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Official Report: Monday 09 November 2020


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I have received a letter of resignation from Ms Catherine Kelly as a Member for the West Tyrone constituency. Her resignation took effect from 3 November 2020. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Mrs Michelle O'Neill has been given leave to make a statement on the US presidential election that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should indicate that by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until this item of business has finished.

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Matter of the Day. There are very few of us who were not witness to the unfolding presidential race across the Atlantic last week and its culmination at the weekend when Joe R Biden was formally announced as the forty-sixth president of the United States of America. I extend my warm congratulations to the president-elect and to the history-making vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, as they prepare to take up their office on 20 January 2021.

We are inextricably linked with the US through our history and by family and economic links. We are connected by our transatlantic relationships in the field of trade, investment and technological development and in our enjoyment of cultural, educational and other opportunities. Indeed, the oldest US consulate in the world is located in Belfast.

The president-elect is no stranger to this island — quite the opposite. He is a friend to Ireland and proudly celebrates his Irish-American roots, both North and South. Joe Biden is a key supporter of our precious peace process and has shown ongoing commitment, in particular, to the institutions established here in the North under the Good Friday Agreement. He comes into office at a time of great threat from the British Government with Brexit and the refusal to honour agreements that are looming large. The draft Internal Market Bill has been opposed by the majority of Assembly Members, who voted to reject it on the basis that it constitutes a serious violation of the protocol, which is specifically designed to protect the agreement and the achievements of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In addressing the grievous threat that we face from a looming Brexit, Joe Biden has signalled his intent to defend the interests of Ireland and to ensure that the progress made under the Good Friday Agreement is not undermined. Indeed, Joe Biden is on record as saying:

"any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border".

Sinn Féin will continue to defend the foundation stones of the peace process, including the Good Friday Agreement, and will work with all those who share that priority wherever they may be — in this case, the White House. I look forward to working with the new president and his Administration to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected and that its transformative potential is fully realised.

Our focus will also be on international collaboration as we deal with a global pandemic that has caused untold loss and pain right across the world. I look forward to the possibility of welcoming Joe Biden to the North in the future, as the president of the US, where we can assure him of the warmest of welcomes.

It would be remiss of me not to make specific mention of the historic achievement of the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris. She is breaking new ground not only as the first female to take up the second-highest office in the United States but as the first black woman and, indeed, the first Asian American to take this office. Her achievements will act as a catalyst to inspire many women, not only in the US but closer to home, with their ambitions and dreams of joining us in public life. Ádh mór ar Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Thank you for allowing this Matter of the Day.

Mr Stalford: It was encouraging to hear the deputy First Minister say that she will extend an invitation and looks forward to welcoming the new president. I can recall an occasion when a previous president, George W Bush, visited Northern Ireland, and, as her predecessor was welcoming him to Stormont Castle, Sinn Féin activists were protesting on the streets about his presence on this estate, such is the double-faced standard that exists.

Regardless of who holds the office of president of the United States, relations between Northern Ireland and the United States of America are important. Unlike other Members, I do not stand on platforms and denounce America as a force for evil in the world, because I do not believe that it is. I believe that America is a force for good in the world. It is important that we recognise that this is an internal matter for the people of the United States of America. While it is true that they have made their choice, it is our responsibility to work closely with whoever is in office because Northern Ireland benefits from our relationship with the United States. Indeed, a quarter of the people who have held the office of president can trace their family directly back to Ulster and this part of the island. That relationship is welcome because it allows us, a country of a mere 1·8 million people, to punch way above our weight with regard to influence on Capitol Hill.

President-elect Biden secured the greatest number of votes cast for any candidate in history. The candidate whom he defeated, outgoing President Trump, secured the second-greatest number of votes cast for any candidate in US history. Traditional barriers have been broken down in the election, and it is a welcome development that someone of Indian and African heritage is to be elected vice president of the United States. The cruel racism of the 1950s and 1960s that was apparent on the streets, particularly on the streets of southern America, is slowly but surely being confined to the past, and that is a welcome development. I welcome the progress that the world's strongest democracy is making, as we all should.

I have said that good relations are important. We have special linkages, and this has been an immense democratic exercise in terms of turnout and the levels of support that both main candidates, from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have secured. We have always had influence and relations, and it is important to build on that. That will be achieved if we all work to adopt a positive working relationship, regardless of who holds the office of president. It is no good being pro-American simply because your favourite candidate has prevailed.

Ms Mallon: On behalf of the SDLP, I offer warm congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Our party, perhaps more than most, nailed its colours to the mast over the last four years in calling out what it saw as an interminable march towards politics that was defined by division, fear and resentment and which led to children being separated from their families, travel bans on religious minorities and an emboldened racist movement. It is not difficult, therefore, to empathise with the people of the United States and across the world who feel like the cloud is starting to break. This was a historic event, for a number of reasons: the nature of the campaign, the volume of votes and the election of a woman of colour to the office of vice president for the first time.

Today, we stand with a friend of Ireland and Northern Ireland who is preparing to enter the White House. This president-elect does not just understand the complexities of this place but is invested in our progress. President-elect Biden once wrote:

"Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul."

This should, therefore, be a moment of relief, but it should also be a moment of reflection. It should be a moment for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others to reflect on a strategy that has brought them to the brink of breaking international law in the pursuit of a narrow, hard Brexit. President-elect Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior figures from across the aisle in Congress have made clear that any arrangement that harms our agreement will jeopardise a trade deal with the United States. That is avoidable, and I am sure that every Member will use their influence to maximise the outcome for all our people. We also need to reflect on an environment, not restricted to the United States, where people feel so marginalised, left behind and left out that they are taken in by the politics of resentment and fear. We all have a job of work to dispel that.

I wish the president-elect and vice president-elect the very best as they begin to bring in and bring together a new Administration. We will all work with them on issues of mutual concern in the weeks and months ahead.

Dr Aiken: The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the election of President-elect Biden and Kamala Harris. I need to start with a declaration of interest: 50% of my family are particularly happy that this result has come to the fore after three or four quite nervous days leading up to it.

This is a significant time for us in the Assembly as we look to a change of Administration in the United States. One thing that we know about the new president-elect is that he has at least read the Belfast Agreement. One of the most appropriate things is that he understands that not only do we not want a North/South border but we do not want an east-west border, which would undermine the Belfast Agreement just as much.

When Joe Biden takes over the presidency in January, he will have to lead a deeply divided nation. The United States has much to do to restore the faith of the international system in where it is coming from. He has significant challenges, and he needs friends in the international system to do that. Given the issues in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Cuba, one of the most significant issues that he will have to deal with is that of security — even before he has to deal with Russia and China. He needs friends in the international system. He needs friends who bring real, hard power to the equation. We have to realise that the United States has a massive security challenge. What we, particularly in the United Kingdom, want to see is the United States renewing its commitment to NATO and renewing its commitment to security across the international system.

We welcome the fact that, when the president-elect takes up his position, the United States will sign up to the Paris Accord again. Dealing with climate change is significant.

We also believe that he needs to take strong leadership on COVID. Getting to the point where we are able to deal with COVID from an international perspective is one of the massive challenges and problems that the president-elect will have to deal with.

Finally, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party and, I hope, all Members, we wish the new president-elect the best. We are very pleased to see the new vice president-elect coming into position. Hopefully, she truly has managed to break through the glass ceiling, because it is well beyond time that that happened in the United States.


12.15 pm

Mr Lyttle: The United States and Northern Ireland have close ties that bind our people together. The US has been a close friend to the peace process and to the social and economic well-being of our region. Alliance Party members have played key roles in developing and maintaining that special relationship, so we congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who, as the first woman and first woman of colour to be elected vice president in the history of the United States, will inspire people across the world.

President-elect Joe Biden quoted Ecclesiastes 3 in recognising the work that he and the vice president-elect have to do to unite the United States of America. He said that it was "a time to heal". I believe that the Alliance Party and the people of Northern Ireland will get fully behind that task and will continue to work closely with the people of the United States to ensure that it is a time for healing, a time for peace and a time for progress for both our peoples.

Mr Allister: There is a supreme irony that the House this afternoon is celebrating the fact that the people of the United States, by a democratic process, are changing their Government. The irony is that this House is the epitome of the very opposite. This House stands for the principle that you cannot change your Government and you cannot vote a party out of government. What we witnessed in the United States was the people of the United States deciding, in their democratic fashion and as is their right, to change their Government. What a contrast with this place, where, because of the iniquity of mandatory coalition, you can never change your Government. You can never vote a party out of government so long as that party holds on to a handful of MLAs. It is a supreme irony that, without the least blush of embarrassment, the House rises to celebrate the fact that others can do what those who have spoken to date determine we should never be able to do, namely change our Government.

The absurdity of our system of Government is further illustrated by the fact that, if the United States of America had the system that we have, we would have joint Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump. How absurd would that be? How dysfunctional would that be? As dysfunctional as Stormont, of course. Yet that is the system —.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member resume his seat for a moment? I remind the Member that the Matter of the Day was agreed to address the US presidential election. Could you stick to the subject, please?

Mr Allister: I thought that I was. I was drawing the contrast between the people of the United States being given the fundamental democratic right to change their Government while we are denied it. I was pointing out that the people of the United States will have a new powerful president rather than a joint president. We are denied that. The point is exactly on point that the democratic exercise that many are celebrating in the House is the very thing that is denied to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland.

As for Joe Biden, I hope that he will come to the realisation that he needs to temper his overt nationalist empathy if he ever hopes to have any positive influence in Northern Ireland, and he needs to recognise and accept that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom because of the will of its people. The American people have expressed their will. Now it is time for their president —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Allister: — to acknowledge our rights in that matter.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up. Thank you.

Mr Carroll: I congratulate the working class and all minorities in the US on their sacking of the racist, bigoted, homophobic champion of the rich and wealthy, Donald Trump. Trump embodies everything that is wrong with modern capitalism. He is oppressive, reactionary and corrupt and fully committed to increasing the riches of the wealthy, against the interests of ordinary people. He has, for the past four years, encouraged and emboldened a dangerous rise of the far right in the US and across the world. This election was, in my opinion, about giving Trump the boot. We should celebrate that, and democracy must be upheld against Trump's attempts to overturn it. I call on the Executive to immediately demand that the current president cease his efforts to overturn the democratic process. If he refuses to do this, we should break all diplomatic ties. Trump is acting like a spoilt child, throwing his toys out of the pram. So many millions rejected him, and he should do what is expected of him and step aside. Trump claimed to stand up for working-class Americans but did nothing to improve their lives. He actually made them far worse.

As I have said, the election was all about putting Trump out. For me, it was never about putting Biden in. There is not much good to be said about Biden, except for the fact that he is not Donald Trump. He is, in my opinion, an uninspiring champion of the status quo. The fact that he only just ousted a president whose coronavirus policy resulted in over 200,000 deaths speaks volumes to the limitations of the unimaginative, uninspiring, centrist approach of the Democratic establishment. Joe Biden has been part of the US establishment for years. That establishment has eviscerated working-class communities across the US. Biden has cheered on the US war machine in the Middle East for decades, time and again. He has declared himself an opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he was the candidate wheeled out to stop the progressive radical Bernie Sanders from breaking with the big-business interests of billionaires in the US. Those who think that Biden is a progressive or a friend of working-class people in Ireland are, frankly, living in fantasy land.

I hope for real change in the US, and real change in the US lives of those who are celebrating and demonstrating on the streets: those who have demanded that Black Lives Matter, healthcare for all and raising taxes for the super-rich. There is hope in those who voted for socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the US, the rest of her squad and Bernie Sanders. Let us enjoy Trump's demise and double down on our efforts for international solidarity and fundamental change in America, in Ireland and across the world.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for taking this Matter of the Day, and thank you to the deputy First Minister for requesting it.

Lots of people who heard the Member from North Antrim excoriate people here for welcoming the defeat of Donald Trump will be astonished. It is the case that there is hope and delight, frankly, around the world that someone who has been an appalling influence on democratic norms, the civilised world and how we go about politics across the world has been removed from office.

Let us focus on the positives. Joe Biden cares about Northern Ireland; he cares about the entire island of Ireland. I would go so far as to say that he cares about stability and good government across these islands and across the continent of Europe. He is, in that sense, good news for everyone across these islands. It has been said that Joe Biden is a friend to Ireland, and particularly to this part of Ireland. That is correct. His great-great-grandfather left the Cooley peninsula to travel to Newry to get the boat to North America about 150 years ago. It would be great if President-elect Biden were able to return to see what we hope to be the developing Narrow Water bridge at some point in the future.

However, let us be absolutely clear. We have had a horrible few years of coarsening discourse and increased divisiveness, not just in North America but around the world. Anybody who thinks, as some have reflected, that who leads the United States is not our concern but an internal matter for them has not been paying attention to the awful increase in divisiveness and horrible rhetoric that has gone along with the Trump presidency. That is why people across the world are pleased and relieved to see Joe Biden take office. They are also pleased to see the transformational and historic election of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency. She is the first woman, and the first woman of colour, to be elected to that office.

Thomas Jefferson said that every man — sadly, he was saying "men" in those days — had two countries; their own and France.

These days, many of us have two countries: our own and the United States. The United States inspires and sometimes depresses us all, but the weekend was inspiring for those of us who look to the United States. What the United States has done in relation to Northern Ireland has been critical. Let us hope that the influence of the new president will be felt not just on this island but across these islands in the months and years to come.

Mr McCrossan: I echo the words of Members across the House in congratulating President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. This is a great moment of hope in dark times. Across the world, we have seen how Trump's influence has caused considerable issues, particularly for the Irish-American relationships that exist. He was a reckless leader in a challenging time.

In listening to contributions in the House, I find interesting the remarks by Sinn Féin and the DUP. It was the one campaign that I have seen them united on, when you consider that President Trump attended Sinn Féin fundraising dinners in America and you see the pictures of DUP MPs holding Trump's flag. They are on the one page on that issue.

I am delighted to see Trump vacate the presidency. It will be a interesting few months ahead to see how this all works out, but one thing is clear: it is the right time for the leadership of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Joe Biden sends out a powerful message: "Never give up". He has stood for election as president three times and, on the third occasion, has managed to succeed. All of us were glued to our screens the past number of days. I know that I certainly was. I found it fascinating to see how the vote evolved across the states. America is a deeply divided country, but I believe that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will do all that they can to unite it. They will send out that powerful message.

It also heartened me very much to hear President-elect Biden cite the words of Seamus Heaney. He has put it on record on many occasions that, if elected president, he will do everything that he can to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to prevent, as Colum Eastwood said,

"violence to the Good Friday agreement".

It is clear that the DUP were supporting Trump to use him as a vehicle to get the outcome that they as Brexiteers so desire.

I am very happy and hopeful for the future with a president and vice president of the calibre, standard and discipline of Biden and Harris. I congratulate both and look forward to them visiting the island of Ireland, North and South.

Mr McNulty: Congratulations, President-elect Joe Biden. His election is a victory for persistence, inclusiveness, enduring decency, democracy and, most importantly, hope in these dark times. In Ireland, we are all excited about the implications for our island, for the Good Friday Agreement, for Ballina and for the Cooley peninsula. When we get through the pandemic, there will be some craic in Lily Finnegan's on the opening night, celebrating the success of President-elect Joe Biden: a Cooley man and a Ballina man. My father is especially thrilled that Philadelphia got him over the line. My grandfather met my grandmother in Philadelphia, so, on a personal note, my family is thrilled. Congratulations, President-elect Joe Biden.

Mr Speaker: Members, that concludes the item of business. I ask you to take your ease for a moment or two. I remind Members that asking you to take your ease between each item of business is not just about preparing the Chamber but about making sure that Members can enter and exit the Chamber within the social-distancing regulations.


12.30 pm

Mr Givan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have learnt from reports on Twitter that the Justice Minister is having to self-isolate because she has a tickly cough. Of course, I wish her a speedy recovery. Hopefully, it is not the second time that the Minister has had the virus. Our thoughts and prayers are with her at this time.

