In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

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

Official Report: Tuesday 31 March 2020


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I wish to inform Members that the Budget Bill has received Royal Assent. The Budget Act (NI) 2020 became law on 26 March 2020.

Before we proceed today, I ask Members to note that there are a number of items on the Order Paper today that are designed to assist the Assembly to deal with the current situation, so I want to briefly address a few matters.

First, let me record my thanks to Assembly officials who have put significant time and effort into developing creative ways to manage our business in these times. The seating arrangements in the Chamber, for example, have been further developed over the weekend to follow and allow for strict social distancing. I ask for Members' cooperation in complying with that.

I also want to remind Members that I have relaxed normal expectations about them being in the Chamber for all of an item of business that they wish to contribute to. That should allow a Member who has made a contribution or asked a question to leave and be replaced by another Member who wishes to participate.

There is a motion on today's Order Paper seeking the Assembly's agreement to temporary Standing Orders to make provision for, amongst other things, proxy voting in the Chamber. If the Assembly agrees to approve those arrangements, further guidance on proxy voting will be issued to Members. In the meantime, I ask Members to think very carefully about seeking to force a Division, particularly if the likely outcome is clear. I say that because we do not want to have to call all Members to the Chamber to take part in a Division, as it would be very difficult to ensure social distancing in those circumstances. I ask all Members to recognise the need to show flexibility in our normal procedures in these extraordinary circumstances.

In relation to plenary sittings over the Easter period, the Business Committee will be updated today on whether there is any essential business coming from the Executive and will schedule any required sittings accordingly. In addition, there are, of course, procedures for the Assembly to be convened if the Executive require urgent business to be considered to meet the needs of the community in the current public health crisis.

I will say more if the Assembly agrees to establish the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID response today, but, obviously, if the Assembly approves that, it will give greater flexibility for Ministers to report to the Assembly as necessary in the weeks ahead.

Finally, let me say again, today, on your behalf and on behalf of the whole Assembly, that we acknowledge the inconvenience to those who are complying fully with the current restrictions by staying at home. We particularly owe a debt of gratitude to those in the health service and all the public services who are demonstrating tremendous commitment and courage, all in the common cause of saving lives in our community. We can probably not say that enough from the Chamber.

Mr Givan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise the issue that you will come to in the Matter of the Day. During this crisis, the British Government have enforced upon us a new legal framework, in law, on abortion. A motion that was put forward should have been debated today to allow the House's democratic expression on the issue. Whilst we are operating under urgent procedures, where business relates only to COVID-19, that law is now in place, and, for many people, it is a law that takes life and requires an urgent response. May I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, as to when there will be an opportunity for the House to give democratic expression, beyond just articulating that in the Matter of the Day that you will come to, so that we can vote on the issue and then seek to take forward our own legislation in respect to it?

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. He will be aware, obviously, that the Business Committee will seek to schedule business as appropriate for the House to debate and decide on. I cannot speak for Ministers at this time, of course, so I will liaise with the Executive and will discuss it with the Business Committee. The Business Committee will, in due course, set the normal procedures in place for Members to discuss and debate. OK? Thank you for that.

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Allister has been given leave to make a statement on abortion regulations that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If Members wish to be called to speak, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Mr Allister: The minds of us all, at this difficult time, are very much focused on the saving of lives. Therefore, it is all the more abhorrent and perverse that, at the very same time, we have regulations coming into effect today that will sanction the killing of the unborn. From today, what should be the safest place for an unborn, namely, its mother's womb, can become, on a whim, one of the most dangerous places, because we will have utterly unfettered, uncontrolled abortion, up to 12 weeks. That is abortion of babies whose hearts are beating, whose blood is pumping round their body, and yet, summarily, they can be killed; their life snuffed out. There is nothing progressive about that. That is regressive for our civilisation. Then, of course, up to 24 weeks, you can effectively have abortion on demand. What has happened elsewhere shows us that there is no qualitative test applied. It is effectively abortion on demand. Even after that, right up to the moment of birth, you can have the killing of the unborn.

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: I do not think that I am permitted to.

You can have the killing of the unborn on the pretext of severe fetal impairment.

What is that? It could be Down's Syndrome. That is how shocking it is. I want to place that on record, on behalf of the 79% who responded to the consultation and were ignored. The Assembly, of course, has never been consulted on this issue. I want to place on record how aghast those of us who believe in life are at this wanton, calculated killing in the womb.

I urge the Assembly to find time to reverse this outrageous, obnoxious situation and to find a voice and to give a voice to the unborn.

Mr Givan: I hope that the Assembly will find time, given the issue at stake here, because we are talking about life, and that the Business Committee will reschedule the motion that was tabled to be heard before the regulations to give effect to this were voted on in Westminster.

Of those who responded to the consultation, 79% were opposed to any change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. The British Government, once again, rode roughshod over the will of the people in this country.

This matter requires our urgent attention. In effect, it brings in abortion up to 24 weeks for any reason, and up to term for disability. No Member in this House, if they are in favour of this, can ever look at people with disabilities and proclaim that they champion their cause, because abortion up to birth will now be allowed for disability. That is shocking. It is an outrage that that is the case.

The penalty associated with this is a fine of £5,000 if an abortion takes place outside the regulations. It is difficult to imagine that such a fine could be possible, given that the regulations, in effect, allow abortion to occur under any circumstances. In the Republic of Ireland, the penalty is 14 years' imprisonment, but here it is £5,000. The abortion industry must be delighted that, in Northern Ireland, there are the most extreme, radical abortion laws anywhere in Europe. It is a travesty that it has been allowed to happen.

The Assembly needs to take the issue on. It is within our powers to legislate on these issues. It is a devolved matter, and I want the Assembly to voice its opinion. Members opposite have all said that they are opposed to the 1967 Abortion Act, but this is far worse than the 1967 Abortion Act; far worse. I cannot see how anyone is able to justify the regulations that are being imposed on us.

Our society is showing how much we value life, in our response to COVID-19, by taking extraordinary measures to protect life. Let us, with the same vigour and determination, seek to protect the life of the preborn, because they have as much a right to life as those whom we are seeking to protect in our response to COVID-19.

Mr Speaker, for my part, and that of my party, we will bring proposals on this. We want a motion to be heard. We will seek legislative change so that we have a regime in Northern Ireland that reflects what I believe will be the will of the people on this issue: defending both lives, that of the mother and of the preborn.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that if they wish to speak, they need to rise in their seats.

Mr Frew: How did we ever get to this place and this day, where the life of the most vulnerable is now in jeopardy? I got into politics to assist the most vulnerable and to make a positive contribution to society in Northern Ireland, a place that I love.

In one fell swoop, the British Government, and by extension the Northern Ireland Office, have made a mockery of consultation, with 79% of the people who responded, including myself, being ignored; a mockery of legislation and how it should be produced, with time taken to go through each clause to scrutinise it and be accountable for it; a mockery of our healthcare system; and a mockery of how we help and assist the most vulnerable in our society.


10.45 am

It is a shame on the British Government and a shame on the NIO that they would bring in guidelines such as these. I give you the commitment, Mr Speaker, that I will fight with every breath and every sinew that I have in my body to turn these guidelines around and to get to a place where we protect the most vulnerable in our society, where we value people of all ability, and where no one feels that their life is under threat because of disability. The most vulnerable people in our society are people yet unborn but who have a heart that beats and a body that grows. We are failing all those people. I say this to the NIO: what you have done here in imposing these guidelines and legislation on the people of Northern Ireland is shameful when you know fine well what the people think — it has been well-documented throughout the years, even decades, when we have had different legislation from the rest of GB; you know how strong the feeling and mentality is in Northern Ireland around these issues, yet you ride roughshod over the people's will. We must change this, we must correct this, and we must get into place legislation that protects the most vulnerable and also protects the mother, father and family of the unborn. The business of the House over the next couple of weeks will be about saving lives, yet the Department of Health is now having to deal in death.

Dr Archibald: There is no doubt in anybody's mind that abortion is a very sensitive and emotive issue, but there is also no doubt that the legislation and regulations that we had in place were failing women and that the legislation that criminalised women for having an abortion needed to be repealed and replaced with legislation that was appropriate and modern and provided for compassionate healthcare services. Sinn Féin's party policy on abortion is very clear and has been well-debated amongst our members. It states:

"Abortion should be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in the cases of rape or sexual abuse."

It is not possible to legislate for abortion in the case of rape in a compassionate way and, for that reason, our position is that abortion should be available for a limited gestational period in line with best medical advice. What has been brought into play is only right and proper: that women can now access abortion services without having to travel and are free and able to have healthcare in a modern and compassionate way. We will also put on record that we believe that the Department of Health needs to consider the circumstances at the minute in respect of access to all appropriate healthcare.

Mr O'Toole: This is clearly an extremely sensitive subject, perhaps among the most sensitive subjects that legislators can debate.

I am glad that healthcare for women in Northern Ireland has evolved to a place where women can access essential services that people in other parts of the UK, and now other parts of Ireland, can access. I recognise the strength of feeling on the benches opposite and the intense dilemma that abortion presents for families, communities and sometimes individuals.

I do not speak as a spokesperson for my party on the issue. Others will have other views, and they are as entitled to those views as I am to mine. My clear view is that while this is an extraordinarily sensitive subject, it cannot be right that women in this part of the UK, in this part of Ireland, are asked to travel to access one of the most important types of healthcare relating to their bodily autonomy. I welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is now, for the first time, as of today, able to provide those services to women. I agree with the previous Member to speak that clarity from the Department of Health on exactly how the regulations and the law will work for women here will be essential over the next few weeks. We are in a unique situation with COVID-19/coronovirus so it would be good to have clarity on how that will effect women's access to those services.

Let me also say that people have reflected on the importance of preserving life as it relates to COVID-19. Again, I reiterate that I understand how sensitive and deeply held people's views are on this. I have had a huge amount of correspondence over the last few days, but I restate that many of the people who are placed in that situation — it is a situation that I have to acknowledge that I will never be placed in because I am not a woman — will not take that decision lightly, in my view. It is not a trifling matter for any woman who is placed in the situation of having to consider ending a pregnancy.

I do not take people's moral objections to abortion lightly, but nor do I take lightly the health of women who are sometimes in extreme and dire need. For that reason, it is welcome and overdue that the law here has caught up with the rest of these islands.

Specifically, on the Assembly's powers, it is not for me, today, to make a determination on what the Assembly has competence to do or not. Others will have that debate in the days going forward, but, in broad terms, this is a positive step forward for women and girls in Northern Ireland.

Mr Butler: I rise not as the Ulster Unionist Party Chief Whip and nor am I speaking on behalf of the party. I am speaking as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party who celebrates its position of conscience on the issue of abortion.

There have been many days when each of us, as MLAs, have maligned the day that we got involved in politics. Perhaps we have even regretted it and have had low days when we have been pained with what has happened and what has not happened. My most painful day as a politician of any hue was 21 October 2019. It was a day when I was unable to have my voice heard in the Chamber on something that is so important to me. Other Members have spoken well and given a good account of their positions, and I would like to give mine.

I am a son, a father, a dad and a foster parent. My wife and I have fostered many children, and without disclosing the difficulties of the background that those children come from, many of them come from situations that people will use with regard to abortive rights. I understand the need for parents, women in particular, to have their views heard, especially, as the Member said, on health, but there are two lives that matter here and nothing will shake me from that. We need to be sympathetic in how we deal with the subject, but let me say again, I regret and was angry that, on 21 October 2019, for whatever reason and whoever held us back, the Assembly could not debate issues pertaining to life and death: saving life and protecting life.

We talk about fatal foetal abnormality, and we talk about rape and incest: all those things are important, and the Assembly should have had the ability and the maturity to deal with them sympathetically and appropriately, not through the draconian measures that have been taken by the NIO and the UK Government. As Mr Frew pointed out, there was a lack of adherence to the consultation, which had high levels of response. Probably and, I would say, uniquely, there has never been any other issue that has been responded to by the public of Northern Ireland from all sides of the community.

What really galls me is how we will deal with pregnancies where there are unborn children with disabilities or there are severe foetal impairments. There is no list — right up to birth. If you choose to abort a child because of Down's syndrome, a club foot or a cleft palate, the regulations will facilitate that. What about the staff? What about their conscientious objection? What about those who could give a loving home to a child like that? What value do we put on that life?

I look forward to the day when I get to say my piece in here and we can legislate like adults and discuss this in an empathetic and sympathetic manner and represent everybody who should have a voice in this country.

Mr Muir: In starting, I will say that I speak on this as a matter of conscience. This is an issue for a free vote in the party, and I speak as an individual. I also recognise that it is a sensitive issue for many people. My personal view, however, is that the change is long overdue and that we have been waiting quite a while for this day to arrive. Women and girls have been waiting far too long for the change that has come about. I pay tribute to the courage of so many people who have campaigned for change in Northern Ireland and brought the issue to the fore. It was not easy, and they stepped forward and brought the issues to light.

Other Members talk about the fact that they are looking for a different regime. The reality is that this place had an opportunity for vote for a different regime and rejected it. The Assembly had an opportunity to legislate on these issues and did not. This place was not sitting, and legislation was passed.

The legislation is now in effect, and it is important that it is given meaning by the Department promptly. There are gaps in the legislation: for example, in the current situation, the inability to travel causes real difficulties. That has been reported today in the media. About 20 or 30 women per week travel to England, and they are being denied that right. There are also gaps in the legislation in terms of the ability to take the two types of medication at home, and that needs to be given effect.

Change has happened. This place had an opportunity to effect that change, and it failed. We are in a new situation here now, and we have to move forward.

Ms Bailey: I thank my South Belfast colleague Matthew O'Toole for giving up his seat to allow me into the Chamber.

The Green Party has long campaigned for equal rights for women across Northern Ireland. We have been denied our rights as UK citizens for 50 years or more, and the Green Party welcomes the fact that access to reproductive healthcare is no longer a criminal matter. We do not think it should ever have been a criminal matter, and we believe that any woman should be able to access an abortion as early as possible and as late as necessary.

Today, the regulations on abortion in Northern Ireland are a good step forward and are to be welcomed. Access to abortion up to 12 weeks in relatively unrestricted circumstances is a positive move; however, many barriers still exist for access after 12 weeks. It is discouraging to see that that will create many more difficulties for women here, so we call on the Health Minister to put a telemedicine service in place whereby the required medication can be posted to a home address after an initial telephone consultation. That would reduce the impact on the NHS and abide by our social distancing protocols and current travel restrictions. Yesterday the Westminster Government reinstated the use of a telemedicine abortion service in England and Wales. Let us do the same here.

We also heard yesterday of a young woman from Belfast who could not travel to England for an abortion because of the COVID-19 restrictions and tried to take her own life. Our Government must ensure that patients and medical staff are not placed in unnecessary risk during the pandemic.

Millions of women around the world have successfully used abortion pills that are on the World Health Organisation's list of safe medicines: they say it is safer than using aspirin. The plight of women and girls requiring access to abortion during this pandemic cannot be ignored and while this is a good day and a good step forward, it is certainly not enough for the women who need to access reproductive health.


11.00 am

Mr Carroll: Yesterday, as was previously referenced, a young woman tried to kill herself as a result of being denied abortion services — she could not travel to England because of the current pandemic. The reality is that the former legislative guidelines had put women at risk for some time. They were guidelines that predated the light bulb and I am glad that they have come to an end. Obviously, during the coronavirus situation when people are following the public health guidance to stay at home, isolate and socially distance, there will still be a need for women to access terminations and abortion services.

Despite some of the previous comments from Members, abortion is fundamentally a healthcare issue. It is not a criminal issue, and I am glad that is coming to an end. Whilst these guidelines introduce provision for some women who are up to 12-weeks pregnant, the reality is that some women will still be placed in dangerous situations as a result of gaps in the guidelines, for example women in domestic violence situations, rural areas and so forth.

I join the call for the Health Minister — I appeal to him — to introduce telemedicine care now so that women who have been forced to stay at home as a result of the pandemic can have access to abortion pills. Those women are doing the right thing by staying at home; everybody is doing the right thing by staying at home in this situation, and people need to be supported in their healthcare decisions.

The World Health Organisation, which we regularly refer to in regard to this pandemic, has said that abortion pills are as safe as paracetamol, aspirin and other regular tablets: we should trust them.

Because of the previous guidelines, women have been criminalised for some time, despite the fact that the termination of pregnancies has happened for many years. The talk of "imposition" by the Members opposite is quite ironic given that they buddied up with the Westminster Government for so long. The truth is that this House abdicated its responsibility year after year when it came to legislating for choice in abortion services, and standing by and trusting women.

We have heard reference made to the public's mood and view on abortion services. The reality is that the majority of people here are for choice. Every single survey shows that people here are for choice, for example the 'Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey'. That report and survey after survey shows that people are for choice. The truth is that the incoming guidelines and legislation go some way to reflect the public mood for choice, although there are gaps, as has also been mentioned.

The public mood is for choice; the vast majority of healthcare workers are for choice and for supporting women to have access to abortion services. At this time when we are, rightly, celebrating and recognising the role of our healthcare workers, trust them to make the right decision about abortion services and access to such services. That means having a legislative system in place that does not criminalise women, does not penalise women and lets them make the correct decision for themselves.

Mr Lunn: I have supported this type of action over a number of years and I have previously spoken about it in this House. Some of you might remember the occasion when two members of the Alliance Party, myself and Stewart Dickson, acting in our own capacity of course, proposed an amendment to the Justice Bill that would have taken care of the issue of fatal foetal abnormality. It was a pity that that amendment was not passed by the House, and I do wonder where we would be now if it had been. Would Westminster have taken over the issue or would they have not? I do not know.

As far as I am concerned, this is a satisfying day. I am not going to glory in it: it is a good day for women, a good day for women's rights and for a woman's right to choose, which we have long campaigned for. I will have to stop saying "we", Mr Speaker — I have long campaigned for.

On the question of 12-weeks, Dr Archibald is absolutely right: there is no way to legislate for rape and incest situations. We thought about that at the time of the amendment, but we could not come up with wording. One of our other Members did, but actually we even voted against it because it was not satisfactory. The only way to deal with that, in my opinion, is to allow unfettered, if that is the word, termination in the first 12 weeks. That takes care of that issue.

As far as the rest of the legislation is concerned, I am comfortable with it, except for one issue — and I agree with Mr Allister — which is the issue of severe foetal impairment. It never should have been in the Bill. It is disgraceful. It opens doors that did not need to be opened, and if we are going to debate this issue at some stage here, I hope that that will be the first item on the agenda because it is not right. It is immoral, and I hope that we can do something about it.

