new legislation? Who could be informing the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill from a victims' perspective? I commend the Chair, the Deputy Chair and members of the Justice Committee for the work that they have done in scrutinising the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which has been truly fantastic. The issue of a domestic abuse commissioner has been raised on multiple occasions. Who could feed into the sentencing review and consultation or the new hate legislation on behalf of victims? The answer is a dedicated victims of crime commissioner whose sole remit is to ensure support for victims of crime. That is their job; that is what they do.

I note that two amendments to the motion were submitted by the Alliance Party and the DUP. I would have been minded to support both amendments, because they added value to the motion and addressed the issue at hand. I hope that the Justice Minister will announce something substantive today and that she is minded to appoint a victims of crime commissioner and possibly link into the legislation going through Westminster, if not in the long term, then certainly in the short term, because the mandate is so short. If she is unable to do that, I hope that an interim commissioner can be appointed until the post is put on a statutory footing. It is clear that, until we start looking at some of the issues through the eyes of victims, we will continually fail them, if not directly, then indirectly.


12.30 pm

The motion is a blunt instrument. It looks at the issue through primary colours; I accept that. There are far more issues to be debated, and I am sure that they will be raised here. I hope that they will be, because we need that balance. All victims of crime, from the lowest level of crime to the highest, need somebody to fight their corner. When something goes wrong or is not right, victims need someone to liaise with the Justice Minister or other agencies to put it right. That is the important part. I hope that the Assembly will join me in supporting the motion. It is not contentious. We all know victims out there. We have all dealt with victims, and we all want to do our best for them. A victims of crime commissioner is the first step in doing that.

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for tabling the motion, which we will support. I am disappointed, however, that the motion needed to be tabled, and I will elaborate on that. In 2012, the Justice Committee, which I chaired, launched an inquiry into the experiences of victims and witnesses of the criminal justice system. I might be the only member of that Committee who is still, via some changes on the path, on the Justice Committee today. Raymond McCartney was the Deputy Chairperson at that time, Tom Elliott was an Ulster Unionist representative, Alban Maginness represented the SDLP, and there were other members.

That Committee gathered extensive evidence. I remember being in the north-west, listening to victims talking about their experience and how they had been let down by the criminal justice system. They ranged from family members who had lost loved ones through murder to people who had been impacted by smaller crimes, such as burglary and theft. We heard about the devastating impact that the whole spectrum of crime had on victims. We also heard how they felt let down by the system.

In 2012, that Committee produced a unanimous report that made comprehensive recommendations. Here we are, eight years later, and the issues raised then are being raised today. When Committees produce reports, they are not meant to sit on a shelf. Committees follow up on them, as the Justice Committee did on numerous occasions. Some of those recommendations have been implemented, such as the victim and witness care units. Members went over to Great Britain and saw at first hand how those units worked, and they came online here in Northern Ireland. The latest Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) report highlights that good work is taking place in those units but says that much more could be done.

That Committee also recommended a Victim Charter, which became legislation in 2015. It sets down the legal rights that victims have to be afforded. The CJINI report and investigation found that not one victim of crime to whom it had spoken was aware of the Victim Charter — not one. Yet it is a legal document that enshrines the rights of victims and provides basic information on the way in which they engage with statutory authorities. The report highlights how the PSNI often deals with the charter as a tick-box exercise, which misses the victim behind the process that it follows.

If we are to have a victims-centred criminal justice system, there needs to be change. The House, through the Committee, recommended change. Eight years later, the CJINI report highlights some aspects that are good but others that have failed. That needs to be listened to. Some of the recommendations are about change at leadership level.

The CJINI report makes four strategic recommendations and 12 operational ones. In the strategic ones, it talks about leadership in the Department of Justice. That is where we look to the Minister, as we looked to the previous Minister, David Ford, when producing that report. We worked with him, and good work was done.

We need leadership that is driven at the top. The report recommends that those involved in senior leadership positions in the Department of Justice need to be active members of the victim and witness care unit steering group. To many people, that would seem to make sense, and it should not require a report to make that recommendation. Nevertheless, it does. I would like to hear the Minister commit to having the senior leadership in her Department becoming active members of the steering group and providing oversight. The report highlights how those units can be very beneficial at gathering the right kind of information that can then be extrapolated across the criminal justice system so that real, meaningful change can take place.

That is where we come to the motion. Based on the evidence of 2012, the motion that the Member for Upper Bann has brought now, and the criticism in the CJINI report, I believe that, as a minimum, a feasibility study for a victims of crime commissioner is required. There needs to be accountability, and we need structures put in place to hold Ministers and the Department to account.

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

Mr Givan: The Committee will continue to do that work. I support the motion, because more needs to be done. I thank the Member for proposing it.

Ms Dillon: Much of what has been said by both the proposer of the motion, whom I thank for bringing it to the House, and the Chair of the Committee will probably be repeated across the House. That leads me to think that we possibly should have looked at bringing a Committee motion, as that would carry weight and have value. However, this motion is here and will probably get support across the House. I am sure that it will be carried and, hopefully, the Minister will give a positive response.

Asking for a feasibility study is good, as it shows that you are starting at the right point. Rather than saying, "We need something", it says, "We should look at what we need and, if we need it, what responsibilities should be given to that commissioner". That is extremely important. Obviously, our starting point is that we have to look first at victims — victims right across the board. Over recent months, all of us, including me in my role as Deputy Chair of the Justice Committee, have heard about those who have suffered all the different types of domestic abuse whether it is physical, coercive, sexual or involves children and other family members. All of this is really important in highlighting to us why victims need to be listened to. That is what we need to look to.

As Paul outlined, the report is there; all of the evidence is there. However, there are many reports and recommendations out there. There is the Gillen review and recommendations and many, many others. Maybe we, as a Committee, need to look at what reports and recommendations are there and see what has been implemented and what could actually have an impact, and, in the absence of a victims of crime commissioner, what we can do to ensure that those recommendations are implemented. As a Committee, we have a lot of work to do. Our work is about holding the Minister to account and ensuring that the recommendations made to the Department and to all the other organisations, whether the PSNI or any other, are carried out.

There are a number of different models of victim support and advocacy. We need to look to all of those, what is involved and what they cover. There are models in the South — it has quite an extensive role — and across the water in England and Wales. Scotland has decided not to go with a victims of crime commissioner, but that does not mean that that is the right approach.

The motion is excellent in asking us to look at a feasibility study and all the other models out there. It might be that none of those is the example that we follow; there may be other, better models across the world. We need to look at what is the best model and the best practice. We should not have a narrow view and look just within these islands; we need to look at what is the best model. We should be looking at what is in place in the Twenty-six Counties, England, Wales and Scotland and seeing what is missing and what is wrong there. Whatever we do and whenever we do it, we want it to be better, not the same. That is important for us.

As I have outlined, over recent months we have been scrutinising the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill. In it, as Members have said, we have looked at the value of a specific commissioner on domestic abuse. All those issues can be looked at as part of the feasibility study. I do not think that Members would disagree that we need to look at all of that. However, there is an issue of equity here. We need to ensure that all victims have the same representation and are looked after in the same way, regardless of what they are the victim of, whether homicide, domestic or sexual violence, or antisocial behaviour.

What is important is knowing that there is a person there to help you.

Mr Givan mentioned the Victim Charter and said that victims do not even know that it is there. The Victim Charter should be the very first thing that people are told about when they become a victim. They should be told that, as victim, they have rights. If we are going to have a victims of crime commissioner, or whatever model the Minister chooses to bring forward after the feasibility study has been conducted, we need to ensure that victims understand what the model is, what it can do for them and how they can access it, because that is vital in all of this. There is no value in having a commissioner for anything if the people who rely on that commissioner do not understand how the model works, how to access it —

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

Ms Dillon: — and how it will benefit them. We will be supporting the motion.

Ms S Bradley: As the SDLP justice spokesperson, I support the motion, which calls on the Minister to conduct a feasibility study into the appointment of a victims of crime commissioner. I thank Doug Beattie and Robbie Butler for tabling the motion. It is timely as we discuss the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill.

At the outset, I too refer to the Victim Charter, which I understand was put on a statutory footing in 2015. On inspection of the charter, I can say that it is a very worthy document. It contains much good information and is certainly a good starting point for learning what information should be shared with victims as soon as they are identified as being victims. There is no doubt that it is impressive and thorough, but what is concerning is that we have very little knowledge of how well that information is being used. The Chair of the Committee pointed today to the very good example in the report where it states that there is evidence that the Victim Charter is not being used at all. With all respect to the Victim Charter, and I commend it as a worthwhile document, it has zero value if it is sitting on a shelf and not being used and if victims are not being made aware of it.

With that in mind, I put it to the Minister that we have to ask serious questions about the charter. Do we know how it is being utilised across all agencies and areas? How often is it being revisited and updated? What process is in place to make sure that it is activated and used? There is evidence that it is not being used, and the mover of the motion rightly pointed to one case in particular, Mr Dolan's, as evidence of that. There are other cases that most of us will be aware of across our constituencies. We have many questions to ask about what the role of a victims of crime commissioner would look like. Would the charter be within the scope of a commissioner? I most certainly hope that it would be and that the charter itself would be one of the lead pieces of work.

Of course, anybody in the Chamber who sits on the Justice Committee will know the repeated deliberations that we have had on how effective the Domestic Abuse Bill really can be without there being adequate training, adequate follow-up, and somebody to oversee that the legislation is being enacted. Legislation is all well and good, and it may be the finest legislation ever crafted, but unless there is somebody to oversee it and ensure that every letter of it is enacted, it will end up having zero value.

Across many cases and many situations, the question that has routinely arisen is this: who is the overall guardian of everything that we hold important in order to support a victim? Right now, there is enough evidence for us put this question: is this the time to carry out the feasibility study and to look at who is that guardian? To my mind, having a victims of crime commissioner, as proposed in the motion, is a good start.

I commend and support the motion. I ask the Minister to have a broad and open mind on what that feasibility study might include, because there are many issues surrounding victims that need to be addressed at this time.


12.45 pm

Mr Blair: I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to support the motion, although I should make it clear at the outset that I see the motion as a framework on which to build a more comprehensive and operative support system through which all victims of crime will receive a level of support that is suitable to their individual circumstances and requirements. Of course, the circumstances surrounding each crime are different, and the needs of each victim are different, so the support that they receive should be tailored and appropriate to their needs. The nature of the crime experienced by the victim should also be taken into account so that they receive effective service and support as they proceed through the justice system. Victims of hate crime, for example, who have experienced a personal attack because of their race, religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity or even disability may have endured a lifetime of discrimination, and they will require a tailored approach to victim support.

In the context of the motion, we also need to consider the importance of victims to the policing scenario, the complexities that motivate hate crime and effective policing practices. One could argue that hate crime has become a gauge for contemporary police relations with vulnerable and marginalised communities, so we should consider the importance of how we police effectively and how police can lead conversations with such communities about crimes arising from prejudice. The history of underpolicing those communities and victims of crime is, of course, a separate issue, but it is also part of the picture. It is essential that we view that picture overall, not as a specific need, however important that need may be, but as part of the overall justice scene. It is important that the system provides support to victims of hate crime through the criminal justice process and signposts them to relevant services through their ongoing struggles for equality and justice.

I welcomed the Department's announcement, last year, of tackling intolerable hate crime and carrying out an independent review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland. Many parties will have already engaged with Judge Marrinan's review of hate crime. It is reassuring that the Department is fully engaged in that process. I also welcome the Minister's announcement of the establishment of a reference group to advise and inform on the requirement and necessity for a victims of crime commissioner.

Mindful of the need for future solutions and improvements to our victim support system to ensure effective service delivery, I support the motion and what it proposes. I am also hopeful that the motion and any outcomes from today's debate will be complementary to progress already made, will be considered in conjunction with processes already under way and, most importantly, will be taken forward with the individual needs of all victims as a top priority.

Mr Frew: I support the motion, but, as with my colleague Mr Givan, my first, frustrated question is why it is needed. Surely, in this day and age, in the liberal democracy in which we live, justice should be an ultimate right. What is the duty on government, devolved or otherwise, other than to keep its people safe and to establish and maintain justice? What is justice? Justice is a balance. When somebody commits a crime, the victim can expect redress and closure, if they can. They are compensated in a number of ways, and that compensation can come in various guises. There is balance. If a Government cannot produce balance, you have to ask this question: what good are that Government to their people? That is the fundamental question that we are debating.

If we are saying to ourselves, as a legislature, that we need a victims of crime commissioner, even though we have a justice system, we have to ask ourselves how the justice system is working. Of course, government cogs turn slowly, and it is clear and it is a reality that justice has been devolved only recently, but that should not be the excuse for doing nothing. That should not be the excuse when we roll out improvement and it becomes a tick-box exercise. It should not be an excuse when you have countless CJINI reports talking about the failures of the justice system and countless Committee for Justice reports seeking redress and a better way for victims, yet nothing is done or it becomes a tick-box exercise. Nobody in this society deserves that. Victims of crime have to be supported by the justice system that is in place to protect their rights and to give them equal treatment in this country and within the law. When someone becomes a victim, there should be redress. We have heard the horror stories that the Victim Charter, with all its significance when it was brought in, is now being treated like a tick-box exercise. If you look at the fundamentals, you can see very quickly how the justice system can rapidly fall down and fail the victims — the very people that it is designed to protect — time and again.

It is not easy to suffer crime. No one here should wish crime on anyone or for victims to be created, but, when you become a victim, you have to go through a process of inquiry, answering questions and being placed in a court, and that is horrendous. Our court system is very robust — there are reasons for that — but the fact that we have a robust justice system that can be very confrontational in court is no reason not to support the victims that the justice system here is designed to support.

We will support the feasibility study on the appointment of a victims of crime commissioner, but the fundamental question that we, as legislators, must ask ourselves is this: why the need? Why have we got to a place where we need a commissioner to look after victims when the justice system should be the very instrument that seeks redress for those victims and supports them? With all the legal professions and the clear, balanced systems of justice —

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

Mr Frew: — how are we left seeking a commissioner for victims when the justice system should do that ably?

Ms Rogan: I welcome the motion and the debate. As a member of the Justice Committee, as other members of the Committee have mentioned, I have found it a revealing experience to hear evidence from key stakeholders and organisations, including many victims of crime. It has reinforced my views and the views of many of my colleagues on the importance of supporting victims of crime and making their journey through the criminal justice system less harrowing and more efficient and of better supporting policy and legislation that ensures that there is less crime prevalent in our communities and, therefore, fewer victims of crime.

At this early stage, I express my support for the motion. That is not necessarily consent to the establishment of a commissioner for victims of crime, but I support the calls for a feasibility study of the potential establishment of a commissioner by weighing up all the potential benefits that it might have. The study should also explore all further options for best supporting victims, ensuring that their voices are heard and reflected in the development of strategies and policy, and filling any existing gaps. Some of my colleagues have already discussed, for example, the decision of the Scottish Government not to proceed with a victims' commissioner. However, there are other jurisdictions where victims' commissioners have been very effective and an efficient use of resources. Therefore, all options and models of best practice should be explored.

Victims have rights and entitlements that are laid out in the Victim Charter. It is important that those rights are not only fully respected by all but actively promoted and that victims of crime are informed of those rights. The Victim Charter, which was launched in 2015, followed a successful and highly useful report by the Justice Committee in 2012 on the criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime.

The report, which was widely welcomed at the time, was very important in highlighting the gaps that existed in ensuring that victims of crime were supported and had access to their rights and the relevant information about the criminal justice process. I welcome today's debate, which is the latest effort of a renewed focus in the Assembly on supporting victims in the criminal justice system.

A potential victims of crime commissioner may be the best-placed person to coordinate the rights and entitlements of victims of crime, and the feasibility study should explore that. That follows on from the latest Criminal Justice Inspection report, from July of this year, on the treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. It recognises that, while many improvements have been made since its first report, 14 years ago, there remain a number of gaps, which can impact on public confidence and could deter victims from reporting crime. Therefore, there is a notable gap that could be filled by a commissioner or other support services.

I pay tribute to the vital contribution of organisations such as Victim Support. In the field of supporting victims, they provide emotional support, information and practical help to victims and witnesses, and their work is crucial. A victims' commissioner or any alternative model of support would be intended to complement and support the vital work of those support services.

My Sinn Féin colleagues and I pledge to support victims and commit to improving their knowledge and experiences. I also call on the Minister of Justice to indicate a timeline for the feasibility study to be carried out.

Mr Dunne: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter as a member of the Justice Committee. Victims of crime deserve a proper level of support following a criminal offence being committed against them. We very much believe that victims must be at the very heart of the criminal justice system and that having a victim-centred approach in the justice system must always be a number-one priority for the Department of Justice.

The July 2020 report that was published by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland provides a useful and interesting evidence base with its findings on the treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. When launching her recent report, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, acknowledged that improvements have been made over recent years in how victims and witnesses are treated through the criminal justice system. While there have undoubtedly been some improvements in victims' support, there is a recognition that much more must be done to ensure better outcomes for victims, including bereaved families, and witnesses.

Some of the findings cause concern. Some five years on from the charter's launch, many victims and witnesses of crime remain totally unaware of their rights to support, information services and protection measures through their long journey and far beyond. The Victim Charter launched in 2015 by a previous Minister of Justice was a positive development in helping to ensure that victims have the minimum standards that they should expect from the justice system. Many victims and witnesses of crime are, understandably, often not as familiar with the justice system as some experienced perpetrators may be, and that is why clearly defined and effective measures must be put in place to support them.

The recent July report highlighted, as a major issue, the lack of awareness of the charter, as the Chairman of the Committee mentioned, and what it means for the rights and entitlements for victims and witnesses of crime. It was alarming that some of those who were interviewed for the report had very little or no knowledge at all of the charter being in place. There is a gap in community awareness, and we must focus on encouraging greater ownership of the charter and in providing reassurance and active engagement in the system and the processes. I ask the Minister to take action to address that gap, as doing so will ultimately improve and strengthen the support for victims. There is a need for a joined-up and comprehensive approach to supporting victims across the criminal justice system and in championing victims' rights. I believe that action is needed, whether that is through a stand-alone commissioner post or another form, to consistently monitor and benchmark the charter's implementation across the process and to help champion victims' support.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also presented unique challenges for victims of crime, with a lack of court business being conducted during the lockdown, when, in many cases, emergency matters only were dealt with virtually. Even today, there are significant backlogs of court business and the virtual measures that are in place limit full engagement and participation in the justice system and often have an adverse impact on getting justice and, ultimately, support for victims.


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I recognise that some advances have been made, but more could be done. That is why I am happy to support the motion.

Ms Dolan: I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would disagree that all victims of crime deserve to receive the same support following a criminal offence being perpetrated against them and during any judicial proceedings. The Victim Charter that has been referred to was launched in January 2015, and it was anticipated that it would advise victims of crime about their entitlements and the standards of service that they could expect to receive when they came in contact with the criminal justice system.

Victims need access to services that are fit for purpose. Each victim and witness in the criminal justice system has their own needs. They need to be listened to, and they need to believe that they have been heard. Providing services and support that are tailored to their requirements runs parallel with ensuring that victims and witnesses get the personal help that they need. However, in July, a Criminal Justice Inspection report found that victims and witnesses remain fundamentally unaware of their rights to information, support and protection and that services to assist them were still not being consistently delivered to a quality standard. Obviously, when a criminal justice system fails to do that, it has a negative impact on public confidence in the justice system and could deter victims from reporting crimes. The report also identified that criminal justice organisations often focus too much on statistics, meeting targets and independence, and there is insufficient emphasis on personal experiences that often have a lifelong impact on victims, their families and those closest to them. While the report did not specify that a victims of crime commissioner should be established, it stated that substantial work is needed to raise awareness in the community about the Victim Charter and the Witness Charter.

Earlier this year, the Minister stated that, while the introduction of a victims of crime commissioner is not being proposed by her Department at this time, no final decision has been taken. She also stated that she intended to explore ways in which her Department could further develop new services or deliver existing support and protections more effectively.

Our neighbouring jurisdictions all have different forms of victim support, but the one that I find the most interesting is Scotland, to which my colleagues referred. Scotland does not have a victims of crime commissioner, but, in a response to a parliamentary question in 2018, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice responded:

"We remain of the view that funding for victims support organisations is a more effective use of resources ... Those organisations represent the interests of victims and provide robust input to Government consultation and the development of policy ... We are learning from their experiences in order better to inform and design support services, and to ensure that their voices will be heard."

Although I support the motion and the call for a feasibility study, I would need to see the details and potential impact of any proposed commissioner before concluding on the best and most effective method of supporting victims, listening to and amplifying their voices and ensuring that victim services and policy are of the highest standard.

Ms Bradshaw: I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party and will, of course, support the motion. Indeed, the motion provides a very welcome opportunity to restate to the House that the Minister announced over the summer that she will bring forward a reference group to engage with representative organisations in the community and voluntary sector to explore the role and remit of a new victims of crime commissioner for Northern Ireland. That, in fact, goes well beyond what the motion calls for, as it is a commitment not to whether there should be a commissioner, but how. I know that the sector was delighted by that announcement, as were individuals such as Mr Charles Little, with whom I have been working, and who have been calling for that position for many years, including during the suspension of the Assembly. I am sure that those who tabled the motion and the whole House will recognise that it was great to see that the Justice Minister has put in place that first practical step through the reference group, not just to consider the feasibility of a commissioner but to drive the process forward clearly.

