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Official Report: Tuesday 16 March 2021


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

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Health and Social Care Bill [NIA Bill 18/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate.

Mr Swann: The objective of the Health and Social Care Bill is simple. It is to facilitate the closure of the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and transfer responsibility for its functions, in the main, to my Department. I am pleased to be able to open the debate on the Bill today, not least due to the fact that the closure of the board was first announced some five years ago. It is important that we now take the steps required to bring certainty to staff in the organisation, but also that we respond to the clear evidence that our current system is complex, bureaucratic and no longer meets the needs of today's society. We know from the various reviews and reports that have been commissioned, from Donaldson to Bengoa, that we must transform how we plan and manage our services to meet the needs of our growing and changing population. The closure of the board is an important step on that journey.

Before I move to the Bill itself, it will be helpful to set the scene for what the legislation will mean in practice. The Bill, in closing the Health and Social Care Board, will transfer responsibility for its functions, in the main, to my Department. The staff of the board will transfer to the Business Services Organisation (BSO) under a hosting arrangement. Crucially, those staff will retain their Health and Social Care (HSC) terms and conditions and will continue to undertake their current roles and functions, albeit they will be directed by the Department and led by a senior civil servant at deputy secretary level. That is an important point. As we seek to transform how we plan and manage our services, we must do so in a staged manner that ensures that we manage any risk to our service delivery.

In this first step, we will see the closure of the Health and Social Care Board and its staff supported as they move to a new operating model where they will continue to undertake the same roles and functions as before, but as an integral part of my Department and not as an arm's-length body.

That will ensure the continuity of service delivery and mitigate any risk. From the time that the initial decision was taken, the process has been not about the people who are involved but the need to streamline our structures and reduce bureaucracy. In designing this operating model, engagement and analysis have taken place across the health and social care system. Work has continued in that vein as multi-organisational project strands have been established to not only take forward the necessary steps in order to ensure a seamless implementation but to identify and take forward improved ways of working.

Building on that first step, I recently approved the commencement of a programme of work that will look at how we plan and manage our services in a way that promotes integration, collaboration and service improvement. Key to that is that it not only seeks to harness the strengths of our health and social care sector but looks beyond to what can be achieved when we work in partnership with the voluntary and community sector, government and our service users. That has been a key learning from our response to COVID and one that, I am sure, we can agree that we must work on now to ensure that we do not lose as we turn our attention to the future. However, I reiterate my point that the Bill deals with the first step, which is the closure of the board, and the origins of that can be found in the review of commissioning arrangements, which was published in November 2015. The review identified a number of weaknesses in the system, which I referred to, such as the complex and bureaucratic structures and the lack of clarity in accountability and decision-making. On that basis, the decision to close the board was taken — a decision, I assure the Assembly, that has been subject to engagement and consultation.

A public consultation exercise ran from December 2015 to February 2016 and received over 180 responses from a wide range of stakeholders. The consultation report, which was published in March 2016, reaffirmed the need for change. While acknowledging that the closure of the board would not cure all the issues facing Health and Social Care, it recommended that having more effective structures would allow for better focus on resources and support the system to operate more effectively and innovatively.

I put on record my thanks to those groups for their contributions. I also acknowledge the concerns that were raised about how services will be commissioned. However, as I pointed out, the first step is about streamlining structures, providing clarity on decision-making and enabling effectiveness and greater efficiency. This is not about changing process. The approach enables us to move forward in a way that minimises any risk to service delivery. However, I assure those who contributed and the Assembly that those views will be considered in the work that has commenced to look at how we may plan and manage our services differently.

I will move now to the Bill. The Health and Social Care Bill seeks to provide the legislative framework for the closure of the Health and Social Care Board and the transfer of its functions. It is a relatively short Bill that is technical, with seven clauses and three schedules. I will cover the essential elements of the proposed legislation.

The first clause provides for the dissolution of the Regional Health and Social Care Board, and, as a consequence, local commissioning groups (LCGs) will cease to exist. The board currently has a statutory duty to appoint local commissioning groups, but that statutory duty will end on the dissolution of the board. However, a statutory duty will remain on my Department to secure the commissioning of health and social care services, and, in doing so, to set the priorities and, indeed, the outcomes that the system is expected to deliver. Whilst the dissolution of the board will remove the requirement for local commissioning groups, let me be clear about this: the clause is about the removal of a construct and does not in any way detract from the need for local intelligence and input into the planning decisions. As I said, work has begun on looking at how we plan and manage services based on collaboration and integration and in a way that is built on local need and local input.

Clause 2 refers to the transfer of the regional board's functions. It introduces schedule 1, which is the core of the Bill. It details the amendments that are required to existing legislation in order to achieve the transfer of powers, duties and responsibilities as a consequence of the board's closure. The amendments to health-specific Acts and orders will result in the duties and responsibilities that were held previously by the board being placed, in the main, directly upon the Department. That includes contracts for primary care providers, which will now become the responsibility of the Department. Following on from that, the Bill provides my Department with regulation-making powers to ensure that practitioners have access to an independent appeals process after the closure of the Health and Social Care Board.

In other areas specifically related to social care and children, amendments will result in these functions being directly placed on health and social care trusts. It is important to note that, currently, trusts already exercise these functions as a consequence of their delegation from the board. In this respect, the Bill merely ensures the continuation of the trusts' ability to fulfil their role in this area. The Bill provides for my Department to be directly responsible for the oversight of the trusts' exercise of these functions. That oversight will be facilitated by regular ongoing performance reporting by the trusts to my Department. The Bill provides that the trusts must, at the very least annually, submit for the Department's approval a scheme detailing how they are exercising the social care and children functions of the Department.

Clause 3 provides for the schemes for the transfer of assets and liabilities. To help to effect a dissolution in practical terms, the clause places a duty on the Department to make one or more schemes for the transfer of the board's assets, which include its staff and its liabilities. Whilst a transfer scheme for staff is not new or novel and has been used on many occasions in the past, this is a novel arrangement and one that has been fully considered. In this case, the staff of the board will transfer to the BSO. However, in the operating model, they will be directed by my Department and will be led by a senior civil servant. Again, this comes back to the need to maintain service delivery. This approach, while streamlining structures and reducing bureaucracy, will also provide flexibility for the work on new planning approaches to evolve, and, importantly, through employment with BSO, the former board staff will retain their HSC terms and conditions, and no staff will be made redundant. Staff engagement has been and continues to be a fundamental part of the process. Consultation with staff and their representatives will be a key part of the development and operation of the transfer scheme for those staff.

Clause 4, the transitional provision, includes schedule 3, which ensures an ordered winding up of the board and the continued proper operation of the health and social care system. A power is included to provide for regulations to be made, if required, to address any non-alignment of existing legislation not already identified as a consequence of the closure of the board and commencement of the new arrangements. Again, this is not novel or contentious and was evident in the Health and Social Care (Reform) Act (Northern Ireland) 2009, which provided for the dissolution of a number of health bodies and the transfer of their legislative functions.

Schedule 3 places a duty on the Department to make arrangements for a statement of final accounts of the board, and, together with a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, this must be laid with the Assembly. It also sets out provisions to ensure continuity with previous directions issued to and by the board. In addition, the Department may continue anything being done by or to the board, and that includes legal proceedings, following the closure of the board. Clauses 5, 6 and 7 are standard interpretation, commencement and short title clauses respectively.

In conclusion, at this point, it will be clear to Members that the Bill is relatively straightforward and that it is subjective, though technical, in nature. The closure of the board is a step forward as we seek to reduce the bureaucracy and complexity so keenly associated with our system. As part of a wider transformation, it is a step that will enable us to better focus our resource and enable the system to operate more effectively and efficiently, and I think that we can all agree that that need has never been greater. I look forward to hearing what Members have to say about the Bill.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for coming to the House this morning and making his remarks on this change. I welcome the opportunity to make some initial remarks on behalf of the Health Committee, outlining the Committee's consideration of the Bill, before speaking as my party's health spokesperson.

As the Minister outlined, the Bill gives effect to the decision to close the Health and Social Care Board. It transfers the responsibility for the board's functions to the Department of Health and transfers board staff to the Business Services Organisation.

The decision to close the Health and Social Care Board stems from 2015, following Sir Liam Donaldson's report 'The Right Time, The Right Place'. The report highlighted a number of weaknesses in the health system and outlined the need for change that would allow more effective and efficient structures for the delivery of health and social care services. That decision was reaffirmed in 2016 by the then Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill, who confirmed the closure of the board as part of the wider transformation agenda.


10.45 am

The aim of the Bill is to simplify the healthcare administration's structures. In the current challenging climate of the pandemic, with its unknown long-term physical and mental-health impacts, and with ever-increasing waiting lists for surgery, any advancement of the transformation agenda is to be welcomed. Indeed, in recent weeks, the Committee has heard evidence from the Department and other stakeholders that there are concerns that the transformation agenda will not be able to be progressed without significant additional resource for the Department of Health. That is disappointing, given that the Programme for Government clearly outlines how the transformation of the health service will contribute to Programme for Government outcome 4, which is:

"We all enjoy long, healthy active lives."

Moreover, the New Decade, New Approach agreement included an Executive commitment to deliver health and social care reforms. The Committee wishes to see the transformation agenda driven forward by the Minister and the Executive. The Bill indicates a step towards the streamlining of decision-making.

The Committee first considered the Bill at its meeting on 4 March, just before its introduction at First Stage. I thank the Minister and his officials for their early engagement on the Bill and for the briefing on its principles. The briefing was a useful session for the Committee. A number of questions were raised with officials. Members sought clarity on how the Bill will improve accountability and decision-making in the Health Department and on how the Department will manage performance management. The Committee also sought further information on how the Department will ensure that there is a smooth transition when the functions are transferred and the board closes. Members highlighted to officials the importance of enhancing engagement with key stakeholders and asked how the Department will ensure that there is that enhanced engagement with them, including trade union representatives, on the commissioning of health and social care services. Given that the board and its non-executive directors and committees have significant expertise in and knowledge of the prioritisation and commissioning of services, that is especially relevant. The closure of the board may therefore result in an expertise and knowledge gap. There was some discussion about the transfer of staff from the board to the Department and about the roles and responsibilities of officials and their lines of accountability to the Minister. Members again highlighted the need for early engagement with trade unions and staff to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. Provided that it passes Second Stage, the Committee looks forward to engaging with stakeholders and scrutinising the Bill in further detail.

I will now make a few remarks as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. The Health and Social Care Bill is an effort to reform and address some of the weaknesses across the health and social care sector. It promises to create a more effective and efficient healthcare system, with improved structures that, in turn, will hopefully improve the delivery of health and social care services. The HSC Bill is an integral part of the wider transformation agenda. It proposes to demarcate simply and clearly the structures in the healthcare administration, thus increasing transparency and accountability, which is much needed. Reducing the levels of bureaucracy in any organisation is a positive development. There is little point, however, in simply reorganising the deckchairs. Rather, the transformation of healthcare structures must result in simple and clear lines of responsibility and accountability. There must be a clear chain of command for that accountability. In restructuring the healthcare administration, there must be an effort made to protect the jobs of those within the structures. Redeployment must be assured for all, and the Minister has indicated that that will be the case.

Key issues that the Committee will be concerned about are the very important social care and children's functions. When such issues are talked about, it is crucial that we see continuity and no gaps in those areas. We look forward to discussing how the effective and innovative approach can be enhanced.

I wonder about what the Minister said about the staff being under the direction of a senior civil servant. In the light of the fact that the staff will be dispersed to trusts, the BSO and, in some cases, the Department, how will that be achieved? I look forward to drilling down into those issues in more detail at Committee Stage.

Mrs Cameron: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Health and Social Care Bill at its Second Stage today.

The Bill represents a major bureaucratic change in the manner of governance of our health system through the transfer of responsibilities from the Health and Social Care Board. On 8 April 2014, the then Health Minister, Edwin Poots, announced his intention to commission the former Chief Medical Officer of England, Professor Liam Donaldson, to advise on the improvement of governance arrangements across Northern Ireland's health and social care system. Several months later, the report was published alongside a set of recommendations that are intended to modernise our health system and better equip it to meet the demands and needs of today's society.

On 4 November 2015, the DUP Health Minister, Simon Hamilton, set out the very proposal that we are discussing today as part of a package of administrative reforms. Much of that proposal was based on the Donaldson report, which found our current structures to be overly complex and bureaucratic and identified a lack of clarity in relation to accountability and decision-making as well as a lack of challenge to providers. The review also highlighted how the annual nature of the financial and planning cycle inhibits long-term strategic planning. I mentioned the need for multi-year budgeting in recent Budget debates. Strategic planning cannot be done properly without that foresight.

The public consultation also found that current arrangements are not lean or agile enough to respond quickly to changing demands in health and social care and that changes should be part of a broader strategy for transformation. If implemented effectively, the closure of the Health and Social Care Board will allow the Department to take firmer strategic control of the health and social care system, allowing cleaner accountability, removing complexity and ensuring that decisions are more efficient and responsive.

The changes proposed in the Bill must be part of a broader strategy for transformation. The restructuring on its own will not resolve all the problems that face our health sector. Significant investment is required in present and new services, and a solution is required to fill many staffing vacancies, ending reliance on agency posts.

The present pandemic has served as a reminder that we cannot keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results. Health transformation is needed. It needs to happen in a manner that supports staff and patients alike to deliver the best services possible to our country.

Speaking as a DUP representative, we are pleased that the Bill has been introduced. I commend the Minister, Robin Swann, for ensuring that this progress has been made under the current challenging circumstances for his Department. Unfortunately, delays caused by the collapse of the Assembly and by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed back many of the efforts to properly transform our health service. We must ensure that there is no more delay and strive earnestly to implement what has been recommended to the Executive by many experts for years.

I very much welcome that all staff in the Health and Social Care Board will be redeployed to other roles and that their terms and conditions will be protected through the reform process. It is vital that staff affected by the closure of the Health and Social Care Board are kept fully aware of the changes and are given adequate space to make their views and concerns known.

It is important that these reforms are not taken in isolation but are viewed through the lens of a wider transformation agenda for health and social care. For example, the reform of social care will have a bearing on accountability arrangements and performance management.

Whilst it has been going through a number of very challenging years, not least those of late, we should all be very proud of our National Health Service here in Northern Ireland. I, for one, am proud of all the staff who see their role not just as a job but as a vocation and put their heart into serving and caring for others. We owe it to them to ensure that health transformation is progressed, giving them the resources and support that they need to face the challenges of today.

With the proposed changes, the Department of Health will and must take on more responsibility for the strategic steps necessary to take our health sector forward. It must ensure that true equality of services is available to service users across all regions, allowing more joined-up strategic measures to be made between trusts to improve outcomes and to share resources when needed.

The public perception is often that our health service is far too bureaucratic. The intention of the Bill is to simplify the administrative structures. Having a more streamlined structure in place will help to better focus resources and enable the system to operate more effectively. If, and once, it is agreed today, I look forward to further scrutiny of the Bill at Committee Stage.

To conclude, I welcome the Second Stage of the Bill. I trust that it will be just one of a number of future legislative steps that will be taken to protect and develop our health service, as was promised most recently to the people of Northern Ireland under the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Second Stage of the Health and Social Care Bill. I welcome that the Bill has finally come before the Assembly for debate after the decision to close the Regional Health and Social Care Board was first announced in 2015. My party colleagues and I are largely supportive of the Bill. However, there are a number of points that I will raise today, and I hope that the Minister may be able to address some of our concerns and give us assurances.

The Bill has been a long time in coming, and I hope that it has now provided at least some clarity for the staff of the Health and Social Care Board. Some staff have voiced that they have felt great job uncertainty over the last five years, and I think that that was a very regrettable outcome of the delay and the way in which the original announcement was made. It is, of course, welcome that a hosting arrangement has now been agreed.

An issue that was raised, just moments ago by Pam Cameron and in Committee, is the reliance on agency nurses. An issue that we must urgently address is the lack of nurses in our health service. This is a very important and transformative step in ensuring that our health sector will be able to provide a true equality of services right across the North.

Another concern that I have — I am sure that others across the House will share it, too — is around the closure of the Regional Health and Social Care Board and local commissioning groups. The groups have been an important part of the Health and Social Care Board, and local health professionals are best placed to know what the specific and emerging healthcare needs are within their respective areas. I hope that we will continue to have an aspect of that in our new system. Partnership and co-production in working with communities is how we will deliver better services that meet the needs of local people in each of our constituencies. Can the Minister assure us that local voices and expertise will still be heard and that they will be able to feed into the commissioning process in trust areas as we move forward?

Another concern that I have, in a similar vein, is the issue around the centralisation of power in the Department. While I note the merits and intended consequences of this Bill in giving the Department greater oversight of those functions that will be placed directly in the health and social care trusts, the centralisation of power when it comes to the commissioning of services can have unintended consequences, and I worry about the impact of a regional and rural imbalance. There is often the temptation to place services in Belfast and other cities, and that is an issue. As an MLA for a largely rural constituency, I am all too aware of that, and I often see the impact of services not being evenly distributed across the North, not least on accessibility and the difficulty for many in travelling. I think that social prescribing has been a real positive in these kinds of rural pockets.

As, hopefully, we move into a post-pandemic world, reflecting on the amazing work of our health service, we should also look at how we want our health service to be seen in the future. This is, of course, a huge task that is part of a bigger conversation, which is much more than the Bill that is before us today. However, we can speak to that in the next stage. Local communities and services should be at the heart of our health service. What assurances can the Minister give us today that this legislation will not, in any way, negatively impact on rural communities?

Mr Chambers: The Minister said that the Bill is relatively straightforward in its objective, although it is quite technical in nature. I certainly welcome the Bill at this time, with the certainty that it will bring to staff, given that it has been on the books since 2015. The Minister stated that staff engagement has been, and continues to be, a fundamental part of the process and that consultation with staff and their representatives will be a key part of the development and operation of the transfer scheme for staff. Again, we should welcome that, and we hope that staff will be able buy in to these changes and understand and support them.

There was quite a robust consultation, back in 2015-16, as the Minister outlined.

It appears to have been quite robust, and the responses received have been given considerable consideration.


11.00 am

The immediate advantages as a result of the Bill will be consistency of decision-making and the delivery of services across the board. The Bill is a small but significant step in the transformation of our health and social care system. My party has had a policy for some time of bringing the work of the various health trusts under one umbrella in the interests of efficiency, better deployment of resources and the enhancement of services to patients. I wonder whether such a move is on the Department's radar at this time.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill, which has been described as technical in nature. That is an understatement, even though it has only seven clauses. When you read through the schedules, maybe the purpose was that we would put our screens down and give up, but we are not going to. We are discussing the general principles of the Bill, and we all accept that. As other Members have indicated, there is broad support at this stage. I do not think that anyone will argue against lessening the bureaucracy in health and social care. We are all reminded that Bengoa was about systems and not structures and that New Decade, New Approach was about co-production and co-design. I see this as an opportunity, but not to go back and look at it again. The Minister mentioned that the consultation report in 2016 was quite detailed. It was a good consultation with varied responses, but the general thrust was that everybody wants better outcomes for patients.

I appreciate that this is only the Second Stage, but when we get to further scrutiny, as all Members have indicated, perhaps the Minister will take some of these considerations on board. For example, perhaps the Minister will explain the schemes for the transfer of staff, assets and liabilities mentioned in clause 3 and schedule 2.

Like most of us, the Minister probably found out about the revelations concerning the neurology inquiry in yesterday's 'Irish News'. The patients of Dr Watt, and, indeed, of the other consultant now under investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC), want to know what will happen next. What does the Bill mean for those involved in the hyponatraemia inquiry? What does it mean for other ongoing issues? What does it mean for other scandals and other reports? People will be keen to know. They will not look at the detail; they will want to know what it means for them. The public need assurance, and they will not get it from anyone in the Chamber except the Minister.

Some Members mentioned staff, and staff are assets. It is not just about physical assets, it is about the human resources that make up health and social care services. I am very keen to find out what is happening. We also need more detail on the local commissioning end of things. As Alan, Cara and others said, there are concerns, for example, about the impact of the Bill on the urban/rural balance but also on addressing existing health inequalities.

You, Minister, will know about Órlaithí Flynn's work on championing mental health. It is accepted across the board — the Minister did so in his high-level impact assessment — that certain conditions and issues require additional investment and support. That is a decision that he alone must make, but the call for additional investment in health is noted, if not supported. What will those services look like for youngsters in north and west Belfast, particularly those who struggle with their mental health or addiction? What will the transfer of services under clause 3 look like for people like Danielle O'Neill, who is involved in the neurology issue, given her life-changing diagnosis or lack of diagnosis? Whatever comes out of this, those people need to know what the issues are and how they will be impacted.

I know that legislation is legislation, but clause 6, on commencement, states that the Department of Health "may by order appoint" when clauses of the Bill will come into force. I would like a bit more detail on that. Is it all? There are only seven clauses, and, not to be dismissive of any legislation, there are probably two or three that are germane to the dissolution of the Health and Social Care Board. The rest are there because there is a legal responsibility for the transfer of services, along with the schedules and all the language and narrative that goes with them.

Given that we have gone through and are still coming through a historic phase in all our lives, especially those who work in Health and Social Care, I would like a lot more detail on the responsibilities that will be transferred to the Department and to the health and social care trusts. I note the comments of the Minister's colleague about bringing them into one trust, but, irrespective of that, I do not think that you will find anybody who will disagree with having more accountability and transparency. I say this genuinely: Health and Social Care staff need to feel that they can see themselves in whatever legislation comes through the Assembly. We talk about assets, and we all agree that they are assets, but we need to how and when they are being transferred. We need to know where the lines of accountability are. We need to know what is happening with our local commissioning groups and where those powers and decisions are being transferred to. We need to know what democratic accountability there will be in any new groups, forums or partnerships.

Above all else, we all need to know what is happening with the issues in neurology, which I outlined, hyponatraemia, care homes and services for people with learning and physical disabilities. All those issues that have taken up a lot of time in the Assembly, rightly so, need an explanation. While I appreciate that we are talking about the general principles and will have further opportunities for scrutiny, this is an opportunity to point those matters out so that the Minister and his officials will have time to consider some of the outstanding questions. He may not be able to provide those answers now, but I implore him, particularly given yesterday's revelations in 'The Irish News' to give reassurance to those people as quickly as possible. I know that he was probably as uncomfortable as I and many others were when we read those revelations. That was not the way for those people to find out what is going on.

I support the Second Stage of the Bill.

Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for his statement outlining the Bill. I support the Bill, with some reluctance, as I am unclear about precisely how the implementation of the legislation will provide a genuinely streamlined, more efficient and more transparent system. The fundamental question is this: how will the removal of publicly appointed board members and members of the local commissioning groups, who provide expertise on how the health and social care sector operates and scrutiny of performance, drawing from their own work and background, enhance the delivery of health and social care services? At the Health Committee, I drew a comparison with the removal of the Education Authority, which is the middle layer in the commissioning and operational delivery of education services. In the last few months, we have seen the mass resignation of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) board. That undermined this expertise, and I wonder how the removal of the Health and Social Care Board will improve oversight, scrutiny and local democratic input.

The Bill says little about how exactly the BSO will be improved as part of the process. Currently, far too many positions in the health and social care sector are held on an interim basis. It can take months and months for a post to be advertised and filled. How exactly does any of this constitute streamlining bureaucracy in practice?

The apparent loss of local accountability and input concerns me most. As a councillor, I was on the Belfast LCG before coming to the Assembly. I saw the potential of LCGs and how they worked in practice to inform local population planning, exactly in line with the Bengoa report, and to establish pilot projects such as the integrated care partnership (ICP) falls service, which was rolled out into other areas.

