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Official Report: Tuesday 20 October 2020


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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The first item of business in the Order Paper is the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 3) Bill.

That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 3) Bill [NIA Bill 09/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limits to this debate. I call on the Finance Minister to open the debate on the Bill. Iarraim ar an Aire Airgeadais an díospóireacht a oscailt ar an Bhille.

Mr Murphy: The Second Stage debate follows yesterday's approval by the Assembly of the Supply resolutions for the 2020-21 Main Estimates and the 2016-17 Statement of Excesses. Accelerated passage of the Bill is necessary in order to ensure Royal Assent before any Departments reach the cash limits for 2020-21 that were set in the Vote on Account. I am grateful to the Finance Committee for confirming that, in line with Standing Order 42, the Bill can proceed under accelerated passage. I thank the Committee for its work in agreeing to accelerated passage.

We all recognise that the situation this year is unprecedented and, as I explained in the debate yesterday, instead of bringing the Main Estimates to the Assembly in May, it was necessary at that time to seek the Assembly's approval for a further Vote on Account to provide authority for Departments to access the cash that they would require to continue to deliver services and to respond to the developing COVID situation until the autumn. That requirement was passed by the Assembly in the Budget (No. 2) Act (NI) 2020.

The financial position now allows me to bring the Budget (No. 3) Bill to the Assembly to seek the legislative authority for the expenditure of the Departments and other bodies for the remainder of this financial year. That is based on the Executive's up-to-date expenditure plans, including over £2·3 billion in additional resources and capital allocations, which they have made in response to the COVID emergency and for economic recovery.

Standing Order 32 directs that the Second Stage debate should be confined to the general principles of the Bill, and I shall endeavour to keep to that direction. The Bill will authorise the cash and use of resources on services to allow Departments and other bodies to operate for the remainder of the financial year, carrying out the functions and delivering the services that are set out in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill. The detail of how the cash and resources will be used is set out in the Main Estimates, and that document, together with the 2016-17 Statement of Excesses, was laid in the Assembly on 13 October.

The Bill will authorise the issue of the sum of £4,757,631,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources totalling £4,791,050,000 by the Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2021 — this financial year.

The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column one of each schedule. These amounts are in addition to those previously authorised by the Assembly in the Budget Act (NI) 2020 in March and the Budget (No. 2) Act (NI) 2020 in June. They represent the Executive's up-to-date expenditure plans and include the allocations agreed with the Executive in response to the COVID situation since the 2020-21 Budget was debated by the Assembly on 5 May. The Bill ensures that all Departments will have the statutory authority to spend cash and use the resources required to deliver services for the remainder of the financial year.

Clause 2 provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department of £2,378,816,000. This is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 1 for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. I stress that clause 2 does not provide for the issue of any additional cash out of the Consolidated Fund or convey any additional spending power. It enables my Department to run an effective and efficient cash management regime.

As Members will recall from the debate yesterday, as well as authorising the 2020-21 expenditure, the Bill regularises excess expenditure that occurred in 2016-17. Clauses 5 and 6 authorise the sum of £112,618,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources totalling £183,290,000 by the Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 3 and 4 to the Bill for the year ending 31 March 2017. This is necessary to regularise the excess expenditure that was incurred by some Departments and other bodies as it was not possible to bring the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) and the associated Budget Bill to the Assembly at the end of the 2016-17 financial year. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) considered these 2016-17 excesses and recommended that they now be regularised through the Statement of Excesses and their inclusion in this Bill. The Bill also repeals a number of Budget Acts from 2016 and 2017. This is a normal process to remove legislation from the statute book once it is spent.

The numbers contained in the Budget Bill are significant, and I am sure that Members will agree that it is not an easy task to try to translate those figures into the delivery of public services on the ground. The reality is that the legislation is required to ensure that all public services can continue to be delivered for the remainder of this financial year. This means that we can support essential workers, such as our doctors, nurses and care workers, who continue to be on the front line dealing with COVID-19. It also means support for the businesses that are so vital for economic recovery. It means that all the day-to-day services on which we all rely can continue to be delivered to citizens.

On that note, I will conclude. I am happy to deal with any points of principle or detail of the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Paula Bradley.

Ms P Bradley: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Excuse me, sorry. My mistake. I call Steve Aiken, Chair of the Finance Committee. That was very remiss of me, Dr Aiken.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): Yes, well, I think that I am still the Chair of the Finance Committee. Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his remarks so far.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I can confirm that you are. [Laughter.]

Dr Aiken: As outlined, the Bill makes provision for the balance of cash and resources required to reflect the departmental spending plans in the 2020-21 Main Estimates. These are based on the Executive's Budget, which was approved by the Assembly earlier this year. The Bill also includes provisions for excess cash and resource requirements. The Committee noted that this matter has been considered by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) and reported on by the Public Accounts Committee, which recommended that the necessary sums be provided by Excess Votes. The Committee had no observations on this recommendation.

As Members may recall, it was necessary to bring forward a further Vote on Account and associated Budget Bill to ensure that Departments incurring higher than anticipated spending as a result of the COVID pandemic would not exceed their voted limits. As with other Budget Bills, the Department of Finance highlighted the need for the Bill to progress by accelerated passage. As Members may be aware, the Committee has a unique role in determining whether a Budget Bill should proceed via accelerated passage. In this regard, the Committee, at its meeting last week, agreed to grant accelerated passage to the Bill under Standing Order 42(2) on the basis of having been consulted appropriately on the expenditure provisions within it, and I wrote to the Speaker to confirm this decision.

Traditionally, there seems to have been an assumption that the Committee for Finance will automatically grant accelerated passage to Budget Bills.

You might even say that the granting of accelerated passage has been taken for granted. The Department provided a very useful briefing paper to the Committee, but it contained one phrase of concern:

"The Committee for Finance has a vital role to play in ensuring the Accelerated Passage of the Bill".

I make it clear, once and for all, that that is not the case. The Department of Finance has a vital role in ensuring that the Committee for Finance has been appropriately consulted on the policy proposals contained in Budget Bills so that it is in a position to write to the Speaker to that effect and, thus, grant accelerated passage.

That stated, there has been suitable engagement with the Minister and departmental officials on budgetary matters since we have resumed business. I hope that we continue in that vein throughout the remainder of this mandate. That engagement has included advance pre-introductory briefings on any ministerial statements, engagement relating to the up-to-date positions on COVID allocations and the appearance of officials during formal Committee meetings. The provision of budgetary information is important both for the Finance Committee's strategic cross-cutting scrutiny role and for individual Statutory Committees to fulfill their role in monitoring and scrutinising progress at departmental level. The role of Statutory Committees in scrutinising departmental spending and monitoring savings, as well as service delivery, will, I am sure, only intensify, particularly as a result of the social and economic challenges that we all face and will continue to face in the future.

Thorough scrutiny can add real value, but, for it to be effective, the flow and timing of information is critical. Across government, there needs to be an acknowledgement and acceptance that scrutiny Committees must be afforded adequate time to enable them to contribute through constructive scrutiny to influence at the formative stages of the Budget process. Members of our Committee — and I, from my own personal perspective — never want to hear again a member of another Committee saying that they have not had adequate information, or an adequate flow of information, coming through. I understand, in particular, the concerns of the Justice Committee in that area. I hope, Minister, that we will emphasise to the rest of your Executive colleagues that the timely flow of information is vital if we are to conduct our roles effectively.

Mr Givan: I appreciate the Member's giving way. I thank him, in his role as Chair of the Committee, for the work that he carried out to facilitate the Justice Committee; we got information from his Committee as opposed to the relevant Department. I am pleased to confirm that steps have been taken to address those matters, and there is now much better engagement coming from the Department of Justice directly to the Justice Committee. I put on record my thanks to the Finance Committee for its work in that regard.

Dr Aiken: Thank you.

Concerns have also been expressed by some other Statutory Committees about the flow and timing of information relating to budgetary matters, which makes it difficult for those Chairpersons to fully contribute to debates, such as this one on the Budget Bill. As I said during yesterday's Supply resolution debate, the Committee has, in the course of its work, taken a particular interest in black-box items. There are six items of expenditure for which the Assembly's approval is being sought today under sole authority of the Budget (No. 3) Bill. The Committee sought copies of the Department of Finance's approval letters for that expenditure. Those approval letters were received during yesterday's debate on the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates and were circulated to Committee members in advance of today's debate. Although the Committee is yet to formally consider the content of those approvals, I am struck by the timing of some of them. The Main Estimates, which included those black-box items, and the associated Bill were formally laid in the Assembly on 13 October. As I highlighted during yesterday's debate, the Committee for Finance received advance copies of those, which were considered at its meeting on 6 October. It is therefore interesting to note the Department's approach: two formal Department of Finance approval letters were dated only last Friday,16 October, which was after the Committee had asked to see them. In contrast, other approvals had been issued by email. I consider that to be an important point to note because, although the Department stated that verbal confirmation was provided to the two Departments concerned, the appropriate approvals were not formally in place at the time of the Estimates being laid.

Minister, it would therefore be helpful if you would clarify whether it is lawful for a Department to incur expenditure under sole authority prior to formal approval being given and whether Department of Finance approval can, indeed, be given retrospectively.


10.45 am

Those key questions need to be answered to provide the Assembly, and the wider public, with the necessary assurances that appropriate controls are in place to ensure that public money is used appropriately and that there are sufficient checks and balances to safeguard that. In the absence of Department of Finance approval, how can we, as an Assembly, draw confidence from the process if Departments can use public money under sole authority, without the necessary safeguards being observed? The Department must lead by example. It must ensure that the highest standards of financial accountability are adhered to across government to maintain the integrity of public-sector financial processes.

I acknowledge that the Department and the Minister have recognised that there has been inconsistency, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the Committee will wish to explore that with the Minister when it formally considers the issue at its meeting tomorrow.

Turning to the wider Budget process, I look forward to getting it on a level footing in future. I also look forward to a memorandum of understanding being agreed between the Assembly and the Executive so that we can all fully play our part in planning, monitoring and scrutinising Budgets, Estimates and Budget Bills.

On behalf of the Committee for Finance, I support the motion.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Budget (No. 3) Bill and to highlight the areas of financial impact and concern that the Committee for Communities has been focusing on in recent months. In March, I assured the Minister of Finance that the Committee for Communities would work closely with the Department to achieve all that it could within its remit, whatever its budget allocation. That remains the Committee's position.

The Committee is fully supportive that the request for resources corresponds with the Department's main programmes: welfare, employment, local government, housing regeneration, culture, arts and sports. However, the Committee does not just want to press for more money for each and every area without understanding the underlying issues and pressures and looking at costed options. To that end, the Committee started this term with a strategic planning day to refocus its efforts on where, within its substantial remit, it can make most impact. In the coming months, it will support and scrutinise the Department as it is faced with the prospect of prioritising expenditure across a multitude of areas, all crying out for resources.

The Committee has worked closely with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) over the past six months to better understand the extreme financial concerns of our local councils as they struggle to continue to deliver essential services in this financial year and beyond and to maintain jobs and leisure, sports, community and arts services. The Committee was pleased to hear from SOLACE of the good working relationship between councils and the Executive and that financial packages of well over £60 million have been secured to date from DFC alone in respect of lost income and emergency expenditure. The Committee also supports the call for a sustainable, co-designed financial model for local government so that councils can be part of the COVID-19 recovery in all our communities.

Throughout the pandemic, the Committee has heard and seen the difference that arts, culture and sports, and the opportunity to take part in them, make in our communities. It is focusing its efforts on supporting those sectors to survive the crisis so that they can thrive again and continue to play their part in the overall well-being of our society. The Committee has pushed hard for financial support to help the culture, arts, heritage and sports sector. Recently, we were delighted to help to secure the remaining £29 million of the arts package. The Committee now wants to see that money spent quickly to support venues and performers.

However, just last week, the Committee was alarmed to hear of the looming financial crisis facing our football league clubs. They are employers, from footballers to coaches, to administrators and more; they are also community and social hubs that have played a vital role in the COVID-19 community response. The Committee supports their call for an emergency hardship fund for such clubs.

On 30 September, the Committee had a very informative briefing from departmental officials on COVID allocations, the October monitoring round and the Budget 2021-24 exercise. Affordable housing is an ongoing concern for the Committee, as it is for all of us, and we were pleased to note that the legislation to reverse the decision of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to classify housing associations as public bodies gained Royal Assent on 28 August. That will allow the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association to again qualify for financial transactions capital (FTC) funding, and it has been agreed with the Department of Finance that the Department for Communities will bid for £13 million FTC as part of the October monitoring exercise. The Committee fully supports that bid to facilitate the purchase of an additional 500 homes in order to meet the increased demand for the co-ownership scheme. However, I have heard informally that the October monitoring round is delayed. If that is the case, I ask the Minister where that leaves the funding for co-ownership housing.

I cannot speak without highlighting the Committee's concern over the predicted 100,000 job losses as a result of the pandemic and the huge number of people who might soon find themselves in receipt of universal credit (UC). Indeed, the UC caseload has doubled so far, and the Department is employing close to 1,000 fixed-term contract staff to deal with the increase in social welfare claimants. Sadly, we are creating new jobs in DFC to deal with the massive unemployment that is predicted to result from COVID.

The Committee expressed concern recently about lack of sufficient funds for labour market interventions. That brings me to the new welfare reform mitigations. The Committee noted the very large sums of money that the Department put down in its budget for each of the three years of the 2021-24 exercise. There is over £147 million per year as a place finder for new welfare mitigations. The Committee looks forward to hearing from the Minister soon on the review of welfare mitigations and those spending plans.

Although the COVID response has taken much of the Committee's time, it is keen to pursue the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments and has been keeping in regular contact with the Minister on key NDNA priorities; for example, the regional and subregional stadia programmes and the development of social strategies. The Committee is, naturally, a great supporter of the proposed social strategies and would like to see the required funding to ensure that they are developed as soon as possible.

We should not show lack of ambition in our planning, but, regrettably, our ambition has been tempered by our finances and the primacy of the ongoing COVID crisis. In addition, the elephant in the room is the absence of a draft Programme for Government. Ultimately, we need a draft Programme for Government so that we can consider the link between the proposed outcomes and the budgets that are allocated against them. Without that, we stand accused of a lack of strategy and vision and of reacting rather than planning.

I will make a few remarks as the Communities spokesperson for my party that I have not already made in my Committee speech. I will make just two points. The first is on the Supporting People budget. The Minister is well aware, as are Members, of the good work that is done through that for our older people, those with disabilities and those with mental health and homelessness problems. During the worst months of the COVID pandemic, the Supporting People scheme went over and above in the work that it did. The Committee received a briefing on homelessness, and it was able to say in the Assembly that no one was homeless. That was very much down to those agencies and groups that work under Supporting People. We have not seen an uplift in the Supporting People budget that matches inflation in many years. The Minister is well aware of that, as are Members. Every time that we have a Budget debate and I have to speak, I always mention Supporting People and the need for an uplift for it.

We talked about strategies, and another issue that I want to mention before closing is the sign language strategy. I know that it is some way away because we have to go through it in great detail.

However, we can do something: the video relay service (VRS). The Department for Communities is trying to make headway with the video relay service. In June 2019, Scotland launched VRS For All, which means that it does not matter whether it is the public sector, the third sector or the private sector; every person who has a hearing or speech impairment can access the VRS. I ask the Minister to progress that, because people with a hearing or speech impairment are being discriminated against every single day in Northern Ireland because they do not have access to that service.

Mr Gildernew: Having addressed Committee issues yesterday, I speak today in my role as Sinn Féin's spokesperson for health in order to address health inequality issues of which we are all conscious. Health inequalities can be adequately addressed only by focusing our actions and our allocation of financial resources on the wider social, economic and environmental determinants of health across various Departments. Health inequality here remains a costly scourge on our health services and our communities, and it must be tackled through targeted funding and programmes that will enhance the health of all our people. Tackling health inequality must be central to any forward planning to rebuild our health services in the North. Poor health limits people's ability to develop life skills through education, careers and professional development. Various public health studies have found that health is strongly linked to education, employment, housing and income.

In my comments, I am merely trying to provide a snapshot of the health inequalities experienced by different communities across the North. Men and women in more affluent areas can, on average, expect to live longer than their peers in more deprived areas. Those living in the most deprived areas have about 60% to 80% more heart and respiratory disease and strokes, a twofold excess of accidents and a threefold excess of lung cancer. Across the North, there are alarming levels of disparity in incidences of infant mortality, childhood obesity, oral ill health, pulmonary and respiratory disease, substance abuse and addiction, and mental health and well-being between the most and least deprived communities. Large inequalities continue in mental health indicators, with rates of suicide and self-harm almost three and a half times higher in the most deprived areas. Prescription rates for depression and anxiety are relatively high across the entire North, although the rate in deprived areas remains two thirds higher than in the least deprived areas.