The Minister was determined to push it forward because so much value has been seen in the Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales. That role has proved important in providing a strong voice for victims, their families and, notably, for the voluntary sector groups that provide services to them. However, we do not need to look beyond home to see clear evidence of the value of an independent advocate for victims of crime. Each one of us is motivated and disgusted by the callous nature in which victims are targeted, often chosen because of their isolation or other vulnerability.

As long ago as 2012, the Justice Committee's inquiry into the criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime, recognised:

"that victims and witnesses have individual needs and some will require much more support and information than others".

Therefore, we need to be careful with the definition of "same support" mentioned in the motion. What we really mean is equal access to appropriate services and support. However, these will differ from case to case. What is important is that the commissioner's work produces clear outcomes for all victims and that all victims feel supported.

These outcomes may come in the form of amendments to programmes or services, the introduction of services and policies to aid victims, or simply a voice for victims so that they know that they are not alone. The important part is that services, support and advocacy are more-appropriate to the needs of victims than is currently the case and that they are accessible in a timely manner.

It is inevitable that this will mean that the role will involve linking with other advocates on behalf of those marginalised by or vulnerable to crime. Therefore, it is important that there is clarity in the role of commissioner and in how the postholder will work with existing victims' advocacy groups and then interact with the Justice Department and criminal justice system.

In the summer, we saw the launch of the Criminal Justice Inspection report on the care and treatment of victims and witnesses by the criminal justice system. That is another reason why this post needs to move forward. The report identified that crimes can have a lifelong and wide-ranging impact on the victim. One of those impacts is, sadly, almost unbearably, on mental well-being. That is why one core connection will, surely, be with the interim mental health champion, as the proposer of the motion will, no doubt, recognise. As we know, the emotional trauma and impact of being a victim of crime are devastating, and it may take many years to get over the trauma, if at all. The forthcoming mental health strategy needs to happen more swiftly than is proposed, not least to ensure that a clear framework and mechanism for delivering psychological therapies and the support necessary to help victims to rebuild their lives can link in to the work of the commissioner.

In the Chamber, we have talked a lot about the needs of various groups of victims, be they the victims of historical institutional abuse, the Troubles, patients' experience of alleged physical abuse in health facilities or victims of domestic and sexual crime. It is clear that the Assembly wants to do everything in its power to support them and to put in place structures and polices to respond to their practical and emotional needs. However, we need to show more urgency, which is why I support the work of the Minister in taking this forward.

I place on record my admiration for and appreciation of the work of Victim Support NI —

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

Ms Bradshaw: — the NSPCC and other groups that provide such valuable support to victims and their families in dark and daunting times.

Mr Chambers: Crime can affect victims in many ways. They may suffer injuries, possibly even life-changing injuries. They may carry psychological scars for a long time as a result of the trauma of the crime, or they simply may have to deal with practical outcomes of the crime, which may be logistical or financial. If a perpetrator is brought before the court, the victim may be required to stand in the same courtroom, a few yards apart, and recount in detail what happened. Very few of us are equipped to deal with such a situation. The courtroom is an alien environment for law-abiding people.

The police do a good job in trying to keep the victims of crime informed of the progress of their investigations, but they have limited resources to continue that line of communication and contact over a lengthy period.

Having a family retail business that has had its fair share of robberies, which normally have come either with direct violence, or the very real threat of it, possibly drug-fuelled, I know that the aftermath of such a crime can linger with the victims. If it comes to court, the time spent in those unfamiliar and daunting surroundings can be a lonely and stressful experience, proceeded by many sleepless nights. From that personal experience, I understand the effect of crime on victims. Indeed, a young member of my family had to arrange herself counselling after having a gun put to her mouth and suffering nightmares and flashbacks for some time afterwards.

Last week, the House held a debate on a possible introduction of Helen's law. It was driven by the sterling efforts of two families, the Dorrians and the Murrays. Both families have spoken highly of the support that the police have offered them, but I think that a victims of crime commissioner could provide families like them with a more formal line of communication and support. I believe that the contributions to the debate last week pointed up the pressing need and the positive help and support that all families that are victims of crime need and deserve.

We hear a lot about protecting the rights of those who are arrested on suspicion of committing a crime. Their rights are fully protected during a subsequent court case, and, indeed, that protection continues whilst they are serving a custodial sentence. That is as it should be and is a compliment to the type of society that we are. Why, therefore, would we neglect or ignore the rights of victims of crime? Those who choose to commit crime knowingly make that decision; those who become victims do not have that choice. A feasibility study into the possibility of a victims of crime commissioner would be a good starting point to show that we are serious about victims. I commend the motion to the House.

Miss Woods: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion today as a member of the Justice Committee, and I thank the Members for tabling it. As other Members have mentioned, this year's Criminal Justice Inspection report makes it clear that we are still not doing enough to support victims and witnesses of crime. The report included a raft of recommendations and information to deal with key issues, and the most worrying fact of all is the chief inspector's statement, which many other Members mentioned, that victims and witnesses remain fundamentally unaware of their rights to information, support and protection and that services to assist them were not being consistently delivered to a quality standard across Northern Ireland. That is just not good enough, and I hope that the Minister will set out in her response how the Department intends to address each recommendation.

The Department's 'Victim and Witness Action Plan 2017-2020' is fast approaching its expiration date, so what plans do the Minister and the Department have to replace it? What plans are there to conduct a fully independent and detailed evaluation of its implementation and delivery, and what is next for the Department to ensure that key issues are being addressed?

I fully understand the rationale for bringing this motion today and recognise that victims of non-Troubles-related incidents currently have no advocate or voice to support them and guide them through the criminal justice system. Some will say that funding for victim-support organisations is a more effective use of resources, and, indeed, that is the position of the Scottish Government. However, have we listened to victim-support organisations, and what are they saying? Victim Support Northern Ireland has indicated that it supports the creation of a commissioner, and the Criminal Justice Inspection's report also highlights the need. Victim Support has said that such a role should have the appropriate power, resources and independence from government to hold all agencies to account and uphold the rights of victims under the Victim Charter.

Similarly, Women's Aid has actively campaigned for a specific commissioner to tackle domestic abuse. I believe that to be essential, given the significant proportion of all crime, recorded and unrecorded, that is linked to domestic abuse and violence. It is a mechanism for scrutinising legislation, policy, practice, commissioning, funding and provision, and, as other Members have said, from gathering evidence and working on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, it has become clear that more needs to be done to support victims and witnesses, especially measures that speed up the criminal justice system. Time and time again, we have heard from key stakeholders that the high attrition rate of witnesses was largely due to delays in cases and a lack of support, awareness and understanding of the system. Indeed, Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, was fully supportive of moves to introduce the new office, and there is an urgent need in Northern Ireland to provide better support for survivors of abuse and help to address the high attrition rate of witnesses.


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I have previously called for, and I do so again, full implementation of the Gillen recommendations. Paragraph 2.87 on page 87 of the Gillen report states:

"The interviews I had with complainants frequently raised the issue of the trial process itself re-traumatising them".

All victims and survivors must be treated with respect and dignity on their journey through the criminal justice system, including during the trial process. The system must support them. Perhaps the Minister can indicate the level of progress that the Department is making on the Gillen recommendations.

Victims and witnesses are entitled to know their rights, to be aware of the support that is available and to have information to guide them. In 2012, England and Wales appointed a Victims' Commissioner and have had a designate in place for victims of domestic abuse since 2019, recognising the significant role that the role can play in scrutinising, advising and being a powerful voice. It is time that we did the same.

Mr Allister: I am not at all hostile to the motion, but I do have some questions about where, if we travel down this road, a victims of crime commissioner will fit in the existing infrastructure. The last thing that we need is duplication, because duplication means needless expenditure. Some of my questions relate to issues such as this: we already have a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, so would that post be superseded by a general commissioner for victims of crime, or, indeed, would having a commissioner for victims of crime reflect the outrageous situation of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors also representing and including victim makers?

There are other areas in which advocates are funded by the state. A number of charities, such as Victim Support, the NSPCC and Women's Aid, all get generous grants. They may not be, in some cases, as generous as the organisations think that they should be. Again, where would they fit in? Would they be superseded by a victims of crime commissioner's office? Would any duplication or any funding be required?

Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for giving way. Rather than take on the role that we would envisage for a commissioner, Women's Aid plays a supporting role. Women's Aid provides refuge and such things. The commissioner's role would be to support what Women's Aid does and perhaps advocate on its behalf if it needed additional funding. Does the Member agree that there is potential for those two roles to be complementary rather than set against each other?

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

Mr Allister: I understand that Women's Aid, through hostels and all sorts of things, does much more than what a victims' commissioner would do. To that extent, there is an obvious complementarity there. There is, however, also the possibility of duplication, and I go back to my point that duplication means wasted resources. I would therefore like to see very clearly, before we go down this road, an emphatic delineation of what it is that the victims' commissioner would do that others are not doing and of what others would not continue to do because the victims' commissioner would be doing it. Otherwise, we would be creating a bureaucracy that may not serve a great deal of advancement.

Yes, there is a role for a victims' commissioner, but it has to be defined in the context of the knock-on effect that it would have on existing structures elsewhere. Would we have two commissioners for the victims of terrorist crime in the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors and the commissioner for victims of crime? I do not know. We have, for example, a Historical Institutional Abuse Interim Advocate — yes, that is different, as there are unlikely to be many prosecutions hereafter — but would that advocacy role continue or morph into the role of the commissioner for victims of crime? Those are some of the questions that need to be addressed before we all rush to embrace a proposition that, on the face of it, is very attractive.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call on the Minister to respond, and she has up to 15 minutes.

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I am grateful to the Member for Upper Bann and the Member for Lagan Valley for bringing the motion before the House, as it affords me an opportunity to update Members on the progress made following my announcement at the end of August that I was establishing a reference group to inform my approach to introducing a victims of crime commissioner. I welcome the opportunity to do that.

When someone becomes a victim of crime, it is not just unexpected but shocking. As well as the trauma of the crime itself, many individuals are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. Victims face emotional, practical and, at times, physical challenges, and they need effective and appropriate support and assistance to help them navigate the criminal justice system. Victims' voices also need to be heard so that we can better understand the impact of their experiences and identify and put in place effective services to meet their needs. In what is an unusually short mandate of operational working in the Assembly and Executive, I have therefore prioritised in the Department of Justice those elements of legislation, policy and practice that will have the biggest positive and tangible impact on victims of crime, in terms of both the reduction of crime and improving the experience of victims as they pass through the system.

As I took up the role, I also spent time meeting victims of crime to listen to their experiences, good and bad, of the justice system, and I have sought to embed the positive elements further and address, in partnership with other parts of the justice family, the areas where the experience could be improved. Some of those meetings have been with some of the victims referenced today, including Charles Little and the parents of Enda Dolan, and with many others whose cases have already led to change in policy and practice for victims going through the system. That is why I asked my officials in the summer to establish a reference group to advise and inform my thinking around the role and remit of a victims of crime commissioner. After initial informal conversations with stakeholders from across the voluntary and community sector, statutory organisations and partners who are already in daily contact with victims, I have written formally to them to invite them to participate in the reference group. I have asked the group to advise me on what the role, remit and functions of a victims of crime commissioner should be in order to improve the experience of victims, make their voices heard and represent their experiences, needs and interests to government. I am keen that the group should also explore how best a potential victims of crime commissioner could balance the challenge of representing the general interests of all victims of crime with a particular focus on the specific needs and requirements of vulnerable groups, such as victims of domestic abuse, sexual offences or hate crime.

Members will be aware of the good work that is already in place for victims of crime and, I am sure, will join me in paying tribute to the dedication of those across non-governmental organisations and the criminal justice system who provide essential support to victims already. Their role does not stop there, and I am grateful for their collaboration in helping to inform our collective strategic response in order to improve outcomes for victims in the criminal justice system. It is helpful to recognise the existing provision so that, in thinking through the role of a commissioner, we seek to build on what is there rather than duplicate it. It is essential that a victims of crime commissioner brings added value and makes a measurable difference to victims' experience in the criminal justice system and does not simply duplicate existing arrangements. For once, Mr Allister and I are of a mind in that regard. Therefore, I have asked the reference group to consider the existing services available to victims of crime and identify any gaps so that our focus can be on meeting genuine need, filling those gaps and improving the experience of victims. The reference group will meet later this month and in early November and will report to me by the end of December. Once I have considered its report, I will meet the group in early January to discuss their advice prior to making decisions on the best way forward.

Coupling our progress with that of the Westminster legislation would not be the appropriate mechanism for a number of reasons. In England, much of the focus is on ensuring consistency across various services that are disparate in nature in their scenario. However, here, most of those services are delivered by unitary authorities, which would make that less of a focus for a victims of crime commissioner here; in fact, that is one of the reasons why Scotland has not ventured down that path. Further, we should look specifically at the needs of victims locally and what is in place by way of service. With that in mind, I want to answer the question that was put to us about the potential conflation of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors with a victims of crime commissioner. I believe that the remit and the focus of the two roles are too different and that the needs and issues in respect of each cohort of victims are very different. Our focus is very much on ensuring that the needs and interests of victims of crime who are going through the criminal justice system today are represented and provided for. Conflating the two roles would not only lead to a lack of clarity about the purpose and functions of the role and dilute focus but, crucially, be unlikely to meet the needs or deliver improved outcomes for either cohort of victims effectively.

While I said at the outset that I am broadly supportive of the motion, there is one area where I will challenge the wording, and that is where it calls for:

"all victims of crime ... to receive the same support".

The needs of each victim are different, and therefore the available support should be appropriate to those needs, taking account of their experience, the crime type and their vulnerability, age and circumstances. One size does not fit all in these arrangements. Therefore, I argue that the motion ought to agree that all victims of crime deserve to receive effective and proper support following a criminal offence being perpetrated against them and during any judicial proceedings. However, I fully agree with the intent that all victims need and deserve support. Much excellent collaborative work is already in place to deliver it, and we continue to refine and improve the support available. That includes new work to introduce a robust needs assessment from the first contact with criminal justice organisations. That is a time when victims may feel particularly vulnerable, and that trauma and its effects are not always evident when the crime is reported. The new approach will ensure that individual needs continue to be reviewed and that information is shared with the criminal justice organisations with which they will come into contact.

When it comes to improving the criminal justice system for victims, my Department and the criminal justice organisations are not standing still. In terms of support for all victims of crime, my Department provides significant funding of £1·9 million to Victim Support Northern Ireland to provide a range of support services to victims and witnesses. Over 50,000 victims and witnesses are offered help and support by Victim Support each year, and that support is available from when someone becomes a victim of crime through to when they give their evidence at court. Victim Support also provides advocacy support for those who need assistance with issues as they journey through the system. Funding of £439,000 has been made available for the NSPCC's young witness service to provide tailored court support for all young prosecution witnesses who are called to give evidence. Around 500 young witnesses are supported each year to give their best evidence. My Department also funds specific services to support victims of specific crimes, such as domestic and sexual abuse, hate crime, human trafficking and crimes against older people. For those who are vulnerable or have difficulty with communicating, my Department provides registered intermediaries who are communication specialists who assist vulnerable children and adults with significant communication deficits to communicate their answers more effectively during police interview and when giving evidence at trial. In 2019-2020, there were 947 referrals to the scheme for victims, witnesses, suspects and defendants.

All those valuable services are aligned with the Victim Charter, to which many Members have referred. I am delighted to be in a position to take up this issue where my colleague David Ford left off. Obviously, the hiatus in the interim was beyond my control, but I am passionate about taking it forward now. The Victim Charter sets out the entitlements of victims, the services that are to be provided and the standard of services that victims should expect, as well as the obligations on a wide range of organisations to deliver information services and support. It has impacted positively on victims because it has shaped the service that they receive. It is not the case that it has been on the shelf. However, I am fully cognisant of the fact that more could be done to make victims aware of it.

Clearly, we need to recognise where those improvements can be made and take action to address those issues, so I acknowledge the recent Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland report, which was published in July and highlighted a number of such issues, particularly around keeping victims informed about their case and raising awareness of the Victim and Witness Charters to enhance their impact and effectiveness. I thank Gordon Dunne, in particular, for more accurately reflecting the full landscape of the CJINI report than some other Members did. Of course, it highlighted areas for improvement. However, I think that some Members failed to read the rest of the report, where it noted that significant improvement had been made since the last report. It is important that we do not focus only on the areas where improvement is still required and acknowledge to our partners and others where improvement has already been achieved.


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My officials are working closely with operational partners and support services to address the issues. I plan to publish a multi-agency action plan setting out our collective approach within the coming weeks. Hopefully, that action plan will address the concerns that I and other Members who spoke today share about awareness of the charter in particular. In addition, the Department is continuing to work with partners to consider our overall strategic response to the issues affecting witnesses and victims within the criminal justice system.

For those who have been victims of a sexual offence, one of my key priorities is to progress the implementation of the Gillen review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences. I am pleased that we have now published the implementation plan and established work streams. A wider discussion with Executive Ministers will also be required to deliver the societal change on which it is based. Legislation is also progressing to implement elements of Gillen that require legislation, and we hope that that will be part of the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

A wide range of work is being taken forward and good progress is being made against a number of those key recommendations. That includes work to allow vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses to provide evidence remotely from the court building by the end of this year. It also allows for new arrangements for victims of serious sexual offences to be able to avail themselves of publicly funded legal advice by the start of the next financial year.

Ms Dillon: Will the Minister take an intervention?

Mrs Long: I will, yes.

Ms Dillon: Does the Minister agree that other Departments and Ministers need to do something similar in putting together a working group to implement the recommendations that impact their Departments, particularly those around education?

Mrs Long: I completely agree. Whilst we take the lead on the Gillen review, I would certainly welcome an active interest from Executive colleagues on the aspects where they can take it forward.

A particular issue with the justice system is about progressing the speed with which cases can be taken forward. That matters to victims, witnesses, their families and their communities. It can also help offenders to better understand the implications of their actions and create a better opportunity for rehabilitation. Therefore, speeding up justice is one of the biggest challenges facing the system, not least in the current context, and it is a priority for my Department, criminal justice partners and the Criminal Justice Board. Reducing the time that it takes to complete criminal cases is a challenging and complex issue. Reforms take time to embed for their impacts to be seen. However, I am focused on improving this through a number of programmes, for example, the Gillen review and reforming committal reform.

I am committed to tacking the abhorrent crime of domestic abuse, which affects many in society, and I am conscious that not everyone reports such crime to the police. I am keen to ensure that victims have the confidence to pursue justice against those perpetrating those crimes. I also recognise the detrimental impact that COVID-19 continues to have on victims of domestic abuse and their greater vulnerability in this period. I remain committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable have access to the services that they need and are aware of the support and help that is available to them, including the 24-hour domestic and sexual abuse helpline.

Positive progress has also been made in implementing actions under the Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland strategy. Members will be aware of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill currently in Committee Stage. While I recognise that there have been calls for a domestic abuse commissioner, I am not convinced that that is the most effective way to deliver support for those affected by that crime. With potential calls for multiple, different commissioners to cover specific crime types, there could be a significant duplication of effort. We have to recognise that that is not necessarily making the best use of what are very limited resources. Rather, given the common interests of the needs of victims and how they are supported, I believe that a general victims of crime commissioner provides a better model to go forward. What will be important is that it should focus on victims with specific vulnerabilities, such as domestic and sexual abuse. That is why, as I said, I have specifically tasked the reference group to look at the issue of how to best balance the needs and interests of victims of crime more widely, with a focus on particularly vulnerable groups.

When people become victims of these crimes, which, as a society, we can no longer tolerate, it is essential that those affected have access to support services. That is also why I am introducing a new advocacy support service to help victims of domestic and sexual abuse as they go through the criminal justice system. That new initiative will build on existing support services providing a coordinated response to the needs of victims.

Hate crime is another area where more can be done, both within the justice system and wider society, to challenge what is completely intolerable prejudice and hatred that, at its most extreme, can motivate people to commit serious offences against vulnerable people in the community.

It is worth noting that, while the victims of the crime may only be one or two people, the fact and perception that it was motivated by hatred has a much wider impact.

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

Mrs Long: Judge Marrinan will report on the matter to the Department in December.

I believe that there is an opportunity for a victims of crime commissioner to be taken forward, and I look forward to updating Members on the progress of that in the future.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Mike Nesbitt to make a winding-up speech on the motion and debate. The Member has up to 10 minutes.

Mr Nesbitt: I begin by declaring an interest as a former commissioner at the Commission for Victims and Survivors.

It is worth recalling that, in the build-up to devolution in 1998, a huge effort was put into ensuring that these institutions were fair and equitable, free from discrimination and imbalance and, as John Blair said, free from hatred, and also that they were just. Mr Frew made much of the fact that we had to define justice in our dealings. We made great efforts: I think, for example, of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which places duties on public bodies to offer equality of opportunity to nine named groups in our society. Of course, there are always gaps. Mr Allister mentioned historical institutional abuse and the fact that the Hart inquiry did not cover everybody. A cleric could have abused boy A in an institutional setting on a Monday morning, then, after lunch, abused boy B in a domestic setting. Only boy A had recourse to Hart. In fact, a former junior Minister told a Committee that boy B could go to the police or to social services, a remark perhaps lacking in empathy but certainly lacking in balance.

Here we have another example of a gap. We have a Commission for Victims and Survivors for conflict-related incidents, but we do not have a commissioner for the victims of crime. I commend Mr Beattie for proposing the motion with his usual logic, common sense, passion and, indeed, moderation. As some Members, including Emma Rogan and Jemma Dolan, pointed out, it is possible to support the motion calling for a feasibility study without committing to supporting the appointment of a victims of crime commissioner. Mr Beattie's remarks were passionate and grounded when he talked about real victims such as the family of Enda Dolan, the young man killed by a drug- and drink-driver.