Having consulted the policy background documents again since the Bill was discussed at the Health Committee last week, I remain unclear on why the Public Health Agency (PHA), which has a commissioning role, is untouched by the legislation. In a previous life, in the community and voluntary sector, I found the Public Health Agency one of the few statutory agencies in the public service that was responsive and effective. That was because it had a front-facing culture and there was meaningful and ongoing engagement with the people who were working in the communities and with the groups and sections of society that it aimed to support. As such, it would be helpful to hear, alongside the Bill, how precisely the Department will be restructured to accommodate that local input and engagement and the additional responsibility that it is taking on, almost in its entirety.

The Bill is predicated on the notion that commissioning is not a cross-cutting issue. That is stated in the accompanying documents, which is interesting because commissioning, as we debated in the Chamber yesterday, is one service that the Minister has argued in the past is cross-cutting. We would like a response from the Minister on that.

The final issue is that the Bill, while apparently all about streamlining, means that additional costs will be incurred. It would be useful to hear what savings will arise from it in years to come.

Although there is little wrong with the Bill in itself, in many ways, it raises more questions than answers. I look forward to further scrutiny of it at Committee Stage. Given that the legislation is mostly about how Northern Ireland is not large enough to do full commissioning on its own, how exactly will the commissioning or contracting of health and social care services be improved for the future? How precisely will new services, such as those for ME, Huntington's disease, long COVID and other conditions that currently lack a fully resourced pathway or service not get lost in the Department of Health? How will they be commissioned? Where will responsibility lie in identifying planning and engaging with primary and secondary care? How will this make things more efficient?

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister to make a winding-up speech and conclude the debate.

Mr Swann: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Bear with me a moment. I was expecting more contributions, as you can tell, Mr Speaker [Laughter.]

It is not often that I say that in this place, I assure you.

Mr Speaker: There were few contributions, but all were of quality.

Mr Swann: It is clear from the debate that the construct of the Bill is accepted and agreed but, understandably, there are some concerns about its impact, particularly in relation to accountability, staffing and local involvement in the development and identification of future services. I therefore welcome and thank Members for all the points that they have made, and I thank the Health Committee for its engagement so far and in the future.

I turn to some of the specific issues raised and points made in Members' contributions. In the opening contribution, the Chair of the Committee asked a number of questions and made a number of points.

His first was about how the Department could ensure a standardised approach to tendering for services across the health and social care trusts. The trusts will continue to work within the agreed current procurement guidelines, as the Bill will not impact on their procurement or tendering processes.


11.15 am

A number of Members touched on the issue of accountability, and I was asked to provide granular detail. The Department will be accountable to me for all the functions delivered by former board staff who come under the direction of my Department. The staff will be led by a civil servant at deputy secretary level, who will be directly accountable to the permanent secretary in the Department for the performance of the former board staff. The permanent secretary is, in turn, accountable to me for the overall performance of the Department.

Queries were raised about the Business Services Organisation's hosting arrangements. Ms Bradshaw raised a number of them. As part of the hosting arrangements, the Business Services Organisation will be accountable to my Department for the delivery of HR services and support to former board staff who will be in its employment but who will be directed by my Department in the operational discharge of their day-to-day responsibilities.

A number of Members asked how the loss of scrutiny by members of the board will change the accountability of those with expertise. I recognise the expertise brought to the table by all board members appointed through public appointments and place on record my thanks to them for the valuable work that they do, which they will continue to do right up until the dissolution of the board. Following the board's closure, the Department will be accountable to me for all the functions delivered by the former board staff under the direction of my Department. The deputy secretary who will be directing former board staff will be a member of our top management group and the departmental management board. The delivery of those functions will be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny. As Members will be aware, the composition of the departmental management board includes non-executive directors as well.

Pam Cameron, the Deputy Chair of the Committee, and other Members raised the issue of multi-year budgeting and funding for health, never mind for the generalities of the health service, and called for clearer accountability. There is a recognition that this is the first step in bringing about significant change across the health service in Northern Ireland. That has been proposed and promised in the many reviews and documents to which a number of Members referred. I thank all staff in the health and social care system for the work that they do, and continue to do, as we look to streamline structures.

The Deputy Chair also talked about workforce changes and workforce shortages. The Health and Social Care Bill makes provision for the closure of the arm's-length body known as the board. The Bill relates solely to the board and will not have any material impact on any other health and social care body. That also answers Ms Bradshaw's enquiry about the Public Health Agency, which will not be affected by the legislation.

The new operating model will see the former board staff continue to undertake their functions, albeit under the direction of the Department. That approach, although it will streamline structures and reduce bureaucracy, will provide for continuity of service, thus minimising risks to the overall system. The staff will be employed by the Business Services Organisation, but, as I said, they will be led by a senior civil servant at grade 3. I want to make it clear to Members, as well as to staff who may be listening to this, that staff will retain their Health and Social Care terms and conditions throughout their employment with the Business Services Organisation. In addition, no Health and Social Care Board staff will be made redundant as a result of the changes. A programme of work is under way to build capacity and capability in the board structures.

Members asked about consultation and engagement with staff. A staff-side forum has been in place since June 2018 to facilitate trade union engagement and consultation on the change programme. The forum currently meets bimonthly. Additionally, I will say that trade union representation is an integral element of the project work strands set up to co-design new ways of working.

Cara Hunter raised a number of queries, including one about the lack of nurses. Although not connected in any way to the Bill or to the changes, I point out that part of the agreement that led to our return to this place over a year ago was the commissioning of 300 additional training places for nurses over three years.

That has commenced. Those training places are in place and are funded, and we are working through the process of training.

Ms Hunter and Carál Ní Chuilín raised a number of issues on regionalisation versus centralisation. One of the clear approaches that I have taken since coming into office and throughout the pandemic is to look at the regionalisation of services, rather than simply centralising everything towards Belfast. We have seen the need to use all our structures, whereas, in the past, there was always a perception that we would end up closing something or looking at downscaling something. We realise now that the regionalisation approach will benefit us as we come out of the pandemic.

A number of Members — I think that Cara Hunter was the first — raised the local commissioning groups. In effect, the closing of the Health and Social Care Board will remove the statutory requirement for local commissioning groups. However, let me be clear: whilst the Bill will remove the construct that is local commissioning groups, it in no way detracts from the need for local input and intelligence in our planning processes. As I have mentioned, work has begun to develop a new way of planning services that is based on an integrated care approach. A key part of that process will be to take on the learning from the local commissioning groups and bring forward a mechanism to ensure the continuation of local input.

Ms Hunter also talked about the impact on rural communities. I want to make it clear that the statutory obligations of equality screening and impact assessments have been observed in the development of the Bill. Equality screening, a human-rights impact assessment and a regulatory impact assessment were all completed without any impacts being noted.

Mr Chambers mentioned that the Bill was small but extremely significant. He is right: it sets in train a direction that many other Ministers have talked about and brought forward proposals on. The Bill will see the first significant step in making a major structural change to health and social care in Northern Ireland. Many reports and studies have been produced, but this is the legislation that will start to enact some of those recommendations. Mr Chambers referred to our party policy on regionalisation and the need for one trust. That conversation has been had many times and is not part of the Bill. However, as I said earlier, through the regionalisation of services, we have really seen the benefit of all the trusts' specialities coming together and working collaboratively, especially during the past year. That has benefits not just for the delivery of services but especially for the input and output for our patients, who are at the centre of everything that we do.

Although Carál Ní Chuilín noted that the Bill was technical in nature and felt that, sometimes, she could put down her screen, I noted from her contribution that, at no time, did she do that. She has read the details of the Bill, as I would expect her to do. I identified that when she talked about the transfer of powers and all the functions that are covered, particularly in schedule 2, where it shows the small impacts that the Bill would have and the wider implications of those transfers of power. It is about achieving better outcomes for our citizens and patients. She also asked about the public assurances that I could give. She is right: I was shocked when I saw the headlines in yesterday's papers. It is not something that I expected or that I expect. She will know that, since I have come into office, I have instigated three public inquiries where I see the challenge and where accountability is needed. I will highlight the fact that, in my opening statement, I made assurances about work that has started or been done that the Bill also covers. The Department will continue anything that is being done by or for the board, including legal proceedings, following the board's being closed. All that responsibility will transfer from the Health and Social Care Board to my Department, which is, I believe, the place where it should sit.

Carál raised the legislative provision for local input and setting priorities. While there is no legislative provision for setting priorities or local input, the closure of the Health and Social Care Board results, as we have said, in the end of the requirement for local commissioning groups. That requires my Department to produce a commissioning plan direction and the development of a subsequent commissioning plan. All that then becomes public. That does not, however, detract from the need to ensure local input into the planning process and the need to set strategic priorities and, indeed, the outcomes that the system will be required to deliver. That will continue, but it does not provide the opportunity to improve on the current process. This is now being taken forward as part of the programme of work on how we can plan our services differently, because it is imperative that we allow time for that new way of planning services to be developed and tested before placing anything in statute. The need for legislation will be explored, as work on those developments will continue to form part of the future consultation.

Paula Bradshaw mentioned the vacancies that still exist in BSO. We continually face a challenge to fill those positions. Our recruitment processes have improved, and the number of vacant positions has decreased significantly over the last number of years. That work continues to be progressed through, as I said, the recruitment of new nurses and other staff. There are now regular advertisements for positions available through BSO, other trusts and our Health and Social Care Board. As, I think, I said, the PHA is not included or touched on in any part of the Bill, and I thank Ms Bradshaw for acknowledging the work of the PHA.

Ms Bradshaw raised the issue of whether this work was cross-cutting or controversial: it is not. None of the services mentioned in the Bill that are currently covered by the Health and Social Care Board are controversial or cross-cutting. The debate yesterday that she mentioned refers to the potential commissioning of a service that is cross-cutting and controversial, and it has been legally advised to me, as Health Minister, that it is. That is why it is a decision for the entire Executive, not just me, to take, no matter what some Members said in the House yesterday.

I appreciate that I have not had the time or the detail to address a number of Members' questions, but I undertake to review Hansard and write to Members on those issues. The debate has been an invaluable opportunity for me to hear at first hand the views of Members on the Bill and on other issues. I wish the Committee well as it begins its crucial scrutiny of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Health and Social Care Bill [NIA Bill 18/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Health and Social Care Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee.

Members, please take your ease for a moment or two.

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


11.30 am

Private Members' Business

Mr Easton: I beg to move

That this Assembly highlights the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system in Northern Ireland; notes with concern the deep economic impact of the pandemic and resulting restrictions; stresses the need to meet any related increase in eligibility for, or uptake of, benefits and other forms of financial support for those made redundant or suffering ill-health, as part of the recovery from COVID-19; expresses grave concern that the review of welfare mitigations measures provided for in New Decade, New Approach has not been taken forward as a priority by the Department for Communities; and calls on the Minister for Communities to accelerate that review and to ensure that appropriate and ongoing welfare support is made available to households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic as the Executive chart a course toward recovery.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Mr Easton: In the short time that I have, I will cover a range of points, including the number of new benefit claimants that we are witnessing, the continuation of welfare mitigation measures for the next financial year and where we are with the review.

We all know that the financial impact of the pandemic has been severe and that the ongoing restrictions are deeply damaging to our economy. Those points are well known and do not need to be repeated at length. However, there are several points that I wish to make about the depth of the economic crisis that we are now witnessing. I will state at the outset that I understand the constrained financial situation that the Department faces. Nevertheless, I am especially concerned about the number of staff that are involved in processing claims.

The Department failed in its bid for more staff, and current numbers are below what is required under normal circumstances. The longer that the restrictions last, the more people who will be out of work and needing to access social security. I have seen estimates of around 60,000 new claimants. That is the result of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister failing to provide the funding for more staff. It is obvious that increased demand and lack of staffing will lead to longer processing times for claimants. Five weeks is already a long time to wait, especially given the current circumstances, so the prospect of individuals having to wait seven or eight weeks for a first payment is unacceptable, particularly for young people, who we know are more likely to face unemployment.

I also want to touch on the number of people who are waiting on personal independence payment (PIP) appeals. That number amounts to the thousands, which is totally unacceptable. There will have to be a concentrated effort to resolve those backlogs, which staff levels are contributing to. The backlogs are also the result of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister failing to provide the funding for staff.

I am thinking in particular about those in the private rented sector, as the delays could push them into debt and further exacerbate the mental health problems brought on by lockdown. There is also an increasing number of families struggling to get by. I am deeply concerned that the Budget not only does not meet the needs of the present economic situation but will mean that there is less support available than we are accustomed to in normal times.

I find the expected cuts to Advice NI particularly troubling. I also note that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster recommended the continuation of that advice service. The £1·5 million of planned cuts will see some of the most vulnerable families hit the hardest. The independent support services that Advice NI provides are incredibly valuable in making social security accessible to everyone. Advice NI has been doing great work assisting with the COVID-19 community helpline over the past year. If it is to lose over 40 staff, as has been reported, a vital public service will be lost. The cut is the result of Sinn Féin's Finance Minister failing to provide the funding for the Department. That is why we are minded to support Mr Carroll's amendment, subject to the Minister's response.

Following on from those points, I want to put on record my fear that the Department is not providing funding for the Job Start scheme and other back-to-work programmes. Without those programmes, fewer people will be helped back into the workplace, and the demand for benefits will therefore remain high. On the mainland, over 120,000 young people have benefited from the Kickstart scheme, and it is completely unfair that young people in Northern Ireland will not receive the same opportunities. That, again, is the result of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister failing to provide the funding. We already have a well-known brain drain problem, with many young people from Northern Ireland moving to other parts of the United Kingdom. I worry that this lack of funding will only exacerbate that problem when everything should be done to prevent it.

It was particularly alarming to hear the Department's assessment of the Budget. Even it acknowledged that it will struggle to maintain the same level of services as provided before, and this is at a time when demand is higher than ever before. Not only that, but the Department admitted that it will struggle to assist the economy in its recovery from COVID-19 and to fulfil its obligations under New Decade, New Approach.

The equality impact assessment of the Budget is very negative. We know that youth unemployment is already at over 11% and will only rise without the benefit of the schemes that I mentioned. I also highlight that people with disabilities will be deeply impacted by the inability to provide that economic intervention, and they are likely to find themselves further from work than prior to the pandemic.

I turn to the impact on those who already receive welfare support. Those in receipt of, for example, the bedroom tax and two-child cap mitigations require certainty. The two-child cap has had a negative impact on almost 4,000 families here. Just under 40,000 households are, through no fault of their own, affected by the bedroom tax. It is due to the lack of available and appropriate social housing, and they should not be punished for that. We are now coming to the end of the financial year, and I appreciate that the Minister has committed to continuing payments beyond the end of March. However, more certainty for people is required, and the sooner that legislation and regulations to do that are brought to this place, the better. I am also aware that regulations are to be brought forward to close loopholes that result in families missing welfare mitigations. I press the Minister to bring those forward as soon as possible.

The review of welfare mitigations that was committed to in New Decade, New Approach will give those who have been impacted more certainty, and it is worrying to see how little that has progressed. That should be an absolute priority for the Minister, and she should engage with the families who have been affected and with relevant groups. I am thinking particularly of the Cliff Edge Coalition, for example. The review needs to take account of those who are most seriously impacted on by the economic changes, including those with disabilities, young people and women. The Minister has also not yet been able to tell the Committee what specific issues will be addressed in the review. That lack of clarity is only adding to the stress that families are facing at this time.

Before I finish, I will touch on a few of my concerns. I have spoken about terminal illness before in the Assembly. I am deeply disappointed that funding has not been found to end the unacceptable six-month criterion for individuals who are seeking access to welfare support.

I am also disappointed that there will be no increase in funding to the Supporting People programme that is run by the Housing Executive. That is the result of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister failing to provide the funding to the Department. That scheme helps almost 20,000 people across this country. It does extremely valuable work in helping them to live independent lives, and it deserves more funding than it will receive. The lack of attention paid to that programme in the Budget will be felt particularly by homelessness services, which have been vital in providing emergency accommodation during the pandemic.

In conclusion, the vaccine roll-out is giving people hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight. However, with that in mind, we must keep in mind the incredibly damaging impact of the ongoing restrictions on many in society. Through no fault of their own, many will be laid off and will need benefits. It is their right that our welfare system is there to support them in a timely manner and assist them to get back to work, which is widely recognised as the most significant factor in alleviating poverty.

The extension of the welfare mitigations has been widely recommended. It has been committed to and must be taken forward. The review is much needed, has been committed to and must be accelerated. It is clear that the Budget will not stretch as far as is required. I therefore call on the Minister to do all that she can to lobby for increased funding to ensure that ongoing support can be provided to the most vulnerable in our society. Not only that, but I press her to take forward the review of welfare mitigations as fast as possible, as the lack of progress is frankly unacceptable.

Mr Carroll: I beg to move the following amendment:

At end insert:

", to overturn the recent withdrawal of funding for advice centres and to reallocate the money to allow for the continuation of vital advice services."

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Carroll will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Carroll: I am glad to have the opportunity today to discuss and shine a spotlight on the state of welfare support. We have been inundated with messages of support from people and organisations from all backgrounds and communities right across the North for our amendment to today's motion, which seeks to restore threatened funding for advice service workers.

It is often said that any society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. The Stormont Government have refused to protect the most vulnerable in society. Instead of championing the needs of the vast majority here from all communities, the present and previous Stormont Governments have put the interests of the Tories, the politically connected and big corporations first. Instead of standing up to the Tories, the Stormont Government have rolled over and sought to justify their pathetic decisions. Is it not the hypocrisy of all hypocrisies that we are discussing a DUP motion criticising a Sinn Féin Minister for Communities with responsibility for the state of our welfare support system?

The motion calls for a "fair and sustainable welfare system" in order to protect:

"households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic".

The DUP's concern today for those trapped in our dysfunctional and punitive welfare system appears to be devout and pious, but the reality is that it was the DUP and Sinn Féin, along with the Alliance Party, that voted to implement destructive Tory welfare reforms that have done so much damage to our communities.

In fact, over the past 20 years, all the Stormont Government parties, nationalist and unionist, have played a crucial role in making our welfare support system more punitive and harder to access. The facts are that the introduction of Tory welfare reform has led to a direct increase in poverty across all our communities. It has led directly to increased child poverty. It has led directly to increased family poverty. That is utterly shameful, and that all happened before the pandemic.

The mitigation measures did not protect the vulnerable and the low-paid enough, otherwise poverty and deprivation levels would have decreased. Instead, the opposite has happened. The growing number of people from the Falls, the Shankill and across Belfast and from the Fountain, the Creggan and across Derry, as well as people from Ballymena, Coleraine, Portadown, Craigavon, Newry — the list goes on — depending on food banks is the evidence of that.

The effects of the pandemic recession have meant that many more people need access to welfare support and food banks. The pandemic has worsened all the deprivation and social inequality trends that the DUP and Sinn Féin will probably tell us that they are concerned about today. It is utter nonsense. The Stormont Government are responsible for the fact that we do not have a fair welfare system. We need to reverse completely the welfare reforms that are causing so much damage to people. Today, it is crucial that the Assembly vote to stop plans for the Communities Minister to slash funding for advice service workers and centres. That is what my amendment seeks to do, and I hope that Members will support it.

It makes no sense for the Executive to withdraw funding for advice service workers at a time when tens of thousands more people need help with their benefits, which are hard to navigate. Our advice centres are already completely overwhelmed. Advice workers are exhausted, and news of the threatened cut has left them further demoralised, and they have told me so in the past day. What message does it send out to the people in all our communities who need help that the Executive are going to slash funding for the workers who will help them access benefits so that they can feed their children and keep the heat on?

The work of organisations such as the Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service (BCTS), which my constituency office uses, Advice North West (ANW), the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP) and many others has been absolutely crucial in protecting and helping people through the pandemic. We need to resource our advice providers fully to make sure that everyone who needs help is able to access it, but we need to go much further. We need to close the bedroom tax loophole, close the benefit cap loophole, end the five-week wait for universal credit and get rid of the two-child tax credit limit.

We need a full review of the present mitigations, and, if we are serious about protecting people during the pandemic, we need to create a properly funded support scheme that gives people the ability to self-isolate and does not force them to choose whether to do so or not. The present discretionary support scheme simply does not work.

Ultimately, we need to radically change the priorities of the Stormont Government and Executive and begin to put people first, as promised in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I look forward to today's debate and ask Members to support my amendment.


11.45 am

Ms Mullan: I welcome the motion on welfare support. Since the introduction of the draconian so-called welfare reform measures by the Tory Government as part of their misguided austerity agenda, Sinn Féin has been firmly opposed to cuts aimed at punishing rather than protecting those in receipt of welfare benefits. The Fresh Start Agreement in 2015 established an unprecedented welfare package of £585 million that Sinn Féin argued and fought hard to have established. I am proud of the role that my party, particularly the late Martin McGuinness, played in achieving that. The measures need to be maintained and built on.

There was a time when the party that now proposes this motion was utterly opposed to any form of mitigation that would set us out as distinct from the cuts agenda being played out in Britain. Nevertheless, we are in a different time, and I very much welcome the cross-party support that now exists for the mitigations. I hope that that support extends to prioritising the funding at the Executive without delay.

In January 2020, we all signed up to 'New Decade, New Approach', and my party ensured that welfare mitigations were included. Unfortunately, we have yet to see the British Government live up to the commitments they made in 'New Decade, New Approach', not only on welfare but on other areas.

Weeks into the re-establishment of the Assembly, we were hit by COVID. The Communities Minister was quick to act to support the most vulnerable, both practically and financially. As an MLA for Foyle, I am grateful for the £1·5 million given to Derry City and Strabane District Council for the COVID community support scheme, alongside the central support of access to food packages and support for fuel and interventions on well-being. I acknowledge the work and support of the community and advice sector in delivering that vital support.

The Communities Minister introduced changes to the social security system to make it easier for those affected by COVID to access financial support during the crisis, in particular enhancing the discretionary support fund to provide a grant payment for short-term living expenses for those affected by COVID and experiencing crisis or financial hardship. She later increased the level of the available award, raised the income threshold and included students.

Mitigations and easing the benefit system, while welcome, cannot eradicate poverty. If we are serious about tackling poverty, we must identify the root causes. I welcome the work of the Minister and her Department, along with the members of the expert panel and the co-design working group who are developing a long-term anti-poverty strategy.

There are clear priorities that must be explored as part of any review, and I commend organisations such as the Human Rights Commission, Cliff Edge Coalition, Advice NI, Marie Curie and so many others who have invested time and effort raising awareness of them and highlighting their impact. Over the last number of weeks, I have met some of those organisations, and they are rightly concerned about further cliff edges, time frames and a lack of budget for extending the welfare mitigation package.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to closing the loopholes in the bedroom tax and the benefit cap mitigations. I am heartened by the support from parties here for the mitigation, and I hope that it will be consistent and evident when it comes before the Executive, when the Budget is being decided.

The Minister has clearly said in the Chamber that she fully supports the independent advice sector and will find the money in the Budget to cover the £1·5 million. For that reason, we will not support Mr Carroll's amendment, which is an attempt to grab a cheap headline. We support the motion and look forward to the proposer of the motion prioritising these issues in the Budget negotiations at the Executive and supporting the Finance Minister.

Mr Durkan: Having a fair and sustainable welfare system here is crucial, now more than ever, as society prepares to address the emerging challenges brought about by the COVID pandemic. Of course, the SDLP made attempts to amend the Welfare Reform Act to remove its most draconian elements, while others in the Chamber voted against those amendments, and we got the Welfare Reform Act in its full, devastating glory.

