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

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

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

Official Report: Tuesday 06 October 2020


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

Assembly Business

Mr McAleer: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Minister Poots made a statement yesterday that outlined additional funding for the fishing fleet here. That funding is very welcome for the hard-pressed fishing industry, which has been hugely impacted on by the COVID crisis. The statement was issued as a written statement yesterday morning, yet I note that the Minister was available for the media later in the afternoon.

I suggest that, rather than issue a written statement for such announcements on sitting days, when the Assembly is convened and we are here, it may be more appropriate for the Minister to attend the House in person to make an oral statement so that Members can ask questions and comment on it. I would be grateful if that could be brought to the attention of the Minister and his Department.

Mr Speaker: The Member has made his point. He will know that I have engaged directly with the Executive over a significant period in response, on a number of occasions, to issues raised by members of the Business Committee, other parties' Members and other representatives throughout the Chamber.

I have always pointed out to the Executive, and, indeed, to all Ministers, that, when significant announcements are being made, particularly on plenary sitting days, it is important to respect the conventions and courtesies that need to be afforded to Members.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck in all these matters. I very much welcome, as has the Member, the fact that the written statement was provided to the House in a timely fashion. I have no doubt that the recipients of the funding will welcome the announcement.

There is therefore a balance to be struck on when Members expect Ministers to come to the House. I am on the record as dealing quite well with the matter on behalf of Members and the House. I do not want to lose sight of the fact, however, that we have been seeing a significant increase in statements and interventions, from all Ministers, being made in the Chamber in recent times.

I acknowledge that, and I appreciate that we are getting a significant increase in business from the Executive to the House, as is appropriate.

The Member has made his point. I will continue to liaise with the Executive, as and when the need occurs, to make sure that the House receives the courtesies and respect that it is entitled to.

Ministerial Statements

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed by the parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. However, if Members wish to be called, they have to ensure that their name is on the speaking list, but they can do this by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking questions. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions will not be allowed.

Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): This short statement concerns the upcoming Chancellor's spending review and the wider Westminster funding process. My counterparts in Scotland and Wales and I are collectively making statements to our respective legislatures, setting out our expectations for more fiscal flexibility to manage the implications of COVID-19, proper involvement in the spending review so that we can plan for our Budgets, and a fair deal on EU funding.

Members will be aware that, on 23 September, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of the autumn Budget. This marks a departure from the normal convention of two fiscal statements a year, which provided a degree of certainty to the financial process. While that move in itself was concerning, of greater concern to the Executive is the continued lack of clarity over the upcoming spending review. Since the announcement of the spending review on 21 July, I have been concerned about the omission of a date by which the process would be concluded. The Chancellor spoke about "autumn" but, going by previous Treasury statements, "autumn" can mean anything up to the second week in December.

I will briefly outline why the spending review outcome date is so important to the Executive and the House. The spending review outcome is the first time that we will get an idea of what the overarching Budget envelope will be for the Executive for the coming years. Without that information, it is impossible to plan effectively. The delay in the spending review leads to a delay in the local Budget process, making it harder for Ministers to plan effectively for the years ahead. This is made all the more acute by the uncertainty around COVID-19. Today, we collectively ask the British Government for urgent clarity around the timing and scope of the spending review. In a period where future implications of COVID-19 are uncertain, it is imperative that the Government provide as much clarity as possible on the spending review process, the outcome and the flexibility that will be afforded to us to respond to COVID-19 in the current year and within our future Budget envelope.

This is not a situation unique to our Executive. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are faced with similar problems in planning for the future. Today, we collectively ask the British Government to provide the full suite of flexibilities that we need to manage the unprecedented ongoing uncertainty that we face. I recognise that, for different devolved Administrations, that might mean different solutions. For the Executive to be able to respond effectively to the impacts of COVID-19 in this year and future years, it will be necessary for us to have flexibility to transfer capital funding into resource budgets. This will allow the Executive the agility that they need to respond to changes that will materially impact on public service provision.

In addition, I call for the Treasury to loosen the restrictions around transferring funding from one year to the next. Under the current rules, any underspend over 0·6% of our resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) budget or 1·5% of our capital DEL budget is lost to the Executive. That restriction does not encourage good financial management and risks year-end surges of spend as Departments seek to ensure that budgets are maximised. A relaxation of the rules around year-end underspend would allow Departments more flexibility to manage underspends. This is especially relevant in a period when the impact of COVID-19 can lead to a disruption in projects, working practices and supply chains. These are limited and logical requests.

The concerns that I have outlined are further exacerbated by Brexit. Planning for 2021 would be challenging enough without the further uncertainty surrounding Brexit — uncertainty that is within the British Government's gift to clarify. Some three months before the end of the transition period, we do not have the clarity that we need on key issues such as implementing the protocol and replacing EU funding. I have written to the Treasury outlining the costs of implementing the protocol and have yet to receive confirmation that those costs will be met by the British Government, as they promised. I also await detail on the shared prosperity fund, the much-vaunted replacement for certain EU funding.

The one significant piece of legislation that the British Government have produced recently, the Internal Market Bill, represents a power grab in areas of devolved responsibilities. Our devolution arrangements are underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, so this is an extremely serious development. Today, we are collectively asking for assurances that the British Government will provide full replacement funding for EU programmes without detriment to devolution. The issues that I have raised today are integral to the Executive's future budget plans and are issues that urgently need to be resolved.

I call on the Chancellor to provide the much-needed certainty that this House requires and that our Scottish and Welsh counterparts need. As Finance Ministers, we represent over 10 million people, and, today, we speak with one voice. We are calling for more fiscal flexibility to manage the implications of COVID-19; we are calling for proper involvement in the spending review so that we can plan our Budgets; and we are calling for lost EU funding to be replaced in full and brought under local control.

In normal times, this uncertainty would not be helpful, but the lack of clarity is further compounded as we deal with COVID and Brexit. The Treasury must urgently provide the clarity that we need. I commend this statement to the House.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for his statement and also for meeting me earlier today to talk about these issues. I think that it is very clear that, as COVID impacts on all of us in Northern Ireland, we need to understand how we have flexibility, and we need to get clarity. Will the Minister commit to working very closely with the Finance Committee to look at the detail and the understanding of this information as it comes through, particularly when it looks to the moving and transferring of moneys within budget, bearing in mind the past record that we have in Northern Ireland on that, and also on the details of the shared prosperity fund?

Finally, as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, I welcome the fact that the Minister sees the benefit of being part of the Union and of dealing directly with our Chancellor, who is having to spend a considerable amount of resource in dealing with the challenges of COVID.

Mr Murphy: I am happy to cooperate, as I have done, with the Finance Committee and provide it with the information that it requires and which we require. The problem is that we do not have that yet. We do not have that certainty around flexibility. Flexibility is always beneficial, but, in the year that we are in, where we not only have uncertainty around COVID and the ability of Departments to spend money that we have supplied to them in the Budget, but we have an additional amount of about £2·2 billion of COVID money, to date, to spend in the financial year, a very significant pressure is placed on Departments to spend, so that type of flexibility would be very helpful. We are not certain yet about what the outcome might look like once we move into the new year, but we want to be prepared to manage any pressures that we have.

We have quite a lot of good words and goodwill about what the shared prosperity fund might look like, but we have no certainty around that at all. We are particularly alarmed by the clause in the Internal Market Bill that suggests that allocating that funding to specific projects here would rest with Whitehall. We have a very clear view, as have Scotland and Wales, and it is the view of our Executive that the shared prosperity fund would be administered and allocated by the Executive through its various Departments and partners, through which we currently allocate EU funding. That must be adhered to.

I will not rise to the point that he made as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. When we in Sinn Féin get up and talk about these issues, we are accused of politicising COVID, yet we are constantly lectured about the benefits of the precious Union. Let us see how it works out in the time ahead.

Mr Frew: The Minister makes several requests to the Government, none of which I could disagree with, but, when he calls for proper involvement in the spending review, the same could be said of this Assembly and the Finance Committee having proper involvement in the Executive's Budget process. The Department has, over the past few months, proven how agile it can be in delivering and spending additional moneys in year. There is no excuse for the current delay in the Budget process and the lack of detail being provided to the Committee and, indeed, this House. The Minister may be right when he says that he has no idea about what could be in the spending review, but he is always proving that he has no clue about bringing forward a Budget to this place. When will the Minister publish details on the Budget?

Mr Murphy: I am, perhaps, as confused as most people listening to you may be. I am saying clearly that we do not know what the funding envelope is. We are not absolutely certain whether we are going to have a three-year resource Budget and a four-year capital Budget. We have been told that that is the case, but there are other signals coming out of Treasury to say that that might not be the case.

The Member wants me to provide a Budget in that context. If that is the sort of Budget that he wants, in the hope that we know what we have, it would have to be a made-up Budget. Or, does he want us to pursue Treasury to get the certainty that we need to allow us to plan, hopefully for the next three years for resource and the next four years for capital; to get that as early as we possibly can; in doing so, to go out to consult with his Committee, other Committees and generally on a draft Budget; and to produce the Budget in legislation here in the springtime? That is the normal Budget process. I am not sure why the Member does not understand that; he has been on the Finance Committee for long enough.


10.45 am

Our concern here is to get certainty around the funding envelope. That comes from London. If that certainty is not there, it makes it difficult for us to plan. That is not unique to us; I am having that conversation with the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers. They are experiencing exactly the same problems in giving Budget certainty to their own institutions. That is why we are making the statement collectively today.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle agus ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Aire as a ráiteas fosta. I thank the Minister for his statement. It is important that the Executive can plan their Budget over a number of years. Is it the Minister's understanding that the Treasury still intends to set a multi-annual Budget of three years for resource and four years for capital?

Mr Murphy: That is certainly our hope. With our own Budget spend, we have operated for the past number of years on annual Budgets. That does not give any long-term certainty, particularly for capital projects. We have significant capital projects here that the Executive want to get on with. They are flagship projects that will make a huge difference to economic recovery and regeneration right across the region. The certainty that a three-year resource Budget and four-year capital Budget gives us — not only us but industry, construction and all those sectors — is very important. We had been operating on the basis that that was the case. Then, signals came out of Treasury, because there is a confused picture there, that it might not be the case. The other week, I raised that directly with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He said that that was the basis on which they were operating, which, I suppose, is certainty of a type, but not the certainty that we want. That is why we intend to engage directly with him — to get that certainty. It is impossible for us to plan ahead if we do not even know the time frame, much less the funding envelope, that we have.

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for coming to the Assembly today. Can he be a little more specific about the two flexibilities for which he seems to be asking? He mentioned in-year flexibility around capital resource, which can also carry forward to spending in the next financial year. First, can he be slightly more specific about what he is actually asking the Treasury for in that regard? Secondly, what specific correspondence has he had with the Chancellor and anyone else in the UK Government about mitigation costs and paying the costs of EU exit?

Mr Murphy: What we want, in the first instance, is for the principle of flexibility to be agreed. We have not had that agreed. At the moment, we do not know the level of flexibility that we might need. Some of that is the conversion of capital to resource and some is the flexibility to extend into the next financial year. Departments are very busy trying to spend out their COVID money and budgets. We have an October monitoring round exercise going on. Of course, we have a January monitoring round scheduled as well. When we get to those stages, I think that we will know the degree of flexibility that we might require to transfer money between capital and resource and to carry over into the next financial year. We will have greater clarity. However, the principle of flexibility is one that we need to establish with Treasury. That is why we are pressing that issue very hard.

I did send a cost for the protocol and EU exit to the Treasury. It said that it would look at the business case for that. I know that DAERA is providing additional figures for some of the costs for which it will have responsibility. The Treasury said that it would meet those costs in full. However, as yet, we have no firm commitment on the costs that we have sent it.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement. I fully support all efforts that are being made to ensure that we have the necessary financial firepower here, in this place, to safeguard both lives and livelihoods. If we are granted the measures that are outlined, they will be welcome. However, what efforts are being made to establish a fiscal council? It was a commitment in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). It is important that there is oversight of Northern Ireland's finances as we enter an even more difficult period over the winter.

Mr Murphy: As I have told the House on a number of occasions, the fiscal council is a New Decade, New Approach commitment, and we will meet it. As with a lot of Departments and the commitments under New Decade, New Approach, things have slipped because of COVID and the necessity for all Departments to focus entirely on meeting the challenges that COVID has presented, but we have already begun again the work on the fiscal council, and I hope to be able to bring a proposition to the Executive on that very soon. I am also looking at the idea of a fiscal commission that can propose things such as additional tax-varying powers for the Assembly, as has happened in Wales and Scotland, and I hope to bring a proposal on both matters in the very near future.

Mr Givan: I welcome the announcement that three Ministers in component parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are speaking with one voice on this issue. I have some sympathy with the Minister in seeking certainty and more clarity on the Budget. In doing that, the Minister is asking for more fiscal flexibility in order to manage the implications of COVID-19. How concerned is the Minister that, when seeking greater flexibility to access more schemes, that effort is being undermined when Treasury can look, for example, at the SDLP Minister, who failed to access Treasury funding that would have furloughed staff in Translink and saved the Executive millions of pounds, given that businesses, not least those in the north-west, have been starved of that money and could be accessing that financial support?

