Official Report: Tuesday 16 June 2020
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notification from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that Deirdre Hargey has resigned the office of Minister for Communities, effective from 14 June 2020. The Speaker has also been informed by the nominating officer for Sinn Féin that Ms Carál Ní Chuilín has been nominated as Minister for Communities. Ms Ní Chuilín accepted the nomination and affirmed the pledge of office in the presence of the Speaker, who participated remotely, and the Clerk/Chief Executive on Monday 15 June 2020. Yesterday, the Speaker also received notification of the resignation of Ms Ní Chuilín as Chairperson of the Procedures Committee with immediate effect. The Speaker is satisfied that the requirements of the relevant Standing Order have been met.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish our colleague Ms Deirdre Hargey a speedy recovery and, indeed, to wish the same for our Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher Stalford, who is presently not well and is receiving medical support.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have been saddened to learn of the passing of Mr Billy Bell, a former Assembly Member for Lagan Valley. Before he joined the Assembly, Billy had already given significant public service. He was elected to the constitutional convention in 1975 and to the Assembly in 1982 and was also a long-serving member of Belfast City Council and, then, Lisburn Borough Council. He served as Lord Mayor of Belfast and Mayor of Lisburn. He also served on the boards of a number of public bodies, including the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It was that wealth of experience that left him particularly well-placed to serve as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in the first term of the new Assembly.
The Speaker has asked me to record that he was a member, alongside Billy, of Belfast City Council from 1983 and, then, in the Assembly. He recalls that, in both places, Billy was a man who could always be open in telling you where he stood, but was always courteous and with a focus on being constructive.
I served with Billy as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group from 1998 and had the privilege of calling him my friend and colleague. Billy was very friendly and affable; he always had time for a chat. I view his nature as having played a significant contribution to the re-establishment of the Public Accounts Committee, which he led. It drew a cross-party group of members together to act, not in party interest but public interest. He established that principle, once again, in Northern Ireland so that there would be scrutiny of public expenditure and to ensure that members would act together in the interests of the public. We have to thank Billy for the re-establishment of that Committee and the way in which it worked.
On behalf of the Assembly, I express condolences to Billy's wife, Leona, and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I invite Members to make their contributions.
Mr Butler: It is an honour to pay my respects, even briefly, and the respects of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Assembly to the late William Bradshaw Bell, or Billy Bell as he was affectionately known and called. Billy, sadly, left us on 9 June 2020. He will be forever missed by his wife, Leona; his children Julie-Anne, Leona, Willie and Kathryn; his grandchildren Stuart, Charlotte, Rebecca, Anna, Leona, Debbie, Stephen and Amy; and great-grandchildren Ava and Kealan.
Billy was readily recognisable to me, and people like me, as a proud champion of Lisburn and Lagan Valley, but he was born in Belfast, in 1935. He attended Fane Street Primary School, which, I learned only over the past few days, my dad attended, albeit in a different decade. Billy's first foray into politics was not in Lisburn; it was, as the Deputy Speaker said, in Belfast City Council. There, he quickly established a reputation for being a politician of great character — one who wanted to do business on behalf of the entire community. Perhaps some of that was down to Billy's previous work in public relations, a field in which he ran a company, Billy Bell Promotions. I do not think that any of us will give him too much credit for the thought that went into the name, but, Billy, we are eternally grateful for your contribution to politics.
As the Deputy Speaker outlined, Billy has, perhaps singularly, the accolade of being Northern Ireland's first mayor of two cities, albeit Lisburn developed city status latterly. He was Mayor of Belfast in 1979 and Mayor of Lisburn in 2003.
Billy had the honour of representing the people of Lagan Valley in the Assembly, as do I. I have often heard his name mentioned by constituents, always in the same manner. He was one of those people who was held in high esteem by friend and foe alike. Although he was a proud unionist to the core, Billy wanted to make politics work for all the communities of Northern Ireland. He wanted to make this a better, peaceful and more prosperous place for future generations. Throughout the decades, Billy made friends more readily than he made enemies. The word I have heard spoken, more than others, to describe Billy is "gentleman". He will be fondly remembered not only by fellow unionists but by people across the House and across Northern Ireland.
Billy's political career spread across some 30 years, which is no mean feat. Moreover, I do not think that anyone will disagree that navigating Northern Ireland politics from the mid-'70s, through the '80s, '90s and into the new millennium was an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.
In recent months, we have seen the passing of a number of former Members, including Lagan Valley's Ivan Davis and Seamus Close, and, more recently, our friend and colleague John Dallat. In remembering them, we can see that the class of 1998 was a special bunch of politicians. Whilst the media may have focused on the party leaders, leading up to and beyond the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I, for one, am sure that the foundations and relationships that were laid by Billy over previous years in council and, more laterally, in the Assembly paved the way for the peace that was delivered that year.
As was said to me, recently, by the Speaker, Billy Bell was a gentleman of the highest order. I will go one step further and say that without the Billy Bells of this world, politics in Northern Ireland would be a poorer place. Thank you.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I omitted to advise Members that we have 30 minutes for this discussion and that Members have about three minutes each for their contribution.
Mr Givan: Deputy Speaker, I join you in wishing Deirdre Hargey a speedy recovery and, of course, my colleague Christopher Stalford likewise.
In his comments about Billy Bell, my colleague from Lagan Valley Robbie Butler has articulated very well the kind of man that he was. I met him when I was 15 years of age, walking round this Building. Being the very youthful and zealous character that I was then, as a member of the DUP in my youth and with Billy Bell as an Ulster Unionist, I tried to provoke him. Billy and Ivan took a question session from our school, but you could not get Billy to rise. He would not take the bait. Ivan, on the other hand, did, but Billy just would not take the bait, such was the kind of man that he was. He was a man of integrity and a great man of character, and that phrase "a true gentleman" is one that I have heard many people speak to describe the way that he interacted with people. Long after he retried from politics, Billy kept in touch. He visited people who were not well, people who he had built up that relationship with. People who I have spoken to have spoken fondly of him.
I often pay tribute to those who served in the 1970s and the 1980s, particularly as councillors, at a time when it was certainly not attractive to be a councillor. It was not financially rewarding at all to be a councillor, and you were the subject, of course, of a lot of targeting and so on. Billy served on Belfast council, known as the bear pit of councils at the time, and he was able to be the mayor of that city. Of course, he was the mayor of the greatest city, Lisburn, later in his career. He represented the Dunmurry Cross ward, which has moved between Lisburn and Belfast council areas. Billy carried off the role as first citizen of Lisburn in my constituency with distinction. He was recognised for his service to the public when Her Majesty the Queen granted him the OBE.
I want to pay my respects to Billy's family. I know his daughter Julie-Ann well through her work with young people in Lisburn. I send my sincere condolences to his wife, Leona, his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren and his friends here in the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr G Kelly: I add my voice to the good wishes to Deirdre Hargey and Christopher Stalford, and congratulations to Carál Ní Chuilín on coming back as a Minister, again.
Somebody mentioned 1998, and I was elected at the same time as Billy Bell. I always remember him with a big mop of white hair. I am there now with the white hair, but I do not think that there are too many who are now left in the Assembly who were elected in 1998. I think that the numbers are dwindling. Robbie Butler has said a lot about him, as has Paul. Without going through his history, his history goes well before 1998. He became a political rep in 1975, so he served for a long time and, of course, became mayor of both Belfast and Lisburn. He retired in 2007, but I do not think that he really retired. I am not sure that politicians are able to retire. I notice from some of your remarks, Robbie, in the papers that he was your mentor and mentor to a number of people. There is always a place for that.
Personally and from the party, I send condolences to his wife, his son, his daughters, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. I think that you went through the list earlier, a LeasCheann Comhairle, and it shows how fulfilled a life he had. I am glad for him that he got a chance for a fairly long retirement.
He was a nice man. I suppose the best way to say it is that, clearly, we disagreed politically, but, in his disagreement, I never remember him being disagreeable. That is not an easy place to have through 30 years of being a politician. My condolences to the family. I think that that is the measure of the man.
Mr Catney: To Leona, Billy's wife, to his children, to my Ulster Unionist colleagues, to the DUP and to all in the House, I say that we will miss Billy's contribution. He laid the foundation stone for where we are in Lisburn.
I am very sorry to hear about the passing of our colleague and friend, and my mentor, Billy Bell. I knew him when I was a publican but not very well. I first came to know Billy back in 1995 when he supported me and my family through a horrific ordeal, one that, sadly, happened to too many families in Northern Ireland. Such ordeals are hopefully now consigned to the history books, but it taught me the importance of community.
It was late at night. My wife and children were sleeping. I was about to doze when I heard a large explosion. I remember seeing flashing and flickering lights outside the windows. There had been five petrol bombs thrown at our home: three onto the roof, one at the back door and one at the front door. It took the fire brigade around half an hour to get the fire under control. I thought for sure that we would leave the house, but, next morning, first to my door was my local MLA Billy Bell. I am not sure whether he was an MLA then. I think that he was, but Billy, from the Ulster Unionist Party, was the first politician to my house, offering help and support and trying to help me in any way in which he could to ensure that I stayed and was not forced out. All of the Churches in the area — all of them — sent messages of support. The whole community rallied to support me.
That was the start of my friendship with Billy Bell. I saw him most Tuesdays, when he came into town to go to the market, and our friendship grew. He was always happy to offer advice when I myself became an MLA. I know that many of you here knew Billy, but some did not. Hopefully, you do not remember the ordeals that many of us in Northern Ireland had to endure, but I can tell you that he was a good man and a good friend. When I think of Billy, even though our friendship started because of an act aimed at tearing our community apart, I will always remember how he reached out and rallied the local community to help make me and family feel included and safe again. He was an inspiration and a true gentleman.
I pass on to his wife and family my condolences and those of all my SDLP colleagues. I also wish both Deirdre and the Principal Deputy Speaker a speedy recovery, and I wish the new Minister every success in her new role.
Ms Armstrong: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I pass on our condolences to Mr Bell's family and to all his Ulster Unionist colleagues. I did not know him, but I wish that I had, hearing the wonderful words that are being spoken about him today.
I acknowledge the fact that he was of the new Assembly back in 1998. Changing times. We are here today on the shoulders of those people, who took a courageous step at a time that came after a couple of decades that were not so nice for this place. I know from all the tributes that have been paid that Mr Bell was the first person to be mayor of both Lisburn and Belfast.
Not too many people who leave political life are thought of as being a gentleman and an inspiration and recognised for the positions that they held and the service that they gave. To all our friends here in the Ulster Unionist Party, I say that I am really sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, so many of our friends from that new Assembly are leaving us. I think in particular of Lagan Valley, which has lost so many.
Mr Allister: My memories of Billy Bell go back quite a long time, though over the succeeding years they were quite sporadic. However, the one abiding characteristic that always struck me about Billy Bell was how affable an individual he was, and that betokened the character of the man. The strength of character, empathy and humanity of the man is quite clear from Pat Catney's tribute. To lose people of that character is a considerable loss.
I very much want to associate myself with the remarks that have been made about Billy Bell, and to express my condolences to his wife, children, grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, and to his party, which has lost something of a father figure, particularly in the Lagan valley area.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The first item of business on the Order Paper is a motion about Committee membership. As with other similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.
That Mr Jim Allister be appointed as a member of the Audit Committee. — [Ms Armstrong.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next item of business on the Order Paper is the Consideration Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill. I call the Minister for Communities, Ms Carál Ní Chuilín, to move the Bill.
Moved. — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments, amendment Nos 1 to 3, which deal with right-to-buy schemes, and we will debate the amendments in turn. I remind Members intending to speak that during the debate on the single group they should address all the amendments on which they wish to comment. They will have that one opportunity.
Once the group debate is completed, the other amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clauses 1 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 7 (Abolition of right-to-buy scheme)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendments Nos 2 and 3. Members should note that amendment No 3 is consequential to amendment No 1. Therefore, if amendment No 1 is not made, I will not call amendment No 3.
Mr Durkan: I beg to move amendment No 1. In page 6, line 34, leave out subsection (1) and insert:
‘(1) Article 3 and Article 3A of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 are repealed (and,
accordingly, the schemes under those Articles cease to have effect); but this is subject to subsection (2).’
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 6, line 38, leave out "the scheme" and insert:
"a scheme detailed in subsection (1)". — [Mr Durkan.]
No 3: In the long title, after "associations;" insert "right-to-buy schemes;". — [Mr Durkan.]
Before we commence the debate, I want to take the opportunity to offer my best wishes, and those of the SDLP, to Deirdre Hargey. We wish her a speedy recovery and hope that she is back behind her desk, in the Department, before too long. We also send get-well wishes to the Principal Deputy Speaker. On the other hand, I want to welcome Minister Ni Chuilín and congratulate her on her appointment. I am sure that she hopes that it is a short one. Having worked with Carál as a Minister in the Executive, I know only too well the attributes that she will bring to this extremely challenging role and I look forward to working with her to deliver for people.
The aim of this Bill is to facilitate the reversal of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) decision in 2016 to reclassify registered housing associations from the private sector to the public sector. Ultimately, the reason that we have to pass this Bill, in Minister Hargey's words, is to protect the supply of new and existing social and affordable homes. Perhaps the most significant change will be an end to the compulsory need for registered housing associations to operate a house sales scheme.
The amendments tabled today in essence seek to extend this change to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, our largest social housing landlord. Since the inception of the scheme in 1979, the Housing Executive has sold over 120,000 properties; it has 85,000 left. We all know people and families who have availed themselves of this scheme. It has enabled people to enter the homeownership market and many will speak of the pride, empowerment and security that has come from doing so. Nobody would, or could, take issue with the tens of thousands of families who have benefited from the scheme's existence. However, as legislators, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions.
The housing waiting list currently stands at a staggering 38,000 households, with around 20,000 considered to be in housing stress and around 10,000 categorised as being homeless, each and every year. Given the huge detrimental impact of housing stress and homelessness on families and individuals, for example, people living in temporary accommodation, crammed into overcrowded conditions with their extended families, sleeping on sofas and families having to separate, can we, as a society, really afford to reduce our stock of social housing? When we are failing to build anywhere near enough homes to get beyond the tip of the housing crisis iceberg, should we really be selling off in the region of 500 homes a year? Is the right to own your own home not trumped by the basic human right to have a home?
During Second Stage a fortnight ago, much of the debate centred on clause 7. Some Members — Andy Allen from the UUP and Jonathan Buckley from the DUP — indicated their support for the retention of the right-to-buy scheme; that is the policy of their respective parties and I respect that.
However, that means that it is incumbent on the rest of us, because all other parties that spoke on that day expressed either outright opposition to the right-to-buy policy or, in the case of Alliance's Kellie Armstrong, recognised the need to align the right-to-buy policies in housing associations with those in the Housing Executive.
Mr Allister: I struggle to follow the logic of the Member's position. He says that, because we have so many people homeless, which truly is a shame, we cannot afford to sell any housing stock. However, is the reality not that any stock that is sold is occupied by those who have been long-term tenants, who have no notion of giving up their tenancy but are intent on staying in that house? Therefore, whether they occupy the house as an owner-occupier or as a long-term staying tenant, nothing will be freed up in the market for the homeless. Is that not the logical reality?
Mr Durkan: I appreciate and had anticipated the point that Mr Allister has made, and I will address it in my speech. If I do not do so, he can come back to me when I make my winding-up speech.
Clause 7 creates inequality in access to social housing and homeownership. Tenants of Housing Executive properties will have the opportunity one day to purchase the property — their own home — but the same opportunity will not exist for housing association tenants.
Mr Allen: The Member points out an inequality, but does he accept that the Minister said that she wanted to decouple the two issues and intended to come back to the right-to-buy scheme in the Housing Executive at a later date? Does he also accept that there is a two-year period within the right-to-buy scheme for housing associations? His argument does not stack up.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not quite sure what point he makes. I recall the Minister expressing her desire to address the issue. My point is this: why not address it now, when the Bill is in front of us?
The clause will also, in the view of Housing Rights, create potential difficulty in administering the social housing allocation system, which may allow some tenants a route to homeownership but not others. That, in turn, could contribute to some would-be tenants turning down reasonable offers of accommodation, which would compound the huge difficulties that we already face in trying to address housing stress.
Those are points that Members must consider, but what we really must consider — I would like to know whether Minister Hargey considered it before tabling the Bill — is the 'Joint Consultation Response Report on Proposals to Seek Reversal of the Reclassification of Registered Housing Associations in Northern Ireland'. Consultation 1, on proposals to reverse the reclassification, ran between December 2016 and February 2017. The level of responses that it generated on the house sales scheme was such that it led the Department to consult further; hence, consultation 2 was specifically on the issue of the house sales scheme, both for housing associations and the Housing Executive, and was carried out from 3 July 2018 to 24 September 2018. Remarkably, however, analysis of the consultation responses was published by the Department for Communities only on Friday past, nearly two years after the completion of that second consultation. The Committee was told nothing about the report.
I am not sure why there was such a delay in the publication of the analysis of the responses, particularly given the importance of the Bill and the importance that the majority in the House attached to it getting accelerated passage through the Assembly. I opposed accelerated passage — do not worry: I will not rehash that whole argument — but how are we, as elected Members of a legislative Assembly, expected to make legislation and shape policy like this? I am loath to land all this at your door, Minister Ní Chuilín, but I am fairly sure that, having heard you speak many times of the importance of transparency, accountability and access to information, you will share my concern and confusion that the consultation analysis has appeared only now, somewhere between the eleventh and twelfth hours, as the legislation it relates to is halfway through the legislative process. In policy-making, that is absolutely appalling. One has to wonder whether, had I and other Members not asked about the about the findings of the consultation, it would ever have seen the light of day. I recommend that Members familiarise themselves with the consultation and its responses. It can now be found on the Department for Communities website, but you will not find it in any information pack related to this debate.
I should point out that, according to the consultation responses, there is overwhelming recognition of the need to end the mandatory house sales scheme in the Housing Executive and registered housing associations, just as my amendment would do. Some Members ask why we should end a scheme that has been so popular. It was the subject of a debate in the House in 2016, when Fra McCann tabled a private Member's motion calling for the immediate suspension of the right to buy. A quick read through Hansard from that debate spells out clearly why. If we needed to do it in 2016, we most definitely need to do it now. In every year since and including 2016, the Housing Executive has sold over 400 homes. That is where we haemorrhage housing stock.
I spoke about the number of households on the social housing waiting list. According to the 'Housing Statistics' bulletin, since 2002, that number has increased by a shocking 11,600 households. In the same period, the Housing Executive house sales scheme accounted for more than 10,000 social properties being taken out of stock. That is Housing Executive properties alone. That is astonishing and is well worth remembering the next time a desperate constituent contacts you for help with housing.
More and more families have to run the gauntlet of the private rental sector. How much would those families love to have a secure home? Now weigh that against the importance of owning a home. Defenders of the right to buy will highlight the opportunity it gives people to own their own home and lament the lack of other affordable housing options. I do not disagree with them and will work with any Minister to ensure that we have more affordable housing options. However, even with the discount, many sadly struggle to afford a mortgage, not to mention the costs that come with it. We are all familiar with the sorry sight of boarded-up former social housing units across our constituencies — bought, lost, repossessed and now lying as empty eyesores in the possession of the banks, while the families that were in them are back to square one, on a housing waiting list with a lot more snakes than ladders.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way and for outlining my position from the beginning in support of that right-to-buy scheme and of allowing people the fundamental right to get on the housing ladder and, should we say, get off benefit in housing from the state. It is a good method. Does the Member know and does he agree with me that clause 8 outlines the potential for grants to be supported by the Department to allow non-statutory right-to-buy schemes? Therefore, potentially, what he suggests is premature. He has rightly outlined the lack of scrutiny that the Committee has been able to have of the Bill. We have had no representations from the housing sectors to the Committee. It is premature for us to make the amendment that you suggest, because we have to first of all see what grants can be available via clause 8.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I do not think that I have an issue here with prematurity. Had Members listened to my appeal against giving the Bill accelerated passage, we could have had much more time to scrutinise it. I said at the time that it was not my intention or desire to unpick the legislation; it is my desire to improve it. I believe and reiterate that we all need to work together to explore any options that are out there to ensure that there are more affordable homes as well as more social housing units for those who will never, sadly, be able to afford their own home.
Homeownership is not without its pitfalls. There is the liability for repairs and insurances and being at the mercy of banks and interest rates, and, now, owners of former social properties in a number of schemes — I know of at least two in my constituency — are getting hit by huge bills for general maintenance. One man who has been in with me is getting a bill of £4,000 because the stairs on the outside of his apartment block are getting painted. There are vultures out there — we were warned about them by a number of speakers in the previous debate — who are are happy to swoop in and take people's former social homes off their hands. Sometimes, the lure of a quick profit is a bit too much to resist for owner-occupiers, who sell their houses on to those professional private landlords who just rent them out again and line their pockets with housing benefit, costing even more to the public purse.
At Second Stage, Ms Anderson said that the right-to-buy-policy:
"was never really about homeownership on its own. It was an attempt to turn some aspects of social housing into what I would describe as something like the wild west of unbridled capitalism".
"glad that the Bill will put an end to two policies that threaten the provision of social housing." — [Official Report (Hansard), 1 June 2020, p16, col 2].
The Bill will not do that unless the amendment is made. The policy has been completely scrapped in Scotland and Wales for local authorities and housing associations. The main reason for doing that was that much-needed social housing stock was being lost, with the better stock being sold off. At present, with almost 40,000 households on the waiting list and the inevitable negative impact that social housing new build will have suffered as a consequence of COVID-19, we cannot continue to sell off stock and not replace it. I have already stated that many previous right-to-buy properties have ended up in the private rented sector, which charges much higher rents than the Northern Ireland Housing Executive does. Housing benefit underpins a lot of that. The policy has also caused the fragmentation of settled communities as the private rental sector, by its nature, has much more transient tenants.