With regard to Assembly business, I still have not been notified formally, as Chair of the Justice Committee, of the Minister's decision to self-isolate. We are due to have the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill tomorrow and, indeed, the Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill next week. What are the implications for those items of business proceeding through the Assembly? Is there any provision whereby one of the Minister's very capable Executive colleagues could represent the Department of Justice's position in order to ensure that we do not have slippage on that critical legislation?

Mr Speaker: First, I want to echo the Member's remarks and wish the Minister well. I received a letter from the Minister not long before I came into the Chamber and have not had time to consult others on it. The Member heard about it on Twitter: I had not heard about it on Twitter, so I was not following it this morning. As I said, I received a letter from the Minister shortly before I came into the Chamber. The Minister outlines in her letter that she has symptoms. As I said, we wish her well and a speedy return to good health and safety.

There will be implications for both those Bills, according to the Minister, because, at this moment in time, she has been unable to get another Minister to take the domestic abuse legislation through the House tomorrow. Having had to consider that Bill recently, I have to say that it is complex and complicated, and the Member is well aware of that. I do not think that it would be that easy to expect another Minister to have enough command of the Bill to take it through the House tomorrow at such short notice. We will have to take it to the Business Committee, which will decide how to proceed in the next week or two, during which time Minister Long has to self-isolate. Again, the Business Committee will address that tomorrow afternoon.

Mr Givan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, I appreciate your explanation, but can you advise whether, if one of the Minister's Executive colleagues were in a position to take on that role tomorrow, business would proceed?

Mr Speaker: I think that, in the first instance, you would have to expect the Minister to address that with her Executive colleagues. At the moment, all that I am aware of is that, as the Minister has advised me and, therefore, the House, she has been unable to get a colleague at this point. We will have to see whether that changes.

I have received — they are not here yet. I am getting ahead of myself.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Education that he wishes to make statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has, of course, been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called but can do that by rising in their place. I remind Members to be concise in asking their question — this is not an opportunity for debate per se — and not to engage in long introductions.

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): Thank you, Mr Speaker. In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on behalf of Minister Ní Chuilín and me on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in education sectoral format that was held on Friday 6 November 2020. Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions, the meeting was conducted via videoconference. I attended the meeting with Minister Foley TD, Minister for Education, and Minister Ní Chuilín as accompanying Minister.

The meeting was cordial and productive. Progress was made on a number of key issues, including the implications of UK withdrawal from the EU; the response to COVID-19; the review of the work programme; the update on EU funding; educational underachievement; special educational needs; school, youth and teacher exchanges; teacher qualifications; and cooperation between the inspectorates.

I will address each of those items in turn.

The Council noted the current assessment of the likely implications for the education sector of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and welcomed the commitments made to take all necessary measures to ensure that the agreed common travel area rights and privileges were protected. Ministers also welcomed the commitments made to the future PEACE PLUS programme and the work that is under way to develop that programme. Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to continued cooperation on education issues following the conclusion of the transition period.

On COVID-19, Ministers welcomed the commitment of all teaching staff in both jurisdictions to deliver remote learning to pupils. They noted the importance and context of the successful reopening of schools — a core policy objective in both jurisdictions — in accordance with hygiene and public health protocols. The Council noted the heightened concern of Education Ministers for pupils with complex and additional learning needs and acknowledged the efforts of teachers and other critical support staff to maintain students’ relationships and connections with schools. The agreement of the Education Ministers and their officials to continue sharing information and advance notice of key decisions, where practicable, was also welcomed. The Council expressed its appreciation to all staff engaged in the delivery of education in these exceptional times. It also welcomed the fact that Education Ministers will convene a meeting of senior departmental officials, along with agencies and bodies that have responsibility in vital support areas, and report findings to the next NSMC meeting in the sector.

The NSMC noted the commitment to review the work programme and the plan to convene a meeting of senior officials from relevant Departments, co-chaired by the secretary general and the permanent secretary of the Education Departments, to make recommendations for the future work programme. That meeting will be .

Ministers noted the impact that COVID-19 has had on Peace IV-funded shared education projects. They also noted that, to address the challenges posed by COVID-19, the use of online technologies to promote the objectives of shared education was being explored. The high-level engagement that has taken place between Departments on PEACE PLUS, the draft proposals for PEACE PLUS in relation to the theme of youth and the potential for ambitious and innovative proposals under PEACE PLUS to promote respect and understanding on a cross-border and cross-community basis were noted by the Council.

The NSMC noted the lessons learned and the recommendations from the final evaluation report on the North/South underachievement practitioners' engagement project, which was published by Co-operation Ireland in July 2017. The NSMC noted the appointment by me of the expert panel, under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background and to draw up an action plan for change that will ensure that all children and young people, regardless of background, are given the best start in life. That was noted by Ministers.

Research on the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme has been provided as part of the evidence base to the panel. The panel will produce an interim report and draft action plan by 31 March 2021 and a final action plan including implementation costs and timescales by 31 May 2020.

On special educational needs, the Ministers welcomed the progress being made by the two Education Departments and Middletown Centre for Autism (MCA) to facilitate and maintain the delivery of the centre’s range of services since the previous meeting in 2016. The Council welcomed the efforts of Middletown Centre for Autism management and staff to remain operational and the continued delivery of elements of their service throughout the COVID-19 restrictions. The proposed delivery plan for the centre, which takes account of the impacts of COVID-19 and the delay in making board appointments, was noted. The NSMC noted that MCA has been considering the potential implications of the UK withdrawal from the EU. The Council also noted recent developments in the delivery of special educational needs programmes in both jurisdictions.

On school, youth and teacher exchanges, the Council noted North/South exchanges in the area of youth work practices and the ongoing activities of the North/South education and training standards committee for youth work.

On teacher qualifications, the NSMC noted the procedures being explored to facilitate the reciprocal recognition of teacher qualifications in the context of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. It also noted the update on the agreement between the Marino Institute of Education and St Mary's University College regarding the delivery of the SCG.

The Council was advised that the eighteenth annual conference of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) on the theme of "Teacher Education in the COVID Moment" took place online on 21 October 2020.

Ministers welcomed the continuing collaboration of the education inspectorates, which covers capacity-building for the Education and Training Inspectorate's (ETI) inspection of new Irish-medium education; the ongoing programme of inspection exchanges and joint working on inspections; the collaborative support in carrying out independent evaluations on projects; and the cooperation between the management of both inspectorates.

My officials and I look forward to working with Minister Foley and her Department as we meet the challenges of responding to the current health crisis and the future challenges and opportunities that will be presented as the UK leaves the European Union.

Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I note the concern for pupils with complex needs that the Education Minister has expressed in the statement. However, the families of children with complex needs in Northern Ireland, who feel abandoned by him during COVID-19, need action, leadership and support rather than concern. I ask the Education Minister this: why did the £11·3 million Engage programme funding for school restart not include special schools when it was launched in September?

Mr Speaker: Sorry, Minister. I suggest that the Member's question does not entirely relate to the statement. I will leave the matter of whether he wishes to answer to the Minister's discretion.

Mr Weir: Well, just —.

Mr Speaker: Sorry, Minister. I make the point and remind the Minister that, if Members ask questions that are not relevant to the statement, it is entirely down the Minister whether to accept the question.

Mr Weir: I appreciate that it does not directly relate to the statement. However, we have given instructions to the Education Authority (EA) to work in the area of special educational needs. First, we should remember that the Engage programme runs across schools. Therefore, for the vast majority of children who are statemented, for instance, they will be operating through mainstream schools, which will enable that.

On the issue of direct intervention for children who are in special schools, there is a need for something that is more bespoke and individually exercised. We have asked the EA, which has overall responsibility for special educational needs, to work with those schools and the individuals in them to make sure that any level of academic catch-up takes place for them.

Mr Newton: I will go to the same item, Minister, on special educational needs. In the discussions, have you noted any radical differences between the approach being used in Northern Ireland, on the basis of addressing the needs of our young pupils, and the approach being used by the Minister in the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Weir: I think that there was a realisation in the discussion on special educational needs that took place during the NSMC meeting. That discussion principally focused on the Middletown Centre for Autism, which is obviously the one area that is of direct common concern. However, I think that there has been an acceptance that there is a need and, indeed, that there was probably a limited level of supply of supports in terms of schools being open during the early parts of the pandemic across the board. There was, in particular, probably limited support for special educational needs. There is a strong imperative, particularly on special schools, to be open. Last week, I was able to visit Arvalee in Omagh. It provides a considerable service that goes beyond simply the educational provision there. It is critical from the point of view of the development of children and from a social point of view. I think that, North/South, there is a common determination to see that schools are kept open as much as possible and prioritised. There is nowhere that that is more important than for children with special educational needs.

Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for his statement. In relation to ongoing and future cooperation, what is the Minister's assessment of the impact that COVID has had on cross-border shared education projects? Minister, I ask that you restore the funding to ScoTens and that your officials meet the Committee to discuss that.


12.45 pm

Mr Weir: I will take those in reverse order. I am due to meet representatives from SCoTENS at, I think, the end of this month, so we will be able to discuss that level of support then. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome until I have the meeting.

On shared education, last week, I think, Mr Murphy gave a report on the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), which leads to some of the Peace funding. It is the case that all projects have been able to move ahead. However, the projects, particularly those on shared education, have been reoriented. It has therefore been about shared learning at this stage, and a lot of that has been done online.

One of the many difficulties that has arisen from COVID is with the provision of shared education, which everyone would manifestly accept is of benefit. The overriding driver in shared education is the direct shared experience of people meeting face to face. We are trying to ensure that, in terms of health protections, there is as little mixing between schools as possible and as little mixing within schools, so quite often classes have to form a bubble. That creates a direct face-to-face barrier, which then acts in a counter-intuitive way to what we want to happen with shared education. However, shared education is being taken forward, and the projects have been able to continue. From that point of view, nothing has been abandoned, but a lot of the sharing has had to shift much more to an online experience. There was a shared indication from everyone that the sooner we can move back to a point at which it is safe to have direct interaction, between students in particular and teachers, on a shared education basis, the better we can get the richest harvest from that investment.

Mr McCrossan: Minister, thank you for visiting Arvalee school in Omagh, which is in my constituency. It is a fantastic school, and I am sure that your visit was very much welcomed.

I commend you — both Ministers, in fact — for your commitment to collaborate and cooperate on the range of matters outlined in the statement. I am alarmed, however, to note that those conversations are at such an early stage, given that we are so far on in the transition period, which is due to end in January. You said that procedures are:

"being explored to facilitate reciprocal recognition of teacher qualifications"

North/South in light of Brexit. Should that not have been completed sooner, Minister? How advanced are those explorations? Can you give a date or a time? Furthermore, is there an issue with the ETI in relation to the Irish-medium sector?

Mr Weir: I am not aware of any particular problems that the ETI has with the Irish-medium sector directly. Obviously, the ETI has been restricted in what it has been able to do throughout the pandemic. Indeed, like others, the ETI has, at least on a temporary basis, had to reorient itself. The work that the ETI and the EA have done in providing link officers for schools has been very useful, but, on the level of inspection and input — there is a strong case that inspections should operate on a more thematic basis anyway — there has clearly been some change.

We are giving a report on where we are at present. We had an opportunity to discuss the issues when the NSMC met at Dublin Castle during the summer, although the meeting was not formally in education sectoral format. Arising out of that, Minister Foley — at that stage, she was relatively new in post — and I had a direct informal one-to-one meeting that touched on a number of those issues.

As regards mutual recognition, the position is that that has previously been facilitated through the EU. Good work is being done on that. It may well be that, as part of the overall settlement that arises — if it arises — between the UK and the EU, there is a level of acceptance on the mutual recognition of qualifications. As I said, work is ongoing to see what can be done on a bilateral basis. It is noticeable — this fits in neatly with that level of recognition — that, in the Internal Market Bill that is passing through the UK Parliament, there are those mutual recognitions between the various jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. As the Member will be aware, teaching councils, for instance, operate in different formats in different parts of not just the United Kingdom but the Republic of Ireland. One of the things that the pandemic has shown is that there is a need for mutual recognition of qualifications, because, particularly with teaching, we do not know at what stage in different jurisdictions people will seek to go beyond their own boundaries — this is not just in regard to education — to be able draw and seek, if you like, experience and help from outside their jurisdiction. There is a broader critical element in dealing with the mutual recognition of qualifications. That is ongoing in an attempt to create, at least, a bilateral arrangement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland on teaching qualifications.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your answers so far.

I want to probe a little more into teaching qualifications. As you know, in Northern Ireland, teachers go through Stranmillis or St Mary's, and we also have teachers with postgraduate qualifications. First, what work is being done to look at those qualifications on both sides of the border? Secondly, what talks have been going on with the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) and its equivalent in the Republic of Ireland to make sure that qualifications are recognised on either side of the border?

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her questions. She will be aware that the GTCNI will look after it from a Northern Ireland perspective; the Teaching Council of Ireland (TCI), the equivalent registration body in the South, will look after it there. Then, it is about ensuring that those who have, for instance, a UK BEd or PGCE qualification are able to obtain registration with the TCI and, similarly, that TCI-registered teachers can be recognised by the GTCNI.

Elements of the current mutual recognition arrangements are based on the EU mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive. That will cease at the end of the EU period. Applicants from outside that will also need to be assessed. The UK Government, which will handle some of the qualifications, are keen to have professional mobility and keen to see that reflected in the common travel area. We were aiming for a seamless internal UK labour market for professionals, with a bilateral agreement that could comprehensively address and sort out any future teacher recognition arrangements.

Mr M Bradley: The Minister's statement noted that both Education Ministers had considerable concern for pupils with complex and special educational needs. Does he agree that the benefit that those children get from being able to attend school is significant and that that is a further reason to ensure that schools remain open as we face the challenges that lie ahead in dealing with COVID-19?

Mr Weir: That is similar to a previous question. Ensuring that schools remain open is paramount for all pupils, but the particular focus on those with special educational needs is shared on both sides of the border. It is noticeable that the Republic of Ireland, which has different levels of COVID restrictions, when moving to level 5, did so on the basis of protecting educational institutions, particularly schools.

Any experience of meeting children with special educational needs indicates the particular importance of keeping those schools open, not only to allow face-to-face learning but from a broader social point of view. In sending out any signal, there has to be recognition of every child across the system.

While the principal focus in special educational needs was on the specifics of Middletown, in my discussions with Minister Foley, the importance of schools being open, particularly for special educational needs pupils, was recognised on both sides of the border and, indeed, beyond. What has happened in Great Britain has shown that the desire to ensure that schools are kept open is a priority, and the Executive share that desire.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement. Is the proposed review of the forward work programme due to the consequences of COVID? Will he comment on the extent of the impact that COVID has had on the work programme?

Mr Weir: There is a good opportunity, with the Executive having resumed this year and with a new Government in the Republic, for a stocktake and to see what can happen in the forward work programme.

At a certain level, all these things are work in progress. There is no doubt that COVID has had an impact across a number of sectors in education, here and in other jurisdictions. To some extent, in the Department of Education here and in that in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a shift to fight the immediate issues of COVID with whatever staff are available. That happens on a range of issues; for example, there has been a shift away from area planning to what has to happen immediately.

Similarly, in any engagement on future work programmes, there is no doubt that some time delay has been created. However, if we can take some positive element from COVID, it is how we apply some of the lessons of COVID to see whether there are better ways. A lot of that will be on sharing information, sharing best practice and sharing knowledge. Are there ways that we can learn from COVID to provide better ways for our young people and capture some of the accidental successes that have occurred because of it and apply them across the education system?

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his statement and his answers so far. You mentioned the expert panel to examine educational underachievement. I understand that that panel is to report in the spring of next year. That is a hugely significant issue in north Belfast and greater Shankill. Can the Minister update the House on the progress that the panel has made to date?