We welcome the fact that a mitigations package to the tune of £500 million was agreed, and I welcome the fact that it has shielded so many from the worst impacts of welfare reform. However, we cannot pretend that there has been no impact: the disastrous roll-out of universal credit and its intolerable five-week wait, which has led to increased hardship and debt for many families, and the bedroom tax that, we were promised, would never grace our doorsteps yet is squeezing over 225 households. Not only did the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance rubber-stamp the Tory Welfare Reform Act, they left people here vulnerable to further attacks against which the mitigations provided no cover, including the benefit cap and the two-child rule, which have had a devastating impact on many low-income families. For those reasons, I welcome and support the motion and implore the Minister to bring forward not only an extension of the mitigation package but an improvement on it that closes the existing loopholes. I know that that is something that the Minister is seeking to address urgently because Ministers have told us consistently for the past 15 months that they are dealing with this hugely important issue urgently.

In the interim, people have been pushed to another cliff edge while others have fallen off the precipice completely. The review of welfare mitigations must be progressed as a priority, but the need for scrutiny by us and, importantly, by experts from the sector must be afforded in line with the principles of co-design. Sadly, more and more people are falling into the benefits system, and those numbers are set to rise dramatically as the economic impact of COVID becomes clear. It is vital that there is a safety net for those people, yet a safety net is only as good or as useful as the people holding it. The DFC workforce has witnessed a 127% increase in universal credit claims: 1,400 new staff are needed to address that growing demand, yet none has been recruited, putting further pressure on overstretched workers and resulting in increased hardship for those waiting to have their claims processed.

It is crucial that individuals and families facing financial hardship can access the vital support to which they are entitled and that they so desperately need. The independent advice sector plays a hugely important role in helping people to do that, as trained professionals and sympathetic people who go above and beyond to help those in need. The kite flown in the draft Budget for an already under-resourced sector to suffer a £1·5 million cut was grossly misjudged. It was a slap in the face to advice workers, causing them massive anxiety at a time when they are under unprecedented pressure. I support the sentiment of the amendment, although I am not entirely sure of its accuracy, given that I never thought that the inclusion of those cuts in the draft Budget was anything more than a cynical political exercise.

The motion refers to financial support for those suffering financially due to COVID. We had submitted an amendment that noted with concern the very limited financial support provided to those on a low income who have to self-isolate, which is having a detrimental impact on reducing community transmission of COVID-19. My amendment was not accepted, but I reiterate our call for a sufficient self-isolation grant rather than the discretionary support grant hybrid that we have, which does not help people enough and does not help enough people. That is borne out by the shameful fact that, at a time when we have never had more people in need, the Minister handed back an underspend of £2 million that was meant to protect people against poverty and its effects.

We have to make a decision: can we afford a system that protects people from poverty? We cannot afford poverty and the problems that arise as a result of it.

Ms Armstrong: I thank those who tabled today's motion. I will not start to get into party politics over this. The simple fact is that, after today, we have two plenary days before the Easter recess — before the end of March — and people out there are still not clear on what welfare mitigations will look like beyond 1 April.

We have all talked and worked with the Cliff Edge Coalition and academics who have written to us and to the Department and the Minister. We all know exactly what the problem is. COVID has been devastating for so many people who have had to enter the benefit system for the first time. I hope that, as a society, we recognise that being on benefits is not simply sitting at home and scratching yourself; it is about having to fill out forms, having to account for where you are and having to live in poverty. It is extraordinarily difficult.

I recognise the amendment about the advice sector that has been moved. What I say about the advice sector is that those in it are among the heroes who have helped our society throughout COVID. When I came to be a politician, I looked forward to helping people, but I did not realise just how many people would come through my door looking for advice support. I too turn to those partners who have the expertise and work with people daily on the details and complexities of the welfare system and help them to get through that.

Today, as Mr Durkan has mentioned, there is a difficulty with the amendment, but I will support it, because I believe that, when the Minister and the Department come forward with welfare mitigation updates, there will be payment for the advice service. I expect there to be payment for the advice service because of the increasing number of calls and cases that it is working on.

As I said, there are two plenary days left before the Easter recess. I find it difficult and feel guilty that we have not been able to clarify for the general public exactly what is happening with their welfare mitigations. I know that legislation has been taken to the Committee about the social sector size criteria, also known as the "bedroom tax", providing for an extension to that. Cliff Edge Coalition and many others have highlighted the fact that we still do not know about the benefit cap loophole. For those who do not know, the benefit cap affects individuals who were not in receipt of the relevant benefits in 2016, when the welfare reform mitigation package was first introduced. They are unable to access mitigation from the benefit cap. In addition, those whose circumstances have changed have lost access to the benefit cap mitigation.

The number of households capped has risen to over 1,000. A significant reason for the impact is, of course, COVID-19. The end of the nine-month grace period for first-time universal credit claimants at the end of 2020, the ensuing economic crisis and the anticipated end of the furlough scheme are expected to increase that figure. That cap costs families £200 per month. The bedroom tax loophole costs £50 per month. The five-week wait for universal credit, as others have mentioned, causes debt that people did not expect to have at a time when they are in crisis. The universal credit two-child limit just does not make sense for Northern Ireland. It means that, for a third or additional child, a family will lose out on £2,780 per child per year. The local housing allowance cuts in the private rented sector also cause difficulties for low-income households in that sector.

We all know this. The Minister knows this. The Department knows this. We have a society that is living with poverty, not resolving it. It has been five months since this place debated a motion about terminal illness tabled by Mr Easton. We all agreed. There was cross-party agreement in the House that the six-month rule was to be removed and that the Minister was immediately to legislate to remove that rule. That has not happened. I appreciate that DWP has not made a move on that, but this place can.

It is time to be fair to people. It is time to recognise the advice sector heroes. It is time to work together, rather than pull each other apart, to help people to survive COVID and the economic crisis that is coming towards us in the new financial year. As Alliance spokesperson for communities, I joined the Communities Committee from Infrastructure just over a year ago. I have found it to be one of the most challenging Departments. The issues are among the most challenging because they are very personal. It is about people.

I really do not envy the work of the departmental staff or the Minister. It is extremely personal, emotional and difficult, but we need to end that uncertainty for people. I ask the Minister to, please, if she can, let us know what the welfare mitigations will be.


12.00 noon

Mr Newton: I am pleased to support the motion. It has been tabled out of frustration and a strong desire to see the Minister for Communities make progress for all sections of our community, especially the many who are suffering real disadvantage and living in social need. The frustration is also caused by the lack of progress on matters that impact on a daily basis on the lives of families and individuals. The Minister needs to help but is failing those who are unemployed and those who need training and opportunities to get into a job. The Minister needs to help families and individuals who are struggling in our benefits system, as other Members said.

Many millions of pounds have sat with the Minister for 10 years, which is money that should be providing upgraded football stadia plus supporting construction jobs, but when the Minister sends her plan with no budget, targets, objectives or outcomes, it would be irresponsible not to raise those matters in the Chamber. The Minister has many talented, experienced and committed departmental staff. In fact, she has a super team. Therefore, the lack of progress is all the more worrying. Ministers in other Departments have rolled out detailed and measured plans. The Minister for Communities needs to do the same. The Minister needs to show leadership. It is totally unsatisfactory that no progress has been made on the many important matters that are in the Minister's areas of responsibility.

Let me quote from the 'NDNA' document:

"The Executive will extend existing welfare mitigation measures beyond March 2020, when they are currently due to expire."

It continues:

"A review of welfare mitigation measures will be taken forward as a priority, with any agreed measures in place before March 2020."

Now, let me refer to the Minister's progress or, rather, her lack of progress on the review of welfare mitigations. The Minister recently indicated:

"the specific issues that will be considered as part of the review of welfare mitigation measures have not been finalised".

The Minister said that details of the format and planned engagement:

"will be shared with the Committee for Communities at the earliest opportunity".

There has been no contact from the Minister asking for an item to be placed on the Committee's forward work plan. Given the lack of progress, in the interim, the Minister has settled for the use of four instruments only to extend existing measures. Mr Durkan is right that everything is being addressed urgently but urgency never comes.

It is entirely unacceptable that little or no progress has been made towards the review of welfare support mitigations. With that lack of action, the Minister is failing families at a time of deep uncertainty and great societal upheaval. The Minister is treading water. What we need from the Minister is an ambitious timescale for introducing new mitigations. Having previously collapsed the Assembly, leaving claimants bereft of any hope of greater support, it is totally wrong that Sinn Féin should preside over another cliff edge for vulnerable households as the effect of the pandemic on jobs and incomes bites even more severely. With no progress towards a strengthened set of welfare mitigations, the risk of adding further hardship to those who are in desperate need of support and protection is high.

I will conclude with this: the frequently used Sinn Féin phrases, "It's all about Tory austerity", "The allocation from Westminster isn't enough", "We need more money" and "The Government don't give us enough time to spend money" are shallow and counterfeit. In answer to a question from me, the Minister confirmed that her budget had increased in each of the previous three years.

Mr Allen: Since getting involved in politics back in 2015, I have engaged repeatedly with constituents across the spectrum, not just in East Belfast but across Northern Ireland. Often, they understand what is being attempted to be achieved by the streamlining of our social security system. If we look at our legacy system, what do we see? We see that we had income-based income support, income-based employment support allowance and industrial injuries. It was unwieldy. There were so many benefits that it was difficult to navigate through them. On the surface, it made perfect sense to streamline that system by introducing universal credit. However, in reality, we do not have a streamlined system. It is not a system that constituents and everyday people find it easy to navigate. Daily, my team and I support constituents who find it very difficult to navigate the universal credit system. They are unable to work with IT, and it seems that no measures are in place to help them. We are having to engage repeatedly with the universal credit team, who, I might add, are terrific. I pay tribute to them. Repeatedly, they step up to the mark. The problem is not them. It is not their policy, but they are implementing a system that they have to work within.

The argument around the welfare reform mitigations has been well made. It is one that we have heard for many years. We know what mitigations may be working and those that are not. Various groups, including the Cliff Edge Coalition, have presented to the Communities Committee on many occasions. They have highlighted and demonstrated the additional mitigations that they feel are required. However, little to no action has been taken on that. I am frustrated, and I understand why Members tabled the motion. I thank them for doing so, because I see the daily impact of welfare reform on my constituents and on Northern Ireland as a whole. It is not fair to blame it solely on Tory welfare cuts and others. What is the Assembly doing to address it? What are we doing to address fuel poverty? What are we doing to address the long-term effects of the impact on people's lives? I welcome the heating payment, for example, that was brought forward in response to COVID. I did not necessarily agree with the wider policy, but I understood that individuals' heating costs had risen. However, these are short-term solutions to a long-term problem. Perhaps the Minister will set out the long-term plan to address the impact on individuals.

Job Start and labour market interventions receive no allocation. The draft Budget presents a bleak situation for the Minister's Department, and I do not envy her. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and critique, but I will give the Minister my full support and assistance from within the Committee in any way that I can to support the people who need it. Does the Minister have jump leads at the ready to kick-start Job Start? Where is it? I have spoken to many people, and I could throw out catchy sound bites and phrases. That is well and fine, but the reality is that I have spoken to many young people who were preparing to avail themselves of that scheme, and their hopes were dashed when the rug was pulled from under them. Where do we go with that?

Like others, I do not fully understand the rationale for the amendment from the Member across the way. The Minister is on the record as stating that she is firmly committed to the independent advice sector, and I believe that that funding will be found. I pay tribute and give credit to the independent advice sector. My office utilises it. I have sought training, as an MLA, to navigate the unwieldy and difficult social security system. It is not easy. I have a basic understanding and knowledge of how to support and signpost constituents through the social security system, but our independent advice sector has additional layers of expertise and professionalism that are often needed. I support the calls for an urgent review of the welfare reform mitigations, and I call for its recommendations and proposals to be brought to the Committee thereafter.

Minister, I note your legislative timetable. It was indicated to the Communities Committee that you hoped to introduce legislation on the social-sector size criteria by February 2021. That is another target missed. From a question for written answer that I tabled, I recall that your Department indicated that legislation has been shared with the Executive and that responses have been received. Perhaps you can provide a definitive timeline for when the Communities Committee and other colleagues in the Chamber will see that legislation and a timeline for when we will see the regulations that will be introduced to amend the loopholes.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I was loath to interrupt the Member, because I could see the passion with which he was speaking on the issue. I remind all Members, however, that comments should be directed through the Chair. Ministers should not be addressed directly as "Minister" in the House.

Mr Sheehan: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate today. I spoke recently about the campaign that the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford launched to secure free meals for disadvantaged children in England when they were not in school. The English media eulogised and lionised Marcus Rashford as a result of that, and rightly so. He also got a gong in the Queen's honours list, and the Tory Government were embarrassed into a humiliating climbdown on the issue of free school meals. I was wondering why we had never thought of doing something like that, and then I realised that we had. The Finance Minister made funding available for holiday hunger long before Marcus Rashford's campaign. You would not have known it from the media coverage here or from some of the politicians who sit in the Assembly, but the Executive were well ahead of the curve on the issue of holiday hunger.

Another issue that has made a real and meaningful difference to people's lives is that of welfare mitigations. No, we were not able to withstand the full force of the Tory welfare cuts, but we certainly blunted their worst excesses. In fact, the £585 million welfare mitigation package was a remarkable achievement, and one that is the envy of other jurisdictions, particularly Scotland. I am very proud of the role that Sinn Féin played in protecting the most vulnerable in society. I sometimes think that I am living in a parallel universe when I hear some of the comments about and attacks on Sinn Féin in here today, because it was Sinn Féin that stood alone and out in front by refusing to accept the Tory cuts, and it was Sinn Féin that was responsible for the mitigation package of £585 million that was secured.

Standing up for the most vulnerable in society is part of who we are, and Deirdre Hargey emphasised that in the first few weeks of her tenure as Communities Minister, when she said that her role:

"is to stand up for the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, to target resources towards those most in need and to ensure that we do have a rights based approach to the provision of services".

In that context, I welcome the Minister's commitment to carrying out a review of the discretionary support fund, which was set up by the Executive a number of years ago to support people experiencing financial hardships. The pandemic has shown that that scheme is needed more than ever, but it has also shown that it must be refined and streamlined to make it as accessible and effective as possible for people when they need it most. The review is evidence that the Minister is listening to concerns and is committed to making improvements.

The Minister has also acknowledged the importance of the provision of advice support services and is committed to ensuring that those services continue. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of Kellie Armstrong in her assessment of the role that the advice sector has played during the pandemic. We owe it a massive debt of gratitude.

On the broader issue of the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system, the pandemic has highlighted many flaws that currently exist, and there are clear priorities that must be explored as part of any review. I commend the Human Rights Commission, the Cliff Edge Coalition, Advice NI, Marie Curie and many others that have been mentioned by many Members today. Those organisations have invested time and effort in raising awareness of the problems that exist.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to review the issues of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.


12.15 pm

There is much learning to be taken from the many changes that have been brought in as a result of the pandemic, such as telephone assessment and the enhancements to the discretionary support fund, which I have already mentioned. The real priority at the moment should be to extend the reach of the mitigation package in a real and meaningful way. That will require proper resourcing that needs to be agreed by the Executive. I welcome the support here today for the mitigations. I hope that that will be followed up at Executive level. It is just a pity that there was not the same level of consensus when the original mitigation package was being secured.

Mr McNulty: A society will be judged, as others have said, by how it treats its most vulnerable people. The pandemic has pushed people into the benefits system more than ever before. You cannot put a number on the people who have been impacted. The Department for Communities failed in its bid for more staff from the Sinn Féin Finance Minister: why?

The welfare mitigations extension was announced in 'New Decade, New Approach'. Fifteen months on, we are no further on, despite the fact that we are two weeks away from a cliff edge, when the current arrangements are due to end. Legislation to close the bedroom tax loophole has not been passed. That will impact on over 227 households, which will lose, on average, £50 per month. That will lead to significant rent arrears and increase the risk of housing stress and homelessness. The legislation to close the benefit cap loophole has not yet been passed either. All of the impacted families have children, and 77% are lone parents. By October 2020, 1,000 families were impacted. That number is likely to have risen steeply since. All those who began claiming universal credit at the beginning of the pandemic will have come to the end of a nine-month benefit cap grace period in December. We have no figure from the Department in that regard.

The families affected lose an average of £200 per month. In one example, a family with four children has lost £800 per month, which, after housing costs, leaves them with a total income that is 68% below the poverty line. That is all from the party of so-called social justice, the "Blame the Tories" party, the "Blame Tory Austerity" party. The DUP is pointing fingers over the aisle, but you two guys are in it together. You have been the parties leading the Executive for the past 10 years. Universal credit, the children cap and PIP are the legacy of the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance handing welfare reform back to the Tories. You cannot blame the Tories when you give them the power. You cannot blame the Brits when you give them the power. Let us not forget who trooped through the Lobbies in the House to hand welfare powers to the Tories in London. No more blaming the Brits: you gave the Brits the power.

It really beggars belief that you could countenance cutting the advice and support sector at the moment. Those people help families and individuals who are on their knees. How do you possibly countenance taking money away from them? I am so thankful to the advice sector and for community advice. It does work on the ground to help and guide people who would never have countenanced the possibility of being in the benefits sector but find themselves there because of the pandemic. Our Communities Minister is countenancing taking money off that sector at this time. How can that be? The party of social justice? Not likely.

I share the concerns about the advice sector in Mr Carroll's amendment, and I share Mr Durkan's cynicism about the proposal to cut support to the sector in the first place. Would any Minister, backed up by their Finance Minister, propose such a cut to those who need the help most in our society? The worst of the health pandemic has passed, but the economic and jobs impacts will go on long into the future. It will get only worse. I will be even more cynical, but can you imagine a Minister in Dublin proposing such a cut? The Minister and her party colleagues would march on the Dáil lawn. If it was a London Minister, the MP for South Down would be standing outside Westminster twiddling his thumbs, shouting about it and saying, "Do not blame us. Blame the Brits. Blame Tory austerity."

I am appalled that we are now weeks away from a cliff edge and there has been no proposal by the Minister. The Finance Minister is struggling to spend money and saying that he may have to hand money back to London. Here is the case for spending it on the most vulnerable and those who need it most. Support them now. Put food on their table and a roof over their head. What are the obstacles to the implementation of the mitigations? Is the money not there? As I said yesterday, the Finance Minister was handing out money hand over fist. Tell us what the obstacles are so that we can all work together to find solutions to help those who need it most.

Ms Anderson: I must admit to having a wry smile on my face when I saw the DUP motion. Traditionally, the DUP has consistently positioned itself against Sinn Féin on many social and economic issues, including welfare mitigation. I hope that the concern expressed by the DUP is a real change of heart. Whatever triggered it — opinion polls, who knows? — it is welcome. The DUP now realises that poverty affects people across the North and that Sinn Féin's efforts to mitigate the worst impact of Tory austerity were the right thing to do.

During the past year, Minister Hargey has put in place a range of measures to mitigate the adverse social impact of the pandemic. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that welfare support is made available to the households that have been hit hardest. The Minister has already confirmed that she not only intends to continue mitigations but wants to strengthen them by legislating to close loopholes in the bedroom tax and benefit cap provisions so that more people will benefit. It was Sinn Féin that put up a fight for vulnerable people and vulnerable families across the North against fierce opposition by the British Government and, indeed, the DUP, and you know that.

Sinn Féin negotiated and secured £585 million for welfare mitigation of Tory austerity. The British Government were adamant that unmitigated welfare cuts would be imposed without top-up payments and with full-blown sanctions: Sinn Féin refused to let that happen. To date, almost 85,000 people in the North have benefited from the mitigation package that Sinn Féin demanded, including the 47,000 homes protected from the bedroom tax. The Comptroller and Auditor General painted a stark picture of what the alternative would have been without the protections secured by Sinn Féin.

Minister Hargey also wants to end the British Government's scandalous two-child policy and wants the £20 uplift in universal credit to be maintained. Minister Hargey is acutely aware that, in places like Derry, the number of people claiming universal credit has increased by 50% since December 2019 — an increase of over 2,100 people. Other tangible supports made by Minister Hargey include the removal of the seven-day wait for new claims for employment and support allowance; changes to the rules for sickness and maternity pay; and the much needed funeral expenses scheme. Food boxes were delivered to 200,000 homes in need, and 220,000 people recently received an additional £200 fuel support grant.

Poverty has not just materialised from the COVID-19 pandemic; it existed as a result of deep-set regional inequalities and a lack of jobs and opportunities being targeted where they were needed the most, especially in places like Derry. All of that was layered over by a decade of cold, calculated Tory austerity from London that has stifled economic growth and wages. If the DUP is genuinely concerned about poverty mitigation measures, I hope that it will support the Minister's request for further funding. I also hope that, when the anti-poverty strategy comes forward, the DUP will not only support a ring-fenced budget for its delivery but will ensure that its Ministers allocate resources in their Departments towards addressing poverty.

Thankfully, it is a Sinn Féin Minister of the calibre of Deirdre Hargey who is at the helm of the Department for Communities, works every day to protect the most vulnerable in our society and is determined to deliver the welfare mitigation review, as stated in 'New Decade, New Approach'. Sinn Féin Minister Deirdre Hargey will go down in history as a Minister who has played a vital role in tackling poverty and working to create a fair and just society. The Sinn Féin Members in the Assembly and thousands more in society are very proud of Minister Deirdre Hargey.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have time for one more contribution. I am mindful of the fact that, thus far in the debate, nine Members have spoken who represent parties of government and one has spoken who is not part of the Government. Therefore, I will use my discretion and call Miss Rachel Woods.

Miss Woods: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I fully appreciate that.

COVID-19 has plunged so many into hardship here, and the reality of the pandemic's impact is that it has fallen disproportionately on the most vulnerable individuals along racial, ethnic, occupational, gender and socio-economic lines. Inequalities in people's protections show the urgency of the changes needed to protect people and put them at the forefront of our population's health and well-being in future.

The most recent social policy update from Community Advice Ards and North Down, which gives incredible help to people in my constituency, found that the most significant concerns raised during quarter 3 in 2020 were employers having to contribute more to the coronavirus job retention scheme in late October; ongoing difficulties with the five-week wait; welfare payments being insufficient to live on, often requiring charitable support; and the difficulty in accessing discretionary support.

The £20 uplift in universal credit at the start of the pandemic was a clear recognition that the basic payments were not enough, and to go back to what it was is unthinkable. Research by the Trussell Trust shows that the uplift has provided vital breathing space to hard-pressed budgets, with seven in 10 people on universal credit since early 2020 saying that the increase has made it easier to afford essentials. That anyone would even countenance taking the uplift away from the poorest and most vulnerable in our society is shocking. We know that there is no going back to the way that things were before the pandemic.

Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?

Miss Woods: I will not, sorry. I have no time.

We politicians talk about building back better, so I ask the Minister and those who tabled the motion this: should any attempts be made to scrap the UC uplift in Westminster, what will she and they do to ensure that claimants here are protected and keep the rate that they are on?

