Official Report: Monday 27 January 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have been saddened to learn of the passing of the former deputy First Minister Mr Séamus Mallon. The Business Committee has agreed, as a mark of respect, to suspend today's sitting until 4.30 pm, when the sitting will resume. Members will have an opportunity to pay their respects to Mr Mallon and to sign a book of condolence. The business scheduled for today in the revised Order Paper will then commence at 6.00 pm. The rescheduling requires a formal item of business, which I will take now.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 27 January 2020.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 27 January 2020.
The sitting was suspended at 12.03 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Speaker: It is an honour for me to pay my respects to the family of Séamus Mallon, who passed away last Friday. Is mór an onóir domh ómós a thabhairt do chlann Séamus Mallon ar a bhás Dé hAoine. Frequently in the Assembly, we focus on our differences as political opponents in a way that disguises the underlying respect we have for those who put themselves forward to seek to improve our society. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that respect today as we express our condolences on the passing of the former deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon.
I said on Friday evening that Séamus Mallon was a towering figure in our politics. That was clear before the Assembly was established. He had already demonstrated his commitment to public service as a school principal but was then motivated to fight against injustice in the political arena in the civil rights era of the day and as a long-standing deputy leader of his party. In the Chamber, we should also recognise his record as a parliamentarian of distinction, whether in the Assembly, Westminster or Seanad Éireann. That reputation was built partly on his personality. He certainly was his own man, with strongly held views, but he expressed them passionately, using his talent for a pithy turn of phrase and his dry wit.
There are only nine of us remaining in the current Assembly who were elected alongside Séamus in the first Assembly in 1998. From the perspective of recent political difficulties, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of how far we have come, but, when you look back to political relationships in the Chamber in 1998, we have travelled a significant distance. It was a challenging time to become one of the first holders of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister with responsibility for leading the institutions, but he was held in high regard nonetheless as a straight talker and a man of integrity.
When you look back at the Hansard reports of those early days, there were two themes that he highlighted that remain particularly relevant today. First, he knew that diversity of political opinion could be a source of animosity but that being inclusive could offer huge potential if a way could be found to work together. Secondly, he was clear that debates and legislation might set a lead but that it is mindsets and attitudes in the community and in the streets that are central to taking us all forward.
In 1998, Séamus Mallon and David Trimble welcomed Bill Clinton to the Waterfront Hall. In his address, Séamus set out that the road to the future is always under construction. In recent years, he made no secret of his personal frustration that greater progress had not been made, but developments over recent weeks give us a chance to continue along that road.
This afternoon, we recognise the huge political contribution made by Séamus Mallon, and I give my condolences to his party colleagues in the SDLP. However, we are, of course, mindful that a family is in mourning. Family was important to Séamus Mallon, and one could not fail to have been moved by his account of putting the care of his wife, Gertrude, above seeking the leadership of his party. So, as I conclude my remarks, I express the Assembly's sympathies to Séamus's daughter, Orla, his son-in-law, Mark, his granddaughter, Lara, and his sisters Maura, Jean and Kate. We hope that, in time, they can be comforted by happy memories and their pride in his legacy. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal. Eternal rest on his noble soul.
As is customary, I will now invite party leaders to speak for about five minutes to pay tribute to our late friend and colleague. I will then call Members as they rise in their places. I will not be imposing strict time constraints, but I encourage Members to be brief — they should speak for no more than three or four minutes, if they possibly can — to give time for as many as possible to speak in the hour allocated for tributes.
When the tributes have concluded, Members are welcome to join me in signing a book of condolence in the Great Hall. The book of condolence will be available for Members and staff to sign until the close of plenary business this evening. It will be open to the public from 10 am tomorrow until 5 pm on Friday.
The Assembly will now pay its own respects.
Ms Mallon: The recent history of Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, over the last 50 years is characterised by discrimination, division, conflict, violence and awful, senseless killings and bombings that only ever served to drive us all further apart. It is also characterised by dialogue, engagement, acknowledgement of difference and of legitimate coexisting identities, agreement and, ultimately, a political accommodation that has, difficulties and all, led us to where we all are today, which is representing all communities that live cheek by jowl in this region by being here in the House, where we all have a duty to serve those people.
Séamus Mallon was integral to all of what went on in this shared home place right up to the formation of this power-sharing Assembly. It is no exaggeration to say that, without him and his influence, we would not be here today and would not be able to extol his virtues in this very Chamber.
Séamus was there at Sunningdale in 1973. He was there at the Seanad in 1982. His support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 was, correctly, regarded as crucial. If Séamus had not deemed the landmark accord as a vehicle for extolling and advancing the position of nationalists in the North, you can be sure he would have publicly said just that, but he kept a long-term goal in mind and became a vocal supporter of the agreement.
He was in the House of Commons from 1986 to 2005, where he left a mark with his passionate oratory and in his diligent, persistent work on policing reform. He laid over 200 amendments, which were part of a personal and party crusade to deliver a policing and justice system to which we could all belong and support. Perhaps more than anything else, the policing and justice structures that exist today are Séamus Mallon's lasting and enduring legacy to life in this part of the world.
He was here. Séamus believed in this Assembly, in an Executive and in delivering good government for all our people. So when he became deputy First Minister in 1998, that was a role he embraced, even at times when he was not entirely comfortable. Along with David Trimble, he sent out a message that there was a new way to do politics here. Séamus and David were a pair with their own dynamic, and in spite of consistent external pressures, they did their best to deliver on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement when it was far from easy to do so.
He was here. It felt to us younger SDLP members and activists that he was always here and ever-present, like there was no beginning and no end to Séamus Mallon: that he just was.
At party conference time, he was always there, the very last to go to bed as he inspired a younger generation in song, poetry and recounting old stories. However, all of that came after the serious political discourse, and that, of course, is where Séamus excelled. When he said something, he meant it — no question — and, in politics, that is a wonderful legacy. No messing, no spin, no winking, no nodding: just tell it like it is — the Séamus Mallon way.
The Assembly owes a debt of gratitude to Séamus Mallon. I am pleased that he got to see the devolved institutions he helped to create restored, and I am pleased, on behalf of the SDLP, that we have this opportunity to comment on his life, his passing and his enormous contribution to politics here.
Séamus was a man of peace. He was a man of non-violence. He was a man of justice, fairness, truth and courage. You can be sure that the next generation of SDLP politicians will live by the Séamus Mallon mantra; that is in our DNA. However, all of us here, across all Benches, would do well to remember and live by Séamus's judgement of how we share this piece of land. As he laid out in his maiden speech in the House of Commons 34 years ago:
"We have two stark and clear choices. We can live together in generosity and compassion or we can continue to die in bitter disharmony."
I know which I choose, I know which Séamus Mallon chose, and I am for ever grateful that I got to stand on the shoulder of an Irish political giant.
I am personally filled with immense sadness that we will have no more visits in Markethill. I will miss his straight-talking, honest advice, but Séamus and all he stood for will continue to guide me and the SDLP family. At the requiem mass and celebration of his life today, we were fittingly reminded in the missalette of 'From The Canton of Expectation' by Seamus Heaney:
"To know there is one among us who never swerved from all his instincts told him was right action, who stood his ground in the indicative, whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens."
I will sorely miss you, Séamus. We will greatly miss you, Séamus, and the country mourns your loss. Séamus, ár mbuíochas leat, a chara dhil.
Mrs Foster: First, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, I pay my respects and give condolences to our SDLP colleagues. They will forgive me if my thoughts are principally today with Séamus's family. Of course, with Orla and her husband, Mark, their daughter, Lara, and with Séamus's sisters and the wider family.
I pay tribute to Séamus as a fellow member of a small band of politicians who have headed the shared office of OFMDFM, which is now the Executive Office, and recognise its distinct and unique challenges. As well as being Northern Ireland's original deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon was a Member of Parliament for 19 years and his party's deputy leader for 22 years.
The climate he had to operate in, of course, was very different from the one we operate in today. There was no social media, less 24-hour news, but decades of murder and mayhem that, thankfully, we no longer have to deal with to anywhere near the same extent. He was seen by many in unionism as a more typical Irish nationalist than his long-term partner leading the SDLP, John Hume, yet perhaps viewed as more pragmatic and with a better understanding of unionists. That may have been as a result of the fact that he lived in Markethill with his unionist neighbours at every turn.
He was a fierce critic of violence, something which is much easier from the armchairs of BT9, the south side of Dublin or the shires of England, but Séamus Mallon had to walk daily amongst the gunmen and bombers he was calling out. He had to go back on to the streets of Newry and along the border to attend to his constituents, to campaign and to seek votes for himself and his party colleagues.
He saw council colleagues in Armagh who sat in the same chamber as him murdered, and he sought to attend every funeral of those in his constituency who died in the Troubles; sometimes, when he was far from welcome. He recognised that nationalism needed to have confidence in and support policing.
He did not mince his words about the failings that he saw, often to the frustration of many hard-working, professional police officers.
Séamus Mallon, who had an interest in plays and amateur dramatics, became a commanding orator with a presence in the Chamber. He was an effective communicator, valued by journalists for his quips and one-liners, and, of course, a key negotiator for the SDLP. He could be thran, but he could also be very thoughtful. He was committed to his local area and to where he had been brought up. That was reflected in his recent memoir, published last year, which contains much of his experience. It does not dwell on the past but offers insights and advice for the future.
Whilst 100% in favour of Irish unity, he knew that it could not be forced on people. He knew of the consequences that come from wafer-thin majorities. He saw the outworkings of a close Brexit vote and the polarising effect that that had here and in Great Britain: to make a success of constitutional change would require sufficient consensus.
During his maiden speech in the House of Commons, which Nichola has already referenced, he said:
"The two cathedrals of the Protestant Church and the Catholic Church look across at each other in the city of Armagh. Just as the bells tolled in the new year I saw the obscenity of two policemen being blown to smithereens ... We have two stark and clear choices. We can live together in generosity and compassion or we can continue to die in bitter disharmony ... Are we to move into the new century with a millstone of blood, as it were, hanging around our necks, with a millstone of division and sectarian bickering, with the daily catalogue of threats of violence and death? Or are we to create a new vision for a new century ... on the basis of agreement and reconciliation ...?".
In closing, Séamus made it clear that he would pursue his objectives by:
"peaceful, democratic, constitutional and political means ... on the Floor of the House, or on the floor of whatever other forum is available to me ... in such a way that will not cost one drop of blood and will not remove anyone's self-respect for him."
Some of those questions and challenges from Séamus's maiden speech in 1986 remain unfulfilled today. The restoration of a Northern Ireland Government and fully functioning institutions provides us with the opportunity to address them. Northern Ireland and its leaders must carry forward that vision, building a shared society in which everyone has a stake and feels at home and working together in the interests of all our people.
Finally, on the day on which we pay tributes and remember Séamus Mallon, I also acknowledge that this is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In that camp alone, one million Jews were put to death because of their faith, and six million Jews were killed overall. The scale of that hideous extermination must always be remembered on this Holocaust Remembrance Day. I stand with the Jewish people across the world as they face ongoing anti-Semitic abuse today, and I remember the horror of the Holocaust.
Mrs O'Neill: I join colleagues across the House in conveying my sympathy and that of Sinn Féin to the family and friends of the late Séamus Mallon, whose requiem Mass we celebrated in Markethill earlier today. In particular, I offer my condolences to Séamus's daughter, Orla; his son-in-law, Mark; and his beautiful wee granddaughter, Lara, who played her part in making the funeral Mass a very beautiful and fitting tribute to her granda.
The loss of Séamus Mallon is a significant moment in the history of this island, but it is, first and foremost, a devastating loss for his family, his friends and his colleagues in the SDLP, for whom he was a close and special figure. I know that he was a very valued mentor to Nichola and Colum. Our thoughts are with all of you today and with Séamus's family.
I, personally, did not know Séamus very well, but I certainly knew of his reputation as deputy leader of the SDLP for many years and the party's chief negotiator during the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, to which he clearly made a huge contribution, not only in reaching that historic agreement but in leading the new Executive as deputy First Minister and joint head of Government. Séamus served not only as a Minister and a Member of the Legislative Assembly but as an MP at Westminster and a senator in Leinster House. He had an electoral record that we in the Chamber can only admire. In each of those roles, he used his voice to articulate the interests, the views and the feelings of the nationalist community in the North for over 40 years.
The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has, in recent days, described Séamus as a force of nature: that is very apt. Séamus has left a legacy of hard work and commitment to creating a better society and a better Ireland. He has left an indelible print on the politics in Ireland. Despite our different political outlooks and paths challenging the British Government's presence and the causes of division and partition in Ireland, there is no doubt that Séamus and his friend John Hume helped to open up the prospects for peaceful change. We put aside party differences to effect real change for the people of our country, and I put on record our recognition of and respect for the critical role played by both men and many others at that time to bring about the peace process and recognise the courage, generosity and risks taken by them both to achieve peace here in Ireland.
Séamus led a full political life in the service of the Irish people. Right into his eighties, he was making his voice heard, and, even if we did not always agree, he made sure that we heard it and that we were listening. As we mourn his passing, let those of us in the House who have formed the new Executive cooperate in every way that we can to fulfil the promise of the Good Friday Agreement to a new generation. In that way, Séamus's contribution will, I hope, have everlasting value and never be forgotten. May he rest in peace.
Dr Aiken: I rise to pay my respects and offer my sympathies to Orla and the wider Mallon family, and may I then add my own words and those of the Ulster Unionist Party to commemorate the life of a great Irishman: Séamus Mallon?
Séamus and our then leader, David Trimble, did much to see Northern Ireland emerge from the destructive and evil days of the Troubles, and, while David saw the recognition of the Nobel Prize, Séamus, who probably deserved it as much as his leader, John Hume, has only latterly been recognised for the inspirational leader and politician that he was; indeed, as one of my predecessors, Lord Empey, said today, there was no doubt that, if John Hume was the SDLP's ideas man, Séamus was the person to turn those ideas into practice and workable solutions.
I first came to know Séamus long before I got into politics through my involvement in a range of North/South and east-west bodies. He was always courteous but forthright in his views, and he had a fierce determination to get his point across. When I became involved in politics, he was always supportive, although a bit bemused at why I would wish to get involved. As he said himself, it was catch-22: you had to be mad to want to be a politician, but, if nobody did it, where would we be?
