Official Report: Monday 16 March 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Buckley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would appreciate it if you could consider the disgraceful comments from the Member for Upper Bann Mr O'Dowd on social media at the weekend, where he referred not only to the British Government but, indeed, to Chief Medical Officers in the United Kingdom as a shower of bs. I ask that you rule on whether those comments are in keeping with the code of conduct for Members and whether they should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. In the midst of a global crisis, people look to Stormont for leadership, not political grandstanding.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: The Member will be aware that the matter that he raised is not a matter of procedure in the House, and it is therefore not in my gift to make a ruling on it. I will say this: the Member has put his point on the record. I have repeatedly urged Members to be very mindful of how they gain public confidence and respect by the use of their language, in whatever form of public discourse they wish to engage, and I repeat that call this afternoon. I urge Members to be respectful at all times in any of their public utterances.
Mr Storey: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, given that the Member in question is the Chief Whip of a political party in the House, will you take the matter to the group responsible for meetings of the Assembly, which you chair on and on which the Chief Whips sit? He is more than a Member of the House. He is someone who gives leadership through the structures of the House. Therefore, it is imperative that his conduct and his words be taken into account.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. As I said earlier, it is not, strictly speaking, a genuine, valid point of order. The Member has put his remarks on the record. I reassert what I said about respect and the conduct that I expect from Members. I again say that it is outside the jurisdiction of the Speaker, as the Member will be well aware, but the point has been put well on the record.
Mr Speaker: Before we start today's business, I acknowledge that a number of Members have made contact with my office and the officials in relation to the current public-health situation. I know that it very much reflects the concerns being raised with Members in their constituencies. First, in relation to business in the time ahead, I know that there is a need to have opportunities to discuss the COVID-19 virus. In addition to Health questions today, I have selected a number of questions for urgent oral answer. Members can expect that to be a regular item of business. The Health Minister has indicated to me that he recognises the importance of regular statements to the Assembly each week during this period.
Secondly, in relation to arrangements in this Building and for our business, Members will be aware that a COVID-19 response group of officials has been established and is considering various scenarios that may arise as a result of the coronavirus. That group is meeting very frequently — almost daily — to look at a range of issues to provide all Building users with practical advice in line with official advice and to plan for potential options as the situation develops.
The Assembly Commission will meet on the issue this evening for an update on the work so far and in the time ahead. It is important for me to emphasise that it will be for the Assembly Commission to take decisions relating to the use of this Building and arrangements in the Building. I will also have discussions with the Business Committee this evening, and any decisions around how we manage plenary business in the coming days and weeks will be for the Business Committee to take.
I anticipate that further discussions will be required with both bodies in the time ahead. As Chair of the Commission and the Business Committee, I assure Members that officials and I are mindful of the importance of these issues, and that they and I will engage regularly on our response. There is a need for us in this Building to ensure that the Assembly can continue to take whatever decisions are required on legislation and other matters, and, indeed, to scrutinise and reflect the views of the community on how these matters are dealt with. However, I also know that the advice being given to the community is that it is not going to be business as usual, and the Assembly will have to reflect that as well.
Mr Speaker: I have received notification of the resignation of Mr Andrew Muir as Deputy Chairperson of the Audit Committee, with effect from 10 March 2020.
Mr Speaker: I have received a request from the Minister of Health to switch his Question Time with that of the Minister for Infrastructure today. In light of the current circumstances, I have agreed to the change to allow him to attend an urgent COBRA meeting. The Business Office has advised parties and Members of the change. Questions for the Minister of Health will now be at 2.00 pm, with questions for the Minister for Infrastructure at 2.45 pm.
Mr Speaker: As with other similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Pat Sheehan replace Ms Jemma Dolan as a member of the Committee for Health; and that Ms Jemma Dolan replace Mr Pat Sheehan as a member of the Committee for Justice. — [Ms Ennis.]
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 16 March 2020.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 16 March 2020.
Mr Speaker: I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.
That this Assembly notes the report of the Audit Committee [NIA 10/17-22] on the scrutiny of the Assembly Commission's budget for 2020-21, as laid before the Assembly on 6 March 2020; and agrees the Assembly Commission's budget for 2020-21.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allocate one hour to this debate, with 10 minutes to move, 10 minutes to wind up and five minutes for all other Members who wish to speak. Please open the debate on the motion.
Mr K Buchanan: Thank you, Mr Speaker. In proposing this motion, I would like to record the fact that this debate follows on from the scrutiny of the Commission's budget that was carried out by the Audit Committee. The Committee's report on the Commission's budget was laid in the Business Office on 6 March. The Commission is indebted to the Committee for carrying out that important role.
With regard to the budget figure for next year, the total amount presented for resource departmental expenditure limit, or resource DEL, is £44·847 million. That figure is split between non-ring-fenced resource DEL of £41·147 million and £3·7 million for ring-fenced resource DEL. There is also a budget proposal of £1·093 million for capital expenditure.
The first category in the Commission's budget is income. Next year, the Commission will receive anticipated income of £739,000, with just over £580,000 relating to the recovery of ministerial salaries from Executive Departments. The remaining income relates to the recoupment of salaries for a small number of staff who are seconded to other public-sector roles and minor income from events held in the Building and other sundry income.
The second category covers salaries and expenses paid to Members. This category of expenditure is made up of Members' salaries; constituency office running costs, including staffing costs; Members' travel costs; and other costs associated with Members. The level of salary that will be paid to Members, Ministers, Committee Chairs and members of the Assembly Commission is set for the year and is forecast to cost £6·676 million. This forecast includes an increase in the basic salary paid to Members from 1 April 2020, as the current determination prescribes that the increase should happen. I know that some Members chose to donate the increase made to their salaries when the Assembly got back up and running on 11 January to a charity of their choice or to make a payment to the Consolidated Fund.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
As well as salary payments for Members, there is also the amount that Members can recover to meet the cost of running a constituency office. This includes the cost of Members' support staff, office rent and rates, office utilities and other office running costs. This subcategory is expected to total £6·018 million and covers payments to Members in respect of the travel allowances set out in the 2016 determination, which are forecast to be £293,000 in 2020-21.
The final element covers what are referred to as other costs. These costs include winding-up expenses where a Member leaves the Assembly and an estimate of costs for any ill-health retirements that might occur. These costs are estimated at £118,000.
The third major category in the Commission's budget is the largest, and it covers the salary payments for secretariat staff — the administrative costs that are incurred to deliver the full range of services needed by the Assembly. The first of these, secretariat staff salary costs, is forecast to be £21·88 million for next year. This is the largest single item in the budget, so I will try to set out what the Commission expects to be delivered with that salary budget.
When the Assembly got back up and running, we had almost 50 vacancies. We have already filled 30 of those on a temporary basis, so there are still a further 20 posts to be filled. We will continue to fill vacancies on a temporary basis, but we will need to permanently fill them by open recruitment.
Next year, additional staffing support is needed to deliver on the political arrangements set out in 'New Decade, New Approach'. For example, 13 additional posts are needed to provide support for the new Assembly Committees, namely a scrutiny Committee on the Executive Sub-Committee on Brexit, an Ad Hoc Committee to consider the creation of a bill of rights, and a Committee to monitor progress against the Programme for Government. This support will include the normal Committee teams, as well as research and legal support.
The Commission also requires five new posts in the Bill Office to increase the support for Members seeking to take forward private Member's Bills through the establishment of a non-Executive Bill team. An additional eight ICT posts will be needed in 2020-21 across a range of services including cybersecurity, increased capacity for software development and enhancing our service and help desk provision. Members will also be interested to note that the Commission has been developing plans to make progress on the formation of a youth assembly, and additional staff resources are included to take that forward. Delivery of Member development, including support for the Assembly Women's Caucus and training for Members' support staff, has been an important focus for the Commission over the last number of years. Given the significant number of relatively new Members, this work is more important than ever, and dedicated staffing resource is envisaged to do this.
Permanently filling the existing 50 vacancies, along with the new posts that have been outlined, will require an extensive and sustained programme of open recruitment. Five additional new posts will be required to support this, but they are time-limited and will not last beyond the end of the recruitment programme. In all, we expect that approximately 35 posts will be needed over and above what was previously in place.
I should point out to Members that the staffing resources envisaged for next year, and their associated budget, take no account of any changes in working practices within the Assembly that might come about as a result of any aspect of the RHI inquiry report. This category also includes the Commission's administrative costs, and these are forecast to be £6·131 million next year. Administrative costs cover a wide range of expenditure items, including: Committee travel and expenses; building rates, utility costs, including electricity and gas; repairs and maintenance costs; third-party support for the business-critical IT systems that we use; and the costs for recurrent contracts for things like broadcasting, catering and research subscriptions. Included in this is the cost of drafting Bills, and naturally that includes a number of anticipated private Member's Bills that Members will seek support for. Another area where the Commission wants to invest next year is in Member development. This direct investment is in addition to the staffing support that I have already mentioned.
The next category is payments to parties under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, or FAPP, as it is universally known. These costs are forecast to be £725,000 next year. The category is slightly more technical as it covers depreciation, impairment charges and the cost of notional charges to the Commission. For next year, depreciation charges are forecast to be £3·7 million. This is mostly made up of the depreciation charge on the value of Parliament Buildings. We also have depreciation charges for things like PCs and printers, but they are very small compared to the depreciation charge for Parliament Buildings. That makes up the total resource expenditure for next year.
The Commission anticipates that it will incur capital expenditure of £1·093 million in the next financial year. There is planned investment to replace the antiquated analogue telephone system, and also the ancient TV screens, in use across the Building. The capital plan also includes a number of necessary back-office or unseen improvements, ranging from Building security systems to investment in basic things like furniture. Where appropriate, the Commission has considered and agreed the business cases for these as part of its normal corporate governance arrangements.
Members, there is one final important point that I would like to bring to the Assembly's attention, and it relates to the reference in 'New Decade, New Approach' to a simultaneous translation service for the Assembly. As the Assembly has not yet considered the level of the simultaneous translation provision that might be required, no estimates of costs have been included in the budget for next year. The Commission can only assess the likely costs of providing this service once the Assembly has decided on an agreed approach.
Before I close, I want to put on record my thanks to the staff of the Assembly secretariat for their dedication and commitment to the Assembly over the past three years, and for their tremendous work in getting us back up and running again so quickly and efficiently in spite of the large number of staff vacancies. Every plenary session has been facilitated and every Committee meeting has taken place. That has involved a lot of effort behind the scenes that Members might not see, but the Commission certainly appreciates the professionalism and expertise that our staff have shown again. Members, I commend the Commission's budget proposals for 2020-21 to the House.
Mr Chambers: I speak today on behalf of the Chairperson of the Audit Committee, Daniel McCrossan, who could not be present today. At the outset, I should explain that in scrutinising the draft budget of the Assembly Commission, the Committee has followed the approach of the previous Audit Committee. In order to reflect the constitutional independence of the Assembly from the Executive, a methodology, or protocol, was introduced in 2016 setting out an approach similar to that adopted by the Audit Committee for agreeing the annual estimates for the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. There will also be a need to codify formally this additional Committee function.
At its meeting on 4 March 2020, the Committee took evidence from the Assembly Commission officials on the draft budget 2020-21. As the evidence was appended to the published Committee report, I will highlight just a few of the key areas today. First, I should reiterate that the Commission has a legal requirement to meet all costs associated with Members by way of salaries, allowances, expenses, Members' staffing costs and pension contributions etc.
These elements of the Commission's budget are determination-driven and not under the control of the Commission.
