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Assembly business continues, check the business diary for information on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Monday 03 February 2020


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

Speaker's Business

Private Members' Bills

Mr Speaker: I wish to make an announcement about private Members' Bills (PMBs).

Members will be aware that the current focus of our business is on providing time for Committees to conduct the vital scrutiny of the secondary legislation that Departments have laid over the past three years. At this early stage, I am also giving consideration to elements of how I manage Assembly business. I want the Assembly to be seen to be a platform for dealing with key issues affecting our community. The solutions to address those issues may often be brought forward by Ministers, but I want to ensure that Members also have the ability to be heard and to play their part in fulfilling the potential of the Assembly. That makes my role to determine the support arrangements to enable Members to develop private Members' Bills even more important.

Over recent years, the number of Members seeking to develop private Members' Bills has grown significantly beyond the capacity of the system, which was set up in the initial years of the Assembly; for instance, the number of proposals submitted in the first week after the 2016 election was 25, which is equal to the number submitted throughout the entire 2011-16 mandate. On previous experience, the average time to develop a proposal, produce a properly developed Bill and take it through the House is sometimes 22 to 24 months. Therefore, time is of the essence for Members to build on the momentum of the Assembly's return to be able to convert their ideas into possible legislation before the next election. In deciding my approach, I have taken both those issues into account, and today I am publishing the guidance for Members on PMBs. I will not go through all the details of the process here today, but there are some key changes to announce. First, the Bill Office will now contain an Executive Bills team and a non-Executive Bills team. That will ensure dedicated support for Members. Secondly, there will be an increase in the staffing of the Bill Office from seven to 12. Thirdly, support will no longer be provided on a first come, first served basis. All distinct proposals that meet the requirements of the process will be supported. Where several Members submit the same proposal, they will be encouraged to collaborate on it. Fourthly, all Bills that have not completed the legislative process fall at the end of a mandate. However, proposals that Members began working on after the 2016 election may be submitted. In addition, Members will have the opportunity to demonstrate that some of their previous work from 2016 — for example, any consultation process that they had carried out — can be carried over and does not need to be repeated.

On that basis, the window in which Bill proposals can be submitted will open from tomorrow, Tuesday 4 February, until Tuesday 31 March. That enables some time, particularly for newer Members to familiarise themselves with the process. After submission, the Bill Office will work with Members to refine their proposals until the end of April. In producing the guidance, I have sought to ensure that enhanced work and support are available for Members. I thank Assembly officials who have worked to put in place the new arrangements to support Members.

There is also a need to look to the future, so I am writing today to the Chair of the Committee on Procedures. In 2016, the Committee on Procedures began a review of the PMB system that it was unable to complete before the Assembly dissolved in 2017. It would be beneficial for that review to resume. In addition to considering the process around PMBs and the support provided to it in general, I am asking the Committee to consider a number of specific issues. They include encouraging collaboration amongst Members across parties by enabling more than one name to be attached to a Bill to lead it through the House. I am also asking the Committee to consider what provisions should be in place for Bills that Members draft and present themselves, independently of the Bill Office. Such Bills are, of course, in order, but I think that it is worth considering whether there is any inequity between Members who rely on support from the Bill Office and those who have access to independent or external support. There is also a public interest in ensuring transparency about how such support has been provided.

Finally, while I have been keen to ensure that there is a system that supports the rights of Members to bring forward legislation, I emphasise that Members must be mindful of their responsibilities. Taking forward a private Member's Bill requires diligence over a long period. Furthermore, the support for Members is provided through the public purse. I expect Members to make efficient use of that resource. They should not, therefore, submit proposals to develop a Bill lightly. I have given the Bill Office authority, if a Member does not meet the key milestones in the development process, to cease the development of that proposal, which will mean that it will progress no further.

Producing and enacting legislation is an onerous and time-consuming task, but it also offers the reward of improving the experience of those we represent. The arrangements that I have announced today are intended to provide a positive opportunity for Members to make new law in the next two years. However, those proposals are likely to be coming alongside a full programme of legislation from the Executive. Members will note the indication from the head of the Civil Service to the Executive Office Committee last week that 11 Bills are expected to come to the Assembly before the summer. I have written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an indication of when they will come to the Assembly to announce the Executive’s legislative programme and to give the Assembly the chance to debate it. Therefore, given the time pressures ahead, I suggest that Members seek to take advantage of the opportunity for them to pursue a private Member's Bill at an early stage.

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: I have received a request, which has been granted, to allow a Matter of the Day on European Union withdrawal. Mr John O'Dowd has made a request to make a statement under Standing Order 24 on Matters of the Day. Mr O'Dowd has been given leave to make the statement on EU withdrawal, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to address this important matter, which has happened since the Assembly and all our Committees last sat. While, understandably, everybody knew that it was happening, it is still of huge significance to our society, our island, these islands and the politics within which we work; in fact, I do not think that there has been a more significant political event on this island since the partition of the state almost 100 years ago.

At 11.00 last Friday night, after 47 years' membership of the EU, we left the EU. While the sun rose in the morning afterwards, things have changed. We in the Chamber who are EU citizens and wish to remain EU citizens have lesser rights today than we had on Friday afternoon. That is of huge concern, because rights are sometimes an abstract matter until you go looking for them and realise that they have disappeared or are being eroded or their removal, in their entirety, is being planned. That is when it becomes a serious matter.

Brexit was the backdrop to our most recent political crisis; it was the backdrop to the crisis that meant the Assembly collapsed and did not sit for three years. Some may point and say that, now that the EU withdrawal Bill has been ratified and article 50 has been enacted, Brexit has gone and, therefore, the crisis has gone. It has not. It is only starting; in fact, when we heard the dialogue over the weekend from successive British Ministers around how they planned to approach the trade negotiations, we could see the old sores of the past beginning to open up again. The last thing this Assembly, this Executive and this society need is the reopening of old sores.

The reality is that the trade negotiations will prove more difficult than was the case for bringing about the EU withdrawal Bill. While a road map has been set out, it is clear that the time frame that has been set in place will cause huge difficulties for people, businesses and the economy across this island and across all these islands. We welcome the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement, but we do not want to see businesses slowed down, stopped or held up as they cross the island of Ireland or cross between Belfast or Larne and England, Scotland or Wales. We want to see our people and businesses flourish. We want to see prosperity at the heart of the lives of all of our citizens. The huge threat that hangs over all of that is Brexit and EU withdrawal.

I appeal to all of the parties represented here, who have many different views —.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Mr Stalford: In a previous discussion around the content of the EU withdrawal agreement, I made my views known. I wanted to see the referendum result implemented; I wanted to see the United Kingdom leave the European Union as one country. Therefore, I do not wish to see internal borders inside sovereign UK territory.

It is time to bring the country back together. Included in that, I mean this part of the country as well. The extended establishment rearguard action in the aftermath of the referendum sowed bitter, bitter division in the country. It was foolish to think that the expressed wishes of 17·4 million people could simply be eroded through political or legal chicanery. Whether we like it or not, more people voted to leave the European Union than have ever voted for any political party or prospect on a ballot paper in the history of the United Kingdom.

Since that referendum, the country has been through an extended culture war. It is important that that is brought to an end. I voted to leave the European Union. I do not believe myself to be superior morally or intellectually to those who voted Remain, but Remain voters are not superior morally or intellectually to those of us who voted Leave. Some of the characterisation that has been made of people who voted Leave borders on hatred.

We are all free citizens exercising our democratic rights in a free country. We should be big enough and mature enough to respectfully disagree.


12.15 pm

The Prime Minister has made some very specific pledges, not only publicly himself but in the content of the recent political agreement. It is important that those pledges are upheld; it is important that he holds to them. We all recall — at least I certainly do — two Prime Ministers, this one and his predecessor, stating that no British Prime Minister could accept internal borders inside the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us, whether we voted Leave or Remain, to hold him to those pledges to protect business and trade in this part of the United Kingdom and to make a success of the future of our country.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you for allowing this matter to be discussed today. I also pay tribute to the Member for Upper Bann for raising it.

What happens in the next year, and in the years to come, is critical and fundamental to everyone in Northern Ireland — indeed, to everyone in Ireland and across these islands. As both Members who have spoken said, this is the first time that the Assembly has met and spoken since we left the European Union on Friday night. It is worth recording and giving witness to the fact that the majority of people in this part of the world did not vote to leave the European Union, and I say that with all due respect to my fellow Member for South Belfast who did vote to leave and, no doubt, holds his views with sincerity.

Northern Ireland voted to remain by 56%, to 44%. Through the withdrawal process and phase 1 of the talks, we have achieved a basic level of protection against a return to a hard border, at least for goods, on the island of Ireland. However, we have not seen much else. Those basic protections mean that we will not see a return to hard infrastructure on the border. We will not see goods checked as they move between Dundalk and Newry, but we might see disruption on the Irish Sea. We do not know what kind of disruption that will be. We do not know what goods will be checked. We have pledges from the UK Prime Minister, as the previous Member who spoke said, but it is worth all of us pausing and questioning the value of pledges from the current Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has been speaking, this morning, in London about what he sees as his redlines for the UK in the trade negotiations. He has been setting out more redlines. In a previous life, I was involved in a UK Government that set down unhelpful, strident and counterproductive redlines, which led to a response — a positive response from my perspective and that of people on my Benches — from the Irish Government and the EU that Irish citizens and EU citizens in Northern Ireland were not going to be abandoned and that protections would be sought by avoiding a hard border on this island. We now need solidarity from Dublin and Brussels. We also need British Ministers to pay attention to what this Assembly is saying about protecting our economy. We are a very long way from this deal being done. We have a huge amount of uncertainty, and now is the time for the various parties in this House to come together, where it is possible, and to find a common voice to get protection for all the people that we serve.

Dr Aiken: It is very clear that the United Kingdom has now left the European Union. Today, I have had the opportunity to listen to the Prime Minister's so-called vision for a trade deal. He is saying that there is no need for the UK to follow Brussels's rules, which creates more than a degree of uncertainty here in Northern Ireland, because, no matter what the rest of our country is doing, Northern Ireland will be following the majority of Brussels's rules as we go forward.

Indeed, today, we heard from one of the ferry companies, Stena Line, that it is looking at how it is going to manage potential customs borders and posts in the ports of Larne, Cairnryan, Birkenhead and other places. That should be a matter of considerable concern about where we are going to as well.

However, it is good to see, at long last, that the Northern Ireland Executive have set up a Brexit subcommittee after two weeks. It is one of the most fundamental issues we have and one of the most significant things we have to deal with. We have heard much of Norway, Switzerland, Australia and Canada-plus-plus-plus, but the Executive and the political parties, the wider community in Northern Ireland, the business community, agribusiness and academia, who actually understand the issues rather than just delivering rhetoric, must join together to get the best position for Northern Ireland. What I want to hear from now on is Northern Ireland-plus not Canada-minus or Australia-plus. We must do what is best for Northern Ireland.

I was a Remainer, but the reality is that the United Kingdom has left the European Union. We must get the best deal for all of us in Northern Ireland. We must have the best deal for every single citizen in Northern Ireland. To that end, we must work together, but there are only 11 months to go. There is a lot to do in a very short time. Now is the time for all political parties and everybody to gather together to make that happen.

Ms Armstrong: I opposed Brexit. I did not think that it would be good for Northern Ireland, and I remain convinced that that is the case. However, now we have to rebuild and fill those gaps. There are uncertainties, and today our Prime Minister made a speech that may bring further challenges for Northern Ireland and, indeed, costs to this place.

We need the softest Brexit possible. Checks down the Irish Sea seem to be inevitable. We need to consider how we are going to deal with those and how we can encourage the rest of the UK not to leave us at sea, peripheralised and left on our own. We have heard from several businesses about how they will be able continue, including from hauliers who are trying to get products across either a sea or a border on the island. We need to think about what is happening. There are uncertain parameters today. We may be dictated to over our heads.

Boris Johnson appears to be diametrically opposed to what is happening in Northern Ireland and listening to Northern Ireland's needs. So, in this place, we must come together in damage limitation mode to ensure that Northern Ireland is protected, it is Northern Ireland first, and it is Northern Ireland that takes the lead in some of those discussions. Our voice has to be heard.

I am disappointed that we did leave. Friday night in my house was extremely quiet. It was a night of reflection and a night of what was lost, but all is not completely lost. We have come together in the Assembly and have a purpose. We all agreed that we did not agree with the withdrawal agreement, and now it is time to set out our stall to make sure that, for life here to continue, we protect our businesses and our citizens. Brexit may have happened to us, but we will not let it hinder us.

Ms Bailey: On Friday morning, I listened to the weather forecast. The weather reporter told us that it was going to be a dark, dank day, and that is exactly how I felt, as, I imagine, many across Northern Ireland — the majority of whom voted to remain — felt. We cannot sit back and say that this was the democratic will because we know that there is confusion and chaos right across the population in the UK.

While my colleague in South Belfast is absolutely right to say that 17·4 million voted to leave, that cannot be a stand-alone figure because we must acknowledge that over 16 million voted to remain, yet we have no clarity and no plan. In Northern Ireland, we are being held hostage to the fortune of a Prime Minister whom this House does not even trust, who led a campaign to leave that was full of nonsense and was found to have broken electoral law. He went further and was found to have acted illegally in proroguing Parliament to get his withdrawal Bill through. He has U-turned so many times on pledges and promises that we can expect the year ahead only to be full of more of the same.

When we put that together with the fact that elections for a new Government in the South will take place on Saturday — the polls show that no party will hold a majority and that the parties are likely to go into a process of trying to set up another coalition Government, which could string things out — we are really tight for time. If Boris Johnson and the UK Government are looking to have trade deals signed off within 11 months, they will need a magic wand. I have concerns for our future.

The workload for the Assembly and Executive will be huge. We have the opportunity to do something good and get something right. We know the emergencies that we need to address to look after the best interests of our people, particularly climate chaos and the changes required there, workers' rights and the right of people to free movement. There is a lot to do, and we are being lobbied hard. I hope that everybody can step up, speak with a collective voice and act in a collective effort in the best interests of all our citizens.

Mr Allister: There is something of a howling at the moon about Mr O'Dowd's contribution and, indeed, some others. The United Kingdom has left the EU. We are not going back. That is the reality. It is not a reality that is as fulsome and beneficial as I had wished it to be for Northern Ireland. The question that I voted on was whether I wanted the United Kingdom to leave or to remain; the question was not whether I wanted the United Kingdom to leave but to leave Northern Ireland behind in the EU, so, naturally, I am disappointed that, in some significant parts, that appears to be the outcome. To leave Northern Ireland marooned, colony-like, within the EU customs union to all intents and purposes and its single market for goods is to betray the principle that, having joined as one nation, we deserved to leave as one nation.

That came about as a consequence of many political shenanigans, most particularly by some who have had a lifelong ambition to break up the United Kingdom. It was greatly aided by the short-sightedness of the agri-food industry in this Province and some from business in this Province, who hyperventilated at the thought of some fettering of trade between North and South but gave no thought to the resulting fettering of our trade to our biggest market: GB. Having worked themselves into a frenzy about protecting the minnow part of our economy southwards and ignoring the gigantic part of our economy east-west, they in part contributed to the sad spectacle that Northern Ireland is to be left marooned under the EU customs code and its tariffs and the rules of the EU single market, which we cannot change, and subject, in all of that, to the governance of the European Court of Justice. That is not the outcome that any of us voted for, and that is not the outcome that was on the ballot paper.

Mr McAleer: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Allister: I do not think that that is possible.

Ms Dillon: On Friday, I visited a project in Pomeroy that had availed itself of £5 million of EU funding. That project is about reconciliation; it is about bringing the two parts of our community together. My concern is this: who will replace that funding? Given some of the comments from Members in the Chamber about us, in the wake of the New Decade, New Approach deal, going to the British Government with a begging bowl, do they think that we should not ask the British Government to replace that EU funding? I know the difference that EU funding has made in my constituency, and I am certain that there is not one Member who would not be able to say that it has made a massive difference in their constituency.

Where is the money coming from? I have not heard any talk about that. We are talking about business and the agri-food sector, which is extremely important. Frankly, the comments from the previous Member to speak were absolutely disgusting, particularly the manner in which he referred to the whole sector. I held many meetings with that sector when the vote was first taken. The point that they made was that we could have no divergence from EU rules, because what really gives us an advantage here in the agri-food sector is the quality of our food. We will never be able to produce the quantity, but we have high-quality food. They made that very clear at that time, and your remarks are quite shameful.