The 'Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability' found that poor mental health affects one in every four citizens here. The review concluded that there is clear evidence of inequalities in the investment associated with mental health and learning disability over many years compared with England, Scotland and Wales, despite higher levels of mental ill health in the North. Those living in the most deprived areas have about 60% to 80% more heart and respiratory disease and strokes. In addition to that, significant alcohol, smoking and drug-related inequalities continue to plague the North: for example, alcohol mortality and alcohol-related hospital admissions in the most deprived areas are four times that of the least deprived areas. We are all aware of the famous study that demonstrated that you can board a bus in Belfast, travel a short journey across the city and expect to live a significant number of years longer and more healthily as a result of where you live. Those issues must be tackled.

According to the Office for National Statistics, patterns of death from COVID-19 also correspond with patterns of deprivation, with deaths in more deprived communities more than double those in the least deprived communities. The ONS data shows that differences in risk of death from COVID-19 are partly the result of socio-economic disadvantage and other unexplained factors. Department of Health figures reveal that the infection rate in the 10% most deprived communities is one fifth higher than the 10% least deprived communities and that the infection rate among those aged over 65 is almost two fifths higher in deprived areas. That amounts to 1,027 per 100,000 versus 750 per 100,000 population between the most and least deprived areas.


11.00 am

The COVID pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. Recent statistics from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC), including data from England, Wales and the North, show that, since the start of September, 38·6% of individuals who are critically ill in intensive care with COVID are from BAME backgrounds. Individuals from those groups are also more likely to face housing challenges, which may exacerbate COVID-19 transmission, morbidity and mortality. They are also more likely to work in key worker jobs with a higher risk of exposure and to report being more likely to use public transport to reach their place of work.

Carers are also hugely important in our society. They provide support, often on an unpaid basis, for thousands of older people and those with disabilities. Carers suffer higher levels of ill health. Almost one in five carers provides substantial care of over 50 hours per week and feels that they are in poor health, as compared with 14% of the non-carer population. It is remarkable and disgraceful that carers are one of the few groups in our society that have received no additional support to date throughout the pandemic. I know that you are prepared to look at that issue, Minister. Today, I appeal directly to the Minister of Health to bring forward measures, as a priority, that will make a real difference for carers right now and in the weeks and months ahead.

I move on to transformation. Michael Marmot, in his famous report on health inequalities, stated that:

"Realizing health equity requires empowering people, particularly socially disadvantaged groups, to exercise increased collective control over the factors that shape their health."

The ambition of Delivering Together is to guarantee that the user of the health and social care system is listened to as they play a central role in developing and implementing new services and care pathways. Any serious effort to transform our health and social care services must be thorough and must be resourced. There can be no satisfactory health and social care transformation process unless the deep and lasting health inequalities across the North are tackled. With nearly half of the Executive's Budget being spent on health, it is vital that we ensure value for money. In health, value for money must be about reducing health inequalities, improving life expectancy and improving the quality of life. A little well spent goes a long way. Proactive spending on preventative programmes such as smoking cessation, early childhood intervention and health education are cost-effective measures, as they save significant amounts of money further down the line.

Previously, Sinn Féin asked for the population needs assessment across a range of areas. We received a high-level needs report that did not tell us much about the particular needs of people. Without knowing what those needs are and without some idea of where we can get the best outcomes, there is a real possibility that money will not be spent effectively. The central question, for me, when devising a health budget is this: does the budget address the prevailing and persistent issue of health inequalities?

Everyone is entitled to good physical and mental well-being. Our role and responsibility in the Assembly and in the various Departments through which we work is to improve outcomes, including health outcomes, for all.

Mr O'Toole: Yesterday, I spoke about some of the short-term issues facing our economic recovery from COVID, as it related to the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates. Today, I will talk more generally about our long-term budgeting processes and how they can be improved but specifically as they relate to this Budget Bill.

First, of course, my party supports the Budget (No. 3) Bill, as it is required to authorise the £4 billion spend set out by the Minister that is required to keep our public services running and to maintain the response to COVID-19. It is, however, worth saying that, unfortunately, the volume of Budget debates in the Assembly since we returned in January has been in inverse proportion to the quality of the scrutiny and, at times, the quality of the information that we have had. As I said yesterday, that is not said for the purpose of having a dig at the Department or the Ministers — much of that is the product of the crisis that we have faced — but it is important that we set down some key principles for our long-term budgeting, how we want it to improve and what we want to see from the Executive going forward, much of which was set out in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document.

It is now around 10 months since the reformation of the Assembly and the Executive. We are — optimistically, probably — facing another six months in which COVID, in addition to Brexit, unfortunately, is the dominant financial focus of our institutions. It would be useful to hear from the Minister about whether he sees the end of this financial year as an inflection point for our planning around COVID. Does he think that, by spring of next year, we will be in a slightly different place with our response? One would hope so. It is also a little more than 18 months until the end of the mandate and the next election. As I said yesterday, it is becoming ever more difficult to see a detailed and meaningful Programme for Government being agreed by the Executive and brought to the Assembly. That is not to say that I do not want one or that anyone here does not want one; it is just a statement of hard fact.

COVID has created monumental challenges for our public services and our economy — that is clear — but it has also ruthlessly exposed weaknesses that we have procrastinated over for too long, and some of those weaknesses are key to the Budget process and how we deal with it. As I have said before, the Northern Ireland economy has had major and well-known structural flaws for years, but successive Executives including all parties have failed to deal with them. A long-term budgeting process will be critical to dealing with those challenges. We are among the most unproductive regions in these islands; in fact, I think that we are the most unproductive region in these islands. Our education system too often produces poor outcomes for far too many, especially those from the least advantaged backgrounds. We export too high a proportion of school-leavers and graduates, and, of those whom we export, a depressingly small number return here. As a result, our skills base is low, and the cycle is reinforced by our tendency to settle for low value-adding foreign direct investment (FDI). As a result, we will need to take a fresh look at our long-term economic and Budget planning once we are through this crisis.

We need to take a fresh look at how we organise our public services and our economy. That will require taking a fresh look at our fiscal position. In addition, one of the points that I made yesterday is that, in the short- to medium-term response to COVID-19, it would be helpful to see more ambition in how we use the fiscal levers that are open to us, whether it be reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing — there is significant headroom for that this year — financial transactions capital or, indeed, conventional capital. I know that the Minister is appealing to the Treasury for more flexibility in how those allocations are used — I support him in that — but it would be helpful to see as much ambition as possible. We should pull every lever that is available to us.

Our budgeting process has traditionally been somewhat opaque. Married with the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal, it has contributed to the fraying of public confidence in these institutions. There is significant confusion over our budgeting processes, so, in addition to greater and more consistent long-term budgeting, we need greater public engagement and awareness. We need to introduce much greater clarity into Budget processes than exists at present. I acknowledge that the actions of this UK Government have thrown a spanner in the works and made the job of the Finance Minister more difficult this year, as they have delayed and avoided a comprehensive spending review (CSR), but failures of long-term financial planning are not new to this place. Westminster is partly but not solely to blame for them. We need to take a long, hard look at how we get out of the challenge of short-term budgeting even when the Treasury is unwilling to provide us with the clear, long-term budgetary horizon that we need. I urge the Finance Minister to bring forward plans for the fiscal council that was pledged in 'New Decade, New Approach' and for the fiscal commission that he himself has suggested. I wholeheartedly agree with him on the need to have both institutions in order for them to take a long, hard look at how we fund ourselves here and how we make our institutions more self-sustaining.

Also, if we are able to demonstrate in the short term that we can use to the maximum some of the levers, limited and small though they are, that exist now — for example, our RRI borrowing power — that would surely make the case that more of that fiscal autonomy would be good for how we do government here and how we deliver for our people.

As I have said, we need to be creative with the fiscal tools that are available to us. Borrowing costs are at an historic low globally. As I said yesterday, the International Monetary Fund is telling Governments around the world not to be shy about making maximum use of their borrowing potential. Though we are not a sovereign borrower, as it were, we should not be shy about using those tools.

It would be helpful to get an update from the Minister on financial transactions capital in-year and what specifically is being done. We talked about that yesterday, but I do not think that there was a specific update on it. It would be really helpful to know what is happening so that we do not hand back any of that money or financing, as it were. I recognise that it is not straightforward funding. It is financing; it is financial transactions that have to be paid back. We should use that allocation, given the severity of the situation facing our businesses and our workers in the months to come. We should not leave money unallocated or, as I said, be conservative in accessing the limited borrowing powers that we have.

Today, as we discuss passing the third Budget Bill of the year, it is worth recognising that we face probably the gravest winter, in public health terms and economic terms, that many of us have lived through. While we welcome the passing of the Budget, because it will enable our public sector to spend money and the Departments to keep our public services going and to respond to the fiscal crisis, let us hope that, in future Budget Bills, we are able to debate not just longer-term, multi-year Budgets but more ambitious use of our fiscal powers to deliver better outcomes for the people whom we serve.

Mr Muir: This is the first time in this unprecedented year that I have risen to support a Budget Bill on behalf of the Alliance Party. The Bill is necessary to allow Northern Ireland Departments to continue to carry out their functions and to respond to the pandemic in the difficult months ahead.

When the Assembly was restored in January, we expected our main areas of budgetary focus to be on preparing for the impact of Brexit and implementing New Decade, New Approach commitments. It has not worked out that way. New Decade, New Approach has taken a back seat as we respond to the enormous challenges placed on people's everyday lives by COVID-19. For the remainder of this financial year, there is little doubt that COVID-19 will continue to dominate all aspects of the Executive's finances and, perhaps, our lives. The most important area of focus now is that all the money allocated is spent wisely. For the Executive to hand back Barnett consequentials at the end of this year or to have to spend a substantial amount of money on non-priority areas at the last minute would be a real scandal, given the circumstances and the challenges that people face.

Numerous MLAs have expressed disappointment in previous debates at the lack of a detailed, meaningful COVID-19 economic response strategy. I share those concerns. We really need to have a better understanding of how the Executive intend to allocate the remainder of the £2·4 billion that they have already received. We know, for example, that £600 million has been set aside for the health service, but the Department of Health has not informed us of the amount required that can be spent in this financial year. I accept that the future remains highly uncertain in the midst of a public health emergency where we have to prepare for the worst. However, at this stage, we really need to have some idea of whether part of that £600 million might become available to other sectors of society that are also in desperate need of support. It is likely to be too late to provide meaningful support in January or February, if there is money still left on the table.

Furthermore, I ask the Minister of Finance to clarify whether he expects additional Barnett consequentials beyond the £2·4 billion already received. Earlier this year, the Treasury took the unprecedented step of allocating Northern Ireland £600 million in consequentials in advance — a bit like a Barnett guarantee. We now need to know whether further announcements made in England will lead to additional Barnett consequentials for Northern Ireland. We just do not know how the £600 million tots up.


11.15 am

While many of the commitments in New Decade, New Approach have necessarily been delayed, it is crucial that they are not forgotten. Key amongst them is the establishment of a fiscal council. Producing a multi-year Budget in 2021 seems increasingly less likely the longer the UK spending review is delayed, but that alone is no reason to delay the establishment of a fiscal council for Northern Ireland, which is critical for better medium- to long-term economic planning and for the budget discipline that has been so often lacking in the past. It is essential and a step in the right direction to giving Northern Ireland greater borrowing and tax-varying powers. I urge the Minister of Finance to ensure that it is in place by the time of the next Budget Bill.

Nor can we ignore the financial reforms that Northern Ireland has needed for so long and which are commitments in New Decade, New Approach. Bengoa must be implemented to ensure that we have a sustainable, fit-for-purpose health service that does not leave people stranded on waiting lists for years, not weeks or months. Putting the health service back to the way it was before the pandemic just does not make sense. A full review of our education system is also required so that our schools are properly funded and duplication eliminated. We must never again return to a situation where teachers have to ask parents to donate toilet roll.

We must finally get serious about the cost of division in Northern Ireland: over half a billion pounds a year that could be much better spent on other public services. In addition, we must start utilising capital spending to support a medium- to long-term infrastructure strategy developed by an infrastructure commission for Northern Ireland. Infrastructure investment must be at the heart of a green recovery in tackling the climate emergency that we face.

Over the next few months, the Executive must meet the twin challenges of responding quickly and strategically to the ongoing pandemic whilst making progress on the systemic challenges that have plagued us for too long and which are key parts of New Decade, New Approach.

I agree with Colm Gildernew's comments on social deprivation and how that has an impact on people's lives. From the evidence presented, it is clear that COVID-19 does not discriminate on the basis of religion or political opinion but that it certainly does on the basis of poverty and social deprivation.

Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I will speak first as Chair of the Committee and then make some remarks in my capacity as an MLA.

I will deal with the justice-related issues first. The 2020-21 Budget announced by the Minister of Finance on 31 March 2020 included allocations of £1,111,200,000 resource DEL and £88·1 million capital DEL for the Department of Justice. Although this was an increase of 6·3% resource DEL, the Committee was told that this included ring-fenced funding for a number of matters. The Department therefore advised that the allocation was not adequate to maintain current services and that the Minister of Justice had raised her concerns with the Finance Minister.

As I am sure was the case for most Departments, the Department of Justice's budget planning took place before the COVID-19 pandemic materialised. The Committee recognises that this has had a significant impact on the delivery of services and budget planning across the justice sector, and it has resulted in a number of COVID-19 reprioritisation exercises to try to assess requirements and align resources to deal with the emerging pressures.

I understand that the Main Estimates that were agreed yesterday and which will be given effect by this Bill incorporate changes to budgets in the June monitoring round. Based on the June monitoring round, the Department's 2020-21 budget is now £1,143,600,000 of non-ring-fenced DEL, and that includes £25·2 million of non-recurrent resource funding allocated by the Executive for COVID-19 pressures. The extra is made up of £76·9 million of ring-fenced resource DEL and £88·1 million of capital DEL.

The Department had originally submitted a bid of £38·8 million for COVID-19 pressures and received an allocation of £12·4 million resource DEL as part of the June monitoring round. This included £4 million to the Police Service, £1·9 million to the Prison Service, £1·6 million towards the temporary resting place and £4·9 million towards PPE across the justice sector. Subsequent bids totalling £17·3 million were submitted, and the Executive have allocated a further £13·5 million. This left the Department with a £3·78 million pressure to manage at that time. Further bids for £5·6 million of resource and £1 million of capital were then made, though those were unsuccessful. Since then, the Department has continued to examine its COVID-19 pressures, including as part of the October monitoring round. The Department has advised that several identified pressures were reduced and other new areas emerged. However, at this stage, it is expected that those will be managed by internal reallocations, and no further bids are, therefore, needed at this time. COVID-19 has also had an impact on capital spend, with the Department of Justice declaring a reduced requirement of £5·5 million as part of the October monitoring round. That relates mainly to issues within the police supply chain and the reduced capacity to deliver new vehicles.

Moving away from COVID-19, the Committee was advised at June monitoring of a £4·5 million requirement for the PSNI in respect of EU exit. That relates to funding for 308 officers and staff who are already employed and for whom funding was received last year. The Department has advised the Committee that work is ongoing between the Department of Finance and Her Majesty's Treasury on that matter. In addition, £1 million of capital is required for the PSNI for EU exit, which the Committee has also been advised is being dealt with separately through the Treasury as it relates to the cost of the Northern Ireland protocol. The Committee has asked the Department to provide information on budget planning or scoping exercises to identify additional costs that arise from both a deal and a no-deal scenario at the end of the EU exit transition period.

One of the issues that is of great importance to the Committee at present is the funding for the victims' pension scheme. The Executive made available £2·5 million as part of the June monitoring round to support the implementation costs for the scheme. However, the source of funding for payment of the pensions is yet to be finalised. The First Minister, deputy First Minster and Minister of Justice have advised the Committee that there is a shared view that adequate funding for the duration of the scheme should come from Westminster and that they, along with the Finance Minister, are seeking an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the way forward. I urge Ministers to continue to press for this matter to be resolved in order to avoid any further delays in getting payments to victims. Perhaps, when the Minister responds later, he can update the House on progressing that issue.

Other key issues that have been discussed with officials and which the Committee will continue to monitor include legal aid costs; funding for tackling paramilitarism; funding for the implementation of the New Decade, New Approach commitments, which includes the cost of increasing the number of police officers to 7,500; and the costs of maintaining the temporary resting place. It is clear that a number of uncertainties remain for the rest of the financial year, not least because of COVID-19 and the European Union exit, and that departmental budgets will remain in a state of flux. Overall, however, at this stage, the Department of Justice is advising of a break-even position for the 2020-21 financial year.

In its response to the Budget earlier this year, the Committee set out concerns that full funding requirements on a number of issues had not been provided, and that, as a consequence, it felt unable to fully assess the Department's budgetary position. Since then, the Department provided information on a number of those matters and set out the rationale for the figures that are still not available. The Department has sought to keep the Committee apprised of the position in respect of a range of financial matters through oral and written briefings. That has ranged from the more routine monitoring rounds and COVID-19 reprioritisation exercises to the position in respect of the Department's annual report and accounts and the wider review of the financial process. In early November, the Committee will receive an oral briefing from the Department's officials on planning for the forthcoming multi-year Budget, which will be of particular importance for the Department's longer-term strategic planning. The Committee looks forward to that oral briefing and to ongoing engagement with the Department on budgetary and financial matters.