Mr Murphy: I will not involve myself in any critique of the Infrastructure Minister's responsibilities. That is a matter for her and her Department.

We are making very general arguments about Budget planning and managing the finances that we have. I will talk again to the Finance Ministers from Scotland and Wales at lunchtime today, and we have consistently expressed those messages and others to the Treasury. Our concern about that is heightened by the fact that there will now not be a Budget in the autumn. Our concern about EU funding is heightened by the Internal Market Bill, and that is why we felt that we had to speak today with one voice to reinforce the messages that we have been consistently giving. These are very high-level issues that face not only our Administration here but those in Scotland and Wales, and we are trying to press home the need for a broad level of fiscal flexibility in order to assist us in managing our Budgets.

Mr Lynch: Will the Minister give us an indication of the scale of the EU funding and the parts that he is trying to protect?

Mr Murphy: The total scale — this is between 2014 and 2020 — is in the region of €4 billion. Some of that falls under our ongoing PEACE PLUS programme, which takes up what would have been the Peace funding and the INTERREG funding, and the proposition for that is around €650 million. That fund will continue to be delivered locally. The rest of that funding is made up of the replacement of CAP, which goes on until next year, and a range of other EU funding that, I am sure, the Member will be familiar with.

Our concern is that the promise was that we would have full access to that amount — that is, the funding that we previously had — and that we would have the ability to design the programmes for that and to allocate the funding and work with our own local partners in doing so. The intention of the Internal Market Bill seems to take us in a different direction, which is very concerning, and we intend to press that point with the British Government.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Finance Minister for his statement. Obviously, COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for the Budget and particularly for the Health and Economy Departments. The Minister may be aware that the Royal College of Surgeons made a call asking for the ring-fencing of beds in order to allow essential surgery to continue through future waves of COVID-19. What plans does the Minister's Department have, in conjunction with the Health Department, to ensure that the necessary funds are in place to allow that essential surgery to continue and to address waiting lists as we go into the future?

Mr Murphy: The Member will know from previous statements that I have made to the House that we have centrally held £600 million for the Health Department. It had been making its own assessments of what it needs for its response to the pandemic, and, obviously, that assessment will have increased given the resurgence in the prevalence of COVID in the community. Another element of that was to try to assist in redeveloping and supporting other health services. There is a significant amount of money. This £600 million is on top of, I think, something in the region of £300 million of COVID money that we have already given to the Health Department and the budget that Health got at the end of March, which was obviously the largest departmental budget of all.

There is a significant resource, but I recognise, as the Member will, that Health is recovering from nine years of austerity. It has been deeply and consistently under-resourced, and we are trying to meet that challenge. We have ring-fenced that money, and the Health Department will come forward with its spending plans for that. That £600 million has to be spent within this financial year. If all the money is not required, some will be returned to the centre for distribution elsewhere. It is a significant amount of money on top of the budget that Health has already received.

Ms Dolan: One of the reasons that it has been difficult to provide extra financial support for workers during the COVID crisis is the lack of tax data. Does the Minister agree that, if we had more tax powers and more tax information, we could do more to help our constituents?

Mr Murphy: Should we want to do specific tailored programmes for our workers, we are restricted by the fact that that data is held by HMRC. In order to devise any scheme to assist people with employment costs, we would have to work with HMRC to verify any claim. It is a challenging exercise to get HMRC to do that, specifically for a bespoke scheme. Other Departments have looked at schemes to support employees. We had the furlough scheme, which is due to run out at the end of the month. There is also an employment support scheme, which, in my view, comes nowhere close to approaching the same level of support for employees and employers, and we will see increased redundancies as a result of that. Undoubtedly, the more data to which we have access, the more levers we would have in raising our own finances. We would also be more able to set programmes that are tailored to the needs of the people who live here.

Mr Catney: Thank you for coming to the Chamber, Minister. There has been no guarantee of funding for the employment and skills support in Northern Ireland that is currently funded by the European social fund. As yet, there is no clarity on how and when that funding will be replaced. What is the Department's understanding, in talking to the affected sectors, of the real pressures that they are under?

Mr Murphy: The Department for the Economy has responsibility for bringing forward propositions on skills and employment. My job, on behalf of the Executive, is to secure funding. That is why it is not only important that we secure the level of funding that would have come here in other circumstances through Europe but important, as we are being taken out of Europe against our wishes, that we have to try to secure that funding. The British Government have promised to replace it in full. We have a unique set of circumstances, which the Member recognises, in the levels of support. We want to target those levels of support for skills, particularly towards younger people in training, apprenticeships and all those things. We need to be able to manage, allocate and administer our own schemes and to make sure that they go to where they are most needed. Those are the key principles. The level of support and the engagement with that sector in devising those plans is a matter for the Department for the Economy.

Mr Nesbitt: Will the Minister clarify exactly whom he envisages taking local control for lost EU funding? Is it the son of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) or the Minister? As for replacing it in full, were we not told that we would be better off outside the European Union? Does the Minister accept that his position lacks a certain ambition?

Mr Murphy: I am going on the statement that was provided that it would be replaced in full. We were told that the contribution that the British Government make to the EU would be a net gain for the British state in what they could give back to public services. Perhaps we were sold a pup — not those of us who voted to remain — when we saw the writing on the side of the bus. If there is more than a replacement in full, I would be very happy. That is the statement that was given about a replacement in full.

The Member asked about who will administer the scheme. We want to ensure that we have the shared prosperity fund, and it will then be up to the Executive to design programmes around it and give it to the appropriate Department to administer. Finance has a role, and we have a role in relation to the SEUPB, which, as the Member will know, is a cross-border body. The Irish Government, through the Department of Finance and other Departments, have a role in that. It is a specific programme that relates to the Six Counties and the six border counties. The shared prosperity fund will probably be more internal to the North.

In the first instance, we want to ensure the full replacement of funding and the principle that the devolved Administrations are responsible for the design of the programmes, the allocation of the funding and the partnerships. I look forward to our having as broad a range of partnerships as we can with councils and other social partners in designing and administering those programmes.


11.00 am

Dr Archibald: I welcome the Minister's statement today. The Minister referenced the Internal Market Bill. He and the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers have already raised concerns about it providing to Westminster financial powers that are over and above those of the Assembly and Executive. What is the Minister's assessment of the impact that the Internal Market Bill will have on our ability to control our spending?

Mr Murphy: The concerns relate to the principle attached to the level of funding. We were told that we would receive that funding in full. The Internal Market Bill gives the British Government powers to administer those schemes. That directly contradicts the commitment as it was understood by Wales, Scotland and us, which was that the devolved Administrations would get that share of the funding, be responsible for designing and administering those programmes, involving the partners that we chose, and that we would target that money to match Executive and Government priorities here. The powers contained in a clause of the Westminster Bill seem to contradict that. That is very worrying not only for us but for Scotland, Wales, as is clear from my ongoing dialogue with their Finance Ministers. We want to ensure that our understanding of the commitment to the devolved Administrations and the funding principle is met by the British Government and that the power to decide these programmes and allocate the funding is not held in Whitehall. That is a clear contravention of what we agreed.

Ms Bradshaw: Minister, will you give us your assessment of how the current situation impacts on the Department of Health's ability to deliver services, which will be particularly important in the second wave of COVID? Have you started any conversations with Whitehall about funding for the next financial year?

Mr Murphy: The conversations with Whitehall on the spending review will lead to conversations for the next financial year, and, hopefully, the next three years on resource and four years on capital. That is why we want as much clarity as possible. Traditionally, the devolved Administrations have not been involved in the spending review conversations. However, the fact that there is no autumn Budget increases the importance of having early sight of the spending plans, their time frame and the funding envelope that we will operate within. That will give us the clarity to plan in the way that you describe.

I cannot make the assessment because that is for the Department of Health. The Executive had prioritised Health even before COVID became a factor. In discussions on the reinstitution of the Executive, there was agreement from all parties that Health would be a priority. We have done that in the Budget allocation, and, in the COVID allocations, we have added significant money for Health. As I said in an earlier answer, we have £600 million held centrally for Health, and it is assessing how to spend that on the COVID response and ongoing support for other health services. We expect to be able to announce fairly soon how much of that Health requires and whether any of it can be returned to the centre for further allocation.

Mr O'Dowd: I will follow on from Mr Nesbitt's question about the elusive savings that were associated with Brexit. It is now clear that there will be a public administration cost to deal with Brexit. How will the Minister's Department deal with the additional cost associated with Brexit?

Mr Murphy: Our business plan is based on what we estimate to be the cost of our implementing the protocol, and there are costs to implementing that. The Treasury has said that it will meet those costs but has not yet committed to agreeing the figures that we sent to it. DAERA is doing further work on the figures associated with its element of that. You are right: there is a cost of implementing the protocol. Undoubtedly, on this island, there will be a cost to the economy from Brexit itself, which is very hard to quantify until we see the final outcome of those negotiations. The cost could be very severe or less severe but there will be a cost.

Clearly, the promise that Mr Nesbitt referred to of not only having that funding returned but having much more funding to spend across public services here does not seem to have materialised in any dialogue that we have had with the Treasury.

Mr Allister: I suppose that the Treasury is always an easy target for devolved institutions, although there may not always be a matching acknowledgement of the scale of financial assistance, particularly during COVID-19. On the point about the capacity to transfer from capital to resource, is the Minister looking for that only during the COVID-19 emergency or as a long-term change? If it is to be a long-term change, would legislative change be required?

Mr Murphy: It would be more beneficial to make a long-term change, because, as the Member will know from his experience here and as most Members who have been here long enough will know, we get into a situation from January to March where there is kind of a spending surge. Of course, the dynamic behind that is that we do not want to surrender money to Treasury because Departments are criticised for not spending it. It is right that we are asked whether we are spending it on the right things. Are we planning sufficiently, or are we just spending to get rid of the money because we would be criticised for not spending it? Does that have a proper, positive outcome in the long term?

A longer-term flexibility would be beneficial, and we will discuss with Treasury whether that requires legislation. I am happy to take that issue forward. It would be more beneficial to us in the long term. We have a particular situation this year because we have additional money for COVID-19. I have acknowledged in the Chamber how, from an Irish republican perspective, I feel that the COVID-19 allocations from Treasury have been beneficial. I felt that the furlough scheme was very beneficial, as was the loan scheme for businesses. However, we are taxpayers, so, if Treasury is distributing its largesse around those who pay into the British Treasury, we are entitled to some of it. It would be much more beneficial for us to have that capacity in the long term, because we are in a cycle, particularly with annual Budgets, where we end up having a spending splurge at the end of year. That is not good for long-term planning, and it is not good for making the best use of our limited public funding. It would be much better done in the long term. We will explore with Treasury whether that requires legislation.

Mr Speaker: Members, that concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease while we prepare the Chamber for the next item on the Order Paper. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Health that he wishes to make a statement.

Mr Swann: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to update the House on my Department's surge planning agenda.

Today, I am publishing a new surge planning strategic framework that is intended to set the overarching context for individual trust surge and winter planning. Alongside the framework, I am publishing individual trust surge plans. The coming period is highly uncertain, and the recent increase in COVID-19 cases is deeply concerning and shows that further waves are a continuing threat. How the virus develops in the coming weeks and months will depend on a range of factors, including the future approach to social distancing and population adherence to measures that include washing hands often and well, good respiratory practice and the appropriate use of face coverings.

Given the sheer scale of the unknown, I believe that the health and social care system coped well through the first COVID-19 wave. That was largely because of the public's strong adherence to the measures put in place to counter the spread of the virus, meaning that the impact on services was not as severe as initially feared. Another important factor was attendances at emergency departments reducing significantly during that period, which released capacity to assist with managing the pandemic. That may not be the case in the coming months, particularly as we move into the winter.

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

While the future path of the pandemic is unclear, a second wave, as I have already indicated, will likely coincide with winter pressures. That means that our health and social care system is very likely to face the most challenging winter that it has ever experienced. The planning for the initial surge was carried out at a time when there was limited data available on the pandemic's trajectory. In that context, plans were put in place to deal with an extreme level of surge. As a result of that planning, every patient requiring treatment for COVID-19 was able to receive it. However, the creation of so much additional capacity had a significant impact on other Health and Social Care (HSC) services. The scale of that impact is outlined in 'Rebuilding Health and Social Care Services: Strategic Framework'.

Sadly, as of yesterday, 584 of our fellow citizens had passed away with COVID-19. No matter how long the pandemic continues, we must never forget that behind every figure was a person who was loved and who is now sorely missed. My sincere condolences go out to the families and loved ones of those who have tragically passed away. Our tribute to them, as a community, must be to ensure that we take all necessary action to minimise the rate of infection and future loss of life. That starts with us all taking personal responsibility for our behaviour and actions in fighting this dreadful virus.