Mr Weir: There are a couple of aspects to that. There has been engagement prior to the NSMC meeting with experts sharing their experience of underachievement. That will be fed in. The work of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools system can also feed into that. The panel started in September, and it is my understanding that, up until the middle of October, there were 401 direct responses to the online consultation. I understand that, over the period up to January 2021, at least 20 oral sessions will be established by the education panel, with, as indicated, the aim of having a completed report by May 2021.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I welcome the Minister's statement. Following on from the point about educational underachievement, could you expand on similar initiatives, what we have learnt and the opportunities to enhance cooperation with your Southern counterparts? You mentioned the final evaluation report. What lessons have you learnt from that?

Mr Weir: The information from the evaluation report has been fed into the expert panel and has been provided to it along with a wide range of other pieces of evidence. One of the advantages for the expert panel is that there is a bank of knowledge on and good experience of underachievement. Whether it is happening in the Republic of Ireland, in parts of Northern Ireland, or indeed, England, Scotland, Wales or internationally, that information can feed into it.

None of us should be conceited enough to believe that we always have all the answers. We can learn from experience, and how things are tackled across the board will be fed into the expert panel. That is not simply about copying things that have worked successfully; at times, it may also be about people saying, "Here is something that was tried but did not work so should be avoided". It is about getting all that rich experience and having it feeding in from different points to the panel.

Mr McNulty: Minister, a young woman is fighting for her life in a hospital not far from here after a domestic violence issue at the weekend. I am sure that the Minister will join me in wishing her well and will recognise the important role that education has in teaching our young people about respect. I know that that is not connected to the statement.

I commend those who have continued to work throughout the pandemic in order to provide support for children. I want to focus on special educational needs and the Middletown Centre for Autism, which is in my constituency. We are all too aware of the constant battles being fought by parents of children with additional needs. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a significant focus on policy and resources in order to tackle the lag in providing support and services once a diagnosis has been confirmed from the statement of need to the provision of therapies? Furthermore, should there be a focus on the sudden drop-off of services when a child hits his or her nineteenth birthday? Will the Minister undertake to ask the Middletown Centre for Autism to carry out an urgent review of those two areas of work and to make recommendations for action and change across this island?


1.00 pm

Mr Weir: First, while it is not part of the statement, I join the Member in wishing a speedy recovery to the lady that he mentioned. I am not aware of the individual case, but domestic abuse is always completely wrong, and it is right that there is legislative focus on it in the Assembly.

COVID has caused some level of disruption to the Middletown Centre, but its work has been able to continue. It has been able, particularly in its online work, to provide a level of support to parents. I am sure that the Member has been down — I would recommend to any Member that they go down — to Middletown to see the good work that is being done there. Interestingly, what probably was plan A for the centre going back six, seven, eight years or however long it was actually was not realised, but plan B turned out to be a better vehicle.

In the context of support for facilities, obviously part of the idea of the SEN regulations which are out to consultation is to have earlier interventions that can feed through to better solutions at a later stage. Ultimately, as regards the precise operational detail of what Middletown does, it has to have some room for manoeuvre. I do not particularly want to direct the centre towards that, but I will be keen to work with it. While this has not really stopped the operational side of things, as a consequence of the election in the Republic and the period before the Government was formed there are a number of vacancies at management level that need to be filled on the Republic side. The Minister gave an assurance that that will happen fairly rapidly. That will give additional opportunity to have strategic governance within the Middletown Centre. I look forward to its continuing to deliver for parents and young people with autism. I look forward to the centre using its expert skills and, as the Member suggests, considering whatever future direction of travel it needs to take to be able to enhance those services.

Mr Butler: We will stay on the topic of special educational needs and the Middletown Centre, if that is OK, Minister. I echo your call for any Member who has not been to Middletown to take a trip down there to see the wonderful work that the centre does. Minister, you will be aware that there are around 40,000 pupils in Northern Ireland who have ADHD. It is one of those things that is not often talked about and is sometimes overlooked. Will you make a commitment to bring it up as a topic? Will you also update the House on any work that is being done in that area, please?

Mr Weir: We want to make sure that there is provision for special educational needs across the board. Some areas of training have been held up by COVID. We need to see what is the best way to deliver that. The Member mentions bringing it up as a topic at NSMC, which obviously tends to focus on cross-border jurisdictional aspects. I am not sure whether there is a very specific cross-border element to this. However, if the Member has any further information, I will be happy to explore that.

Ms Ennis: There has been considerable focus today on the Middletown Centre for Autism (MCA), and rightly so. Can the Minister advise on the extent of cross-border movement of children and young people with special educational needs accessing services like those at Middletown Centre for Autism? What, if any, impact will the onset of Brexit have on those young people's accessing those services?

Mr Weir: The Member will be aware that, at a broader level, with the common travel area, there should not be any particular obstruction to children moving North/South or South/North. While there will be a need for Middletown to fit into whatever overall jigsaw is there in terms of the EU situation, I do not think that that should lead to particular disruption. I am confident that that will be the case for the Middletown Centre.

As regards COVID very specifically, yes, lockdown has changed what the Middletown Centre has been able to provide for children with complex needs. It is part of a wider problem for shared education in the short term. Unfortunately, we have had to insulate against physically bringing children long distances to mix with children from completely different areas and schools. I know that in the Republic of Ireland, for instance, there has also been specific guidance, if not regulation, on how far any individual can move on that basis.

There has been a continuation of services, however. Even between March and June of this year, the MCA ran a range of webinars via Zoom for pupils. There has also been online support, and events are now beginning that will directly involve schools and the MCA. It is about trying to balance the health considerations while providing that service. I am confident that the MCA has adapted and will continue to adapt, but all of us will hope for a situation in the relatively near future in which any level of restriction on mixing can be lifted and we can resume living as close to normal as possible.

Mr Gildernew: I, too, acknowledge the brilliant work done by Middletown. I have had the opportunity to visit it and meet the people involved.

Minister, there have been significant failings in special educational needs provision here in recent years, and, as a consequence, thousands of our young people have been seriously let down. Given that SEN provision was discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, can the Minister tell us what difficulties exist in that area in the South and what can be learned from its response to those difficulties?

Mr Weir: I will be honest with the Member: although SEN was discussed, the principal area of detail was Middletown, so there was not too much detail on issues that have happened down South. No jurisdiction has got this entirely correct. Arising out of a number of the reports undertaken, the Department has established a wider governance group with the EA to make sure that issues are all drawn together and that we are not pulling in different directions. It is also the case, certainly here, that there is a level of importance attached to the SEN regulations and code of practice. Comparing precisely what has happened in the North with what has happened in the South was not gone into in great detail at the NSMC meeting, but we may touch on that at a later stage.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for his statement. It refers to draft proposals for PEACE PLUS on the theme of youth and also states that you:

"noted North/South exchanges in the area of youth work practices".

Was there any sense that initiatives or plans might be developed to enhance North/South exchanges for young people, especially in youth services, in a post-COVID world? Preparations that are made in the coming period will help to deliver those, perhaps from next summertime onwards. Will Brexit have an impact on any initiatives that might take place?

Mr Weir: Again, that common-sense cooperation should not be impacted on adversely by Brexit. There is a direct working relationship on the youth side between the Education Authority and the National Youth Council of Ireland. There is therefore that ongoing dialogue. Direct exchanges among young people, either on the youth side or the school side, have been, on a personal basis and at least in the short term, impacted on in an educational sense by COVID.

As the Member will be aware, although there have been some adjustments made to the Peace IV programme, there is support within it to scope out a range of proposals for PEACE PLUS, and those proposals would look towards continuation. At this stage, an ambitious set of proposals has been sent to DOF and the SEUPB for consideration. The four aspects that have been identified are continuation of shared education; the North/South school exchange programme, focusing particularly on 15- and 16-year-olds; educational underachievement; and supporting learning through technology in education. A fifth proposal on integrated education is being finalised. As indicated, specific work will be done that will focus on the youth sector side. The detail of that will come from the National Youth Council and the Education Authority.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister's statement referred to Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, an initiative in the Republic that began in 2005. I would be grateful if the Minister would list his sense of the achievements of DEIS over the last 15 years.

Mr Weir: I will not comment on the individual elements, because that report has gone to the educational underachievement group. It will work through it and take advice.

As I said, it is about learning. It is also the case that, while good work has been done through DEIS, from a practical point of view, we have to ask whether there are still problems with educational underachievement in any jurisdiction. The answer is yes, there are, and it is about the mutual learning that can take place.

Mr Speaker: Matthew O'Toole is not in his seat.

Mr Allister: On the matter of teacher qualifications, in Northern Ireland, of course, the most appalling issue is the discrimination that arises from the Catholic certificate. Has that been addressed yet? Is there a cross-border element to that, in respect of teachers from here who want to teach in the Republic?

Mr Weir: It is about the mutual recognition of qualifications, and I want to see that addressed. As that particularly relates to Northern Ireland, it is an internal matter for Northern Ireland. Consequently, we have to be very careful that we do not bring into a cross-jurisdictional basis something that should be in the purview of Northern Ireland.

Mr Carroll: Minister, was there any discussion at the meeting about the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland's (ASTI) recent vote for strike action over safety concerns in education in the South? There is concern among teaching staff about schools and the spread of the virus in them. People want to know what both jurisdictions and Ministers are doing to tackle those concerns.

Mr Weir: From the point of view of respecting the individual position of jurisdictions, the potential strike action is being taken by a union that does not operate in Northern Ireland. Consequently, any strike action would be a matter for the Republic of Ireland. It is not my role to interfere in the internal affairs of the Republic of Ireland.

A range of mitigations has been put in place. Indeed, a recent report by the Office for National Statistics suggests that the incidence of COVID-19 among education staff is no different from the population as a whole. There is no reason to suggest that there is any particular driver in schools that, in any way, places them at a higher level than anywhere else. That has not just been the experience of the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom. Similar studies conducted by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control indicate that the levels of COVID among education staff are no different from the rest of the population.

A union, even if it is in another jurisdiction, will want to look after its members; that is the role of a trade union. My role is somewhat wider: to ensure that the education of our young people, in particular, is protected. Undoubtedly, the best place for the future of our young children, for their education, their mental health and socialisation is to be directly in schools. I will fight to defend schools remaining open while always examining and taking public health advice so that mitigating measures to protect everyone in schools can be taken.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, at the end of your statement, you said that you had discussed with Minister Foley:

"the ... challenges and opportunities that will be presented as the UK leaves the EU."

Given what you have said about the difficulties with mutual recognition of teaching qualifications and various North/South exchange projects being prevented by Brexit, will you please enlighten us as to what the opportunities are for young people?

Mr Weir: On the wider point of Brexit, my point was that we are working through any issues on mutual recognition, which has to be done on UK-wide and bilateral bases. It is also the case that steps have been taken on reaching an early agreement on some issues.

One of the false concerns raised by some early on — I appreciate that Member did not raise it — was that Brexit would prevent cross-border access. At a very early stage, the common travel area was recognised and accepted by all. On the practical implications, a number of children and staff here work on one side of the border and live on the other. As a result of the recognition of the common travel area, that issue was, largely speaking, sorted out quite a long time ago. Similarly, the positive advantages of PEACE PLUS have been recognised.

Some of the positive aspects of Brexit are having a sovereign nation again and ensuring that, as a country, we can establish our own laws. Children here can also grow up with the confidence of knowing that they live in a sovereign nation and not one that will be dictated to by bureaucrats in Brussels.


1.15 pm

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two. Please do so while maintaining full compliance with the social-distancing regulations.

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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Agus anois iarraim ar Chonchúr Ó Murchú, Aire Airgeadais, an Bille a chur chun tosaigh. I call the Minister of Finance, Mr Conor Murphy, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Budget (No. 3) Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Members should take their ease for a moment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The next item of business is motions to approve four statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to the health protection regulations. As before, there will be a single debate on all four motions. I will call on the Minister to move the first motion. The Minister will then commence the debate on all of the motions as listed on the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. That process will be continued and repeated for each of the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear, we will proceed.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 8) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 10) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the junior Minister to open the debate on the motions.

Mr Lyons: This afternoon, I ask the Assembly to confirm four sets of regulations that have been made in recent weeks.

The amendment (No. 8) regulations were made on 5 October and came into force at midnight that night. They placed a number of restrictions on the Londonderry city and Strabane district in an effort to slow a significant rise in cases in the area that led to its having one of the highest levels of infection in Europe. Specifically, the regulations placed restrictions on indoor gatherings of more than one household, except in specified instances. The regulations also placed restrictions on the hospitality industry so that only deliveries, takeaways, drive-throughs and outdoor service would be permitted. There were restrictions on hotels and guest houses so that they could serve food and drink only to residents and at wedding receptions and wakes. The regulations closed specified indoor facilities, including libraries where there is provision for the library to operate an order-and-collect service. Finally, there is a general restriction on outdoor gatherings of over 15 people, with exceptions for sports events without spectators and for emergencies. The restrictions were in place from 5 October and have been repealed by the next set of regulations before the Chamber today.

I note the context in which the restrictions were put in place. Levels of coronavirus in that district at the time were such that they had reached an incidence of 635 new cases per 100,000 population by 5 October. If allowed to continue, that would inevitably have led to an increase in hospital admissions and deaths that, the Executive knew, they had to try to minimise. The Executive's decision to introduce restrictions in the area was also informed by the proximity to Donegal, where additional restrictions had been in place since 28 September. The effectiveness of the restrictions may be seen in the most recent report that the district has seen a fall to an incidence of 300 per 100,000 population.

The amendment (No. 9) regulations were made on 16 October. They introduced restrictions across Northern Ireland for a four-week period and are substantially the restrictions under which we currently live. The regulations replaced both the Londonderry and Strabane restrictions and those put in place by the amendment (No. 4) regulations, which were determined by postcode, initially in Belfast and then parts of Lisburn and Ballymena and subsequently across Northern Ireland. Three subsequent amendment regulations have been made to address points of detail in the amendment (No. 9) regulations. The amendment (No. 10) regulations are before the Chamber today, and I will address those together with the amendment (No. 9) regulations.

The regulations place restrictions in a number of areas. They restrict overnight stays anywhere other than at home or in the home of a linked household; that is to say, in their bubble. An individual may be able to give a reasonable excuse for an overnight stay in other circumstances. The regulations restrict gatherings in the home or in a private garden. There are to be no indoor gatherings involving members of more than one household and no outdoor gatherings of more than six, not including children under 12, from no more than two households. It is worth noting that the definition of "home" in this case is not just a private dwelling but includes self-contained holiday accommodation, including caravans and self-catering cottages.

The regulations place restrictions on sporting events so that there are to be no sporting events except elite events, indoor one-to-one coaching without contact and outdoor non-contact sport with 15 or fewer participants. The amendment (No. 10) regulations additionally ensure that dance is included in the definition of sport for the purpose of the regulations.

The regulations close a number of specific businesses and services, including close-contact services such as hairdressing and driving instructing; campsites and caravan parks for touring caravans; museums and galleries; and a wide range of indoor leisure and entertainment facilities. Hotels and other serviced accommodations were closed, except for specific categories of resident: those already resident, those resident for work purposes, vulnerable people and anyone not able to return to their own home due to an emergency.

The regulations place restrictions on the hospitality sector to the effect that businesses cannot serve food or drink to be consumed on the premises but can sell to order off the premises before 11.00 pm. Takeaways can sell for consumption off premises to 11.00 pm. Off-sales from an off-licence but not from a pub or bar may carry on until 8.00 pm.

Face coverings are to be worn in places of worship except when at a seat and with an exemption for the couple at a wedding or civil partnership. There are new restrictions on weddings and funerals limiting numbers to 25. Libraries are able to operate a collection service and to admit people to use internet facilities.

I now come to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020. The regulations add to the two previous Executive decisions about face coverings being worn on public transport and in retail settings. The regulations also require face coverings to be worn by customers in hospitality settings except when they are seated. They must be worn in an airport and when travelling by plane, and they must be worn by staff in retail or hospitality settings unless they are separated from the public by a screen or partition or unless they are in an area that is not open to the public and are able to maintain social distance. In addition, face coverings must be worn by customers of banks and similar financial institutions and those travelling by private bus, coach or taxi. Drivers of buses, coaches and taxis must also wear a face covering unless they are separated from the passengers by a screen or partition. A face covering must be worn in the parts of a building used by a Northern Ireland Department that members of the public enter to access services. Finally, driving instructors, examiners and their students must wear a face covering. It is important to point out that staff can ask customers to remove their face coverings temporarily if it is necessary to prove their identity. The reasonable excuses for not wearing a face covering are unchanged.