Mr Buckley: It is with great sadness that I rise in the House today, for two reasons, first, to speak on behalf of the thousands of constituents who have contacted me and other Members on this issue since I became an elected representative. This is an issue that transcends traditional party lines. Traditional orange and green go out the window when it comes to the rights of the unborn.

I also rise to speak for those who do not have a voice: the unborn, and, particularly, here in Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland has enjoyed a pro-life policy in which we can celebrate 100,000 people living today because of the policies that we had in place. No one in this House or, indeed, in Westminster can tell me that those people have not contributed and added value to society here in Northern Ireland and further afield. It is an absolute shame on the British Government and a shame on the NIO that, in the midst of such uncertain times and such crisis that we are in, these regulations and legislation can come into effect.

I rise as someone who is unashamedly pro-life. I value life from beginning to end, but it seems that while we debate COVID-19 in this place and across this country, many have risen and spoken with great emotion and sincerity about the lives that will be lost as a result of this cursed plague, COVID-19, but, yet, can turn a blind eye while regulations come into place that end the life of the unborn. They operate a policy simply of seeing is believing. What utter shame and contempt on not only the British Government but, indeed, Members who choose to turn a blind eye in this House. We talk about protection of the most vulnerable. I have heard it on every side of this House, but on an issue like this, we turn a blind eye to those who cannot defend themselves. Shame, Mr Speaker. The regulations will allow abortion on request for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and abortion up to 24 weeks on grounds of continuance of the pregnancy, which would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental well-being of the pregnant woman or girl. This legislative Assembly has been held in contempt, and it is high time that we recognise that.

It is sad that, in these circumstances, we cannot debate or put forward legislation or amendments to this very issue, but I take cognisance of what my friend Mr Givan has said that, when that opportunity should come, this party will not be found wanting, and I place on record to my constituents who have lobbied me on this issue and to the unborn that I will never be silent on the issue of the unborn.

Assembly Business

Committee Membership

Resolved:

That Mr Andrew Muir replace Mr Trevor Lunn as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. — [Mr Blair.]

Resolved:

That this Assembly appoints Dr Caoimhe Archibald, Mr Pat Catney and Mr Andrew Muir as trustees of the Assembly Members' Pension Scheme. — [Mr O'Dowd.]

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise for the third successive week to express regret that, in the setting up of the new Committee, we are about to make significant change to the processes of the House without the opportunity for debate. It may well be a meritorious suggestion. At this point, I do not suggest otherwise. However, it is a fundamental flaw in the manner in which we approach those matters that we do not facilitate and allow debate on them. The Business Committee, which brought the motion forward, could, at the same time, have brought forward a motion to suspend Standing Order 12(7) in order to allow debate, but chose not to do so. That is most inappropriate and regrettable.

Can I ask one specific question? Can you tell us, Mr Speaker, whether the absolute privilege that applies under section 50 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will apply equally to an Ad Hoc Committee, such as this one, in the House? Will the same absolute privilege that applies to every Member when he or she participates in the Assembly, as the Assembly, apply to that intended Committee?

Mr Speaker: The matter will be considered further. If the Assembly votes to approve the motion that has been tabled by the Business Committee — and I would make the point that the Business Committee did consider whether to enable debate, and decided that it was satisfied that debate was not required given the extenuating circumstances that we all face with the current, unprecedented health crisis — further guidance will be issued. I will make some remarks on that later.

Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion on the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 response. The motion will be treated as business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That, as provided for in Standing Order 53(1), this Assembly appoints an Ad Hoc Committee to receive oral statements from Ministers on matters relating to the COVID-19 response and to question Ministers on such statements.

Composition: All Members of the Assembly shall be members of the Committee. The Chairperson of the Committee shall be the Speaker or, in his absence, a Deputy Speaker.

Quorum: The quorum shall be five members, including the Chairperson.

Procedures: The Committee may not meet on days when the Assembly is sitting. The procedures of the Committee shall otherwise be such as the Chairperson may determine. Any report of the Committee shall be limited to its minutes of proceedings together with the minutes of any evidence taken before it.

Time Frame: Unless the Assembly previously resolves, the Committee shall exist for a period of 12 months.

The establishment of this Ad Hoc Committee does not prevent Ministers from continuing to make statements to the Assembly in line with the provisions of Standing Order 18. — [Mr O'Dowd.]

Mr Speaker: I will make a number of comments about the Ad Hoc Committee that which has just been set up by the Assembly. I did not want to refer to it in my earlier remarks until it was approved by the Assembly. I will comment briefly now on the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 response.

The measure has arisen from discussions that I have had with the Executive, about which I informed Members previously, in order to ensure that Members could continue to scrutinise Ministers on the most significant challenge with which the Assembly has ever dealt. The Ad Hoc Committee will provide a more agile means by which to enable Ministers to update Members and answer their questions on those issues beyond the days when the Assembly sits, and should involve less resource pressure on Departments than preparing for general questions sessions. Aside from the perspective of my procedural responsibilities, the proposal also has the significant advantage of requiring fewer Assembly staff to be here to support meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee than a full plenary session would require. I therefore appreciate the cooperation of the Executive and all parties on the Business Committee in supporting that particular development. As I said a moment ago, I will issue further guidance on the procedures of the Committee, and will address the matter to which Mr Allister referred in his point of order.

Ministerial Statement

Budget

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement on the Budget. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing's being observed by parties, I have, of course, relaxed the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear his statement if they wish to ask a question. Members must still ensure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. It is not an opportunity for debate. Long introductions will not be allowed.


11.15 am

Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I am announcing the Executive's 2020-21 Budget. Development of this Budget began before the onset of COVID-19 and has been overshadowed by the unprecedented public health crisis that we face — a health crisis that impacts on every area of our lives.

Protecting lives and livelihoods from the pandemic is now our number one priority. In that regard, many Members will want to know how the Budget will help in our response to COVID-19. While we have been able to incorporate some COVID-19 measures within the Budget, legislation prohibits us from including the majority of the COVID-19 funding that we have received. That legislation requires me to announce a Budget at least 14 days after I have confirmed to the Assembly the level of funding available from the Secretary of State. I did that on 16 March. In normal circumstances, that would pose no difficulty, but we are not in normal circumstances. Since then, the world has changed dramatically. Only the initial £120 million of the funding provided for the COVID-19 response was included in my statement on 16 March. Therefore that is the amount that can be included in the Budget that I am announcing today. We have subsequently received a further £792 million to help tackle COVID-19.

Some Members may ask whether the 14-day legislation has hindered our response to COVID-19. I categorically state that it has not. Whilst we cannot include funding in the formal Budget announcement, that does not, and will not, mean that we will delay in any necessary intervention. Indeed, a number of announcements have been made and measures introduced in advance of the Budget. Personal protective equipment has been ordered, car parking fees have been removed and public transport has been made free for key healthcare workers to help those leading the fight against COVID-19; funding has been made available to ensure that the 97,000 children who are entitled to free school meals do not experience hardship as a result of schools closing; and £370 million has been made available in grants to support some 30,000 businesses so that they can continue to pay workers.

I will turn to the Budget I am announcing today by, first, setting out my approach to rates. We have relatively low rates for domestic properties and strong protections for households on low incomes. To ensure no additional burden on households during this difficult and uncertain time, I am freezing domestic rates. Whilst domestic rates are relatively low, business rates are extremely high. Our SMEs have long cited the cost of rates as a key difficulty. That was strongly reflected in the business rates consultation. I can announce today that the Executive are reducing the non-domestic regional rates. The regional rate has been adjusted downward to offset the change in the total rateable value due to Reval 2020. In addition, I have made a further 12·5% cut. Today's reduction will effectively see an 18% reduction on the 2019-2020 figure. That will benefit all business ratepayers. Although I had decided to reduce business rates in advance of the COVID-19 threat, the reduction will help with the economic recovery needed on the other side of the pandemic. The regional rates reduction is being funded from the Executive's existing resources.

As previously announced, I am also providing a three-month business rates holiday to help all business rate payers — the majority of whom are SMEs — with the significant cash flow difficulties they will face following the COVID-19 health crisis. That means that businesses will see an additional 25% discount to their annual rates bill. That will cost around £100 million and will be funded from the £120 million of COVID-19 funding included in this Budget.

In addition, I am renewing the small business rate relief, providing almost £20 million of relief to 27,000 small businesses.

Mr Givan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Murphy: If the Member does not mind, I will finish my statement, and I am sure he can ask a question on the other side of it.

I am also restoring the rural ATM scheme, which helps to sustain cash flow in some of the most isolated rural areas. That is important at the current time.

Finally, I am delaying rates bills for households and businesses until the last possible moment, with the first bills to be issued in June. That will defer expenses as we await the payments due, in June, under the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. The Executive will keep those measures under review and we will take further steps should we deem it necessary.

About £20 million of COVID-19 funding included in my statement of 16 March has not been included in this Budget outcome. That will be added to the other COVID-19 funding and will be used as part of the Executive's response to the pandemic, which is separate from this Budget. The Budget announced today sets budgets at departmental level, and Ministers will now look to allocating their budget across individual spending areas. Once those decisions are made, I intend to produce a Budget document for Members with that detail in advance of the debate and vote on the Budget in May.

Turning to the Budget itself, the resources available to the Executive remain constrained. In real terms, our block grant remains some £360 million below pre-austerity levels when comparing like-for-like funding. Over that time, pressure on vital public services has increased. Public expectations were raised considerably by the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, but the British Government did not provide the funding necessary to deliver these priorities. However, I am able to deliver a Budget that, compared to last year, provides real-term increases to all Departments.

In 2020-21, £12·2 billion of resource DEL will be allocated to Departments, with a further £278·6 million to be allocated to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for farm support payments that will replace the EU common agricultural policy payments. In addition, a further £70 million of centrally held funding will be allocated to Departments during the year.

On the capital side, the Executive intend to spend some £1·6 billion next year on a wide range of projects and programmes. More detail on these allocations is provided in the tables accompanying the printed version of this statement. There is also some £195 million of financial transactions capital available to the Executive, which will be allocated once departmental proposals are at a more advanced stage.

Going forward, the Executive intend to bring forward multi-year Budgets, which will provide greater certainty to public services and facilitate longer-term planning. In that process, we will engage in full consultation, which has not been possible for this Budget. In difficult circumstances, this Budget delivers additional funding for our citizens, our workers and our businesses. I commend this Budget to the Assembly.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for earlier sight of his statement today, and for meeting me as Chair of the Committee to discuss it.

These are indeed unprecedented times. While we deal with this crisis, it will be appropriate for us to welcome the additional £912 million of funding. I also take the opportunity to thank our national Government for taking decisive action to help our workers, both employed and self-employed, and to support our economy to allow, hopefully, a swift recovery from the current predicament.

It is also important that we, as an Assembly, take time, even in this crisis, to continue to scrutinise the allocation of our Budget. Despite some of the necessary measures that we are taking, I can assure the House, on behalf of the Finance Committee and other Committees, that we will continue, to the best of our abilities, to make sure that the moneys entrusted to us are appropriately spent.

However, we have several specific questions, firstly on Budget allocations. Whilst we note that you stated that the block grant is some £360 million below pre-austerity levels, Departments are largely seeing an uplift in their Budget allocations. The Executive Office alone will see an increase of over 70%. Perhaps the Minister can set out the reasons for such a significant increase.

On rates, the Minister stated that domestic rates are relatively low, whereas business rates are extremely high. Does this indicate that the Minister, as part of a wider review of the rating system, is intending to keep the scale of domestic rates under review?

We welcome the support being afforded to businesses, especially during the current circumstances. However, is the Minister considering extending the COVID-19 mitigation measures beyond the current three-month period to the same length of time as the rest of the United Kingdom? On COVID-19, the Minister has indicated that an additional £792 million, as well as the previous £120 million, is being made available. It will be interesting to see how these funds are being distributed in order to ensure that the necessary resources are instantly available to respond to new or emerging pressures on those most in need.

Related to that issue, the Minister indicated that the Executive have agreed to allow Ministers to set aside the current in-year de minimis rules in reporting any flex in their budgets of over £1 million. Can the Minister please undertake to write to the Committee Chairs, giving details of the decision of the Executive and any guidelines on reviewing the decision as the pressures of COVID-19, hopefully, recede?

Mr Murphy: I thank the Chair for that. I was happy to meet him this morning and to brief him and the Committee Clerk on the Budget. He raised a number of issues that I will try to address.

The additional spend in relation to the Executive Office that he mentioned is primarily due to the inclusion of £37·5 million for historical institutional abuse payments in 2020-21. I will now look to the institutions involved to meet their obligations in respect of contributing to the cost redress scheme.

Domestic rates, as the Member highlighted, have been frozen. Of course, we will consider the broad rating policy, and we intend to look at that as part of the multi-annual Budget process that we expect to occur beyond this year. We have no plans around that at the moment, but, in freezing domestic rates, we recognise that, although, relatively speaking, our domestic rates are low, people are very challenged — not just in business but in meeting household payments. We have not only frozen the rate below the level of inflation but we have deferred the collection of those rates until June to try and assist households as well. In discussions with Treasury, I have asked that they do the same with regard to other bills, particularly utility bills, so that people are not pressed at this time when a lot of people are not able to work or are suffering a reduction in income.

With regard to the rates relief that was part of the COVID-19 package, some of that will involve the money in this Budget and some will be beyond that. We wanted to get out a significant package that would take us over the first three months and would apply to all businesses. Unlike the British scheme, which applies to certain sections of business, the scheme here applies to all businesses. Of course, we are anticipating further interventions as this rolls on and depending on the length of time that it takes to deal with the pandemic. If we get further interventions, perhaps we can consider tailoring a scheme so that we can focus more on the businesses that have suffered most as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others may have been able to continue on, largely as they had before — in some cases even more, depending on what they manufacture. The food sectors are continuing on as before.

On the distribution of COVID-19 funding, we have allocated £639 million out of the £912 million. We have asked Departments for bids on COVID-19-specific responses, and we look forward to getting those. Whether it be through statements to the Assembly, depending on how the new Ad Hoc Committee works, or written statements, we will ensure that Members get sight of that so that they can scrutinise and ask questions in the appropriate manner.

I will make a final point around flexibility. As I said earlier, this Budget was designed and drafted only a short number of weeks ago without any foresight of what we were really facing. We have tried to add a degree of flexibility for Departments. Although they have allocations against spending that they have asked for, as part of the process that built up over a number of months, it is quite clear that some Departments will not be able to spend money because certain functions are not happening and they will not spend money as they had planned. We have allowed for a degree of flexibility that was agreed at Executive level. I can write to the Member and to other Committee Chairs to outline the process whereby Departments do not have the same requirements around the level of spending and the approvals required. We can be flexible and agile in our response across all Departments to, perhaps, unforeseen challenges that may come our way in the next number of months. The Executive will review that as time goes on. If we consider that we have moved beyond the pandemic response phase, we can stop that process and bring it back to the normal process of capped levels of accountability mechanisms and bring those back into play again. We want to ensure that all Departments had the flexibility to react quickly to the crisis and that is why we included, with Executive agreement, this flexibility for the period that the pandemic lasts.

Mr Frew: I welcome the Minister's statement today and the further funding that we have received from the Government. I also welcome the Minister's statement on the 18% reduction in rates on the 2019-2020 figure. Although you have given this reduction, if businesses are not in a position to pay their rates or do not exist, that rate base will not exist. I ask the Minister to consider extending his three-month holiday for industrial rates and to match other devolved regions of the UK.

We welcome the small business rate relief grant of £10,000. I know that some of those businesses are starting to receive that support, as we speak.

However, as inevitably will be the case, there will be people who fall through the cracks, including new start-up businesses that are on our high streets and small businesses that maybe fall below the £15,000 for NAV and maybe were getting the industrial derating. It may include artists in small shops who manufacture frames and sell prints and artisans. Those people will not be able to avail themselves of the £10,000 but will still have massive cash flow problems and bills to pay. There may well be 2,500 of those businesses in Northern Ireland, and it may well cost in the region of £25 million, but I ask the Minister to consider a mop-up exercise so that those people could maybe be supported in the future and to consider further mitigations and recovery measures that will aid businesses to crank up on the other side of this horrendous crisis. I ask that the Minister takes those on board.

I add now, Minister, that I am deeply worried when I hear reports of intimidation by republicans and activists from his party of businesses, employers and CEOs of manufacturing plants who are striving to stay open and on whom the Assembly may well call on to redirect resources and make things for us that will save lives. I am deeply worried that I have heard reports of activists from his party intimidating and harassing businesses to close completely. Can the Minister please address the House on that issue?


11.30 am

Mr Murphy: On the last point, it is a matter of regret that you bring accusations without any substance to them. Of course, if you are aware of accusations that are, essentially, of criminal behaviour, you have an obligation to report those to the police. I hope that you have, rather than simply bringing them here for publicity purposes.

In relation to the rates holiday, the scheme devised in England and Wales is different from the scheme here in that it applies to certain sectors of business only. It does not apply to all businesses. Replicating that scheme in full here is way beyond the Executive's means, given the nature of our business make-up here and the nature of our rates. We took a decision to apply a three-month break for all businesses, and, should we get further interventions or other money available to us, we can consider further schemes in relation to that and, perhaps, more tailored schemes, certainly in relation to businesses that are particularly suffering as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the £10,000 grants, I appreciate that the interventions, including the employee retention scheme, the self-employment scheme, the £10,000 grants and the £25,000 grants, will not cover every person. As I said this morning, someone in manufacturing told me to get to 80% quickly and then try to mop up the rest. There are microbusinesses and other people who operate from their home who do not have the ability to access the small business rate relief scheme. Clearly, we are hearing from all of those who have not fallen into the schemes, so it is our responsibility and that of the Department for the Economy, which manages the business grant scheme, using the rates base, to see whether there are further schemes that they can identify and cost to try to catch the businesses that have fallen through the cracks in relation to some of the interventions to date.

The Member mentioned recovery measures and identifying how to support the economy coming out of the pandemic. That is clearly a matter for the Department for the Economy to identify, and I hope that it is doing work in that regard. Of course, we face an awful lot of unknowns and, perhaps, unforeseen consequences, but, certainly, in the time ahead, there will be a need for recovery measures. Clearly, measures on support for business will be identified and brought forward by the Department for the Economy.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I really commend him and his officials for the bold yet necessary steps that have been taken over the past few weeks. Can the Minister outline the flexibilities that have been given to Departments to allow them to deal with the immediate impact of the coronavirus?

Mr Murphy: As I said in response to the Committee Chair, the Budget was devised and planned over a period of months when we had no idea of what we currently face with the pandemic. As it was being finalised, perhaps, the full realisation of the unprecedented and unique circumstances that we now find ourselves in was becoming more apparent. Specific funding requests and pressures identified over many months by Departments were not necessarily related to the current crisis that we face. As well as allocating the specific coronavirus money that has come across from Treasury to us and to Departments to meet that challenge, we tried to allow Departments some flexibility in the normal constraints they have, such as caps on the amount of money they can shift within Departments, and in the accountability measures. The Executive have agreed that we needed to allow some flexibility for a period until we deem that it is no longer necessary.