I will wrap it up for now but look forward to listening to the rest of the debate. I should also explain that amendment No 2 is virtually a technical extension of amendment No 1 and would extend the two-year transition period to which Mr Allen referred to the Housing Executive, as is already proposed for housing associations. That means that all existing social housing tenants would have two years from the passage of the Bill to commence the purchase of their home, should they desire to so do. It creates equality. It should also serve as a reminder to Members who have reservations about supporting my amendments that the right to buy will not vanish overnight. Amendment No 3 is a consequential amendment that will change the long title of the Bill after Members have all voted in favour of amendment Nos 1 and 2. I implore Members to support the amendments.
Ms P Bradley: Before I comment on Mr Durkan's amendments, I want to put on record and pass on my best wishes for a speedy recovery to Deirdre Hargey, the Minister, and to my party colleague Christopher Stalford. Of course, I welcome Carál Ní Chuilín back to the role of Minister. I am sure that she is delighted about that. We will miss her in Committee, but we hope that she is back with us in Committee sooner rather than later.
I thank Mr Durkan. Before I came into the Chamber, I said to him, "Mark, please explain your rationale when you open the debate". He certainly did explain it. I agree with a great deal of it. I agree with him about the inequality. When I last spoke in the Chamber on the issue, as Committee Chairperson at that time, I said that it could lead to inequality between those who live in housing association properties and those who live in Housing Executive properties.
The right-to-buy issue was well rehearsed in our last debate. As a girl, I grew up in a housing estate in Mossley, and my parents had the opportunity to buy their own house in the early 1980s, before moving out of Mossley. I was very glad that that opportunity was available for us. Of course, I have regrets about losing the right-to-buy scheme, but I hope that another scheme will be brought forward to enable people to buy their own homes, and the Minister said that the last time she was here.
People do not move into our social housing sector with the attitude, "Here, I can buy my own house"; they move into our social housing sector with the attitude, "I need somewhere to live, and this is where I am going to live", or, "This is where I grew up", or, "This is where I want to live". It is not necessarily, "Oh great, I will move into one of these homes, and, in five years' time, I will be able to buy it at a reduced price". I do not think that that is the attitude of many people. Many move into their homes and discover, after a few years, "OK. I have the ability to buy this. This is great. I can do this". I do not think that because we will have two separate systems in place, we will see a massive increase in people wanting to move into Housing Executive properties. Most Housing Executive properties are older properties, while most housing association properties are newer properties, and people want newer properties.
I absolutely get where Mr Durkan is coming from. I do think that there is an inequality. However, the Housing Executive needs a complete and utter overhaul. We spoke about it during the talks last year, it was spoken about in the agreement when we came back here, and it was spoken about in our Committee. If it was not for COVID-19, we would be dealing with those issues now. We would have time to scrutinise and time to look at the issues. Sadly, however, that has not happened. We are not here to debate accelerated passage for the Bill again, but it needs to happen, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. We need housing associations to be able to borrow and to build much-needed homes.
I am sure that it will come as no great shock to Mr Durkan to hear that the DUP will not be supporting his amendments. However, I absolutely understand where he is coming from. I have a worry about the inequality, so I ask the Minister to make it more of a priority when she looks at the Housing Executive. We need to do that anyway.
I know that the Minister has deep issues and concerns with the Housing Executive and how we go forward with it. Mr Durkan mentioned the analysis of the responses, and, speaking as a member of the Committee for Communities, it is extremely disappointing that we did not get to see that information. I am sure that Mr Durkan will bring that issue up in the Committee this week, and, hopefully, we will be able to write to ask why that information was not presented to the Committee, and to Members of the House, in considering the Bill.
Ms Ennis: I, too, send my best wishes to Deirdre Hargey and to Christopher Stalford for their speedy return.
I place on record my thanks to the Minister for her fast and decisive action in providing the utmost support for our housing providers and for those struggling to obtain a home through home ownership or social housing. If classified as public bodies, housing associations would lose their ability to borrow financial transactions capital, as all borrowing would have to count as public-sector borrowing. In real terms, that would reduce the number of social homes by approximately 50% each year and would dramatically reduce funding for the co-ownership scheme. I ask Members to consider the impact that that would have on supporting economic recovery in the aftermath of COVID-19. How many families are already struggling to obtain their own home in unfair conditions of overcrowding, with young families still being penalised for the housing crash of more than a decade ago?
The Bill will ensure that housing associations have the financial freedom to access much-needed funding for social housing, new builds, and to continue the co-ownership scheme. Importantly, it will not come from the increasingly pressurised Executive Budget. If this reclassification was implemented, housing association borrowing would be treated as public debt and deducted from the Executive's capital Budget. It is important to understand that the Bill, and its accelerated passage, was supported by all members of the Committee for Communities, with no issues or concerns being raised.
Turning to the amendments, what we have here from Mr Durkan is a doubling down of his bizarre misunderstanding of what the Bill is actually about. I say "bizarre" because he sat in the Committee and did not raise any of these concerns. Despite what he says now, he agreed to the need for accelerated passage. These amendments, which are entirely unrelated to the Bill, would, as he knows, fundamentally change its very nature to the point that ONS would reject it completely out of hand. That tells me that, despite his warm words, he is prepared to lose 50% of the social and affordable housing stock and is prepared to put the extra £3 million per month financial pressure on the Department, and for what? To make a few ill-thought-out political points. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to completely revitalise the Housing Executive. We should have a Housing Executive that is properly governed and fit for purpose and that deals with all the inequalities in housing, and Minister Hargey has agreed to tackle those. Damaging and jeopardising the Bill is not the way to do that.
The Committee for Communities, of which Mr Durkan is a member, and the Executive have given consent for the Bill to proceed by accelerated passage. In his opening comments, Mark mentioned Housing Rights. ONS and Housing Rights are telling us that this needs to get done, so I suggest that he listen to them and that we all listen to them. The amendments risk adding serious delay and therefore would have serious financial implications if they are supported. Therefore, I ask Members to not support them and to allow the necessary passage of the Bill.
Mr Allen: The Member who moved the amendments outlined his rationale for tabling them as the haemorrhaging of housing stock from the social rented sector. I do not think that there is a Member in the Chamber who can seriously say that they have not dealt with constituents who are in need of social housing and who have been on the housing waiting list for years on end and that those Members have not been frustrated as they have navigated the housing selection scheme to try to get those constituents a roof over their head.
There has been a systemic failure in government by not delivering enough social and affordable houses, and that is part of the key problem. Mr Allister made a fundamental point. I do not believe that the majority of those individuals who go on to purchase those homes have any intention of moving on from them, so that will not address the issue in the medium to long term. Most of those residents who go on to purchase their home intend to stay there, and their family intends to stay there. They are part of the community, they have been brought up in the community and they are part of the fabric of that community. They have no intention of moving on, and, indeed, that has been articulated to me by a number of individuals who have gone on to purchase their home.
Mr Catney: Can the Member tell me why, when I go for a walk where I live, which is not too far away, I can see "for sale" signs on pensioners' bungalows, if what he is saying is the case? They come on the market at some time, and that robs them of the chance to ever go out socially again.
Mr Allen: I am not saying that it does not happen. I am saying that, in the majority of cases, those individuals have no intention of moving on. I cannot speak about those particular properties. I do not know them, and I am not familiar with them. Of course it happens, but, in the majority of cases, that is not the intent of the individuals in purchasing those homes.
Of course the right-to-buy scheme is not perfect. It needs to be amended. It could be a much better scheme. We do not support the Member's amendments. We feel that they are unhelpful at this stage. As I pointed out in my intervention, the Minister made very clear to the Committee when she presented to us on 13 May that the intention behind the Bill, which she is bringing forward, is to deal with the ONS reclassification. She has also made very clear that she intends to deal with the wider Housing Executive and, indeed, the Housing Executive right-to-buy scheme at another stage. We have the transition period in the housing associations, and I take on board and accept the Member's and my colleagues' concerns about the inequality that that raises, but I hope that we will see — I see that the Minister is across the way — consideration being given to or legislation on the Housing Executive right-to-buy scheme. My party will give it an absolute fair wind. As the Member for Upper Bann also pointed out, we need more detail. In our Committee packs just last week, we found that the Department had come back to say that there was no additional detail on the voluntary grant scheme, so we need to see more detail. We need to see more detail on what would replace the Housing Executive right-to-buy scheme should we abolish it also. We will not support the amendments.
It was perhaps remiss of me not to put on record at the outset my and my party's best wishes for the Minister, Deirdre Hargey, and the Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher Stalford, and to welcome the new Minister to her place. I am sure that she will join with me in welcoming Deirdre back when she is fit and ready.
Ms Armstrong: Just as I start off, I reiterate what my colleagues have said and wish former Minister Deirdre Hargey back to full health very soon. We will welcome her back to the Chamber. I welcome Minister Ní Chuilín to the post; we will miss her in Committee, because there is a font of knowledge there. I also acknowledge Christopher Stalford, the Principal Deputy Speaker. Mr Deputy Speaker, I recognise that we are whittling through Speakers rightly at the moment, so I wish you good health for the next wee while.
On this matter, I am unfortunately unable, on behalf of the Alliance Party, to support the amendments today. Like others, I am absolutely sympathetic. I believe that the right-to-buy scheme has haemorrhaged houses out of our housing market, leaving housing stress and the waiting lists in the situation that they are in. If the Member had stood up and said that his amendment was on the back of absolute clarification that he had received from ONS that it would take forward the legislation with his amendment and accept that, then I would have supported it. However, I do not believe that the Office of National Statistics will accept that amendment and take this through, and the result of that will be that social housing will lose money. It will not be able to borrow, it will not be able to build houses, and we will see an end to the co-ownership scheme, because we will not be able to fund that either.
This is a piece of legislation that needs to go through quickly, because we are under pressure. This place was not here for three years, and, as a result, we are left with a situation where a crisis is looming. If we do not sort out the classification or reclassification of social housing, there will be no new builds in social housing. The impact that that will have on our community includes the construction industry and the fact that people will not have houses that they can move into. It is a larger economic issue.
The Minister has said that she will deal with the Housing Executive in the future, and I welcome that completely, because the Housing Executive is sitting in a state at the moment where it is going to face an enormous bill for corporation tax in this financial year, because it cannot buy things to mitigate that cost. What impact will that have? That will have the impact that the Housing Executive may face huge difficulties in doing its own maintenance work. We have to review the Housing Executive, and I will be fighting at that time for a review of the right-to-buy scheme within the Housing Executive. If we are going to have a voluntary scheme, both social housing and the Housing Executive need to be similar so that there is no differential. Under the legislation that is in front of us, the right to buy will continue for two years after it receives Royal Assent. When will that be? It could be a month from now, two months, three months or six months, so there is time to look at the Housing Executive and to consider.
I am very disappointed that the Department did not share all the information with the Committee prior to the Minister's bringing this to the House so that the Committee had time to discuss it. I appreciate that we are going through a speedy resolution on this Bill because of the nature of what is contained within it, but the Committee does have to have its time and its place, and I hope that we will have that when we review the Housing Executive.
Unfortunately, at this stage, I cannot support the amendments. I completely understand the rationale behind them. If the Member had said, "ONS has said, 'Yes, absolutely, bring the Housing Executive into this and we will accept the Bill as it is'", then there would have been no problem, but that is not here. I just do not believe, given the discussions that I have had with people within the Department regarding the ONS, that that is a possibility at this stage. We do this now and then we deal with the Housing Executive, and we can align the two going forward. We need to have a commitment to getting back to building houses and to take away those delays. We need this legislation for housing associations and, depending on how the review of the Housing Executive goes, it may well be brought into this legislation anyway.
Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an Bhille seo. I want to speak in favour of the Bill but, before doing so, I send my best wishes to Deirdre Hargey and wish her a speedy recovery, and I send best wishes to Christopher Stalford, too.
I speak in favour of the Bill because, as we know, across the island, we are in the midst of a housing crisis. Whether you live in the Bogside or Ballymun, the New Lodge or New Buildings, no child should be brought up believing that they should call a hotel or a hostel home. I think that that is something that, across the Chamber, we all would agree with.
I think back to 2002, when there were over 13,000 in housing stress: 17 years later, there are 26,000 people in housing stress. We know the challenge that is ahead of us. This Bill is about maintaining the support and supply of new homes necessary to help struggling families, along with the most vulnerable, to access housing and have security and dignity. I firmly believe that the constituency that I come from would understand the Bill and why we are taking the measures and maybe giving support to it today. Despite the Member coming from the same constituency as me, I do not think that there would be widespread support for an amendment that could jeopardise the Bill, and that is what we are talking about.
Derry has one of the highest rates of people declared as homeless in the entire North, and it has one of the lowest rates of new plans approved to build additional social housing. In fact, even when we have plans approved, they do not go ahead, for instance because of Tory austerity and the slashing of bodies such as NI Water. I will refer to the Seán Dolan social housing scheme in Creggan, for instance. That scheme is stalled, and among the many reasons wy those social houses are not being built is the fact that we do not have the sewage capacity. I know that that is an issue in other areas.
As has been said, the Bill will address the decision of the Office for National Statistics to classify housing associations as public bodies. That decision, if not addressed, as has been stated by other Members, would put the ability to borrow in jeopardy, as well as impacting on the Executive's capital spend programme, I believe, to the tune of up to £3 million every month or something to that effect. Ensuring the private status of the housing associations allows them to borrow without scoring against public debt. That is a good thing at any time, but it is particularly good as we face all the challenges that the Executive face with COVID-19. Therefore, it is only right that they continue their historical classification as private bodies. That was discussed among the parties in 'New Decade, New Approach', and it finds expression in that.
The Assembly must ensure that there is maximum delivery of social and affordable houses for all citizens. We have to do that as we face into what will be a tough time as and when we come out of this terrible pandemic. One of the ways that we can do that for social and affordable housing is through the successful passage of the Bill. Without this legislation, the reclassification of the registered housing associations by the British Government would deepen the housing crisis, as has been seen said, and could halve the annual number of council houses that could be built in the North. Again, we were dealing with all of that when we were leading into the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. If the reclassification is implemented, the Executive would have to entirely fund the new building programme, potentially reducing the number of new-build starts from 1,850 to 900 — less than half.
We all know why the Bill is so important. In the current housing crisis, with an ever-increasing waiting list, it is just unacceptable for the Member to propose the amendment. He may put in jeopardy all that has been said. I understand that there are approximately 60 housing association houses and 300 Housing Executive homes sold each year. That stock needs to be replenished; those homes need to be replaced. We are all saying the same thing. In one way, it might be understood why the Member has tabled the amendment, but the Office for National Statistics is focusing on housing associations only. We heard Minister Deirdre Hargey tell the Chamber, the last time we debated this, that she intended to bring forward proposals to deal with the Housing Executive. She has already committed to bringing forward those proposals, which, I think, will support tenants and protect the housing stock. Much has already been said about the right-to-buy scheme and how popular it is. There is a need for that housing stock to be replenished, and all of that needs to be discussed when the Minister brings forward her Bill or the proposal for the Housing Executive.
The 'New Decade, New Approach' document puts the focus on building houses in locations where there is objective need. That is crucial, as we all know where the need and the pressure is for social houses. For instance, it is about focusing on areas such as the north-west and north and west Belfast — north-west by north-west.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I accept the point in relation to replenishing the housing stock; indeed, I think it is widely accepted across the House. However, will she acknowledge my bewilderment at the continual criticism of the right to buy in the House, given, first, how popular it is with social housing tenants and, secondly, that the right to buy scheme has enhanced the social fabric of many communities across Northern Ireland? Does she accept those points?
Ms Anderson: Without doubt, the right-to-buy scheme has been very popular. You only have to look at the number of people. My mother bought her home under the right to buy scheme, and I live in that home. There are thousands of people across Derry and all our constituencies who have bought their home under the right to buy. The problem is that those homes have not been replaced; the stock has not been replenished. If you cut down a tree, you want to plant 10 more. What need to ensure that the housing stock is capable of addressing the need. That is where we are, and that is why it is important that objective need, as identified in 'New Decade, New Approach', deals with areas where there are pressures. We know where there are pressures on social housing; indeed, Minister, your constituency of North Belfast is one area. As I said, it is north-west by north-west. I acknowledge that there are other areas of need, before other Members intervene.
I am the spokesperson for regional inequalities for Sinn Féin, and I will work with the Department for Communities on advancing social housing in Derry on the basis of what 'New Decade, New Approach' said about objective need. Sinn Féin believes, as do many advocates and, I am sure, many in the House, that adequate housing is a human right, and we will continue to promote that across the island.
The legislation is a good step forward to ensure that the social housing stock is maintained, but it is clear, as I said, that we need to address housing shortages, particularly in areas such as Derry and north Belfast that have suffered persistent and chronic housing inequality. As 'New Decade, New Approach' says — I cannot say it enough — we have to allocate resources on the basis of objective need, wherever that objective need takes us. I will fight for people in the Shankill as much as I will fight for people in the Falls. I will fight for people across the North, wherever the need is.
In many ways, it is shameful that previous Ministers who had a policy of targeting social housing on the basis of need abolished that policy. That was done by not one but two SDLP Ministers and adversely affected the very constituency whose Member is proposing the amendment. In Derry and Belfast —.
Ms Anderson: Yes. Minister Hargey has done a good job. She has worked hard in allocating resources to where they are needed. I very much believe in Minister Ní Chuilín's approach to tackling need and addressing the need for more social housing. I am sure that Minister Hargey will be pleased, as am I and many others, to see that the Bill is being taken forward by Minister Ní Chuilín, because she comes from the same mindset and approach as Minister Hargey.
I wish you well in the time that you spend looking after the Department. I am sure that, like us all, you will be glad to see Deirdre return, but I know she will be delighted that her Department is in safe hands.
Miss Woods: Like other Members, I wish Deirdre Hargey and Mr Stalford speedy recoveries and welcome Carál to the Chamber.
Last time, I spoke in support of the principle of the Bill, appreciating the need for the reclassification of housing associations as private bodies and what that means for the future of social housing in Northern Ireland. Whilst recognising the importance of that, I, like many others, raised concerns, especially about the right-to-buy scheme, that are again being discussed at Consideration Stage through the amendments.
There is still an issue with the potential to create more inequality in access to social housing and homeownership. Many tenants in social homes aspire to homeownership, and the right-to-buy scheme is often their only hope of fulfilling that aspiration. Will that contribute to some tenants consciously turning down a reasonable offer of accommodation where there is no possibility of future homeownership? I await more detail on that.
We welcome the amendments to include the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in the ending of the right-to-buy scheme. The Housing Executive housing sales scheme has accounted for more than 10,000 social properties being taken out of stock since 2002. In its 2018-19 annual report, it stated that it had sold 449 properties through the scheme, which was up from 436 in the previous year. We are losing much more social housing through that sale scheme than that of the housing associations. I would like clarification of the exact number of properties that have been sold by the Housing Executive and the housing associations since the housing scheme started and how many homes were built in that time.
We have consulted on this. Two years ago, a consultation was launched by the Department for Communities, when we had no Assembly sitting. The 'Joint Consultation Response Report on Proposals to Seek Reversal of the Reclassification of Registered Housing Associations' was published a few days ago. There was agreement from respondents on repealing the amendments to the right to buy, with some 18 in favour of ending housing sales schemes for all social tenants. I ask the Minister whether that can be done through the Bill, given the two years' lead-in time for a change in the policy in the Housing Executive. Has there been any advice issued on that?
We need to remove the right-to-buy scheme and build more housing in order to provide housing security and stability. If the opportunity exists through this to amend the right-to-buy scheme in the Housing Executive and put an end to it over the next two years, we should use it.
Mr Carroll: I wish Minister Hargey and Principal Deputy Speaker Stalford well.
I support the amendment. There seems to be a pattern in the House that Members who table amendments are castigated for daring to do so. I thank Mr Durkan for tabling the amendment.
There is a concern that there has been a concerted strategy to whittle down the Housing Executive. We have heard of attempts to transfer stock. Thankfully, they were defeated through public ballots.
However, there has been a general approach to say that, "public is bad, private knows better and private will better deliver". I will address that as I continue through my comments.
I think that the amendment is important and I support and speak in favour of it. However, it is concerning to see the extent of Bills and legislation coming through the House without the time for proper scrutiny. Members on the Committee have said that and there are still serious questions that have been left unanswered. Only a few weeks ago, we had the situation where we were asked to endorse the Budget Bill when a lot of detail was not there and when a lot of scrutiny was not taking place, never mind details about efficiency savings and cuts. Even today, we are being asked to endorse an LCM, yet the Department of Health is unable to answer fundamental questions despite I, and others on the Committee for Health, twice raising questions about a serious piece of legislation.
Today, in the middle of a health pandemic, we have a scenario in which we are rushing through legislation that will have big ramifications for housing and public services generally across our society. There is nothing wrong with doing things quickly, provided that they are done correctly with information gathered and evidence heard. We have heard from multiple people, today and previously, that that has not been done and that the full extent of it has not been completed. Many people will be asking why the urgency, especially as there is no evidence that the passing of this Bill, with the reprivatisation of housing associations, will lead to the tackling of our housing crisis or lead to the figures that the housing associations have indicated that they may build. That is important to emphasise. I think that there are some fundamental concerns about the nature of the Bill.
As Miss Woods said, the Department consulted in 2018 about the proposed changes, but there were only 30 responses. This is a big piece of legislation and a big Bill with big changes. Only 30 responses does not indicate a wide and deep consultation process in which a large number of people were engaged. There has been an element of a shock-doctrine approach throughout the crisis by rushing through changes and legislation in the hope that scrutiny will come at some magical date in the future, but that point is likely to never materialise.
People are correctly focusing on the coronavirus crisis and tackling it. I think that there is a thought process, perhaps, that this is a good time to push through bad legislation and I believe the main tenets of this Bill are bad. It is worth remembering that the reclassification was initially proposed by the Tories and Sajid Javid. At the very least we should be suspicious of this in terms of the merits and the reasons for the proposals. I am concerned that we are following another reckless Tory path by endorsing this Bill.