The question for the Executive as a whole is whether they will dig deep and organise their budgets to effectively safeguard our most vulnerable people from the cruelty of imposed austerity. We urgently need better self-isolation support for those affected by COVID, as current discretionary payments are too difficult to access, are costly to administer and often cover only short-term expenses. That is not just because of the pandemic. In 2019-2020, the Trussell Trust food banks alone gave out over 45,000 three-day emergency food parcels in Northern Ireland. One in five children here were already in absolute poverty, and 42% of people in Northern Ireland were already in fuel poverty. Navigating the complex web of social security was already a challenge, especially for vulnerable persons or those with complex needs. To those of us who listened to the young people who made a presentation to the Executive Office Committee on 17 February, it was no surprise that, of those who were surveyed by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, 74% did not have faith and confidence in leadership from government. The most shocking statistic in the survey was that one in 10 young people who were asked about the problems that were facing them at the moment selected food, feeling unsafe at home, housing rights and homelessness.

Legislation must be introduced and passed in order to extend the welfare reform mitigations. The Minister has committed to closing the loopholes in bedroom tax and benefit cap mitigations, but that has yet to be delivered. The five-week wait for universal credit must be amended. The disgusting and shameful two-child cap needs to go, as must the six-month rule for terminal illness.


12.30 pm

We know that there is a link between independent advice and welfare mitigations, especially with universal credit managed migration to come down the line, which will have a huge impact on many people. That will stop people's core benefits and then move them onto universal credit, so there is scope for things to go badly wrong, especially for vulnerable people who are on income-based employment and support allowance. We must protect funding for our independent advice sector. Appeals should not be rushed through as we reopen from the pandemic, as representation is so important for people and for their appeal result.

As the Executive chart a course for recovery and look to longer-term economic planning, will they prioritise health and well-being, or will they continue on an obsessive quest for growth and GDP that will only exacerbate and entrench inequalities? We must rethink what we value as a society and an economy in the light of what the pandemic has laid bare. We need a radical overhaul of how we do business that will reduce inequalities in wealth and income on the basis of a just transition where no one is left behind. We must build an economy where markets are designed and public money is used to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them. It is not rocket science; it is strategic investment in public services and green jobs. It is a just transition that will address poverty, redirect wealth into the local economy and improve health and well-being. It is needed now more than ever.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Minister for Communities, Ms Deirdre Hargey, to respond to the debate, and she will have 15 minutes. However, I am mindful of the fact that the Business Committee is due to meet at 1.00 pm, so, if we want this item of business dispatched before that, it may be useful if Members did not use up their full time allocation, otherwise the Division may have to wait until 2.45 pm, after Question Time.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank all the contributors to this important debate and welcome the opportunity to speak.

A couple of people made the claim about there being a cliff edge at the end of this month. I assure people listening that the money for the existing mitigations will continue to flow beyond the end of this month. As with last year, there will be no cliff edge and no stopping of those payments. They will continue to be made. It is important that I say that from the outset.

In the response to the COVID pandemic, my Department's work and health group delivers benefits and employment services to around 350,000 people in the North, including the Department's financial support service. The very nature of those services means that we support the most vulnerable citizens across the North. That is particularly important as we continue to experience some of the worst social and economic downturns in recent years, which have been caused not only by the COVID pandemic but by the financial crash that happened over 10 years ago.

When I came into this role over a year ago, the pandemic had not begun. One of the first visits that I made was to the Human Rights Commission and Eileen Evason, who had taken forward the first set of mitigations. That was about an urgent review of new mitigations that we could bring forward, as committed to in 'New Decade, New Approach'. At that point and in that political agreement, nobody could have foreseen that we would be impacted by the biggest global health pandemic that we have seen in our lifetime. People need to recognise that.

Since March 2020, my Department has responded swiftly and effectively to support individuals, communities and sectors that have been affected. That has involved revising complex legislation and making easements to benefit application processes; redirecting resources on delivery of essential services; and introducing new ways of working, all at a pace that would ensure that benefits were paid and money was delivered to people who needed it. As Members will remember, that was in a context when staff felt uncomfortable, the message was "Stay at Home" and there was a lockdown. The number of staff in the Department reduced to under 30% of those who could go into work. We did not have the technology at the outset of the pandemic, because nobody could have foreseen it. A lot of work had to go into place. Everybody in the Chamber recognised the challenges that our staff faced at that time. They really stepped up to the plate to ensure that payments flowed.

I put in place measures to mitigate the social, economic and well-being effects of the pandemic on our communities, helping to protect the most vulnerable and safeguarding the organisations that they depend on. That included setting up a dedicated COVID-19 community helpline. That was working with Advice NI, which is, I recognise, a commendable group, as are the community providers of advice support. The helpline was to ensure access to food and medicines; establish measures to protect the homeless and protect tenants; and establish access to advice for those facing financial hardship. Given the acute financial pressures that many households were experiencing as a result of the pandemic, I focused on measures that could be implemented quickly and introduced packages of additional funding assistance to support people through this difficult time. The changes included removing the seven-day wait for new claims for employment and support allowance; making changes to the rules under statutory sick pay and maternity pay; the funeral expenses schemes; and other measures to ensure that the social security system is more flexible so that it can relieve hardship and ensure that the people most in need get the help and support that they require.

A total of 57,890 people were claiming universal credit in March last year. As of November past, 118,510 households were claiming universal credit. In response to that unprecedented demand, the universal credit standard allowance increased by £20 per week, resulting in an additional £86·67 a month. At a time of increased financial hardship and uncertainty, it was acknowledged that many will need to rely on universal credit. While I welcome the extension of the standard allowance uplift, people need to know that they can continue to rely on it beyond the next six-month extension. Carál Ní Chuilín, when standing in as Communities Minister, worked with other devolved Administrations. They met Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and pressed her to make that uplift permanent.

In March 2020, I introduced a discretionary support self-isolation grant, rather than a loan, to help with short-term living expenses where a claimant or a member of their immediate family was diagnosed with COVID-19 or advised to self-isolate. There are no restrictions on the number of COVID-related grants that a claimant can receive. Since its introduction in March last year, my Department has processed over 21,000 applications, with over 78% of cases resulting in awards and over £2·3 million being paid out.

As the pandemic continued and in recognition of the additional support that people needed in the winter months, I introduced a COVID heating payment at a cost of £40 million. As was said, that impacted on 200,000 households across the North. I also allocated £3 million in funding to bolster existing programmes and new interventions aimed at supporting people over the winter. To date, 40,000 people have engaged with the Warm, Well and Connected programme, with more than 4,000 helped directly through the warm element and £330,000 made available for direct fuel support.

I continue to push for support for people in our communities. Last week, I met Justin Tomlinson MP, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, to request that consideration be given to increasing the rate of statutory sick pay and that business and advocacy groups in the North be given the opportunity to input into the reform of statutory sick pay. I also requested that urgent consideration be given to restoring local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile to ensure that individuals and families continue to be supported during this time.

Members spoke about labour market interventions. I recognise that, as we move to the recovery stage of the pandemic, such interventions will be an essential part of that social return. All our interventions — Job Start, the work experience programme, expansion of the discretionary support advice service and the work-ready employability service — are aimed at helping people who have lost their job to find employment. However, the launch of schemes was paused pending the outcome of the Budget allocation. I have given a commitment that I will continue to fight to protect the interests of those affected by the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, my Department has continued to deliver the welfare mitigation scheme. The payments provide support for those who lose benefit as a result of changes to the social security system. It is a unique package of financial support, and I am determined not only to have the current mitigations extended but to look at where we can strengthen and provide other mitigations. In the four years of welfare mitigation schemes up to March 2020, my Department has paid out £168·4 million to almost 85,000 households. That includes £68 million that was paid to over 47,000 households that were affected by the bedroom tax. The importance of the mitigation schemes is recognised across the House. I am pleased that the initial Budget allocation for my Department in the next year includes £42·8 million to allow those schemes to continue, and they will continue.

I want to be clear that my Department will continue to deliver existing mitigations. I recognise, however, that we can do more. That is why I will soon introduce legislation to strengthen the mitigation schemes for people affected by the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. The measures will ensure that the increasing number of people who are denied mitigation payments under the current legislation will be protected and the loopholes closed.

I am aware that there is considerable interest in the review of mitigation measures. I assure the House that I am committed to progressing the matter. I trust, however, that Members will understand that responding to the pandemic has been exceptionally challenging and has impacted on the ability to move on some issues as quickly as I would have liked. I can confirm that proposals for a planned mitigations review are being finalised, and I will make an announcement on that soon. I can also provide an assurance that my Department will adopt a co-production, co-design approach to the welfare mitigation measures; in practice, that means that stakeholders will be central to the completion of that review. I firmly believe, however, that my Department's priority at the moment is to secure approval for the legislation that is required to extend the mitigation schemes and to close the existing loopholes.

I agree with the Members who said that the amendment about advice service funding was unnecessary. It is also inaccurate. There is no funding cut, and there will be no funding cut to the advice services, as I have stated in the Chamber on numerous occasions. I stated it last week. I told Members, including the Member who tabled the amendment, that they can come and speak to me at any time, yet I have had never had such a request. Members have never asked to meet me on the issue. I have stated previously that I consider the provision of advice support services as being crucial to helping those who are most impacted on. They are vital. I will ensure that those critical services continue next year as an essential element of my Department's budget.

The Executive's draft Budget was out for consultation until the end of February, as was my Department's equality impact assessment (EQIA). I put out a full EQIA. It was important that I did that, to ensure that, going forward, decisions that I make reflect the groups that could be impacted on by the Budget. I make no apologies for doing that. All responses to that will be taken into account when I finalise my budget.

I will try to respond quickly to some of the issues that have been raised. I covered the issue of staffing numbers. There is a concern there. The number of people who are on universal credit has more than doubled. That was unaccounted for, but I am confident that that funding will be secured in the time ahead, enabling us to start the recruitment of the staff whom we need in the Department to step up service delivery for social security.

The advice sector was mentioned. There will be no cut to advice sector funding. I have said that publicly numerous times in the Chamber and on social media. I have also communicated that point more widely.

The Job Start scheme was not included in the initial calculations for the Budget, but it is a priority for me. I am confident that, in looking at the social and economic recovery from the pandemic, it will be a priority area for the Executive, and there should be an announcement on it soon. We will be ready pretty quickly, because a lot of the work on Job Start has been done. We will be ready, and, as soon as the Budget is agreed, I am hopeful that we can start on the scheme right away.

The Executive support and have given approval for changing the rules on terminal illness. The delay is just as a result of having to bottom out the figures with the Department for Work and Pensions. That work is ongoing. As soon as we get approval, I will move to make the proposal to change the rules on terminal illness. I also addressed the issue with Justin Tomlinson when I met him last week. I said to him that we will push on even if their review is not completed.

Of course, I stressed that they should change the rules around that as well.


12.45 pm

The mitigation impact on women is an important area, and closing the benefit-cap-mitigation loophole and reviewing the feasibility of the two-child policy are two critical areas that will impact on women in the time ahead.

Some Members talked about the Finance Minister and the Budgets. I hope that, when they look at their own Ministers and their own Departments, they will see that they face cuts and impacts as well. Will they be saying that that is down the Minister? The reality is that we get a block grant from Westminster. That block grant was a flat Budget, which means a cut. The cut was not made by the Finance Minister. All the parties, particularly those in the Executive, will know that because all the parties around that Executive table and all their ministerial portfolios have been impacted by the block grant that we have been given by Westminster. That is the reality. We also do not do multi-year funding, and that is another critical area that we need to change. Again, the need to make those changes rests with Westminster.

Some Members talked about addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. However, for me, you cannot do that without talking about the impact of partition, the impact of how our Budgets are set and the impact of the fact that we do not have our own financial levers and full fiscal powers. We cannot run the way democracies in other countries do, because we have one, and often two, arms tied behind our back. Westminster is making these decisions, and the parties in power in Westminster are not representative of or, indeed, elected by the people here in the North. If you are serious about addressing those issues fundamentally, you have to look at partition and how our Budgets are impacted. Brexit has shown that. All the parties that are based in Westminster, even the parties opposite, will have seen the impact of that and how the Tories have behaved during Brexit, yet, for some reason, you do not want to deal with the underlying issues.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, Minister, but your time is up. That is a good point to stop. You made your point, and it is definitely on the record. I call Mr Gerry Carroll to make a winding-up speech on his amendment.

Mr Carroll: Do I have five minutes, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, yes?

Mr Carroll: Thank you.

Thanks, Members. I will try to respond to as many of the comments as possible, but I will miss some, so apologies for that. The Minister described the amendment as "inaccurate". I ask her how? I will quote from the Department's equality impact assessment. Paragraph 6.19, in reference to the Budget allocation, states:

"This equates to a £1.5m reduction in funding to the advice sector which provides help and support to some of the most vulnerable in our society".

The Advice NI response to the equality impact consultation states:

"This consultation response wishes to express in the strongest possible terms opposition to the proposed Department for Communities budget allocation which includes no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change."

It goes on to reference the £1·5 million reduction. Do not take my word for it, Members; take the words of the Department and Advice NI.

The Minister made a point about partition, and I agree with her on that, but we cannot adopt a position that eradicating poverty must wait. One hundred years ago, some people adopted the position that labour must wait, and we cannot, in the centenary of partition, adopt a strategy that is solely about partition. Partition is problematic and should be opposed, but Stormont's role in enabling and increasing poverty has to be addressed and is seemingly the elephant in the room for the Minister and her party.

Karen Mullan said that her party will not support the amendment and that the Minister has already committed to the funding. She did that last Monday, I believe, but I ask the Member to forgive me and many others for not simply believing the Minister — there is nothing personal in that — or any Minister just because they say something. We were told that the North was next to get abortion rights two years ago, then we saw opposition to abortion in the House from that very party. I ask the Member from Foyle to tell advice workers who are contacting me and, I am sure, many others in the Chamber with concerns about their jobs and their futures to leave it to the Minister and that she will sort it. I was told to have a healthy scepticism about whatever a Minister says, and I will maintain that today. At the end of the day, if the Minister is going to bring forward funding, she will have no problem backing the amendment. It will be shocking if Sinn Féin Members do not back me and oppose the amendment, which calls for support for advice centres and workers. Shameful indeed. Many other Members supported the amendment: Mr Durkan, Ms Armstrong — I think, Mr Allen — Miss Woods and, possibly, Mr Easton and his party.

Andy Allen referred to the difficulties that his constituents face in navigating the system, such as computer access and other general problems. Unfortunately, my constituents have faced those problems as well. Members thanked advice workers, and, indeed, they should be thanked. However, it reminds me of the approach that some quarters took to NHS workers: thank them and clap for them, but when it comes to paying them it is, "Sorry, we do not have that" or "Sorry, that will come at a later stage".

Pat Sheehan mentioned Marcus Rashford and said that his party was able to blunt some of the worst impacts of welfare reform. I dispute that, as the most vulnerable in our constituency of West Belfast and beyond have been directly impacted on by the welfare reform that he and his party supported.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Carroll: I will give way.

Mr Sheehan: I agree with the Member. We represent the same constituents, many of whom have been affected by Tory austerity. However, will the Member not agree that the £585 million went some way towards blunting the worst excesses of Tory austerity and cuts to welfare? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not going to tell someone on benefits not to take extra money. The point is that vulnerable people are already being impacted on by welfare reform, and the mitigation package does not go far enough.

During the debate, we heard discussion from the DUP about supporting low-paid workers. Those are crocodile tears from a party that strongly supported the Tory Government and went into hyperdrive when it came to implementing welfare reform. Sinn Féin asked us to trust it to stop Tory welfare reform and then rolled over and implemented it as well. We simply cannot trust Sinn Féin or take its word on welfare reform issues.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that the Member's time is up.

Mr Carroll: I ask Members to support the amendment.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Bradley to make a make a winding-up speech on the motion.

Ms P Bradley: I will be finished before the 2.00 pm cut-off. I thank everyone who took part in the debate today. Sorry, it is a 1.00 pm cut-off.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: If the Member is going to talk until 2 pm, we are in trouble. [Laughter.]

Ms P Bradley: I thank everyone who took part in the debate. Fortunately, Mr Carroll has summarised what a lot of people said, and that saves me having to go into that detail.

Before I make a winding-up speech, I want to clear up some of the comments made in the Chamber today. I have been called "pious." Why I, as an elected representative, should have anything to say on welfare reform has also been called into question. After all, it is, apparently, all my fault that we have welfare reform. I will put on the record that I am an MLA who represents a constituency where there are people who live in great pain and deprivation. I deal with their pain every day. I deal with their queries effectively every day, and I stand by them. I am also one of the only Members in the Chamber who sat on the Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements, Welfare Reform Bill when the Bill came to the Committee for Social Development in 2012.

I remember welfare reform landing on our desks, and I felt total despair when I saw what the cuts would be. Some in the Chamber think that we could have ripped welfare reform up, thrown it out and said, "We will do our own thing". I do not know where they think that the money would have come from to do our own thing: we had what we had. Yes, negotiations took place and mitigations did happen. I can say, hand on heart, that I was one of the members of that Committee who banged on at a rate about the Welfare Reform Bill and the mitigations that should be in place. I am one of the members who constantly lobbied my Minister to bring about changes to welfare reform. I am more than able to stand here today and support the many people who are just about living on benefits. Rachel made the point about the £20 uplift. I can tell you, through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, that I will lobby my party to support that when it ends in Westminster.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. When she is doing that, will she also ask her colleagues in Westminster and the Executive to ask for an extension of that uplift to those who are on legacy benefits and have not yet migrated to universal credit?

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, I will. I will certainly make that point.

I want to make one more point about the venom and hatred that Justin McNulty showed when he talked about "the Brits". A vast number of people who live in Northern Ireland see themselves as British. I am sad that he cannot come back to me as he is not in the Chamber, but I would not like to think that the hatred and venom that he showed in the debate when he talked about "the Brits" related to the many British citizens who live in Northern Ireland. I want to put that on the record. I know that Mark is over there shaking his head. [Inaudible.]

Ms P Bradley: I will go on. I am not here to hit on the Minister; I am absolutely not. I think that several Members said that. I know the work that has been done by you, through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and the Department when it comes to the COVID pandemic. I know the amount of money that rolled out that door, whether it was for food, heat or discretionary support; all those things. Well done in getting that out there. I do not underestimate the job that went on. Various Members from the Minister's party listed some of the many things that were done. Absolutely. Pat Sheehan mentioned free school meals and holiday hunger. We, on this side of the House, certainly praised that, because our Minister — the Education Minister, Minister Weir — was part of the joint decision that was made for that to be rolled out.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way?

Ms P Bradley: Absolutely.

Mr Sheehan: I accept your point. I said that the Executive did not get any credit for that particular measure. Thanks.

Ms P Bradley: OK. Thank you for that point. You are right: they did not get that credit. As you said, in other parts of the UK, Marcus Rashford was hailed for the wonderful thing that he did.

It is not about the past year, the work that has been done or calling the Minister to account for what she has not done, but Andy and other Members mentioned the sheer frustration out there when it comes to welfare reform mitigations. As was said, we know from New Decade, New Approach that a review was due to start in March 2020, but we have yet to see that review. We have yet to see that co-design and the working along with the very many partners who are involved in welfare reform.

I want to mention one of those partners. Very early last year, many Members met members of the UC: Us campaign group, which is made up predominantly of women. They told us about the effects that welfare reform was having on their lives and about the five-week wait and the advanced payment; all those issues. I know that you, through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, as the Minister, have tried to address those issues, but not enough has been done. That was quite evident from the information that we received about the Budget and the amount from the contingency fund that was handed back because it was not used. Better things need to be done and more work needs to be done to ensure that people get what they need when they need it.

Minister, you mentioned the money for the advice centres. I will speak about that and Mr Carroll's amendment. You said that there has not been a cut in advice sector funding. When we look at the Budget, we know that there has not been a cut, but we also know that the £1·5 million for advice centre funding has not been included in the mitigation measures. I would have been much happier if Mr Carroll had tabled an amendment that was a little stronger. What we heard in the Committee from various stakeholders was that the extra money for the advice sector could not come from the existing Communities budget, because that would take money from other voluntary and community services. That is the last thing that we want. What I want to see is the Minister continuing to lobby her colleague the Finance Minister to get the additional money for the advice sector from the Department of Finance. Mr Carroll could have strengthened his amendment by including something along those lines.


1.00 pm

I know that I am being looked at and that my time is nearly up, but I thank everybody who took part in the debate. It has been a constructive debate, albeit there was a lot of mud-slinging. I think that it was Kellie who said that we should work together, not pull apart, on welfare reform, because every one of our constituents is facing the same thing. Every one of our constituents is coming to our offices with the same issues, and it is up to us, as an Assembly, not to wait on the Westminster Government. It is up to us, as an Assembly, to bring about change. Part of that change needs to start right away with the review of welfare mitigations. Maybe there are things that we need to increase and that we need to add, but we do not know because the review has not taken place yet.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: During your remarks, Ms Bradley, you raised an issue about the conduct of the business in the House. My interpretation of those comments is that they represented a satirization of another party's position rather than an attempt to offend any group in the Assembly. In defence of Mr McNulty, I do not believe that it was his intent to cause hurt or offence to anyone. Of course, the opportunity will come for him to speak if he so wishes, but that is my interpretation of his remarks. When I am here, I have to speak in defence of all Members and their rights and privileges, and I certainly will.

As there is not likely to be agreement on the Question, and, as the Business Committee is due to meet at 1.00 pm, I propose to suspend the sitting. I will then put the Question after Question Time, and, if necessary, there will be a Division then.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.01 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Health

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I thank the Member for his question. I acknowledge the dedication of all independent care home providers and staff who continue to work tirelessly to provide care to residents under the challenging circumstances that have been presented by the pandemic. Unfortunately, there remain a number of families who have not as yet been able to successfully set up care partner arrangements for their loved ones. The Department and Public Health Agency (PHA) are supporting care homes to implement the full visiting and care partner arrangements. The most recent figures indicate that almost 80% of care homes are facilitating indoor visiting when they can and when it can be done safely. Just over half of all care homes report that they have care partner arrangements in place where it is appropriate for a resident.

Trusts are working with individual care homes to provide the support that they might require to move forward with the facilitation of safely managed and meaningful visiting arrangements and the implementation of the care partner concept. As well as trusts, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and PHA are working with those homes that are finding implementation more challenging and are identifying and sharing good practice. The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) will assess the approach being used, including when undertaking inspections of care homes, and compliance with the visiting policy and practice will be a material consideration in the inspection and regulation of each care home. Funding has been made available to help homes to implement the approach set out in the regional guidance. For the period up to 4 March, 373 nursing and residential care homes have been paid £6·52 million in funding for staff support in respect of care partners and visiting.

Mr Speaker: I call Patsy McGlone for a supplementary question.

Mr McGlone: Thank you, but the Minister has covered both of the questions that I was going to ask. Well done. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: Maith thú, a Aire. Question number 3 has been withdrawn. I call Colm Gildernew.

Mr Gildernew: Minister, I am concerned that you have identified that just over half of the homes have put in place the care partner scheme. Do you understand the comments from the Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch, when he said that he is not convinced that the Department understands the full extent and impact of the lack of visiting access at present?

Mr Swann: I have had conversations with the Commissioner for Older People in regards to that and he did not use that language with me. In fact, he understands the support that we have been giving to care homes and to the families who want to make visits, especially when we are seeing challenges in specific care homes. I have asked the Commissioner for Older People and he has put out a call that he shares any concerns that he has with specific care homes or care home providers as a whole, so that we can engage fully. The Health and Social Care Board can provide support and guidance, the Public Health Agency can supply additional support and guidance, and the RQIA can also be involved, so that we can get as many care partnership arrangements set up and in place as possible. For those who enter into the formal care partnership arrangement, we have early availability of vaccines through the carer section and access to testing.

