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Official Report: Monday 02 March 2020


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

Ministerial Statements

Inter-ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Members, I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Bear with us just for a moment.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sorry. I nipped out for a glass of water. I did not realise that I was going to be called first.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the meeting of the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs that took place on 17 February 2020. The group provides central coordination and promotion of greater collaboration in areas of shared interest between portfolio Ministers who lead on agriculture, fisheries, the environment, forestry and rural affairs in the UK Administrations. The meeting considers policy, delivery, and technical and legislative matters on which the Administrations have determined to engage multilaterally. There are well-established and good working relationships with UK Departments, and my Department continues to ensure that NI issues are recognised and fully understood at UK level to help inform UK-EU negotiations. I therefore welcome the opportunity to update you on the discussions of the meeting that I chaired here in Belfast.

The participating Ministers were: from the UK Government, George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and from the Scottish Government, Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, and Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, was unfortunately unable to participate because of the floods, so the Welsh Government were represented by Mr Tim Render, the Welsh Government's director of environment and rural affairs.

In preparation for the EU and rest-of-the-world negotiations, DEFRA officials presented a paper that reflected the broad context for trade negotiations in 2020, along with an overarching summary of UK Government trade priorities in EFRA areas, highlighting known devolved Administration priorities. Ministers from each of the Administrations highlighted their priority sectors and issues, noting the risks of not reaching a trade agreement with the EU.

I indicated to the meeting that a deal that consisted of zero tariffs and zero quotas would be highly desirable and highlighted Northern Ireland’s unique position in relation to regulatory alignment with the EU. I emphasised the huge and fundamental problems for Northern Ireland agri-food businesses that would be caused by imposing tariffs from GB to NI.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Eustice, recognised the unique Northern Ireland issues in relation to the protocol, east-west trade, tariffs, sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks and market integrity and agreed that those issues would require a bilateral meeting for further discussion.

I also indicated that it was important to agree the maintenance of a high level of standards in Great Britain to minimise unfair competition from third-country imports that are produced to a lower standard and cost and to build a reputation for the UK as a safe and reputable source of food supply to global markets. In particular, I asked how the UK would protect the integrity of the food industry. I was informed by Mr Eustice that the UK would adopt an intelligence and risk-based approach to import control.

I, along with the Ministers from the other devolved Administrations, emphasised the importance of meaningful engagement in the negotiation of new trade agreements. DEFRA agreed to share documents as early as possible and to encourage other Whitehall Departments to do likewise.

The meeting then considered the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and agreed a cross-Administration technical work plan to progress that constructively. I raised concerns regarding the significant tariffs that could be incurred by the fishing industry. I also sought clarification on what "unfettered access" to GB would mean for Northern Ireland.

To ensure domestic preparedness for December 2020, the group also agreed to produce a shared set of planning assumptions to prepare for broad scenarios at the end of the transition period and discussed border preparations and business engagement. I emphasised that devolved Administrations need absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and that confirmation of that should be provided at the next meeting on 23 March 2020.

In closing the meeting, we noted the progress of the DEFRA primary legislation programme and acknowledged the highly ambitious programme of secondary legislation that will be required to ensure a fully functioning statute book by the end of the transition period. Following the meeting, I requested that several bilateral meetings take place in Belfast in the very near future with Mr Eustice, Mr Ewing and Ms Griffiths to discuss in more detail some of the issues of mutual interest in relation to EU exit, such as the Northern Ireland protocol, tariffs, SPS issues, GB-NI trade, the integrity of the GB market and risk-based surveillance, along with policy in relation to agri-food, environment and fisheries and the operation of the UK internal market.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for his statement. One of the issues that was raised in Committee and on the Floor last week is the importance of migrant labour to the industry here. I note from the DEFRA minutes of the previous meeting, on 13 January, that the Scottish and Welsh Ministers had raised the issue of migrant labour. Given the importance of labour from other countries to the agriculture and food-and-drink industries, will the Minister outline what representations he has made to the British Government on the points-based immigration system that was recently announced by the British Home Office?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. Labour is of key importance to agriculture. We have done some background work, and, as things stand, only around 9% of those who are engaged in the agri-food sector would qualify under the proposed scheme. That indicates that the people who are here would be fine, but there would be a substantial challenge if those people were to leave and we try to bring new people in. Consequently, we have raised this issue with the Executive, and we have also raised it with the relevant Minister, the Business Minister, who was over here. The Executive are going to take this and write to Her Majesty's Government to highlight the concerns that we in Northern Ireland have. It is a particular issue for my Department, and for the Department of Health in providing social care, but much of our agri-food industry is reliant on labour that is sourced from outside the United Kingdom. Consequently, for the continuation of many of our businesses, we need to have the opportunity to source the appropriate labour. We will continue to lobby and press upon that, because I do not see what is proposed as adequately meeting our needs in the agri-food industry.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his statement. Does the Minister have a sense of how the other devolved Administrations will approach future trade agreements?

Mr Poots: The other Administrations and ourselves will all be lobbying the UK Government to get a deal that is best suited to us. The Scottish and Welsh, for example, will be quite concerned about the lamb trade; they are high producers of lamb and export quite a lot of it. Ideally, we will all get a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal, but that is going to be difficult to achieve. My fear going forward is that the level playing field will be the significant issue and the Northern Ireland protocol will be a less significant issue for the UK Government. and, therefore, whatever arrangements come to us will be more about the level playing field and what suits the UK Government on that front and less about the Northern Ireland protocol. That could have a really serious impact for us here in Northern Ireland.

Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister, for that statement. This is important, given the size of our agri-food industry and its impact on our economy. Can the Minister give his assessment of the British Government's commitment to upholding food standards, following the Secretary of State's comments last week that he would give no assurances about maintaining alignment with safety standards following Brexit?

Mr Poots: I am of the opinion that the United Kingdom has better food standards and will want to have better food standards than many other parts of the European Union. For example, the horsemeat scandal a number of years ago kicked off not in the United Kingdom but in other European countries. I believe that we will have high standards on the environment, animal health, animal welfare and food. The question that has to be asked, and the question that Europe has to recognise, is: do they want equivalence and find equivalence acceptable, or do they want Britain to rigidly adhere to standards set by the European Union?

Going forward, I believe that British standards on food will be high, but they may not be exactly the same as European standards. Consequently, does that open the door for a series of tariffs to be applied that will not be applied to Canada by the European Union? We need a bit of common sense to apply here and not to have some sort of punishment of the UK because Europe does not want it to be seen that the UK has too good a deal as this may be attractive for other countries to exit the European Union.


12.15 pm

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that the Northern Ireland protocol places Northern Ireland at a disadvantage in the UK internal market?

Mr Poots: There are around 380,000 HGV movements between Northern Ireland and GB, and GB and NI. Consequently, any new export health checks and movements that are then applied, from GB to NI in particular, will have a detrimental impact. Roughly 50% of our trade goes to Britain and, indeed, comes from Britain. That is very significant because Great Britain is our most important trading partner, so any barriers placed between us and Great Britain will have a greater impact than any barriers elsewhere. The trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is absolutely critical and essential, which is why the proposed protocol is hugely damaging. That is why I welcome the UK Government looking for further changes to the protocol. We were told that it cannot be changed. Well, it needs to be changed because, if it is not changed, there will be a consequence for every business in Northern Ireland, and there will be a consequence for every consumer in Northern Ireland. That will make life harder for our consumers, with higher prices being imposed as a result of the protocol, not as a result of us leaving the European Union.

Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister for his statement. In some of his responses so far, he used the words "worrying", "consequences", "detrimental impact" and "serious concerns"; far away from the sunny uplands of Brexit. In his last statement, he said that the protocol is damaging. I contend that it is Brexit that is damaging. It is Brexit that is causing serious concern to our farmers and our agriculture industry here.

Boris Johnson, in his recent speech in Greenwich, said:

"There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules."

Does the Minister agree that that contradicts paragraph 12 of his statement on the circumstances that Mr Eustice outlined on the protocol?

Mr Poots: The decision on Brexit has been made. We have now left the European Union, so that argument is done and dusted. There is no point in going over that further. It was well enough argued for three years. It is now about our future trading relationships with the European Union. It is in our interests to get the best trading relationships with the European Union. It is in our best interests to get the best trading relationships with our key trading partner — Great Britain.

Leave all the politics to one side. You do not have to like Great Britain. You do not have to like the United Kingdom. You may have a preference to be in a united Ireland. Set all that to one side. Who do we do our business with? Most of our business is done with Great Britain. Anything, therefore, that damages that trade will cause problems for the people who live in Northern Ireland. Consequently, we need to minimise any damage. It is hugely unfortunate that the damage that is being done to Northern Ireland businesses and consumers is being enforced on us by the European Union, which is demanding the following. Consequently, we need to rail back on that. If the European Union is good to its word that Northern Ireland is really important, that peace in Northern Ireland is really important and the people of Northern Ireland are really important, we need it to rail back on creating barriers between Northern Ireland and its number one market for goods.

Mr Givan: I welcome the Minister's commitment to look forward and to set aside the old debates of the past when it comes to Brexit and the constitutional argument. I appeal to Members, particularly those opposite, to embrace that forward-looking perspective. It would appear to many of us that the protocol is being used as some kind of instrument to inflict a punishment beating on those who supported Brexit. Northern Ireland cannot afford to endure that kind of punishment as a result of the decision that was taken.

Will the Minister reassure me that he will confront the Tánaiste, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, who is putting in jeopardy the trade talks that are starting today through his insistence on putting infrastructure down the Irish Sea that will create a burden on our trade with GB? Will he give us his assessment of the damage that Simon Coveney is inflicting on us?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. In the infrastructure that is being sought by Simon Coveney, we are looking at tens of thousands of checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which will create a huge pressure on business. Let me explain. Just-in-time food supplies include fresh strawberries and fresh food of any kind. If those have to be delayed at a port, be it in Scotland or Northern Ireland —. I should say that neither the Northern Ireland Minister nor, indeed, the Scottish Minister have expressed that they are willing to accept any checks at any ports. Scotland was as firm as I was on that: we would not put infrastructure in our ports to facilitate that. If Mr Coveney had his way, there would be tens of thousands of checks, damaging those just-in-time goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That would be hugely detrimental to the shops, convenience stores and supermarkets that provide food that has been produced in Great Britain and comes to Northern Ireland. Again, that will have a huge impact on our consumers.

Mr Coveney will also impose on us, as a consequence of his reading of the protocol, huge damage on our fishing industry in that the European Union's current position is that all fish that are caught in British waters and landed in Northern Ireland would be subject to tariffs. The Union might say, however, "We might be kind and allow you to catch fish that are under quota and tariff the rest". That is totally unacceptable.