What always struck me about Séamus was his integrity, his courage and his abhorrence of all forms of violence. As he himself wrote:
"I have mentioned my neighbour 'Jack Adams', a good man who couldn't do enough for you, but who was shot dead by the IRA because he felt he was doing his duty by joining the RUC reserve. That dehumanizing of individuals, of a community, so they could be killed just for wearing a police or UDR uniform — that is what I will not support. That man and his family had their home here for four hundred years, but he had to be killed because the IRA's little Green Book said so. The awfulness and nihilism of that is what I am fundamentally opposed to.
I believe that thirty years of violence has meant the republican movement has shot and bombed itself out of the vital process of persuading people for Irish unity."
While Séamus had a very different view of the future of Northern Ireland from that of the Ulster Unionist Party, we are the first to recognise that he was a statesman of the first order, a politician with that very rare quality of steadfast integrity and someone who, along with David Trimble, believed that only by truly working together in a spirit of partnership could we make this place truly be 'A Shared Home Place'. Maybe, Mr Speaker, it could be his lasting legacy that we current political leaders draw inspiration from his words and decide, once and for all, that power-sharing, rather than power division, should be the model we seek to achieve and make this truly a place to cherish.
Mrs Long: I add my condolences to the Mallon family, particularly to Orla, his son-in-law, Mark, and his granddaughter, Lara, and the wider family circle. I also extend sympathies to his friends and colleagues in the SDLP. As a role model for generous leadership, you can have no better.
Whilst those closest to him will feel his passing most acutely, all of us in politics — indeed, all of us in Northern Ireland — are the richer for his life and the poorer for his passing. He was a man for whom fairness and integrity were not just political ambitions but part of his DNA. His commitment to non-violence and civil rights was unwavering and uncompromising. I never had the privilege of serving with him in this Chamber — he retired the year I was elected — but I had the pleasure in recent years of sharing platforms with him on various occasions, and he had lost none of his wisdom or wit which made him such a formidable politician and such an admirable man.
While I never served here with him, I owe to him and other courageous leaders like him my opportunity to do so and to live the second half of my life in considerably more peaceful times than the first half. For that, I and, I believe, all of us owe him personally an enormous debt of gratitude. Our best and most fitting tribute to him is to work together to deliver on the promise of 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, which was his gift to us.
Ms Bailey: We in the Green Party also extend our condolences to our SDLP colleagues in the Chamber and the wider SDLP family and, of course, to Séamus's daughter, Orla, and to his wider family. The death of a husband, father and brother is a painful event, and I wish them the strength needed for the times ahead.
Séamus was a giant in the political arena. He was a giant figure, but he came from a different political era: that of the civil rights movement. For me, he was a recognisable face on my television during my younger years. I did not have the opportunity to meet or work with him, but, certainly, his courage and willingness to take risks were his central tenets, allowing us all to be here today in the Chamber. We should all be in no doubt of that and be thankful for it and for the fact that it has allowed us to move on. His legacy will be long remembered, and we can go far in strengthening his work and his tenacity by continuing to forge a peaceful and reconciled future for all across Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister: I readily join in the condolences to the late Séamus Mallon's daughter and his wider family. No doubt, as in all deaths, these are very difficult times, and the thoughts and prayers of many of us are with them. I extend the same sympathy to his political family, the SDLP, where he was such a giant figure and a mentor to many. He will, no doubt, be long and sadly missed in those quarters.
Séamus Mallon, as a constitutional nationalist, was someone whom I could respect, no matter how much I disagreed with some of the things he had to say. Some of those things I did disagree with — his denigrating of the UDR, for example — but the fact that he advocated only constitutional means and explicitly condemned without equivocation terrorist violence earned him respect across the community. Sadly, the late Séamus Mallon's repudiation of IRA terrorism has been replicated by only one of his successors in the office of deputy First Minister, namely Mark Durkan.
That, of course, is a pointer to the evolving of these institutions, that he helped to shape, and their evolution in a retrograde direction.
For all his eminence as an orator and as a straight-talking, even hard-hitting, politician, at the end of it all, he appears to have been, and was, a wholly devoted family man. The love and devotion that he committed to his late wife is well documented and much respected and speaks greatly to the strength and the character of the man. He, too, of course, is unlikely to be forgotten, nor should he be forgotten, in political circles, because he was a politician faithful to his beliefs. Thank you.
Mr Carroll: I just want to say a few brief words and to put on the record, on behalf of myself and People Before Profit, my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Séamus Mallon, to his colleagues in the SDLP and to everyone who knew him. Obviously, he was active in politics here for a long time, many years, and today there is a large amount of grieving and loss across our community. I rise to put my thoughts with all the people who are grieving today.
Ms Sugden: Séamus Mallon would not have claimed to be impartial. He extolled his beliefs clearly and honestly. He was an Irish republican in the truest form. Mr Mallon, however, had capacity and heart to recognise that others did not necessarily share his beliefs, and rather than seek to undermine their views from the outset, he sought to understand and respect. He was empathetic and looked for humanity: the greatest, yet rarest, qualities of political leadership.
I did not know Mr Mallon, but recently I was taken by words that he said regarding unionism:
"Irish republicanism ... has to look into the unionist heart as well as the unionist mind."
I have never heard that before, and in saying so, he did not dismiss my belief, he did not disparage an important part of who I am, nor did he wrongly characterise me because I did not agree with him. Rather, he wanted to know me, and I appreciate that. Indeed, I believe it is the fundamental principle of the Good Friday Agreement: not to be neutral if you are not, not to deny who we are, but rather embrace ourselves and each other, learn, live and love together.
I can only speak for myself, but certainly in this unionist heart and this unionist mind, are people. I expect from much of what has been said about Séamus Mallon that is what we would find in his heart and mind too: different but the same.
I wish to express my sincere condolences to Mr Mallon's family, friends and all those who knew him, in particular, members of the Social, Democratic and Labour Party. Thank you.
Mr McNulty: My sincere sympathies are with Orla and Mark and with Séamus Mallon's little princess, Lara. Also his sisters Jean, Kate and Moira, and his wider family, friends and neighbours. Of course, they are with Marie Harte, who spent many years caring for Séamus and for Gertrude, who passed away in recent years, and they are with Brendan his gardener who he spent many hours with in his greenhouse.
I want to pay tribute to and thank the players and members of O'Donovan Rossa GFC, Mullabrack, the community of Markethill, the Mid Armagh branch of the SDLP and Séamus Mallon's family, friends and neighbours who volunteered an extraordinary effort to ensure a beautiful and fitting farewell.
It is questionable whether all of us would be here today if it were not for the work of Séamus Mallon. Last night, Tommy Sands played a moving lament for Séamus at his wake. Tommy called him the last of the great Irish chieftains. Having experienced what he called the life-waste and spirit-waste of violence in the bloodstained 1970s and 1980s, he had a different dream. His was a dream of justice, peace and reconciliation, and he played a lead role in bringing justice, peace and reconciliation to our shared home place. Séamus said:
"As I prepare to take my leave of our shared home place, I find comfort in an old Greek proverb: 'A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.'"
What trees has Séamus Mallon planted? I measc na naomh go raibh sé.
Mr Boylan: I want to extend my condolences and sympathies to Orla, Mark, Lara, Séamus's sisters and extended family, and to share the loss of the SDLP. We all know the great legacy that Séamus Mallon has left. It is up to all of us, but, more importantly, to the SDLP, to continue that legacy.
Being a representative of the same constituency, on occasion, I would bump into Séamus and had the odd robust conversation with him. He was a giant of a man and one you could actually learn from. Over the weekend, when I talked to some constituents, it was clear that they hold him in great esteem. On behalf of the constituents I represent I can say that Mr Mallon was one of those people who will not be forgotten by them.
I also want to extend words from Mullabrack GFC, who did a job today looking after the funeral arrangements and everything else for the Mallon family. Those people have asked me to speak on their behalf, extend their thanks and recognise the contribution that Séamus Mallon made to the Good Friday Agreement and to his party. I just want to recognise his contribution.
Mr Dallat: Mr Speaker, in your introduction, you said that there were only nine Members left from the original Assembly. Hands up: I am one of the nine. It is with a great deal of pride and emotion that I rise to speak. I served with Séamus Mallon in the best of times and the worst of times: the best of times being when the people of Northern Ireland were able to create a power-sharing Executive in 1998 and, of course, the worst being the collapse of that Assembly a few years later.
At all times, Séamus was a statesman. He was a true and personal friend to me, but he was a friend to many other people, from all political parties, in the Assembly at that time. Yes, the SDLP has lost one of the best, but I believe that everyone has experienced a sense of loss that is not really felt every day. Now, the best tribute that we can make to Séamus is to finish the work that he began. Lest we forget: that work is in this Chamber. I know that Séamus was very happy that the Assembly agreed to sit again. Let us honour one of the greatest Irishmen who ever lived. Let us take his advice and never collapse politics again to create the risk that the men of violence may fill a vacuum that was not intended. That is important. That would be the greatest tribute we could pay, and I believe we will. The House has no longer just the legacy of unionism of the past — Craigavon and all that. Séamus is very much the legacy of the House in modern times, so let us honour and respect him. Let us adopt and protect that legacy with clarity and a commitment to emulate his deeply held conviction that we must move on together. I applaud the First Minister for saying that many times in recent times, and I hope everyone in the House is listening.
Séamus has left the stage. May he rest in peace, and may more than his pictures hang on the walls of this Building. Let us take his inspiration and legacy, and let us set about the difficult times ahead together in partnership. Séamus Mallon taught me to respect others. Let that be the experience of everyone in the House.
Mr Nesbitt: I first encountered Séamus Mallon about 35 years ago. I was the new presenter of 'Good Morning Ulster' on BBC Radio; he was a recently installed Member of Parliament. To interview Séamus Mallon was challenging. Here was a man who knew his brief thoroughly, knew his mind unquestionably and knew exactly how to express an opinion. Oh, did he know how to express an opinion. I was amazed he was still doing it in his 80s. Two years ago, I was at Queen's University watching him on a panel marking the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. In fact, he was not on the panel; he was dominating that panel. He was head and shoulders above the rest, with his angry analysis of the missed opportunities and what had to come next. I regret the missed opportunity of not visiting him more often in Markethill. The last time was to discuss his memoir, 'A Shared Home Place', and I commend it to anybody who has not read it.
Of course, in between times, there was his great work as a negotiator and a peacemaker. Let us not underestimate the thousands, in fact, the tens of thousands, of proud nationalists who wanted unity by consent and would never for a millisecond contemplate the use of violence. Those people looked to Séamus Mallon, and, in 1998, I have no doubt that there was a group of people who said, "If it is good enough for Séamus Mallon, it is good enough for me".
I have a true story, if I may, Mr Speaker, but I have to change one word to stay on the right side of parliamentary language
because he was a bit of a rascal. One morning I was told I had to interview him on 'Good Morning Ulster', and I looked at the subject matter and formed my strategy, which was very simple: I was going to wind him up. I was going to get a rise out of Séamus Mallon, but hard as I tried, and I gave it my best shots, he would not rise to the occasion. So, the next day, most unusually, I discovered that the SDLP was putting Séamus Mallon up as its spokesperson two days in a row. Just before we went live, the producer came into the studio and said, "Look, I do not want this to alter how you are planning to do this interview, and I do not know what happened between you and Séamus Mallon yesterday morning, but when I got him up on the phone there, the first thing he said to me was, 'If that ... fellow tries to wind me up again today, I am going to do him'".
Well, Mr Speaker, I did not, he did, and I loved him for it.
Ms S Bradley: First, let me thank everybody in the House who has spoken so far and for the kind words of comfort that have been extended to us, Séamus's SDLP colleagues. It means a lot on the day it is. I join them in offering my sincerest condolences to Orla, his daughter, Mark, his son-in-law, and princess Lara, as she has become known to us in recent times, but also to his sisters Maura, Jean and Kate and to Marie Harte, who, I understand, was every bit the family member in caring for Séamus throughout his illness.
Séamus's life's work has proved that the politics of coming together is the only type of politics that will ever benefit the people whom we represent. His legacy of peacemaking is not one that we should simply honour and celebrate; it goes further. It sets a standard for us all to live by and a standard that we all should aspire to. Séamus Mallon played his part in making this place, which we all call "a shared home", a better place. I thank him for that.
Séamus was a good man — a man I was honoured to call my friend — and I thank him for all his efforts over the years in steering me. I was the recipient on occasion of the stare over the glasses that was referred to today, and it was always meant with good intent. We will miss him terribly. Thank you, Séamus, for everything. May you rest in peace.
Mrs D Kelly: I join colleagues in thanking all of you who took time from your very busy diaries to attend Séamus's funeral service. It was very much appreciated.
Séamus was a man whom I was always delighted to listen to, because I never had to guess what he meant. I always knew exactly what he was saying. I am sure that many of us have been with politicians and other people and thought, "What did he really say? What did he mean by that?". You never had to worry about that. You got it straight, and I like straight talking.
We all know that Séamus liked a little flutter, and I hope that our ability to work together here in partnership, creating a legacy of peace, partnership and power-sharing, will prove wrong many of the pundits who seek to degrade politics every day. Our behaviour does not always inspire, but I found it very encouraging to hear people, including the archbishop, talking today about the noble vocation of politics. We should all take heart from that, because it is about service to the community. It was people like Séamus Mallon and that want to service and to help my neighbour that got me into politics, and I am sure that it is the same for many, if not all, of you.
All Members will recall from the recent past the terrible flags protest. One of the things that stood out for me was when Séamus Mallon chastised a lot of people by saying, "Stop poking each other in the eye". Perhaps, when we go to speak in the future or when we want to make a contribution, we will hear that voice and moderate our language. We will not always agree. We will see things differently, and we will have to articulate our viewpoints, but we should go from the base point of not poking each other in the eye.
My colleagues have thanked many who contributed to the organisation of the funeral service, but I place on record our party's gratitude to the Police Service for its contribution. They worked very hard over the weekend and today, on what was a bitterly cold day.
Mr Speaker: That concludes the tributes. Oh, I understand that Trevor Lunn would like to speak. We didn't record your request. I am sorry about that.
Mr Lunn: I was not aware whether there was a list or whether we had to rise in our seat, but I have risen, so here we are. [Laughter.]