We have allowed people to be agile. That is what the public would expect of us: to be as agile as we can, to be on our toes and to recognise that what we had previously planned for no longer counts. Services have to continue and spending has to continue in Departments, but there are much greater challenges that immediately face us, so we have to have the agility and resource, even within the limited and constrained resources that we have, to meet this as best we can. We have allowed for that.

I have undertaken to the Chair of the Finance Committee that I will write to Committee Chairs so that they have a clear understanding, when they scrutinise spending by the Department that they hold to account, of the arrangements. However, let me make it clear: the Executive will, if we deem in the time ahead or over the course of the year that that situation is no longer required, bring back the arrangements that we normally have for moving around money within Departments.

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for coming to the Assembly to give us that update. Every time he comes to the House, we seem to say, "It is extraordinary times", but it really is extraordinary times now, and we are completely focused on dealing with the public health emergency. I have a few specific questions, but, before those, it is worth saying that it is important that, later in the year, when, we hope, we are through the worst of this and have minimised the loss of life, the Assembly gets to scrutinise the budgetary process properly, as we keep saying we want to. However, we accept that these are extraordinary times.

Will the Minister update me on a few things? He talked about the reprioritisation of spending from certain departmental budgets towards coronavirus and talked about flexibility for budgets. Will he give a little more detail? Does it mean that the thresholds for underspend will be raised or that budgets will be pushed forward to the next year? Which Departments is he talking about?

The Minister was on the radio this morning speaking about the personal protection equipment (PPE) that we have, we hope, procured on an all-Ireland basis. Will he give a bit more detail? Is it Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) in the Department of Finance that has procured it? Exactly how much has it procured? When will it be here in the North? What are we getting? Who is responsible for dispersing it throughout the trusts?

We all know that health workers are doing an extraordinary job and making extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf and on behalf of our loved ones. Will he and the Department of Health give thought to how that can be recognised in a pay award? We are all realising what is actually important and valuable in our society and our labour force.

Mr Murphy: The Member rightly recognises the circumstances that we are in and that, in many ways, the rule book does not apply on a range of measures.

This morning, I met the Chair of the Finance Committee and we agreed this. We recognised that most of the people in the Departments who do this work are working remotely. Usually, when we bring the Budget to the Assembly in May, it is as a printed document. That might be difficult to do this time. However, the intent is to get people in the Departments to provide detail of the spending plans as best they can and that we collate a document. The intention is to have it published, but, if we are unable to do that, perhaps it will have to be delivered electronically to Members so that they can study it. We will do it in advance of 4 May, so that Members will have the ability to properly scrutinise the Budget and what has been spent.

Hopefully, in the time ahead, we will get into the process of multiannual Budgets and proper scrutiny. Even without the circumstances we find ourselves in today, we did not have sufficient scrutiny in advance of the Budget, because the Assembly was not sitting. We hope, that in the autumn, we get back to a much more normal scrutiny process for the entire Budget.

At the moment, we are trying to identify what is required in response to COVID-19. Obviously, we have identified business support and the necessary health support. That may change and develop as time goes on. As others have outlined, the business support measures have captured a lot of people but left out some people as well, and we need to be flexible about how we approach that. However, as I say, that reduces the cap in how people can shift money about within Departments, and it reduces the accountability mechanisms. That does not mean that there is no accountability for that — the Department of Finance will want to know how people spend their money — but all of the approvals that might, perhaps, have slowed up the process in the short time ahead will be set aside so that Departments can be flexible. That applies to all Departments, and it will apply to the response to this situation. It is not simply about meeting other pressures and priorities that they already had; it is specifically to allow people to have the flexibility to deal with the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

When it comes to PPE procurement, the Member will know that the Department of Health is responsible for its own procurement. What we undertook to do initially, because there was significant demand from other services — the blue-light services, including the police, ambulance, the Fire Brigade, forensic scientists — was to procure PPE for all outside the Department of Health. As of last week, we have a joint approach to PPE procurement, the one that is identified in the joint order with the Government in Dublin.

We are ensuring that the appropriate people are on the ground to make sure that that order is secured, that it is the equipment that we need and that it meets the specifications that are required. There is no point in importing it if we find that it is not what we need or not what we ordered. Before we get into the detail of the exact quantities, which are significant, we want to ensure that we have the right order secured and on its way home. Then, we will be able to release it. I am glad that we are now working on the Department of Health's PPE procurement, because that puts us in a stronger position.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Department's procurement team: they are in the Department working strongly every day on this. I know that other civil servants are working remotely from home and are applying themselves very diligently as well. However, the procurement team has been working flat out over the last number of weeks, reaching out to other supply chains, because we always have the concern that our existing supply chains will go down as a result of unforeseen consequences. The realisation in America and India that they face a big crisis could, if you like, corner all the available PPE supplies, so we have been reaching out to local manufacturing to make sure that we establish some supply chains on the island in the event that international supply chains go down so that we have some cover.

The Member knows that one of the first actions of the new Executive was to make the pay award to nurses. Of course, I agree with his recognition of the sterling work that front-line health service workers and a range of public service workers are doing in response to this. Ironically, it is those who were worst paid and had the worst conditions who have come to the forefront to fight on behalf of our entire society to keep all of us safe. I hope that, as society changes and re-examines its priorities in the time ahead, we will recognise those whom we rely on most.

Mr Muir: I echo the Minister's thanks to the officials for the work that is being done. We get replies to emails late at night and at weekends, and officials are working night and day not only on the Budget but on many other things. I thank them for that.

As the Minister said, we live in a rapidly evolving situation. The challenges to our public finances were immense before COVID-19 arrived, and now we are in a situation where we face not only a public health emergency but an economic crisis. As has been outlined, this is something of an interim Budget, and I welcome the Minister's agile approach. It is important that we provide as much funding as we can to the health service.

My question is about how we can provide sufficient funds to ensure that the economy recovers. It is likely that we will enter a recession, if not a depression. There are reports today that one in six people could be out of their job. Particular sectors have been badly affected as a result of the current crisis. We know what they are: hospitality, hotels, leisure and non-food retail. There is a list, and they really need assistance to recover. I echo the concerns about businesses that do not pay rates, such as microbusinesses, which have been developing but cannot avail themselves of any support. Will the Minister consider further measures to assist the sectors that have been badly affected by the current crisis or those that are not able to avail themselves of any grants? Will he consider using borrowing powers to assist those businesses? If we do not start planning for the recovery now, the economic damage from the current crisis will be much more severe.


11.45 am

Mr Murphy: I recognise entirely that turning our minds towards recovery is essential, and, as I said to Members who spoke previously, I will rely on the Department for the Economy to identify what it thinks is vital.

Our first priority was to try to keep people afloat; to keep wages paid, doors open, lights on and roofs over people's heads. The interventions on rates and business support grants — the £10,000 and £25,000 ones — were key to getting support out the door, as quickly as we could, to try to keep people in business, because we will require those people to come back into business on the other side of this. Of course, the intervention packages from the Treasury on employee retention were key, particularly for the hospitality industry, which did not want to make people redundant. If it had had to do that, our social security system would perhaps have been overwhelmed by the pressure on it. While the self-employed scheme and all the schemes have certain flaws in them, we have to bear in mind that, with those schemes and with our schemes, we are now doing things in the space of days that we would have previously taken months to do, with consultation, planning, engagement and testing various things. We are having to do work, which would previously have taken six months or perhaps even longer for schemes like these, to get them out the door and turned around in days, in order to intervene as quickly as we can. We have had conversations with the Comptroller and Auditor General about some of the schemes to say that we are doing things that normally he would be coming after us for, and, I think, he understands, as well, the need to respond very quickly with the measures.

Of course, we need to look beyond this, then, as we hopefully start to see light at the end of the tunnel, to recovery and at what that looks like and what needs support.

I will make a general point for all of us and for anyone who happens to be listening. We should, if we have not considered it before, support our local businesses. After this is over, we should look particularly to businesses that have behaved responsibly. In the village where I live, businesses have behaved so responsibly as part of a community network of supporting local people by delivering grocery services to them and acting responsibly in how they open their doors and do business and in closing ahead of being required to close. Many in the hospitality sector closed their business before they were told to close. We know local businesses and perhaps have taken them for granted for many years. If we have money to spend on the other side of this, as individuals as well as a Government, we should look to support local businesses and ensure that the ones that supported us during the crisis, in turn, enjoy the benefit of our spend on the other side of it.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his statement on the additional funding allocated and, in particular, the £639 million for COVID-related activity in the Departments. That is most welcome. It is, indeed, good to see that, in a time of crisis, we have prioritised those issues as a matter of concern, and that will be a very welcome signal to many of our constituents across Northern Ireland.

I welcome not only the particular schemes put in place by the Assembly for the freezing of rates etc but those from the British Government that will help to alleviate some of the immediate concerns facing many businesses today.

I echo the point made by my colleague Mr Frew about looking at particular measures to extend the industrial rate freeze for the industries particularly affected by COVID-19. That would be a very welcome step. I also want to press upon the Minister to press further for the self-employed. They welcome the new funding package that they can access, but the delay in getting that to them could effectively mean that a lot of self-employed people cannot even put bread on the table. I know that the Minister will take up that point at the Executive table.

A particular point that I would like the Minister to address relates to the creative way in which PPE has been secured by the Department, which was mentioned by Mr O'Toole. Does the Minister have any indication of how quickly that PPE will essentially get out on the ground to organisations outside the health service that are much in need of it?

Mr Murphy: In relation to further rates measures, I said previously that we have tried to use quickly the business support packages that are available to us and tried to get them out quickly. The LPS rates base is a quick and accurate way to get money to businesses. We know what the businesses are, what they are paying and what they paid recently, and that they are still viable businesses and still exist, because they are paying rates. It is a very accurate tool for getting that. It also leaves some gaps.

The quickest way to deal with that and to get support out on the ground quickly was to try to cover all businesses. That is not the same as the scheme in England and Wales, which targets certain sectors. If there are further initiatives to be taken, as time goes on, we will get a clearer understanding than we had even two weeks' ago, when this measure was done. We will have a clearer understanding of the impact on certain sectors and perhaps a lack of impact on certain sectors. It is a challenging exercise to differentiate businesses, but we will see if it is possible to get a more tailored support scheme.

The self-employed scheme came from the Treasury. It was only announced last week. Following the announcement of the employee retention scheme, there was a very significant focus on the self-employed, who had been left out, and this scheme came in. Last Friday, I spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about it. As with the employee retention scheme, the delay in introducing the self-employed scheme is placing people in a real crisis in the intervening weeks, particularly the self-employed. Whatever about the ability of larger industries to absorb that delay, many of the self-employed do not have the same levels of income and turnover to try to absorb that delay. I raised specifically the delay to June in paying the self-employed. I argued that it should come quicker because quite a number of our people may be put out of business in the intervening period, so that needs to happen.

In relation to PPE, as I said to Mr O'Toole, we previously were responsible for trying to secure that for all other services. We are now working with the Department of Health to secure supplies for it, as well. We are talking to local businesses about what they can do. We are also talking to local businesses that are not functioning and which have PPE supplies for what they were doing previously, to try to get some of that. There are different standards and specifications that are required for different services. We are not sure where we can fit that, but we have put out a general call to businesses, and some of the universities and others hold stocks of PPE. We are trying to have those released into the centre so that we can distribute them, hopefully, perhaps, to domiciliary care workers, who seem to have been left particularly short.

The PPE that is required for our health professionals who are at the front line must be very specific to their needs. We need to ensure that it is properly procured and that it meets the requirement. We need to ensure that those who are who are going out at the front line are confident that the resources and tools that they need to fight this pandemic are available to them, that the Executive are focused on supplying them with all the tools necessary to do the job, and that we have their back.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I urge Members to curtail the number of questions. We have used well over half the time available to us in this session and six Members have been able to ask questions. The multiplicity of many of the questions means that we now have 11 Members in the queue. There is no question of getting to all those Members. I ask other Members, when asking questions, to keep them to a minimum and to reduce their commentary around the issue.

Mr McAleer: In the light of the COVID-19 crisis and the closure of many food outlets and livestock marts, will the Minister advise whether farmers, the vast majority of whom are self-employed, are able to avail themselves of the recently announced self-employed income support and job retention schemes and the other schemes that have been put in place to support employees and employers during the crisis?

Mr Murphy: The way that these schemes work is that HMRC will contact those that they deem to be eligible. If they deem farmers to be eligible, they may do that. Of course, it will be people, I imagine, whose businesses have been very adversely affected as a result of the crisis. It might be considered that people in food production, which has a broad range, have not been adversely impacted. I do not doubt that farmers, like everyone else, are struggling in the current circumstances. If they are entitled to the scheme, they will hear directly from those who are organising it.

Mr Givan: I welcome the 6·3% uplift in the Department of Justice's baseline. The Justice Committee supported the Minister's call for it, and we look forward to scrutinising how it will be delivered.

I welcome the Minister's initiative to procure PPE, initially on behalf of all of the Departments except Health, and I welcome that Health is now on board. However, he is right that there is a need for people to have confidence that they can do the job. That need exists right across the public sector and private sector, including in health, where people who are being asked to carry out important roles still do not have confidence that they can do that in a way that protects them and their families. What PPE has been secured as a result of the procurement exercise that he initiated? When will it be delivered to those people in Northern Ireland?

I echo the remarks that we need a more flexible scheme for the cash grants, because it is missing a significant number of businesses.

Mr Murphy: As he says, part of this is about giving confidence. Even in the documentation that we have received, the Health Department recognises that it is about morale as well as protection. One of the key lessons from the Italian experience was that, if people did not have appropriate PPE in the hospital setting, they actually became transmitters of the disease and the outcome was much worse. We have to learn the lessons from international experience. We have to make sure that our health professionals are properly equipped to protect themselves because they are the front-line workers in all this but also so that they do not become transmitters of the disease.

What I want to do in respect of the major order for Health that we placed alongside the Dublin Government is to make sure that we have all that we have asked for, that it is the standard that we require and that it is on its way back, rather than announce something and find that there is some interruption to that. There is such a huge demand going into China from all nations that we want to be certain. There are people from Invest NI and IDA Ireland on the ground in China to do that work for us, and we are also using embassies to make sure that we have that. We want to give people confidence that we have it.

As I said, we have also begun a procurement exercise in relation to other services. I know that the Police Service, in particular, is satisfied that its initial concerns are now being met. We want all public services that need to be appropriately kitted out to meet their challenge in this pandemic to have confidence that they have the material that they need.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his work and that of his team in responding to this crisis.

The schemes that have been introduced to support workers so far have been really welcome, but there is a lack of clarity and some gaps in those. In particular, there is a lack of clarity around whether all non-essential businesses will be able to avail themselves of the job retention scheme. There are businesses that are very keen to close and allow their workers to stay at home for their health and peace of mind but that are unsure whether they will actually be able to pay those workers. You then have companies like Easyjet that are able to pay out hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends to their shareholders and, at the same time, avail themselves of public funding to pay some of their employees. It seems somewhat immoral that companies on a tiny fraction of those profits are uncertain if their employees will be covered by this scheme.

I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that workers are the backbone of our economy and that their livelihoods need to be protected in all of this. Could you give us an update on the discussions with Treasury to try to get clarity on eligibility for the job retention scheme?

Mr Murphy: I have acknowledged the fact that schemes have been devised and put out through the door within 48 hours when, normally, schemes of this magnitude would perhaps take years to be consulted on, devised and properly structured, with all the potential gaps and downsides looked at. We have to recognise that these things are being done quickly. The Treasury has come back with further clarification on the job retention scheme. Quite clearly, there are people who are deemed to be non-essential but who were advised that they could continue to function. However, if they cannot put proper social distancing practices in place in their workplace, they are clearly contradicting health advice. So, in some ways, the health advice from the British Government contradicted the economic advice, which has left people uncertain. We have pressed and pressed to ensure that there is as much clarity as possible. The health advice is that you should not be out of home unless you absolutely have to be; for me, that can be defined as essential. We cannot say that on the one hand but then say to other businesses, "You can stay open if you like". That has caused confusion. As I said, I accept that these schemes were done in a very rapid fashion. Undoubtedly, the speed with which they have been devised and got through the door means that they do not cover every single base that needs to be covered. I also acknowledge that the support that they have provided to employers to retain workers has been absolutely vital.


12.00 noon

In relation to people who have availed themselves of those schemes and, perhaps, not done the right thing — I am not being specific about any company — the Finance Department, which has responsibility for procurement, put out a statement a week or so ago in which it said it would ask all Departments to make sure that there is prompt payment to people who are providing services. We will ensure that we do not delay in getting firms the money that is owed to them. However, in doing that, we expect those firms to pay subcontractors and employees. We do not expect them to put that prompt payment on to their profit margins and profit lines. If we find that firms do that with the money that we are getting out to try and support the community, then they will not be considered for future public-sector contracts. We will monitor how the prompt payments are spent by the firms that receive them. Similarly, I think that if the British Government find that firms take advantage of job retention schemes and behave in a way that is unethical in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, then those firms should feel the weight of disapproval on the other side of the crisis.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his statement and also for his efforts and those of his Executive colleagues in getting a safety net in place for those impacted economically by the crisis that is engulfing us. That safety net still has holes, and we have heard a bit about them today. We all have a responsibility to identify those holes with a view to mending them so that nobody falls through.

In terms of the financial impact and the resources going towards that safety net, will the Minister give an assurance that they will not impact on another safety net that the Assembly has agreed is essential to protect our most vulnerable people, and that is welfare mitigations? Will that impact on our ability to extend and strengthen the mitigation package?

Mr Murphy: I can assure him no. As part of the Budget, we have allocated additional resources to the Department for Communities to specifically meet the welfare mitigation challenges. Those are in relation to the bedroom tax scheme and ongoing support. I am just trying to find the figure — I will get the figure to him. As part of the Budget, we have additional resources for the Department for Communities for welfare mitigation, the bedroom tax scheme, other mitigations and for welfare advice, so resources are being dedicated. We recognise, of course, that when we are trying to protect businesses, to protect workers and their incomes, and to protect families, we also have a significant duty to protect the most vulnerable, who are perhaps most in need of our support at this time.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister has already explained why the resource DEL for the Executive Office is up over 70% from baseline; that is to advance the redress for the victims of institutional abuse, and I am sure the whole House welcomes that. On the Minister's theme of being agile, will he inform the House whether there are other budget lines across all Departments, such as the budget for establishing the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression and the associated commissioners, that could be, with agility, re-profiled to help fund the fight against COVID-19?