As I am people will know, whether they are for or against it, the right-to-buy scheme was designed by Thatcher and it is disappointing that people have bought into it. From my experience of speaking to people about right to buy or successions, they want to see that the house kept as a family home. Therefore, I think that we need to have a conversation that recognises that we need to defend the Housing Executive as a public institution and looks at how we can extend and enhance the right to successions so that homes can be kept in families for a bit longer than they currently are, especially with regard to housing associations.
As I said previously, we oppose the main tenets of the Bill because it seeks to privatise and deregulate housing associations, whilst at the same time maintaining, if not possibly increasing, the public money that they receive. Clauses 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 restrict the powers of the Department around the disposal of land, the merging of housing associations and with the housing associations merely having to notify the Department of their actions. I have a very serious concern about the lack of scrutiny of what is at the heart of the Bill.
Clause 7, as has been said, abolishes the right-to-buy scheme for housing associations, but the amendment extends that to the Housing Executive and I support that.
I think that the fundamental ideology that public is bad and private is good, is at the heart of this and that needs to be challenged. We need to avoid buying into the free market claptrap which says that they know better and they know best. We saw people, quite rightly, clapping for the NHS throughout the coronavirus crisis, and there is a renewed desire to see public services delivered by public bodies and institutions and not housing associations being privatised.
The housing rights organisation said in relation to the first change, I think it was in 2016, around housing associations gaining public status that:
"they could potentially be subject to a broader range of human rights law in exercising their duties".
Surely, that is a good thing. Obviously, with the reclassification of the housing associations, it will have the opposite effect, potentially raising big human rights concerns. So, at the very least, that should be a warning sign for people. We know the long history of privatisation, with rents being increased, service delivery worsening and the increased possibility of eviction. I do not normally quote PwC, but, in 2011, it stated that the Housing Executive was one of the success stories of the past 40 years and:
"It is rightly regarded nationally and internationally as a leading authority on 'best practice' on both housing management and community building."
We need to strengthen that generally but especially today with this amendment.
I am concerned that we are hearing that there may be measures brought in the future. If they are good, we will look at them and support them if they are what is needed, but for how long have parties needed to strengthen, enhance and protect the Housing Executive? There has been a failure by Executive after Executive.
Throughout this debate today and previous stages of the Bill, nothing has been said about the additional positive benefits of public scrutiny in respect of stock conditions, maintenance repairs, rent controls, maintenance fees and such issues. That is very concerning indeed.
To conclude, public accountability is a good thing. We should seek to enhance and protect it. This Bill does the complete opposite of that. It should not be up to the ONS to determine our housing policy. This House should determine its own housing policy and what is best for the public at large and our constituents.
There is no evidence that this Bill, if passed, will tackle the housing crisis. There is no evidence that the housing association new start targets will be met. They have been failed year on year. The best way to deliver social housing is through enhancing, protecting and allowing the Housing Executive to borrow and build.
Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities): I join others in wishing Deirdre Hargey all the best. I do not know what the craic is with Christopher, but I wish him the best as well and I thank people for their generous comments about me stepping in, hopefully, for a very short time.
I will start with the points that Gerry has just made. I want to make it clear that there is absolutely no issue with anybody bringing forward any amendment on any bit of legislation. That is what this place is for. You may agree or disagree with it. People may be hot and heavy in their agreement or disagreement, but that is fundamentally their right. This is a legislative Assembly to bring forward legislation either amended or not amended. So, to that end, I do not recognise what he is saying, and it will not be the case here.
Mark Durkan raised concerns about accelerated passage, but, in fairness to him, I do not think that he voted against it. However, it is his prerogative, as it is with every one of us, to bring forward amendments if we so wish.
I completely accept the points that the Member is making in his amendment that there needs to be a read-across in going through to the Housing Executive because you do not want to cause a gap or inequality. However, that amendment does not meet the criteria for this to go through. That is where we part company. That is basically it.
I want to say on the record that I, too, got the report on Friday. On first look, I thought that it was part of the Assembly materials in preparation for this debate. I then discovered that it was something completely different. I know that the departmental officials are listening. I am going to bring that back because I do not think that it is acceptable, to be quite honest. I know that, if Deirdre Hargey was standing here, she would say the same thing. It is not acceptable. I will get you an explanation of what happened. Even if I do not like it and you do not like it, you will get it; we will be consistent on that.
This is in New Decade, New Approach and accelerated passage is needed. The deadline runs out on 31 March 2021. We are here to get legislative competence and also to stop £3 million a month from the public purse being used. That £3 million a month is equivalent to 45 social houses. I do not know anybody in the House who would be happy with that. Some of us more than others come from a background where we appreciate this. For many of us, our first home or our current home is from a public housing authority or the Housing Executive.
We had debates here and, Mark, you and others will remember — I am going to say Fra McCann and passion in the same breath — Fra McCann's passionate plea around ending the right-to-buy scheme is still our position. This is something that, I think, we all agree on fundamentally but not many people spoke about it. Once those houses, be they housing association or Housing Executive houses, are sold under the right-to-buy scheme, they are never replaced. That is the problem. Andy, you are right that most people who buy their home under the right-to-buy scheme stay there. However, I think that it was Mark who spoke about the antics of some developers who are akin to vultures. They encourage older people to buy their house and give them a couple of pounds. Those older people think that they will pass it on to their children and grandchildren and then, all of a sudden, they are homeless. They are sometimes allowed to stay and then you are paying housing benefit, which is twice the cost to the public purse and then some.
We all agree and have all said that the Housing Executive needs to be addressed in what we do next. Paula Bradley, the Committee Chair, also pointed out that there are concerns around potential inequalities. I will just remind people that Deirdre Hargey said at the Committee and as part of the debate on this that her next route would be to take forward legislation to close the gap for the Housing Executive and take the same phased approach to this scheme so that there is not a sudden shock for people who may want to buy their homes. You need to give people a lead-in period; that is compliant with good practice and guidance.
My other concern with your amendments, Mark — I am only here so you can roll your eyes if you want. I looked at the Bill and, instinctively, I thought that there is potential for legal challenge if your amendments to clause 7 are made. It would go outside the competence of the ONS criteria, and that would hold things back. When people talk about holding back, for me, that is what it looks like. I do not think that anybody wants to hold things back. While Mark's concerns are right and it is right that they are raised, this is the wrong vehicle and the wrong avenue. It is something that we need to bring back.
Kellie Armstrong and other Members pointed out the concern about any potential knock-on. The Housing Executive's exemption should be from paying corporation tax. That was part of the negotiations; we all had concerns about that and raised it. I stand to be corrected but, from memory, it is around £13 million a year; that is quite a lot of money. We talk about the revitalisation or improvement of the Housing Executive, so we will have to look at that.
Reducing the expenditure to the public purse is one thing that we need to look at. That is why the Bill is so important. With £3 million a year and 45 houses a month, look at how many houses you could have at the end. That is the realm that we are talking about.
Rachel Woods raised a question that I also want to know the answer to. I will try to find out exactly how many homes have been sold and how many have been built under the Housing Executive and housing associations. I will go further than that: I will try to find out which areas they have been built in. From memory, I know that they are not always built in areas with the highest demand, and that is the problem.
Andy Allen talked about systemic inequality, as did Martina Anderson and Sinéad Ennis. Everybody did. We are all coming at this with the view that we want to look after constituents. Let us be honest: while they are in housing stress, they are miserable. In my constituency, my neighbours on the New Lodge Road have three generations living under the one roof. It is a problem for people's mental health. Teenagers are growing up with no privacy. It is just horrible. None of us wants that on our watch.
Mr Allen: Minister, you have undertaken to clarify a number of points for our information. Another area that you could perhaps clarify has to do with the systemic failure of right to buy and how that scheme has been implemented. As I highlighted, it has not been perfect. How much revenue has been generated through the house sales scheme? Secondly, how much of that revenue has been reinvested in new social housing builds?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will, surely. The concern was not only about how it was reinvested. You may remember that, at some stage, there was discussion about investing in the maintenance programme for Housing Executive homes, because a lot of them are quite old. If you look at the Savills report, which we will deal with at Committee, you see that the bill for that is huge. I will say this to rural colleagues, even though they may think that I have a brass neck as I live on the New Lodge Road: I know that there is more fuel poverty in rural communities at times because houses are older, they are harder to heat and the efficiency is not what it would be with a new housing association house. Those families do not want to live in poverty. None of us wants that.
Mark, it will come as no surprise that I do not support the amendments. However, I absolutely defend your right, and that of anybody else, to table them.
I have no doubt that we will come back to this point. Let me be clear to Gerry, who raised it. I do not think that anybody could describe anyone as supporting a Thatcherite policy in the right to buy and leaving people. I want to be clear. It was probably a political dig, and he has a right to do that, but I think that it is a bit churlish. Also churlish is the lack of knowledge about and experience of the fact that housing association and Housing Executive tenants have the same rights when it comes to allocation: it has to be done on the basis of objective need. That will not go away. That is in law and has to happen. I think that the Member is right to raise it. Those tenants, regardless of whether they are with a housing association or the Housing Executive, need to have the same protections as well. That is steadfast. I want to make that completely clear. If the legislation passes and there is any evidence that that is not the case, I will join him and others in ensuring that whoever is standing in this position is made aware of it and, what is more, does something about it.
For us as an Assembly, would we like to have dealt with this differently? Absolutely. I think that we can all agree on that. Would we like to have had an opportunity to scrutinise more? Absolutely. That was accentuated when we all got the report last week. People were rightly annoyed. We need to deal with that.
I thank everybody for their contributions. I am sure that Christopher and Deirdre will have heard the best wishes, which are genuine, and I wish them both well. I ask Members not to support the amendments that Mark has moved.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that, when they are addressing the House, they should make their remarks through the Chair. The way that the microphones are positioned helps Hansard to pick up all the comments.
Mr Durkan: ask the Minister to repeat that. I want to thank Members for their contributions and I will attempt to address some, if not all, of the issues that have been raised.
The first contribution was from Paula Bradley, the Chair of the Communities Committee. I agree entirely with her about the need to overhaul — I think that that was the word that she used; I might use the word "reinvigorate" — the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. She made the point that, generally, housing association properties are a wee bit swankier than the older Housing Executive stock and are, therefore, more attractive. What she did not mention, however, is the fact that that is reflected in the rents for those properties, which are, sometimes, nearly twice the cost, and which does not make them that attractive after all.
Ms Ennis commenced by extolling the virtues of the Bill. Let me reiterate that I support the Bill. I raised concerns in the Committee, although she said that I did not. I know that it was over the phone; maybe the Member missed it. I explained it again in the last debate and I apologised for it then; maybe she missed it again.
The amendments, in my view — it is just my view; I have not sought legal opinion and I do not know whether anyone else has — would not risk the passage of the Bill. I am not sure how they would do that. So, when the Member accuses me of making ill-thought-out political points, she might want to read over her own contributions and reflect on them.
Andy Allen made an impassioned defence of the right-to-buy scheme. He mentioned the Minister's pledge to bring forward legislation to deal with the Housing Executive and the right to buy, but I have to ask: when? The clock is ticking on this mandate. Will the Member support any such proposals if the Minister brings something forward to address the right-to-buy scheme?
Mr Allen: The Member may have noted that towards the end of my remarks, I said that I and my party will give any proposals from the Minister a fair wind in that respect.
Mr Durkan: OK. Andy also asserted that most families who purchase a social home remain in it. That is borne out by a recently completed piece of Housing Executive research — it is a broad analysis — which demonstrates that of the 120,500 Housing Executive properties that have been sold since 1979, almost half are still owned and occupied by the original purchaser. Just over a quarter were owned by someone other than the original purchaser and just over a quarter were rented privately, the majority by private landlords and a small proportion by housing associations, which have started to buy some back.
Kellie Armstrong seemed to be of the view — I entirely accept her position — that ONS will not accept the amendment. However, I have yet to hear a compelling reason why it would not do so. It is imperative that we pursue that. She said that ONS was concerned about the reclassification or classification of housing associations. The Bill addresses that as it stands and it will still address that, if amended. She said that if the Minister stood up and said that the Department had had it from ONS that it would not jeopardise the Bill, she would have no bother supporting the amendment. I will just remind her that the same Department sat on the consultation on the matter for two years before it saw the light of day.
Martina Anderson spoke for Sinn Féin and said that there was a housing crisis across the island. That is true and it is lamentable. Her party has been extremely vociferous about the issue in the South. I wonder what Eoin Ó Broin would think of Sinn Féin's opposition to my amendments today. She spoke of widespread support for the Bill. I conducted a wee consultation of my own at the weekend — nothing too scientific, just through the power of Facebook — and I got over 50 responses from people in our shared constituency. It was a fairly mixed bag; people saw the merits and the drawbacks of the policy, but all of them lamented the lack of social housing. When I read through the Hansard report of the 2016 debate, when her party called for the immediate suspension of the scheme, I saw that a number of Sinn Féin and DUP Members had waxed lyrical about the 10,000 new social homes that were going to be built in that mandate. As we know, that mandate did not last wild long. Where have those homes gone? How many of that 10,000 have been delivered? Is it half? In the same time, we have lost, maybe, 1,800 homes through the right-to-buy schemes. It has been over 400 homes for each of the past five years, not 300, as the Member said.
It is important that we work with all parties to deliver more social housing, as the Member pledged to do, and we look to all parties to do what is required to ensure that we deliver more social housing. We will need Executive support for resources for Northern Ireland Water to ensure appropriate water and waste infrastructure to enable new builds. When DFC is not building enough houses, it is down to Tory austerity, but when Northern Ireland Water cannot afford to put in infrastructure, it is all Nichola Mallon's fault. That is something that we need to look at as an Executive, and we need to stop this petty point-scoring.
The Member proceeded to make points about party colleagues of mine that bore no relevance to the amendments and little semblance to reality. It was seen from Ms Anderson that attack is still the best form of defence.
I appreciated support and sympathy from the Green Party and People Before Profit. I want to go back to a point, which, I think, Rachel Woods asked: have we anything definitive from ONS? Has the Department even sought an opinion from ONS on the validity or competence of the amendments?
I will also address the point that was made by Mr Allister, and echoed by Andy Allen, that homes sold do not equate to homes lost, because they still house people. They are lost to social housing stock. That would be grand if we had lots of surplus stock, but we do not. Is it not government's primary obligation to provide homes for those most in need? People who are homeless have greater need than those in secure accommodation. If we did not have a huge backlog of unaddressed housing need, this would not be an issue, but we do, and it is.
Minister Ní Chuilín slipped back into the role with ease. It is like riding a bike, Carál. Do you have it in writing that ONS would not accept the amendments? If you do, can we see it? We were reminded that failure to pass the Bill will cost £3 million a month that would be used on new builds. Can we expect that when it passes — I will be supporting its passage — every penny of that money will be ring-fenced for that purpose? I made the point previously, and I make it again, that the cost of us not having government for three years was over £40 million and 700 new social homes for struggling families. I will not, therefore, take lectures from Sinn Féin on me jeopardising budgets. To be fair, that criticism did not come from the Minister, who was measured in her approach and explanation, but from her party colleagues.
I am disappointed: it is obvious that my amendments will not pass. I genuinely thought that this was a great opportunity to ensure full protection of our social housing stock. I reiterate my commitment to work with the Minister to deliver more social housing for the thousands of families and individuals who are in severe housing stress.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if it is possible, it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.
Question, that amendment No 1 be made, put a second time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. It is important that, during any Division, social distancing in the Chamber continues to be observed. In order to facilitate that, I ask Members to do the following: any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to which they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first, and any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. If a Member needs to vote in both Lobbies, however, he or she should not leave the Chamber.
I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.
Ayes 14; Noes 70
Ms Bailey, Ms S Bradley, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Carroll, Mr Catney
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn
The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:
Ms Armstrong voted for Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir.
Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey and Mr Weir.
Mr Butler voted for Mr Swann.
Mr O’Toole voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney[ Teller, Ayes], Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, and Mr McNulty.
Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis [Teller, Noes], Ms Flynn [Teller, Noes], Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.
Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment No 2 not moved.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 8 to 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I remind Members that the deadline for tabling amendments for the Further Consideration Stage is tomorrow at 9.30 am. Members may take their ease for a few moments.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next two motions are to approve statutory rules relating to social security benefits. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion and then call the Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who have wished to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The two rules form the main part of the annual up-rating package that increases the rate of social security benefits, pensions and lump sum payments. Uprating usually occurs each year around the beginning of the tax year, and the two rules came into operation from April 2020.
In relation to the annual uprating of benefits, the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is required to undertake a review each year of the benefits in relation to the general levels of prices. That is measured by the consumer price index (CPI), which determines the amount by which various rates of benefit should be increased, thereby allowing benefit levels to maintain their value against inflation. The percentage increase is determined by the change in CPI in the 12 months up to the previous September, and CPI indicated as a positive growth of 1·7% for the period up to the end of September 2019. Therefore, the price index benefits have increased by 1·7%, and I am able to say that that includes working-age benefits, which had been frozen for four years as a result of welfare reform.
In addition to an increase in certain benefits in line with the increase in prices, commitment to the triple lock continues to apply to the basic and the new state pension. Those pension payments are increased in line with the highest growth of earnings, the growth in prices or at 2·5%.
The growth in earnings is measured by the increase in average weekly earnings for the quarter that ended in the previous July. For this year's uprating, the relevant figure displayed an increase of 3·9%. Therefore, the basic state pension and the new state pension have been increased from April by 3·9%. The pension credit standard minimum guarantee has also been increased in line with average earnings at 3·9%.
My Department has no power to increase the amounts of benefits either by different or greater amounts in annual uprating. The annual uprating order is the main statutory rule to provide for the increase in benefits rates. However, some technical provisions in relation to annual uprating are required to be made by regulations and, therefore, cannot be included in the order.
The debate encompasses the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, which make some technical provisions that are required for the accurate implementation of the increased rates. The regulations are made as a consequence of the uprating order and also include an increase to the earnings limit for carers' allowance and an increase to the personal expenses allowance for residents in care homes. As a result of the 2020 uprating package, in the region of an additional £171 million will be paid out by my Department to people here who are on social security benefits and pensions. That does not take into account the additional temporary increases and easements that were introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic, about which Deirdre Hargey wrote to Members recently. I understand that we might want to do more for recipients of social security benefits and pensions, particularly in these unprecedented times. However, in relation to the annual uprating order, all that I can do is simply reiterate that my Department does not have the power to amend or adjust that uprating.
Therefore, I welcome Members' support for the uprating order and the consequential uprating regulations so that people here can continue to receive their increased rates.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered SR 2020/40 at its meeting on 6 April. The Committee acknowledged that the order is part of a series of statutory rules that relate to the annual uprating of certain social security benefits, pensions and allowances from April 2020. The rule makes provision that corresponds to provision made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in Great Britain. The Committee noted that the implementation of the proposals for the uprating of benefits is expected to increase the Department's annually managed expenditure by approximately £171 million during 2020-21. The Committee was, therefore, content to recommend that the Assembly affirms that statutory rule.
On 6 April, the Committee also considered SR 2020/41. The Committee acknowledged that the regulations contain only consequential provisions of the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2020, and are part of a series of statutory rules that relate to the annual uprating of social security benefits and pensions. The Committee noted that the provision also amended the earnings limit on carers' allowance from £123 to £128 net per week. That limit defines the amount that a person can earn without their earnings extinguishing their entitlement to the benefit or preventing an entitlement being established. The Committee was, therefore, content to recommend that the Assembly affirms those regulations.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank Members for their support at the Committee and in the debate. Like everybody, I look forward to passing the uprating order and regulations to ensure that those increases can be in people's purses and pockets.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities).]
That the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The regulations are part of the annual uprating package, and they increase the compensation payable in the scheme under the Mesothelioma, etc., Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. Unlike the main benefit uprating order, there is no explicit requirement to review the level of payments under this scheme each year. However, the regulations have increased the amounts payable under the scheme in line with the rate of inflation. The amounts payable under the scheme have been increased for 2020-21 by 1·7%, which mirrors the percentage increase of industrial injuries benefits and in the main uprating order.
Under the scheme, those who have been exposed to asbestos can claim a lump sum payment if they are not entitled to a payment under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, known as the 1979 scheme, and who do not otherwise have a civil claim. The scheme provides financial help to persons diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma or, if the person has died, to their dependants within a matter of
of diagnosis and without the need to establish an occupational link or, indeed, any causative link. Therefore, provided that they have not already received a compensation payment from another source, people who suffer from this terrible disease are eligible for a payment, regardless of whether they were employees, self-employed, or, indeed, have never worked, as was the case with many family members who contracted the disease through cleaning asbestos-covered clothes.
For 2020-21, the amount payable, for example, to a person aged 37 or under at the time of diagnosis has increased from £92,259 to £93,827, the same maximum that can be paid under the 1979 scheme.
The regulations are to ensure that the compensation provided under the scheme maintains its value relative to inflation. I am sure that all Members will warmly welcome the provisions.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered the regulations at its meeting of the 6 April. The Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 enable lump sum compensation payments to be made to people who have diffuse mesothelioma or to their dependants where sufferers did not claim in their lifetime. Payments are made without the need to prove negligent exposure to asbestos or that the exposure occurred during employment. The Act brings some financial assistance to sufferers at a time when many adjustments must be made to daily living arrangements as a result of the illness.
Unfortunately, loved ones will be lost to this cruel condition. Whilst nothing can replace the loss of a loved one, the Act ensures that dependants receive a lump sum payment to alleviate some of the financial burden associated with their loss. I welcome the regulations, as they will increase the amounts payable under the Act by 1·7%. That will ensure that payments remain in line with industrial injuries benefits.
The Committee recommends that the regulations be approved.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Chair and members of the Committee for the positive way in which they have dealt with the regulations. I appreciate the full support of the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.