The Committee noted that the Commission's budget includes additional provision resulting from the New Decade, New Approach agreement, including increased staffing as a result of the establishment of new Committees. However, we acknowledge that some financial outworkings of the agreement have yet to be quantified, including the provision of simultaneous translation services, which may result in the Commission requesting additional funding in the future. Similarly, the Committee noted that the budget makes provision for the development of private Member's Bills, Assembly staff recruitment, a youth assembly and increased ICT staff.
The Committee, as a result of its scrutiny, received a number of important assurances from the Commission, including on elements of its capital plan and on the Assembly's business continuity plans in light of COVID-19. Given the budgetary pressures across the public sector, the Committee emphasised the importance of maximising all appropriate opportunities to generate income and recover costs.
Before concluding, I should also flag up issues raised during the Committee's deliberations on pay disparity for Members' staff and necessary security measures in constituency offices, particularly for lone workers. More generally, the Committee encourages the Commission to expedite the consultation process with MLAs and parties on the options for future arrangements for the provision of financial support to Members.
The Committee pointed out that the time constraints of the Executive Budget process meant that, on this occasion, it had only one opportunity to take oral evidence from the Commission. The Committee will follow up on a number of issues, including as part of its subsequent scrutiny of the Estimates, but it is keen to see a multi-year process put in place, which will provide for a more strategic approach.
As set out in the report, the Committee agreed that, arising from the scrutiny of the Assembly Commission's budget plan for 2020-21, and having due regard to the evidence provided by the Department of Finance, the Executive's draft Budget document should make provision for the Assembly Commission to have a resource budget of £44·8 million and a capital budget of £1·093 million for 2020-21. This resource budget amount is the total resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) and includes both ring-fenced and non-ring-fenced departmental expenditure.
I will now speak in my capacity as the Ulster Unionist Party member of the Audit Committee. I place on record our appreciation of the work of Mrs Lesley Hogg, the chief executive, and her staff in producing a budget. It cannot have been an easy task, given the recent publication of the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, with all the uncertainties around aspects of it. Indeed, paragraph 7 of the briefing paper to the Committee stated:
"The Corporate Strategy and Corporate Plan do not yet reflect recent political developments particularly those arising from NDNA."
Paragraph 18 of that paper set outs out that the 2020-21 budget:
"sets out the expenditure plans for the next financial year including the estimated financial implications of NDNA other than translation services which, as noted above, will be dependent on the outcome of the Committee on Procedures’ deliberations."
We are concerned about what those figures will be and want to see them as soon as possible
Mr Chambers: The Ulster Unionist Party will support the budget.
Mr Blair: As the Alliance member of the Commission, I support the budget as presented and the statement made by the Member who moved the motion.
I support the budget, for a number of reasons. However, before giving some of those reasons, I place on record my thanks and that of my party colleagues to the Assembly secretariat for the work undertaken by them in speedily getting the Assembly up and running and servicing our needs, as best they could, in the early days of the recent restoration.
I fully accept that the budget reflects the need for a full complement of staff in the restored Assembly. It also looks, quite properly, at considerations that will have to be made for additional measures in relation to legislation and commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
I particularly want to take this opportunity to welcome the provision made to progress the establishment of a youth assembly. I, for one, like other Members, I am sure, appreciate that that engagement with youth across Northern Ireland is a vital component of progress for the Assembly to make.
I am satisfied that there is provision and scope within the budget to make further considerations, if required, that might entail additional provision in relation to the staffing of constituency offices, the advancement of the IFRP review, and that we may be given an opportunity to consider lone working arrangements for our staff and any outstanding pay disparity issues.
I look forward to playing a full part, with Commission colleagues, in considering those issues. Apart from those issues, I am happy to support the budget on behalf of the party.
Ms Armstrong: I rise as a concerned Member of the legislature. While I accept that the budget is there, is well considered and has been brought forward by our excellent team, there are certain things that I would love the Commission to consider, namely the savings that can be made. Certain issues within the budget are not being considered. The amount of paper that is used in this place is one example. We have an antiquated system: we should be using Account NI as opposed to any other process. Our financial system relies on copious amounts of paper and what is called "wet signatures". That is not in keeping with such a modern establishment as we should be bringing forward.
I hope that the recommendations of the RHI report are brought forward when we are considering Member development. Certain issues within those recommendations are new and have not been spoken about, probably because the Commission has not had a chance to meet.
There are also issues to do with the safety of our staff. I have CCTV and protection at the doorway to stop people barging into my constituency office. That is something that is not taken seriously by the Assembly, and has not been thus far. We had the opportunity to bring that forward during the hiatus, when we were not here, but it needs to be considered. I do not wish to have a female or male member of staff sitting in my constituency office, when I am here, worried for their safety. Staff in this Building get such protection — you all know about the amount of security here — but it is not considered for our constituency staff. They are the people who, by themselves, are faced with vulnerable people coming into the office — people with mental health issues, who are angry at the current situation, and perhaps left with doubts about benefits — especially in these days when coronavirus is rampant.
There are opportunities to make real savings, and for those savings to be invested in the items that are missing from the IFRP. I look forward to the Commission publishing the report on that review later this year.
Mr Carroll: Many people are faced with a situation in which they will have to self-isolate to stop the spread of the dangerous coronavirus. They are doing so to ensure that the virus does not affect or immunocompromise friends and family and that our elderly loved ones are not impacted or killed by this virus, as has been the case in other countries.
Over the weekend, many workers contacted me. They are unsure of how they are going to fare with being isolated for weeks, or longer. They are asking me to clarify whether they will be able to pay their mortgage and have a job at the end of all this. Yet here, today, we are being asked to agree a £1,000 pay increase for MLAs — a pay bump that People Before Profit rejected from the outset, and that every other party eventually agreed should not be accepted, when the media came knocking with public outrage. Imagine that: no emergency fund for workers on zero-hours contracts or small business owners, but approval to give MLAs an extra £1,000.
Mr Carroll: I will not, because there is plenty of time.
People will, rightly, be furious, especially when, not two months ago, half of the Chamber was tweeting that they would be donating their surplus to charity. What they may not have realised is that many will take the extra pay increase year after year.
As I said before, the MLA salary is double the average wage for workers here. People Before Profit believes that elected representatives should be on the average workers' wage and that approving this pay rise increases the financial cushion that MLAs have over the rest of the public. For that reason, I will not be supporting this budget, and I call on those who have said they would reject the pay bump to do the same.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank Members who contributed to the debate. This is the first time that the Assembly has considered the Commission's budget at a plenary sitting. That is important, because the resources that are made available to the Commission will be used to provide services to the Assembly and its Members. When the Commission met to consider its budget proposals, it was mindful of the need to ensure that any expenditure that we incur achieves value for money. We were also mindful of the need to provide the Assembly and every elected Member with all the services that are required to carry out the Assembly's legislative, scrutiny and representative functions.
The Commission does not view the budget as excessive. Similarly, the Commission does not consider it to be cautious to the extent of not being sufficient to provide Members with the required services in Parliament Buildings. It represents a balanced budget for the fourth year of the mandate and the anticipated heavy legislative workload. The budget should enable the Commission to manage those pressures while, at the same time, to seek improvements to and innovation in the services that it provides to Members.
I will now try to cover some of the points raised by other Members. I turn first to those made by Mr Alan Chambers. There were recurring themes in all contributions, some of which were around security and lone working. In my office, we have had to put in place particular measures to protect lone workers. There is also the issue of pay disparity between constituency office staff and staff in the rest of the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). As you may be aware, a working group has been established to look at that disparity over the next few weeks. We want to see better equality and better security for our staff who are on the front line.
There were also issues around the import of the RHI inquiry report and its recommendations. The Assembly Commission is meeting later today, and, as the Speaker addressed in his opening remarks, a number of things will be added to the agenda, including, no doubt, the response to COVID-19, as other Members raised. I look forward to hearing what our Executive colleagues instruct us to do later today.
On modern working practices, the Speaker and others want to look at how we can do our business more efficiently and reduce our carbon footprint. We are very mindful of that, and I hope that, over the next few weeks and months, you will hear more about that. Ms Armstrong raised that particular point for the benefit of the Commission.
Mr Carroll raised the issue of Members' salaries. The rise in salary applies from 1 April 2020. An increase of £500 will be paid, totalling approximately £60,000. That increase is mandated, as he well knows, under the 2016 determination issued by the Independent Financial Review Panel and was outwith the control of Assembly Members, although the Commission and individual Assembly Members are making their own decisions about donating the increase to charity.
Ms S Bradley: To follow on from Mr Carroll's comment, does the Member agree with me that a lot of Members in the House followed their conscience and not the media on the issue?
Mrs D Kelly: Yes. These are very personal matters, but some Members have indicated that they will return the money to the central pot. Other Members have particular charities that they want to support and therefore want to direct the money to those themselves. It is very much an individual choice for Members.
Mr Allister: On the issue of how many Members chose to do privately what they said publicly they would do and allocate money through the Assembly scheme to a charity, does she not think that it is unfortunate for building public confidence that the Assembly Commission has refused in answer to Assembly questions not to identify but to state the number of Members who are availing themselves of the scheme? After the publicity, all and sundry said that they would do it, but the public have been left not knowing how many, in fact, did so.
Mrs D Kelly: I have confidence in the integrity of many of my fellow Assembly Members to make the decision for themselves. It is an evolving issue. It took some time to put in place the mechanisms to enable Members to do that. I think that it is very much an issue of individual choice and circumstances.
I think that I have replied to the majority of points that were raised. On behalf of the SDLP, and like other contributors, I want to place on record our thanks to Lesley Hogg and her team, who put the budget together. Others have raised particular issues, and, indeed, my colleague Keith Buchanan set out in his opening remarks issues about 'New Decade, New Approach' and its financial implications. We are unable to account for that yet because no decision has been made by the Executive. No doubt, that is a work stream that will require our attention later as decisions are made.
The Commission has considered its requirements for 2020-21 in a realistic and measured manner. The amount has been affirmed by the Audit Committee as reasonable. I commend the amounts of £44·847 million for resource DEL and £1·093 for capital expenditure to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the report of the Audit Committee [NIA 10/17-22] on the scrutiny of the Assembly Commission's budget for 2020-21, as laid before the Assembly on 6 March 2020; and agrees the Assembly Commission's budget for 2020-21.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
That this Assembly takes note of the publication of the renewable heat incentive inquiry report.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allocate three hours to the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to move the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. I call the Minister of Finance to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Murphy: On Friday 13 March 2020, the renewable heat incentive inquiry, which was commissioned by my predecessor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, published its report. I want to thank the Members of the panel: Sir Patrick Coghlin, the chairperson, and Dame Una O'Brien and Dr Keith MacLean, the technical assessor to the panel. I also thank David Scoffield QC, Joseph Aiken and Donal Lunny, counsel to the inquiry; Patrick Butler, solicitor to the inquiry; Andrew Browne and Paula Dawson, successive secretaries to the inquiry; and the whole inquiry team for the very comprehensive report that they produced.
This morning, the Executive agreed to accept the findings and move immediately to consider how the recommendations can best be taken forward. That is essential if a similar scandal is never to happen again. All Ministers will have a contribution to the overall response. As sponsor of the inquiry, I will lead that response.
Before we discuss solutions, it is important to diagnose the problems that were identified by the inquiry. The report found that the vast majority of what went wrong was due to an accumulation and compounding of errors and omissions over time. Those errors were due to both individual shortcomings and systemic failures in governance, management and communication. Without change, that could happen again. That shows the scale of the task that we face and the importance of real change.