Mr Murphy: Departments and the Assembly have been tasked with bringing forward and dealing with essential business. That means that, as I have said about the flexibility that we have provided to Departments, some of the business that they had, quite rightly, planned for three weeks ago, is perhaps no longer deliverable because of what the Assembly is able to legislate for and process. All Departments will have to reconsider their spending in the immediate time ahead in terms of how the Assembly can support the delivery of that spending and how the Departments can deliver it with the personnel available to them and the programmes or the areas of work that they were targeting the spending. That is a general approach across the Executive. Of course, we have asked Departments to be as flexible as possible. Obviously, if any programmes or projects are interrupted or delayed, I do not doubt that Departments will want to pick them up very quickly on the other side of the pandemic.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Seán Lynch, I remind Members to focus on limiting the number of questions that they ask.

Mr Lynch: Will the £1 million allocated this year for people who have been affected by the blood contamination scandal continue next year?

Mr Murphy: Yes, I was very pleased that one of my earliest acts when I took over as Finance Minister was to find in the January monitoring round £1 million for the Department of Health for this scandal, which was going on for far too long. The Department of Health, through ongoing discussion, has satisfied the request from the people affected. In next year's Budget, we have provided an additional £1 million to meet that cost.

Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his Department's work so far. Minister, I welcome the increase that you have made available to the Department of Education, in particular confirmation for the Education Minister and the Communities Minister that the parents of children who are entitled to free school meals will receive direct financial payment. Will the Minister provide some further detail on the flexibility that he has introduced for procurement? If the Department of Education could follow that flexibility, along with increased funding, that would go a long way to make schools' core budgets sustainable.

Mr Murphy: Yes, as part of the COVID-19 response, we were very glad to allocate £18·9 million to try to support that to ensure that kids who are not able to access school and free school meals do not suffer as a consequence. We know that holiday hunger is a very real factor in the life of an awful lot of children.

The flexibility is really to try to meet challenges that might arise as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have said to Departments that it is not simply about shifting funds to meet other pressures. Departments understand that we are in unprecedented times. They understand that we have reduced relaxations that would never otherwise apply, but they also understand that we are doing this to meet a particular challenge, not the normal challenges of Departments. I appreciate that every Department is challenged. While we managed to give a real increase to every Department, it nonetheless does not meet all the pressures that they all experience. This is not about shifting money about to try to meet existing pressures; it is about trying to meet the challenge that they have with the crisis that we are facing.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his indulgence today. Can he give any update or information on asking either electricity or gas providers to freeze bills for up to six months?

Mr Murphy: As part of the conversations that I have had with Treasury, we have talked about what we could do with rates reduction and deferring rates bills, including domestic bills, for a number of months to try to see how households get over the current crisis. We also raised utilities with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and asked that the British Government intervene — they obviously have more authority to do that — with some of the companies, which may be based over there as well. I think there is an onus on all sides, public and private, to act, and that is why it is important for the public side to take the lead on prompt payments to ensure that those down the chain are paid and that there is an ethical approach to the next number of months and to the times that we face. If the public side takes the lead, I hope that the private side will follow that and understand that households are very hard-pressed and that almost everybody has had their income reduced. People are not able to get out, and there are real pressures building on households. All companies need to recognise that in the time ahead.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for your statement this morning. I appreciate that it was not the statement that you envisaged making to the House. That is very difficult, and it is difficult for us as Members to give any type of statement or Budget due scrutiny at this time.

My question is similar to the one that the Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy asked about the communication between the Finance Department and the Economy Department and how you get the messages out to businesses about exactly what schemes have been put in place and what support mechanisms are there for them. There is a real confusion out there about what is an essential business, what is not and social distancing in the workplace, and that is really hurting the economy. In a way, it is demonising businesses, unnecessarily at this time. I know that whilst it is not part of your Budget and statement today, it is certainly part of the Department of Finance's work. I want to see better communication to the business community, and it needs to start immediately. There have been questions asked, and they are not being answered.

Mr Murphy: I accept that there has been confusion, but a variety of packages have been introduced very quickly. Some packages are directly from London and some we have devised ourselves. On the schemes that we have devised, we have tried to use the rates base as the most accurate tool to get the finance to businesses. We recognised, in doing that, that certain businesses would not come in under that umbrella, if you like. On the basis that we could get money out quickly, we had to use the most readily available tool. Of course, what we have been doing since is fielding the queries from all businesses. I hope, and am confident, that the Department is trying to turn around that advice. I know that other Members have referred to the fact that the officials are getting back to them very promptly with a range of advice.

Equally, as I outlined, some of the other schemes that have come from London, which would normally have been the product of a lengthy consultation process, have been turned around within 48 hours and got out the door. Similarly, they have prompted confusion among businesses as to who is able to apply for the job retention and who is able to avail themselves of the self-employed scheme.

The issue of which business should be open and which business should be closed continues to cause confusion because, on the one hand, the Prime Minister in London listed a series of essential businesses and workers, and then said that, basically, any business can stay open if it wants to. That contradicts the health advice, which is that businesses should close unless they absolutely have to be involved in work.

Yesterday, I listened to the First Minister and deputy First Minister's press conference. I thought there was a very clear message about the requirement that any business that is retaining employees must put in adequate measures for social distancing. The reason for the formation of that forum, which is under the control of the Department for the Economy and involves the Health and Safety Executive and the Labour Relations Agency among others, is to ensure that there is at least a forum for businesses to come to and get clear advice. There is an area of enforcement within that, so, if workers are concerned that they are being forced into circumstances that are endangering them, they will also have a channel through which they can raise issues and ensure that it is consistent.

I appreciate that when you turn things around very rapidly, it causes confusion. We have to make sure that there are channels open for those who are uncertain in the time ahead to get answers quickly. The Executive have been trying to ensure that we get proper information put in place and a quick turnaround response time. The forum that has been set up specifically in relation to who should be in work and who should not, and also what the conditions in work should be, needs to get going very quickly to provide those answers to people.

Mr Speaker: Again, I ask Members to keep their contributions as minimal as possible?

Miss Woods: Very quickly, I have two points. Is there any indication of how the £20 million of COVID-19 funding, not included in the Budget outcome here, will be spent? Secondly, I note in the statement the information about the domestic rate freezes and non-domestic rates issues. I also note that previous civil contingencies grants and supports for councils were through the Department for Communities, but what support measures are in place through this Budget today for our local councils that are facing financial difficulties now?

Mr Murphy: When I made the statement on 16 March, we had an additional £120 million identified as part of the COVID response, of which we used £100 million. The additional £20 million will go into the subsequent money that we received, which is £700-odd million, and be added to that.

Part of that has been spread across a range of areas. In total, we received £912 million. To date, we have spent £639 million. That includes the small business grant schemes, grants for those in the hospitality and tourism sector, free school meals, the business rate break that we have announced, money for the Department of Health that involves getting equipment, community pharmacy, car parking charges and testing kits. There are a range of measures.


12.15 pm

Of that, £639 million has been spent, so there is still money available. We have asked Departments to bid for support. What the councils will lose through our rates approach we will make up back to them so that they do not lose out as a result of us reducing rates or giving a rates holiday. We have asked Departments to make a range of bids to us for specific projects. The Department for Communities is using the councils to generate community support and community activism, which is already happening on the ground, with people looking after neighbours and trying to do things for other people. The Department for Communities is keen to generate money through the councils to support that and guide it and make sure that it is doing the right thing but also to provide some financial support to it. A range of schemes will be done through councils and working with councils to make sure that money becomes available not just for business support but for the community response and that it is harnessed in a way that is productive and can achieve a significant outcome, and it is given a level of financial support to do that as well.

Mr Allister: Is this the first time that we have entered a new financial year without an approved Budget? In regard to our present transformed circumstances, we will obviously, going forward, have huge demands on health and the economy. How far, therefore, has the Minister advised or instructed his Executive colleagues to strip out non-priority resource spending? In the light of that, will he agree that it would be unconscionable in the circumstances to devote further millions of new spend to items like Ulster Scots and the Irish language? Should those projects, which were intended under 'New Decade, New Approach', now be parked for this year?

Finally, I think that the Minister said to Mr O'Toole that the Comptroller and Auditor General was relaxing his oversight. Is that what he said? What are the ramifications of that?

Mr Murphy: The Budget is approved: the Executive approved the Budget yesterday.

Mr Allister: The Assembly.

Mr Murphy: No. This Budget comes to the Assembly for votes on the Estimates in May, when you will have a chance to vote across the entirety of the Budget proposition, but we are legally required to have a Budget through the Executive and a Budget statement to the Assembly by the end of the financial year, which we have done.

In relation to flexibility in Departments, right up to three weeks ago, Departments were working on the basis of what their pressures were and what they wanted to spend in the period ahead, and the Budget debate that we had a number of weeks ago gave the allocation into the early months of the new financial year on the basis of what Departments thought they would be spending at that time. Clearly, I recognise that the situation has changed. We have asked Departments to look very clearly at what they cannot spend as they had intended to, some of which is because the Assembly will not be able to give the necessary approvals because it may not be functioning in a way that can legislate for some of those things, and there are some areas where the provision of services will no longer be possible over the next number of months. They should use that flexibility not to move it to other areas of pressures but to respond to the crisis that we are in. We will continue to work with the Departments and talk to the Departments about how they achieve that.

I am, perhaps, somewhat heartened that the only issue that the Member ever finds spending problems with is in relation to Ulster Scots and the Irish language. In the entirety of the range of spending across the Executive's budgets across all Departments, those are the ones that he focuses in on that perhaps require some revisiting. If that means that the rest of them are OK, that is not too bad.

We do not have the full result of NDNA that we had wanted. We are still talking to the British Government in relation to all that. All projects fall into the same broad category: if it is not possible to spend in the time ahead, people need to look at what can be spent in responding to this crisis. If, beyond that, it has not been possible for a variety of reasons — some of which may be because the construction side is not there to do the jobs that we want to get done in the immediate period ahead — people will need to look again. We will reallocate as the year goes on. The Executive will take collective decisions as the year goes on to try to spend the Budget in the best and most effective way possible.

In relation to the Comptroller and Auditor General, the particular issues related to the £10,000 scheme and getting that out the door quickly. As part of the discussion between the Department of Finance and the Department for the Economy on trying to get that scheme done quickly, we consulted the C&AG. We told him that some things were not as we would normally do them but we faced circumstances that were not normal. That is not to say that he will not scrutinise — of course, he will scrutinise all Departments — but he had an understanding that Departments here and, obviously, across all Governments are trying to turn things around and get them out the door, measures on which they would normally take a lengthy time to consult, discuss, test and analyse the costs that are attached to them, involving various sectors. There is an urgency to be responsive to the crisis that we face. He understands that. It was just in that regard. It was not a general "Do what you like" approach; it related specifically to that scheme.

Mr Speaker: I call Gerry Carroll. I will just say that time is, more or less, up.

Mr Carroll: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that. Quickly, can the Minister justify to people who are worried about their health and putting food on the table at this time why there is not enough of an economic spending shift to face the pandemic? It is unjustifiable that we are not talking about nationalisation, the requisition of private facilities, the mass production of PPE and bonuses for front-line staff, to name just a few of the issues that need to be addressed.

Mr Murphy: There were a range of measures in the Coronavirus Bill, which was approved by the Assembly last week. If people wanted to amend those provisions, that was the time to do it. If the Member wanted to bring in additional powers to nationalise industries or force manufacturers to make certain products at certain times, that was the place to do it, because that is where the power is. Some people have argued that the powers are far too sweeping and draconian. Obviously, we wanted to ensure that they were compliant with human rights and that there was an end point to the adoption of the powers. I am afraid that the Budget cannot afford those measures, but the Coronavirus Bill could have. The Member should have attempted to amend it appropriately.

Executive Committee Business

Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill: First Stage

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I beg to introduce the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which is a Bill to create a course of conduct offence and a sentencing aggravation concerning domestic abuse and make rules as to procedure and giving evidence in criminal cases involving domestic abuse; and prevent cross-examination in person of certain witnesses in particular circumstances in family proceedings in the civil courts.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be published.

Mr Speaker: Members may take their ease for a moment.

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

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate.

Mr Poots: The Agriculture Bill is a UK Government Bill containing some UK-wide clauses, some of which are reserved and some of which touch on devolved matters. It also contains a small number of provisions that are specific to Northern Ireland. Before I get into the detail of those provisions, I want to explain the rationale behind Northern Ireland being included in this UK Government Bill in the first place.

The main body of the Bill is intended primarily to provide the legal basis for a future agriculture policy direction for England and reflects ideas that were shared with stakeholders a couple of years ago in DEFRA's 'Health and Harmony' document. There are also elements of the main body of the Bill that have a UK-wide reach, as they are related to reserved matters. I will come back to those in a few minutes. Legislative consent is not being sought for either of those components — the UK-wide reserved matters or the clauses that relate only to England. Five remaining elements of the Bill are UK-wide in remit but cover devolved matters. Again, I will come back to those. I seek legislative consent to those elements.

Northern Ireland's and, hence, my primary interest in the Bill relates to schedule 6, which has three main objectives. The first is to provide in domestic legislation the legal basis for the full suite of CAP, pillar 1 and pillar 2 options that we had prior to the EU exit. Without that, we would not have the basis to continue direct support to farmers after this calendar year, nor would we have the option of continuing to make new commitments under current or modified pillar 2 schemes. It is vital that we have those powers in place. Secondly, the schedule will enable us to modify, simplify and correct the framework carried forward out of the old CAP. It provides additional flexibility, should we wish to use it. Thirdly, it gives us certain keeping-pace powers to enable us to ensure that we can respond to changes that might be brought forward elsewhere in the UK and that could cause difficulties if we did not have the option. Schedule 6, therefore, is not designed to set up a new policy agenda. That is not its purpose. It is designed to provide certainty and stability whilst we develop our new policy framework. It is also to provide a degree of flexibility in the implementation of the rolled-over regime that we are carrying forward, as well as the ability to keep pace with the changes needed to ensure the functioning of the UK internal market.

The Bill was originally drafted in the absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland but was developed so as not to constrain the ability of an incoming Minister, Executive and Assembly to decide the long-term direction and nature of future agriculture support in Northern Ireland. That is an important point.

I turn now to the detail of the UK-wide provisions that touch on devolved matters: the Secretary of State's duty to report to Parliament on UK food security, which is addressed in clause 17; the regulation of fertilising products, which is in clause 31; the identification and traceability of animals, which is in clause 32; the regulation of organic producers, which is in clauses 36 and 37; and the UK's compliance with its obligations under the World Trade Organization's agreement on agriculture, which is in clauses 40 to 42. I will deal with each of those in turn.

Clause 17 places a duty on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to lay a report before Parliament on UK food security at least once every five years. While food is one of the UK's critical national infrastructure sectors and is reserved on national security grounds, it also relates to food and drink supply, which is devolved. Analysing the statistical data falls to DAERA.

Clause 31 allows the UK to continue to legislate in respect of policies contained in EU regulation 2019/1009 on fertiliser products. It provides for the continuation of the current regime, which applies to the whole of the UK. A joint approach allows for clearer and simpler legislative powers.

Clause 32 amends the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to enable the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation allowing the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to undertake a new statutory rule in managing a new livestock information service in England. Some of the functions that could be assigned to the board include:

"(a) collecting, managing and making available information regarding the identification, movement and health of animals,

or

(b) the means of identifying animals."

Those are devolved functions, and the UK Government have indicated that they will table an amendment to the Bill to require the Secretary of State to seek consent before making regulations for Northern Ireland.

Clause 36 provides the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations with the power to make regulations:

"in relation to the certification of—
(a) organic products;
(b) activities relating to organic products;
(c) persons or groups of persons carrying out activities relating to organic products."


12.30 pm

Clause 37 sets out who can regulate organics under clause 36. This will be DAERA where it falls within Northern Ireland's devolved competence. As with clause 32, the UK Government have indicated that they will table an amendment to the Bill requiring the Secretary of State to seek consent before making regulations for Northern Ireland.

Clauses 40 to 42 provide the Secretary of State with powers to ensure the UK's compliance with its obligations under the World Trade Organization agreement on agriculture, and to make regulations that require Northern Ireland to provide information which is a devolved and, more particularly in Northern Ireland, transferred matter. The UK Government's initial view was that the provisions in clauses 40 to 42 were outside devolved competence. However, the Government have recently changed that position and, as a consequence, I have laid an amended legislative consent memorandum in the Assembly.

Clause 45 is quite straightforward; it makes provision for schedule 6 to the Bill to apply in Northern Ireland. That brings me conveniently to the small number of provisions that apply specifically to Northern Ireland, which are contained in schedule 6. It has been deliberately set out in that way in an effort to be as transparent as possible. Put simply, schedule 6 provides powers that will enable maintenance and modification of CAP direct payment schemes; modification of retained EU law relating to the financing, management and monitoring of payments to farmers, and the technical aspects; ongoing support for rural development; collection and sharing of data, and appropriate data collection; intervention in agriculture markets; and setting of marketing standards and carcass classifications. I will deal with each in turn.

Part 1 of schedule 6 provides my Department with powers to modify retained direct EU legislation governing direct payments and support for rural development following the UK's exit from the EU. Importantly, it does not provide for the phasing out of direct payments or for a transition period, which is the position in England.

Part 2 of schedule 6 allows my Department to give, or agree to give, financial support to agriculture producers in Northern Ireland. This would be the case where incomes are being, or are likely to be, adversely affected by exceptional market conditions.

Part 3 of schedule 6 relates to the collection and sharing of data. It introduces a requirement for those in the agri-food supply chain to supply information about the supply chain.

Part 4 of schedule 6 provides my Department with the power to make provision about marketing standards in relation to specified agricultural products in Northern Ireland and to make provision about the classification, identification and presentation of bovine, sheep and pig carcasses by slaughterhouses in Northern Ireland.

Part 5 of schedule 6 preserves the status of existing data protection legislation, including the General Data Protection Regulation. Any exercise of data will be compliant with those regulations.

That sets out the provisions in schedule 6. As I said, they are few in number but nonetheless vital. Before I move on, I want to draw Members' attention to the fact that the powers contained in schedule 6 are mainly subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so their use is entirely a matter for this House. Members will, quite rightly, have an opportunity to scrutinise any regulations.

I turn now, briefly, to part 5 of schedule 7. This part provides details of any consequential amendments to the CMO regulation in relation to marketing standards and carcass classification in Northern Ireland. It disapplies the relevant articles for products marketed, or slaughterhouses situated, in Northern Ireland.