Simon Coveney wants to damage our fishermen. Simon Coveney wants to damage our consumers and our businesses. Simon Coveney could not get a majority in the election just past. He came third. Boris Johnson got an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. I do not think that Simon Coveney has much clout when it comes to the talks. The clout lies with the UK Government, which will go into the talks to fight and to fight hard to ensure that Northern Ireland is not damaged as a consequence of this protocol.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Ennis: The Minister is speaking about the fishing industry and the tariffs that may be imposed. Will he elaborate on those tariffs and the impact that they could have on our fishing industry, which is already under severe pressure? Will he give us a bit more information about the tariffs that he is proposing?

Mr Poots: I know that the Member will have a particular interest in the issue, given that two of our main fishing ports happen to be in south Down. The fishing industry has been emasculated for the last 40 years as a result of the European Union. Thankfully, I was able to raise a proposal that created the opportunity for fishermen to fish for haddock last week, which they had not been allowed to do as a consequence of the European Union for many years. Nonetheless, they have been emasculated and have been prevented from fishing in their own waters, while fish that they should have been entitled to fish were being caught by boats from other European countries.

We can have a very good relationship with the Republic of Ireland when it comes to fishing. There are plenty of fish in the Irish Sea for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland fishermen. However, we cannot have a situation in which the European Union comes in and says, "That fish was caught in British waters. We will apply a tariff to it." That would apply to Irish boats as well. It is wholly unacceptable. Fish caught in the Irish Sea and landed in Kilkeel, Ardglass, Portavogie or Belfast must be tariff free, and we must be enabled to land it tariff free. European Union officials told our officials in DAERA that a tariff will apply. I have impressed upon George Eustice that it is totally unacceptable and we cannot contemplate it.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to give his statement. He referred to food standards. Before I comment on that, I welcome his comments on the fact that, through a democratic process, we have now left the shackles of the European Union, which decimated, as he said, our fisheries and the many other businesses that had draconian rules and regulations imposed on them.

The Member for Lagan Valley mentioned food standards and protecting the importation of foods into Northern Ireland. Can the Minister ensure that the high standards that we have in Northern Ireland will not be jeopardised by the importation of any foods that fall short of those standards?

Mr Poots: Northern Ireland has food of a very high standard. The chicken and meat that we produce and the fish that we catch is all of an excellent standard. We have much higher standards than many other parts of the world from where cheap imports are available. People in our country, and the people who receive our exports, deserve to know that they are receiving the best quality products; that our animal health is excellent; that we have good environmental conditions; and that the food itself is of top quality. Therefore, it is often the case that people pay a premium for it.

We need to ensure that, in free trade negotiations, that continues to be the case. Origin of food and other labelling is very important. Free trade negotiations may end up with us importing food of a different standard from another country. If people buy it, that is their choice. However, it needs to be up there in lights that it is food that has not been produced to the same high standard as ours. If people want to buy it for a lower price, that is entirely up to them, but they will be buying something that does not meet the same quality standards we currently have.

Mr O'Dowd: As the question-and-answer session flows back and forth, it is clear that Members on the Benches opposite do not want us to talk about Brexit, but we are dealing with the consequences of Brexit and the consequences of those who supported it promising us sunny uplands.

This follows on from Mr Storey's question: is it not the case that the Irish protocol protects us from the very scenario that Mr Storey talks about? I assume that he was talking about the Moy Park workers in his and my constituency who, if our market is opened to the chlorinated chicken previously referred to, face losing their job. Will the Minister confirm that the Irish protocol protects our environment, industries and consumers from low-quality, cheap imports?

Mr Poots: The Member makes a fair point about the chicken that would come here if a free trade deal were done with the United States of America. Chicken there is more subject to salmonella. Consequently, it is chlorinated. I do not see millions of people coming back from America having been badly affected as a consequence of eating it.

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

Nonetheless, we produce our chicken to a higher standard. It does not need to be chlorinated in the first instance. That is why labelling of food origin is absolutely critical, and it is something that I have sought for years. Loads of chicken currently comes into the European Union from south-east Asian countries that produce chicken to a lower standard than ours. Much of it ends up in the catering industry, and it is not well labelled for the people who buy it. Therefore, it already happens. It is not something that will be new; already it is happening. We need to make our argument forcibly. I do not care whether the chicken comes from America, Thailand or elsewhere: we need to identify where it comes from and the standards that it has been raised to so that consumers can choose whether they want to buy locally produced material that is produced to the highest standards or something of a lower standard for which they will pay a lower price. It is a decision that consumers will make, not us.


12.30 pm

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his statement and for the work that he is doing on matters pertaining to Brexit on behalf of the Assembly and the Executive, in particular his vocal opposition, alongside his devolved colleagues, to barriers and infrastructure at our ports. It is fair to say that we must hold Boris Johnson firm to his commitment of there being unfettered free trade east-west, given the fact that the Assembly voted unanimously against the Brexit Bill when it came before the House.

If the protocol is implemented in full, as the EU would suggest, at what cost would that be to the Northern Ireland agri-food sector?

Mr Poots: We have a circumstance in which Northern Ireland is a leader in food production and food processing. Consequently, food that is produced by primary producers in Great Britain is brought to Northern Ireland for further processing, adding value to that food. Most of it ends up back in Great Britain's supermarkets. We have a situation in which literally thousands of jobs are involved in adding value to food, the primary producer of which is a producer in Great Britain. For example, if the EU were to add a tariff to beef, which currently is around 40%, importers of that product would have to pay the tariff and would not be able to reclaim it until 100% of the beef had left the particular factory. Whenever a beef carcass comes in that large form, it is divided into many other forms. The steaks and the stewed beef and all of that may all go back into the market, but elements of minced beef etc may not have. Until 100% of the carcass goes back into the GB market, the tariff cannot be reclaimed. Consequently, a production system that works to very fine margins would, all of a sudden, have massive tariffs to pay and have to wait many months — maybe more than 12 months in some instances — before they could reclaim the tariff. That would do huge detriment to those businesses. We need to get to a circumstance in which we do not have those tariffs applied in the first instance.

The application of tariffs within a country has not happened anywhere else in the world. It is just unacceptable. We need to press home over and over again the unacceptability of tariffs within a country and tariffs between key trading partners, in this case Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr Harvey: Given the importance of the GB market to our agri-food business, can the Minister detail what discussions he has had on the term "unfettered access"?

Mr Poots: "Unfettered access" is great terminology, but I want to know exactly what the British Government mean by it. "Unfettered access" appears to mean any goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain — there is no issue there — but I am not absolutely clear that it is the same for goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. I have pressed repeatedly that it has to be the same. Unfettered access cannot be one-way; it has to be a two-way flow, because the consequences of not having that unfettered access, some of which I have laid out, would be damaging to our consumers and our businesses, and we cannot accept that. We cannot have a circumstance where something that has been imposed on us costs our consumers, many of whom live in areas of deprivation and for many of whom food is one of their biggest spends. As a result of what Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and the European Union have sought to impose on us — creating separation and division between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that is damaging to consumers — people in west Belfast, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, South Down, the Member's constituency of Strangford and my constituency of Lagan Valley, many of whom need every penny that they have, will have to spend more.

Mr Stalford: Mr O'Dowd referred to the Benches opposite: now, perhaps, I can. The Minister will agree, I am sure, that unity of approach is important going forward. Given that Sinn Féin opposed entry into the Common Market, opposed the Single European Act, opposed the Maastricht Treaty, opposed the Lisbon Treaty, opposed the Nice Treaty and were on the anti side in every European constitutional referendum in the Republic of Ireland, does the Minister agree that it is time that they returned to their original Eurosceptic principles?

Mr Poots: I would not want the Member to suggest that Sinn Féin is a flip-flop party when it comes to the European Union. That would not be very pleasant of the Member, but, of course, he did not say those words, so we will refrain from that. Nonetheless, over the years, Sinn Féin has reflected that the European Union has not always been about the local worker, the local consumer or local solutions. It is a large, amorphous body that seeks to bring together people from south-east Europe, western Europe and northern Europe, and, often, the circumstances that prevail in all of those places at one time are hugely different. Applying a single solution to places that are hugely different does not always work. That is a major problem for the European Union. The European Union has not always worked for Ireland, be it Ireland North or Ireland South. Folks in Ireland South are beginning to wake up to a reality that they will be forking out, probably, over £2 billion to the European Union, having been a net receiver for many years, and that the tables are being turned on them. It will be interesting to see how they will move forward.

The one thing that Ireland South needs to be concerned about is its trade with Great Britain, because Great Britain takes huge amounts, particularly of its food product, from the Republic of Ireland. Irrespective of all of the growth that is taking place in the Republic of Ireland, the food industry is still crucial to its economy. I want to see a sensible arrangement between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The protocol does not deliver, and, therefore, we will argue with the United Kingdom Government that there needs to be changes — substantial changes. That will be in the best interests of consumers here, and I hope that we will do something that will be in the best interests of the people of the Republic of Ireland. I do not believe that the outgoing Government in the Republic of Ireland served the best interests of their community in their negotiations. We could have had and should have had a circumstance in which the Republic of Ireland had very favourable trading conditions with Great Britain and Northern Ireland had very favourable trading conditions as well, but that opportunity was thrown away by the outgoing Government.

Mr Allister: I welcome the Minister's firm declaration that he will not accept any infrastructure at our ports and look forward to him holding to that. In consequence, he was right to call out Simon Coveney in respect of what he has been saying. In that vein, does he not also need to call out three of the parties that he shares the Executive with? The Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have all been adamant that the protocol must be fully enforced and implemented, so do they too not need to be called out for seeking to damage the economy of Northern Ireland?

In that context, can he explain a little more the paragraph of his statement where he said that there will be:

"a cross-Administration technical work plan to progress"

the protocol? What does that mean:

"a ... technical work plan to progress"

the protocol? Is that taking us in a direction that he does not want to go? How can he ensure that it will not do so?

Mr Poots: Of course, people have a democratic right to express a political position. The three parties that the Member named are pro-Remain parties, and it is their absolute right to be pro-Remain parties. I am in a pro-Leave party. In due course, when all this is done and dusted, we will all know who was right and who was wrong and whether we have a successful economy. I think that we can have a much more successful economy; others may think differently. Time will tell. Even within some of the parties, we have had a difference of opinion. In the Assembly, Sinn Féin voted against it, whereas, in the European Union assembly, Sinn Féin voted for it. We had that little dichotomy in Sinn Féin's voting positions when it came to the deal that was put forward.

On the Member's question, the protocol is a reality as things stand. We want to see the necessary changes applied to it. That will be part of the discussion that takes place between the member states of the United Kingdom. We will look for changes to the protocol and will be part of the course of work that the Member refers to.