The report's recommendations require sustained, system-wide change and will take time to implement. We have already made a start. I had intended to issue a written statement to Members this morning on my behalf and that of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, under urgent procedure following the Executive meeting, setting out a strengthened ministerial code of conduct, new guidance for Ministers, a new Assembly protocol for private secretaries, and new enforcement arrangements. That was not possible within the appropriate timescales, due to the length of the Executive meeting. I apologise to the House. My officials will ensure that the statement is issued as soon as practically possible. However, with your permission, Mr Speaker, I will set it out for Members now.
The revised versions of the ministerial code of conduct and guidance for Ministers are to be read in conjunction with each other. Together, they set out the high standards that are expected of Ministers and detail the way in which those standards will be met. For instance, they set out the accountability of Ministers to the Assembly and the need for Assembly Committees to be provided with the information that they require to discharge their role. They strengthen the requirements for the declaration of interests by Ministers and require the avoidance of conflict of interest. They set out that Ministers are responsible for the management, conduct and discipline of their special advisers. They make clear the need to record ministerial meetings and decisions, and they require the regular publication of declarations of relevant interests, details of meetings with external organisations, and gifts and hospitality received.
In order to ensure that the ministerial code of conduct and the guidance for Ministers are effective in guiding ministerial behaviour, a new mechanism for the enforcement of ministerial standards is to be introduced. Alleged breaches of the ministerial code, the guidance for Ministers or the conduct of Executive business will be referred to a panel for ministerial standards, one of whose members will be the Assembly Commissioner for Standards. The panel members will investigate and publish findings in respect of alleged breaches. They will complete their investigations quickly, within a recommended 15 working days of the receipt of a complaint. Their findings will include whether or not a Minister has breached the terms of the ministerial standards documents, and they may make a judgement as to the relative seriousness of that breach. The panel will publish its findings and report to the Assembly and the Executive, and that report will provide the grounds on which sanctions can be imposed by the Assembly or the Minister's party.
These new arrangements go well beyond what is required of Ministers in other jurisdictions. In particular, we have agreed that the independent investigation of allegations against a Minister shall be a matter for the panel for ministerial standards itself, and not at the discretion of the First Minister or deputy First Minister. We will start the appointment process within days.
The revised ministerial code of conduct builds on the strengthened special adviser code that was published in January. Special advisers are a critical part of the team that supports a Minister. They should be subject to, and should adhere to, the high standards that are expected of those who are in public life. Given the public's legitimate concerns in that regard, I moved quickly in January to produce and agree strengthened rules. Together, these codes set out the high standards that are expected of those in public office and reaffirm the Executive's commitment to rebuilding public confidence in the institutions.
As Minister Dodds set out on Friday in relation to the Department for the Economy, the Department has strengthened its system of internal control and assurance. It has significantly improved its process around business planning and performance measurement and reporting, resource and people management, risk management, whistle-blowing disclosures, casework reviewing and oversight.
Encouraged by the chair of the inquiry, who made clear that improvements should not wait for his report, the Civil Service, led by the Department of Finance, has also been reviewing many of its systems and processes that are relevant to the inquiry. That has included major reviews of the expenditure approval and business-case process, project management requirements and other areas such as managing risk, record-keeping, expertise in the Civil Service, responding to those who raise concerns and how people are placed in different roles. All of those areas will now be reviewed again in light of the inquiry report and, in turn, will provide the blueprint for Civil Service reform. I will lead that programme of work and will soon bring proposals to my Executive colleagues.
We must take the inquiry's findings and turn them into real, positive change and reform so that our devolved institutions provide effective and efficient government for everyone. The 'New Decade, New Approach' document includes a commitment to establish a subcommittee of the Executive to consider the findings of the RHI inquiry and to propose further reforms in addition to those in the 'NDNA' document to deliver the changes that are necessary to rebuild public confidence. The Executive have now established that group. I shall chair the subcommittee, and all Executive parties will be represented. The subcommittee will publish an action plan for implementing the recommendations. The action plan will be considered by the Executive and the Assembly.
The inquiry examined the role of the civil servants who were involved in the RHI scheme and whether or not their actions and/or advice met professional standards. The report identified instances of unacceptable behaviour. Following those findings, there will now be a disciplinary process for civil servants. Given the exceptional nature and circumstances of the inquiry, any potential disciplinary matters relating to civil servants will be managed through an independent external process. In the first instance, the content of the report will be considered by an external independent panel, which will establish whether there have been any breaches of standards of conduct and/or disciplinary policy. It is aiming to do that within weeks. The panel will then prepare a report outlining any disciplinary charges that should be considered in line with the standards of conduct set out in the Civil Service handbook, which incorporates the code of ethics.
Mr Murphy: If the Member does not mind, he will have an opportunity to respond to the debate. I will pick up whatever questions he has at the end.
For staff below permanent secretary level, the report will be provided to an internal panel of three permanent secretaries who do not have a conflict of interest in the RHI scheme. The report for staff members at permanent secretary level and above will be provided to the Cabinet Secretary to consider. On the basis of the advice from the external independent panel, the permanent secretaries and Cabinet Secretary will decide whether there should be any further action, hold disciplinary hearings and take decisions on disciplinary outcomes.
The inquiry team has completed its programme of work. The onus is now on us to turn the recommendations into real action and reform. We need effective governance. We need public money to be managed in the public interest. We need to ensure that this does not happen again. I look forward to hearing Members' contributions.
Mrs Foster: Mr Speaker, thank you for calling me so early in the debate. Unfortunately, given the pressures outside the Chamber, I will not be able to stay for most of the contributions. I have already explained to you the reasons for that, Mr Speaker, and I trust that the Minister and other Members will appreciate the circumstances.
First, I thank the inquiry team, who worked so forensically to examine this very complex issue. We should all agree that the inquiry was carried out in a professional manner under the chairmanship and leadership of Sir Patrick Coghlin. A lot has been written about the RHI scheme, but this is a definitive account based on the facts rather than the headlines, and I welcome the publication of the report. However, as the Minister pointed out, the report does not mark the end; rather, it is a critical staging post. We must now look carefully at the problems identified in the report, learn from what has happened and use the report as a road map to fix the broken systems.
I came into politics not for position or personal gain but to try to advance the values that are important to me and to help make people's lives better in Northern Ireland. I want Northern Ireland to thrive. I want to heal the divisions. I want better opportunities for the next generation. That is what motivates me. That is why I have such deep and personal regret about the mistakes that were made in the scheme, particularly the opportunities that I had or could have taken to address some of the issues that subsequently emerged. Having the right motivation does not prevent mistakes, oversights or omissions, and I must learn from what has been pointed out by the inquiry. However, when I look back, it is the allegations of corruption that were of the utmost concern. To allege that someone is corrupt is amongst the most damaging accusations that can be levelled against anyone. I therefore welcome Sir Patrick's clear and categorical finding that corruption played no role in the failure of the scheme. Those who made such claims should now publicly accept that finding as a lesson for everyone on these Benches and on the Benches opposite for the future: before questioning anyone's integrity, wait for the facts; look at the subject not as a political rival but as a father, mother, son or daughter who, at least, deserves a fair hearing. None of us is perfect — we will make mistakes — and I apologise for the errors. I will learn the lessons for my role as First Minister, and all those who have been criticised must act and do better.
The report identifies a catalogue of errors and opportunities missed by many people at many different times. No Minister will be an expert on every policy area in their Department; they depend on accurate, diligent and comprehensive advice. Sir Patrick Coghlin concluded that that was not received on many occasions in the Department. I want to ensure that this can never happen again. We need better systems and people with the right expertise to be involved in the policy design of complex issues. Scrutiny functions must be improved, and professional project management must be implemented. We must rebuild trust across all levels.
As we now see in the report, there was no good reason to bring the institutions down and keep them down for so many years. However, the report demands action, particularly to tackle and address the structural and systematic failings. I welcome the fact that some of that action has already taken place, particularly in relation to the new special adviser code. Yet, there is much more that could be done, and we should be open to that.
Colleagues, this is not a day for recrimination; it is a day for learning. I acknowledge my role in damaging public trust, but I am determined to play a full part in rebuilding that trust and doing all that I can to ensure a better way of working as we move forward.
Finally, I acknowledge what carried me through some very dark moments over the last couple of years. First, I acknowledge my faith in almighty God and acknowledge that his grace is sufficient in all things; the love and support of my friends and colleagues inside and outside this great party; and my precious family, who had to listen to so many people speak of their wife, daughter, sister and mother in such a disparaging way but who never stopped believing in me as a person of integrity. Thank you to those who, with my family, never stopped believing in me as a person of integrity. I will reward their faith by learning the lessons, by fixing the problems and by making Northern Ireland a place that the next generation can be proud of.
Ms Dolan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the RHI scheme. I also welcome the publication of the long-awaited public inquiry report. We are here to deliver for all the people of the North. Our constituents want good public services, quality jobs and stability. Any wasting of public money, such as the RHI scheme resulted in, puts all of that under pressure. Public confidence has to be earned and trust rebuilt, if the institutions are to have any credibility.
As a party, Sinn Féin is committed to these political institutions, but they must operate with a new kind of politics that is representative of all of society and is progressive and respectful. Scandals like RHI, on which Sir Patrick Coghlin reported, should never have been adopted in the first place and must never be allowed to happen again. However, we cannot tar all RHI claimants with the same brush. I know businesses in my constituency — hoteliers, in particular — that installed boilers for genuine reasons and are being punished because others abused the system.
The RHI scandal was formed in a DUP Ministry, and the DUP's actions have caused significant damage to the renewables industry. It will have a lasting and detrimental impact on the uptake of future schemes. The public have lost confidence in government-run schemes, and it is vital that the recommendations are implemented and fundamental lessons are learned from these failings.
On taking up office, the Finance Minister immediately brought in a code of conduct for special advisers. It is swift action like that that will help us to get things right for the people we represent and for future generations. The onus is now on us to work together to turn the rest of the recommendations into action.
Mr O'Toole: As with Members who spoke before, I am pleased to speak in this debate on the Coghlin report. We debate this at a time of extraordinary circumstances, with people outside rightly concerned about the public health emergency that we face. Nevertheless, that does not diminish the importance of the Coghlin report. It does, however, mean that my remarks will be relatively brief, and I submit that we should come back to the report in order to discuss and debate it in more detail.
Sir Patrick Coghlin delivered his report to the Assembly on Friday afternoon that was not just before St Patrick's weekend but while we were digesting the full scale of the coronavirus crisis that we face. He lays out in detail what are, frankly, a huge number of systemic failings around government in this place. It is important that we consider this enormous report in enormous detail. I have it in front of me, and, including annexes, it runs to nearly 1,000 pages. It is entirely unrealistic that, over the past weekend, when we were all dealing with constituency issues and questions about the public health crisis, we would have had any realistic opportunity to digest the report in any significant detail.
Nevertheless, what does he say? He says that there was no evidence of real corruption. I accept that. However, the report indicates systemic failings at official and political level. We need to address those robustly. I welcome the fact that the First Minister has committed to addressing them, and I welcome the fact that the Finance Minister has indicated that, in addition to the revised spad code, there will be a serious approach to the Executive subcommittee. Nevertheless, there are serious issues isolated in the report. It highlights severe problems with Civil Service capability. The first finding that Sir Patrick notes is that RHI was, he says, a project too far for the Civil Service. In a sense, that was the original sin of the renewable heat incentive scheme, certainly the non-domestic variety. The Civil Service was not capable of delivering the project, and it certainly was not capable of delivering such a novel and complex project outwith the support of the UK Government. That error was compounded by several other errors, including the failure to put in even the most rudimentary cost controls and then the failure to spot those problems as they became ever more apparent. There was a failure in briefing the Minister, a failure of proper engagement with the Treasury and a failure in engaging with Ofgem, the arm's-length body charged with overseeing and regulating the scheme from London.