12.30 pm

I would like to know what the approach of the House will be in relation to EU funding and what the approach will be to going to the British Government, not with a begging bowl but telling them what they owe us here. They owe us in terms of New Decade, New Approach as well. The nonsense of trying to cover for the British Government's attempt to remove themselves from their responsibilities should stop here and now. We, as a House, need to ensure that all of the funding remains in place. Our voluntary and community sector and our rural communities will be absolutely decimated. We have a responsibility to all of those people and sectors across our constituencies. I ask for the support of the House in ensuring that the funding that will be lost to this place through this Brexit will be replaced by the British Government.

Ms McLaughlin: Friday 31 January at 11:00 pm was a moment that the people of Derry and across the North never wanted to see. We were forced out of the European Union against our wishes. We deeply regret that decision, but the UK has now left the European Union. Today, the real work begins, and the battle over barriers will begin. It is clear from Prime Minister Johnson's conversations over the weekend and earlier this morning that he believes that some of the barriers are worth it if they free up the UK to make trade deals around the world. That causes a real problem here in the North.

The EU has made it clear that any member that leaves the club will not have unfettered access. The two dominant issues will be the level playing field and governance. Any divergence will cause a border in the Irish Sea. Over the next few months, I appeal to all Members and to the Executive to work together. We need to protect our economy in Northern Ireland. It is weak as it stands. We need to support the business community in these uncertain times and work collectively to protect the interests of all.

Mr McAleer: I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I want to draw attention to some of the remarks made by Mr Allister. People employed in the agri-food sector are right to be annoyed and anxious about what is happening. We have had huge support for our farmers and rural communities from the EU; in fact, last year, the single farm payment — this goes for many years — accounted for over 80% of farmers' income. The threat of that being lost is causing huge anxiety in that sector of our population. In addition, we hear from the British Prime Minister that they plan to diverge and go completely off on their own. We will have a situation in which the British Government will enter trade deals with other countries that have lesser animal welfare standards than we have. We run the risk of having our market here in the North — this is what farmers are afraid of — being flooded with inferior beef from other parts of the world.

It is really important that we protect our industry here. We have an all-island trade in the region of £1·2 billion in agri-food. I was at a conference last year where one dairy processor said that 55 of their lorries crossed the border every day to process dairy products. About 500,000 sheep are exported to the South and 500,000 pigs are imported into the North from the South every year, so there is huge all-island trade in agri-food. I do not blame people involved in the agri-food industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, families and communities, for being nervous at this time. Mr Allister and his remarks should not diminish that in any way at all.

Ms S Bradley: Like the previous Member, I was not intending to speak today, but I feel a duty to go on public record to support those who stepped forward at a time when there was absolutely no political lead in this place during a critical time in Brexit. I thank the representatives from industry who stepped forward and made it clear that all industry here had to be saved. We cannot politically pick over what suits and what does not, and we have a united duty to make sure that all industry is supported going forward.

Mr Buckley: Like some previous Members who spoke, I had not planned to speak on this Matter of the Day, but I think that it is important to do so because, from what I have listened to from some Members around the Chamber, you would forgive me for having the feeling that I am at a wake right now. Yes, indeed, Friday brought for me something of a bittersweet moment. It was sweet in the sense that it was the culmination of something that I personally had campaigned for and believed passionately in; bitter in the sense that the withdrawal agreement itself compromises the integrity of the Union that I cherish.

Collective decision-making will be required from the House and our political leaders to hold Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, firm to his commitment of free, unfettered access within the United Kingdom. That is something that we as a House should be united on. I welcome what has been said from across the Floor — we do not want borders, whether east-west or north-south — but we must be cognisant of the fact that Brexit has happened. The United Kingdom has left the European Union. It is now incumbent on us all to fight for the free, unfettered access that we rightly deserve.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Members. That concludes the debate on the Matter of the Day.

Assembly Business

Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move

That this Assembly, in accordance with paragraph 12(2) of schedule 1 to the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, nominates Paul McFadden for appointment as the acting Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

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

Mrs D Kelly: As Members are aware, the Public Services Ombudsman Act 2016 established and made provision about the office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. The Assembly established the ombudsman’s office to carry out the important and effective function of ensuring that there was a free, independent and impartial service for handling complaints about public services in Northern Ireland. The Assembly Commission believes that it is important to ensure that that service can be delivered. The 2016 Act provides that the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman is, by virtue of holding that office, the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Ombudsman and the Local Government Commissioner for Standards. The 2016 Act delegates responsibility for identifying a person to be nominated by the Assembly for the role of ombudsman to the Assembly Commission. The 2016 Act makes similar provisions for the nomination of a person to carry out the role of acting ombudsman in circumstances where the ombudsman is not in post. The previous ombudsman, Marie Anderson, was appointed as the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on 16 July 2019. On her appointment as Police Ombudsman, Ms Anderson immediately ceased to be the Public Services Ombudsman. On behalf of the Commission, I take the opportunity to thank Ms Anderson on behalf of the Assembly for her distinguished and widely recognised work as ombudsman since April 2016.

In anticipation of Ms Anderson’s departure and as the Assembly was not sitting, the Assembly Commission agreed that it would be preferable to nominate a person to carry out the role of acting ombudsman and await the resumption of the Assembly to appoint an ombudsman for the seven-year term set out in the 2016 Act. The Assembly Commission, therefore, wrote to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in June 2019 to seek a legislative means at Westminster to allow for the appointment of an acting ombudsman. That would have ensured that the important oversight role that is carried out by the ombudsman did not lapse during the period when the Executive had not been formed and the Assembly was not sitting. Subsequently, the Assembly Commission likewise wrote to the current Secretary of State on the same basis. While that legislative solution was not put in place, the formation of the Executive on 11 January 2020 now means that the Assembly can once again undertake its nomination role as envisaged in the 2016 Act.

The benefit of nominating an acting ombudsman is that the important oversight functions of the ombudsman's office can be carried out by the acting ombudsman and, at the same time, the recruitment process for the ombudsman can progress. A situation such as this was envisaged by the 2016 Act. Members may wish to note that the nomination and subsequent appointment of an acting ombudsman can last only for the period up to 15 July 2020.

At its meeting on 5 September 2019, the Assembly Commission identified the current deputy ombudsman, Mr Paul McFadden, as a suitable person to carry out the role of acting ombudsman. Members should note that the deputy ombudsman is not the same thing as the acting ombudsman. The role of deputy ombudsman is not a statutory role, whereas the role of acting ombudsman carries with it the range of legislative functions that are ordinarily carried out by the ombudsman.

Paul McFadden has been the deputy ombudsman for Northern Ireland for three and a half years, since his appointment in July 2016. As the most senior official in the absence of the ombudsman, he holds full administrative delegation of the ombudsman's responsibilities and has been the acting accounting officer since July 2017. Paul joined the ombudsman's office from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, where he was a member of the senior management team for seven years. He established and headed up the Complaints Standards Authority, implementing a streamlined and improved complaints-handling framework across all of Scotland's public bodies. Paul previously helped to establish the independent Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland in 2007, holding senior management responsibility for police complaints investigations.

The Assembly Commission is confident that Mr McFadden will be able to ensure that the important functions of the office of ombudsman can continue to be exercised effectively. He has agreed that, subject to nomination by the Assembly, he will fulfil the acting ombudsman's role until a successor ombudsman is appointed or —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mrs D Kelly: — until 15 July 2020, whatever comes sooner. I will give way.

Mr Allister: Will the Member clarify whether, once he is appointed acting ombudsman, he will continue as the deputy commissioner for local government standards? Is that possible?

Mrs D Kelly: May I come back to the Member on that point? The Commission hopes to meet at some time tomorrow or next week, and we will come back to the Member and the House on that point. Those are important functions that we need to ensure are followed through on. If his nomination is accepted today, we will see what ramifications it has for other staff in the ombudsman's office.

The ombudsman is appointed, as is any acting ombudsman, by Her Majesty The Queen on the nomination of the Assembly. Members, today, on behalf of the Assembly Commission, I seek the Assembly's nomination of Paul McFadden as the acting Public Services Ombudsman for a maximum period up to 15 July 2020. I ask the Assembly to agree his nomination.

Mr Speaker: No other Members have indicated a wish to speak, so I call John O'Dowd.


12.45 pm

Mr O'Dowd: As Mrs Kelly said in her opening remarks, the Assembly Commission is determined to ensure that all the work of the ombudsman's office can continue until such time as a nomination can be made for the ombudsman. The nomination of the acting ombudsman means that the important oversight functions that can be carried out only with either an ombudsman or acting ombudsman in post will be in place from now until July.
In Mr McFadden, the Commission is confident that it has succeeded in nominating a candidate who will bring expertise and skill to the role. His nomination today is a positive sign that the Assembly is back in business and is carrying out its legislative functions. Subject to the Assembly's approval, the Assembly Commission wishes him well in his post.

In relation to Mr Allister's question to Mrs Kelly, it has been indicated by officials that, yes, he can continue in that role and carry out that function in conjunction with his current role.

In ending, I trust that Members from across the House will support the motion, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly, in accordance with paragraph 12(2) of schedule 1 to the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, nominates Paul McFadden for appointment as the acting Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

Ms Armstrong: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Go ahead.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Mr Speaker. This morning, while we have been in the Chamber, the Minister for Communities made a statement to the press about welfare mitigations. We were all told that the ministerial statement should have been available by 11.30 am. I have checked again and, as of this time, it is not available. I believe that the Minister has not followed Standing Order 18, under which there should have been an oral statement to the House. I do not believe that a Minister should announce it to the press before announcing it to Members.

Mr Speaker: The Member has made the point, and we will deal with that later.

Private Members' Business

Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: First Stage

Mr Allister: I beg to introduce the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA 01/17-22], which is a Bill to amend sections 7 and 8 of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 and article 3 of the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 in relation to special advisers in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, repeal the Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016, amend section 17 of the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 and to make additional provision for the functioning of government in Northern Ireland and connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker: Members can take their ease for a minute or two while we change the Table.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mrs Pam Cameron to move the motion.

Mrs Cameron: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the specific needs of pupils with autism in our schools; values and supports the role of all educators in ensuring pupils with autism have the best educational outcomes; and calls on the Minister of Education to explore the introduction of mandatory autism training for all teachers and classroom assistants.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The proposers of the amendments will have 10 minutes to move their amendments and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mrs Cameron: Let me say at the outset how pleased I am that this is the first private Members' motion brought to the Floor since our return to the Chamber, and what better message to send out to our constituents than one that shows that we prioritise those in need, we champion better outcomes for all, and we support our educators in bringing through future generations.

Even while the Assembly was down, the work of the all-party group (APG), of which I am proud to be chair, continued. As many of you already know, the all-party group on autism was set up in 2008 to look specifically at issues relating to the autism community in Northern Ireland. The aim of the all-party group is ultimately to ensure that adequate support and services are available to the 30,000 families affected by autism and that the main issues are highlighted. The APG has witnessed the introduction of the Autism Act in 2011 and the resulting autism strategy. Autism NI's secretariat has led the lobbying for that, for which we thank them. Since the strategy was introduced, however, the APG on autism has also seen the many failures of the strategy. Those are outlined in the 'Broken promises' report of 2016, which I encourage you all to read.

The Autism Act is still the most comprehensive piece of single disability legislation in Europe, but it has failed to accomplish what we, as an APG, hoped that it would. We feel particularly let down by the resulting autism strategy and the accompanying action plans. Only one of the three action plans has been completed, although all three have a deadline of 2020. That stagnation in delivery is the legacy of three years without this place. Therefore, the onus is on us to correct it with swift and decisive action to make up for lost time.

The reality is stark. Childhood diagnosis of autism has nearly doubled in the past six years. Therefore, the lack of support and services has become more and more evident. For example, as outlined in the autism strategy, diagnosis is supposed to be made within eight weeks. However, we know that that is not happening in most areas, with many families waiting up to 18 months. We all know that early intervention is key to managing autism, but intervention is being delayed owing to lengthy diagnosis processes. Early intervention services are also inadequate. They vary from trust to trust and, at present, do not support the complex needs of our families and children.

Education, however, is by far the issue raised most by parents and teaching' unions, and, as we know, in the many related cases in our constituencies. The school environment is ultimately where autistic children spend the vast majority of their day. The all-party group has met the Ulster Teachers' Union on various occasions over the past two years. It has told us unreservedly that it cannot access adequate autism training provision through the Department of Education. In fact, the current president, Susan Thompson, reported recently:

"There are not enough courses. The timings of courses are inaccessible, and the fact that they are not mandatory is worrying."

Teachers and classroom assistants feel overwhelmed and are under-resourced to be able to work with children with autism, as they have not had the opportunity to gain the skills needed to do so. Therefore, the Ulster Teachers' Union, the National Association of Teachers and the National Education Union have said, unequivocally, that they are in full support of the immediate introduction of mandatory autism training in Northern Ireland.

Autism NI has the only autism-specific helpline in Northern Ireland and receives over 5,000 calls each year from autistic individuals, parents and professionals. Education is the subject of the vast majority of the calls. In 2019, the charity also conducted a survey relating specifically to education. From the survey, it was discovered that over one third of children with autism were on a reduced timetable. That can mean reduced for just an hour a day, or it can mean that they are in class for only an hour a day, which is totally unacceptable. It is even more unacceptable when one takes into account that 78% of autistic children are in mainstream classrooms. Currently, one in 30 school-age children is diagnosed with autism. That could be one child in every classroom. It should be seen as common sense that the person that children with autism are spending a large quantity of their day with understands them and is able to educate and support them in a way that fulfils their needs. For parents already anxious about the challenges that their child faces each and every day, the reassurance of having teachers fully trained as a result of mandatory training would provide additional comfort that their child will be supported in the best way possible.

I urge the Minister to act. The public support is widespread. In September 2019, an online petition created by the charity Autism NI that called for mandatory autism training was signed by more than 10,000 people in just a few days. An accompanying rally was held at Stormont. It was attended by hundreds and received good media coverage. We have a draft Programme for Government that states clearly that every child deserves the "best start in life". The best start in life for any child includes the best educational outcomes, but, for children with autism, we know that that is not the case. The autism strategy also states that all teaching staff should understand autism. Again, we know that this target has not been met. These are our children's lives that we are playing with, and their future.

Every autistic child becomes an autistic adult. We need to spend now to save later or risk many of our autistic adults ending up in mental health services, which we know are already under pressure. The UK's largest autism research charity, Autistica, recently reported that autistic adults are nine times more likely to die through suicide than the rest of the general population. I am sure you will agree that this statistic is horrific and unacceptable. Autism training makes good economic sense. With the right support and opportunities, we know that autistic young children can achieve and go on to live a fulfilling and productive life. Not only is it our moral duty to reverse the fate of a generation of children and young people with autism, but it makes good social and economic sense.

The UK statistic for autistic adults in employment is 16% for full-time work. This figure has remained the same for the past decade, showing that autistic people are not benefiting, and reaffirming that we must turn the curve earlier at every step of their journey towards adulthood and work. The NI Executive have a responsibility to make sure that autistic children can get the support that they need at the earliest opportunity — and we know that is from education — from people who understand autism. Autistic children deserve the same opportunities in life as their peers. We should all want to create a more inclusive environment for all our children, and autistic children and adults need to be part of that. Other parts of the UK have already implemented mandatory autism training for teachers, and Northern Ireland needs to follow suit or risk being left behind.

We are not asking for autism to be elevated above other disabilities or needs. We are simply asking for our children to have an equal playing field that can be afforded to the most basic right of a good education. A friend recently shared a post on Facebook that said the following, and I am quoting again:

"Allowing a student with a hidden disability to struggle academically or socially when all that is needed for success are appropriate accommodations and explicit instruction is no different than failing to provide a ramp for a person in a wheelchair."

And how true is that? Would any child with any other disability be asked to attend a school that is not equipped, resourced or trained to support their needs? No, they would not.

It is important that this debate focuses on what the motion asks for: mandatory autism training. What is does not include is the nature of that training, and that is for the Department to consult on. What is important today, however, is that we get the commitment to introduce mandatory training, the form of which is for another day and would serve only to confuse the debate at this stage. I am asking the Minister of Education to introduce mandatory autism training for all teaching staff, to include those in training and those already in post, and classroom assistants in Northern Ireland. I also respectfully ask that any exploration period required be kept to an absolute minimum, because our children have waited long enough.

Miss Woods: I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after "Education" and insert:

"to introduce mandatory autism training for all trainee teachers, teachers and classroom assistants."