Mrs Barton: Is it likely, if trade deals are agreed by the UK for the import of agri-food products from countries with lower quality standards, that those deals will include a requirement for Northern Ireland to be part of them?

Mr Poots: They will, yes, because, in the current circumstance, we are part of the single market, but we are also part of the UK customs arrangements, so we are in a slightly different position from everybody else. Some elements of that give us an advantage. Having the ability to sell with zero tariffs to both the EU and the UK gives us an advantage, even in terms of businesses that wish to settle in Northern Ireland. We also have disadvantages, because there is the potential for tariffs between us and our main trading partner. We need to try to take advantage of the advantages and reduce the disadvantages. That is a course of work that we will do.

If the UK agrees to acquire food from various countries as part of a free trade arrangement, Northern Ireland will be part of that. After all, we produce about five times as much food as we eat and the majority of that ends up in Great Britain, so it is absolutely critical that, irrespective of whether that food is coming to Northern Ireland or Great Britain, labelling of the food's origin is done in a very good way. The United States of America is probably one of the best countries at labelling foods. That will be less of an issue when it comes to having that discussion, because it is good at labelling food. It is absolutely critical that consumers know what they are getting, know what they are paying for and are satisfied to be acquiring that product.


12.45 pm

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the statement and the information that it provides. However, some of the outflow from the statement and the toing and froing here compels me to say — I hope that he will forgive me for not resisting the temptation — that never has there been less temptation or opportunity for an "I told you so" moment. The Minister and others will be aware that some of us did not want the uncertainty. Some of us did not envisage the prospect of a cliff edge but — the Minister referenced it — the protocol is an international agreement, and there is some detail for all of us to get across between now and the implementation of the protocol.

Rather than protracted pro- or anti-EU conversations, we should now move in that direction. Paragraph 17 of the statement mentions that a cross-Administration technical work plan is tasked to deliver the protocol. Is there any detail or timetable around that delivery, given that the clock is ticking, and we are moving closer to December?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. Ultimately, I can agree with some aspects of what he says. Uncertainty is not good. We are looking towards the end of June to wrap up negotiations to close off that uncertainty. However, the fact that we did not proceed with the people's instruction for over three years created more uncertainty and damage to business than what the next three months will create. Let us get this done. Let us honour the will of the people, spoken by referendum and in the more recent Westminster election, and do what the people instructed to be done, which is to leave the European Union in a way that does least damage to business and creates the greatest opportunity for business and the community.

If you want to see failure as a result of leaving the European Union, that is not a good position. You might not agree with the decision or the fact that we are leaving, but we should all be looking for success, because success is to the benefit of all the people whom we represent. Failure will damage all the people whom we represent. Let us work together on getting success and not on looking for failure to prove a political point.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement. I recognise the importance of unfettered access to the British market, given that 75% of our agri-food products go there. Does he agree that the failure to include minimum food standards in the Agriculture Bill and plans to phase out farm support payments mean that the British Government are opening the door to cheap food imports, which will suppress the market and price our local farmers and agri-food products out of the British market?

Mr Poots: On the question of phasing out farm support payments, I can only go by the Conservative Party manifesto, which indicated that a Conservative Government would sustain them for the lifetime of the current Parliament. That is all that a manifesto can commit to. I am not aware of any phasing out of support for agriculture. I see huge benefits in governments supporting agriculture, especially for the environment. Abandonment of land has proven to be very detrimental to biodiversity, the environment and all of that. I do not believe that the UK Government are going down that route. I would be opposed to that, and I think that the House would be opposed to it. We will seek to ensure that that is the case.

As it stands, we will be distributing the single farm payments this year ahead of what we did under the European Union. We are capable of delivering everything that we need to by October this year as opposed to waiting until December, which was imposed on us through the European Union. I would say that much of the Agriculture Bill is Englandcentric, and England will phase out over the seven years some of what they are doing and will alter it. One thing that England is doing and is proposing to do is to reduce the larger payments and redistribute them. That may be something that we will want to do as well. We will have a discussion with the Committee about whether some of the larger payments coming for some single farm payments is appropriate or whether we invest in young people who want to come into farming and reduce the larger payments as a result.

We may want to do some of the same things as England; we may want to do some things that are completely different. I will want to do what is best for the people I represent, irrespective of what people do elsewhere.

Ms Bailey: It was good to hear the Minister say that if the EU was good to its word, it would act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Does he agree, then, that if the Conservative Government were good to their word, they would uphold the international treaty that they negotiated and signed off rather than threaten to break it?

Can I also ask the Minister whether he has sought assurances from his ministerial group given that we saw reports at the weekend that Brexiteers are now recommending to the Government that our food sector is not critical to the country's economy and that agriculture and fisheries certainly are not?

Mr Poots: On the protocol, I would be very surprised if the Green Party wanted higher food prices and have businesses detrimentally impacted as a consequence of that protocol, because, as things stand, they will be, and it is very clear that they will be. It is also clear that every household in Northern Ireland will be worse off as a result of the protocol, and all I hear from the Green Party is more protocol —.

Ms Bailey: We would abide by the law that was made.

Mr Poots: I think that we are —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Excuse me, Minister. I advise Members that there should be no commentary from a seated position, please.

Mr Poots: I do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not need any protection from the Green Party or anybody else from sedentary positions or elsewhere. A bit of heckling does not really annoy me, but I thank you for your care and interest.

We need to get to the best position. A further negotiation is to take place, and I will be imploring the UK Government to make the necessary changes to the protocol so that our consumers are not hurt. I trust that the Green Party will stand with the UK Government in getting the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland and will not accept a bad deal.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions on the statement. Before we hear the next statement, I advise Members that I have received notice from the Minister for Health that, owing to changes resulting from his meeting with his UK colleagues, he is unable to make a statement on coronavirus until 3.30 pm, immediately after Question Time. If questions on the statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which we are about to hear, concludes before Question Time at 2.00 pm, business will continue with Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill and the debate on the Executive's legislative programme.

However, as the Finance Minister will not be available to move his business until 1.30 pm, we may have to suspend the sitting until that time. That will depend on how we move with the next statement.

Afforestation Programme

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to talk to the House about a new programme of afforestation. I trust that it will have widespread agreement across the House and there will be a little less conflict. Who knows? We will be up for it if there is some.

As Minister, I have asked for sustainability to be placed at the heart of everything that my Department does. That includes the sustainable management of the trees and woodlands of Northern Ireland, which are one of our key natural assets, with an estimated 100,000 kilometres of tree-lined hedgerows and 113,000 hectares of woodland within which approximately 2,000 kilometres of forest tracks and paths are available for public access and broader health benefits.

It is clear how much people value our forests, and I share that appreciation. There are around five million visits to the Department’s forest parks each year. However, the level of forest cover in Northern Ireland is currently 8% of land, compared with 13% in the UK, 11% in the Republic of Ireland and 43% in the European Union. They are ahead of us on that. There is a clear case for expanding forest cover here to support a thriving environment, strong economy and healthy, active communities. This will not be without its challenges. It will require partnership working across the Executive and wider public sector and, importantly, the support of rural landowners and communities. However, that does not mean that it should not be done. It will need to be achieved through a coherent policy framework within which agricultural, environmental and afforestation policies clearly complement one another. This will be a key focus of the Department over the coming months.

Planting more trees and increasing forest cover would bring a number of benefits to Northern Ireland society. There is clear evidence to show that tree planting contributes to a healthy, quality environment. It can help to mitigate climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere. On average, one hectare of woodland captures 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. It would also improve the landscape and biodiversity, and it would enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances through their enjoyment of this quality, natural resource. Furthermore, it would make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s sustainable and inclusive economic growth. The gross value added by the forestry sector is around £60 million per annum from timber production activity, sustaining approximately 1,000 rural jobs. A further £60 million to £80 million is generated in the local economy from forest-based recreation and tourism.

To date, the forestry strategy has been delivered mainly through successive rural development programmes encouraging private landowners to convert agricultural land to forestry. This has resulted in the creation of small, predominately broad-leaved woodlands providing health benefits for the woodland owner, low levels of carbon sequestration potential and biodiversity benefits. The current rates of afforestation, if projected, represent only a modest rate of woodland creation — short of 1% by the middle of the century. The Committee on Climate Change called tree planting a "simple, low-cost option" to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Its 'Reducing Emissions in Northern Ireland' report noted that the current 200 hectares of tree planting falls "well short" of the Committee’s recommendation of 900 hectares of woodland a year.

The UK Government are committed to achieving net zero carbon by 2050. Climate change is a significant challenge, not only for the UK but globally. Northern Ireland can make a significant contribution to addressing these challenges at a local level through a number of innovative environmental policies, including increased afforestation that is managed sustainably and better integrated with other land uses. Increasing afforestation at the rate necessary to make a meaningful impact on carbon capture will require a strong partnership approach and the support of my Executive colleagues and Members of the House. Existing publicly owned land, including local government land, has the greatest potential for woodland creation in the short term. I have written to ministerial colleagues and to the chief executives of councils, seeking their support and commitment to make public land available for tree planting and to provide an initial assessment of the scale and extent of land that may be available.

The quality, accessibility and environmental sensitivity of the land will be key considerations in the sustainability of tree planting. I plan to establish an afforestation forum to work collectively across the public sector to coordinate the assessment of available public land and develop an action plan for increasing afforestation. I will oversee this work personally, and the forum will report to me regularly. As Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am committed to leading by example. I take this opportunity to advise Members of an afforestation event on 9 March at which 1,000 trees will be planted by local children on my Department’s land at Loughry College, Cookstown. Similar legacy events will follow. I will continue to play a lead role in increasing afforestation and creating a sustainable environment. Importantly, this enhanced afforestation programme must encourage tree planting and create opportunities to incorporate trees and woodlands into farms and other businesses in a realistic and viable way, with the necessary reskilling programmes to enable landowners to refocus their land use.


1.00 pm

With the leadership, commitment, skills and willingness available to us, we should seek to increase forest cover significantly over the next decade. Over the next 10 years, my Department will lead a programme of afforestation called Forests for our Future. By 2030, it will have planted 18 million trees to create 9,000 hectares of new woodland, which is equivalent to 10 trees per person in Northern Ireland. The programme will improve the resilience of Northern Ireland's forests and woodlands and increase their contribution to a sustainable, healthy environment; increase the contribution of forests and woodlands to Northern Ireland's sustainable and inclusive economic growth; and increase the use of Northern Ireland's forest resources to enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances.

The purpose of the statement is to set out my intentions to increase afforestation to support climate change and maximise individual, community and societal benefits for the citizens of today and for generations to come. I hope that it sets out the direction of travel and receives the support of Members, because, as I have previously said, we must seek to achieve those benefits together.