I know that many Members will have questions and comments that they want to put on the record during the debate. I look forward to the debate and to making a winding-up speech.

Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): Statutory responsibility for scrutinising the regulations lies with the Committee for Health, of which I am also a member. I look forward to hearing about its deliberations later in the debate from its Chair.

The Committee for the Executive Office has delivered a consistent message throughout the pandemic that has centred firmly on urging compliance with the restrictions that are in place. Our ability to reduce the levels of COVID-19 largely depends on the public's support for and understanding of the restrictions. The Executive's communications strategy is key to achieving that. Information campaigns need to be relevant, informative and impactful. I welcome the updated campaign, which includes personal testimonies to communicate the absolutely devastating human cost of COVID-19 and the undeniable value of complying with the restrictions, which are designed to protect people and save lives.

I will now say a few words in my capacity as an SDLP MLA. Once again, I begin by highlighting how many of the announcements made by the Executive have been trailed on TV. We saw that yesterday. It is unacceptable, and it has to stop. Today, many people in the close contact and hospitality sector are very unhappy about elements of the announcement made on TV yesterday. It has caused uncertainty and stress, and the decisions have not even been taken yet. That is irresponsible government, and it needs to be knocked on the head. It is grandstanding and trying to curry favour with the public by being seen to be inside the loop and able to provide little nuggets of information, and it is unhelpful.

The Executive should be allowed to make their decision; the decision should be relayed to the House; and a properly informed campaign to update those affected should follow. The Executive Office should at least endeavour to get right what is within its power, and that includes not leaking like a sieve, briefing the media ahead of meetings and slipping information to the public without the full details in place. Remarks such as, "Restaurants will be able to open without selling alcohol" show that the lead parties of the Executive are detached from reality. Such a policy will not work. If medical science says that sectors should close, sectors must close.

However, it is up to the Executive to make sure that those family businesses, those employers and those working in the hospitality sector are compensated for such an enforced closure. Leaving the hospitality sector high and dry would be totally unacceptable. Is that what will happen? We do not know, because the information has been leaked and drip-fed without any substance behind it.


1.30 pm

Throughout the first wave of the pandemic, everyone, in a sense, knew where they stood. We were all in it together. As the numbers gradually came down over the summer months, Members cautioned the Executive not to take their foot off the brake completely but to be conscious of the need for a step-by-step approach. Yet, as the restrictions eased and a greater sense of pre-COVID normality returned to our lives, we have seen, week on week and day on day, an increase in the numbers of those testing positive, those admitted to hospital and, sadly, those losing their life to this awful disease. Clearly, something is not working.

The palpable tension among many sectors in the North has been amplified as a result of these restrictions and televised announcements. We hear those in the hospitality industry saying that they cannot decide whether some in the Executive simply do not understand their plight or whether they just do not care. We hear those in the hairdressing and beauty sector asking why the one-size-fits-all approach should apply to them as well. The level of contact in a hairdressing salon is substantially different from that in a bar. Why can we have only 25 people at a funeral or wedding but, at the same church, upwards of 150 people present at other services on the same day?

Many in these sectors in the North tell us that they feel isolated and alone. I hear, very clearly, from them a sense of, "Yes, have a lockdown if we need to, but give us the real and lasting support that we need to get through this so that we do not have colossal job losses". We have to acknowledge this while being fully aware that this is what is happening in the South and in GB. Perhaps, what worked so well in the first wave of the pandemic and helped to bring numbers down was the cohesive approach taken by the North, the South and GB. On 21 October, the South moved up to its highest level of restriction — level 5. This was replicated in GB when it was announced at Halloween that it, too, was heading for a further lockdown. This disease does not recognise borders. It does not recognise gender, age, sexuality, constitutional identity, job or class. Those who feel isolated and alone at the minute have to know that we are, all of us, in this together.

On 23 March, the deputy First Minister spoke to the House and used the strongest language possible when she said that the actions of some over the preceding weekend had put more and more lives at risk. She said:

"We, collectively as the Executive and Assembly, need to send out the strongest possible message: you are killing people by doing those things. It is time not for soft language but for us to be very straight with people."

To those in our community who continue to flout the restrictions and treat this as one big conspiracy theory, let me reiterate the deputy First Minister's words:

"you are killing people by doing those things." [Official Report (Hansard), 23 March 2020, p15, col 2].

There remains some concern about the process of how these health amendments are made. I welcome the fact that the Health Committee agreed to my proposal last week to write to the Executive and ask whether there was another way to present regulations to the House. Today, for example, we are being asked to approve amendment No 10, which is a series of components that rescinds or changes the decisions in amendment No 9, which is also being taken today. Many of these are required, but it seems silly that, seconds after approving amendment No 9, we will change the regulations by approving amendment No 10. It is silly. There was a justifiable reason to use this method at the beginning of the pandemic. However, now that the changes are more focused, and, at times, amend previous decisions, making such amendments and then waiting 28 days before discussing them here is futile. There needs to be greater accountability and transparency, and given that we hear much from our TVs, radios and papers rather than in the Chamber, a fresh approach might be most welcome and appropriate.

Many will be unhappy with the decisions that have been taken to manage the pandemic. Many will have been directly impacted financially by the decisions and in their business productivity, and that is difficult for them. They will wonder why they have to be the fall guys for managing the pandemic. The bottom line is that there is direct evidence that certain sectors and certain behaviours are directly leading to a rise in the number of cases, and we all accept that a rise in the number of cases leads to more hospital admissions, more ICU beds being needed and, invariably, more people dying. Therefore, it has been necessary to reduce person-to-person contact, which is more prevalent in certain places and trades than others. Even the mere way that people go about retail shopping versus spending an evening in a bar is different, and one can result in more close contacts than the other.

I urge the Executive to continue to follow the medical advice that is provided. We need to endorse and follow the advice of Michael McBride, Tom Black and others in the sector. They are at the coalface. They see the harsh reality and have to sit down and explain to families why their loved ones have died, and they potentially have to choose who will and will not get a hospital bed.

Coronavirus is complicated. Its impact and —

Mr Buckley: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: — spread is complex. I am sure that the Member can, and will, contribute after. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to all sectors. If the Executive are asking businesses not to open, operate and make money, appropriate compensation must be made available to those businesses. We cannot enforce closure and not provide support.

I conclude by, as ever, supporting the amendments, but I have to say that my patience is wearing thin on supporting the method for making these decisions. The Executive need to get their finger out and start developing a more coherent strategy for managing the people who are impacted by the decisions and for the longer-term exit strategy from the pandemic that we will need. They need to deliver for the sectors that they are forcing to close.

We are now three weeks into a four-week lockdown, and nobody has received any payments from the schemes that are there to help them. That is leaving people in a very frightening position in the mouth of Christmas and is leaving businesses that have to make a number of costs and outlays unable to do so because the payment scheme has not begun. Staff are getting paid, but employers are not. They are being left to struggle, and that is unforgivable.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will begin by, first of all, acknowledging that we have crossed a very sad milestone, as the statistics agency records on COVID-19 have now gone beyond 1,000 deaths. That is a very sobering milestone to have reached, and it sets the context for our discussion today.

I will raise a number of points on the process by which these regulations are made and the impact that that has on scrutiny before I turn to the detail of the regulations. As usual, due to the pandemic, these rules have been made and come into effect subject to post hoc scrutiny. As I outlined before, the absence of engagement on policy development, stakeholder responses to consultation or impact assessment means that the Committee's scrutiny after the regulations are made is both more difficult and more important.

As I previously advised the House, the Committee has raised with the Minister of Health and health officials on a series of occasions now the challenge of conducting post hoc scrutiny in the absence of supporting documentation that informs the Minister's recommendations and the Executive's decisions on whether to agree the regulations. Under the current process, the Committee considers it reasonable to expect clear information on the advice supporting the consideration of regulations, including models of their anticipated impact, and it has requested that papers be supplied for such regulations as a matter of course. The 28-day period for scrutiny is designed to compensate somewhat for the urgent process, creating a little breathing space for the Committee to observe the regulations in action, and to question officials on the early weeks of their operation, before coming to a view. That space has allowed stakeholders to contact members with queries and comments that have informed scrutiny and, on several occasions, resulted in subsequent regulations being made to address flaws and issues identified.

Members discussed the challenge, particularly in public understanding, of debating regulations a number of weeks after they have come into effect and, sometimes, after they have been superseded. The provision of appropriate supporting documentation is one important step that would assist the Committee in conducting its scrutiny more quickly. The Committee agreed to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request a review of the process of dealing with pandemic-related regulations. The Committee is keen to work in a constructive and timely fashion, but also to perform its scrutiny in a meaningful way. The use of a ministerial statement to announce the restrictions created an opportunity for preliminary discussion and enabled questions to be asked from a range of perspectives beyond health.

I turn to the detail of the regulations. The Committee asked a number of questions on Thursday that could not be answered by officials but which have since been addressed in correspondence received on Friday evening. Noting that amendment No. 8 has largely been revoked, the Committee sought to explore the impact to date of amendments No. 9 and No. 10. Officials were not able to provide detail, and the subsequent letter referred the Committee back to the update of 27 October, by which point the R number in new cases was estimated to have fallen below 1, though it was acknowledged that this was likely to have resulted not just from the first 10 days of the North-wide restrictions but from the earlier restrictions in the Derry and Strabane council area. The junior Minister may be able to provide a more up-to-date picture for us in relation to that today, and we would welcome it.

Members also considered the further requirements to wear a face covering and made a number of enquiries. We asked whether it might be beneficial to adopt a more straightforward approach, requiring face coverings in indoor settings more generally; whether any analysis had been undertaken of the impact of improper use of face coverings; and whether there had been consideration of providing face coverings free of charge. Written advice received after the meeting asserted:

"when there is very prolonged close contact between individuals cloth face coverings will not offer effective protections, and therefore extending the regulation to require blanket wearing of coverings would not be justified."

There appear to be a range of circumstances between requiring masks in indoor settings generally and "very prolonged close contact" situations, so I am not sure that this fully addresses the point raised, but I leave it to other Committee members to elaborate on.

We are advised that the face coverings working group has considered, but not recommended, free provision of face coverings. The Minister’s letter also restates that evidence overall suggests that the use of face coverings reduces transmission of the virus, but cautions that improper use diminishes or eliminates their benefits, alluding also to limited evidence of harm through individuals paying less attention to other mitigations. Members challenged the inconsistency in junior pupils having to wear face coverings on school transport but not in retail settings. The Minister advised that this will be reviewed by the face coverings working group, but noted that prolonged close contact is more likely on a school bus than in a retail situation.

A further issue that came to the attention of the Committee was the current loss of close contact services, such as massage, for those suffering from a range of conditions. Officials advised that, where such services are ancillary to health and social care treatment, they remain permitted. However, written advice supplied after the meeting confirmed that this is confined to services commissioned by health and social care. The Committee further enquired about enforcement, and awaits a reply on this matter.

Mrs Cameron: My thoughts are also with those families that have been bereaved throughout this pandemic, whether by COVID or non-COVID conditions. It is certainly a very trying time for families dealing with grief in different ways.


1.45 pm

We meet again in the Assembly to approve regulations after they have been put into effect. By now, we are more than familiar with the process, but that in no way takes away the pain of the impact of the regulations before us. We are in a difficult, unprecedented and dangerous situation as a society, in which the threat to life is real. Let me be clear that the threat to life that I speak of today comes from COVID-19, but it is not the only threat. The threat to life also comes from undiagnosed cancers, untreated cancers and heart disease, to name but a few conditions. It also comes from a mental health crisis that we should be in no doubt will only get worse and will cost lives, with the disease of despair that comes with losing a job and not having the money to support those whom you love. I worry for Northern Ireland and for its people, its economy and the fabric of our society.

In that context, as we look at the restrictions that the Executive have brought in and that will fall on Thursday night — let me make it clear that they do fall on Thursday night — I will largely focus my remarks on the amendment (No. 9) regulations. The restrictions are not aimed at making the situation worse. They are motivated by and designed to steady the ship and to make things perhaps a bit better. They are certainly about giving our healthcare system the space in which to help those in need and to survive the pressures that the health service is facing today.

I recognise the sacrifice that we are asking people to make. With reference to paragraphs 7 and 8 of the new schedule 2, I have friends and family who work in our hospitality industry and in close-contact businesses such as hairdressers. My heart goes out to everyone whose job and whose dream has been thrown into doubt because of COVID-19. I commend my colleague the Economy Minister for her response. She had led on these restrictions and in supporting jobs and livelihoods, giving hope where people thought that there was none.

There are issues in those regulations that money does not fix, however. I look at paragraph 10 of schedule 2 and think about couples who want to get married. All young couples want to be surrounded by friends and family and to celebrate that time together. It is in such cases that we need to ensure clarity on timescales. You cannot plan a wedding in a day, any more than you can plan to reopen a restaurant in a day. I urge timely notice of how we make decisions and of how we inform those who are impacted on. I know that the First Minister shares my view.

I want to touch on our health service. It is creaking under the pressure that it faces right now, but it is buoyed up by the incredible staff whom we have and their commitment. I know that we can see this through. Our student nurses are playing their part, and today I call on the Minister of Health to ensure in particular that those student nurses are paid for putting their shoulder to the wheel, just as they did in the first wave.

I also urge the Minister to look at what can be done for those in hospital settings getting bad news, possibly not COVID-related, and who are being left to receive that news on their own. Across our constituencies, we have heard of many instances of those who are suffering through loss and through pain. I also think of those who have a deep desire for spiritual guidance in those situations but whose minister of religion is not allowed into the hospital setting. I urge the Minister to look at those issues and see how they can be addressed. We need to find our compassion again.

In conclusion, there is a need to give people hope. That is where I welcome the words of the First Minister about learning to live with COVID-19. We need to devise very quickly a strategy that allows our economy to continue and that breaks the cycle of lockdowns. We need to find a way in which schools and hospitality can be open, not have a pick-and-choose approach.

We also need more help in Northern Ireland. Let us take whatever assistance is available to us from the army. Surely there are many roles it could be assisting with, as it does across the rest of the UK. Testing is just one example, but there is track and trace, helping with infection control, and dealing with the logistics for our health service and of the vaccination programme to come. I welcome today's news about the very positive results from the vaccination programme.

I finish by again appealing to all to abide by the restrictions no matter how unfair they may feel. We need to play our part. I firmly believe that, by following the most basic advice in a long-term way — handwashing, covering our mouth and nose where appropriate, and keeping our distance from one another — we can avoid those draconian restrictions. Those measures will keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. Do not listen to me; listen to anyone who works on a COVID-19 ward or in ICU. Ask them whether coronavirus is real or a hoax. I look forward to hearing the Executive's latest decisions, hopefully, later today, and to debating them in the House in due course.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I can now call Mr Steve Aiken. Mr Aiken, bear with me: I may have to interrupt you to suspend the debate for Question Time, depending on how much time you take.

Dr Aiken: Mr Deputy Speaker, I intend to finish by 2.00 pm, so you should not have that problem whatsoever.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Or slightly before it.

Dr Aiken: Normally, I am accused of a degree of verbosity, but not on this occasion.

Right now, we have a serious situation in which more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded in Northern Ireland. That is not a statistic; it is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for all those in Northern Ireland who have been affected by it. Often, we have been concerned about a lack of hope. However, with the results from the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine trials showing an effectiveness of, potentially, up to 90%, I do hope, as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee said, that we have now reached a turning point. Equally, when we look at AstraZeneca and the other companies that are working on it, I hope that we can now begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. I think that all Members would wish to welcome the opportunities that have come from the biotech industry and, in particular, our own pharma-sector and universities, which have been involved in many of those trials. We wish to support them fully so that they can succeed as quickly as possible.