That concludes my remarks in my role as Chair of the Justice Committee. I want to move on and make some remarks now in my capacity as a Member for Lagan Valley. These comments will relate very much to the expenditure on COVID and the impact that the Executive's response to it has had on public finances and wider society. We can see in the Budget (No. 3) Bill that, across a wide range of Departments, there is expenditure that relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Budget (No. 3) Bill is, therefore, heavily predicated on that expenditure, and Departments' normal expenditure has been impacted as a result of how the Executive and wider society have had to grapple with the issue.

Undoubtedly, coronavirus is serious, and measures are required to mitigate the risks that it presents. At the start of the pandemic, there were warnings that up to 14,000 people could die. There was huge coverage of the Armageddon to come upon us. Thankfully, that did not happen. However, that in no way diminishes the loss and pain of those who have lost their lives. I have said it before, and I put on record my sympathy for them and offer my prayers for them in having to deal with that situation. However, Mr Allister pointed out in a questioning session that, during that same period, 2,300 people passed away due to cancer; we can also consider the number of people who have died from heart disease, obesity and alcohol abuse. Those are all tragic circumstances facing our country. We have to weigh that up alongside the response of the Executive and this place when we deal with fatalities in other areas.

At the start of the pandemic, there was a great unknown. We could see the carnage coming across Europe like a tidal wave. A fear beset everybody. Measures had to be taken, and were taken, in order to deal with something that was unknown and which gripped our community with fear. Fortunately, we have a much better understanding now of the impact of coronavirus, so we need to weigh up the measures being taken by Stormont so that they are proportional to the impact associated with the virus. The measures taken now cannot be the same as those taken at the start of the pandemic. If the approach that was taken at the start is taken now, there will not be the same buy-in from society. That is evident from the resistance that we see to what is taking place.

We now have the police raiding small barns in the countryside. There was one such instance in my constituency when 20 people had gathered for a birthday party, in a socially distanced manner. They should not have done it — it was against the rules — but that is where we have placed the police. They are now raiding sheds in Lagan Valley, as opposed to sheds in which something very serious could be going on. Crime is back up at its normal levels, but we are deflecting the police from core crime activity to move into this. We have to weigh up the impact on the enforcement measures that we are asking the police to take with the resistance from the community. I know people who, normally, could be trusted to use their common sense and act responsibly, but I fear that they are resisting because they have not bought into the measures being taken by the Government. That problem faces all Governments across the globe.

The financial support schemes in place at the start of the pandemic are no longer there. The Executive do not have the fire power to provide the kind of financial support that our businesses need. They are being asked to carry this burden. If we are all in it together, I ask you to look at the cost to the hospitality industry and the financial pain being inflicted on people. We think about businesses, but it is not just about businesses. It is about staff in low-paid jobs who, come 1 November, if they qualify for furlough, will get only two thirds of their pay because the business will not have to make up the difference. I have spoken to employers in my constituency whose staff in low-paid jobs are pleading with them, "What are we going to do?" and "How am I going to manage?" The mental strain on business owners and staff is immense. For every action taken there is a reaction. Measures taken in good faith that, it is believed, will have the right outcome need to be assessed and analysed. Are they having the right outcome, or are they counterproductive? Are we forcing people out of controlled environments and putting them into uncontrolled environments?

On Friday night, I went for a walk in my constituency, having left my children off at my church's young people's meeting, which, fortunately, can still take place.

As I went for a walk for that hour around that immediate community, it was scary to see the number of young people who were gathered drinking and sitting on top of each other in a subway that people in that part of Lisburn will know. Yet we push them out of schools and out of controlled environments, and they go into that kind of uncontrolled environment.


11.30 am

Serious questions need to be asked, and there needs to be an interrogation of the evidence base that is being presented. The measures that were brought in through the legislation, which, everyone in the House has accepted, is draconian, are now not subject to democratic scrutiny by this place. The legislation was brought in and took effect last week. We will come to the Chamber in maybe three weeks' time, when it should, hopefully, conclude. We handed over those democratic powers because, at the time, we did not know what was coming and a fear gripped us. We now know, and we now need to ask ourselves whether the level of democratic oversight is proportionate. When we consider the tragic deaths that have happened as a result of COVID, when I think of friends who have had COVID and long COVID and I see them and hear their laboured breathing and see the impact that it has on them, I weigh up the calls and engagement that I have with people who are their wits' end. When BT28 was put under restrictive measures, a constituent of mine took her own life. She was subject to severe mental health problems and had suicidal ideation. The measures in BT28 tipped her over the edge, and she took her own life. Whenever we think about measures to protect people with coronavirus, we also need to think about the other measures and find a way that can protect all of us.

We are having to weigh up incredibly difficult issues in order to get the right outcome, and we need to ask those questions. Not asking the questions is a failure and a dereliction of our duty to interrogate the evidence base for what is being done, and it should not be said to those who do that somehow they do not care about people who have coronavirus. Not true. Good friends of mine have it and have suffered from it, and I have seen it at first hand. They have been let down by some of the actions that have been taken by other people and by the failure to provide the support that should have been provided at the start of the pandemic. We had the debacle of not getting PPE on time and the promises that were made and not kept. I have spoken to nursing homes that did not get the support from the Department of Health that they should have got at the start of the pandemic. They have told me directly that they felt abandoned. Where were the most vulnerable people? In our nursing homes. Where were the casualties? In our nursing homes. Where was the financial support? We are now catching up, and they have said to me that it is better, but we need to consider all these measures in a balanced way.

I think about the financial impact that this has had on our education establishments. I sit on the board of governors of three schools, and they have over 2,000 children between them. I have a real sense of responsibility to the teaching staff and to those children to provide for their safety. In one of those schools, a third of the children did not engage in any form of remote learning. They came back to school, and we carried out assessments and found that they are well behind. They are now catching up. Those children are some of the brightest in the school and some of the most disadvantaged. This does not have any boundaries in class or creed, but its impact has been devastating. Those children are missing out on life chances. That is why I am so frustrated that some Members of the Executive wanted to shut our schools for six weeks and then for four weeks. Let me tell you this: I am looking at the impact that this has on children. What has taken place is child abuse, and they are using children in the most appalling way. I will tell you why I say that. Members might not like what I am saying and might think, "Is he going too far?". I have met the Chief Medical Officer, and I have asked the question: "Give me the evidential basis for why schools are being closed". It is not because of what happens in the school: the concerns are about what goes on at the gate and on the buses. Also — this alarms me even more — closing our schools has a wider behavioural impact on society, and that should be taken seriously.

Mr Gildernew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: I will give way.

Mr Gildernew: Will the Member acknowledge that a Minister from his party shared in the Chamber yesterday the information that there have been 1,500 positive cases in schools?

Mr Givan: I heard the Minister's response on this. I am giving the Member opposite the Chief Medical Officer's advice to me.

I then asked myself, "What has been the Department for Infrastructure's response?". This Minister of Finance has been able to tell me that £90 million has had to go to Translink because our buses and trains are empty. At a time when schoolchildren are being packed onto buses, which has been identified as a problem, have we utilised the private sector? Have we tried to help our coach industry, which is on its knees? No. It has not happened, yet we are expending a huge amount of money on Translink, subsidising an organisation that is running empty buses.

Before we close down schools and before someone comes with another recommendation to close down schools, Members need to consider this question: what other financial support can be given to different sectors of our economy that can ameliorate the situation with our schools and protect them? Even the Republic of Ireland has not decided to close schools for the next six weeks, but this Executive have decided to close schools.

Mr Catney: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: I will give way in a moment. I have more to say and elaborate on.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I remind the Member to contextualise this within the Budget Bill, please.

Mr Givan: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I will come back to it.

We have put tens of millions of pounds into our schools to keep them open. Despite the measures that have been taken to keep them open, there are some in the Chamber who advocated the closure of our schools for a four- or six-week period. I am thankful for what our Executive Ministers have done. I appreciate, as the First Minister has said, that, if this were a DUP-only Executive, there would have been a different outcome. We have had to ameliorate some of the actions that other Executive Ministers have wanted to take, and I appreciate their work on that.

I look at the health impact. The financial resources that we are putting into the Department of Health are hugely significant — rightly so — so that we can provide the kind of support that is being provided. Yesterday, the Minister outlined that the Department of Health may have to return some of the money. Maybe he can elaborate on how much, as I may have missed that yesterday. The public will find it strange that the Department of Health is having to return money when it needs even more capacity.

I think of the cost that will come to our community through missed appointments and missed surgeries. How many mothers will sadly no longer be with us five or 10 years down the line because their tests were cancelled through the actions that have been taken? I understand the arguments, but there are consequences and impacts. A constituent of mine who had cancer requiring surgery was in Belfast City Hospital on the day that it turned into a Nightingale facility. It was the eighth surgery that the individual had to go through. He had been prepped and was coming down in the lift when the decision was taken: "No more routine surgeries. We have to prepare for what is coming". He waited another three months and was red-flagged twice. Thankfully, he got the operation that he needed. He was told, "You were at death's door, had you not come through". That is one individual who, I know, was saved, but there are others for whom, sadly, that has not been the case.

My colleague Pam Cameron rightly highlighted the inability to provide support in pregnancy. There is the issue of visitation at end of life. I think about the cruelty that is being inflicted in the end-of-life situation, where people are unable to hold the hand of their loved one. Yes, the Minister of Health has said that no one will die without someone being there: that is of absolutely no comfort to families who are not able to be there. I speak in a personal capacity. My 99-year-old grandmother through marriage is in hospital and is not well at all. She was left into hospital by a relative at the weekend. She is unable to have anybody come in to visit and is pleading to come home. Where is the humanity in some of the actions that are being taken and in some of the decisions that people are grappling with?

We then think of the mental, health and financial impacts that will flow from all the decisions that are coming. We see that in the Budget Bill. Some of the financial impacts are huge, and we will not have the funding in the future. How will we deal with that?

I look at the Department for Communities and the Budget Bill and see the additional funding that will have to go to that Department. I commend that Department's Minister. I have met her. She has been in my constituency with charities, and support has been put in place for charities. However, I have met representatives of those charities, and they are on their knees and are closing down. We know that the resources that the Executive have been able to give have not been able to save some of those organisations. The sports clubs that my colleague Paula Bradley spoke about are closing their doors. Then, to add insult to injury, while there is nothing in the law to prevent you going to events, which are socially distanced and on which a huge amount of resource has been spent, the Minister tells people, "Don't go". Is it any wonder that the public get so frustrated with regulations? They are interpreted and added to in ways that do not have any legal force.

I also look at the impact on our councils. The financial support that we have given to our councils is hugely significant, but it does not meet the deficit. Members will all know that from speaking to their colleagues. I know it from speaking to members of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council. LeisurePlex, one of Northern Ireland's best facilities, is down £1 million of income and is projected to be down by £5 million. That is one council facility. Dundonald International Ice Bowl is in the other part of the council area in east Belfast. The council has received £2 million of support from Stormont, and, while it appreciates that, it does not compensate for those losses, and part-time, low-paid workers and young people are unemployed as a result of the downturn. I understand some of the rationale for the decision, but there are financial consequences.

The Department for Communities also made a fund available to churches because of the impact that some of the measures have had on them. I know that that was appreciated and that some churches have been able to get support through that. I then look at the regulations and see that only 25 people are allowed at a funeral. I was at my church on Sunday, and in the region of 120 people attended.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Could the Member bring us back to the Budget Bill, please?

Mr Givan: I will. My point relates to the financial support that the Executive give to churches. The fact that churches have limitations placed on them has an impact on the ask.

I look at the regulations on churches and see that 25 people are allowed to attend a funeral. I was at church on Sunday, and approximately 130 or 140 of us were there. It is a large building, we were all socially distanced, and it was all properly managed. Some 24 hours later, only 25 people were allowed in for the funeral of one of the members of our congregation. Where is the logic? And you wonder why the public struggle to come with the regulations. The financial impact on the churches in my constituency whose representatives I have spoken to is huge. Yet, those churches provide a place of solace and comfort and the ability, within the restrictive measures, to get support.

I asked my colleagues on the Executive about the measures that were taken on churches, only to be told that there was a recommendation to close churches, which our party resisted. There was a recommendation to close churches. I asked for the evidence from the Chief Medical Officer on the transmission rate in churches: 1%. It was 1%, and, on that basis, some Executive members wanted to close down our churches. Where was the thought of the financial impact, as well as of the rights and wrongs and the logic for that? When we think about the Executive's financial resources and what we ask people to do, we cannot keep asking them to take those measures. We have to think of the consequences and to weigh up the proportionality.

With the financial support that was given to businesses as part of the previous measures in March and July, we did what we could. Not everybody was included in that.

The Minister has been meeting those from Excluded NI and has made his position clear. It is a position that I support. Not everyone was able to be included.


11.45 am

The Minister for the Economy has done a sterling job of trying to identify schemes to get moneys out, but not everybody gets that money as quickly as they would like, and that can be hugely frustrating. We therefore need to be asking questions about the Executive processes when it comes to the administration of schemes. Ministers take decisions that then need to be implemented, and questions are being raised about the capacity of the Civil Service to implement those decisions. I know that we are in very difficult times, but we have been in this position for six months, so the latitude that was there back in March and April is not there for the current scenarios. We need to find a better way of doing things.

People in the hospitality sector and others involved in close contact have made it abundantly clear to me that they very much feel like the scapegoat. They feel as though they are being punished without being given the appropriate financial support to compensate them for having to close. The failure of others in our society to comply has resulted in those in hospitality being punished. They have systems in place. Some have spent tens of thousands of pounds to regulate their environment, yet they are now in a position in which they have had to close. In my constituency, some businesses in the hospitality sector closed in April and did not reopen. Businesses closed, and jobs were lost. What is the financial impact on our Executive when that happens? It means a reduced rates base, less income for Stormont and less income for our local authorities.

I have outlined a number of areas of concern, to which people will rightly respond, "What would you do? It is easy for you to get up here and ask these questions". That is the job of an MLA: to ask questions and to challenge. The new normal cannot be about closing down our society. It just cannot be, because it is not working, and the devastating impact that it is having is leading a lot of people to believe that doing so is disproportionate to the risk associated with what is happening.

We therefore need to look at finding a way in which to have an accreditation process for businesses that are deemed to be doing everything by the book. If they are doing it by the book, they are mitigating the risk as far as possible, so we need to see financial support going into a system of accreditation for aspects of our different public services and for the private sector. We need to have greater compliance checks. It is important that we have compliance. We therefore need more investment in how we marshal our society and try to help and advise it. I often find that working with and encouraging people can get them to a better place without a need for the big stick to be used, even if it always has to be there for the minority that refuses to comply. I do not believe that using the big stick on the broader population is a sustainable way forward, however. We need to have increased democratic oversight when it comes to the regulations. They were brought in under unique circumstances, but we need to find a different way for the regulations to become law and take effect.

We also need to get to a place in which there is recognition from all the parties on the Executive that, when they create these laws, the Executive's integrity is compromised. That creates a reaction, because the public are then less likely to follow the Executive's rules. I listened to Members speak yesterday about —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to return to the Budget Bill, please.

Mr Givan: I will. All these comments relate to the financial impact in the round, Mr Deputy Speaker. The situation is having a huge impact on the financial situation that we are facing as a society.

I listened to Members speak yesterday, and there were even references made to it today, about my constituency colleague Edwin Poots's remarks. They were remarks that were made in a very sensible manner.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sorry, but we are discussing the Budget Bill and not the remarks that someone made outwith the House.

Mr Givan: I appreciate that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is connected —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sorry, but I have already said that we are discussing the Budget Bill and not someone else's remarks, please.

Mr Givan: The Budget Bill has implications for the financial impact of decisions that are being taken. I appreciate that not everyone is going to agree with what I have been saying, but the integrity of our Government is being called into question. Those who make accusations about colleagues are blinded by their own catastrophic failures when it comes to how this issue has been managed. The funeral issue has been well-documented. There is an inability to recognise that the rate has been higher — this is what my colleague outlined — in those areas where the party opposite has greater political support. [Interruption.]

There has been no mention anywhere of religion; it has not been mentioned in any form.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We are discussing the Budget Bill. I have allowed you a fair bit of latitude —

Mr Givan: Thank you.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): — but I will not endure any more of it.

Mr Givan: I appreciate your ruling on that, Deputy Speaker.

The decision has been taken by the Executive, and it is having an impact, but there are serious questions being asked about the evidence base on which it was formed.

Mr Chambers: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: I am concluding.

I am highlighting the wider impact that that is having on our financial sustainability and ability to deliver services across our public sector, the huge impact it has had on people's livelihoods, and the consequences for people's welfare and health, including mental health, beyond the COVID-19 issue.