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Miss Woods: Autism, as we know, is a lifelong disability that affects the social and communication centre of the brain. It affects the way an individual relates to people, situations and their immediate environment. Many individuals with autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information like sight, smells, touch, tastes and sounds. This varies from person to person.

Many Members will know someone with autism. The number of children identified with autism in Northern Ireland has increased year on year since 2012. According to Department of Health figures published in 2019, one in 30 school-age children has autism and 78% of autistic children are in mainstream schools. That is, potentially, one in every classroom. Given this, and the inherent tendency in Northern Ireland of reactionary training for teachers, we should be pursuing a more proactive approach. Compulsory or mandatory training on autism would be a solid foundation to build upon.


1.00 pm

In 2012, the National Autistic Society for Northern Ireland carried out a survey of children with autism and their parents. Of the young people they spoke to, almost a third said that one of the worst things about school was that their teachers did not understand them. School is daunting enough for any child, as we all know, let alone one who feels that they are not understood. That puts undue pressure and stress on the student themselves, the teacher-student relationship, the wider interaction in the classroom with others and on the relationship between the teacher and the family. More widely, it adds to mental health pressures.

After speaking to a good friend of mine in Bangor called Aaron about his experiences in school and with tech, he told me that he would like to see the mental health of children and young people with autism talked about, as they are often forgotten —.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. On the point of mental health, does she agree with me that one of the sad realities of a lack of autism training in schools is that many parents are overwhelmed when dealing with the spill-out at home, and that has had an adverse impact on their mental health?

Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his question. I completely agree. Parents have enough pressure on them, let alone dealing with a situation where, say, the teachers are not involved or do not understand what is going on at home.

Aaron stated that, if teachers were more aware of how to deal with pupils with autism and had mandatory training in their issues, their mental health would be better understood. The research conducted in 2012 also showed that expertise in schools remained patchy and that many teachers did not get the training, knowledge or resources that they needed to help children with autism. Almost one in five parents indicated dissatisfaction with teachers' understanding of how to support children. More recently, Autism NI stated that one third of parents coming to them for advice on their children's education said that they were on a reduced timetable at their current school. I agree with the chief executive at Autism NI that that is entirely unacceptable. Autism is categorised as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and under the Autism Act (NI) 2011, where reasonable adjustments must be made in all public organisations, but we know that that is not happening in many of our schools. All our children should be given the best possible start in life, and a child with autism should not be disadvantaged when it comes to their education.

How can children with autism not be disadvantaged in their education if we continue with the current opt-in training culture? Adequate mandatory training for teachers would mean that the special education needs of all children and young people, including those with autism, were met and would be an important first step to help transform the lives and prospects of future generations of children with autism. The reason why mandatory training is so important and why we have tabled the amendment is to make sure that teachers and classroom assistants work towards a whole-school approach in supporting children. It is of note that, in September 2019, the Government announced that all health and social care staff in England would receive training in autism and learning disability, working towards a whole-healthcare approach. I would like to congratulate those who campaigned on the issue — specifically Mencap and their Treat Me Well campaign — and the all-party groups that have been formed. I hope that this can be fully realised in Northern Ireland too. Could this not be rolled out to our educators to better people's experiences in a school setting as well?

Research conducted by Ulster University in the greater Belfast area in 2003 found that a majority of staff felt they had inadequate training to equip them to meet children's particular needs and reported a lack of knowledge and skills to help those children. Teachers and classroom assistants are fully supportive of the motion. All of the teachers' unions in Northern Ireland support the introduction of mandatory autism training. I note that, in the autism strategy 2013-2020 and action plan 2013-16, support funding for autism-related training for those in the preschool sector is listed, as well as the publication of guides for teachers in classrooms and some school and parent resources. However, training should not be limited to those in the preschool sector; it should be extended to all those training to be teachers or classroom assistants and all those currently qualified. The initial teacher training programme in the rest of the UK covers a wider variety of the skills that teachers need to teach the curriculum, and, in 2016, the UK Government added a teacher training framework which ensures that SEN is covered, including how to support children with autism.

We have had time to find ways in which we can improve provision of support for those in our schools who have autism, so the time for exploring options is over. What we need now is concrete action for teachers and students. That is not to say that we do not have any resources in Northern Ireland: we do. The Department invests substantial resources in the training provision at Middletown autism centre, but, while that is to be commended, it is not sufficient and does not meet the growing demand, nor is it compulsory. Providing support to schools, including the continuing professional development of staff, has already been identified in previous strategies and action plans. The Assembly should push on with this by compelling the Minister of Education to include autism training as part of core teacher training. Assembly questions to the Minister have shown that it is not possible to know how many teachers have received the current training, but, with mandatory training, we know that we can and will ensure that everyone has received the same level of training.

In September last year, a petition was signed by over 10,000 people online asking the Department of Education to introduce mandatory training. A rally attended by people with autism, parents and teachers was held here on 11 September 2019, making their voices heard. We have much to do here to strengthen the Autism Act and ensure its proper implementation. We should listen to those 10,000 people today, and that is why we call on the Minister to introduce mandatory autism training as an important step in delivering for our young people and supporting our teaching staff.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Karen Mullan to move amendment No 2.

Ms Mullan: I speak in support the motion and in favour —.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member must move the amendment first and then resume her seat.

Ms Mullan: I beg to move amendment No 2:

At end insert:

", and for teacher training colleges to introduce a compulsory module that includes this training during the postgraduate certificate in education."

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes. The Assembly should note that amendment No 1 and amendment No 2 are mutually exclusive, so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question shall not be put on amendment No 2.

Ms Mullan: I speak in favour of the motion and amendment No 1. I believe that our amendment strengthens the motion but also that we should show a united front today.

As my party's education spokesperson and a member of the all-party group on autism, I have heard from many in the education sector, parents, young people and the wider community who are calling for greater autism awareness and training. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right to inclusive education for all persons with disabilities. If we are to go about realising that, making autism-specific training mandatory for our teachers is a step in the right direction.

In the North, one in 30 children has a diagnosis of autism. The vast majority of those children are educated in a mainstream setting, which shows the need for autism training for teachers and classroom assistants. In my city of Derry, Derry City and Strabane District Council and our two main shopping centres have led the way in making our public venues inclusive for all. Part of that has been training all front-line staff in autism awareness. If we can do that in our public and private sectors, why are we not providing that training to our teaching staff, who have our children in their care anywhere up to 30 hours a week?

Our teaching staff want to be supported to provide the best care and education to our young people and to be more equipped to do so. The role of the teacher is evolving; they are, increasingly, working with children with complex needs, and introducing this training at the start of their journey will, no doubt, serve them well throughout their career. For that reason, our amendment would strengthen the motion to include a compulsory module during teacher training. Introducing that in teacher training colleges is a pragmatic step that could be taken and would have an impact for a relatively low cost.

In October last year, I met the Department and asked them to look at options, including costs. One such option to be explored is assigning one of the allocated teacher training days, which would reduce the cost of teacher cover. Widening out the training to include compulsory disability training should also be included.

Today's motion and debate is the start of what is required, but we now need action. Parents and young people and our teaching staff need action from all of us. The Autism Act was brought in in 2011, and yet we continue to see an increased number of children and young people in particular waiting years for diagnosis and support services. I call on the Minister to acknowledge that there is a crisis in special education needs provision and that many teachers actively seek this training. By supporting the motion and amendment No 1, we would send a positive message to the sector as well as to families.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now move on to the list. Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that contributions are limited to five minutes, although, if you take an intervention, you will get an additional minute.

Mr McGrath: I am pleased to speak in support of the motion and the amendments. We do not really see a major difference between the amendments, so we are happy to support them as we go along.

As Members will know, the SDLP has campaigned for many years — from 2002, with the work of John Fee MLA — for increased autism support. That culminated in the Autism Act (NI), which Dominic Bradley brought forward in 2010 and which began to operate in 2011. Sadly, the potential of that Act to transform people's lives has been compromised not only by a lack of financial support but by a lack of ministerial decision-making over the past three years. With that in mind, I warmly welcome the fact that, today, we are in the Chamber discussing the issue.

The need for this type of training is long overdue. The huge increase in ASD-related diagnoses in recent years should serve as a wake-up call about the urgent need for such provision. We in the House and, indeed, the Minister must listen to the will of people here. Diagnoses have trebled in a decade. Schools and autism services struggle to meet an ever-increasing demand. From speaking to teachers and parents in my constituency of South Down, I know that there is a clear want and need for mandatory autism training in our schools.

Ms S Bradley: I appreciate the Member giving way. I stand as your South Down colleague who has heard that message resonating. Does the Member agree that, although that critical training is the first and right step, it must be properly resourced — I take the point about not getting into the detail today — and real cognisance needs to be taken of the conflicting time pressures on the teacher in the classroom? I say that as somebody who has come through teacher training. The pressures in the classroom can put a very different slant on it. I urge, going forward, that we recognise that.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr McGrath: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Yes, certainly, and we see that resources are required when we look at the scale and the numbers of young people affected. Some of the statistics that I will mention later will certainly highlight how some form of resource will need to go alongside it.

One eighth of the annual education budget, which is, I think, about £270 million, is being spent on supporting children with special education needs, including autism, but we can do more. The Department of Health tells us that one in 30 school-age children lives with ASD, and 78% of those children are in mainstream schools. That is a huge number of young people across the North in all types of schools who have to deal with the issue.

According to the Children's Law Centre, the number of parents experiencing difficulties in receiving support for their children has increased. There are teachers and classroom assistants who, through no fault of their own, do not understand the complexities of autism. That has led to children who need targeted support being at times given detention, excluded from class or, ultimately, expelled from school. We cannot allow that to continue. The Children's Law Centre also said that, five years ago, it dealt with 400 cases relating to special education in schools compared with 1,600 cases now, so there is a very obvious need that we need to address.

The vast majority of staff, teachers, classroom assistants and support staff who work in our schools are among the most caring and considerate individuals in the North. Like many other roles such as nursing, they do that with a sense of passion beyond their sense of duty. Teachers and classroom assistants whom my colleagues and I have listened to fully support the motion today. All the teacher unions, as was mentioned, also support it, but we have to make sure that this is not simply a box-ticking exercise.

There is concern among some that that is what this could become if it is just a quick half-day exercise. We need to make sure that any training is done properly.


1.15 pm

At the same time, however, we need to do something. I always remember the story about what can happen when the bell rings at the end of class. There might be so much noise in the classroom that, if a homework were to be issued at that stage, children with autism might not be able to process the instruction that they were given, and that could lead to them going home and potentially having a meltdown. That can cause a lot of stress in the home. If teachers are equipped with very small tips such as that, it could help massively in the classroom, especially for the 78% in mainstream education. A half-day exercise might be very quick, but it could equip our teachers and classroom assistants with some really helpful insights into how to help children.

It has been said that living with autism is simply a different way of experiencing the world. A person living with autism may see, hear, feel, taste and touch the full vibrancy of the world around them, and that is witnessed most keenly in the classroom. Although it is a different way of experiencing the world, it can also be overwhelming. We must be sensitive to the needs of those living with autism and ensure that we have done all that we can to facilitate a sensitive, understanding and informed learning environment. I urge each of you to support the motion.

Mr Butler: I support the motion and the amendment. As a member of the APG on autism perhaps this past four years, I have become increasingly aware of the disadvantage faced by our young people with autism. We know that, in Northern Ireland, we face higher levels of autism than the national average. In fact, the Department of Health figures from 2019 state that we now have one in 30 school-age children with autism. When we look at the average classroom size, we see that that means that just about every classroom in Northern Ireland will have at least one child who may require adjustment or support.

The timeline for action stretches back more than 10 years. In 2009, Minister McGimpsey published the ASD strategic action plan and later commissioned the Regional Autistic Spectrum Disorder Network (RASDN) to implement the strategy. That should have provided the momentum required to get us further than where we are today. Further ministerial announcements followed, and progress has been made, but much momentum has been lost and a proper, collegiate, cross-departmental strategy has perhaps been lacking.

My constituency office, as I am sure that of other Members, handles a multiplicity of issues, and children with autism and other spectrum issues figure high on the list. When, as an elected representative, I seek to help, I share the frustrations of parents and carers at the speed of response and, at times, the utter exasperation of teachers who are clearly seeking to do the best that they can do for their pupils.

I am delighted that the Ulster Teachers' Union is supportive of the introduction of mandatory training. From conversation with teacher friends, I have been convinced that that is the only way forward. The pressures faced by teachers are many, but surely an element of awareness-raising training for the profession in a mandated form, accessed at initial training and revisited through refresher events, can only help alleviate the growing pressures.

The majority of our children with autism are taught in mainstream education. To be accurate, it is 78%. Therefore, to try to dilute who is trained and where they are trained would be to ignore the struggle of our children in the education system across all our communities.

Every child deserves the "best start in life", as stated in our Programme for Government. That being the collective aim of the Executive means that we need to take a collegiate approach in order to ensure that our children are not disadvantaged in any way. Therefore, if we are serious about achieving that aim, we must ensure that all teaching and assistant staff are equipped and informed to help them fulfil their role. To do less would be to lower the bar to such an extent that we may fail before we even begin.

As mentioned by Members, it was incredible to be part of the elected group that was in attendance when a petition of over 10,000 signatures was delivered to Stormont in September 2019. The rally was attended by parents, teachers, activists and, most importantly, autistic individuals. It was a testament to the public body of support for this motion and the wish that it becomes a reality.

I will finish on this very important point, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. The future of the individual children with autism hinges on the support they get in their early and formative years. This is a partnership between parents, society, teachers and other agencies. However, when we reflect on the outcomes in their future life, and the barriers to work and further education they face, we must effect change, and we must do it now. I support the motion and the amendment.

Ms Bradshaw: I support the motion and amendment No 1.

I have been the Alliance Party health spokesperson since 2016, and since then barely a day has passed that the subject of autism, and the needs of the children living with it, has not been raised with me, so this is good news. Certainly, there is a higher level of public consciousness of this condition and the steps that need to be taken forward.

Last November, in my own constituency, I attended the opening of the National Autistic Society centre in Carryduff. I know there are MLAs in the Chamber today who were also there. It is the first centre of its kind in Northern Ireland, designed specifically with the needs of people living with autism in mind. The advantage of having this centre, which is a step forward, is not only that it provides space for people with the condition and their carers, but it also plays a role in enhancing the awareness raising process to ensure that people with autism are better catered for in daily life, not least when they are accessing public services.

In fact, we are approaching a decade since the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made by public organisations. Unfortunately, this has not happened across the school estate due to the various difficulties in managing the process efficiently. However, it is worth emphasising that the Act, and other legislation, clearly requires equal treatment for children with autism in the education system. As my colleague has just pointed out, the last Programme for Government also gave a specific commitment to giving every child the "best start in life". The motion correctly reflects the fact that we need to achieve the outcome envisaged in the legislation by making sure that everyone is aware of it and suitably trained. We are keen to strengthen it a little to emphasise that this is something that must be done, rather than just explored. I do support Ms Cameron's recommendation that this should be consulted on, because it is both our legal and moral duty to do so.

Furthermore, teachers have no issue with this, and, as we have heard today, the teaching unions are very much in favour of mandatory autism training. We are also keen to emphasise that this needs to include trainee teachers, because it needs to be there from the start of their education journey. New teachers entering the profession will have the advantage of growing up in a society which is already more aware of autism than ever before. They will no doubt be the first to say that specific training will be very useful. Of course, the reason that all teachers need to be trained is that they will all come across autism. On average, almost every class will contain one child living with autism, and the vast majority of children with autism are within our mainstream education provision.

The most compelling reason for supporting the motion is not connected to teaching or legal obligations, but it is the simple reality that so many people living with autism do not end up in full-time employment. This must be, at least in part, to do with inadequate support from the start of their education, as well as the ongoing lack of awareness of the condition, despite recent advances. By enabling people with autism to have more choice and control at the outset, including of education pathways and healthier lifestyles, we can set them on the road to a more independent life, with the same opportunities in learning and employment as everyone else.

No one here today is arguing that this first step will solve all the problems around autism. We need to investigate better mental health provision, better workplace support and ongoing better public awareness of not just autism but the effects it has on pupils' lives. However, this is one step that will be hugely significant, not just because it has an impact on early life, but because it will send a very clear message from this Assembly that we want people living with autism to have exactly the same chances as everyone else. I commend this motion and amendment No 1.

Ms P Bradley: I welcome the opportunity today to speak on this very important issue. I thank my colleague Pam Cameron for bringing the motion to the House. I also thank the Members who tabled amendments. Those go some way to strengthening the motion, so they are very welcome. I will support the motion whatever happens.