To sum up, it is my view that the Bill's provisions should extend and apply to Northern Ireland, and I commend the motion to the House.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): The Agriculture Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 16 January and had its Second Reading on 3 February, moving to Committee Stage on 11 February. As already outlined by the Minister, the purpose of the Bill is to provide a legal framework for the transition out of the EU and to replace the common agricultural policy, as well as providing financial support after leaving the EU. There are provisions within the Bill that require legislative consent as they relate to devolved matters, and they are outlined in the LCM and in the Committee report. The Bill also extends a number of provisions to this region in schedule 6, for which legislative consent is also sought.

I will briefly outline how the Committee undertook scrutiny of the Bill. This is important, and I want to emphasise that we had very little time to do this scrutiny — about three meetings in total. The time frame was further stressed because we were doing a similar amount of work for two other Bills that require legislative consent, namely the Environment Bill and the Fisheries Bill. In fact, all three Bills overlap and are interlinked, but time was against us in exploring the extent and practical impacts of that overlapping and interlinking.

The Committee took oral and written evidence in an all-day meeting on 20 February. We heard from a range of stakeholders, and their evidence can be found on our website, but we just did not have time to hear from all of the stakeholders that are going to be affected by this Bill — for example, the hill farmers, horticultural growers and poultry and egg sectors, as well as many of the rural community groups and local action groups (LAGs). The Committee also commissioned a briefing paper on the Agriculture Bill from the Assembly Research and Information Service. The paper was very informative and again it can be found on our website.

The Committee wishes it to be clearly understood that, due to the complexity of this Bill and the limited time that it has had to consider and scrutinise the Bill, it has been unable to fully explore and understand the potential impacts and implications to the local agricultural industry, agri-food sector and rural communities. We were able to identify a range of questions that we have not got straight answers to as yet. Those questions have enabled us to identify some important issues that we want to bring to the attention of the Assembly. It is those issues that I will focus on in the remainder of my speech today. Before that, I want to outline that the Committee deliberated on and agreed not to take a Committee position on the draft Legislative Consent Motion.

The first issue is around the interaction between the Bill, the proposed common frameworks and the Irish protocol. It appeared to the Committee that the protocol means that agricultural produce will have to comply with a range of EU rules and regulations and that, over time, Britain may move away from those rules and regulations. This has created concern around the regulatory divergence between this jurisdiction, Britain and the EU.

Some of the witnesses who presented to the Committee indicated that regulatory diversion could ultimately mean increased costs. There is a lack of clarity in this area and a large degree of uncertainty. The Committee does not expect that this lack of clarity and uncertainty will be addressed in the short to medium term and is concerned about the impact that this may have on farmers, rural communities and agri-food businesses. In light of where we are now with the COVID-19 crisis, it is highly unlikely that clarity and certainty will be provided to our businesses anytime soon.

Furthermore, members of the Committee also expressed concern about the impact of the protocol and balancing of trade North/South and east-west. The Committee is aware that there may be different levels of preparation for the protocol across various Departments. That has caused concern to some of our members, and I expect that they will address that concern during today's debate.

The second major matter that the Committee draws attention to is the sunset clause for the DAERA provisions in the Bill, specifically schedule 6. This is similar to that provided for the Welsh in clauses 43 and 44. The Committee is aware that, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, DAERA was unable to bring forward primary legislation to the Assembly as is the case in Scotland. In order to address the potential legislative and governance gap created because of EU exit, DAERA took the tactic to deliver this via a Bill, an option-based approach, based on the roll over of the existing regime with the ability to deliver some modifications and simplifications.

DAERA officials told the Committee that the schedule 6 provisions are not a new policy approach but provide breathing space, so as not to prejudice or constrain the ability of an incoming Minister, the Executive or the Assembly to decide the long-term direction and nature of agricultural support policy here. However, one of the disadvantages of this approach is that provisions are enacted by decisions of the Minister and the Assembly using the statutory rule approach. If the Minister does not want to enact a provision, he does not have to. While most of the provisions are enacted using the affirmative method, which allows for a higher level of scrutiny, statutory rules generally provide less opportunity for scrutiny and less opportunity for the Assembly to amend and change than would be the case with primary legislation.

The Committee indicated that it would endorse a sunset clause on the provisions in the Bill, similar to that in Wales, which is 2024. Furthermore, the Committee recommended that the DAERA Minister bring forward local policies, followed in due course by primary legislation tailored to the needs of the agricultural sector, agri-food and rural communities, within a similar timescale of the Welsh sunset clause.

The third issue that concerns the Committee is clarity on the future of rural development, specifically the availability of a ring-fencing of funding for rural development. Rural development is largely funded from CAP pillar 2 and other EU sources. It is envisaged that the replacement for EU funding for rural development will come from the shared prosperity fund (SPF). Stakeholders from rural communities indicated that, while work on a new rural development policy framework has begun, they had major concerns regarding the funding for rural development. It was understood that the SPF would be the mechanism to replace all EU structural funds, including rural development, but no details of the SPF have yet been put forward by the British Government, nor is there any guarantee that such replacement funding will be ring-fenced. This is creating a degree of concern and uncertainty about the future for rural communities. The Committee is very concerned about the lack of clarity and information on the shared prosperity fund.

I also wish to draw attention to some of the provisions in schedule 6. These are enabling provisions and allow options for the DAERA Minister to bring forward by secondary legislation a number of provisions relating to issues such as financial support after EU exit; intervention in agricultural markets; the collection and sharing of data; marketing standards and carcass classification; and data protection.

Part 1 of schedule 6 provides provisions for the DAERA Minister to make, amongst other payments, payments for ANCs and for coupled support. The Committee noted a range of different views from stakeholders and from political parties on the two issues in particular. I will not rehearse these now, as most Members will be well aware of them and they are also outlined in our Committee report.

I will move on to some of the clauses in the Bill, focusing on some of those that the Committee had issues with. Clause 17 sets out a duty to report to Parliament on food security, placing a duty on the Secretary of State to produce a report to lay before Parliament on food security. This report will provide a broad understanding of what food security is and the challenges and risks to food security in a global context. It is to allow a current assessment of the state of food security to inform policy thinking on the resilience and security of food supply. This is something that is perhaps even more appropriate in current circumstances. The key provision is that the report is to be laid once every five years, and the clause also covers a number of themes such as global food availability and resilience of the food supply chain. The Committee's major concern is that it would like to see these reports produced more frequently than every five years, particularly in the initial transition years. It considers that one such report per parliamentary term is insufficient and that an annual report with specific reference to the devolved Administrations on any local issues would be more appropriate.

I will address the concern that the Committee had with clause 31, dealing with fertilisers. This is one of the areas where the impact of the protocol comes into play. This clause will amend and create a broader definition of what constitutes a fertiliser. What it means is that the framework of regulations governing fertilisers across Britain can vary from that currently established by the EU Commission. For example, this clause enables the amendment and potential repeal of the EU regulation that currently regulates fertilisers. However, that EU regulation is referenced in annex 2 of the protocol, which means that this region must adhere to the EU regulation, with no variation except as agreed by the EU, while Westminster will be able to create variations and differences. That could lead to variations in fertiliser regulations between this jurisdiction and Britain. As our industry keeps telling us, variation inevitably leads to cost differences, sometimes in favour and sometimes not.

I already outlined the Committee's concerns on the interaction overlap with the provisions of the Bill and the protocol, and, again, due to lack of time for proper scrutiny, the Committee has not been able to explore the possibility that such variation will or could occur. Likewise, we were unable to explore the implications and impacts of variation on our local industry, for example the potential that it could create an uneven playing field. There are also issues around the supply of fertilisers and of whether this potential variation will pose any problems for supply and cost of supply in the future.

I will move on to clause 32, which deals with the identification and traceability of animals.

The clause provides for a new statutory role for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) to manage a new livestock information service in England. It entails using animal ID information obtained from all the devolved Administrations. Various stakeholders had concerns with this clause and felt that it should not apply here. There were concerns that, under the protocol, we would have to adhere to EU regulations and standards for animal identification and traceability. This clause allows Britain to have its own system that creates a complexity of divergence.


12.45 pm

Due to lack of time, the Committee has not been able to explore the questions raised around clause 32. However, in a late submission from DAERA, on the day that the Committee approved its report, we received some clarification on the policy intent behind the clause. It included that DAERA livestock traceability systems will not be subsumed into the wider system, and that we would continue to adhere to EU standards and the requirements of the protocol. It also clarified that we will continue to approve our own identification tags, and that AHDB will not perform a role in livestock identification. It is expected that the animal and public health information system (APHIS) will continue to interface with the British systems.

In that late submission, DAERA provided some clarification on the consent provisions in clause 32. Minister Poots has written to the DEFRA Minister, seeking provision to be included to the effect that DAERA's consent would be required with regard to the assignation of certain functions. DAERA indicated that DEFRA was now seeking collective agreement to a British Government amendment being tabled to clause 32, to the effect that consent provisions would be included. We expect to be kept up to date with developments on the matter, including the role for the Assembly in that consent provision.

The Committee would like to emphasise that both it, and the industry, are very proud of our traceability systems. The Committee wishes to receive regular updates on how our identification system interfaces with any new systems arising in Britain from the provisions in the Bill.

Clauses 36 and 37 deal with organic products. In a late submission to the Committee, on the day that it approved its report, DAERA provided some clarification on the consent provisions for clause 37. It noted that Minister Poots had written to the DEFRA Minister seeking clarification to be included, to the effect that DAERA's consent would be required, should the British Government wish to make organic regulations under clause 36 in relation to devolved matters. It further indicated that DEFRA is now seeking collective agreement to the Government's amendments being tabled, to the effect that consent provisions would be included. We expect to be kept up to date with developments on this matter, including a role for the Assembly in that consent provision.

Clause 35 relates to provisions for the North and enables schedule 6.

Clauses 43 and 44 provide similar provisions for Wales. It is interesting that the Scottish Government have confirmed that they intend to bring forward a separate Scottish Agriculture Bill, rather than have a schedule in the Westminster Agriculture Bill. Clause 44 of the Bill provides a sunset clause, at the end of 2024, for some of the provisions that apply to Wales. I have already outlined the Committee's provision on the sunset clause, and I will not rehearse it again.

However, as we have noted, the Minister is seeking amendments to the Bill in connection with organic products and with animal identification systems. I therefore ask the Minister to indicate whether he intends to seek a sunset clause for schedule 6.

Schedule 6 enables DAERA to continue to make payments to farmers and land managers after EU exit and ensures that the Minister has the flexibility to develop policy here. The Committee's report outlines the issues raised by the various stakeholders, and I have already outlined some of the major concerns with schedule 6. I will not go over them again in detail, but I can summarise the Committee's concerns as follows: the lack of a sunset clause; the lack of clarity around funding for rural development and payments to farmers; major policy issues will be brought forward by subordinate legislation; and it is entirely at the Minister's discretion whether he brings them forward.

I now look at the WTO clauses. At the last possible moment, on the day that the Committee agreed its report, DAERA informed us of a change in its position on clauses 40 to 42, which deal with the WTO agreement on agriculture. Those clauses include power to set financial ceilings, to the level of agricultural support paid in the four jurisdictions. The WTO agreement on agriculture sets limits on how much domestic support can be provided by a country, and it is categorised into different boxes, depending on the extent to which support distorts trade in the agricultural markets.

DAERA noted no concerns with this matter, as it felt that there was plenty of headroom that would not interfere with the ability to make financial support to farmers. In a late submission, DAERA informed the Committee that there had been a change in the Government's position on the aspects of those clauses that were outside devolved competence. Previously, the British Government's view was that provisions in clauses 40 to 42 were outside devolved competence. However, clauses 42(4) and 42(5) confer a power on the Secretary of State to make regulations that may require a devolved authority, which includes DAERA, to provide information to the Secretary of State. The Government's view is that that, arguably, amounts to an alteration of the Executive's competence and of Ministers here, and that those specific subsections, therefore, engage the legislative consent process in the Assembly. The Department's view remains that those clauses will not impose any constraint on policy decisions on agriculture support in practice. Based on the caveat that the Committee had very little time to consider that change in approach, the Committee expressed no major concerns on that matter.

I will now turn to the final section of the report, concerning matters that are outside the provisions of the Bill that will have a massive impact on its operation and implementation. The first of those is funding. The amount and method of distribution of CAP funding between the four regions, including that it should be ring-fenced, has been in place for some time. What it will be replaced with in the amounts of funding, its distribution between the regions and possible Government centralisation of subsidy levels is still unclear. Many of our stakeholders make reference to the Bew review and the possible adverse impacts of its recommendations, which may see reduced amounts of funding in the North for farm support.

We know that the British Government have committed to working with the devolved Administrations on funding allocation, including that the current annual budget for farmers would be guaranteed for every year of the Parliament, namely until 2024. However, what happens beyond that is not guaranteed. That is a major area of concern for the farming community and the wider rural community and it is something that the Committee intends to follow up on in due course.

Another area of concern is future trade deals and the possibility of allowing in food that is of a lower standard. That has caused considerable public and media concern, given the British Government's approach to new trade deals with countries that have lower animal welfare standards. Many have called for the Bill to be amended to protect standards and prevent imports of food that is cheaper because of lower food standards. The Committee discussed an amendment that was laid in the House of Commons by Simon Hoare MP that sought to protect our food standards. We agreed with that amendment and we were disappointed that it was not considered by the Public Bill Committee for the Agriculture Bill. The Committee noted that the amendment was resubmitted for the debate at Report Stage and would like to see it made by the House of Commons.

Another major issue for the Committee is the agri-food sector's access to migrant labour. Our agri-food industry is heavily reliant on migrant labour and it has expressed concerns about the British Government's policy position on the UK's points-based immigration system. We are aware, from the evidence that we gathered, that on average, 60% to 70% of those who work in meat plants were European economic area workers whose roles varied from so-called unskilled to semi-skilled and skilled jobs. There were concerns that if the points system was applied to the processing sector, 80% of the staff that had been brought in over the last 10 years would have got only 20 points. That presents a massive challenge for the industry.

Concerns were also expressed about the potential movement of capital to where labour is. In essence, we could have free movement of goods across the island but not have free movement of labour. The Committee is aware of the considerable concerns that have been raised by the agri-food sector that the policy does not appear to take account of the unique circumstances of this jurisdiction. That, again, is an issue that the Committee will be following closely in future.

The final matter that I wish to raise is compliance. We are concerned that there is little or no information in the Bill or its accompanying documentation on what the new system of compliance, offences, enforcement and penalties may be. That, again, is an area that deserves to be explored further and the Committee is disappointed that it has not had the time to do so.

I will now add a few comments in my capacity as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. There are a number of key issues, one of them being the lack of time that we have had to scrutinise the LCM. It is a serious piece of legislation that deserves wider and deeper scrutiny and the SR approach is not the best way to do things. We are not content about the lack of a sunset clause. Certainly, from our position, we propose that 2024 would be reasonable for a sunset clause, similar to that in Wales. That would give us a couple of years in the new mandate to thrash out our own agricultural policy, tailor-made for the North.

We share concerns about the lack of clarity on rural development issues. The Minister will be aware that, from the current multi-annual EU budget, £80 million is set aside for the Rural Development Programme's priority 6 schemes to support rural communities. We can see, in the fight against COVID, how vital rural communities are. The prosperity fund must replace the lost EU funding for communities.

All this, unfortunately, is the product of Brexit. Whilst the world is focused on battling the global threat of COVID-19, the British Government and, by association through the LCM, here are burdened with developing new legislation. We have been taken out of the EU against our will. The rest of the world must think that we are crazy. In the middle of this crisis, we are trying to thrash out a new agricultural policy.

I note that the British Government have parked the Fisheries and Environment Bills, and I appreciate the fact that we are at a very advanced stage with the Agriculture Bill. I think that the Minister needs to looks at parking the LCM process until we can, hopefully, all get to the other side of the pandemic. Members from other parties have contacted me, in my capacity as Chair of the Committee, to express their similar, very strong views on this, and, no doubt, they will raise them today.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be the continuation of the debate on the legislative consent motion and the next Member to speak will be Sinead McLaughlin.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.56 pm.


2.00 pm

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

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order, Members. We return to the legislative consent motion for the UK Government Agriculture Bill. .

Ms McLaughlin: Before I begin my remarks, I want to join Members across the House in extending my most sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have already, sadly, lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. In the midst of a pandemic such as this it is easy for those deaths to become mere statistics, but we must remember that behind each and every one of them there is a grieving family. We must do all that we can, as elected representatives, to try and save as many lives as possible.

It feels unusual, and perhaps maybe surreal, that we in the Chamber are talking about something that is not directly related to COVID-19, as, justifiably, the bulk of our attention has been focused on fighting that deadly virus. We have talked a lot about the importance of essential workers, our heroes on the front line, but it is crucial that we do not forget our farming community.

Across the North, farmers are working tirelessly, often in the context of grave financial difficulties and uncertainty, to provide food supplies for all of us. I say to farmers that we in the SDLP understand the financial challenges that they are working under and are currently facing, with reduced orders for their produce and lower incomes. Recently, we have been told of farmers who are getting further squeezed in the marketplace because of the pandemic. That is just not good enough. They are another essential part of our economy and they are facing serious difficulty.

That is why I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of the SDLP and to support the motion. Given all that our farmers are doing in challenging circumstances, supporting this motion and giving them some financial certainty, even if it is limited to this year, is the very least that we can do.

Colleagues will be aware of the importance of direct payments to farmers across the North. Those payments have gone some distance to improving environmental, public health and animal cruelty standards. Crucially, those payments make up a significant proportion of the income generated by our farmers. They have been a lifeline for our farmers in these difficult months and are worth more than £250 million in income. As soon as the referendum result in 2016 became clear, SDLP representatives consistently pressed the British Government to make clear their plans to replace that vital income. Those payments and the millions more that we receive from the EU are part of the reason why the SDLP was resolutely opposed to Brexit.

It is clear that the uncertainty caused by Brexit over the past three years has impacted negatively on many different sectors, not least farming. We have the opportunity today to finally provide some clarity to farmers across the North and to support the continuance of single payments over the next year.

Given the urgency of the issue, resulting from the absence of legal powers needed to continue making direct payments to farmers across the North in the 2020 scheme year, it would be appropriate to deal with these provisions in the UK Bill.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I listened to the Member's concerns about farmers in Northern Ireland. Could she explain to me how farmers were shackled by the bureaucracy of the European Union? It cost farmers in Northern Ireland millions of pounds in added regulations that they had to abide by, when the rest of Europe paid no regard. Our farmers have always been good, responsible caretakers of the land and the environment, and yet they were penalised by the bureaucracy of Brussels, when others in the rest of the European Union paid absolutely no regard. We are glad that we are unshackled from Brussels. Our farmers deserve all the freedom that they have to do what they have always done, and that is to produce the best possible product in the best possible circumstances for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you. To be honest with you, I have spoken to quite a few farmers in the last few weeks and that is not what they are expressing to me, so I will move on. There is a great deal of fear out there within the farming community, and our party fully supports them in these circumstances. It is not a time for playing politics with that sector.