I did not know Séamus Mallon personally, although, perhaps, we belong to the same generation, going by age at least. I met him just once. It was at the funeral of one of our Banbridge councillors, Sheila McQuade, and his presence was very much appreciated at that time. Attendance at the funerals of victims of violence was very important to him, and he made a point of attending all of them in his constituency. That was surely a statement of his opposition to violence — implacable opposition to violence — from which he never wavered. My predecessor in Lagan Valley, the late and much-missed Seamus Close, knew him very well and spoke very fondly of him. Even though they had political differences at times, there was a good measure of personal friendship and respect between them.
That word "respect" has been much used in recent days, in how Séamus Mallon treated others and in their attitude to him. People from across the political spectrum have commented over the weekend and today about his honesty, his straight talking and his negotiating skills, which were used to such good effect over the years, as we all know. His partnership with John Hume was a formidable one. I am sure that it is no exaggeration to say that, without them, the Good Friday Agreement and, perhaps, other agreements might never have happened. Their legacy and that of others whom I could mention, such as David Trimble, Dr Paisley and Gerry Adams, is demonstrated by the fact that we are able to stand here today and talk about Séamus in an Assembly that has been reconstituted. I totally agree with what John Dallat said: we cannot let the opportunity pass this time. He was, of course, a committed nationalist, but, at the same time, he was a realistic one who realised that it was necessary to reach out to unionists and that there was no point in just banging a drum for a united Ireland. He appreciated the need for consent.
I join others in sending my sympathy and condolences to his family circle and to his SDLP colleagues, who must be feeling it today. They have lost a great man who, I understand, was still providing insight and sound advice until very recently. I heard Colum Eastwood this morning on the radio pass a comment along the lines that, when you were talking to Séamus, it was not always easy to tell whether you were getting advice or a telling-off, but that is the nature of straight talking. Maybe we need more of that in this place. May he rest in peace.
Mr McCrossan: I follow on from the tributes that have been made in the House and thank our colleagues across the Chamber for their very sincere tributes to the memory of a great man. We do feel it today. We have felt it since Friday. It is a very sore and painful point for us, because we know fully the commitment, dedication and life work that Séamus put in to bringing about these institutions, paving the path to peace and the Good Friday Agreement. He used his relationship with Hume to bring about a better future for everyone in this place. I speak as a member of the new generation of the SDLP. I am surrounded by many on these Benches who, in more recent years, have been lucky to enjoy the peace — the imperfect peace — that we have thanks to the vision and life work of Séamus Mallon.
I sat today in Mass and listened to the amazing tribute to his life. He had a profound influence on the life of so many of us. He is certainly a reason that I joined the SDLP. He is a reason that I love the SDLP. He is also a reason that I and others will be able to work and live together, side by side, across Northern Ireland. We will never see the like of Séamus Mallon again. He was a truly inspirational man and a man of peace and integrity. He was a man who was extremely blunt. I heard Dolores say that she liked straight-talkers: well, Dolores, as many will know, is quite a blunt instrument herself at times. [Laughter.]
I felt that it was important to say a few words and to express my sincerest condolences to Orla, his son-in-law, Mark, and his little granddaughter, Lara, whom he talked about so often. He was a family man. He cared very deeply for them and loved spending time with them.
John Dallat struck a very strong chord with me in his contribution and tribute to Séamus. We have so much to learn from the man who sat on these Benches some years before us, working together and reaching out for the common good of everyone here. This is 'A Shared Home Place'. I put on record my heartfelt sympathies to Séamus's family and friends and to the entire constituency of Newry and Armagh, which will feel the pain of this loss very much. I thank the Members of this House. Today, as I stood waiting for Séamus's remains to come to the church, I was met by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and I watched as they walked down the road together. Today, I can say that I think that there is some hope for this place and for the future. I thank you for that very strong symbol you showed today. I am sure that Séamus is smiling down saying, "God, I can bring them together."
Thank you to everyone, those who attended and paid tribute. May he rest in peace.
Mr Catney: This weekend, I had business in Connemara, in a little town called Clifden. Clifden is the old seat of the British in the west of Ireland; it is an absolutely beautiful little place. During the summer, Séamus went down to open the arts festival there. As I walked around the town over the weekend, so many people came up to me. They had fond memories of him. Yesterday, I rang my colleague Justin McNulty to try to convey that message on, but I was lucky enough when I got to the house this morning. When we arrived at the house in Mullaghbrack, it reminded me so much of where I come from: a little place outside Moira, Kilwarlin. That is also a predominantly unionist constituency. People here have spoken about the coming together of that community, but all of them came together to give him a fitting send-off in that place. Farmers opened up their fields; locals came out; the GAA club came out; and neighbours of Séamus, regardless of their religion, were there to help them. That fits into my feeling of this one community that we all are. I am very lucky and privileged to be here today.
Unfortunately, when you come after so many other Members, you maybe lose the chance to say something, but I, like Daniel, noticed our First Minister and our deputy First Minister — Conor, our Finance Minister, was also with them — down there today. That filled me full of hope. It reminded me of the story of that terrible incident — I do not really want to speak about it — when my neighbour, David Trimble, along with Séamus Mallon, walked down through Poyntzpass to the scene of the murder of those two young friends. I thought again what a gesture we had today. Séamus always filled me with this word, "Hope": today, I was filled with hope when I saw our First Minister and our deputy First Minister walking down that country loanin, for want of a better word, on the crossroads at Mullaghbrack. For that, I was glad to be at that service today. I rejoiced and felt uplifted to be there.
I also wish to pass on my sympathies to the Mallon family — to Orla, Mark and his little granddaughter — and to all my colleagues here who served with Séamus.
Mr Speaker: That concludes the tributes to former deputy First Minister Mr Seamus Mallon. I now propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 6.00 pm and invite Members to join me in signing a book of condolence.
The sitting was suspended at 5.28 pm and resumed at 6.10 pm.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed with the day's business, I inform Members that I have been notified by the nominating officer of the DUP that Mrs Pam Cameron has replaced Mr Gary Middleton as Deputy Chairperson of the Health Committee. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. The appointment took effect on 17 January 2020.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on appointments to the Assembly Commission. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That, in accordance with Standing Order 79(4), Mr John Blair be appointed to fill a vacancy on the Assembly Commission. — [Ms Armstrong.]
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on appointments to the Assembly Commission. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That, in accordance with Standing Order 79(4), Mr Keith Buchanan be appointed to fill a vacancy on the Assembly Commission. — [Mr Robinson.]
Mr Speaker: I have received notification from members of the Business Committee of a motion to extend the sitting past 7.00 pm under Standing Order 10(3A).
That, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3A), the sitting on Monday 27 January 2020 be extended to no later than 9pm. — [Mr K Buchanan.]
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): The monitoring round is the method by which Departments can return underspends for reallocation, identify pressures and manage their budgets. It is primarily about the reallocation of money already in the system, not the announcement of new money. With the end of the financial year fast approaching, we have a short window in which to spend reallocations. I have therefore moved quickly to agree this monitoring round with Executive colleagues and put the money back into the services where it can be used and where it is needed. The Assembly will have an opportunity to debate the financial position for 2019-2020 more fully when I bring the Budget Bill before the House in February. All Departments should engage with their Committees in advance of that, and I will discuss it with the Finance Committee when I meet it on Wednesday this week.
The top-line figures are that there is £35·8 million resource DEL and £5·8 million capital DEL available for reallocation. Those funds have become available from a combination of sources. Adjustments to centrally held funds, including Delivering Social Change, Atlantic Philanthropies, tackling paramilitary activity, EU match funding and RRI interest, have resulted in £1·2 million resource DEL and £0·8 million capital DEL becoming available for reallocation.
Adjustments to EU exit preparation costs have also provided additional funding for reallocation: £37·5 million was previously allocated to prepare for a no-deal exit. That funding was mainly provided as resource DEL, whereas funding required by Departments to complete the work was resource DEL and capital DEL. The outcome is an easement in resource DEL of £16·1 million, with a corresponding pressure in capital DEL of £16·1 million. We have subsequently received a further Barnett consequential on allocations of EU exit funding to Whitehall Departments. That additional funding, coupled with a small amount unallocated from previous provisions, results in £2·4 million being available. While the Department for the Economy and the Department of Education registered pressures related to EU exit preparedness totalling £2·7 million as part of this round, a no-deal exit has been averted, reducing the need for urgent funding. Consequently, the additional £2·4 million resource DEL has been made available for reallocation.
Members will be aware that a commitment was previously given to provide an additional £28 million for the agreed pay settlement of 3% for Health and Social Care staff. The further £30 million required to
award that pay increase has subsequently been provided for as an advance from the financial package accompanying 'New Decade, New Approach'. In total, those central issues resulted in an opening pressure of £8·2 million on resource DEL and £15·4 million on capital DEL.
Reduced requirements come to £42·8 million in resource DEL and £21·9 million in capital DEL. Full details are provided in the tables provided with the statement. In resource DEL, the Department for Communities declared £12·3 million relating to welfare reform mitigation and £6·7 million relating to housing benefit. For welfare mitigations, that is primarily due not to a lack of uptake but to the fact that people have been successful in their appeals, leading to the mitigations being refunded when their benefits are restored. The Department of Justice declared a reduced requirement of £3 million relating to the unpredictable nature of the timing of high-value compensation payments. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) declared a £2·6 million reduced requirement, reflecting the demand-led nature of bovine TB compensation.
Reduced requirements totalling £4·3 million have been declared by a number of Departments in relation to the £37·5 million in EU exit preparation funding provided earlier this year. The fact that a no-deal exit has been avoided means that departmental requirements have reduced. On capital DEL, the most significant reduced requirements include an £8 million receipt from the Department for the Economy relating to an additional Presbyterian Mutual Society loan repayment. The administrators of the Presbyterian Mutual Society loan book continue to make good progress on the disposal of assets in line with forecasts. The Department of Finance has experienced delays in a number of capital projects, including agile working. Finally, DAERA has returned £2·7 million related to slippage on waste management programmes.
Departments have some scope to reallocate resources internally. Movements of money across spending areas in excess of £1 million are subject to the Executive’s approval. In some instances, Departments also seek permission to move allocations across spending areas to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for a particular function from one business area to another. The internal reallocations agreed by the Executive in the monitoring round are also included in the tables for information.
For a number of reasons, Departments may also seek to reclassify expenditure from resource to capital or vice versa. All such reclassifications need Executive approval and are subject to overall budgetary limits. The approved reclassifications are shown in the tables accompanying the statement. Once all of those issues were taken into account, the Executive had £35·8 million resource DEL and £5·3 million capital DEL available to allocate.
Before turning to the mainstream allocations, there are other important issues that I would like to highlight to Members, starting with ring-fenced financial transactions capital. In 2019-2020, some £244·9 million of ring-fenced financial transactions capital was available, including access to unspent funding from 2018-19 of £52·5 million. The 2019-2020 Budget announced in February allocated £140·5 million. However, reduced requirements have been declared: £38·8 million was declared previously, and, as detailed in the supporting tables to the statement, a further reduced requirement of £63·5 million in relation to higher education loans has been returned in the monitoring round. While some small allocations have been made from that ring-fenced funding, the Executive will finish 2019-2020 with £150·8 million of ring-fenced financial transactions capital DEL unallocated and, therefore, lost to the Executive. Our capacity to identify suitable projects that can spend all of the ring-fenced financial transactions capital available to us remains an area of concern. I have asked all ministerial colleagues to actively seek opportunities in their Department to utilise the funding through loans or equity investments in the private sector. I intend to address urgently the uptake of financial transactions capital.
I will now detail the allocations of the £35·8 million resource DEL and the £5·3 million capital DEL. Many children need additional support to help them to learn. I have allocated £10 million for children with special education needs. That will help to address the backlog in SEN assessment and diagnosis and cover costs such as transport and educational support. I have allocated a further £19 million for the Education Authority to meet the shortfall in contractual pay costs for teachers and non-teaching staff in 2019-2020.
Members will be aware of the contaminated blood scandal. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of people with haemophilia, including children, were given blood infected with hepatitis C or HIV. Payments for survivors here are lower than in England, and 'New Decade, New Approach' includes a priority to:
"bring about parity in financial support".
Today, I am providing the Department of Health with an additional £1 million to increase financial support for people affected by the contaminated blood scandal. That will help alleviate the financial hardship experienced by many of those affected.
The historical institutional abuse (HIA) inquiry reported on the 20 January 2017. I apologise to colleagues for the misprint in their copy of the statement, which reads, "20 June 2017"; it was actually 20 January. I want to correct that. It is long overdue, but I am glad that a way forward has now been found to address the recommendations in that report. I am awarding £0·9 million resource DEL to the Executive Office for preparation costs in taking forward the recommendations of the historical institutional abuse inquiry and victims' payment service scoping study. That will ensure that it is well placed to begin making payments. The Executive Office will receive £0·3 million capital DEL related to the capital costs incurred in taking forward the recommendations of the HIA inquiry.
Other allocations are detailed in the tables and include £3 million resource DEL to the Department for the Economy to honour a commitment by the previous Executive that further education colleges would have access to year-end underspends in order to help manage the impact of the difference between the financial year and the academic year; £1 million resource DEL to the Department for Infrastructure for the provision of winter services; and £0·9 million resource DEL to the Assembly for the increased costs associated with a fully operational Assembly and Executive in place for the last quarter. It also includes budgetary cover for Members' salary costs and ministerial salaries, restored to their correct level under the provisions of the 'Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) Determination 2016'.
On capital DEL, the Department for the Economy will receive £1 million for minor capital works in FE colleges. The Department for Infrastructure will receive £3·8 million capital DEL: £2 million for the Belfast transport hub flagship project and £1·8 million for the replacement of failed and unsafe street-lighting columns.
All funding currently available has now been allocated. While there remain pressures in Departments, it is hoped that those will be manageable throughout the remainder of the year. We will continue to keep the financial position under review in the short time remaining before the end of the financial year. I commend the January monitoring round outcome to the Assembly.
Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome him to his appointment. We look forward to working with the Minister and his Department and hope that the teething problems that we have had so far around the provision of information will prove to be just that; indeed, in the spirit and intent of 'New Decade, New Approach', we look forward to working cooperatively with the full openness and transparency that you have expressed that you wish to work for as well.
Will the Minister set out how, over the past few years, in the absence of a Finance Minister, the initial year-on-year budget allocations were arrived at and how in-year monitoring has been carried out so far?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Chair of the Finance Committee for his remarks. I assure him that it is the intention — I believe it to be the intention across the Executive — to ensure that we work as collaboratively as we can with the Committees that scrutinise Departments. The Committees play a vital role not only in providing accountability to Departments but in assisting in policy development and providing advice. Therefore, it is in all of our interests that there is a good collaborative arrangement between Departments and the Committees that provide that scrutiny.