The key issue about the regulations is that they are decided by the Executive. I am glad that the junior Minister is here, because it is up to all members of the Executive, collectively, to come together and make the best case that we can to defeat the virus. Despite the fact that there may be a vaccine on the way, we need to be in a position to defeat the virus and make that clear.

Nobody wants to see regulations coming before the Assembly that have already been passed. Everybody wants to have at least 28 days to consider them. Indeed, as Chairperson of the Finance Committee, I can say that we would be delighted to get the information that comes to us ahead of time. Most of the Committee Chairpersons here would be delighted if we managed to get that information, did not have to push through with accelerated passage, and had a timely flow of information. For once, however, particularly in this area and in the rapidly changing environment, the Department of Health and the Executive have an excuse. We did not expect to have a second wave, even though we knew that, if we did not follow all the precautions, it could come back. Regrettably, it has.

Here we are, being asked on behalf of the Executive — it is an Executive decision by all the Ministers round that table — for these rules and regulations to be brought in, even though most of them will be superseded fairly shortly. I would also like the junior Minister to update us — indeed, I agree with the Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office — because, due to the flow of messaging and information, we seem to find out more about it in the media. We have not quite got to the point where we hear about everything on Twitter, but, at the moment, as a Member, I would like to get information in the Assembly first. I would also like the leaks to stop, because it seems a bit strange that I find out more from the BBC about what is going on in the Executive and what is likely to come out than from Ministers or, indeed, from our own processes. I would like the junior Minister to address that. To ensure that people are aware of it, I want to point out that I have also raised the matter at the party leaders' forum, because we must be able to have effective government.

The decisions are for the entire Executive. Some issues need to be addressed, particularly for the excluded and businesses. They must feel that they are being supported and that people are listening to them. Last week, we received Barnett consequentials of another £400 million. If we add that to the potential projections that the Finance Minister has already looked at, it is half a billion of support from our country — from our Treasury — that we have to spend by the end of the financial year. What is our Economy Minister doing about that? We have already seen the Communities and Finance Departments make efforts to do something, but here we are, after close on eight months, and some of our excluded companies still have not had any financial support, even though it is there. What are we doing about it?

That is something that we need to address, because one of the things that we must do for all of the people in Northern Ireland, if we are to have an effective health message and an effective message for dealing with COVID, is to realise that we all need to be in it together. That means that we should not be going to funerals that we should not be at, and our MPs should not be mouthing out behind the scenes and putting out falsehoods. We must get behind the advice of our Chief Scientific Officer, our Chief Medical Officer and our Health Minister, as well as the advice of the whole Executive. Things are not helped by poor messaging and leaking. Let us work closely together to sort this issue out and to make it happen.

Finally, but not least, I want to talk about our NHS. South Antrim has one of the best hospitals in Northern Ireland, and some of my constituents have been making sterling efforts to ensure that we are able to fight our way through the COVID pandemic. If anybody doubts that COVID is real or doubts the impact that it is having, they should try to get into A & E or try to talk to the 30 or 40, maybe more, people who are waiting to be admitted to wards. This is not a normal circumstance; this is not a normal situation. When we look at and talk about the regulations and about how we are trying to get them agreed, we listen to concerns about them not being laid in time, our having to wait for 28 days before we get them and all the rest of it. Let us take ourselves out of here and look at what is happening with the healthcare professionals and listen to them. Whatever we do, we must do it to help defeat COVID.

Mr Deputy Speaker, that takes me to 1.58 pm and one second.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Thank you very much indeed.

The debate stood suspended.

Assembly Business

Mr Givan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Further to the point of order that I raised this morning with the Speaker, I have received further correspondence from the Justice Minister outlining her reasons for not being able to be here. That correspondence highlights that the Justice Minister will be available to meet the Committee on Thursday, albeit remotely. She intends to reintroduce the Domestic Abuse Bill's Consideration Stage on 17 November, which is eight days away. Given the fact that the Justice Minister has announced that she is self-isolating, I am sure the Assembly will take advice on whether that complies with the 14-day rule. Further to that, a Minister has written formally to the Justice Committee offering to take through the Domestic Abuse Bill tomorrow. Given that a Minister is able to take forward the Department of Justice's business at Consideration Stage, what standing does the Assembly have in reaching a view as to whether the business can be conducted next Tuesday? I would welcome the Speaker's advice in that regard.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I believe that the Speaker outlined the complexity and detail of the Bill, which you will be more than aware of, earlier. I have been advised that, in those instances, with the offer of another Minister, it is for the Minister who is charged with the responsibility for the introduction of the Bill to work out the alternative arrangement with the other Minister, if it is needed. Therefore it is not as if one Minister can assume that responsibility. It is for the other Minister to agree to it and work it through. We can seek further clarity if that is the case, but that is my understanding.

Mrs Cameron: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, on a different matter. The UK has, rightly, made the tough decision to close our borders, temporarily, to Denmark. Health authorities have reported widespread outbreaks of coronavirus on mink farms, which have spread to some local communities.

I understand that County Donegal has mink farms but Northern Ireland does not. It is important and necessary that we take steps to protect our population from any potential threat from the new strain of COVID-19. In the absence of a debate in the Chamber, can you advise how the Assembly can urge the Republic of Ireland's Government to also take that precautionary and responsible step?


2.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I suggest that that is perhaps not a point of order but that it is for the Member or her party to decide how or in what way they raise it, particularly, perhaps, with the aforementioned Minister who has responsibility for some of those matters at DAERA. That could be by way of a question for urgent oral answer on those issues.

Mr Buckley: Further to that point of order, I would like you to pass to the Speaker's office the fact that I submitted a question for urgent oral answer on this very topic. I thought that it was of notable concern, given that it is now spreading through animals and given the potential impact on Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Just to clarify, Mr Buckley: was that question for urgent oral answer on this topic?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Yes. Perhaps you could raise that matter with the Speaker's office, but we can relay it through, OK?

Thank you both for raising the importance of that.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Economy

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): Thank you for the question. I have met representatives from the Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents, and I understand the extent to which the sector has been impacted, locally and on a global scale, by the pandemic. I have also met one of our foremost local travel agents, Mr Mukesh Sharma.

Travel agents have been able to avail themselves of support provided by the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive throughout this period, including the three business support schemes introduced by my Department. Travel agencies would have been eligible for assistance through the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the rates relief packages and the business interruption loans.

With ongoing restrictions in travel and a lack of confidence among the public, I believe that there is a strong case for specific financial support for the sector. To that end, I am aware that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, accompanied by the Finance Minister, met representatives from the Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents just last week. I await their recommendations from that engagement and any follow-up Executive decision in relation to that.

Ms Rogan: Minister, your tourism recovery steering group, along with NILGA, has acknowledged that, despite the decline in our tourism sector, all-Ireland tourism has increased and that has helped to ensure that our hotels and B&Bs can stay in business. You touched on this, but will you bring forward a specific proposal to ensure that there is growth in the sector and to compensate for the loss of tourism from overseas?

Mrs Dodds: First, may I comment on the preamble to your question? Tourism from the Republic of Ireland has increased very significantly over the past number of months, given the promotion of staycations and the fact that people were unwilling to travel abroad. We in Northern Ireland have benefited from having significant numbers of visitors from the Republic of Ireland. That is a good thing, and we hope that it will continue. We think that we can expand that market.

Of course, as I said in answer to your original question, I understand and recognise the grave difficulties that travel agents in particular face and the impact that the travel restrictions etc have had on those who visit overseas. I believe that there is a case for intervention from the Executive. I understand that they have met the Finance Minister and the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive will take a further decision when there is a proposal.

Mr Buckley: I have met various representatives of the travel industry and know acutely, as, I know, the Minister does, the pain that they face at this time. It is about how we ensure that the industry rebounds from what has undoubtedly been a very difficult period. Does the Minister agree that we should look at giving a rates holiday to those businesses, given the length of the tail of recovery that is expected?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. We will maybe need to look at an immediate intervention and a longer-term intervention, such as rates relief for the next year. Those businesses have a good future, but the tail of recovery from COVID is long for them, and the road to that recovery is perilous, so I would like to see them being supported.

Mr Allister: The Minister says that she is sympathetic and supportive — all those encouraging words — but the situation has been known about for months. It is certainly some weeks, if not months, since I wrote to her, as, I know, other MLAs did, about that very subject. My fundamental question is this: why is there no package as yet? Why has that not happened? Travel agents work on a peculiar system that has an impact on their cash flow: when holidays are cancelled, money that they have already taken has to be repaid, as does the commission, so they lose on all sides. That has been known for months, so why the delay?

Mrs Dodds: Again, I thank the Member for his question. He will recall that I have said many times in the House that I put forward a list of the people who still required help, and, of course, travel agents were among those on that long list. These are whole-Executive decisions, taken with the money that is available through the Finance Department. Having had further allocations from the money that was originally allocated to the Finance Department in July by the Chancellor in his economic statement, we are clear that financial help should be forthcoming, and I hope that it will be in the near future.

Mrs Dodds: My Department is undertaking a review of the petroleum licensing regime. To inform that review, the Department has commissioned independent research to provide a detailed assessment of the economic, environmental and social impacts of onshore oil and gas exploration and development in Northern Ireland. That will be a detailed piece of work, covering a wide range of complex issues. The researchers have been asked to consider the policy context of UK climate commitments; petroleum policy elsewhere in the UK, as well as in the Republic of Ireland and Europe; and the implications of Northern Ireland's developing energy strategy. It is anticipated that the research will take up to six months to complete. Similar regionally specific research has shaped petroleum policy in Scotland, Wales, England and the Republic of Ireland. The research will provide a solid regional evidence base on the impacts of petroleum licensing in Northern Ireland. The Department will use the information gathered to consider options and develop, through stakeholder engagement and consultation, evidence-based petroleum policy proposals. Those will include the need or otherwise for a petroleum licensing regime.

Mr McGuigan: Given the negative environmental and societal impacts of onshore drilling for oil and gas, there is an obvious need for action. Minister, given what you said about the countless other studies on these islands and further afield that have shown that the practices are deeply damaging to the environment and to the health and well-being of the population, will you commit to ending fracking and conventional exploration for fossil fuels?

Mrs Dodds: I have commissioned the research so that we will have a solid way forward for policy on the issue. I do not wish to pre-empt the proposals or the research or, indeed, any further proposals or the consultation by the Department. Clearly, it is a contentious, cross-cutting issue, and the final decision will be taken by the Executive as a whole.

Mr Dickson: Minister, how do you see the future of fossil fuel exploration aligning with your desire to bring Northern Ireland to net zero carbon and to tackle climate change?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for that very important question. As the Member is aware, I recently published 'Rebuilding a Stronger Economy'. One of the four pillars in it is the need for a clean, green recovery for Northern Ireland. I see that as having huge potential for the way forward. The sector already provides a significant number of jobs and contributes significantly to the economy in Northern Ireland. That is where the future for energy lies. However, we have to make solid policy proposals that are based on evidence and research. That is what we are doing and will continue to do.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her answers. The Minister will be aware that one of the things that the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 later this month will look closely at is the move towards decarbonisation. What conversations has she had with the Welsh and Scottish Governments? This could be a great opportunity for all regional Governments in the United Kingdom to come together to ban fracking.

Mrs Dodds: Thank you for that topical question. Just last week, I engaged with Michael Gove and my counterparts in Scotland and Wales on a variety of the issues. The overall topic was economic recovery. It was interesting to note that each constituent part of the UK saw a clean, green recovery as essential to the future and a decarbonisation policy as an essential part of economic recovery. Every part of the United Kingdom saw the opportunity for economic recovery through focusing on clean energy. I want us to get to that stage in Northern Ireland. I look forward to bringing forward my energy strategy early next year and, in the meantime, to continuing to work with the sector on that trajectory.


2.15 pm

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. At the outset, I will say that I continue to oppose frictions in trade in any direction between Northern Ireland and its greatest market in Great Britain and the resulting costs to businesses that arise from the implementation of the protocol. Those in the House who, over and over again, call for the full implementation of the protocol should be aware of the conversations that were reported in the news last week from Sainsbury's and a number of other companies, which raised very significant fears about the cost to and choice for consumers and the cost to business in Northern Ireland as a result of our particular situation.

However, to specifically answer the question, the Executive have made it clear that the UK Government should provide funding and support to Northern Ireland businesses if they are in any way impacted at the end of the transition period. Work has been ongoing for some time to help businesses to prepare. Invest NI offers a range of support services to companies, and InterTradeIreland's Brexit advisory services provide financial and professional support. I continue to urge businesses to take up that support. The Trader Support Service portal is live and will provide guidance and support to Northern Ireland businesses and organisations that receive goods from GB or the rest of the world. I welcome that the United Kingdom Government are funding that service, and I encourage businesses to register. While we recognise the need for support, businesses tell us that what they most need is clear information to enable them to prepare. I will continue to press the Government to take on board the concerns of businesses and to provide them with urgent clarity and guidance on these matters.

Ms Sheerin: Minister, thank you for your answer. You referenced the transition period, and you will be aware that the clock is ticking towards the end of that period and that, for a lot of businesses, time is running out. Do you accept that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we will not get the clarity that we need and that, therefore, plans must be put in place as a matter of urgency?

Mrs Dodds: I am not as pessimistic as the Member. I think that the European Union and our own Government are committed to getting a deal. That is in the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, of French farmers and fishermen and many people and communities from across mainland Europe. I will continue to advocate for Northern Ireland businesses on this issue. However, we need to get a sense of what unfettered access is, what a Northern Ireland qualifying good will be, how we will instigate anti-avoidance measures to stop Northern Ireland being a back door into the United Kingdom and, very importantly, whether the European Union will commit to exempting large portions of trade between GB and Northern Ireland from the health certificates that they currently require. Those certificates cost significant amounts of money, and significant bureaucracy is involved. If, as he often said to me in many conversations, Michel Barnier wanted to be imaginative and innovative in the way that he implemented the protocol, this is one step that the EU could take right now.

Mr O'Toole: It is worth being clear that if anyone in the Assembly is able to talk about costs to business from Brexit, be they from North/South data flows or implementation of the protocol, it is no one from the Democratic Unionist Party, which brought these problems on the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. Let us be absolutely clear about that.

I agree with much of what the Minister said on qualifying goods and several other questions that are outstanding. Since the Minister is in front of us, I will ask her this: when will she come to the Assembly and give a fulsome update to businesses and households in Northern Ireland about what the Department and Executive are doing? Will she support calls for Northern Ireland businesses specifically to be included in European Union free trade agreements? There is enormous benefit to Northern Ireland businesses in that, and if it can be agreed with Brussels and London, we could genuinely get some of the benefits of both markets.

Mrs Dodds: I will start my answer by reminding the Member that this is a matter of democracy. The United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the European Union. We are part of that United Kingdom, and therefore we will be leaving the European Union. We now have to ensure that Northern Ireland leaves on the very best terms. I, of course, do not see the protocol as the very best terms for Northern Ireland leaving the European Union. As we now know, there are costs and bureaucracy involved in that protocol. I call on the European Union to instigate measures immediately that will help Northern Ireland to navigate the protocol, so that retail coming from GB to Northern Ireland, for example, will be exempt from checks. It would help the people of Northern Ireland significantly if the European Union was minded to do that.

Everyone accepts that the protocol involves significant costs to businesses. As preparation for this part of Question Time, I looked at what the Department is already doing in relation to that. We have the EU exit resilience tool, the Brexit preparation grant, the advice and webinars, the information and support on the Invest NI website, the InterTradeIreland Brexit advisory service, the Brexit planning voucher etc. However, the most important thing is clear information. I do not think that we will see that until we actually see the shape of a deal. I accept that businesses find that incredibly frustrating, as do I.