Given the urgency of this issue, resulting in the absence of the legal powers needed to continue to make direct payments to farmers across the North in the 2020 scheme year, it is appropriate to deal with these provisions in the UK Bill. As the party of devolution, it does not come naturally to us to support legislation coming directly from Westminster, but these are the circumstances that we face. I ask Members to join me in supporting the motion.

Mrs Barton: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the legislative consent motion for the UK Agriculture Bill. The national, indeed world, crisis that we are in demonstrates the importance of the agricultural sector from the farmer, who is the primary producer, right through the processing aspects and to the retailer. It highlights the need for a successful agri-food sector. I certainly hope that we do not have food shortages before this crisis is over. We have heard terrible stories in the past of dairy farmers pouring the milk from their tanks down drains due to quota restrictions. We hear of the burying alive of chickens and ducks in other countries due to a movement ban. We need to ensure that unnecessary restrictions do not create situations in which perfectly good food is destroyed. We must ensure that our farmers and producers can continue to provide a high quality product to the marketplace.

Much of the Agriculture Bill is for England only or is UK-wide legislation, and none of that needs approval from the Assembly. It is mainly the Northern Ireland provisions that we need to deal with. The Bill will give us the powers to support farmers when the current EU mechanisms come to an end. This is an important element in that it gives farmers support to produce a quality base product that continues to be affordable for the consumer. The Bill does not provide any policy or long-term strategy for the agricultural industry; it is merely enabling legislation to allow for further provisions to be made.

There will be much more scrutiny and debate when the future policy and direction is brought forward to this place, whether that is direct support to farmers, changes to EU regulations like the nitrate action plan, required standards for imported products or anything else. I support this legislative consent motion and look forward to our discussions on the future plans for the industry.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister, all those in the Department, Business Office staff and indeed all the staff of this House for their work in what are very challenging circumstances in the Province. I wish you all well in the days and weeks ahead as we get to grips with COVID-19 and the challenges that it is presenting. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

I welcome the motion. I will not labour further many of the points that I have already covered in contributions in the House in the last few weeks. Suffice to say, this unprecedented current crisis has highlighted just how important our local food supply chain really is. We are seeing, each and every day, just how vital our farming community is in producing food and in ensuring that we have enough food to last through the difficult days of restrictions.

Much has been said of our medical teams operating across the province, and rightly so. They are standing in the line of fire, fighting the virus right at the coalface. Our gratitude and words are simply not enough to express just how indebted we are to all those brilliant staff. However, there are others. I think of those involved in agri-food production, processing and retailing, who are all also at the sharp end of the fight. We are indebted to them for keeping our supply chains open and working through production in the processing sector, and we salute all those involved in direct retail to the public.

Focusing on the issue at hand in this debate, I welcome the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland and the important support measures that it permits, in the short-term, such as payment continuity that will give our industry some clarity and stability in the immediate future; that is widely welcomed. The fact that parts of the Bill will be shaped locally through our devolved Administration to reflect our circumstances in Northern Ireland, is vital. I know that having a Minister who has an acute knowledge of the industry will be of importance and, indeed, significance as we move through the process of creating a system of support and regulation in the months ahead.

Agri-food is one of Northern Ireland's greatest economic assets. It has 71,000 jobs and creates an added value of almost £1.5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. I believe that the process that we will be involved in in post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the post-Brexit United Kingdom will unlock many opportunities. Of course, there will be challenges ahead, of that I have no doubt, but I believe that the work that will be undertaken in creating the support management and monitoring structures for industry should harness and bring the potential for growth, profitability and sustainability. That will be a debate and a process that I look forward to taking part in through our Committee structure.

As someone with a lifetime's involvement in the industry, I will put forward the views of the farming community at each and every opportunity. I want to see a system that tries, where possible, to right many of the wrongs of the EU's structures that have, in many cases, had a stranglehold on agriculture and have been a massive burden on farmers. That opportunity will present itself in the coming weeks and months. I support the motion and the Minister as he works through the detail and I look forward to playing my part in the weeks ahead.

Mr Blair: I start by associating myself, and my colleagues, with the condolences expressed to the families of those that have already lost their lives in these sad circumstances. There are also those who are deserving of our thanks for their efforts in these sad and challenging times. I want to thank those working in the agricultural and agri-food sectors who are doing their best, in the most challenging of circumstances, to ensure that we have food on our tables. Members across the House will know that, from the farm to the local butcher, from production plants to the excellent voluntary contribution and effort that has been made in our rural communities, there are a lot of people outside the House who are deserving of our recognition and thanks.

I also thank the Minister for the information he brought here today and the DAERA officials, including his direct staff, who are doing their best to provide us with answers and information. I have received that information in the most timely way in recent days and I am grateful for that. I wish to put that on the record.

On behalf of the Alliance party, I support the motion and its continued passage, if nothing else. However, there are some concerns on outstanding and unresolved issues that I must mention. I raise those concerns not to rehearse previous discussion on what brought the Bill here, but as an expression of support for our vital, valued and quality agricultural and agri-food sectors.

Evidence from the crucially important sectors that I have mentioned was given to the AERA Committee and has provided us with a list of concerns that warrant continued scrutiny, review and, if necessary, a further legislative response for the greater economic and community good.


2.15 pm

Overshadowing all discussion on the Bill is, of course, the continued uncertainty over the Northern Ireland protocol, coordination of preparation for that protocol and lack of clarity on the implications of any future regulatory divergence in these islands. I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will address and provide some clarification on that.

The AERA Committee has considered and expressed a preference that has also been referenced for a sunset clause that would, as we have seen, for example, in Wales, facilitate a future bespoke Bill that would work best for Northern Ireland, our rural industries and our rural communities. We must also at this stage seek more clarification of rural development funding, which was also referenced and for which there is no concrete proposal, as I understand it, or guarantee that future funding would be ring-fenced. Food security also remains a concern for the sector and, I suspect, for many customers. Given the current commitment that the GB Minister would report every five years on these matters, there is surely good reason to seek more regular and more localised updates, especially during any transition period for trading and agricultural support.

Not dissimilar to that is the remaining uncertainty over the traceability of animals and whether any diminishing of local DAERA control could impact negatively on competitiveness, especially in that regulatory divergence scenario. It has been referenced as well — I apologise for any repetition, but there are matters that have been referenced that are important to me, my colleagues and those we engage with on a regular basis — that the Minister will be aware of concerns raised about Northern Ireland's reliance on migrant labour and about the perceived threat of the proposed points system to that workforce and the impact that could have on a region where, in 2017, for example, 20% of agricultural and 43% of agri-food workers were from a non-UK background. I hope that the Minister will address those matters in his response and in forthcoming discussions so that the importance of Northern Ireland agriculture not only to the economy but to everyday life will be at the forefront of the outworkings of the Bill and of any future replacement or enhancement that comes before us.

Mr Harvey: I support the motion. As much of the Bill is not applicable to this region, I will limit my remarks to the provisions that are. The Agriculture Bill, alongside the provision for direct payments under the direct payment regulations, which were previously before the Assembly for consideration, will provide certainty in the short-to-medium term until such times as the Department brings forward further legislation. I will briefly address a number of issues in the NI-applicable provisions.

First, I welcome clause 17. Food security was not provided for in the 2017-19 Bill, which, of course, fell with the last Parliament, so I am pleased to see it in this Bill. The measures will, hopefully, increase transparency and fairness in the supply chain for farmers and food producers. However, further work is required in that area; for instance, the requirement to report on food security once every five years is a time frame that I do not believe is sufficiently frequent, especially in the short-to-medium term. Given the current context of uncertainty and change for the agri-food sector, it would be beneficial to have more frequent reporting. Similarly, tailoring that to the devolved regions would be of benefit, particularly for Northern Ireland, given the unique challenges that we face.

Secondly, clause 31 deals with fertilisation, which is an area that acutely flags the difficulties that could present themselves further down the track with regard to overlapping with the Northern Ireland protocol. It is essential that we are treated equally to the rest of the United Kingdom, our largest trading partner. We cannot be placed in a situation where we are at a disadvantage in trading terms to the rest of the UK as a result of additional burdens placed on us by the EU. Such difficulties, in any event, remain an unknown quantity at this stage.

Finally, in respect of rural development, I have concerns about the SPF policy and how it will operate and shape rural development provision beyond CAP. Rural development has always been a profitable element in the past, and, indeed, in my constituency, many projects have benefited from the local action groups (LAGs). Unfortunately, no firm policy proposals have so far been put forward by Westminster, and there is little reference in the Bill to rural development. There is no guarantee, as yet, that replacement funding will be ring-fenced. However, I hope that that is an area that will receive the necessary consideration in due course.

I welcome the flexibility provided for in schedule 6 for Executive Ministers to develop policy moving forward. Whilst I note the absence of an applicable sunset clause, I know that the Department will not be found wanting in its efforts to bring more tailored legislation to the Floor in the future.

Ms Bailey: I join everybody who has spoken to offer my sincere sympathies to the families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus and to the many more facing the devastating reality of what lies ahead with many more people set to lose their lives here. I know that everyone here will do all in our power to mitigate the number of deaths that we could see here.

Brexit has changed the landscape for many. The Bill sets out a new road map for the decades to come, and, for that alone, this needs to be taken seriously and scrutinised at every stage. So far, we have not had that full opportunity. Over the last three years, we have had no Executive, no Assembly, no Committees, and the newly appointed EARA Committee has not been able to fully scrutinise or hear evidence on the Bill. What I have heard to date raises more questions than it answers, particularly given that the Bill is so closely interlinked with the Fisheries Bill and the Environment Bill, which have yet to come. Many contradictions become apparent when you start to unravel the three Bills. It is for that reason that the Green Party would like to see a sunset clause similar to that being worked on in Wales to address their needs. In Scotland, they are drafting their own primary legislation to deal with their future agriculture industry and sector. The Committee Chair has already raised in the debate many issues that the Committee have listened to and taken on board already, including the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and the potential impact of the Bill given our Prime Minister's threat about regulatory divergence, if need be.

For the purpose of this Bill, it is schedule 6 that applies to Northern Ireland. In schedule 6 we are allowing for "Business as usual". We know that "Business as usual" in our agriculture sector causes damage to our environment and to human health, due not least to our disproportionate over-reliance on the livestock sector, which is a huge contributor to the continued and scandalous levels of ammonia in Northern Ireland, as well as to greenhouse gases.

We hear, during this time of crisis, that non-essential business puts people at risk and flies in the face of government messages and legislation compelling people to stay at home. If "Business as usual" has ended, I call on the Minister to please pause the bringing forward of more legislation and LCMs, if they are non-essential at this time. Allow us the opportunity for proper scrutiny, because these Bills, as they sit, will change the direction of travel and can set a new scene. We need to get as many people on board and behind the Bills as possible. I know that the Agriculture Bill was much more developed than the others, and it is for that reason that we will support the LCM today. I will, again, implore that, if it is not essential in dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19 measures in place at the minute, please allow us the time to scrutinise and do essential work only.

Mr Carroll: Obviously, the Bill was put together before the coronavirus situation developed, but its content is directly connected to that issue and the development of zoonoses more generally. When we understand that the coronavirus development is being attributed to practice in food production, how we obtain our food in the period ahead will be an essential question to grapple with. The question we have to ask of the Department is this: how can we ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that we are protected from a similar virus developing? What measures are we taking here around food production to protect everyone in our communities? On that basis, we have to scrutinise this Bill and any other measures introduced down the line.

It is worth saying that, in the 1990s, as part of its economic transformation, China ramped up its food production systems on an industrial scale. One side effect of that, as various anthropologists have stated, was that small farmers were pushed out of the way. Eventually, more wild animals were introduced, and the edges of forests became rapidly explored and overcultivated. As a result, dangerous viruses began to spread. Ecosystems that were previously untouched or undisturbed globally are now being up-ended with the need to constantly push the limits for profit, which, in turn, causes an adverse reaction. In this case, it has been the coronavirus, but, previously, we have seen SARS, H1N1, Ebola and the Zika virus, to name a few. The H5N1 avian flu was linked to migratory birds getting too close to factory poultry farms. Several studies have suggested that H1N1 swine flu is linked to the movement of pigs and poultry between North America, Asia and Europe. It is clear to people who are far more qualified than me that factory farming and, in particular, poultry factory farming is at the heart of the development of so many zoonoses and is causing untold death and suffering across the world. The powers of intervention in food markets brought in with the Bill should be used to ensure that a high level of food safety is put in place.

I recognise that, due to time constraints, the Committee did not have enough time to look at and scrutinise in detail the LCM, so I think that it is important to offer points on it, to scrutinise it and to flag issues that may arise going forward. I share the concerns of others that there is a lack of mention of food in the Bill, which covers a massive area of agriculture. We have a massively fragile, just-in-time supply chain for food that could easily collapse. We are at the mercy of international markets, and, when we understand that just eight companies control 90% of our food supply, we should recognise that we are in an unsustainable situation. For example, of the six million hectares of cultivatable land in Britain, only 168,000 hectares are used for fruit and vegetables. We see, therefore, a reliance on importing vast amounts of crops into our country and into here as well.

The emergence of the coronavirus should urgently focus minds on how we need a food system that is primarily based on providing local, sustainable produce, to ultimately minimise the possibility of dangerous and deadly viruses developing and spreading. Additionally, we cannot have a scenario where we ship food hundreds of miles across the globe, increasing our carbon footprint massively, and suck produce from other parts of the world. I remember as a child the prevalence of fruit shops across my constituency, but they are practically non-existent there now, with food being funnelled primarily through large corporations, which is very worrying indeed.

Obviously, going forward, the common agricultural policy payment will be replaced by a new mechanism of payment to support farmers, and, whilst it is still unclear what that will look like, we need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. At this point, I pay tribute to the work of Nature Matters NI and share its concerns that:

"the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has driven agriculture down an unsustainable path, with many of the declines in our natural capital (clean air, water, soil and biodiversity) attributed to agricultural intensification."

Those are concerns and mistakes that we should not repeat.

I note the Minister's comments previously about support for moving farming and support for farmers away from solely maximising production, and I hope that he will support all measures possible to ensure that farming is sustainable and friendly to the environment.

That will be key going forward.


2.30 pm

I share the concerns that have been raised by other Members that, down the line, there could be regulatory divergence, North and South, on food safety and production. We need to avoid maximising confusion for farmers and food producers, and not have a situation where farmers in Donegal abide by a set of guidelines that are different to those for their counterparts in Derry. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that there should be one approach across the island.

I note that clause 17 places a duty on the Secretary of State to produce a report on UK food security to lay before Parliament. That report has to be produced once every five years. That is simply not good enough. There needs to be regular updates on food availability and safety, especially in the current period. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is not good enough to have a report every five years, and that he will commit to provide much more regular updates to the House, hopefully, at least, annually.

We are at the mercy of large corporations when it comes to our food supply. We are beholden to price fluctuations and the whims of the market when it comes to food. Not only is that ecologically unsustainable but it is totally unfair. We cannot have a situation in which companies can make massive profits, yet their workers are paid low wages. That is despite their providing essential services at this crucial time; supplying us with food throughout the coronavirus situation. In the short term, we should nationalise those massive corporations and reroute the profits into the pockets of the workers and community at large. Ultimately, though, we need to break up the big conglomerates and have a much more democratic form of food production and planning, one that includes a bottom-up approach and has the voice of workers, producers and the community generally at the heart of it.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to our migrant workers. Without them, our food production would stop. Without them, the NHS would not be able to operate at all. I will leave my remarks there.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Minister to make his winding-up speech, I want to ensure that everyone who wishes to speak in the debate has actually spoken. In keeping with the new social distancing rules, people are not able to approach the Table. As no other Member wishes to intervene, I call the Minister to make his winding-up speech.

Mr Poots: The Agriculture Bill is a UK Government Bill. The rationale for extending the limited number of provisions to Northern Ireland has always been to ensure the continuation of a legal basis that provides for the current suite of agriculture support payments, Northern Ireland having exited the European Union; to provide the Executive with maximum flexibility to develop future agricultural policy in Northern Ireland; and to ensure that no constraint is placed on the Executive's ability to continue the current schemes and options that are available. Without those powers, there could be problems with making payments to farmers beyond the 2020 scheme year or responding to changes elsewhere in the UK. We see this as a necessary piece of legislation.

With regard to a Northern Ireland agriculture Bill, I am focused on ensuring that policies are in place that will be good for local farmers and provide the basis for an environmentally sustainable future. That is likely to require primary legislation in the Assembly, which I will introduce at the appropriate time, subject to the Executive's agreement. Good policies and systems are a priority to ensure that the agricultural industry is sustainable and that all farmers are supported equitably. It is that objective which will make a Northern Ireland agriculture Bill more likely.

The Chairperson and others raised the issue of direct payments to farmers post-2020. I am seeking to ensure that our future share of the UK agriculture budget will reflect Northern Ireland's current combined CAP pillar 1 and pillar 2 share. I have already raised the issue of future support arrangements with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and, indeed, with the Secretary of State. My Department is liaising closely with the Department of Finance in order to ensure that the future needs of the Department are identified clearly and that future funding is maximised.

With regard to future years, the Conservative Party manifesto stated that funding for farm support would be maintained at existing levels until the end of this Parliament. While the schemes themselves may change across the UK, I am hopeful that the funding levels will be maintained until at least 2024. That is a longer period than it would have been had we stayed in the European Union, as it is currently looking at addressing funding. That will almost certainly mean cuts to the funding for the larger countries and those that have been in the European Union for a longer period. The accession countries will almost certainly have theirs raised and, consequently, the countries that are more established will have their support for agriculture cut. I want to ensure that, in having a sustainable agriculture industry, we have equity.

Moving forward, it is important to ensure that Northern Ireland farmers can compete with English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh farmers as we develop our own future agriculture policy. We need to ensure that we have the ability to design something that is fit for purpose for us, for the place that we live in and for the people whom we serve. I will also be keeping a close eye on the future CAP arrangements to ensure that Irish farmers do not gain a significant advantage over their Northern Ireland counterparts. Given the nature of our all-island supply chains, in particular, it is important to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses can remain competitive and are able to operate on a level playing field against competitors, whether it be Ireland, the European Union or elsewhere.