The Victim Charter was mentioned by many, beginning with Mr Beattie, and I have heard about two problems with it during the debate. The first problem is practical: Sinéad Bradley, Gordon Dunne, Rachel Woods and Jemma Dolan all pointed out that the charter is not used properly and, more importantly perhaps, far too many victims do not know about it or understand it. Jemma Dolan had a solid evidence base and referred to this year's report by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland. The second problem with the Victim Charter, as Mr Beattie said, is that it is one half of a whole, and the second half is missing: a champion to promote it. That is why he thinks that we should have a victims of crime commissioner. Without such a commissioner, Mr Beattie suggested that we could be lagging behind England and Wales. Paula Bradshaw spoke very positively about the impact that the Victims' Commissioner has had in England and Wales, although the Minister made it clear that she will not repeat that model and just mimic what is being done in England, for which she gave her reasons.

Mr Givan, the Chair of the Justice Committee, pointed out that the idea of the Victim Charter first came from a legacy Justice Committee, which reported as long ago as 2012. He described it as a "unanimous and comprehensive report", which included a call for the charter that came in three years later in 2015. How do we promote it? How do we ensure equality of services? Linda Dillon pointed out that we want the same support and services for all victims. Ms Dillon also pointed out that perhaps it would have been better if the motion had come from the Committee, as it might carry more weight. I remind the Member that the Committee can bring forward legislation to introduce a commissioner for the victims of crime if it so wishes.

A few years ago — it was 2016, I think — the legacy Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister introduced legislation that provided for the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, so there is a precedent for Committees taking such action, if they so wish. The Minister suggested, however, that that probably will not be necessary because she has committed to establishing what she calls a reference group. When Emma Rogan asked for a timeline, the Minister provided one. It appears that the reference group is due to report to her in December this year, and, in January 2021, she will meet it to discuss a way forward.

The Minister appeared to suggest that we should not conflate the Commission for Victims and Survivors of the conflict with the proposed commissioner, suggesting that perhaps the needs of the two sets of victims are different. As a former commissioner at the Commission for Victims and Survivors, I can tell her that I have spent many, many hours listening to victims repeating the most horrific stories of their traumatising engagements with the criminal justice system. A woman who was very badly damaged in the Omagh bomb went to court for compensation. Her solicitor said, "A bit of paper will be put in front of you. It will have your initial offer of compensation; just ignore it. It's a game, and I play the game. You don't know how to do it. Trust me". The paper was put in front of her, and she decided that she would ignore it. Then, however, the judge asked her to remove her dress so that he could look at her injuries. He was not a doctor. The NHS had provided a file on her injuries, and yet he humiliated her by asking her to remove her dress. The consequence was that she lifted the bit of paper and accepted the offer because she could not face going back in for another session. We need to be very clear about the experiences of victims and survivors of crime and conflict-related crime.

Alan Chambers was very clear about the potentially traumatic experience of engaging in the criminal justice system. Rachel Woods referred to the Gillen review and the effect of re-traumatisation on so many victims of crime.

Overall, we need to welcome this debate and welcome, broadly speaking, the Minister's response, because it appears that, with the reference group, we are working our way towards the potential appointment of a victims of crime commissioner. Mr Allister had some good points and questions about how that appointment would fit into the current framework.

I finish by, once again, commending Mr Beattie for not only tabling the motion but wording it in such a way that it appears that it will get universal support. When Mr Allister begins his remarks by pronouncing that he is not at all hostile to a motion, you must know that you are on to a winner.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly agrees that all victims of crime deserve to receive the same support following a criminal offence being perpetrated against them and during any judicial proceedings; and calls on the Minister of Justice to conduct a feasibility study into the appointment of a victims of crime commissioner who would act as a focal point, champion and advocate and bring forward best practice in dealing with, and supporting, victims of crime.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask Members to take their ease before we move to the next item of business.


1.45 pm

Dr Archibald: I beg to move

That this Assembly is appalled that the British Government have abandoned any pretence of adherence to international law; recognises that the potential for a trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom has significantly diminished as a result of the British Government reneging on key elements of the withdrawal agreement; acknowledges that that would be devastating for workers and families, with inevitable business failures, job losses and economic damage; and calls on the British Government to respect the rule of law and honour their obligations in full as set out in the withdrawal agreement that they negotiated and which the British Parliament agreed.

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

Dr Archibald: On 8 September, the British Secretary of State for the North, Brandon Lewis, confirmed in the House of Commons that the Internal Market Bill would break international law. In doing so, he confirmed what everyone already knew: that the Bill, as enacted, fundamentally breaches the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland. The blatancy of this admission, however, was greeted with shock and dismay; it defies the norms expected of states that operate on accepted conventions. It is also, in fact, a breach of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). The convention is a standard that states are held to when they sign international agreements, such as the withdrawal agreement to which the British Government are a signatory.

The response has been damming, not just from the EU, which would be expected, but the British political and legal classes have been equally vociferous. Diplomats and politicians from all shades have condemned the bad faith and lamented the impact that these actions will have on holding other states to account. The Internal Market Bill is a step too far, even for Geoffrey Cox, the British Attorney General who, this time last year, presided over the proroguing of Parliament debacle. He slated it, stating that it:

"ultimately leads to very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation".

Of course, anyone with any sense who has one eye to future trade deals also realises the potential impact and reputational damage that such actions will have. Why would anyone hold faith with any agreement that the British Government sign up to in the future?

The strong response from the US has continued, with bipartisan support towards upholding the protections afforded to the Good Friday Agreement by the protocol in the withdrawal agreement. The consequence will be no trade deal between Britain and the US unless the protections are upheld. Let us be clear: the protections of the protocol on Ireland provide some degree of certainty for the all-island economy and to protect North/South cooperation. However, the protocol will function most effectively in the context of a comprehensive free-trade agreement based on zero tariffs.

That is what is most frustrating and utterly futile about the Internal Market Bill. It has increased uncertainty and has damaged relations and trust in the negotiation process: a process that we already knew was difficult and slow. It seems that Boris Johnson and his cronies have spent the past 10 months in denial about what they signed up to and ratified in the withdrawal agreement. Instead of putting their best endeavours into finding reasonable and workable outcomes, particularly for the protocol, they have tried to wriggle out of the commitments that they made.

We are now looking at a very tight timetable to see the negotiations conclude, with the key stocktaking looming at the EU Council meeting on 15 October. The reality is that it is our businesses, our communities and our economy that will stand to suffer worst from a no-trade-deal outcome and our highly integrated supply chains that will be the most damaged by increased barriers. Our business community has been very clear that what it needs but does not have right now is clarity. With the clock ticking down rapidly, it fears what is coming down the line at the end of the year. Even if there is an agreement, the timetable to implement what is agreed is too tight. The business community could not be any more clear: it wants an agreement that creates the minimum of bureaucracy.

As I stand here, amid growing numbers of COVID-19 cases and the potential for increased restrictions, I am very mindful that our businesses have already faced months of the most difficult circumstances. That has already caused debt to be accrued and has put many jobs on the line. Many workers and families are already struggling as a result, and, at the end of this month, we face the ending of the furlough scheme, which will see thousands more jobs lost. It is already a bleak economic outlook, with predictions of record unemployment, and that is without even taking into account a no-trade-deal outcome.

Like, I am sure, everyone else here, I have absolutely no desire to see a hard administrative border down the Irish Sea that damages our businesses, many of which are SMEs with no real capacity to deal with the cost and red tape that is associated with such a border. Those on the opposite Benches who criticise the protocol, and particularly those who campaigned for the sunny uplands that we now face, have no alternative that guarantees North/South or east-west trade on the same basis that we now have in the context of the type of Brexit that Britain has insisted on, because they are, in fact, contradictory aims.

Brexit itself is the cause of the difficulties that we face. Although the protocol offers some protections, nothing is as frictionless as the arrangements that we currently have. In that respect, the future arrangements negotiations is the only show in town. At this point, we are all familiar with the issues that are still causing difficulties: fisheries, state aid and governance. That was restated at the end of last week's round of negotiations. Concerns remain about the lack of meaningful proposals from the British negotiators, so the focus at this point needs to be on finding resolutions to those issues and on ensuring that the technicalities of the protocol are worked through to a positive conclusion as quickly as possible.

The Internal Market Bill has been an unnecessary distraction in that regard and does not, despite what the British Government and the Bill's proponents say, resolve the issues of unfettered access. The rumour that the British Government will go further still and legislate for the definition of "at-risk goods" would be even more unhelpful and would cause deeper ructions in the negotiations. A lot of the discussion until now has been on how the Internal Market Bill breaches the withdrawal agreement commitments on issues of trade, but last week saw a significant intervention from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission, when they outlined how the Bill also breaches the Good Friday Agreement and the protocol commitment on rights. That is deeply concerning, particularly in the context of this British Government's known intentions for the Human Rights Act.

It is vital that all aspects of the protocol be fully implemented and that there be no watering-down of those rights protections, either in an apparent way or by stealth. Following the publication of the Internal Market Bill, the EU clearly set out its response: if the British Government did not, by 30 September, remove the clauses of the Bill that breach the withdrawal agreement, it would take legal action for breach of agreement. The Internal Market Bill was passed in the House of Commons last Tuesday without necessary amendments. On 1 October, the EU issued legal action on the basis that the Bill breaches the good faith articles of the withdrawal agreement and that, if it becomes law, it will breach the protocol commitments.

It is deeply unfortunate that that action was necessary, but the British Government need to be held accountable for what they agreed to.

It seems to have come as a surprise to some in the British Government, and to some here in the North, that the EU has followed through and taken the action that it stated it would. The British Government have form, of course, when it comes to not implementing agreements, but, to borrow a phrase, they are playing senior hurling now; not living up to commitments will not cut it. Worse still is stating that you intend to deliberately breach them.

Hopefully, the British Government will take the necessary action to prevent further consequences. It is also worth remembering that the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament stated:

"Should the UK authorities breach — or threaten to breach — the Withdrawal Agreement, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill in its current form or in any other way, the European Parliament will, under no circumstances, ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK."

A Member: Ooh.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Please, no interruptions from a seated position. Let the Member continue.

Dr Archibald: There is much at stake over the next number of weeks. A great deal is at stake for our communities and businesses across this island. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that the British Government backtrack from that course of action, respect the rule of law and honour their obligations in full, as set out in the withdrawal agreement which they negotiated and which the British Parliament ratified. I urge Members to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Paul Givan.

The debate stood suspended.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Finance

Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will group questions 1 and 12.

I have discussed the Treasury support schemes directly with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on a number of occasions, and my officials are in regular contact with their Treasury counterparts. We have been calling consistently for the gaps in support to be addressed and for that support to be continued for as long as it is needed. I wrote to the Chancellor and to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to urgently call on them to change course and extend the coronavirus job retention scheme past the end of October closing date, particularly for those hardest-hit sectors. Following the Chancellor’s subsequent announcement that it will be replaced by a job support scheme from 1 November, I spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to raise my significant concerns that it provides less support than the furlough scheme, and that employers will not be able to afford the higher contributions required to subsidise wages.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his response. We know the devastating impact that lockdown had on local businesses and employees across Northern Ireland. Given the speculation about a circuit-breaker-type approach, will the Minister confirm to the House the different types of financial packages, alongside Her Majesty's Government's support, that he is looking at to see businesses through this already difficult time?

Mr Murphy: The Member will know that we have had a range of financial packages from business support grants to rates relief. Added to those, we have had the VAT reduction for tourism and hospitality, the furlough scheme that I referred to, the continuation of an employee support scheme, and loans have been made available. There has been a whole range of packages to support businesses.

Undoubtedly, we continue to face into very concerning times. This morning at the Executive, I outlined a possible support package for the Derry city and Strabane area. We may be looking at other localised lockdowns, given the spread of the virus and how that has alarmed us all in recent days. The Executive have not taken any decisions in relation to the circuit-breaker-type approach that the Member refers to. I am aware that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made some comments in relation to additional support if we do get to that. I wrote today to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to seek an urgent meeting to see what levels of support might be available. I understand that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are seeking to speak to Boris Johnson in relation to that very soon.

Mr O'Dowd: The furlough scheme has been a lifeline for many workers and their families and, indeed, for employers to keep skilled employees in place. Will the Minister outline how the job retention scheme that has now been announced compares to the furlough scheme?

Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for the question. There are other schemes available in other parts. I suppose that the big difference is that the employer is not required to contribute for hours not worked. We believe that that is a big shortcoming of the scheme announced by the Treasury to replace the furlough scheme. An employee has to work at least one third of the time. Therefore, anybody who is unable to work would not qualify for the furlough scheme. They have to work one third of the time, which is paid by the employer. The Government will only pay one third of the remaining contributions. Therefore, effectively, the employer will be paying two thirds of that contribution. That poses a very significant challenge for employers and forces them into taking decisions. That will particularly affect low-paid and part-time workers who are unlikely to be able to make up one third of their normal work hours before they could even be considered to qualify.

People should know that the furlough scheme continues for the rest of this month. People who qualified for the furlough scheme up to June can reapply to it, in the event that there are further restrictions. In our assessment, the scheme that has been introduced will present very serious challenges and is more likely to affect low-paid and part-time employees.

Mr Catney: Minister, has any consideration been given to a £500 payment to workers who are self-isolating, as has been announced in England?

Mr Murphy: That matter has been discussed at the Executive. We have two versions, as is often the case with the Government at Whitehall. One is that there is perhaps some Barnett consequential available to us for that approach, and another version is that we have received all the Barnett consequentials that we are to have and it is, therefore, up to the Executive to find some support in that regard. We want to try to bottom that out. If there is a scheme to be brought forward, it would have to be brought forward by the relevant Department to the Department of Finance for assessment and recommendation to the Executive.

Mr Humphrey: Minister, you will be aware that many people across Northern Ireland are in fear of their jobs being lost at the end of October when the furlough scheme comes to an end. A couple of weeks ago, I asked you about discussions that you were having with Her Majesty's Treasury about the continuation of that scheme. Obviously, it has made its position much clearer. Can you assure people who face that decision at the end of this month that you and the Executive are doing all that you can to secure jobs and provide inward investment from Her Majesty's Treasury to ensure that those jobs are protected and that their families are protected?

Mr Murphy: My view is that the scheme now outlined to begin from 1 November is very much substandard in comparison with the furlough scheme. It will place a significant challenge on and pose a question to employers about whether to retain workers, and, consequently, that will lead to a greater number of redundancies. That will be a challenge. In recent times, the Executive have been allocating money for economic recovery, and, of course, we will continue to try to stimulate economic recovery and protect jobs wherever we can.

In regard to the possibility of further lockdowns, as I said, I have written to the Chancellor today to seek an urgent meeting, because there is some indication that there may be further support if we are in a more serious lockdown situation. Obviously, we want to ascertain what that will amount to.

Mr Stewart: Minister, will you give us an idea of any bids that you have received from the Departments for Infrastructure or Communities in support of COVID-related measures that the Department for the Economy has failed to deliver on and whether any further Executive direction has been given to the Economy or Finance Departments to speed up implementation of the COVID relief?

Mr Murphy: The question relates to the sectors that have not yet been addressed in terms of support during this. Of course, in recent weeks, there was an agreement between the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure that Infrastructure would take some responsibility for delivering on that. I have spoken to the Infrastructure Minister and have said that I would like to see, as quickly as possible, some figures on that.

As you will know from my statement last week, we have set aside a pot of money to try to cover the costs that may arise from meeting the needs of those sectors. The earlier we have some indication of what those figures may be, the sooner we will know what we now face, which is some localised restrictions and the support required for that, and what the Executive have to try to deliver support there, because we have a very limited COVID pot left from which to distribute support.

Mr Murphy: The Department of Health submitted a revised business case for the new Lisnaskea health and care centre to my Department on 17 September. Department of Finance officials are reviewing the business case in line with established guidelines and aim to respond to the Department of Health as speedily as possible.

Mr Lynch: I welcome the fact that the healthcare centre business case has finally arrived on the Minister's desk. I visited the current health centre on Friday afternoon. It is not fit for purpose. The roof leaks like a sieve, and, at night, computers are covered in plastic to prevent water getting into them. Does the Minister agree that the delivery of the new healthcare centre in Lisnaskea will help the health needs of the people of that area?

Mr Murphy: I am not familiar with the building, but I have no reason to doubt what the Member says about it. Of course, we want to see the proper standard of facilities, particularly in relation to healthcare in the current climate but, generally speaking, also in terms of public services for all citizens. I am glad that what is clearly a significant requirement for an improved facility in Lisnaskea is now moving through the business case approval process, and I hope and certainly will ensure that the officials in my Department respond to that as quickly as possible, and then it is simply a question of moving on to the development stage of that.

Mrs Barton: Minister, will you outline the close cooperation that you have had with the Department of Health in working to deliver the badly needed facilities in Fermanagh? Do you agree that, under his stewardship, Robin Swann is driving through much-needed enhancements in Fermanagh?

Mr Murphy: We work very closely with the Department of Health on a range of matters, not least the significant issues that are facing us during the pandemic. Minister Swann has acknowledged, on a number of occasions, that the Department of Finance and the Department of Health have a very close working relationship. We need that, because Health is the biggest-spending Department, and we need to ensure that the money that it is spending is spent in such a way that it meets the scrutiny requirements of the Finance Department. I have no doubt that we have worked very well. I am sure that the Member can attest more than I can to the delivery of the Health Minister in her constituency, but I am happy to continue that very productive working relationship with the Department and the Minister.

Mr Murphy: My Department is planning to establish regional hubs to address regional balance and to contribute to reducing emissions by cutting down on the number of cars travelling long distances.

As Members will appreciate, COVID-19 has had a substantial impact on how we conduct our business, now and into the future, and in many respects has accelerated our thinking about new ways of working. My officials are analysing data and the impact of new technologies on the wider public-sector network to determine where the hubs might be best located within the region to maximise the potential benefits.

Ms Anderson: I thank the Minister for his response. I know that he is acutely aware of the significant strain that travel puts on civil servants who have to travel into Belfast. Is the Minister considering locating any of those regional hubs in the north-west? I am particularly interested in Fort George and Ebrington as two sites that he might consider.

Mr Murphy: That work was ongoing in the Department and predates the COVID pandemic. As is the case with a lot of working practices, it will have been accelerated by the current experience. We need to find not only better ways for people to work from home if they cannot travel but ways in which they can work in smaller units and be more productive. We will want to look at a range of potential sites around the region. Yes, of course, Derry is under consideration, as is Omagh, given that the Member referred to the north-west. That is by no means an exhaustive list.

The work is in the early stages. One of our first exercises, particularly in some of the city Departments, will be to track where staff are travelling to and from in their home-to-work journeys. Interestingly, you can see the number of staff who are spending a long time trekking in and out to Belfast every day. Of course, we must have a balance, because we also want to have active city centres. However, there had already been a need for regional hubs, and I think that that has been accelerated. Those will also be effective in meeting the Executive's targets on carbon reductions. Dialogue had been taking place with the trade unions, and many civil servants are looking forward to it.

Mr Murphy: The Civil Service recognises that it is important for its staff to use annual leave and actively encourages its staff to do so for their own well-being, through departmental messaging and comprehensive guidance via the staff coronavirus NICS hub.

Although the capacity for staff to take leave, and the policy on staff taking annual leave in the Civil Service, has not changed as a direct result of COVID-19, there have been some inevitable exceptions to the timing of leave being taken by those, for example, classed as key workers for example, due to operational demands. Those are being managed on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answer. There appears to be a concerted effort to get staff in the Civil Service to take leave. I know that they can carry over only nine days a year. That is causing problems in the likes of MOT and driving test centres, in particular, where there is a backlog and the challenging situation of over 3,000 on waiting lists. Is it possible to adjust the number of days that can be carried over to lessen that impact on services, where it is agreed with the staff?

Mr Murphy: We have to be flexible, given the circumstances that we are facing, but we also have to bear in mind the fact that staff are entitled to take leave. It is good for their physical and mental health to be able to take leave. A huge backlog has been created by the circumstances that we are facing, but that does not mean that staff should be forced to work 24/7 in order to address that backlog.

It is a balance between trying to catch up on work that has been lost and ensuring that staff are able to do that. One way of being able to do that is to have that availability of annual leave so that people can recharge their batteries and get back to work in a productive fashion.


2.15 pm

Dr Archibald: On enhanced rights for workers, does the Minister agree that agency workers in the Civil Service should be entitled to annual leave on the same basis as permanent workers?

Mr Murphy: Yes, I do. Not only that but a paper that I had cleared at the Executive this morning provides for that. Agency workers have provided key support for our public services, and, in many cases, they have not enjoyed the same rights as Civil Service workers. Therefore, we have taken measures to try to address that and to ensure that agency workers are entitled to annual leave and to leave for medical or dental necessities. We want to ensure that and to ensure that they enjoy the same rights as those working permanently in the Civil Service, because they provide the same level of service as civil servants.

Mr Murphy: Following the allocations announced on 24 September, the following funding is being held centrally: £0·4 million for transfer to the Department for Transport in England for the ferry operator scheme; £55·2 million for further sectoral support and currently unforeseen PPE requirements; and £600 million pending the Department of Health’s assessment of pressures for the remainder of 2020-21.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his response. I am also mindful of his response to question 1. The Minister is well aware of the various sectors that are still waiting for financial support as a result of the initial lockdown. What reassurance can the Minister give that, as we enter another phase of lockdown, localised or wider, which will inevitably place further pressure on already very limited resources, those sectors will not be pushed to the back of the queue?