Obviously, over the past three years, we had a process that was largely carried out internally in the Civil Service, with legal cover, if you like, being given at various times by the Secretary of State in approving Budgets, and, within that, the financial allocations were made in-year. Thankfully, we now have, in monitoring round terms, a relatively small allocation at the end of the year. That is, perhaps, indicative of two things: that there is less money in the system and that Departments are spending it better, which is to be welcomed. Certainly, the fact that there is less money in the system means that the allocation this time is probably well reduced. We are now, thankfully, back to the situation in which a monitoring round allocation will be brought to the Assembly for comments and to the Finance Committee for its scrutiny. I am certain that most people will welcome the fact that that will be the pattern for going on.
Mr Frew: I also thank the Minister for his statement and congratulate him on his appointment as Finance Minister. I too give him this commitment: we will work constructively together in order to make lives better for the people of Northern Ireland.
Will the Minister explain in detail the reasons why the Executive have £150·8 million of ring-fenced financial transactions capital DEL unallocated and therefore lost to the Executive and, by extension, the people of Northern Ireland? Has that amount anything to do with the Minister's party colleague, the previous Finance Minister, walking out on his job without first putting in place a working budget?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his kind words. I am not surprised that he moves quickly on to business beyond that, but that is what I expect from him, knowing him in the Chamber over the past number of years. I agree with the concerns expressed in relation to the financial transactions capital. Any time that the Executive end up giving money back to Treasury is a matter that all of us should be concerned about, because we have limited enough finances as it is, and we want to ensure that we spend and get the maximum benefit from every pound that the Executive have to spend, so the idea of £150 million-plus going back to Treasury is something that concerns me. Obviously, it has arisen at the end of this financial year; we are only getting a sense of how that is and where it came from. Financial transactions capital is very limited. It is not like the other moneys in the system that can be more readily reallocated; it is very restricted in how it can be spent. Nonetheless, it is not acceptable that that amount ends up getting returned.
I do not believe that it was the responsibility of my predecessor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, but I would welcome work with the Committee on this and, particularly, with other Departments. I have asked and will ask Executive colleagues to ensure that this type of resource is spent to its fullest extent in their Departments. We have also asked the Strategic Investment Board to work with Departments to make sure that we do not end up in a situation in which this type of money has to be given back at the end of the year. I hope that we will see significant improvement when we come to the end of the next financial year.
Mr McHugh: Ba mhaith liom fosta comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as a phost nua. I congratulate our Minister on his new post as well.
It is always a welcome opportunity when there are additional funds for reallocation, irrespective of what source it comes from. In particular, I would like an update from the Minister on one of our flagship projects: the A5. The A5 is important in many ways in the area where I live, not least in opening up the north-west region and helping us to reach our full potential. In recent weeks, I have realised the importance of the A5 when attempting to make my way home to the outer regions of west Tyrone and Castlederg. It is difficult driving down that road each and every evening; your heart is in your mouth. I look forward to the development of that project.
Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat to the Member for his kind words. He is correct, of course: the A5 was mentioned in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. It is an Executive flagship project. I was involved in it in a Ministry for which I previously had responsibility, so it is disappointing that it is still going on. As I said, it is a flagship project. I am sure the Infrastructure Minister would be best placed to give the Member an update on the timetable for construction, but we are aware that the issues that caused the delay in that scheme were not necessarily due to funding. Other matters held it up, but there is a commitment to it from the Irish Government, who have reconfirmed their commitment to deliver on the £75 million of funding up to 2022. Certainly, it is an Executive flagship project, but I imagine the Infrastructure Minister could give you more information on the timescale.
Mr McGrath: I join other Members in congratulating the Minister on his appointment, and I wish him well in his role. I notice and welcome the inclusion of additional finances for the Executive Office for historical institutional abuse victims. I am sure that many would agree with me that they are among those for whom we should be prioritising our efforts. Will this investment allow for an indicative time frame for when those payments can be made available to those victims?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his comments. Implementing the legislation on historical institutional abuse is estimated to cost between £25 million and £60 million in 2021. Work is currently ongoing with organisations connected to the abuse, to discuss how they might share these costs with the public sector.
The scheme is set to have a sizeable long-term financial impact, but the exact amounts will be hard to predict accurately until it begins to operate, and the Executive Office, as the Member understands, is taking forward the refinement of the cost estimate. The Executive Office will essentially be responsible for timetabling. What we are trying to do is enable that and facilitate it by providing some additional resource. I hope that when the First Minister and deputy First Minister answer questions they will be able to give some more detail on the time frame.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the restoration of the monitoring round facility and thank our civil servants for the work they did in the absence of this financial instrument.
I welcome the £10 million to help address severe pressure on special educational needs provision, but I ask the Minister why the Department of Education has been allocated only £19·1 million of its £34·8 million bid for teacher pay. What is the implication of this funding gap, and when will the Executive allocate adequate funding to settle teachers' industrial action?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his comments, and I agree with him in terms of the gratitude due to the people who kept this work going over the last three years. I have made similar remarks to the staff in the Department of Finance.
The £19 million that we have allocated as part of this monitoring round is to meet contractual pay costs for teachers and non-teaching staff in 2019-20. It is not sufficient to settle the industrial dispute over pay awards for 2017-18 or 2018-19. It is not intended to do that. It is really an issue of the contractual costs that already exist and trying to address those.
Obviously, when we set the Budget next month, there will have to be a further discussion in relation to the outstanding pay issues. I know that, as part of the New Decade, New Approach, commitments were given on the part of the two Governments to resolving those issues. We also have commitments that we are required to give to civil servants, because they have pay issues as well. That is why my focus over the last two weeks has been on trying to ensure that the Governments live up to the commitments that were part of that document. I hope that we will be in a position to feed that into the Budget discussions we will have, so that we can have fair pay for all of our public servants.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his statement this evening. While we all appreciate the challenges of the limited amount of money available in this monitoring round, and obviously the competing priorities of all Members, we are all aware of the deterioration of the roads network. It is disappointing that the roads maintenance bid was unsuccessful in its totality. While I welcome the allocation to winter service and street lighting, that does not go far enough to cover either of these services.
Will the Minister give a commitment in the forthcoming Budget to prioritise resource in those areas?
Mr Murphy: I accept what the Member says. Obviously, there is a very limited amount of money to give out, and we are trying to spread it as best we can. We have been fortunate thus far — although it was snowing at home when I was leaving this morning — that the winter has not been so bad. We have allocated some money, as you say — £1 million — for winter pressures. The Infrastructure Minister obviously would have liked more, and she has written to me. I have written back to say that, if a situation arises between now and the end of the winter, we will try to find more resources to allocate if necessary.
Of course, going forward into the Budget scenario, there will be huge demand across all areas of spend, including roads. In particular, those of us who live in rural areas know all too well the troubles that we have in making journeys on small rural roads, so we will certainly try to work with the Infrastructure Minister to try to secure as much as we can, but it will be against a list of hugely competing demands. That is why my focus, early in my tenure of this Department, has been on trying to secure the necessary finances for across the Executive; so that, when it comes to these issues, we can talk about what we can allocate rather than what we have to save.
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the allocation of funds to the Department for the Economy for minor capital works in further education colleges. FE colleges such as the South West College in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone make a vital and valuable contribution to our communities. Will the Minister indicate how soon the Department for the Economy is likely to receive this funding?
Mr Murphy: Once the Executive have approved the funding, and it has gone through this process in the Assembly, the money immediately becomes available to Departments to spend. The Member is quite right: FE colleges play a vital role in education and in the economy. They train young people so that they have the necessary skills to match the requirements of the economy. When allocations can be made to them, we will certainly try to do so, but the Department for the Economy should have the money very quickly and be able to allocate it.
As you will understand, there is an urgency to spending this money: it has to be spent before the end of the financial year — the end of March. We will get allocations to the Departments very quickly, and we hope that the Departments get money to the necessary recipients as quickly as they can, and get the money spent.
Mr Givan: I note that the Department of Justice was able to hand back around £3 million, which, I am sure, will now be well spent in this reallocation. That said, I ask the Finance Minister whether the Department of Health put forward a bid to tackle waiting lists, given the existing pressures in that area. I do not see any bid for that money, and there may be a justifiable reason. Given the number of people — over 300,000 — on those lists, I want a reassurance that the issue will be tackled by the Department and the Executive.
Will the Finance Minister elaborate on Translink's £19 million operating deficit, for which they have made a bid?
Mr Murphy: This is a very limited allocation of resources, which is to be spent within a very limited time frame. In fairness, one of the very first Ministers whom I met and who asked to meet me was the Health Minister. We had a sit-down within two days of the Executive being formed to discuss the real pressures facing the Health Department. As you understand and know, health is a priority for the entire Executive: we have made that very clear. When the Executive met last week, we had a discussion and reiterated that priority.
While there may not be a request for an allocation as part of this limited pot, there is absolutely no doubt, from my perspective, that the Health Minister and the Executive as a whole are determined to try to deal with waiting lists and broader pressures in the health service. The first priority of the Executive was to meet the health workers' pay demand, and we managed to do that. I would not read anything into the fact that there is no allocation for waiting lists; there is an Executive priority for all those pressures, which will be met.
I do not have the detail as to why Translink was asking for an increase, but I am happy to provide it to the Member at a later date.
Ms Mullan: I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I also welcome today's statement, particularly the commitment on special education needs. The number of children with special education needs is increasing year-on-year, which puts an already under-resourced budget at crisis point. It is estimated that, in order to stand still, £110 million is required for the provision of special education needs over the next four years. Will the Minister outline whether there are any plans to engage with the British Government on the issue and to ensure that they provide sustainable funding for future special education needs provision?
Mr Murphy: I assure the Member that my focus and the focus of the Department over the last couple of weeks has been to do just that, although not specifically for special education needs. I understand that this allocation makes a limited but welcome contribution for people who are in that field to try to address some of those issues, such as the backlog in assessments, and to provide other support. The case is very well made for children who require that level of support.
Certainly, in the entire Executive, entire Assembly and, perhaps, even the entire population, there was a great expectation about what would be made available for us to deal with nine years of austerity and the impact that has had on our finances and our ability to provide public services to those most in need. My focus and that of my Department over the last couple of weeks has been to ensure that we can get the Government to live up to those commitments. If we can get that, and I sincerely hope we can — we had a very productive discussion last week with the Treasury — I would hope we would be in a position to allocate more resources to those very necessary front-line services, particularly those that deal with the most vulnerable in our society.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you for your statement, Minister. Others referred to the Department for Infrastructure and its requirements. We know that, in recent years, there has been a significant shortfall in overall funding. Has any risk assessment been done of the impact on road safety of reductions to road gritting and street lighting? How does that feed into the deliberations about the allocation of funding?
Minister, I do not know whether you want to take the opportunity to let us know how you got on with the Treasury last week. Were you able to squeeze any money out of it or not?
Mr Murphy: On allocation, I entirely agree with the Member: all services — I include Roads Service and Department for Infrastructure services generally — have suffered the same as everyone else. If we have nine years of austerity budgets, you cut, cut, cut until you are back to the bone, and with a whole range of services, we are literally back to the bone. That is why it is so important that we secure additional finance.
The Department for Infrastructure will have made its bid and its case, as a whole range of other Departments did. I understand, and I quite readily accept, that the Infrastructure Minister is not entirely happy with the limitations of her allocation. I assured her by writing to her to say that if pressures arise as a consequence of the winter months, we will try to find additional resources for her. I hope that provides some reassurance, but, in the longer term, you are quite right: we need sufficient resources across all Departments to ensure that we can provide public services, including those that have a direct impact on people's safety as they travel round the roads.
Yes, we had a productive meeting with the Treasury, but I am long enough in this game to know that one swallow does not make a summer. We intend to do the work that the Executive task us to do. That involves Departments actually collaborating with us and bringing forward, very tightly costed, the propositions that were made in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. We will get that work together and then go and talk to Treasury about the allocations we believe we are entitled to as a consequence of that. So, there is more work to be done, but it was the opening discussion, and it was productive. We will take it from there. I hope it is productive, because it is not just about getting money to this institution and the Executive: this is about getting money out to front-line services to things that have a direct impact on people's safety, including as they travel around the roads and remain on waiting lists and a whole range of other issues that are huge pressures.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his statement and wish him well in his tenure as Finance Minister.
Mr Frew already pointed out that £150·8 million is to be lost to the Treasury in unallocated financial transaction capital. Given that Ulster University's new Belfast campus is running at a projected £100 million overspend, is there a potential match there?
Mr Murphy: I am sure it is not the only one that you could match the figure against. The question is whether you can match the allocation, and financial transaction capital is very restricted in how it can be reallocated. It is not satisfactory that so much of it has not been able to be spent. As I said, I asked my departmental officials to work with officials from all Departments and the Strategic Investment Board to improve that so that, when it is allocated to Departments, they actually ensure that they get it spent.
The project you mentioned is hugely important for the whole Executive. The sum may fit neatly, but as for being able to allocate that money across, I am certain that if we could have done that directly into capital funding, we would have done, but we could not. It is restricted in how it can be spent and reallocated. Nonetheless, the Ulster University project is hugely important, and I am sure that, when we come to set the Budget in the next month or two, there will be many arguments around priorities in that regard, and it will be one of the issues that will be considered.
Mr Buckley: First, thank you, Minister, for making good on the commitment to find additional funding for the victims of contaminated blood. Any of us who have spoken to those victims know what it will mean to them today. We know the life-changing impact that the worst scandal in the history of the NHS has had on them, so I welcome that.
I draw the Minister's attention to the Department for Infrastructure and the £1·8 million for the replacement of failed and unsafe street lighting columns. Will he clarify whether that is just for unsafe lighting columns, as opposed to fixing the 8,000-plus street lights that have left many parts of our Province in darkness?
Mr Murphy: First, I thank the Member for his words on the contaminated blood issue. He was one of the MLAs who came to me directly to raise that, so I am glad that we have been able to make some contribution to try to ease the pain of those caught up in that terrible situation over many, many years. There is an ongoing inquiry in London, and I expect it to report within perhaps the next 18 months. Then, we hope to have some support across the board for all who were affected.