Mr Beggs: The Minister has referred to how, already, some supermarkets are indicating that they may withdraw from aspects of the Northern Ireland food retailing market, but this goes much wider than that. Our garden centres are indicating difficulties in supplies. We have also learned of potato producers having difficulty in accessing seed potatoes, which come mainly from Scotland. Of course, this will affect virtually every aspect of movement of goods across the Irish Sea unless reasonable accommodation is made. What are the Minister and the First Minister and deputy First Minister actually doing to minimise disruption to our economy?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. What he outlines is obviously absolutely true. When I had the opportunity, as a Member of the European Parliament, to vote on this, I did not, because of the implications of the protocol for Northern Ireland businesses. It is something that I have warned this House about over and over and over again. I have outlined the practical measures that are in place. We need clear information on these matters. I advise the House that I speak many times during the week to members of Her Majesty's Government on issues in relation to the protocol: the supply of goods for the manufacturing chain from GB to Northern Ireland; how Northern Ireland milk products will be treated, should some of them be processed in the Republic of Ireland; our parcels, which will simply arrive in Northern Ireland from GB. There is much that the Joint Committee can do to make these things easier to bear for the people of Northern Ireland. I appeal for the European Union, in this last round of negotiations, to get serious about doing that, if it is serious about protecting Northern Ireland and its consumers.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. Following discussions with the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), we have developed advice for students across a range of issues relating to the impact of COVID-19. This advice has been published on the nidirect website. It covers everything from safety in travel, finance and support, and health and welfare to exams, placements and graduation. For further education, it refers to all of the above and gives advice on apprenticeships.

In addition, my ministerial colleagues in the Executive Office, along with the Chief Medical Officer, the Public Health Agency and officials from my Department, have convened meetings with the universities, the main purpose of which has been to ensure the safety of students on campus. The universities have been working closely with the Public Health Agency to ensure that they are providing advice to students that is fully in line with the agency's guidelines. That advice includes information on what support is available to students, including for those students who are self-isolating, as well as on the expected behaviour from students.

Further education colleges have been provided with a framework for recommencing on-site educational provision. The document provides practical guidance on how students and staff should prioritise their own and others' safety around COVID-19. In addition, my Department requires the colleges to provide students with an extended induction process to ensure that they understand the policies and procedures in place to protect their safety.

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Minister for her answer. She will be aware that students have had a particularly difficult year, particularly first-year students, who were awaiting their A-level results and then had to deal with the mix-up around those. They are now seeing their studies disrupted. They are facing financial hardship, because many who had part-time jobs no longer have those jobs, plus they have the worries of living with and dealing with COVID. On Friday, the Scottish Government awarded £1·32 million to assist with students' mental health and well-being. They will assign dedicated officials to engage with students and to counsel students on their mental health. Will the Minister undertake to work with the Health Minister to bring a similar proposal to the Executive to have dedicated funding for our students' mental health and well-being?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for what is an incredibly important question. COVID-19 does not just affect students. It has placed an enormous strain on mental health and well-being right across all our communities, in all age sectors and for all people. Sadly, we will see the impact of that in the years to come. Indeed, many people have indicated that it could be an impact similar to that of 30 years of violence.

The Member is very well aware that I have lobbied very hard for additional funds for students to address hardship. In fact, in this financial year, there is a student hardship fund spread across the universities that totals about £5·6 million. It is the highest amount of hardship funding available to students in any part of the United Kingdom. My officials have also conducted a review of mental health provision in the higher education sector, and we are pleased to note a robust and proactive offering across all the institutions. I am acutely aware, however, of the impact of COVID on our health, and I will commit to having conversations with the Health Minister on that to see whether there is a need to do more to ensure that students, particularly those young students who have come straight to university following their A levels, have the support and protection that they need.

Mr Nesbitt: On 29 September, Sammy Wilson MP said:

"The climate of fear deliberately created by Ministers and their advisers has done untold damage to individuals and to the economy as a whole, and has now hit students and universities".

He then challenged Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, asking whether he believed:

"it is fair that universities still hold on to the money paid by students when they are not offering the student experience that they promised".

Does the Minister agree with her party colleague?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. It is very topical, and I am asked a significant number of questions about that every week.

As the Minister responsible for higher education, I am responsible for policy but not for fee-setting. The responsibility for that lies with the universities themselves. I am clear, however, with the universities that they need to provide a wide-ranging set of teaching methods and an appropriate assessment method for students.

I continue to monitor that and to ensure that our students receive the best education that they can in the very difficult circumstances in which the universities have to operate. If there are indications to the contrary, I will be happy to take action.


2.30 pm

Mr Carroll: During an era in which students are primarily being taught remotely, does the Minister agree with me that it is unjustified to push students further into debt by making them pay tuition fees when they are abiding by public health measures to stay safe? What plans does she have to ensure that students do not rack up further debts at this time?

Mrs Dodds: Tuition fees are probably an issue that we will debate at a future date in the House. I am clear that students in this era of COVID-19 should be safe, should be taught via a variety of methods and should receive the best possible teaching in the circumstances. If there are indications to the contrary, I will be happy to take it up with the universities. There is nothing more important to young people than receiving an appropriate education. The future of our economy and the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland relies on it.

Ms McLaughlin: My question has been answered, but I will ask another. With the student experience being so diluted at present, I am very concerned about some students who are being held in contracts for accommodation in England, Scotland and Wales. Will the Minister join or commit to joining with the other devolved Governments to push for students to be released from contracts for accommodation so that they can return home and study remotely, instead of being tied into contracts and isolated in places where they have no backup or support?

Mrs Dodds: Of course, much of that will vary from university to university. In Northern Ireland, I understand that Queen's University has offered students in halls of residence a holiday payment for this term because of the difficulties that some have experienced from having to self-isolate during this very difficult period. Many students have private accommodation, which offers other difficulties, with the contracts between landlords and tenants. That is why I moved during the year to provide additional funds to our university hardship funds. Should it be indicated that we need to be more proactive again in lobbying for more funds, I will not hesitate to include a bid for that in the January monitoring round.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Lynch asked the Minister for the Economy, given that, on 22 October, she announced that support would be available for businesses impacted by the restrictions — those that were directed to close and those within the supply chain — albeit that only the scheme for those businesses that were directed to close has opened for applications and he is hearing from businesses that are in financial difficulty as a result of that, how quickly she expects payments to be made and when she expects the scheme to open to those businesses that are in the supply chain. (AQT 621/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: Thank you. The support package for business is in the form of two particular supports: one led by the Department of Finance and the other led by my Department for the Economy. For those who are instructed to close and who have business premises, the Department of Finance offers a solution. I am looking at those who have no business premises to operate out of and particularly — I do not know — mobile hairdressers, driving instructors etc.

As of 9 November, 2,170 applications had been made, of which 106 have been verified. The first payment run was made last Friday and represented £127,000 in assistance. I will seek to have that progressed as quickly as we can, but we need to do verification checks, which are very important in ensuring that public money is well spent.

Part B of the scheme is around the supply chain. We will, probably, have the final paper to the Executive about that tomorrow.

Mr Lynch: I thank the Minister for her answer. Back in October, you were allocated funding for the newly self-employed. Many of those people have received zero support to date. Will you tell them when they can expect, finally, to get much-needed support?

Mrs Dodds: There are a number of issues around bringing forward a scheme for the newly self-employed. I recognise the real financial difficulties that they have been in. One of the issues is verification and cooperation from HMRC. That has been a difficult part of the process, but, again, we should have a paper for the Executive to make a final decision on this week.

T2. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on Project Stratum and its implementation, given that many people are working from home, many students are studying from home, many school pupils and teachers are working at home and rural businesses are trying to operate online. (AQT 622/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: We are almost at the end of the legal processes in relation to Project Stratum. I hope to be in a position very soon to make an announcement to the Assembly and Executive about the progress that that has made. That will ensure that many businesses in rural parts of Northern Ireland, which, I think, about 97% of the project covers, will have access to high-speed broadband. That will help not just in a COVID situation but with the competitiveness of our economy and the ability of rural communities to be more competitive and productive.

Mr K Buchanan: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. Obviously, there will be a lead-in time with regard to getting that implemented. Have you had conversations, or are there any ongoing, with providers to boost what we have at the moment to get an initial better speed for some places? That would be an easy, quick win.

Mrs Dodds: We have, of course, had a number of conversations. Just last week, I was really glad to announce further progress in that area. Project Stratum is a long-term intervention in the economy, but it is hugely important. It will ensure that Northern Ireland has almost full coverage in all parts. I look forward to that; it is an aspect of delivery that the Executive, the Assembly and we, in the Democratic Unionist Party, having lobbied for that under the confidence and supply deal, can be proud of.

T3. Dr Aiken asked the Minister for the Economy whether she will join with him in thanking the vice chancellor of Queen’s University for marking, yesterday, the considerable sacrifice made by many Queen’s students in the conflicts in which our nation has been involved. (AQT 623/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I, of course, join with you in that regard. Remembrance is hugely important for all of our society. Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice is massively important for us as a nation. I was glad to see commemorations going ahead yesterday, even in a pared-back way. It is also hugely important for Queen's University and its vice chancellor to make such remembrance a priority, given the very considerable concerns that there have been in sections of our community around some of the decisions in the university in recent days.

Dr Aiken: Thank you very much indeed, Minister. Will she, as part of the celebrations that will be undertaken next year for our 100th anniversary, encourage the university, as part of its badly needed outreach to the unionist community, to set up an endowed chair for the study of unionism and its contribution to Northern Ireland? It would be particularly apposite if it were named after Edgar Graham.

Mrs Dodds: I do indeed think that that is a very laudable suggestion, and it is one that I would be very happy to support in my Department. We are also making preparation for the centenary of Northern Ireland, looking at the economic powerhouse that Northern Ireland was at the beginning in its creation and looking firmly into the future at how we can develop the economy of Northern Ireland in a way that sees it fit for purpose in its second century. These, I think, are exciting events for us all. I know that, in many ways, some in the House will consider it divisive, but a sign of the maturity of this House will be in how it reacts to the commemoration of the centenary of Northern Ireland.

T4. Mr Catney asked the Minister for the Economy, given that businesses in Derry and Strabane have been subjected to additional restrictions and have been closed for the past six weeks, while those elsewhere, including in his constituency, have been closed for four weeks, with employers closing their businesses in good faith, albeit that the vast majority of them have yet to receive a single brass penny of the support that they were promised, when they will be paid what they are owed. (AQT 624/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: As I said in my previous answer on this particular matter, there are two aspects to the business support schemes that are ongoing for this restriction period. One is the scheme that is organised and run by the Department of Finance where, as the Member rightly talks about, businesses that closed their premises have had no support. As someone who has considerable experience of running business support schemes, I recognise that these are not easy things to implement and that they are not easy things to have verification on, particularly when you are trying to have a speed of response on it. Therefore, as I indicated, I am particularly concerned with the scheme that we are running for those businesses that have no premises, and we have already made the first run of payments on that. I hope that, having made the initial run, we will be able to speed up the process, but, again, as the House is quite rightly very concerned with, it is important that the proper processes and verifications are in place so that we can ensure that public money is well spent.

Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. The situation facing these businesses is totally unacceptable. In my view, the Minister has been far too slow to support those who have been asked to close and to support supply chain employers that have been affected by these decisions. Will she apologise to those business owners, who are in despair this afternoon, and commit to providing them with the support that they need now?

Mrs Dodds: I am really not sure which businesses the Member is referring to. If he is talking about businesses that have had to physically close their premises, he needs to refer his question and his requirement for an apology to the Minister of Finance, because that is where that particular scheme is being run. I am running a scheme for people who have not been able to carry out their normal business. That is people who do not operate from a premises and people who are mobile in the way that they conduct their business. As I said, we have moved quite quickly to ensure that that scheme is up and running. The first payments are under way, and the rest will follow in due course.

T5. Mr Chambers asked the Minister for the Economy, after assuming that there will not be time for his question and a supplementary question, given the time, and stating that he welcomes the latest news regarding the postponement until the end of the year of the redundancies of staff employed on HMS Caroline and the fact that he understands that consultants have been working on a report regarding HMS Caroline, to state whether she can confirm that the consultants’ brief contained a direction only to consider relocation sites outside Northern Ireland. (AQT 625/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I am really unsure of the direction of the Member's question. First, I welcome the agreement that we were able to strike with the Royal Navy museum in relation to the people who are employed on HMS Caroline.

I have made it clear on many occasions in the House, and I indicated at the beginning of September, that the Department did not want anyone to be made redundant, and we were quite willing to put in place a process to ensure that those people were paid until the end of December and, indeed, thereafter if necessary.


2.45 pm

I am very committed to ensuring that HMS Caroline remains in Northern Ireland and, as an important historical part of the Northern Ireland landscape, that it is open not only for tourism but for the intrinsic value that it represents for people here. Therefore, that is the aim of the work that my Department is undertaking. I am glad that the Royal Navy museum was able to come to an accommodation with the Department. I will continue to work with the Royal Navy museum to ensure that the ship has a full future in Northern Ireland and that those currently employed remain employed.

Mr Speaker: Alan Chambers has concluded his questions. I call Colm Gildernew.

Student Debt

T6. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister for the Economy for her view on the following: a report in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ last week that stated that, over the past seven years, higher education students in the North saved £1 billion in tuition fees and student debt when compared to students in England; that the saving was due to the Executive’s commitment not to follow England and, instead, to keep student fees affordable; and the fact that Sinn Féin believes that that approach is important in breaking down barriers to education. (AQT 626/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: Speaking as someone who has benefited from a university education in Northern Ireland, I think that it is extremely important to ensure that all our young people have access to quality education. I am glad that the Northern Ireland Executive had a collective approach to looking at the issue of student fees and did not follow the automatic £9,000 requirement in the rest of the United Kingdom. I look forward to continuing that approach.

Mr Speaker: As there is a minute left, Colm Gildernew can ask a supplementary question.

Mr Gildernew: My question has been answered.

Mr Speaker: The time is up for this item of business. I thank Members for their contributions and ask them to take their ease for a moment or two while we prepare the Table.

Education

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): I thank the Member for her question. Members will be aware that there are two definitions of "rural" in education, which we are trying to align. Based on figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), one primary school currently receives funding from the Department for a nurture group, and that is St Oliver Plunkett Primary School in the north-west. The other definition that is sometimes used for sustainability between urban and rural may be a little out of date. Of the original 31 schools, about 22 were deemed as urban. The new group of 15 schools to receive funding for nurture groups has five schools that are Belfast-based, and 10 are based outside Belfast. In addition to the direct funding for nurture groups in schools, as part of this year's funding process, which will be ongoing, all educational settings, including rural primary schools, will have access to a nurture approach in education programme through the Education Authority. The aim is to try to mainstream this across the board.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he confirm that a full rural-proofing exercise was carried out? I understand what he says about the first definition and the second definition. The second definition can be ruled out, because some Departments consider anything outside Belfast as rural, which is not the case.

I invite the Minister to see an excellent example of a primary school in a rural area. If he were to visit St Mary's Primary School in Pomeroy, we would really appreciate it.

Mr Weir: I will deal with a couple of those issues. The position on the most recent announcements is that some of the implementation remains subject to the provision of a business case. As part of that process, a rural needs impact assessment and a quality impact assessment will take place. The criteria used for the previous set of announcements have been in existence for a number of years. It is, effectively, a competition for nurture units, because the funding is not infinite. The system used to produce criteria was developed a number of years ago. That system is ongoing, and schools are therefore ranked against those criteria.

On the urban/rural definitional split, particularly for sustainability issues, anything within the old city council area in the north-west and anything within Belfast was counted as urban; everything else was counted as rural. There is a good argument that that is out of date, and I recently signed off on a proposal to change that to try to align our definitions of urban and rural with those of NISRA so that they are consistent across the board.

I am sure that many schools are providing very good services but, if the school could put an official invitation through the system, I would be happy to come down to Pomeroy to visit it.

Mr McNulty: Can the Minister confirm whether there are plans to bolster the existing Irish language nurture units and to open more in the future?