Mr Chambers: Minister, thank you for bringing forward the care partner scheme. It is an extremely emotive issue. All parties involved want what is best for care home residents, as you do, Minister. Can the Minister tell the House of some possible reasons why some residents have not been able to set up care partner arrangements with their families?

Mr Swann: There is an ongoing challenge with some care homes getting the necessary support. Some do not fully understand their responsibility to ensure that there is safe and effective visiting, which is possible now that we are under the surge level 4 conditions. We fully intend to support those care home providers but also, where needs be, to give them that bit of extra encouragement, shall we say, should they fail to do that. We value and recognise the importance of a visit from a loved one to a resident of a care home and the benefit that it brings.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Given where we are in the pandemic, the huge success of the vaccination roll-out to date and the corresponding data on serious illness among our older population, is it time to look at moving on from care partners? Although the scheme has worked very well for some, it has been very much underutilised. Given the issues that have arisen for care homes in particular, will the Minister also consider what help can be provided to the care sector on the issue of indemnity and the provision of COVID insurance?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her questions. On her point about additional insurance costs, my Department has made additional funding available to care homes so that they can pick up other costs associated with COVID while we still provide, if necessary, a free supply of PPE. Where there are challenges, we have also provided trust staff to support homes.

When we first identified and utilised the care partnership process, it was taken up by other jurisdictions as a way of opening up care homes so that loved ones could visit. It is still a vital tool while we, as a region, remain at level 4. On 1 March, we moved from level 5 to level 4. That is the scale that we, and all other jurisdictions, use to indicate the visiting that we can facilitate in care homes and hospitals. We follow those set criteria. Care partners are still a vital tool in facilitating visiting. However, family members need to be supported so that they understand that there are additional supports for them, as I have said, such as early access to the vaccine and regular testing. That will give assurance not just to the family members but to the care homes and to the loved ones whom they visit.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As Minister of Health, I understand fully the importance of day centres in the provision of services to meet the wide and varied needs of people with a physical or sensory disability. The strategic location of day centres for adults with physical or sensory disabilities across Northern Ireland is a matter for the health and social care trusts to determine in partnership with the Health and Social Care Board as the commissioner of the services.

There are no plans to augment the existing service provision with an additional centre located in the West Tyrone area, and neither my officials nor their Western Trust colleagues are aware of any specific demand from the local community or individuals for such an additional facility to be provided. There are two day centres for adults with a physical or sensory disability in the Western Health and Social Care Trust area: Glen Oaks in Londonderry and Drumcoo in Enniskillen. In addition, service users can avail themselves of the day care provided by the independent sector across the region.

The trust’s adult physical disability service has contracts with a number of independent sector providers in West Tyrone, including Strabane and District Caring Services, Leonard Cheshire and the Cedar Foundation. Although those services are working at capacity, there is no existing waiting list in West Tyrone for access to the day centres. Across the sector, we are increasingly seeing that the demand from younger people with disabilities is for day opportunities through self-directed support. That is based on assessed need and means that individuals can make use of a direct payment in lieu of traditional day care. That model of care allows for bespoke arrangements to be put in place to meet individual needs and enables people to avail themselves of the activities at weekends and in the evenings.

Mr McHugh: Thank you for your answer, Minister. You know that I have requested that you look at the provision in Middletown in Armagh and in Carryduff of sensory care-type facilities for young people and adults who have those types of difficulties and problems. I am amazed to learn that the point has not been made to the trust in my area. I have had parents in tears. They find it so difficult to cope with those who are suffering and would very much like to avail themselves of that type of provision. Minister, I therefore ask you to consider locating such a service in the Strabane area to service that part of West Tyrone, as it would Fermanagh.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. If I recall correctly, he has written to me about autism provision and services. I know that he has raised the issue before. As he acknowledged, I said in my initial answer that we have received no requests either at the Department of Health or through the Western Trust. If the Member wants to make direct contact with the Western Trust and raise his issues, I am sure that the trust will look into them. We can then progress them, should there be a need to facilitate access to those services. As I said earlier, I encourage the Member to direct those young people to where I mentioned earlier. If necessary, we can provide additional information on how they can look for day opportunities through self-directed support so that they can find a more tailored, personal approach to the support that they need. If the Member wants to engage with the Western Trust, we will follow up on that.

Mrs Barton: Those day centres have proven to be excellent for treating Alzheimer's, dementia and many other of society's afflictions. Will the Minister commit to bringing up the issue of creating physical and sensory disability day centres across Northern Ireland with the Finance Minister, who controls the funds that would allow that to happen?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. She indicates the pressures that we are under. We get many requests to increase facilities or provision of support to individuals, but that is dependent on the financial support that I get from the Finance Minister. As to what we can and should do, as we are well aware, there has been under-provision over the past number of years, especially of mental health services. It is something that we want to do. As the Member will be aware, the primary challenge for provision of day care or day opportunities in the Western Trust area is often transport, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, the Western Trust has a number of individual service users who have complex needs and thus require skilled staff to accompany them in order to meet their nursing needs and administer medication. All those additional ancillary costs and challenges have to be funded as well. I am always looking to improve on the support that we provide to those who need it most.

Mr Durkan: The Minister has spoken of the challenges facing his Department, and we do not doubt those. We cannot, however, underestimate the challenges facing people out there who are living with disability, particularly autism. Does the Minister envisage an expansion of physical and sensory disability services being part of the fully developed autism strategy later this year?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I am glad that he acknowledges the autism strategy that we launched just last week. It is important that that be fed into as much as possible. On the delivery of future services, it is important that the Western Trust engage in order to scope out demand for any additional facilities that it needs in its locality, be they day care or day opportunity facilities. I know that that work has started and is supported. It was commenced through personal and public involvement (PPI) events that were held in Strabane. Service user engagement and informal care engagement events on how we take forward the strategy will commence soon.


2.15 pm

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. As he knows, COVID-19 has reinforced the need to rebuild our health and social care system in new and better ways. Firm foundations for change have already been laid, with such key initiatives as multidisciplinary teams in primary care and new day-case elective care centres put in place; the roll out of upskilling of the social care workforce; the putting in place of a new rapid response mental health hospital liaison service; and a commitment to put in place 900 additional nursing and midwifery training places by 2022. As we emerge from the latest COVID-19 surge, I am determined to rebuild as quickly as possible. That will include the stepping up of elective care services and the reshaping of existing services. That will be informed by the work that we have progressed to date and the learning that we have gained as a result of the pandemic.

A key priority for rebuild is the need to return critical care to its usual position to facilitate an increase in elective care. I have agreed that the de-escalation of the ICU and the rebuild of elective care will follow a number of key principles. They will underpin the trust's rebuild pans for April to June 2021. The principles include the de-escalation of the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital.

Another critical step in rebuilding the system is the introduction of the Health and Social Care Bill, which passed its Second Stage this morning. That Bill will facilitate the closure of the Health and Social Care Board and transfer responsibility for strategic decision-making back to my Department. It will streamline our structures, reduce bureaucracy and enable our resources to be better coordinated. As ever, our ability to rebuild will be heavily predicated on the resources being available to do all that we need to do. A multi-year Budget is critical to the planning to achieve sustainable, long-term change within our health service.

Mr M Bradley: The Minister has, in part, answered my supplementary question. As we come out of the current restrictions, does he envisage the decentralisation of acute services, particularly in elective surgery, to other hospitals across Northern Ireland, especially as we are facing a massive backlog in such services as cancer treatment and other deferred acute and surgical procedures?

Mr Swann: The Member will be aware of the approach that I have taken recently with regard to looking at our service as a regionalised, rather than a centralised, process so that we can best utilise the facilities that we have around Northern Ireland and ensure that we can get best use of our staff, our operating theatres and our footprint. It is about looking at where we can establish green pathways for care in the locations where we are seeing a small number of COVID patients being supported so that we can critically upscale the rest of those service provisions. The Member will be aware of the elective care unit that we have established in Lagan Valley Hospital and the sites across Northern Ireland that we are trying to utilise on a regional basis rather than within the trust setting.

Mr Allister: Whatever the ultimate reshape of the health service, there is going to be a critical need for adequate surgical departments. I draw the Minister's attention to the unsatisfactory situation at Antrim Area Hospital, where, because of underinvestment, the surgical department was unable to provide a safe green pathway for cancer patients during the recent pandemic. What is his response to the Northern Trust's request for a new theatre, a new critical care block and a new ward block? It is clear that Antrim hospital cannot continue to serve patients' needs without those.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. It is an issue that he has raised in relation to a patient or constituent who had approached him, and who, because of our regional approach, was able to get an operation elsewhere, but not in Antrim. A surgeon who is based in Antrim raised concerns with the Member. He is right: long-term underfunding of that hospital did not allow it to be in the shape that it needed to be in. We saw that in the Northern Trust region, particularly when a large number of COVID patients came forward and we had to move our intensive care ward out on to one of the main wards so that we could support the high number of COVID patients who required ICU support.

It will take time for us to come back down from that provision, but it is also that important time when we look to the revenue budget that I have for updating what is a relatively new hospital. If we had been looking at the continuing funding and support of the Northern Trust on a regional and revenue basis along the entire pathway over the past 10 years, we would not have been in the situation that we are in now, whereas we know that we have already looked at the Northern Trust and at the Antrim Area Hospital specifically with regard to how it was able to reshape and re-image its emergency department. Even with a relatively new hospital and a new design, that was necessary in the past number of years. So, when the Northern Trust puts forward those business cases and business proposals, we will consider them within the round of the funding that we have available.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Does the Minister accept that safe, compassionate and accessible abortion services, in line with legislation, must be brought forward by his Department immediately?

Mr Swann: The Member follows on from a debate that was had in this place yesterday, and I will be clear to the Member. I have said from the beginning that the establishment of a commissioned abortion service in Northern Ireland is cross-cutting and controversial. That is the legal advice that I have received and the legal advice that I will follow, and the Member knows that, having received it, I would be in breach of my ministerial duty if I did not bring it to the Executive. Should I not do that and should I even want to take that as a direction under my ministerial role, it would be called in and challenged. I think that the Member knows that well. I was disappointed that my position was misrepresented in the House yesterday by a number of Members who were in full knowledge that this matter is cross-cutting, controversial and one that must be decided by the full Executive. It is not for me alone to move.

Ms Bradshaw: I welcome the announcement during the week of additional funding for community and voluntary sector groups that deliver on healthcare. What is the Minister's Department going to do to make the community and voluntary sector more sustainable? I am talking specifically about the charitable sector, such as our hospices, which provide vital, not just add-on, services. They should not have to rely on cake sales and other fundraising events to provide vital services.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I acknowledge the work that our hospices have done, not just over the past 12 months but over the past number of years. Their funding is also mentioned in New Decade, New Approach. There has been an ongoing issue with regard to how they are funded centrally and what funding they receive from central resource. That conversation will continue with the Health and Social Care Board and with representatives of my Department until we get to a satisfactory resolution from both sides.

Hospices in Northern Ireland have received additional funding from my Department and also directly from the Department of Finance during the pandemic because we have acknowledged that, particularly with regard to the services that they supply, they do rely on a considerable amount of voluntary contributions and people supporting them in that way. So, it was right that the Executive centrally supplied that additional funding during this time.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for bringing this topic to the Floor of the House. On the matter of records held by mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries or by other organisations on their behalf, in December 2020, I wrote to the holders of those records and to the Health and Social Care Board requesting that they ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to preserve the records in their possession and that they are maintained in keeping with best archival practice.

I also requested that they immediately suspend any routine procedure for deleting or destroying any such records and ensure that the suspension remains in place for the duration of any further investigation. My correspondence also made it clear that all staff and former staff, where appropriate, should be notified of the ongoing need to preserve the records and that reasonable steps should be taken to ensure that any agents or third parties do not delete or destroy potentially relevant records.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, I appreciate that you have written to the organisations, but we are at a point now where we need to move a step further. You are relying on them to do the right thing. If there is a need for legislation or further moves in that regard, what are the Minister's plans? I wrote to you at the beginning of February, which is over six weeks ago now. I appreciate that your Department is under severe pressure, but I would have expected a response of some description — even an acknowledgement — at this stage. We have people who find themselves in a postcode lottery in tracing services, never mind the difficulties they have in accessing their own records and information. Will the Minister give some assurances on what moves he plans to make? Will legislation be required in order to ensure delivery for victims?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for acknowledging the large number of correspondence cases and Assembly questions that we are dealing with. The remit of the independent investigation into mother-and-baby institutions and Magdalene laundries will be shaped by victims and survivors, as she referred to, with the support of the truth recovery design panel, which, as I am sure that the Member is aware, has been appointed. I am confident that the issues in the access to and the protection of records relating to mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries will be fully considered by the co-design process and the independent investigation into those institutions so that the individuals whom she directly referred to — I have been in touch with her — have input and can feed into that process. It is about co-production and co-design. The Executive have been very clear about that in how we take forward that independent investigation.

Mr Buckley: The report from the interdepartmental working group highlighted what was evidently a shameful and dark period in our recent history. What conversations has the Minister had with his Republic of Ireland counterpart about the nature of the powers that the independent investigation will have to call witnesses from other jurisdictions?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I had an initial discussion with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, the Minister for Children — I cannot remember his name; apologies — a number of months ago. The investigation is being taken forward as an interdepartmental piece of work, so the First Minister and deputy First Minister had meetings with him, along with Judith Gillespie, who has been in regular contact as well, about the direction that the independent inquiry will take and the need for both jurisdictions to share information because of the nature of what will be necessary as we get to the bottom of that piece of work.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. He will be aware that I deeply regret that anyone has had their surgery or medical procedure postponed or delayed. Those critical decisions are very distressing, and they are never taken lightly. The downturn in elective care has been a consequence of the unprecedented pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on our hospitals over the past year.

From 17 March 2020 to 5 March 2021, a total of 16,938 procedures, operations and diagnostic tests were postponed. However, it is important to note that that includes cancellations for all reasons, not just those that are COVID-related. Procedures are often cancelled for myriad other reasons, such as clinical circumstances, patient cancellations and staff pressures. Nevertheless, I am assured that every attempt is made to protect the most urgent appointments where achievable and that postponed tests, procedures and operations are all rescheduled as quickly as possible. To that end, my Department has commissioned trust rebuilding plans for the three-month period from April to June, and I will publish detailed activity projections alongside those.

While the number of COVID patients in hospital and in ICU has reduced in recent weeks, the emergence from the latest wave is slow and the situation remains extremely challenging. Trusts are keeping the position under daily review so that they can reinstate and resume surgery fully as soon as capacity is safely available.

Mr Stalford: At the commencement of the crisis, the Minister used the phrase "biblical proportions" to describe the scale of the challenge that we face. Given the answer that he has just provided, what assessment has the Department made of the impact that the biblical proportions of cancelled surgeries will have?


2.30 pm

Mr Swann: The Member is well placed in the position that he has taken. That was and still is one of the biggest challenges that face my health service and all those who work in it. It is a health service that, for the past 10 years, has been underfunded, under-resourced and undervalued. Unfortunately, when we saw the complete escalation of pressure that the global pandemic had placed on our health service, drastic decisions had to be taken. Those decisions about what services had to be scaled back so that we could support patients coming forward with COVID-19 were not taken lightly by my Department, trusts or clinicians. I am reassured when I see the rebuilding plans and engage with the trade unions and the royal colleges about their desire to get back up and running as fully and as quickly as they can, as safely as they can.

We continue with that ongoing rebuilding framework, and, as I said, we will publish the next three-month rebuilding schedule for April to June towards the end of this month. We have made it clear that we will take it in three-month blocks so that we can escalate proportionately and with as much speed and dedication as we can.

As I said in an earlier response, we have to look at a regional approach so that patients are willing to travel outside their trusts and the areas where they would usually have been seen. We now see that our health professionals, such as surgeons, are willing to travel from Belfast to utilise operating theatres in the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) and other areas so that we can get full capacity from our health footprint and get as many patients as possible seen as quickly as possible.

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

T1. Ms Bailey asked the Minister of Health what areas of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Republic of Ireland will be reviewed and how that will proceed, given that, in response to a question from Mr Allister yesterday, he stated that, on finding out about the Republic of Ireland’s issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine, he asked the Chief Medical Officer to review the terms of the memorandum of understanding. (AQT 1121/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. Our current memorandum of understanding with the Republic of Ireland is about sharing information and data quickly and efficiently so that each jurisdiction knows what is happening and what decisions the other will take. I was disappointed, therefore, to receive the notification and find out through the media about the decision that the Irish Republic was taking with regards to AstraZeneca. I have asked the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to engage with his counterpart, who is the co-signatory, to make sure that we realise the full operational value of that memorandum of understanding to prevent reoccurrences of that. It does not help either of us when we are blindsided by a decision that is taken in either jurisdiction.

Ms Bailey: I see that there is a report out today from an EU committee saying that there is no evidence of the AstraZeneca vaccine having negative impacts. Have you sought any assurances or, more importantly, have you been given any assurances from your counterpart in the South that they can go ahead and use the vaccine again?

Mr Swann: The question for urgent oral answer that was asked yesterday allowed us to give an update. We take our guidance from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). That guidance regarding the safety and efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been repeated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), so I struggle to see why the authorities in the Republic took the decision that they did. It is their right to do that, but I am concerned that it has an overall impact on their vaccination process and discourages people in the Republic of Ireland with regard to the efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. That is something that we have thankfully not seen in Northern Ireland; in fact, in the answer that I gave yesterday, I stated that, when we opened up our vaccine portal to over-50s, within three hours, 30,000 people were willing to come forward for the vaccine. I know that the Member was one of those who got a booking, and I thank her for her support and endorsement not just of the vaccine but of those involved in the vaccination process. It is an amazing achievement for our National Health Service — those who work in it and the volunteers who are supporting them — to see it in full operation.

T2. Mr Stalford asked the Minister of Health whether he believes that the data that has informed the Government’s lockdown decisions is too complex to be shared with the public. (AQT 1122/17-22)

Mr Swann: No, I do not, and I was thankful that the 'News Letter' printed an apology in which it said that its headline, which included quotation marks, was not a direct reflection of anything that I had said.

Mr Stalford: That being the case, I presume that the Minister will publish the data that guides the decision-making processes.

Mr Swann: That being the case, that information is already available on my departmental website, the COVID-19 dashboard and the Public Health Agency's dashboard, and that is where we can see the trajectory of the virus and where it is taking us. Also, the R paper that we produce supplies more than just the R number that we use to inform the Executive's discussions, and it is published weekly on my Department's website. I have heard many calls to make data available. The data is there for those who wish to see it.

T3. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Health, having previously acknowledged the benefits of cross-border health services, to outline what services will be impacted on by his Department’s decision to require health professionals to be registered, North and South. (AQT 1123/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that question. I do not envisage it having a big or particularly negative impact. Only a small number of health staff will have to register on the other side of the border. Unfortunately, it is an outworking of part of the protocol. We are supporting the officials and employees who have to register. That concern was raised by the Northern Ireland central alert system (NICAS) in particular, the team that transfers critical patients between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It has a particular concern about the accreditation and certification required to do that.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Minister outline why there is such urgency in getting professionals who deliver cross-border services registered before the end of this month?

Mr Swann: The urgency is to make sure that we have all bases covered so that there is no opportunity for someone to miss the registration process that allows them to deliver their professional skills and support on either side of the border, should that be affected. We encourage all staff members who have to register in either jurisdiction to do it as quickly as possible to make sure that they are not personally or professionally caught out.

T4. Mr Buckley asked the Minister of Health whether, in light of the withdrawal of AstraZeneca in many European countries, he has received any pressure whatsoever to withdraw it from use here, albeit when we look back over the period of COVID-19, there will be many points of difference between us as to the response, but one thing that we will all be able to take pride in will be the vaccination programme, with the NHS deserving thanks for the diligent way in which it has carried out that service. (AQT 1124/17-22)

Mr Swann: No. I am thankful for the cross-party support that I received in the House yesterday for the stance that we have taken. That stance is science-led, and it has been led by the updated guidance that the Department received from the MHRA on Sunday. The MHRA provided the additional information and assurance that we sought after the Irish Republic made its decision on Sunday morning.

Mr Buckley: Thank you. Minister, sadly, the delay in administering the AstraZeneca vaccine in the Republic of Ireland and other European countries will result in the slowing of the vaccination of their populations, which should be the priority of every nation. Minister, have you had any conversations about the means by which we could share any excess vaccines with our friends and neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, if and when we get to a point where an adequate proportion of our population is vaccinated and our society is back to normal?

Mr Swann: I had a conversation with the Secretary of State about that and also raised the matter with the Prime Minister when he was here last Friday. We are concerned about the different rates of vaccination in the two jurisdictions. We would like the whole island to be at the same level, but I will not slow down the vaccination process and procedure in Northern Ireland. It would have been unfortunate that, had we shared the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with the Republic of Ireland prior to its announcement on Sunday, those doses may have sat unused. Although I am open to the sharing of vaccines to ensure that we get the entirety of this island to a level of vaccination, my focus, as Health Minister of Northern Ireland, is on the people of Northern Ireland in the first instance.

T5. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Health what measures have been taken at departmental level with the trusts to ensure that domiciliary care packages are established in areas where there are and have been voids for quite a considerable time, leaving elderly people and disabled people isolated. (AQT 1125/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I know that it is something that he is very passionate about, because he has raised the issue with me, specifically as it concerns Mid Ulster. The Northern Trust has received additional moneys to encourage and support the provision of additional domiciliary care workers for the area. I do not have a recent update on the level of success that the trust has had, but those additional supports have been referred to the trust and talked about.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for his answer. Yes, additional resources appear to be there, but resources in this instance are not matched by the number of people on the ground to fulfil the care packages and make sure that disabled, isolated and often elderly people in poor health are getting the support that they require. Is there any mechanism by which the Minister can ascertain information about delivery on the ground of extra personnel to support people living in isolation?

Mr Swann: It is about meeting the demand for the care packages that are there. As a constituency representative, the Member knows as well as I do that it is OK to fund care packages but that it is a different matter when it comes to getting people to deliver them. It is not solely now a challenge for rural constituencies. One thing that I have been very clear about during the pandemic is the valuable service that our domiciliary care workers provide. I have referred to them as the Cinderella service. Until we saw the real value that they bring, domiciliary care workers were often forgotten about and never mentioned. As I said, that support mechanism has been provided to the Northern Trust, and I am sure that it is engaged in making sure that as many care packages as possible are fulfilled financially and that the personnel are in place to fulfil them. If I recall correctly, the Northern Trust has recently advertised to recruit domiciliary care workers in the area. I can follow up on that with the Member.

T6. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Health to guarantee that the anomaly that means that cross-border healthcare workers will have to register with professional bodies, North and South, will not impact on cross-border healthcare, including the transportation of sick children to hospital in Dublin, given that, in an earlier answer, he mentioned that that was an outworking of the protocol when, with respect, that is not true — it is not in the protocol — but is an area where, because previous EU legislation no longer applies and it is not covered by the protocol, these people are having to register. (AQT 1126/17-22)

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for pointing that out and making the correction. As I said in response to the question that Mr Sheehan asked, we want to push as many people as possible to get dual registration so that opportunities are not missed. We do not want to see people on the other side of the border, where their certification and registration do not cover them from a liability point of view.

Mr O'Toole: Further to that, will the Minister raise the matter with his counterpart in the Republic so that there is absolutely no doubt that healthcare on either side of the border will not be disrupted? I appreciate that he is confident that people can be registered quickly, but it is important to have absolute clarity on that.

Mr Swann: My departmental officials are in regular contact with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, and I know that the issue has been talked about.