We had a range of systemic failings. We know that we need to do things better and have a long, hard look at how we in the Assembly scrutinise what the Executive do. In reality, we will not be able to do that today, because this debate is for a few hours the day before a bank holiday when everyone is preoccupied by a public health crisis. Therefore, while it is important that we debate that, we should come back to the Coghlin report at a later date for a slightly more considered deliberation.
Mr Beattie: I am mindful of the tone that we should take today, when we are all dealing with other things. The RHI is a complex issue, and I have tried to distil that into just one thing to help us to move along. Albert Einstein reportedly said that, if he had only one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. We could use that with COVID-19, I have to say. However, with RHI, if we had spent more time defining the problem, we would not have spent so much time picking up the pieces of where we got it wrong.
Sir Patrick Coghlin said that the renewable heat incentive scheme should not have been adopted. He went on to say that junior civil servants responsible for the scheme were under-resourced and not adequately supported; in fact, the person who was responsible for the scheme had absolutely no experience of setting up a scheme similar to this and had only 1·5 staff to deliver it. That is a failure in leadership. For me, no matter which way you distil the whole thing, it distils down to a failure in leadership. Of course, we will try to pass the buck as far down the ladder as we can so that the people at the bottom will get all the disciplinary issues and those at the top of the ladder will get away with saying, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake".
As the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster was responsible for the leadership of her Department, so it was Arlene Foster's failure. It was not just her failure — there were many other failures — but it was her failure. The inquiry considered that the Minister, in presenting the regulations to the Assembly and asking for its approval, should have read them herself, not least because, in the inquiry's view, to do so was a core part of the Minister's job. It was in her competency, and, within her competency, it was failure.
Leadership was the issue here. We are all leaders of some shape or form and are responsible people in some shape or form. Therefore, we must take responsibility for when it goes wrong, not just step to the side and pass it to somebody else. Maybe we need to look at John Adair's action-centred leadership model, which includes task needs; setting objectives and planning tasks; allocating responsibilities and setting performance standards; the group needs of communication, motivation and discipline or the individual needs of coaching, counselling, developing and motivating. Those are all key elements.
I can look to the DUP, and I am not trying to score points but making a genuine point. I can look to Sinn Féin and say exactly the same because they failed also. Michelle O'Neill, as Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, promoted the scheme and not once did she scrutinise it. It is not enough to say, "It's not my Department": we have to scrutinise what we put forward to the people, regardless of which Department it is.
We have already said that we should work cross-departmentally. We are working cross-departmentally on COVID-19; we should have done so with RHI.
The issue with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is, I have to say, truly scandalous. He did not just go out and give a running commentary to somebody who is unaccountable and unelected but asked him for permission to act. That is what he did: he asked for permission to act. That was shameless. It is shameless to do that when you are in a position of authority.
The issue with spads is well known and affects us all. We need to work on that. Mr Allister will bring forward something later, and we need to get behind it, because we need to fix the issue with spads. There are also issues in our Civil Service, but I do not think that it is right or fair that, whatever comes out of the report, we at the very top of the ladder fire it down to the people at the bottom and say, "We will take disciplinary action against you". That is grossly unfair. The standard that you walk past is the standard that you accept, and we walked past it. The DUP walked past it, and Sinn Féin walked past it. Do I accept the First Minister's genuine apology? Yes, I do. It was gracious, and it was humbling. Do I trust that this will not happen again?
Mr Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?
Mr Beattie: No, I do not. Therefore, the leadership of our Executive and the Assembly remains in question.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement, but, as Matthew O'Toole outlined, in the context of the public health emergency that is COVID-19, giving the RHI inquiry report due and proper consideration requires the business to be addressed at a later date. The business had already been tabled, however, so I will address it alongside the clear message that was delivered by you, Mr Speaker, that it is not "business as usual" at the Assembly.
The revelations that emerged in 2016 relating to the non-domestic renewable heat incentive scheme and the actions of certain Ministers, special advisers and some civil servants damaged public trust in these institutions, with legitimate public outrage and anger at reported comments such as "Fill our boots". Action was demanded. Sir Patrick Coghlin, Dame Una O’Brien and Dr Keith MacLean undertook a comprehensive inquiry, the results of which were announced last Friday. I thank the inquiry team for the report. I am hopeful that it will act as a watershed moment for those mentioned in it, who should not walk away thinking that they have been somehow vindicated for past misconduct and that what they did was somehow acceptable.
Nobody mentioned in the report has emerged smelling of roses; instead, there is a long and extensive report cataloguing a series of failures and incompetence, and the failure to follow rules and procedures is reported, with those rules and procedures often being viewed as optional and discretionary. None of those issues is, however, new. Whether it was by the whistle-blowers and investigative journalists who brought many of the matters to light, the inquiry's public hearings, the extensive inquiry documentation published online or Sam McBride's book 'Burned', the public have been made fully aware of the RHI scandal. I am particularly grateful to the whistle-blowers and journalists who brought the issues to light. Much more should be done to ensure that whistle-blowers' allegations are properly considered and investigated, whilst journalists should never have to face a barrage of criticism and attempts to exclude them just because they were reporting awkward allegations. Investigative journalism —.
Mr Chambers: Does the Member agree that the actions taken against the whistle-blower would certainly not encourage whistle-blowers to come forward in future?
Mr Muir: That is why we need to have a complete —
Mr Muir: — culture change in the Assembly and in these institutions to embrace whistle-blowers.
Investigative journalism has an important role to play in modern democracy and should be embraced.
In considering the report, it is important to note that the vast majority of civil servants whom we are lucky to have working for us are dedicated, capable individuals, providing us with great service. We should be thankful to them, whilst acknowledging the investigation that has been outlined by the Minister and the need for improvement to ensure a fit-for-purpose Civil Service that is capable of dealing with specialist, complex matters.
Now that the inquiry is over and the report has been published, we must ensure that the report and its recommendations are not allowed to gather dust. It is incumbent on the Executive, the Assembly and the Civil Service to ensure that all of the recommendations are implemented as part of a complete culture change towards a new culture that ends silo departmental working; upholds openness, transparency and the highest ethics; and understands the importance that effective scrutiny can bring. Scrutiny should not be feared; it should be embraced and encouraged. Those are issues that the Alliance Party has long been campaigning on, and we are glad to see the report providing yet another evidence base for change.
Costing, potentially, up to £14 million, the RHI report will be an expensive waste of money if the recommendations are not implemented. We, therefore, owe it to everyone, including, most importantly, the taxpayer, to make sure that the publication of the report ensures that the mistakes that were made, which resulted in a scandalous misuse of public funds, are never repeated.
Mr Stalford: This is probably the most important discussion that we have had since the restoration of devolution because this issue was the pretext for collapsing the institutions and keeping the people of Northern Ireland without a devolved Government for three years. It is important, therefore, that we have this discussion.
"Corrupt or malicious activity on the part of officials, Ministers or Special Advisers was not the cause of what went wrong with the NI RHI scheme".
Those are the words of the inquiry chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin: no evidence of corruption or malice. That discredits the wild and spurious claims that were made by current and former Members in the Assembly as devolution was teetering towards collapse. I reiterate the apology that has been made by the First Minister for mistakes and misjudgments, but they were mistakes and misjudgments, not corruption or maliciousness, as was implied and inferred for the last three years.
The systemic inaccuracies in the Civil Service documents and submissions to the Minister provide grounds for a full and detailed appraisal of how the Civil Service in Northern Ireland functions. This is now a core issue in relation to the governance of this country. Sir Patrick's report sets out a clear road map of recommendations that will need to be implemented and will require careful planning and sufficient resource to ensure that they are fully implemented. The Assembly will need to have a strong oversight role in ensuring that the recommendations are faithfully and fully implemented, with a clear timetable produced by the Executive for doing so.
The recommendations made by Sir Patrick deal with serious failings on the part of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Recommendation 3 states:
"Northern Ireland Civil Service teams working on policies ... should be trained and supported so that they have the skills to do the job".
"action is needed to raise and sustain the quality of advice to Ministers".
"A fundamental shift is needed in the approach used within the Northern Ireland Civil Service with regard to recruitment and selection for government jobs."
"Commercial and business awareness amongst policy officials ... must be improved."
Recommendation 10 states:
"The ... Civil Service should consider what changes are needed to its ... practices on the use of external consultants".
Recommendation 17 states:
"The ... Civil Service should take steps to draw on best practice from other jurisdictions".
Recommendation 18 states:
"More generally, we recommend a Northern Ireland government-wide framework for information exchange".
That is vital. It has been and remains a significant challenge for the Executive. Recommendation 19 states:
"The processes within a Department for approving new expenditure and business cases ... should be thoroughly re-designed".
On and on it goes. Perhaps the most significant paragraph, however, is finding 313, which states, in relation to the predecessor Department to the Department for the Economy:
"DETI’s internal governance systems failed over four years as a conduit to deliver important information to senior management about the flaws and mounting risks of the NI RHI scheme. The systems were not fit for purpose where RHI was concerned. Responsibility for this must rest with DETI/DfE’s successive Permanent Secretaries/Accounting Officers: Mr Sterling and Dr McCormick."
There it is in black and white. I want the independent panel that the Minister has announced to examine the behaviour and conduct of senior civil servants. The significant failings identified and the clear blame attached to those named individuals by the inquiry require swift and immediate action.
Mr Allister: Is the Member concerned that, by the time the panel tasked with investigating Civil Service failures gets to grips with the issues, some of the key persons might have retired?
Mr Stalford: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
That is a perfectly legitimate concern, and that is why it is important that we hear a timetable for ensuring that that is not the case from the Executive and the Minister. It is essential not only that action is taken but that action is seen to be taken in a speedy and expeditious manner in order to restore public confidence.
Finally, the First Minister did the right thing in apologising for the mistakes that were made and saying that we, as a party, will learn from those mistakes to ensure that they do not happen in the future. All parties who were party to the scheme and have responsibilities in that regard should have the courage to do likewise.
Mr McGuigan: It seems a bit surreal to talk about RHI in a context where that financial and governance scandal is paling into insignificance compared with what our community currently and potentially faces with coronavirus. I pay tribute to our healthcare workers for all that they have done, are doing and will be called on to do, and I hope that the decisions taken in the Chamber complement and support them in their work in the time ahead.
The RHI scheme was an unmitigated disaster, and, despite attempts at deflection, as my colleague John O'Dowd said on Friday, it was a scheme and a scandal designed, delivered and, unfortunately, not scrutinised by the DUP. It was a scandal that brought down the Government, and the abundance of evidence throughout the inquiry has vindicated the approach of the late Martin McGuinness. The scheme was fundamentally flawed from its inception and marked by systematic failures at ministerial, political, special adviser and Civil Service levels. It involved the misuse of public funding, and, while I accept that Justice Coghlin said that there was no systematic corruption, it created the opportunity for moral corruption by some who were involved.
Notwithstanding the plethora of faults in the scheme, as Sinn Féin's environment spokesperson, I am ultimately disappointed that a scheme with the worthy aspiration of reducing carbon emissions and dealing with the issue of climate change failed so miserably. Unfortunately, environmentally, this green energy scheme was ineffective in reducing carbon emissions. Before RHI was set up, a report commissioned by DETI showed that such a scheme was less effective in reducing carbon emissions and nearly £200 million more expensive than an alternative scheme. Despite that overwhelming evidence, the DUP Minister responsible, Arlene Foster, went for the less effective and more expensive option of RHI. That error was compounded by removing cost controls and introducing tariffs higher than the cost of the fuel. That meant that the more operators burned, the more profit was made. That flaw led to some operators heating empty sheds with multiple small boilers, abusing a scheme that was supposed to be about reducing carbon emissions and combating global warming.