The Executive will have very serious work to do when it comes to the next set of decisions to be taken. I do not envy them, but we cannot have an unsustainable way forward when it comes to dealing with this. I want us to get to a place where we are protecting all lives and every aspect of our society. My party and I will continue to chart a path that we believe to be reasonable and proportionate. We will challenge where we need to and use every opportunity that we have to do that so that we get to a better place than where we are currently.

Mr McAleer: I am speaking in my capacity as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs, having spoken yesterday on behalf of the Committee during the debate on the Supply resolution motion.

We have been looking at the budget for DAERA since the Assembly reconvened at the start of the year. At that stage, we could never have anticipated that a crisis like COVID and its impacts on all parts of society would come upon us. All parts of society have been impacted, none more so than our farmers and the agri-food sector.

During the lockdown and all of the challenges that we have faced, the farmers and food producers kept going, kept the shelves in our shops stocked and kept food on our dinner tables during the worst days of the lockdown. It is important that we recognise our front-line farmers and agri-food producers for keeping going in the most difficult of circumstances. It has not been easy for them, and the lockdown of the food service sector — the hotels and the restaurants — has resulted in a drop in demand for steaks and other things that people normally eat out. That has resulted in a carcass imbalance, which has an impact through a collapse in farm-gate prices and the prices that farmers get at the factory.

We very much welcomed the decision of the Finance Minister to award £25 million to DAERA to help the sector mitigate some of the losses that it has incurred. We took a special interest on that in the Committee, even having our own short inquiry in which we took evidence from some stakeholders to see how that money should be spent. We want the money to be distributed quickly and fairly and be targeted towards those who suffered most and who need it most. As Members will be aware, the bulk of the money — £21·4 million — has been allocated, mostly across the dairy, beef, sheep, potato and horticulture sectors. Other sectors are coming forward for help. For example, wool producers have come forward, having suffered from prices dropping greatly. Indeed, a LeasCheann Comhairle, you will be interested in the impact on eel fishing in Lough Neagh. We need to look at how that industry can be supported now that it has obtained official recognition.

We still have concerns about whether there was enough funding for beef cattle farmers and sheep farmers. As I said, we have been lobbied quite heavily by the wool industry. While we welcome the fact that suckler beef farmers have been included in the scheme, one of our concerns is that the 30 June slaughter date criterion has an impact on farmers who got a bad price for their animals in the ring during March, when prices collapsed. Farmers are not entitled to compensation for animals that were not slaughtered by 30 June. Hopefully, the Minister will look at the issue of farmers who endured a loss during lockdown but who do not qualify for compensation.

A related concern is the future of the market, and the British market in particular. On three successive occasions, the British Government have pushed back important amendments to incorporate minimum food standards into the British Agriculture Bill. That is despite the potentially devastating impact that that would have on farmers here and across the water in Britain. A petition to include those amendments, launched by farming unions here and in Britain, was signed by over a million people, Nevertheless, the amendments were pushed back, and, unfortunately, it looks as though that opens the way for international trade deals with other countries whose environmental and animal welfare standards are not as good as those that we are used to. That is regrettable, and it is, potentially, a serious blow to the industry here.

The financial impact on DAERA of delivering Brexit is also a huge issue that exercises us. We know from evidence gathered by the Committee that the Department needs an additional 456 staff to support Brexit delivery and is working to fill those positions. Under the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and the protocol, DAERA is required to implement the EU official controls regulations, which include sanitary and phytosanitary checks.

One of our big concerns is that we are only months away from the end of the transition period, and there has not been a great deal of progress on planning. We are talking about a £35 million infrastructure project, and the Department is still engaging with planners. I know that a lot of it can be carried out under permitted development but there are site constraints. In Warrenpoint, for example, an adjacent area of special scientific interest (ASSI) could affect expansion at the port there.

There are issues with IT systems, and we heard evidence last week that the HMRC's goods vehicle movement service (GVMS) is not in place and cannot be tested until the transition period is over. That is a major concern for businesses that will have to pre-register in order to enable seamless east-west movement.

I turn to trade across the Irish Sea. We have a concern about our state of readiness. A programme assurance review (PAR) of the Department's readiness was carried out in August and resulted in a red assessment. The definition of a red delivery status is as follows:

"Successful delivery of the project/programme appears to be unachievable. There are major issues which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project/ programme may need rebaselining and/or overall viability re-assessed."

Given an amber/red assessment in June, that was a red flag, and it is causing a bit of concern. The cost of getting our ports and airports ready is predicted to be in the region of £45 million, comprising £38 million in capital expenditure and £6 million in revenue costs. Again, that will involve the recruitment and training of additional staff, so it is a serious capital project. We are still, essentially, at the planning stage, and infrastructure expansion is not yet on the ground.


12.00 noon

Another huge issue that is related to EU exit is the future funding that will replace current EU funding. As Members will be aware, the bulk of the EU funding that comes to DAERA is paid out as direct payments to farmers and rural communities, who benefit greatly under the rural development programme. Over the current 2014-20 EU funding period, we have benefited from funding from the EU totalling €3·6 billion across various programmes. That is a huge amount of funding that comes here. The fear that we have is about whether that level of funding will be replaced, and, if not, what the impact will be on farmers, rural communities and food production.

Whilst we welcome the fact that £293 million has been secured for the single farm payment for this year, we are very concerned about what will happen next year and in future years. The single farm payments began to be issued to farmers on Friday, with £265·7 million paid out on the first day. It is important to recognise that that is a good news story, and I commend the Department and officials for getting those payments out. Those payments will include a 4·3% increase to the basic payment entitlements, which is also welcomed by the vast majority of farmers. It is important to point out that the Minister's decision to stop the transition towards a flat rate at the fifth year of a seven-year transition period has surprised many farmers who are below the regional average of anticipated 14% this year and next year. This mostly impacts on the ANC (areas of natural constraint) beef and sheep suckler farmers who are labouring with the loss of the ANC payment, which I hope the Minister will consider reintroducing.

We in the Committee have also expressed concern about the replacement funding for the rural development programme that comes from the CAP pillar 2. As a consequence of our leaving the EU rural development programme because of Brexit, it is important that we develop our own policy in the North. Anyone who represents rural communities will know that the rural development programme has been a very important building block in our communities over the last number of decades. It has provided funding for the development of community centres, community halls, hubs, village renewals and many small businesses and employment opportunities.

In recent correspondence, the Minister indicated to me that almost a thousand jobs have been created to date in the current rural development programme that will run out by 2023. We know the importance of our village and community hubs, halls and church halls and how important they are at all times, but particularly in the community sector, where they became a base for the distribution of aid packages to people who were isolating and who were in need. It is important in the time ahead that we have a replacement programme that will ultimately be funded out of Treasury money, because the European funding will not be available.

I have been lobbying the AERA Minister and the Finance Minister in relation to the replacement of the programme. Whilst it will be going out for public consultation very soon, I am glad to note that the Minister has indicated that the new programme that will be coming in here will incorporate many of the overarching goals and objectives of the EU rural development programme. However, the lack of progress on the UK shared prosperity fund is a cause for concern, because it is anticipated that that will fund the new rural programme here which will be the successor to the EU rural development programme. I know from questioning the Finance Minister recently that there has been very little progress on that. I appreciate that COVID and many other issues have come into the equation, but it is still really important to have a well-funded and -supported rural development programme in looking ahead to facilitate the social and economic needs of our communities.

I am also keen that the Minister incorporate the LEADER methodology in delivering the new policy. Over many years, the local action groups — we have two local action groups. Many Members are, or possibly were, members of the local action groups that worked along with social partners to identify local needs and to develop projects at grassroots level. It is important that that LEADER approach is continued in the implementation of a new rural policy to make sure that the programmes fit and meet the needs of local communities. The policy must be effective and tailored to meet the social and economic needs of our rural communities. I use this platform to encourage rural dwellers and local groups to have their say on our new rural policy when the consultation opens in the very near future.

The Committee, and my party, anticipates that the UK shared prosperity fund will replace the lost EU funding, but the lack of progress is very concerning. Clarity on the shared prosperity fund is long overdue. It is something that we will continue to press the Finance Minister and the AERA Minister on in the time ahead.

During the past number of months, COVID and Brexit have presented huge challenges to our farmers and rural communities. I am certain that the agri-food and community sectors will survive, just as they have survived many other challenges and crises in the past, but there will be tough and straitened times ahead, and they will need our ongoing support.

Mrs Cameron: I do not think that any of us could ever have imagined the situation that we find ourselves in, in terms of the threat of the virus and the subsequent financial pressures associated with it; it is truly unprecedented. Our health service, throughout this year, has been on the front line in the battle to save lives and to make budgets work. The strain on the health service funding envelope has left it coming apart at the seams. To meet the demand, we all need to recognise that we would not be able to face the pandemic without the financial support and monetary might of our Government at Westminster. If there were ever a time to acknowledge the benefits of the Union, it is now. In the context of rising case numbers and increased hospitalisation, we take comfort in the fact that, in this corner of the Union, we will be supported by our Government. It is not ourselves alone.

The Health funding before us here today meets the need and pressures that have been prioritised by the Minister. The Department is expected to spend over £7 billion this year. That is an incredible sum. What is clear now more than ever — it has been clear for some time — is that we need the much talked about reform of our health service if we are to protect our NHS and the service that it provides, free at the point of delivery. The Health Minister has, understandably, been preoccupied with COVID, but I encourage him to press ahead with reform as a way of responding to COVID. COVID is not going away. We cannot continue to spend the vast sums that we have been in the short term. We need to adapt, find efficiencies, restructure and be innovative. We also need to, dare I say it, look at ways of raising revenue. We ought to look at how our GP services are provided, whether reform can make that service better, and examine what positive role pharmacy and our allied health professionals can play in transformation.

These difficult days need to be met with resolve, and the resolve that our front-line nurses and healthcare staff have shown should be an example to us. We need to look at pay again. Nurses need the recognition that they deserve. In the context of public-sector pay scales, they deserve a fairer deal. Indeed, we need more nurses and doctors. Key to achieving that will be funding, but also pay that makes foreign climes less enticing. We need to keep our front-line medical staff here to serve their community.

There are a number of additional funding areas that the Minister should prioritise. As Members know, I recently held a public consultation on autism. It garnered the largest ever response for a private Member's Bill in the House. That reflects the depth of need and the cry for help from so many people across our society. It is a public priority; it ought to be a departmental priority, too. I trust that the Health Minister will look at behavioural intervention, speech and language therapy, and at training and appropriate support services. There is so little provision for the need.

We must never forget the challenges of an ageing population. We need to ensure that lung health is addressed, for example, and that an NI strategy is developed, especially now, given the added impact of COVID-19 and the long-term effects that we now know come with that disease. We have issues with care and supported living and with tackling issues such as dementia. Those must be looked at seriously now. Domestic violence and support for victims' families are also acute issues, and they need to be analysed and the needs for them met.

There will also be a legacy from COVID for cancer care, treating heart disease and mental health to name but a few vital areas. That will take significant resource, but we need to recognise that the longer we close services now, the bigger the ticking time bomb. The reality is that early intervention for many will be missed. We need to ramp this up.

Connected to that is the need for support for charities, particularly those for people facing a health crisis. Those charities include Macmillan, Marie Curie, the British Heat Foundation and Chest, Heat and Stroke. Those charities are on their knees, but they provide advice, support and care that we cannot manage without. I urge the Minister to see what he can do to support them at this time in order to ensure that their services are funded and sustainable into the future. I also urge the House to ensure that the test, trace, protect programme for COVID is receiving the resource needed to deal with the demand that is faced by the Public Health Agency (PHA).

I back the call from the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland to increase the frequency of testing in our care settings. We owe it to our elderly population to give them every protection. We also need to ensure that resources are made available to allow safe visitation in those settings. We know the positive impact on mental health, emotional well-being and people's life that visitation from family members can have. We also understand that many of the people who are in care homes are not there for many years but sometimes for quite short periods. We owe it to them to ensure that the time that they have in their life is of good quality.

Those are our challenges today, and a united approach across this House can meet them.

Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I will speak first as the Chair of the Economy Committee.

This is now almost a cliché, but we are living in unprecedented times and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The Economy Committee has been consistent in its message over the past number of months that these times call for a creative and brave approach.

The Department for the Economy is at the centre of the response to COVID-19, and, as a result, the Committee has found itself at the very heart of scrutinising the Minister's and, indeed, the Executive's economic response to the crisis. As well as receiving regular updates on the budget flows to and from the Economy Department, the Committee has spent a great deal of time engaging closely with its wide range of stakeholders in order to seek their views and to relay them back to the Minister and the Executive.

The Committee has been assiduous in its scrutiny of the Department's response to the crisis and of its input, including bids, to the various monitoring rounds and the Department of Finance's summer exercise. The Committee has also been dedicated in its challenge function regarding the Department's budgeting and response to the COVID crisis, holding a significant number of briefing sessions. I will not take up valuable time by recounting those sessions in detail or by going through the minutiae of the DFE budget.

The Department's most significant spend area during the crisis has been assistance to business. The Committee is agreed that it is vital to ensure that our economy is protected, and members are supportive of the wide range of measures and supports that have been put in place. However, the Committee has called a number of times for the creation of a support fund that is directed to the many individuals, businesses and sectors that have received no support as yet — the so-called excluded. Mechanisms to process support to those who need it have already been developed, and criteria need to be widened in order to ensure that the assistance reaches more people and is more equitable.

The Committee has made the observation that many of those businesses are still viable and need support in the interim until economic conditions return to a greater degree of normality. Additionally, the Committee has written to the British Chancellor to advocate greater cooperation on the part of Treasury officials to develop mechanisms to help.

The Committee is very supportive of the budget bids that the Department has made for skills. Those are funding a range of programmes that include supporting businesses to bring back and recruit new apprentices, as well as other training, upskilling and reskilling programmes. The Committee has urged the Department to make every effort to ensure that apprenticeships and training schemes are available to those above the age of 24 and that more support for reskilling be made available to those who have lost their jobs.


12.15 pm

The Committee has engaged heavily with the further and higher education sectors, including student and lecturer representatives, to understand their needs better during the crisis. It has corresponded with the Department and reflected those needs, including support for students who are isolating and those trapped in contracts for accommodation that they can no longer afford or do not need.

The Committee has worked closely with the hospitality and tourism sector, which is one of the sectors that has been worst hit by the crisis, to ensure that members understand the support that it requires and communicate that to the Executive.

The Committee has urged the Department to bring forward projects and programmes that will create jobs and those where there is capital spend. Greater efforts must be made to utilise FTC to support jobs. In addition to that, the Committee has identified the importance of Project Stratum to widen access to high-speed broadband in the context of increased working from home and the ongoing issue of digital poverty.

The Committee is conscious that the current crisis allows us to consider how to do things better, and members advocate that that be part of the Minister's and the Executive's thinking in seeking to rebuild our economy.

The Committee is looking at the benefits of investing in green industries and jobs, and in building and capitalising on the local community efforts that have got us through this crisis. Where possible, localisation rather than globalisation must surely represent the way forward. Our communities have shown themselves to be resourceful and innovative. Businesses have been repurposed, and social enterprise is clearly the way forward in so many sectors and for so many businesses.

The Committee understands that the Budget envelope that the Executive have at their disposal is finite. However, members have heard from many stakeholders about the ways in which we can and should use it better and more sustainably.

The Committee is acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the EU exit transition period. Businesses are urging the Committee to seek certainty on the rules under which they will operate. The Committee has communicated this to the Minister, the Executive and British Ministers. It is clear to the Committee that it will be important to budget for support for businesses not just to respond to COVID-19 but to respond to the situation that they will face at the end of transition, potentially under WTO rules.

In short, the Committee believes that the role of the Department for the Economy is pivotal in the responses to COVID and Brexit. It is therefore imperative that the Department is at the heart of the Budget process and that its bids are seen against the backdrop of the uncertain times in which we live.

The Committee will continue to engage with stakeholders over the next number of weeks and months to come through a series of mini inquiries, which will be conducted via virtual discussion forums. The Committee intends to use those to respond to the Economy Minister's invitation to help to shape her Department's and the Executive's response to the crisis. Moreover, the Committee seeks to use those to help to shape the forthcoming Programme for Government and the economic and investment strategies.

The Committee has listened to the Economy Department's officials' concerns that money made available for the response to COVID must be allocated and spent quickly, as there is an ever-narrowing window of opportunity to spend funds within the current financial year. It is therefore imperative that the Executive act not only bravely but quickly.

I will make some remarks in my role as Sinn Féin economy spokesperson. I addressed a number of points in the debate on the Estimates yesterday, so I will not repeat them. However, I want to touch on a few issues, following Members' contributions.