Mr Murphy: We have set aside that funding, and the Executive have agreed that it will be held to meet the pressures on those sectors. Additional pressures are coming in, too, and we want to ensure that the pot that we have stretches to meet all of that. It took some time to address that. I regret that that was the case, but there were, if you like, overlaps between various Departments to try to get those issues addressed. I have asked that figures be brought forward to us as quickly as possible so that we can make an assessment of what is required to meet the needs of those sectors and what may be left over from some of the new pressures that we now face. We have to do that balancing exercise. There is a commitment to get schemes to meet the needs of those sectors, and funding is set aside for that purpose.

Dr Aiken: One of the Minister's previous answers referred to the transfer of responsibilities, as mandated by the Executive, from the Department for the Economy to the Department for Communities and, indeed, the Department for Infrastructure. Will you outline, therefore, if you are looking at any future transfer of resources, which is vital, from the Department for the Economy to the Department for Communities and, indeed, the Department for Infrastructure to enable them to deliver on those COVID-related issues?

Mr Murphy: When we transfer a responsibility, the funding to deliver some schemes goes with that. That will be the resource for the responsibility and the schemes. I am sure that when the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for Communities took on additional responsibilities, they did so knowing that they would need additional support for those.

I have no plans, and I do not think that the Executive plan, to take responsibilities away from the Department for the Economy. We are facing into a very serious economic crisis, and the Department for the Economy will play a key and leading role in relation to all that. So, the Executive are trying to balance not only the funding available but the resources to make sure that we meet all the challenges that are ahead of us.

Ms S Bradley: Why have the Minister or the Executive still not produced any document that explains the strategy behind the COVID allocations?

Mr Murphy: The Executive produced a framework document to guide us in our discussions. That document is the property of the Executive Office. I am sure that, if the Member wishes it to be published, she can make that request to the Executive Office. I simply used it as a framework for the basis on which to make recommendations to the Executive for the distribution of money.

Mr Muir: You can already see that there will be quite a lot of demand for the funding pot from various sectors. At this point, I declare that I was previously an employee of Translink.

What discussions has the Minister had, and how far have those discussions progressed, with the Treasury about borrowing powers for revenue expenditure?

Mr Murphy: I will be making a statement to the House tomorrow morning with regard to ongoing work that we have done with Scotland and Wales in jointly pressing for financial flexibilities, so that is a very early discussion that we are having with the Treasury. We have become aware, only in the last week, that there will not be an autumn Budget from Whitehall. However, there is a comprehensive spending review, and we want to engage with that to get more certainty on the funding available to us and also to press home the arguments that we have been making for some time with regard to financial flexibilities.

Mr Murphy: My officials in Land and Property Services (LPS) have been engaging with all Departments to review their land and property asset data, with a view to collating, mapping and validating it. To date, good progress has been made in capturing the details of more than 900 Department for Communities sites, and the relevant asset information has been made public through a map-viewing tool on the Government’s OpenDataNI website.

Work is also well under way to capture the detail of more than 7,000 assets from various Departments, and those will be made public in stages, beginning with buildings, with land assets at a later date. The validation of the assets of the Executive Office and the Department of Finance is being undertaken at present, with the next public release of data expected around December of this year.

Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his response. Does the Minister agree that having a register of public assets will allow the Executive to develop a strategy to provide a more efficient use of public assets and to reduce the costs of service delivery, which will assist our economic recovery?

Mr Murphy: Yes. I agree with that assessment. The Executive, through their Departments, own an enormous volume of assets, as do arm's-length bodies. We have huge pressures with regard to housing and finding land for housing, and rates are paid out of the public purse on many of those assets. Therefore, to achieve effectiveness, efficiency, savings and better outcomes, it is up to Departments to make a more effective use of the land and property that they own. I think that a central register of property assets linking together all the data related to each asset in a single, easily accessible database is a vital first step to realising those opportunities.

It is clear — this is with regard to an earlier question about a new means of working — that the Executive, Departments and arm's-length bodies will probably require less property and office space than they previously owned. It is important that we, centrally, have a sense of what that is and that it is publicly available so that people have opportunities to bid for it or offer to buy it or, indeed, that there are opportunities for community asset transfer, which I think will become increasingly important so that we are not sitting on and paying for land that could otherwise be put to good use.

Mr Frew: Given the public assets and the dilapidation claims when Departments leave a building, will the Minister commit to undertaking a survey into the grave discrepancies between what the landlord and the Department think that a dilapidation claim should be? Given the massive discrepancy between those two figures, will the Minister undertake to survey and assess that?

Mr Murphy: I am sure that we can. However, I assume that it is done on a case-by-case basis and that there is no overall formula for addressing it. It is not surprising that landlords and those who pay the rent have different views on what an asset is worth and what is required for the surrender of that asset.

The overarching work that we are doing on a register is to give us a sense of where all those properties are, what state they are in, what they are being used for, how much it is costing the public purse to maintain them, what needs there are in the community — should it be through community asset transfer — the intentions of private developers, and the need for land for housing, through the housing associations. All those things come into play, and we want to see the most efficient use of assets. That means making sure that what assets we have are used properly, that where they are not needed they are surrendered for better use, and that where we are paying for assets we get out of them in a way that is the most advantageous to the public purse.

Mr Allen: The Minister has rightly highlighted the use of public land for new house building and, indeed, his colleague, the Minister for Communities, has highlighted that she feels that the housing targets of the Department are abysmally low.

Will the Minister outline the engagement that he has had with housing providers on the availability of public land in order to meet a more ambitious housebuilding target?

Mr Murphy: I have engaged with the Minister and her senior team in the Department for Communities. I received a presentation from them on the Department's housing strategy and know that they want to look at a number of potential solutions to identifying more land. Some of that involves looking at the ability to vest land, but there are enormous tracts of publicly owned land and many buildings in city centres, towns and rural areas. Priorities have been set by the Executive, and housebuilding is one of them — it is not just a priority for the Department for Communities but an Executive priority — and, in the first instance, the public sector needs to make sure that all the work of the Executive goes towards supporting that. That means that if various other Departments are sitting on land banks that are of no use to them, those should be made available in order to meet that target.

I have had that engagement with the Department for Communities and received a presentation on its housing strategy. I want to make sure that the work that we are doing on compiling the register, making it accessible and pressing Departments for assessments of the assets that they own all contributes to the outcome that the Member has talked about.

Mr Murphy: I plan to chair a meeting of the Procurement Board in November. Public procurement expenditure is approximately 25% of the Executive’s Budget, and it is an important function to assist the local economy recover from the impact of COVID-19. I intend to ask the board to agree future strategic priorities for public procurement. Those will include an enhanced focus on social value, increased opportunities for small businesses and a strategy to deliver construction projects faster. There is also a need to review the governance structure for public procurement to ensure that the Executive achieve the best value for their expenditure.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire as do fhreagra. Minister, thank you for your reply. In addition to cost-effectiveness, I am sure that you will agree with me that it is important that those who are awarded those contracts and so on give priority to the protection of the environment, pay a living wage and improve social outcomes for all.

Mr Murphy: I agree with the Member. That is becoming increasingly important, not just here but in other areas, such as in the South and in Britain, where the idea of social value in public procurement and the spending of public finances has become an increasingly important feature. We will look at the governance arrangements, but when the Procurement Board does its work, we will want to ensure that the ethos of social value is very much built into its policies so that there is a very clear understanding among those who want to tender for public contracts and provide public services that there is an expectation that the ethos of social value is very much part of what they will be asked to contribute.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister deliver a more centralised procurement agency that can lead on delivering major capital projects across Northern Ireland Departments, as was recommended by the Audit Office?

Mr Murphy: There is work to be done on ensuring that major projects are delivered on time. Of course, that takes in the responsibilities and remit of a range of Departments, and we want to ensure that every assistance that can be given to Departments is given to them. We are therefore looking at, if you like, the construct of the Procurement Board in order to make sure that it is as effective as it can possibly be. Policies that have been agreed by the Executive on public procurement then have to be bought into, supported and rolled out by all Departments.

We also have to ensure that a more effective approach is taken to major capital spends. Of course, procurement is not the only sector of a Department that contributes to that. As I said, a range of Departments does its own capital works, but we want to make sure that we get the best value for money. We are living in increasingly financially challenged times, so we have to ensure that all public spend is done as best and as efficiently as possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call William Humphrey for a brief supplementary question.

Mr Humphrey: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred to reconvening the Procurement Board and its construct, but how will he populate the board? Will he assure the House that people from private companies will sit on it and that its membership will not just be drawn from the public sector and government?

Mr Murphy: I will be taking proposals to the Executive in the not-too-distant future.

I think that we want to ensure that people who have procurement expertise have a function. There is a heavy population on that board of almost ministerial representatives — senior officials acting on behalf of a Minister. What we want — I am not saying this in a derogatory way — is a more professional approach to procurement. The Executive should set policy for procurement, and we should ensure that people who have expertise can give guidance to help in the development of that policy. We are looking at a more radically changed approach to the Procurement Board, and I will bring propositions to the Executive in the not-too-distant future.


2.30 pm

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

T1. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Finance whether the Northern Ireland Executive received additional Barnett formula funding from the Treasury as a result of the creation of the green home grant scheme, which was recently announced by the UK Treasury. (AQT 461/17-22)

Mr Murphy: I am not aware of whether or not we have received additional Barnett funding. The concentration in recent times has been on getting the COVID Barnett allocations. I will make some enquiries in the Department and respond to the Member in writing.

Mr Easton: I am still slightly confused about this, because the Minister for Communities replied to a question for written answer that your Department had confirmed that there had been additional funding. That funding could be vital for jobs, so would you support such a scheme coming to Northern Ireland?

Mr Murphy: Yes, and, if it is the case that we have confirmed that to her, I am happy to reconfirm that in writing to you. I just want to make sure we have the detail correct in relation to what that Barnett funding amounts to. People see a large figure for an allocation in Britain and do not realise that we have a much smaller percentage of that, so it is to ensure that people are clear in relation to that.

I am in favour of environmental schemes and schemes that support a green economic recovery, as well as in general terms. Environmental schemes are hugely important to protect society, the ecology and the landscape, so I would support that. I look forward to any propositions from Departments on that.

T2. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister of Finance what assurances can be given that losses incurred by councils through the business rates holiday will be reimbursed. (AQT 462/17-22)

Mr Murphy: In the first instance, we have protected business rates. Even with the rates holiday that we proposed, we protected councils' intake, if you like, from that, so councils will not lose out over the four-month rates holiday for all businesses, extended to the end of the financial year, or the eight-month rates holiday for tourism, hospitality, leisure and retail. We ensured that the cost of that was borne by the Executive from the COVID money that we received, so councils do not take a hit. As a matter of fact, they are probably in a better position because, undoubtedly, some businesses would have gone out of business without that intervention and councils would have lost the rates from those businesses completely, so they are in a better position.

We have, over the course of COVID allocations, made funding available. No later than the last COVID allocation, which I announced, I think, last week in the House, there was a contribution to councils to cover economic recovery activity that they are involved in but also some of the associated costs for those councils.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for that explanation. It was very useful. Does he have any idea at this stage of how much financial help local government has received from the Executive?

Mr Murphy: I can get the Member the full amount, because there have been a number of allocations over the past few months. I am trying to think whether the latest one was for £20 million or £40 million, but we did make an allocation. It is not all that the councils have asked for or that the Department for Communities has asked for in relation to councils. We always get more bids than funding is available for, so we have to cut our cloth accordingly. I can get the figure for the total allocation to councils since the pandemic came upon us and provide it to the Member.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Fra McCann is not in his place.

T4. Mr McHugh asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the financial support available for businesses that have been forced to close in the Derry and Strabane owing to the additional restrictions that have been imposed, with businesses already closing down because they cannot continue to function. (AQT 464/17-22)

Mr Murphy: I signalled to the Executive last Thursday that I had already asked for work to be undertaken in the Department on that, and I made a presentation to this morning's Executive meeting on options to provide support. We want to ensure that businesses that have been forced to close and have been most directly affected by the additional restrictions that have been put in place can receive some support as quickly as possible, that it is not overly bureaucratic, that it gets quickly to the businesses that need it and that it supports the ongoing costs that they will have. Clearly, this is a very challenging time for all businesses across the North, not just in the north-west, but, obviously, there are additional restrictions on hospitality businesses there.

I intend to bring a paper, and we have to work with the Department for Communities because that Department will pay out the assistance. The Department of Finance, through LPS, works to ensure that we can try to devise a scheme that is effective, that gets quickly to the businesses that need it and that has a rapid turnaround. When those proposals are developed, I will seek Executive approval for them in conjunction with the Department for the Economy, and hopefully we will get support onto the ground as quickly as we can.

Mr McHugh: I know that you have already been involved in lobbying the Chancellor on furlough and so on. Will you continue lobbying for much-needed resources and a financial package, particularly for the north-west, given the situation that that region finds itself in?

Mr Murphy: People can re-furlough over the rest of this month. I regret that the scheme is coming to an end at the end of this month, and, as I have said many times, I do not think that the scheme that will be put in its place will meet the same targets and outcomes that the original furlough scheme did. If employees are not able to go to work over the next two to three weeks, they can avail themselves of the furlough scheme again.

The package of support that we have is for those who are most directly affected by this, such as those who have to close. I recognise that, in broader terms, the north-west needs much more in economic packages for regeneration, and that is why the money that we are investing in city deals is very important to the north-west. This is specifically about trying to target businesses that have been impacted by the restrictions. It is to ensure that we give them some assistance with their ongoing costs. Hopefully, when the restrictions can be lifted, they can get back into more productive business again.

T5. Mr Harvey asked the Minister of Finance for an update on when economic support for sectors that have not yet benefited from COVID-19 relief will be announced. (AQT 465/17-22)

Mr Murphy: I hope that that will be as soon as possible. As I said, I spoke to some ministerial colleagues on Thursday, on the side of the Executive meeting, and I asked for, as quickly as possible, indicative figures because I knew not only that we were we dealing the sectors that had not yet had their needs addressed but that, on Thursday, the discussion was coming around to further restrictions and the ongoing support needed, particularly for businesses in the Derry and Strabane areas. You recognise that there are more pressures coming from another angle, so the quicker we can have figures on the sectors that have been readily identified, the quicker the Executive will have a clear sense of what finances they have to play with. I am hopeful that they will come very soon. It is obviously up to the Department that is dealing with them to bring those forward, and the sooner we get them, the better the position the Executive will be in to offer the support that is needed.

Mr Harvey: Has the Minister had discussion with Her Majesty's Treasury on further assistance to support those sectors?

Mr Murphy: We have had discussion on ongoing support that the Treasury has directly provided: the furlough scheme, the loan schemes and the support for the self-employed. We have had ongoing discussion on that, and the actual allocation for business support is to come out of the COVID money that we got as a Barnett consequential from Treasury. It is not that we have been in dialogue with them about support for those sectors. We will be in dialogue with them if we face further restrictions, and that is the purpose of the meeting that I have sought urgently today. If we go into further restrictions, there will be a need for further interventions from Whitehall, and that is the sort of dialogue that we will have, hopefully in the near future.

T6. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Finance whether he is happy enough, following the review of the previous business support scheme, that rateable value is an accurate and equitable basis on which to allocate business support. (AQT 466/17-22)

Mr Murphy: I am always careful to use the term "happy" about things. Generally, with finances, we are never happy, but, if we are satisfied, it is a good start.

I want to commend LPS staff for the work that they did. Recently, I had discussions with them. People worked seven days a week to get that scheme turned around and support out on the ground very quickly. I am sure that, as with many sections of government, Departments and parts of Departments, people will have their criticisms. However, that scheme was delivered in a way in which probably no other previous scheme had been delivered in the history of the Civil Service, with a rapid turnaround.

LPS had the information and data to ensure that we knew where businesses were, who was entitled to the small business rate relief scheme and who was paying business rates, and it got that support out very quickly. It was done with well over 90% accuracy. That would be very effective even if the scheme had taken weeks or months to deliver, but it was turned around in days and weeks. Therefore, it was a very accurate way in which to do it. Through it, the Executive managed to get support out on the ground very quickly. Had we started to set up a scheme that required a lot of applications and verifications, many of those businesses would have gone out of business by the time that we got support to them. I commend very much the staff in LPS who were involved in that work. They worked tirelessly and dealt with a range of appeals. I can take only the feedback that I get from elected representatives. By and large, it has been very positive.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. I hope that I did not sound unhappy with the previous scheme, because that was not my intention. However, there is always room for improvement. On the back of Mr Harvey's question, can the Minister confirm whether any particular sectors that did not benefit from the previous scheme might, now, benefit? Does he think that taking a sectoral approach rather than using the rating system might have some merit?

Mr Murphy: Undoubtedly. I am not saying that everything was 100% foolproof. However, we were tasked with delivering support to businesses in as fast a fashion as we could possibly do it. That was the most accurate data that we had on who is in business and paying business rates, so that is the scheme that was used. I am sure that there are other sectors. Of course, that immediately points up people who do not have their own premises, work in shared premises, work from home or are self-employed; all those sectors. However, that required a set of data that probably would have had to come from HMRC. It would have been much more difficult to access and not possible for us to verify here because we do not have that data.

Any scheme that we used would always have had its downside. The scheme that we used got money out rapidly. Since then, we have been trying to find ways in which to address the sectors that missed out. The complexity of doing that is shown by the fact that it is taking so long to try to achieve that.

T7. Mr Givan asked the Minister of Finance to assure the House that when he guarantees the resources for any scheme that is provided for the north-west, including the Derry and Strabane council area, he will also guarantee the same scheme to be applied to other council areas or, indeed, across Northern Ireland if that becomes necessary. (AQT 467/17-22)

Mr Murphy: My presentation to the Executive this morning outlined that not only does the scheme need to be fit for purpose in order to try to get it on the ground quickly to address the ongoing costs to businesses that have had to close down but, because it might last for a longer time, it has to be extendable — we had to have a proposal built into it that it could be extended — and it has to be transferable, so that the same scheme that would apply in the north-west could transfer to other council areas where that need might arise. Hopefully, it will not arise elsewhere, but, given the increase in the spread of the virus right across the North, there is a distinct possibility that it will. Therefore, that was part of the proposition that I put to the Executive this morning; that it be a transferable scheme.

Mr Givan: Can the Minister advise whether the funding of the scheme is wholly dependent on Treasury's providing it, resources will be made available by other Departments surrendering money, or the Executive are considering borrowing to pay for it?

Mr Murphy: In the first instance, it will come from what is left in the COVID pot. As I said, the sooner that we have accurate figures on sectors that have been left out, the better. As it stands, the scheme is for two weeks and a limited number of businesses in the overall number across the North. Therefore, as I said, it will come from the COVID pot in the first instance. If we get into much wider geographical restrictions or restrictions across the entire Six Counties, that is a conversation that we will need to have with Treasury. That is why I want to begin that dialogue with the Chancellor. In the first instance, we will address it from what is left in the pot of COVID money.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Matthew O'Toole for a quick question before we run out of time.

T8. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Finance, given that his Department is critical to their delivery, how any of the following can be achieved without there being a head of the Civil Service in place: the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitment to Civil Service reform, including reviews of the procurement and appointment processes, public appointments and the arm’s-length bodies, as well as a series of reforms that came out of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) inquiry report. (AQT 468/17-22)


2.45 pm

Mr Murphy: We can achieve those, although it is not ideal, and I would prefer that there were a head of the Civil Service, but my Department is responsible for bringing forward proposals, and we are working on all the areas that the Member outlined. I could go into more detail, but we are restricted time-wise. I assure the Member that we are working on all those areas. We will bring forward position papers to the Executive, and it is for the Executive to agree them.

When it gets to the implementation phase, of course, leadership across the Civil Service will be required. Hopefully, by that stage, the issue will have been addressed. I want to assure the Member that the absence of a head of the Civil Service will not delay me or my Department from bringing forward the necessary proposals.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the period for questions to the Minister of Finance. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Health

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): On 23 September, my Department updated the visiting guidance following a review of the regional alert level. The new guidance revises the principles for visiting, which apply across all healthcare settings during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be reviewed, based on evolving evidence. The visiting guidance has been informed by the Department of Health's COVID-19 guidance on the ethical advice and support framework, which recognises that some patients will be cared for in contexts where recovery is not expected, including in hospitals. The decisions to permit visitors into facilities on a day-to-day basis will lie with the person in charge. That will be based on a risk assessment and rely on the ability to ensure social distancing and the safety of patient or resident and the visitor.

In all circumstances, the intention is that each individual should receive personalised and compassionate care, including the appropriate palliative treatment. The pandemic situation exacerbates difficulties in palliative care situations due to the physical distancing regulations that prevent or limit family visiting. However, all efforts should be made to allow at least one family member to be present with their dying relative in all care settings where possible. I recognise that the application of those measures does not allow the level of visiting, contact or support that we would like to facilitate, but my main priority continues to be the reduction of the risk of COVID-19 transmission across all healthcare settings and prevent further outbreaks as far as possible.

Ms Bunting: I am referring, of course, to circumstances in which the immediate family are normally called in. The Minister will know just how important it is that individual family members get the opportunity to say their final farewells. In some places, that has been reduced to one person, and, in others, it has been reduced to none at all. Given that it is the ward manager who decides, the position is not consistent in individual hospitals, never mind across trusts. Will the Minister urgently move to rectify that most cruel practice, because it is leaving families further scarred? No one should die alone.