The allocation is for street lighting columns. That is what the Department for Infrastructure asked for. If there is a broader issue with street lighting, as there generally is — as all elected representatives know, there is always a broader issue with street lighting, which we all deal with daily — he needs to take that up with the Department for Infrastructure.
Ms C Kelly: Minister, I congratulate you on your appointment and welcome your decision to prioritise funding for special educational needs. The number of pupils with special educational needs has been rising steadily. Most attend mainstream schools, and support is primarily funded from school budgets that have been under considerable pressure for some time. I am sure that your announcement today will be welcomed throughout the sector and recognised as an indication that prioritising the needs of children and putting people first is uppermost in the Minister's approach to allocating funding. Does the Minister agree that investment in the potential of children today is a sound investment in growth and prosperity?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for her question. One of the tragedies of the fact that we have been dealing with reduced budgets is that the demand for services has risen at the same time, so it is a double whammy. While our funding allocations have gone down as a consequence of austerity — we are told that austerity is at an end, and we will see what comes of that — demand for these services has risen significantly. Of course, there is a priority to get there. What we are reallocating in this very limited monitoring round makes a contribution, but it does not go all the way to fixing the problems. If we had sufficient resources, we would like to do so because, as I said, this is not just about an Executive spending money; this is about providing front-line public services to people who are most in need, and I cannot think of anybody more in need than children who suffer from special educational needs.
Mr Lunn: I also welcome Mr Murphy to his latest post. There is a paragraph on page 3 about the Presbyterian Mutual Society. We have not heard much about that for quite a few years, but the news appears to be encouraging, in that it has managed to sell another property and has repaid £8 million against a loan that it got from the Assembly. Can the Minister give us figures, or maybe furnish us with them subsequent to this sitting, to indicate how much of that loan is outstanding, and what is the approximate value of the properties that the Presbyterian Mutual still owns but has not realised through sale?
Mr Murphy: I agree with the Member. Like me, he is long enough here to remember this issue coming up. When I saw it popping up, I had the same question: are we still dealing with this? I think that it was at the beginning of the Executive in 2007 that it came on to the books. This is reporting progress, which is welcome. I do not have the figures that he asked for, but I assure him that I will get them to him as soon as I can.
Mr Gildernew: I, too, thank the Minister for his statement. Having met last week, along with the Deputy Chair of the Health Committee, one of the groups that represents the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, I particularly welcome his ability to find an additional £1 million for that. It is fair to say that the testimonies that we heard from those people last week were truly harrowing in relation to the extent of the difficulties it has created for them, both the lifelong nature of their illness and the severity of it.
When does the Minister expect the additional payments to commence?
Mr Murphy: As I said in answer to a previous question, once the funding package has been agreed by the Executive, it is immediately allocated to Departments. There is very limited time left in this financial year in which to spend, so there is an urgency attached to this, and my Executive colleague the Minister of Health will be making public his Department's plans for this funding shortly, so I look forward to that.
Mr Durkan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas, agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis as a phost nua. I am hopeful that this new mandate will see a new approach to monitoring rounds. It is imperative that we, as Committee members, if we are to do our jobs properly, get sight of departmental budgetary positions and bidding priorities in advance of monitoring rounds. That could not be the case this time, but it would be very helpful going forward, not just for members of Committees but for all Members.
Under "Reduced Requirements", I see that £0·3 million for a Foyle suicide prevention project is being handed back. I am not exactly sure how that came about — I would not be surprised if the Minister is not either — but, given the very welcome pledges from the new Executive last week on mental health and suicide provision, can I be so bold as to ask the Minister for a commitment to consider favourably any future bids for that project?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his comments. He is correct. We are two weeks into this, and the monitoring round had to be brought forward. There is an urgency to get it approved in order to get the money spent, so we do not have the time that we would normally like to have.
I had a conversation earlier with the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Finance Committee to assure them that we are looking to try to get maximum input and transparency on all these matters. Collaboration and cooperation with the Committees, and MLAs generally, will be important. As I said, there was a discussion last week with Executive colleagues, and there is a real intent to try to make this as workable as we possibly can right across the board, and I welcome that.
Clearly, mental health is a key priority. I am not sure, as the Member anticipated, of the specific reason for the reduced requirement for that project, but I can certainly try to get him some answers and write to him on that. This is about reallocating, as I said, a relatively small amount of money to be spent relatively quickly. There is a strong sense of priority right across the Executive, and mental health in general, trying to improve services and trying to make a real impact on the issue, which is becoming increasingly important across society, featured in our discussion last week.
Although I am sure that he would like me to, I cannot make for certain a commitment on that specific project, but if it fits within the overall ambit of mental health services, there is a commitment across the Executive to try to support them and to allocate as much resource as we can to them in the time ahead.
Mrs Barton: Minister, I also wish you well in office. After a wait of 15 years, the new build for Devenish College has eventually started. However, I notice in the internal reallocations that £2 million has been removed from its budget already. Will the Minister please advise as to why that has happened?
Mr Murphy: Again, I apologise. I am not sure of the specifics of why that is the case. Towards the end of a financial year, we find that contracts may not have been awarded as quickly as they could have been. There may be other reasons for delays. Capital projects in particular can run into unforeseen snags. If a Department is not certain that it is going to spend the money for a project by the end of the financial year, it should surrender it for reallocation. There will be future money for such projects if they have been committed to, so the Department should surrender the money rather than hang on to it only to find that it cannot spend it, because that money will then go back to the Treasury, and that is the worst outcome. I do not know the specifics. Again, I will ask my officials to make a note of that and I will write to the Member.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for his statement. Under "Reduced Requirements", the Department for Communities has declared £19 million in total from welfare reform mitigations and housing benefit. I also note that many people have been successful in their appeals, leading to mitigations being refunded, which calls into question the entire welfare system as it is. What does the rest of that relate to, as well as the significant budget going back from housing benefit, given the cliff edge that we are facing in March? Does the Minister have any plans for the future funding of welfare mitigations past this financial year?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for her question. I welcome her to the Chamber; I have not had an opportunity to welcome her to her post yet. I hope that she has a successful time here. Her predecessor was a person with plenty of questions, so I presume that she will take up where he left off. I very much welcome her here.
As I said in the statement, in relation to welfare mitigation, it is not that there has been a lack of uptake; it is the case that people's appeals have been successful, which — I accept the point that you make — proves the nonsense of some of these so-called reforms, where they are trying to drive people unfairly out of benefits that they are entitled to. I am glad that the appeals have been successful, but nonetheless my colleague Ms Hargey has made announcements in relation to securing that mitigation package, because it is the biggest safety net that has been provided to vulnerable people anywhere in these islands. It is something that the Assembly and Executive can be proud of, even though we still disagree with the thrust of the welfare reform proposals that have come from London.
In relation to the Housing Executive, again, I do not have the detail as to where that has come from, but I will, of course, get some detail on that and write to the Member.
Mr Allister: Can the Minister bring some clarity to the issue of EU exit costs? In his statement, he said that:
"£37·5 million was previously allocated to prepare for a no-deal exit. That funding was provided as mainly resource DEL ... The outcome is an easement in resource DEL of £16·1 million".
"Reduced requirements totalling some £4·3 million have been declared by a number of Departments in relation to the £37·5 million in EU exit preparation funding provided".
"Consequently, the additional £2·4 million resource DEL has been made available for reallocation."
Can he square those figures?
Mr Murphy: I am sure that I can, although I may not have the time to do it in the context of this statement. Of the £4·3 million reduced requirements, DAERA surrendered £2·9 million; the Department of Justice surrendered £600,000; the Department for the Economy surrendered £200,000; and the Executive Office surrendered £400,000. The allocations were £4·9 million to DAERA for trade, inspection, legislation, policy and staffing; £2 million to the Department for the Economy for Invest NI; £2·2 million to NI Water for maximising chemical stock levels; £10·6 million for our roads, ports and infrastructure; £3 million for vehicle parts; £2·7 million to the Department of Health for medicines; and £3·1 million to the Department of Justice for policing. There is a range of expenditure.
Obviously, what we have is money that was allocated as a Barnett consequential for a no-deal exit. Thankfully, we did not have a no-deal exit, so it is a very welcome fact that the Executive and the Departments were able to hold on to that money and reallocate it. If the Member has a specific requirement in relation to some of the figures, and if he drops me a letter, I will be very happy to respond to him in due course.
Mr Carroll: While people no doubt welcome the news that some worthy causes have been addressed in the announcement, I ask a question on behalf of Civil Service workers, who will be confused. Whilst they have been fighting hard on picket lines for the pay that they deserve — indeed, they were out last Friday — they have been told by the Department of Finance that the money was not there for them, yet here is a statement from the Finance Minister that tells of excess millions from the Stormont coffers for reallocation. They will be confused, too, no doubt, that a brand new deal was signed up to that did not mention their pay struggle and, seemingly, secured absolutely no financial commitments from the British Government. Will the Minister clarify for those workers whether their pay dispute will be resolved to meet their demands as a matter of urgency?
Mr Murphy: If he is following this dispute, the Member should know that negotiations are ongoing with NIPSA. I met them last week. It would not be possible to make them an allocation as part of this because money has to be allocated now and spent before the end of the financial year. That is part of the negotiations. We are trying to negotiate the issues that arose from previous pay issues and to negotiate the pay and terms and conditions with NIPSA going forward. That is part of the discussion, and those negotiations began in earnest this week. This money was allocated in the middle of all of that, and it would not have been possible to allocate it across to that.
What we want to do is to get a financial settlement for this year so that we can address the issues that have caused industrial action and to get some certainty and security for the coming years so that people are awarded fair pay for the work that they do. That has been my commitment to the civil servants and the people in NIPSA going forward. That is our desire. There is a commitment to try to do that. I have officials negotiating with NIPSA, and, as I say, I met them last week.
The two Governments drafted the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. A range of issues are mentioned in it, and I assured the people I met from NIPSA and made them aware of the fact that, although their pay settlement was not mentioned, we did not draft it — none of the political parties here drafted it — that did not indicate any lack of a desire to try and resolve the issues that civil servants are facing. The Governments put down their priorities in relation to health workers' pay, and teachers' pay was mentioned as well. There is a desire to try and ensure the same for civil servants. All of us are aware that they have been involved in industrial action for some time. That will continue, and that is their right until they are satisfied with whatever the outcome of the negotiations may be.
The lack of inclusion of civil servants' pay in this statement is nothing to do with the fact that we want those negotiations to come to a successful conclusion. You could not allocate money in this round when we are in the middle of negotiations, because you have not agreed on what the allocation will be. My priority is to try and secure sufficient resources to ensure that civil servants and all public-sector workers get fair pay for the work that they do and the contribution that they make to society here.
Ms Sugden: I wish to pick up on a point that Mr Nesbitt and Mr Frew made about financial transactions capital. My understanding — please correct me if I am wrong — is that FTC is a loan from Treasury to private-sector entities via a sponsoring Department and that there is an opportunity for that sponsoring Department to add an interest rate, which it can use as resource. It is disappointing that we are sending back £150 million and, indeed, interest, which, perhaps, is much-needed revenue for the Executive. I am interested to hear the Minister's thoughts about that as a potential revenue-raising mechanism and, indeed, whether it is considerable enough to make a dent in our finances.
Mr Murphy: I agree with the Member's concern about that; it should be a matter of concern for us all. I am not certain that it is a significant revenue-raising option for us, but, nonetheless, if finances are allocated, we want to ensure that the Departments are using it all and that we do not end up surrendering any resources back to Treasury. That is a loss as far as we are concerned.
As I said, officials will be talking to all of the Departments. We will ask the Strategic Investment Board to work with them as well to make sure that they maximise the use of that resource available so that we do not end up in a situation like this again next year.
Mr Catney: Mr Speaker, I apologise to you and the House for being late. Like an old pro boxer, I thought that there would be some sort of bell. [Laughter.]
I did not hear the bell and was caught out.
I congratulate Mr Murphy on his appointment to the Ministry. I look down and I see £1 million being allocated for contaminated blood, but, alongside that, I see that the £5·2 million for the doctors and dentists has not come across. I would not like to think that this would in any way impact on the situation in our A&Es at the minute.
Just one other observation: when I did my accounts in my businesses, I was very lucky that there was a surplus. I was wondering if there was a way, within these two years —? I note that it is a one-year Budget. We need to move that to two years. Is there any way or any possibility of you trying to do that?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his question. Generally speaking, if you are a boxer waiting for the bell, you are in trouble. [Laughter.]
Yes, of course, there are bids that are not met. Obviously, the contaminated blood issue is a hugely important one to address, and any of the Health bids and any of the bids from across the Departments are important. Departments make the case for them, and we try to ensure that the inability to deliver on that at this time does not have detrimental effects. Clearly, we do not want that to happen to health.
The Member is correct: we want to get on to multi-annual budgets. That gives some certainty to Departments going forward. Mr Carroll mentioned pay for civil servants and, if we had multi-annual budgets, it would give some certainty to people on progression of pay, and that is the place we want to get to. We are waiting for Treasury to do a spending review. There is likely to be, based on discussions with Treasury — it is not certain yet — quite possibly a Budget in March, another Budget in November and a spending review in between. All those things have an impact on how we do business here, and we want to get beyond that into a multi-annual budgetary situation. That is our very strong desire because, in that, you could give some certainty not only to Departments but to staff.
Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for two minutes until we change the top Table.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
That this Assembly, noting the urgency of the issue resulting from the absence of legal powers needed to continue making direct payments to NI farmers in the 2020 scheme year, agrees that the provisions in the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill, as introduced into the House of Commons on 9 January 2020, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has not allocated any specific time limit to this debate or to individual contributions. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Poots: First, I declare an interest as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. That applies at this time until I totally divest myself of interest in this matter.
Normally, I would have brought this motion within the established time frame, and I apologise to the House that that was not possible. We are under very tight time constraints if I wish to have the legislative authority to enable some £293 million to be paid in direct payments to farmers in the 2020 scheme this year.
The UK Minister for agriculture, environment and rural affairs wrote to me last Monday and asked that the Assembly provide legislative consent to Her Majesty's Government, legislating on our behalf on the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill. I will provide the House with some background. Article 137 of the withdrawal agreement disapplies the EU direct payment regulation, EU regulation 1307/2013, which provides the legal basis for CAP pillar 1 support to UK farmers, so it ceases to apply to the UK after the 2019 scheme year. The reason for that is that the 2020 scheme's payment would be made out of the EU 2020-21 financial year budget. That falls into the new EU multi-annual financial framework, to which the UK is not contributing. Therefore, if nothing was done to replace the EU regulation, there would be no legal basis for direct payment to UK farmers. The Direct Payments (Legislative Continuity) Bill corrects that deficiency.