I, too, have been an active member of the all-party group on autism over the past number of years. In the three years when we had no Assembly, the all-party group on autism was extremely active in calling all the Departments to account and writing to them and asking just what they were doing to support not only children but adults living with autism. It became apparent very early on that Departments were falling short of what they were required to do under the Autism Act and strategy.

We, as MLAs, cannot just blame those Departments for falling short; we have to take some of that blame, especially over the past three years when we have not been here to call those Departments to account. I am so glad that we are back here, doing the job that we need to do. This is our first motion, and we make a commitment here today not to take our foot off the pedal but to call all Departments to account.

Going back to the motion and mandatory training for teachers, Mrs Cameron mentioned in her speech, as did others, that, when the National Union of Teachers gave evidence to the all-party group, it became very evident that we were failing our children and our schools, and they were crying out for help. In some primary schools across Northern Ireland, perhaps only one teacher has had autism training. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Minister to bring about that change in order that we deliver for vulnerable children who need our help.

When we got the information packs and the research packs, it was interesting to look back at the number of Assembly questions that have been asked over the last 10 years on mandatory autism training. There have been many, and the same answer keeps coming back. One of the points in that answer is Middletown. I have been there, along with some of my all-party colleagues. Pam and I had a bit of a road trip that day because I was directing and I got us lost, but we found it eventually, and it is a fantastic place. It does wonderful work, but it is not the answer. The answer is wider than that. The answer is to invest in all our teachers so that they get the help and support that they need.

I also praise the voluntary and community sector and the work that it does in meeting that unmet need. I also praise all those parent-led groups in our communities. We all have them, and we have all visited them, in our constituencies. Parents are supporting one another to try to navigate through the education system and the health system, and, sometimes, that is the only help that they have.

Other colleagues will know that special educational need comes up in our constituency offices time and time again. I have had many meetings over the years about children, specifically around autism, who are not receiving the proper attention that they need. So, this is something that we need to add on to the mandatory autism training. The other Mrs Bradley mentioned in her intervention that, if we have this and mandatory training, once a child is diagnosed, those services need to follow the child. There is no point in having a diagnosis only to find out that the services are not available. I recently visited some schools in my area, and there is a recurring theme, which is special educational needs services. It is all well and good having a diagnosis, but unless we have support for those children and their families, we will not have done what we set out to do.

Mr Butler: Will the Member give way?

Mr Butler: Thank you. I love your passion for the subject. We know that mental health issues exist across the suite of primary education and with our young people, but there is an even greater propensity for mental health issues among young people with autism. Do you agree that perhaps there is a double win here if we can support our young people in their journey with autism and the, at times, hidden mental health issue that also exists that sometimes is not recognised?


1.30 pm

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention —.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Ms P Bradley: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I was going to say to the Member, "Thank you for that extra minute", but he nearly spoke the whole way through it. [Laughter.]

I absolutely agree with the Member, and it is something that the chair of the all-party group brought up as well: in mental health, early intervention is key, especially for children who have additional needs. Early intervention can save money in the long term. Of course, we are not all about saving money; we are about saving lives too and improving quality of life, so that was a good point.

I have little time left, but I want to say that one of the schools in my area is Cedar Lodge, which is for children with additional needs, especially autism. We need to do more to support those special educational schools; it does not just stop at the door of our mainstream schools.

Mr Boylan: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I have been a member of the APG since 2008. I will stick to the mandatory training, but I am delighted that the Minister is here, because I hope that, after this debate, he will take the lead on all of this. A lot of us know that a strategy and a plan arose from the 2011 Act, identifying the responsibilities of each Department. The previous Member mentioned this: we hope that the Minister will take the lead on this and show the other Departments the way, because, for a number of years, we have been trying to get the right services for people with ASD.

I thank Autism NI and the National Autistic Society, plus all the people who have helped for a number of years with the administration of the work of the APG. A lot of good work has been done. For years, they have helped us to compose questions. Some days, we get the right answers, but, more often than not, we do not make enough progress. Listening to the comments of many of the contributors to this debate, I think that we are going in the right direction. There are two reports that I want to mention on record, because it is important to do so for the people who have helped us a lot to bring us to where we are. Hopefully, as I said, after this, the Minister will take on board the comments of the group and we can move forward with the chair and all the people associated with the group and work with the Departments.

The issue of mandatory training goes back to a report that was launched in the Long Gallery in 2012 entitled, 'A* for Autism: Make every school a good school'. That report highlighted the difficulties that children with autism experienced in the education system here. Education, as we know, is a fundamental part of every child's life. It gives children the opportunity to learn about the world they live in and how they can play a part in this world. It should be a time when children feel safe and happy and confident about building relationships and friendships and being able to make the most of their abilities and talents. It should help them to develop independence and prepare them for a bright and happy future.

In the research for the report, parents told us that they wanted an education system that is ambitious and believes their children can achieve; gives their children similar opportunities to other children; understands and supports their children's needs; allows their children to develop friendships and life skills; allows their children to enjoy good mental health; and prepares their children for life. Those are what any parent would want for a child with or without autism, but, unfortunately, collectively we have left them down.

In 2016, the National Autistic Society NI, in conjunction with Autism NI, published 'Broken Promises', a report that highlighted the failures in the delivery of the autism strategy going back to 2011 and the difficulties that children and young people experienced in the education system. A call was made for mandatory autism training for teachers and classroom assistants. Given that every teacher — this is no slight on teachers; I do not want them emailing me about this — will teach multiple autistic children during their career, that puts those children at risk of being taught by teachers who have not chosen to educate themselves in their own time. If mandatory training were introduced, its quality would be fundamental. It is not enough to simply raise awareness of autism; teachers must also understand autism and be schooled in the techniques and strategies needed to teach a child with autism and all its associated complexities. Mandatory training would be a first step towards addressing and meeting the needs of pupils with autism.

We will not divide on the motion. Everybody has spoken very well. I support the motion and amendment. I reiterate that I hope that the Minister will take the lead on this and ask for support across the Departments that have a role and responsibility across the autism spectrum.

Mr Middleton: I thank my colleagues for tabling this important motion. The fact that it has been tabled at such an early opportunity sends a signal as to how important the issue is not only to us but to wider society. I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber today. We hope that he will take on board the valid points that have been made by all contributors so far. I also pay tribute to Autism NI, the National Autistic Society and all the fantastic organisations that, over the past number of years, particularly the past three years, have kept their shoulders to the wheel. The fact that the all-party group on autism has continued to meet has been mentioned. That is valuable and important work, and, hopefully, that will pay dividends in what we will see over the coming weeks. Like my colleague, I recognise the Circle of Support organisation in my constituency and the many parent-led organisations that do fantastic voluntary work. The support that they provide is very important.

There is no doubt that there is widespread support for the motion. We know that, just last September, a rally was held here at Stormont. We know that there was an online petition with over 10,000 signatories. It is a hugely emotive issue. We, as elected Members, and the Minister need to ensure that it is delivered on, and I hope that that will happen over the next number of weeks and months. As colleagues mentioned, teachers and classroom assistants have indicated their support for the motion. All the teachers' unions in Northern Ireland support the introduction of mandatory autism training.

Many of us in the Chamber, including me, have family members with autism. We know about not only the challenges but the opportunities that that brings, whether that be at the initial assessment stage, through education or as they move into the workplace. As my colleagues said, we know of the delays around assessment, but, when that assessment comes, it is vital that the services follow, right through education and into the workplace.

According to recent Department of Health figures, one in 30 school-age children has autism in Northern Ireland. Of those, 78% are in mainstream schools, not special schools. Given those figures, it is vital that the teaching force in Northern Ireland receive current, relevant and up-to-date training to assist them in delivering a curriculum that allows every child to reach their full potential. It is vital that no child is left behind. Only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment in the UK, even though 78% do not have a learning disability. Many of those say that that is an adverse effect of a lack of support during the school years and of not receiving a full education, with mental health deteriorating as a result. That gap needs to be filled. Over the past couple of years, I have met individuals with autism who now work in the public sector, some in very exciting roles. We need to ensure that we can encourage people with autism to get into workplaces and ensure that people are mindful and understanding of their requirements and needs. In closing, I urge Members to get behind the motion and, indeed, the amendments, whichever way they fall.

Mr Durkan: The introduction of mandatory autism training for all teaching staff was the subject of a petition that many Members have mentioned already today. It was organised by Autism NI last year. We saw the obvious, in my opinion, need for such training and supported the petition. I am sure that other Members did, and I was one of over 10,000 people who signed it. I take the opportunity, as Gary did, to commend Autism NI for the work that it has done, continuously and consistently campaigning to improve services and support for those living with autism.

I must say, however, that I was dumbfounded at the response from the Department of Education to the petition. It was deemed that the proposal to increase provision in schools in line with a significant rise in autism diagnoses was premature. On the contrary, the need for that type of training is long overdue. The exponential rise in autism- and ASD-related diagnoses in recent years is testament to the urgent need for provision. From speaking with teachers and parents, as others have done, in and beyond constituency, I know that there is a clear demand and desire for mandatory autism training. The Minister must listen, where his Department would not, to the public and to the evidence. As Colin McGrath told us, diagnoses have trebled in the past decade, and autism services struggle to meet the ever-increasing demand. Indeed, I contend that it was the Department's response that was premature. It was made without giving due consideration to the inarguable statistics relating to the severe lack of adequate autism services in education.

When it comes to autism, it seems that we need to foster a change of attitudes not among the general public but among the powers that be. The issue needs to be progressed, and I welcome the motion as a means of doing so. When it comes to education, no child should be left behind. We must create an education system that provides fair and equal access for all. Members who spoke previously have lamented the failure so far to deliver on the promises and potential of our Autism Act, but we cannot blame that just on the fact that we have not been here in three years. Long before that, pressure on autism services and a lack of autism support was becoming unbearable, and the cracks that were showing are now growing.

In my constituency, there was uproar and outrage last year when I uncovered the fact that the Western Health and Social Care Trust was unable to use its allocation of funding for the autism pathway project and that money was sent back, despite the fact that we had in that trust area over 800 people waiting on a list for assessment. That befuddled many, particularly those working hard in the community to support individuals and families with autism, and we are lucky to have several of those organisations in Derry. Gary Middleton mentioned Circle of Support, and Parents of Older Children with Autism (POCA) and the Jigsaw Project are another couple that do sterling work. I was glad last week to have it confirmed to me by the Western Trust that significant steps had been taken and were being taken to address its huge shortcomings in that area.

There is a danger that, because the demand for diagnosis has become so huge, meeting the demand for diagnosis becomes our sole focus or our Holy Grail. Paula Bradley said that many families discover, to their disappointment and confusion, that, once they have won their battle or, in many cases, war for diagnosis, they are left in limbo. There are inconsistencies across trust areas. We need to ascertain what works best where and try to replicate that across the board.

We also have to be mindful that it is not only in schools where support is required and where hugely positive interventions can be made. We need to look at the support that can be given to families at home, especially in those early days after diagnosis, and how we can help families to prepare, adjust and cope better.


1.45 pm

To conclude, we certainly support the motion and amendment No 1. In terms of how the training should look, I would say that it should have input from individuals who are living with autism in both its design and its delivery. It is also worth highlighting that the better our staff in schools can cope with autism, the better it will be for all pupils in our schools.

Mr Robinson: First and foremost, I thank my colleagues for tabling this very important motion and, indeed, the amendments. I am sure that all MLAs in the Chamber recognise the challenges that come with autism. Therefore, it is essential that all staff working with autistic children realise that they are appreciated and valued by the Assembly.

Looking through the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, I have been struck by the interdepartmental working that is required to ensure that people with autism have the best possible services. One Department specifically named in the Act is Education. This is entirely correct. Teachers have a challenging role, but when a child with autism is in the class, an additional level of expertise is required to ensure a good level of education for that pupil. It is therefore eminently sensible that teachers are given the tools required to achieve the best education possible for the specific pupil. Regardless of what disabilities or problems pupils have, they all deserve to attain their maximum possible potential in an educational setting. Ensuring that teachers and classroom assistants are given the correct training is a step in achieving that.

We are all aware of the challenges that local education faces in general, but I ask the Minister to explore the introduction of mandatory autism training to ensure the best possible educational outcomes for all pupils, even those on reduced timetables. One parent has told me that an entire class will benefit from such an approach, as the training aids the staff in dealing proactively with autistic pupils and minimises the time required to deal with a specific pupil. All pupils will therefore benefit from teachers receiving training. Minister, I appreciate that budgets are very tight in your Department; however, some investment in this aspect of teacher training will provide tangible and very worthwhile benefits for those children with autism. I support the motion.

Mr Carroll: I put out word to my constituents about this topic, and I have been overwhelmed by messages, emails and responses from people with autism, parents, teachers and classroom assistants. I am sure that other Members are the same. Indeed, it is fair to say I have been inundated on the issue since I was first elected to the Chamber in 2016, almost four years ago.

It is very clear that our current system is not working for too many people with autism and many with other learning disabilities. Education workers who have been in the field for years tell of a dire situation within our education system, where fundamental problems see children left under-supported. Too many are unable to get statemented, too many are left with no offer from a school each September because of their statement, and too many do not get the proper educational support even when they have been statemented.

All those failings can have serious impacts going forward. We see people with autism experiencing mental health problems because of a lack of support services, and we see children underachieving educationally because of a lack of provision. We also have working-class families being forced to pay privately to get their children diagnosed with autism. None of this is good enough, and it is totally unacceptable.

None of this touches on the impact of under-provision and misrepresentation outside of school time, such as the fact that people have to fundraise to pay for respite or even basic facilities and services, or the fact that negative and harmful stereotypes about people with autism are still perpetuated in society. Disgracefully, autism was used last week by a Fine Gael elected member as a slur on somebody else in the general election campaign in the South. Too often, the term has been used as an attempt to delegitimise Greta Thunberg's campaign and as a slur against her. People with autism deserve much better than that, but, unfortunately, on these issues they are being failed.

We absolutely endorse training and education as essential criteria for supporting people with autism, but we also know that much more must be done on top of that to slash waiting times and to address the wider issues such as underinvestment in education in general, bigger class sizes and a lack of access to classroom assistants, to name but a few.

We are clear that, whatever mandatory training is put in place, it must not be a tick-box exercise but must be wide-reaching and encompass all the research that has been found to support children with autism. It should be adaptive to react to the different levels and types of support that different pupils with different needs require. We must ensure that the development of this training programme has the input of people with autism and of teachers and classroom assistants who are across the current failings in the system and who know that, because of educational attainment or gender, some children can be overlooked or dismissed as acting out.

We absolutely must ensure that our teachers and classroom assistants, who do the utmost to support their classes and their children and who are already overworked and due a pay rise, see the necessary investment in education to ensure that children with autism get the support they deserve in a sustainable way. To do that, we must address the underspend in education. Without extra support, extra funding and extra classroom assistants, the whole provision of extra training may be futile, because under-pressure teachers and assistants may not have the time or space to put the whole thing into practice.

Finally, and importantly, we have to be careful that the provision of mandatory training for autism in mainstream schools is not used as an excuse to shut down special needs schools. In 2018, I led a campaign alongside teachers, classroom assistants, trade unionists, parents and pupils of special needs schools in Belfast against the closure of special needs schools, and I have no doubt that, if plans emerge again to try to shut down or amalgamate special needs schools, a similar campaign will be back on the streets of our city of Belfast, with all the ferocity that existed before.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House should take its ease until then. The Minister has been allocated 15 minutes to respond, and the Members who will make winding-up speeches on the amendments have been allocated five minutes each. We are less than 10 minutes away from 2.00 pm, so I suggest that the House takes it ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mrs Foster (The First Minister): Following the recent debate in the Assembly, the deputy First Minister and I wrote to Secretary of State Barclay to advise that the Assembly had not agreed that the United Kingdom Government should legislate on its behalf in relation to aspects of the withdrawal agreement Bill. We also took the opportunity to highlight that we will be engaging with the Government to ensure that the commitments around unfettered access in the New Decade, New Approach agreement are fulfilled. We also expressed our concern that the UK Government were in breach of the Sewel convention, under which they should not normally legislate on devolved matters here without the Assembly's consent.