The sitting was suspended at 12.54 pm.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. The sitting is resumed. Members will be aware that, as part of the phased resumption of Question Time, only listed questions will be asked of Ministers at this stage. Topical questions will be suspended until 4 July. During consultations, the Business Committee indicated its preference for all Members who are initially listed to have the opportunity to ask their question if there is time in the period and for only the Members listed to have the opportunity to ask a supplementary question. I will proceed on that basis.
This is the first Question Time under these arrangements and with social distancing in the Chamber, which may necessitate some movement of Members. However, we will keep that under review. I hope that it will work out for everyone's benefit. If it is apparent that there will be time remaining as we come close to the end of the 45-minute period, I may ask for other supplementary questions.
Mrs Foster (The First Minister): The Executive launched a high-impact public information campaign in March to help to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and save lives. That included a leaflet drop to every home in Northern Ireland. The first phase of the campaign encouraged citizens to stay at home, keep their distance and wash their hands, and the Executive recently launched the second phase of the campaign, which urges citizens to "Stay Safe; Save Lives" and "Work Safe; Save Lives". Advertising has appeared in local daily, weekly and Sunday newspapers and on television, radio, outdoor and digital.
Ms Sugden: I really want to be generous because I recognise the unprecedented situation that the last number of months have brought; however, I will say that Executive communications have been limited in that they have failed to understand the needs of the audience and what they can comprehend. Each new announcement has brought so much confusion and anxiety and, in some cases, disregard for the restrictions being announced. We can remove that by improving our communications. As a learning experience, moving forward, not just for communications related to COVID-19 but for communications from government generally, will the First Minister commit to a review of the communications strategy with the aim of trying to improve our communications so that they reach and get the message across to the intended audience?
Mrs Foster: I know that the Member has a background in marketing and some expertise in the area. We carried out a point-in-time review of the entirety of the COVID-19 strategy. That was on 4 June, and it looked at all the issues in the strategy. I hear what she says about communications, but we have committed to a daily press conference. That has now become something of a staple for a lot of our journalists, where they have the opportunity to directly ask questions and supplementaries of whichever Minister is there at the time. The deputy First Minister and I are now committing to two of those per week, and other Ministers appear at the rest of the press conferences. Really, it is about speaking directly to the public to seek the partnership that, we think, is necessary to continue compliance on COVID-19.
We recognise that there are many who want to move faster in lifting lockdown. There are some who have contacted us who want to go more slowly in lifting lockdown. We have to balance all the risks that are put in front of us and try to move appropriately. We use the press conferences and, indeed, all the other methods of communication to try to get across to people why we are taking the decisions and what the impact of those decisions is and that they should then go to nidirect, which is the government website, where there is guidance that has been put out by the various Departments.
I hear what the Member says. We will, of course, look at an overall review of the issue as well as our comms strategy, but I thank her for her interest in the matter.
Mrs Foster: Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission I will answer questions 2, 9 and 15 together.
Significant work has been undertaken by officials to date on the delivery structures for the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. However, important issues remain to be resolved, including the designation of a Northern Ireland Department to exercise the administrative functions of the board on the board's behalf, the source of funding for the scheme and clarity on how exceptions are to be interpreted. A series of discussions have taken place with officials in relevant Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Departments in relation to the administration of the scheme, and that work is ongoing. However, security of funding of the scheme has not yet been confirmed. Westminster has an obligation and must deliver on its responsibility to support funding for the scheme. Efforts to resolve the issue as swiftly as possible continue. The deputy First Minister and I have made it clear that we are committed to addressing all of the outstanding issues. The Westminster regulations came into force on 29 May. Further time is still required to deal with outstanding issues and establish the necessary arrangements for the operation of the scheme. We know that that is deeply disappointing for many victims and survivors who need the support. We share that disappointment and will work to do all that we can to get the scheme delivered as soon as possible.
Miss Woods: As the First Minister will be aware, research has shown that an estimated 61% of the Northern Irish adult population have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lifetime, so I ask for an update on the implementation of the regional trauma network.
Mrs Foster: The aim, as the Member will know, is to deliver a comprehensive regional trauma service through partnership working, building on existing resources and expertise in both the statutory and the voluntary and community service. The service will be based on internationally recognised psychological therapies and the stepped care model and will encompass services provided by the voluntary and community sector in relation to steps 1 to 3 and in the health and social care sector for the higher steps from 3 to 5. Phase one of the service is due to be launched soon; however, due to the COVID pandemic, that has been delayed. We are acutely aware of how the pandemic is affecting mental health in particular, and we are working with the Department of Health on how arrangements can be taken forward in relation to this important project.
Mr Buckley: I know that the First Minister will share my disgust and anger at the continued blockade by some Members of a victims' pension in Northern Ireland. While I accept that the Executive and the Assembly are the best route to deliver such a pension, in light of the delay, would the First Minister be opposed to looking at Westminster as potentially the best route to deliver the scheme to ensure that innocent victims and survivors receive the pension that they rightly deserve?
Mrs Foster: The office and I, in particular, are particularly upset that the scheme has not proceeded as it was meant to do. We do not have agreement on a designated Department yet. I certainly hope that that will change and that we can get agreement on a designated Department. As you know, the Department of Justice has offered to be that Department. Therefore, it is important that we proceed, because it is wrong that innocent victims are not receiving what they are legally entitled to receive. We should recognise the hurt that has been caused by this not coming into operation on the date when it was to do so, and we should work to make sure that we have agreement on the designated Department as soon as possible. However, if that is not possible and given that this came from Westminster through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 originally and then through the regulations of January this year, the Westminster Government have an obligation to look to other ways to deal with the issue.
Ms McLaughlin: Does the Minister agree that, 22 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is obscene that our citizens who have been brutally maimed by their fellow countrymen are still in a state of limbo regarding their pension payments? I am ashamed: are you?
Mrs Foster: I think that I have already said to the Member that we very much should recognise the hurt and pain that has been caused by the fact that the pension is not in place. We all have a duty to acknowledge that; I certainly acknowledge that. However, there is no point in acknowledgement unless we try to make sure that it happens quickly, and I am certainly committed to trying to do that. It is legally in place now, and therefore there is an obligation on us to make sure that the pension payment comes forward as quickly as possible so that we can help those who were dreadfully injured during the period euphemistically called "the Troubles".
Mrs Foster: This will be answered by junior Minister Lyons.
Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): The process to select the panel of experts is under way, and it is expected that the panel will be in place by July this year. Executive Office officials provided written briefing to the Ad Hoc Committee in late April in respect of the process and provided an update on progress at a meeting on 4 June.
Ms Kimmins: When is the process likely to be completed and the appointments made?
Mr Lyons: Unfortunately, given the current pandemic, it has not been possible to bring the work forward in as expedient a way as we might have initially planned. That said, significant progress has now been made. Potential members of the panel of experts have been identified, contacted by officials and invited to submit an expression-of-interest form by 15 June. The form allows the candidate to set out their relevant expertise. That information will then inform the selection of panel members, who are expected to be appointed in July. We know how important the issue is to many Members, and it is important that the panel is in place so that it can support the Ad Hoc Committee. In particular, as the Committee says, the panel of experts will be there to help with the particular circumstances that we face in Northern Ireland. Those should not be taken lightly, and that is why the New Decade, New Approach agreement states that the establishment of cross-party and cross-community support will be critical in advancing a bill of rights. That is why the panel needs to be in place to help with that work.
Mrs Foster: The management of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Executive's number-one priority over recent months. Our objective has been to help keep people safe and to support those who have faced real hardship as a result of the pandemic. The extraordinary measures that we have introduced have drastically affected the way each of us lives our lives, and, whilst there is no room for complacency, I am pleased to say that the measures are working and, as a result, many lives have been saved.
I am pleased to say that, through our regular review of the restrictions, the scientific evidence has allowed us to relax some of them to restore some of our freedoms to work, visit and play. The Executive have also started the process of developing a recovery framework that will have a particular focus on achieving effective health, economic and societal recovery.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Executive for the mitigations that they have put in place to protect our people.
Throughout COVID-19, extra finance has been provided for families in some of our more deprived communities whose children qualify for free school meals. Obviously, that funding will end at the end of the academic year at the end of this month. Given that I represent some of the most deprived communities not just in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom, can I ask whether the Executive will look at putting in extra resource for those families, to address the issue of holiday hunger over the summer months?
Mrs Foster: I am very sympathetic to ensuring that our young people have the certainty of at least one good meal per day over the summer months. We know that that is a challenge for many families, and I know that the deputy First Minister also takes the issue very seriously. Having spoken to the Education Minister, I know that he is also very supportive.
The Department for Communities has been ensuring that young people in receipt of free school meals have continued to be supported when they have been off school during the COVID-19 crisis. Of course, doing well in education can depend on a range of home and personal factors, but we need to ensure that young people have the best possible opportunities to succeed when they return to school, hopefully in late August/September.
There are exceptional circumstances due to COVID-19. Therefore, I will propose to the Executive that meals continue to be provided to that cohort of children over the summer period this year if the necessary finances can be secured.
Mrs Foster: The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will require a whole-of-government approach, together with the collective prioritisation of resources to ensure the best outcome for our citizens. There are significant financial challenges arising from the pandemic, and all Departments are undertaking a reprioritisation exercise to ensure that available budgets are aligned with key priority areas. Cost implications of any expenditure proposals, including those outlined in New Decade, New Approach, that have not been specifically funded will be considered in that context and will include all relevant public-sector expenditure evaluation and assessment processes.
Mr Storey: I thank the First Minister for her answer. Given the obvious challenges that we face, which she referred to in her answer, I seek assurance that financial prudence and accountability are at the centre of the decisions that will be made. I say that on the back of an increasing number of reports coming from the Comptroller and Auditor General, not least the recent one regarding the LandWeb situation, about which he states:
"I am alarmed that mechanisms were not put in place to secure better value for money".
I appreciate the financial —
Mr Storey: — problems that we will face, but an assurance that things will be done in a way that is prudent and in the best interests of our citizens is vital.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments. Of course, it is a key principle, when it comes to budgeting and public expenditure, that money is put to use in a way that delivers maximum benefit and that the Executive are accountable for all the spend. That is why every expenditure decision must be supported by a proportionate business case that is properly appraised and approved as well. To help us with that task and ensure that all decisions are properly taken on the basis of informed evidence, the Department of Finance has produced a comprehensive guide to expenditure appraisal and approval, and all the projects in New Decade, New Approach will go through such a procedure.
Mrs Foster: The implementation of the protocol is a reserved matter for Her Majesty's Government. On 20 May, the Government published their proposals for the implementation of the protocol in a Command Paper, 'The UK's approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol'. Some elements of the delivery and implementation of the protocol, such as the agri-food requirements, fall within our devolved competence, and the Executive have committed to working with Her Majesty's Government to ensure the delivery of those elements by the end of the transition period.
Ms C Kelly: Minister, thank you for your answer. What stakeholder engagement has taken place to date?
Mrs Foster: Stakeholder engagement has already begun. Through the Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State set up a number of meetings with the business community, and junior Ministers Kearney and Lyons attended those. I think that those took place last Wednesday. The deputy First Minister and I intend to have more stakeholder engagement as we move through the implementation of the protocol. We think that it is very important to be able to communicate both ways in relation to what is needed in respect of the implementation of the protocol, and then for us to communicate as to the stage of the negotiations. Therefore, stakeholder engagement will continue, and we think that it is necessary as we move to implement the protocol.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The sound system was picking up interference from a mobile phone just then, so I ask Members to ensure that their phone does not interfere with their microphone.
Mrs Foster: Economic recovery is a key priority for the Executive, and promoting Northern Ireland overseas will be a key aspect of that recovery process. The Executive's offices in Washington DC, Brussels and Beijing have an important role to play in representing our priorities in those countries and regions. They will influence and lobby other government decision-makers to help promote our economic priorities, including tourism, businesses and education. That includes lobbying for market access, engaging with Governments to get favourable relationships for our businesses and universities and promoting our agriculture and tourism offering. Each of our overseas offices will help to identify economic opportunities with other Governments, and work with Invest Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland and other organisations as part of a corporate approach to developing those opportunities.
Mr Harvey: Thank you for your response, First Minister. Our tourism sector will be significantly impacted by the lack of international travel and the current quarantine regulations. Do you foresee the sector requiring additional assistance in the time ahead?
Mrs Foster: I think that the sector will be very pleased with the announcements that the Executive made yesterday in relation to bringing forward the dates for reopening hotels, restaurants, caravan and self-catering accommodation because that gives it the opportunity to market its destinations.
I very much hope that people living in Northern Ireland will take a look at Northern Ireland through new glasses this year and holiday at home, perhaps visit somewhere that they have not been to for some time or discover the delights of, one might be tempted to say, Fermanagh, although other places are available, of course. [Laughter.]
It is important that we send out a message that we want to support our tourism industry. We want people to look at the opportunities on their doorsteps, and, maybe, rediscover places where they have not been for some time. I hope that people will take that opportunity.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Before I proceed, I would like to take this opportunity to place on record the thanks of the Executive to Mr John Larkin QC, who has served as Attorney General for 10 years. The role of Attorney General is extremely important, and Mr Larkin fulfilled that role in an exemplary fashion.
As set out in our written statement yesterday, Mr Larkin's term of office — his second term of office, actually — ends on 30 June 2020. It is our intention to identify and appoint a successor through an open competition based on the principles that apply to public appointments. We have tasked officials to look into that process to take it forward. We have agreed that Ms Brenda King, First Legislative Counsel, will discharge the functions of Attorney General in the interim.
Mr Gildernew: I welcome the fact that the recruitment process to replace the outgoing Attorney General will be through open competition, as is appropriate.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte mhór a chur roimh Brenda King. I sincerely welcome Brenda King as a interim Attorney General. She serves the Executive as chief legislative adviser, and has done for the past decade. She is an experienced and respected lawyer, including as a former president of the Commonwealth Association of Legislative Counsel. It is very welcome to increasingly see more women occupying positions at the highest levels of public life, alongside yourself, First Minister, and Michelle O'Neill, as joint heads of Government. If I may, I would like to say that I hope that Ms King does not experience a frosty reception as she must have done when she completed her work in the Arctic Circle. I also hope —
Mr Gildernew: — that the cold winds of change continue to blow along the corridors of male power and privilege.
So, my question is: do the Executive intend to review the remit of the future Attorney General given that it is a decade since the original Attorney General was appointed?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments, in particular on behalf of Ms King. I think that she will provide a good service to us in the interim. She has been an excellent First Counsel and I think that she will continue to do that and provide us with excellent advice.
Given that the Attorney General's office was established 10 years ago, and Mr Larkin served during those 10 years, it is now prudent to review the terms of reference of the office and the terms and conditions of the post holder. However, we do not want to unduly delay the process of appointing a new Attorney General. I advised the Advocate General for Northern Ireland today, as I should, that we are going to an open process and have appointed Ms King in the interim, because it is important that Ms Braverman is aware that we have made that appointment as well. This is an opportunity, as the Member said, to see what the terms of reference are for the office and look at the post holder's terms and conditions.
Mrs Foster: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the planning and delivery of health and social care services cannot be underestimated and it has compounded the challenges that those services were already facing. This has been a continuing concern of the Executive Committee and, following consultation with ministerial colleagues, the Minister of Health has published a strategic framework for rebuilding health and social care services in which he sets out his plans to rebuild and improve those services in what will remain a very difficult and uncertain environment for some time.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the First Minister for her answer so far. Does she agree that with the COVID-19 response, albeit that it is very important from a medical point of view, other illnesses have possibly been left behind and that some people, including those who are suffering from heart disease and cancer etc, feel somewhat left out?
Mrs Foster: I know that the Minister of Health has been before the House and has published his strategic framework for rebuilding. However, it is very much a concern for the Executive that non-COVID-19 healthcare, because of the very reason of trying to protect citizens from COVID-19, had to take a back seat. We are very concerned about that and we want to make sure that we ramp-up those services again. The Minister of Health has set out how he intends to do that, and service activity plans and targets will be developed for each programme of care and speciality, with those updated every three months. Therefore, a series of actions, including for cancer care, adult social care, mental health services, ophthalmic and dental services and, indeed, all other allied health professions, will underpin his plans and it is very important that we move ahead on those issues.
Mrs Foster: The Executive Office has lead responsibility for delivering actions B1 to B4. Good progress has been made on actions B1, B2 and B3. This includes the Northern Ireland Civil Service adopting the employer's guidance on recruiting people with conflict-related convictions, while access to financial services and travel advice has also been improved.
On action B4, also known as the Communities in Transition project, delivery partners have been appointed to deliver 29 individual projects across the eight areas of focus for the project, which include the greater Ardoyne and New Lodge area in north Belfast.
Mr G Kelly: As you mentioned, B1, B2 and B3 have made fair progress, and I think that you also accepted that B4 has been through a series of delays. I congratulate the communities for persisting in that.
Will the First Minister ensure that the work under B4 will continue and that it will build safe, confident and resilient communities?
Mrs Foster: I think that the work in B4 has been successful. Obviously, we understand that there was a delay at the start of it but that was to allow communities to be a part of the co-design of what the interventions would be in their community. I think that that has been welcomed by the communities. It is important that stakeholders are involved in the design of any project that is there.
There will continue to be a cross-departmental plan in dealing with Communities in Transition. The deputy First Minister and I have been impressed with the way in which the programmes have been able to flex with regard to COVID-19. They still continue to deliver services despite the fact that they have had to deal with the pandemic. Indeed, we were at the launch of a Communities in Transition project, albeit via Zoom, on 29 May up in Londonderry in the Creggan and Brandywell areas. Therefore, we have continued with the Communities in Transition programme, albeit that some of it has to be delivered remotely at this time.
Mrs Foster: It is clear that the changes that have been brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, with the emergency response measures that we had to put in place to keep people safe and to protect our magnificent health service, have been considerable. Our response is working well and we know how important it is to keep up our guard. We have reached an important point in the crisis where we are looking beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to affect a robust and sustainable recovery, rebuild public services and to restore more normal ways of living.
That process has started, along with the ongoing review of the restrictions and relaxations that we have announced.
The Executive have also started the process of developing a comprehensive recovery framework, which will form an important element of the next Programme for Government.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the First Minister for her answer. We know that the Programme for Government underpins all the business that we do in this House. What lessons have been learned through COVID-19 around collective responsibility and cross-departmental working, which we know is imperative when it comes to the Programme for Government?
Mrs Foster: It is something that we have greatly benefited from. COVID-19 has brought many challenges, but it has also shown that we can work in a cross-departmental way and deliver outcomes in a fast fashion, which, sometimes, is a challenge for Departments, but we have been able to do that during this pandemic, and we should learn the lessons of that and try to move forward.
We were on target to deliver our new programme in April before the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality. Obviously, we are now in a very different environment from where we were at the beginning of March. So, it is clear that some of the planning assumptions that we were adhering to will have to be reviewed, but it is still our plan to deliver an outcomes-based Programme for Government. We think that that is the way forward, and the past three months have underlined the need for us to do that.
Mrs Foster: I welcome the publication of the report. The Northern Ireland Executive have been working closely with the other devolved Administrations to develop policy and legislation in relation to the common frameworks. As a result of the good intergovernmental working arrangements, the UK Government have not needed to use the freezing powers provided for in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act.
The report references the principles for developing frameworks agreed in October 2017 at the Joint Ministerial Committee (European negotiations) and, in welcoming the restoration of the Executive, refers to our consideration of those principles. I am pleased to announce that those were endorsed at the Executive meeting yesterday.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the First Minister. I think perhaps she has answered my supplementary question by yesterday's decision of the Executive, but I note that, in the report at paragraph 1.4, the principles governing the frameworks were agreed by the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments in October 2017, and, in paragraph 1.32, the same three Governments have agreed to engage their legislatures in pre-legislative scrutiny. So, does yesterday's decision, which you have just mentioned to the Assembly, include all those actions?
Mrs Foster: We confirmed the principles yesterday at the Brexit subcommittee of the Executive. I have approved the correspondence to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to inform him of that. We will now be looking at the legislative scrutiny of the different Bills that have to come to this place. Obviously, there are some that will be taken forward at Westminster. When that happens, I very much hope that the Committees and this House, by legislative consent motion, will have a mechanism in which to be involved in the legislation.
Mr Allister: Taking what the Minister said in her earlier answer about withdrawal from the EU, am I now to take it that the First Minister accepts the iniquitous protocol, which will create a border down the Irish Sea? Does she no longer fear or think that it will create constitutional and economic damage of a catastrophic nature? Is that why it seems that the Executive are now working to implement the protocol that was hitherto anathema?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. First of all, there is not much point in standing and saying that we do not accept the protocol when the protocol is legislative reality. I may not like it — I do not like it, and let us be very clear about that — but my job now as First Minister is to try and make sure that we minimise any checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Obviously, there are SPS checks at the moment between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we have to make sure that those are kept to a minimum. We must make sure that there is unfettered access, as it says in the UK Government command paper, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
We will very much want to see the Government standing up to their commitments in the Command Paper. I can say all the day long that I am against the protocol, but it is a legislative reality. Therefore, I have to deal with it.
Mr McGrath: Given the destructive impact that COVID has had on business in the North and the fact that all sectors do not want to see any further damage caused to their business, have the Executive given any consideration to extending the transition period to make sure that Brexit has a minimal impact on businesses here?
Mrs Foster: That is exactly what we are trying to achieve. We are working with Her Majesty's Government to make sure that we have a minimal amount of interference with our businesses, which continue to provide a great service to the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that we continue to do that.
Of course, it is a reserved matter for the United Kingdom Government and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made it very clear at the Joint Committee, which the deputy First Minister and I attended last Friday, that the UK Government would not be asking for an extension to the Brexit transition period. That being the case, our focus should very much be on trying to get certainty and clarity for our businesses. They very much need that and we are very much committed to trying to achieve that.