The Bill is a UK Government Bill. It is a technical Bill of narrow scope that incorporates EU direct payments regulations into United Kingdom law. It provides the underpinning of direct support for the 2020 scheme year only. It will also create delegated powers to make subordinate regulations to ensure this retained legislation operates effectively in a domestic context. The delegated powers in the Bill will enable failures or deficiencies in retained EU law to be remedied and for retained law to keep pace with any change introduced into corresponding EU law during the 2020 scheme year if deemed necessary.
It is envisaged that the UK Agriculture Bill, which was introduced in Parliament last week, will provide the necessary powers from 2021 onwards, including the ability to keep existing schemes in operation until we have a replacement. I will bring forward a further legislative consent motion on the Agriculture Bill in due course. You should note clause 3(4), which is for DAERA to make regulations to move basic payment entitlement values in Northern Ireland towards a uniform unit value, but this is a discretionary power and subject to the affirmative resolution of the House.
Agriculture is a devolved matter, but the provisions of the Bill extend to the whole of the UK. Therefore, it contains provisions that fall within the legislative competence of the Assembly. For that reason, DEFRA is seeking legislative consent from the Assembly in order to legislate on behalf of Northern Ireland. As I said a few minutes ago, I received the formal request from Minister Eustice in DEFRA last Monday night, so this is happening at pace. The Bill was introduced to Parliament on 9 January. It is scheduled to complete its remaining Commons stages tomorrow, 28 January, and the Lords stages on 29 January so that it will become law by 31 January, our withdrawal date.
With the Bill likely to be certified as a money Bill, the last stage at which amendments can be considered as it completes its Commons stages is 28 January. Therefore, legislative consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to be provided no later than today. Without consent, the Bill may no longer extend to Northern Ireland, leaving us with no legislative power to provide for direct payments in the 2020 scheme year after 31 January. This timetable was confirmed to my officials only last Tuesday morning. I have taken all necessary steps to ensure that the Assembly is given the opportunity to consider it as quickly as possible. My officials briefed the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee last Tuesday, and I am grateful to the Committee for facilitating this briefing at short notice.
It is crucial that there is no gap between the ending of the EU legislative basis for direct support to farmers in Northern Ireland this Friday and its replacement with domestic legislation. The Assembly will be fully aware of the importance of this support to the farming industry. The Scottish and the Welsh Governments are also moving with speed through the necessary processes to ensure that legislative consent for the other two devolved institutions is also in place. Both devolved institutions have now given their consent — the Scottish Parliament on 16 January and the Welsh Assembly on 22 January.
I should also inform the House that DEFRA intends to lay the two statutory instruments in Westminster on 31 January via the made affirmative procedure under the Bill so that they come into effect immediately after 31 January to address the failures and deficiencies arising from the EU law.
I want to say something about the funding of direct payments. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced at the end of December 2019 that the UK Government confirmed they will provide the same financial support to CAP pillar 1 for 2020 as for the 2019 scheme year. That provides Northern Ireland with some £293 million for the 2020 scheme year. That funding stream is ring-fenced in the block grant. It cannot be spent on anything else. It is very positive news, and I now need the legislative authority to be able to use this funding.
To sum up, my view is that the Bill's provisions should extend and apply to Northern Ireland to ensure that the direct payments can continue to be made to farmers in Northern Ireland for the 2020 scheme year. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I would like to take the opportunity to reflect the views of the Committee.
Minister Poots outlined the background to the issue, including the concerns about the continuation of payments to farmers. The matter needs urgent attention from the Assembly. For that reason, the normal procedures used for legislative consent, as set out in the Assembly's Standing Orders, have not been followed.
The Assembly's Committees were formed only last Monday. Nevertheless, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee deemed this matter to be of such urgency that it met for the first time one day after it was established, on Tuesday last week, to consider the matter. We were able, at very short notice, to have departmental officials before the Committee to answer our questions. That session was extremely informative and very helpful, and I want to place on record our thanks to the officials for making themselves available at such short notice. I should also say at this point that the Minister, the Deputy Chairperson and I met on Monday 20 January, when the Minister outlined the special circumstances for the legislative consent motion (LCM).
The Bill provides the legal basis to allow DAERA to continue to make direct payments to farmers by ensuring that the scheme continues for the claim year 2020. To that end, it has a sunset clause built in. The Bill also gives a power to allow DAERA to continue moving towards a uniform rate of payment entitlements, and I will cover that in my later comments.
The importance of the direct payments to farmers must not be underestimated. For most farmers, CAP direct payments make up the majority of their income; in fact, last year, as much as 80% of farmers' income was the direct payments that they received in the subsidies.
Mr Gildernew: Does the Member agree that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has created great anxiety among farming and rural communities? In light of the negative impact that that, potentially, is having or will have on mental health, will he commit, in his role as Chair of the Agriculture Committee, to work with the Minister to address that area of concern?
Mr McAleer: Thank you for your comments. Yes, obviously, the mental health of our farming community is a major issue. Members from rural backgrounds will be aware that farming is a very solitary activity, and that is compounded by things like poor farm gate prices, inclement weather and all other sorts of pressures. I had my first meeting with the Minister last week, and he shared with me that this is a common priority. You, as Chair of the Health Committee, will appreciate that mental health is a priority for me; indeed, the Minister highlighted it as well.
To qualify for direct payments, farmers must submit an application form and meet certain standards in environmental management, animal welfare and traceability. That is known as "cross-compliance". At the AERA Committee meeting on Tuesday 21 January, many members focused on ensuring that, for 2020 at least, the payments, the application process, the cross-compliance conditions, the inspection regime etc would remain as they are. The Committee was content to learn that that would be the case. As one member described it, "2020 would be a cut and paste of 2019", and we were assured that there will be continuity. This is vital for our farmers as they try to plan how to run their businesses with so much uncertainty about the future.
Another focus for the Committee was the level of payments and the payment timetable, and we learnt that there would be some minor differences from what happened in 2019. Those minor differences should work in favour of the farmer. I will outline them, and the Assembly will see why no Committee member expressed or raised any major concerns about them.
To set the context, let me give you some information on the budget for the 2020 claim year. DAERA officials informed the Committee that the budget will be €329 million in 2020, as the Minister stated. An exchange rate of 2019, which was 0·89, has been used, which converts into a £293 million fund available to farmers. We were given assurances by the officials that the money coming from the Exchequer would be ring-fenced. That means that it cannot be used for anything other than direct payments to farmers.
On the minor differences that we spoke about, the Assembly should note the lack of what are called "financial discipline deductions". Under EU rules, there are deductions from farmers' payments of around 1·4% from amounts above €2,000. That deduction goes into an EU crisis reserve. The Bill has the power to remove that provision from retained EU law because it is no longer relevant. That will be done using a statutory instrument to be made available at Westminster, likely on 31 January 2020. The officials who came to the Committee pointed out that we will need to get to the end of the month with all the legislation tied down. Only then can the Minister give a clear picture to farmers of what they might expect for 2020, but I hope that that little extra will be available to farmers.
The second minor change that none of the Committee members expressed concern about is the payment timetable. Working under EU rules, in 2019, the Department had issued 99·3% of payments by December. As the payments will no longer be made under EU rules, the Department thinks that it might be able to get the vast majority of payments out earlier in the year. Currently, the Department starts making advance payments from the middle of October, with the bulk of final payments being made by the end of December. However, the Department is hopeful that, for 2020, it can make full payments from mid-October, a change that, if it happens, will be very welcome in the farming community.
At the beginning, I noted that the Bill also had the power to allow DAERA to continue to move towards a uniform unit of payment entitlements. That is in line with the trajectory that was set under the previous CAP reform in 2014. As most Members will know, direct payments to farmers are based on land entitlements, and, historically, some entitlements were worth more than others. For the past number of years, DAERA has been moving annually towards equalising those entitlements, commonly known as the "flat rate". The DAERA officials who briefed the Committee were able to tell us that 2019 is the last year of the decision period on the flat rate. Moreover, they have moved five sevenths towards a flat rate: they are 71·4% of the way there. The officials also noted that the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill contains a provision to allow the Minister to continue the progression to a flat rate if that is what he decides to do. Such a decision by the Minister would require an affirmative resolution on a statutory rule, as stated previously.
The powers of the Department to make regulations can be found in schedule 2 to the Bill. When questioned, the officials noted that they could be used for two broad categories of regulations, one of them being to correct any deficiencies in bringing EU law into domestic law. Secondly, there is a group that will be about keeping pace with the EU during the transition period. For example, were the EU to bring forward some change to the 2020 scheme year, the regulation-making power allows DAERA to reproduce that in our local law so that it keeps us in step.
The Bill makes provision for payments to farmers in 2020 only. What happens after that is currently unclear. We know that agriculture is a devolved matter. Therefore, each devolved jurisdiction will be able to set its own policy. What those rules will look like has still to be decided.
The Committee knows that the Westminster Government introduced an Agriculture Bill just last week. We know that the Bill has provisions that will apply here and that a legislative consent motion will, at some stage in the near future, seek the consent of the Assembly. The Committee has not had a chance to look at the provisions of the Bill to consider what they might mean for our farmers. I imagine that it will in the near future.
We are also aware that the Department has been engaging with key stakeholders and the farming industry on what a future agricultural policy might look like. Moreover, Members will be aware that the protocol will have a deep and lasting influence on the future of agriculture policy. That is a policy matter that, I suspect, we will return to repeatedly in the coming months. The Bill addresses the issue of direct payments to farmers for 2020, which is CAP pillar 1 only.
What is also of particular interest to me and other Committee members is the question of continuation of funding to rural communities and other schemes, such as the environmental farming scheme and priority 6 schemes, which invest in the social and economic development of rural communities through a variety of initiatives. The vast majority of such funding comes through CAP pillar 2. The Committee sought some information on what will happen to that funding. All that we know is that it will continue in 2020. It is obvious that there are still a lot of questions to be answered here, and the newly formed Committee will pursue this in some depth.
As I come to the end of my speech, I emphasise that, under normal circumstances, the Committee would have had more time to consider the matter, take evidence and formally report its opinion to the Assembly. I am aware that the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies had time to follow their procedures and give consideration to the matter and that both legislatures have given consent for the provisions of the Bill to extend to their jurisdiction. The extremely tight timescale has not enabled the Committee here to follow the procedures as set out in Standing Orders. Nevertheless, we have, as far as possible, adhered to the spirit of the Standing Orders. The Committee agreed, at its meeting on 21 January, that it was content to support the extension of the provisions of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill to this jurisdiction.
Those were my points as Committee Chair, but, before I finish, I just want to say a couple of points as a Sinn Féin MLA who represents the rural constituency of West Tyrone, which benefited from single farm payments of £43 million last year. It is important to point out — my colleagues will, no doubt, pick up on it — that the process that we are engaged in this evening — the LCM, the pressure to adhere to the Westminster timetable, the consequent pressure on the Committee to scrutinise this in a very short time and all of the associated uncertainty — is a direct product of Brexit, which the majority of people here in the North did not vote for. It is a matter of huge regret that, while the rest of the EU is now planning for the 2021-27 EU CAP, with direct payments, interventions in certain sectors and rural development as the centrepiece, we have been plunged into this uncertainty due to a Brexit that we did not want.
Mr Irwin: I congratulate the Minister and wish him well in his new office. At the outset, I declare an interest as a partner in a farm business that is in receipt of a direct payment.
First, I welcome the fact that we now have a re-established and working Assembly in order to address the many concerns circulating across the Province about a great number of issues. Not least among the farming and rural community, of course, is Brexit, the various arrangements that need to be put in place and the challenges that need to be met, as we move towards what, I firmly believe, will be a brighter future as we free ourselves from the many burdens that the EU has attached to the back of the hard-working farmer in Northern Ireland. Indeed, pointing to the potential for positive change going forward, I very much welcome the early indication from Minister Poots that he is minded to review the slurry-spreading arrangements in order to put in place a more responsive and, indeed, environmentally protective arrangement that, I know, will be very welcome in the farming community. That is only one example of where a local Minister can make local decisions that will benefit everyone.
On the issue at hand of the continuance of direct payments, I welcome the motion. Of course, as we noted in Committee, there is an acute urgency on the matter, and I welcome the fact that there was consensus around the Committee table on the need to get the matter to the Floor and see the business done. The fact that we are seeking continuity of direct payments will be of comfort to thousands of farmers across the Province, and they will welcome the fact that the legislation will pave the way for payments to be made without delay or difficulty.
Another important factor is the assurance that the exchange rates from last year will be used for this year's payments. That is a welcome assurance and one that will be well received in the farming community. It is important that, as we continue the Brexit journey, we have some degree of certainty and an ability to absorb pressures and respond effectively. The legislation allows for that breathing space.
Thanks must go to the Department staff, who deserve praise, as we are the only region in the UK to make 70% of direct payments in October and the remainder in mid-December. This year, 93·3% of payments were made by the end of December, which is an admirable achievement. Farmers have also adjusted well to the online system, and Department staff have made impressive progress in processing times to be the best-performing region of the UK. That is no small achievement, and I reiterate my thanks on that point.
I look forward, in the coming weeks and months, to continuing to liaise and work with the Committee, the Minister and wider industry representatives on the agriculture Bill. I certainly will be doing what I can as an elected Member to put the interests of the farmer first and foremost. I support the motion.
Mr Dallat: I extend my good wishes to the Minister. We worked together in the past; we had our spats, but we always made up, and I have no doubt that, in the greater interests of the agriculture community, we can work together.
I note that we have already had a number of declarations of interest, but I have no doubt that no one will be putting their snout in the trough for personal interest, because this issue is far too serious. It impacts on not only the agriculture community, but everyone, and I am sure the Minister will agree that all of us need to put our shoulder to the wheel to enlighten and educate people on the wider importance of the agriculture community.
Yes, the legislation will offer short-term financial assurance. That is welcome, but people need to realise that, as well as making up a significant proportion of the income of farmers across the North, those direct payments — I heard the word "subsidy", but I think we need to get rid of that because it is far more than a subsidy, it is an investment — are securing the financial viability of many farm businesses and rural communities. They also represent a significant incentive to improve environmental, public health and animal cruelty standards across the North and, indeed, Europe. Next week, we will have the opportunity to discuss climate change, the environment and how that relates to agriculture. I look forward to that.