Mr McGuigan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for presenting his statement today. It is a welcome announcement, given the fact that the North has only 8% of tree cover, and particularly when compared with 43% tree cover across the European Union. Something did need to happen, and I welcome the announcement. I am sure that its ambition will be widely welcomed, particularly the ambition to plant 18 million trees by 2030.

The statement refers to the Committee on Climate Change and its report from February 2019 on reducing emissions in the North. The Minister will be well aware that tree planting is only one aspect of the complex equation of dealing with climate change. He will be aware that 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the North come from the agriculture sector. Is his Department preparing an overarching response to the Committee on Climate Change report, and, if so, when will it be given?

Mr Poots: The Member anticipates the next stage, and I hope to be in a position within two or three weeks to be able to come back to the House and develop further aspects of the green economy that we look forward to utilising to ensure that we reduce our carbon footprint.

Northern Ireland has never benefited from oil, gas or coal, so I have no issue whatsoever with moving away from fossil fuels to a much greener economy. I believe that the opportunity exists for Northern Ireland to be a seller of green energy. We should be looking to get to the point of making such a contribution. The Member is right that the trees will help. We cannot remove all carbon, but, if we want to meet this challenge head-on, reducing carbon is the biggest element, and we will identify and move forward with a course of action over the coming weeks and months. There is work to be done there. I have talked to my Executive colleagues about it and am getting great support from them. As an Executive, we will need to embrace a greener economy and move forward together.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his statement. Given the vast areas of land that government and local councils own, what steps can his Department take to encourage planting on that land?

Mr Poots: The Member is right that there are vast areas. DFI and Minister Mallon have been very willing to cooperate with me. Northern Ireland Water and Transport NI have large swathes of land that we could use, and, all being well, that will be the case. Local authorities also have large swathes of land, as, indeed, do many of the arm's-length bodies.

The actual planting of trees is not expensive: it is the acquisition of the land that is expensive. If we in Northern Ireland were to acquire 700 hectares of land each year, at roughly £25,000 per hectare, that would be a huge cost to us, so the logical thing to do is to use the land that is already available to us. We want to work on that with other Departments. I trust that other Departments, and local authorities, will do that and I believe that they will. Aside from that, we need to work with and develop the relationships that we have with the rural community in order to encourage further tree planting on privately owned land.

Mr Catney: I thank the Minister. I agree with what he has already said; that the management of forests and woodlands is an undervalued area of the economy and is also critical to managing our climate impact. Can the Minister outline the contribution that the farming community can make to forest management, carbon storage and floodplain management as a public-good contribution?

Mr Poots: The Member raises important points. The Department is looking currently at how it can actually have a better land-mapping base in Northern Ireland and the opportunity to identify, through the LIDAR scheme, where significant run-offs take place. Those are areas of land on which we would particularly encourage farmers to plant trees. We have also been looking at the areas that are closest to waterways, because, currently, farmers are not allowed, for example, to spread slurry within five metres of a waterway. We need to work with them and encourage them to plant trees around those waterways. That will be beneficial to the farmers because it will reduce opportunities for pollution of those waterways. It will lift a pressure off them that they do not need. We need to support them to do it.

Having a good assessment of land quality, various pH levels of the soil, and so on, will allow farmers better opportunities to acquire fertiliser, slurry and all that, and apply it appropriately. Planting trees on key areas of land will also assist farmers to do things in a more environmentally friendly way. This is an area where we can develop win-wins with the farming community, whereby they get appropriate support and the public get a reduced carbon footprint, better and cleaner waters, and better air quality.

Mrs Barton: I thank the Minister for his statement. He quoted that £60 million to £80 million is generated in the local economy from forest-based recreation and tourism. Where did he get those figures? Have they been tested for accuracy?

Mr Poots: The figures come from my Department, which has done a course of work on the matter. There are just short of 5 million visits to forest parks each year. Those who use them include walkers, cyclists and the film industry. There are splendid waterways in forest parks. We have some real gems in Northern Ireland. I think of the forest parks at Castlewellan, Tollymore, Hillsborough and Gortin Glen. There are many more. I will probably offend people by not mentioning the beautiful forests that they have in their constituencies.

Mr Stalford: Belvoir.

Mr Poots: Belvoir is an inner-city one, which is a real asset to the city that many cities do not have. There are many forests, which are a huge asset to the community and economy.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his statement. He has guessed already — of course, correctly — that some of us are more enthusiastic about this statement than the previous one. In that regard, he is right. It is commendable that the Minister's personal interest in and commitment to the Forests for our Future programme are clear from the text of the statement. We genuinely thank him for that. I add a very swift follow-up to a question that I asked as a supplementary. It may have been the Minister's first Question Time when he promised us an announcement soon on afforestation. We look forward to future timely delivery on environmental protection and other matters.

Action plans and working groups have been referred to, but how best can we ensure that the plans are future-proofed and wildlife-proof with regard to broadleaf species, for example, and local wildlife?

Mr Poots: I certainly think that, particularly for the small plantings that local farmers do, you would give them support only in instances where it is broadleaf species as opposed to commercial species. We have a very successful commercial arm in our Department that grows trees that are harvested and replanted. That still has significant benefits, but nonetheless we want to increase the amount of broadleaf trees that are being planted. Much of the work that we will do with, for example, local authorities and private landowners will be very much based on broadleaf trees.

The Member mentioned sustainability. There are some soils that we will not want to plant on. The more peat-based soils already have a lot of carbon sequestration. Consequently, we do not want to plant trees on that, because it could have less sequestration in that instance. We need to plant trees in the appropriate soils to ensure the sustainability that the Member referred to.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is important to highlight, as the Minister has, the important role that landowners play already in this area. Does the Minister believe that more could be achieved through the environmental farming scheme?

Mr Poots: The environmental farming scheme has been a good success thus far and has had good uptake. As we move forward, we will seek to make amendments and changes to it to deliver further success. One of the things that I really want to look at is what are termed riparian boundaries, which are the boundaries along the rivers. I indicated earlier that that will reduce run-off towards rivers from the land; where the land is rich in nutrients, more of those nutrients will be kept in the soil. It is important to keep those nutrients in the soil and away from the waterways. Appropriate tree-planting may be something that could assist us in doing that.

Dr Archibald: I, too, welcome the Minister's statement. I also thank him for the response to my question for written answer on the issue. I am pleased to see that plans for an afforestation strategy are being progressed as one of the measures to tackle carbon emissions, and also the commitments around broadleaf native trees to support our biodiversity.

Following on from a previous question, tackling the climate emergency requires a framework for climate action, which would be underpinned by legislation. Of course, the Assembly has voted to declare a climate emergency and to implement the measures on climate in New Decade, New Approach. Will the Minister advise of the time frame for bringing forward a climate change Bill, please?

Mr Poots: That is a course of work that my officials are looking at, but we are not in a position at this stage to give an outline of that programme. I will bring forward other issues that will demonstrate our commitment to having a quality, enhanced environment in Northern Ireland, where we will have cleaner waterways, cleaner air and a reduced carbon footprint. All of that is achievable by taking necessary steps. Some of those will be small steps and some will be larger, but nonetheless we will take them. This is one of the important steps that we are taking. I trust that the BBC, for example, will recognise that this is an important step and not a waste of money; there was a programme that went out, I think, last week that slammed the Assembly for wanting to plant trees.

I think it put the cost of planting at something like £10 per tree; we can actually acquire whips for around 50p per tree. It is not a huge expense to the public purse; it is a benefit to the public purse. I trust that the BBC will reflect on the stupidity and the fallacy in a lot of the issues that it raised with the New Decade, New Approach deal and our commitment to planting more trees and making a better environment in Northern Ireland.


1.15 pm

Mr Givan: I welcome the Minister's statement and the announcements in it. It is vital that we enhance the natural habitat because of the benefits that that will bring to the environment and to people by getting them out of their workplaces, off their technological devices and embracing the natural habitat around them. The Minister's statement is very welcome.

I am surprised that the Minister did not mention Hillsborough forest park in his constituency when he named a number of others. I welcome the ongoing work at Hillsborough forest park. The community is looking forward to the improvements and the greater accessibility that they will provide. Will the Minister indicate whether he has any plans to widen community accessibility to Forest Service's assets so that, when it comes to the organisation of events, we maximise the number of people who can avail themselves of the facilities and reassure the community that Forest Service is not just about trees?

Mr Poots: In recent years — predating me — the Forest Service has been engaging better with the community. For years, it was just about the trees and not about the people who were benefiting from it.

The Member mentioned Hillsborough, and the biggest problem in Hillsborough is that we are attracting twice as many people as was predicted. The number of people who want to come to those facilities is phenomenal. I was recently in south Tyrone — Brantry — and saw the wonderful new paths that have been created there, which are being well utilised by members of the public. One thing that really encourages me is the number of disabled people who previously could not use the paths but now can, as the paths have been made disabled-friendly so that people can travel around those forests. That has been a huge success.

Many people engage in mountain biking in forests, and, while it is a sport that I would not necessarily recommend, because people sustain a lot of injuries, people get real enjoyment from it, and Forest Service has been more facilitating in recent years on that front.

In the summertime, there are youth camps in some of our forest parks, and young people spend a number of days there. What better place could they be in than in that natural environment, enjoying the biodiversity and the beautiful rivers that run through our forest parks and seeing all the wildlife. I want to encourage that so that more young people get out into our forest parks. They need to be a resource for all of our community. We are building towards that, but there is more work to be done.

Mr McAleer: The last Member to speak referred to something that I was going to mention. I note and welcome the fact that we have some five million visitors to forest parks each year, who generate £60 million to £80 million through forest-based recreation and tourism. There are some good examples, and I am glad that the Minister mentioned the Gortin Glen forest park in my area, which is a fantastic example of partnership working between his Forest Service and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which delivered an absolutely fantastic product.

Just last week, I facilitated a group of people from the Cappagh Village Regeneration Group to meet Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to look at realising the potential of the Altmore forest, which covers 597 hectares and straddles the Fermanagh and Omagh and Mid Ulster council districts. As part of the Minister's Forests for the Future strategy, will he give a commitment to build on the excellent work that he and his Department have been engaged in with councils and local communities? Will he commit to bringing back a report on his plans to build, develop and grow that partnership working?

Mr Poots: I am happy to give the Member the assurance that we will seek to build on that. We could not do it without the assistance of local government, which has really stepped up to the plate in providing additional funding and resource to make better utilisation of the facilities. That is partnership working, and that is how things should work. We have a wonderful asset that is not being utilised quite as well as it could be, and local government is coming in and assisting us in opening up that utilisation. I want to continue to work on those types of programmes to ensure that the public can enjoy that rich asset that belongs to them.