It is clear that there is broad support across parties and Members — I mentioned it previously in relation to the Committee — that those excluded from schemes to date should have support extended to them. I have been contacted by many business owners and individuals in my capacity as an MLA for East Derry and also as Chair of the Economy Committee. Many have had no support and are in real financial difficulty, and at this point they feel let down, frustrated and angry. It is vital that Ministers with responsibilities bring forward proposals as quickly as possible to protect jobs, workers and families. It is clear that many businesses are trying to survive. In this crisis, we are still very much at the mitigation stage. We are trying to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on our economy, and that is where funding needs to be directed. Those businesses were viable and functioning, prior to COVID-19, and were supporting jobs. They deserve to have the opportunity to recover, to keep those jobs and to create new ones.

I will not repeat all that I said yesterday, but, as many Members have said, the furlough scheme should not be ending at the end of this month. Elsewhere in Europe, equivalent schemes are continuing into next year. The job support scheme and the extended job support scheme offer only limited support. Unfortunately, we face tens of thousands of redundancies at a time when job opportunities are very limited and active economic recovery is some way off. It is critical that workers and their families have incomes and that people are not forced to choose between their health and putting food on the table. Core to limiting the spread of the virus is test, trace and isolate, and people need to be able to afford to isolate.

I urge the Minister to keep the pressure on the British Government for supports designed to protect jobs and incomes. I urge all other parties to support him in that, because there is strong support across the political spectrum in Britain on this too. Andy Burnham, for example, in Manchester, is making the case to protect and support low-paid workers. It is important that the case is made loud and clear on that.

We need to look towards our economic recovery and having a recovery strategy that is multi-layered and phased. Businesses impacted by restrictions need to be supported. Many have already put in place health and safety measures; they take public health responsibilities very seriously, and that needs to be recognised. We also need to support new ways of working. We all want to get our economy open and working, so there needs to be a focus in this period on planning the way forward for reopening and living with the virus.

Mr Givan has left the Chamber, but there is no place for finger-pointing at sections of our communities, so let us not muddy the waters with mixed messaging and scapegoating people. People want and respond to leadership and a united message from the Executive. We should all be very mindful of our words in respect of that. In the past number of months, there was strong community solidarity and buy-in, and that collective effort got us to the point where we were able to reopen; we need to get back to that.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. She is correct that words are important, but so are deeds. Does she accept that the actions of her party, in attending the Bobby Storey funeral, paid great damage to that message and the attitude of the population?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I remind all Members that the debate is about the Budget Bill.

Dr Archibald: I thank the LeasCheann Comhairle for that. We all need to look at how we move forward and, collectively, take responsibility and put our efforts towards getting the virus back under control.

On our economic recovery, some sectors have continued to operate and have expanded during the crisis. They need to be supported and encouraged to be innovative and flexible, where they can be, and to develop new talent and create jobs. I spoke yesterday about the need to look at the role of Invest NI and how the economic development agency needs to be at the core of our economic recovery — driving our recovery, supporting SMEs and entrepreneurs and supply chain diversification and innovation. Invest NI should be key in delivering the programmes that support recovery, but there needs to be a change of focus from prioritising FDI and helping a select few to addressing all sectors of the economy and all areas across the North, particularly those that have suffered from underinvestment and economic inequalities.

There is a role for the Executive too in expediting, where possible, capital infrastructure projects and building an economic recovery on the basis of green energy projects and infrastructure. I have said before that a retrofitting programme is one example of how we can meet multiple priorities and highlights where there are real benefits from true, cross-departmental working.

That brings me to my final point. We are limited due to a lack of fiscal and borrowing powers. Investing in capital infrastructure and skills development can be big drivers for our recovery. Much discussion is taking place in monitoring institutions about the role of the state in recovery. It is no surprise that I think that that is a positive discussion and one that we should seek to develop because of the huge economic challenges that we face and the need to encourage and drive a recovery that serves all our citizens. The Minister has spoken about putting a fiscal commission in place, and he has made representations on increased borrowing powers to the British Government. Those things are no-brainers, and it is vital that the Executive are given some levers to try to shape our recovery.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before I call the next Member to speak, I highlight to Members the need for social distancing while in the Chamber.

Mr Catney: I know that there is social distancing, but I am disappointed, after what I had to listen to from my fellow MLA from Lagan Valley, that there were only three on the DUP Benches as I rose to speak. His party's name has "Democratic" in its title, and that will inform part of my speech, if you will bear with me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I may not agree with everything that he said, but, as a democrat, I believe that he should at least have had the decency to stay and listen to our answers.

I wanted to be positive today. I wanted to start this speech in a positive way. I know that our people want our Executive — note the word "our" — to be united and to stand together and for us to show them as much support as we possibly can as they make difficult decisions. I am not privy to the goings-on at the Executive, but I know that, during the pandemic and with this Budget, the community wants us to have a united voice. I am afraid that a united voice has not been shown to me today. What I heard was destructive and dangerous.

As with the pandemic and these budgetary measures, what the Agriculture Minister came out with shows no united voice. I do not want to play orange and green politics.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sorry, but, as I said earlier —

Mr Catney: I know. I am sorry.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): — I am not getting into —

Mr Catney: Yes, I understand, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): — a narrative that is outwith —.

Mr Catney: I set out last night —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member resume his seat? As I said earlier, and I am being consistent, we are not getting into a narrative on something that is outwith the Chamber. We are sticking to the content to the Budget Bill today. Thank you.

Mr Catney: Last night, I wanted to make a really positive speech today. I did not want to go over things that have already been debated and points that have already been well made.

Suffice it to say that no one could ever have imagined a year ago the position that we are in today, with the dire facts of the pandemic and the threat of no trade agreement with the European Union looming. I want to consider the opportunities we will have in the future, however. It is apparent that the Treasury is in no rush to act in the interests of the devolved Administrations, so it is up to us to find flexibilities in our Budget to best support the economy and public services here.

I note that 500 additional Translink buses were provided for schools. Minister Nichola Mallon wrote to Minister Weir about using private buses. He has not come back to her on that, and he has not acted. School transport is a decision for an Education Minister to take. He perhaps needs to speak to his party colleagues about that.

We need to continue to do work to establish an effective fiscal council that will provide extra scrutiny of our Budgets and help the House provide more effective funding to our Departments.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned private coach hire and its ability to help with the social-distancing problem in getting to school. Will he accept that the private coach industry has been badly let down by the failure of the Infrastructure Minister to provide adequate funding for those businesses that are about to go out of business? They are on a lifeline as it is, and they have been failed. There has been much bluster in this Chamber about what can be done, but the help has not been forthcoming.

Mr Catney: Thank you. Speak to the Economy Minister. I agree that the private bus sector should be redeployed to help, but ask Minister Weir to do it. That is his job. That is his role. Look, I want to be productive and talk about what we are meant to be talking about.

We must continue to look at how extra budgetary mechanisms can be used to tackle effectively the issues of today. There is still at least a £70 million shortfall in the uptake of FTC funding. That is an issue that comes up every year. Furthermore, we must find ways of harnessing our borrowing powers to best serve our community. Those are only two areas in which we can make big changes.

It seems that more and more Governments are beginning to realise the benefits of the green economy and green infrastructure. In my area, great work has been done to bring forward plans for the Knockmore halt and to facilitate the extension of the train station and pathways in Moira.

With proper funding, we can turn that into a first-class transport system that will ease road network pressures and help us to reduce our emissions. If we could look at combining that with an extension to the bus rapid transit (BRT), we could have a sustainable, economic reduction in cars on our roads and effective and affordable transport for the entire area.


12.30 pm

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Several DUP Members have intervened. One Member who has left the Chamber now — Pam Cameron — said that one of the issues in relation to the Budget Bill was the need to keep healthcare staff in Northern Ireland. Does the Member agree that one of the biggest drivers of people leaving Northern Ireland is rancid sectarianism? If DUP Members want to keep people in Northern Ireland and bring people back here, they should speak to their colleagues about lurid displays of sectarianism [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We will not have any commentary from a seated position [Interruption.]

Will the Member —

Mr Givan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Member for South Belfast makes outrageous allegations about "rancid sectarianism". The Member needs to explain what he is trying to say if he is going to use that kind of language in the debate, lowering the tone, heading into the gutters. It is no surprise from the Member for South Belfast.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Order. I believe that —

Mr Givan: Disgraceful comments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): — is not a point of order nor is it material to the debate. We will bring the focus back to the debate, which is the Budget (No. 3) Bill. I ask Mr Catney to resume.

Mr Catney: Thank you. Work has already been done on creating and improving greenways, particularly the new one at Blaris. I am lucky to have a number of great cycle paths in my area. However, work and funding are needed to connect them to improve our cycle network so that it provides a viable alternative transport option.

Work must also continue to secure the use of Lagan Valley Hospital in a modern and effective health service. I welcome recent announcements on the use of that site. We now need to look at the access to the site and how it can be made fit for purpose to improve availability for patients in the future.

One of the biggest questions that we will face over the next 18 months is how we can secure jobs, innovation and enterprise in the face of the pandemic. Members will all be shocked to learn that there are 350 acres of prime land in my constituency with the possibility of securing 5,000 jobs and delivering more than £300 million of investment. After years of indecision and countless millions squandered on plans that could not be agreed, surely now is the time to deliver at Maze/Long Kesh and create some prosperity for Northern Ireland — the place that we call "home".

Mr Beattie: I shall be mercifully brief. I have always been told to raise two or three points and nothing more or lose your audience, so I shall try to keep it to two or three points. That is not to say that they may not be contentious.

It is difficult to overplay the financial pressures that we are under regarding COVID and Brexit. We have had to redirect funds from various areas to support our public services and our economy and to shore up our NHS. It is difficult for anybody in the House to say that that is not the right thing to do. It is absolutely the right thing to do. Yet, as we salami-slice our Budget, at times, we are still like children in a sweetie shop. We see everything around us and we want it all. We are like the consumer who gets his first credit card and spends and spends and does not realise that, eventually, he will have to pay for what he has spent.

I have concerns regarding how we scrutinise costed outputs from one Department and costed outputs from another Department. What I am really trying to say is that one Department can have an output and there are costed moneys for it, which is right and proper, only for another Department to do something that is completely at odds with it. I will try to explain what I mean. Money is set aside in the Budget to deal with communities in transition and tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. That money is to stop paramilitaries destroying our communities and to treat them as the criminals they are by putting them through the justice system and putting them behind bars. We spend £8 million on that each year, and the Westminster Government give us another £8 million. That is money well spent. It takes the "brigadier" tag off those people, calls them "criminals", puts them through the justice system, which does not give them that huge tag, and puts them in jail. Then we spend up to £2·5 million every year on a separated prison regime, giving the "brigadier" tag back to them. We simply give it back. We spend nearly half a million pounds on accommodation for three people. I live in a three-bedroom house that cost £125,000. You could have built three of them, and they could have had a house each. The big issue is that, having spent money on transition, on supporting our communities and on getting those people off the community's back, we put them in a separated regime and give them back that tag. When released, they go back into the community, and we are back to community transition> All the money that we spent has to be spent all over again. That is ridiculous, but we can stop it.

As an Assembly and Executive, we can come together and say that it is time to move on and that we will not pay for a separated regime any more. Some £2·5 million is spent on 40 individuals. Who is suffering? The other 1,500 prisoners suffer because the resources are not there for them. Prison staff suffer because, when money goes to a separated prison regime, staff numbers reduce. When staff numbers reduce, the workload increases. When the workload increases, the mental health of staff suffers. Imagine £2·5 million a year going to the Prison Service to address the mental health of prisoners and prison officers. It would be absolutely transformational.

Mr Muir was absolutely right: we are spending money on division. We deliberately spend money on division, and we continue to forecast that we will spend money on division. We need to stop. We need to be robust. We need to make difficult decisions about division in our prisons and in our communities. If we stand together, we can do it. Who will be the first Minister to bring that forward? That is the point. Who will be the Minister to dare to take that to the table and say, "I will make a change"?

Minister, I also have concerns about the financing of legal aid in Northern Ireland. As it stands, legal aid spend in Northern Ireland is, per head of population, three times that in Scotland. I am not saying that we just reduce it. The important thing is to make sure that legal aid gets to the people who need it. Access to justice is incredibly important, so I am not saying that we should just cut our legal aid budget. The reality, however, is this: our legal aid budget is so high because justice takes such a long time to deliver. We must reduce how long it takes to deliver justice in Northern Ireland. It is extraordinary how long it takes some cases to come to fruition and how high the bills associated with those cases are. If we can speed up justice, we can reduce that bill. It is incumbent on the Finance Minister, as our money buffalo, to ask the people concerned, "What are you doing to fix this?". For the last 10 years, our legal aid accounts have been qualified because of fraud and error — 10 years. Somebody has to ask, "What are you doing to fix it, and, when you have fixed it, when will we see the outcome of a reduced bill for legal aid?".

There are many other issues, known and unknown, that we will have to deal with in the coming months and years beyond COVID. Life does not stop at COVID. The implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms has not been costed into the future. I put it on record now — other people have said differently — that the Ulster Unionist Party does not support it, but it is there, others supported it and it needs to be costed. Likewise, the victims' payment scheme and the institutional abuse scheme need to be costed into the future.

The issue here, as many have said, is how we scrutinise a Budget. If it is a one-year Budget, we scrutinise a one-year Budget, but what we really need to do is to scrutinise the Budget next year and the year after and the year after that. We need to look at five-year Budgets.

What am I really saying? We need to prioritise our spend. In justice, we have to reduce wastage. In the Executive, we have to prioritise outcomes. What we cannot do is spend money doing one thing, only to spend more money to undo what we have done. That makes absolutely no sense.

Mr Newton: I speak as a member of the Education Committee and will make some remarks about my constituency.

The Budget (No. 3) Bill is coming forward in probably the most challenging and difficult economic circumstances that we have faced for many years — possibly for generations. The budget pressures that are on the Minister and the Executive are enormous. We do not know what is coming down the line to hit us, perhaps in the near future. In saying that, I understand the frustration of the Chair of the Finance Committee, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, in carrying out his responsibilities and his scrutiny of the work of the Finance Minister. I also understand Mr Matthew O'Toole's position on long-term budgeting and, indeed, financial planning. He described it as "multi-year budgeting". That seems to be just common sense. As a member of Belfast City Council, I found that, in the rates-setting process, instead of looking a few months down the line when you have to set the rate, you look two or three years down the line and try to plan for what is coming.

Mr Girvan, in his wide-ranging remarks, seemed to touch a few nerves. I do not want to comment except on the education end. He spoke passionately about the need to educate our children, to invest in our children and to ensure that our children attend school. I think that that is what we all want to do, regardless of the situation that we find ourselves in: invest in our children at school. I agree with Mr Catney, although he took exception. He said that he wanted to be positive, and I agree that that is where we should go. We should be positive about how we handle our education system. As a member of the Education Committee, I pay tribute to my party colleague Peter Weir as Minister. He has given generously of his time to attend the Committee and, indeed, to clarify, outline and detail actions, as well as answering questions from the Committee.

In speaking on education and the Budget Estimates, I want to dwell for a few moments on the value of education and what we are investing in.

We should never think of education as a cost; it is an investment in the future of all of us. There is an absolute requirement to invest in education. There is also the requirement to revise education investment. In the Budget, it is appropriate that we look at each element of education investment, scrutinise where we are and, indeed, measure the outcomes and success of where we invest and support our education professionals and appreciate our teaching and teaching-support staff. We must recognise the valuable contribution that our principals have made in the health crisis and understand that education is a building block for the future of everything: the economy, health, communities, the arts and every other sector.


12.45 pm

Education is not just the three Rs. I look at the analysis of education spend under "Subhead Detail and Resource to Cash Reconciliation": what do we get for that investment?

"Ensuring that all young people, through participation at school, reach the highest possible standards of educational achievement":

that is number one. It is why they go to school. However, for a rounded education, we also want to give them

"a secure foundation for lifelong learning and employment".

We are looking at the opportunity to

"develop the values and attitudes appropriate to citizenship".

Our schools have a responsibility to turn out good citizens. That is what we ask them to do; that is what we invest in. Through our Youth Service and our children's services, we aim to assist our young people to

"gain knowledge, skills and experience to reach their full potential as valued individuals [and to encourage] children and young people to develop mutual understanding"

across communities, with respect for the opinions of other people, and, indeed, to respect

"cultural diversity, human rights, equality of opportunity and social inclusion."

It is not just about the three Rs; we are investing in a swathe of issues in our education system.

With regard to the schedule detail on resource cash allocation, I want to mention two items that are relatively small in the Department's overall spend. It is appropriate that, as we look at the Budget and look forward, we should, at least, pay tribute to a man who has invested his own money in our education system: Chuck Feeney, a billionaire who, I understand, has now reached the end of the process of giving away £8 billion. He invested in Northern Ireland's education system.

The other area relates to the European Union Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. I am not a European in the sense that I want to be part of Europe, but, like many other people, I want to share with Europe what we have here and what Europe has. I have some experience. I will use this expression and hope that I do not offend anyone by it. When I was working for a living, before I became a politician, I spent a lot of my energies on European funding programmes that provided young people from Northern Ireland — not just those at school level, but up to postgraduate level — with opportunities to enjoy, learn from and acquire skills from an experience in Europe. I had the privilege of working around Lake Como for most of it. Members will understand that it was difficult being in Lake Como. We need to find a way to support the European initiatives that will come forward.