The future agriculture policy was raised by a number of Members. An agriculture Bill will provide the Northern Ireland Executive with maximum flexibility to develop future agriculture policy in Northern Ireland. I am committed to ensuring that, moving forward, we have an agricultural policy framework that meets the future needs of the local industry, makes farms sustainable and protects and enhances the environment. In that proposed framework, my officials, in conjunction with key food, farming and environmental stakeholders, have identified four desired outcomes and long-term visions for Northern Ireland agri-food industry: an industry that pursues increased productivity in international terms, closing the productivity gap which has been opened up with our major suppliers; an industry that is environmentally sustainable with regard to its impact on guardianship of air and water quality, soil health, carbon footprint and biodiversity; an industry that displays improved resilience to external shocks, such as market volatility and extreme, evermore frequent, weather events to which the industry has become very exposed; and an industry that operates within an integrated, efficient, sustainable, competitive and responsive supply chain, with clear market signals and an overriding focus on high-quality food and the end consumer. Those four outcomes complement each other, and they are broadly supported by stakeholders. Our focus needs to turn on how we can deliver them.

I have no plans, at this stage, to introduce a sunset clause with respect to the Northern Ireland provisions in the UK Agriculture Bill. Introducing such a clause could leave me with no legal authority to make agricultural support payments, moving forward, and it would remove powers for DAERA to give aid in exceptional market conditions. That is something that we are currently looking at, given COVID-19.

Markets are changing very quickly. We have lost all of the restaurant and hotel trade and all that goes with that. The consequence of that is that meat processors are reporting that mince and forequarter meat, for example, are flying out the doors, but steaks, which account for a third of the value of the carcass, are not. Previously, those cuts were used extensively in the restaurant trade. Already we see a distortion in the market.

The dairy sector is reporting pressures on prices; lambs are not being exported to the extent that they were previously, as a consequence of the current situation; and our fishing sector has been badly affected, as it is heavily reliant on exports and their markets are not available at this time. We see how we need to have the flexibility to do such things. Therefore it would be foolish of the Assembly to introduce something into the Bill that would hamstring the Department and Minister in bringing forward proposals to the Assembly which would be to the benefit of the people they represent, whether they be in farming or fishing. For that reason, we need to be very careful about going down such a route.

I am also determined to ensure that the UK's internal market functions effectively when it comes to the protocol, which was also raised by Members, and that Northern Ireland's ability to have continued and unfettered access to and from Great Britain is maintained. That accounts for over 50% of our trade, each way, and it is critical that we do not allow ourselves to be hamstrung by the protocol in receiving goods from and delivering goods to our main market. We are continuing to assess the impact of the protocol; clarification is still required, and detailed arrangements will be subject to discussion between the EU and the UK Government through the specialised and joint committee structures outlined in article 165 of the agreement. This detail will very much depend on the precise nature of the future trading relationship between the UK and the European Union. As agriculture policy is a devolved matter, I am very aware of the potential impacts that there could be with regulatory divergence between GB and the EU. This is not an issue which is unique to the UK Agriculture Bill and its provisions.

In terms of environmental schemes, the Bill will help ensure that we can put agriculture policies in place that will be good for farmers but, at the same time, provide the basis for an environmentally sustainable future. Mr Carroll, I think regrettably, talked about sustainable farming and then brought in the issue of these diseases that we have been hit with over the last number of years. Let me just make it absolutely clear: there is no comparison between anything that happens in this country and the diseases that have been brought to our door by people who have the most awful practices. The wet markets in China are a disgusting practice, and that is what has brought this horrible coronavirus to our door. The avian bird flu allegedly started with people who were cockfighting in the Far East and who actually sucked the saliva out of the roosters after the cockfight. That is how that was spread. Awful, horrid practices that should not be compared with any farming practice in Northern Ireland, because we uphold high quality standards.

We will seek to ensure that what we do on our farms makes them better environmentally, while being sustainable farms that can deliver good-quality food going forward. I think coronavirus has been a wake-up call. Just a month ago, there were two senior officials in Downing Street who were saying, "We don’t really need Britain to produce food any more." What fools. What absolute fools, as we are going into the circumstances that we have over the next number of months. Never before has there been a greater need, since the Second World War, for us to have good-quality food on our own doorstep that we know has been produced to the highest standards. It is absolutely incumbent upon us to ensure that that continues to be the case.

That brings us to the issue of food security. Quite a number of Members raised the issue of the five-year check. I will raise this with Westminster. I do not believe that reporting every five years is often enough, as the Assembly has also indicated. Food security has to go very, very high up on our agenda. There is a population of some 65 million here. We can feed around 10 million of them from Northern Ireland. Ireland feeds a lot more. It is absolutely essential that the high-quality food that is produced in these islands is utilised in these islands, and that we rely less on imports from other places that do not produce food to the same standards, either in animal welfare, the environment or, indeed, the welfare of their employees. We should not be in a position where supermarkets or anybody else are drawing in produce from these places that does not meet the same standards and then setting that as the bar for prices, making people who are working at home, here in their own country, work at a loss to compete with those people who are not operating to the same standards.

The issue of fertilisers was also raised by Members. The fertiliser clause will amend the Agriculture Act 1970 and provide for the continuation of the current regime, allowing the UK to continue to legislate on fertilising products. It was said that it is important that we do not allow regulation to drive up the costs, and I absolutely support that.


2.45 pm

I will respond to a couple of other issues that were raised. Some people have referred to parking the Bill. I have made it very clear that we cannot park the Bill and we will not park the Bill because that would lead to non-payments to the farming community in 2021. It would be a fundamental and gross mistake — an error of judgement — to go down that particular route.

Mr Carroll also mentioned food being local and sustainable and moving away from the large supermarkets. Whilst that might be desirable, it would be dependant on the public. It is good to see a lot of farm shops springing up and shops that are more closely linked to where the food comes from. Those shops will survive on the basis of people buying from them. I remember, as a young boy, going down to a wee shop close to where my grandmother lived — about 10 miles from home. Mum would have a list and there were three ladies who were in and out of the back, bustling around, getting the sugar and all the different products. We did that, as a ritual, on a weekly basis, and I remember it so well. However, the supermarkets came in and they took over. That wee shop is gone, and numerous wee shops like it are gone, as are the people who ran them. Whilst it might be desirable, it is not something that we have control over, other than supporting local shops and supporting local businesses. Again, the message from coronavirus is that we need to look at local, we need to look at how we sustain and support the people who actually work in our own country, who are providing jobs in our country, who are doing things to a standard that we like, as opposed to importing from the cheapest place. We need to forget about importing all these goods from various countries in the world based on price alone. We need to look at the quality and sustaining people who actually pay taxes in this country.

I welcome the fact that most Members indicated that they will support the Bill today; we cannot afford any further crises. It would be an unacceptable outcome if we did not put this Bill through today and we would have to explain to the farmers why we are not acting to protect their interests. They are flat out at the minute, and I want to pay tribute to the people in the food industry. There are around 100,000 people who are continuing to work. We have had some issues, and I welcome the fact that, for a lot of the issues that were raised last week, we are in a better place around them. There may still be some to be ironed out, but we are definitely in a better place. We need our food industry because, if we do not have our food industry, we will not have the food on the tables. If we do not have the food on the tables, that will create a whole new problem. If we do not take the food off the farms, we will create an animal health crisis that will develop into a public health crisis, and we will also have a financial crisis. So in all of that, it is not necessary — it is critically important — that these businesses continue. They cannot be done without. We need to ensure that the food continues to come off the farms and onto the tables for people's forks. That is absolutely critical. I want to pay tribute to everybody who is involved in providing the food at this time when others are not able to work.

We cannot indicate that we have insufficient time. The House needs to apply itself to business. When coronavirus is gone — and it will pass — we need to have an economy and we need to have a Northern Ireland that we can pick up on. There is not much point in surviving a nuclear bomb if, when you come out, there is nothing left. When it comes to coronavirus, we want to save as many lives as possible. That has to be our first and primary focus — saving lives. However, on the back of that and having done that, we need to ensure that Northern Ireland has an economy, jobs, opportunities for people, schools that can pick up once again and that our hospitals can go back to normal and start to tackle the waiting lists and all the problems that were so evident before coronavirus.

It is absolutely critical that we focus in the Assembly not just on coronavirus — it goes without saying that we will have to do that — but on other issues. For Northern Ireland to progress beyond coronavirus, we must be prepared and ready and doing work on those things. I commend this legislation to the House. I believe that it is positive and will help us to keep moving forward even after coronavirus is gone.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the draft Discretionary Support (Amendment No. 2) (COVID-19) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Motion not moved.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I wish to inform the Assembly that discussions are ongoing and are continuing with my Executive colleagues. There is support for these proposals, and those discussions are continuing, including with all of the Executive colleagues and the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I will continue to progress this and will hopefully bring this to the Assembly next Tuesday.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for that point of order. She has put on the record the circumstances. I think that it was a courtesy to the House to come and explain why the motion was not being moved. Thank you very much, Minister.

Committee Business

After Standing Order 109 insert

110. Temporary Provisions

(1) Unless the Assembly previously resolves, Standing Orders 110-116 (‘the temporary provisions’) apply in the period from 31 March 2020 - 30 September 2020.
(2) A resolution under paragraph (1) shall require cross-community support.

111. Voting – General

(1) The temporary provisions of this Standing Order supersede those in Standing Order 26 (and see Standing Order 114).
(2) The Speaker, or a Deputy Speaker when in the Chair, shall not be entitled to vote on any decision.
(3) A vote shall not be taken on any matter if a quorum is not present.
(4) The Speaker shall judge whether a Question is carried or not in accordance with Standing Order 113.
(5) Except where paragraph (6) applies, every decision of the Assembly shall be taken by a simple majority.
(6) This paragraph applies to any decision where these Standing Orders or any statutory provision requires a decision to be taken with cross-community support or other form of enhanced majority.

112. Voting by Proxy

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions for proxy voting.
(2) A Member may vote in person or by proxy.
(3) A Member who wishes to vote by proxy must give notice in writing to the Speaker.
(4) A notice under paragraph (3) must contain–
a. the name of the Member who wishes to exercise the proxy vote (M);
b. the identity of the Member who will vote on M’s behalf (P) – see paragraph (6);
c. confirmation that P is willing to vote on behalf of M; and
d. details of the period for which P will vote on behalf of M - see paragraph (7).
(5) A notice under paragraph (3) may include confirmation from M that P is authorised to nominate another Member to carry out P’s functions.
(6) P shall be–
a. the Whip or deputy Whip of the party of which M is a Member;
b. another Member; or
c. where–
(i) M has identified a person under sub-paragraph (a) or (b);
(ii) that person is for any reason unable to act for M; and
(iii) M has provided confirmation under paragraph 5 such other Member as that person may in writing to the Speaker identify as voting on behalf of M.
(7) M may authorise P to exercise M’s vote in the Assembly–
a. in respect of one or more items of business;
b. in respect of one or more sitting days; or
c. until further notice.
(8) Notice under paragraph (3) must be given to the Speaker’s Office not later than 9:30 am on the sitting day (or as the case may be the first sitting day) on which M intends P to vote on M’s behalf.
(9) P shall exercise M’s vote in the Assembly by communicating M’s name to the Lobby Clerks and Tellers and M’s vote shall be included in the numbers counted.

113 Voting - Divisions

(1) The temporary provisions of this Standing Order supersede those in Standing Order 27.
(2) The Speaker shall first seek to judge whether a Question is carried by collecting voices.
(3) In collecting voices under paragraph (2), the Speaker may take account of the number of proxy votes exercised by any Member.
(4) Subject to paragraph (5), the Speaker shall direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded if–
a. the Speaker is unsure whether or not a Question is carried following the collection of voices under paragraph (2); or
b. the Speaker’s judgement as to whether a Question is so carried is challenged.
(5) Where a Question is put immediately after the result of a previous Division is announced, and paragraph 4(a) or (b) applies–
a. the Speaker may direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded; or
b. the Speaker may direct that the Lobbies be cleared and proceed immediately in accordance with paragraphs (7) to (13) and in deciding whether to direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded under this paragraph, the Speaker shall have regard to any representations made by or on behalf of any party Whip.
(6) Three minutes after a direction under paragraph (4) or (5)(a), the Speaker shall put the Question again, and if paragraph (4)(a) or (b) still applies, he or she shall proceed as set out below. Otherwise he or she shall judge whether the Question be carried in accordance with paragraph (2).
(7) The Speaker shall call for the nomination of two Tellers for each side of the Question but, if within a reasonable time after this call–
(a) two Tellers for one side but not the other have been nominated, the determination of the Assembly shall be that of the side which has nominated the two Tellers;
(b) two Tellers for each side have not been nominated, the Question shall not be carried.
(8) After Tellers have been nominated, the Speaker shall direct the Assembly to divide, "Ayes" to the right and "Noes" to the left, and that the Division Bells be again sounded.
(9) Four minutes after this direction, the Speaker shall direct that the doors from the corridors to the Chamber and Lobbies are secured.
(10) When all Members in the Lobbies have voted, the Tellers shall bring the Division lists to the Table Clerks who will announce the result.
(11) In a Division, a Member–
a. is not obliged to vote;
b. may vote although he or she did not hear the Question put; and
c. may vote by proxy (see Standing Order 112).
(12) If the votes in a Division are equal the Question shall not be carried.
(13) If any Member is present within the precincts of the Assembly and is disabled by infirmity from passing through a Lobby, his or her name may be communicated by his or her party Whip to the Lobby Clerks and Tellers and may be included in the numbers counted.

114. Financial Acts

(1) This Standing Order makes temporary provision equivalent to Standing Order 26(1)(b).
(2) A vote, resolution or Act which–
a. appropriates a sum out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland or increases a sum to be appropriated; or
b. imposes or increases a tax shall require cross-community support (within the meaning of section 4(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998).

115. Temporary provision for Statutory Committees

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions relating to Committees established under Standing Order 48, and supersedes paragraphs (3)-(6) of Standing Order 46 and paragraphs (5) and (7) of Standing Order 49.
(2) A Committee may meet on any day.
(3) Any member(s) of a Committee, including the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson may attend a meeting remotely, for example by video-link or telephone attendance.
(4) Decisions taken by a Committee shall be taken by consensus, and in the absence of consensus following a vote.
(5) A member of a Committee may vote in person, by video-link or by telephone.
(6) A member of a Committee who is for any reason unable to attend in person, or by video-link or telephone may delegate authority to another member of the Committee, including the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, to vote on his or her behalf.
(7) The minimum number of members required for a decision, whether by consensus or vote (including delegated votes under paragraph (6)) shall be five.
(8) A Committee may agree to make decisions (including a decision not to meet) without meeting.
(9) This paragraph applies where a Committee has agreed, or proposes to make, a decision without meeting:
a. Before a decision is to be taken, the Chairperson must:
(i) inform members of the subject matter of the decision;
(ii) provide members with such supporting information as the Chairperson considers relevant;
(iii) allow a reasonable time for members to consider the subject matter and supporting information; and seek consensus among members on the decision.
b. Where–
(i) there is no consensus on the decision; or
(ii) any member of the Committee requires a vote to be taken on that decision the Committee shall vote on that decision.
c. Committee members may communicate their views under sub-paragraph (b)(i), and their votes under sub-paragraph (b)(ii) to the Committee Clerk by telephone, video-link or e-mail.
d. A member of a Committee who is for any reason unable to participate in decision-making under this paragraph may delegate authority to another member of the Committee, including the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, to act on his or her behalf.
e. The minimum number of votes required for a decision shall be five.
f. Where the Chairperson is for any reason unable to exercise functions under this paragraph, those functions may be exercised by the Deputy Chairperson, and if the latter is for any reason unable to exercise those functions, they may be exercised by a member of the Committee determined by the Committee.
(10) Votes under this Standing Order shall be carried (or negatived) by simple majority.
(11) Notice of a delegation of authority under paragraph (6) or (9)(d) shall be given in writing to the Committee Clerk.
(12) A general record of the proceedings of a Committee shall be maintained by the Committee Clerk.

116. Temporary provision for Standing Committees

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions relating to Committees established under Standing Order 51, and supersedes paragraphs (5) and (6) of Standing Order 52, and that part of Standing Order 58(4) relating to quorum.
(2) Standing Order 115 shall apply to Standing Committees as it applies to Statutory Committees, subject that:
a. The minimum number of members required for a decision of the Audit Committee, whether by consensus or vote, (including delegated votes under paragraph (6)) shall be two.
b. In its application to the Business Committee–
(i) A reference to a member of a committee shall include, where appropriate, a substitute member attending in place of a member and a reference to a Deputy Chairperson shall include a nominee of the Speaker;
(ii) The quorum shall be five members attending in accordance with Standing Order 115, except when no decision is taken or Question put, when the quorum shall be four; and
(iii) Paragraph (10) shall not apply to votes (and Standing Order 55(7) will continue to apply).

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that an hour should be allocated for this debate. Ten minutes will be allowed to move the motion and 10 minutes will be allowed for the Member who is making a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr T Buchanan: On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to bring before the House this motion to amend Standing Orders. On behalf of the Committee, I wish to convey my sincere thanks to the Assembly officials who were involved in drafting these amendments. This was a huge task, given the short period of time that they had to produce the draft Standing Orders. Normally this amount of work would take weeks rather than days, and it is another display of the exemplary support that is provided to the Assembly during these difficult times. I am sure that every Member will agree with that and recognise that.

We are facing far-from-normal times. It is clear that, to allow the Assembly to continue to carry out its business while adhering to public health advice and keeping Members and staff as safe as possible, there is an urgent requirement to make changes to usual Assembly procedures. Therefore, the Committee on Procedures was asked to urgently consider and bring the motion before the House this afternoon.

I will provide some background to the motion. At the beginning of the plenary sitting on Monday 16 March, the Speaker of the House reflected that business as usual could not continue in the Assembly during the current period. Following further conversations with party Whips, the Speaker wrote to MLAs on 18 March, setting out some initial changes. He went on to explain that the Business Committee would give further consideration to future business and that ways in which the Assembly operates might change to accommodate social distancing. Significant changes have already been agreed by the Assembly insofar as temporarily suspending Question Time and private Member's motions not being scheduled. Members have also been asked not to table questions for written answer in the usual manner. Furthermore, the Business Committee recently identified a number of potential issues that may arise during the current circumstances and considered several solutions to them. The agreed way forward informed the proposed Standing Orders 111 to 116, which are set out on the Order Paper today.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

In the light of current circumstances in relation to COVID-19, the Chairpersons' Liaison Group met on 24 March to consider a number of proposed changes to Committee procedures. Those changes are designed to allow for the continued operation of Committees when several Committee members may be unavailable or it is not possible for a physical Committee meeting to take place. Both the Business Committee and the Chairpersons' Liaison Group were content to bring draft Standing Orders to the Committee on Procedures for their assessment. At its meeting on Wednesday 25 March, the Committee on Procedures agreed the draft Standing Orders, which subsequently brings us to the debate.