Mr Swann: I accept the Member's point, which is why we issued the regional guidance. I do not recognise the situation in which no one is allowed to be with a dying family member. If that is happening, I hope that the Member will give me the details, because I do not recognise such a situation. The guidance states that one family member is allowed to be present, and it is up to the ward manager, the nurse in charge or the manager of the care home to make sure that that happens safely. I will look into the specific case that the Member mentions.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, you are quite right to try to enable as many people as possible to say their goodbyes, but we also have a duty to the staff to ensure that they are not suffering verbal abuse as a consequence of giving bad news, in more than one sense. In the decision-making process, what measures are being put in place to protect staff?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. Her point is very valid, and members from the trade union side have raised with me how staff are being portrayed as callous in this situation, even though the guidance was developed by health professionals and is recognised across a number of jurisdictions. It is being done to ensure that visitors, carers and hospital staff are kept as safe as possible in very trying times. We do not want to do this. My Chief Nursing Officer and her advisory team do not want to do it, and the staff in those settings certainly do not want to do it, because it places an increased burden on them as well. I have heard many testimonies, as, I am sure, the Member has, about the end-of-life care that the staff across all health settings have given. We must ensure that nobody dies alone, and, through the dedication of our healthcare system and the professionals in it, we will ensure that that does not happen.

Mr Chambers: I recognise that this will have been a difficult issue for his Department to consider. Can he confirm that any decision on visiting policy is especially informed by the opinions of his chief professional officers as well as by the clinicians and front-line workers in our hospitals?

Mr Swann: I can give the Member that reassurance, as I did to the Health Committee. They contribute to this decision-making process not only through their professional nature but through their human input and their caring side. As I have said, this decision is not an easy one, but it is one that is there to ensure the safety of those visiting and of those who have to facilitate their visiting.

Mr Allister: I draw the Minister's attention to not just the end-of-life situation but to the situation when newborns arrive. Surely the present restrictions on fathers are far too severe. They are admitted for the birth, pass through all the COVID protections and then summarily shown the door, effectively, and not allowed to see the newborn or the mother until they are released from hospital. Surely there needs to more flexibility.

Mr Swann: Again, that is not an easy one, and the Member will know that. The guidance is based on the best scientific advice available at any given stage. Northern Ireland is currently at surge level 4 when it comes to our visiting regulations, and those state that, in maternity settings:

"Birth partner will be facilitated to accompany the pregnant woman to dating scan, early pregnancy clinic, anomaly scan, Fetal Medicine Department, when admitted to individual room for active labour ... and birth and, to visit in antenatal and postnatal wards for up to one hour once a week."

The day-to-day decision to permit visitors to a facility will still lie with the nurses in charge. It will be based on a risk assessment and will rely on the ability to ensure social distancing and the safety of patients and visitors.

This is not the experience that I want for expectant mothers, and I recognise that it is a very anxious time for all families. Many difficult requests have been made, and will continue to be made, of the public in all aspects of health service provision in order to reduce the spread of infection and to protect expectant mothers, their families and the staff who provide that care.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I advise Members that question 6 has been withdrawn.

Mr Swann: Each of the seasonal influenza vaccines used in Northern Ireland provides protection against the three or four influenza viruses that have been identified by the World Health Organization as the viruses most likely to cause significant disease that year. The vaccine will provide protection only against those viruses. Factors such as a person's age and health will affect their response to the vaccine given and therefore influence the vaccine's effectiveness in preventing flu. Vaccine effectiveness is reported across the UK and included in each annual national flu report, which can be found online. Vaccine effectiveness can vary between population groups and according to the strain of virus covered by that vaccine as well as the closeness of the match between the vaccine and the strain of flu. The flu vaccine is the best protection against flu for our population.

Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that the call went out for everyone to be immunised with the flu jab, I ask the Minister if he is confident that the most vulnerable who get the flu jab every year will be able to access it this year?

Mr Swann: The Member makes a valid point, and I thank him for reiterating it. We have been clear that having the flu and COVID-19 at the same time increases the extreme risk to the patient. The groups that are entitled to the flu vaccine will be contacted by their health professionals. In keeping with the advice, the eligible population groups for flu vaccination in Northern Ireland are as follows: primary school children; anyone who is at increased risk of serious illness from flu due to an underlying medical condition; pregnant women; residents of residential or nursing homes; main carers for an elderly or disabled person; front-line health and social care workers, including those working in care homes; and those aged 65 and over. The amount of vaccine that we acquired has been increased on the normal standardisation for the year. One of the most important things that we are doing is asking anyone who is eligible for the flu vaccine to come forward and get it because it protects them and it helps us to fight COVID-19 at the same time.

Ms Bradshaw: Minister, on that point, the additional category for those eligible for the flu vaccine now includes those who live with people who received shielding letters. Are you assured that there are enough doses?

Mr Swann: We have purchased extra doses of the flu vaccine. As we expand, each category is only expanded to match the availability of the doses that we have. If we have extra capacity, we will be expanding the eligibility of those groups that can get it. I am assured by my health professionals that there is enough flu vaccine this year to meet the demands of those who we are asking to come forward. However, should we get additional supplies, we will be increasing availability to those who are due to access, or who can access, the flu vaccine.

Ms S Bradley: Minister, given that you are confident that there should be enough vaccine, have you had any conversations with pharmacies about whether they can offer capacity to deliver flu jabs this year?

Mr Swann: Our community pharmacy partners in the health service do deliver the flu vaccine for those who want to come forward and pay for it. They can provide it, as can our GP services. It is about getting as many eligible people not just to receive it but also to give it. There is a large piece of work going on across the health and social care system on peer vaccinators so that we can increase the pool of people who can give the vaccine, and our community pharmacy partners are part of that pool.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. The current general policy is that all staff who are symptomatic or who are isolating as a symptomatic household member are eligible for testing in Northern Ireland. That includes community-based domiciliary care providers who, as essential healthcare workers, can access testing, either through the HSC laboratories or via the national testing programme. Should there be an indication of more than one symptomatic individual among a group of care workers, an appropriate risk assessment will be undertaken by the Public Health Agency, with testing of all individuals undertaken as deemed appropriate by that risk assessment.

The priority groups eligible for testing are kept under constant review by my Department's expert advisory group for testing and are updated regularly in line with the emerging scientific and medical evidence as the pandemic continues to evolve. The position with regard to the appropriate frequency of testing of domiciliary care workers is kept under active review by that expert group.

Ms Bailey: Thank you, Minister. I am in contact with one of my constituents whose mother receives domiciliary care and who has now tested positive for COVID-19 and is in acute care. We have heard, informally, that up to three domiciliary carers who have attended that client have tested positive.

To date, there has been no formal contact from the care companies involved or from the track and trace system. Does the Minister feel that that is good enough for protecting our vulnerable people? Will he commit to ensuring that better systems and protections are put in place immediately?


3.00 pm

Mr Swann: I am concerned to hear about the specific case that the Member raises. It is not something that I recognise or that I want my testing system or the test, trace and protect system to do. Again, not wanting to comment on an individual case, if the Member wants to provide me with the name and address of her constituent and the care company, I will make sure that this is followed up on and that the Public Health Agency gets in contact with the company, because there is a duty of care that the care company should act on.

Mr Gildernew: Minister, given how vital healthcare workers are to dealing with the pandemic, what plans do you or your Department have to expand testing to all staff and not just to test those who are symptomatic?

Mr Swann: A large piece of work has been done on who is eligible and on when we should be doing a regular testing programme. The Member knows full well that one of the first cohorts for which regular repeat testing has been put in place is our care home staff and residents. We have seen, through expert advice and guidance and scientific advice and guidance, that that is the cohort that needs regular testing so that we can protect residents of care homes. When we look at where we are with the number of care homes showing positive cases, we see that that approach has been effective in ensuring that we are keeping care home infections as low as possible. The expert advisory group regularly looks at who should be tested and at when they should be tested. The regular testing programme makes a positive contribution to the entire healthcare service and to how we fight the pandemic. It is kept under regular review by that group.

Mrs Cameron: Minister, is your Department looking at the possibility of pooling testing? We heard an example of that in the Health Committee recently from a professor in Hong Kong.

Mr Swann: I am not sure what you mean. Did you say "pooling" or "pulling"?

Mrs Cameron: Multiple testing.

Mr Swann: That is an approach that was advanced in Germany at the very beginning of the pandemic, where 10 people were tested and put into the one sample. If the sample tested positive, the 10 were tested again. There were queries over the efficiency of that process, because the 10 people had to wait on the first result before being called for the second test to be done, and they then had to wait for that result. It therefore delayed one of the 10 people in that pool being identified as being positive. It is not something that we did in the first pandemic, and it is not something that we are considering doing this time either.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I recognise that this is a difficult and worrying time, particularly for those who may have an underlying condition that means that they are more clinically vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. Members will be aware that new restrictions came into force across Northern Ireland from 22 September. Those new regulations do not constitute a lockdown, but their overriding goal is to keep household-to-household contact as low as possible in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The need for further specific advice for those who were previously shielding is being kept under continuous review. At this time, however, there has been no change to the decision to pause shielding, which came into effect from 1 August. I know that some of those who were previously shielding are relieved that there has not been a return to the advice to stay at home at all times. I recognise that, for others, the pause in shielding has been difficult to navigate and has brought with it new uncertainties, which, when combined with the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community, has led to a sense of increased anxiety. There is no easy route through the current difficulties that we all face, but it is important that we continue to seek to achieve as balanced an approach as possible.

There is always a degree of risk in contact with the outside world, but remaining indoors indefinitely is also detrimental to physical and mental health. I therefore encourage clinically vulnerable people and older people to be particularly careful in following the advice on limiting household contacts, social distancing, handwashing and wearing a face covering. However, I also ask everyone in our community to play their part in keeping each other safe. At this difficult time, it remains more important than ever that we stick together, stringently follow the public health advice and adhere to the new regulations.

Mr Boylan: The Minister is well aware that thousands of people had to shield, and they are now concerned about the rising number of positive cases. What reassurance can he give to people who have had to shield and may have to shield again? If they do, what support will he put in place for them?

Mr Swann: Again, the Member makes a valid point. Work was commissioned and carried out by the Patient and Client Council (PCC) on the experiences of the first cohort that had to shield. That is where that part of my answer comes from. There are those in that cohort who do not want to shield again, and there are those who do. That is why, at this point, we are looking at a further risk matrix, should we have to provide a second piece of guidance about who should shield. It will be a much smaller cohort who have to shield for very specific medical reasons, and that will be supported by guidance from the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) from across the four nations.

With regard to support mechanisms, when we ask someone to shield, it is important that we have the support, not just from the community, which has been invaluable in the first cohort of shielding, be it local community groups, the GAA or Orange lodges. That first cohort who shielded were well looked after by their community. We need to ensure that those groups have the ability to do that again. I have been in contact with the Member's colleague the Minister for Communities to ensure that that support is financially and physically supported as well. It is crucial that we provide an infrastructure to support people if we ask them to shield for a second time.

Mr Givan: Can the Minister elaborate on which criteria will trigger letters being sent with guidance on shielding? Will it be the same criteria that were used in the first instance? Can he assure us that the support package will be in place before the measures are taken?

Mr Swann: Following on from the answer that I have already given, the four CMOs are looking at a risk matrix that will assess what we have learned from the first cohort, specifically in regard to what medical conditions and underlying medical conditions are more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19. What we have seen, coming into this period and from the learnings from the first part, is that a number of the groups with medical conditions who were asked to shield were not adversely affected by COVID. It is about keeping as many people not shielded as is physically possible.

With regard to support mechanisms, the Member is correct: if we as a Government and as an Executive ask someone to shield, we have to make sure that the support mechanisms are there. As I say, that is why I have been engaging with the Department for Communities and the Department of Finance to make sure that there is a holistic package. Community Pharmacy did vital work during the first period of shielding by setting up a delivery mechanism for those who needed prescriptions. A lot of community volunteers were used to deliver that. It is about making sure that all the support mechanisms are in place before we take the second step.

Ms Hunter: How does the Minister plan to support the most vulnerable in our society, who may be shielding and struggling with mental illness, if they are based in rural communities and do not have access to the internet when seeking support?

Mr Swann: I know that the Member has raised before the issue of the mental health challenges for people who have been asked to shield. Again, through my engagement with Community Pharmacy when they looked at working with delivering prescriptions, I know that one of the things that its volunteers said was that it was not the time to deliver the prescription that was the most vital; it was the engagement at the door, where they actually had face-to-face interaction. That is one of the challenges. Just to correct the Member, there is no one shielding at the minute. We have not advised anybody to do that. However, it is about making sure that there is community support and engagement with people. In the rural communities, the work of Rural Support and the Good Morning telephone lines, such as Good Morning Ballymena and Good Morning Ballycastle, that operate across Northern Ireland is important. As I said when answering the previous Member, community organisations such as Orange lodges and the GAA provide community cohesion and additional support. They really stepped up with additional support and engaged to make sure that no one was left all alone. Making sure that no one feels abandoned is one of the largest challenges. That was something that came out of the Patient and Client Council research with the initial shielding group. The research said that it was vital for a person who was shielding to have someone to talk to. It is important that, when we ask someone to shield again, they have support mechanisms such as a voice at the end of the phone or on the other side of the door, and they have someone to support them.

Mr Swann: As a consequence of the need to prioritise the response to the coronavirus pandemic over the past few months, work on a range of projects, including Reshaping Stroke Care, has been paused. While I believe that that was the right thing to do, I appreciate the wider impact that it will have had on stroke patients across Northern Ireland. I can assure you that Reshaping Stroke Care remains a key priority, and I recognise the urgent need for the reform of stroke services in Northern Ireland. Over 19,000 people responded to the consultation on Reshaping Stroke Care, and my officials have completed an analysis of responses. I have asked for some further analysis to be undertaken regarding the staffing requirements for the hyper-acute stroke network proposed in the consultation, and that work is currently under way. I intend to consider that analysis alongside the consultation analysis and the evidence base for reform in reaching my decision, and I will update the House accordingly.

Mr Lunn: The Minister has referred to the increasing pressures caused by the resurgence of COVID-19, and there is some dreadful news coming from across the border today about a situation that may spill over into our jurisdiction. Can he assure us that, given the importance of the stroke service, the realignment will not be unduly set aside as a result of the pressures of COVID-19?

Mr Swann: I assure the Member that it will not be set aside, but I also assure him that it will not be rushed as this is a once-in-a-generation decision to change how we support those who have had a stroke and those who need aftercare following a stroke. I will decide in due time with due process, and I will make sure that I consider the additional information I have sought from my Department and the responses from the consultation.

Ms Dolan: Minister, you referred to the fact that you have asked for further analysis to be undertaken on staffing for the reshaping of stroke care. Can you clarify what that further analysis is examining and the time frame for its completion?

Mr Swann: As I said in my recent answer, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve stroke services and deliver improved outcomes. For that reason, I am not prepared to rush into a decision without access to all the information. That information is needed to make the right decision. I make no apology for seeking further analysis of the options outlined as to where and at what level stoke services will be delivered in Northern Ireland, and it will have an impact on staff. If we make any changes to what that future stroke service may look like, I need to make sure that we have the staff to deliver it. There is no point in coming out with recommendations if we do not have the ability to deliver the work we need it to do on the ground.

Ms Bunting: The Minister knows that time is of the essence with stroke care. On that basis, will he confirm that stroke services in the Ulster Hospital are being protected for people in the east of the Province, including east Belfast, north Down, Ards and Comber? The extra distance to the other side of Belfast could prove detrimental to their prognosis.

Mr Swann: Again, as I have said, no decision has been made on the location where our stroke services will be reconfigured, should they need to be reconfigured. The Sentinel Stroke National Audit Programme (SSNAP), which assesses the delivery of stroke services, happened between January and March of this year.

Three stroke units in Northern Ireland achieved an A grade and four units received a B grade, which is a significant improvement on six months ago when only two stroke units achieved an A grade and two units achieved a B grade. The delivery of care is currently at a very high standard and that has been assessed and accredited by the SSNAP audit. Our current provision is fit for purpose and supports our patients. As I said, the review will be done in the time that it takes for me to come to the right decision that ensures the future-proofing of stroke services in Northern Ireland.


3.15 pm

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. It is accepted that the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, lockdown and other restrictions, will have a negative impact on our population's mental well-being. At the start of the pandemic, I put arrangements in place to mitigate and address that impact. When I published the mental health action plan on 19 May, I included a dedicated COVID-19 mental health response plan. That plan set out the mental health response to the pandemic and outlined specific actions, including public health messaging to support people to look after their mental well-being while staying at home and the provision of updated mental health support and advice on the mindingyourhead.info website. It included the development of an online app library to support self-help, the roll-out of psychological first aid training to staff and volunteers on the front line and the provision of free online stress control classes, which have been available since May and will continue to be available until the end of the year. It also included bereavement guidance and a workforce well-being framework and dedicated psychological helplines for front-line staff.

That support remains in place as we continue to battle COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic on our community's mental health. A key element of responding to the emerging mental health need is the implementation of the mental health action plan, which includes the development of a new mental health strategy. That gives us an opportunity to build on our mental health response to the pandemic and build that into a 10-year strategic plan with a substantial evidence base. We can reinvigorate and reorganise services to better reflect the new and emerging profile of need, and we can build on innovative solutions that have come to the fore during this period.

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

T1. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Health for an assessment of the barriers to North/South cooperation that have been revealed by the COVID-19 response. (AQT 471/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. There are no barriers that spring to mind apart from, at times, the challenges of communication. That has come about because of political decision-making on either side of the border. We have had challenges around the transfer of information on travel locator forms, on which we are currently receiving legal advice. The Member's junior Minister, Declan Kearney, and I attended the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in health format on Friday at which a number of those issues were addressed. I can assure the Member that there is no deliberate barrier to sharing information or to how we respond to COVID-19. There are technical and legal difficulties that we are working, on both sides of the border, to address as soon as we possibly and practically can.

Ms Anderson: The Minister is aware that a memorandum of understanding was signed, but we know that it is not operable. Ireland is a single epidemiological unit and COVID-19 is spreading, particularly in Derry and Strabane, where there have been 804 cases over the last seven days. Does the Minister concur that there is a need for primary legislation to address those issues?

Mr Swann: I do not recognise what the Member says about the memorandum of understanding not being operable. I think that it works. We have challenges, which we are addressing on either side of the border. They are not political or personal; they are operational with regard to legislation and the sharing of personal data. That is coming from the respective AGs, and it is being worked on at the moment. Primary legislation would need to be conjunctive and coherent on both sides of the border at the same time. We are not there yet, and we do not need it; there are good working relationships between me and the Health Minister in the Republic of Ireland, our CMOs and our public health agencies, which we can build on and improve. Legislation is not the answer.

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

T3. Ms Bailey asked the Minister of Health what advice he would give to women in his constituency to assist them in accessing medical abortion services given that, as she noticed with some bemusement, his Department issued a statement last week that warned women not to take abortion pills at home and that, although early medical abortion pathways were put in place by trusts in April 2020 to facilitate women, the Northern Trust announced on Friday that it can no longer sustain that voluntary service. (AQT 473/17-22)

Mr Swann: My Department has not given instructions to the Health and Social Care Board to commission abortion services. However, abortion is now legal and can be carried out by registered medical professionals. I will not comment on the locations in trusts where abortions have been carried out. The Member will be aware that I have sought Executive agreement on the establishment of an emergency early medical abortion service to ensure that women's health needs are addressed during this pandemic.

Ms Bailey: The abortion regulations were laid before Parliament and came into force in March. They provide, as the Minister said, the new legal basis for medical professionals in Northern Ireland to terminate pregnancies lawfully. Will the Minister tell the House the other lawful medical services for which his Department has refused to provide funding or resource?

Mr Swann: The Member is being deliberately obtuse in her supplementary question. The 2020 abortion regulations came into force on 31 March. They set out the circumstances in which an abortion may take place and establish the requirement for terminations to be certified by a registered medical professional and notified to the Chief Medical Officer. As terminations are carried out outside any normal commissioning arrangements, there is currently no agreed protocol for processing notifications of termination. They contain sensitive personal information. To date, they have been counted, but, otherwise, unprocessed. The Member is aware of that and the services that are provided across a number of other trusts in Northern Ireland.

T4. Mr T Buchanan asked the Minister of Health what concerns, in seeking to control the spread of the virus, he has about the aftermath of the outrageous and blatant breach of the COVID regulations at the GAA match in Bellaghy at the weekend, where there was no adherence to social distancing and no respect or regard for the regulations, which were treated with utter contempt. (AQT 474/17-22)

Mr Swann: The Member raises concerns that have been widely publicised. The images were brought to my attention over the weekend, and I was disappointed and angry to see them. If one person in that group or community has COVID-19, there is every chance that it has now spread among the group. However, that is not restricted to the group that we saw at the GAA match; it is the same for any group that we see being portrayed on social media, whether in a bar setting or a university hostel, where social distancing is not being observed. I was disappointed and angry at what we witnessed and what the Member refers to. I note, however, that the GAA has suspended all games and expressed disappointment at what it classifies as after-game actions. It claims that those are beyond its control, but I would have liked to see a more stringent application of the guidance that was already in place.