Our nurses, doctors, paramedics, other allied health professionals (AHPs), community pharmacists, care workers, primary care workers and other front-line health and social care workers and carers have bravely and tirelessly put themselves at risk to save the lives of others. Amongst them were those who volunteered to return to work or to leave training temporarily to provide much help and support. I cannot thank our workers enough for that. I know that I can rely on continued commitment from all staff as we begin the task of managing future COVID-19 waves. Having said that, I appreciate that the efforts to date have taken their toll. We must put staff welfare, along with patient safety, at the heart of our efforts to manage services.

As I said in my opening remarks, I am deeply concerned about the increase in the number of infections in recent days and weeks. In parallel with preparing our health and social care services for future COVID-19 waves, I will not hesitate to bring recommendations to the Executive, as I did last week, for a tightening of social-distancing measures, should that be necessary. We all have an important role to play in stopping the spread of the virus. I ask the people of Northern Ireland to maintain adherence to the social-distancing rules, continue to wash their hands often and practise good respiratory hygiene. I know that the vast majority do so, and I cannot overstate the importance of that.

I also urge all Northern Ireland residents who have not already done so to download the StopCOVID NI app. Well in excess of 415,000 people had downloaded the app as of yesterday, and over 5,700 people have received exposure notifications asking them to self-isolate. It is a key plank of our test, trace and protect strategy and a valuable source of up-to-date information. If we all play our part, I am confident that we can defeat the pandemic. In the meantime, my job is to ensure that our health and social care services are prepared to care for anyone who needs treatment or contracts the virus. The publication of the surge planning strategic framework is a key step in ensuring just that.


11.15 am

I will now highlight key aspects of the surge planning strategic framework that I am publishing today. The framework provides the overall structure and parameters within which HSC trusts have developed their individual plans for managing the response to COVID-19 in the event of future waves. The framework highlights important learning from the first wave; sets out the approach to surveillance and modelling; reviews actions to minimise COVID-19 transmission and impact; summarises key regional initiatives to organise health and social care services to facilitate effective service delivery; highlights actions around the key issues of workforce, medicines and testing; and confirms a number of principles for our health and social care trusts to adopt when developing their individual surge plans.

It is important to recognise that Northern Ireland-specific data and modelling will continue to be used to enable efficient planning and to ensure that there is early warning of any impact on health and social care services. Using the available data, combined with surveillance of influenza and other winter diseases, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser will continue to advise the Executive as they consider measures to reduce the R number in the event of a significant and sustained increase in the epidemic. With that approach, the intention is to ensure that the system is equipped to deal with a significant increase in demand, but also to keep the level of demand manageable in order to prevent our health and care services becoming overwhelmed. In order to manage future COVID-19 surges, HSC must be organised and ready to respond. To ensure that services are delivered most effectively in the COVID-19 context, the Department has taken a number of initiatives that adopt regional approaches to service delivery.

A number of key regional initiatives are outlined in the surge planning strategic framework. Those include establishing dedicated centres for day case and orthopaedic procedures and the establishment of a regional cancer reset cell to oversee the resumption of screening, diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients in clinically safe environments as quickly as possible and to protect those services as much as possible in the event of future potential surges of COVID-19. They also include action to capture learning in relation to care homes to mitigate future transmission of the virus in those settings; the continued availability of the critical care capacity at our first Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital; the additional step-down capacity at our second Nightingale facility at Whiteabbey Hospital; a much-expanded testing capacity; and the publication of our Test, Trace, Protect, Support strategy. The Nightingale facilities are particularly relevant for surge planning, and I will say more about my plans next.

The Belfast City Hospital tower block was designated as Northern Ireland’s first Nightingale and will maintain additional ICU capacity for future COVID-19 waves. It should be noted that this additional ICU capacity will only be needed in the event of an extreme surge in demand for intensive care. The Belfast City Hospital tower will remain a protected site for cancer and other specialist surgery for as long as possible.

The experience of the first surge identified a role for additional step-down capacity to support flow through hospitals and to ease pressures on the system. Therefore, as Members will know, I have already commissioned work to begin on an additional Nightingale facility on the Whiteabbey Hospital site. That will be an intermediate care facility, providing 100 additional step-down beds, to be operational by December 2020.

Some Members will have heard of the latest report published by the Royal College of Surgeons, which focuses on the delivery of surgery through a second wave. Whilst the report may be largely focused on England it also, importantly, contains the views of surgeons from Northern Ireland. The report is an important contribution at this time, especially as it is coming from clinicians who are working on the front line. I will meet the royal college tomorrow morning, just as I have done on a number of occasions before, and I am quite certain that the report will be discussed then. I have also asked that the report and its recommendations are discussed at tomorrow’s meeting of the regional management board.

A particular point that I fully expect will be discussed tomorrow, and which is referenced on page 22 of the report, is in relation to staffing. The responses from our surgeons highlight the significant impact that workforce shortages are having on the capacity to deliver planned care. That was a problem before COVID and will remain so after COVID, but the pandemic has only exacerbated it. Almost all of the surgeons who responded to the survey specifically mentioned the need for more nursing staff to increase surgical capacity. It is clear that there are no quick fixes and that sustainable, multi-year funding is required. Earlier this year, I was pleased to secure funding to deliver an additional 300 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places in Northern Ireland this year, bringing the total to an all-time high of 1,325. In the meantime, I will continue to do everything that I can to train and entice nurses to work in our HSC system.

I recognise that it may be difficult to find any positives in the situation that we find ourselves in, but we must recognise that the emergency response across primary, community and secondary care services has involved innovative new service-delivery approaches. Our health and social care providers have adopted the use of technology like never before. Although face-to-face consultations will always be necessary in some cases, and, indeed, are valued by clinicians and patients, I am reassured that virtual clinics and telephone triage are widely embedded in primary and secondary care services. We cannot go back to the way in which we delivered services before COVID-19. There is now an opportunity to mainstream the recent innovations, and I am determined that we will take that opportunity.

Of course, we must recognise that the use of technology will not be appropriate in all circumstances, and we must continue to offer face-to-face services where that makes sense for patients and staff alike. Our primary and secondary care providers have also stepped up to collaborate in ways not previously seen. That is best exemplified in the eleven COVID-19 centres that were established as a response to the crisis. We must now build on those experiences to further encourage that collaboration. Innovation, transformation and collaboration will be at the very heart of my approach to managing a second wave.

Before I move on to the trust surge plans, it is important to pay tribute to all the carers who have supported their loved ones through this very difficult time. You have done a fantastic job in a very challenging environment. We must continue to support carers through the coming period, which is likely to be at least as difficult as the last six months. Carers will have a crucial role to play in continuing to provide support, not only to those whom they care for but also in terms of taking pressure off our hospitals and healthcare workers.

I am announcing today the publication of five individual trust surge plans and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service surge plan. Those plans all outline initiatives required to respond to additional demand pressures that will arise during the winter and through any subsequent COVID-19 waves. Each plan covers a number of themes to support the HSC system to deliver increased resilience throughout this challenging winter period. The themes include positive patient, service-user and carers' experience; protecting HSC staff; maximising capacity; and promoting safety for patients and staff alike. I have highlighted the key aspects of the surge planning strategic framework and the individual surge plans that I am publishing today. That will ensure that comprehensive plans are in place to address future COVID-19 surges and winter pressures.

Our waiting times were appalling before COVID-19, and, regrettably, they will be even worse after it. That is why I made it clear to my officials and the trusts that restarting services was to be considered a key priority for them. COVID can cause real harm, but so, too, can delayed diagnosis or treatment. Thankfully, through the Herculean efforts of our clinicians and the administrative staff working across our trusts, much progress was made. For instance, from 1 July to 31 August this year, trusts committed, under their planning, to deliver 130,419 outpatient consultations. In fact, they delivered 152,941. Similarly, they aimed to deliver 61,678 diagnostics; they delivered 81,874.

I do not underestimate for one moment the damage that COVID-19 has inflicted. That is why I said that I wanted any and all possible sources of additional capacity to be utilised, including capacity in the independent sector. From the onset of the pandemic, trusts have been using theatre sessions, including for both general anaesthetic lists and local anaesthetic lists, to allow many hundreds of the most urgent and time-critical patients to proceed as quickly as possible.

When I established the management board for rebuilding HSC services in June, I also tasked it with incrementally increasing HSC service capacity as quickly as possible across all programmes of care. The management board is currently overseeing 28 work streams. It is clear that huge efforts are under way to rebuild services. I do not underestimate either the scale of the challenge or the needs of patients who unfortunately have had their treatment delayed.

The next set of trust three-month rebuild plans were originally intended to be published at this time, covering the period October to December. However, given the perilous and developing situation that we now find ourselves in, I feel that we have no choice but to hold back the publication of the latest plans. However, let me reassure Members that, just because the publication of the plans may be paused, that does not for one moment suggest that the efforts of our clinicians to support patients have been paused. Even with the prevailing COVID situation, I expect that the rebuilding effort will, of course, continue, as far as that is possible. I will also keep the publication of the rebuild plans under ongoing review. That said, it must be recognised that the recent rapid increase in COVID-19 infections is likely to unavoidably impact on the capacity of our health system to maintain delivery of mainstream services.

I intend to publish tomorrow a policy statement setting out important plans for rebuilding and stabilising cancer services. While we have greatly improved our cancer treatment services with increasing numbers of patients surviving cancer for longer periods, regrettably, our waiting times for diagnosis and treatment have been deteriorating in recent years. HSC cancer services, primarily oncology, have been under pressure for some years. There are a number of reasons for the existing pressures, including staff vacancies and sickness absence. In addition, the service is being supported by single-handed practitioners and locums, which makes it vulnerable.

Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 on the health and social care system has also been profound. The continued need to adhere to social distancing and the level of use of personal protective equipment (PPE) not required before the pandemic have all contributed. While every effort has been made by the HSC trusts to prioritise both red-flag and urgent patient referrals, it will require some time to return those services to delivering the full available capacity.

Alongside the development of the new cancer strategy, healthcare commissioners, professional staff and the trusts have been working to produce short- and medium-term plans to rebuild and stabilise cancer services. Both oncology and haematology services are under unprecedented pressure as a result of the continued growth in demand for services and the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential that we invest now to create sustainable teams that can provide high quality and timely care.

The aim of those plans is to take immediate action to increase capacity and ensure that the services are sustained over the weeks and months ahead as we face the potential for a second wave of COVID-19. The rebuilding plan for cancer services contains 17 actions to maximise available capacity across all cancer services. The immediate need is to rebuild services following the COVID-19 first wave and maintain service delivery for red-flag and urgent referrals for the year ahead. The estimated investment for the rebuilding plan is £2·5 million revenue recurrent and £151,000 capital.

The oncology and haematology stabilisation plans are focused on filling medical, nursing and allied health professional vacancies, investing in new ways of working and creating new navigator posts to support the continued delivery of virtual clinics. The overall estimated cost of the oncology stabilisation plan is £8·73 million over two years. The overall estimated cost of the haematology stabilisation plan is £3·63 million also over two years. While this work will initially be supported through COVID funding, it is important to note that these are not short-term actions. The Executive have agreed that this investment will be rolled out across two years through to March 2022 and be recurrently funded from 2022-23.

There is an urgent need to rebuild cancer services, and these plans complement one another by providing a strong base for the long-term implementation plan that underpins the cancer strategy that is called for in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document.


11.30 am

Mr Speaker, in conclusion, be in no doubt that we are confronted with a huge and daunting challenge. We must, as a system, try to rebuild services, manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, embed innovation and transformation, address winter pressures and plan for the future all at the same time. We demonstrated during the first COVID-19 wave, despite the limited time to prepare, that we are up for the challenge. It is due to the dedication of all our health and social care staff that anyone who has contracted this terrible virus has had access to the best possible care. I am determined that that will continue to be the case.

I am immensely proud of all our health and social care staff. I will say this to them: you responded selflessly and with conviction to the first COVID-19 wave. The period that we are now facing is likely to be hugely challenging, but I have no doubt that our HSC staff will again respond positively to the challenge. It will be critical to adopt a flexible approach in order to ensure that mainstream health and social care service delivery is maximised as far as possible. Our ability to protect mainstream health and social care services will, at least in part, be determined by everyone responding positively in order to control the spread of the virus. I urge everyone across the community to go that extra mile this winter by following the guidance on infection prevention and to not let our guard slip.

I assure the House that I will bring to bear all the leadership and encouragement that I can offer as we move through what will undoubtedly be an increasingly testing period for health and social care. Mr Speaker, I commend the 'Surge Planning Strategic Framework' and trust surge plans to the House.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Go raibh maith agat, Minister, for coming to the Assembly to make the statement and for taking the time to meet me and the Deputy Chair earlier to discuss Health issues.

I join you in offering condolences to all who have suffered the loss of loved ones as a result of this horrible virus. I also recognise that, hopefully, we are in a different place this time. While we face a very worrying situation, we have an active test-and-trace system in place. It is crucial that it keeps pace with demand in the time ahead and meets the challenges that it is facing. I also hope that we are in a different place with PPE. I welcome the ongoing work on the dedicated day-case and orthopaedic centres and the commitment to protect services from shutdown as much as possible while recognising that there are issues with orthopaedics in the Western Trust.