I note, like my colleagues before me, that lots of the RHI applicants, including lots in my own constituency, are now suffering as a result of this scheme.
Economically, environmentally and politically it was a disaster. RHI has now become a byword for everything that was wrong in the political system here in the North. The Assembly must now operate differently from what went before with a new kind of politics. Public confidence must be earned and trust rebuilt if the Assembly and Executive are to have any credibility. Never again can we see scandals like RHI happen in this place. As others have said, we need Civil Service reforms and proper checks and balances, and these serious reforms must be looked at. We need open government where decisions, and how they are taken and in whose interest, are laid bare and properly scrutinised, day and daily, with no hiding place for any risk of malpractice or cronyism. That is what Sinn Féin is committed to do.
I support the recommendations contained in the report, and I support the actions of the Minister.
Mr Middleton: Like others, I very much welcome the publication of the report and want to thank the inquiry for its work over its duration. Our party leader has apologised personally and corporately for the mistakes made over the course of the RHI scheme. There are many others, individuals and parties, who also need to take their responsibility. It is clear that there are lessons to be learned. We would all do well by studying the report in detail and learning lessons from its findings.
Mr Speaker, I believe that it is important to reiterate a significant element of the conclusion of the inquiry's report. It states that:
"Corrupt or malicious activity on the part of officials, Ministers or Special Advisers was not the cause of what went wrong with the NI RHI scheme ... Rather, the vast majority of what went wrong was due to an accumulation and compounding of errors and omissions over time and a failure of attention, on the part of all those involved in their differing roles, to identify the existence, significance or implications of those errors and omissions."
The report details the failures and missed opportunities of all involved in the scheme. It is clear that there is no evidence of corruption or malice. Therefore, the shameful claims and accusations made by some other political parties have been exposed for exactly what they are.
The report also details real systemic issues within the Civil Service. There were systemic inaccuracies in Civil Service documents and submissions to the Minister. I believe that this is one of the core issues that will need to be addressed. Given the seriousness and importance of such documents coming to a Minister, this cannot be repeated. However, the criticisms were not focused solely on documents: there were criticisms about misleading ministerial advice, skills mismatches between roles and staff, weakness in the continuity of staff and a lack of commercial awareness by officials. There is clearly a need for reform, and there is a string of recommendations to deal with the serious failings on the part of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which cover a wide range of areas such as training, quality of advice, recruitment and selection for Government jobs, and expenditure processes to name a few.
There are many areas where reform is needed, which leads us to the belief that the conclusions of the inquiry report points to a strong case for a full appraisal of the functions of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. We must learn the lessons and reform must happen. The 44 recommendations in the report should be implemented to ensure that we have a robust process and procedure in place. That will require, of course, a total attitude and cultural change.
Mr Speaker, RHI has shone a spotlight on transparency and accountability. One area specifically is about special adviser appointments, their influence and discipline. We recognise that the breaches, in spirit, of previous codes by several parties, not just one, were not acceptable and were down to complacency and convenience rather than corruption. We welcome the revisions made to the code in January by the Finance Minister and approved by the Executive, which pre-empted many of the report's recommendations, but further work can, and should, be done in light of the panel's recommendations. The Executive, and in particular the Department of Finance, should take a lead in this work.
I believe that the report makes a positive statement about the need for greater collective responsibility between Departments and Ministers in the future to avoid making similar mistakes to RHI. On the issue of collective responsibility, lessons must be learned. Finding 122 is an example of that:
"The Inquiry considers that the remarks of DARD Minister O’Neill ... that it was not for her to scrutinise the work of another Minister, do not seem to deal with the need for basic departmental cooperation".
The wash-our-hands attitude of Sinn Féin towards this period of government is decisively criticised by the inquiry. That party should reflect, as much as anyone else, and that attitude must change.
I will stick with the area of interventions, and it is clear that, as other Members stated, some individuals sought consent from their bosses in Dublin. That, too, is very much not acceptable. Sinn Féin Ministers must get away from the practice of seeking permission from the wider republican movement.
The inquiry decisively demonstrated that corruption or malice, whether for personal gain or that of others, was not the cause of the failure of RHI. We will work to regain public trust, and we accept the findings in full.
Dr Archibald: I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I welcome the long-awaited publication of the report.
I want to cover a couple of things in my contribution: first, the role of Committees in scrutinising departmental policy and the actions of Ministers; and, secondly, the effectiveness of RHI in achieving its intended aims.
The role of Statutory Committees is laid out in the Good Friday Agreement:
"The Committees will have a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department with which each is associated, and will have a role in initiation of legislation."
"call for persons and papers ... consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by its Minister".
The RHI inquiry report states that the ETI Committee:
"whose role ... included independent scrutiny of DETI, did not operate as an effective check against departmental error in the case of the RHI scheme. Aside from limitations inherent in its role, reasons for this included its own limited resources and its dependence on the Department for information and analysis to analyse to allow it to perform its challenge function robustly".
While the inquiry found that the ETI Committee was not provided with sufficient or adequate information — in fact, it was provided with incomplete and inaccurate information — to permit it to discharge its scrutiny function, it also found that the Committee accepted the assurances of the Department on concerns that it raised, and it did not follow up or check that DETI was delivering what had been promised. This is a clear warning signal to all of us, given our scrutiny function in Committees and our duty to act on behalf of those we represent. We are supposed to ask the difficult questions, demand the information and ask again until we are clear and satisfied that the policy is good, that public funds are being properly spent and that outcomes to better citizens' lives will be delivered.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. She hit a note today that no one else did. Has she concerns that, even on this day, lessons have not been learnt in the Departments?
Dr Archibald: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will continue with what I was going to say, which is that we need to learn the lessons. The report recommends that the:
"Assembly should consider what steps are needed to strengthen its scrutiny role, particularly as conducted by Assembly Committees, in the light of lessons from the RHI. While it will be for the Assembly itself to decide, the Inquiry recommends that such a consideration might include significantly increasing the resources available to statutory committees and, generally, identifying what steps are needed to improve the effective scrutiny of Departments and their initiatives".
It is incumbent on us to heed this advice, and a subcommittee, which the Finance Minister will chair, is being set up to consider the report. I am sure that it will consider all the recommendations, but it is important that Committees can perform their role.
RHI was designed to increase the proportion of heat generated from renewable sources. Moving to renewable technology and away from fossil fuels should ensure a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. However, evidence now shows that RHI for biomass technology may be not only ineffective in lowering carbon emissions but counterproductive. The carbon-neutral credentials of the wood pellets subsidised by RHI are now strongly contested in the scientific community. When wood is burned, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. The precise level of carbon dioxide emissions depends on a number of factors, including the efficiency of the boiler. According to one estimate, burning wood releases four times more carbon than natural gas and one and a half times more than coal. Despite that, wood is classified and accounted for by many official bodies as carbon-neutral. That is on the basis that the carbon released when wood is burned is equivalent to the carbon absorbed by the tree as it grew. Therefore, it is claimed, the two cancel each other out. It is also assumed that the trees that are cut down are to be replaced.
If we are going to spend public money on long-term programmes and schemes, we must ensure that they can be reviewed and adapted as evidence informs us. That is another important lesson from this whole affair. It is vital that we learn the lessons from the disastrous RHI scheme. We must implement the recommendations. As the Minister said, real positive change and reform is needed to rebuild public trust and confidence in these institutions.
Mr Frew: I welcome the statement from the First Minister, my party leader, in the House. We should consider these issues and how people were treated over the past number of years with a human face. I take this opportunity to thank the Right Honourable Sir Patrick Coghlin for his comprehensive inquiry and report into his findings.
When the report was published, the people who were most disappointed were the media, because there was no evidence of corruption and malice. I am glad that there was no such evidence. There is certainly evidence of wrongdoing and systemic failures across the board, but none of corruption or malice.
Throughout the reporting of the inquiry, there was much sensationalism. That led to recipients of the RHI scheme being treated as villains, criminals and fraudsters. A lot of those recipients are still suffering. That scheme needs to be fixed; those people need relief. One of the things that must come out of the inquiry is that we fix the RHI scheme for the duration that it has still to run so that people's welfare does not suffer and businesses do not crash.
Ms Sugden: Will the Member acknowledge that the RHI scheme was always intended to make money for farmers to help them to float their business, given that agriculture is one of the biggest industries in Northern Ireland, and that the consequences of farmers potentially losing their livelihood could have wider consequences for all of the Northern Ireland economy? Simply to remove the RHI scheme without putting in any replacement scheme could have devastating consequences for not only farmers but the whole economy.
Mr Frew: I thank Claire Sugden for her intervention. She is absolutely right; she is spot on. That is something that the House must put its mind to in order to resolve this issue.
It is clear that there have been systemic failures across every aspect of government here. Along with fixing the RHI scheme, as we have talked about, a full appraisal and root-and-branch reform of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is now required, along with a clear determination of a healthier relationship between the Executive, the Civil Service, the scrutiny Committees and the Assembly itself. We are the people; we speak for the people.
The Chairperson of the Economy Committee has raised the issue of the scrutiny Committees. Finding 84 of the inquiry report states:
"In relation to briefings linked to the NI RHI SL1, the ETI Committee was provided by DETI Energy Division officials with incomplete and inaccurate information about the RHI scheme; among other omissions, information was not included about risks that DETI had been made aware of by Ofgem."
"The Inquiry finds that the ETI Committee was not provided with sufficient/adequate information to permit the ETI Committee to effectively discharge its scrutiny function."
If we want to ensure that we have a robust, transparent and accountable form of government, it is vital that the scrutiny Committees do their job well.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He will be aware of chapter 39 of the report. In December 2016, one of the main allegations that was being put to our party was that advisers or, indeed, the Minister had deliberately sought to keep the RHI scheme open. Would the Member like to put on record that Sir Patrick Coghlin found that there was not one shred of evidence to justify that claim?
Mr Speaker: The Member does not have an additional minute.
Mr Frew: I am happy to put that on the record. I agree with him.
I will mention another issue, because there may well be more RHI-type failures in the system. I take you back to the summer of 2015 when the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wished to push through a Northern Ireland renewable obligations certificate (ROC) scheme. It brought the scheme to the Committee three or four times. I, along with a number of other Committee members, blocked it. That was the right thing to do, but, at the time, DETI's energy branch misled the Committee. There should also be an investigation into that, because it would have been an even bigger disaster for this country if a Northern Ireland ROC had been pushed through. Businesses would have gone to the wall because their energy bills would have gone sky-high. That has never really been brought to the surface, but it should be. I hope that the root-and-branch review of the Civil Service, Departments and their staff will result in all those things coming out in the wash and that we can get a transparent system in which we can all work together.
We have to be mindful of the fact that a scrutiny Committee will work adequately only if its members take their role as scrutinisers seriously.
Mr Frew: We need to know our brief and learn the detail.
Ms Armstrong: After hearing what has been going on in here, the speech that I was going to make has changed. First, the criteria for the panel that will scrutinise Ministers have not been published. Who will be on the panel? Are we going to have a repeat of before? If it is your friends who are looking at you and examining what you are doing, you will not get a very clear examination. We need to see very clearly and soon exactly what the criteria for appointing the panel will be.
Before I came to the Assembly in 2016, I managed a charity. When there were problems in that organisation, the buck stopped with me. Problems may have arisen and mistakes may have been made along the way, but that was my fault. It was not just about my staff. I have seen in the report that things need to be changed in the Civil Service. There are also things that need to be changed in this House.