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. That is not the first such incident that we have witnessed; indeed, only two weeks ago, my colleague Keith Buchanan raised a similar incident with you in the House. Do you agree that, although the GAA has now put some sanctions in place, it is a matter of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted? The players and supporters may well be guilty of passing on the virus to some vulnerable people in our society —

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

Mr T Buchanan: — who, as a result, will lose their life.

Mr Swann: When we put regulations and guidance in place, they are there for a reason: to prevent the unnecessary spread of COVID-19. When I see the examples that were shared widely on social media over the weekend and what has happened in other situations, it concerns me. The Member is right: more often than not, someone from such crowds ends up in a hospital setting, which puts pressure on our hospital services, our nurses and our doctors. There has to be some recognition that our regulations and guidance are put in place to prevent hospitalisations, to prevent people entering ICUs and to prevent deaths. It is a clear message that comes from the Executive collectively: our guidance is there for a reason.

If there have been breaches of the rules and regulations, I encourage the PSNI to investigate all available media, including social media, no matter the situation or scenario. It may take enforcement to get the message through to that small minority of people who think that they are either above these regulations or immune to COVID-19. Unfortunately, we are at that point, and that is why I welcome the establishment of the compliance and enforcement group within the Executive and support the work that it is doing.

T5. Mr O'Dowd asked the Minister of Health whether the serious adverse incident (SAI) investigations into the COVID-19 outbreaks at Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill Hospital have begun. (AQT 475/17-22)

Mr Swann: I do not have the specific update to hand but I will get back to the Member. I know that the panel has been appointed for the SAI that is ongoing at level 3. I have given assurances to the investigating team and reassurances to the families — I have met one of the families — that the panel will have the ability to set up its own terms of reference, with input from the families, and there will be no restriction of access to information or whatever the panel needs once it has been commissioned and is up and running.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you for that information, Minister. Since the start of September, 22 hospital deaths have been reported. I hate going into statistics but this is important: 12 of those 22 are associated with the outbreaks in Daisy Hill and Craigavon, meaning that 54% of all recorded hospital deaths are associated with those outbreaks. Surely, Minister, those investigations should be ongoing and the findings used to protect hospital staff, patients and visitors.

Mr Swann: A point that the Member has made various times is that we do not wait for the outcomes of the SAI. Learning from what happened in the Southern Trust is live and ongoing. I welcome the input, advice and guidance from Public Health England (PHE) as well. Rather than just the Southern Trust learning from PHE's experience of outbreaks across hospitals in England and Wales, that learning could be shared across all our trusts here in Northern Ireland so that we do not witness the terrible loss of life that we have seen in Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill.

T7. Dr Aiken asked the Minister of Health for an update on the COVID proximity app and to state how many exposure notifications have been issued. (AQT 477/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. At the end of last week, we launched the app for under-18s. To date, the COVID app has been downloaded over 411,000 times. It has sent out 8,500 text messages. Nearly 2,000 app users have received positive messages from uploading the diagnosis key, and 5,722 app users have received exposure notifications and been informed to self-isolate. That shows that our app has been beneficial in contacting people who may not have known that they were in contact with somebody who later tested positive for COVID.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister very much for his answer. How is the app working on both sides of the border?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As he and the House know, our app was the first to operate cross-border and in two different jurisdictions. How well it was working was discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday. To date, we have received anonymous keys from the Republic of Ireland relating to 1,471 cases, and our app has sent 1,355 cases to the Republic of Ireland, anonymously. Therefore, 2,700 people have been identified on either side of the border because of the interoperability of the app that we produced in conjunction with the Republic of Ireland.


3.30 pm

T8. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Health who, in his opinion, is responsible for enforcing the wearing of face coverings in the retail sector. (AQT 478/17-22)

Mr Swann: The Member will know that who can enforce and who should enforce is quite a contentious issue. In my opinion, the rule is set down in regulations, so it is, ultimately, up to the PSNI to deliver that responsibly. However, I encourage all retail providers and all shop owners to actively encourage people to wear face coverings. I know that there is a more proactive approach now that have we have seen additional restrictions being put in place in the north-west. I have seen some of our major supermarkets taking a more proactive approach to encouraging people to wear face coverings in the retail sector. Bus and train drivers and conductors have also been encouraging people on public transport to use them. The Executive need to engage with a piece of work about the use of face coverings and their benefits, especially as we are now seeing increased transmission of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of questions to the Minister of Health. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Economy

Mr Speaker: Gary Middleton has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister for the Economy. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.

Mr Middleton asked the Minister for the Economy what her Department, in conjunction with Executive colleagues, is doing to provide immediate and targeted financial support to businesses in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area directly impacted by the additional COVID-19 restrictions effective from 5 October 2020.

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): I thank my colleague for his question on this very important topic.

The decision by the Executive to apply restrictions in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area simply reinforces the fact that we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and that the transmission rate in that locality has risen dramatically over recent weeks.

On Friday, I met business representatives from the north-west to discuss the impact that localised restrictions will have and the kind of support that they will need. Although the greatest help would be to allow them to continue trading, I reassured them that the Executive will provide financial assistance to those businesses instructed to close. Although it is mainly hospitality businesses that the Executive's decision will impact on, other businesses will feel the impact too.

I made it clear that it is not a choice between protecting our hospitals and protecting hospitality. I have been enormously proud of the responsible, resilient and determined fashion in which the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland has acted. Executive decisions have never been, and should never be, a binary choice between health and the economy. The economy is not a nebulous term. It represents every job, every pay cheque, every bill and every dinner on the table.

On Thursday, after the decision was made, I asked my officials to engage with Department of Finance officials. We have a number of possible options for providing support, but the priority is to devise a scheme that gets targeted financial help, in an efficient and streamlined way, to the businesses asked to close. My hope is that the Executive can agree the mechanics for how that support can be delivered within a matter of days.

I use this opportunity to remind people of the importance of following the Executive advice: wash your hands; socially distance; and wear your mask. We all carry the responsibility of playing our part in slowing the spread of COVID, and those are the best ways in which to protect the health of our people and the health of our economy.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her answer and for joining me on Friday to meet some of the business leaders in my constituency. As I do, they recognise the role that the Minister has played for the economy in these challenging times. Our council was represented at that meeting. Do you see the council as being an option for getting the money out to businesses in a fast and timely manner?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for organising that meeting. People were confused and alarmed at the rising rate of transmission of the virus, but they were also significantly alarmed at the impact on the local economy, jobs and livelihoods.

The main focus will be on devising a scheme that is quick, clean and easy to administer. I was heartened to hear from the local council, which offered its help in any way that it could. When we eventually make a decision, the local council will have an important role to play in working with local businesses and in checking which are closed and which have been severely impacted on by the restrictions in the local area. If we can remove layers of bureaucracy by allowing the council to administer the scheme, I am relaxed about that, but the important thing is to get money out quickly to businesses in difficult circumstances.

Mr Dickson: Minister, given the inevitability of where we are in Derry and Strabane, what preparations did you make for that inevitability, or are you playing catch-up?

Mrs Dodds: Even health officials will remind the Member that they were extremely surprised by not only the rise in the number of cases but the exponential rise and how quickly the numbers rose in the area.

The Member asks a very useful question, though, because it is important that Members in this House realise that we as a Department have been warning of the impact of lockdown or restrictions on the local economy. We think that that will place our local businesses, which are just starting to build and recover a little bit from the earlier shutdown of the economy, in a really difficult place. Not only that, but any further lockdowns in the local economy, and the end of the furlough scheme, will see a significant rise in unemployment. We could potentially experience unemployment levels such as we have not seen since the early 1990s. That is not where I want Northern Ireland or its local communities to be, and I will try in every way possible to support the economy and those people who find themselves in difficult positions.

We are, of course, not playing catch-up in the Department for the Economy. We have already submitted our short- to medium-term recovery plan. Last week, I submitted documents to the Executive Office, which I hope will be discussed at the next Executive meeting, on the economic impact of restrictions and lockdown. These are very difficult, severe times for our economy, and working collectively together, not making political point-scoring, would be very helpful in seeing our people and our communities through hard times.

Ms Anderson: I support the call for immediate financial support for businesses in Derry and Strabane in particular as they face into more necessary restrictions. Some of those businesses are running on empty. Therefore, has the Minister compiled a bid that can go to the British Exchequer — the Treasury — to support those businesses, particularly those that feel that they have been left behind, and the thousands who are categorised as self-employed who have not had a penny of support during this pandemic?

Mrs Dodds: First of all, I will correct the Member on a couple of issues that she has expressed. It is not up to me to compile a bid to the Exchequer on that. It would be for the Executive to make a financial ask and for the Finance Minister — her colleague — to translate that and talk to Her Majesty's Treasury about that.

In respect of those who are self-employed, about 78,000 self-employed people have been supported through the self-employed scheme that has been in place and continues to be in place right up until the end of October. That is possibly the highest proportion or percentage per head of population throughout the United Kingdom to be supported through the scheme. What the Member may be referring to is those people who were recently self-employed and, therefore, had not made a tax return. There is no doubt that those folk are in very difficult positions. I continue to talk to the Secretary of State for Business and have written directly to the Chancellor to indicate that this is a national problem that requires a national solution, and one that the Chancellor should address. I have common cause with MPs right across the United Kingdom in relation to that particular issue.

With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I will round up. I absolutely agree with the Member on the need to get some financial support to those businesses that have suffered restrictions. I spoke on Friday to a number of hoteliers from the city, and they all indicated that they were really pleased with the way that trading had gone in August. They were looking forward to a better September/October, and they were well aware of the work that the tourism steering group had done in formulating and articulating bids to the Finance Minister. Indeed, the Finance Minister responded positively to those bids.

Therefore, they were completely taken unawares by the dreadful rise in the transmission of the virus and the fact that their industry was targeted for restrictions.


3.45 pm

Mr Speaker: I ask the Minister to wind up her comments, please.

Mrs Dodds: Thank you.

Nevertheless, like all of the hospitality sector, they are resilient and will trade through it, but they need to know, as a matter or urgency, how long those restrictions will last.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for her comments so far. As furlough is running out, how does the Minister and her Department intend to support employees in the city and district who will have to self-isolate? There may be questions of affordability, but we cannot afford to have those who are supposed to be self-isolating attending work to feed their families.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Minister to keep her remarks to two minutes, please.

Mrs Dodds: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I apologise.

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

Mr Speaker: I will not take a point of order during Question Time.

Mrs Dodds: Should I take the question? OK. There are two elements to this that I want to address. One is the issue of support for those who are self-isolating. The Minister of Finance has indicated that he will find out whether any kind of what we call Barnett consequential moneys would come to Northern Ireland specifically for that. I hope that we will be able to address, in the relatively near future, the financial issues for businesses that have been asked to close. I remind the House that the situation is likely to be repeated around Northern Ireland for some time, and therefore, we, as an Executive, have to be sure that there will be the finances to support that not just in the north-west but in other areas across Northern Ireland, should the need arise.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her remarks so far. One of the big issues facing Londonderry is hope for the future. One of the things that I would like the Minister to do is to make a comment about what she is doing to progress the Magee university, particularly the move towards the new medical school. That would send a strong message to the people in Londonderry about their future and their ability to come out of the COVID situation.

Mrs Dodds: Of course, the Executive took a decision to support the medical school at Magee. I noticed that, on social media this morning, there were calls out for their first students to apply for 2021. That is very hopeful. Also, I have been working with my Department around some of the city deal bids for the city of Londonderry. I am hopeful that they will start to progress their business cases, that we will see movement with regard to that funding direction and, as you said, hope for the city.

Mr T Buchanan: Minister, over recent days, there has been much media coverage of a potential circuit breaker across the UK and, indeed, across the Irish Republic. If that were to be the case, how would you see the Executive providing financial support to those who are unable to get to their place of work?

Mrs Dodds: Again, that is an important and timely question, given the speculation in the media. If the UK were to have a circuit breaker that would impact across the whole of the United Kingdom in the way that previous lockdowns have, it would be for our national Government to provide the funding and the help to businesses and individuals who are unable to work in that situation. If we have regional or subregional issues around further restrictions, either we get some additional help from the Exchequer or the Northern Ireland Executive will have to finance some of that.

Be aware that, if we should continue to do this, the Department of Health has indicated that this will impact on the economy for some time to come. I hear speculation that we could require more than one of these so-called circuit breakers. Before we talk any further on this, we should analyse the impact on the economy and analyse our ability to pay.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her update. I concur with her about the economy not being some nebulous term. It is really about people and the fact that the health of our businesses, many of which are SMEs, and their workers are very much interlinked.

The Minister made bids and was allocated funding to support economic recovery. Is she considering how that funding could be reprioritised to support some of the businesses that are struggling financially as a result of closures or reduced income?

Mrs Dodds: As I have indicated during this session of questions, the current situation is that we are looking at how we can immediately support businesses that have been impacted by the restrictions in the north-west. I have no doubt that we may have to look at that on a further subregional basis on a number of occasions. However, many of the bids that I made were to help the economy to recover and are aimed at the structural recovery of the economy so that we have a tourism and hospitality sector in which people can work and earn their living and in which we can be proud of Northern Ireland. One of the great things that focuses everyone's mind is the fact that the tourism and hospitality sector provides 65,000 jobs and contributed over £1 billion to the local economy last year. As the owner of the Bishop's Gate Hotel in the city said to me on Friday, "We need not only hope but to know that the Executive and the Assembly are with us in the long-term recovery of our sector and will stand by us". That is what most of those bids are designed to do, particularly the bids for tourism and hospitality.

Mr O'Toole: The Minister talked about bringing a paper to the Executive that reflects on the economic impact of further lockdowns, but, with respect, I say that we have yet to see a paper that posits a recovery plan for the first set of lockdowns. What exactly will the Minister bring to the Executive? Will it be a long-term economic strategy that looks six months or one year down the line to take us through the pandemic and out the other side? It would be really helpful to understand exactly what her Department will produce.

Mrs Dodds: I recommend to the Member as an urgent and required piece of reading the document that we published in June of this year: 'Rebuilding a Stronger Economy'. In that document, we addressed short- and medium-term issues for the Northern Ireland economy: the need to support the traditional sectors that we rely on, that are part of our values and that many of us are so interlinked with but also the need to look at new opportunities for the Northern Ireland economy, particularly in the digital sector, health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing and, of course, the green economy. I already have a road map for those short- to medium-term interventions, and, of course, we are preparing an overall economic strategy, which will be not just for the Department for the Economy but for the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for Communities. Those are all aspects of building the Northern Ireland economy for the next century.

Mr Muir: As the Minister will be aware, the package that she will, hopefully, bring forward will come from the pot of funding of £55 million. Mr Speaker, I ask for your forbearance so that I might explain. That pot of funding is for Translink — I was previously an employee of Translink — private coach operators, travel agents, hauliers, taxis and the excluded. There are probably more that I have forgotten about. If the Executive are not given additional financial support, how confident is the Minister that she will be able to support other council areas if they are given further restrictions?

Mrs Dodds: I will, perhaps, correct one element of the question. Translink has already been given tens of millions of pounds in additional funding during this financial year to support a recovery position and for the losses that it has incurred during the pandemic. Perhaps Translink has already had a lot of the allocations that it will get or require.

There are a huge number of demands in the system. Many people are hurting and have felt the harshness of the pandemic not just on health and family life but on their finances. It will, of course, be for the Finance Minister and the Executive to decide how that money is distributed. We will keep to the fore the areas that have suffered from local restrictions. We may need to ensure that the Exchequer knows of the difficulties for Northern Ireland.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for making her points and for all her efforts to date in supporting businesses through the COVID crisis.

How do the Executive decide between the health of our people and the economy of our country? Is it difficult to make such a decision? Will the Minister assure us that such a decision is fully assessed before it is made?

Mrs Dodds: The Member reflects on what all Ministers feel as they make decisions. As I have said before and as one Executive Minister has said today, this should never be about hospitality or hospitals: they are interlinked. Long-term unemployment as a result of an economic downturn caused by the pandemic will have grave consequences in communities across Northern Ireland. I have already told the House that we could see levels of unemployment not seen in Northern Ireland since the 1990s. That is a terrifying prospect for families, communities and individuals.

These are difficult questions. However, let us not forget that we are a resilient and hopeful people. We have come through dreadful and violent circumstances. We will weather the pandemic storm, but it will require us to work together to make sure that our focus is in the right place and that we can get help to those who really need it.

Mr McHugh: Minister, I live in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area. I am only too aware of businesses that closed down last week in anticipation of restrictions coming in today. I am also well aware of employees on reduced income as a result of self-isolating, an anomaly that exists between those who work in private care homes and those who work for the Western Trust.

Given that your economic recovery strategy outlines the need to address regional imbalances, will you consider calling in Invest NI to prioritise areas of low employment, so that, hopefully, there would be greater input from Invest NI in job creation and financial assistance for job creation in the north-west?

Mrs Dodds: The Member raises an important element of the economic strategy that I outlined, which the Executive have adopted as part of their recovery strategy for Northern Ireland as a whole.

We need to address economic imbalances, not only in the north-west. Many parts of Northern Ireland feel the pain of high unemployment and reduced opportunities for younger people. One of the biggest factors that would enable us to do that would be bringing in jobs and investing in areas such as skills and education.

Just this morning, I announced 3,000 new online training places for those impacted by COVID or unemployment. I urge people to look at those training opportunities and take the opportunity now, while furlough still exists or while their hours are reduced, to upskill and improve their chances in the labour market. That is really important. Of course, I have also introduced the package on apprenticeships, and I will continue to look for opportunities, finances permitting, to improve the lot of young people in particular, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Invest Northern Ireland, of course, works with councils and local development structures to try to address imbalances in skills and jobs.


4.00 pm

Finally, I look forward to progressing Project Stratum, which will help to address regional imbalances in the economy since so much of it will cover rural areas of Northern Ireland, thereby improving connectivity and increasing the ability of firms and individuals to be competitive.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for her answers so far. She will be aware of the plight of cross-border workers, who have been impacted adversely in the north-west and in my region throughout this pandemic. When support is brought forward, Minister, for the north-west, and in response to any future COVID restrictions across the North, will she, along with the Communities Minister, who, ultimately, has responsibility for cross-border workers under EU law, ensure that they are looked after as part of any future arrangements?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question, which I will answer in two parts. First, the operation of the common travel area, which gives people the right to live and work in both jurisdictions right across the British Isles, is very important. Today, I briefed the Executive on how we could ensure that qualifications are recognised in all those areas so that working across borders becomes easier. We need to see the detail on that fairly quickly from the negotiations and from that perspective.

Secondly, I think that the Member's question refers to people who work in the Republic but, because they live in Northern Ireland, cannot claim the unemployment benefit that was awarded to people who were on furlough etc. This, I am afraid, is an EU regulation, and that is part of the problem of being controlled by the European Union.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly is appalled that the British Government have abandoned any pretence of adherence to international law; recognises that the potential for a trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom has significantly diminished as a result of the British Government reneging on key elements of the withdrawal agreement; acknowledges that that would be devastating for workers and families, with inevitable business failures, job losses and economic damage; and calls on the British Government to respect the rule of law and honour their obligations in full as set out in the withdrawal agreement that they negotiated and which the British Parliament agreed. — [Dr Archibald.]

Mr Givan: The Minister has taken us neatly on to a debate on Brexit [Laughter.]

Thank you for that, Minister. The question that Members need to ask, first and foremost, when considering this debate, is this: has the United Kingdom broken the law? Members might believe that the United Kingdom's action is counterproductive because it could cause reputational damage on the world stage. It is interesting that nationalists are worrying about the British reputation across the globe, and that will not be lost on many people. Has the United Kingdom broken the law? I think that the answer is that it has not, because there have not been any court judgments in respect of this. The European Commission has instigated a notice of potential legal action, and that will run its course. However, much of the commentary from Members implies that the UK has broken the law, and that is not the case.

When we consider parliamentary sovereignty, ultimately, we are talking about the UK Parliament. The issue is being dealt with in the UK Parliament, in which colleagues of some Members of this House do not take their seats. However, those Members keep subjecting this Chamber to debate after debate on the issue. At least, to be fair to the SDLP, its members take their seats at Westminster and try to argue those points where power resides, unlike Sinn Féin. If that party was truly concerned about people's rights, it should take every forum open it to articulate that on behalf of its people. However, it does not.

When it comes to parliamentary sovereignty, Members will know that no Executive branch or UK Minister can just sign up to an international treaty. Such treaties need to be brought through the national Parliament and transposed into domestic law. Hence, if parliamentary sovereignty is vital to enact or put into place such a law, Parliament can accept when it makes a mistake and may then decide to change that law. We should encourage that.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Will he reflect on the opinion of Martin Howe QC, who said that section 38 of the withdrawal agreement:

"preserves Parliamentary sovereignty",

and,

"makes it quite clear that Parliament has the right to pass the clauses which the government is proposing and thereby override these errant clauses in the Protocol";

the errant clauses to which my friend refers?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Givan: The Member makes a helpful contribution. He makes the point for me: what Parliament can do, it can also undo. That will be legal. It may be subject to the reputational damage that Members opposite are concerned about, but, when it comes to the principle of what it can do, ultimately, Parliament is sovereign. That is why we believe in an independent United Kingdom. It is also why we wanted to release ourselves from the shackles of the European Union and the way in which it conducts itself.

In a previous era, Sinn Féin was with us on that. It was opposed to everything that Europe was trying to do. It opposed countless treaties; it campaigned against treaties. I wonder what those who fought in the 1916 rising would have thought of their comrades today. They fought for freedom. Now, their legacy has been passed on to people who are sycophants of the European Union and who subject themselves to foreign rule. Sinn Féin needs to ask itself whether it wants to keep bringing those motions back to the Assembly, because we will keep pointing out the contradictions.