Mr O'Toole: Unfortunately, I did not get in quickly enough to ask the Minister a question on his previous statement, but, perhaps, for both of us, in the interests of agreement, it is a little better that I am asking him on this one because there is probably more consensus.

I welcome his statement and the sentiment behind it. What conversations has the Minister had or does he intend to have with Belfast City Council? One of his colleagues — I think it was my constituency colleague behind him — mentioned Belvoir forest. This is not just about rural areas. Last year, Belfast City Council passed, with, I think, cross-party support, an initiative to plant a million trees. It would be useful to have an indication from him about what conversations he has had with Belfast City Council about supporting that million-tree initiative and ensuring that urban forests are developed in a way that is beneficial for everyone.

Mr Poots: Current practice is to engage with council delivery practitioners. It has proved very successful, and we have signed a series of memorandums of understanding. Some 85% of those recent memorandums have led to real beneficial change in our forest parks. We have engaged with Belfast City Council, and that engagement will continue to see how we can further enhance that. Belfast, I believe, wants to plant one million trees, and we are more than happy to work with, support, lend expertise and facilitate it in how we can do that. That takes us one eighteenth of the way there; we have another 17 eighteenths to go beyond what Belfast City Council wants to do. If every constituency was to plant a million trees, we would be there, so that would put four million in Belfast. We understand that there is less land availability there, and a million trees would certainly be a huge asset to the city of Belfast. We are happy to work with the council on that.

Mr Harvey: Will the Minister outline what schemes his Department has in place to encourage afforestation?

Mr Poots: There are a number of schemes with the local farming community. The Forest Service has been constantly and steadily planting trees and seeking to acquire land to plant trees. Acquiring land is so expensive that it holds back the work that you can do on afforestation, so I am looking at a change of focus and at how we can identify pockets of unutilised land in a range of Departments other than DAERA to see how we can quickly get wins on afforestation. Some of those land portions could be substantial, particularly lands relating to Water Service. We need cooperation from all those organisations, and I trust that we will get it. We will continue to introduce schemes that will encourage and support the planting of forests.

Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome it. Will the Minister expand a bit on whether he intends to use councils to encourage local community groups and schoolchildren to roll out this programme? Obviously, this would give them a bit of ownership, and I think that it would be a better programme if he looked towards rolling it out in that way.

Mr Poots: We want to encourage young people to become engaged in tree planting, so we are working with the Department of Education and, because of the colleges, the Department for the Economy. We ought to encourage young people to participate. Young people have a real interest in environmental issues and in having a cleaner, greener environment. Tree planting is one element of that in which young people can get involved. We will encourage that, and we will encourage communities to get involved. Local authorities are much better placed than we are and can assist us in doing that. I am surprised that the Member did not mention the Ring of Gullion forest park, which is another fantastic asset that is used by many, and it is good to see it opened up in that way.

Mr Buckley: I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for this positive statement. I can think of no better place than this beautiful, wood-inspired environment in which to announce positive action on afforestation. I draw particular attention to the Department's forest parks, which he mentioned, and I note that, in my constituency and the surrounding area, we have Peatlands Park and Loughgall Country Park. The Minister quoted visitor numbers of five million and the positive lifestyle and fitness regimes that those parks can provide. In many areas, the biggest obstacle is access, particularly in the winter months. Will the Minister commit to looking at potential ways of opening up parks to provide better access, thereby boosting the numbers who can benefit from those tree-inspired environments?

Mr Poots: We have been able to deliver on that work through engagement with local authorities. I understand that, particularly after the month of weather that we have just had, some of our assets may be a little trickier to access than others. We want to create a facility that is available 365 days of the year. We will be happy to work with local authorities to create opportunities for them to maximise the usage of the wonderful assets in their community.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for this positive statement. It brings to mind the old proverb that was quoted here recently upon the passing of Seamus Mallon:

"A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit."

We have quite a long way to go before we can be considered great, and, of course, the Minister has a wee bit to go before he can be considered old. He spoke about working with local authorities and other Departments. In particular, what work can be done with the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) on planning policy and with councils as they form their local development plans on enshrining a requirement that some planning applications have to include planting?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for not accusing me of being old yet. It is all relative. To an 80-year-old, I am young; to a 20-year-old, I am old. Given that the Member is closer to my age, he probably does not see the old bit, but young people probably see us as not being young. That is all an aside.

On planning policy, trees are more challenging in built-up areas. I suspect that most Members have been lobbied about getting trees taken away and so forth because of roots growing through footpaths or leaves shedding on people's roofs and causing problems. Tree planting in urban areas and, especially, identifying it through planning need to be done with the appropriate trees, and it needs to be done in a way that causes good impacts as opposed to negative impacts on the people who live there. I do not want to insist on trees being planted, only for somebody to have to whack them all down with a chainsaw in 20 years' time. We need to get it right, and we are happy to work with the Department for Infrastructure on the planning side to ensure that local authorities' planning divisions look at the issues appropriately.

Of course, green areas are left in new-build areas nowadays. It is about how we can plant trees appropriately in those areas.


1.30 pm

Nothing beats driving through a city with a broad avenue that has trees lining either side of it. It looks fantastic. We need to ensure that we can have appropriate planting of trees in our urban areas.

Mr Stalford: I associate myself with the Minister's remarks about the appalling cynicism that we heard on the BBC last week. It was disgraceful. What assessment has been made of the long-term health benefits for the population, particularly in urban areas, as a consequence of planting more trees?

Mr Poots: Everybody knows that trees have major benefits. Trees, as does grass, suck carbon out of the atmosphere and into our soil through photosynthesis. That is of real importance to us.

Getting people out into forested areas, where they can get activity and the air is cleaner, is a real health benefit. Belvoir Park forest in the Member's constituency is such a massive asset to have in any city. Most cities do not have the opportunity to have a forest park contained within them. Some would see that as being valuable development land. We see it as valuable environmental land that is being utilised appropriately in an urban setting.

Mr O'Dowd: The Minister will be delighted to know that, to end on a happy note, I will bring the subject back to Brexit. In his statement, he refers to the successful implementation of rural development programmes. Those programmes will not be successful without European funding. How will the Minister replace that funding?

I have to say that the statement is very welcome, and I welcome the fact that the Minister will take a lead role in the programme, but everything requires money.

Mr Poots: We have argued for £340 million that was associated with the European Union to come directly from Westminster. We have argued that it should not go into the Barnett formula but should be separately apportioned. I understand that the Finance Minister will also make that argument, and I will be working closely with him to ensure that we maximise what we can get. I trust that we will be able to move forward together in the best interests of all the people whom we serve.

Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome to see him move so swiftly to take action on reforestation across Northern Ireland. As somebody who lives on the boundary of Belvoir Park forest and who spent the weekend in Cregagh Glen, I have to say that the work done by many agencies to look after our spaces is to be commended. It was great to hear that you could plant another million trees in Belfast, because everybody benefits from having such spaces.

I was going to ask the Minister about the land that has been identified for planting, but I think that he addressed that when he spoke about not planting on land that can release more carbon than the trees would capture. Can he therefore give us any updates on how his Department is working to establish an independent environmental protection agency, as was voted for in the House a few weeks back?

Mr Poots: It is slightly off subject, but it is work that we are looking at. In particular, an Environment Bill will come forward that will, for example, identify the need for replacing the work that the European Commission does. An Office for Environmental Protection will be established as a result of that legislation, and it will be wholly independent of government. That is one of the areas that we are looking at when it comes to the hasty establishment of an independent environment agency.

Mr Allister: While there may be much that is laudable about this proposal, I have heard little reference to costing. Is there a business case for this policy? Does it involve taking any land into public ownership? Is there any assessment of the husbandry costs involved? Those are the sorts of things we have not heard about. If it is, in part, about incentivising farmers to grow trees, what is the nature of that incentivisation and will it have any adverse impact on food production? Finally, is this statement and its proposal, linked to what has been grandly called the Great Ulster Forest, which was in 'New Deal, New Approach', supposedly something to do with the centenary? Is this what the Great Ulster Forest is, or is there are some other proposition and, if there is, what is the relationship between them?

Mr Poots: Certainly, all afforestation will be contained in this, so that we can have a significant planting to mark 2021. I hope it will be there in 100 years' time, still in Northern Ireland, for people to enjoy and celebrate.

The Member asks what benefit there is to the farming community. There is already grant aid for woodland creation. That can be integrated into the whole farm management programme. It complements the agricultural value of the land. In many instances, farmers like sheltered places, for example, for young calves. That can be a real benefit. Providing buffer strips reduces the risk of accidental breaches of water pollution and biosecurity standards. We can reduce the ammonia loss to the atmosphere from point sources and, in some areas, it will convert steep slopes, which are hazardous for farming on, and areas that are unproductive and currently just growing bracken and gorse, into forest.

Those are all areas where we can work with the private landowners in developing. We can work with our own government bodies in developing some of those areas where land is not well utilised at present. I am sure that the Member would welcome us planting trees on such land and improving the opportunities for capturing carbon and providing environmental improvements as a result.

There is no real dispute that trees are a benefit to community. We can appropriately deliver a better-forested Northern Ireland, in line with our network of hedgerows, and create a really beneficial place, environmentally and aesthetically. By encouraging tourists to come to Northern Ireland, major benefits may be had from a programme like this.

The estimated cost is around £80 million over the 10 years.

Mr Carroll: The Minister stated correctly that removing carbon from the atmosphere is essential. Afforestation obviously provides an opportunity to do so. Does he agree that re-wetting drained bogs and bogland is also essential to tackling climate change, so that they will act as a huge carbon sink?

Mr Poots: It is certainly something that will capture more carbon. It is a little controversial in that it may involve other people's lands and therefore it is something that we need to look at, and we need to work with other people in doing that and exercise due caution in that respect. There is a carbon benefit in further wetting our wetlands, but there are challenges in relation to that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions on the statement.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it still a rule of the House that, in respect of ministerial statements such as we have just had, when calling Members to speak, priority is given to those who have sat through the debate and that those who flit in and out of the debate go to the end of the queue? Is that still the rule of this House, and if it is, how was Mr O'Dowd called at the point at which he was called?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): You have raised a valid point. It will be referred to the Speaker's Office for further investigation. If it is in breach of any protocol or standard, we will get back to you through the Speaker's Office on that matter. If not, likewise.

Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is worth pointing out that I was in the House for the entirety of both statements.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There is a record kept of Members coming and going. Members will be aware that, in order to ask any question about a statement, they need to be here for the statement itself. Thank you.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Iarraimse ar an Aire Airgeadais Conor Murphy an Bille a mholadh. I call the Minister to move the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): No amendments to the Bill have been tabled. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the eight clauses of the Bill for question on stand part, followed by the four schedules and the long title.