Our junior Ministers also highlighted the need for commitments around unfettered access to be delivered when they attended the EU Exit Operations Cabinet Committee, which is chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP. At last week's JMC (EN) meeting, the deputy First Minister and I again explained the importance of unfettered access for our businesses within the UK internal market, and a commitment was given that there should be a dedicated work stream to take forward issues relating to the protocol. Aside from ministerial-level engagement, I am aware that my officials and officials from other Departments are consistently articulating our needs to their colleagues in Whitehall. Members will be well aware that there have been contradictory statements by the UK Government and the European Commission on the implications of the protocol for the movement of goods from GB to Northern Ireland. The deputy First Minister and I have written to the Prime Minister, pointing out that, on the face of it, the protocol and statements from the European Commission seem to create legal obligations to apply checks that would fall on us as a devolved Administration and asking for urgent clarification of his Government's plan on this point.

Ensuring the freest possible movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to Great Britain, is a top priority for us, given the integrated nature of supply chains. It is also important to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses remain competitive and that costs for consumers do not rise. I assure the Member that we will continue to ensure that our requirements around unfettered access, competitiveness and the integrated nature of our economy are understood right across the UK Government.

Mrs Barton: Will Northern Ireland businesses and farms continue to operate under EU regulations?

Mrs Foster: As the Member is aware, we are leaving the European Union in a different way, insofar as the single market regulations will continue to apply to Northern Ireland. We want to find out whether that means that there will be checks coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is important that we understand the nature of those to make sure that we have the unfettered access that has been promised and that there are ways in which we can communicate what we need for the Northern Ireland economy through the many JMC processes that have been put in place.

Mr O'Toole: The First Minister is correct that Brexit and delivery of the Northern Ireland protocol in the next year — in fact, in the next eight months — will be completely critical to businesses and households here. Is she satisfied that the Northern Ireland Civil Service is adequately resourced to deal with the extraordinary complexity of implementing this novel protocol? Will she give an update on that resourcing and the attention that she and the deputy First Minister are giving to it?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I put on record my thanks to the Civil Service, which took up the burden of representing Northern Ireland at a lot of the Joint Ministerial Committee meetings when we did not have an Executive or Assembly in place. It was a difficult job for them to undertake, because, for those of us who know, many civil servants cannot take political opinions on these issues and they had to play it with a very straight bat. I put on record my thanks to David Sterling and his team and Andrew McCormick for their work.

Going forward, resourcing is, obviously, something that the deputy First Minister and I will keep a close eye on. We decided to go to Cardiff ourselves last week, because we wanted to make sure that we were fully up to date with what was going on in the discussions. It is fair to say that there was quite a robust discussion between the devolved Administrations and the Westminster Government. We will continue to keep a keen eye on the matter so that we can be supported by our civil servants. If there is a need for more resource, we will certainly put it in place.

Ms Armstrong: The First Minister mentioned the trade sector, but the service sector also imports and exports. What consideration has she given to and what discussion has she had about the service sector under Brexit?

Mrs Foster: The Member will know that we rely on the Department for the Economy to give us a breakdown of the different sectors, and we have received that from our Economy Minister. In looking at the sectors, the goods sector — the manufacturing sector — is the most important by volume. We realise, however, that the service sector will be very important as well. We have not forgotten about that; indeed, at our first meeting of the subgroup on Brexit tomorrow, we will look at the way ahead on all those matters.

Mrs Foster: I pay tribute to the hard work of the campaigners. It has been a long and difficult journey, and it is their commitment that has got us to this point. The process took too long; yet, I am pleased for the victims of that terrible abuse that we have got to this point.

It is planned that the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board application process will be open to victims and survivors at the end of March 2020. The redress board multidisciplinary panels will be available to sit from the end of April, with the first approved awards to follow shortly thereafter. Work to deliver on those challenging timescales is proceeding at pace.

Ms Dillon: Will the First Minister also confirm where exactly the money is coming from? That is a concern that has come to me from the victims' sector. Whilst we have been given guarantees that it will happen and reassurances that the money is there, we have no detail of where it is coming from.

Mrs Foster: I reassure victims that the money will have to be found. We have given a commitment that we will follow through on the report and the many recommendations that were put in place, and we intend to do that. We will engage on the issue not only with the Westminster Government but with the many institutions that have been involved throughout the years. It is incumbent on those institutions to step forward as well, not only in a moral way but to make financial redress. That is something that we will continue to take up.

Mr McGrath: Will the First Minister give an update on the appointment of the Commissioner for Survivors of Childhood Institutional Abuse?

Mrs Foster: We are in the process of doing that. If the Member bears with me, I will get him the details. The role of the commissioner is not only to assist victims and survivors through the redress process but to examine the support services available. Work is ongoing to appoint the commissioner, and the interim advocate continues in the absence of one. The public appointments competition for the post will be launched shortly. A competition usually takes about three to six months after an appointment is advertised for, so I presume that, once the appointments process starts, it will be anything between three and six months for the commissioner to be in place.

Ms Bunting: What engagement has there been with the institutions and religious orders regarding their contribution to funding the costs? Also, will the Executive Office make recommendations to have the Kincora files opened? In circumstances in which the inquiry found no state collusion, dates of 2085 and 2060 seem excessive and would mean the victims of that depravity will likely not live to see the files opened.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. In terms of the first part of her question, we — the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — want to engage directly with the institutions. The head of the Civil Service wrote to six of the institutions on 25 November 2019 about how we might share costs and about those institutions making records available. However, the deputy First Minister and I believe that it would send a strong message if we both engaged with the institutions as well, and we intend to do that.

In terms of the latter issue that the Member raised, she knows that the inquiry devoted a number of days of oral hearings to looking in a rigorous way at what went on in Kincora boys' home. The Hart report detailed a range of system failings leading to systematic abuse by authorities and staff. For those victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse from Kincora, it is important to emphasise that they can make applications to the redress board for compensation. As I said, that will, hopefully, be in place by March 2020.

I am certainly happy for the Member to engage with officials or with me in relation to the other specific issue she raised about the opening of files.

Mrs Foster: As an Executive, we are very mindful of the need for timely and effective implementation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. The commitments in the agreement are a challenging and ambitious programme, requiring effective governance arrangements to ensure delivery. Officials will bring forward proposals for the establishment of a dedicated programme to coordinate and drive forward this work in a formal and structured way.

Mr G Kelly: Like us all, the Minister will know that agreements are one thing and implementation is an entirely different proposition. I hope that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will bring regular reports about implementation and the timescales that she mentioned in her answer.

Mrs Foster: Annex F of the document lays out the arrangements for monitoring the implementation of the agreement. There is an acknowledgement that, just as the Member has indicated, it is one thing to have an agreement but it is another thing to implement it. Therefore, there is a need to have implementation review meetings that will include the Northern Ireland Executive party leaders. There will be quarterly meetings. The first meeting was meant to be held before the end of January, but, as we are only up and running, I imagine that that will happen in the next couple of weeks. Then we will look at an implementation programme and timetable to be agreed at that meeting. Of course, the UK Government and the Irish Government will be involved as appropriate, according to the three-stranded approach, and then quarterly updates on progress will be published. That is important as well, in terms of openness and transparency: that we publish the implementation of the agreement.

Mr Allister: It is certainly a new decade, but does the First Minister really think that it is a new approach? Does she really think that her partner in government, Sinn Féin, is committed to making Northern Ireland work as a part of the United Kingdom, or is the real commitment to use the institutions as a stepping stone with the hope and expectation that, before the decade is out, they can progress the extraction of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom even further?

Mrs Foster: I say to the Member that everyone has their own political philosophies as to where they would like to see Northern Ireland in 10 years' time. He knows very keenly that the deputy First Minister and I have different views on where we would like to see Northern Ireland, but, in terms of the common ground, we want to see work being done to deal with the issues identified in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. He will know that that concentrates on health, on education and on the fact that we need more and better jobs and that we need to look at our infrastructure. It is important that we focus on what unites the people of Northern Ireland, and what unites them is that they want to see a functioning Executive that delivers for all of its people.

Mr Beattie: Given the First Minister's freshly articulated concerns about legacy proposals in the Stormont House Agreement, was she as surprised as the Ulster Unionist Party was when they were contained in the deal?


2.15 pm

Mrs Foster: I say to the Member that I always find it helpful when we are talking about documents to go back to the original document, and I have before me the Stormont House Agreement. In that agreement, at paragraph 30, it states:

"The body will take forward outstanding cases from the HET process, and the legacy work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland".

Part of the difficulty at the moment is that the HIU has lost the confidence of victims and survivors. That concerns me greatly, and, so, in my capacity as DUP leader, I wrote to the Secretary of State about that matter last week. When you look at the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, you will see that it talks about the fact that there needs to be an intensive process of engagement. I think that we do need an intensive process of engagement, because it is important that we deal with legacy. We cannot allow it to continue to be an open wound in Northern Ireland. Legacy needs to be dealt with, and it needs to be dealt with in a way in which everyone feels a part of it and has a stake in the process.

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 4, 12 and 13 together. All Members will appreciate that ensuring Northern Ireland's interests are properly represented as we move forward through the next stage of Brexit negotiations is of paramount importance to us. The Executive subcommittee on Brexit issues will be a key structure in the coordination and development of our response. The deputy First Minister and I have tabled proposals on the subcommittee to Executive colleagues, and I am pleased to advise the House that the Executive agreed to the establishment of the subcommittee and approved its terms of reference.

A copy of the terms of reference will be placed in the Library, but, in summary, the subcommittee will support the Executive by providing a forum for collective discussion and consideration of the implications of EU exit on Northern Ireland in relation to influencing negotiations. It will also agree Northern Ireland policy positions and devolved responsibilities for consideration and decision-making by the UK Government and Joint Committee, as well as developing proposals to maximise our influence and any opportunities arising from the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol. It will also commission an assessment of the impact on the institutions and on relationships North/South and east-west.

The subcommittee will be chaired by the deputy First Minister and me, and the other core members are: the Minister for the Economy, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Minister for Infrastructure, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health. Those are the Ministers of the Departments most greatly impacted by Brexit, and that membership satisfies the commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that all parties on the Executive should have representation. Other Ministers can be invited to attend should items of particular interest to their portfolio be discussed.

It is intended that the first meeting of the subcommittee will be held tomorrow, and I am confident that the wide-ranging membership of the subcommittee will allow us to consider Brexit in a holistic way.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. On Friday afternoon, I met Border Communities Against Brexit, and it was keen to emphasise the need to engage with stakeholders in the next phase of the negotiations. What measures will be put in place to ensure that sectors can have an input into the work of the subcommittee?

Mrs Foster: As we are only having our first meeting proper tomorrow, I imagine that this is one of the issues that will come up: how we engage with other stakeholders, experts and people who want to send us information on how they see matters developing, as well as, of course, looking at our own agenda for how we move forward. So, I am sure that we will consider that at the subcommittee.

Ms McLaughlin: You talked about engaging with other sectors throughout the process. Will there be a formal structure whereby you get advice from academics and businesses in order to plot the way forward in the coming months?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. I have no doubt that the voice of businesses will be heard, as it has been heard right throughout the process. I want to pay tribute, indeed, to those involved in businesses, the retail sector and all of those different business organisations — the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Chamber of Commerce — that have raised their voice about the many issues that have been raised as a result of our leaving the European Union. I have no doubt that we will continue to engage with them. As I said, we have to have our first meeting tomorrow, and, following that, we will set out an agenda as to how we intend to engage with all of those people.

Dr Aiken: If we are, in the Prime Minister's words today, and pardon the accent:

"ready for the great multidimensional game of chess ... limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century.",

will the First Minister and deputy First Minister give assurances that they will update the Assembly on progress regularly through the proper channels, and not go straight to the media?

Mrs Foster: As the Member is aware. Well, I am not sure that he is aware, but he should note that we are here talking about the setting up of the subcommittee on Brexit. There has been no press release that I am aware of on the matter. We have our first meeting tomorrow. The Executive Committee will have scrutiny of the work of the Brexit subcommittee, because, of course, the Brexit subcommittee reports back to the Executive Office, which, in turn, will be scrutinised by the Executive Committee. I am sure that we will also be on the Floor talking about a number of issues, because the complex nature of where we are at this time will require us to have ongoing dialogue with many Members, as well as with the Ministers involved in the Brexit subcommittee.

Mrs Foster: The regional trauma network is a partnership between the statutory and voluntary sectors aimed at improving access to high-quality trauma services. The Department of Health leads on health and social care aspects and the Executive Office supports the provision of care, support and treatment to victims and survivors. Peace IV funding secured by the Victims and Survivors Service has supported the establishment of a network of health and well-being caseworkers for victims and survivors and will support the roll-out and delivery of the regional trauma network. We hope that phase 1 of the service will be launched in the coming months.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the First Minister for her response. I am sure she will join me in welcoming the financial support that is now being given to those victims who were injured through no fault of their own — something that has been long fought for. Will the regional trauma network, as developed, meet the requirement and expectation of the Stormont House Agreement?

Mrs Foster: I believe that it will. It is a network that continues to be rolled out. I met a victims' group in my constituency on Friday, and they told me that there is continuous dialogue between the Executive Office and the victims' groups. That is very good. I know that there has been frustration that it had not been moving along as quickly as it should have been, but I think that there has been good progress in the past couple of months in relation to governance structures, for example. The victims' groups still have a number of limited concerns, particularly about exclusivity, but we hope that we can work through those difficulties in the coming months so that the regional trauma network can become a real and lasting legacy to all of those who have suffered as a result of violence.

Mr Nesbitt: Miss McIlveen's question describes the regional trauma network as a service for victims and survivors rather than a more general service within the NHS, which is open to all. That is my understanding of its genesis and its purpose. Does the First Minister agree that the regional trauma network is specifically for victims and survivors of the conflict?

Mrs Foster: There have been differing interpretations of the original commitment in the Stormont House Agreement. I have mentioned that there is ongoing engagement between our office and many of the victims' groups as to whether the network should be open to all those who have significant psychological trauma or whether it should be exclusive to victims and survivors. I know that the Member has had a very clear view in relation to this issue. Of course, Health has a different view, because it takes the view that access to the network should be based on clinical need rather than a patient's background. However, this is something on which we need to continue to work to try to find a solution, because it is important that we find a solution with which victims feel content and happy.

Mr McGlone: What discussions has the First Minister's Department had with the Irish Government in relation to the provision of regional trauma centres to address the legacy of the conflict across the entire island?

Mrs Foster: I do not have the detail with me, but I am happy to write to the Member.

Ms Dillon: My question on the regional trauma network is similar to Mike Nesbitt's question. We have been leading a number of conversations with TEO and the Department of Health, and we understood from the last meeting that, as part of the Stormont House mechanisms, there was some movement with the regional trauma network not being exclusively for those who were injured by the conflict but, first and foremost, for those who were injured by the conflict. Will the First Minister confirm whether this is how we are moving forward?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. It is my understanding that those conversations are continuing. Our Department is working closely with the Department of Health, the Health and Social Care Board and the Victims and Survivors Service to ensure that the network delivers on the Stormont House Agreement by increasing access for victims and survivors to mental health services, which they need. The issue the Member identifies is whether it is exclusively for those victims and survivors or primarily for those victims and survivors, and we need to continue to work on the issue.

Mrs Foster: I am very aware of the Member's keen interest in this subject. I am pleased to inform him that, this morning, the Executive agreed to establish what will be known as the Executive working group on mental well-being, resilience and suicide prevention. This takes forward to the next stage the commitment made by the Executive Committee at their meeting on 22 January 2020. The deputy First Minister and I will attend meetings of the working group. I hope that we will be able to contribute valuable knowledge from our Department's experience of supporting a wide range of programmes that strengthen provision and capacity in this critical area. The Minister of Health will convene an early first meeting of the working group.

Mr Middleton: I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their commitment in this area. Will the First Minister give a commitment that the views of our many mental health experts in Northern Ireland will be taken into account in the progress of the working group?

Mrs Foster: I can certainly say that we will listen very carefully to what clinical experts have to say. For those of us who do not have the expertise, the Executive Committee as a whole felt that we needed to send out a clear message that we hear the many voices of desperation around mental well-being and the need for resilience and suicide prevention.

We want to send a clear message that we are listening to those voices but, more than that, that we want to do something tangible about those issues. We will engage with experts, and we already intervene through Executive Office programmes and through many of the Departments across Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that we have been struck, since the Executive have reformed, about the very real, tangible need to do more in relation to this important issue.