I want to consider something else that has not been dealt with at this stage. Paul Frew mentioned it and Philip McGuigan alluded to it: the human face of the disaster. I take a moment to give you some information from the Renewable Heat Association. It is one of its pieces, and I will read it to you:
"Imagine you have been a respectable, hard-working chicken farmer for the past twenty-five years.
Imagine the government encouraged you to partake in a renewable energy scheme which was 'sold' to you as guaranteed, reliable, long-term, certain and offering a good return on your investment ...
Imagine that you decided to invest your savings and seek out loans in order to join this government backed scheme.
Imagine the government subsequently had to admit that this 'guaranteed' scheme had been mismanaged through their own incompetence and ignorance.
Imagine if the same government then insinuated that you were in the wrong. To deflect from their own failings they decided to infer that you were abusing the scheme by publishing your name in the newspapers, listed your rebate payments for five years — and added the helpful note that you hadn't done anything wrong. Wink-wink.
Imagine they revealed the income you had received via the scheme, but neglected to reveal the massive investment and continued running costs borne by you and hadn't considered that you pay tax on that same rebate.
Imagine thinking that your family, friends, neighbours, church, pub and business acquaintances now looked at you as some type of fraudster involved in some type of dishonest dealings.
Imagine if it led to sleepless nights, constant worry, unfounded shame, anxiety, regular visits to the GP and the long-term use of anti-depressants; all because you decided to partake in a scheme which was endorsed by the government.
Imagine if, due to the failings of the government, it was decided that your guaranteed returns would be decimated — not once, but twice — on the advice of the Department that had created your nightmare. You would no longer receive your guaranteed payments, but instead, would receive barely enough to cover the additional electricity costs of running the system.
Imagine the Department, in calculating your rebate, used a different formula and different statistics to those used by scheme administrators elsewhere in the UK or, next door in the Republic of Ireland.
Imagine the anxiety you have, knowing that you will have to replace this vastly expensive, but no longer cost effective system with a Gas system that will pollute the atmosphere.
Imagine having to work out where this money is going to be found."
Green projects are not the problem. The workings that were behind RHI were the right thing to do. The problem was that the jot and tittle was missed and people were left in dire circumstances. Yes, there were problems, but I do not want to stand up here and say that they were the fault of the DUP and Sinn Féin. To be honest, I do not want to hear them say that either. I want to look at the recommendations and for us to move forward with a better Government from that. There is no point in ripping lumps out of the Civil Service when the manager did not know what they were doing.
Ms S Bradley: I note that the motion asks us to note the report. That is worthy of doing, but is it not a live demonstration that we are actually repeating RHI now with COVID-19? Should all resource, time and energy in the House not be used to try to tackle that problem? Outside the House we hear the screaming voices of health workers, schools and others who are looking for leadership. I think that I am sitting in a parallel universe here.
Mr Speaker: The Member is departing from the subject matter. Ms Armstrong, you have an extra minute.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree that the health catastrophe that we face at present should be discussed in the House, but RHI also needs to be discussed.
Mr Stalford: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. Does she agree that if, having had the report published on Friday, the House did not consider it on Monday, other parties would be screaming, "Government cover-up", and claiming that we were trying to prevent scrutiny of the report's content?
Ms Armstrong: I actually agree with the Member. However, I recognise that people out there did not know whether to send their children to school today.
There is a lot for us to learn from the RHI report. We need to be able to scrutinise better, but we also need to understand that there are human beings who have had their businesses all but ruined as an outcome of the scheme.
I absolutely welcome Mrs Foster's emotional speech. She has been vilified. However, I must say again that when the manager does not know what they are doing, that is the outcome. It is time for us to do better. Let us see what the criteria are for the panel. Let us see what happens in the subcommittee that is brought forward. Let us do this better. Let us stop blaming each other and get on with good government.
Mr Kearney: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the renewable heat incentive scheme and the subsequent public inquiry. I want to place on record my and my party's thanks to the chairman of the inquiry panel, Patrick Coghlin, and his team for fulfilling the terms of reference that were set for them.
The scheme's purpose was to provide a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy. It was to assist in ensuring compliance with the obligations that were imposed by European Union law. However, it was an utter failure. Tubaiste a bhí ann. The fact that no cost controls were put in place and warnings were ignored led to the biggest financial and political scandal that the Assembly has ever faced. I can attest to that as result of my own participation in the Public Accounts Committee in autumn 2016. It involved totally unacceptable and unethical behaviour, with the Government collapsing over the head of it. Agus is mar gheall air sin a cuireadh cúrsaí airgeadais s'againne faoi bhrú. It led to the complete erosion of public trust and confidence in politics and in the political institutions. Agus ní ceart go mbeadh a leithéid ann arís — a choíche. Never again must that be allowed to happen. No one ever believed that it would take three years to get functioning government, the Assembly and the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement back together again. Ach bígí cinnte de seo. Sinn Féin and the other political parties in the Executive are now there under new terms and conditions. Let us be very clear about that. Tháinig Sinn Féin isteach sa Choiste Feidhmiúcháin arís a fhad is go mbeidh sé ag feidhmiú ar bhonn comhionannais, ionracais agus measa. Sinn Féin has re-entered the Executive on the basis of equality, integrity and respect. The arrogance that was displayed by the DUP previously will not be tolerated now, either towards Sinn Féin representatives in this institution or outside it, or against those whom we represent.
Mr Beggs: The Member talks about integrity and respect. Does he agree that his Chief Whip needs to look very closely at what he is saying and encouraging others to do and say, so that there can be integrity and respect for everyone?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for the question. I will respond in Irish and then translate for him. Táimid réidh leis an díspeagadh agus leis an dímheas. We expect a new standard from all Members in the Assembly in how we conduct our business and articulate our politics and our vision for going forward.
The 'New Decade, New Approach' document removed the obstacles to power-sharing and began a new set of relationships at political, community and civic levels. We must succeed, Members; failure cannot and must not be an option. We will all be accountable for the stewardship of public funds. We must all, equally, discharge our duties in good faith. We must all, each and every single one of us, serve all of the people equally.
If people cannot live up to these newly defined norms, they should not be in this place. I want an Assembly that operates differently from what went before and to usher in a new kind of politics. Public confidence must be earned and trust rebuilt for the Assembly and the Executive in order for them and all of our other political institutions to have sustainable credibility. That also extends towards the equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure that they are embraced and that we deliver on the promises of 1998 for a new generation of citizens and young people in our society.
We now have a basis on which to move forward in building a fair society and good government. I want to work with ministerial colleagues to cooperate in every way possible to ensure that we rebuild public trust and confidence in, and engagement with, the Assembly and its Executive. Our mission, Members, must be to deliver on health, education and jobs for everyone across this entire community, regardless of which section of the community they come from.
Whatever the Civil Service's role has been in contributing to the RHI debacle, no one doubts that it has a critical role in ensuring that there is never a repeat of the same again. We will institute the necessary reforms across the board in order to get things done, but also to get things right in the new Administration, and that must extend to the operation and culture of the Civil Service. We need open government and maximum transparency and accountability. The Minister of Finance has already brought reforms to the Civil Service for agreement by the Executive.
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close, please.
Mr Kearney: In conclusion, tá sé in am dúinn malairt slí agus ré úr a chruthú ar leas an phobail. Let this be a turning point, Members, for the Assembly and the Executive as we turn to the serious business of getting more work done —
Mr Kearney: — and particularly now, how we as a society face the new challenges before us and, in particular, with regard to tackling our global health crisis.
Ms Bailey: I would be surprised if any one of us here has been able to give due time and attention to this report over the weekend as we have been dealing with the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and the fear, panic and uncertainty that is being created.
The RHI scheme was a scandal that left us with no Executive for three and a half years and, in that void, brought so many of our vulnerable people to the brink.
There is a general agreement that the report gives us little more than we had already learned through the inquiry. It is disappointing that, when the inquiry was signed off, it was not done with the explicit intent to implement all recommendations. We have to wait and see what it leads to, other than another inquiry with another report.
I am still contacted by constituents who are face financial disaster. They have been left in limbo to this day by the mismanagement and humiliation so clearly outlined by Ms Armstrong. It still needs to be addressed. RHI has not only damaged the reputation of this institution; it has damaged the reputation of renewable energy and renewable energy schemes when we so desperately need more of them to urgently address the climate emergency that we are in the midst of.
We can call for the full implementation of all recommendations, but only time will tell if that will be done. The public will judge us for it, and judge us they do. People know that little has changed with the functioning of this 'New Decade, New Approach' Executive. They watch as the system that created this compounding of errors, with unacceptable behaviour by some officials, Ministers and special advisers, is now charged with navigating us through a dangerous pandemic. We have the opportunity to do right and to prove ourselves able and willing to work together and not apart. Let us not mess up again.
Mr Allister: What a telling commentary on what passed for government in the House that a report such as this, which pulls its punches in so many ways, nonetheless was driven to the basic recommendation that a Minister should always read the legislation that they bring to the House. How fundamental is that? That a Lord Justice of Appeal and two colleagues have to make such a recommendation is a damning indictment of what passed for government in the House. That they have to add to it the fact that minutes should be kept of meetings just tells us what a quagmire we were in in the governance in this place. The fact that the first recommendation arises from the actions of a Minister who is now the First Minister brings home to us just how dire things have been.
Of course, it did not all end with the DUP. One of the most startling revelations in the report is how the Finance Minister of the time, Mr Ó Muilleoir, conducted himself. When it came to looking at a business case from the Department for the Economy about the future of RHI, he was not able to make a decision — would not make a decision — until he had not just consulted but had got the consent of a shadowy figure, Mr Ted Howell. He sent him an email: "Would you be content? Would you, Mr Howell, be content if I signed off the business plan on Wednesday?". That is how government was being conducted in this place. Is that still how it is being conducted? Does that explain the transformation from last Thursday, when Michelle O'Neill supported the First Minister, to Friday morning, when she repudiated what had been decided about schools? Was there another communication with another shadowy figure? Has anything changed? I listened today to the Finance Minister telling us, "Oh, we will have wonderful codes and new directions and new statements". I have read such as have been published already. I do not see a word in what has been published by the current Finance Minister that would stop another Ó Muilleoir/Howell experience. Nothing in that rules it out. Are we really moving forward to change at all?
Then we consider other Ministers who were in office. We had Simon Hamilton, the Minister for the Economy, colluding with spads to leak emails to take the heat off his party. Then we had a Minister, Mr Bell: obviously, the panel barely believed a word that he said. Likewise with the DUP chief spad, Timothy Johnston. The panel did not find him credible on key issues. That is a reflection of the state of misgovernment that we are in. A report that pulls its punches, no doubt with some deference to the delicacy of these institutions, on all these matters cannot, of course, avoid those issues. The question going forward is this: will the House avoid them, or will it face up to them?
As already mentioned, there is one group of people we need to consider most today: the innocent victims of RHI, the farmers who put faith in Mrs Foster's letter to the banks. They dug themselves into debt believing that the proposals were grandfathered, only to have the rug pulled from under them and to be given tariffs that are lower than the tariffs anywhere else in these islands.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?
Mr Allister: It is those farmers who now, dear help them, have to look to the House to remedy that debacle. Let us hope that we do.
Mr Carroll: Three years ago, most people were unfamiliar with the details of the RHI scheme, but we quickly realised that it was synonymous with cronyism. It was a slush fund whereby elements of the business community were invited to burn taxpayers' money for profit. It is disappointing that, after three years and some £14 million spent, the report seems to have pulled its punches when it comes to laying the blame on the politicians in the Chamber and on Arlene Foster in particular. This is deeper than how the First Minister or her spads operated: the whole debacle exposes the cavalier attitude towards public spending that governs this place, as well as the close relationships with big businesses and corporations.