That provides a short background to these amendments, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Speaker, the Business Committee and the Chairpersons' Liaison Group for bringing these changes to the Committee on Procedures at such a crucial time.

I will briefly cover what these proposed changes will mean for ongoing Assembly and Committee business. Regarding plenary sessions and Assembly business, it is imperative that Members maintain social distancing at all times during the current period. That includes in the Assembly Chamber and especially during Divisions. Social distancing cannot be maintained should a Division be called. We are all aware that under current Standing Orders, all Members who wish to vote must pass through at least one of the Lobbies in the Chamber. That is extremely problematic in the current circumstances and the situation we find ourselves in. However, the Assembly already has limited provision for proxy voting under Standing Order 27(11), which provides that:

" If any member is present within the precincts of the Assembly and is disabled by infirmity from passing through a lobby, his or her name may be communicated by his or her party whip to the lobby clerks and tellers and may be included in the numbers counted."

Consideration has been given to whether that principle could also be applied in the current circumstances to allow votes to be cast on behalf of Members so they do not have to physically be in the Chamber to go through the Lobbies. Currently, Standing Order 55(7) provides for each party delegation present at the Business Committee:

"to cast a number of votes equivalent to the number of members who adhere to the whip of that party."

The same applies for the collection of smaller parties and independent Members.

The proposed Standing Order 115 provides for a similar model for plenary sittings. Notice must be given in writing to the Speaker where a Member allows their vote to be made by another Member. This should result in a much smaller number of Members being present in the Chamber, and also for fewer Members to pass through the Lobbies.

I will briefly cover the proposed changes to Committee business. The proposed Standing Orders 115 and 116 cover Statutory and Standing Committee business. In relation to Committee quorum, the Chairpersons' Liaison Group agreed that it would remain at five when a decision needs to be taken. However, the proposed new Standing Orders allow for any member of a Committee, including the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, to attend a meeting remotely, by either video-link or telephone, and still contribute to quorum. The proposals also allow for a member of a Committee to vote by video-link or telephone. Further to this, the proposed Standing Orders provide for any member who is not able to attend a meeting in person, to delegate authority to another member of the Committee to vote on their behalf.

Finally, regarding decision-making, the proposed Standing Orders provide for a Committee to make decisions without meeting at all, using a procedure whereby the Chairperson could provide members with the detail surrounding the issue, and then gather views and seek consensus from members via correspondence.

During its deliberation of these proposals, members of the Committee on Procedures were generally content. There was some discussion around how proxy voting would work for smaller parties or independent Members who wished to show their opposition to a particular Question in the Chamber. Members also queried whether it would be possible to designate the named person only once, and not before every plenary sitting throughout the current situation, which would, in turn, be much more efficient for the Business Committee.

Discussions were also held around whether there should be more than two named persons when it comes to proxy voting — whether it should be two, three or more.


3.00 pm

In concluding its deliberations, the Committee agreed to introduce the new temporary Standing Orders and committed to working with the Speaker in future to facilitate any further measures. Incidentally, the Committee also agreed to write to the Assembly Commission to ask it to explore the facilitation of videoconferencing in all conference rooms. The measures in the motion will apply only until 30 September 2020 and can be reviewed, if necessary, prior to that date. On that basis and on behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend the motion to the House.

Mrs Barton: While the motion on Standing Orders is temporary and applies from 31 March to 30 September, the Ulster Unionist Party has reservations about some of the measures contained in it. Because of the health crisis that we are in, the House has already consented to emergency legislation that undermines democracy and reduces scrutiny. While, indeed, given the present situation with COVID-19 and the reduction in the number of Members permitted in the Chamber, an alternative method of voting must be found for all Members to register their vote, one cannot have voters lining up in the Lobbies and, at the same time, observing social distancing.

With regard to Standing Order 112, on sitting days one would expect that the great majority of Assembly Members would be here in their offices in the Building. Therefore, they should be able to vote without the need for proxies. Were we not all elected to speak and cast our votes for our constituents? The method proposed in Standing Order 112 certainly does not allow for that. Therefore, I suggest that an alternative method for Members to cast their vote in person needs to be further investigated.

Through the Committee on Procedures, the Ulster Unionist Party will proactively seek to amend today's motion. We seek confirmation that the proposals are agile enough to embed improvements and a robust mechanism to protect an individual's mandate vote. Having assessed the voices in the Chamber today, we do not support the motion but will not force a Division.

Mr Carroll: We are, obviously, living in unprecedented times in which all the old certainties no longer apply. The health pandemic that surrounds us is the greatest crisis that I and, I am sure, many others have lived through. It has destroyed too many lives, and it threatens to destroy many more. I offer my sympathies and thoughts to everybody who has been affected at this time.

For that reason, it is necessary for the Assembly to give the utmost priority to tackling the pandemic and its far-reaching repercussions. That means scaling back on other areas of work and, at this time, the normal functions of the Chamber. For that reason, many of the proposed changes to Standing Orders are justified in the context that we face. However, it is crucial that we demand the maximum democracy, accountability and scrutiny at this time in order to ensure that the crisis is handled in a way that prioritises the needs of the great majority of people and not the interests of the powerful and the wealthy.

We need a shutdown of society, but we cannot, in any circumstances, allow a shutdown of democracy — quite the contrary. Now is precisely the time to fight for an expansion of democracy in politics and economics, generally speaking, in the interests of ordinary people. The changes to Standing Orders and the functions of the Assembly must recognise that, in order to ensure maximum space for democracy throughout this unprecedented time.
I recognise that normal procedure cannot resume, in terms of speaking arrangements and other items relating to the Chamber, but should it not be the case that the valuable and important workers in our canteen should be allowed to self-isolate with their pay and terms and conditions protected? Whilst canteens and restaurants rightly close across the country, should we not practise in the House what we are enforcing elsewhere? It dawned on me only today that we should not put workers in this Building or their families at risk.

Already, the rich, the powerful and the wealthy are trying to shape the response to the crisis in their interests. Governments across the world have faced a basic choice throughout the crisis between defending profits or saving lives, and, too often, they have chosen the former. Already, employers are forcing workers into dangerous conditions, risking their lives in order to shore up the profits. Other workers have met with widespread job loses where closures have taken place, and bosses have threatened to stop pension payments for the duration of the crisis. Billionaires continue to lobby Governments for bailouts to the rich. We will see more of that, no doubt, unless there is an urgent shift in how politics functions generally.

People Before Profit thinks that we need to see urgent intervention from the Executive and the Westminster Government to ensure that all workers on the front line are protected with personal protection equipment (PPE). That means health workers but also other front-line services including retail workers and many more. Moreover, government must ensure that no worker loses their job because of the crisis. A decade ago, the Government bailed out their banker friends to the tune of at least £500 billion overnight: now is the time to bail out workers. The state must step in to secure wages for all workers and the self-employed, and we must see an immediate freeze on mortgages, rents and utility bills.

Obviously, some changes to procedures have to take place at this time, but I want to make the case that these points should be aired and heard throughout the crisis and this period.

Finally, I pay tribute to all the front-line service workers who are out there risking their lives for us all: the health workers, the public-sector workers, the retail workers, the cleaners and everybody else. This crisis shows that we need to rely on them, and, despite them previously being described as "unskilled workers", they are very much skilled and essential to the functioning of our society.

Ms C Kelly: First, I offer my sincere condolences to the families across Ireland who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. My thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.

The motion, which seeks to amend Standing Orders, is unprecedented, but we face unprecedented times. The amendments ensure that MLAs can meet their obligations as political representatives and Assembly Members. They ensure that the Assembly can operate efficiently and effectively, but equally important is the fact that they enable all of us to play our part in thwarting transmission by adhering to social distancing and introducing remote working practices. Finding different ways of working is imperative if we are to delay the spread of this deadly virus.

The motion will enable MLAs to vote by proxy and Committee business to be conducted remotely by video or audio link. That is not just about protecting the lives of MLAs or the people who support their role, although that is important; it is about protecting the lives of others. It is about supporting our health service workers: our doctors and nurses and all the people who support them — the paramedics, administrators, cleaners, drivers and others. It is about supporting all the people providing vital services that support our communities: the shopworkers, warehouse and delivery workers, postal workers and others. It will take a determined effort by everyone to halt the spread of the pandemic by minimising transmission. The measures are temporary with a six-month reconsideration limit. I urge Members to support the motion.

Mr Speaker: As no other Members wish to contribute, I call Gary Middleton to make a winding-up speech.

Mr Middleton: I welcome the opportunity to conclude today's debate on the motion to amend Standing Orders. First, I thank all the Members who contributed.

As outlined, the motion has come to the House today following requests from the Business Committee and the Chairpersons' Liaison Group to introduce urgent temporary provisions to allow Assembly and Committee business to proceed over the coming weeks and months. As the responsibility for amending Standing Orders lies with the Committee on Procedures, the Committee agreed to consider the matter.

The proposed amendments will make fundamental changes, albeit temporary ones, to the plenary and Committee business of the Assembly. We are all too aware of the current circumstances that we are in, and it is imperative that we, as the Assembly, do all that we can to protect one another, the staff and Building users as well.

As explained by the Deputy Chairperson, the changes will allow for wider proxy voting in the Chamber. That will allow for social distancing in the Lobbies, should a Division be called. For Committee business, the proposals will allow any member of a Committee, including the Chair and Deputy Chair, to attend a meeting remotely by video link or by telephone. They also allow for a member of a Committee to vote by video link or by telephone. The proposals go further, by allowing Committees to make decisions without meeting, using a procedure whereby the Chairperson will provide members with the detail surrounding an issue and then gather views and seek consensus from members via correspondence.

Throughout the debate we heard from a number of Members. The Deputy Chairperson outlined his remarks on behalf of the Committee. Rosemary Barton gave her comments on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. She referred to the need for alternatives to be looked at, such as alternative ways for Members to vote. Of course, the difficulty with that is that all of this is under review, and we need to be mindful of that and of the temporary nature of the measures to be put in place. Gerry Carroll talked about the unprecedented times that we are in and the merits of the Assembly looking at measures but demanded maximum accountability and scrutiny. He stressed that there cannot be a shutdown of democracy: I think that we would all agree with that. Catherine Kelly also talked about these being unprecedented times and said that the amendments were needed to ensure that MLAs can meet their obligations as elected representatives but would also enable us all to play our part in tackling the emergency and crisis that we face.

Before I conclude, I reiterate what the Deputy Chairperson said in thanking all the Assembly officials involved in drafting the measures at very short notice. They have worked night and day to bring the provisions to us today, and I thank them for that. I thank everyone for contributing to today's debate, and I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

After Standing Order 109 insert

110. Temporary Provisions

(1) Unless the Assembly previously resolves, Standing Orders 110-116 (‘the temporary provisions’) apply in the period from 31 March 2020 - 30 September 2020.
(2) A resolution under paragraph (1) shall require cross-community support.

111. Voting – General

(1) The temporary provisions of this Standing Order supersede those in Standing Order 26 (and see Standing Order 114).
(2) The Speaker, or a Deputy Speaker when in the Chair, shall not be entitled to vote on any decision.
(3) A vote shall not be taken on any matter if a quorum is not present.
(4) The Speaker shall judge whether a Question is carried or not in accordance with Standing Order 113.
(5) Except where paragraph (6) applies, every decision of the Assembly shall be taken by a simple majority.
(6) This paragraph applies to any decision where these Standing Orders or any statutory provision requires a decision to be taken with cross-community support or other form of enhanced majority.

112. Voting by Proxy

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions for proxy voting.
(2) A Member may vote in person or by proxy.
(3) A Member who wishes to vote by proxy must give notice in writing to the Speaker.
(4) A notice under paragraph (3) must contain–
a. the name of the Member who wishes to exercise the proxy vote (M);
b. the identity of the Member who will vote on M’s behalf (P) – see paragraph (6);
c. confirmation that P is willing to vote on behalf of M; and
d. details of the period for which P will vote on behalf of M - see paragraph (7).
(5) A notice under paragraph (3) may include confirmation from M that P is authorised to nominate another Member to carry out P’s functions.
(6) P shall be–
a. the Whip or deputy Whip of the party of which M is a Member;
b. another Member; or
c. where–
(i) M has identified a person under sub-paragraph (a) or (b);
(ii) that person is for any reason unable to act for M; and
(iii) M has provided confirmation under paragraph 5 such other Member as that person may in writing to the Speaker identify as voting on behalf of M.
(7) M may authorise P to exercise M’s vote in the Assembly–
a. in respect of one or more items of business;
b. in respect of one or more sitting days; or
c. until further notice.
(8) Notice under paragraph (3) must be given to the Speaker’s Office not later than 9:30 am on the sitting day (or as the case may be the first sitting day) on which M intends P to vote on M’s behalf.
(9) P shall exercise M’s vote in the Assembly by communicating M’s name to the Lobby Clerks and Tellers and M’s vote shall be included in the numbers counted.

113 Voting - Divisions

(1) The temporary provisions of this Standing Order supersede those in Standing Order 27.
(2) The Speaker shall first seek to judge whether a Question is carried by collecting voices.
(3) In collecting voices under paragraph (2), the Speaker may take account of the number of proxy votes exercised by any Member.
(4) Subject to paragraph (5), the Speaker shall direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded if–
a. the Speaker is unsure whether or not a Question is carried following the collection of voices under paragraph (2); or
b. the Speaker’s judgement as to whether a Question is so carried is challenged.
(5) Where a Question is put immediately after the result of a previous Division is announced, and paragraph 4(a) or (b) applies–
a. the Speaker may direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded; or
b. the Speaker may direct that the Lobbies be cleared and proceed immediately in accordance with paragraphs (7) to (13) and in deciding whether to direct that the Lobbies be cleared and the Division Bells sounded under this paragraph, the Speaker shall have regard to any representations made by or on behalf of any party Whip.
(6) Three minutes after a direction under paragraph (4) or (5)(a), the Speaker shall put the Question again, and if paragraph (4)(a) or (b) still applies, he or she shall proceed as set out below. Otherwise he or she shall judge whether the Question be carried in accordance with paragraph (2).
(7) The Speaker shall call for the nomination of two Tellers for each side of the Question but, if within a reasonable time after this call–
(a) two Tellers for one side but not the other have been nominated, the determination of the Assembly shall be that of the side which has nominated the two Tellers;
(b) two Tellers for each side have not been nominated, the Question shall not be carried.
(8) After Tellers have been nominated, the Speaker shall direct the Assembly to divide, "Ayes" to the right and "Noes" to the left, and that the Division Bells be again sounded.
(9) Four minutes after this direction, the Speaker shall direct that the doors from the corridors to the Chamber and Lobbies are secured.
(10) When all Members in the Lobbies have voted, the Tellers shall bring the Division lists to the Table Clerks who will announce the result.
(11) In a Division, a Member–
a. is not obliged to vote;
b. may vote although he or she did not hear the Question put; and
c. may vote by proxy (see Standing Order 112).
(12) If the votes in a Division are equal the Question shall not be carried.
(13) If any Member is present within the precincts of the Assembly and is disabled by infirmity from passing through a Lobby, his or her name may be communicated by his or her party Whip to the Lobby Clerks and Tellers and may be included in the numbers counted.

114. Financial Acts

(1) This Standing Order makes temporary provision equivalent to Standing Order 26(1)(b).
(2) A vote, resolution or Act which–
a. appropriates a sum out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland or increases a sum to be appropriated; or
b. imposes or increases a tax shall require cross-community support (within the meaning of section 4(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998).

115. Temporary provision for Statutory Committees

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions relating to Committees established under Standing Order 48, and supersedes paragraphs (3)-(6) of Standing Order 46 and paragraphs (5) and (7) of Standing Order 49.
(2) A Committee may meet on any day.
(3) Any member(s) of a Committee, including the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson may attend a meeting remotely, for example by video-link or telephone attendance.
(4) Decisions taken by a Committee shall be taken by consensus, and in the absence of consensus following a vote.
(5) A member of a Committee may vote in person, by video-link or by telephone.
(6) A member of a Committee who is for any reason unable to attend in person, or by video-link or telephone may delegate authority to another member of the Committee, including the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, to vote on his or her behalf.
(7) The minimum number of members required for a decision, whether by consensus or vote (including delegated votes under paragraph (6)) shall be five.
(8) A Committee may agree to make decisions (including a decision not to meet) without meeting.
(9) This paragraph applies where a Committee has agreed, or proposes to make, a decision without meeting:
a. Before a decision is to be taken, the Chairperson must:
(i) inform members of the subject matter of the decision;
(ii) provide members with such supporting information as the Chairperson considers relevant;
(iii) allow a reasonable time for members to consider the subject matter and supporting information; and seek consensus among members on the decision.
b. Where–
(i) there is no consensus on the decision; or
(ii) any member of the Committee requires a vote to be taken on that decision the Committee shall vote on that decision.
c. Committee members may communicate their views under sub-paragraph (b)(i), and their votes under sub-paragraph (b)(ii) to the Committee Clerk by telephone, video-link or e-mail.
d. A member of a Committee who is for any reason unable to participate in decision-making under this paragraph may delegate authority to another member of the Committee, including the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, to act on his or her behalf.
e. The minimum number of votes required for a decision shall be five.
f. Where the Chairperson is for any reason unable to exercise functions under this paragraph, those functions may be exercised by the Deputy Chairperson, and if the latter is for any reason unable to exercise those functions, they may be exercised by a member of the Committee determined by the Committee.
(10) Votes under this Standing Order shall be carried (or negatived) by simple majority.
(11) Notice of a delegation of authority under paragraph (6) or (9)(d) shall be given in writing to the Committee Clerk.
(12) A general record of the proceedings of a Committee shall be maintained by the Committee Clerk.

116. Temporary provision for Standing Committees

(1) This Standing Order contains temporary provisions relating to Committees established under Standing Order 51, and supersedes paragraphs (5) and (6) of Standing Order 52, and that part of Standing Order 58(4) relating to quorum.
(2) Standing Order 115 shall apply to Standing Committees as it applies to Statutory Committees, subject that:
a. The minimum number of members required for a decision of the Audit Committee, whether by consensus or vote, (including delegated votes under paragraph (6)) shall be two.
b. In its application to the Business Committee–
(i) A reference to a member of a committee shall include, where appropriate, a substitute member attending in place of a member and a reference to a Deputy Chairperson shall include a nominee of the Speaker;
(ii) The quorum shall be five members attending in accordance with Standing Order 115, except when no decision is taken or Question put, when the quorum shall be four; and
(iii) Paragraph (10) shall not apply to votes (and Standing Order 55(7) will continue to apply).

Adjourned at 3.13 pm.

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Subscribe

tools-newsletter.png

Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up