Ms S Bradley: I welcome the announcement of the Executive working group. What consideration has the First Minister, along with the deputy First Minister, given to the appointment of a junior Minister for mental health and well-being?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. The deputy First Minister and I have discussed this issue. However, we believe that we should all be mental health champions. The cross-ministerial group on suicide prevention from the last Executive was located in the Department of Health. On this occasion, we felt that we should have it in the Department at the very centre of government to send a strong message that all the Ministers, from the First Minister and deputy First Minister and including all those who sit round the Executive table, are taking the issue of mental well-being seriously, and that is why we felt that it is important to put it in the Executive Office. We are not closing our mind to other structures in the future, but this is our first attempt to send out a message that we want to deal with the issue in a meaningful way.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr McHugh asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what measures they will put in place to ensure that our society is welcoming and accommodating to ethnic minorities and new communities in the context of Brexit. (AQT 1/17-22)

Mrs Foster: The first thing to say to the Member is that we are all ambassadors for Northern Ireland, as MLAs individually, and it is important that we articulate the view that all our citizens, whatever their background, are very welcome here. I was, as I am sure he was, appalled at the attack in Omagh at the weekend. I do not have the full details of it, but it appears to have been a hate-crime attack, and it is something that I condemn wholeheartedly. We must do that in order to make sure that people realise that we are a welcoming society here in Northern Ireland and that we value the input of people, regardless of from where they come.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. I, too, condemn entirely the attack in Omagh. We as a nation have always been very welcoming. We are well known as the nation of the céad míle fáilte. Will the First Minister look to increase the budget to address what might be a developing problem?

Mrs Foster: It is something that we keep under review when considering our budget. As well as that, in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, there is to be set up an office of identity and cultural expression. That new office will promote cultural pluralism, respect for diversity, including Northern Ireland's ethnic, national, linguist and faith communities. It is a very powerful statement in and of itself that we want not only to recognise the Irish identity and the British identity but to recognise those people who are of neither identity but who live here in Northern Ireland and whom we want to make sure feel welcome.

T2. Mrs Barton asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Executive Office is fully in support of all aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, including the Irish language legislation and the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement proposals on legacy. (AQT 2/17-22)

Mrs Foster: I have already indicated that there are some issues that we need to deal with in and around the Stormont House Agreement. This is the part that concerns the United Kingdom Government. It states:

"As part of the Government's" —

that is, the United Kingdom Government —

"wider legislative agenda ... The Government will now start an intensive process with the Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish Government as appropriate, to maintain a broad-based consensus on these issues".

That is something that we need to be very much alert to and to make sure that it happens.

The Irish language piece is, of course, part of annex E, on "Rights, language and identity". That is in the framework. I have already mentioned the office of identity and cultural expression, then there is the Irish language commissioner and the British commissioner. Therefore, all those are in that context. We have to recognise and make space for all our identities here in Northern Ireland. That is something that the Executive Office is committed to doing.

Mrs Barton: First Minister, I thank you for your answer. Can you give me any idea of what discussions have taken place in the Executive Office about those issues?

Mrs Foster: As the Member will know, we have been in office since 11 January. In response to a substantive question from Mr Kelly about the implementation of the agreement, I stated that we will be setting up various processes to make sure that the agreement is implemented, and that is the way that we will make sure that things are taken forward.

T3. Ms McLaughlin asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given the small size of the university sector and the shortage of graduates in our labour market and how challenging that is to the economy, whether they agree and what they intend to do about it. (AQT 3/17-22)

Mrs Foster: As the Member will be fully aware, that matter was part of the discussions in the run-up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We have committed to expanding university provision at Magee in line with commitments made. I presume that it is Magee that she is talking about. It is a wild guess. We have committed to the graduate-entry medical school as well, which, as I understand it, also has cross-party support.

Ms McLaughlin: At the Economy Committee last Wednesday, we were advised by a senior civil servant that there was not an adequate business case for the expansion of Magee. She specifically said that there was no business case, no funding and no desire to do it at this time, based on the unfinished business with the north Belfast campus of Ulster University. Does the First Minister have an opinion on whether this is a priority for the Executive?

Mrs Foster: Many of the issues that the Member raised are, of course, matters for the Minister for the Economy. I have no doubt that she will come forward in relation to how she is going to deal with the commitments in New Decade, New Approach. There are difficulties, which the Member is aware of, that will need to be dealt with. She also knows, particularly from her background, that when we go to do anything in government, we need a business case and we need to process that. Those are matters that would probably be better taken up with the Minister for the Economy.

T4. Mr O'Dowd asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister about the role of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in facing up to the challenges presented by Brexit and whether, if those matters are approached in a positive manner, through the NSMC and the British-Irish Council (BIC), those bodies can be of assistance. (AQT 4/17-22)

Mrs Foster: I suppose the short answer is yes, both North/South and east-west. The new Brexit subcommittee will commission some work on the institutions in Northern Ireland but also on what is happening North/South and east-west; it is important that we have a clear view on what is happening. The Member may remember from his time in the last Executive that, at the North/South Ministerial Council, we had a good discussion on Brexit and moving forward. It is useful to have those conversations, and I am a big advocate of using the British-Irish element of the Belfast Agreement in the way that it should be used. It previously was not, possibly because people were meeting up in Europe or whatever, but there is an opportunity to use the British-Irish Council model to have that engagement between Westminster, Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and the smaller islands that are part of the BIC as well.

Mr O'Dowd: I have no difficulty with that response: east-west and North/South relationships on these islands are vital across a range of issues. Particularly in relation to Brexit, it is important that we use our influence wherever we can. So, whether that is North/South or east-west, I have no difficulty with that.

Mrs Foster: Yes, and we will use our influence on those matters. It is also important to say that the deputy First Minister and I intend to use our influence, now that we are able to attend the Joint Ministerial Committee meetings again, to put forward the specific needs of Northern Ireland, particularly in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol. That will be challenging, so we need to use all those processes to make sure that our voice is heard.

T5. Mr Lunn asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they are satisfied that there will be sufficient budget provision on an ongoing basis to cover pensions for victims and survivors, given the Secretary of State’s commitment on the issue over the weekend. (AQT 5/17-22)

Mrs Foster: I welcome the laying of the regulations on Friday by the Northern Ireland Office. As the Member knows, the regulations provide that a board be established to oversee the scheme. Our officials are working with other Departments to progress the implementation of the scheme by May 2020. Whatever about the money, which I am going to come to, the deadline to have all the architecture in place is very challenging. We do not get any extra finance from Westminster to deal with this issue. That is something that we intend to continue raising with the Government at Westminster, because, at present, it is my understanding that the money will come from the block grant.

Mr Lunn: I thank the First Minister for that answer. Pension payments, by their nature, are open-ended and difficult to predict. Is there any estimate for the total cost of the scheme?

Mrs Foster: Ordinarily, I would say that the Member is right about the amount, but I understand that it has been capped between £2,000 and £10,000 in relation to a top-up of perhaps other pensions that people may be already in receipt of. It is difficult to put a figure on the scheme at present because, of course, we do not know how many people are suffering from psychological trauma, and, therefore, those people will have to be referred to the redress board. It is something that we will have to keep under consideration as the scheme becomes live at the end of May.

T6. Mr Butler asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in line with their commitment to mental health and well-being, including their response to the call for a junior Minister for mental health, whether they would consider appointing a mental health champion as an independent service, as suggested to the Health Minister in a previous mandate, rather than us all being mental health champions. (AQT 6/17-22)

Mrs Foster: All those things will be considered in our new subgroup. There is a real willingness to look at all and any ideas that come forward as a way to deal with those very serious issues in our society. We will certainly not pretend to have the monopoly on wisdom when it comes to dealing with huge societal issues. We want to take as much information as we can and try to do what we can with the limited budget that we have. Let us be honest: it is not always about budget when we come to deal with these issues; it is about sending out very positive signals about leadership and the fact that we are listening to people's concerns.

Mr Butler: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I pay my respect to you both for stepping forward on this issue. I ask you to do everything that you can to support the Minister of Health in that collegiate approach. Will you make a commitment to doing so?

Mrs Foster: We absolutely make the commitment to support the Minister of Health. As I said, up to now, suicide prevention was led by the Department of Health. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to send out a signal that it was coming from the very centre of government and that we were taking the issue very seriously. We look forward to working with Robin and all the other Ministers on the subgroups so that we can move ahead.

T8. Mr Clarke asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given the Secretary of State’s announcement at the weekend, when the first payments will reach the victims and survivors of the Troubles. (AQT 8/17-22)

Mrs Foster: As I indicated to Mr Lunn, we are on a very tight schedule to get the architecture in place by the end of May 2020. We hope that we will be able to have applications through by then. I hope that it will be mostly a paper-based scheme, avoiding the need to have assessments face to face, but, in some of the more complex areas, we may need to have those. I listened carefully to what the Victims' Commissioner said about that issue this morning. I very much hope that, rather than it being an intrusive process, it will be as easy as we can make it for victims and survivors.

Mr Clarke: I thank the First Minister for her response. The announcement at the weekend goes some way to restoring the confidence of people who were injured during the Troubles through no fault of their own. However, given that there has been a historical problem with the definition of "victim", is there any further work that can be done so that there is no ambiguity and those who perpetrated murder in this country can be dealt with in a different way?

Mrs Foster: I think that the Member will realise that the Executive Office Ministers have different views on that matter. Undoubtedly, each of the political parties will make their views known on the definition of "victim" to the Secretary of State because the legislation is Westminster-based.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a second or two before we move on to questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.


2.45 pm

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

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the Member's interest in the subject. I am sure that all the farmers in North Belfast will be delighted with her putting the question down.

I will be making an announcement shortly on the arrangements and funding for direct payments in the 2020 scheme year. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at the end of December 2019, confirmed that the UK Government will provide the same financial support to CAP pillar 1 for 2020 as for the 2019 scheme year. Last week, the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed a legislative consent motion on the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill. This allowed the provisions of the UK Bill to extend and apply to Northern Ireland and to provide continuity for direct payments for the 2020 scheme year. The Bill has now completed its stages in Parliament and became law on 31 January. On that basis, I expect the 2020 scheme year to operate in a broadly similar way to 2019. In relation to future years, the Conservative Party manifesto stated that funding for farm support would be maintained at existing levels until the end of this Parliament. While the schemes themselves may change across the UK, I anticipate that the funding levels will be maintained up until 2024. My Department will continue to work on developing policy in the longer term, and I will be looking at what future payments can do to support sustainable farming and our landscape.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Minister should know that I have been following the issue of single farm payments in North Belfast eagerly, given the announcement that he made last week, so it should come as no surprise to him.

On the matter of ensuring that the basic payments are maintained, will the Minister make arrangements to meet the British Treasury, particularly in the light of Brexit, to ensure that the payments are not detrimentally impacted?

Mr Poots: I have already raised the issue with the Prime Minister, particularly the fact that Northern Ireland, as a producer of around 10% of food in the UK, cannot go down the route of a Barnett formula being applied to this. That would be 2·8%, which would be a huge, detrimental loss to the farming community here. I further raised that with Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I raised it this morning with Minister Duncan. Thus far, I have got good feedback from all three, and I will continue to press that issue.

Mr O'Toole: Brexit threatens the very fabric and foundation of agriculture, farming and rural communities in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister supported Brexit — that is his right — and he is entitled to celebrate it, but, since we know that Brexit threatens the majority of farmers' income in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the statements that he has made about the next few years and the partial guarantees that we have over farm income, and that there is the threat of cheap food coming in as a result of trade deals that Boris Johnson wants to sign around the world, while I would not want the Minister to recant his support for Brexit, can I ask him that he use his office and the platform and role that he has to stand up for the closest possible alignment between the United Kingdom and the European Union? That is, I am sure, what the Ulster Farmers' Union and all farming representatives will tell him.

Mr Poots: I take the Member's remarks as being condescending towards the farming community, because the feedback that I got from the farming community was that they extensively backed leaving the European Union. If anybody wants an evidence base for that, I should say that the farmers' union held a meeting at Balmoral to which 600 farmers turned up and there was a 90% vote in favour of leaving the European Union. Farmers know more about what will affect them and their future than the Member who asked the question, representing South Belfast and having only returned from London to do so.

I would say that 80% to 90% of the regulation in Europe is currently also the case in Australia and large parts of North America and other key areas. Regulatory alignment already exists in many areas. However, are you telling me that, for example, the slurry ban has been good for Northern Ireland? It has not. Farmers have not been able to get out and do that activity for the past month when the weather lent itself to doing it. Are you telling me that it is a good thing that farmers have to request permission to clean out a sheugh and a departmental official is supposed to give that to them? Are you telling me that it is a good thing that a farmer is not allowed to plough over the winter because of soil erosion, which does not exist in this damp climate? Those are not good regulations, and I would happily diverge from what Brussels has instructed us to do. Many of the 2,800 regulations that have been imposed on us since 1974 are not fit for purpose in Northern Ireland.

Mr Blair: The Minister will be aware from the debate last week on the legislative consent mechanism that there is real concern out there that the measures emanating from that LCM do not totally cover all the pillars that are covered by the existing CAP. What action has the Minister taken to address that? If he has not done so already, will he meet the Ulster Farmers' Union to discuss that?

Mr Poots: I am meeting the farmers' union tomorrow. If they have issues of concern, I will be happy to listen. All the evidence that I have found shows that we will be able to carry out everything that was in the CAP pillar 1, with one exception, which is a very good exception: because of EU rules, in October 2019, we gave farmers 70% of the funding; in October 2020, because we are out of the European Union, we will give 100% to farmers. I do not think that the farmers' union will object to that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Mr Poots: I am aware of the difficulties experienced by the farmers affected by flooding in 2017. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, workshops were held in affected areas to provide advice and practical support covering farm management issues and land restoration. Technical bulletins were also issued, and, more recently, officials have met local residents to explore well-being and business development matters.

In terms of financial assitance, in 2017, the Department took steps to make enhanced advance CAP payments at a rate of 70% to help to alleviate cash flow issues experienced by farmers. In addition, the Department approved force majeure declarations on affected farmland that had been submitted for basic payment scheme support at the time, thus ensuring that there was no reduction in those payments due to flood damage. DAERA has since provided half a million pounds of funding to the Loughs Agency to carry out remedial riparian fencing works in the worst affected areas. That repair work commenced in November 2019 and is ongoing. Under its statutory conservation and protection remit, the Loughs Agency continues to undertake work in the affected areas.

Ms C Kelly: Will you give any timeline for when the funding will be issued to affected farms?

Mr Poots: The funding that was identified has been issued. The Department has been carrying out work on fencing that was damaged during the flood since November.

Mr T Buchanan: Will the Minister advise how, in the event of any aid package, all farmers who were affected — some were affected a lot more than others — will benefit fairly and equitably?

Mr Poots: The official recommendation is that we do not do a scheme; let us be clear about that. If we were to do a scheme, it would be a hardship scheme, which would be based on ministerial direction. Ministerial directions are used exceptionally, but, nonetheless, they are used. I used ministerial direction in a previous Department and was criticised by the media for doing it. In that instance, it was to give capital money to the Northern Ireland Hospice and to Mencap for two absolutely brilliant schemes. I was criticised for diverging from the advice of officials. If I were to do a scheme in this instance, it would be something that diverged from officials' advice and something on which I would have to give ministerial direction to do, on the basis of hardship. I have not taken that decision at this point.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, you will be aware that other areas have flooded extensively over the past number of years and some of that flooding has impacted on the local fishing community around Lough Neagh. Will any consideration be given to other industries, such as the fishing industry?

Mr Poots: The Member has just highlighted one of the problems that I would have in going against the advice of officials, because they are concerned about setting precedents. The Member has just demonstrated that this will not be confined to one area. If I take some action, others may use that as a precedent to take further action in later times.

Dr Aiken: Will de minimis aid continue to be an issue now that we are no longer a member of the EU?

Mr Poots: I can do that if I wish to, but I need to be convinced of its merits and of the true hardship that has come about as a result of what happened. There is a lot of merit in the argument being made by Members for West Tyrone that there has been real hardship caused, but, nonetheless, it will be a challenging decision for me to make and one that I want to give absolute thought to.

Ms Bailey: It is good to hear that the Minister is signalling his willingness to stick to ministerial direction. Will he be just as keen to stick to the direction from the House? I think of his decision last week not to call an inquiry into the Mobuoy waste dump despite unanimous support from all in the House to do so.

Mr Poots: That is not particularly relevant to the question. The Member will find that I am a very independent-minded person, but I also like to think that I am reasonably fair and try to take everything into account. I can deal with the issue that has been raised at the appropriate time and under appropriate questions.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. I am sympathetic to the creation of a register of those convicted of animal welfare offences. However, responsibility for doing so is not entirely within my gift, as conviction data is strictly controlled and managed by the Department of Justice. The matter has been considered in detail by my Department and the Department of Justice as part of the review of the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which was published in February 2016. The creation of such a register is very complex and would require data protection, human rights and prohibitive cost issues to be overcome. My officials have engaged with the Department of Justice on the matter and will continue to do so in order to explore whether the issues could be resolved. I am minded to raise the issue with my ministerial colleague Naomi Long, who has responsibility for the Department of Justice, in the first instance.