Minister, the Committee has heard that one of the key differences in places that have fared better than here in suppressing the virus is the availability of isolation facilities to provide people, such as those in high multiple-occupancy houses or younger people, with support where they find it difficult to isolate at home or to return home to isolate. Is the Minister willing to look into that? It may be something that we can improve upon.

Can the Minister tell us more about what is different for care homes this time around and what plans are in place to ensure, for example, safe discharge from hospital into what we recognise as the very vulnerable setting of care homes?

Mr Swann: I again thank the Chair for his and his Committee's support through what has been a challenging time. We do not have bespoke provision in Northern Ireland for anyone who has to self-isolate, but as I said when we met earlier, that is a conversation that I am willing to have with the Communities Minister to see what can be done.

One of the provisions of our Nightingale step-down facility in Whiteabbey, when it is opened, will allow those who are transferring from hospital settings to have another facility to go to that will separate them from mainstream hospital provision but that will also prevent them having to go into care home settings.

On the specifics of transfers from hospitals to care homes, paragraph 27 of the latest version of the care homes guidance states:

"All patients being discharged from hospital to a care home should be tested for COVID-19, ideally this test will be done 48 hours prior to discharge. In addition those patients/residents who are entering a care home through another route (e.g. from home or from a supported living service) should be tested in advance of their entry in to the care home. Ideally this test will also be done 48 hours prior to entry into the care home."

That is to make sure that anybody who is entering a care home has been tested and that the self-isolation does take place, as suggested.

The Member asks what we have learned about care homes. The rapid learning initiative, which is a piece of work on care homes that is led by the Chief Nursing Officer, identified a number of issues that we have learned from and picked up on. They relate to PPE, bringing GPs into care homes, virtual assessments and virtual wards. There has been a lot of good work there. One of our strengthening tools is our testing of care homes — not just residents but staff. The Chair will be aware that yesterday's figures showed that we have 28 care homes with positive, supported patients. Of those 28, 24 were identified through our testing programme, which picked up residents or staff who may have been asymptomatic. Through that testing programme, we have been able to identify those staff members and residents quickly, and get them isolated. That provides an added protection to ensure that we do not see the number or intensity of outbreaks that we saw in the first surge.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister of Health for his statement. He mentioned workforce shortages as a key problem. Will he update the House on the retention of those recruited from retirement etc earlier in the year and on any further plans to address recruitment in the short term?

Mr Swann: Again, the Member hits on the crucial issue. We can open as many beds, wards and facilities as we want, but, if trained staff are not available to facilitate delivery and care, it is pointless. It was a challenge. When this place came back on 11 January, the Member will recall that one of our first achievements was to bring our nurses and healthcare workers off the picket line. At that point, we thought that an additional 300 nursing and midwifery places a year for the next three years was a big achievement. We know now, however, that we already have more than 2,000 nursing vacancies in our healthcare system. There is a lot of work to be done. Much work has been done in investing in the staff that we currently have, but more needs to be done to make sure that we can attract staff from elsewhere and encourage the staff whom we have to stay.

One of my challenges as Minister is to make the HSC an employer of choice. It is a challenge at this time of the year — it is a challenge at any time of the year — and, during the COVID pandemic, it has been particularly challenging. However, as I said, the dedication and commitment that I have seen from our healthcare workforce — nurses, doctors, community pharmacy, porters, healthcare workers, cleaners, canteen workers — is above any commitment that we could possibly ask for. We should be proud of the dedication with which they have delivered; as Minister, I am definitely proud of that.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his steady leadership throughout the pandemic. Everybody in the health and social care service, and everyone else, recognises the confidence that he gives them through his steady guidance. Will the Minister comment on the recommendation from the Royal College of Surgeons about ring-fencing beds? Will he confirm that emergency surgery will return to Daisy Hill on the resumption of the ED in the coming weeks?

Mr Swann: I welcome the proposal from the Royal College of Surgeons about ring-fencing beds and staff for elective surgery. When I first took up post, long before COVID, one of the challenges was the recruitment of theatre nurses and their specific skills set, because they are needed. That is still a challenge. As I said, I am looking forward to discussing the proposals in more detail when I meet the Royal College of Surgeons again tomorrow. I have had regular engagement with the college. My decisions to implement day cases and orthopaedic surgery centres, and to manage those services on a regional basis, are entirely consistent with the direction of the royal college proposals. As I said, I will ask the regional management board to consider the proposals from the Royal College of Surgeons tomorrow. As I said earlier, during July and August, our trusts exceeded the planned inpatient and day-case procedures set out in their phase 2 rebuild plans. A total of just over 7,500 procedures was planned, and, in fact, almost 10,400 procedures were delivered. That was more than the number planned and more than we had estimated that we could do. That increase is welcome, but it only starts to eat into our waiting lists.

I do not have the detail on the specifics of Daisy Hill in front of me. I am sure that, if the Member refers to the trust's rebuilding plans and surge plans, he will find that included there. If not, I will get the Member an update.

Mr Chambers: My thoughts today are with all the families affected by this dreadful virus. Will the Minister comment on whether there was any engagement with the key stakeholders in advance of today's publication of the framework? Will he give a commitment that the framework, as well as the individual trust surge plans, will be kept under constant review and that all decisions will be heavily informed by the views of clinicians working on the ground?

Mr Swann: I give the Member those reassurances. These are living documents; they are not tablets of stone, given what we have seen over the past few months. We have also seen the ability of our health and social care system to react and change. Many in the House and outside it never thought it possible that it could be so flexible.

I was challenged about the level of engagement in previous documents. Given the speed at which the virus is spreading, it is imperative that we plan now for the surges and the winter pressures. Despite the need to move swiftly, I felt that it was important to engage with key stakeholders on the surge planning strategic framework. I therefore initiated a very short engagement exercise with key stakeholders, which included our trade union colleagues, professional colleges and bodies, the HSC arm's-length body chairs and the voluntary and community sector service users. That was done through our transformation advisory board members.

I thank all the stakeholders for their valuable input, which informed the surge planning strategic framework that was published today and changed some of what had been in our initial framework. In total, 18 responses were received as part of that exercise. In the past, I have given commitments to the House and to the Committee that I would engage. We have engaged, and I am thankful for the productive engagement that those stakeholders had with us in preparing this strategic framework.

Ms Bradshaw: Are you confident that the £600 million allocated to dealing with the additional pressures and needs arising from COVID will be enough to cover this new surge plan? What new treatments are to be introduced now that we know more about how the virus affects the body?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. I caught some of the commitment from the Finance Minister earlier. The £600 million has to be spent in this financial year, so I am content that it covers all the financial asks that we know we can deliver. There is no point in overbidding and not being able to spend in this financial year. Sorry, what was the last part, Paula?

Ms Bradshaw: What new treatments will be introduced through allied health professionals because we now know more about how the virus affects the body?

Mr Swann: There is now a new medical definition of long COVID, which is the after-effects. What we are seeing with this virus is that it is not solely respiratory; it affects the blood circulation system and can even result in mobility issues. So, the more we learn about this virus, the greater the challenge across our entire health and social care system. Our allied health professionals are taking a lead on recuperation to get people back on their feet and build their muscle strength.

We have also identified a need for support from our mental health facilities and practitioners. We know that this virus will have a long-term, detrimental impact on the mental health of anyone who contracts it and on the populace of Northern Ireland. That is why I was extremely keen that we built a section on COVID-19 into our mental health strategic plan. That will lead to a 10-year plan. The mental health challenges that COVID will present in our general population will not be sorted through a short-term plan. It will be a long-term commitment and will require long-term dedication. That is what we are looking to in learning about how this virus affects the general physical and mental well-being of our population.


11.45 am

Mr Givan: The Minister's statement makes reference to the appropriate use of face coverings. Is that an indication that the Minister is concerned that face masks have provided a false sense of security for some people, which has undermined the social-distancing and regular handwashing messages, and that there needs to be an appropriate use if they are to be effective?

Furthermore, the Minister will be aware of what happened in the Republic of Ireland and the breakdown between the Government and the Chief Medical Officer. Observers have commented on the number of occasions when our Chief Medical Officer and our Chief Scientific Adviser have made public recommendations that they want the Executive to implement. What measures is the Minister taking to ensure that we do not have a repeat in the Northern Ireland Executive of what has happened in the Republic of Ireland, which is damaging to everybody involved?

Mr Swann: I will take the Member's second point first. When the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser speak, they do so with the authority of their office and with their scientific and medical experience. However, they are always caveated, and I think that they are always measured and say that any decision is for the Executive to take. So, they make recommendations — those recommendations are made to me and to all my Executive colleagues — and we have a very good working relationship and understanding as to what needs to be done and what is done in the best interests of Northern Ireland across the piece.

Our Chief Medical Officer and our Chief Scientific Adviser also bring to the table an understanding of the economic and societal impacts of their health recommendations, and they take a balanced and professional approach. Their input is something that we in Northern Ireland should value. I cannot see, at any stage, where we would end up with the divergence that we seem to see between some in the Irish Republic's Government and their medical professionals. That is because we have a truly exceptional team in our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and the way that they carry out their professional duties and provide advice and guidance to the Executive as a whole.

The Member asked about the appropriate use of face coverings. Some people have reasons, whether medical or psychological, for not wearing them. However, I would like to see an increased use of face coverings in the appropriate settings, and, indeed, in all settings. We should encourage and regulate more in those areas where we do not see compliance with face coverings where they should be worn. I specifically mean in the retail sector. That is because, as we go into this second wave, we need to do all that we can to support the most vulnerable and those who need that extra bit of protection that we can give, and do that by wearing face coverings in the appropriate settings.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for coming this morning and welcome his comprehensive statement. I commend the significant work that has been done thus far. Going back to the response to COVID-19, the Minister will be aware of the concerns about the relocation of Daisy Hill's emergency department. It is very welcome and positive that it is coming back on 19 October, as a lot of work has been done on it. In my experience as a representative for Newry for almost seven years, we have always had to fight for the retention of services in Daisy Hill Hospital. So, naturally, any move to make changes causes concern in the community, and we work very hard to allay those fears. However, as the Member for Newry and Armagh said, there have been concerns about the future of emergency surgery in Daisy Hill.

I am fresh out of a meeting this morning with the chief executive of the Southern Trust, so I can answer the Member's question: emergency surgeries are returning on 19 October.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Does the Member have a question?

Ms Kimmins: Yes, I am just getting to it.

Correspondence was issued on 22 September stating that emergency surgeries would not be returning, and that is where the concern has come from. However, this is a short-term plan, so can the Department of Health give assurances that it is committed, in the longer term, to ensuring that the acute surgery service in Daisy Hill will not be downgraded?

Mr Swann: I have given previous commitments. I am glad that you gave that date; I did not have it, and it is a welcome commitment. What we are seeing with regard to the surge planning and the three-month building plans of that commitment is that the emergency surgery has started and will be there in the step phase.

We cannot provide a long-term commitment to any service at this minute in time while and until we get through COVID. One of the things that I have always done as Minister, whether on supplies of PPE or anything else, is not to give a commitment that I cannot stand over. I therefore cannot give the Member that commitment, but I will ensure that we will do all that we can to retain those services, where they are safe to be retained and need to be retained. I hope that the Member takes me at my word: I will not give any commitments that I cannot stand over, and I will not do that to the Member.

No matter where we are now, one of the things that I know is that we do not have a large enough footprint for hospital provision in Northern Ireland to do what we need to do safely, when social distancing and the need for distancing for people who are waiting, getting surgeries and all the rest of it are taken into account. I am using every footprint that I have in my Health and Social Care system. That is why we have used the Whiteabbey facility as the second Nightingale facility. It was already in our ownership and care, so it made sense to redevelop it as our second Nightingale facility.

Mr Robinson: What is the importance of "Hands. Face. Space" in helping to keep health services open as we move through this horrible pandemic? We are now in the second horrific wave of the virus, so could a testing centre be set up somewhere in East Londonderry?

Mr Swann: "Hands. Face. Space" is the message that we have been putting out. Every member of the Health Committee, we in the Department of Health and every healthcare professional has been pushing that message and asking every member of the population in Northern Ireland to maintain and observe good hand hygiene, to wear a face covering — I see that the Member is wearing one — and to give space, which is the social distance that we should maintain at all times: the recommended 2 metres. By following those simple steps, we will prevent the spread of COVID-19. COVID-19 does not spread itself: we spread it. By observing the simple steps of "Hands. Face. Space", we can prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Member asked about the establishment of a testing centre in East Londonderry. We have a number of fixed-base testing centres, as well as mobile testing units that we can move around Northern Ireland where we see large-scale incidences of COVID-19 outbreaks. I know that the Member will be aware that one of our districts with the lowest expansion in the number of positive cases in Northern Ireland is the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, which is part of the area that he represents. I would rather that we maintained a low number of COVID outbreaks among the residents of that area by following "Hands. Face. Space" — I think that I got that right — rather than needing to put in a testing facility. The residents of the Member's constituency are doing what they are meant to do. I encourage them to do more, and, in that way, we will not need a testing facility in East Londonderry.