2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two. Before we return to today's business, I wish to inform Members that I have received a request from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement setting out the decisions that were taken today by the Executive as part of the pathway out of the COVID-19 restrictions. The statement will be taken after the motion on supporting students and prior to the Adjournment debate.

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

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly highlights the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system in Northern Ireland; notes with concern the deep economic impact of the pandemic and resulting restrictions; stresses the need to meet any related increase in eligibility for, or uptake of, benefits and other forms of financial support for those made redundant or suffering ill-health, as part of the recovery from COVID-19; expresses grave concern that the review of welfare mitigations measures provided for in New Decade, New Approach has not been taken forward as a priority by the Department for Communities; and calls on the Minister for Communities to accelerate that review and to ensure that appropriate and ongoing welfare support is made available to households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic as the Executive chart a course toward recovery. — [Mr Easton.]

Which amendment was:

At end insert:

", to overturn the recent withdrawal of funding for advice centres and to reallocate the money to allow for the continuation of vital advice services." — [Mr Carroll.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly highlights the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system in Northern Ireland; notes with concern the deep economic impact of the pandemic and resulting restrictions; stresses the need to meet any related increase in eligibility for, or uptake of, benefits and other forms of financial support for those made redundant or suffering ill-health, as part of the recovery from COVID-19; expresses grave concern that the review of welfare mitigations measures provided for in New Decade, New Approach has not been taken forward as a priority by the Department for Communities; and calls on the Minister for Communities to accelerate that review and to ensure that appropriate and ongoing welfare support is made available to households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic as the Executive chart a course toward recovery, to overturn the recent withdrawal of funding for advice centres and to reallocate the money to allow for the continuation of vital advice services.

Dr Archibald: I beg to move

That this Assembly welcomes the recent announcement of a £500 COVID disruption payment for students studying full-time higher education courses; believes that the exclusion of full-time students studying further education courses and students studying higher education courses in the Republic of Ireland or in Britain is unfair; acknowledges that the difficulty for part-time students facing financial hardship also needs to be addressed; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to address these inequalities and ensure that all students who are currently excluded from the COVID disruption payment receive the £500 payment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Dr Archibald: This has been a really tough year for very many people. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives of so many. Thousands of people have lost loved ones, others have been seriously ill, and some have lost jobs. To save lives and to reduce the pressure on our health service, we have had to stay at home, our workplaces have closed, and our movements have been restricted. Businesses have received hundreds of millions of pounds of support to help them to survive and to try to protect jobs and livelihoods for the future. Workers should have been receiving support where they are unable to work through the furlough scheme, and self-employed people, for the most part, have been supported. Albeit there are exceptions.

Students, on the other hand, have signed up for courses. Some were told that they would get some classroom time; others that it would be remote learning for at least the first semester. However, last summer, no one could tell them, "Do not sign on for rental leases, because there is a good chance that you will not be living in those houses".

Since last March, there have been very few opportunities for students to get the part-time jobs that are, unfortunately, necessary for most students to supplement their student loans and help them to scrape by.

Students have been left in a situation where, despite the best efforts of lecturers, teaching assistants and other staff, the university or college experience is not what many had expected or signed up for. They have had to keep paying bills despite not living in houses, and they have had to support themselves with no work opportunities.

It is, of course, important to point out that students are not a homogeneous group. The majority of students, particularly undergraduates, might be young people, but they might also be young parents, young people with caring responsibilities, and young people with disabilities. They might also be mature students with families and other responsibilities and part-time students paying for their courses while working to pay bills. Students come from all walks of life and have a variety of financial and other responsibilities.

It is important to recognise the nature of our higher education system, which is increasingly marketised and where students are seen as customers. With fees here second to only England and Wales as the highest in Europe, students struggle financially while studying and after they begin work. Understandably in the current circumstances, our students feel exploited and short-changed.

Coming out of the pandemic, as we look at rebuilding our economy and society, we also need to look at how we support and fund education and training.

Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Chair of the Committee for giving way. As the Member knows, I represent South Belfast, and we have a significant student population. We also have a significant number of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), and private landlordism in many parts of my constituency has destroyed the character of local communities. Does the Member agree that, while it may be legally right to hold people to contracts for properties, it is actually morally outrageous to do so?

Dr Archibald: I agree with the Member, and that is something that I am going to address in my contribution. A lot of landlords need to look at their role during the pandemic, how they have or have not supported students and whether they really have all been in it together with their student tenants.

Since last year, John O'Dowd and I have been raising with the Economy Minister the need for students to be supported. Sinn Féin Ministers have supported our calls for support. Last June, I think it was, additional money was allocated to the student hardship funds in recognition of the fact that many more students were facing financial difficulty, and that money was much welcomed.

However, the feedback from students in the months following was that the application processes and barriers to those funds meant that students were not getting the support when they needed it. Bureaucracy that was designed for non-COVID times was making it difficult, and, frankly, that also needs looking at in the longer term, but that is for another day.

Student representatives highlighted the issues impacting students, such as the financial difficulties, the difference in the education experience from what they expected, the loneliness and isolation and the mental health impact. I have engaged a lot with student representatives over the last number of months and with individual students, and I have found that not only the impact of the financial pressure on mental health but the isolation and worrying impact of COVID generally have been raised consistently. My party colleagues will speak to that further. We must not underestimate the need for further support for students who are struggling with poor mental health.

Student organisations and representatives should be proud of their role in ensuring that student issues have become a priority for MLAs and Ministers. The COVID disruption payment that is being put in place is testimony to the impact that campaigning loudly and consistently has. We all very much welcome that payment, recognising that it does not pay all bills, but it is recognition that this year has been a difficult one and students have not got what they signed up for. Unfortunately, however, the payment went to only some students, and not all who study here are from here.

In setting out her reasoning, the Economy Minister said that the payment was in recognition of the impact of COVID and the restrictions put in place by the Executive on students here. If that is the case, why are part-time and international students excluded? The Minister said that there are legal barriers to making payments to students in other jurisdictions. What are those barriers and what alternatives have been explored? Has a legal mechanism been explored that would allow the payments to be made?

The Minister also set out that further education students do not pay fees and that that is why they have not had support. Further education students have been impacted in the same way, and many are in the same situation as higher education students in having to continue to pay rent and bills with few income opportunities.

Every time that we discuss education and skills in the Chamber or Committees, we talk about the need for parity and about the importance that is placed on academic and vocational education.

What does it say to students in further education that they are not getting the same payment as those who are in higher education? Does it say that they are viewed as "less than" by the Department?


3.00 pm

I want to reflect some of the issues that students have raised with me over the past view days. I could have reflected on many more issues when it comes to students who contacted me about landlords and accommodation providers, such as those that Mr Stalford mentioned. I have addressed that issue already. Over the past couple of days, I have received dozens of emails from students, as, I am sure, have other MLAs. Students have told me about their personal experiences. Part-time and further education students do not understand why they are not getting the payment. Postgraduate students who study in the South do not even get a loan to help them with their fees. Those in England have pointed out that they already get less student loan support than English friends studying the same courses, despite their having to travel to study. They are away from their families, and they feel left behind in not receiving that support.

One student in England said:

"In a time where student isolation and unemployment is rife, I would like the Minister to acknowledge the fact that Irish students, whether in Britain or in the South of Ireland, are facing the same financial struggles as those back home in the North".

What message does the exclusion from those payments send to students from here who are studying in England, Scotland or the South? How does feeling disregarded by the Economy Department make them want to come home and contribute to the economy? I recognise that funding has been made available to universities and colleges to help to support students, and for additional hardship fund support and digital support. Extending the COVID disruption payment is about recognising that every student who studies in the North has, in some way, been adversely impacted on by the pandemic. It is also about recognising that students from the North who study in the South or Britain have been impacted on in the same way, have not had similar support where they study and have had the additional burden of travel costs and being away from their families at this difficult time.

I know that the Minister will have been inundated with calls from students and MLAs to extend the payment. My party colleague John O'Dowd recently presented a petition signed by over 3,000 students asking the Minister to extend the payment, but, as yet, the Minister does not seem to have listened. However, there is still time for the Minister to say to students, "I hear you. I want to recognise, in a small way, that this has been a really difficult and disappointing year, and it is not the experience that you hoped for when you signed up for university or college". The Minister has the opportunity —.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Dr Archibald: Sorry, I do not have much time left. As the Minister who has responsibility for students, she has the opportunity to stand up for them. I hope that she will heed the calls in the motion and finally do that.

In closing, I want to thank the student organisations, representatives and all students who have been in touch. I ask Members to support the motion and reject the amendment, which waters down what the motion calls for.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Gary Middleton to move the amendment.

Mr Middleton: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after the first "courses" and insert:

"notes with regret the absence of legal powers in the Department for the Economy to extend this support to all full-time students studying further education courses and students studying higher education courses in the Republic of Ireland or in Great Britain; acknowledges that the difficulty of part-time students facing financial hardship also needs to be addressed; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to raise with her counterparts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland the desire to ensure that all students who are currently excluded from the COVID disruption payment receive comparable and much-deserved support."

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Please open the debate on the amendment.

Mr Middleton: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The opportunity to speak on student support is very welcome. I take pleasure in speaking on students' issues when I come to the Chamber. Many student representative bodies have been in touch with MLAs throughout the course of the pandemic. I pay tribute to those organisations for the way in which they have campaigned so proactively and respectfully. It is important that I put that on record on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Right across the Province, students of all ages have faced challenging circumstances throughout the COVID pandemic, along with, of course, many other citizens in our communities. Particularly for students, there has been an impact on their studies; financial hardship; mental health impacts, which I will talk about in a bit more detail shortly; and the challenges around accommodation, which, of course, were mentioned with regard to contracts with landlords and the difficulties that students have found themselves in. Members on all Benches have heard first-hand from students who have found themselves in really difficult circumstances and facing the wide range of challenges that I outlined.

Of course, students come in all shapes, sizes and ages and from different backgrounds. As I say, students have raised their issues proactively over the past while, and it is important that we hear their concerns.

Like the signatories to the motion, I very much welcome the announcement by the Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, of the £500 COVID disruption payment for our students. That was part of a wider £37 million package to address a number of areas across the further and higher education sector. That package was announced in February and was very much welcomed across the sector. It included a one-off £500 payment for students from the UK and the EU who are in Northern Ireland in full-time higher education in a university setting. A total of £8·5 million was provided to address student financial hardship and digital poverty and to support student unions with mental health provision. There was £4·1 million for the provision of a safe working, learning and research environment. Finally, there was a £3·1 million package to compensate universities for lost income arising from rental pauses and releasing students from accommodation contracts. The level of support provided by the Department for the Economy for students in Northern Ireland during COVID-19 is unrivalled among Administrations across the UK and the Irish Republic.

Ms Mullan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Middleton: Yes, I will indeed.

Ms Mullan: The Member is on the all-party group on further and higher education with me. Will the Member agree that the Health Minister should immediately clarify the situation and make sure that all students, including those in clinical placements, receive the COVID disruption student support and be included in that scheme?

Mr Middleton: I thank my colleague from Foyle for her intervention. I agree with that. The all-party group on further and higher education is an example of one of the proactive all-party working groups. It raises various issues, and that is one of them. It is important that the Health Minister take that point on board. The all-party group met last week and raised quite a few issues that need to be considered, none more so than the student mental health action plan. We need to be mindful of the fact that student mental health is very much at the forefront of student issues and needs to be funded. We talk about the £500 payment. As important as it is, it will not solve all the problems. Many more wider issues will need to be addressed in the student setting, but I thank the Member for her intervention.

Students from Northern Ireland who are studying in England, Scotland and Wales have access to support from the institutions in which they are enrolled. My understanding is that in the region of £175 million has been provided to institutions and students in GB and ROI, and key to that will be ensuring that such investment translates into practical and timely support for those most in need.

I welcome the fact that Minister Diane Dodds has previously indicated, in response to numerous questions, that she will continue to raise the issue of support for students with her counterparts in the other jurisdictions. That is very important, and, if anything comes out of today's debate, it should be that we continue to go in that direction. The amendment deals more with sending out a message from the Chamber that the Minister has the mandate to speak with the other jurisdictions and ensure that they step up and deliver for their students. I very much welcome that. The COVID disruption payment is one such area in which our counterparts can assist students from Northern Ireland.

I dispute the suggestion that the amendment waters down the motion. Rather, it reflects the reality of the parameters that the Minister is dealing with. The Minister will be the first to say that, and she will no doubt speak later about how passionately she feels about students in Northern Ireland.

Mr Stalford: I am really grateful to the Member for giving way. He has just made the key point. It is important that we are honest and straight-talking with people, and I think that our amendment reflects the reality of the situation, both legally and politically. It is important that people make statements and take positions that are grounded in reality.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Member for his intervention. He makes a key point that I want to get across today in the short time I have. The motion is not about sending out the message that no one wants to do anything more for students. It is quite the opposite. We need to do what we can, and that is why a £37 million package has been brought forward. That is unrivalled in the other jurisdictions. I know that many students are very appreciative of the package. Certainly, the students that I have been in touch with appreciate the measure. There are challenges and difficulties and people who feel that the package does not go far enough, but, again, the message is that the Department is trying to reach all those in need across our society in a timely fashion.

The COVID disruption payments in Northern Ireland are being made via the higher education institutions, not directly through the Department. The Minister has made clear in a response to previous questions that the Department does not have the legal power — and that is the key point — to make allocations to universities outside of Northern Ireland, whether that might be a university in England or the Irish Republic, or to the Student Loan Company. It is simply not possible for the Minister to deliver funding through universities and further education settings, either south of the border or across the rest of the United Kingdom.

Dr Archibald: I appreciate the Member taking the intervention. Will the Member agree that this problem is not going to go away? Students are going to continue to face financial difficulties, and the Department should look at how it can, potentially, put support in place and make payments.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Member for her intervention. Again, as I said, the Minister has made it very clear to me, personally, and also to Members across the Chamber, that she will continue to raise student issues. Of course, there is a huge remit in the Department, but we are here today, thankfully, talking about students. We need to try to do whatever we can to support students within the legal possibilities that we have. No doubt, the Department has explored all avenues open to it, but we will hear about that from the Minister very shortly.

The priority must be, as always, to ensure that we get support to our students in a timely and effective manner. The most appropriate way to deliver those payments is through the existing mechanisms in the institutions. However, that said, we do fully appreciate the hardship experienced by Northern Ireland's students based in other parts of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. I urge our MPs to continue to lobby at Westminster to ensure that institutions in other jurisdictions provide support for our students.

Finally, my party will continue to raise issues on behalf of students, whether through the all-party groups or in the Chamber. It is important to address students' issues. The University of Ulster Students' Union has launched the 'Student Mental Health Action Plan', and as it says:

"We all want to see a greater and happier society, and we believe that investing in our young people now will create a better Northern Ireland in future."

Ms McLaughlin: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. The pandemic is a crisis not just for physical health but for mental health, and this is particularly true for our students who expected to have the best days of their lives but, unfortunately, are dealing with the worst. Instead of making new friends, many are studying in their parents' homes, and others are isolated in halls of residence, away from other students and their families. The students are paying extortionate tuition fees for Zoom calls, and many are living in areas with poor broadband access. This terrible situation is badly hitting students. Some have abandoned their university or college course this year in the hope that they will feel psychologically strong enough to start again in September. At its worst — and this is just terrible — students have taken their own lives. Hit by depression and not able to see a longer-term future, they have given up.

The SDLP's student survey, which had more than 500 responses, clearly illustrated the impact. Three quarters of the students reported a decline in their mental well-being because of the lockdowns. How can students perform at their best when they are starved of human contact and are short of access to people to ask advice from? Zoom is definitely no substitute for human contact.


3.15 pm

Money shortages make it worse. Students have had to pay a fortune for accommodation that many of them have not been able to use, and very few have been able to earn money doing the part-time work that they would have expected to depend on. The financial crisis is very closely associated with a mental health crisis.

I will say a word about the hardship funds that Members spoke about. Time and again, the Minister stated, in response to correspondence, that students should apply for support through hardship funds. However, the criteria for those funds are a real problem. One student who contacted me was rejected for hardship funding because he once — I stress once — made a £5 bet. That one £5 bet months ago disqualified him from support. Another student contacted me because hardship fund criteria insisted that he must first apply for an overdraft facility. However, he believed that he would not get an overdraft and said that it could damage his credit rating by being rejected for an overdraft before he could even apply for hardship funding.

When we hear that students in difficulties should apply for hardship support, I ask Members to remember two things. First, the amount of hardship funding available is too little to meet the demands and difficulties that students are experiencing. Secondly, the criteria create a barrier that is impossible to overcome, even for students in the greatest financial difficulty. At best, the criteria are ridiculous. At worst, they are deliberately exclusionary and can cause financial difficulties for our young people.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms McLaughlin: OK. I think.

Mr Stalford: You will get an extra minute. Do not worry. [Laughter.]

The Member mentioned the problems with mental health. A recent response to a question for written answer that I submitted to the Minister of Health demonstrated the scale of the problem. Northern Ireland has set a new record for the number of antidepressant prescriptions issued during the last 12 months. Surely, we can all see the devastating impact that lockdown is having on people's mental health.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Mr Stalford. I totally agree. There is a mental health crisis in Northern Ireland. I think that every Member would agree with you.

Financial problems for students are also impacting families, with parents and guardians trying to support their children despite maybe being on furlough or being unemployed themselves. The SDLP tabled an amendment that sought to draw attention to the weakness of the hardship fund structure and the crisis in mental health, but it was not selected.

Before I finish, I will say a word on the DUP amendment. We are glad that the Economy Minister heeded our call and brought forward the COVID-19 disruption payment of £500 that we suggested. That provided huge comfort to eligible students. However, as the motion states, the scheme excludes students who are studying in GB and the South from accessing support. That is fundamentally wrong. Those students are living away from home and are under more financial pressure than those studying locally due to the high fees in GB. Those are students from the North, Minister. We do not want to ignore them, and it is not right that we should.

In response to a question for written answer, Minister Dodds stated that the Department's regulations prevented her from making £500 payments to our students in GB. Has she considered making a ministerial direction? Has she consulted her Executive colleagues to agree a joint approach to change the Department's regulations? Is there a party in the Assembly that is against making payments to students studying in GB and ROI? Has the Minister tried hard enough to provide support to those students who so desperately need —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Ms McLaughlin: — assistance at this time? We do not believe that she has. The pandemic has shown us that we can find solutions to red tape. If there is a will, Minister, there will be a way.

I will support the motion but will vote against the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call John Stewart.

Mr Nesbitt: Hear, hear.

A Member: And that is before he has started.

Mr Stewart: I know. Before I said a word. [Laughter.]

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the motion.

At the outset, I acknowledge the £500 COVID disruption payment announced by the Minister on 4 February. That payment was extended to every student from the UK or EU enrolled in a full-time higher education course in Northern Ireland. The one-off discretionary payment rightly acknowledges the disruption that students have suffered as a result of the pandemic. Sadly, the limited scope of the eligibility criteria means that almost 75% of students in Northern Ireland are not able to avail themselves of that vital support. Despite the matter being raised with the Minister on a number of occasions, requests have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Since that announcement, like many in the House, I have been contacted by dozens of students in further education colleges, students in GB, students studying in the Republic of Ireland, students enrolled in theological colleges and students studying part time in higher education institutions in Northern Ireland. The disruption, uncertainty and financial difficulty suffered by those students as the result of the pandemic is no different from that of those who met the original criteria; in fact, it is often worse. How is it fair or equal not to give similar access on a similar level?

We have heard from Members about the deep pressure, stress and anxiety that students here face as a result of the pandemic, and I pay tribute to the SDLP, which has done great work surveying and working with students to get a real feel for the pressures that they are under, and to all Members who have engaged with students. The numbers are startling, especially when we look at the mental health aspects.

I do not want to cover old ground, but I will cover a few points. Full-time students, higher education students in Northern Ireland, GB and ROI face mounting problems and difficulties as a result of the pandemic. They pay full fees for courses that are primarily taking place in their bedrooms. They pay extortionate rent to private landlords for accommodation that they cannot use. Our colleague from South Belfast highlighted that, while enforcement is legal, it is morally repugnant. Landlords are charging full rent, and some people have not even set foot in those buildings. It is disgraceful. Hopefully, collectively, we can work to push that issue.

Students are not able to avail themselves of the part-time jobs that all of us who were students used as a financial safety net to get through university. Many struggle to access broadband in rural areas. There is a lack of access to the right study equipment, to libraries and other facilities, and, let us face it, much of what being a student is about is the social environment and everything that goes with it, but they are not getting anywhere near that experience.

I remember being a student, and it was difficult to get by in normal circumstances. I have been contacted in recent days and weeks by so many constituents studying here and in GB, whether they are full or part time, who are finding the stresses and strains almost unbearable. To many in the House, a £500 payment may not seem very much, but for people who have just paid rent to a landlord for a property that they cannot use, leaving them with less than £1 left in their bank account, it means everything. It is a lifeline. Extending the payment would recognise the students who were originally excluded and would acknowledge their hardships, even though they are ineligible at this stage.

There simply has to be a way to provide equality and fairness for all students, no matter what their situation. The Minister replied directly to my questions for written answer on the topic and outlined why the Department could not go further, but, where there is a will, there needs to be a way. The pandemic has told us that we need to find creative solutions no matter what the problems are. If that means engaging with student finance organisations or creating a direct application process, so be it. We have overcome bigger adversities than this so far in the pandemic, and there can be a way of solving it.

Your days as a student are meant to be the best days of your life, but, for students in Northern Ireland studying here, in GB or in the Republic of Ireland, that could not be further from the truth. They are isolated, financially strained and getting nowhere near the student experience that they expected. We have an obligation to do all that we can for them, and extending the £500 grant support would be one way of doing that.

Mr Dickson: If we hear essentially the same speech repeated in the Chamber, perhaps the Minister will start to get the message. This has been an incredibly challenging year for students. It is regrettable that many students have felt let down by a lack of support coming not only from the Minister but from their institutions.

As many have said, students are now mostly learning online. While that has been necessary to tackle COVID-19 infections, it is clearly not a replacement for in-person teaching and the interaction that student life gives and is expected to give. Library services are challenging to access, meaning that students may see greater costs associated with printing and may even have to buy textbooks that they might normally get on loan.

In addition, online learning means that, as was referred to, they are stuck with accommodation that they either do not need or have never really been able to use. I appreciate that it is a contractual issue, and others have spoken about it, but I appeal today to another Minister, the Communities Minister, to do what she can to provide help and advice to those in that position.

It is therefore extremely welcome that the Minister has introduced the £500 COVID disruption payment. We have been seeking to resolve this issue for quite some time. However, it is regrettable that Northern Ireland students, as others have said, studying elsewhere have been excluded, as indeed have most further education students, non-UK and non-EU students. Other excluded groups include those attending institutions that are not publicly funded, such as Belfast Bible College, part-time students and those studying with the Open University. The Minister says that she does not have the legal vires to make payments to some of these groups. However, just because she cannot does not mean that she should not be making the effort to try to do it. We need a clear explanation of the steps that can be taken to deliver funds to all those students. I, and everybody in the House, believe that they should receive the money.

Due to the pandemic, students have been negatively impacted on by the loss of the part-time work that supplements their income. I do not see why support should not be provided. The excuse coming forward seems to be that the Department does not have the power. I accept that the Department does not have the power, as it says, to pay students studying in GB and the Republic of Ireland. However, this is a legislative Assembly. We need to find ways round these issues and problems. Problems are there to be resolved; not to be resisted or used as excuses.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I have listened to him and his colleagues in the House. Currently, one of his colleagues, the Justice Minister, refuses to fund additional police officers because she does not have the money. Where does the Member think that his colleague will find £40 million to be able to do that on top of the money that will be needed to address this issue? Can he tell me where the money tree is?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way on that point?