How many times have working people been told to tighten their belt? How often were healthcare workers told that pay parity could not be implemented because of funding limits? All the while, a few were encouraged to burn public money. RHI clearly illustrated the favoured approach that some in the Chamber offer to the likes of Moy Park, a hugely profitable company. One official even had the gall to admit about Moy Park that smaller firms were "not getting the same chance" — clear as day. Indeed, after getting a tip-off that the scheme was to close, private companies started to stockpile RHI boilers because the scheme was such a financial gold mine. Some shipped boilers in from Austria because they had vanished locally, and there were new applications aplenty.
The decision to keep the scheme open for a further two weeks saw a total of £91 million spent. Surely, that was one of the most expensive fortnights on this hill. Let us not forget that the current Finance Minister and the previous Finance Minister both publicly claimed credit for keeping the scheme open at massive cost to the taxpayer. Arlene Foster and her party, of course, were not the only ones responsible, as the inquiry exposed. Sinn Féin MLAs played their role in promoting and keeping the scheme open long after the damaging impact was known.
That brings me to the report itself. In my view, it wrongly rejects what Sam McBride deems "a culture of corruption" at Stormont. Whatever the intent of Patrick Coghlin, essentially, the conclusions and recommendations of the report whitewash the role of the Stormont elite in signing off on and lobbying to retain the scheme, which, by any standard, was an abuse of power and a colossal waste of public money at a time when many people were suffering. The report points to a multiplicity of errors and omissions as if they were random mistakes and not a clear pattern from day one that illustrated the abuse of power, patronage and the courting of big businesses by the DUP. What is certain is that the scheme was designed to financially benefit people who did not need it, and that has been the problem with Stormont for far too long. Policies have been designed and decisions made to benefit the most well off.
RHI was operating without a whimper whilst people were sent to food banks because welfare reform was leaving them with nothing to put on the table. That is what the scandal was about: the double standards and hypocrisy at the heart of the Executive. There appears to be no criminal charges or jail time for Arlene Foster, despite raking up a bill of £600 million to £700 million of public money. Others face jail time for not paying TV licences or for rent or debt difficulties. If a public sector worker were found to be wasting a fraction of the money involved in this, they would lose their job. No doubt, the DUP would be banging the table, calling for tougher sentencing, yet Arlene Foster remains. It seems that their tough stance on law, order and wrongdoing does not apply to their party leader.
You should do the right thing, First Minister: hang your head and resign. Over the coming weeks, many will lose their income due to the coronavirus. What measures have the Executive put in place to protect them? Nowhere near enough to cover the costs of rent or bills. Those who, we were told, would not, any circumstances, be returned to office because of their role in RHI will feel no impact whatever. Lots of people, First Minister, have no faith in you in your current position, given what you were directly involved in. I join them today and call for you to step aside. You are in no position to lead through the public health crisis that the coronavirus presents to us. Step aside, and let someone else do the job.
Mr Speaker: As Question Time starts at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Claire Sugden.
The debate stood suspended.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. On Saturday 14 March, the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, my permanent secretary, the Chief Medical Officer and I met the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar; the Minister for Health, Simon Harris; the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney; and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan. The purpose of our meeting was to ensure that actions and messages in our two jurisdictions are coordinated as effectively as possible as we move into the next phase of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
My Department and the Public Health Agency (PHA) have been working with their counterparts in the Republic as well as with those in the rest of the UK since the emergence of COVID-19. The two Chief Medical Officers and the Deputy Chief Medical Officers are in frequent contact, and the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the Health Service Executive (HSE) are looking at areas of further cooperation.
Ms Anderson: Minister, I am sure that you are aware that there are lots of concerns across the North. There are concerns in my constituency and, I would say, every other constituency about the British Government's decision to test only the most seriously ill. My phone has been inundated with calls, as I am sure has been the case for other MLAs over the weekend. Will you clearly outline the criteria for providing testing for coronavirus for people in the North of Ireland?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. The next listed question is about the numbers tested, so I will keep that information until then, but we are working to the national advice. Owing to constraints on lab capacity, locally and nationally, testing is now being prioritised for a number of groups. The current order for priority testing during periods of significant demand is, first, a patient requiring critical care for the management of pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), influenza or an influenza-like illness (ILI); and, secondly, a patient with an alternative indication of severe illness, such as severe pneumonia or ARDS. The next group is all other patients who require admission to hospital for the management of pneumonia, ARDS or an ILI. A further group is the cluster of disease in residential or care settings; for example, long-term care facilities and prisons. Symptomatic healthcare workers will be tested as well.
That is under active review, nationally and locally. Additional capability is being urgently worked up in the lab system, and that will ease some of the demand pressures on lab services. It is not that we have reduced testing but that we are now prioritising the testing capability that we have available, and we are increasing that capability.
Mr Lyttle: What work is under way to ensure that health and social care trusts continue to deliver therapies for children with additional needs during school closures?
Mr Swann: One of the things that I am clear about is that the health service will not stop because of COVID-19. Our core work continues. As I said in the statement that I put out on Friday, we will look at reducing and scaling back a number of procedures and elective-care surgeries. The longer that this goes on — I need to be honest and frank with every Member in the House — the more that that core service will reduce, as we make how we tackle COVID-19 our priority. The virus will be with us for a period. What we are doing now, by reducing elective-care surgeries and other procedures, will allow us to re-profile our hospitals and wards and to train up our health service workers so that, when we get to the stage at which dedicated facilities and highly trained staff are needed, we are well placed to provide that.
Before the end of this week, I intend to make public the surge plans, which come under the designation of the piece of work that is being taken forward, so that everybody will realise that when the local hospital, a constituent or a relative rings and says, "My procedure has been cancelled", that is to allow us to re-profile the health service to be able to meet the demand when it comes.
Mr Allister: The Minister referred to the North/South Ministerial Council get-together on Saturday. Before that, the Northern Ireland Executive had settled their view on medical advice, for example, about school closures. How helpful is it, at events such as that, if the deputy First Minister then repudiates the policy set by the Executive at a time when Northern Ireland is seeking, in the interests of all its people, to have rational discussions with its neighbour?
Mr Swann: I understand the Member's point, but what I say, to everyone in this House and to anybody listening to or watching this, is this: folks, this is not the time for politics, North/South or east-west. This is a time when individuals from outside this House are looking to us for collective leadership.
The Executive met this morning and discussed in great detail where we are, where we are going as an Executive and how we tackle COVID-19. Everybody listening to this knows there are differences, but one thing that I want to assure anybody listening to or watching this is that I, as Health Minister, have one focus only, and that is to make sure that our National Health Service is fit to tackle COVID-19/coronavirus when it comes and when it gets to a stage where people truly realise what a pandemic is coming down the road at us.
Ms Bailey: I am mindful of the recent strike action that was taken by nurses to stress to us that they were working in unsafe conditions. Is the Minister content that we and our health service are capable of dealing with the fallout if Boris Johnson's Government's plan for herd immunity goes ahead?
Mr Swann: I will be clear to the Member: the herd immunity language, or the herd immunity principle or precept, is not supported or endorsed by my Department or by me, as Health Minister. We will work through the phases that were clearly laid out in the COVID-19 action plan at the start. We worked strenuously to make sure that we were fit for purpose during the containment phase, and we have now moved into the delay phase. I can assure the Member that herd immunity is not a tool that I will utilise, in Northern Ireland, as a way to counteract this virus.
Ms McLaughlin: Minister, I realise the pressure that you and your Department are under, and I commend you for your work, given the seriousness of this situation.
Does the Minister accept that we share an all-island risk and, therefore, the assessment of the risk and the announcement of shifts and stages of that risk should be done in unison? This is not a North/South or east-west matter; we need to work collectively to minimise the risks to all our citizens.
Mr Swann: I can assure the Member that there is no reticence on my part about what we need to do to tackle COVID-19/coronavirus, in Northern Ireland. She mentioned the pressures on me, but those pressures are nothing in comparison with the pressures that are being put on our front-line health services and our front-line health workers, be that our nurses, our doctors, our GPs or our pharmacists.
I want to take this opportunity to say to people that, as you approach your doctor, your pharmacist or that front-line health worker — no matter where they are in our system — folks, give them patience and give them space to allow them to adapt to the ever-changing situation that we are in. The pressures that I am under do not reflect anything like the pressures that they are under, as professionals who want to do their best for our population and for the people who are presenting to them. I ask people to please be patient, please give these health professionals the respect that they deserve and give them a bit of space to allow them to make the adaptations and the changes that we need to make while we re-profile our health service to tackle COVID-19/ coronavirus.
Mr Speaker: Questions 7 and 12 for oral answer have been withdrawn.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Mr Speaker, normally questions of a like-minded subject would be grouped, but I did not do that with questions 1 and 2 because I want to give as many Members as possible an opportunity to ask a supplementary question.
As of 2.00 pm today, 1,171 individuals have been tested for COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, and there have been 52 confirmed positive cases. That is an increase of seven new positive cases from yesterday. For Members' information, prior to 13 March, the total published tests included only those individuals who met the case definition — those who were connected to travel and who met the clinical criteria. However, I would like to assure the House that, during this time, wider testing was also being conducted across all trusts in Northern Ireland. So, for absolute clarity, those individuals are now included in the overall testing results. That would explain why we have seen an approximate jump of 400 tests overnight. We have now expanded the definition of those tests that we actually declare, rather than just those tests that met the case definition.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister for his answer and I want to go on record to thank the Minister, his staff, scientists and healthcare professionals for all that they are doing in combating COVID-19 on our behalf. I will condemn, all day long, anyone who refers to them as "a shire of bastards".
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Beattie: Will the Minister give his assessment of the resilience of the local health service in facing what many agree will be the biggest health emergency in generations?
Mr Swann: While this situation is serious, I can advise Members that detailed plans are in place in the event of an outbreak spreading across the UK and the Republic of Ireland with sustained community transmission. Our health service is used to managing infections, and we are prepared. Health systems across the globe are coming under extreme and increasing pressure as this virus spreads. Ours will be no different, and it is bound to take its toll. As I have said, normal business within health and social care may not be possible. Some activities will be scaled back. We had been planning for the first positive case in Northern Ireland and we had robust infection control in place. My Department has established a new directorate for surge planning, as I mentioned earlier. The directorate will work with surge planners in the health and social care system to ensure preparedness across the sector in response to COVID-19. We all, however, have a part to play in helping the health service to cope with this disease by ensuring that we follow Public Health Agency advice and by practising good personal hygiene, which is very effective in preventing the spread of this virus.
Mrs Cameron: I commend the Minister and the Department of Health on dealing with the serious pressure that they are under at this time. We fully appreciate the time that you are giving to address these questions. Of course, I cannot go past all the health workers and professionals involved in helping us to deal with this very serious crisis.
Will the Minister give the House details of where our health professionals can get the most up-to-date information and guidance on how they should be behaving with regard to COVID-19 on a daily basis?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for what will be a very important piece of information. While we have been working through this, our Public Health Agency, working alongside the Health and Social Care Board, has been providing updated pieces of guidance and information, frequently asked questions and procedures to a number of health professionals and sectors. Those are available on the Public Health Agency's website and also on the Health and Social Care Board's website. I will say, to the health professionals and anybody else out there, that the reason why we are not sending those out in hard copy, posting them out or giving them as something that people can hold in their hand is that this situation changes so frequently and so often. I ask that those working in the health care system look at that up-to-date online advice, because this situation changes hour by hour, if not day by day.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for his work over the last week and beyond. I want to come back to an issue that you talked about around symptomatic healthcare workers. I was contacted by a constituent who is now self-isolating. He is very concerned about the number of healthcare workers that he came into contact with before his symptoms manifested themselves. As you know, front-line healthcare workers are given the flu vaccine to protect themselves, their colleagues and their patients. In the absence of a vaccine, do you think it would be beneficial that our front-line staff be tested, as a matter of course, at this stage in the pandemic?