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis ar maidin agus as a chuid freagraí ar maidin chomh maith. I thank the Minister for the statement this morning and his answers so far. Will he commit to supporting Health and Social Care staff, particularly those who may be absent from work while ill with COVID-related illness? Can he ensure that they will get their full wages rather than just statutory sick pay?

Mr Swann: That is something that we have looked at in the past. The Member will be aware that it was one of the steps that we put in place for care home and domiciliary care staff. It was part of the package of support that we gave to providers — even to the independent providers — so that we could ensure that financial pressures did not make anyone in a care home or domiciliary care setting who had contracted COVID go back to work. We provided the ability for them to supplement their statutory sick pay so that there was no financial incentive or need for them to return to work and they could take the 14 days to self-isolate and, if they received a positive test, make sure that they did not spread COVID. That supplementary support measure is still there. It expires at the end of this month, but, as we go into the second phase, it is definitely something that I will seek to continue and ask for financial support to do. It is an important and vital tool in our box to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a critical but undervalued workforce.

Mr Catney: Will the Minister confirm that our track-and-trace system runs on something a little more robust than Microsoft Excel so as to avoid any mistakes being recorded?

Mr Swann: The Member is slightly confusing two scenarios. He is referring to the number of positive cases across the water that were being recorded through a testing system and then manually transferred onto another system. I did not know that Excel runs out when you get to a certain number of cells. Our test, trace and protect system, which is held in the public health system, is developing a bespoke software package. If I am not correct on this I will get back to the Member, but I was originally led to believe that the initial software package was the same as one used for a hotel booking system because it allowed our test, trace and protect staff to follow through contacts and make use of contacts. It has moved on a wee bit from that. I do not think that our test, trace and protect system relies on Excel spreadsheets, although I am sure that that is a pretty robust system for anybody that needs to use it.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister concluded his statement by urging everyone in the community to go the extra mile with regard to the pandemic. I am sure that I am not the only MLA whose inbox has seen a recent spike in correspondence from what we might call "pandemic deniers". What is the Minister's message to those people?

Mr Swann: I have rehearsed my message to those individuals many times. They must think about their message and the damage that it does by undermining the health message that we put out and the one that comes from this place. Every person who hears their message and does not wear a face covering, does not wash their hands and does not practice good respiratory hygiene has the chance of contracting COVID-19, spreading it and putting additional pressures on our health and social care system. Those additional pressures mean more nurses having to wear additional PPE, more pressure on our ICU beds and more pressure on our doctors and start to challenge the delivery of our health service across the whole system. I ask those who think that it is smart or clever to put out that denial to think of the adverse impacts of their actions on the general public of Northern Ireland, particularly the most vulnerable and those who, like me, are asking everyone who can follow the guidance of good respiratory hygiene, good hand hygiene and social distancing to do so.

Mr Easton: In his statement, the Minister mentioned the StopCOVID NI app and said that over 400,000 people had downloaded it. What more can he do to encourage more people to download the app? It is an essential tool for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Swann: There is ongoing development of that app, what it contains and the additional information that is contained on it. One of the biggest steps that we have taken recently happened in the last week. Working with the Commissioner for Children and Young People, we were able to facilitate the app being downloaded by under-18s, which opened it up to a completely different tranche of people in Northern Ireland. That is why we went from 380,000 downloads at the end of last week to over 415,000 at the start of this week. We are seeing a new generation downloading it and seeing the advantage that it brings.

It is not a new innovation for the app, but one of its key abilities is that is can work across the border.

We have seen that come to fruition and provide benefit in recent weeks, when we have seen in the region of 1,300 identification keys coming from the Republic into Northern Ireland and 1,200 from Northern Ireland going to Republic of Ireland residents. The interoperability that enables our app to work in both jurisdictions is a key strength that stands us in good stead in Northern Ireland.


12.00 noon

Ms Rogan: I, too, thank the Minister for his statement. Will he list the local groups, staff, trade unions and other organisations that his Department consulted when the decision was made to downgrade the A&E department of Downe Hospital in my constituency of South Down?

Mr Swann: That is not something that I have prepared for, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is moving away from the topic.

With regard to the emergency department in the Downe Hospital, I know that a statement was released by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust last night that stated:

"Since the end of July 2020 ... we have had further staffing challenges. Therefore, it is now clear that we are no longer able to fully restore the emergency services provided pre-Covid-19 at this time. However, the Trust recognises the need to improve access to urgent and emergency care services for the local population in the Down area.

From 19 October 2020, as the next phase of rebuilding urgent and emergency care services, a consultant-led Urgent Care Centre will open in the Downe Hospital's Emergency Department. This will operate from 8am-6pm, Monday - Friday on an appointment only basis, with nurse-led minor injuries services continuing at weekends from 9am to 5pm."

There will be a contact telephone number. The statement continues:

"Those contacting the service will be triaged and offered an appointment within the urgent care service or directed to the most appropriate service."

It is not that it is being removed but that the next step is being taken to rebuild it by initiating that consultant-led urgent care centre, which will operate from Monday to Friday.

Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his statement and answers. What steps will he take to work with his counterparts in the South to ensure that the COVID surge plan will prevent spread of the virus, particularly in border regions?

Mr Swann: The Member may not be aware, but her party colleague, junior Minister Declan Kearney, and I met at the North/South Ministerial Council in health format on Friday. That was one of the issues that we covered, not only the surge plan but the understanding on both sides of the border of where and how we counter and challenge COVID. That could be through, as I said, the interoperability of our app but also greater understanding, as we see the spread of the virus on both sides of the border, in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area and in Donegal, where we see the same rates of increase and incidence of spread, should that be from community transmission as well.

There has been good working not just between me and my ministerial counterpart in the Republic of Ireland but between our Chief Medical Officers, Chief Scientific Advisers and our public health agencies. There is a good understanding of what we are doing. A memorandum of understanding formalises that engagement on information. There is now a request that our public health agencies work more closely together to identify outbreaks and the causes of the outbreaks that we have seen in border regions.

Mr O'Toole: I am pleased to see that my colleague is back, next to me. Daniel McCrossan will, I am sure, ask a question in a second.

I echo what Emma Rogan said about South Down. People there will be keen to get clarity about whether Downe Hospital moves back to having an emergency department.

Thank you, Minister, for your update. I have two questions. First, it is referred to in the surge plan, but are you completely confident that we have an adequate supply of ventilators inside and outside Nightingale for the months to come? Secondly, can you give clarity on the provision of flu jabs? Are you confident about supply across Northern Ireland for vulnerable people and particularly for HSC staff?

Mr Swann: Since March 2020, the critical care network has procured 180 intensive care ventilators and 24 advanced patient transport ventilators to supplement our existing devices in treating our patients. Of those orders, 124 ventilators have been received, allocated and commissioned for use in HSC trusts. The remaining 80 ventilators are awaited from the supplier and are expected at the end of this month. In addition to that, 145 non-invasive ventilator devices have been procured for use by respiratory services in the region, as well as 300 high-flow oxygen devices. Each trust has identified local surge plans to meet additional surge demand for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, and the regional inventory of 348 invasive ventilator devices, which includes the 80 expected by the end of October, exceeds the current anticipated demand. While equipment will not be a limiting factor in the provision of critical care to patients in Northern Ireland, there is considerable stress on limited staffing resources, and there is no room for complacency.

Last year, 2019-2020, 670,000 flu vaccine doses were administered in Northern Ireland. Over 1 million doses have been procured for this year's programme in order to meet anticipated increased demand for eligible groups and to allow for the vaccination of additional priority groups. The amount procured for Northern Ireland this year is the maximum amount available to order to date, given global demand for the flu vaccines. The target groups — the current groups eligible for free flu vaccination — are everyone aged 65 and over, pregnant women, those aged under 65 in clinical at-risk groups, those in receipt of a carer's allowance or those who are a main carer or the carer of an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if the carer falls ill, all children aged two to four, all primary-school pupils and front-line health and social care workers. The delivery of the flu vaccine to our health and social care system has started. A number of peer vaccinators have been trained and are already delivering the flu vaccine across the health and social care system.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Daniel McCrossan, and I wish the Member well. It is good to see him back.

Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is good to be back. It has been a long few weeks.

As the Minister knows, in the wider community, there is some speculation among those who have difficulty with the testing system. Can he provide assurances to the public and the House on how accurate the tests are?

Mr Swann: I welcome the Member back.

In an earlier question, Mr Nesbitt asked what I could say to those who deny that COVID is real and say that it is a hoax or a myth. I will ask the Member to update us later, in some shape or form, on whether what he went through felt like a hoax, a conspiracy or a myth. Anybody whom I have spoken to who has come through COVID-19, any family that has lost someone due to it or any member of our Health and Social Care staff who has treated somebody with it knows that it is not a hoax.

We use a number of tests. I do not have the details of the specificity or reproducibility of the tests with me, but I can provide them to the Member, because that question has been asked on a number of occasions. Different tests are used in different locations. I will get that to the Member in writing. I wish him well and welcome him back to the House.

Mr Allister: I join in welcoming back Mr McCrossan.

I do not, for a moment, downplay the threat of COVID, nor do I diminish the fact that 584 people have died. However, I am also conscious that, in the first six months of this year, 2,302 people died from cancer, and who knows how many deaths have been hastened by the delays in cancer treatments? For those last six months, the Department has basically been caught in the headlights of COVID. When we reach a point where the Royal College of Surgeons has to say that we need to ring-fence staff and facilities for necessary surgical procedures etc, does that at all suggest to the Minister that the medical advice that he has been relying on and that has caused the Royal College of Surgeons to have to make that point has been somewhat flawed?

Mr Swann: No, I do not, because the Royal College of Surgeons has been part of the medical advice that we have received. The Royal College of Surgeons has representatives who sit on the rebuilding board as well, and I meet them regularly. The point that it has made about ring-fencing beds and staff is about protecting those staff, beds and facilities from COVID and ensuring that we can continue with the surgery that we have started. The ring-fencing of beds and staff is an ask that the Royal College of Surgeons has been making for a long time.

The Member will know that our health and social care system is already badly bruised and scarred by COVID, but it is picking itself up and, once again, is ready to care for all of us, despite the immense pressures on the staff. When I hear the call from the Royal College of Surgeons, it is not a surprise to me. I have engaged with it, and it has carried forward that message about protection. We looked to the elective day-care centres in Lagan Valley and established the orthopaedic centres so that we could create facilities that are COVID-neutral. They will never be COVID-free — we can never guarantee that — but that is why we are taking those steps.

Regarding my statement, the Member will note the announcement that I will publish the cancer strategy tomorrow, which will deal with haematology and oncology. We know that we have to address those and to get on top of them on a regional basis and that we should no longer deal with them in the way that we were across trusts.

Ms Sugden: The recent rise in the rate of infection should give us all cause for concern, not least so that we do not overwhelm the NHS and prevent care being given to the most vulnerable who are suffering from the effects of COVID-19 or, indeed, any other illness. Minister, I appreciate your attention to accessibility to Health and Social Care services for other illnesses, but there is a lesson that we learned from the first wave — you expressed concern about it — about the limited number of people accessing services that they should be accessing. I am concerned that that will be compounded in a second wave.

I have constituents coming into my office and begging me for appointments and telling me, at a time when they cannot afford to do it because there is a chance that they are at risk of losing their job, that they will pay privately for their child to see a doctor whom they should be able to access on the NHS. How do we genuinely address that? It is not good enough to say that you should call your GP and wait on the phone all day long only to be told, "Go to A&E if it is an emergency". That is the experience that my constituents have.

To follow on from Mr Allister's point, we need to look after those who are suffering the effects of COVID-19 — of course we do — but we also need to look after those who are suffering the effects of other illnesses because those illnesses are ruining people's life just as much as this virus.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her comments. As I said, I listened to the Finance Minister's statement before I came into the House. He spoke of nine years of underinvestment in the health service. I used that line in the House when I took over as Health Minister. We are now reaping the shock of that underinvestment, where we do not have the number of beds, we do not have the number of staff and we do not have the access to the health service that we, as a population in Northern Ireland, deserve. We do not have a health service that our staff working in it deserve, because of that structural, long-term underinvestment. This place has a place in and a responsibility to bring to bear on that.

When we talk about access to other services, it is because we have in the region of, I think, over 2,000 nursing vacancies. We have GP vacancies that we cannot fill. We are looking to invest in that through the medical centre at Magee and the nurse training places that we are bringing forward, but there is no doubt that we do not have the number of people in our health service that we need to make it readily accessible.

I say to the Member's constituents that that is not a service that I want them to experience. I want their GPs to be as open and as accessible to them as possible. I am working with the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association's general practitioners committee. They have issued statements and have encouraged their members to be as open as they can and to access as many patients as they can.