Mr Sheehan: If the Minister were to make a bid to the Finance Minister for more COVID funding, Mr Storey would find an answer to his question. The Finance Minister has encouraged the Economy Minister to do so. Thus far, she has refused.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Dickson: I assure the House that I am more than capable of answering my own questions. [Laughter.]

Indeed, the Member who kindly helped me out rightly indicated that that is exactly the statement that the Finance Minister made in the House yesterday. He had to make that statement because other Ministers failed to bid for money that could have been forthcoming to solve this problem. The £500 payment is not the only intervention that we should make to support students. I know that the Minister refers to the university hardship fund that should play a big part in providing support, but I am concerned that it is not adequate enough or wide enough to provide the help where and how it is needed.

We have often heard that university hardship funds are difficult to access and not adequately advertised. We have heard that there are barriers to providing hardship funds. We need to look at the general issue of how student finances should be progressed, because hardship is not only a feature of this year; students face hardship in all circumstances.

In addition to that, although financial support is vital, universities can do other things to reassure and support their students. I have written to the vice chancellors of our two universities to ask that they support a student safety net to ensure that students do not have their educational outcomes impacted on by COVID-19. The safety net should include uncapped and free resits. I hope that the Minister can support this and encourage both vice chancellors to implement it.

Let us be clear: students have felt let down. For most of this year, they have forgotten what it is to have an enjoyable student life in which they can be challenged by academia, meet their friends, and socialise.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.


3.30 pm

Mr Dickson: In conclusion, I encourage the Minister to listen to what has been said in the debate and to work to provide creative solutions that deliver £500 to more than the students to whom she has already provided the funds.

Ms Kimmins: I am exasperated that, one year on from the start of the pandemic, we are still fighting to ensure that those on whom COVID-19 has had a severe impact receive much-needed support to help them survive the unforeseen challenges with which the pandemic has presented us. Over the past number of months, I, like many other Members, have been engaging with hundreds of students from across my constituency, and across the North, who feel excluded and undervalued by the failure of the Economy Minister to support them during this challenging time. Week after week, via Zoom meetings, emails, social media and through our offices, we have listened to the hardships that students are facing and the impact that they are having on them, causing them unnecessary stress and anxiety, which is subsequently affecting their mental health.

As many other Members have said, students have been expected to continue to pay full tuition fees for courses that have been moved online and high rents for accommodation that they cannot live in as a result of the current restrictions across these islands. As well as that, they are having to deal with increased living costs arising from the need to have the additional resources that enable them to complete their studies outside their university campuses. Although we all fully appreciate the unprecedented challenges that this year has presented us with, it is the responsibility of the Economy Minister to ensure that all sectors in her Department receive the adequate support to help them through these challenging times. That responsibility has not been met. Other Executive Ministers have stepped up to the plate and shown initiative and flexibility to get support out to those who need it, and she must do the same. I have written to the Minister on countless occasions, as she will know, to highlight the significant issues that students are facing and to all but beg for the support payment to be extended to those students from the North who are excluded. Unfortunately, that has been to no avail. I have also asked her to engage with her counterparts in other jurisdictions and, in the absence of her doing that, have written to Ministers across the water to see what support they can put in place.

The message from excluded students is that they feel discriminated against and undervalued, even more so if they are part-time students, are studying a further education course or are studying in the South of Ireland, in Britain or abroad.

Ms Sheerin: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that the Minister should also consider supporting those students who graduated last year either in June or in the period up to Christmas? They would have been taking exams and completing coursework but were still paying rent for accommodation that they were not able to stay in because of the restrictions.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Kimmins: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank the Member for her intervention. She makes a very important point. One thing that we have all learnt is that there are so many unique situations. I appreciate that it is not always easy to reach everyone, but, when we have the information and the knowledge, we must endeavour to do so. I therefore agree with the Member's point.

Over the past year, I have heard many different experiences from our students, and I will share some of those with Members today to emphasise exactly what they face, particularly when we continually claim that we want to ensure that they return home to live and work in the North when they qualify in their relevant career paths.

Aoibhin is a third-year nursing student from Newry who is studying at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) in the South and has been on placement throughout the pandemic. Aoibhin described to me the impact of the COVID pandemic on the hospital environment and the increase that there has been in the responsibilities and workload for all staff and students. She described to me how one of her most challenging experiences during her time on placement was caring for a newborn baby who, sadly, would not survive. She described how the context of COVID made that situation even more difficult and made her role of caring for him and supporting his family during this very sad time even more important. Aoibhin hopes to return to work in the North when she completes her studies. She expressed deep disappointment, however, when she learned that the Minister had excluded her and many others from the COVID disruption payment despite her studying only a few miles up the road from Newry.

Chris is another student from Newry. He is studying in London, as his chosen course is not available here. Chris's course has been moved online, and he is paying in the region of £3,000 a month in rent for a flat in London that, owing to the current restrictions, he has not been able to live in. Chris was not eligible for support from student finance in normal circumstances and was heavily reliant on his part-time job to help him cover his living costs while studying at university. Chris, like many others, has lost his job because of COVID and now faces significant rent arrears that neither he nor his family has the ability to pay.

Those students feel badly let down and have described how they just need a helping hand to survive these turbulent times. I feel that this is an opportunity for the Minister to show all our students that she and her Department value them and are intent on treating them all equally. The reasons given by the Minister to date demonstrate an unwillingness to explore all options to provide this essential support, especially, as others have mentioned, in light of the fact that the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, is willing to provide the money and has encouraged her and others to make further bids to support excluded students, but those have not been forthcoming.

This has been a year that none of us will ever forget, least of all those who have been forgotten and excluded from the support that has been provided to date. These students are our future and have an important part to play in the economic recovery from COVID. If we are truly committed to showing them that we value their contribution and potential, we must treat all our students fairly and equally. I ask Members to support our motion and reject the DUP amendment so that we can get support to our students urgently.

Ms Flynn: I apologise, but do not apologise, that some of my remarks will repeat what other Members have touched on, as it cannot be overstated. I support the motion wholeheartedly and encourage all Members to do so. I want to send a clear message to all our students that their hardships and struggles are real and recognised by the Assembly. I will focus my comments on the wider challenges facing students, particularly those who find themselves excluded from the £500 disruption payment. First —.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I have heard the word "excluded" used a couple of times. Will she confirm for me that the criteria for the existing scheme was agreed and approved by the Executive and, therefore, the Finance Minister, the Justice Minister, the Communities Minister and the Health Minister?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Minister has an extra minute.

Ms Flynn: The Minister? Thank you.

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not taking away from the fact that the £500 disruption payment that is already in place is absolutely welcome and represents a big move on the part of the Minister and the Executive. However, the Minister still has responsibility for all the students in further and higher education.

First, I would like to personalise the debate. I remind Members that we are talking about our young people — people in their late teens and early 20s. It is our young people, who are on their own special journey to becoming adults. They are at the most crucial part of their lives, when they are just starting to set out who they are and who they want to be. It is an important time in anyone's life. We cannot lose sight of that. It would send a powerful message to our young people if we could all welcome the motion to extend the £500 payment to all students studying full time and those in higher education courses.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, my office, like those of other Members, has been contacted by many university students who faced paying rent on halls that they were anxious about going to in the first place and who had lost part-time jobs and crucial hours that they would usually have worked just to get by. I was also contacted by those in further education and by students who study in the South and in Britain. They face many of the same challenges and pressures —.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. She is right to say that students, particularly those in part-time work, have been absolutely hammered during the lockdown. That is why, at the most recent meeting of the Economy Committee, we agreed to write to the Department to ask for a full list of all the easements to the economy that the Minister sought. I do not think that any of those have been granted by the Executive. If the Minister is seeking to help people back to work, could the Member prevail upon her Executive colleagues to support the Minister in that cause?

Ms Flynn: I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, it is a good and positive thing that the Minister for the Economy wants to see people return to work as soon as possible, because that will help their mental health. However, that does not take away from the debate that we are having about the extension of the £500 payment.

The point that I was making is that students, no matter where they come from, face the same challenges and pressures. Some Members mentioned the bids that the Minister for the Economy has made for schemes. Minister Conor Murphy allocated £22 million for the current disruption payment. Did the Minister for the Economy request any further bids that might have included those students who have been left behind in the current scheme?

Many Members listed the challenges facing students with job losses, restrictions on seeing friends and family, remote learning and — the big one, for me — their mental health and well-being. That is important, and it is good that Members have been given the chance to recognise and articulate those challenges, because students will be listening, and, more importantly, because a person's mental health and well-being are closely related to their environment and to any additional pressures that are placed on them. Students and young people are no different, and those who have been excluded, in particular, may be feeling additional pressures at the moment. We know that financial concerns contribute massively to poor mental health, stress and anxiety, as do concerns about housing and where they are going to live, and loss of hope and purpose about their future or the quality of their education. Some of those students will be feeling all of that.

I finish by quoting a recent prevalence report into the mental health of our children and young people that was published in October 2020. It noted that 16- to 19-year-olds — the make-up of our student population, essentially — are five times more likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder than younger children.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member's time is up.

Ms Flynn: My time is up, so I will leave it there.

Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion, which the SDLP will be supporting. The past year has been an awful one. No age group or section of society has been unaffected by the pandemic and its restrictions and lockdowns. However, our students and young people have been particularly affected. At a time when many of them should be starting out on a new adventure, away from home and enjoying what should be a relatively carefree few years, they are being badly impacted. The first few weeks of entering university are, undoubtedly, some of the finest and funniest days of your life. You make new friends and form your own identity and independence. You are out of home for the first time and away from your family. Unfortunately, students have been robbed of that. I feel for them because the student years are crucial to socialising and character-building.

As well as the restrictions, the financial pressures on students have been immense. I reiterate Órlaithí's point about some of the issues being mentioned in the Chamber already, but they need to be reiterated. Students have been continuing to pay landlords for accommodation that they are no longer living in; paying significant fees for courses that have largely, if not all, moved online; and face the loss of part-time jobs or are on furlough as a result of business closures. Students cannot win. They also feel undervalued and overlooked.

Of course, the £500 COVID disruption payment is to be welcomed, and I am sure that it is a relief and support to many, but it must be expanded. I pay tribute to the students and student bodies who campaigned for the payment. They lobbied MLAs and the Executive, very effectively, and shared their experiences and stories — often personal and difficult — of the financial problems and circumstances in which they had found themselves in the past year. I also take the opportunity to mention my party colleague Sinead McLaughlin who has led an effective campaign on the matter. She has campaigned, unapologetically, to ensure that students are financially supported and that their voices are heard.

I concur with the motion that the exclusion of full-time students studying elsewhere from the payment is wholeheartedly unfair. Their financial burdens and pressures are no less. We must support students who are studying away from here, in the South and further afield. They should be supported in the same way. Likewise, part-time students, many of whom have additional financial pressures and worries, should be supported. Students feel that they cannot win. Many have spoken online about their experiences and have been told to stop whining and complaining and that they are young, but we have to note the detrimental impact that the pandemic has had and not brush them off.


3.45 pm

We often forget that students are not all teenagers. Some are parents, and they are of all ages. It is important for us to remain mindful of that today as we discuss students. Financial support for students post pandemic is also a wider issue that we need to be mindful of.

Childcare is a massive issue that has been noted. The pandemic has highlighted that huge issue. I am particularly concerned that more needs to be done across the Executive to ensure that parents are supported in their studies during the next few months and post pandemic. Trying to juggle childcare and further their studies is difficult at any time, but I imagine —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hunter: Not at this time, because I am going to try to fit this in. Sorry.

I imagine that it has been particularly difficult during the pandemic.

The impact on mental health has been a universal experience over the past 12 months. The restrictions on travel, the "Stay at home" message, not being able to visit family and friends and social distancing have left us feeling isolated and cut off from our loved ones. Our students and young people have had that feeling exactly or, perhaps in some cases, have felt it more. In recent conversations, student union representatives in Coleraine gave voice to one of the main issues, which is that counselling during the pandemic takes place online via Zoom and Skype. People who are at home with their parents feel that they cannot open up and be vulnerable due to thin walls and the lack of discretion in the home. We need to explore student well-being and what more the Executive can do to support our students.

I hope that the payment has gone some way towards supporting our students financially at this extremely difficult time. As the motion acknowledges, there is more work to be done. I urge the Minister and her Department to continue working on it and to expand it to our students in the South and further afield. A much bigger debate is needed on aspects of student support beyond the pandemic and the lessons that, hopefully, we have learnt from it. I am keen to play my part in that. We wholeheartedly support the motion.

Mr Nesbitt: I will speak in support of the motion but not the amendment. Perhaps I should begin by explaining why I feel unable to support the amendment that Mr Middleton moved. He quoted legal and contractual barriers and constraints, which, I understand, his party feels to be fair comment. However, it seems to me that, when processes trump the people whom we are here to serve, we have a problem. It is our duty as politicians to overcome that problem. Processes should enable, not constrain.

Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for taking the intervention. I was on the Health Committee for nearly a year. On an almost weekly basis, regulations to change legislation came through to deal with the emergency that we face at the minute. Surely it is not outside the bounds of possibility for the Economy Minister to construct some sort of process like that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Nesbitt: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the intervention from the Member. It is the very point that I am trying to make.

I congratulate the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) on a vigorous campaign on social media in support of today's debate. I will return to an ask of that student union body in a moment.

Several Members have made the point that the debate has an inbuilt capacity for repetition. I will try to avoid that by introducing some novel thoughts, not novel in the pure sense but novel in this debate. Having said that, I will repeat a quotation from a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament speaking in the House of Commons in September of last year. Some Members will immediately recognise the Member of Parliament who is speaking; others may guess. The quote begins as follows:

"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, with lock-ups of students and students being denied face-to-face education and unable to engage in the activities we normally associate with student life. Yet they are expected to pay the full price for this substandard opportunity in higher education. Does the Secretary of State think 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?"

If anybody needs a clue, the name of that MP is in the minutes of the recently leaked DUP South Antrim constituency association meeting. I think that Mr Storey has guessed that it is the Member for East Antrim, Mr Sammy Wilson, apparently, promoting a policy that is not supported by his colleague the Minister for the Economy in the Northern Ireland Executive. However, it is to be welcomed that Mr Wilson recognises that there is an issue and that Mrs Dodds recognises the issue to the extent to which she has given grants to some but not all.

My objection is this: distinguishing between higher education and further education is a very bad look. There is an inequality there. It says something about a lack of understanding about intelligences. I am very much a fan of the late Professor Ken Robinson. For those who have not googled him, I really recommend that they look at some of his online videos, which explain in clear terms what we need to develop our children. He believed that there was an element inside them; I used to call it "a spark". It is a spark of intelligence. It might be academic, so a child might find it in the classroom, but they are equally likely to find it in a science lab, on a sports pitch, in the school choir or in the drama theatre. If we say to higher education university students, "We respect and value your intelligence with a financial reward" but say to students at further education colleges, "Not you", we have a problem that we really need to acknowledge.

I said that I would come back to the NUS-USI. It also asked for grants to be extended to international students, including non-EU students. There is a good reason why, and it is called the draft framework Programme for Government, which is currently out for consultation. One of the nine high-end outcomes is that:

"People want to live, work and visit here".

The outcome:

"is about promoting Northern Ireland as a place where people want to live, work and visit ... We want to build on international relations and enhance our reputation".

If we deny international students a grant that we give to our own, we are hardly building good international relations or enhancing our reputation. I support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call on the Minister for the Economy to respond. She has up to 15 minutes.

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): I thank all Members for their contributions today. I am acutely aware that all our students have experienced terrible disruption since the onset of the pandemic and that that continues to have a major impact on their studies, their student experience and their mental health and well-being. My officials and I meet regularly with and listen to the concerns raised by students, their representative bodies, family members, educators and institutions. It is clear that, while remote learning is useful, it has had a detrimental impact not only on the overall student experience but on the mental health of students, as many in the House have outlined. That is why it is my firm view that we should resume face-to-face learning for as many students as possible as quickly as possible. Students have already returned to face-to-face learning in practical subjects in other parts of the United Kingdom. In England, for example, all students will be back to face-to-face learning at the beginning of the third term. I look forward to having support from my Executive colleagues as I introduce that conversation to the Executive.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will she confirm that, at present, her Department runs 48 economic intervention schemes, which is more than are being run by every other Minister combined?

Mrs Dodds: It is perfectly true that, over the past year, my Department has run over 48 different schemes and interventions in higher and further education and in different parts of the economy. We have administered over half a billion pounds in funding support to the economy, individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland. The House should acknowledge the extent of the work that has been done by my officials, who have operated in a time of great stress to deliver this vital funding and support at a difficult and dark time for people here in Northern Ireland. It is because of this disruption that I have delivered a wide-ranging and comprehensive package of targeted support to our student population. This includes the recently announced £37·7 million in support of our higher education sector, which included a one-off discretionary payment of £500 to all students from the United Kingdom and the EU who are in full-time higher education in Northern Ireland. I will come back to that later.

The focus of the motion and of Members' contributions has been on the COVID disruption payment. However, I want to outline the wide range of support that I have provided and introduced to support our students as a direct response to the concerns of and issues affecting our whole further and higher education student population. The Department delivers financial support to eligible Northern Ireland higher education students through Student Finance NI and has provided £126 million in maintenance loans and a further £56 million in maintenance grants as a contribution towards students' living costs during this financial year. For further education, in addition to the COVID disruption scheme, I recently announced £8·5 million to address student financial hardship, including digital poverty, and a payment to student unions to help to support students with mental health provision; £4·1 million for the provision of a safe working, learning and research environment in our higher education institutes; and £3·1 million to universities for income lost as a result of releasing students from accommodation contracts and through rental pauses. This is in addition to the £1·4 million that I secured from the Executive at the start of the pandemic. Adding a further £1·4 million from my Department's budget made up the original £5·6 million that was available for students in hardship.

In response to Ms McLaughlin, I confirm that, time and again, I have asked the universities, as the administrators of these funds, to make sure that the criteria are wide enough and that they are reaching all students who are in financial need. It is also worth noting that it is not just financial support that our students need in this difficult time. That is why, as a result of concerns about provision, and reflecting some of the issues raised by Mr Stewart, Ms Kimmins and my colleague Sammy Wilson, I wrote to Northern Ireland's universities and university colleges on behalf of students, asking them to be clear with new and returning students about how teaching and assessment will be delivered and the circumstances in which changes might be necessary. The higher education institutions have been asked to confirm that they have been and will continue to be sufficiently clear with new and returning students about how teaching and assessment are delivered, the circumstances in which changes might be made and what those changes might entail. They have been asked to confirm that the assessment that students received during the autumn term and the teaching assessment that they were promised and might reasonably have expected is based on the information that has been provided for them. They have also been asked to confirm whether their current plans for the spring and summer term will ensure that students receive the teaching and assessment that they were promised and might reasonably expect.

A Member: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Dodds: No, I have a lot to get through. Sorry.

If new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about that teaching and assessment, and it was not delivered as promised, I expect the institutions to consider their obligations under consumer law for tuition fee refunds or other forms of redress.


4.00 pm

Many Members have highlighted the difficult time that our further education students have had this year, and I entirely agree. Students on further education courses at local colleges are being supported through a range of mechanisms. I have secured an additional £7·7 million, of which £4·8 million is being used to provide additional IT equipment to allow continued access from home for college staff and students and to help address digital poverty, which includes providing 1,200 SIM cards. The remaining £2·9 million is for an additional 500 devices and to make a one-off payment of £60 to eligible full- and part-time further education students to help with data costs. The Department has provided a range of interventions to support further education students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including adaptations to existing financial support programmes to encourage their continued participation in further education programmes. That has included further education grants, the further education hardship fund, the Care to Learn childcare scheme, home-to-college transport, free school meals, a clothing allowance and an additional support fund for those with a disability. The combined value of those support arrangements totals £13 million per annum.

Furthermore, the Department has worked with the colleges to increase the flexibility of those student support policies in order to make them more accessible. That has included paying childcare retainer fees during the initial lockdown, while further education grants and hardship funds have been updated to facilitate claimants who participate in distance learning, with an extension having been made to the closing date for grant applications.

Free school meals and holiday payments for all eligible school-age further education students have been made directly to households. Specifically within the hardship funds, increases have been made to the dependent student rate, which provides eligible further education students with an additional £15 a week. Part-time and repeat students are also eligible to apply for all elements of the hardship funds.

Members have also highlighted issues for part-time students. Part-time students are more likely to be in employment than full-time students, and the cohort includes many on master's, higher-level apprenticeships and other schemes that are supported through my Department. Part-time students are less likely to have different term-time addresses and the associated living costs. Any uniform payment would be unable to be targeted at those who are genuinely in need and unable to consider the nuances of the range of part-time provision available. I recognise, however, that many have been deeply affected by the pandemic and the disruption that it has caused. Those students will continue to be eligible for other support packages that have been put in place. I implore any students who are facing difficulties to contact their institution to discuss what support is available.

Members have highlighted the fact that the COVID disruption scheme does not include students who study in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. My officials and I had discussions with the Student Loans Company (SLC) to explore the possibility of making a payment through it to all Northern Ireland-domiciled students. Such requests must be agreed by the four UK Administrations before they can be taken forward by the SLC. Accordingly, a request was formally submitted to shareholders for agreement. Subsequent legal advice received by my Department, however, indicates that the Financial Assistance Act 2009, which is the vehicle that was used to make that and other COVID financial assistance payments, would not give the Department the powers to make payments to public bodies outside of Northern Ireland.

All areas of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have substantially increased the funding that is available for student support. It is important to remember that, although students who study outside of Northern Ireland will not have access to the COVID disruption payment, they will have full access to the payments and supports that are available through their institution.

Ms Kimmins: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Dodds: No. I have a lot to get through.

In England, £50 million has recently been announced, and that is in addition to the £20 million announced in December 2020. Scotland has announced £20 million of government funding for student hardship, with a further £10 million being allocated to universities and colleges for income lost in providing rent rebates. Wales has a £40 million package of support for students facing financial hardship. The Republic of Ireland announced, in November, a €50 million one-off COVID-19 payment scheme, whereby all eligible students and EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded higher education institutions would receive €250.

I have made representations that students should, like those in Northern Ireland, be supported by those Administrations that have imposed restrictions on student activities, and I am more than happy to commit to further representations. Again, I ask students who are facing genuine difficulties to contact the institutions to seek and access the support that is available.

Members, the package that I have put together for students is generous, and I am delighted to provide this payment to almost 40,000 students. I hope that it goes a small way to alleviating the tremendous stress and pressure that they have faced. These payments will be made shortly to undergraduate and postgraduate full-time students who were enrolled at any point during February 2021 at publicly funded Northern Ireland higher education institutions and full-time higher education students at further education colleges.

Once again, I welcome the opportunity to appear before the House to provide clarification on the support available to students. Many Members have written to me about this, but it is vital that information on this wide range of support is not just readily available but is communicated. I am sure that I have the support of all Members when I say that I will continue to do all that I can to support our young people through this difficult time and help them to regain the learning experience that they deserve. That, of course, must start with the return to college and university. I hope that we will be able to do that in the not-too-distant future in a safe and sustainable way.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Christopher Stalford to make his winding-up speech on the amendment. The Member has up to five minutes.