Mr Swann: As I said in an answer earlier, currently we do not have the capacity to provide that screening testing, which, I think, is what the Member refers to, to every member of our health and social care system. However, as I said, our Health and Social Care Board is one of the cohorts that we look at; if any member thinks that they have symptoms of COVID-19, we will make sure that they get a test as appropriate. The last thing that I can afford is for workers in our healthcare system to fall victim to COVID-19. If the Member has a specific name and wants to give me it offline, I will follow it up to see what trust they are in and what provision can be made to get them tested.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Do we have an accurate figure for the number of people who are self-isolating but are yet to be tested?
Mr Swann: We do not, because, in the change of guidance that we provided, we encouraged people who feel that they have COVID-19-like symptoms to isolate themselves for seven days. We have no central database as to who is self-isolating at this minute in time. However, to those who are doing it, I say thank you. By taking that responsible first step, they are making sure that a member of their family or of the community or a loved one is not being put at risk by them giving them COVID-19 — if they have it. A number of people who are self-isolating at this minute in time may have symptoms that turn out to be flu or cold, but we cannot take that risk. If anybody presents with symptoms of coronavirus, self-isolation for seven days is what is being advised at this minute in time. If their condition worsens, they should certainly contact their GP and present, but, at this minute in time, we do not keep a central register. I am truly grateful to those who are taking the decision to start the social-isolation measures that we will have to adopt very soon.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister, and I commend him on his leadership thus far on what is a very serious and worrying issue for many. I also commend our front-line staff for the great work that they are doing and their families for supporting them in going out there very bravely to support each of us in their role of saving lives.
Minister, my question is focused on life-saving equipment, such as ventilators and hospital beds. Will you provide an insight to the House on the numbers of each of those in each trust area, please?
Mr Swann: The Member will forgive me if I do not have the numbers by trust area. I am surprised that he has not put that down as a question for written answer; he has asked quite a number along those lines. There has been a significant increase of attention on the issue mechanical ventilators following media reports in recent weeks. There are 88 adult ICU beds in Northern Ireland. The critical care network has plans to expand that to 126 adult beds if necessary. There are 139 mechanical ventilators available across Northern Ireland health and social care trusts. To cope with the possible increase in beds, an extra 40 have been ordered — 30 adult units and 10 paediatric units — which will bring the total to 179 by the end of this month.
In regard to beds, we are, as I said, profiling across the National Health Service to ensure that there are cohorts in wards and different hospitals. When it comes to ventilation, we will come to a point, because we have turned down elective surgeries, where we will not use operating theatres, so we will be able to use those ventilation points and ventilators to ventilate patients. That is the detail of plan that we are making for when we get to that stage; we are planning for it now. Be no under no illusion about what is coming down the road at us.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. The initial areas of implementation of the primary-care multidisciplinary team (MDT) model were selected through a competitive process. All health and social care trusts were invited to apply in partnership with their local GP federations, with seven applications subsequently being received from across Northern Ireland. Those were assessed against a range of criteria, including the commitment to multidisciplinary working and draft principles underpinning the MDT model; the reorganisation of services to support that new model and improve patient access; support from all GP federation members to address health and inequality, co-production and design with patients and service users; and synergy and coordination with existing reform initiatives. Following that assessment, the Down and Londonderry areas, in partnership with the South Eastern and Western Trusts respectively, were selected to be the first areas to implement the model, with the allocation of further funds in-year. It was decided that the third-placed applications — the West Belfast federation and the Belfast Trust — should commence the implementation of the first contact physiotherapy element of the model, proceeding to the full model as funds become available.
A further allocation from transformation funding during 2019-2020 was sufficient to support the introduction of the model in two new areas to ensure that patients across Northern Ireland could have access to the benefits of a primary care MDT. The Northern and Southern Trusts were each invited to submit an application in partnership with one of the GP federations in their area. As a result, implementation of the model is under way in the Causeway and Newry and district areas. It is anticipated that, by the end of March 2020, around 462,000 patients will have access to the services of a MDT in their local GP practice.
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the future roll-out of MDTs across the North should prioritise areas with GP shortages and recruitment and retention issues, such as my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone?
Mr Swann: I am aware of the pressures facing general practice in the south-west, and I reassure the Member that I am committed to implementing the model in all areas of Northern Ireland. However, transformation of this scale cannot happen overnight. It must be balanced with the ongoing provision of all other services across the health and social care system. In the Londonderry area, the Western Trust still experiences ongoing challenges with recruitment to MDTs while progress is being made on the full roll-out of the model. Recruitment is ongoing for physios, social workers, additional health visitors and district nurses. Once appropriate funding is in place, further areas for the implementation of the multidisciplinary team model will be selected on the basis of readiness, the ability to deliver and the need of the location population.
In the meantime, my Department continues to make significant financial investment in general practice, with the focus on supporting GPs and the wider primary care team, and contributing to reducing GPs' workload. The number of GP training places has increased significantly, from 65 in 2015 to 111 in 2019. That, along with where we can go next with the funding of MDTs, will be crucial in how we develop the model, while always taking into consideration the pressures on the system in general from coronavirus/COVID-19.
Mr Chambers: What is the Minister's assessment of the success of the pilot schemes of the multidisciplinary model?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As I said earlier, it is important that we acknowledge that the work of the National Health Service goes on, although we will have to reduce it. The feedback is that the MDTs are working. In the past, GPs thought that they would never see the need for in-house pharmacy, physiotherapy or psychology services, but they now realise the value of a multidisciplinary team that is able to see patients when they come through the door, or as early as possible, and can direct them to the professional help, support and guidance that they need. There is also a change in the mindset of the user. Presenting patients realise that they do not always need to see a GP as their first point of call.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for all his efforts. We put on record our genuine thanks for all his work and commitment. He has done a good job on behalf of MLAs, the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland.
In relation to multidisciplinary teams, will cancer patients get the investigations and treatment that they require during the ongoing coronavirus crisis?
Mr Swann: As I said in response to an earlier question on the coronavirus, the core work of the National Health Service will continue. The red flag cases — those cancer patients and the trauma patients who present — will continue to receive support because that is the core work of the National Health Service.
We are working through the multidisciplinary teams, the transformation process and everything else that has been going on in the National Health Service, but coronavirus/COVID-19 is now our day job. That is where our focus is. The rest of it will not be parked; it will not go to the wayside. The core principles and the supports that we need will continue, but our focus is being re-profiled to get us through the next period.
Mrs D Kelly: Minister, you spoke about the difficulty in recruiting for multidisciplinary teams. That will be even more difficult, setting aside the coronavirus and the emergency across our hospitals. Have you given any consideration or had any discussion with Westminster about exemptions for the pensions of recently retired healthcare professionals and whether they will be brought back in or, indeed, those who are in their final years and almost qualified? Are there any discussions ongoing on how to complement the workforce?
Mr Swann: The Member makes a valid point. The issue of pensions was addressed by the Chancellor in the Budget. It does not come in this year and from my understanding will not be retrospective, but it will have an impact next year. Bringing forward registration of those about to pass their exams, that is being looked at along with the royal colleges, should it be nursing, midwifery, all the other primary care professions and domiciliary care staff to ensure we have a cohort of professionals and support staff. In regard to bringing back those who have recently retired, that is something we are looking at. In any change in legislation, we have to make sure that their registration is recognised and current.
Very shortly, we will be reaching out and asking for anyone who can help to please help, should that be in the voluntary and community sector, the sports sector or in faith-based organisations. As we move further into social distancing or shielding of our older population, we will become reliant on general and civic society to support those individuals while we go through that phase. That will be challenging for many.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. Mr Speaker, may I indulge in extra time to answer an important question?
As demonstrated by the 'State of Child Health' 2020 report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, of the four UK nations, Northern Ireland has the highest infant mortality rate at 4·2 per 1,000 live births. Whilst that rate has reduced from 4·8 per 1,000 live births, it remains a key challenge that we must address.
Like many health outcomes, there is a difference in the infant mortality rate between our least- and most-deprived communities. The most recent figures, for 2013-17, show that the most-deprived areas had an infant mortality rate 18% higher than the least-deprived areas. I understand that the main causes of infant mortality include premature birth, birth asphyxia, pneumonia, congenital conditions and term birth complications. In 2017, smoking during pregnancy has also been shown to contribute to increased infant mortality. In the most-deprived areas, the proportion of births where the mother smoked during pregnancy was almost five times the rate than in the least deprived.
A number of actions under way or being developed will seek to have a positive impact on infant mortality. Those include the tobacco control strategy, such as carbon monoxide testing in antenatal care; the 'Getting Ready for Baby' project, which provides group-based antenatal care and education through parenting classes for first-time parents along with training for midwives; the 'Saving Babies' Lives' care bundle that has been implemented in Northern Ireland to reduce perinatal mortality; the social well-being antenatal clinic that has been established in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust for women with additional care needs; the Family Nurse Partnership Programme, which is a preventative early intervention programme for teenage mothers; the child health promotion programme 'Healthy Child, Healthy Future'; and implementation of a maternity strategy and work to address the recommendations of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) reviews of that strategy.
We need to be conscious that healthcare outcomes are not just implicated by the clinical services we deliver. The evidence demonstrates that inequalities in health arise because of inequalities in the conditions into which people are born, and in which they grow up, live, work and age. To address health inequalities, we need to tackle the wider social detriments to health and address the inequalities.
That approach is at the heart of Making Life Better, which is the Executive's overarching strategic framework to improve health and to address health inequalities. Making Life Better is currently the subject of a comprehensive mid-term review.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions. Questions 3, 8, 9 and 10 have been withdrawn.
T1. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Health, after thanking him and his Executive colleagues for the work that they have done, and thanking those people on the front line in the health service who are dealing with coronavirus on a daily basis, whether he is content that, given that high numbers of people will be self-isolating and will be tempted to contact their GPs, those GP practices have sufficient personal protection equipment to deal with the people who might turn up at surgeries. (AQT 251/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that question. It gives me the opportunity to reinforce the message that we have been sending: if anyone has, or thinks that he or she has, symptoms of COVID-19, that person should not present to a GP or go to the emergency department but should instead telephone the GP to seek advice. That advice and guidance will then be given.
As far I am aware, GP and central pharmacy personal protective equipment (PPE) packs were issued last week. The packs include essential PPE items for GPs and pharmacists for use in circumstances in which a patient presents with symptoms. My Department is in daily contact with the Business Services Organisation (BSO) procurement and logistics service (PaLS), and a demand-management strategy is in place, whereby they are working closely with trusts and emergency planner leads over the allocation of PPE stocks in the trusts. The Department has released quantities of PPE items from the pandemic influenza preparedness programme stockpile to support the BSO business-as-usual stockpile. We therefore continue to issue and monitor equipment, and we have a stockpile of PPE centrally held.
The Westminster Secretary of State for Health yesterday called for anybody who could make ventilators to step up their production lines. Likewise, if there are people in Northern Ireland who feel that they can do that or provide PPE, I ask them to look to see whether they can re-profile and retool, because there will be a need for that equipment.
Mr Clarke: Have there been any conversations with companies in Northern Ireland about scaling up preparedness?
Mr Swann: A general call for ventilators was made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Health to any