I represent a constituency that has excellent schools. It has high-achieving schools that offer a wide curriculum. Some of them can touch every part of what the Department sets out to do, and they produce excellent results. They are oversubscribed and difficult to get into, and they turn out young people who are mentally and physically well-rounded and well-resourced. They are schools that have a long history of providing young people with opportunities and encouraging them to go to university. However, many of them require investment. Classrooms are draughty, and roofs have been leaking. They go on from one year to another, and, historically, the money has not been there to address those issues. We cannot allow the principals and teachers to work in such facilities. It was said to me by a teacher at one time, "If I was not in school but in industry, I would not be able to use this classroom, because it is not fit for purpose". I do not know whether that was true, but she said it. That is how many schoolteachers feel.

I want to talk about some of the primary schools. I know that this is not particular to my East Belfast constituency, but many primary schools are in historic buildings or buildings that, by today's standards, are not fit for purpose. They are in buildings, particularly in inner city areas, where principals and teachers can face many difficulties through challenging behaviour. In that situation, money needs to be set aside for the principals and teachers who face the challenges of some pupils' behaviour. As Ms Cameron mentioned, there should be a joined-upness between the Department of Health and the other Departments. If we do not address challenging behaviour at primary level, we run the risk of those behaviours becoming more and more intense and costing us the whole way through the system.

I thank the teachers. Many of them are dedicated. I am often surprised at the number of teachers who dedicate themselves and work well beyond the school hours, although perhaps not so much today, when we have somewhat restricted views.

I appeal to the Finance Minister. COVID-19 has been challenging. There is no doubt, Minister, that, as the Budget is rolled out, there will be times when school principals and school boards will need specific support to address COVID-19 issues. It has been said, "It hasn't gone away, you know". It has not gone away, you know, and there is an ongoing need for investment in this area. Perhaps, as Mr Girvan said, we need to learn how to live with COVID-19, but that, Minister, will require further investment in our schools.

I welcome Peter Weir's initiative in tackling underachievement. In my office, I have seven or eight local studies on tackling underachievement. Some were done by individuals or groups, and some were done professionally. We need to invest in tackling underachievement, whatever budget is determined on the initiative coming out of the Minister's work. It is always said that, if you do not tackle issues at the beginning of a process, you pay five or six times for them down the line. Tackling underachievement is a priority for the Minister. He has set up an expert group. I have no doubt that it will receive the support of the Education Committee and, I hope, the support of the Chamber. That is likely to reveal that Education on its own cannot address the issue; other Departments will need to be involved, particularly the Department of Health. I think more of the joined-upness of Education and Health via family intervention teams, which deal with —

Mr Allen: Will the Member give way?

Mr Newton: I will give way.

Mr Allen: The Member mentions the joined-up approach in supporting children in the education system. Does he agree that Communities also has a vital role to play in providing quality and affordable social housing? In many properties across Northern Ireland, children live in conditions that would be described as unacceptable, and that can have a knock-on effect on the education system.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I indicate to the Member that the intention is to suspend the Assembly in about two minutes' time. We can continue with your contribution after Question Time, if you want to give a quick answer.

Mr Newton: I agree with Mr Allen. I know that, particularly over the COVID-19 lockdown period, children who lived in overcrowded houses suffered most.

I will leave it at that, if that suits, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Thanks very much. That is a bit of experience coming through.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. We will resume the debate after Question Time with the present contributor, followed by Mr Maolíosa McHugh.

The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Health

Mr Speaker: Questions 5 and 7 have been withdrawn.

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I thank the Member for his question. I fully appreciate that every patient should be able to avail themselves of the best treatment that the health service can provide, and in a timely manner. It is regrettable that any patient has to wait longer than is clinically appropriate for outpatient assessment. I fully understand the distress and anxiety that long waiting times cause, particularly when patients are suffering pain and discomfort.

I assure you that waiting times for elective care remain a key priority for the health service in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, elective care activity had to be reduced during the first wave of the pandemic as medical staff were redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients. That inevitably had an adverse impact on outpatient waiting times, which were already unacceptable prior to the pandemic.

As part of the process to rebuild health and social care (HSC) services in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19, I published the 'Rebuilding Health and Social Care Services Strategic Framework' in June. The framework outlines HSC's plans to rebuild services and sets out the approach of resetting elective activity in an environment that is safe for staff and patients, while planning for a second wave of COVID-19.

In developing those plans, trusts have taken account of the new innovative practices that were introduced during the first wave of the pandemic. For example, trusts have adopted the use of technology such as telephone and virtual clinics to a much greater extent. Outpatient appointments have, where possible and where appropriate, moved to telephone appointments. In addition, a growing number of specialties are adopting virtual clinics using videoconferencing. Embedding those recent innovations will be essential to maximising outpatient activity during a second wave of the pandemic.

It is important to emphasise that the impact of COVID-19 on elective care services will be profound and long-lasting. It has been acknowledged that services will not be able to resume as normal for some time due to the constraints imposed by COVID-19, including social distancing and the use of PPE. The increasing prevalence of COVID-19-positive cases in the community and our hospitals in recent weeks is impacting on the rebuilding of elective services. Staff are being redirected to respond to those pressures or are required to self-isolate, and, as a consequence, some cancellations have been required. That may continue in the short to medium term. It will inevitably have an adverse impact on outpatient waiting times for some time to come.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. I remind the Minister that he has two minutes to answer a question. If the Minister believes that he needs extra time, he can get an extra minute, but we have to try to keep this consistent for all the Departments.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Even before COVID and even before his time, waiting lists were a disaster for absolutely ages. Does the Minister agree that it will be incredibly hard to get the waiting lists down, especially when we do not have enough nurses or doctors? Even with independent sector providers' help, the waiting lists were hardly moving before this. What more can we do collectively to try to get waiting lists down once we get through the COVID pandemic?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his supplementary. Mr Speaker, before I move on to answering it, may I thank Mr Easton for his service on the Health Committee? I am led to believe that he will be moving to another, more important Committee some time in the next weeks. He has served on the Committee since 2007, and I thank him for his service, dedication and detailed knowledge, which we heard in the question that he just asked.

He is right. The lack of nurses and doctors in our current system is a subject that he has often raised. When this place came back on 11 January, one of our big achievements was to put in place 300 nursing training places every year for the next three years. The Member has highlighted many times that that would not even fill our current gap. So, it is about filling the gap in the staffing vacancies but also embedding the creative and innovative solutions that we have seen, such as the establishment of the elective care centre in Lagan Valley, the orthopaedics network and the cancer reset cell.

It is about looking outside of what has been the norm in our health service. It is about breaking down the silos that were not intentionally but artificially created in the system, when we did not look across all our trusts and services to see how we could react collectively to challenge waiting lists. It is also about challenging surgeons, doctors and other health professionals to travel to other sites. Out of a meeting with the Royal College of Surgeons and other health professionals last week, there was an indication that they are prepared to do that in order to get to grips with our waiting times.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, are you aware that over 100 people were waiting in the emergency departments of Craigavon Area Hospital and, I understand, Daisy Hill Hospital last night? Have you done any evaluation of that? People are finding it hard to contact their GP and are again choosing to use emergency departments instead of outpatient services or their GP. That is happening because of the breakdown across the system or the difficulties that each area is experiencing.

Mr Swann: The pressures on our emergency departments are historical. A piece of work was done to review emergency departments, and I announced on Friday that that is now available on the Department's website. It is about how we look at the reformation of our emergency care services. Doing that will be a challenge, especially at this time. Something that we are doing through our COVID-19 urgent emergency care action plan, 'No More Silos', is looking at how we can work across all our services. We have seen over the past six months how primary and secondary care have really come together to work collaboratively. That was demonstrated in our COVID centres, and it is vital that that continue in this next phase.

Ten key actions are set out in 'No More Silos', including:

"Keeping Emergency Departments for Emergencies ... Rapid Access Assessment and Treatment Services ... 24/7 Telephone Clinical Assessment Service — 'Phone First'".

We have seen some of those things introduced in Daisy Hill Hospital as its emergency care provision has reopened.

It is about how we utilise a very limited number of staff on a smaller footprint because of social distancing. It is also about making sure that we can get patients seen by the right person at the right time in the right place.

Mr Sheehan: Many people are very concerned about the cancellation or pausing of outpatient services. Will the Minister tell us how he will prioritise pressing and urgent cases, particularly in neurology and pain clinics?

Mr Swann: I am sure that the Member is aware that a number of medical royal colleges issued a joint press statement this morning. I and officials from the Department have met representatives of the colleges and discussed with them how we can re-engage and make sure that some of the services that we put in place in our surge plans can continue. Those include pain and neurology clinics, as well as urgent flags for cancer. Services will be dependent on the availability of staff and premises, however.

In their press release this morning, the royal colleges summed it up better than any of us can when they stated:

"Pressures on services are already growing rapidly, and GP surgeries and Emergency Departments are coming under increasing strain to safely meet demand from patients. With elective care waiting lists at unacceptable levels already, it is essential that every single person in Northern Ireland complies with the government guidance to help stop the virus from spreading, so staffing and financial resources aren’t pulled from routine operations and treatment."

That also responds to what the Member asked. The more of our health professionals that we can keep concentrating on their specialties without needing to divert them to COVID services, the better that it will be for the people of Northern Ireland. As the royal colleges asked for in their press release, it is vital that the people of Northern Ireland respond and react to the asks in the government guidance so that we can drive down the spread of COVID-19.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a severe impact on diagnostic treatment services. However, urgent cancer diagnostics and treatments were delivered during the first wave, and they will continue to be delivered during the second surge, as safely as possible, in COVID-19 safe spaces and using the independent sector hospitals where it is appropriate. The COVID-19 surge planning strategic framework provides the overall structure and parameters within the HSC trusts, and they will develop further plans for managing the response, in the event of further waves of COVID-19. The framework can be viewed on the Department's website.

Lessons learned from a first surge of coronavirus combined with the aforementioned regional approach have the potential to continue to improve resilience against COVID-19. However, we should be under no illusion that there are challenging times ahead. Services are already coming under pressure, and if the number of COVID-positive inpatients increases, that will have a negative impact on the ability to maintain other services. One of my primary aims in the difficult weeks ahead will be to ensure the continued delivery of high-quality diagnosis and cancer services, provided, of course, that it is safe to do so.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, there are chinks of light amid all the doom and gloom, and the reopening of breast cancer surgery in Daisy Hill Hospital for the first time in 10 years and the reopening of our emergency department (ED), notwithstanding the issues around queueing experienced last night, are to be hugely celebrated.

Minister, I declare an interest, and I have been in touch with you before about this, as my aunt has had her life-changing operation postponed twice, just a matter of days before her operation. She is not the only one in that boat, as there are multiple women and men, waiting at home, who are scared that their operation is going to be, or has already been, postponed. What comfort or reassurance can you give them, Minister? What support has been provided to your Department from the Department of Finance to make sure that you have all the resources in place to ensure that nobody is waiting at home, that no more operations are postponed, and that the diagnostics are in place to ensure that there is not a future pandemic as a result of this pandemic?

Mr Swann: The Member articulates that sense of frustration, hurt and anxiety that many families across the province have been feeling since we had to cancel surgeries, diagnosis and screening programmes. However, it is not simply, at this moment, about throwing money at my Department. I need the nurses, staff and trained clinicians. One of the largest impacts that we have is that the more people we have going into ICU, the more need we have of anaesthetists, who are moving from theatres to support people who are being put onto ventilators. Highly skilled theatre nurses are then transformed and transposed to support additional ICU beds as well. Every ICU bed that we have to open and support through staff has that knock-on effect.

The Member mentioned the surgeries that are potentially going to taking place in Daisy Hill Hospital, and that is where we look to our proactive and reactive service so that we start to utilise our footprint around the Province, no matter where it is. It used to be the case, when I came into this place, that the biggest cry was that patients would not travel; they always wanted the service on their doorstep. Patients are now willing to travel, as are our surgeons and nurses, but I really want to stop the travel to stop the spread and contamination of COVID-19 in this society. Doing that will allow me to release more of those front-line and critical service health workers back to the jobs and the service delivery and the likes of the services for your aunt, which is where they should be.

Mr Chambers: Will the Minister update the House on cancer screening programmes?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for raising that point because it is one of the more challenging aspects, especially with regard to where we were in the first wave. The bowel, breast and cervical cancer-screening programmes were paused from mid-March to the end of June 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All paused screening programmes have recommenced. The immediate priority is to clear the backlog of patients who are waiting for diagnostic procedures and to issue invitations to those whose screening opportunities were paused. This has been happening over the summer, and good progress has been made.

A key aim over the coming month is to develop a screening contingency plan, and that will outline the measures and steps that are necessary to maintain population screening during a resurgence of COVID over the months ahead. It is likely to take some time for screening services to return to pre-COVID levels, and, inevitably, the pace of rebuilding will be influenced by the progress of the pandemic.

The need to maintain social distancing in clinical settings, the implementation of enhanced infection control measures and the continued requirement for personal protective equipment will also present challenges for service restoration.


2.15 pm

Dealing with the pandemic continues to create additional pressures on health services. However, the recovery and restoration of screening services remain a priority. It is vital that anyone who has experienced any of the symptoms associated with early-stage cancer contact their doctor rather than waiting for a screening test.

Ms Bradshaw: Given how critical time is with cancer, does the Minister intend to use the independent sector more in the winter to bring down waiting lists and waiting times?

Mr Swann: We utilised the independent sector during the first wave, and it is my intention to do so again. The impact of COVID-19 on HSC's operating capacity and the significant reduction in productivity that resulted from that mean that HSC has continued to require access to the independent sector's capacity to deliver core services.

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), on behalf of HSC, entered into contracts with three independent hospital providers from 1 April to 29 June. The contracts were agreed on a not-for-profit and full cost-recovery basis, and they provided trusts with full access to those independent sector hospital facilities. That arrangement ceased on 29 June as the independent sector moved to restart its services for privately funded patients.

Theatre capacity was prioritised for category 2 cancer patients from 29 June to 20 September. In addition, £12·1 million of non-recurring funding has been made available for 2021 for elective care and has been targeted in the first instance at patients with the highest clinical risk who are waiting for a diagnostic test, including those with suspected or confirmed cancer. In the main, that activity will be undertaken by the independent sector providers.

Mr Buckley: Data and evidence are important. The Minister may be aware that figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that non-COVID deaths in England soared between March and September, with diabetic deaths up by 86%, prostate cancer deaths up by 53% and breast cancer deaths up by 47%. Sadly and undoubtedly, COVID kills, but so does lockdown. Does the Minister have any data relating to the non-COVID impact on Northern Ireland?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point and welcome him to the Health Committee, where he has, I think, taken over from Mr Easton.

The Member will be aware that, every Friday, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) produces a weekly update on excess deaths, including those from cancer. NISRA is the official recorder of statistics in Northern Ireland, and, using the information recorded on death certificates, it provides a breakdown of additional deaths and their causes. NISRA provides that data to my Department.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Demographic pressures and a misalignment of demand against funded capacity have created challenges across many aspects of elective surgery, including the requirement for cataract surgery. It was for that reason that the Department moved to establish elective care centres, which are now called day-procedure centres. Working across traditional trust boundaries and acting as a resource for the region to improve access and reduce waiting lists, these centres will provide high-volume, non-complex surgical treatments and procedures.

Cataract surgery was identified as a prototype model, and three elective care centres for cataract surgery were established in December 2018, offering assessments and treatments at the Downe Hospital, the Mid-Ulster Hospital and the South Tyrone Hospital. The centres are designed to improve flow whilst maintaining quality and safety, with the efficiencies gained aimed at improving productivity and reducing waiting lists. Inevitably, COVID has impacted on that performance, although the centres remain open for business.

A combination of reduced capacity due to workforce shortages and infection control measures, including social distancing and the use of PPE, has impacted on the service delivery. In addition, the redeployment of theatre, medical and nursing teams, patient cancellations and the need for patient testing prior to surgery have further reduced performance delivery.

As a second COVID surge and associated winter pressures continue to have an impact on all areas of service delivery, the cataract day-procedure centres will continue to play their part in reducing waiting lists. It is anticipated that, where other elective surgeries may need to be downturned in acute hospital sites during the second surge, the day-procedure units will continue to act as a resource for the region.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure that he will agree with me that four years' waiting time for cataract surgery is totally unacceptable.

Mr Swann: I do. I have said that many times about the length of our waiting lists across all sectors in the health service. I said that when I took over as Minister. That is why it was important that New Decade, New Approach, pre-COVID, assigned £50 million to tackling waiting lists, and cataract services was one of those key priorities. COVID overtook that, but so did the underfunding of the health service over the past number of years, which left us in a position where we were seeing ever-increasing waiting lists due to an ever-decreasing availability of staff and a reduction in staff numbers.