Mrs Foster: The Executive have reaffirmed the commitments set out in 'New Decade, New Approach' to establish a graduate-entry medical school on the Magee campus. Their objective now is to progress the project to secure a sustainable outcome within the fastest feasible timetable. It is a complex project involving a number of Departments and external agencies. The Executive Office is working with the Department of Health, the Department for the Economy and the Department of Finance to prepare further advice to Executive on the issues that need to be addressed to secure that sustainability.
Mr Durkan: I thank the First Minister for her response. Given the announcement from the deputy First Minister on 7 May that the Executive Office would take forward the medical school project and her subsequent announcement that it had been approved, can the Executive Office give a cast-iron guarantee that, as announced, the Magee medical school will be ready for admissions by September next year? Will the Minister outline what specific dates and deadlines must be met to achieve that goal?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Just yesterday, at the Executive meeting, we received an update from the head of the Civil Service about the project. The Strategic Investment Board is involved to try to make sure that we minimise the risks to the delivery of the project. The head of the Civil Service was able to give us an update on the progress of the Magee medical school and, indeed, to talk us through the risk management issues.
We do not intend to make any announcements about the date of the first intake until all the necessary preparatory work has been completed, and we very much hope that that will continue at pace in the Executive Office. As I said, it is a cross-departmental issue involving a number of different Departments, which is why the Executive Office stepped in to try to assist in making sure that things move smoothly.
Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her comments so far. Minister, you will, of course, be aware that one of the key strategic partners for Magee is Ulster University. It has been involved in some very significant cost overruns on another one of its campuses. Indeed, I think that there are investigations ongoing into whether it is capable of managing projects. Therefore, what confidence does the Minister have in Ulster University being a suitable partner for delivering this vital project for Londonderry?
Mrs Foster: I note the Member's comments. Some of those matters are, of course, for the Minister for the Economy, and I am sure that he will take those up with her. Capacity and finance are clearly issues that will have to be examined in a wider look at risk management in the scheme. That was why the head of the Civil Service was able to give us an update yesterday. We have involved the Strategic Investment Board to look at all those issues so that, moving forward, we know where the risks are and can make sure that we are in a good place with the delivery of that commitment.
Ms Sugden: I understand that considerable capital moneys have been committed to the Magee project. Will it be necessary to provide additional moneys to the Department for the Economy for the running and day-to-day costs or will it have to find those from within its budget?
Mrs Foster: As I said, the financial and governance challenges facing UU will be overseen by the Strategic Investment Board. It is important that we have that body looking in at what we are trying to achieve to give us the confidence that any risks that are identified can be managed and mitigated. Those Ulster University matters will be taken forward by the Department for the Economy with oversight from the Executive Office.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, all 15 questions have been answered by the First Minister and the junior Minister. As such, we have come to the end of questions to the Executive Office. I invite Members to take their ease for a few moments until 2.45 pm, at which point Question Time will resume with questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I say, for the benefit of Members who may not have been in the Chamber earlier, that the Member who listed the question will be offered a supplementary question. If we are ahead of schedule near the end of the list, other Members may have an opportunity for supplementary questions.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): No official statistics have been published yet for household recycling rates during the pandemic, and, therefore, I cannot definitively identify whether there has been a significant impact on the household recycling rate, compared with pre-COVID figures. Provisional information for household recycling during the quarter from April to June will not be available until 20 October. Unverified information from councils and private waste companies suggests an increase in recycling at the kerbside due to more people being at home. However, there has also been a corresponding reported increase in kerbside residual waste arisings.
Northern Ireland is already well positioned in terms of recycling. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the latest official statistics showed a provisional household recycling rate of 52·3% for the 12-month rolling period up to 31 December 2019. The EU 2020 target of 50% for waste from households recycling was also met during 2019. During the last decade, the household recycling rate has increased by 15 percentage points. In order to normalise recycling behaviours post COVID and build on the momentum for recycling observed in recent years, communications and capital funding initiatives are being delivered to assist with recovery.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his answer. One of my proudest achievements in my former role as Environment Minister was to get every school in Northern Ireland on the Eco-Schools programme: the only place in the world to achieve that. However, we have a bit of a problem in our schools with where their waste goes, with some schools having no recycling facility whatsoever. That is environmentally damaging and a drain on public finance. Will the Minister work with his counterpart and colleague in Education to ensure a better approach to waste disposal across our school estate?
Mr Poots: I am happy to do that. I will pass the Member's question to Minister Weir and will ask him for a response as well in following that up.
Mr Poots: I anticipate that a decision on the application for a marine construction licence for the Islandmagee gas storage project could potentially be made in autumn 2020. It should be noted that there are wider aspects to the project to be considered by other organisations that, I understand, have still to be resolved.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that, in making the decision on the marine licence, there will be considerable public safety and environmental impact concerns about the proposal in the local area, particularly in Islandmagee and across east Antrim. Has additional environmental information been requested from the developer, InfraStrata, and will it be subject to further public consultation?
Mr Poots: Obviously, the planning side of it lies with the Department for Infrastructure, and it is for it to seek further information from the developer, as and when required. I assume that it will have been requesting information as issues arise.
My Department's role has to do with the environment and marine licensing. I have stayed back from it until all the information is available and a recommendation is made to me by the experts who are looking into it.
Mr Poots: At the end of the transition period, the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol will come into effect, whereby Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the EU on certain rules. The challenge of having a fully operational regime agreed and in place by the end of this year remains significant.
From 1 January, the greater the deviation between the UK and the EU in terms of trading arrangements, tariffs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules, the more difficult and intrusive the protocol becomes. Therefore, one of my key priorities is for the EU and UK to agree a zero tariff and zero quota limit deal and to have maximum alignment in SPS arrangements. There is still time to achieve that, and it is in everyone's interest that we do so. If there is no trade agreement between the UK and the EU, the implementation of the protocol becomes even more challenging.
It is my aim to ensure that the Northern Ireland protocol is implemented in a way that maximises the flow of trade and works for Northern Ireland businesses and citizens when it comes to agri-food. That means the continued importation of animal and plant products and live animals into Northern Ireland from GB and continued, unconstrained access for Northern Ireland's businesses to their key market in Great Britain. The Cabinet Office published a command paper on the UK's approach to the Northern Ireland protocol on 20 May. The paper sets out proposals on how UKG will operationalise the protocol and on how a four-point plan for the protocol will be delivered. I welcome the commitments that have been made in the command paper, and my Department will continue to work with UKG and cooperate on that basis.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister for his answer. The agriculture sector was in a time of great difficulty and uncertainty even before the pandemic. Having listened to what he said, I feel that he must, surely, agree that we must extend the transition period to allow some stability in the sector before the impact of Brexit.
Mr Poots: A lot of stability would come about if Michel Barnier would lift the nonsense of an idea that we need export certificates to go from NI to GB. The UK Government have made it clear that that is not something that they need, wish for or desire. Every party in the Chamber needs to reject Mr Barnier's suggestion that those are required, because they will be damaging to every business that exports to GB and, consequently, to their employees. Every party needs to respect the well-being of businesses and employees in Northern Ireland and say to Mr Barnier, "Export health certificates are not required for the good food that is produced in Northern Ireland and exported to Great Britain. They have not been required before, and the UK does not want them. We do not need them now, so why are you trying to force them on Northern Ireland and damage Northern Ireland as a consequence?". That would give businesses some surety.
Mr Poots: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I and my officials have been in regular contact with industry representatives and stakeholders to assess its impact. I have been concerned about the serious threat to farm incomes due to falling farmgate prices in some sectors as a result of the closure of markets in food service and hospitality and the significant risk that that could pose to the existence of otherwise viable farm businesses. From factual monitoring of market data and farmgate prices, I was aware that losses had already occurred in the beef, dairy, ornamental horticulture and spring lamb production sectors. I have since become aware of other issues in the sheep sector related to the market for wool.
The £25 million COVID support package will be targeted towards the businesses that have been hardest hit financially as a direct result of the pandemic. To that end, my officials continue to monitor the impact on all sectors, including the sheep sector, and are assessing the need for support as circumstances evolve.
It is also important to note that I am still concerned about the longer-term market for livestock and the knock-on effect that the pandemic might have on farmgate prices later in the season, when more lambs are marketed and store lambs are sold. If market developments over the coming weeks and months dictate that we need more funding, I will go back to the Executive to seek additional support.
Mr Harvey: I thank the Minister for his answer. A significant proportion is exported via markets to the Republic. Will the Department take market prices in the Republic into consideration when determining whether assistance is required?
Mr Poots: The period when lamb prices dipped quite badly was shorter than was the case for the beef and dairy industries. We are happy to look at all of the markets. Obviously, not all lambs that are going to slaughter are slaughtered in Northern Ireland; quite a lot are slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland and, consequently, are sold in live markets. That is an area that we will look at.
Mr Poots: My Department continually monitors the quality of air across Northern Ireland. That includes monitoring such pollutants as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. My Department has noted that, whilst levels of nitrogen dioxide have remained lower since lockdown in 2020 than they were in previous years, the levels of particulate matter have varied considerably. On 9 April, for example, my Department issued an air pollution alert for the following day, due to the levels of particulate matter forecasted. The primary sources of particulate matter in Northern Ireland are domestic wood and coal burning and industrial combustion. Nitrogen dioxide sources include domestic and industrial combustion and road transport.
Air pollution is affected by local topography and weather conditions, and concentrations of pollutants can vary in a relatively short period. Therefore continuous monitoring of air quality is needed to fully assess any real changes and their subsequent impacts. My officials will continue to monitor the data collected, and I encourage everyone to download the new Northern Ireland air app in order to receive the most up-to-date information on the quality of air across Northern Ireland.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. As a Belfast representative, I find it remarkable to see the difference not only in air quality but in the sights and sounds of nature around us. As we see lockdown easing and people returning to their normal way of life, especially travelling in and out of Belfast, have you had conversations with the Minister for Infrastructure about people using their own vehicle because they are afraid to use public transport because of fears around social distancing?
Mr Poots: Those issues have been discussed at Executive. Certainly, there is a significant problem with people not using public transport because of fears related to COVID-19, which is entirely understandable. The upside of all of this is that many people have demonstrated that working from home can happen and works extremely well. I welcome the fact that many people are working from home and doing so productively. I hope that, going forward, firms, businesses and, indeed, government and local government will look at how they can facilitate more people working from home. That may not mean that somebody works from home five days a week, but it may mean that they work from home two or three days a week. In instances where you have a good assessment of the volume and quality of work that people do and it works, why would you not use it? I hope that, going forward, there will be less pressure on transportation in general as a consequence of that, but I recognise that public transport has a significant problem, going forward, in that people will not feel as comfortable as they did to sit beside a stranger on a bus or train.
Mr Poots: My Department has management oversight of over 190 forest parks, country parks and nature reserves, in addition to a large public angling estate across Northern Ireland. Rural amenity sites also comprise lands owned and managed by a number of other organisations, including councils, Northern Ireland Water and environmental organisations. My Department can put measures in place to prevent antisocial behaviour at sites under our direct management only.
Since the early stages of COVID-19 restrictions, my officials have engaged with the PSNI on an ongoing basis. Where antisocial behaviour becomes apparent at one of the sites that my Department manages, my officials will, where necessary, request the attendance of the PSNI. The PSNI has been very supportive and proactive to date, and I express my thanks for their service on that point.
The reopening of car parks at rural amenity sites coincided with a period of good weather and an easing of social restrictions. Unfortunately, antisocial behaviour occurred at a number of sites and beauty spots; in particular, there were large gatherings, consumption of alcohol and littering. Those issues were, unfortunately, not unique to one area. Issues were reported on a number of beaches, in the Mournes and at other scenic locations. I am disappointed by those who behaved in such an irresponsible manner through their lack of adherence to social responsibilities and their disregard for our environment. At this time, many people value the opportunity to get out and enjoy the peace and mental well-being offered by nature, and such selfish behaviour by some ruins the experience for others. The images and videos circulated on social media of antisocial behaviour at some sites, such as Crawfordsburn and Helen’s Bay, were of great concern to me and, I am sure, my Executive colleagues.
Messaging was issued encouraging social and environmental responsibilities during these difficult times, but, unfortunately, some people are hard to get through to.
With over 7·3 million visits per annum to the estate managed by my Department, it is, unfortunately, inevitable that some level of antisocial behaviour will occur periodically. To prevent antisocial behaviour from occurring, my staff monitor sites through regular routine patrols, which, in combination with visitor feedback and reports, allow for appropriate action to be taken where issues may be arising. Information is fed back to the PSNI as necessary to help to target problem sites. I would like to praise my officials for dealing with such issues in circumstances that are often difficult and challenging and, in particular, for dealing with the large volume of litter left behind in preparing those sites for public use.
Mr Hilditch: I concur with much of what the Minister has outlined on the activities that are going on. The sites have opened up, and, for good reasons of exercise and mental health, they are being well used by a potential new audience. Does the Minister see a way forward to working with other Departments to potentially further develop the amenity sites so that people coming into the area put them to good use rather than for anything else?
Mr Poots: Absolutely. We have been engaging with local authorities, and I was recently up in south Tyrone to open a park in that area. Excellent work has been done by the local council. Hillsborough Forest park, for example, is now the responsibility of the local authority there, and it has spent a lot of money ensuring that the paths are all suitable for people with disabilities and for families with children in prams and so forth. That is excellent work, and we want to do more of that. We want to continue to work with local authorities and others to develop our parks, to develop our great outdoors and to encourage people to go out and enjoy the wonderful facilities and assets that we have here in Northern Ireland. I suppose that people are probably not going on holidays this year, so staycations will be all the more important. Therefore, properly monitoring and providing the appropriate facilities for the public to go and enjoy days out will be ever more important.
Mr Poots: The environment fund multi-year strategic strand supports the delivery of priority environmental outcomes across Northern Ireland by environmental non-governmental organisations and councils. Funded organisations have always been able to request quarterly payment in advance where they have identified a need for this. To assist with the impacts of COVID-19, grant recipients were issued with emails in May, reminding them of this option and asking them whether they wish to seek any amendments to their current 2020-21 environment fund grant.
Mr Lynch: Like all groups, Minister, during COVID-19, NGOs have been struggling with cash flow. What other means has the Minister taken to assist environmental NGOs, not just in the current crisis but to make financial support more certain going forward?
Mr Poots: We have 23 organisations funded under the multi-year strategic strand, and they have been offered funding totalling just over £2·2 million in 2020-21. Additional in-year funding may be offered to these organisations if additional budget becomes available later in the year. We also have a capital environment challenge fund competition, and it is for £650,000. So, close to £3 million of support is being offered to these organisations, which is of great assistance to them in the work that they do.
Mr Poots: The Environment Bill, alongside existing environmental legislation, provides a basis for continued environmental protection and improvement in Northern Ireland. Making such protection temporary or contingent upon something that the Assembly may or may not agree at an unspecified point in the future in the challenging circumstances that we face at the moment is not, I believe, the best way to safeguard the environment. I appreciate that some people may have proposals that differ from what is in the Bill. If these are put forward, I will be happy to consider them in the future, and the Assembly will be free to make whatever changes it sees fit. However, if the Bill does not go forward, the result will be a loss of existing environmental safeguards.
Mr G Kelly: The Minister has gone into what I was going to ask him. Will he commit to bringing to the Assembly an environment Bill that will build on existing environmental protections?
Mr Poots: The first issue is to get the current Environment Bill through and to secure environmental protections. Thereafter, it is for either me or another Member of the Assembly to bring forward further legislation, as and when required, that can enhance our support for having good environmental practice in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots: My Department's Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has 413 reportable active investigations into alleged environmental offending. The cases are all at various stages of consideration and cover purported waste, water and natural environment criminality.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you, Minister. How many of those investigations will meet the test for prosecution? If and when people are prosecuted, do you believe that the punishment fits the crime and serves as an exemplar to others not to indulge in such behaviour?
Mr Poots: There is a series of means of dealing with cases. Some will involve the issuing of warning letters. Some will involve automatic fines from the NIEA. Some will involve seizing property, equipment and so on. Some cases will go to court. When the NIEA takes someone to court, it always seeks to recover costs. The fine is a matter for the judge sitting on the day. We encourage judges to implement fines that reflect the nature of the event. The public very often do not believe that that has been the case. It is a matter for the judiciary, however.
Mr Poots: Although agricultural is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Northern Ireland inventory, the farmed landscape also contains important sinks for carbon in soils, peatlands, forestry, hedgerows and farm trees. The ability of our farmed landscape to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in soils and vegetation places farmers, as our primary land managers, at the forefront of efforts to offset local GHG emissions and contribute to the UK's net-zero-by-2050 ambition.
Alongside their vital role in producing nutritious food, farmers can play a crucial role in further enhancing carbon stocks by proactively adopting practices that conserve our pastures and increase farm woodland and hedgerows; by maintaining and restoring our peatlands; and by applying only nutrients that meet the crops' needs. My Department will continue to assist farmers to adopt low-carbon farming practices through scientific research, knowledge transfer and farm support schemes.
Among the body of scientific research is work to account more accurately for the amount of carbon stored and sequestered in our grassland soils. Emerging evidence indicates that managed grasslands continue to sequester carbon after 47 years and that sequestration rates are enhanced where cattle slurry is applied, which is a common practice on farms in Northern Ireland.
The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) is delivering advice to farmers through various channels, including the new environmental business development groups programme, which focuses on sustainable farm systems and helps farmers identify carbon-reduction measures and how to increase their farm's carbon sequestration.
Forest Service is leading on the Forests for our Future programme, which aims to create 9,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030. It plans to open a new, stand-alone small woodland grant scheme to help farmers integrate woodland on their farms. Moreover, the environmental farming scheme supports carbon-friendly practices, including maintaining and establishing native woodland, hedgerows, agroforestry and peatland restoration. I am confident that farmers will continue to participate positively in those initiatives and help put sustainability at the heart of our living, working, active landscape.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his responses. I am sure that he will agree with me that farmers work tirelessly to improve our environment.
Mr Poots: There are many opportunities to which farmers are applying themselves. We need to work to ensure that we can continue to improve farm practices, which have changed dramatically over the last 40 years. I believe that there will be significant changes going forward. However, the farming community are up for those changes.
Mr Poots: The Environment Fund strategic strand supports the delivery of priority environmental outcomes across Northern Ireland. The strategic strand is a three- to four-year programme that began in 2019-2020. Its scope cannot be widened. Additional Environment Fund challenge fund competitions may be operated throughout the year to support environmental priorities being delivered by not-for-profit organisations and councils.
Ms Mullan: Environmental NGOs have found it difficult to make ends meet during this period. Like other charities and NGOs, they have lost income from donations in other areas. Will the Minister tailor support to meet the needs of NGOs of different sizes and types?
Mr Poots: We have been engaging with the environmental NGO sector and recognise the challenges that it is facing as a consequence of COVID-19, such as loss of income and staff and volunteer shortages. We have engaged with other Departments and the UK Administrations to understand the wider impacts of COVID-19 on the environmental sector. The sector is making substantial use of general COVID funding provisions, especially the furlough arrangement. The Department has commented on the proposed charity fund. The Department is not currently considering an additional COVID fund, but that will be kept under review throughout the year.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, we are ahead of schedule. It is my intention to allow supplementary questions following the remaining questions for oral answer if any Members wish to indicate.
Mr Poots: At the outset, I can assure you that I share and appreciate your concerns at this difficult time. In response to, and from the outset of the crisis, my officials have coordinated and facilitated regular — often daily — meetings between the relevant representative industry bodies, individual food business operators (FBOs), the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland, the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland and the Public Health Agency. The principal objective of these meetings and associated communications is to ensure that the industry as a whole, and individual FBOs in particular, are familiar with and implementing the latest PHA guidance, which is primarily aimed at ensuring a safe working environment for all personnel and minimising the risk of COVID transmission in the workplace.
Mr Lyttle: I am sure that the Minister will agree that the agri-food sector is an essential and proudly diverse workforce. Can the Minister assure the Assembly that COVID-19 infection prevention and control guidance is being made available to agri-food workplaces in multi-lingual formats and that all workplaces are being supported to provide adequate PPE to our agri-food sector key workers?
Mr Poots: The food business operators have been working with a wide range of people from various ethnic backgrounds, who have chosen to come and work here, and are expert in their communication with them. Actual communication is not so much of a problem: sometimes the attention paid to some of the communication can be more of a problem. Many people are sharing transport and are from the same households. Leaving aside what is happening in the workplace, there are consequences from where the people live and how they travel to and from their workplace. That said, the levels of absenteeism in the workforce are incredibly low. The public sector would be delighted if it could get to the levels of absenteeism that the private sector workforce has achieved in the midst of a pandemic.
Ms Armstrong: Is the Minister convinced that enough PPE will be made available to our agri-food producers to ensure that those staff members and our food chain will be kept safe?
Mr Poots: Agri-food tends to be ahead of the game and routinely uses PPE. Obviously, agri-food businesses have had to introduce additional PPE, which is a challenge at this time for every organisation, but the businesses are quite versatile. I should say that they are complaining about how much they have had to spend and would like some government support. It is not for my Department to do that; it comes under DFE and is a matter for DFE to consider.
Keeping those people safe is important; they account for 32% of our manufacturing output in Northern Ireland. They have kept food on the tables right across Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Their work has been key and we should be very proud of what as been achieved by them — the ordinary working people in the agri-food sector — and greatly appreciate all of them, wherever they have come from, on doing the work that, quite frankly, a lot of people in Northern Ireland turn their nose up at. I greatly appreciate the fact that they do that job.
Mr O'Dowd: With regard to the food production sector's response to COVID-19 and working people, will the Minister reconsider his decision not to assist Lough Neagh Fisheries, and those who work in the eel fisheries, in response to COVID-19? Many sectors have received financial support but this sector has not.
Mr Poots: It is going off from the original question but I am happy to answer. I have not made any such decision not to fund them. The eel fisheries only really get going in June, or from the end of May onwards, so we were waiting to assess their markets and we are beginning to get a better feel for it. The Member has requested a meeting with me. I am very happy to do that and hear all the arguments, but no decision has been made.
Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for his comments and the individuals in the food sector who have supplied food throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Is the Minister aware, or concerned, that, at this late stage, many businesses and support businesses sit outside the business support scheme and are still struggling today?
Mr Poots: Again, the remit for that falls outside my Department. It is something that I, as a MLA, have received communication on. I recognise that it is extremely difficult to spread something which targets every group and every business in Northern Ireland. It is hugely unfortunate that some businesses have fallen outside. I should say that £410 million has been put into the business economies across Northern Ireland and that will make the difference between a lot of businesses going under and getting to the other side of COVID-19. Whilst I agree with the Member, I also recognise that a massive amount of work has been done in support of business across Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots: My Department is scoping and implementing the following cross-cutting programme of work: understanding the processes required to reduce friction on trade, as far as is possible, while meeting the legal requirements of our statutory role, which is to carry out sanitary and phytosanitary checks at the point of entry; understanding the IT requirements that will facilitate movement of trade while seeking to minimise the impact on traders; and understanding the minimum requirements for each of the designated, or potentially designated, points of entry to Northern Ireland that will meet EU specifications.
My officials have commenced engagement with a range of key stakeholders to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to facilitate the movement of goods and products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland whilst complying with the statutory requirements of the Northern Ireland protocol. To date, this has included engagement with Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint ports and their key users, in conjunction with representatives from the relevant local councils, HMRC, Border Force, Food Standards Agency and other relevant Departments. Meetings are also being planned with Northern Ireland's airports and Foyle port. I have been clear that I wish to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that maximises the flow of trade and works for Northern Ireland’s businesses and citizens.
Dr Aiken: Can the Minister explain, in the absence of any detail on costs, an explanation of the declarations or any other information on article 5(2) of the protocol, which is, as he is well aware, about deciding and establishing the criteria under which goods moving into Northern Ireland from GB or from outside the EU would be considered:
"at risk of subsequently being moved into the Union",
how he can be, in his own words, so positive that:
"The Brexit Deal could being advantages to Northern Ireland, giving access to both the UK market and the EU single market",
when everyone else cannot see it?
Mr Poots: Quite rightly, the Member quotes the relevant paragraph on goods that are "at risk" of entering the EU market. Many trucks bring in vital goods for our shops and supermarkets. Such goods should not be considered in any way, shape or form to be "at risk". Clearly, they are coming to stay in Northern Ireland. Consequently, we will deal with that.
Another series of goods can be easily identified as staying in Northern Ireland. The trusted trader scheme needs to kick in. We had made no progress on this issue for a number of months because the UK Government had not given us the required detail. They did so a number of weeks ago. Consequently, we have started to move forward on the back of that. That has given us a degree of latitude and a degree of confidence that we can better deal with goods coming from GB to Northern Ireland.
I do not like this protocol. Everybody knows that I do not like this protocol. Nonetheless, it is a binding international agreement, it was made by our Government and the European Union, and we are subservient to the Westminster Government on this issue. We have to take actions to ensure that, from 1 January next year, food imported to Northern Ireland is not imported through Dublin. Therefore, we are taking the steps that need to be taken.
Access to both the GB market and the EU single market, particularly unfettered access, will, I believe, be of clear benefit to any inward investor coming to Northern Ireland. Therefore, if this is to work well, any issue with export health certificates needs to be obliterated in the negotiations.
Mr Allister: Since the protocol became law, the Minister is on the record of the House as saying unambiguously in answer to questions:
"I have no intention of facilitating infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports."
He said that he had "no intention". Is that still his position? If not, why has he moved from that position?
Mr Poots: How we can move forward is very clear. The protocol means that the absence of any infrastructure at the ports would lead to a situation where all Northern Ireland goods had to be imported through the Republic of Ireland. I am sure that the Member would not want that or find it desirable. I also point out to him the frailty of the position that he adopted from the outset, which was to put all his faith and all his trust in the Westminster Government as opposed to a devolved Administration that he constantly railed against. This is the consequence of not having a Northern Ireland Assembly and of Westminster dealing exclusively with these issues. Mr Allister should reflect on that. [Interruption.]
Mr Poots: Whether on this issue, abortion or other issues that he shouts a lot about, he has put the power in the hands of those who care less than we do.
Mr Lynch: Does the Minister have any clarity from the British Treasury that it will cover the costs of the additional infrastructure required at our ports to carry out sanitary and phytosanitary checks?
Mr Poots: The answer is no, but the request has been made, and we will work very hard to ensure that we get funding to support this. This is not something that has come about as a consequence of anything that Northern Ireland has done. It is an imposition on Northern Ireland, and, therefore, we need to argue this case very strongly.
Mr Poots: Since the Northern Ireland Executive announced the allocation of the £25 million COVID-19 support package, I have invited views and sought input from a range of industry representatives and stakeholders. On 22 May, I spoke to the AERA Committee and invited members' views on how best to allocate funding to those most affected. I have received their views and independent analysis, reports and industry proposals, and I met representatives of the dairy sector, red meat sector and farming unions to hear their proposals for allocating that funding.
During those discussions, there was a clear acceptance of the need for support to be targeted at those farm businesses hardest hit financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, I received numerous emails and letters from political representatives, farmers, businesses, rural groups and organisations representing farmers' interests, requesting support for a range of sectors, including dairy, beef, ornamental horticulture, sheep, wool, hill farming, potatoes, poultry-breeding egg producers. I will carefully consider all those views and opinions, and will, in the near future, make a decision on how best to allocate this funding in a fair and equitable way, based on evidence.
Ms C Kelly: Many sectors have been affected by the COVID crisis, including sheep and beef primary producers. Can the Minister give an assurance that those sectors will be included in the allocation of the £25 million funding?
Mr Poots: I am happy to support any sector that can provide evidence of COVID-19 having a detrimental financial impact on their businesses. Some cases are clear-cut, some not, but I am very happy to look at all the evidence provided to me. I will arrive at a fair and equitable way to allocate it.
Mrs Barton: The Minister will be aware that the market for the wool harvest has collapsed since COVID-19, and that the cost of harvesting wool is greater than the farmers will get for it. Has he anything in mind to support that?
Mr Poots: I am aware of that. Fleeces, last year, were making around £2 each, which covered the cost of the clipping. There is not much money to be made by sheep farmers for wool any more, unfortunately. This year, there is not really a market for it. Some of the companies are taking wool on the basis that, if they get it sold at some margin, they will provide a payment to the farmer, but, at this stage, they do not have that. It is something I am reflecting on.
Mr Wells: It is accepted, Minister, that the beef and dairy sector are all-powerful within the farming lobby and the quickest to catch the Minister's ear. I draw his attention to the plight of the potato sector. Lots of the produce has been sold as animal feed, rather than to restaurants and supermarkets. Will he bear in mind the need of that sector when he comes to allocating his very welcome £25 million funding?
Mr Poots: It is good to hear the Member speak on behalf of farmers who grow vegetables. That is something close to his heart. Nonetheless, of course we will bear that in mind. In that area, a relatively small number of farmers have been caught out in that way. Potato farmers who have been packing potatoes for the retail outlets have been doing quite well, in the volumes that they have been getting out, and most of their potatoes are gone. However, obviously, those who were supplying that all-important 40% of food through the hospitality sector have been affected. It is an area that we will look at.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. While I was fortunate enough to be called twice in the unscheduled supplementary questions, is it in order to place on record the observation that, apart from the last five minutes of each of these Question Times, they were largely ineffective because, whereas they may have been an exercise in shielding the Ministers and may have worked for them, as far as this House goes, in regard to sustained focused questioning, which often comes from a succession of questions on a particular topic, they were largely ineffective, and ill served the scrutiny function of the House?
Can you take that back to the Speaker's Office and the Business Committee? Why are we doing that when we have a proven system for Question Time with topical questions, which is far more effective?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has put his point on the record. I am sure that everyone will reflect on it. He was called twice on this particular occasion. I do not know whether he is criticising himself. As has been said, it is a new procedure and will be reviewed depending on how everyone feels about it. I ask everyone to feed their views back through the Business Committee so that, in future, we can determine what we think works best.
Mr O'Dowd: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, it has become a regular occurrence, now, that points of order are being made that appear to me, anyhow, as not being points of order but more like statements. If Mr Allister's questioning is ineffective, that is nothing to do with the rest of the House. Certainly, in my opinion, it is bordering on whether that is a point of order or not.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member, too, has put his point on record. Ultimately, it is up to me, as Deputy Speaker, to determine whether it is a point of order and needs to be reflected upon.
Question Time is over. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. We will continue shortly with Executive Committee business. The next item on the Order Paper is a motion on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Mr Kearney: Is é seo an ceathrú huair a tháinig mé féin agus an tAire Lyons anseo le ceadú an Tionóil a iarraidh do na rialacháin seo. This is the fourth time that junior Minister Lyons and I have come before the Assembly to seek its approval for the regulations. As in each of the previous occasions, we have not sought to do so willingly. We would much prefer not to have done so, except for the continuing health emergency.
A LeasCheann Comhairle agus a Chomhaltaí, the Assembly considered and approved the original regulations that were made in March using emergency provisions in the primary legislation. The original regulations, and the subsequent amendments to them, have been brought into operation in the knowledge that scrutiny by the Assembly would follow later. The content of the original regulations is, of course, something with which we are all now very familiar.
There are three main aspects to the regulations. First, they impose restrictions on businesses. Secondly, there are restrictions on gatherings of people, apart from certain exceptional circumstances. Thirdly, there are restrictions on movement. There are also provisions for enforcement and penalties, ranging from a fixed penalty notice to fines of up to £5,000 on summary conviction.
The regulations have built-in protections to ensure that there are frequent, robust reviews of the measures. Regulation 2(2) requires that the restrictions and requirements be reviewed at least once every 21 days. Regulation 2(3) requires that any restrictions or requirements must be terminated as soon as the Department of Health deems that necessary. Those are powerful legislative provisions.
Since the 28 March, when the regulations were first introduced, they have provided the basis for several reviews conducted by the Executive. The Executive's members take the regular reviews of the regulations very seriously and very systematically. We have shown that we will not hesitate to move decisively when the medical and scientific evidence and advice indicates that it is the right time to do so.
The process of review and consideration is continuous and detailed. The health emergency, I can assure Members, has been kept under continuous review, even between the regular statutory review points of 21 days.
The motion is that the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (NI) 2020 be approved. These short amendment regulations give effect to a particular set of changes. Regulation 3, which deals with the closure of premises and businesses, is amended to allow arts and entertainment venues to provide outdoor, drive-in, and live entertainment events. In practice, occupants of vehicles must be from the same household and remain in their vehicle for the duration of the event.
Regulation 5, which deals with the restrictions on movement, is amended to include attendance at an outdoor film, a live music concert, or a theatre performance as a reasonable excuse for a person to leave their home.
Regulation 6, which deals with restrictions on gatherings, is amended to allow attendance at an outdoor film, a live music concert, or a theatre performance.
The amendments may appear modest. However, they mark a small, but important, step on the Executive's pathway to recovery. They have allowed, in a very limited and modest way, families a way to enjoy some much-needed entertainment safely. The purpose of the amendments, and the associated relaxation of restrictions, is designed to create a progressive, cumulative effect.
The Executive continue to keep the regulations under review using the three essential criteria that we published last month. The first is reliance upon evidence and analysis relating to the pandemic. That will include the latest medical and scientific advice and the estimated level and pathway of transmission. That includes the impact that any relaxations might have on the future trajectory of the pandemic.
The second is the capacity of health and social care services to deal with coronavirus cases whilst also returning to the delivery of normal services as soon as possible. The third is the assessment of the wider health, societal and economic impacts of the regulations. That includes the identification of areas where we can achieve the greatest benefit and ensure that the lowest risk will result from any individual relaxation.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, bhíomar soiléir i gcónaí. We have been clear all along: the Executive will not be rushed into making decisions as a result of artificial deadlines or simply to match actions in other jurisdictions. Since the regulations that we are debating today were made, we have agreed to an extensive range of additional relaxations, and that list includes a range of activities such as outdoor weddings, caring for animals, outdoor sports, the reopening of retail shops and other outlets as well as activities associated with moving house. We have also taken steps to allow the hospitality sector to prepare for the reopening of a range of hotel and other accommodation facilities, and the Executive have commenced an incremental and rolling process of easing restrictions, based on scientific advice and, crucially, on the basis of managing and minimising risk.
Tá ag éirí leis an chur chuige seo. The regulations have worked and continue to work. They have saved lives and prevented our health system from becoming overwhelmed. I have previously said here that, as we continue our pathway to recovery from coronavirus, it is right that we recognise the positive role played by all our citizens.
Is mar gheall ar an chomhairle agus an treoir a leanúint go bhfuil ráta an infhabhtaithe ag laghdú agus saolta a sábháil de réir a chéile. By following the advice and guidance, the actions of the Executive and the behaviour of citizens have helped to reduce the infection rate and save countless lives. However, we should always recognise that, for many people, this has been an extremely difficult time. Many hundreds of our fellow citizens, our friends and our family members have died across this region and throughout the island. As a direct result, thousands of people have suffered the pain of the loss of a loved one, and our thoughts and sympathies are with all those who have lost family and friends.
We all want to see a return to the normal ways of living, but that will only be possible for as long as we are winning the battle against COVID-19. We cannot afford to be complacent. COVID-19 is still very much in our midst. It is an invisible and ever-present threat to our health and well-being. We will have to learn how to live with this virus for some considerable time to come, and, unfortunately, that means that we will also need to keep managing the way we go about our daily business and how we live our lives.
In conclusion, I say to Members that there will be further, similar debates in the weeks and months ahead. We hope that the scientific and expert medical advice will allow for more amendment regulations to be made. I assure Members that further relaxations across key areas will come into effect on that continuing and rolling basis, but we cannot afford to adopt a reckless approach. The pathway out of lockdown and towards recovery will not be straightforward.
Yes, there are sometimes contradictions, and there have been criticisms of the approach taken. Some feel that we are not moving quickly enough; others have argued and will argue that we should do things differently. I believe that ministerial colleagues in our five-party power-sharing Government are doing their best to provide steady and cohesive leadership. The Assembly also needs to continue to speak with a single, united voice. At the same time, we must all continue to do our part as politicians, lawmakers and leaders in the community to remind our citizens of the need to stay safe as they venture out more and more. Tá muid go fóill sa darna baol. Caithfear an fód a sheasamh. We must lead by example, so keep your distance, limit your contact with other people and wash your hands well and often. Fanaigí ar shiúl óna chéile; nigí bhur lámha. Molaim an rún agus na rialacháin don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I will speak on behalf of the Committee. The Committee welcomes lifting the restrictions when the time is right; however, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge once again that they have had and are still having a considerable impact on our normal life and, for some people, that is proving very difficult to live with. It is well documented that activities such as going to the cinema and attending live entertainment events are good for our health and well-being. Throughout the pandemic, we have heard about the negative impact that lockdown has on the mental well-being of all sections of the community, so taking steps to alleviate that is very welcome. Such events are also key to creating a sense of togetherness, and that is particularly relevant in these times, when a lot of the focus is on telling people to stay physically apart. I recognise that events cannot happen indoors yet, but permitting outdoor drive-in events allows people to be entertained in safety while reaping the benefits for their well-being. As I have mentioned in previous debates, the reasons why restrictions can be lifted are largely down to the impact that social distancing is having on the transmission rate of the virus. Social distancing is no less important at this point in time than it was a couple of months ago, and I urge the public to keep up the good work and to continue to show discipline and to remain compliant with the social distancing guidelines.
Speaking in my capacity as an MLA, I welcome the relaxations in the amendment (No. 4) regulations, as I know that they will provide a form of entertainment that will help people, given that we have limited social outlets at the current time. I also acknowledge the futility of the debate today, given that, I think, we are up to amendment No. 8 in the regulations at this stage, which has been made and introduced, but we are at only amendment No. 4 in our discussions in the Assembly. The time lag makes these debates seem somewhat defunct. I will use the opportunity, though, to raise, as ever, my concern about recent announcements and, again, the lack of clarity that there can be in some of the more recent ones. For example, many businesses were very concerned last week because they did not know whether they were covered by the relaxations or whether their doors went out into a public place or not. That was on the back of the hotels that were approved, yet, at that stage, there was nothing about the food and beverage outlets. Of course, beauticians and hairdressers have to wait, but we can get the dog groomed. Every decision tends to raise more questions and some concerns.
I welcome that, for the hospitality sector, there is now a date, and we accept that that is an indicative date. I welcome it that timings are now included, and, as I say and will reiterate, they are indicative times and people know that they can change, but at least that time is there. I have called for timings in every statement that I have made on the issue in the House. Indeed, the SDLP was publicly criticised by other parties for asking for them, but I welcome it that the Executive now understand and accept the need for timescales. Industry, business and commerce need those timescales to prepare. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their work already, and they do not need the further uncertainty of a lack of timescale to add to their pain. Timings are welcome, and, if they need to slip by a short period, the sector will understand that. It will be happy that it has the target dates.
I continue to be unhappy that many of the announcements are being made in TV studios, on the air waves or in newspaper columns. That is becoming a little tedious. Ministers should have the decency to wait until a decision is taken by the Executive before briefing on it and should then come and update the House on it. That would feel more procedurally appropriate. Many of the announcements could be bounced by public feelings and sentiments that are stoked by the leaks and briefings, and that is not helpful. We all should agree that the scientific evidence — I continue to call for that scientific evidence to be published — should be the guide, not just the last lobby group that we have met.
As I said, we are in the unusual position of agreeing to a decision that has already been taken and implemented, and therefore I welcome this announcement, as I did when it was announced about three weeks ago.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Chuir an príomh-oifigeach timpeallachta an Coiste Sláinte ar an eolas faoin rialachán reachtúil ar 28 Bealtaine, agus d’aontaigh an Coiste na srianta. The Health Committee was briefed on the statutory rule by the chief environmental officer on 28 May and agreed that it was content with the regulations. The statutory rule allows for the staging of drive-in cinema screenings and live music or theatre performances. The Committee considered the statutory rule alongside other regulations providing for easements to restrictions. As I have previously informed Members, the Committee raised several issues with the Department during its consideration. They included the evidence and tracking in the decision-making process behind the various easements and the strategies for engagement with harder-to-reach communities.
I dtaobh seirbhísí tiomána isteach agus léirithe de, dúradh leis an Choiste má bhíonn na háiseanna agus an spás ann le hócáid a óstáil go ligfear di tarlú. In relation to drive-in services and performances, the Committee was informed that, if organisers had the facilities to accommodate such an event, it would be permitted. With regard to the staging of drive-in live music in particular, Members expressed the concern that those attending might be tempted to exit their vehicles to join in. In response, the chief environmental officer advised the Committee that it was up to the organiser to ensure that people stayed in their cars during the event and that they were from the same household, although he accepted that there were practical issues with how an organiser might do that. However, the Committee was advised that anyone planning to stage a drive-in event was legally obliged to ensure compliance with the regulations and must detail how they planned to do so.
In closing as Health Committee Chairperson, I will say that, while the Committee supports this easement, the concern was expressed that some might view the relaxation of restrictions as the end of the pandemic. I acknowledge the remarks from the previous two Members in relation to that. The Committee recognises the ongoing danger of the current situation and the risk of complacency, and we urge people to keep to the rules and to continue to maintain social distancing.
Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal eile a rá anois mar urlabhraí sláinte Shinn Féin. I will say a few words now as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Mar Chathaoirleach an Choiste Sláinte agus mar urlabhraí sláinte Shinn Féin, cuirim fáilte roimh na srianta COVID-19 a mhaolú mar. Caithfidh na srianta a bheith ag teacht le leas an phobail agus leis an chomhairle eolaíochta. As both Chair of the Health Committee and Sinn Féin spokesperson for health, I welcome the incremental easing of the restrictions. However, as previously mentioned, it must be done only in accordance with health and scientific guidance. A safe and gradual exit from the lockdown is possible, but we all have a responsibility for making that happen. Our citizens have played a significant role in containing the COVID-19 virus. Since March, we as a society have done well in observing the rules on hand hygiene, safe distancing and other public health measures taken to stop the spread of the virus. I too recognise that that has had a toll in terms of mental health and in terms of people going about their normal life.
If we are to ease COVID restrictions, the importance of continuing with these measures must be communicated through public health messaging and become common practice in our everyday lives for the foreseeable future. We must be assured that the Department of Health and all relevant public bodies have put in place extensive and sustainable programmes of isolating, testing and contact tracing so that we can suppress the COVID-19 virus to the maximum degree possible. Advice from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is that, as we relax COVID restrictions, we must ensure that the infrastructure is in place to detect and react quickly to any outbreak or surges that we might see in the future. Evidence from countries such as New Zealand, Germany and South Korea is that extensive case detection, testing, contact tracing and isolating have allowed those places to restart their economies safely and effectively.
Ní thig linn talamh slán a dhéanamh den dul chun cinn, ach is trínár ngníomhartha go dtí seo a thig linn cuid de na srianta a mhaolú. We are not out of the woods yet, but, thankfully, through our actions to date, we have reached a point where some easement of restrictions is possible. As we cautiously emerge from lockdown, we must all understand that we are all responsible for the safety of our families, friends and neighbours.
Mrs Cameron: I think that I speak on behalf of many of my constituents in expressing relief that we are now progressing with the lifting of restrictions at pace. While mindful of the need to protect public health and rightly taking one small step at a time, it is essential that we return to some degree of normality as soon as possible, led by science, yes, but also led by the need to protect jobs, to reboot our public services, including our health service, and get Northern Ireland moving again.