As regards the fundamental principle of whether Parliament can do that, yes, it can. However, the point is that if clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill even come close to potentially breaking the law, Members can, rightly, call that into question, because regulations that are made under those clauses may breach the law and be subject to further legal debate. However, I do not think that those clauses come anywhere close to breaking international law, yet we have listened now for weeks to concerns being expressed by Members on that issue.

Mr O'Toole: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. He said that the provisions in the Bill do not come close to breaking international law. Why, then, does he think that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said at the Dispatch Box that those provisions would break international law?

Mr Givan: The Member can ask the Secretary of State that question. I am not worried about the Secretary of State: I am worried about what is actually in the Bill. Ultimately, let a case be brought, and if it ends up in court, we will get a judicial ruling on it. However, I doubt very much that it will ever come to that.

Even the UK Human Rights Act 1998 contains provisions for non-compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, which one would consider to be an important treaty. The 1998 Act makes provision for non-compliance where the United Kingdom Government feel that they want to do that.

Turning to the protocol —.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Givan: Yes. I have been struggling to see how long I have left, Mr Speaker, as the time has not been displayed.

Mr Speaker: You have very little time.

Mr Givan: How long?

Mr Speaker: You have been too generous in allowing interventions.

Mr Givan: That has been my problem; the time has not been displayed, Mr Speaker. However, I am sure that it will be kept in order for the benefit of other Members.

Mr Speaker: You do not have long left. Thank you.

Mr Givan: Article 16 of the protocol allows for potentially serious breaches. Therefore, the protocol itself allows for a breach to take place. Article 1 refers to the importance of the Good Friday Agreement.

Contained in the Good Friday Agreement is the principle of consent. We are an integral part of the United Kingdom, so membership of the United Kingdom should ensure that we have free trade with its component parts. What is happening with the protocol is the undermining of the Belfast Agreement and our position in the United Kingdom. I am not sure whether my time is up, as it has not been on display.

Mr Speaker: I have been advised that your time is up. You adequately put your position, thankfully.

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful that the motion has been brought before the Assembly, and I support it in broad terms. It is worth saying at the beginning something that I have said recently in several of these debates. Earlier this year, the Assembly passed a motion calling for an extension to the transition period that was ignored by the UK Government. As all of us on these islands and across the Continent look at the choppy headwaters of a pandemic, with a rising number of cases and severe economic difficulty likely to flow from it, I reiterate that we must surely all agree in this Assembly that the most rationale thing would be to follow the Assembly resolution from a few months back and extend the transition period. That having been said, it unfortunately looks as though the ideologues in Number 10 are not going to do that.

The motion sets out extreme disappointment and disapproval that the UK Government have chosen to state — not just in the legislation but in the House of Commons, where they have owned up to this — that they plan to take the power to break international law. That is clearly unacceptable, as I have said in the Assembly multiple times. Why is it unacceptable? It is unacceptable because international law relies on states doing what they say that they are going to do in international treaties. The point that has been made more than once, including today by Mr Givan, is that Parliament is sovereign and therefore reserves the right to resile from any international legal obligations that it makes.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He is a doughty champion of the European Union, no doubt because it is an institution of rules. That being the case, how does he explain the European Union tearing up the convergence criteria that it established for countries to be admitted to the eurozone when subsequently allowing Greece and Italy to join? Its rules mean one thing at one time and another thing at another.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker. Convergence rules and the eurozone are not what we are debating today, albeit I will say that the European Union has made clear its position on the accession, as it were, of this jurisdiction back in, should we so wish, at a later date.

I will go back to my remarks on the motion. It matters profoundly that the UK Government and, indeed, all parties to the Good Friday Agreement not just live up to their obligations to one another but treat one another with a degree of trust and respect. I am afraid that that has been sadly lacking over the past few years.

As I have said multiple times in the House, it is not just liberal Remainers like me or bleeding-heart Europeans who are annoyed about the UK Government breaking international law or saying that they are going to do so. We have had Brexiteers such as Michael Howard and Geoffrey Cox, people whom I agree on very little with, talk about how terrible it is that any UK Government should admit that they are going to break treaties. Some in this Chamber might say that British Governments have a history of doing that, but I, despite being a nationalist who is proud to serve as a nationalist in the Chamber, used to work for the UK Government and therefore have a slightly different attitude to the UK state. I do not stand here and gleefully bash it, as Mr Givan sought to characterise, but be in absolutely no doubt that this UK Government are becoming a pariah around the world because of the way in which they treat their international treaty obligations. That is not something that you have to take from me. You can take it from a certain Margaret Thatcher, who said in 1975 to the Conservative Group for Europe at the launch of the Conservative campaign to keep Britain in Europe:

"Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade".

It is not just about this part of the world, although Northern Ireland is critical to it, but about how the state sees itself around the world. If it wants to be taken seriously, it has to live up to its treaty obligations. It is fine to say that Parliament is sovereign.

If Parliament is sovereign, what is the point in ever signing a treaty? It does not make any sense to simply be that reductive.


4.15 pm

The Good Friday Agreement is ultimately what is being protected in the Ireland protocol. Let us be clear: no one thinks that the Ireland protocol is an ideal or optimal outcome for Northern Ireland, for this whole island or, indeed, for trade relations across these islands. It is simply and only a reaction to the red lines of successive British Governments — red lines that were, in part, produced with the encouragement and collaboration of the party opposite. Nobody should be in any doubt that this is anyone's ideal scenario, but this is a set of protections that we need. They were carefully crafted and laboriously negotiated by the UK and the EU. They are in a treaty that is now lodged at the United Nations. It is genuinely unthinkable that any country seeking to take itself seriously would walk away from them now.

I have heard others in the Chamber complain about the provisions of the protocol and Northern Ireland's place, as it were, in the UK internal market. Let me be absolutely clear: I want to see unfettered trade east-west and North/South. Nobody should be in any doubt about that, but there are a couple of points in relation to that. First, the —.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: I will draw my remarks to a close.

First, the thing that is causing disruption to trade on this island and across these islands is Brexit. I support the motion, because it —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — reasserts that this is about maintaining international law and delivering on the obligations made to people here.

Dr Aiken: First of all, I commend the motion tabled by Sinn Féin, particularly Dr Caoimhe Archibald, because the tone of the debate has probably been better than the usual Brit-bashing fest that we have been used to over the last month and a bit. I also commend my very learned friend from South Belfast for realising the Ulster Unionist Party's desire to have no borders North/South or east-west —

Mr O'Toole: I think there is only one learned Member in the Chamber.

Dr Aiken: — but one of the most important things that we need to consider here is the importance of where we are at for Northern Ireland [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Members, order, please.

Dr Aiken: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. That was quite disrespectful to talk over me. It does not really suit you, Matthew, because you are not normally of that sort. I imagine that I will continue in the spirit of that as well.

The issue is the United Kingdom having the possibility of breaching international law. The most important point is that the United Kingdom has looked to support the Vienna convention for a considerable time; indeed, the Ulster Unionist Party has noted with concern the approach from the British Government in their attempts to breach this law. We have raised those issues in the House of Lords; indeed, we have raised those issues directly with the Secretary of State. One of the reasons we have raised those issues is that the Internal Market Bill does not answer the fundamental questions that we have to deal with, particularly about trade coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, or what we would call the level playing field for Northern Ireland and a level playing field across our nation, the United Kingdom.

People might cite examples of the European Union, and we have already had one example being quoted about the Grexit situation and what happens to Greece. Unfortunately, for many of us who have served, when you have to deal with the aftermath of the EU's intervention in the former republic of Yugoslavia and the disaster that that was, what is happening in the Mediterranean right now or, indeed, the meddling that seems to have taken place in Ukraine, you realise that the European Union is hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to international —.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Dr Aiken: Certainly.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member agree with me that there is an irony in being lectured on the need and munificence of European Union rule when this is an organisation whose books, for 20 years, auditors have been unable to clear?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Member for his comments. The next thing he will be telling me is that they will be following the Northern Ireland Government's particular rules — that they have not had their accounts audited, or they have always been given a qualification so far.

The other issue that we need to consider is that we have had examples cited of the United States. It was of considerable concern to us in the Ulster Unionist Party that, less than two weeks ago and despite the implications of COVID, Members from other parties drove all the way down to Dublin for what was essentially a photo opportunity with Simon Coveney. When Simon Coveney, the next day — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Sorry, Mr Aiken. Members, I appeal to you to pay respect to the Member who is on his feet.

Dr Aiken: When Simon Coveney went to the United States, he cited the example of quite a few members of the United States Administration and the legislature and their support for the so-called rule of law. Indeed, one of the members that he quoted was a Republican Party representative who supported such really sort of proper things as Trump's wall, repealing the Affordable Care Act, removal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), removal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and indeed, for many of us on this side of the House, there is considerable concern that that representative seemed to spend a lot of his time glorifying IRA terrorism in the past. None of these things is likely to be able to raise the point to us to show that this is the kind of thing that we should look at, and that is not an example. If anybody thinks that it is just a question of Republican Administrations, Republican and Democrat Administrations in the United States have both been very neglectful of international law and international treaties.

The real issue — I have said it time and again — is that we have an opportunity, as Members of the Assembly, to send a clear message to Frost and Barnier, who are going into a non-tunnel tunnel, depending on which way you look at it, that we want to see the lightest touch of regulation for all the people in Northern Ireland. We do not want to see the goods in our supermarkets going up in price. We do not wish to see a position in our electricity market where we will have to pay an additional 5% for energy. We should, as an Assembly, gather together to instruct the Executive to talk directly to Frost and Barnier and say, "For Northern Ireland, you keep on saying that you want to put the Belfast Agreement to the fore of where we are. Well, let's do it".

Mr O'Toole: Will the Member give way?

Dr Aiken: You have already intervened.

Let us do it. We have an opportunity here.

I think that this is the fourth debate that we have had on the issue. The Ulster Unionist Party has put in two motions. One of them is that we want a debate about the issues, about us talking to both the United Kingdom and the European Union about putting the interests of Northern Ireland first. We still have that opportunity. Rather than continuously talking about what the United Kingdom Government have done and are not going to do, we clearly need to talk about what the European Union should do. As an Assembly, we, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, should do that.

Mr Dickson: I rise to support the motion and to speak on the subject for what, I think, is certainly the third or — maybe Mr Aiken is right — fourth time in the past number of weeks. Brexit is a huge multifaceted issue, although I am not sure why we keep coming back to the same, specific point when the Assembly has already debated and voted on this.

I know that my colleague Dr Stephen Farry MP has been working hard to address these issues in Parliament by tabling amendments to the Internal Market Bill, as indeed have other Northern Ireland MPs.

Mr Speaker: Sorry, Mr Dickson, could you take your seat, please? I ask Members in a sedentary position not to make their voices heard. It is disrespectful to the Member who is speaking. Thank you. Go ahead, Mr Dickson.

Mr Dickson: Perhaps, Mr Speaker, the party that tabled the motion could tell us what it is doing on the issue other than submitting motions to the Assembly.

I do not really want to stand here and, once again, rail at the United Kingdom Government just for the sake of it. I am genuinely disappointed about the path that the Government are taking and the damage that it is doing to our standing and reputation around the world, a comment that has been made by others in the Chamber. The provisions of the Internal Market Bill that enable the United Kingdom Government to override an international agreement are an embarrassment. They need a rethink urgently and, as the Bill moves to the Lords, perhaps we will see the shape of some changes to come.

At this point, we all need to accept that Brexit is a mess. It is bad for business; it is bad for people's lives; and it will likely be bad for the international relations of the United Kingdom and its diplomatic influence around the world. We know that the protocol is not an ideal solution, but it is a response to the issues that a hard Brexit throws up. It is a compromise of a compromise; it is damage limitation. The original backstop would have offered much more and a more workable way forward for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, but that was rejected by some because it did not go far enough to depart us from the EU. Now the Government say that the provisions to override the protocol are just a safety net, supposedly to protect the Good Friday Agreement. If such changes were required, why were they not negotiated into the original agreement? However, the United Kingdom Government agreed on a deal last year, and the Prime Minister ran a general election on it. If these issues were so central, why is it taking this long for the Government to take action on it? There is, of course, the state aid red herring, which ignores the reality that the United Kingdom agreed with Japan and that, in fact, that binds it to stricter state aid rules than those that the EU proposes. Now we have a situation where the UK's largest trading partner has launched legal action to enforce the agreement, all while the country seeks a comprehensive trade deal with it.

This is yet another self-inflicted wound. How can the United Kingdom go to other countries and seek new trade agreements when it openly breaks deals signed not even a year ago? A no-deal outcome was never mentioned during the referendum, but now we are being told that it is a good outcome. For whom? Certainly not for the workers and businesses that I come into contact with in Northern Ireland. On top of the economic pain that we already face, it will just add further devastation. Ultimately, the UK Government can sort this by meeting their international obligations and striking a comprehensive trade deal with the European Union.

By any stretch of the imagination, 2020 has been and will be a tough year for everyone. People are worried about their income and their health, and businesses are on the edge. The deadline is galloping towards us. We need to build a better future with fewer barriers to trade, protecting people's lives and standards. Sadly, I am not convinced that debating the same motion again and again will achieve any of that.

Mr Stalford: Before I get into my comments, Mr Speaker, I apologise for my chuntering from a sedentary position on the Back Bench. I was chatting to my colleague from North Antrim, who was just so excited to see me back [Laughter.]

I apologise to you, sir, for any offence that I caused you.

Mr Speaker: Mr Storey may be a bad influence on you. I will keep an eye on that [Laughter.]

Mr Stalford: The dictionary definition of cynicism is:

"An inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest".

Week after week, it appears as though we are debating a motion on one aspect or another of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. On this occasion, it was tabled by Sinn Féin. When the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland went into the Common Market together, Sinn Féin opposed that. When the Single European Act was passed, Sinn Féin opposed that. When the Maastricht treaty, which created the European Union, was passed, Sinn Féin was opposed to that. When the Nice treaty came along, Sinn Féin was opposed to that. Sinn Féin was opposed to the European constitution. Sinn Féin was opposed to the Lisbon treaty. Sinn Féin has been Eurosceptic for longer than the Conservative and Unionist Party, but, suddenly, in this context, it is the great defender of an organisation that, not a few years ago, it was denouncing as a corporatist scam that suppressed wages and exploited workers. It is for them to justify that sudden volte-face.

I have no doubt that the next Member to speak will say in that perfunctory way, like some Brezhnev-era apparatchik trotting out the party line, that, "We are in favour of a reformed European Union". Our experience has taught us that reform of the European Union is impossible. It is an organisation that, from the 1957 Treaty of Rome, exists, according to its own definitions, for one purpose and one purpose alone: ever closer union and the dismantling of the nation state. The irony of republicans who drape themselves in the Irish flag and defend the sovereignty of the Irish people, gained at such cost from evil British imperialists, now getting to their feet to defend the quasi-national Government of the European Union is clearly lost on them.

It is ironic that they decry rule from London but plead and beg to be ruled from Brussels. What sort of nationalists are they? People can see through that; they know what it is. It is positioning, although not out of any fealty to the European Union. To be fair, I have long given up on converting my colleague from South Belfast on that issue. That pass has long been sold, given his adherence and devotion to an organisation headed up by a failed German Defence Minister, who had to be got out of the country because she was the least popular Minister in Merkel's Cabinet, and they found her a cushy job in Brussels on €122,000 a year. We have given up on trying to convert Mr O'Toole to see the true nature of the European Union, but there is hope. There may be hope: there may still be a beating nationalist heart in Sinn Féin. I do not know whether Sinn Féin is nationalist any more. Is it multi-nationalist? Is it corporatist? I am sure that Gerry Carroll has a few words that he would use to describe it.


4.30 pm

What the Government have done is, rightly, to take the necessary measures to ensure that we are not tied in to this dangerous protocol that is —

Dr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: Yes, I will.

Dr Aiken: Thank you very much indeed for coming back. We have enjoyed it. Thank you, Christopher. [Laughter.]

Mr Stalford: Thank you for [Inaudible.]

It is always appreciated. I was worried that someone would not get in.

What the Government have done is to move to ameliorate the dangerous and damaging effects that the protocol will have in cutting Northern Ireland off from its largest market. You cannot stand to your feet and say, "People need certainty, and businesses need help and reassurance", while at the same time defending a proposal that cuts us off from our largest market. If you defend that proposal, you are hurting Northern Ireland business and making it harder for people in Northern Ireland to get ahead and make a living. You cannot stand to your feet and say that you are standing up for the community when you are taking money out of your constituents' pockets by supporting the protocol. The European Union is bad for business. It is bad for people's lives. It is bad for people's health. I welcome the fact that we will no longer be living under its regulatory regime.

It is important to put on record the opinion of Martin Howe QC, who said:

"there is a general principle of international law that treaty powers should be exercised in good faith, and a blockage by the EU ... of reasonable ‘goods at risk’ ... passing from GB to NI"

could be classed as " bad faith". Indeed, that is precisely how it should be classed. The idea that bad faith in this process has come only from one source — London — is for the birds. Throughout this entire negotiation, the EU has used Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip. It threatens the prosperity of our people. At one point in the negotiations, it was threatening our —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Stalford: — very food supplies, but Members here stand to their feet and sing the praises —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Stalford: — of that organisation. I trust our people to govern themselves rather than to be governed —

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Mr Stalford: — by that cabal.

Ms Anderson: The motion reflects the views of the majority of Members in the Chamber who are absolutely appalled that the British Government have abandoned even the pretence of adhering to international law. While Tony Blair pretended that his Iraq War was legal, Boris Johnson does not even pretend: he is boasting about breaking international law. As for his claim that he is protecting the Good Friday Agreement — that is a lie. We already know what British Ministers such as Michael Gove think of the Good Friday Agreement: he described it as wicked.

Universal condemnation of the British Government by people such as Angela Merkel, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Geoffrey Cox and presidents of groups of the European Parliament falls on deaf ears. The British Government have been served formal notice by the EU that it is taking legal action against Britain for breaking the law — for acting like a rogue state. In this place, we have Ministers Dodds and Poots using their ministerial power to act more like Brexiteers than Executive Ministers. All Executive Ministers know that EU law, policy and funding touch on almost every aspect of life here. Indeed, there are 156 areas of all-Ireland cooperation, and they are some of the reasons why we need EU alignment across this island. Section 45 of the lawbreaking Bill gives the British Secretary of State, who confirmed that he is breaking the law, the powers to ignore the EU requirements for goods coming into the North and to renege on the Ireland protocol and key elements of the withdrawal agreement —

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Ms Anderson: No, I will not.

— so that chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef can go into the mouths of babes.

Section 46 overrides the power of the Assembly and the Executive and gives the British Government the power to give financial assistance — probably to their friends — with no areas excluded: health, water, electricity, education and transport are all up for grabs, allowing British Ministers to run riot on matters that reside in the remit of the Assembly. The Assembly has refused to introduce water charges and objected to the privatisation of our health service, but will British Ministers try to impose these things over our heads? We know only too well that it is not only British Tory Ministers who use their power to do favours for their friends. Here, some £500 million of public money went up in RHI smoke, literally, so that some of that was done for their friends.

Members on the opposite Benches want us to suck it up and live in some kind of hokey-cokey Ireland: one part in the EU; another part out. We are not sucking it up.

Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In light of the RHI report, will you refer the Member's comments? Will the Member's comments be investigated in light of what she claimed in the House today? Clearly, what she said was not in keeping with the inquiry's findings. Therefore, I ask her to withdraw her comments.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to stick to the motion, please.

Ms Anderson: I will stick to the motion.

Even some of their supporters now realise that the 310-mile border that partitions Ireland is not an issue just for Irish republicans and nationalists; it is now a problem for unionist and nationalist farmers and businesses, just as it is now a problem for the EU.

Dr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Ms Anderson: No, thank you.

On this day 52 years ago, 5 October, people took to the streets to demand civil rights and got their heads smashed in for doing so. Fifty-two years on, hard-won rights are being trampled on by a British Government who are breaking international law, and they will likely trade protections against torture for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants. Disabled rights — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Ms Anderson, take your seat for a second, please.

Mr Storey, for the final time this afternoon, please, respect people who are speaking.

Ms Anderson: Thank you.

Disabled rights, political rights and rights for carers that are protected by the EU have already gone. Members on the other side of the Chamber can ignore the conversation taking place about the form and shape of the new Ireland, but they cannot stop it, and they do not have the strategic vision to shape it.

To SMEs that want to trade with the EU and the rest of the world, to farmers who want their single farm payment, to students who want to enjoy the ERASMUS experience, to workers who want guaranteed maternity leave and holiday pay and to employers who do not want to juggle two sets of employment rules, I say this: there is a democratic way back into the EU. The European Council sent a message to us when it said that, if this country is reunited —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Ms Anderson: — the whole of Ireland will remain in the EU.

Mr Middleton: Another day, another motion on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, and this at a time when constituencies are struggling, businesses are crippled and constituents are worried about their health and the implications of COVID-19. Once again, Sinn Féin has come forward with a Brit-bashing motion, a political stunt that will have no impact in the Assembly.

Dr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Mr Middleton: In two seconds.