Clauses 1 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 4 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

That this Assembly notes the Executive's legislative programme as presented by the First Minister and deputy First Minister in their statement of 11 February 2020.

On 11 February, the First Minister and I made a written statement to advise the Assembly of the legislation that Ministers of the Executive Committee intend to introduce in the remainder of this 2019-2020 session. In doing so, we fulfil the obligation placed upon the Executive by the New Decade, New Approach deal to publish a legislative programme within one month of their operation. Within that statement, we also committed ourselves to table a motion for debate on its contents.

It might be useful to Members for me to begin my setting out the principal considerations that informed the preparation for government. The context in which this programme is being presented differs significantly from that of previous years. The continuity in policy and legislative development, which could normally be maintained between different mandates and sessions of the Assembly, has undoubtedly been disrupted by the hiatus of the last three years.

Ministers have inherited responsibility for a wide range of issues that may ultimately require the enactment of legislation. Departments have not, however, in the absence of Ministers, been able to develop policy, in many cases, to a point where it can yet be translated into firm proposals for Bills. Therefore, there is a great deal of work to be done across Departments in reinvigorating the policy development process, and Ministers are now actively doing so.

Since 11 January, Ministers have been briefing themselves not only on outstanding issues, but also on the commitments arising from the New Decade, New Approach deal and from the Programme for Government, when it is agreed. These are, therefore, still early days, and whilst the Executive is committed to restoring the work of this Administration to full capacity as soon as possible, the situation will obviously determine the size and content of a legislative programme at this time.

We are also, unlike previous years, not at the beginning of a mandate, but over halfway through. That has both advantages and disadvantages. The two years remaining to us obviously place a constraint on the number of Bills that will be able to complete their passage before the end of the mandate. As the mandate progresses, this factor and the risk of nugatory activity will be important considerations.

At the same time, those constraints will place a discipline on all partners in the legislative process — Departments, Ministers, the Assembly and its Committees — to progress legislation efficiently and accord the progress of Bills due priority.


1.45 pm

As we usher in a new kind of politics, we want this legislature to make laws that benefit our people. For the purposes, therefore, of the legislative programme that we have published, the Executive have focused on those legislative proposals that we believe can be introduced as Bills before the summer recess and that, with some degree of certainty, can consequently complete their passage before the Assembly is dissolved in 2022.

I recognise that the programme is focused on a number of Departments and that some Members with an interest in a particular issue may be disappointed at the absence, at this stage, of legislation relating to those. However, we believe that it is of no benefit to the Executive or the Assembly to include proposals at this time, the timescales of which are still speculative. However, I take this opportunity to assure the Assembly that this programme does not represent the last word on legislation during the remainder of this mandate. It is in no way an exhaustive programme. We are aware that Ministers wish to bring forward additional legislative proposals, which will be admitted to the programme when they have reached a state of readiness and have obtained Executive agreement.

The programme will be monitored regularly to assess progress and to identify emerging legislation. We anticipate, therefore, providing the Assembly with an update and, if necessary, a revised programme at an appropriate point later in the year.

I turn now to the programme. I will briefly set out the purpose of each Bill as set out in our statement. The Minister for Communities wishes to introduce four Bills. They concern welfare mitigation, housing, pension schemes and liquor licensing respectively. Considerable urgency attaches to the welfare mitigation Bill, which would extend the mitigation for the social sector size criteria, otherwise known as the bedroom tax, and the housing (amendment) Bill, which is needed to reclassify housing associations to the public sector in accounting terms and thus remove a potentially considerable financial impediment to the funding of social housing. The pension scheme Bill will provide overdue protection to those who are saving for their pension in master trusts.

Members will recall that a licensing Bill had previously been introduced in the Assembly but fell on dissolution in 2017. That Bill will introduce a number of reforms to address alcohol misuse and support our growing hospitality sector, which plays a vital role in our economy, and acknowledge the role played by licensed premises and private registered clubs in their local communities.

The Minister of Finance has already introduced the first of the two Budget Bills — an essential part of the annual financial cycle.

The Minister of Justice intends to introduce a criminal justice Bill to reform the committal process by abolishing oral evidence at the traditional committal hearing stage and providing clarity regarding the operational outworking of direct committal. A domestic abuse Bill will create a new domestic abuse offence, which will capture patterns of controlling and coercive behaviour against a partner, former partner or family member. This is a very important issue in our society, and the Executive are firmly committed to confronting it without delay.

Finally, we, as First Minister and deputy First Minister, will introduce three Bills to implement commitments given in the New Decade, New Approach deal. They will make provision for an office of identity and cultural expression, an Irish language commissioner, and official recognition of the status of the Irish language, and a commissioner to enhance and develop the —

Mr K Buchanan: Deputy First Minister, clarity is required regarding "make provision to appoint" and "make provision". There seems to be an administrative error with regard to the three aspects of the Bill. Will you confirm that there will be no difference in the handling of those aspects and that the three items will go through together with the same degree of importance?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sorry, Minister, you have been moving along very efficiently, but it was remiss of me not to say that the Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate, with 10 minutes in which to move and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mrs O'Neill: To clarify, that is an oversight in the written statement that was previously produced. I am happy to confirm that the three pieces of legislation will move together through the legislative process.

As I said, we will introduce three Bills. They will make provision for the office of identify and cultural expression, an Irish language commissioner, and official recognition of the status of the Irish language, and a commissioner to enhance and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British tradition. Those Bills represent important milestones as we move forward together as a society on the basis of mutual respect and parity of esteem for each other's traditions, national identities and cultural difference, whether British, Irish or newcomer communities.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mrs O'Neill: Those legislative proposals —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mrs O'Neill: Go ahead.

Mr Allister: Right. The deputy First Minister said that the three Bills will move forward together. Can she be clear that we should nonetheless expect a separate vote on each at the Second Stage and the Consideration Stage of each Bill, there being three separate Bills? Is that correct?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, three distinct, separate pieces of legislation will come through the House and move together.

The legislative proposals will be subject to the established procedure for Executive referral and consideration before their introduction, and they will, of course, also be subject to consideration in the Chamber and in Committee.

On behalf of the Executive Committee, I commend the legislative programme to the Assembly as a positive start to our engagement and that of the Ministers responsible for the Bills with it on legislative matters and as a framework for the delivery of our shared obligation to improve and protect the well-being of our community. We look forward to providing the Assembly with a report on progress in due course.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I want to make a few comments as Chair of the Committee for Communities. I welcome the Executive's legislative programme. The Minister for Communities attended the Committee meeting last week to discuss her priorities, which include the introduction of a number of Bills before the summer recess. The Assembly will already be aware of the need for a Bill to extend social sector size criteria or bedroom tax mitigation measures. The need for that to proceed via accelerated passage was explained to the Committee by the Minister just a couple of weeks ago. The Committee supports the Minister in that approach, and we hope to see the Bill introduced to the Assembly very soon. As the Minister herself said, it is essential in order to support the 38,000 households that would otherwise be subject to additional housing costs.

The housing (amendment) Bill is yet another priority. Every Member knows only too well the myriad issues on housing. Along with the extension of the bedroom mitigation measures, a most immediate housing issue facing us is the need to legislate in order to redesignate housing associations as private organisations. We need the Bill to ensure that our housing associations can continue to build social homes and to give the Department the ability to access funds through financial transactions capital. The Committee acknowledges that accelerated passage is, again, a likely approach, and we look forward to the Minister coming to the Committee with her proposals.

Just last week, the Committee received a request for Committee support for a legislative consent motion (LCM) relating to the Westminster Pension Schemes Bill. That is a complex and quite technical piece of legislation. We will hopefully receive a briefing from the Department on that next week and reach a decision on that request soon after.

Liquor licensing reform is also a legislative priority. The Committee will receive a briefing at its meeting this week on the outcome of the most recent consultation on the proposed licensing and registration of clubs (amendment) Bill. I understand that there were over 1,500 responses to the consultation, indicating the level of interest in the legislation. We expect the Bill to be introduced within the next few weeks, and the Committee looks forward to making progress in its scrutiny of the Bill soon after that. There is an eagerness in various sectors to get the Bill progressed through the Assembly as soon as possible, particularly as the previous Committee had made significant progress on similar legislation. However, I caution that there will be no shortcuts in the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill. Due process will be followed, and we will take as long as we need, within statutory time limits, to do the job properly.

We know that, on a slightly more distant horizon, the Committee will also be presented with a Bill on gambling reform. The consultation on proposals has just ended, and the Committee will hopefully get a briefing on that soon.

It is encouraging that the Executive have laid out their initial legislative programme. After all, the Assembly is, first and foremost, a legislature, but we have only two years left in this mandate, and the Executive need to exercise caution in their legislative priorities. In doing so, they need to consider the capacity of the Assembly and its Committees to process the legislation. Loading Committees with two or even three Bills at the same time is not good practice. It will not lead to good scrutiny and could lead to bad legislation. I, therefore, urge Ministers to consult with their respective Committees on the logistics underpinning the timetabling of legislation.

The Committee for Communities looks forward to providing advice and assistance to the Minister on her proposed legislation so that we can get the best outcomes for all the people whom we represent.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Over the past number of weeks, the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has been engaged in discussions on the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill. Those two chunky pieces of legislation are going through Westminster, and we are operating according to its timetable.

We have been scrutinising the schedules that relate specifically to here. There are quite a number of challenges. We note, for example, that Scotland has moved ahead with its own agriculture Act. We aspire to that and would prefer to have our own Act here. Given the timescales, however, it might not be realistic to achieve that by the end of the mandate. The Committee will look at the LCM route, which is the option that the Welsh have chosen. The Welsh Assembly inserted a sunset clause into an LCM. That will apply until it gets to the stage where it can introduce its own agriculture Bill.

Last week, we looked at the Environment Bill and heard from a number of stakeholders. Indeed, over the past two weeks, we have had all-day meetings with stakeholders from across the sector. There are quite a number of challenges, particularly in relation to the proposed office for environmental protection in Britain and how that will interface with the proposed new independent environment agency here and the NIEA.

A lot of work is going on. This week, we will begin scrutiny, at a fast pace, of the Fisheries Bill. I want to stress how important it is — Paula mentioned it just now — that the Minister continues to engage very closely with the Committee and the sector as we roll out our legislative work programme.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then. This debate will continue after the statement from the Health Minister, which will be taken after Question Time. The next Member to speak in the debate will be Colin McGrath.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mr Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The First Minister): The motion to establish an Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights was agreed by the Assembly on Monday 24 February. The Committee is to submit a report to the Assembly by 28 February 2022. Officials have been liaising with the Assembly authorities and are working up options for the appointment of the five expert panel members to facilitate an early ministerial decision.