Recently, it was reported that 95% of the population here had not had COVID-19, and it was suggested that we should slow down the process of lifting restrictions. I believe that the Executive have acted well in protecting public health. We have seen the success of the regulations and, more so, the public adherence to rules and guidance in the much lower figure of COVID-19 deaths than the reasonable worst-case scenario. I also believe that we need to proceed with easing of restrictions, so that many more lives are not lost through non-COVID conditions. I desperately want to see measures put in place to allow those in care settings to safely have contact and visitation from loved ones, as we know the impact that loneliness and isolation have on our mental health. We need to focus now on a twin-track approach of continuing to protect the most vulnerable whilst restoring confidence with the wider public to get out, support local business and rebuild community and to do that safely.
The reality, of course, is that the extreme pressures on our health service from coronavirus have been alleviated. The public are to be praised for that and not punished for longer than is necessary. I very much encourage the Health Minister and the entire Executive to now really push ahead with the reopening of all our health service at large with the vital reform that is necessary. A week's delay at this stage exacerbates problems down the line for patients and the system. We must also see specific areas in our health and social care system get back on track. I think particularly of respite provision for those who regard it as a lifeline. They are physically and mentally exhausted and desperately need the service restored. We need to now step up and support all those families.
It would be remiss of me not to mention once again our healthcare workers and the tremendous work they have done, not least our Ambulance Service. It disgusts me that that front-line service — lifesavers — have suffered 35 attacks in the space of a week. That is to be condemned utterly by everyone in the House.
I look forward to Thursday and further announcements and dates for restrictions being lifted and some form of normality returning, and I commend the Executive for the work that they are doing to that end. In finishing, I give another reminder out to people to keep their distance and to continually wash their hands and a reminder that, if you have any coronavirus symptoms, you should seek a test, if you are over five years old. It is vital that we track and trace the virus to allow us to return to some form of normality or a new normal. That is vital at this time.
Mr Sheehan: I preface my remarks by saying that anything I say today is related to the regulations as they are being amended. I want that to be clear. Secondly — I have said it at every debate of this sort for the past four times, I think, that we have spoken — in normal circumstances there is no way that I would support the regulations, but we are still in a crisis and an emergency, and it is important that we are aware of that and continue to ensure that the proper message goes out to our citizens.
These amendments to the regulations allow outdoor, drive-in cinemas, concerts and theatre productions. As has been mentioned, they came into effect on 21 March. Since then, there has been easing of a large number of other restrictions. Of course, that is to be welcomed. Everybody is glad to see, I am sure, the opening up of society and people being able to meet family members again and socialise to a certain extent. That is a good thing. However, the battle against COVID-19 has not been won — not by a long shot.
There are a number of things that we need to focus on as there is more and more easement of the restrictions. First, we need to get our heads around the idea of the island of Ireland as a single entity in the fight against the virus. It has been said on many occasions in this Chamber that the virus does not respect the border. It is not even that it does not respect it; it does not know that there is a border there. There has been a high incidence of COVID-19 in border areas, and that is all the more reason to deal with it on a single-entity or all-island basis.
There has been talk of a phone app, and we discussed that with the Minister and the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in Committee. Any phone app that is going to be used in testing and tracing must work on both sides of the border. If it does not work on both sides of the border, it is not going to cut the mustard. It is as simple as that.
What is more important than anything, and a number of Members mentioned this, is that there is a proper system of testing, tracing, isolating and supporting as these restrictions begin to ease. Some of the countries mentioned did not have lockdowns as severe as ours. Indeed, ours was not even the most severe. In South Korea, the economy, by and large, carried on. Bars and restaurants were still open. Because they had such an effective and widespread system of testing, tracing and isolating the virus, society was, by and large, able to carry on as normal. Now, of course, it has been said that they had previous experience with SARS, MERS, swine flu and avian flu and so on. However, we need to learn from best practice, and the best practice is in such areas.
The difficulty that we face now, with easing the restrictions, is that there may be an upsurge in the virus. I heard, just this morning, that two new cases have been diagnosed in New Zealand for the first time in something like 24 days, although it has been established that both individuals had travelled from the UK. China has also experienced an upsurge, as has Japan and somewhere else in the Far East that I just cannot remember. What is important is that none of those outbreaks has led to mass lockdown of the affected countries. Because they have an effective system of tracking and tracing, they can isolate the virus to a particular area, market or block of flats. If the system of testing, tracing and isolating is effective, there can be localised lockdowns without having to shut down the whole of society.
In conjunction with that, we need clear messaging from the Executive. I get the feeling that, with the easing of restrictions, many people feel that they can just go about life as normal, as they did before the pandemic. Of course, that is not the case. We need to listen to the medical and scientific evidence if more restrictions are going to be eased. So, the messaging from the Executive has to be crystal clear.
Also, as we move forward, and it may not be directly related to these regulations, the care sector has to be protected in a way that it was not at the outset of the emergency. Many people believe that the care sector was, effectively, thrown to the wolves. We need to make sure that the care sector is protected.
There does need to be a serious discussion about the wearing of face masks and whether there is a need for regulation.
Mr Nesbitt: The primary purpose of this debate is to endorse decisions already taken by the Executive but, like Pat Sheehan, I would like to look more broadly at the issues that we face. I am sure that we all long for the day when we return to what we might call the normal politics in a full House, or whatever a full House is going to be under the new norm.
If it was normal and we did not have this crisis, I am sure that we would have debated the Programme for Government by now, and, hopefully, agreed it. It has sat in draft form for far too long — not for months but for years. I remind Members that the purpose is:
"improving wellbeing for all – by tackling disadvantage".
Below that, one of the 14 high-end outcomes is to:
"give our children and young people the best start in life".
In terms of indicators of success, number 2 is:
"to reduce health inequalities".
"to improve healthy life expectancy".
"to improve educational outcomes".
"to reduce educational inequalities".
"improving child development".
Below that, one of the measures of success in this outcome-based accountability programme is to tackle the gap between the percentage of school leavers and the percentage of school leavers receiving free school meals at level 2 or above, including English and maths. That is A* to C in GCSEs.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. I hear what he says and I agree with him with regard to the function of government, and the Programme for Government doing the best it can for all our people. Would the Member agree with me that we have not even had a chance to align the Budget with the Programme for Government to make sure that we populate those outputs with financial clout in order to get to a place and move in a direction that will benefit all the people in the Programme for Government?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that the debate is about COVID-19 restrictions. I will allow some latitude but I do not want there to be a debate on the Programme for Government.
Mr Nesbitt: Mr Deputy Speaker, I stand admonished, but I hope you will give me a little leeway. I thank the Member for his intervention. I do agree that aligning the Programme for Government and the Budget, and making the Budget multi-year, are critical.
The point I am trying to get to is that, in this crisis, we need to tackle holiday hunger. It is partly COVID-19 and partly not. It is COVID-19 because more young people and families are finding themselves in financial difficulty because of the public health crisis. Beyond that, it is an enduring problem that we face.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. He has raised an important topic under the COVID-19 restrictions and the further impact of poverty on families that were not experiencing poverty before. The Member will, I think, be reminded of a Long Gallery event last year — I think it was hosted by Children in Northern Ireland — when we talked about food poverty and child food poverty. There was an example in Portadown of a charity where a mum was sending in a lunch box that was empty but for a note asking the charity to feed that child.
Would the Member agree that it is lamentable that we are still talking about that in 2020, and it takes something like COVID for us to seriously address it in the Assembly?
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for his intervention. It was a memorable moment but not in a good way, and will not be forgotten.
Deputy Speaker, I will not test your patience much further. All I want to say is that there is no logic in us saying that we give free school meals during term time but not during holidays. If a child needs a state intervention in May and June, they must need that intervention in July and August.
The First Minister hinted very broadly during Question Time a couple of hours ago that the Executive were moving on this but with the proviso that it was dependent on finance. The Prime Minister has announced £120 million or so of intervention for free meals for children in England over the summer. If there is a Barnett consequential, that is north of £3 million. That should be plenty. I simply believe that the House has a moral obligation on tackling holiday hunger and I invite Members to join me in pressing the Executive to fulfil that obligation.
Ms Bradshaw: I support the regulations as amended. I send my best wishes and hope for a speedy recovery for my fellow constituency MLAs Deirdre Hargey and Christopher Stalford. It is a timely reminder to us all of how important it is to look after our health and to take time out when needed to seek treatment and to recuperate.
I have no issue with the change relating to drive-in cinemas. In south Belfast we have already seen some preparation and innovation around this, particularly with the Let's Go Hydro complex on the Saintfield Road which will be showing films from 19 June. That is a very welcome boost for local family provision and economic activity after the months of lockdown. I am sure that it will be a great success.
On Sunday, while out walking in the grounds of Ulster University in Jordanstown, I came upon a drive-in church. We recently debated that amendment to the regulations and I was pleased to note that the car park was full. There were plenty of stewards about and it seemed to be very well organised. It is another way in which society has embraced our circumstances and found ways to bring people together in common cause.
However, after this positivity, I will put on record some enduring concerns. The first issue I will touch upon is shielding. On Friday it will be twelve weeks from the time of the first issuing of letters from GPs to patients. I have heard that some constituents have received an updated letter, either from their GP or the Department of Health, covering until 30 June, while others are still waiting. That is causing the latter group some concern, especially as we start to see places of employment opening up. That group fear that they may be excluded in the revision process and therefore forced to return to work.
It is so important that the remaining letters are posted out, that guidance and communication continues to flow and that full consideration is given to those people who are shielding in terms of the changes that they should expect with regard to accessing care and treatment by the Department of Health, its new management board and the five trusts as they take forward the rebuilding of health and social care services. There are certainly opportunities here and we also need to ensure that those affected by the re-establishment process of our health service are included in conversations as much as possible.
I also place on record my deep concern that people who are living with diabetes have been excluded from receiving shielding letters. That is despite the fact that the Department of Health advised that they were revising the list and guidance. It is perplexing to me that they have appeared to ignore the huge body of evidence which shows that 10% of people with diabetes who are admitted to hospital with the virus die within seven days. Those people are clearly clinically vulnerable.
The next point that I will touch upon is the economy, with particular reference to private healthcare practitioners, many of whom have contacted Members with concerns about their future viability, and asking questions about how they are going to provide treatment for their vulnerable patients. I am talking about our dentists, opticians, podiatrists, physiotherapists and many other front-facing allied health professionals. They are urgently awaiting guidance and they want to open their businesses in a safe manner and as soon as possible.
Another aspect of the economy that urgently needs attention relates to the provision of childcare, and my colleague, Chris Lyttle, will be touching upon that.
Also in relation to the economy, we need to be careful that, as the Executive moves through the steps of the recovery process, there is consistency in rationale and measure. We must, therefore, recognise that it will be harder to enforce the regulations and that people will undoubtedly, as we have already seen, interpret the changes in different ways.
Associated with that, I express my concern at the absence of reliable data to base our decisions on easing lockdown. The data document that was released on Sunday night was bizarre. It has major gaps in information, the information it did provide was vague and the conclusions that it drew from the information were outright dubious based on the latest scientific and global research into the virus. We have to understand that this is a matter of considerable urgency. As we move through the crisis and the opening up, we also need to be managing the risks, not just for the authorities, but more importantly for each and every one of us as active citizens.
In conclusion, I appeal to Ministers and the authorities to shift priorities to ensure that issues around childcare and those who are shielding are resolved and to ensure that the communication of key messages and the most up-to-date information to the entire population is clear. The Health Minister specifically needs to improve the data, research and conclusions on which he makes future decisions. We all need to continue to show the respect, kindness and patience that we all need.
Mr Frew: First, I will address the issue that was raised by Colin McGrath, the Chair of the Committee, regarding the time lag between the House debating these regulations and the lifting of such regulations. Whilst I will not be too hard on the Assembly and the cogs that turn very slowly, this goes to prove once again that draconian legislation like this does not fit. It does not fit the Assembly system or the accountability and the democratic apparatus with which we hold these things to account. So, it is a bit of a farce that we are debating lifting regulations that have been lifted. It is bizarre.
Whilst the amendments are welcome, they seem to raise further questions every time, which the Executive struggle to deal with and answer. That then has ramifications for the publication of announcements, media messages and everything else. If we do not get the message right, we will put people's lives at risk. I have always been nervous about these regulations and this draconian law that has been brought into people's homes and marks out every twist and turn of their life and tries to legislate for it. Whilst it has saved lives, it has not really worked, and, worse than that, it may have had a detrimental effect on people's lives in many ways that we will not really see until it surfaces many weeks and months from now.
Some examples of that are the lifting of restrictions for shops. When that announcement was made, there was massive confusion in some sectors as to whether or not they could open. Some retailers published statements on a Friday night that they were opening on the Monday, but they had to retract them on the Saturday or Sunday. Some businesses went on ahead and opened anyway, even though it was against the regulations. When I spoke to council officials and businesses spoke to council officials, it was very clear that they were not going to enforce the regulations. That poses the question: what good is law or regulations if they are not going to be enforced?
So, some businesses opened that should not have opened. Some businesses put out statements that they were going to open and then retracted those the next day. They remained closed, but they were looking down the street and seeing similar businesses opened. There was confusion for a long time. I am glad that that has been clarified and retailers can open, but that has had a massive impact for people and businesses that have struggled because they have not been open for all these months, and some have not been able to avail themselves of support, although many have and that has been very, very welcome.
What annoys folk more than anything is that it seems to be that the very bricks of society, the very unit of society — the family — has been left behind. I do not know why, but when you look through the step change plan that was released by the Executive, it states in step 1 that you could visit family members indoors. Why was that in step 1? We have always been told that medical advice and science dictates. Why then was that aspect of step 1 in step 1 if we have not even completed step 1 but are mostly through step 1? It feels and seems as if families have been left behind.
A great deal of very good work has been done by businesses and the Executive in listening to businesses. They have been able to open things up and get things cranked up again. People and businesses are very thankful for that, but is it not a bit of a farce that you can visit a family member in a garden centre, a shopping centre or, soon to be, a pub, but you cannot visit them in their homes? Is it not a farce that you can go to their back gardens but you cannot enter their premises to use the toilet?
Mr McGrath: I welcome the point that the Member is making. The scientific evidence sometimes underpins it and if people understood the scientific evidence, they might be able to accept it. If the scientific evidence is being published, it has not been very clear nor has it been widely available. Does he agree that making that scientific evidence more widely available would help people to understand why those differences exist? Like me, they do not understand why those decisions are being taken.
Mr Frew: I agree 100%: the more information that we can get out into the public, the better it will be for the public. It will help to inform them and allow them to see the rationale behind the decisions that are being made. It would also help people to align with the regulations, because I fear that, especially over the last week and a half or two weeks, so many of our population have flouted the law and the rules and have basically said, "We are not going to follow the regulations any more".
The issue of the family unit is fundamental. There are so many vulnerable people out there in family settings who do not know what to do for the best or whether they can visit the family members who they miss the most. They cannot have their children and grandchildren around to their homes. A family member will not put another family member at risk. They would take extra precautions if they were able to get visits from family members. It is a massive issue and placing that aspect in step 1 was fundamentally wrong if it was not meant to have been there in the first place.
My question is this: when you were working out the step plan, what was the scientific and medical advice that told you to put family visitations into step 1? If there was medical and scientific advice on that, why has it not been lifted in step 1? We are now through step 2, are eating into step 3, and I am sure, in some aspects, we are into step 4. To be honest with you, I am not sure; I am getting confused. Why is it that family members have to go to retail outlets, such as clothing shops, to meet their grandchildren? It is a bit of a farce, is it not? I would like that to be explained to me and for as much information about that aspect to be released, as soon as possible, so that people can at least see the rationale and justification for that when they are in their homes and are unable to visit their loved ones. If we got it wrong in putting it into step 1 and family visitation in their homes should have been in step 3 or 4, then so be it. Say that. Say that we got that aspect wrong. However, if we have always been going by science, how did we get it wrong?
I also want to raise an issue about the restrictions that we are talking about today and the allowing of drive-in aspects of social activity. The police have refused to enforce some of the regulations. The PSNI told the Justice Committee weeks ago that they were not going to enforce, I think, section 4, which deals with the travel aspect. They told us that they were simply not going to do it anymore. How do you expect an events promoter or organiser to police the number of people in a vehicle and make sure that each person in a vehicle is from the same household?
Over the last number of weeks, I have witnessed large numbers of young people in cars. "Cruising" is the term that I think that they use; I am not young enough to know. I worry about that. It is especially young people who are out and about in that way. It is not everybody. I will not be general about the issue because many will be adhering to the regulations for fear of their own health and their own life. However, it seems that so many of our population are now at the point where these regulations do not count. That is worrying.
I know that the best intentions of the Executive were to protect life and make sure that we did not burden the NHS, so I get the rationale for the regulations. However, we need to be realistic about draconian legislation that legislates for every twist and turn of people's lives. We need to be honest and ask this: has it worked to the extent that we thought that it would? That is an easier question to answer as we have loosened the restrictions. What has now happened in many people's minds is that they have just flipped over and are trying to go back to normal. The way that they spent last summer is consistent with their thought process now, and that is a worry for me.
It is about messaging. People are equating the lifting of restrictions with the lessening of risk. That is a massive issue. For the last 12 weeks, most people have been cocooned in their homes and washing their hands like blazes. I have never washed my hands so much. There is an argument that it is always good to be hygienic and have good personal hygiene habits. However, there is also an argument that, if you are cocooned in your own bubble and are not meeting anybody, washing hands is very good but not necessarily essential. What we need to say now is, "Now that you are being lifted out of these restrictions, interfacing with more people, touching more surfaces and going into more shops and other buildings, you need to wash your hands quadruple the amount that you did in the last 12 weeks. You need to realise that the restrictions having gone does not mean that the risk has gone". People are equating those. People are saying, "Oh, it is OK now to go shopping so it is OK now; there is no health risk". However, really, there is a greater health risk because the exposure is greater. That message needs to get out. I do not know whether it is getting out or whether it has failed, but it needs to be reinforced time and time again.
I must say that, even when I saw people out and about over the weekend, it looked as if it was June 2019 rather than June 2020. I really worry about people's health. If we have any sort of second wave, imagine going to businesses and saying, "OK, folks, we have to have another shutdown". That will end it for most. Most of the people will say, "If I close again, I am not reopening". Some people will say, "Sod youse. Youse told us that the last time and the numbers were not as first feared. Is this one big conspiracy?". I know that I am being flippant with language but it is to prove a point. I am thinking this and the public are thinking this. I am only relaying what some of the public are thinking, and their number is getting greater by the day. The Executive really have to focus and double down on the messaging around the fact that, with the lifting of restrictions, the risk is greater. That balance is not there at the minute; it is the other way about. People are thinking that the lifting of restrictions means the lessening of risk. That is a really fundamental error for any of us to make.
My colleague Pam Cameron raised the issue of attacks on ambulance workers. That is horrific. It is horrific in normal times, but it is even more horrific in the height of crisis. A number of years ago, I brought in legislation that created tougher sentences for attacks on ambulance workers. That brought ambulance workers into line with police officers and the Fire Service, and it was greatly needed.
Before the Assembly fell, I had a private Member's Bill to bring attacks on accident and emergency staff into line with the tougher sentencing. I think that the Executive and the Minister should look at that. I recall the Minister giving a commitment that he would do that. That is vital. It is a way in which we can help to protect staff. There was always a question about whether the private Member's Bill was too restrictive in being about accident and emergency staff only, but I hope that the Health Minister will look at that.
We have clapped our NHS staff for so many weeks now, and rightly so, but, if we can give them greater protection with tougher sentencing for assault, that is some way that we can go to reward them and to guarantee their safety in the future. It will not stop attacks, because obviously —.
Mr Frew: I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. For the ambulance workers and staff who have been at the forefront of the battle and have gone into people's homes, where COVID-19 could well have been present, to be attacked in that way is harsh.
Mr Gildernew: I have found the Member's contribution confusing. He started by seemingly criticising some elements of the regulations that have impacted on civil liberties and people's movement and then proceeded to talk about the need for caution. I find it extremely difficult. Does the Member agree that not only do the Executive need to communicate clearly but the House needs to set an example and to communicate clearly to people out there and to not create confusion by dissecting individual elements of the regulations?
Mr Frew: Yes. Let me be clear. I believe that the regulations had to come in to save lives, but, the very day and hour that they came in, I posed this question: how do we get out of them? That has proved to be difficult. I think that I was proved right. There has been confusion about lifting. I make the point about family visitations being in step 1 of the recovery plan. How did that ever come about? How is it the case that we have not completely finished step 1 when we are already going through and have, I think, nearly completed step 2, but we have not, and we are eating away at step 3 and, I think, are now even into step 4?
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. I will add to the previous question. My recollection is that the Executive, of which the Member's party is a leading part, made it fairly clear that passage through the steps would not be an entire step followed by another entire step. The Member should know well that that is the approach that the Executive laid out. I agree that we need to take care in the Assembly, yes, by all means, to relay concerns but not to add to them or to confuse further. We need to try to provide clarity on what is in the regulations.
Mr Frew: It was announced that each aspect of the step-change plan would not go at the same speed, and I get that. That is quite simple. However, each box was to go at the same time. Family visitation was one part of a box that has been left behind. I simply pose this question: was that geared up for the science? Was the family visitation right placed in step 1 because of science and medical advice? If it was, has that science and medical advice changed?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I have been very tolerant and have allowed a great deal of latitude on this issue of concern to the community. However, we are starting to repeat the discussion on it. This debate is specifically about the removal of some of the regulations. I wish to draw Members back to the changes to the regulations.
Mr Frew: OK, Mr Deputy Speaker. I respect your ruling on that.
I have nearly finished, but I also want to talk about the restrictions on childcare provision. The childcare sector is in a very difficult position. I welcome the First Minister's announcement on the issue. That has come as some relief to childcare workers. It was a farce that the key workers element of childcare was not in line with the key workers aspect of who should go to work and who should not. That has been a problem the whole way through. Key workers, such as electrical and gas workers, could not get childcare support for their families. It just seemed to be a nonsense. That is something that still needs to be resolved completely. The childcare sector is struggling with very little support and needs to be opened up in a safe manner. Whilst we send more people back to work when the restrictions that we are debating today are lifted, surely we need to look at the childcare element to ensure that those people's families are supported and that their children are minded when they go back to work. We need to grasp that and resolve it.