Mr Weir: The position is that all groups should be treated on the basis of equality. In the different sections of funding, there were originally 20 nurture units. That moved up to 30 and then 32, one of which dropped out. Recently, another 15 have been put in place, and two of those are in Irish-medium schools. The criteria that have been used from the start are objective. All schools are treated according to the set criteria, and treated equally. Whether it is a controlled school, a maintained school, an integrated school or an Irish-medium school, decisions are based on how the schools meet the qualifying criteria for a nurture unit. Nobody should feel that they are being superseded or being unfairly leapt over. Objective criteria will continue to apply in establishing any form of ranked order for nurture units. We have seen expansion, and it is widely accepted that nurture units are important. That is why we are trying to mainstream them across all schools. Not only have they been very successful in the short term but they will bring long-term dividends.

As is the case for all Ministers, it is a question of funding constraints. If I had the money to fund another 50 nurture units, I would be happy to do so, as would any Minister. So far, we have been able to progress 15 nurture units. After this, I have a meeting with the Finance Minister to discuss next year's budget. A massive expansion is unlikely, given the other pressures, but any additional units will always be judged on how they rank according to the criteria. It means that, depending on how much money is
available, one school will be the final one to be funded. The school below will be next in line.

Mr Butler: Given the success of nurture units and early intervention, will the Minister commit to expediting the legislative change that will create flexibility in the age at which children start school, especially for premature children?

Mr Weir: I am certainly keen to look at that. As with a lot of things, the focus has been more on COVID than on developing a policy, but I am sympathetic to the situation. Something needs to be done, and we will need to look at whether it is done on a legislative basis or in a different way. We need to do something to allow greater flexibility on the starting age in limited circumstances, because if you were simply to make that very open-ended, it could be very disruptive to the school system. However, there are some tough cases, and there is no flexibility in that at present, so I am happy to look at it.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I declare an interest as a governor at Edenbrooke Primary School, which has a nurture unit, and I thank the Minister for extending that to Glenwood Primary School. The Minister said in an earlier answer that he is working under financial constraints. Will he look at the outcomes of the expert panel that is looking at educational underachievement? Given that early interventions are cheaper and better, perhaps some money can be unlocked and freed following the publication of such a report.

Mr Weir: I cannot prejudge any of the panel's outcomes. I should say that some of the advantages of nurture units are those that do not purely bring direct educational achievement; they also have a very major social impact, particularly on disadvantaged young people. They are a potential win-win. As such, I will want to look at whatever proposals come out of that panel. It is likely that there will be some commitment from any panel to earlier interventions, which may well lead to nurture units.

As the report is due to complete in May, it will then require additional funding from next year's budgetary settlement. It has been accepted from proposals that we have put forward that, although we do not know the exact nature of what will come out of the educational underachievement panel, as it is an NDNA commitment, we would like to see the Executive as a whole back it up with funding. That could lead to additional support, particularly for nurture units and early intervention.

Mr Weir: I am on record praising the tremendous efforts of all school leaders and staff not only for their tireless work to support our vulnerable children, the children of key workers and the thousands of pupils who have been educated through remote learning but for the significant planning and preparation that was undertaken to get schools ready for the new term. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the results of some of that work at first hand.

On 24 August 2020, I outlined a significant package of funding, with the support of the Executive, to help to support the safe reopening of schools. The funding will help principals to address some of the new pressures arising as a result of COVID and, in doing so, to protect our children and young people as well as those working in educational settings.

The package includes £17·5 million towards the cost of substitute teachers and other school expenditure; £6·4 million for PPE; £5 million for school well-being initiatives; £3·1 million for additional costs for home-to-school transport; and £1·4 million to support special educational needs. That is principally focused on the first term of the new academic year.

An updated version of the COVID guidance for school and educational settings was published on 29 September, and that is intended to support principals and educational settings. The guidance outlines a range of additional supports that are available to schools, including a named cross-organisational link officer for all schools; a Public Health Agency (PHA) helpline; and a dedicated Education Authority helpline for schools that require advice on COVID where a positive case is identified. A range of information and flow charts are also available on the DE website and C2k Exchange.

In addition, through the monitoring rounds, additional allocations have recently been made to the education sector. Those are very recent; consequently, we need to move them through. About £8 million was made available directly for schools in addition to a range of other issues to cover, for instance, some EA pressures, including SEN.

There is a range of support there, but not all of that has been entirely rolled out.

Sorry, also, as part of that, the figure for schools includes the fact that there has been growth in years 13 and 14. The figure for schools was £10 million that was provided directly for that. There was another £1·8 million for non-statutory preschool settings.


3.00 pm

Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a governor of Roddensvale School. I join the Minister in showing my appreciation of the staff and teachers of all our schools in helping our children.

The Chancellor has recently extended the furlough scheme, at least until March 2021. Given that recognition that the challenges of COVID-19 will extend until at least that time, what additional moneys does the Minister see coming to schools to assist with this challenge in keeping children safe and teachers protected as they carry out this vital work?

Mr Weir: I indicated that, during the recent monitoring rounds that have just taken place, Education as a whole received £12·8 million of what was bid for in the October monitoring round and then, on the COVID side of it, £49·4 million, of which £10 million was directly related purely to schools. Other actions were taken. It was also the case that, for PPE equipment, in addition to the £6·4 million that was granted, about another £19 million, I think, roughly speaking, was granted to help to pay for PPE for all schools and settings. There are a range of activities.

The Member rightly indicated that the furlough scheme has been extended. With the exception of very limited circumstances, the furlough scheme does not apply all that much directly to the public sector, albeit that, across the board, people are able to take advantage of it. While it has a major impact on Northern Ireland plc, if I can put it that way, there is no direct Barnett consequential of the furlough being put in place, other than that people in Northern Ireland are able to avail themselves of it. There is not a particular additional block that comes into Education as a result of the extension of the furlough scheme.

Ms Mullan: A post-primary school in my constituency had to close after four days of reopening because the principal, the two vice principals, six teachers and all the canteen staff had to self-isolate. It was not safe. Intervention over and above the packages that you have mentioned is needed there. I have highlighted to both you and the Health Minister the burden on principals in relation to tracking and tracing. I asked both your Departments to work together to significantly enhance the PHA's capacity in schools. Can you give us an update on progress?

Mr Weir: I will take a couple of those issues. Obviously, there is a wider issue for the Executive. The PHA obviously falls within the remit of the Department of Health. There is a wider opportunity, as we move ahead, to increase the availability of tracking and tracing. In schools, we have seen a situation where we will work with the Department of Health on a pilot scheme to ensure that testing can be turned around at a quicker rate. We have seen examples in England where they do daily testing. That is moving on. Directly speaking, I appreciate that tracing people creates a burden for schools, but where someone has tested positive — particularly a school student — the school is probably in the best position to identify those who have been close and those who have been sitting next to them. That is the role that schools play in providing that level of information.

I am glad that the Member has raised the issue where we have probably seen a bigger problem at times in some areas, and that is where there has been community spread among adults. That has obviously impacted on staff. Sometimes, the reporting of the media is not entirely accurate. I have heard two conflicting dates mentioned, and on the media there was talk of the school in question closing for a fortnight and of remote learning: that is not the case, and I am glad there is the opportunity to put that right. I understand that, possibly on Thursday of this week, following a deep clean, there will be —. There will always be a knock-on effect on that basis. It is the intention in the way that money is being made available for substitute cover, because you can have a school that is hit quite heavily, that it will be on the basis of drawing down as much as possible, within what is available, on the basis of need, rather than a top-sliced allocation per school. We have seen, for instance, on that basis —.

Mr Speaker: Time is up, Minister.

Mr Weir: In about half the schools, there have been no cases at all, and in others it has been deeper. It is about responding to the need. Apologies.

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Ms S Bradley: Does the Minister agree that there is a real need to set up a working group, with stakeholders drawn from across the education sector, to help inform you on your decisions in the weeks and months ahead?

Mr Weir: I agree, but a stakeholder group has already been set up. From the point of view of providing advice, a stakeholder group of school principals has been meeting regularly. It continues to meet and is informed of a range of issues in order to do that work. In addition, there are discussions at times with trade union representatives. There is a stakeholder group.

A balance has to be struck. In education, as with other things that have happened with COVID, there will be times when there has to be a quick reaction to things. That means that you cannot have everything convened. A balance between consultation and responding quickly has to be struck. The stakeholder group of about 20 school principals encompasses all the sectors, including primary, post-primary selective and non-selective schools and special schools, and acts as a sounding board for discussion. That group is already there.

Mr Speaker: I should have said that question 5 has been withdrawn.

Mr Weir: Give me a second.

The Education Authority has established a special educational needs and disability strategic development programme that will incorporate work to reduce delays in the SEN assessment process. The programme will also address recommendations from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) report 'Too Little, Too Late', the Northern Ireland Audit Office reports on SEN and the EA's own internal audit of practice report.

The Department is consulting on a new SEN framework that will introduce new duties for the EA, schools and the Department of Health that are designed to reduce timescales and bureaucracy in the statutory assessment process. Actions are also ongoing to reduce delays in the statutory assessment process through the EA's improvement plan and the joint Health and Education notification, referral and statutory assessment (NRSA) action plan.

I have established a SEN governance group to provide strategic oversight and coordination of the overall programme of improvements in the EA and the Department. The group will provide an assurance that the Department and the EA are working collaboratively to improve processes and procedures to achieve better outcomes for children with SEN.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. You will be aware that there are also long waiting lists for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) assessments. I understand that those are to be completed by the medical profession, but that has a knock-on effect when children are being assessed in school by the school psychologist. Will you commit to working with the Health Minister to reduce that assessment time, for the educational benefit of our young people?

Mr Weir: I will be happy to work with him. It is important as part of this. As with a lot of things, if there were simply a single intervention that would make things work more quickly, it would have been made some time ago. It is about trying to reduce bureaucracy.

With statements, while it is still far too long, there has been a reduction in the time taken for assessments, and that is starting to work through the system. Where there are direct individual assessments, COVID has created its own problems, but we are trying to work around those.

I am happy to give that commitment to work with the Health Minister and continue to work between the two Departments to make sure that we improve the lot of anybody with autism or, indeed, wider special educational needs.

Ms Dolan: Minister, you touched on this briefly in your previous answer. What is your assessment of the impact of the onset of COVID on referral waiting times for special educational needs assessments for primary-school pupils? What action are you taking to address it?

Mr Weir: To be fair, despite COVID, there has been some improvement. For example, between July and September, the percentage of statements completed in time rose by about 11%, so there are some positives. That is across the board. There have been improvements in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, for instance. Indeed, with regard to the unacceptable number of children who were waiting more than 40 weeks, which is 14 outside of that, there has been an 83% improvement. The number has gone down from 265 to 44. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has had an impact on some of the assessments that were there earlier in the year. For all of us, including even those in the medical profession, there was a level of reluctance in trying to assess what was doable on the ground. None of us knew precisely what was coming down the track. We have seen some level of improvement, but we have to push that consistently.

To take another appalling statistic, exactly one year ago 107 children had been waiting over a year and a half for the completion of their statutory assessment: that figure is now down to zero.

Mr McCrossan: For some time now, there has been a long, lingering crisis in SEN. Many children and families struggle, and that has been worsened by the pandemic. Does the Minister feel that his Department is doing enough to support those families, particularly in the absence of schools, which have proven to be vital to those children and their development over recent years? Does he feel that it is satisfactory that SEN schools were not included in the Engage programme for vital funding, which has angered many parents?

Mr Weir: I have indicated that, with regard to SEN, I have directed the Education Authority to work directly with those schools and to provide individual interventions where it can provide support. There is an onus on the EA to do that.

As I indicated, some good work has been done. Improvements are being made. Can more be done? Yes. We are not at the endgame. As with anything in public life, there is always the danger of seeing it as an event when, in fact, it is part of a process. We need to ensure that that process continues. That is part of the reason why, from a strategic point of view, we put the SEN regulations out to consultation with the idea that, at the end of that process, new SEN regulations and a code of practice would be put in place. That will be helpful as well. As with everything, though, will there be instantaneous answers or improvements? No. They will not happen instantaneously, but we need to move in the right direction constantly. Ultimately, can more be done? Yes, and more will be done.

Mr Weir: The Department does not hold daily specific information on the number of pupils and staff who have been or are currently self-isolating. However, we capture pupil attendance data through the school information management system (SIMS) using a reappropriated attendance code that is not solely for COVID-19. Over the first couple of months, that averaged about 2% per week. In the week commencing 12 October, it reached a peak of 5·6%. Those figures were on the basis of where pupils were receiving direct support learning and, indeed, engaging directly with remote learning while self-isolating or shielding.

As regards teachers, again, the overall figures were produced by the Public Health Agency, which monitors them. It had identified that, prior to the Halloween break, just over 2,000 cases were, in some way, connected with schools, with a breakdown of about 1,400 pupils and 600 staff who, over that eight-week period, cumulatively had tested positive for COVID-19. Again, the fluctuation is due largely to the figures in schools reflecting what is going on in the wider community.

As regards staff, the most recent available figures are for 13 October. They show that about 90% of teaching and non-teaching staff were on-site on that day. Of the one in 10 staff who were reported as not working on-site, schools categorised just over one third as having been:

"Identified by PHA Testing and Tracing to self-isolate".

That is a little over 3%. It should also be noted that half of the staff who were reported not to be working on-site were reported to be working remotely.

We should also remember and put into context with regard to staff that, on average, the bill for substitute staff in a normal year is around £100 million, which is a little bit shy of 10% of the overall wage figure. We need to put that into context as well.


3.15 pm

Ms Anderson: As the Minister knows, principals in Derry and across the North are doing their utmost to protect pupils. They have carried the burden of tracking and tracing. I have been listening to the Minister's comments today, but I do not see that dedicated support is being given to the principals in Derry and elsewhere who are carrying that burden on their shoulders. I do not think that what the Minister has outlined today tells them that enough support is being given to them.

Mr Weir: Schools can contact a dedicated PHA helpline directly. With regard to tracing, we should remember what is being said about close contacts and that, largely speaking, they are those who are within 2 metres of the affected individual for more than 15 minutes. The people who are in the best position to determine that are the people within the schools. There is, therefore, that level of support. There is support in this area, as there is with everything in relation to the issue; I am not suggesting that education has been treated unfairly with regard to the level of support. If more support was available, could more be done? Yes, it could, as it could in a lot of things, but I am confident that what has been put in place provides the maximum amount of support available, given the level of resources. That is irrespective of where the school is based.

Across the board, the latest figures suggest that roughly half of schools have not had a single case and half have had at least one case. Of those, about half had a single incidence, involving one individual. Schools will largely reflect what is happening in the community. Schools are a relatively controlled environment. I do not believe that they are somewhere in which the spreading of COVID is a particularly major problem. The problem is a range of the activities that happen alongside schools, and we are seeing that within the wider context. As numbers of COVID cases continue to come down, I hope that we will continue to see reductions in schools, and if they go up, I suspect that schools will reflect that.

Mr Lyttle: How many P7 pupils have had to self-isolate since schools reopened in August?

Mr Weir: I do not have those figures to hand, but I will get them for the Member. We know the figures for pupils who have tested positive across the board. We will take a look to see what figures are available. I am happy to write to the Member with any information that we have, broken down as much as possible.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move to topical questions.

T1. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Education, further to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s unanimous vote, when he will set out a clear contingency plan for post-primary transfer this year. (AQT 631/17-22)

Mr Weir: As I indicated at the time, contingencies need to be put in place. The people who are doing it, legally, are, first, the schools that can set their own criteria and, secondly, the organisations that put the tests in place. We will ensure that everything is put in place with regard to the health and safety of individuals, but, from that point of view, I think that it runs contrary to the law and the right of schools to have academic selection. I appreciate that the Member and I take a different view in relation to that. I support the right of schools to have academic selection. Schools have the opportunity not to use that, if they so desire, but I am not going to try to impose on schools the removal of academic selection.

Ms Armstrong: I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to provide me with this information, here, today, but I would appreciate it if he could get it to me. Following on from his response, will he provide a breakdown of how many meetings there have been with the Association for Quality Education and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium and his Department, his ministerial office and his special adviser, please?