Ms Mullan: Will the First Minister set out the areas of expertise that they will cover?

Mrs Foster: It is important that the bill of rights group sticks to the areas specific to Northern Ireland. Other bill of rights processes did not come to fruition, because they became expansionist. It is therefore important that we deal with just the issues. The Belfast Agreement refers to human rights issues that are particular to Northern Ireland. We hope that the appointed experts very much take that into consideration in any work that they undertake.

Dr Aiken: In the discussions about reforming the petition of concern, the First Minister was rightly against the expert input from the Human Rights Commission. Why are you supportive of its expert input in this case?

Mrs Foster: It is not the case that the Human Rights Commission will be the experts. The Executive Office is asking for people to register their interest. We will then choose, probably by a public appointments process, five experts to advise the Ad Hoc Committee. It will then be for that Committee to bring forward a report in 2022.

Mr Durkan: Is all-party consensus a precondition for the bill of rights?

Mrs Foster: I hope that we will be able to reach consensus on that important issue. It is right to go forward on that basis. Many issues can be discussed in the Ad Hoc Committee. The Member will know that, as I said, unfortunately, there was not that consensus in the past, mainly because we looked beyond the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and it became an expansionist piece of work. There is more than enough that can be done on the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and I hope that the Ad Hoc Committee will be able to bring its report forward in due time.

Ms Bradshaw: I was on the original bill of rights body in 2008 and met my husband on it, so one good thing came out of it.

What contingency will be in place if there is not that consensus? Will it then fall to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to veto or agree the proposals?

Mrs Foster: I do not think that we are looking down the road at vetoing proposals. We are hopeful that there will be consensus on the Ad Hoc Committee after the consideration of expert advice. I am sure that it will take advice and evidence from a wide range of interested parties on the important issue of rights, issues of poverty and issues that affect people across Northern Ireland.

The Ad Hoc Committee has a lot of work to do. We hope to be in a position to appoint the expert panel in the near future, once we have received guidance from our officials.

Mrs Foster: The Member will be aware that the United Kingdom Government made a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach deal to work with the Executive to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021 and to make available funding to mark that centenary. This will include facilitating national recognition and international awareness of this significant anniversary, as well as exploring projects such as a shared history fund, the restoration of Craigavon House and the Great Ulster Forest.

Mrs Cameron: Does the First Minister agree that the centenary in 2021 could be used as an opportunity to better promote Northern Irish businesses and local tourism on the international stage?

Mrs Foster: I very much hope that that is the case. We know that Scotland has made great use of its Homecoming event to promote Scotland as a place not just to visit but to invest in. Like many, I am sure, I look forward to marking the centenary. I recognise, of course, that there are different views and narratives around the centenary of Northern Ireland, but it is an opportunity to do as the Member said and encourage investment to build our economy and do more on the tourism product.

Mr McCann: The Minister is aware that there are many different narratives around the formation of the Northern state. That difference of experience will extend to the occasion of its centenary. How will the Minister ensure that all perspectives are affirmed, accommodated and acknowledged?

Mrs Foster: The Member will recognise that, during the decade of centenaries, there has been appropriate recognition of the different narratives and views, sometimes through lectures and sometimes through symposiums. It is an opportunity. Of course, he will view the centenary in a different way from how I will view the centenary. I will view it as a time of celebration, but I recognise that there are different views and narratives around it. I am sure that there will be events planned to reflect and look back on all those issues.

Mr Allister: Does the First Minister agree that the extent to which the Executive Office is permitted to optimise the celebrations of the centenary will be a telling test of the platitudes of her partner in government when they talk about respect and a shared future? In that regard, will the Executive Office lobby for the proclamation of an additional public holiday to recognise the centenary? Will the Executive Office seek and support a visit by Her Majesty to address the Assembly on the occasion of the centenary of the formation of the Northern Ireland Parliament? Can the First Minister deliver on those things, or will she be thwarted by the Sinn Féin veto?

Mrs Foster: There are a number of questions in there. On the issue of respect, I hope that, as a joint office, we will be able to show respect to all the communities in Northern Ireland. Of course, a lot of us in Northern Ireland will want to mark the centenary in a meaningful and celebratory way; that is acknowledged. Having said that, I acknowledge that there are others who take a different view. I, personally, would very much welcome a visit from Her Majesty The Queen. I welcome many royal visitors to Northern Ireland. It is a great privilege of my office to do that. I recently welcomed the Duchess of Cambridge to Northern Ireland. I would be absolutely delighted if Her Majesty The Queen were to grace us with her presence during the centenary year; I would be hugely supportive of that.

It is important that we use the centenary in a meaningful way, that we allow it to unite rather than divide us and that we look to the next period of time in Northern Ireland, when, I hope, we can build a stronger Northern Ireland economically and move forward for all of our people.

Mr Butler: How far behind does the First Minister think our preparations are when compared with those for the centenary of the Ulster covenant?

Mrs Foster: I do not think that we are behind at all; in fact, the fact that the United Kingdom Government made commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach' indicates that they want to work with us to make sure that we mark the centenary in an appropriate, inclusive way that makes a difference for people in Northern Ireland. As I have said in all my answers, I recognise that, for those of us who value Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom, this is a time of great celebration but there are other narratives and views on that, and I am sure that there will be appropriate mechanisms through which everybody in Northern Ireland will be able to have their voice heard.

Mrs Foster: Our priority is to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland are understood and reflected as we move forward. Although political differences exist, the Executive are working together to ensure the best possible outcome for people living here. We are working to ensure that our businesses do not face increased costs, especially in terms of movement of goods North/South or east-west. We are in a unique position here, and we have concerns that the interdependencies between the protocol and the trade negotiations are not fully recognised. We have requested a meeting with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, where we will raise those concerns. We will also wish to ensure that our economy can flourish. That will require that the United Kingdom Government uphold their commitments to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market and to engage with us on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.

Mr Muir: As the First Minister will be aware, Europe is watching carefully to ensure that everyone lives up to their obligations arising from the protocol, which is not a backstop but, indeed, a full stop. How does the First Minister reassure the European Union that there will be no bad faith in the context of the view most recently expressed by the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, when he stated that he would resist pressure to implement checks at Northern Ireland ports and had no intention of putting infrastructure in place?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member is not suggesting that we should fetter the trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and from Northern Ireland into Great Britain, because that, of course, would mean that we would not have a border on the island of Ireland but would have a border between different countries within the same United Kingdom. That would be wrong, and it is important for us to engage with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster so that we can find out what he means when he says that there will not be any barriers and then work through all of that. We are, of course, aware of what the European Union says about the matter, but we are very interested to hear what the United Kingdom Government have to say on the issue because they are the negotiating power in terms of Northern Ireland. Therefore, we need to hear what they propose in relation to the protocol and, indeed, in relation to our free trade agreements.

Mr Robinson: What is the First Minister's view of the United Kingdom mandate for negotiation that was published last week?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member has read in great detail the United Kingdom's mandate for negotiations. It is very high-level. The deputy First Minister and I noted, when the mandate was published, that it is crucial that we are involved in the decisions that affect directly the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, and, although political differences exist on the issue of leaving the European Union, we are working together as a whole to ensure the best possible outcome for the people living here. We need to have our voice heard, and the deputy First Minister and I have requested an urgent meeting with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster so that we can raise our concerns and so that we are heard to make sure that there is not a cost put on our businesses — indeed, costs that could then be transferred to our consumers. We want to make sure that we have the answers to that, and that is why that meeting with the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP is important.

Mr O'Toole: First Minister, we have heard conflicting and contradictory things from different parts of the UK Government regarding unfettered access for Northern Ireland to Great Britain markets and contradictory things about the upholding of the protocol that was signed and is now binding in a treaty that is legally held at the United Nations. Given that, will the First Minister agree with me that by far the best outcome for Northern Ireland from the trade talks between the UK and EU is the closest possible relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and will she and the deputy First Minister make those representations on behalf of Northern Ireland?


2.15 pm

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. The best possible outcome, of course, is a free trade arrangement between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. That would do away with the current protocol and mean that there would be free trade with the European Union right across the United Kingdom. We will work with the Government to try to achieve that. Whether the European Union will be interested in it is another matter. Certainly, that is where the Government wish to go, and I, for one, will support them in so doing.

Ms Sheerin: North/South trade is vital to the economy. It is worth billions of pounds in goods and services. Will the Minister outline how the protocol will address concerns about the cross-border provision of tradable services and the sharing of data across the island?

Mrs Foster: Services are not covered by the protocol. We very much want that area to be dealt with so that east-west and North/South services can continue. The Republic of Ireland is an important destination for our goods and services, but the Great Britain market is by far the largest market for those goods and services. In 2017, it was worth £24·6 billion to the Northern Ireland economy, compared with £6·5 billion for the Republic of Ireland. It is very important that we have all those relationships — North/South and east-west — dealt with in a way that does not damage the economy and helps businesses that want to grow.

Mr Nesbitt: Does the First Minister agree that it is matter of regret that we do not have a Northern Ireland-specific shortage occupation list, as recommended by the Migration Advisory Council as early as May 2019? Will she call on her colleague in the Department for the Economy to rectify the situation as a matter of urgency?

Mrs Foster: As I understand from the recent announcement by the Home Secretary, she has agreed to a Northern Ireland shortage occupation list. That will come forward now. As the Member will know, that announcement was made very recently. We support the fact that there is that shortage occupation list. We will want to ensure that it is populated in the most timely manner possible. We would like it to be an iterative list so that it can be changed over time as opposed to being stuck in time. Certainly, the Department for the Economy will work with the Home Office to ensure that that list is put in place.

Mrs Foster: Work to develop the refugee integration strategy is under way. We are drawing on the excellent work, knowledge and experience that has been gained from successfully resettling a significant number of people under the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. A two-day innovation lab on the long-term integration of refugees is being held with stakeholders next month, and the outcome will inform the final strategy, which will, of course, be consulted upon fully.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. Organisations such as the Red Cross and Barnardo's have done excellent work to support refugees and asylum seekers. As the Minister outlined, the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme has really informed the work that is being undertaken. Will she further outline the expected time frame for the consultation?

Mrs Foster: As I said, an innovation lab will take place, which will inform the strategy as it moves forward. That is a new and innovative way in which to look at the strategy. I welcome the fact that that is being done.