Ms S Bradley: I appreciate the Minister's reply, but horrific and often stomach-churning incidents of animal cruelty have been reported in recent times. The impediments that you raise are fair, but there is an urgency in getting past them and finding a way of moving forward. Obviously, it is a changing world, but will the Minister, in his role on the Brexit committee, commit to giving an assurance that he will find ways to make sure that the culprits have no place to hide and that he will work with the UK and Irish Governments to find a way of making a register a real, live document?

Mr Poots: I wholly appreciate the Member's view, which I share. I will outline a few of the difficulties that have been faced in other jurisdictions. In England, DEFRA has fielded similar requests and encountered similar difficulties to those found in Northern Ireland regarding access to information in a register and important legal issues around data processing and transfer.

DEFRA's view was that the Police National Computer is, to all intents, a register of offenders, though access to it is limited exclusively to the police. The RSPCA and local authorities, therefore, do not have access to the information except for limited purposes.


3.00 pm

In Wales in 2017, the Government created a ministerial task and finish group, which was chaired by the RSPCA, to explore options for an animal offenders register for Wales. The group produced a number of recommendations but was not able to recommend the development of an animal offenders register, and that view was accepted by the Minister. It found that there were significant barriers to the creation of the register — for example, the legal obstacles to data sharing that could not be overcome — and it stated that, where registers had been established, there was absence of evidence to prove their effectiveness. In particular, the group observed that, increasingly, animal welfare agencies in the USA, which first introduced registers, were concluding that they do not work.

The Republic of Ireland does not have any plans to introduce an animal offenders register, and the Scottish Government have no plans to develop a register. I actually would like to develop the register. I will engage with Minister Long to see whether we can lead the way on and overcome this issue, but I do not want the House to think that this will be easy. Clearly, if others have tried it and have not been able to deliver it, it is hugely complex.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister prove himself to be a Minister for animal welfare by introducing comprehensive anti-animal cruelty legislation that will include a ban on hunting with dogs and the use of snares?

Mr Poots: We have previously demonstrated how we support animal welfare. I was very heavily involved, as a Member of the Assembly and a member of the Justice Committee, in bringing forward the toughest legislation on cruelty to animals anywhere in these islands. So, I do not think I have to prove myself to the Member. I have already demonstrated what I am worth on these issues. We will look logically at all these matters.

Mr Clarke: I listened carefully to what the Minister said about these registers not necessarily working in other areas. I concur with that. Will the Minister, with his colleagues, work against those who finish up on a register to make sure that the penalty for those involved is much more severe than names being recorded? Many of us know the names that would appear on it anyhow.

Mr Poots: We probably all recall the awful case of Cody the dog. My colleague Mr Givan was heavily involved in raising all the issues surrounding that case, which ended in a custodial sentence. In my view, the individual who caused such suffering to that animal should never be able to allowed to keep an animal again in his life. Other incidents have come across very clearly on our news screens over the years. People have been successfully prosecuted, and what we heard from those prosecutions is truly awful. We need to take action where we can against people who go out of their way to be cruel and do real harm to animals. One of the actions I want taken against them is that they are never able to keep animals. That is why I have substantial sympathy with the Member who asked the original question, because having a register may be helpful in allowing us to do that. I am just saying it is going to be very difficult to create it.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. Since 2015, 52 people have been convicted of illegal waste disposal offences through the criminal courts. Of the 52 convicted, one person was sentenced to a custodial term of six months' imprisonment.

Mr Allister: Does the Minister agree that that ratio of effective deterrent by way of prison sentence is disappointing? This is a scenario where very severe harm has been done by illegal waste disposal, and to find that only one person has paid with their liberty is surely disappointing. Since much of this illegal waste came, we are told, from the Republic of Ireland, what progress has there been in securing recompense from the authorities in the Republic for these matters?

Mr Poots: The Member raised two valuable issues. In terms of recompense, 17 sites were identified as having waste that emanated from the Republic of Ireland. Of those, 11 have been repatriated. Six have not. Those sites go back in excess of 10 years, because the repatriation work started when I was Minister, which was from 2009 to 2011. It started as a result of me writing to the European Commission as a Back-Bench MLA, I think in 2006. That is a course of work that started and was never completed, so once the new Minister is in place, I will be making a phone call wanting to know when they are taking the waste from the other six sites.

One of the recommendations of the Mills review after Mobuoy was that we work through the Department of Justice to persuade the judiciary of the seriousness of waste crime not just to the environment but to the economy of Northern Ireland, and to encourage them to ensure that sentencing for those offences was comparable with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is huge money to be made from waste crime, and slaps on the wrist will not cut it when dealing with these criminals.

Mr Durkan: Miss Bailey beat me to the question, but maybe I will beat her to the answer if I can ask the Minister to outline the rationale behind his decision to dismiss calls for a public inquiry into the huge illegal dump at Mobuoy, how that happened and, potentially, how that was allowed to happen.

Mr Poots: It is actually very appropriate to raise the question under this one, so I am happy to answer Mr Durkan — and Miss Bailey in this instance. Even though the question came from somebody else, the sentiment came from her.

The Mills review was established subsequent to that decision in the Assembly, and it identified a number of issues. I find that inquiries tend to be slow, expensive and laborious, and they very often deliver us answers that we already knew quite a number of years in advance, so public inquiries are not always the answer. These are the recommendations, and people can make a suggestion if something has been missed, and I will be happy to listen:

"The DOE should make the outcome of a waste sector that complies with the law, protects the environment and underpins resource efficiency, a priority.

Develop a comprehensive strategy, with a detailed action plan, to achieve this outcome, which initially focuses on preventing waste crime.

Create a new single Directorate within NIEA to bring together the existing regulatory and enforcement teams along with a new Intelligence Unit to achieve this outcome.

Adopt and develop the concept of 'intelligent regulation' in order to be sufficiently adaptive to deal with a range of operators, from the criminal to the compliant.

Change the current appointment and recruitment processes to allow the targeted recruitment and appointment of staff with the right aptitudes, skills and experience to carry out regulatory work. This should be supported by structured training, professional development and a defined career structure.

Review in an integrated way the need for additional powers to carry out this work by means of a Task and Finish Group and involving all relevant DOE units including Planning with legal support and input from the PSNI."

Have I another 40 seconds, Mr Deputy Speaker? Thank you.

"Make it harder for waste to fall into the hands of criminal operators by strengthening the Duty of Care provisions, Fit & Proper Person Test and systems for monitoring and analysing waste flows.

Limit the number of waste authorisations to the number necessary to meet Northern Ireland’s projected waste needs and create the necessary new strategic waste infrastructure which can be more easily regulated and monitored.

Make changes to the current planning enforcement policy to no longer allow the granting of retrospective planning permission for sand and gravel workings.

Work through the Department of Justice to persuade the Judiciary" —

Well, I have done that one.

"Create a new sanction in the legislation to make the polluter pay to remediate or remove illegally deposited waste.

Ensure that the DOE works more closely with other Government Departments and Agencies in Northern Ireland, with the other Environment Agencies in the UK and Ireland and through relevant European organisations and initiatives".

There are a lot of things there that we could and should do.

Mr Butler: I hope the Minister's answer will be briefer this time round. In the light of the professed collegiate approach across all parties of the Assembly to protect and cherish our environment, will the Minister commit to a review of the judicial penalties for illegal waste disposal with the Minister of Justice and go further to invest in an additional aspect of education as a preventative measure for future-proofing?

Mr Poots: Fines have ranged from £100 to £40,000, and there has been a range of suspended terms of imprisonment sentences and community service orders being handed down in the criminal courts, and the majority of convictions have been on indictment at the Crown Court. We need to ensure that the penalty matches the crime, and if the crime is something where people are making hundreds of thousands — even millions of pounds — and they get a penalty of £10,000, that is not appropriate. That is something I am happy to work through and look at with the Department of Justice to ensure that the polluter pays heavily.

Mr Buckley: The Minister is well aware of the large-scale dumping of illegal tyres that I had to deal with in my constituency, at The Birches in Portadown, last week. Will he outline what his Department can do to help support rural communities that are very often left with the aftermath?

Mr Poots: The Department has a polluter pays principle, but identifying the polluter in these instances is incredibly difficult. I have been aware of this happening in quite a number of locations, even in my constituency, where a truckload of tyres is driven into the countryside, tipped in a lane and someone else has to pick up the responsibility of dealing with that. It is grossly unfair.

When I was in the DOE, there were lots of opportunities to deal with waste tyres in a way that, I believe, would have been beneficial to the environment. I regret that, some 10 years later, we are still dealing with the same problem, and there have not been the advances in dealing with waste tyres that there should have been. Obviously, the tyre companies receive money from every individual who has a tyre changed, and therefore we should be able to identify where each of those tyres goes. In instances where the companies' records do not stack up, we should be able to look at prosecution.

Mr Muir: In relation to illegal dumping and environmental crime, what plans are there to devolve more powers to local government so that they can enforce this? They are at the coalface in relation to a lot of this.

Mr Poots: I am happy to work with local government on the issue. At the minute, the NIEA takes the lead on this issue. I am not sure that it is a power that local governments necessarily want, but it is something that I am prepared to talk to the Northern Ireland Local Government Association about. If we can do it a better way, I am happy to look at doing it that way.

Miss Woods: Does the Minister agree that a budget of £143,000 per annum for cleanup of smaller scale waste deposits is enough, where the offender cannot be identified, and that that budget is being used, not reactively but effectively, to stop illegal dumping?

Mr Poots: That is a relatively small budget, and it is used in instances where we are not catching the people. Having a larger budget for that purpose may not be well placed in that, ultimately, we want to take action to stop it happening in the first place. If it does happen, we want to take action against the individuals who did it. This is the last resort, where neither of the first two options have worked. Therefore, we do not really want to see a huge amount of money expended on cleaning up after other people's bad behaviour.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Mr Robinson, we may be able to get your question in briefly here.

Mr Poots: Case numbers were required by European Commission regulations and, as we have now left the EU, my officials will take the opportunity to review the allocation process. Where possible, they will simplify and streamline the process to reduce both the administrative burden on farmers applying for business ID and the length of time that they have to wait for ID after applying, while still making sure that business IDs are only allocated to authentic farm businesses.

The process of allocating business IDs allows my officials to ensure that funding goes to genuine and separate farm businesses and that farm businesses are not artificially created to claim grants to which they are not entitled or to avoid legal obligations at farm level.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There is time for a very brief supplementary question and answer.

Mr Robinson: Does the Minister agree that members of the young farmers' scheme who have been working on the farm and are taking it over or inheriting it are disadvantaged by the six-year rule under CTY 10, which prevents them applying for planning permission for a dwelling, and that could seriously affect their ability to operate their business?


3.15 pm

Mr Poots: Each farm is allowed to make an application every 10 years, and that goes with the farm, not with the individual. If there are two separate and distinct farms, they will be able to apply for two sites every 10 years. However, it needs to be the case that there is a separate and distinct farm unit.

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

Down Royal: Funding Difficulties

T1. Ms Ennis asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether he is aware of the funding difficulties facing Down Royal park, given that he will be aware that Down Royal is the only racecourse that offers grade 1 racing in the North, holding the unique place as the shopfront of the Irish equine industry here, with over 1,000 thoroughbred horses and breeders and a direct spend by the sector that is estimated by Deloitte to be between £170 million and £212 million per year, albeit that, unfortunately, Down Royal’s status has been put in jeopardy due to difficulties it has experienced in drawing down funding from the horse racing fund. (AQT 11/17-22)

Mr Poots: Down Royal is in my constituency, and I am aware that a change in ownership is being used as a reason not to pay the money to Down Royal. That is entirely wrong, in my opinion. Whilst the ownership has changed, the functions and purpose of the racecourse have not changed. I support the industry — the betting and gambling industry — paying up to Down Royal in this instance.

Ms Ennis: I accept what the Minister says and that he is aware of the issue. Will he commit to sorting out the funding issues for Down Royal park? How will he prevent such an issue arising in future?

Mr Poots: Yes, we will continue to work on the issue and to see whether we can amend the regulations around it, so that, if an ownership changes but the purpose continues to be the same, others will not be able to drop out of previous agreements.

Farm Income

T2. Ms C Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline the steps his Department is taking to address falling farm income, which fell by a staggering 25% between 2018 and 2019 and is further compounded by the uncertainties created by Brexit. (AQT 12/17-22)

Mr Poots: When it comes to falling incomes, we live in a scenario of global markets. In some years, we will do better, because others have been less fortunate. Sometimes, there will be major floods. In Australia, for example, there have been major fires this year. Those things generally have an impact on global prices. In the last year, however, as the Member said, prices have fallen by over 25% and that is from a pretty low base in the first instance.

In the United Kingdom, in particular, there are three groups that benefit from food production: the farmers, the processors and the supermarkets. The consumer has to pay for what is offered. The farmer always seems to be the one who gets the poor return vis-à-vis the processor and, in particular, the supermarkets. Some of the things that are being imposed, particularly by the supermarkets, are grossly unfair, and they will lead to farmers receiving very poor prices.

I make the argument that the Assembly has adopted a policy of Fairtrade to ensure that coffee farmers, for example, in South America or farmers who produce quality fruit in west Africa and so forth get a decent price for their goods: we should ensure that farmers in Northern Ireland get a decent price for their goods as well.

Ms C Kelly: Does the Minister recognise that the ending of the areas of natural constraint compensatory payment is a further blow to the income of hill farmers?

Mr Poots: That decision was taken some years ago, and it finally closed in 2018. Going forward, we need to look at new ways of providing support for farmers. I indicated to the Committee on Thursday that hill farmers are so important to our ecosystem, our environment and the production of quality goods that are often finished down in the lowlands, but, nonetheless, the role of hill farmers is critical going forward. I want to devise a scheme beyond 2020 that is good for all farmers. I want it to be good for hill farmers, because I do not want them to be left behind.

T3. Mr Muir asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs when he envisages the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency, in light of the commitment given in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ document. (AQT 13/17-22)

Mr Poots: Obviously, we are having a debate on that issue later. We know that an Office for Environmental Protection is being established in GB. In all of that, is an independent environment agency in place of or in addition to the NIEA? Is an independent protection agency to oversee, for example, what the European Commission would have overseen? Is it, therefore, something that would be done alongside the NIEA, or would we see it entirely replacing the NIEA? We all need to have that discussion at Executive level to see the best way forward.

Mr Muir: With that office being established in England and Wales and with there already being an agency in Scotland and one in Ireland, do you not think that there is a risk of Northern Ireland being left behind on the British Isles with regard to environmental governance, especially in light of our exit from the European Union?

Mr Poots: We have some very good environmental standards in Northern Ireland, and the NIEA works hard on many of those things to ensure that we do our jobs well and the environment is protected. I am not opposed to an independent environmental protection agency, but I want to look at all the issues around it to see what is the best way forward. I know that, for example, in Aberdeenshire, with an independent environmental protection agency, a decision on an incinerator was passed in six months, whereas, in Northern Ireland, 10 years later, they are still arguing about one. There is the suggestion that things may be a lot tighter as a result of having an independent EPA, but they may not be. Such an agency may be less inclined to have political influence put upon it, from wherever it happens to come, be it from people who want less regulation or more regulation. We all need to look at the matter seriously, and I am certainly not ruling it out.

T4. Mr Carroll asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether he has any plans to tackle the growing threat of air pollution, given the clear evidence that it is at dangerous levels across Belfast, with, for example, the Stockmans area of West Belfast being one of the worst flashpoints for pollution levels. (AQT 14/17-22)

Mr Poots: Certainly, one of the greatest areas of air pollution is transportation. Combustion engines are, I suppose, the greatest source of that. The Member has indicated that there are problems in an area where cars are not moving very quickly, so going ahead and addressing one of the blockades to the movement of vehicles, which is at the Westlink/M2 interchange, would be hugely beneficial.

I also think that looking at how we can support more electric cars on the road would be beneficial. Currently, we provide all the electric points at a public cost. I know that that is being done on a 50:50 basis in the Republic of Ireland, so the private sector contributes to that. We need to be flexible and ready to move and assist people to move to electric cars. In Northern Ireland, we produce well over 40% of our electricity from renewable sources. When cars run on electricity here, there is a genuine good coming from that. However, 37% of electric in Germany, for example, comes from coal-fired power stations, so moving to an electric car in Germany may be more harmful to the environment. Northern Ireland has ploughed ahead with renewable energy, so we have a great benefit from moving down that route.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his reply. I add that investment in cycling and public transport is very important. Are the Minister and his officials happy to meet me, alongside some of the residents of the Stockmans area, to talk about what he and his Department can do to alleviate the air pollution levels?