However, where it will have an impact, of course, Sinn Féin does not take its seats.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Member for giving way. Perhaps I was under a misapprehension or a false impression that the debate was going to be held in a respectful manner and, until the last contributor, I thought that it was. I ask us all to stop this incessant Brit-bashing and concentrate on the issues at hand.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Member for his intervention. Unfortunately, however, it does not surprise me that that is the tone adopted. The people of the Foyle constituency know exactly what Sinn Féin is like and it has been exposed, time and time again. Thankfully, the more people realise what Sinn Féin is about, the better this country will be.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Middleton: I will give way for the last time.

Mr Storey: Of course, the Member for Foyle keeps the law, unlike the previous contributor, who, in her tweet today advocated that we should keep to the COVID-19 rules. It is a pity that she did not apply the same rules when she attended the funeral of Bobby Storey.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Member for his intervention, and I completely agree. Again, on all those issues, the people are not stupid. People see Sinn Féin's hypocrisy for exactly what it is.

Nationalist and republican representatives in the Chamber cannot pick and choose which parts of an international agreement they want to honour. The DUP tabled 12 amendments to the Internal Market Bill, one of which would have given this place consent over the protocol, but the SDLP voted against it, and Sinn Féin did not turn up to vote against it. It seems that some Members and their parties in the Chamber think that only the provisions of the Belfast Agreement and international agreements that benefit nationalists are what matter.

Whatever the circumstances, the approach by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party is not acceptable. Sadly, local politicians have been used by the European Union over the past four years. For the EU, this was never about protecting peace in Northern Ireland. It has always been the case that the EU cannot accept the fact that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and it cannot get over it. The EU continues to use Northern Ireland as a weapon to punish the United Kingdom as a whole. It is my hope that the Members across the Chamber will soon recognise that fact.

The reality is that the EU is failing to honour its own international commitments as set out in the withdrawal agreement. Article 1 of the Northern Ireland protocol states that it is:

"without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement in respect of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland"

and goes on to say that it:

"respects the essential State functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom."

The problem is that the EU has not respected those aims. It has never fully understood the Belfast Agreement, nor has it ever respected the principle of consent. It has never recognised the sovereignty of internal UK trade, and it will not accept the fact that east-west trade is just as important as North/South trade to many others in the Chamber.

Finally, I want to say that it is disappointing, once again, that the motion has taken the turn that it has. I appeal to the Members of other parties who are being used by Sinn Féin — because Sinn Féin will quote this and say that the Assembly has passed the motion — not to allow themselves to be used. The people caught on to Sinn Féin a long time ago. I urge Members to put Northern Ireland first and foremost and ensure that we get the best for our citizens.

Ms Sheerin: I support the motion. According to the British Government, the Internal Market Bill will prevent further divergence between the North and Britain. Many would argue that that is something that Brexit itself has made inevitable. Setting aside the fact that we are operating in a contested territory with a history of conflict and competing narratives and that our systems are intrinsically different from those in Britain, one obvious issue on which the North is already in stark contrast to the UK is on the provision of rights. We are at a rights deficit compared with Britain. We do not have a single equality Act in the North and have relied on the EU for most of our rights protections until this point. Given how rights were denied and distributed in the past, that is a sensitive subject, and protections are powerful.

Many of the rights that we have now come to take for granted, such as the right to parental leave or the guarantee of equal pay regardless of race, gender or religion, have been in place because of EU directives. The Irish protocol gave us a promise that leaving the EU would not automatically mean losing those things. An example of that is the fact that annex 1 of the protocol includes EU directives on equal treatment in the workplace.


4.45 pm

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms Sheerin: No, thank you very much. Not after the way in which you spoke to my colleague.

The Internal Market Bill, on the other hand, potentially gives the British Government the power to override those things. We have seen in recent times that, under immigration law, the British Government regard us all as British, even though the Good Friday Agreement stated that we could be British, Irish or both, as per a person's own identity. I have to renounce a British identity that I have never had. However much that might grate on me, it does not change my ability to work. It looks, however, post-Brexit, as though Civil Service employees, for example, will have to have British nationality. For those not born in the North and not automatically treated as British by virtue of a birth certificate, that presents a significant challenge.

When the chief executive of the Human Rights Commission presented to the Executive Office Committee a couple of weeks ago, I asked him whether it was likely that we are going to have a situation in which Irish passport holders end up with more free movement rights than British passport holders. He told me that, all through the negotiations, the commission was told that there would be an: "inevitable asymmetry of rights".

Gardaí in the Twenty-six Counties can ask for passports from non-EU citizens. Post-Brexit, a British passport holder from the North is a non-EU citizen. Does that mean that you have to carry your passport if you are British but that I do not because I am Irish? Of course, on continued access to and exercise of EU rights, opportunities and benefits for Irish citizens in the North, we still have no clarity as to whose responsibility that will be. It has already been acknowledged that, for cross-border justice cooperation, no deal will leave us with a gap in law enforcement capability generally.

I am lucky enough to have been born in the 1990s, but, with one parent from another jurisdiction on this island, crossing the border was a common feature of my childhood. My memories of soldiers peering in through the window as we drove over Lifford bridge are few, but they were fraught with fear and anxiety, which I inherited. We do not want to go back to having army checkpoints. For anyone who lives on or around the border, that is not something that you will endure once or twice a month whilst on a visit to your granny, safe in the knowledge that you will soon be enjoying contraband Coca-Cola hidden from your mother. Instead, it will be a daily inconvenience. Imagine having to present your passport —.

Mr Humphrey: Will the Member give way?

Ms Sheerin: No, thank you.

Imagine having to present your passport going through a checkpoint on your way to work in the morning, on your way to get groceries on a Saturday or with your children in the back seat as you collect them from school. We are less than three months out, yet we do not know whether that will be a reality.

For EU migrants who have made their home here, it looks as though they will require an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to go into the Twenty-six Counties, making constant applications in order to commute. If you were born in Portugal but are now playing football in Dungannon, you will need an ETA if your team draws one from Monaghan, Cavan or Donegal in the Ulster Championship. Although that is an example that trivialises the issue, for our migrant population, many of whom will have language barriers and the challenges of racism and stereotyping to deal with, it is yet another barrier and yet another attack on their rights. It isolates and disenfranchises a group of people who have come here to make a better life for themselves and who enrich and bring diversity to our society.

The charter went further than the convention to protect immigration rights. Now the Tories are trying to give themselves Henry VIII powers to override EU immigration legislation post-Brexit. The protocol and the withdrawal agreement protected our rights as listed in the ECHR and the Good Friday Agreement via two mechanisms: the non-diminution of rights, which is, in layman's terms, a guarantee from the British Government not to roll back on rights; and a dedicated mechanism in the form of funding and powers to human rights organisations that work here in the North to hold them to that promise. The Internal Market Bill risks both those measures. Considering the British Government's form, I have grave concerns.

Mr Catney: I support the motion. Although I was shocked when it came to light that the Tory Government intended to deliberately break international law, I did not worry, because, time and again, they have changed concrete policy on a whim, based on whether the Lord Emperor Cummings has had his morning coffee. I waited patiently for the inevitable backtracking and U-turn, but here we are today, with the EU having begun a formal legal process against the UK, and still we have no movement from the Prime Minister. The arrogance of his post-Empire delusion has gone completely overboard. We laugh and mock when the president of the United States gets up to such nonsense. Anybody watching the Government Benches in Westminster will see that Trumpism is alive and well in Britain.

The Internal Market Bill is just one more example of a Tory Government that will do anything to get back to their self-perceived glory days, at anyone's expense. We are at a critical point. The end of the year is only around the corner. Without action now, our businesses, our employees and all our citizens will suffer. I note with interest that, in response to my question for written answer, the Minister for the Economy said that she had frequent discussions with the United Kingdom Business Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State in the run-up to the publication of the Internal Market Bill. I wonder whether she did her bit as a Minister of the Executive to voice the concerns of businesses and citizens here, who face a cliff edge in January with seemingly no prospect of a positive outcome.

I can only base my decisions in the Chamber on my own life experiences. I opened my first businesses when I was young. Some suppliers gave me a chance. I worked hard to repeatedly build up trust with them so that I could be supported throughout my career. That is the only way to build a successful agreement: through building trust. Without trust, there is no possible way forward or chance of success, only hurt and despair for all involved. Due to the actions of the disillusioned British Government, there is no trust. They have shown time and time again that they will willingly break their agreements. More significantly for us, they have shown that they could not care less about Northern Ireland. They tell us that they are looking out for us while threatening us with food shortages and tearing up agreements designed to protect us from the worst impacts of their own disastrous vanity projects. We in this Chamber must say clearly that the British Government must honour the withdrawal agreement to protect jobs, our businesses and our future.

Mr Muir: Once again, I rise to speak on behalf of the Alliance Party on the subject of Brexit. I must say that it feels a bit like Groundhog Day, given the number of motions that we have debated thus far. There has probably been more heat than light that has come out of those.

The Alliance Party is keen to ensure that a successful negotiation is concluded and an outcome is reached. However, it is unhelpful for the Assembly to use this issue to vent long-held resentment towards the EU or the UK Government. The right thing for the Assembly to do is to call on both sides to negotiate in good faith to secure the best possible outcome for the lives and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland. The UK Government's willingness to break international law is not good-faith negotiation. It reduces the chances of a comprehensive free trade agreement. We are not naive about the negotiation process, but the UK Government's expression of their willingness to break international law was a mistake and has made a deal more difficult.

My party has been consistent from the start. We supported Remain. We would not be having this debate if we were remaining within the European Union. We were against the withdrawal agreement, and we supported an extension to the transition period, which would have been especially important in the light of the economic circumstances that we face in the context of COVID-19. However, regrettably, we are where we are. The only option that remains is for both sides to negotiate in good faith and strike a deal that is best for Northern Ireland.

Mr McNulty: I support the motion. Even though it feels a bit like a repeat of previous motions, there is merit in revising the arguments.

The Ireland protocol contains vital protections for the North and the whole island of Ireland. The protocol is no one's first choice for our island, but it is a necessary response and compromise that has been forced by the hard Brexit ideology of the right-wing ideologues in Downing Street. The Internal Market Bill is a blatantly irresponsible instrument that seeks to override the Ireland protocol. It recklessly threatens the Good Friday Agreement, in substance and spirit.

Right now, businesses want the protocol implemented in a way that works. Right now, businesses want maximum access to the UK and EU markets. Right now, businesses want and need clear and unambiguous information on where they stand and what the future holds so that they can plan and prepare. Right now, businesses and communities know that the way to achieve this is for the UK to abide by its treaty obligations and work constructively to implement the Ireland protocol.

They know that if you try to assert exclusive sovereignty over this part of Ireland, you are doomed to failure. Are we, here, just going to be collateral damage of Tory ideologues' Brexit bonkers?

Over 20 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement recognised the importance of shared sovereignty and recognised the importance of the EU, the UK, the Northern Executive and the Dublin Government's involvements. The British Government's threatened divergence from previously agreed international agreements breaks the law. It is incredible that there are Members opposite who are cool with that.

A Member opposite spoke of cynicism. Well, he cannot be cynical about the SDLP's commitment to the EU and to the values of respect, human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.

I am a proud Irishman and a proud citizen of Europe. I abhor the fact that my rights as an EU citizen are being stripped away and that there are those in this Chamber who are going along with it to appease Tory overlords.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNulty: No, I want to get home.

That cannot be allowed to happen. My rights and the rights of every EU citizen, every Irish citizen, must be protected. The Ireland protocol must be honoured. I support the motion.

Mr Allister: So here we are, the third successive week in which we have been debating a motion so that Sinn Féin and other Europhiles can beat their chests and vent their spleen about Brexit and, effectively, howl at the moon about the fact that we are leaving the EU. Three weeks of the same thing, interspersed only with the interesting fact that, last week, a Sinn Féin Minister proposed a Brexit-enabling Bill to this House. It was a welcome break in that particular litany of approach.

This is a motion built upon — let us use a kind word — a misconception. The misconception that international law, in some way, trumps domestic law and that, in some way, it trumps parliamentary sovereignty. It does neither. It is a fundamental rule of our constitution that no treaty can change our law without an Act of Parliament giving effect to it. The Act of Parliament that gave effect to this treaty was the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Section 38 could not have been clearer:

"nothing in this Act derogates from the sovereignty of ... Parliament".

Jo Maugham QC has already been referred to by Mr Stalford. He is no friend of the Government. He is the founder of the Good Law Project that has brought many challenges over Brexit, but he said that:

"If parliamentary sovereignty ... means anything ... it must mean Parliament can enact ... legislation that breaches international law."

That is "Mr Europe" himself speaking. That is up —.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way because neither Miss Sheerin nor Mr McNulty chose to. They both mentioned rights and equality. The Member will recall from the time that I was blissfully employed by him, in his European office,

[Laughter]

that there was a time when the only people that it was legal to discriminate against, in the entirety of Europe, were people from Northern Ireland from a Protestant community background who applied for jobs in the police. Who gave the permission and made the accommodation to allow that to happen? Maybe the Member could illuminate the House on that?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Allister: Yes of course. The Member has emerged very well from his difficult background, I must say. [Laughter.]

He has done very well, and I take some pride in that. [Laughter.]

The Member is right. All of that was EU-induced, and, of course, the British Government had to seek an exemption from the European Convention on Human Rights to bring in that discrimination. The people complaining today were not complaining then about any of those matters.


5.00 pm

Let us be clear: Parliament can do and undo. That is perfectly lawful and within parliamentary sovereignty. To hear Sinn Féin, particularly the Member for Foyle who, to this day, is proud of her breaking of the law as a bomber, pontificating about upholding the rule of law has a special resonance all of its own. It is a party that, in more recent times, has been more than happy to break the law on COVID restrictions, but, today, it is pontificating about someone daring to break the law. That is such dissemblance. However, the dissembling does not end there. The party pretends concern over job losses and business failures. Those are the things that they want to preserve by supporting the protocol, because it is the protocol that threatens jobs, fetters our trade with our biggest market and will put businesses out of business, and it is the protocol that will take money out of the pockets of our consumers to pay the extra tariffs and customs. However, they come, with crocodile tears, with a motion about threats to business and job losses, when the very thing that they are supporting is the thing that will do that. Does Sinn Féin care? No, because the ideological achievement of driving a border down the Irish Sea trumps everything for Sinn Féin.

My only regret is that some who should know better — some who recognise the pattern of needless motions — will egg them on today by voting for that motion. It is time that they drew a line and realised where they were being led. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: I call John O'Dowd to close and make a winding-up speech. He has 10 minutes.

Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure where to start, because Paul Givan threw me in his introductory remarks. He started off by explaining international law, in his view, as he is perfectly entitled to do. He went on to bring up the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and his concerns about how they would feel about Sinn Féin's position on Brexit, Europe etc. He carried on to question our republican socialist credentials on the world stage. I sat and listened to him and wondered whether I had entered a different time zone or a world where things had turned upside down.

Then I realised what was going on. It was a classic example of distraction politics: talk about something other than what we want to talk about, or what you do not want to hear your base, your supporters, farmers or factory workers talk about. The reality is that many within the unionist community have serious concerns about Brexit and where the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party that followed the DUP have brought them. We see that in the position that the Ulster Farmers' Union has taken. It is expressing serious concerns. We also see it in the business sector, which is expressing serious concerns about where Brexit has led to, and I am sure that there are serious concerns in Gary Middleton's constituency about where Brexit has led everyone.

Dr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will, briefly.

Dr Aiken: Thank you very much. I am a bit disappointed that the Member has joined Simon Coveney and various other people in "Unionsplaining". Members of this party — I am not speaking for other parties on this — know very clearly what our constituents want, and it is not a border down the middle of the Irish Sea.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr O'Dowd: I am not here to question what your constituents want or do not want. You delivered the border down the Irish Sea; I did not. Gentlemen and women on that side of the Chamber delivered the border down the Irish Sea; I did not. That is why I am pointing out the fact that you are trying to distract the debate away from where we are.

Let us move on. I will go back not to 1916 but to 2016, because this point is constantly raised in the Chamber: Sinn Féin did not support the EU in 1970 or the EEC in 1970. It reminds me of some debates among the left, "You didn't do this. You weren't on the barricades when we were on the barricades. Where were you?". Party politics change or positions evolve. Party debates take place. Changes happen on a global and local scale, and parties move with those changes.

I want to reference 2016. I was on the Executive in 2016, and then I was out. I also sat in the Chamber in 2016, and, as we moved towards the debate on Brexit, the DUP Benches were quite often empty, because a major debate was going on in the DUP as to what position it would take on Brexit. There were more meetings in the DUP meeting rooms on the third floor than there were in the Chamber as orders came from Westminster on what position the DUP should adopt. DUP MPs in Westminster, who had fallen under the influence of much older, much stranger men in the European Research Group, were sending back word that they needed to support Brexit. In 2016, as the debate was moving forward, the DUP did not even have a position on Brexit.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: Not at the moment. [Inaudible.]

Mr O'Dowd: I will let you in; do not worry about it. The DUP did not have a position on Brexit, and then it adopted, "We will support Brexit". It moved forward and supported Brexit — I will let you in in a moment — and it has brought us to this position. What has it delivered? A potential border down the Irish Sea, economic damage and competition that farmers and the business sector have never seen before.

When the DUP sat in its party room on the third floor, listening to either the pleas or the orders from its MPs to support Brexit, it made a huge mistake. There is always an opportunity to correct that mistake. I will let Mr Storey in, and then I will move on.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for letting me in. I will clarify for the Member that I have been a member of the DUP since I was 15, and we do not take our instructions from London. Unlike the party opposite, we do not have an army council to give us our instructions.

Mr O'Dowd: I have been a member of Sinn Féin since I was 18, and I do not take instructions from anywhere other than the ard-chomhairle of Sinn Féin. That is another distraction from Mr Storey.

The reality is that, in mid-2016, the DUP did not have a position on Brexit until it was told by its MPs in Westminster what it needed to do. Since then, party members have become avid Brexiteers despite what the British Government have done. Mr Aiken said that we are not allowed to Brit-bash. I am not really a Brit-basher, to be honest with you, but Mr Aiken then went on to bash United States politicians, European politicians and Irish politicians. Let us not bash anybody. Let us speak about what has happened, what is happening and what our experiences are.

I will be honest with you: when a British Prime Minister or Minister stands at the Dispatch Box in Westminster and makes a statement, I have real difficulty in believing anything that they tell me because experience has taught me that. That does not mean that there have not been admirable Westminster MPs, Ministers and even Prime Ministers, who stretched themselves for peace in Ireland. I respect them for various parts of that, but we have never been served well from the Dispatch Box in Westminster. That is why we have a local Assembly and come together here to work things out among ourselves.

I recall, when Ian Paisley senior proposed that he and Martin evict the NIO from Stormont Castle, he said, "Martin, you and I can run this place better than anybody". At times, we show the potential for that. We show huge potential for our people, but, as long as the DUP and others are tied to the right-wing tail of the Tory Party, it will always cause difficulties for this society.

Why do we not govern better for ourselves? Why do we not collectively say, "The will of the people here is this: we should not have Brexit. It is bad for business, bad for farming, bad for our community and bad for investment", and now we have a Government who have turned around once again and are going to break an international agreement — I will come to Mr Allister in a minute — to negotiate with the EU.

They have broken agreements with the DUP and are going to break international agreements, so what is to say that they will not break future agreements with you? Whatever assurances Boris, or whoever, has given to the DUP and others, what is to say that they will not be broken? That brings me back to the point that we are better at governing ourselves than allowing others to do it to us.

Mr Allister, I will not get into a legal argument with a barrister; I have more sense. However, does anybody remember Gina Miller? Gina Miller brought to the Supreme Court a case that argued the point that Parliament was supreme and that its will had to be listened to. The very people who are arguing that Parliament's will is supreme are the very people who demonised Gina Miller. They demonised the woman who ensured that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations and that Parliament was the body that voted on the withdrawal agreement that it is about to break. You cannot have it both ways, folks. You cannot stand here and tell me, an Irish Republican, that Parliament is supreme and then ride on the coat-tails of the people who so harshly criticised Gina Miller for ensuring that your Parliament had a say.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: Quickly.

Mr Allister: It was Gina Miller's case that led to the very declaration by the Supreme Court that Parliament is supreme. That created the principle, and that is the principle that informs the recent legislation and the treaty.

Mr O'Dowd: The Member brings me on to my next point. You have a sovereign Parliament whose Government negotiate and endorse an international agreement. You cannot break that agreement. You can have a new negotiation. Your negotiators can negotiate with other countries and bring back a restructured agreement, but you cannot unilaterally break an international agreement.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I am not giving way, because I have only a minute left.

It leaves you open to criticism and open to suspicion. That leads me on to this point: in the absence of a trade agreement, the part of these islands that will suffer most is here.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Dowd: We will suffer the most. Therefore, it is urgent that we all send out this clear message: honour your agreements.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Members.

Question put.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Speaker: As Members will understand, the social-distancing policies and measures that we have in place make it difficult to call the result of a vote. I am content to put the Question again. If there are still dissenting voices, the House will divide.

Question put a second time.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.


5.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, under Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy-voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I also remind Members that social distancing should continue to be observed while the Division is taking place. Please be patient at all times and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly is appalled that the British Government have abandoned any pretence of adherence to international law; recognises that the potential for a trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom has significantly diminished as a result of the British Government reneging on key elements of the withdrawal agreement; acknowledges that that would be devastating for workers and families, with inevitable business failures, job losses and economic damage; and calls on the British Government to respect the rule of law and honour their obligations in full as set out in the withdrawal agreement that they negotiated and which the British Parliament agreed.

Adjourned at 5.31 pm.

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