12.15 pm

To counter that, I have also heard the example of a mother who phoned the GP about her child, the GP referred them to a COVID centre because they had COVID symptoms, but the mother did not want to take her child there in case they caught COVID. As we go through the pandemic, education is needed on the different avenues that are being opened up to ensure that people access healthcare provision when and where they need it. There is a large job of work to be done by the Department and the medical professions to ensure that people get access. It is not good enough and needs to be better. It is one of the things that, as Minister, I have tried to do. The pandemic has set us back quite a bit. However, through the support of the House and the Executive, we can get a health service that has been invested in and of which we can and should be proud.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions on the Minister's statement. Members may take their ease while we prepare for the next item of business.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement.

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): The First Minister and I are pleased to announce that we have appointed Fiona Ryan as Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse (COSICA). The appointment is for a five-year term. Fiona Ryan will take up the position from 14 December 2020.

COSICA is established under the Historical Institutional Abuse Act 2019. The commissioner's principal aim in exercising functions under the Act is to:

"promote the interests of any person who suffered abuse while a child and while resident in an institution at some time between 1922 and 1995".

Fiona Ryan brings a wealth of experience in working with and understanding the needs of victims and survivors of trauma. She is currently the chief executive of the domestic violence charity Sonas and is also a member of the monitoring committee of the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in the South.

The appointment of a statutory Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse is a hugely significant day for all those who have been so terribly impacted. Our thoughts are with those who have suffered greatly.

As Members will be aware, the Historical Institutional Abuse Act 2019 was enacted in November 2019. Prompt action was taken to establish the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board, which opened for applications on 31 March. Some seven weeks later, the first compensation payments were made within the timescale that was set out by the president of the redress board. That was a significant milestone for victims and survivors, who are now starting to receive the compensation that is long overdue to them. As of 30 September, 579 applications had been received, 156 of which were from people who participated in the Hart inquiry. Panellists have made determinations totalling £4·144 million and paid out a total of £2·55 million.

We want to acknowledge Brendan McAllister's important work as interim advocate in promoting the interests of victims and survivors, including putting forward the views of victims on improvements to the legislation and advising on procedures for the redress board.

The pain and suffering of victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse can never be erased. This appointment is one further critical step in the implementation of the Hart inquiry recommendations. Important work remains, in the form of an apology and a memorial, as well as important steps such as the implementation of support services for victims and survivors and raising awareness of the redress scheme. We look forward to working with Fiona as she takes up this critical and sensitive role.

Mr Beattie (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I thank the Ministers for their statement on an extremely important issue on which we have to move forward, and I thank them for the detail in that statement, particularly about where we have progressed those cases in regard to redress. It is important that we know that it is moving forward.

I note that Fiona Ryan will take over on 14 December, yet correspondence with Brendan McAllister said that he is leaving in mid-October. Therefore, will the Ministers address that issue and confirm that the new COSICA will try to re-engage with all the HIA groups, given the disengagement of some?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. Yes, Ms Ryan is required to work a period of notice, which is why the appointment will not be until 14 December, but we look forward to her taking up that appointment. It has always been the intention of the interim advocate to continue to provide representation to victims and survivors until we have the new person in post. However, officials will work with the advocate on the level of input required as we work our way through the weeks ahead until Ms Ryan takes up her permanent post. Today certainly represents a new chapter and allows us, as a joint office, to make this very significant appointment. Hopefully, the significance of getting this permanent position in place will not go unnoticed among victims and survivors, and the victims' voices being heard must be at the heart of all of that.

Mr Stalford: Today marks an important milestone. Mr Nesbitt and I might be the only original members of the old OFMDFM Committee who are still on the Executive Office Committee. This has been a long time coming. I remember sitting with some of the victims at the launch of the Hart inquiry. Promises were made, and we have an absolute obligation to see them fulfilled.

This is one part of the package, and it is very welcome. Another part of the package is securing funding for the compensation scheme, and we have very wide estimates of how much that will cost. What update has the deputy First Minister had from the religious organisations that were entrusted with the care of children on the scale of the contribution that they anticipate making to such a compensation scheme?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I concur that this has been a long journey. Elected representatives have worked with and supported the victims, and I commend them on all the work that has been done for many years to get us to this point. The heart of all this is to always remember that these are people who have been hurt and wronged by many institutions. It is really important that everybody plays their part in allowing us to respond to the needs and requests of victims.

The role of the other institutions is crucial, and there have been a number of engagements with the different institutions on the issue of redress. From your Committee experience, you will know that the current estimates for financial redress range from £149 million to a central estimate of £402 million up to an even higher estimate of £668 million at the upper end. We intend to hold a round-table meeting with the institutions to progress this and to make sure that every single redress is made and that we progress all the other issues, including that fulsome apology, the memorial and the other things that were identified. As joint First Ministers, we are determined to make sure that this work is done with speed.

Ms Dillon: First, I welcome today's announcement, and I look forward to meeting Fiona Ryan, when she is in post, to have a conversation with her about how she will engage with victims and survivors. That is a vital element in all of this, and the joint First Minister has already outlined how important that is. It cannot be overemphasised. We know that some groups had difficulties with the interim advocate.

I hope that Fiona Ryan will engage and build a good relationship with victims and survivors.

Will the joint First Minister accept that today's appointment has been a long time coming? Will she join with me in commending the victims and survivors in their campaign for truth, justice and public acknowledgement? Will she also agree with me that the engagement and support that we have talked about with victims and survivors will be vital in terms of the memorial, the acknowledgement and what will be put in place by way of an apology? That will be important, not only to the victims and survivors who are still with us but to the families of the victims and survivors who have passed. It is also important for those who have no interest in compensation but who absolutely want an acknowledgement of what has happened to them or to a loved one who has passed.

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for her question. This is a hugely significant milestone in the journey for victims and survivors. It is testimony to their efforts, finding their voice and exposing the horrors of institutional abuse that I am here today as joint head of Government making this announcement.

Everyone in the House will agree that historical institutional abuse should never have happened; it was wrong on so many levels. Trust was breached and children were violated. It is a sad reality that so many children went through this experience and were forced to spend their lives carrying an unimaginable burden for such a long time. We recognise that thousands of children were robbed of their childhood and forced to carry this burden through their lives. It is appalling. They were failed by a system that was supposed to protect them and which even, on many occasions, turned a blind eye to what was happening. It covered up systemic abuse. We need to take this opportunity to learn the hard lessons that need to be learned about what happened in those institutions and make a pledge that it will never happen again.

As the Member said, redress has been far too long coming. We pay tribute to all the victims and survivors of childhood institutional abuse, to their collective will, and to their determination and resilience over many years. It is on days like this that we turn to those who have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their families. Collectively, across the House, and, indeed, in wider society, we need to support and empower victims to move forward and to assist them in rebuilding their lives.

With the First Minister, I am committed to ensure that all victims and survivors get the acknowledgment, the advocacy and the redress that they deserve. Today's appointment carries forward that work and will begin to progress some of the things that are still outstanding. This is a significant day as Fiona Ryan embarks upon her work, working with victims, being the voice for victims and making sure that they will never be silenced again. We should never forget that, in the midst of all this, it has been the encouragement, the tenacity and the resilience of the victims and survivors that has brought us to this stage.

Mr O'Toole: Like everyone else, I welcome this appointment. It is overdue, particularly for the thousands of people who had to endure appalling suffering at the hands of various institutions. I ask the deputy First Minister about the staffing support that Fiona Ryan will have. It is right and welcome that this appointment has been made. Other appointments at the TEO, as we know, have not been made. What staffing support will she have in order to be the best possible advocate for victims?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his questions. A lot of work done has been done on the staff available to the interim advocate. We have an obligation to look at the work that is being done, and the incoming commissioner will have an opinion on what the additional needs are. We need to make sure that the commissioner is supported in the best possible way, with the full resources that she requires in order to support victims. If we are marking this as a milestone, as a new beginning and as an opportunity to address outstanding issues, I want to ensure that the commissioner has all the support that she requires. A number of staff who have supported the interim advocate will transfer over to her. I cannot recall the number, but I am happy to provide it to the Member in writing.


12.30 pm

Ms Bradshaw: I welcome today's appointment, although I am disappointed that Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) and, I presume, other victims' groups were not advised of the appointment in advance of the press statement.

Will the new commissioner have any remit to provide support and advocacy to unmarried mothers who suffered abuse in mother-and-baby homes or to children who were abused by clerics in non-institutional settings?

Mrs O'Neill: We thought it appropriate to come to the House to make a statement of this significant nature, and, of course, we will engage with the victims and survivors to make sure that they are fully briefed on its outworking.

To be clear, the role of the commissioner is to be responsible for a number of identified areas, of which the Member will be aware. For example, the commissioner is responsible for appointing a panel of persons, all of whom are victims and survivors, the function of which will be to provide a forum for consultation and discussion with victims and survivors. That panel will be known as the advisory panel.

She will also be responsible for providing advice on matters concerning the interests of victims and survivors and for taking reasonable steps to ensure that victims and survivors are made aware of the functions of the commissioner, her location and the ways in which they can communicate directly with her. She will also undertake or commission research into matters concerning the interests of victims and survivors and encourage the provision and coordination of provision of relevant services to victims and survivors. She will also make arrangements for publicising the role of the redress board; monitor the operation of the redress board; and establish or make arrangements to establish a panel of solicitors, the members of which the commissioner is satisfied have the necessary expertise to provide legal advice and assistance on applications and appeals.

The Member will also be aware that, for those victims who fell outside the Hart recommendations, an interdepartmental group has been established, under Judith Gillespie, to look at all the people who still need to be supported and a way forward found for them. We look forward to that group coming forward with recommendations on what we can do next. Its work is ongoing. It is a cross-Executive and interdepartmental working group. You will understand that the Department of Health is the lead Department for the work on mother-and-baby homes and the Magdalene laundries, and that is also an ongoing piece of work.

Mr Robinson: I thank the Ministers for their statement. Will the commissioner have the ability to suggest new legislation if, while discharging her duties, she finds that that would be helpful to carrying out the very important duties that will be bestowed on her?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I set out previously the remit of the commissioner. At its core, her remit is to be the voice of victims, to listen to victims, to engage and represent them and to make sure that they have confidence and faith in the Office of the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse to address their needs. When it comes to making legislative changes, or anything else that is required, we will listen. Our door will be open to working with the commissioner. Our door will be open to making whatever necessary arrangements are required, legislative or otherwise. We say this very clearly to victims and survivors today: your voice will always be heard, you will never be silenced again, and this Executive will make sure that we leave no stone unturned in assisting you and the commissioner on the way forward.

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for the statement this morning. Can she advise why this appointment is not coming into effect until 14 December?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. We were keen for Ms Ryan to take up her post very quickly, but she has current employment and has to work her notice. That is the only reason for the delay. Otherwise, we would have her in place today.

The significance of today should not be lost. This is a significant public appointment that we are delighted to make. We hope that this long-awaited appointment is something that the victims will see as a step forward and a milestone in their journey.

Mr Clarke: Like others, I welcome the fact that we have got to this stage. I am sure that many thought the day would never come when there would be an appointment. We all welcome the fact that Fiona has been appointed to the post. However, given the difficulties around the interim advocate, does the deputy First Minister believe that Fiona is the right person for the job and that she will have the confidence of victims and survivors?

Mrs O'Neill: Today is not about the interim advocate; today is about the new commissioner coming into place. Today is about a new beginning or a new chapter. Today is about giving hope that, finally, things are being done and that the needs of victims and survivors are being addressed insofar as we have this permanent appointment.

The joint head of Government, Arlene Foster, and I interviewed a panel of candidates. We are very satisfied that the appointment that we made is the right appointment. Clearly, there will be a period in which to build confidence and to gain the confidence of victims and survivors, and work will be done to build those relationships. Ms Ryan certainly demonstrated to us that that is what she is about. She has a wealth of experience working with people who have experienced trauma across a whole range of areas. That is a testament, and it will stand to her in her role as commissioner. We wish her well, and we wish to see the relationship flourish between her and the victims and survivors.

Ms Anderson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Like Christopher Stalford, I was in the Assembly when the institutional abuse inquiry was launched. In fact, I had the privilege of being one of the two junior Ministers who launched the inquiry for the late Martin McGuinness and for Peter Robinson, so I welcome today's announcement. As we all know, the victims have been on a long journey. I hope that Fiona Ryan will take to her new post. I am sure that SAVIA, the other north-west survivors' groups and the other victims' groups will all work well together as they go forward. Minister, you said that a number of applicants had already applied. Can you give us some more information on the level of redress payment that has been made to date?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for her question. As I said, the redress board opened for applications on 31 March, and we were delighted that, seven weeks later, the first compensation payments were made within the timescale set out by the president. We know that numerous victims and survivors are now starting to receive their long overdue compensation. The latest figures we have are that, at 30 September, 579 applications had been received, 156 of which were from people who participated in the Hart inquiry. Panels have made determinations totalling £4·1 million and paid out a total of £2·6 million. We are very grateful to the president of the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board for continuing the prompt payment of compensation and the assessment of applications and to the solicitors and groups that are supporting the applicants through that difficult process.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for today's statement. The appointment is very welcome and long overdue, and I am absolutely delighted that we are at this juncture. We realise that the commissioner's remit is to be the representative voice of victims, but we also know that the families of victims of abuse have suffered greatly as well. Will the commissioner have any remit to support the wider families, not just the victims and survivors?