The impact of any withdrawal of direct payments is even more serious than what I have said. Here in Northern Ireland, we have the best quality-assured farm products anywhere in the world, and I am sure it has not gone unnoticed that some Members of the Westminster Parliament have been advocating the import of "cheap" food from Argentina and Brazil — and I have the word "cheap" in inverted commas. While the products might look all right, they are the result of deforestation; they are the result of animals being put onto land that is deficient in nutrients. All of us worry about our personal health, and that is an issue that impacts on not only those who own farms but the wider community.
In the limited time I have available, let me mention one more issue. The farming industry is sustaining many of our small towns and villages. When other people are at work, it is the farmers who are packing into the cattle mart and spending their money in cafes, shops and hardware stores, and giving badly needed work to the rest of the rural community. What is going to happen if these payments are withdrawn some time in the future? I worry about that, because there has been an erosion of our rural communities already, and we should be doing everything possible to sustain the agriculture industry, which is the heart of that community.
I have already mentioned the debate that we will have next week. I look forward to hearing the Minister on his plans for arresting climate catastrophe.
As soon as the results of the 2016 referendum became clear, the SDLP constantly pressed the British Government to make clear their plans to replace vital payments to our farmers. It is concerning to hear a former British farming Minister suggest, in the aftermath of the referendum, that the system of support may be abandoned. It is not new; it has been floated before, and we have been told that New Zealand is viable, and all sorts of things. But listen, we are not like England, with landlords and tenant farmers and wild horses that roam for miles. Our farms are mainly smallholdings, sustaining a way of Irish life and sustaining our churches, our schools and our communities. Indeed, colleagues, these payments, and millions more that we receive from the EU, are part of the reason that the SDLP was resolutely opposed to Brexit. We are a political party steeped in the rural community and understand the consequences of what is happening.
It is clear that the uncertainty caused by Brexit over the past three years has impacted negatively on many different sectors, not least farming. We have the opportunity today to provide some clarity to farmers across the North and to offer continued support over the next two years. We need to do that — we really do — and I congratulate the Minister on taking this initiative.
Given the urgency of the issue, resulting from the lapse of the legal powers needed to continue making direct payments to farmers across the North in the 2020 scheme, it is, of course, appropriate to take the action that the Assembly is taking tonight, but to bear in mind that this is only the first instalment of one battle that we need to win.
Mrs Barton: I also take the opportunity to congratulate Mr Poots on his appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
As someone who grew up on a family farm between Newtownbutler in Fermanagh and Clones in County Monaghan, just a few hundred yards from the border, I am very well aware of the difficulties of farming in challenging circumstances.
For some decades, agriculture has benefited from a level of support, whether it has come from our own Government or from the European Union. We have heard arguments in the past that this support is farmers receiving money for nothing, but, as we are all aware, that is not the fact. Farmers in Northern Ireland produce exceptionally good, quality products — some of the best that you will find anywhere in the world — while having to meet very difficult environmental, animal welfare and traceability standards that were introduced and implemented by the EU, the UK Government and agencies.
I am sure that we all acknowledge that, without the support mechanisms, it would be impossible for farmers to produce food products at a reasonable cost, as they currently do. As we come closer to the implementation of Brexit on 31 January, for Northern Ireland farmers, that also brings to an end the common agricultural policy (CAP), so direct payments will cease. This legislative continuity Bill will facilitate support for Northern Ireland farmers for this year from the new EU's multi-annual budget for 2021. Northern Ireland farmers are, however, still due this EU support for 2021 as these payments are made in arrears. This will maintain continuity of support for the local farming industry for this year, but for this year only.
Not contained in the Bill, however, is the answer to the question that everyone involved in the agri-food industry will be asking: what will the future hold for farmers in relation to support? Many fear for the future of the traditional family farm, a sector that supplies food not only for us in Northern Ireland but for many throughout the EU and beyond.
This is an important piece of legislation not only for the farmers but for the community of Northern Ireland. I assume that the legislative consent motion on the EU withdrawal Bill that the Assembly did not agree to last Monday will have no impact on this Bill or, indeed, on any other Bill that the Assembly decides on in relation to the UK withdrawal from the EU.
I support the Bill. I look forward to early planning and preparation for future arrangements to support the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members, before I call the next Member to speak, it is my obligation to remind the House that a maiden speech is made without interruption. I call Mr John Blair.
Mr Blair: Principal Deputy Speaker, thank you for that introduction, and may I, in the opening remarks of my maiden speech, take the opportunity, through you, to put on record my thanks to the Members who sought me out to say, "Hello" and "Welcome" when I was appointed in July 2018? You will be aware, Principal Deputy Speaker, that that was a difficult time — it was a time of uncertainty — but without going over old ground, I am relieved and encouraged now that, with the new agreement, we will all be able to work together and move this place forward. I pledge today to play as full part as I can and to work with all Members for positive outcomes.
My path to the Assembly was not, as some may have noticed, a rapid or marathon sprint or in any way an accelerated promotion. I came to the Assembly after many years in local government. I should thank those council officials and members of all parties with whom I worked. Indeed, that applies not least to my Alliance colleagues, many of whom are still there, for their support in sending me here and, of course, for the work we do regularly as a team in the constituency.
I hope you understand, Principal Deputy Speaker, that I want to pay a genuine tribute to my predecessor, David Ford, for the work he did for South Antrim, for the work he did, of course, as a very effective Justice Minister and, most of all and on behalf of Alliance colleagues from across Northern Ireland, for the leadership and friendship he has given us for many years and still gives us.
Now that I represent South Antrim, which goes from Toome in the north at the boundary with the Bann, to Glenavy in the southern end of the constituency, going through the towns of Ballyclare, Antrim, Randalstown and the many other towns and villages, I am told that it is traditional on these occasions to extol the virtues and attractions of my constituency. Of course, my constituency has far too many for me to list individually. I can only encourage Members to visit and, perhaps, keep visiting and revisit to see those attractions.
There is, however, one aspect of life in South Antrim that I will reflect on and formally acknowledge, and that is the most excellent voluntary and community sector we have across my constituency. I suspect that is also the case in the constituency of colleagues. In my work first as a councillor and in my work as an MLA, I never cease to be amazed at the energy of the volunteers and activists and how they seek to work with and for others to make their area a better place. We should acknowledge that they add to the rich tapestry of community and society in our areas, but they do more: they provide an expert and valuable voluntary resource and knowledge that we should, with every effort ourselves, embrace in order to enhance that joined-up thinking and joined-up government that has been referred to so many times. We can improve that civic engagement between those volunteers and ourselves, work together to make our areas better and provide the joined-up government we have talked about so often.
I now turn to the LCM. Whilst I am happy to endorse it, I would, of course, as I am sure you know, prefer that these matters were dealt with wholly by this Assembly, steered by the Committee and the Minister, with the appropriate emphasis on local impact. In the circumstances, on behalf of the party, I am happy to accept what is before us. With regard to the process, I think I need to point out that, whilst the LCM and a certain date this coming Friday, and further LCMs and dates, may put some definition on an ongoing issue, they do not in themselves bring certainty to farmers, the agri-food industry and others who have current and real concern about the future.
I do not intend to rehearse in detail those concerns — they have been expressed by the Committee representatives — but I will go over in brief the uncertainty over funding that is separate to pillar 1. For example, the funding that covers environmental farming schemes; funding for future years in the context of the phrase, "Until we have a replacement"; funding to adequately support the promotion of the excellence of our products in Northern Ireland in a changing and competitive environment; general agricultural support post-Brexit; and a concern that recipients of funding for viable environmental farming schemes cannot apply in a separate tranche to help progress, add to or sustain their existing projects. I hope we can look at those.
Before I close, I want to point out that, for me, and, I am sure, for others, there is no hierarchy of need. There is no hierarchy of justification or merit. All areas of the farming sector and of the agri-food sector have equal need. This is our most vital sector. I am sure that the Committee and Minister will return to those matters in coming weeks. I am sure that the Minister will also take note of that.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you. May I be the first to congratulate the Member on making his maiden speech? It can be very intimidating to stand up and speak here for the first time. I am sure that all Members agree that he acquitted himself very well.
Mr M Bradley: I, too, congratulate the Member on his maiden speech.
The Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill gives devolved Administrations across the UK powers to administer direct payments to farmers for 2020. The Chancellor's announcement confirmed the same level of funding for direct payments in 2020 as in 2019.
The Agriculture Bill will provide a new system of farm support towards an approach whereby farmers are paid public money for the goods they produce, and it includes environmental themes such as enhancing air and water quality, tackling climate change and improving animal welfare. Leaving the EU means that we take back control of our agricultural policy and fund our farm payments domestically. As agriculture is a devolved matter, it falls upon us to ensure that farmers and the farming community are equipped with the proper finances to ensure sustainability and growth. The Bill enables current EU legislation that covers CAP direct payments to become part of domestic law.
Without that support, many of our farms would not have made a profit, so its continuation is vital to the industry. The Agriculture Bill, which will return to the Commons tomorrow, moves towards a new system that rewards farmers for enhancing the environment and for producing food in a sustainable way. The legislation enables direct payments for farmers for 2020, giving clarity and certainty to farmers and food producers as the UK leaves the EU on 31 January. After Brexit, UK tariffs and trade policies on animal welfare and environmental standards could influence where food comes from, its cost and how it is produced. Most importantly, the Bill ensures that farmers will endure no financial burdens as the UK makes its transition from the EU common agricultural payment structure.
Looking to the future, I feel that the farming community is the main custodian of the land and environment. UK contributions to the common agricultural policy are greater than the amount that UK farmers receive. That additional funding should be ring-fenced for agriculture and redirected to delivering greater efficiencies, increasing profitability and delivering high environmental and animal welfare standards.
I pay tribute to the staff, the Minister and the Committee for the hard work that they have put in.
Ms Dillon: First, I want to remark on the comment made by the Member for Newry and Armagh: that this will be of comfort to farmers. I can assure him that it will be of very small comfort. Coming from a farming background and understanding well the reliance that farmers, particularly hill farmers, have on these payments, I do not think that the one-year assurance will be a massive comfort to them, to be fair.
We will support the LCM, because not to do so would mean that farmers across the North would not get their direct payments in 2020. However — it is on record — my party is opposed to Brexit. One of the many reasons for that is the potential damage and uncertainty that it will bring to the agricultural sector. Every year, over £300 million of payments comes from the EU to farmers and the agricultural sector in the North. This is vital for the North's economy.
It is vital for the sustainability of our rural communities, including farmers in my constituency of Mid Ulster, which is a large, rural constituency.
I forgot, at the beginning of my remarks, to congratulate you, Minister Poots, on your new position. Edwin was on the AERA Committee when I was its Chair, and we had many's the discussion around Brexit, I can assure you. In the wake of the referendum in 2016, I met many across the sector. Farmers made it clear that the promises from those trying to sell the benefits of Brexit needed to be adhered to and that they needed guarantees around payments. I was honest with them and told them that there were no guarantees. That is what Brexit removed from them: any guarantees of payments or any other kind of support. Whilst they may well be a priority for this devolved Assembly, I did not believe that farmers here would be a priority for any British Government.
Farmers absolutely deserve certainty around future payments. The British Government have publicly stated that they are committed to making the payments over the five-year period of their Parliament. Farmers and the agriculture sector as a whole will, no doubt, have witnessed the same British Government give a financial commitment to our public services here in the North only a few short weeks ago in the New Decade, New Approach deal, only to renege on it immediately. They, like the rest of us, are extremely sceptical about any commitments that this British Government make, so, while I welcome the payments for this year, it is vital to our economy here, in which the farming sector plays such an important role, that the British Government commit to certainty of payment well into the future and that the Assembly play its part in the legislation that makes it happen. The Assembly will also play an important role in making sure that future payments are designed in a fair and equitable manner and that the application process and enforcement process meet the needs of our local industry.
Dr Archibald: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your post. I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment and look forward to working with him.
The LCM, which I support, will, if passed today, bring some relief to farmers across the North that their payments will be made this year. That, of course, is to be welcomed. What the LCM signals, however, and what we now face are the very real and tangible consequences of the Brexit that will happen at the end of this week. For some, Brexit happened immediately when the referendum result was announced, with cancelled contracts and delayed decisions, but, for many, three and a half years of uncertainty and non-answers have been a reality, and we will now witness the unwinding of a relationship that has been built up over more than four decades. The European Union placed a priority on farming and protected it for decades through the common agricultural policy. We now face the uncertainty of what will replace that and whether or not it will be adequately funded. I, for one, have no great confidence that it will. We have clarity for this year but not going forward.
Our farming and agri-food sectors are vital to our economy and to the fabric of our communities. They require investment and support to deal with the consequences of Brexit and the challenge of farming more sustainably in the light of the climate crisis. It is therefore critical that there be adequate funding to replace the EU funding that is being stripped away; that policy and funding support sustainable farming and the family farms that have been custodians of the land for centuries; and that any necessary interventions to deal with the consequences of Brexit be made.
As the European Union and the British Government negotiate the future arrangements and trade deal, Sinn Féin will continue to make the case through institutions, as well as diplomatically in Brussels, Dublin, London and Washington, that there should be no barriers to trade; that regulatory alignment is in the best interests of producers and consumers North and South; that citizenship and workers' rights must be protected; and, of course, that access to labour is vital for our farming and agri-food sectors.
Mr McGrath: It is good and proper that we welcome the Minister to his position and wish him all the best, but we should spread the love to you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, on taking up the role. We hope that the view is good from up there and that you will remember us down here. I look forward to your decisions and, of course, abiding by them and following them. [Laughter.]
I thank the Minister for his early action on this important issue. He recognises how important it is to farmers and how important the agri-food industry is to the economy across the North.
Members across the House will be aware of the vital importance of direct payments to farmers. Those critical payments make up a significant proportion of income and secure the viability of many farms and rural communities across the North, and acutely in my own constituency of South Down. South Down has hill farming in the Mournes, the Lecale coastline and down as far as Warrenpoint. All of those farming communities will welcome this debate and a positive outcome from this LCM this evening.
For many farmers, the issue of single farm payments is one of survival; it is about whether a farm is viable or not. I welcome the support, hopefully, of the House for the LCM and ensure the continuity of these payments. Not only are the payments critical financially for communities across the North, but single farm payments and EU membership have played a huge role in increasing environmental and public health standards, and we hope that that will continue.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he share my frustration at the missed opportunity to discuss the implications of Brexit with the agriculture industry over the past three years?