Ms Sugden: I wrote to the Minister recently about clinical placements for optometrists in independent prescribing, and I understand that there is an issue with securing such placements across all the professions. Is he able to give me an update on that, and is there a way to take that forward? I believe that it could have an impact on waiting lists in a positive way.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. She wrote to me with a suggestion that was not about a complaint or what we are doing, but actually offered a solution or a different way to look at things. I know that her offer on behalf of that client body has been taken forward and is being advanced in the Department.

Mr McGrath: Does the Minister agree that the ability of the Downe Hospital to deliver cataract services is a fantastic success story? Will he undertake a quick review to see whether there are any additional cataract services that could be delivered on the site? The staff are willing and ready to deliver the service and, if it can be done, they would love to be able to do that for the people of the North.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member and welcome him to his usual place as the champion of the Downe Hospital. He never misses an opportunity in the House to extol the skill set and dedication of the staff, of which I am highly appreciative. As I said in an earlier answer, as we get into the second surge over the next couple of months we will continue to look at where we can deliver services safely. If the Downe Hospital's footprint is one that we can use, I am sure that it will be explored.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Since March 2020, the critical care network has procured 180 intensive care ventilators and 24 advanced patient transport ventilators to supplement the existing devices in the treatment of the most sick patients. Of those orders, 124 ventilators have been received, allocated and commissioned for use across our trusts. The remaining 80 ventilators are awaited from the supplier, with the order due to be fulfilled by the end of this month. An additional 145 non-invasive ventilation devices have been procured for use by respiratory services in the region, along with 300 high-flow oxygen devices. On 6 October, I published individual trust surge plans alongside the Department's surge planning strategic framework. The regional inventory of 348 invasive ventilation devices, which included the 80 ventilators that are expected by the end of October, exceeds the currently anticipated demand.

Whilst it is vital that we have the necessary ventilators and other equipment in place to meet the needs of patients, that equipment is unlikely to be a limiting factor in the provision of critical care to patients in Northern Ireland. The most considerable stress across the health and social care system comes from pressures on staff resources, including those staff contracting, or self-isolating because of, COVID. That is why there is no room for complacency and we must all play our part in the efforts to control the virus.

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his answer. I, too, would like to acknowledge the commitment and work of Alex Easton on the Health Committee, and I welcome Jonathan Buckley to the Committee. The situation today is that we have now had 624 deaths as a result of COVID. I want to pass on our condolences to each and every family that has lost a loved one as a result of the virus. I am acutely conscious that, as we stand here today, we are now at 95% occupancy rate in the hospital system and that we have only 16 ICU beds available. Given the importance of access to vital equipment, including ventilators and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines, with all the adequately trained staff that are required to operate that equipment and to deliver that care, can the Minister outline how he intends to ensure accessibility to this vital equipment and care as we move into the second surge?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. It was a challenge. However, one of the inbuilt solutions that we produced, during the first wave, was the Nightingale facility at the Belfast City Hospital tower. During the first wave of COVID-19, detailed plans were developed to increase our ICU surge capacity at incremental stages, producing a regional model for those patients who needed intensive care and ventilation. It used the Belfast City Hospital tower and the regional ICU Nightingale facility. That will continue and has been stood up to be available during future stages.

The introduction of social distancing and other measures to control the spread of infection ensured that the number of patients in Northern Ireland using this facility did not get close to full capacity in the first wave. The ICU bed usage reached a peak of 96 occupied beds in total. That included 57 COVID-19 patients. However, maintaining services at that level was challenging for ICU staff and required significant redeployment from other services. During future surges, I will not hesitate to recommend proposals to the Executive on reinforcing control measures where necessary to ensure that the HSC does not become overwhelmed.

The revised regional ICU surge plan provides the ability to flex capacity to a maximum of 158 ICU beds. It is important to note that the level of staffing required to deliver that level of ICU capacity would be impossible to sustain for long and would have a major impact on other services, including complex elective surgery.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, no matter how many ventilators you have on order or receive, it does not appear that you have enough trained staff to operate them. Have you asked for army medical assistance, should that be necessary, in order to keep people alive on those ventilators during the worst of this wave?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. I have said in the House before that, when I need to, I will not hesitate to ask for help, no matter what source it comes from, as it would be a dereliction of my duty as Health Minister not to do that.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that we are at the bottom of the global league table for ICU capacity and that warnings were made prior to COVID-19, does the Minister agree with me that more needed to be done prior to COVID-19, and now, to increase our ICU capacity?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I keep referring to the Nightingale facility at the Belfast City Hospital tower. When other places looked to build temporary hospitals, we utilised the footprint that we had. We utilised the staff that we had and we produced that on a regional basis. The surge capacity is still there in that facility to go up to 158 ICU beds incrementally. If we were not utilising those ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, we could be using them for something else or for somebody who needed elective surgery or who needed to use that facility. The fewer COVID-19 patients we have coming through, the more our service can do.

Mr Speaker: I call Jim Allister. I make the Member aware that we have very limited time.

Mr Allister: Thank you. When this is over and it comes to reviewing how things went, will it include a review of how well, over previous years, the Department prepared for a pandemic? Will it include a truthful review of how many hospital beds, including ICU beds, were removed from our system over the years?

Mr Swann: The Member makes a valid point. It is something that I have said in previous answers, even here today. It was the reduction of the staff — not the beds — who could maintain the beds and who could look after the patients who needed to utilise those beds.

This place has to be honest and open about what that review looks like and the questions that it asks. It needs to see what more we could do for our National Health Service. No matter how many people try to denigrate some of the service and some of our delivery, I maintain that the National Health Service that we have in Northern Ireland and the people who work in it is something that we all should be proud of and be behind.


2.30 pm

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

T1. Ms Mullan asked the Minister of Health whether he recognises the figure that fewer than 10 schools have required Public Health Agency (PHA) contact-tracing support for two or more incidents of COVID-19. (AQT 561/17-22)

Mr Swann: Some of the support mechanisms that the PHA put in place to support our schools and allow them to keep open and the collaborative approach between us in the Health Department, the Department of Education and the Public Health Agency have demonstrated that, although the Education Minister reported that there were 1,500 positive cases, such joint working was a benefit and showed how Departments worked well in a short space of time to ensure that the schools could remain open and that we could support the staff and pupils who tested positive and who were contacted.

Ms Mullan: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. That figure was reported by the Education Minister, but it does not reflect what I know to be the case in Derry. I contacted post-primary schools in the city and found that six of them had contacted the PHA 55 times between them, with 50 confirmed cases. They also reported to me that 1,242 pupils were self-isolating, yet I could not get that detail. Minister, can you tell me who is responsible for contact tracing in schools?

Mr Swann: A joint piece of work was done in which schools supported the contact-tracing programme within schools, supplemented by the Public Health Agency. The Public Health Agency, as far as I am aware, supplied information to the Department of Education and the Education Authority on the number of positive cases and the number of outbreaks, and that allowed the Education Minister to provide that information yesterday.

In regard to the specific details of how contact tracing works in schools, intensive work needs to be done during this two-week period to make sure that we provide a safe space for our schools to get back and support the principals and teachers who want to get back and educate our children in a safe environment.

T2. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Health whether there is any evidence to show that the virus is more likely to be spread in nationalist areas than it is in unionist areas. (AQT 562/17-22)

Mr Swann: That is not evidence that we hold in the Department. What we look at and provide is a breakdown of incidence per council area and now by postcode. We do not ask anybody who has contracted COVID-19 about their political or religious affiliations.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that retaining public confidence in such a crisis is essential and that, at times such as this, all Ministers should ensure that, when they speak in public, they do so on the basis of fact rather than generalisations?

Mr Givan: He did.

Mr Butler: I am asking the Minister.

Mr Swann: One of the things that we all have to do — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Just a wee second, Minister. I remind Members that everybody has to be treated with respect. There is to be no talking from a sedentary position. The Minister is on his feet. Have respect and let the Minister respond to the Member's question.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. The crucial point that he got to was that, for Northern Ireland to get back to where we were after the first surge of COVID-19, we have to do it jointly. We have to do it as one society, one Assembly and one Executive. It is vital that the health message that is put out is consistent. Any weakening or undermining of that message gives succour to those who do not believe it, do not want to believe it or want to undermine it for the sake of undermining it. It is a vital message. We have to come together to support our health service and the front-line workers as they support patients who contract COVID. Our nursing staff, doctors and hospital porters do not care about the religion or political affiliation of their patients, and nor does COVID. The critical point that we need to get through to anyone listening is that the virus is no respecter of political persuasion, religious belief or economic or social background. As our party leader said, it is an equal opportunities killer.

T3. Mr Buckley asked the Minister of Health, in the light of the huge demand, whether he will provide the House and the wider public with the crucial, factual data regarding transmission spread across hospitality and other close-contact services, given the huge impact that lockdown and the restriction measures have had on livelihoods across Northern Ireland and the fact that it is only right that those whom we are asking to face the brunt of the restrictions be provided with the evidence that led to them. (AQT 563/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. This afternoon, there will be a section on my Department's website that publishes data and scientific evidence that we have received and that we have provided to the Executive. That will be supplemented and updated with a more detailed breakdown as time goes on.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his answer. It is important that the House gets that information as soon as possible to help to inform the general public.

Does the Minister share the concerns of many working people across the country who fear the loss of their jobs and businesses and the knock-on effects on their mental, personal and physical well-being during the crisis?

Mr Swann: I do, and I not think that that should even be questioned. I welcomed and highlighted it when the Executive unanimously endorsed the steps that we took on restrictions for four weeks and the extended two-week holiday for schools. It was a unanimous Executive decision because we recognised the difficulties that taking those steps and making those decisions had across Northern Ireland society, whether it was the impact of COVID-19 on our health service, the economy and even on social interactions among children and in wider society. The Executive did not take the decision lightly, but it was unanimous. The First Minister made a statement here last Wednesday on behalf of the Executive. I was in the Chamber to support her in making those recommendations because, as an Executive, we realised what had to be done. What we did last week has now been proven correct, and other areas are following us. We have seen the actions taken in the Republic of Ireland, in Wales and in large parts of England. I am sure that Scotland will shortly take steps in the same direction. What Northern Ireland cannot afford is what we see elsewhere across Europe. The Health Minister in Belgium has, I think, said that coronavirus is now out of control in that country. As Health Minister here, I do not want to have to stand up and say that.

T4. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Health to explain the regrettable delay behind the fact that the health protection regulations that govern the newest restrictions were commenced at 10.30 pm on Friday, four and a half hours later than they were due to come into effect, even though the First Minister had announced them two days previously. (AQT 564/17-22)

Mr Swann: The Member asks a valid question. I shall answer simply: the regulations supported a five-party agreement and plan that had come together earlier in the week. The implementation, drafting and detail of the regulations was, as anybody who has had experience of drafting regulations will know, more complicated, diverse and intricate than first envisaged because they were not a simple copy and paste of the first lockdown restrictions. They were more detailed, nuanced and targeted on the areas where, we thought, action needed to be taken.

Ms Sugden: Thank you, Minister. Information appeared on the nidirect and Department of Health websites that bowling alleys had to close as well as the other listed businesses. However, the statutory rules that were published on Friday night and the regulations published on Sunday night make no mention of that. Will the Minister put on record whether bowling alleys have to close as part of the new restrictions so that I can advise my constituents?

Mr Swann: My understanding is that the restrictions include bowling alleys, but I will get that in writing to the Member, so that she has it not just in Hansard but in writing.

T5. Mr Allen asked the Minister of Health whether he is satisfied that we have the doctors, nurses, anaesthetists and wider workforce to deal with COVID-19 admissions, given that, in recent weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of patients admitted to hospitals and ICUs. (AQT 565/17-22)

Mr Swann: We have that workforce but only because we take it from elsewhere. It is not readily available. We cannot simply divert people from a standing stock of health service professionals who are waiting.

We have put out our workforce appeal again, asking anybody who holds those skill sets to come forward. They would be more than happily accepted into the workforce. We published that appeal a couple of weeks ago, and, so far, over 1,700 people have been successful in their application for work. Of those 1,700, nearly 900 have been appointed. They are deployed in the service, on standby or on bank jobs.

Mr Allen: As you highlighted, Minister, we are seeing an increase in hospital and ICU admissions. That puts pressure on the health service and impacts on other services. Do you agree that the appalling actions of some should not be a benchmark for wider society?

Mr Swann: I very much agree. I can say as much as I want from the Dispatch Box in that regard, but, when you speak to someone who has suffered from COVID-19 or has lost someone to it, they give the most powerful testimony of the effect of the virus and its impact on our health service. One of the most moving and realistic stories of the experience of people who have had to utilise ICU and ventilation was a testimony given by the Member himself as someone who had experienced it and come through it. With his experience, he would not want anyone in Northern Ireland to have to go through that. That is especially the case with what is termed "long COVID" and the after-effects of infection.

T6. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Health whether he has established an effective, fit-for-purpose COVID test-and-trace system, with adequate backward-tracing capacity, for the people of Northern Ireland. (AQT 566/17-22)

Mr Swann: The test-and-trace facility that we have in place is always subject to review and improvement. We introduced "Digital First" in the last number of weeks, which involves sending text messages to those who have tested positive. That was followed up by being able to do a self-certification using an on-site website. We have established the StopCOVID NI app, which puts out data as well. We have the ability to go back 48 hours. The Member's party leader and the health spokesperson have brought to our attention the usefulness of going back seven days, rather than 48 hours. We have run a pilot, and, as we strengthen the service that our test-and-trace facility provides, we look to introduce and embed that.

Mr Speaker: We have a minute left.

Mr Lyttle: Does the Health Minister accept that a failure to establish adequate backward-tracing capacity in the test-and-trace system costs Northern Ireland increased transmission and infection?

Mr Swann: I think that I have answered that. It is something that was raised by the Member's party leader and health spokesperson, and we have looked at going back not just 48 hours but seven days.

One of the challenges is people's ability to remember where they were seven days previously and whom they were in contact with. Those are the additional challenges for the programme as we expand backward-tracing. We saw that our online system is easier to use because you sit in front of a computer and can come back to it several times, rather than simply doing it through a single telephone call.


2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: Time is up. Members, please take your ease for a moment or two while we prepare the Chamber.

Infrastructure

Mr Speaker: We now move on to questions to the Minister for Infrastructure. Question 3 and topical question 9 have been withdrawn.

Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): I recognise that many in the local community support the safety improvements that are being proposed along the A1 between Hillsborough roundabout and Loughbrickland. In particular, I am very aware of how important the A1 improvements are for the many people who have expressed their support for them, especially those who have lost loved ones.

A public inquiry into the A1 junctions phase 2 road improvement scheme was held from the 11 March until 13 March 2020. Following the inquiry, the inspector undertook a number of site meetings to ensure that he gave full consideration to all the issues raised. Although those site meetings were delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, they have now been completed. The inspector issued his report to the Department yesterday. My officials will require some time to consider fully the inspector’s proposals and recommendations. When I have been apprised of the findings, I will consider them carefully and decide on the next steps for this important scheme. I am keen to progress the A1 junctions phase 2 road improvement project to the next stage as quickly as possible, once all the necessary statutory processes have been completed and the necessary funding has been secured.

Mr Boylan: I welcome the Minister's answer. She is well aware that many people who use the road daily are keen to have the improvements put in place, especially for road safety. Can she give the House any indication of when the scheme will commence to improve safety on the road?

Ms Mallon: I agree with the Member on the importance of road safety. The A1 is also important for connectivity, given its strategic importance. I assure him that I am keen to progress the scheme to the next stage as quickly as possible. The precise timescale for that will depend on the outcome of the public inquiry and consideration of the report. I recognise the road's importance. I met Mr and Mrs Heaney, who tragically lost their son, Karl, and gave them my commitment to move forward with the scheme as quickly as is practically possible, and I will keep Members updated.

Miss McIlveen: The safety of all road users should be a priority. The Minister will be aware of the work of the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) in highlighting the hazard that wire rope-style crash barriers present to motorcyclists in the event of a collision with one. Will the Minister give a commitment to meet MAG, with a view to working with it to look at alternative barriers for schemes such as the A1?

Ms Mallon: I recognise the concern that motorcyclists have about wire rope barriers and that the issue exists in many countries. My Department is currently working to the standards that are applied across Europe. Impacts with safety barriers, of any type, represent a very small proportion of road collision statistics for motorcyclists. For all existing motorways and high-flow dual carriageways, my Department specifies concrete barriers for the central reserves as part of any road upgrades and when existing barriers need to be replaced. My officials are currently considering the ongoing maintenance costs for wire-rope safety barriers in comparison with non-tension systems, and this may change the way the Department specifies safety barriers in the future. I will be happy to meet the delegation and the Member.

Mr Beattie: My supplementary question has been asked. Thank you.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister, for your answers so far. Can you provide an update not just on the A1 but on the A5 and the A6 flagship projects, please?