The Syrian scheme has worked very well. I well remember the very first Syrian refugees who came to Northern Ireland in October 2015. The then deputy First Minister and I went to welcome them to Northern Ireland. It is great to see that so many have integrated right across Northern Ireland, not just in pockets. To date, 1,818 refugees have been received here. The two-day innovation lab will look at how we plan for the long-term integration of refugees and interact with stakeholder groups that help them. The Member mentioned the Red Cross. There are many other groups as well. That outcome will inform the final refugee integration strategy, which, as I said, will be consulted on fully. It is a new way in which to do things, and it is one that I welcome.

Mrs Foster: The victims' payment scheme policy and legislation was designed in Westminster. We are jointly of the view that the scheme should be funded from Westminster, and we continue to make that case. The Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme will provide much-needed support for those who have been left with life-changing injuries as a result of a Troubles-related incident. It is not possible for the costs of the scheme to be absorbed into existing budgets. The Finance Minister has met Her Majesty's Treasury and noted that the source of funding must be confirmed urgently.

Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given that answer, what discussions has she had with the NIO to ensure that it meets its obligation for the victims' payment scheme?

Mrs Foster: This will be a continuing conversation with the NIO. I met the new Secretary of State for only about 20 minutes on a party-to-party basis; it was not through the joint office. We will seek to meet the new Secretary of State about the matter. Normally, a business case that sets out estimated costs would be developed alongside the policy and legislation. As that work has not been undertaken, the Executive Office now has to work on it to develop the likely costs. I know that some colleagues in the Executive Office Committee are questioning and asking about the costs, but we have to try to work out the costs without a business case and are trying to make guesstimates about where we are going to be on those issues. We will continue to engage with the NIO.

Ms Armstrong: I, like the First Minister, share concerns about where the money is coming from. Have there been any discussions about which Department will take forward the scheme, given that it is, effectively, a pension scheme?

Mrs Foster: Yes, it is effectively a pension scheme. There have been some initial discussions involving, I think — I do not have the briefing in front of me — the Department for Communities and the Department of Justice; those two Ministries have been involved in the initial discussions. Those are the sorts of issues that we really have to get to grips with very quickly if we want the scheme to be up and running within the appropriate timescale.

Mr Clarke: I am sure, First Minister, that you share my enthusiasm that we have, at last, got something for innocent victims and survivors. Some of the questions have focused on budgetary aspects. When do you think that the first payments to the innocent victims will start rolling out?

Mrs Foster: We have a timescale; I think that the aim is to implement this by the end of May of this year. That is a very challenging timescale. Of course, officials will work to try to deliver on that. We anticipate about 2,000 recipients, but, again, we will not be clear until people start coming forward when the scheme opens. The payments will be between £2,000 and £10,000 per annum, but, due to backdating, costs will be initially high and then will taper off to a certain level. We have a lot to do on the scheme, but, as I said in my substantive answer, we jointly take the view that, because it is a Westminster policy — it was designed at Westminster — the funding should come from Westminster to deal with it.

Mr Beattie: Minister, as you know, many of the innocent victims and survivors suffer psychological injury. Some of them have been told that they will not be eligible for the scheme because they were not present when their loved one was murdered. Will you engage with the Victims and Survivors Service to clarify that and ensure that the information that it is giving out does not meet that?

Mrs Foster: Again, the eligibility was set by the Westminster Government. My officials are working through the eligibility issues at the moment. The Member mentioned one that I know will be of concern to many. Indeed, we are looking at whether that is something that can be dealt with in a discretionary way by the board. It is all at a very early development stage. I am sure that the Victims and Survivors Service will be happy to engage with any of the groups or, indeed, individuals who want to make representations about the matter that he raised.

Mrs Foster: The Together: Building a United Community strategy, published in May 2013, reflects the Executive's long-term commitment to building a more united and shared society. The New Decade, New Approach deal reaffirmed our continued support for the strategy.

Ms Flynn: In my West Belfast constituency, the Colin area has benefited greatly from the Urban Villages initiative in the T:BUC strategy. Does the Minister believe that the delivery of the T:BUC strategy is improving community relations?

Mrs Foster: I absolutely do. Sometimes, it is hard to quantify the impact that the T:BUC strategy has had, because it is difficult to measure when people are integrating in a more serious way than they did in the past. We have made significant progress on a range of headline actions. The Member mentioned Urban Villages. Colin is one Urban Villages area. The others are EastSide; Ardoyne and Ballysillan; the Markets, Donegall Pass and Sandy Row; and the Fountain and Bogside in Londonderry. All have had a lot of funding, and much progress has been made in all of those areas.

We have the T:BUC camps programme, with over 20,000 taking part in 570 camps since 2015. That has been a huge success with all of those young people. We also have 10 Shared Neighbourhoods, which is a housing project; Uniting Communities through Sport and Creativity; and the Peace4Youth programme. One of the areas in which we would like to see more progress is the shared education campuses programme. That has taken a little bit more time than we would have liked, but we hope that progress will be made in the near future.

Mr McNulty: A few weeks back, I was lucky to be at the T:BUC Uniting Communities through Sport and Creativity event in the Armagh City Hotel. It was attended by Ulster GAA, the IFA, the IRFU and the PeacePlayers, amongst others. Will the First Minister give her assessment of how successful that programme is? Are there any plans to continue or increase funding to that programme?

Mrs Foster: We intend to continue with the programme. I am very pleased that the Member had the opportunity to see it for himself. Sometimes, Members hear about programmes in the House but do not experience the ways in which they make a difference, particularly to young people. I am pleased to hear that the Member took the opportunity to go down and see what goes on.

Uniting Communities through Sport and Creativity uses sport, physical and creative activity to break down divisions and deliver good community relations. It is not about people saying that something is not for them or that something does not belong to their community, so they will not engage. It allows people to be proud of their sport and to share that pride with young people who might have never engaged in it. That is really positive and really good, and we hope that it will continue.

Mr Speaker: I call John Blair, with one minute on the clock.

Mr Blair: Given the need to address the needs of all communities, not just two communities, will the previous T:BUC strategy be subject to independent audit and assessment?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that, like all of our programmes, it will be subject to independent audit. It can be difficult to put into value-for-money terms the impact that such schemes have had on different communities. I agree with the Member, of course, that it is not just about the two communities. It is also about our newcomer communities and making sure that they feel integrated and that there is an increase in respect for each other. It is about an increase in shared space that people feel comfortable with and an increase in reconciliation, which is what we all want to see.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to topical questions. Question 8 has been withdrawn.


2.30 pm

T1. Mr Catney asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given that they recognise the potential of the Maze/Long Kesh site, as stated in their written answer to his question, whether, albeit that there is no agreement on the site's future, they have had any conversations with each other to try to come to an agreement. (AQT 161/17-22)

Mrs Foster: As the Member said, we absolutely recognise the potential of the site. Previous Ministers in this Office recognised the potential of the site as well, and we hope to see a resolution so that the site can be developed. I know that the issue is something that the Member's city council is keeping a very tight eye on, and it will want to see the site developed. Of course, the timeline for development will depend very much on whether we can reach resolution around the huge issues with the site. He will be aware of the history of the site and of what happened there, but it is important that we try to move forward.

Mr Catney: First Minister, is it fair for me to ask that both you and the deputy First Minister make a commitment to having a conversation about the future of the site and the economic corridor where it is situated? Yes, that conversation should take into account the site's historical significance.

Mrs Foster: Yes, we will be having conversations about the site, because, as we have acknowledged, it has huge potential. It is a question of whether we can find a way through what are very difficult issues. It is important that all the stakeholders be brought along with us. On the previous occasion, people felt that they were not involved in discussing the site's development. They felt excluded and were concerned about what was going to happen at the site. There is very much a case to be made for the discussion being an inclusive one, and, if we can, one that brings everybody along with us.

T2. Mr M Bradley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what actions have been taken to ensure progress on the UK Government's commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. (AQT 162/17-22)

Mrs Foster: As the Member will know, the United Kingdom Government made a large number of commitments in New Decade, New Approach. We have mentioned some of them today around the centenary, and there are also commitments around previous agreements, economic commitments and financial commitments. We will be engaging with the Northern Ireland Office to take forward those commitments to make sure that they are delivered on.

Mr M Bradley: Does the First Minister share my view that early delivery on those issues will build confidence and help to stabilise the Assembly and the Executive?

Mrs Foster: Yes, I absolutely agree with that. We as an Executive have tried as far as we possibly can to deliver on what was allotted to us in New Decade, New Approach. We have later today a debate on the legislative programme, which was to be brought at a particular time, and we tried to make sure that that happened. It is incumbent on the United Kingdom Government to make sure that they follow through on the various commitments that they made to Northern Ireland, which are contained in annex A of 'New Decade, New Approach', so that we can all move forward and stabilise the Assembly and Executive.

T3. Mr K Buchanan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the work in the Executive Office and the other Departments in relation to coronavirus and how it has developed over the past few days. (AQT 163/17-22)

Mrs Foster: I am very pleased to tell the House that we have had a very close working relationship with the Minister of Health since coronavirus became an issue. On Saturday, the deputy First Minister, the Health Minister and I held a conference call with the Taoiseach, his Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer in the Republic of Ireland, because, of course, our designated case came through Dublin Airport. We therefore wanted to make sure that the protocols that were put in place are working, and they are. It is very good to hear that. The conference call was also to make sure that we have close cooperation and continued conversations about the issue as times moves on.

Mr K Buchanan: Can the First Minister give us an update on how the joined-up approach between the Northern Ireland Assembly, other regions and COBRA all link together?

Mrs Foster: As well as speaking to colleagues in the Republic of Ireland, the deputy First Minister and I joined a COBRA conference call today with the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly, the Chief Medical Officer and the Minister of Health. I am sure that when the Minister of Health gives his response to the question for urgent oral answer later, he will give more details of that, but suffice it to say, it is important that we continue to support the Health Minister and all our Executive colleagues because this is becoming an issue not just for him but for the whole Executive as to how we move forward. Earlier today, our civil contingencies were put in place. They are now being called together and are in operation because we want to make sure that the Executive are ready to deal with whatever comes to us in relation to the coronavirus, COVID-19.

T4. Mr Muir asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans they have to address the Assembly about any issues that arise from the renewable heat incentive (RHI) report, which is to be published on Friday 13 March. (AQT 164/17-22)

Mrs Foster: As I understand it, the report will go to the Department of Finance on the Thursday or Friday, I am not sure which. I understand that Mr Justice Coghlin will make an announcement on the afternoon of 13 March. We will then consider that report, and I further understand that the Minister of Finance will come to this place and answer any questions in relation to that.

Mr Muir: Does the First Minister not agree that it is important that the first comments and response from the leaders of our Government will be in this place and that they will be able to answer questions from MLAs in this Chamber?

Mrs Foster: As the Member knows, it is a public inquiry entirely independent of government. The Finance Minister in post at the t