Mr Weir: I am happy to get any information on those meetings, and there will have been discussions, too. We want to ensure that children are operating in a safe environment when it comes to the transfer tests, but we should put it in context. As I indicated in the debate, around 10,000 pupils will sit the tests on each Saturday that they are held, and a range of mitigation measures will be put in place, but that is in the context of more than 300,000 children going to school daily. It is about trying to ensure that any health and safety mitigations are put in place. As for the specifics of any discussions on that, I am sure that we will get the details to the Member.

T2. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Education whether Barnett consequentials will be received from the additional £170 million that was recently announced by the Prime Minister to allow local government to support free school meals during holiday periods and tackle the holiday hunger issue and to state whether a commitment exists for ongoing funding in that area in Northern Ireland. (AQT 632/17-22)

Mr Weir: We would need considerably more than a Barnett consequential, because the number of children, for instance, who qualify for free school meals is of a greater nature than it is across the water. Again, it seemed that this was a case in which the Westminster Government followed behind the devolved Administrations. As the Member is aware, a proposal had been put to the Executive to ensure that, for instance, as a result of the additional week off, initially, that would be covered. Strictly speaking, time outside term time lies outside the legal remit of the Department of Education. However, what we found, across the spectrum of the Executive, is that there has been a considerable willingness and unanimous support — I do not think that I am breaching any Executive confidentiality. During the recent Halloween break, we agreed to support the payment for across both weeks. That position is similar to what was adopted when schools were effectively, more or less, not meeting face to face during the March-to-June period and to the provision agreed by the Executive for the summer period.

We are scoping out what needs to be done in terms of the cost for the Christmas period and beyond. I think that, given what has happened in the past, the Executive will step up to the mark and provide that level of support. One of the things that needs to be scoped out is an additional level of weekly cost as it is likely, as time moves on, that the numbers of those on, for instance, universal credit will, sadly, increase. Therefore, there will probably be a higher cost per week, but I think that there is a strong commitment from the Executive to tackle the issue, and, again, I suspect that we will be ahead of the curve in comparison with Westminster.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his answer. There is considerable research in the UK about holiday hunger programmes providing not only food but constructive physical and educational activity for disadvantaged children, particularly during summer and holiday periods. Does the Minister have any plans to continue to develop and provide such constructive activity to raise the educational attainment of disadvantaged young people in Northern Ireland? In particular, in Carrickfergus, in my East Antrim constituency, the YMCA has been involved in providing such a scheme.

Mr Weir: A lot of good work has been done on that, particularly by third parties. Tackling the absolute immediate issue will be about the pure issue of holiday hunger and what level of support needs to be provided there. In addition to that, particularly on the academic side, while there has been a focus, for instance, on support for academic catch-up during term time, there was investment, first, in a number of initiatives over the summer this year. Through Youth Services, a range of bespoke interventions have taken place. One area where there has maybe been a little bit of constraint in doing some of the direct help is that there has been a limit on what can be done directly through youth activity during COVID. For instance, while there have been bespoke summer schemes, the ability to have those as wide as they ideally should be has been limited a little bit by COVID. Hopefully, again, we will move to a situation in which we move away from that. However, the work, particularly, of the youth sector in this is critical, and I pay tribute to the hard work that it has done throughout this. Sometimes, it is not as well recognised, perhaps, as what is there in the more formal education system.

T3. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Education to outline how many digital devices have been provided to pupils and how his Department is dealing with the issue of internet connectivity for pupils whose families are financially disadvantaged. (AQT 633/17-22)

Mr Weir: On the level of support — obviously, we had a three-stage process — as of 31 October, about 8,300 devices had been given out directly. In addition to that, the EA obtained a number of Mi-Fi devices, with built-in data allowances, and we have worked closely with BT on that. There are roughly 3,000 devices in the system that we are able to draw down on, but we have indicated that, if there is a need for further devices this year, we will look to DOF to see whether any additional capital can be drawn down.

The focus has effectively been on a range of groups, particularly those who are at a socio-economic disadvantage. The level of connectivity is also critical. You can have all the devices in the world, but they cannot be used effectively, particularly in some rural areas, until connectivity has been rolled out. That is why my colleague the Economy Minister is rolling out Project Stratum to try to ensure that broadband width is escalated in those areas in order to make sure that we are marrying the two.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. We are aware that additional funding was offered to schools to provide extra assistance to children in catching up on lost school time. Will further funds be available for schools to widen the availability of that extra assistance to enable more pupils to benefit?

Mr Weir: As I said, we are constantly exploring what direct digital devices are needed. So far, the Executive have agreed a package of £12 million, which has gone into the programme to allow for catch-up. There was money for a number of smaller initiatives over the summer, but the main one was the Engage programme, for which there was £11·2 million. That will take us up to the end of March next year, and we as a Department will need to bid for around £4 million or £5 million to complete the project by June. That will have positive spin-offs not simply through what is there for pupils but by providing some additional opportunities for, for instance, substitute teachers who are on the list to be able to provide that direct level of intervention. Schools have been given the opportunity to apply that money where they decide that it is best placed. That is on the academic side.

Additional money will shortly be distributed for specific support, in response to COVID, for mental health and well-being, beyond that which would be provided under normal circumstances. It is about having a healthy mind, from a mental health and an academic point of view. It is about marrying the two.

T4. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Education to outline the impact that coronavirus is having on the special educational needs (SEN) assessment process, given that the waiting times for SEN assessments are well documented. (AQT 634/17-22)

Mr Weir: As I indicated, the assessment process figures were very big previously, but we have seen a reduction. There has, for example, been an improvement, particularly between June and September, in meeting the statutory assessment period. There is also provision, as I indicated, for those at the far end of the scale who have been waiting for a very long time. Over the period of a year, we have seen that number come down from 107 who were waiting 80 weeks or more down to zero. It is part of an overall process. There is no doubt that there was some disruption to direct assessments, particularly during the spring term. Again, in society as a whole, there were barriers that made people feel uncertain about what could and could not be done. Indeed, the lines of communication probably were not as strong as they would be under normal circumstances.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he attribute any of that to remote working in the education setting? Can he give an assessment of how many people are continuing to work remotely and when he anticipates those people being back in work as normal?

Mr Weir: I have given an indication of the number of school staff working remotely. I do not, however, have figures directly to hand for what is happening in the broader process with, for instance, educational psychologists and those working in health. What I will say is that, from my experience of having seen some special schools, there is a critical intervention for face-to-face teaching. That is of benefit throughout the system, but it is particularly pertinent for those with special educational needs.


3.30 pm

T5. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister of Education, following his response to a question for written answer about classroom ventilation, in which he said that he was following the evidence and watching how it developed, whether he is setting aside funding for the school estate that can be used as we move in to the winter, when it might not be possible for schools to keep their windows open. (AQT 635/17-22)

Mr Weir: There is direct Public Health Agency (PHA) advice on the maximum ventilation that can be provided. Schools have to apply this sensibly. I have been contacted by parents asking why windows are open. They are open to create ventilation, but schools will also have to adapt. For example, they will have to change how they look at school uniforms and consider allowing extra layers of clothing. There have to be common-sense solutions.

The money being made available to schools will meet a range of issues. It is not hypothecated to say, "You need to spend this in a particular way". Schools are given a degree of freedom. There is a concern that high levels of ventilation will have the knock-on effect of additional colds or whatever. As with a lot of things in meeting the challenges of COVID, there is rarely a solution that produces something so virtuous that it does not also create complications.

Mr Speaker: I call Paula Bradshaw for a supplementary. We have about a minute and a half left. The Member has relinquished the opportunity.

T6. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Education, after commenting on getting in very briefly and the need to be concise, whether, when his expert panel on educational underachievement comes back, if it has found that academic selection is a clear cause of educational underachievement amongst disadvantaged people, he will take action. (AQT 636/17-22)

Mr Weir: Without wishing to upset others in the House, I will use the expression, "The education panel has not gone away, you know". The panel is continuing to receive submissions on underachievement. The specific issue of transfer from primary to post-primary is focusing largely on the wider review of education. I have signed off on the draft terms of reference going to the Education Committee. They still have to go through the Executive, which is probably the best place for them to go. On underachievement, there is always a danger that the media will focus on what happens at the age of 11, when, actually, a lot of the lessons are really about what happens much before that.

Mr Speaker: Time is up. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Economy

Mr Speaker: Stewart Dickson has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister for the Economy. If Members wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who asked the original question will be called automatically for a supplementary.

Mr Dickson asked the Minister for the Economy what action she is taking to avoid the loss of 700 jobs at Caterpillar in Larne and Belfast.

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): The decision by Caterpillar in the US to enter a period of consultation will be a worrying time for many. While the company has explained that that is part of a process for restructuring its electrical power division at Larne, the scale of the potential job losses will be a great shock to the workforce and their families.

I met Caterpillar's Northern Ireland senior management team, along with representatives from Invest NI, on Friday to express my disappointment at the decision. I have asked Invest NI, which has a good working relationship with Caterpillar, to continue to engage with the company throughout the consultation period in order to explore ways to minimise the impact at the Northern Ireland sites, and I know that that is happening today. Tomorrow I am meeting the Unite union to hear its concerns, and I am confident that everyone will be working to ensure that we can support the workforce at this critical time.

Be assured that my Department and Invest NI, alongside other stakeholders, including Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI and the Manufacturing and Engineering Growth and Advancement (MEGA) network , are liaising with Caterpillar's senior management to ensure that assistance is available to support workers throughout this process. That will include redundancy clinics, reskilling, job fairs and identification of job opportunities. The company is also working with union and salaried-worker representatives as it enters the 90-day consultation period.

Mr Dickson: Thank you very much, Minister, for agreeing to come to the House so quickly to answer questions about these potential job losses in Larne. Minister, I am sure that you will agree that there is a movement in manufacturing not only in Northern Ireland but across the world towards a greener and higher-tech economy in the manufacturing sector and that we need to go all out to secure major opportunities for the future. Can you tell us what you are doing to ensure that greener apprenticeships and skills are at the heart of your future economic strategy and that the money that is needed to provide for the future growth of companies such as Caterpillar is there to deliver?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. As I said to the House this afternoon, in rebuilding a stronger economy, I identified that a clean, green economy is an ambition not just for Northern Ireland's environment but for growth in its economic sectors. I believe that in doing so we can add many thousands of jobs in Northern Ireland and protect our environment for future generations. That is an extremely important part of my economic strategy going forward and has been part of that medium-term plan.

We will work with Invest NI in order to ensure that it opens up opportunities in the clean energy sector to ensure that progress is made. I have also been working with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, other councils in Northern Ireland and through the city deal process to make sure that this is an opportunity that we do not miss in Northern Ireland. As I said, I spoke with colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom just last week to recognise that this is an important ambition for all parts of the United Kingdom as we go forward with economic recovery.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her responses so far. Caterpillar indicated that these job losses are not related to COVID or Brexit. As part of the economic recovery strategy, will you look at encouraging the start-up and capacity building of indigenous business and at how we harness the potential of key sectors, meaning not just the more established ones but the developing ones, like green energy, creative industries and digital innovation etc?

Mrs Dodds: Yes. Caterpillar indicated very clearly that this is not about Brexit or COVID but is a corporate decision that was taken at its headquarters on how the operation works globally. Unfortunately, that has resulted in workers and their families in Larne being put into a terrible position. It is a very worrying and difficult time for them. As I said, I met senior management from Caterpillar in Northern Ireland on Friday. I intend to meet the unions to see what we can do, working together, to try to alleviate what is a very difficult situation.

Yes, I do believe that encouraging start-ups and working with indigenous companies is an important element of our economic growth strategies. We have many wonderful and very ambitious globally operating companies that have been born and bred in Northern Ireland and are doing absolutely magnificent things. We intend to work to support them and also those small start-ups where we see significant growth opportunities. There are very innovative start-up companies in Northern Ireland, particularly in the digital sector, and we are working to support them.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. This is an unmitigated disaster for the workers' families and the people of Larne and east Antrim in general. There has been very poor communication from the company. If it had not been for the workers tipping us off as they came off night shift, or even slightly before that, it would have been on the news that morning before the area's elected members knew. That was very bad. It is down to reorganisation of the company but, without dressing it up, it is really about cheap labour. It is going to India and beyond and other places. There is no dressing it up. That drip, drip effect is now with us. Is the Minister confident that Caterpillar has a long-term future in Northern Ireland?

Mrs Dodds: Again, I agree with the Member that this is incredibly difficult for the Larne plant workers and their families, who face an uncertain future because of it. Caterpillar has indicated that this is part of its corporate global overview of where the company is operating and how it can be more cost-effective and competitive in that global market. However, Caterpillar will continue to be an important part of the Northern Ireland economy. I hope that, working with Invest NI, we can draw back some of the job loss projections. However, even if job losses are at the maximum, Caterpillar will still have 900 employees in Northern Ireland and be a valued and important contributor to the economy here.

I will expand on that slightly, if I may. On Friday, I also spoke about this issue to the Caterpillar agent who works with government in London. Caterpillar operates on 23 sites right across the United Kingdom. Both Invest NI and I made the point that it is important that we open up opportunities for supply companies from Northern Ireland into that larger UK family of sites, so that maybe opportunities that are lost in Larne will open up in other parts of the United Kingdom. Invest NI will explore that with the company in the coming days.

Ms McLaughlin: The Caterpillar job losses are absolutely devastating for the workers, their families and the communities in both Larne and Belfast. Unfortunately, we are probably at the very beginning of major job losses throughout Northern Ireland in the coming months, which is very sobering to think about. Does the Minister agree that we must urgently reshape the economy for the future, particularly around investing in skills and new green technologies, and accelerate our programmes of change? What is she doing to lead and deliver in this revolution for driving technology within the Northern Ireland economy?

Mrs Dodds: I have said in the House before that COVID has been both a disruptor and an accelerator in the way in which the economy operates. The process of digitisation, for example, has progressed at a much higher pace than we might have anticipated.

In the past six to eight months, we have seen that process accelerate throughout Northern Ireland and, indeed, globally. For our digital sector, for example, this has been an opportunity to prove its innovation and resilience, and many of our companies in the sector are winning and gaining work from sister companies in larger corporations.


3.45 pm

We need to look very quickly at what the future will look like, not just for manufacturing but for all aspects of our economy. That is why it is important that we brought forward the apprenticeship recovery programme and the apprenticeship challenge fund. Through those, we will be able to create new apprenticeships. It is important that we continue to look at the assured skills academy, because we require that really quick, sharp intervention in the economy where jobs are needed in different sectors. In the next few weeks, I am really looking forward to going to some of the companies that have completed assured skills programmes and in which many young people have gained jobs. I often quote the Microsoft example from just a few months ago. That programme was done completely online, and 23 out of 24 of the young people in that skills academy got jobs.

It is also one of the reasons that we need to bring forward the skills strategy for Northern Ireland. Last week —.

Mr Speaker: Time is up, Minister.

Mrs Dodds: Skills and improving young people's opportunities in Northern Ireland is probably my favourite subject, Mr Speaker. Last week, I looked at how we improve skill levels at levels 3, 4 and 5, because that is where the skills gaps are.

Mr Beggs: Some 10 years ago, Caterpillar employed almost 3,000 people in Northern Ireland, but, sadly, that number has declined significantly. We were previously told that the smaller units, which can be mass-produced, were moving to China but that the bespoke larger units were remaining in Larne in Northern Ireland. Given this significant announcement, can the Minister advise what support will be given to those workers who may lose their job? She met the management on Friday, but what commitment has it given to remaining in Northern Ireland, given that previous commitments have already been significantly changed?

Mrs Dodds: I am on record in the House as saying that I believe that Caterpillar will remain an important part of the economy of Northern Ireland. Although there are difficult days ahead in Larne, I think that we can work with the company to ensure, for example, that those bespoke solutions that Northern Ireland has been so good at providing in the past will remain. Indeed, the Northern Ireland management team has identified opportunities for growth in those sectors. I am also extremely encouraged by the fact that the company's back-office operations are stable and working well in Northern Ireland, and there are opportunities in that direction as well. Caterpillar is an important company. It is important to Northern Ireland and to the United Kingdom, and, given its strategic importance, I will be talking to Minister Zahawi about the issue later in the week.