Mrs O'Neill: The commissioner's job is, obviously, to be the voice of victims, to listen to them very carefully and to communicate to Government and make sure that their interests are taken on board. I have no doubt that that will also include the support circle around victims.

The issue of support services is being looked at, and the interim advocate brought forward a number of recommendations. We need to continue to make sure that all the support services required are in place. I know that the interim advocate looked at what further support could be provided. Service provision for victims and survivors is needed around, for example, specialist services, in line with the recommendations in the Hart report. The interim advocate put in place, with the Victims and Survivors Service, an interim personal support service that offers a listening ear and access to emotional support and counselling. That can be accessed via the interim advocate's office or independently. In the meantime, officials are looking at how they can expedite preparations to make sure that the commissioner will have a key input into the services that are needed, including those for families.

Mr Nesbitt: I welcome the Minister's statement, as it is both very positive and an extremely significant point on this journey. As Mr Stalford reminded us, it was the OFMDFM Committee of the day that scrutinised the legislation that set up the Hart inquiry.

We were all very conscious that it was open only to victims who were abused in an institutional setting and that there were many other victims — perhaps of the same abusers — who did not have access to Hart, not because of the nature of the abuse, but because of the location where it occurred. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is an equality issue here. Further to what she said about Judith Gillespie and the interdepartmental group, can she expand on the terms of reference and the indicative timeline for reporting, please?

Mrs O'Neill: Again, it is important to send a strong message to victims and survivors that no one will be left out, that they will never be silenced and that their voice will be heard in the Assembly and the Executive. I do not have the direct terms of reference for the interdepartmental working group with me, but I am happy to provide them to the Member. Clearly, the role of the interdepartmental working group is to consider evidence relating to all those matters and to make recommendations to the Executive. We look forward to getting the recommendations. I will respond to the Member in writing about the time frame for the interdepartmental working group.

Alongside that is the work in the Department of Health on mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries. No victim and survivor should be left behind. We have an obligation to make sure that we progress all that work in as speedy a manner as possible. We must allow victims and survivors to get to the point where they have the fullness of all the recommendations that were made by Hart for an apology, redress and memorial. I want the Executive to deliver, as a matter of urgency, all the things that are significantly important to victims and survivors.

Ms Dolan: Does the Minister regard the HIA apology as a public acknowledgement of the wrongdoing suffered in institutions?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. The delivery of an apology and public acknowledgement of the harm and wrongdoing will be another significant milestone for victims and survivors. The sooner we can get to that point, the better. We know that a significant body of work has been done through the interim advocate. The interim advocate has worked with the victims and survivors group to look at international best practice.

It is important that, whenever we deliver the apology, it is delivered correctly and appropriately and that it meets the needs of the victims and survivors. I believe that, over the course of the next short number of weeks, we will have a meeting to discuss the apology. I hope to be able to come to the Assembly to update colleagues on that. The delivery of an apology is a significant and fundamental part of the Hart recommendations, and the Executive are determined to do that.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Ministers for their statement. This is a significant announcement and, as has been said, one that is long overdue. I commend the victims, who have stood strong through very difficult times and have suffered continuously over the years. This will come as welcome news to the victims. I wish Ms Ryan well in the difficult and challenging job that lies ahead.

Minister, given the number of people, is there any intention to increase the office budget, as additional staffing would help? I know you touched on that earlier, but can you give an assurance to those affected that there will be no barrier to the resources necessary to support the commissioner in her vital and necessary work?

Mrs O'Neill: We are determined to support the commissioner in her work, and budgets will be worked out in line with the needs of the office, the needs of victims and what we can do to support them. I thank you for your acknowledgement that this is a day for the victims and survivors; they have brought us to this point. I am glad to be here today as joint head of Government and able to make this announcement, but I recognise that it has been a long time coming.
This is a significant day. I thank all the victims and survivors for everything they have done to get us to this point. They have shown tenacity, courage and resilience for many years in the face of adversity. It is right that we are making this announcement today, and I am glad that we are at this point. However, we have a few more things to do, not least the apology and the memorial. I want to get us to that point, alongside all the other work that needs to happen for the people who do not fall under the terms of the Hart inquiry.


12.45 pm

Mr Allister: I trust that this will prove a more successful appointment than that of the interim commissioner. Arising from the disastrous breakdown between many of the victims and the interim commissioner, what lessons have been learned and what mechanisms are in place to deal with such a situation should it, unfortunately, arise again?

Mrs O'Neill: Let us hope that today is a new beginning and that, when Ms Ryan comes into post as the commissioner, the relationship between her and the victims flourishes. Today is not about yesterday or the interim advocate; it is very much about how we support victims and survivors in the period ahead. That is what I am focused on and that is what I want us to do. We need to have a situation where all victims feel that they have a place and a voice that is directly communicated to us in the Executive. That is what we are determined to do. This is a hugely significant day. Let us assist victims and survivors to look to the future and help them to rebuild. Let us deliver on the commitments that were made in the Hart report, and let us make sure that we are continually looking forward and assisting them in all that they do.

Ms Sugden: I welcome the appointment, and I appreciate that both Ministers have announced it in the House today; that is an important and significant statement to make. I am also impressed by Ms Ryan's background, not least her experience in the field of domestic abuse. Institutional abuse is comparable with domestic abuse, not least because it is an abuse of trust by the people who should have been protecting those children. The compensation will go some way towards acknowledging the wrongdoings against those individuals, but there is significant trauma there, and, in order for them to heal, we need to put more resources into addressing that trauma for them. Will they be able to access resources such as counselling or legal services through the commission?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said in response to an earlier question, the interim advocate has been looking at the support services that are there, at what is missing and at what needs to be replaced. The resource conversation will follow the identification of need. Clearly, that is something that we all want to prioritise. We know that it is a hugely emotive area of work. We want to give a firm commitment today that we will be as responsive as we possibly can be in order to support the needs of victims and survivors as those are identified by the commissioner.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes while we prepare for the next item of business. I remind Members that during this interval it is important to maintain the social-distancing rules and stay 2 metres apart.

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

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order, Members. The original intention was that this element of the sitting would go until 1.30 pm, but we are running ahead of ourselves with time. I have been told that, unfortunately, the statement that the junior Minister intends to make runs to 24 pages of text, and we now have fewer than seven minutes to 1.00 pm. It is my intention, by leave of the House, to suspend the sitting. The next item of business will be Question Time with the Minister for Infrastructure. The business from the Executive Office will be dispatched at 3.30 pm, as originally intended. The sitting is suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.53 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Infrastructure

Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): Tackling the climate emergency is the single biggest global challenge that we face. As Infrastructure Minister, I have made addressing climate change one of my key priorities. I am focused on delivering clean public transport and active travel options to build connectivity, reduce emissions and promote health and well-being for all.

Earlier this year, I announced Translink's procurement of three hydrogen buses, which will see the first hydrogen buses and the first hydrogen refuelling station in Ireland. It is anticipated that those vehicles will go into service later this year. In addition, I have committed £55 million capital funding in line with the commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA) for the purchase of 100 zero-emission vehicles by Translink over the next two years. The vehicles will include 80 battery electric buses and 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses. It is anticipated that the new buses will go into service in Belfast and Derry in spring 2022.

I assure the Member that I am ambitious and committed to delivering on the decarbonisation of public transport. I recognise that, collectively with my Executive colleagues and Assembly Members, we can deliver lasting change for our communities. However, to make the change that we desire, we need to invest in infrastructure now for the future. I recognise that investment in infrastructure is not an end in itself. It is about people and place. It is about unlocking our economic potential and protecting our valuable environment to transform and connect lives. It is about improving health and well-being for all our communities across the North.

Mr McGuigan: I welcome the Minister's answer and her commitment. In the midst of a climate emergency in which transport is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, we need to embrace fully sustainable transport methods. How will the Department's upcoming regional strategic transport network plan help efforts to decarbonise the transport sector? May we also have an update on the £30 million for low-carbon buses that was announced in June?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. In the regional transport plans, we are developing our road and public transport network. For me, that is an important component of decarbonisation. As the Member said, I have invested £30 million this year in low-emission and zero-emission buses. As I said, we have three hydrogen buses — the first in Ireland — to come online before the end of this year, along with the first hydrogen refuelling station. I am also keen to work with Translink so that we can see decarbonisation across our bus and rail network. I look forward to working with the Member and others to realise that.

Mr Storey: Following a meeting that we had with Wrightbus in my North Antrim constituency, the Minister will be aware of the importance of the issue to that company. Given the importance of hydrogen, what undertakings and information can the Minister give us on discussions that she has had with the UK Government about drawing down our share of the money that was allocated for zero-emission buses? Will she also give a commitment to ensure that the matter goes right across the Executive — it is for not only her Department but the Department for the Economy and other Ministers — so that we get an outcome rather than just proposals and plans?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As I said in my initial response, we have tangibly and pragmatically moved this forward with the procurement of the three hydrogen buses. As you said, this is a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I am in very regular contact with the British Government to remind them of their commitments and the compelling need to honour those.

You are absolutely right about discussions with Executive colleagues: zero carbon is an ambition for the entire Executive.

Just yesterday, I met the Finance, AERA and Economy Ministers to talk about the opportunities that we have across public transport, our waste water infrastructure — right across our public services — to advance that whole agenda, given our ambitious zero-carbon emissions targets and the importance of the pressing climate emergency facing all of us.

Mr Butler: Minister, in your answer to Mr McGuigan question, you mentioned the active travel initiative. You have shown great leadership in that respect. Will you outline any conversations that you have had with councils on planning matters, particularly area planning, and tell us how we, you and your Department can partner with councils to ensure that this is embedded right down to community and societal level?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. The active travel agenda is important to me and hugely important for public health and climate action. We really have a wonderful opportunity now. Yes, we have the challenges of COVID and Brexit, but we also have renewed momentum among communities to embrace active travel. We also have the development of the local development plans in councils. Now is an opportune moment to work in partnership with all the councils and local communities. In my Department, my walking and cycling champion is in close contact and engagement with all the councils, which is why we were able to advance the park-and-ride schemes, and we are working closely with them to realise active travel projects across Northern Ireland.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, will you provide an update on your Department's work to tackle climate change and tell us how you hope to green our infrastructure, including public transport?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I am committed to doing what I can in my Department, working with Executive colleagues, councils and communities, to tackle the climate emergency. I am struck by the way in which we as a community in Northern Ireland have rallied together in our response to the COVID crisis, and I think that we will see that impetus. It is important that we encourage everyone to realise the pressing emergency of the climate crisis that faces us.

We are trying to do what we can on public transport. You will know that I have requested a short, sharp external review of the York Street interchange project — an important strategic project to which I am very committed — but I want to ensure that it is inclusive of communities, sits well with all our current strategic plans and plays a key role in tackling the climate emergency. I want to embed that approach across the Department. so that we see things in terms of a green recovery in every aspect, certainly, of the Department for Infrastructure and, I would hope, of the Executive.

Mr Speaker: Members, question 14 has been withdrawn.

Ms Mallon: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 2 and 7.

In line with the commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach', I have begun early discussions with Minister Ryan on a feasibility study of a potential high-speed rail connection North and South, as we seek to create a spine of connectivity on the island. The intention of a feasibility study will be to provide a high-level analysis of the potential of high- and higher-speed rail to support the wider outcomes and priorities of the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. It will allow for the consideration of options from the electrification of existing lines to bring maximum speed up to approximately 120 mph to the development of a new high-speed connection on the corridor. Work is ongoing, and I intend to engage with my counterpart, Minister Ryan, to discuss the project further at tomorrow’s North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) transport sectoral meeting.

On improving the all-Ireland rail network, I am committed to improving transport links for the benefit of our economy and communities across our island. Improving connectivity between the North and South is a key priority for me in providing increased social inclusion, enhanced economic opportunities and an improved environment for all our citizens. I firmly believe that rail is an untapped opportunity, with multiple benefits, that can play a crucial part in our future, and I look forward to making progress with our colleagues in the Irish Government.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answers. I agree with a number of the things that she said. I agree that the need to improve North/South connectivity starts with North/South transport connections, to promote regionally balanced growth and address the effects of partition on the island's infrastructure. However, last week or the week before, Bus Éireann suspended the bus service from Dublin to Belfast indefinitely. Since the Minister is meeting her counterpart in Dublin, will she raise that issue to try to reverse that decision?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He raises an important point. I was informed by Minister Ryan's office on Saturday 26 September that the Bus Éireann board would be recommending the indefinite suspension of the Belfast-Dublin service. I assure the Member that I am committed to securing island-wide services between Belfast and Dublin and will discuss the matter with Minister Ryan at tomorrow's NSMC transport meeting. My Department will continue to work to provide services for our communities, North and South, and will work with Translink to minimise the impact on passengers.