Mr Poots: Of course we are. I am here to serve Members, because they serve the people of Northern Ireland, so I am happy to meet the Member.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Again, it is a North Belfast question.

T5. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the delays to the Northern Ireland food animal information system (NIFAIS). (AQT 15/17-22)

Mr Poots: Sorry, the Northern Ireland —?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Food animal information.

Mr Poots: I am not exactly sure of that one, so I will take a note of it and reply in writing to the Member.

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is NIFAIS.

Mr Poots: OK. I will reply in writing.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I presume that you will not require a supplementary question [Laughter.]

Ms Ní Chuilín: If the Minister wants to know about NIFAIS, I can meet him after topical questions to give him an update [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That was a supplementary, all right, to the Minister.

I call Mike Nesbitt for a question.

Mr Nesbitt: Lucky old me.

T6. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given the fact that the local fishing fleet is so dependent on foreign national workers, for his assessment of the negative impact of last week's ruling from the UK's migration advisory committee, which recommended that tier 2 visas should not be granted to the fishing industry. (AQT 16/17-22)

Mr Poots: I was with the fishermen in Portavogie last week. I thank Harry Harvey for being in attendance at that meeting. In particular, they raised the issue of the skills base in fishing and the fact that the people who are being brought in are recognised not as skilled workers but as labourers. Given the complexities that are involved in preparing and making nets, in the catching and identifying of fish and in all that goes with that, those involved should be recognised as a skilled workforce. Consequently, that is something that we will press on the national Government. Sadly, a lot of our young people have left the fishing industry as a consequence of the common fisheries policy and of the actions that the European Union has taken. When the United Kingdom gets its waters back — its 200-mile limit — there will be limitless opportunities for the fishing industry. Therefore, we need those people to come and support us until we get our young people back into fishing.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his answer. When we do take back the powers and leave the common fisheries policy, does the Minister believe that the new policy should be set by Westminster or devolved to Stormont?

Mr Poots: The policies on fishing and on what takes place on the waters will be set by the devolved Administrations. However, polices on migration will remain in Westminster. It is therefore up to us to maximise our influence with Westminster to ensure that the right policies are applied to support what is, in Northern Ireland, an industry that is very good at producing high-quality food for the many people who live in cities in other parts of the United Kingdom.

T7. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what action he is taking to increase woodland across Northern Ireland, which stands at around 8% and is the lowest in Europe. (AQT 17/17-22)

Mr Poots: The Member is right in pointing out the figure of 8%. However, we have some of the higher margins when it comes to hedgerows. You could drive through parts of Scotland and England and see various pieces of woodland, but alongside the road there is nothing. We have a lot of hedgerows, but I am committed to increasing the number of trees that are being planted. Currently, my Department plants around 2,000 hectares a year: we want to increase that significantly.

We are planting around 2 million trees per annum, but there are great opportunities to increase that.

3.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There is time for a very brief supplementary and answer.

Mr Blair: Very briefly, does the Minister agree that there should be a joined-up approach on that with councils, NGOs and voluntary bodies to increase the woodland and, of course, the number of hedgerows?

Mr Poots: Yes, we have written to all those bodies and all the Departments asking them to contact their arm's-length bodies, local authorities etc, to see what opportunities there are to plant public land with trees. So, that is something we are already doing, and I encourage the Member to encourage Departments to come back to us quickly, because the sooner they come back to us the sooner we can get on with the job of creating more woodland, which will be a great carbon sink.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Thank you, Minister. Before the next questions, I ask Members to take their ease while there is a change of Chair.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Communities

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank the Member for this important question. A society that understands the past is stronger for the future. Therefore, it is important to me that my Department helps communities to enjoy and realise the value of our historic environment. My Department's relevant powers and responsibilities are set out in two pieces of legislation: the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects Order 1995; and the Planning Act 2011.

Under the legislation, my Department has a duty to maintain 190 state care monuments and to facilitate access where possible. My Department is responsible for compiling a schedule of historic monuments, and there are currently approximately 2,000 scheduled. Scheduling provides additional protection through the requirement for scheduled monument consent before carrying out any alterations to these monuments.

My Department is responsible for drawing up a list of buildings of special architectural or historical interest. Currently, we have around 8,900 listed buildings. Making alterations without listed building consent is an offence. My Department must be consulted by planning authorities on applications that affect listed buildings and historic monuments, and also on draft local development plans. I will be engaging with councils in the time ahead around those local development plans as they progress.

My Department also has special powers regarding enforcement action for unregulated work to protected places and buildings and to fund activities relating to the historic environment. In the use of its powers, my Department seeks to work closely with relevant communities and stakeholders to ensure that we strive to hand down to the next generation the rich heritage we have inherited.

Mr Beattie: Thank you, Minister, for a comprehensive answer. I ask you to please bear with me on this one. Knock Iveagh is a regionally important prehistoric burial site just outside Rathfriland that dates back to 3500 BC. It was later used as an inauguration site for early medieval Irish kings and is scheduled for protection under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects Order 1995.

Since 2013, the historic environment division, which is one of yours, has failed to protect this site, allowing significant development to take place. If it were not for the Friends of Knock Iveagh, our heritage on that site would now be destroyed. Therefore, what action is the Minister going to take to fix the Government-sponsored vandalism of Knock Iveagh so that the ratepayers of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon are not left out of pocket due to her Department's failures?

Ms Hargey: Thanks very much for your supplementary. I commend those organisations and campaign groups at a grassroots level that work to protect our heritage and environment. I am aware of the Knock Iveagh issue. In 2017, a telephone mast was erected. My Department consulted the council, and there was successful enforcement action. Obviously there are ongoing issues around the wind turbine, which was also erected in 2017. That was from a previous planning permission from the Department of the Environment at that time, dating back to 2013 and which my Department was not consulted on.

Obviously, since then, planning powers have been transferred to local authorities. I engaged with my Department this week, and it is keen. We have been having ongoing engagement with the local council looking at the issue and the planning that was granted, and I will continue to do that, while also liaising with the Department for Infrastructure around the impact that that is having on that historic site in the time ahead. I give a commitment to you. I am happy to sit down and engage with you and to meet with the community group to see if we can get a resolution in taking this mater forward.

Ms Armstrong: When I contacted officials in the Minister's Department while this place was not sitting, they stated that they did not have enough resources to adequately protect and take preventative action against owners of historic sites like Kircubbin harbour in my constituency to prevent them being destroyed through lack of upkeep. What action will the Minister take to resource her Department so that it can take legal action to require private owners to fulfil their responsibility to look after such sites?

Ms Hargey: Thanks very much for your question. A number of funding streams have been in place since 2016, particularly around historic environments, and one is the historic environment fund. We provide funds of over £800,000 per year to look at those issues. Whilst I recognise that there are constraints, some of that is because of austerity and the impact on budgets in my Department. Just under £300 million has been taken out of the Department over the last five years. There is a broader conversation to have in the Executive, looking at the block grant and the impact of austerity. I give a commitment that I am looking at all of those in the budget-setting process going forward, ensuring that we have the necessary resources in place but also ensuring that those most in need are prioritised. If there are specifics that you would like to raise with me, I am more than happy to meet and provide follow-up information.

Mr Speaker: Questions 7 and 12 have been withdrawn.

Ms Hargey: This is a crucial area, and, obviously, since I came into post three weeks ago, it has been high up on my agenda. Members of this Chamber have raised concerns, and also groups who work at the coalface of this issue. Thank you for raising the question. It is a serious problem for people who are claiming universal credit for the first time.

When the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was here a few weeks ago when the institutions were re-established, I made it clear to him that welfare reform was hurting many of our people, and particularly the most vulnerable in our society. I reiterated to the Prime Minister that austerity and the attack of welfare changes was punishing poor people for being poor. I think that that is playing out, and not just here; we are also looking at the consequences of that approach in England, Scotland and Wales, where the poorest people are suffering.

Each week, approximately 860 new claimants for universal credit are due to receive their first payment, with 95% of those paid at the end of the first five-week period. Whilst I am pleased that my staff are able to make sure that most people get their first payment when it is due, I do not believe that it is right to make people wait that long in the first instance, so there is a critical factor that needs to be addressed. I believe that waiting five weeks for the first payment is wrong. It is clear that I need to state that. It also creates real hardship for families, forcing many into debt and having to use food banks. Again, we hear those stories on a daily basis.

Ultimately, I want to deliver a welfare system that is compassionate, and that sits with the New Decade, New Approach deal, where we are saying that we want to have politics that is different, is compassionate and protects the most vulnerable, and a system that is based on objective need to ensure that those who need it get it. My approach is to embed a human rights-based approach in the Department when looking at issues of social security and dignity. I have engaged with a number of welfare groups and campaigners over the past couple of weeks, and among the key points that were raised was the way in which people's dignity is stripped from them when they go through these processes and the impact of universal credit. That is something that we need to deal with collectively.

A range of flexibilities and mitigations that were agreed by the previous Executive are helping to offset some of the worst aspects of welfare reform here. One of those is the universal credit contingency fund, which is unique to here. Other places, such as England and Wales, are looking at the mitigations that we were able to secure, because they are having an impact, albeit they do not go far enough.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Minister to wind-up her remarks.

Ms Hargey: The fund is available to anyone who is making a claim for universal credit and is experiencing hardship, and, to date, it has paid out over £1·5 million and impacted on 7,500 lives.

There are serious issues with universal credit. I have given a commitment to the Human Rights Commission; Professor Eileen Evason, who led on the first round of mitigations; and the Cliff Edge Coalition that I will look seriously at the issue in the time ahead. I also want to engage with Members to look at what further progress and mitigations we can make as we move forward.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members and the Minister that there is a time limit for contributions.

Ms Bunting: I thank the Minister for her very detailed answer. As she knows, the delays often extend to three months, which, in some cases, on top of all their other financial pressures, can see clients facing eviction from their homes. What does she plan to do to streamline the process? Will she implement a repayment plan for those who have availed themselves of an advance payment? The entire repayment of that loan is being taken from the client's initial universal credit payment and that often results in extended hardship and means that it takes clients longer to stabilise their finances. Will the Minister consider implementing a repayment plan?

Ms Hargey: Yes, those are the issues that I will be looking at over the coming weeks. Obviously, there are repayments up to 12 months for the advance payments and they can be extended to 15 months under exceptional circumstances. From October 2021, that will extend to 16 months, but we can do more. I will engage with the grassroots who have been impacted by this to look at what the Department can do to set protections and look at changes that we can make. I commit to doing that and I will announce plans in the coming weeks on how I will take that forward.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far and congratulate her on her post, as I have not addressed her since she took office. The Minister in her first answer mentioned, among other things, food banks. Since some parties here voted to introduce welfare reform and universal credit, how many food banks have opened here and how many people have been forced to access them for vital support?

Ms Hargey: I do not have the exact numbers on food banks, but I can follow that up. As I touched on earlier, the welfare agenda and making cuts was ideologically driven by the Tory Government. We do not have our own fiscal powers and we are reliant on a block grant. People will remember that, back in 2016, when this issue was on the agenda, threats to the block grant were made and penalties imposed on a regular basis because there was no agreement.

We have the mitigations in place. I made an announcement today, which I will speak to in answer to another question, on extending those mitigations. I will also be engaging with food banks to find out the intelligence from the people who access those services. What more can we do to protect people? Are there further mitigations that we can look at? Are there fundamental changes to the welfare and social security system that we need to make? This is about protecting the most vulnerable and prioritising those who are in greatest need and that is something that I will lay out in the time ahead. Importantly, I will be engaging with those in the sector on the ground who are working with and talking to the people who have been directly impacted.


3.45 pm

Mr Allen: I am sure that we, as constituency MLAs, have all seen the impact of welfare reform and universal credit right across our respective constituencies. Is the Minister confident that the IT infrastructure for universal credit is suitably efficient to deal with the number of claims coming through? Will it be able to deal with the capacity of claims when universal credit is fully rolled out across Northern Ireland in respect of new claimants and those on legacy benefits?

Ms Hargey: Thank you for your question. This is an issue that I first raised when I went in to the Department. Obviously, we have not seen the full roll-out of universal credit. We have been looking closely at the pilot in England. We need to ensure that we have the IT systems in place, particularly where we want to mitigate and protect against the worst excesses of the austerity agenda. I have asked officials to look at what additional measures we need to bring in and to ensure that those are costed. I will provide that information in the time ahead. I know, from the questions that he has sent me, that the Member has a keen interest in that. I am more than happy to sit down with you, as I move forward with new proposals, to seek your advice and recommendations and to hear about the experiences of the claimants who come in to your office. I am keen to sit down and have a chat with you.

Ms Bailey: It is great to hear the Minister saying that she will make announcements in the near future about any potential changes that she can make to the awful process that we now have. She said that an announcement will be forthcoming, but does she have powers to make changes, for example, for people who make claims for universal credit and are suffering life-limiting or terminal diagnoses, such as cancer? I have been working for over two years with people who have been forced through the process, are still getting turned down and have to appeal the decision. Does she have the power to, for example, not force that on those people any more?

Ms Hargey: Thank you for your question. I will have a meeting this week with a number of people who have been impacted by the cruel policy of the six-month rule. It is something that I will look at in the time ahead. Obviously, all of that is subject to budgets, because we do not get the additional money through the block grant. I will look at further mitigations to protect the most vulnerable. I will outline my plans, but, importantly, I will look at co-design with the community and voluntary sector and the advice sector and also those who have been directly impacted: the people on the ground who receive those social security protections. I want to listen to them in the time ahead and consider what else we can do. It is not always a financial solution. Obviously, money is one part of it, but we could make fundamental changes to the system to make it easier for people to access and receive the support when they need it. I will look at that issue in the coming weeks.

Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for her question. The Executive policy of integrating social considerations into contracts defines public-sector commitments to incorporate social clauses into public procurement. The buy social model has been operated by the strategic investment board since 2016 and has proven to be an effective means of providing targeted recruitment and training opportunities for long-term unemployed people, apprentices and students. Social clauses are intended to provide genuine, sustainable training and employment opportunities and are not to be seen as a source of low-cost labour.

I am committed to the promotion of the buy social model to incorporate social clauses into construction and services contracts according to the relevant thresholds as set out in the procurement guidance. I will also do other work cross-departmentally around a social value Act, which is an important piece of work. I have experience from working in local government of looking at local government strategies around inclusive growth. It is a critical point as we move forward that contracts cannot be looked at just in terms of low cost. We need to look at the impact that they have on social value and on targeting objective need, and also at issues around how we change the culture and use public procurement and contracts to do that on issues such as a living wage, where we mark up those employers who are living wage employers to try to create a more just economic model and system.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. We all recognise the immense benefit of local and social clauses. I welcome the fact that she is working cross-departmentally on a social value Act. Will she ensure that the Department follows international best practice to maximise the impact of social clauses?

Ms Hargey: Yes, I will look at those best practices and take them forward in the time ahead.

Ms P Bradley: We have had social clauses under various Ministers in what was DSD over many years, and those social clauses, on many occasions, were not fit for purpose and did not have the real value that was intended. In going forward, will the Minister talk to the Minister for the Economy to look at those skills and trades, which will help our communities not only in the next few years but for many years to come to build capacity among those communities in those skills and trades?

Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for making an important point. I have written to the Minister for the Economy to pick up on a number of those issues, so I hope that we will meet in the coming weeks. This is one of the issues around the skills and employability agenda that we will discuss in the time ahead, so hopefully we can move forward on those issues cross-departmentally.

Mr Stalford: I welcome the Minister to her place and wish her well. She and I both served on Belfast City Council, and she knows that the experience there with social clauses was not a universally positive one. People point to the skyline of Belfast and its expansion as a sign of the progress that we are making, and that is true. Does the Minister agree that it is essential that inner-city communities, such as the Markets, Sandy Row, Donegall Pass, the Village and Donegall Road, see the benefit of major government contracts and that it is not simply measured by extra buildings going up? Does she agree that social clauses, properly implemented, will be a useful way of ensuring that those communities see the benefits of major infrastructure projects?

Ms Hargey: I agree wholeheartedly with the Member. Thank you for your question. It should be about the social value that is added and particularly about targeting objective need. I fully agree with that, and I will look closely at that in the time ahead.