Mr McGrath: Absolutely. We are playing catch-up, and that is what we are doing this evening on a decision that needs to be taken as the clock counts down the last minutes. I would have loved to have had the opportunity over the last number of years to have these conversations, but, alas, that was not possible.
Single farm payments and the millions more in funding that we receive from the EU are part of the reason why the SDLP was resolutely opposed to Brexit and campaigned hard against it in 2016. As soon as the referendum result became clear, notwithstanding the fact that people here had voted to remain, the SDLP consistently raised the issue with the British Government and colleagues in Dublin and Brussels. We all knew that Brexit would have a detrimental impact on the farming community, and we saw the immediate negative impact it had on the agri-food industry. It was clear that much work was needed to assist the farming and agri-food community, and much more needs to be done.
It is clear that the uncertainty caused by Brexit over the past three years has impacted negatively on many different sectors in farming, and thankfully we have the opportunity today to provide some clarity to farmers across the North and continue the vital support over the next two years. I welcome the discussion tonight and hope that colleagues across the House will support this LCM.
Ms Bailey: Principal Deputy Speaker, I welcome you in your new role. I also welcome Minister Poots in his new role. As a member of the AERA Committee, I genuinely look forward to working with him over the few years that are left in this mandate, and I have no doubt that he feels the same about me.
Ms Bailey: I also want to condemn — commend him, sorry. [Laughter.]
Freudian, Freudian. I commend the Minister for wasting absolutely no time in tackling the very weighty backlog that is in his departmental portfolio as a result of the last three years. It has been very encouraging to see him hit the ground running.
The pros and cons of the common agricultural policy and the arguments around them are very well rehearsed. Arguments in support of the CAP go into issues such as food security, good diversity in food and how it helps to protect our rural communities. The cons include issues around its encouragement of over-production, its wastefulness and that it leads to a small number of the population, including global corporations, receiving vast amounts of public funds.
For us in the Greens, we recognise that the CAP goes very far in protecting our agrienvironment. For example, it rewards the use of fewer chemicals, maintaining our natural habitats and protecting wildlife. But that is not what is being addressed today. Today, we are seeking consent to provide urgent and short-term financial relief and peace of mind to our farmers in the face of our exit from the European Union on Friday. If this LCM is not supported, payments to farmers may not be available to them when they wake on Saturday morning.
What is of further concern is that the payments are being provided for only this calendar year. Departmental officials have made it very clear that there will be a sunset clause attached to the LCM. Our farmers have been extremely concerned and very vocal over their discontent with Brexit plans, or precisely, the lack thereof.
While the LCM will bring minimal financial relief, it brings no certainty for farmers. It brings no ability to build on business plans beyond this year. The Green Party supports the motion.
Ms Bailey: In a moment.
We do that because it is not just our farmers and agri-food businesses who need that security, but all of us — everyone. We are in no doubt that the urgency and the chaotic process is not of their making; it is the result of the Brexit shambles, which does not have the consent of our people. That Brexit shambles has been compounded by the lack of political leadership here in Northern Ireland over the past three years, just when we needed it the most.
I call on the Minister to ensure that long-term sustainable plans are created for our farmers as a matter of urgency, and that those will be fully focused on the potential and the needs that are unique to us here in Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I trust that you are finding this a scintillating debate for your maiden substantive chairing of these proceedings. I have no doubt that your many farming constituents in South Belfast will be expressing great interest. [Laughter.]
When we come to this subject, I have to make this point: I am sure that the Minister remembers, as I do, the hysterical scaremongering of Remainers that, if we left the EU, it would be the end of direct payments to farmers — the end of generous handouts from Brussels. Of course, today, we heard Ms Dillon, in her churlish support for Westminster legislation, repeat the fallacy that this was ever EU money; it was, of course, always the recycling to us of our surplus contribution. Under this legislation, instead of foolishly posting the money to Brussels and then getting some of it back again, we are putting ourselves in a position where British taxpayers' money will be paid directly to British farmers. That is a sensible, logical situation, and one, in fact, that saves, as we heard from, I think, the Chairman of the Committee, the top-slice administration cost that the EU put on single direct payments.
It is clear that the legislation was always going to come, because our farming community was not going to be left, as "Remoaners" wanted to peddle, without support. Here we have it abundantly demonstrated that that is so. Indeed, I note that, whereas the Bill is for one year only, there is an amendment tabled for tomorrow in the Commons to extend it to two years. I do not know whether that will succeed, but, whether it does or whether it does not, it is quite clear that hereafter comes the Agriculture Bill.
Now, the Minister said, if I heard him correctly, that he anticipates a legislative consent motion on the Agriculture Bill as well. That left me a little puzzled because the Agriculture Bill will provide a new system of farm support in England, which moves away from direct payments and towards an approach whereby farmers are paid public money for public goods that they produce, and criteria such as enhancing the air and water quality, tackling climate change and improving animal welfare will all be the informants in that. Whereas, in Northern Ireland, surely, we have been moving towards a transition, whereby the basic payments scheme entitlement unit value moves towards a flat rate per hectare. I just wonder where — we are getting ahead of ourselves — in the Agriculture Bill that is. Yes, it could provide for the system in Northern Ireland, but is the Minister anticipating not taking measures himself in that regard? I remind him, indeed, that, in this Bill, there is a Northern Ireland-specific power to close a gap in the legislative framework, which gives him, as the Minister, the legal option of continuing to transition the basic payments system. Maybe he could tell us whether he is minded to do that because that would maybe complement where we are going with the Agriculture Bill.
There are obviously unfolding questions, but the certainty that this legislation brings to the here and now is to be very much welcomed.
Mr Givan: I appreciate the Member for giving way. The LCM gives certainty in the here and now. A number of Members made the point about fears for the future, and that is certainly understandable. Does the Member agree that those making those statements are presenting a kind of future in which there is an almost cast-iron guarantee that a CAP, through Europe, would remain as it is currently? The Commission has already published legislative proposals to change the way in which the CAP operates, including a reduction in the budget for it. Therefore, there is uncertainty in the European Union when it comes to the CAP. At least now, through Brexit, we will be able to engage in a more democratically accountable system in the United Kingdom, as opposed to the EU Commission and the undemocratic nature that prevails there.
Mr Allister: Yes, the Member is absolutely right: under the new financial seven-year plan in the EU, agriculture is a diminishing call on the budget. Indeed, we all know that, in the EU, the primary call in the CAP is towards eastern and southern Europe, so it is diminishing in both respects. There is one thing for sure: as the Member said, there is no certainty on the future of CAP funding, but this gives us the opportunity —.
Mr Allister: In a moment. This gives us the opportunity to provide certainty within Brexit and our sovereign control. By any book, that has to be a better situation.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for taking the intervention. The LCM has a sunset clause: it is for one year only. There was a communication from the European Council of 10 December that the CAP budget will be cut by 5% this year as a result of the UK leaving it, but it stated— it is there to be seen — that direct payments, interventions in certain sectors and rural development will still be the centrepiece of the CAP. Whilst we are looking around in the dark, we have one year of certainty, but there is no certainty about payments beyond 2021, what form the payments will take or what budget will be there.
I do not think that too many people I have met in the sector are certain that the British Government will ring-fence the additional £300 million over and above our block grant to replace the subsidy for farmers here. Quite rightly, it should not be referred to as a subsidy; it is to replace the farming support that has been provided by the EU.
Mr Allister: I know what the Council said: it said that it will remain a centrepiece, but it is the centrepiece of a diminishing pot. That is the reality, and, as the pot diminishes, the more prosperous areas of the EU will have even less call on it. The reality is that, had Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom stayed in the EU, going forward, government spending was that our slice of the cake was getting significantly less as time went on. We are in a far better position to deploy our own moneys towards our own needs as this matter unfolds.
I have two other quick questions for the Minister. Am I right to assume that this funding will come under the category of AME funding? Secondly, in September last year, the Government accepted the recommendations of the Bew report, which referred to the allocation of farm support funding in the UK, and, as part of that, it was agreed that a greater share of the convergence funding — that was the uplift — and of the financial saving for direct payments that was given to the UK would, for the period from 2020 to 2022, be allocated to Scotland and Wales, while the corresponding allocations for England and Northern Ireland would simply be maintained. Is that still the situation? Has the Minister a view about that, and, if so, has he been communicating or will he communicate with the Department about that? One would have some concerns about some lagging in that regard.
Those are issues for the future, but they will affect this very important issue, because sustaining our farming community is of fundamental importance to our economy, and I welcome the fact that the Bill, to which we should consent, will bring certainty in the interim, with a view to further certainty into the future.
Mr Poots: I appreciate all the comments this evening and thank Members for taking the time to make their input.
I will deal with a few of the issues at the outset. I have spoken about mental health issues for rural dwellers on several occasions now with Minister Swann, and, indeed, on our instruction, officials have already been in discussion on those matters, because we see it as an important issue. I do not think the absence of government in the last three years has helped anybody's mental health, rural or otherwise, and I welcome that we are now here debating and working on these issues. I do not see an awful lot of merit in complaining that we are having to do this process so quickly whenever the Assembly was re-established only in recent weeks. I do not think that that benefits anyone.
The European Union has come up quite regularly in the context of certainty. The one certainty I have is that, had we remained in the European Union, we would have been looking at a diminished payment going forward, because there was an agreement in the European Union that this CAP payment, which saw the more advanced regions and countries in Europe receive a larger share of the pot, would be equalised with the accession nations, which, as part of the negotiation the last time round, demanded equality and will get equality. As a consequence, farmers in Ireland will not receive as much money next year as they currently receive, and that would have been the case for Northern Ireland as well. People need to realise and recognise that. If farmers in France, Ireland and countries like that are to continue to receive the payments at the level that they currently receive, the only option that Europe has is that the countries themselves put more money in. I suspect that that will be a very difficult conversation.
A number of Members welcomed my becoming Minister. I trust that that will still be the case in a year's time and at the end of this mandate in two years' time. I look forward to working with each and every one of you. I will attempt not to rise to the bait on every occasion, and I will seek to be conciliatory on the odd occasion as well.
The Agriculture Bill was mentioned. It contains a Northern Ireland schedule with "keeping apace" powers. So, any policy change in Northern Ireland will require the Assembly to take forward a new Bill. I am not sure that the flat-rate payment is the most appropriate payment. Maghaberry Prison, for example, receives a payment in spite of not having any agricultural activity, but it does own land. It would be much more appropriate to look at how best we develop and support sustainable farming in conjunction with the sustainable environment.
That does not mean the pillaging of hill farmers. I believe that hill farmers have a vital contribution to make. They produce much good food, and they should be rewarded for doing that. A simple flat rate that does not take farming activities into account will not be an appropriate policy. We have to ensure that we move forward with equity and make every endeavour to support the farming community as widely as we can to ensure that everyone can get a slice of the cake.
Payment to farmers predates the European Union and the European Economic Community. Farmers in the United Kingdom received support to do this for many years prior to us joining the EEC. However, I look on it less as support for the farmer and more as support for everybody in the United Kingdom, because everybody benefits from good-quality food that is being produced at very competitive rates.
Mr Poots: Yes, in just a moment.
The fact that you could go into your convenience store on the way home tonight and buy two litres of milk more cheaply than you could buy the equivalent amount of water is a demonstration that you get very good-quality food at a very low cost. This extends not just to meat and dairy products but to fruit and vegetables and all of that. That policy has existed for many years: that we keep food at a low cost for families, and give some assistance to farmers to ensure that they can remain on the land and produce that food.
Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for giving way. I agree with everything the Minister has said about support for farming, for productive farming and for hill farmers. The Minister will know that we have woefully low forestation. Does the Minister agree that that has to be looked at, that we need to raise the number of forests and trees that we have here in Northern Ireland, and that forestation in the hill country helps the Northern Ireland population with planning and flooding issues?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for raising that issue. Certainly, we will look at carbon sequestration. One thing that can assist us in achieving that is the planting of more trees, and we will look at that.
We will endeavour to move, and to move quickly, on that course of work. I certainly would like to see more of Northern Ireland forested. We are behind other regions, but I should point out our hedgerows are well ahead of other regions, and we have significant benefits from that. Nonetheless, I believe in greater afforestation, and we will seek to encourage that both in the public sector and for people working on the land. We will continue to look at that course of work.
In Bew, we do not see any material change to Northern Ireland. We believe that we will be in the same situation on the back of that.
The Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill focuses on maintaining the status quo and providing continuity of direct payments for the 2020 scheme. People have talked about beyond that, and I raised this issue with the Prime Minister when he visited, and I raised it last week in a telephone conversation with Theresa Villiers. Northern Ireland produces over 10% of the food in the United Kingdom. If we get the payment on the basis of Barnett, which is 2·8%, that would be punishing Northern Ireland farmers and, indeed, the Northern Ireland community. So, agriculture needs to be viewed outside the Barnett formula.
I have not been rebutted in any way by the Prime Minister or, indeed, the Secretary of State at DEFRA. Therefore, I will retain the argument that this needs to be based on the produce that is coming out of Northern Ireland, and that agriculture needs to be looked at in a UK-wide context.
It is not possible for us to make equivalent provision on this issue through an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly before exit day, so the Bill does not represent a policy change. It brings across legislation to allow us to continue to make those direct payments in 2020.
We are not following the conventional pathway for seeking consent because of the deadline that has been set. We do not want to do this in the future, and, where at all possible, we will not step outside the normal processes.
Farmers need reassurance, and we will be able to give them that for the 2020 year. Over the course of this year, we will work very hard to give them assurance for a long time and, if at all possible, to get something in place for a significant period.
Given the urgency resulting from the absence of legal powers needed to continue making direct payments in the 2020 scheme, it is appropriate for Northern Ireland to take provisions from the UK Bill. Should the motion pass, I will write to the UK Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to convey the Assembly's consent to the UK Government legislating on our behalf with immediate effect.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That this Assembly, noting the urgency of the issue resulting from the absence of legal powers needed to continue making direct payments to NI farmers in the 2020 scheme year, agrees that the provisions in the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill, as introduced into the House of Commons on 9 January 2020, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that in order to enable Committees to meet to address urgent business, the next sitting should take place on Monday 3 February 2020. An Order Paper will be issued after the Business Committee has met. The Business Committee is scheduled to meet immediately after the Assembly rises.