Mr McNulty: What support is required from across the Executive to deliver on all-island rail that will help to enhance our all-Ireland economy?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As he knows, I am determined to make progress on island-wide connectivity. In the face of Brexit and economic turbulence, the case for all-island connectivity has never been stronger. Rail is a crucial part of the jigsaw for growing connectivity north to south and enhancing our island economy. I am pleased to say that I have been working closely with Minister Ryan, and we have discussed how we can progress this important area. While we are in regular contact, I am delighted to be meeting him formally tomorrow at the sectoral meeting on transport.

The Member asks a valid question on the required support for all-island rail. Across the globe, we see investment in critical infrastructure as a means to help communities build towards recovery. With the economic strain here, the climate emergency, COVID-19 and Brexit, we need to make strategic choices to enhance our economy and to connect our communities. I will, of course, need funding, but, given our commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach' to delivering change and investing in infrastructure, I hope that my Executive colleagues will support the delivery that our communities need.

Miss McIlveen: With regard to developing Northern Ireland's regional connectivity, the European superhighway across the North Channel is central to accessing our largest market but is also the most expensive sea crossing in western Europe. The A77 and the A75, which it connects to, are probably amongst the worst roads in Scotland. What work is the Minister and her Department doing to reduce costs and to secure Scottish or national Government investment in order to address that?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. It is an issue that spans Departments. My officials are working with their counterparts in Scotland, and I am in close contact with Michael Matheson, my ministerial counterpart, because we recognise the strategic importance of that connection. Of course, I will continue to press the British Government to ensure that we get the required investment to allow us to get the road upgrades and the connectivity required to support our economy and to connect our communities.

Mrs Barton: The Minister talked about North/South connectivity: has any thought been given to east-west connectivity and, perhaps, an investigation of rail transport towards Dungannon and on to Enniskillen?

Ms Mallon: I am very mindful of east-west connectivity. As I have said on the Floor of the Assembly, one of the positives of COVID-19 and something from which I have benefited is the close engagement that has taken place with ministerial counterparts across these islands. I have developed a positive working relationship with Michael Matheson in Scotland, my counterpart in Wales and Grant Shapps in the Department for Transport, although, at times, it is fractious. I do not want to lose that engagement; I want to build on it. It is particularly important in the face of Brexit.

I am very ambitious for our rail opportunities. The difficulty that I will face is my ambition being curtailed by a lack of investment and funding. Public transport, like all organisations, has suffered hugely as a result of COVID-19, with a dramatic drop in passenger numbers and, therefore, income. The battle for me is to secure the necessary investment to protect our existing public transport network. However, I assure the Member that my ambitions do not stop there. I want to see rail connectivity pushed across Northern Ireland. I want to see public transport as a cornerstone of the Executive's economic and climate action strategy.

Mr Speaker: I call Jim Allister.

Mr Allister: Miss McIlveen raised my issue. I am content.


2.15 pm

Ms Mallon: As the Minister responsible for promoting and improving road safety, I want to work actively with all partners to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. As such, I have regular discussions with the PSNI about road safety, and I am acutely aware of the ongoing road safety concerns relating to car cruises in Portrush and Portstewart.

I recognise that local residents are extremely concerned about the adverse effects caused by vehicles speeding and from noise pollution in the area. My officials have had discussions with both the PSNI and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council about those events, and I understand that a further multi-agency meeting is to be arranged.

Members may also be interested to know that the Department is progressing legislation to extend existing traffic-calming measures on Lansdowne Road in Portrush. That will introduce some additional traffic-calming humps to address some of the concerns about speeding in Portrush.

The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) provided technical support during a multi-agency enforcement operation in Portrush and Portstewart on 30 August 2020, which coincided with a recent car cruise event. During the operation, police escorted 14 modified cars to Coleraine vehicle test centre, where each vehicle was thoroughly examined by an enforcement officer using the agency's vehicle test equipment. Results from those inspections revealed that 12 vehicles — 85% — were found to be non-compliant with construction and use requirements to varying degrees and that four were found to be in such dangerous condition that they could not continue to be used on a public road. Overall, 12 vehicles were subject to immediate prohibition action owing to varying road safety critical defects, with several drivers informed that they would be reported, with a view to prosecution by police.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for her response. I have had those detailed conversations with the local PSNI and am aware of the figures. Is she prepared to work with a multi-agency task force perhaps to look at ways in which to close off the promenade during those peak times, with Saturdays and Sundays being the worst?

Ms Mallon: I know that the Member has been working very hard on the issue locally. The police can and do close roads in Portstewart and Portrush when they have concerns about public safety. We need to be clear, however, that that is not really the solution, as we want all drivers to use the road and to have respect for all. I can assure him that my officials have attended the multi-agency meetings to date and will engage with all the partner organisations to try to address that issue and local residents' concerns.

Dr Archibald: Similar to Mr Bradley, I am in regular contact with the PSNI about those events annually. The Minister touched on how she is addressing issues to do with congestion and speeding. Is she also looking into the air pollution that comes with those issues?

Ms Mallon: I very much am. I see the problem as having multiple layers, and we need to take a comprehensive approach to it. Tackling the issue of modifications to exhausts and the dangerous condition that a number of the vehicles are in will help with that. Doing what we can to ensure that drivers are not gathering in large numbers and revving their engines is also an important component, and we will continue to work with all elected representatives, including the council, with the PSNI and with local communities to try to get the situation under control.

Ms Hunter: I welcome the fact that the Minister has been very helpful by agreeing to ensure that traffic-calming measures will be progressed. I am grateful that she recognises the stress that some boy-racer enthusiasts have caused my constituents. Will she provide an update on the traffic-calming measures that will assist in stopping cruising and speeding?

Ms Mallon: As I have outlined, my Department is progressing legislation to extend existing traffic-calming measures on Lansdowne Road in Portrush. The scheme will consist of the following measures: one set of speed cushions on Causeway View between the junctions of Lansdowne Crescent and Princess Street; and two sets of speed cushions on Lower Lansdowne Road. The proposal was advertised earlier this year, and there were no objections. I recognise how concerning this situation is for residents, and I am pleased that the scheme is planned to be in place this financial year.

Ms Sugden: I thank my constituency colleague, Mr Bradley, for raising this issue in the House. It is an issue that all MLAs have been contacted about. I appreciate the Minister saying that it is not just an Infrastructure issue, but that it is a multi-agency issue. In fact, it is an interdepartmental issue, because this ultimately gave rise to quite serious antisocial behaviour, which culminated in quite a serious and significant event that led to the promenade being closed. I have a concern that we may face this again at other times of the year. Will the Minister work with the Minister of Justice to look at this as an antisocial behaviour issue, and to see what measures she can add to that to mitigate this happening again?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I place on record my appreciation to local representatives of all parties who have been representing their constituents concerning this issue. They have also been very much in solution mode as well, so they are representing their constituents' concerns while coming up with practical ideas about how we can work together to address this. My officials have attended the multi-agency meeting — I know that the PSNI was there, but I do not know whether there were any representatives from the Department of Justice. However, a partnership approach is the right approach in this instance, and my officials will work across all Departments and with all statutory agencies to try to address this and to bring peace of mind and a better of quality of life to the residents who are affected.

Ms Mallon: In June, I announced my commitment to fund the continued development of a number of strategic road improvement schemes, including the A2 Buncrana Road, as part of my plan to aid economic recovery and community transformation while addressing regional imbalance. As is consistent with my wider priorities, I am committed to ensuring that this scheme is future-proofed and that it will help to stimulate the green recovery. My Department will continue to progress the A2 Buncrana Road scheme in line with my objectives, which include improving transport links, road safety and traffic progression, and contributing to the regeneration of the area while maintaining the environment and achieving value for money.

Earlier this year, I met local business owners in the area, and I have committed to exploring what options can be looked at in the light of their concerns. I am keen to work in partnership with the community to deliver positive change for the north-west. I hope to be in a position to decide upon the progression to the next stage, which includes the publication of the draft statutory orders for consultation, by mid-2021.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her response. I recently met local businesses, and they put across the position that there is potential for 300 jobs to be lost if the development plan is not adjusted. Unfortunately, they have been met with the rejection of those proposals by some of the officials. Will the Minister intervene to ensure that those 300 jobs are protected and that the concerns of those businesses are upheld?

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. As I have said, I met local businesses on the Buncrana Road earlier this year to directly hear their views and concerns. I have asked my officials to continue discussions with all the stakeholders over the coming months, while progressing the scheme's development. That is, in particular, to ensure that it meets my objectives, but also so that we work to try to address the concerns that are being expressed locally.

Ms Anderson: Minister, you will know that I have spoken to you about this matter at the Committee, I have written to you on it, I have raised questions and, like Gary Middleton, I have also met some of the retailers. I will ask you the question again, because they are not convinced that Roads Service is really taking them seriously enough in that they need modifications to the original plan. We all support the A2 Buncrana Road; it is vitally important for the city to unlock its potential. So, Minister, I think that is important that you send them a signal that you are listening — I know that you are listening to them — and that the modification of the road will definitely be taken into account in the context of New Decade, New Approach and co-design. Nothing about us without us.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. As I said, I specifically wanted to meet the local business owners earlier this year to hear directly, in a face-to-face meeting, the concerns that they have. I have said very clearly to my officials that they need to be engaging and working with local stakeholders. I have said all along, since I took up this post, that we need to work in partnership: local people know what works best. Obviously, I have strategic priorities in my Department, and there are a number of measures that we need to meet to ensure value for money, but we get to the right place and get better outcomes when we all work together. So, I can assure you that I will continue to listen, and I have asked my officials to continue to engage directly so that we can work forward together.

Ms Hunter: Martina raised my issue, so I am content.

Mr Speaker: OK, thank you.

Ms Mallon: First, I stress that securing the financial future of our public transport network remains a priority for me as we respond to the pandemic and develop sustainable ways of connecting people and communities to opportunities.

My Department’s estimate of the financial support that is required by Translink for the remainder of the current financial year is £20 million, and it will continue to bid for the shortfall. That sum takes into account the planned efficiencies identified by Translink in response to COVID-19 as well as the most up-to-date picture of customer demand. We must also recognise that reduced passenger numbers do not automatically mean a similar reduction in the level of costs for the company.

Translink continues to play a vital role in ensuring that our citizens can continue to access their jobs, education and essential services, and I want to be clear that that funding is necessary if we want Translink to continue to provide that service. Protecting a publicly owned public transport network, safeguarding jobs and ensuring that there is a network that is accessible for all and based on need, not solely on profit, remains my priority, and it is one that I know all my Executive colleagues share, given the renewed commitment that I recently secured to ensure that the network is protected and funded.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her response. I declare an interest, as I was previously an employee of Translink. Significant funds have been allocated across the water to train-operating companies, bus operators and Transport for London. That money came across to Northern Ireland as Barnett consequentials. Does the Minister not agree that the failure to pass that support on to Translink will have a devastating impact on local communities and our efforts to tackle climate change?

Ms Mallon: In short, I fully agree with the comments and analysis from the Member. On my desk, I have a very high pile of correspondence from all political parties, asking for additional services, additional train halts and an extension of rail lines. I wish that I was in a position to be able to grant them all. As I said, Translink is facing a hugely difficult situation as a result of COVID, and, as the Member rightly said, we have seen, right across these islands, that Governments have recognised that and recognised the importance of public transport to connecting people and tackling the climate emergency. There is also a social justice element because so many people cannot afford cars and are wholly reliant on our public transport network. So, I will continue to make the case at the Executive and very much look forward to the continued support of the Member in that regard.

Mr Boylan: Is the transport network meeting the general demand of the public? I ask that in the context of rural areas, because there could be a reduction in services in those areas.

Ms Mallon: From the onset of COVID, I agreed to a reduction in services. However, throughout the COVID crisis, we have constantly reviewed passenger demand and ensured that we have services on standby to enable social distancing across the network. If the Member has concerns about a particular rural service, I am happy to take them away and look at them. We have been increasing our services across Northern Ireland in line with our risk assessment, the public health advice and the regulations from the Executive. The Member will also know that Translink has put on an additional 500 buses to make sure that we can transport our schoolchildren safely to and from school.

Mr Speaker: I call Paul Frew; there are seconds left.

Mr Frew: Thank you. Was it not a monumental error, and therefore a matter of regret to the Minister, to not put in place the apparatus to furlough Translink staff? Has the Department calculated how much the furlough scheme could have saved Translink?

Ms Mallon: In short, Translink did furlough staff. Translink also provided a very detailed analysis of the scoping potential for furloughing, which was shared with and accepted by the Finance Minister and Executive colleagues.

I know that the issue causes great hurt to Translink staff. As one person said to me, "Every Thursday, people stood clapping for front-line workers". Translink was at the forefront of the fight against COVID, making sure that essential workers were getting to and from work, going over and beyond. They find it deeply hurtful that, throughout that, people were calling for them to be furloughed when it was clear that the furloughing apparatus did not apply in that instance.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period fo