I support and welcome the lifting of the restrictions but the messaging has to be clearer. The science must be published in order that people can see the logic of the decisions. I ask the Ministers, in their reply, to address the issue of family visitation in step 1.
Mr Chambers: I support the amendments, as they signal more baby steps back to normality. They will be welcomed by many of the public at large. I drove past the drive-in cinema on Saturday afternoon down at the Titanic Quarter; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the arena was absolutely packed. I was surprised to see a film on the screen, as we usually think of a cinema as a place where the lights are out. The huge attendance demonstrated the public thirst to get back to enjoying entertainment as a family. I understand that a concert performance is planned at the same arena in early July and I am sure that people will be looking forward to that.
In his opening remarks, the junior Minister said that the Executive were not being influenced or led by what was being done in other jurisdictions, and I concur with that. That is the right thing to do; we should be dealing with the situation on a local basis, based on the local scientific and medical advice that the Executive have been getting. He also mentioned contradictions, but it is important to acknowledge that the Executive are acting solely in the interests of protecting and saving life in Northern Ireland. Against that, they also have to balance the demands of our economy because we cannot allow that to sink either. It is a bit of a balancing act and we need to acknowledge that.
When he spoke about those contradictions, Mr Frew mentioned that the police had told the Justice Committee that they would not be enforcing the travel restrictions. I noted that, in referencing the amendments in his opening remarks, the junior Minister said where anybody was stopped in their car, it would be a reasonable excuse to say that they were going to a drive-in cinema or concert. There is a huge contradiction there, insofar as, equally, someone could drive from Newry to Londonderry and when they are stopped in the course of their journey and say that they are going to a garden centre, that is considered as a reasonable excuse with no distance limit placed on it. That is the sort of contradiction that, perhaps, causes the police some embarrassment.
I am not going to criticise anyone for those contradictions. We have to acknowledge that we are having to abide by emergency regulations. It is difficult when you are rushing things through and taking shortcuts that are absolutely inevitable when you are bringing in emergency legislation; you can lose sight of unintended consequences. That is what has led to the contradictions. We all have to stop sniping at them and acknowledge that everything is being done in the best interests of the public.
People have been sending me emails and phoning me about hairdressers and barbers, and I am sure other Members are receiving the same communications. I am a living example of someone who is looking forward to them reopening; I cannot wait for the barbers to reopen. Dentists are also appealing to us. Again, we have got to acknowledge that those are services that involve close contact and they are in enclosed spaces, which makes it difficult. People are going to have to be patient.
Mr McGrath: Further to his point, does the Member not think that we should be asking the Executive to look at other experiences? In Spain, for example, barbers have been open for the past four weeks, and I am sure that the hairdressers are open as well. They can open safely in other places. We have a sector here that is dying to reopen so that they can do the work, people want them to reopen and some countries have been able to reopen such businesses. Again, it brings it back to this question: why does the scientific evidence here say that it cannot happen, but, in other parts of Europe, it can?
Mr Chambers: I accept the Member's right to have that opinion, but, as I said earlier, I welcome the fact that the Executive are not looking over their shoulder at what other jurisdictions are doing. They are doing what is best for us. I have to accept in good faith that they are doing the right thing. I cannot wait until the barbers are open. Maybe, I will go to Spain, but I would have to quarantine for 14 days when I get there and 14 days when I come back, so it would not work.
A Member: You would need another haircut.
People are also crying out for the reopening of sport — football, GAA, horse racing. We all look forward to the day when we can go out to support our sports. People are also keen to see the reopening of church services, public worship and weddings in churches. A lot of people feel hurt that they cannot go ahead with a wedding in a church. Those are issues that will have to be considered on the basis of scientific and medical advice, not political pressure.
One Member talked about time scales and said that it would be nice to have dates for these things. Given the nature of the crisis, we cannot set anything in stone. We must always be flexible, and people have to be prepared for an indicative date that they may have been given to be changed. That could happen.
Some Members have asked for scientific information to be published. I understood that the Department of Health published some information, yesterday. Perhaps, the junior Minister will confirm that in his summing up, but I think some fairly detailed scientific advice was given yesterday.
It is also important not to forget that another outbreak of the virus is a strong possibility. People are still being infected on a daily basis. God forbid, but more people may die from the virus.
Mr Butler: I want to pick up on a point that was made by Mr Frew about industry, but it relates to COVID as well. Does the Member agree that the time of greatest risk is often the transition period when people's guard is down? That confers on us the responsibility to ensure that we do not act in haste and repent at leisure with such a dangerous epidemic.
Mr Chambers: Yes. I will finish my remarks by stealing some words from a former local politician. If he was speaking in relation to the risks associated with the virus, he would tell you:
"They haven't gone away, you know."
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to respond to a number of matters relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (NI) 2020. It is my understanding that the Coronavirus Act 2020 Temporary Modification of Education Duties (No. 7) Notice (Northern Ireland) 2020 extends related education regulations from 4 June for another 28 days.
It is also my understanding that those regulations reduce the obligations on a number of statutory authorities, including the Education Authority, health and social care trusts, boards of governors and principals, from a duty to a best endeavour in a number of key areas.
The temporary modification of education duties states that the Education Authority reports inadequate resources for the special educational needs statutory assessment process and that the Education Authority educational psychology service (EPS) has suspended face-to-face assessments. Whilst the EPS allows alternatives to face-to-face consultation, those alternatives have time implications and must be balanced against the requirement to obtain a professional and, insofar as possible, complete assessment. The Department of Health also reports that social care staff are having difficulty assessing children in suitable clinical environments to enable them to provide reports for the statutory assessment process.
I think that most MLAs will recognise that the statutory assessment or statementing process is absolutely vital to delivering essential and legally entitled access to support services for children with special educational needs in our community. I ask the Executive Office Ministers today what impact this modification is having on special educational needs pupils in our community. Indeed, in Learning Disability Week, I ask, for the second time in this Assembly, that the Education Minister give a detailed statement to the Assembly regarding the support services that are in place during these restrictions for children with special educational needs.
Mr Lyttle: Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am, obviously, commenting on the regulations that this legislation extends for another 28 days. I consider that to be of significant relevance.
The Northern Ireland Executive coronavirus recovery plan step zero says that such services are in place for children with special educational needs, and, again, I call for those support services to be outlined in detail in this House.
We have provided for the extension of free school meal payments, and Alliance is clear that this must be extended this summer and that the Executive must work to ensure that the right to food is available to all children at all times in Northern Ireland, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. I pay tribute, as other MLAs have done, to the work of Children in Northern Ireland, to our secretariat to the all-party group on children and young people, which conducted an inquiry into holiday hunger that was mentioned earlier by other MLAs, and, of course, to Marcus Rashford, who appears to have forced the hand of the UK Prime Minister in relation to this matter.
The Education Minister has announced a date of 17 August for a return to school and a release of restrictions, however it is my opinion that the focus of the Education Minister ought to be on 17 June and the urgent need to deliver guidance to schools on social distancing, PPE and what the curriculum would look like. Therefore, I ask the Executive Office Ministers what the Chief Scientific Officer and the Chief Medical Officer's advice is on social distancing in schools and whether that advice will be published in advance of the Assembly debate on the matter next week.
There is obviously, as other MLAs have mentioned, significant pressure on childcare as a result of restrictions, not least in terms of access to funding. Indeed, it is of some concern that approximately 50% to 60% of childcare settings have applied for the coronavirus childcare support scheme, yet only approximately £600,000 of £12 million has been allocated. We also seek a detailed statement from the Minister on how restrictions relating to childcare will be eased going forward, particularly in relation to which parents and guardians are eligible to access childcare. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, that will be brought into line with those parents and guardians who are eligible to return to work. That statement should also make clear that childminders are key workers.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I have tried to draw the Member back to the regulations. He is not mentioning the regulations. He is talking about lots of other areas, which are important, and I am giving a little bit of latitude to everyone to do that, but I wish to draw him back to the regulations.
You have had considerable time to talk about subjects that you want to talk about. I ask you again to come back to the regulations that are in front of us. My patience is wearing thin.
Mr Lyttle: OK. I have mentioned restrictions on a number of occasions. I will be interested to watch the debate back, to be honest with you, to see how mine differs from other contributions.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My concluding remarks on childcare are that the lifting of restrictions on informal childcare provision by grandparents is also in need of urgent consideration, as other MLAs have mentioned. Families are increasingly confused to hear that they can take kids to childminders but not grandchildren to grandparents.
Other MLAs mentioned sports, and that is a matter that I would like to speak to as well, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Executive Office has already given permission for outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people but has not yet, as far as I am aware, permitted the step 2 resumption of non-contact, small group, team sports training. Indeed, grassroots sport across Northern Ireland, including my own sport of football, has a need for information and clarity on the particular issue of whether and in what way it can resume non-contact, small group, team sports training.
In conclusion, I thank the people of Northern Ireland for the vital role that they continue to play by complying with the coronavirus restrictions. They are protecting our NHS, which has served us invaluably. They are saving the lives of loved ones across Northern Ireland. It is vital, however, that the same care that people have applied to lockdown restrictions be applied to the measures that are in place that will allow us to ease safely the extent of the lockdown, which has saved so many lives. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Allister: I understand, because of the drip-feed nature of the changes, the necessity for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to allow some latitude. Here we are debating the amendment (No. 4) regulations. In fact, we have probably already had twice that number. Naturally, because none of the amendment regulations is an island, it is right that you are allowing the latitude that you are.
On the concept of the regulations being drip-fed to us, is that coincidence or is it by design? Does that serve the purpose of an Executive anxious to establish credibility in their early days and trying to escape the cloud of the renewable heat incentive (RHI)? Does it serve a purpose to keep the public on a string, hanging on their every word about when the next amendment regulations will come, or is that mere coincidence? It is more likely to be the former.
In pursuit of that, we have had the situation played out before us. One day, we are told that retail shops can reopen, and then, to keep the public happy, the Executive say in a couple of days, "You can now have shopping centres". One day, the Executive say, "You can have a fair-weather wedding, but you rely on us, the Executive, to tell you when you can have an indoor wedding. Even though the contradiction is plain. You can have an indoor funeral in a church, but you cannot have an indoor wedding. Supplicant public, we the Executive will tell you when you can do that".
I think there is a bit of that going on here. I think there is politics in it. I heard Mr Chambers say that he accepted and was glad that we are not following anyone else's lead on these matters. Are we not? Did this Executive not announce that hotels would open on 20 July, and did Mr Leo Varadkar not then steal a march on them and pull it back, in his case, to the end of June. Low and behold, suddenly, science allowed us to open our hotels on 3 July. The public are not fools. They can see the politics at play in much of this. The public also know they are being played.
The best-case scenario has never been made available to the public. Why? As they wanted to scare the public and could not tell them that we also had a best-case scenario. We are told, through the promptings of 'The Nolan Show', that all the parties now agree that the medical advice can be released. Where is it? It is still hidden. The R number is now a range. We do not know if it is the range over the week or the range for a particular day. We do not want the public to know too much because they might get more discontented. There is some of that going on.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member accept that, when delivering life and death messages about matters of public safety, as I have had to do with fire safety messages, there is no best-case scenario? The Executive and the Health Minister's decision was right because it maximised the amount of lives saved by taking that line of action.
Mr Allister: That is a perfectly legitimate view. However, the fact remains that we had an Executive which had two scenarios. They chose to tell us about the worst-case scenario. I remind the House that these regulations are all predicated in a national picture of 500,000 deaths. Happily, there has been nothing like that. In Northern Ireland, we were told there would be 15,000 deaths. Happily, nothing like that. There was a scenario which was much more akin to where we actually are, but it was concealed from the public. You cannot make a virtue out of saying, "We are going to tell you what the worst-case scenario is", while at the same time concealing something as relevant as the best-case scenario.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Member for giving way. Since we are talking about scenarios that were outlined in public, will he note that the Chief Scientific Officer in England, Patrick Vallance, said that a good outcome for the UK would be 20,000 deaths? Clearly, the UK has, unfortunately, far exceeded that number of deaths. Will he acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is worth thinking very carefully about estimates that are put into the public domain?
Mr Allister: I have two points about that. They demonstrate the fact that they are, very often, guesstimates. Indeed, in the UK, we were told that the worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths. Other people said 20,000 and others said more. Sadly, we are at 40,000 deaths. None of that is to be dismissed or talked down. It is serious. However, we are at a point where, happily, today, there was only one death. Happily, today, there were only two new cases, and that has, essentially, been the picture over the past week, and it is a good situation to be in. However, it also makes the point that the easements have to come. Making a virtue out of the inevitable has become something of an art form with this Executive. It is inevitable that these restrictions are eased because of the statistics which inform the reality of the situation.
There are a couple of specifics I would like to be enlightened on.
When we last debated these matters, I raised the issue of drive-in church services and went through the legislation as to what it might mean. Junior Minister Kearney, in replying to my question, said:
"Drive-in church services are permitted only on premises belonging to the place of worship."
— [Official Report (Hansard), 02 June 2020, p17, col 1].
I would like the other junior Minister, in replying today, to tell us whether it is still the Executive's view that:
"Drive-in church services are permitted only on premises belonging to the place of worship."
As Ms Bradshaw related to us, we all know that, without public harm, there are drive-in services taking place in other locations. Therefore, what is it? Is it enough if the organisers can control the venue or does the venue have to be the actual premises? Churches, and those of that interest, are entitled to an emphatic declaration from the Executive that is up to date. The last time that we had a declaration, from the other junior Minister, really put the kibosh on the thought that you could have the sort of thing that Ms Bradshaw illustrated.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. There are several drive-in church services taking place in our constituency and they are perfectly safe. Again, what has the ownership issue to do with health and science? It needs to be clarified.
Mr Allister: Absolutely, and I am looking for the flexibility. With regard to that, can I make a slightly technical point? I am a bit surprised that, when it came to drive-in cinemas, we went through the right process of amending the relevant regulation, the number of which I have misplaced, to say that drive-in cinemas were an exception to the use of the premises. We did not do the same for churches. Why not? I would have thought that it is a drafting issue that should have been paralleled in the two.
On the theme of churches, can I seek some clarification from the junior Minister? Step 3 of the Coronavirus (COVID-19): recovery plan says, with regard to family and community:
"Gatherings can accommodate up to 30 people while maintaining social distancing."
I take it that those are inside and outside gatherings. Will the junior Minister confirm that they are indoor gatherings as well as outdoor gatherings? How does that affect churches? For example, if a small church congregation had a midweek meeting, where 30 people might be more than enough, does that mean that they can meet in those circumstances when we come to step 3, without waiting for step 4? Or is that situation trumped by regulation 4(5), which says:
"A person who is responsible for a place of worship must ensure that, during the emergency period, the place of worship is closed, except for uses permitted",
such as a funeral etc. Are we in a situation where, under step 3, the group that will have no benefit from step 3 gatherings of 30 or more people is, in fact, churches because churches, according to regulation 4, are required to be closed? We could have a situation, perhaps, where Larne DUP could meet as a gathering of 30 people but a church cannot.
A Member: There are far more members than that.
A church could not hold a small service like that. Those are the sort of irregularities in the regulations that jump out at me. Therefore, I ask the junior Minister to address the drive-in situation, to provide clarity beyond doubt, and to clarify whether the step 3 gatherings of 30 people are (a) indoors and (b) apply to everywhere except churches.
Mr Carroll: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have to raise serious concerns about the process here. These concerns, you will be glad to hear, relate directly to the amendment No. 4 regulations under discussion this afternoon. Despite having widespread and, indeed, draconian emergency powers throughout this crisis, the Executive and the Justice Minister have so far not exercised these powers against the employers who risk workers' lives or the care home owners who put people in danger. Instead, they have exercised them primarily against the BAME protesters who recently took part in a responsible and socially distanced event.
This directly relates to the amendment No. 4 regulations because it relates to outdoor gatherings. For months, we were told that there were no police enforcement powers attached to outdoor gatherings. Indeed, when the amendment that we are discussing today went through, there were, despite what junior Minister Kearney says, no powers of enforcement. It was only afterwards, and less than 24 hours prior to the Black Lives Matter protests —.
Ms Bradshaw: Is it not correct that, under regulation 6, police would have had the powers to act when there were more than two people? It was only the day before that it was changed to allow groups of up to six. In many ways, it would have been more restrictive had they not updated the regulations.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for her intervention, but I refer her to the comments of Amnesty International and the CAJ on this. I will come on to those in a second. They back up the fact that it was on 5 June, the day before the protests, that the enforcement powers were brought in.
Some of this may seem technical, but it is worth going into detail because it is, in fact, highly political. As you may know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Executive, under section 25Q of the Public Health Act — emergency procedure — have the legal authority to bypass Assembly approval, if it is "by reason of urgency". I question having such powers at any time, but my point is that both recent amendments to the health regulations, amendment Nos. 4 and 5, rely on this process. Both relate to outdoor gatherings, but the enforcement powers to allow police to fine or prosecute people did not exist. Then, suddenly, on 5 June, we witnessed the last-minute amendment No. 5, which granted enforcement powers in order to restrict the protests in Belfast and Derry. That begs the question of why the Department did not consider it necessary "by reason of urgency" to include police enforcement powers at the time of amendment No. 4, which was passed on 21 May. No such provision was included in the amendment being discussed today, but it was rushed through, just weeks later, on the eve of anti-racist protests and events.
As the Committee on the Administration of Justice and Amnesty International have pointed out, there seem to be two possible explanations. The first and, in my view, less believable is that it was just a coincidence that these enforcement powers were unlawful, because the protest did not constitute an emergency. The second and, I suggest, more likely explanation is that these powers were explicitly introduced to tackle the Black Lives Matter protests. If true, this represents the real possibility of discrimination against our BAME community. No powers of enforcement were attached to this amendment for potential breaches relating to outdoor cinemas. Indeed, no powers of enforcement existed to tackle IKEA queues, workplace gatherings or any other manner of gatherings and social events.
In conclusion, when it comes to the vote in the Chamber on amendment No 5, I think that we should vote against it. All MLAs should reject it and raise concern about how it was a discriminatory attack on the BAME community that was gathering in a responsible, socially distanced way. Until then, I want to know, if the junior Minister can tell me, the rationale for not introducing enforcement powers for the amendment that we are discussing today. Why wait until Friday 5 June before it was introduced? I suspect that a truthful answer to that question may speak volumes about the disgraceful treatment that the BAME community has witnessed in the last few weeks.
Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): I thank Members for their contributions. As junior Minister Kearney said, this is the fourth time that we have come to the Chamber in relation to these regulations. Each time that we have returned, we have been able to bring before the House a further relaxation of the regulations. We have been able to do this because the people of Northern Ireland have adhered to the rules that were put in place. With few exceptions, the compliance has been incredible. We have asked people to stay away from their families, friends, jobs and places of worship. We asked them to refrain from doing so much of what, before the crisis, was a normal part of everyday life. Therefore, it is right that we acknowledge the part that individuals have played in saving lives. It is also important that we remind people that we are not out of the woods yet. We are still depending on people to follow the restrictions that remain in place, to observe social distancing and to maintain good hygiene. Those measures remain critical in our efforts to save lives.
However, we must not become complacent about these restrictions and they must not be allowed to become the norm. Although the statutory requirement is for a review of the measures at least every 21 days, the reality is that the Executive continue to review them on a constant basis. They will not hesitate to make changes when the scientific and expert medical advice allows for that to happen. The 'Executive Approach to Decision-Making' document remains our blueprint for the review process, and the incremental structure for assessing progress, contained in the document, will help decision-making in key areas. There will be more relaxation to come in the days and weeks ahead, as we ease forward on the pathway to recovery.
I now turn to some of the points that Members have made during the debate. I will focus on aspects that are relevant to the amendment regulations at the centre of debate.
To begin with, the Chair of the Executive Office Committee, Mr McGrath, rightly drew attention to the mental health impact that the virus and these regulations are having on people in Northern Ireland. We are fully aware that that is a huge issue, and that is why it is good that we are able to come here, when we can, and put those relaxations in place. We thank him for his support and reinforcement of the need to continue to practice social distancing. We welcome also his support for the indicative timescales, but we emphasise that they are conditional. They depend on maintaining the progress that we have made in the fight against the disease, something that we all have the opportunity to influence by our behaviour. I accept what he says in relation to these debates. A number of Members have made the point that the debates take place weeks after the amendments have been made. We are now onto the eighth set of amendments, which means that we will come here at least another four times. However, many Members have talked before about the importance of Assembly Committees having the ability to view and look at the regulations beforehand. That is why it is important that they go to Committees before they come to the House.
Mr McGrath made a point in relation to the announcement of the easing of restrictions. He asked why they are announced in the press before they are debated in the House? The regulations are very clear. They state:
"As soon as the Department of Health considers that any restrictions or requirements set out in these Regulations are no longer necessary ... the Department of Health must publish a direction terminating that restriction or requirement."
We hear everybody say that they do not want these regulations a minute longer than we need them, so when the Department of Health determines that they are no longer necessary, we make that decision and announce it. That is why it is not coming to the Assembly as quickly as some Members might like.
Mr McGrath, along with Mr Chambers and some others, mentioned the need to get hairdressers operating again. People ask me about that on a daily basis. When are the hairdressers opening? They do not always need to ask me, of course, because some truths are self-evident. I will say nothing more on that.
I know that people want to see those changes made. We will do that as soon as possible.
Mr Gildernew commented on test and trace. As he will be aware, the Department has, of course, prepared a COVID-19 test, trace and protect strategy that sets out the public health approach to minimising COVID-19 transmission in the community in Northern Ireland. The key elements are testing all people with symptoms of COVID-19; contact-tracing; providing information and advice on self-isolation; and sup