Ms Mallon: Yes, and I thank the Member for her interest. The A6 project is progressing well. We had anticipated some impact and delay due to COVID, but construction has progressed very quickly on the site, and we are advancing. I was able to make a bid for capital money during the recent monitoring round.

The A5 was subject to a public inquiry. The report has been passed to my Department. My officials are giving the report careful consideration and obtaining legal advice before submitting the report to me to decide the next steps. Again, this is another strategic project that is of critical importance, not least, to address the regional imbalance in Northern Ireland.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her continued commitment to the long-awaited A1 upgrade project. How does she hope and plan to communicate the next stage of the project to the public, as that is very important?

Ms Mallon: I agree that there is huge interest in the project, not just inside the House but outside it. There is a great will and enthusiasm to see the project progress. As I have said, my Department received the report from the public inquiry just yesterday, and we are giving it careful consideration. I have asked my officials to ensure that any communications from my Department are maximised to reach members of the public as well as Members of the House who are also keen to see that project delivered.

Ms Mallon: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 13 together.

The Driver and Vehicle Agency’s (DVA) booking system for driving tests reopened on 5 October, and thousands of bookings have been made. At this time, the DVA has not released any driving test slots beyond January 2021.

As Members will be aware, driving instructors have been included in the Executive’s regulations on businesses that must close over the next four weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Following that Executive decision, driving tests will also cease over this period of increased restrictions based on public health and scientific advice. Motorcycle lessons and tests are not affected by the new restrictions. The booking service is now closed, and the DVA will contact those who had their driving tests cancelled to advise them on how they can reschedule their appointments.

To create additional capacity, the DVA is planning to open up the booking system for February for the impacted customers only. Further appointments will also be made available in November, December and January as the DVA increases capacity by recruiting additional examiners. The slots, when they are released, will also be available only to the impacted customers.

The DVA acknowledges that learner drivers are keen to take their driving tests at the earliest opportunity and will continue to work hard to maximise the availability of test slots. However, all driving test services across these islands are experiencing high demand with longer than usual waiting times. Like all public-facing services, the COVID-19 restrictions mean that the DVA has had to adapt its services to ensure that they can be provided safely, and it asks customers for their patience at this difficult time.

It is my priority to ensure that our staff and customers remain safe, and the DVA will continue to be guided by the latest public health and scientific advice as we work as quickly as we can to serve all our customers.

Mr McCann: I thank the Minister for her answer to that question. Can she tell me in detail how many additional test slots the DVA is providing to address the enormous and growing backlog of driving test appointments?

Ms Mallon: I can confirm to the Member that, prior to the new restrictions and their impact on driving tests, we were working very hard to increase capacity. We are recruiting 27 extra examiners, three of whom have already been recruited. Twelve temporary and 12 permanent examiners are in the process of being recruited. We are offering driving tests on Saturdays and, while ensuring road safety, exploring the option of Sundays.

Mr Beggs: I am pleased that motorcycle tests will continue, given that the instructor follows in another vehicle. I welcome that. The Minister indicated that there will be no tests for this four-week period. Likewise, instructors will not be able to train students. What compensation package will be available to them? They do not have a rateable property and may not have fitted into many of the other schemes that have been presented to date.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his very important question. He is right about the impact of the restrictions on driving instructors. They have been asked to close their businesses, so there is an onus and a responsibility on the Executive to ensure that they receive financial support.

The Member is right to highlight that, in many instances, driving instructors will not qualify for the Department of Finance scheme because they do not have rateable premises. However, the Minister for the Economy is working on a hardship scheme that will include businesses that have been affected by closure. My understanding is that the scheme will include those businesses and the self-employed, who are also impacted because their business relies very much on businesses that have been forced to close as a result of our restrictions.

Ms Bunting: Will the Minister confirm whether employees who have had a dual role, as driving examiner and vehicle tester, will now move back to vehicle testing to help with the number of MOTs being conducted?

Ms Mallon: There are 37 driving examiners. During this period, some will continue to conduct motorcycle tests, and others will be redeployed to other areas and duties, as she highlighted. Some will be offered the opportunity to take annual leave before the services resume.

Ms Hunter: I am grateful that the Minister has provided clarity on the Executive's decision to add driving instructors to the list of close contacts. As a result, driving tests have had to cease to protect public health. When will the Minister's Executive colleagues bring forward support for the industry?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. The Minister for the Economy and her officials are working very hard on this matter. It was discussed at the Executive on Friday, and I understand that the Minister and her officials have been working diligently since then to try to bring forward a scheme that will set out very clearly the eligibility criteria that will ensure that people who were excluded previously are not excluded as we learn to cope with the next four weeks and the new restrictions imposed by the Executive.

Ms Mallon: Before I address the Member’s specific question, it is important to explain that, although my Department has a statutory duty under article 8 of the Roads Order to maintain public roads, there is no automatic entitlement to compensation for road users. My Department investigates and defends public liability claims, with every case turning on its own facts. In cases where my officials consider the Department can raise a legal defence, claims will be repudiated.

Turning to the Member’s specific question, I can confirm that, during the six full financial years from 2014-15 to 2019-2020, £13·1 million in roads-related public liability compensation was paid in claims for vehicle damage, personal injury and property damage. During the same period, the Department received 18,452 public liability compensation claims and paid compensation in 10,453 cases. However, I wish to make it clear that claims received in one financial year are not always concluded within that financial year. Therefore, the figures that I have provided for cases where compensation was paid out, as well as the compensation amount, will include details for claims received in prior financial years.

It has been independently established that, at today’s prices, some £143 million is needed to maintain the structural integrity of Northern Ireland’s road network. However, due to budget constraints, that amount has not been available over the period in question.

Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister gave a startling figure, and I appreciate her referring to it. Minister, what is the Department's average response time to a reported defect? Does the Department hold any information on claims made in the window between a defect being reported and repaired?


3.00 pm

Ms Mallon: I can confirm that, during that period, the breakdown of compensation payments was as follows: £2 million was paid out for vehicle damage; £10·7 million was paid out in compensation for personal injury; and £410,000 was paid out for property damage claims. The average timescale for a decision in respect of vehicle damage is four months. For personal injury and property damage, the average waiting time for a decision is six months.

Mr Clarke: Given the substantial amount of money that is being spent on compensation, has your Department done any work to find out about the recurring costs of damage in the same areas, as opposed to just providing that global figure of £13 million? Many of us will know that there are accident black spots and particular defects on roads that still go unchecked even after compensation has been paid.

Ms Mallon: For investment in our roads and structural maintenance, my officials use and apply a matrix that is to do with the volume of traffic and defects on a road. We will never have a situation where the Department is not in receipt of compensation claims. The challenge here is that we have systematically underinvested in our road structure, and, unfortunately, this is one of the outworkings of that. I will continue to make representations to the Finance Minister and Executive colleagues to ensure that we can get the funding that we need to bring our roads up to a much better and much more improved standard.

Mr Muir: The Minister's responses are perhaps reflective of an endemic lack of investment in roads maintenance. Can she outline why only £1 million for additional roads maintenance was bid for in the October monitoring round? I have a list the length of my arm of roads in the North Down constituency that require repair and maintenance, and yet people are being told to wait.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. To my recollection, in the October monitoring round, I made a capital bid for £5·5 million, and just over £4 million of that was for structural maintenance. I can clarify those figures, and if they are not the most up-to-date figures, I can provide you with the revised figures. Please be assured that, where there is any opportunity to bid for additional moneys that I can ensure will be spent, I will continue to do that and to make those representations to Executive colleagues.

Ms Kimmins: Compensation figures suggest that my area of Newry and the surrounding areas are among those with the highest number of claims, suggesting that the roads there have the worst defects. Can the Minister outline how she intends to address the issues in the worst-affected areas?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. In this year's annual budget, I allocated £75 million towards structural maintenance, which was in line with last year. I also created a £10 million rural roads fund, because I very much recognise that our rural roads are under pressure and that we need to do more to try to improve them. I assure the Member that I will continue to make representations to secure the necessary funding so that her constituency and other constituencies can see the significant road improvements that they need and deserve.

Ms Mallon: The NSMC transport sectoral meeting on Wednesday 7 October was conducted via videoconference due to current COVID restrictions. Eamon Ryan TD, Irish Transport Minister, Gordon Lyons MLA, as accompanying Minister, and I attended the meeting. I will make a statement on the meeting in the Assembly on 2 November, but I can report that it was hugely positive, and a lot of progress was made.

I can confirm that a number of issues were discussed and agreed at the meeting. These included the implications of Brexit for our island. An agreement was reached on continued cooperation on transport issues in the coming months. Our response to COVID-19 in relation to transport services and operations was discussed, as was the latest EU funding position, including the potential loss of some opportunities due to Brexit and the implications for communities here and our shared New Decade, New Approach commitments.

Importantly, we agreed that the high-speed rail feasibility study would be extended to Derry and Limerick. Minister Ryan and I took that decision because we recognise that the north-west has, for too long, suffered from underinvestment in rail. We are both committed to addressing regional imbalance across the island. We also reiterated our commitment to progressing the A5, the Narrow Water bridge, renewed air services and cross-border greenways.

During the meeting, I also raised the issue of the withdrawal of the Bus Éireann service between Dublin and Belfast. Minister Ryan and I have held a number of bilateral meetings, and we continue to engage positively on how we can work together collaboratively to deliver for citizens and communities across our island.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for her clear commitment to the Narrow Water bridge project. In particular, I thank her for visiting Warrenpoint and meeting the Narrow Water bridge community network. What discussions has the Minister had with the Irish Government on progressing this much needed and highly significant project, not just for south Down but for the whole island of Ireland?

Ms Mallon: As the Member rightly says, I recently met her and representatives from the Narrow Water bridge community network. I know the local passion that her late father had for this project, which she has, and I know that those right across the local community share that passion for this transformative project. I assure her that I share that passion, and all my conversations to date with the Irish Government have been positive about delivering together on this all-island, New Decade, New Approach commitment. At the NSMC, and separately, I have engaged with Minister Ryan on progressing this important project. We will be working closely together in the next few months, and I will keep Members updated on progress.

Dr Aiken: One of the issues that the Minister will have discussed is the importance of North/South communications and trade and the vital need for the York Street interchange to be built as quickly as possible. Can the Minister reflect on where we are with the York Street interchange and on the importance that it has for all-island and, indeed, all-islands communications and logistics?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Yes, the York Street interchange project is critically important. It is a strategic road project, but it also presents an opportunity to have a properly future-proofed design to ensure that it is inclusive of the communities that live around it and that not only does it meet the objectives that we have as an Executive but it meets the objectives of a Belfast agenda. It is also an important way forward in tackling the climate emergency. The Member will know that I initiated a short, sharp external review to make sure that we were future-proofing the project, and I hope to receive that report after engagement with stakeholders around December time.

Ms C Kelly: Minister, considering the South's recent budget announcement for funding North/South projects, can we expect an acceleration of the A5 construction process and for two phases to commence simultaneously?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I very much welcomed the announcement by the Irish Government of €500 million for infrastructure projects, as it is a huge opportunity for greater collaborative working and to see real delivery on the ground. The Member will know that the A5 was subject to a public inquiry. The report has been submitted, and my officials are carefully considering its findings while obtaining legal advice. When they make the submission to me, and I can give it my consideration, I will decide on the next steps. I want to reassure the Member that I recognise the importance of the A5 project. Subject to the completion of all the statutory processes, I will be keen to move on it as quickly as possible. I will, of course, look to the Irish Government to play their part, given their financial commitment to the project.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I recognise the need for improved interconnectivity between our towns and key gateways and a desire to reduce congestion at key points. The term "most congested" is a subjective one and will often be dependent on the season, the time of day and ongoing events. As such, it is not possible to compile a ranked list of the worst congestion points. I am mindful, however, that we cannot simply look to build our way out of congestion by creating more and more roads. Rather, I am determined to offer real alternatives to reduce our dependence on private car use and reduce emissions, including a drive towards modal shift through improved public transport and active travel options.

That does not mean that certain parts of our road network cannot benefit from major works projects. In line with the Executive’s commitment to flagship schemes in their Programme for Government and, indeed, the British and Irish Governments' commitments in New Decade New Approach, my Department is advancing major road improvement schemes on the A5, A6, and at the York Street interchange to alleviate congestion and increase journey time reliability. In addition, major works on the A1 are being developed to improve road safety. Those strategically important schemes have been identified as having the ability to deliver for communities and to help to address regional imbalance while supporting connectivity and economic growth.

Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for her response. I think that if a survey were done of motorists and road users, commercial and private, they would probably identify the York Street junction as the busiest junction in Northern Ireland. It causes delay to hauliers, and standing traffic causes a lot of pollution in the area. I know that the planning process for the interchange has been completed. However, the Minister has paused development, and she referred to that in her answer to the previous question. Can she suggest a timescale for when that link between the M1, M2 and my North Down constituency will be built?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I know that he has huge interest in the project. As I said, it is a strategic road improvement scheme that will provide a fully grade separated interchange to replace the existing at-grade signal-controlled junction of the A12, Westlink, M2 and M3. I recognise the strategic importance of that project. Its inclusion in the New Decade, New Approach agreement is further indication of its significance to economic and societal well-being, and I am determined to see it delivered.

In advance of the next stage of the scheme and in line with good practice, as I said, I have commissioned that short, sharp external review. It is being informed by stakeholders and specialists to ensure that any scheme is fit for purpose, and it will be completed by the end of the year. We will then move through the statutory processes. I am keen to move this project forward in the right way, ensuring that it is the right project, fit for purpose and future-proofed. I am keen to see delivery of it as quickly as possible for a number of the reasons that the Member highlighted.

Mr Sheehan: Air pollution is a serious issue in the North, particularly in Belfast, where one in every 24 deaths is linked to long-term exposure to air pollution. Given the seriousness of that and that transport is massively responsible for a lot of that air pollution, what is the Department's overarching strategy to deal with air pollution and to make cities cleaner, healthier places to live in?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. My starting point is that everybody has the right to not have the air that is around them polluted. There is a social justice element to that. I can think even of my own constituency of North Belfast. Inner-city parts of North Belfast have the greatest levels of air pollution and, by no coincidence, the highest level of respiratory illnesses among children and, basically, residents of all ages. I agree with the Member that it is an absolute priority.

I am trying to address it through a number of ways: park-and-ride services to reduce private car use; promoting active travel, particularly in and around our schools, with young people; and looking at the development of quiet streets in those inner-city neighbourhoods so that the area is not dominated by vehicles but is actually for children and play. The Member will be aware that Translink also has a strategy on zero-emission and low-emission buses. I have given a significant financial contribution to that in my allocation this year. I am very keen to do what we can to promote active travel and greater use of our public transport network. I am also keen to work with ministerial colleagues, including the Environment Minister, as we try to improve the air quality of all our citizens.

Mr Speaker: There are two minutes left. I call Pat Catney.

Mr Catney: Park-and-rides are one way to remove congestion. The Minister has already done great work to bring forward new services. Can she give an update on her consideration of a park-and-ride at Moira?

Ms Mallon: I agree with the Member that park-and-rides have an important role to play in tackling traffic congestion, promoting cleaner air and tackling the climate emergency. That is why I was delighted to announce £2·8 million in investment in park-and-rides earlier this year.

The Member is a real champion for Moira. I know that he is determined to see that park-and-ride facility delivered. I assure him that I am too. I hope to be in a position very soon to announce another tranche of funding in the coming months. Yes, subject to all processes being satisfied, my hope is that Moira can be included to help to ensure that his constituents have access to cleaner, greener travel.

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


3.15 pm

T1. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister for Infrastructure, having listened to her answer about funding from the Dublin Government for infrastructure projects and agreeing that that commitment should be honoured, specifically on the construction of the A5, whether, following the Dublin Government’s announcement about North/South projects, we have been given an indication of when that funding will be available (AQT 571/17-22)

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As he rightly points out, New Decade, New Approach is the basis on which all parties are around the Executive table. We signed up to it in good faith. The agreement contains a number of commitments that need to be honoured: commitments from the Irish Government, the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

I welcomed the announcement of the €500 million, and I am keen to work with colleagues across the island to see delivery on that. I will push through on infrastructure in my engagement at the North/South Ministerial Council meetings and in my individual engagements with Minister Ryan and the Taoiseach. I am sure that that is the same approach that will be adopted by all our ministerial colleagues.

Mr Sheehan: I thank the Minister for that. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. On the subject of all-island connectivity, will the Minister comment on the recent North/South Ministerial Council and specifically on whether the indefinite suspension of the Bus Éireann service between Dublin and Belfast got a mention?

Ms Mallon: In my answer to a question from Sinéad Bradley, I indicated that I had raised the issue of Bus Éireann. Bus Éireann is a commercial service, and it has announced its intention to cease services on 15 November. I am committed to maximising public transport, ensuring that we have all-island connectivity and, in particular, to ensuring that people are able to access public transport, North and South. I am, therefore, working with Translink to see what we can do not only to ensure the protection of the services that we provide b