Mr Stalford: This has been a very good-natured — by and large — debate and discussion around the issues facing our students and young people. There is no doubt that the last 12 months have been something of an annus horribilis for all of us but particularly for our students and young people. The impact that continued lockdowns have had are evident for all to see. I mentioned, during the debate, that in a recent answer to me, the Health Minister confirmed that Northern Ireland has now broken its own record for issuing antidepressant prescriptions. That is reflective of the mental health impact that these continued lockdowns are having.

The economy needs to be opened up because, whilst we all recognise the need for interventions like this, ultimately, we need economic activity to generate the resource that government will use to pay for the delivery of first-class education. It is important that we establish that as a first principle. I assume that it is the first principle held by everyone here — I hope that it is — that the economy needs to be opened up as quickly as possible to allow economic activity to resume.

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: I only have five minutes.

It needs to be opened up to allow educational activity to resume and to allow students to enjoy the benefit of the student experience. I declare an interest as the uncle of a first-year law student at Queen's University. The entire year has gone and that entire experience has been lost because of lockdown.

The motion and the amendment reflect the fact that we both want similar outcomes. The disagreement is about how to achieve them. No one should be in any doubt that both sides of the argument want similar outcomes. They want the maximum funding that can go to students to be delivered to them.

The scheme has been criticised. However, the Executive, on which several Members who have spoken are represented, agreed to the criteria that we are discussing. Moreover — I know this to be the case because I have asked about it repeatedly — the Minister for the Economy has received less than 40% of the funding from the centre that she bid for in relation to economic interventions. It is well and good for Members to say that the Minister must do this and must do that, but she needs to be given support in the Executive in order to deliver the schemes that Members want.

Despite the fact that she has been consistently short-changed by the Department of Finance, the Minister for the Economy has been able to deliver half a billion pounds' worth of economic interventions through her Department. I am glad that she was able to confirm to me that over 48 initiatives have gone through the Department for the Economy — more than any other Department. The Minister has presided over those interventions — more than any other Minister has made.

The point needs to be repeated that, in Northern Ireland, we have introduced £37·7 million of financial support for students and the higher-education sector. That has taken different forms, but all those interventions are designed to achieve one goal: to help students and young people through this time. To those who say that we need to help young people, I say that one of the best ways to do that is to set them free from continuous lockdowns. I hope that when the time comes, and we can do it in as safe a way as possible —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Stalford: — all Members will not be slow to support the easing of restrictions.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Anois iarraim ar Pat Sheehan ceann a chur ar an díospóireacht ar an rún. I call Pat Sheehan to conclude and to make his winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Sheehan: I think that everybody will support the easing of lockdowns when it is safe to do so. That is the straight answer to that question.

Students are among those who have been most negatively affected by the pandemic and the lockdown. What are, supposedly, the best days of their lives have turned into nightmares for many. A large number of students face mental health issues; many more face financial hardship. I am standing in for my colleague John O'Dowd, who cannot be here today. However, I commend him for his tireless and diligent work on behalf of third-level students in further and higher education. He has lobbied the Health Minister and the Economy Minister on the provision of better healthcare for students. However, despite warm words from both, no real action has been taken by either Department. On 22 February, John O'Dowd presented the extend the COVID disruption payment petition with 3,000 signatures to the Economy Minister. What has the Minister done in response? Absolutely nothing.

In what ways have students been affected? First, many have lost the part-time jobs that they depended on in the hospitality and retail sectors. Their student status means that they cannot access the same financial supports as wider society. Others have lost family support because their parents' household incomes have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. The sad fact is that three quarters of students from here are not eligible for the £500 payment.

Ms Armstrong: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: I will give way quickly, yes.

Ms Armstrong: I will be very quick. I had hoped to bring this matter up before. Does the Member agree that those students have now lost trust in us and they are not coming back, because, at a time of crisis, we were not able to help them?


4.15 pm

Mr Sheehan: I absolutely agree with that. I was going to mention it later.

Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, how long do I have?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Deich mbomaite. Ten minutes

Mr Sheehan: Many students are locked into tenancy contracts even though they may not be able to live in their rented accommodation. Legally, that may be enforceable, but it is morally wrong that students are forced to continue to pay rent for accommodation that they cannot use. The learning experience of students has been well below what would normally be expected, due to the remote nature of the teaching, but students have still to pay their tuition fees.

I want to speak briefly about the further education inequality. It was an issue that Mike Nesbitt raised. There is no legal barrier to giving financial support to further education students. Not giving the payment reinforces the view that students at further education and vocational colleges are viewed by the Department as less important than students at universities. Offers of £60 to further education students through the digital hardship fund are an insult, given that full-time higher education students will receive an automatic £500 payment. Some 41,000 further education students in the North are studying courses that are level 3 or above. Each of those students has experienced disruption to their education, and some face costs for rent and so on. Further education students generally come from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and refusal to give the £500 payment further entrenches inequalities in our society. It would cost only £20·8 million to give the payment to further education students.

We have students studying in Britain. There are 17,500 students from here studying across the water. Two thirds of them never return. Refusal to give the £500 payment to them reinforces the mindset of exclusion. The Minister says that she cannot give money to a university in Britain. Fair enough, but she must find innovative ways of getting money into the hands of hard-pressed students. Surely, that is not beyond her capacity. Some £8·7 million would cover the cost of making the payment to students in Britain.

There are 1,200 students from here studying in the South. That is a fairly low number. Those students are paying higher rents, particularly around Dublin, where rents are extortionate, for properties that they do not need due to remote learning. The Minister should engage with her counterpart in the South and seek to extend the £500 payment to those students as well. That would cost under £1 million.

I made the point that the Finance Minister had been encouraging the Economy Minister to make further bids for COVID funds that could be used to support our student population. Unfortunately, thus far, the Economy Minister has been playing hard to get. She has every excuse in the book for not making bids. She claims, for example, not to have the authority to give payments to students who are studying in the South or across the water. However, as Stewart Dickson pointed out, this is a legislative Assembly. What about legislating? I sat on the Health Committee for nearly a year. I made the point that regulation after regulation came through that Committee week after week. Why can the Economy Minister not be innovative?

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: Why can she not find a way to provide funding to those who need it? The Economy Committee will propose amendments to the regulations that the Minister has introduced to make payments. That will happen next week. I will give way to Mr Storey.

Mr Storey: I know that the Members opposite have no difficulty in taking money from any source that they can get their hands on. However, given that the Minister has outlined that she cannot pay outside the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, for which we have responsibility, will the Member give us some innovative way that that can be overcome, given the words of wisdom that we have had to listen to from him?

Mr Sheehan: I do not draft legislation, so I cannot tell you that, but I can tell you that all sorts of emergency legislation have come through the House over the past year. We have been able to do it. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Ms Kimmins: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: Go ahead.

Ms Kimmins: In relation to Mr Storey's point, other Ministers have shown clearly that there are ways of addressing these things. One possible way is an application process whereby a student shows proof of their home address and attendance at university. Does the Member agree?

Mr Sheehan: That may be a wee bit too simple for the Members on the Bench opposite to understand [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Please, will the Member refrain from speaking from a seated position? Mr Sheehan has the Floor.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The fact is that the Finance Minister has made it clear that funding is available. He has encouraged the Economy Minister to make bids to access that funding and to develop a process to deliver it.

Mr Nesbitt: I am grateful to Mr Sheehan for giving way. If I understood Mr Stalford correctly, he was making much of the fact that Mrs Dodds had brought forward more economic initiatives than any other Minister. Would it not be odd if another Minister were bringing forward more economic packages than the Minister for the Economy?

Mr Sheehan: The Member has brought me on to my last point. The Minister and Mr Stalford were almost boasting about the 48 schemes that they have delivered. That is the Minister's job, and she is pretty well paid for doing it. If she is not going to do it, who will? The fact is that three quarters of our student population from here in the North cannot access the payments that have been made to some university students. Boasting about 48 schemes that you are delivering will not butter the parsnips for the students who find themselves in financial hardship. I ask Members to support the motion.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly welcomes the recent announcement of a £500 COVID disruption payment for students studying full-time higher education courses; believes that the exclusion of full-time students studying further education courses and students studying higher education courses in the Republic of Ireland or in Britain is unfair; acknowledges that the difficulty for part-time students facing financial hardship also needs to be addressed; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to address these inequalities and ensure that all students who are currently excluded from the COVID disruption payment receive the £500 payment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes this item of business. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have been given leave to make a statement on the Executive pathway out of the COVID-19 restrictions at 5.50 pm. By leave of the Assembly, we will therefore suspend until then. The sitting is suspended until 5.50 pm. Thank you very much.

Sorry, it is 4.50 pm [Laughter.]

Sorry, it is written here as 5.50 pm. OK, thank you for that.

The sitting was suspended at 4.23 pm and resumed at 4.51 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement setting out the Executive's pathway out of the COVID-19 restrictions. Before I call the First Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in the light of the 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 been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must do so by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members please to be concise when asking their questions. This is not a debate per se.

Mrs Foster (The First Minister): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to update the Assembly on our decisions on education last week and at this morning's Executive meeting.

Before I outline the detail, it is important to set our decisions in context. COVID-19 is still with us in our community. Today, we have 176 COVID inpatients in our hospitals; 18 people are in ICU with COVID; there are 13 active care home outbreaks being managed; 164 people have tested positive with COVID-19; and, unfortunately, we have a further death. Those are, of course, better numbers than we have seen in recent times since the latest restrictions took effect on 26 December, but the numbers tell us that caution is still important. We have seen how the numbers can rise rapidly, and we do not want to go back there. That is why we published our pathway out of restrictions on 2 March, and we outlined our rationale in our statement to the Assembly that day. Our rationale can be summarised in one phrase: cautious but optimistic. Small steps along the pathway, with time built in to help us take stock of the impact on the ground. Time to reflect, analyse the data and structure the next steps in the pathway in that context.

Our colleagues in the Department of Health have coined the phrase "social contact capital". It is a helpful way of understanding the situation that we are in. We have an amount of decision-making capital that we can afford to spend. We need to spend it wisely each time, in the interests of as many people as possible. If we spend the capital on one easement of restrictions, it cannot be spent on other things at the same time. That is why it is important that we work our way through the restrictions in a careful and managed way at each four-week review point. We are not setting dates so that we can take our decisions against the prevailing health, economic and societal circumstances.

The Executive are clear on the need to think especially hard about our children and young people. Last week, we decided that preschool, nursery and primary-school pupils in P1 to P3 would remain in school until the start of the Easter break. Meanwhile, students in years 12 to 14 would still return to face-to-face teaching, effective from next Monday. Today, we have considered further the steps that we should take, rightly, to provide more certainty for our children and young people, parents, teachers and the whole education family. Today, having taken into account the prevailing COVID situation and with care and caution, we have decided that primary 4 to primary 7 should return from 22 March, and all pupils, including years 8 to 11, will fully resume on 12 April. Those decisions are aimed primarily at getting children back to school in the safest way possible, with mitigations and preparation time. That has benefits for us all.

We have been very concerned throughout about the impacts on young people's education. We know that the education sector will pull together to help address that.

We have been equally concerned about the well-being impacts. We all know how important it is for children to build and grow their friendship networks, to be able to socialise and grow their own interests and future potential. That has been our clear focus today. We think that every sector in our society will understand that education has to be our priority at this time, but we understand that those sectors and individuals also want a bit of certainty and hope.

Having taken the education decisions, the Executive went on to look at the available social contact capital to see if we could do more. Our commitment has always been that we will not leave restrictions in place for a day longer than is needed. We appreciate that we are moving quickly towards the first anniversary of the first lockdown in March last year. The weather is improving, and we have been in the current lockdown for around 80 days. That is a long time and a big ask, and we have been so grateful to everyone who has made a personal contribution to the improvement in the COVID situation.

Our responsibility to you is to look carefully at how we can improve the situation for you in a careful and sustainable way. We want to give you hope, and we have discussed today a number of small steps that we hope will be welcome.

We have decided that, from 1 April, 10 people from two households can undertake outdoor sporting activities, as defined in the regulations; up to six people from two households may meet outdoors at a private dwelling; and garden centres and plant nurseries will be included in the contactless click-and-collect scheme.

We have also decided that, provided the situation still supports this, the following changes will be introduced on 12 April: increasing the numbers who can meet outdoors in a garden from six to 10, including children, from two households; the removal of the "stay at home" provision in the legislation, moving to a "stay local" and "work from home" message; allowing contactless click and collect for all non-essential retail, subject to the overall health position at that time and Department for the Economy evaluation of the limited 8 March reopening of non-essential click and collect; and allowing outdoor sports training to resume by sports clubs affiliated with recognised sports governing bodies in small groups of up to 15 people but with all indoor spaces closed except essential toilet facilities. The relaxations planned for April 12 will be subject to Executive ratification in the week after the Easter weekend.

The Executive have also agreed to increase the provision for elite sports from 25 March to allow a number of new competitions to begin. This minor adjustment to the current restrictions will allow two World Cup qualification matches scheduled for 25 and 31 March to take place, as well as a friendly match between Northern Ireland and the United States of America on 28 March. No spectators will be permitted at any sporting event.

It is important that we explain our rationale, as we know that some people will be disappointed that their sectors are not on this list. Our focus in our decisions has been to take a risk-based approach, as we promised in our pathway. The common ground is that the steps are aimed at individuals and their families to support well-being and socialising in a limited and careful way. We have focused on outdoor settings, where the risk is relatively lower than indoor settings.

There are things that we need you to continue to do, please. First and foremost, follow the public health advice, including when you are outdoors. Wash your hands and maintain social distancing. If you are meeting up with other people, plan your journey and plan what you will do when you meet up. Avoid car sharing if you can, wear a face covering and, if you cannot, ensure good ventilation.

We want to say to our colleagues in the retail sector that we realise that today's developments are modest and that we have a long way to go. We thank you for your forbearance, and we recognise that large sectors of retail have been on the front line all year. We say thank you, as an Executive, to everyone who has supplied goods, stocked shelves, served customers and looked after us all over a protracted period of time.

We will now proceed to deliver these decisions into regulations and guidance changes. The next formal review period is 15 April, and we will be working towards that from today. There is no halt in the work that will go into that. That work starts now, and we will monitor the data closely over the coming weeks.

We also want to say something about key events in coming weeks. Tomorrow, St Patrick's Day, would normally be enjoyed by many. We need it to be different tomorrow. Please continue to stay at home. Do not socialise outside your family or your bubble. We particularly want to say to young people that they need to follow the rules and advice.

Ahead of us, we have Easter and Passover, important events in our faith calendar and for our citizens. The deputy First Minister and I met the leaders of the four main Churches yesterday to discuss the hope and solace that we need to give our people at Easter. This year has been hard for people of all faiths, and people of none. We have welcomed the opportunity to work with all faith leaders over the past 12 months, and that will continue. We need to continue to acknowledge how much people need hope and solace, and we noted in our discussion yesterday the desire of the Churches to work towards a return to in-person services in time for Easter.


5.00 pm

We acknowledge the risk involved and the mitigations required by the Churches. Some places of worship will find it easier to continue with their online services, and we know that in-person services will be taken forward carefully. We have been grateful to leaders across all faiths who have voluntarily worked closely with us. We have discussed with Church leaders the benefit and comfort that prayer and reflection can bring, whether from a faith perspective or from personal reflection on the year gone by. Making time for prayer and reflection on Easter Sunday will be timely. It is, of course, a personal matter for everyone, but we are facing a difficult first anniversary, and we all feel a sense of loss, whether that is the loss of loved ones or the loss of the things that we enjoy in life. Taking a moment for prayer or reflection will be a powerful act of support for one another and a way to look forward with hope.

We have a long way to go, but the steps that we have agreed as an Executive are designed to start that process in line with our pathway commitments and to give the bit of hope that everyone seeks.

Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I thank the First Minister for her statement. The relaxations to the lockdown that have been announced are well overdue in people's minds and lives. It has been a long winter, and the lockdown was tough on people's mental health, given the long, dark, depressing winter period, especially January.

The relaxations announced today include schools. Primary classes P4 to P7 will be joining P1 to P3 from next Monday. Many parents will welcome that announcement. However, many teachers and principals may be more reticent, since although the Education Minister promised to give two weeks' notice, he is, in practice, giving the majority of schools just two days. In fact, some schools have been given two hours' notice, as they are closed today and do not open until next Monday.

Today's announcement could also be accused of being a little bit light touch. I appreciate that people are complying, but the moves are modest, and, in many areas, do not budge for another two weeks; others are further into April. Again, there is not much information on how we get from here to the next stage, and many businesses and sporting fraternities have been left wondering when progression will be made.

Can the First Minister explain the differences between the stages that are progressing today? In some of the pathways, we have moved to level 2, while in others we have not; in some pathways, we are moving to all parts of the level but only to some parts in others. After the last announcement, I predicted that, without robust and proper messaging, these announcements would become massive confusion events. What will happen now to detail this information to people?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Chairman of the Committee. Nobody is denying that we have been in lockdown for a long time. It has been well signalled that the Education Minister wanted all primary-school children back as quickly as possible. I welcome the fact that colleagues have agreed with that position, and children in P4 to P7 will go back to school next Monday. As I say, we have been talking about that for some considerable time.

I also accept from the Chairman that it is a modest lifting of restrictions. No one said that it was going to be otherwise. We said that we would be relying on advice from our medical adviser, and we have taken that advice. A modest lifting of restrictions is what he is comfortable with, given where we are with the pandemic

The Department for Communities is working with all the sporting codes, and the Minister is having discussions with the various sporting bodies. We believe that giving the go-ahead for training outdoors from 15 April will be welcomed. The fact that people can come together in public spaces for outdoor activity from 1 April will be welcomed as well, albeit that it will be people from two households before 1 April.

On the communication, it is incumbent on all of us as public representatives to get the messages out on what has been agreed today about the relaxations. I hope that everybody will play their part in that, but, no doubt, there will be some who would rather seek to criticise the Executive. So be it. We are big girls and boys and can deal with that.

What we have brought forward today are cautious steps, but they very much point in an optimistic direction. As we move through the different steps, the fact that the task force is meeting every week to look at where we are with the transmission of the virus is a very helpful way forward. We have always said that we will be as flexible as we can be and that we will keep the restrictions only for as long as they are necessary and proportionate. That is what we have tried to do today. I hope that people will take advantage of the nice weather, but cautiously and recognising that COVID is still very much with us.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, you referred to primary 4 to 7 pupils returning on 22 March, followed by years 8 to 11. What clarity can be provided to parents about the return of schools?

Mrs Foster: I hope that we have provided that clarity. P1 to P3 and preschool pupils are already back in school. Years 12 to 14 will be back next Monday. We are now saying that years 4 to 7 should also return next Monday.

I was a bit surprised when Mr McGrath said that some schools are closing tomorrow and would not be coming back until next Monday. My goodness. I would like to go to that school to have such holidays for St Patrick's Day, especially when the schools have been off for such a considerable time. I have never heard of that before.

Of course, years 8 to 11 will return in full after the Easter holidays on 12 April. The Easter holidays will allow us to assess the impact of the children having gone back. It is useful for us to have that break and space to find out how that has impacted the transmission of the virus.

Mr Gildernew: First Minister, thank you for your statement. The relaxation of rules on meeting will undoubtedly be welcomed by those who have felt the strain of separation over the past period and, indeed, by many who have felt the impact of loss. I send our condolences to all those people.

This afternoon, I met the senior team in the Public Health Agency (PHA) that is responsible for contact tracing. We wish them all the best now that that service comes back into the spotlight, as you said, to try to prevent us from ever having to go back. I am sure that we all wish them well and hope that the system is fit for purpose. How crucial has the vaccination programme been in enabling this particular change?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Chairman of the Health Committee for his question and comments. People will welcome the relaxation of restrictions in being able to come together. They will not have been able to do that unless they were bubbling or in caring positions. There have been great strains, and people have sacrificed a lot. It is important that we acknowledge that so that we can get COVID-19 under control and in a manageable situation. That is important.

On the vaccination processes, as the Member will know, we are now in the position where we can take bookings for the over-50s. Yesterday was a phenomenal day of online booking. The Health Minister tells us that, at one point, 350 people were taking up vaccine slots per minute. That is a good indicator that people very much want to avail themselves of the vaccine.

Some work is ongoing to look at how the vaccine is impacting hospital admissions, particularly among our older residents.

We look forward to receiving that data because it will be very important. That has been done in Scotland. I do not know whether it has been peer-reviewed as yet, but it suggests that the vaccine is having a real and tangible impact on the numbers of people who are going into hospital, so that is very much welcomed.

The vaccine programme continues. I pay tribute to Patricia Donnelly and her team for the way in which they have rolled out the vaccine programme right across Northern Ireland, and I look forward to receiving the vaccine as soon as possible.

Mrs Barton: First Minister, you spoke about pupils returning to schools, but what consideration has been given to students in further education colleges? Will you give me an update on that, please?

Mrs Foster: I do not have the details of that. I will get the Minister for the Economy to come back to you on it, because I know that she has been looking at the return for some students. If there is a need for a student to be back at Queen's, for example, if they study medicine or engineering or something like that, it may well be the case that further education colleges are in the same place. However, as I said, I will get the Minister for the Economy to detail that for you.

Mr Dickson: Not all the messaging has necessarily been very clear on how we move through the pandemic and on the regulations that you placed in front of us, but now you are suggesting in the statement today that we are moving from staying at home to staying local. How will you get a very clear message out to people on how that should be handled, particularly over the Easter holidays and the days afterwards?

Mrs Foster: I am glad that the Member asked that question, because the "Stay at home" message will be in place until 12 April. It is important to say that. We are all concerned about the Easter holidays and about people coming together in the ways that we have seen, unfortunately, sometimes in holiday destinations and country parks. Of course, we want people to get outside and enjoy the outdoors, but I ask people to do that in a way that does not cause crowds to accumulate. That is very important.

After 12 April, the message will change from "Stay at home" to "Stay local". We hope that that is self-explanatory so that people do not move very far away from home and still work at home where possible. We understand that a lot of people cannot work from home and have to go into work, but the message up to 12 April is still "Stay at home".

Mrs Cameron: I thank the First Minister for the statement today. This is an incredibly difficult time, with such a prolonged period of lockdown. Many are feeling negative physical and mental impacts of the restrictions, and many will be quite disappointed today. Will the First Minister confirm that further changes or easements to the restrictions will not necessarily have to wait until the next formal review, which is due on 15 April?

Mrs Foster: When we came to the House with the pathway, Mr Speaker, you will recall that the only dates in the document were the actual formal review dates on which the Minister of Health has to review the regulations. There is flexibility in the pathway to allow us to take decisions outside those formal review dates. We will want to assess what social contact we have in terms of the capital that we have to spend, so we will have to see what way things are moving. You will recall that, last year, we moved at a faster speed coming out of some of the regulations because of the fact that we were moving in a very good way. Hopefully, that will be the case again, but we need people to work with us so that we can achieve that.

I acknowledge what the Member said about it being such a difficult time for so many people. It has been physically and mentally difficult. We hope that the easements that have been granted to allow people to get outside and meet another household will allow people to get out and about and to enjoy what I hope will be good weather over the coming period. I know that it is only a modest relaxation, but I hope that it will help some of those people.


5.15 pm

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire as ucht a ráitis anseo inniu. I thank the First Minister for her statement. The main argument being advanced for bringing children back to school is that their mental health and well-being have been adversely affected by the pandemic and the lockdown; indeed, some weeks ago, Professor Siobhán O'Neill, the mental health champion, agreed at the Committee that there was a tsunami of mental health and well-being issues amongst children. However, the Education Minister's approach seems to be that getting children back into school will resolve those issues. That is not good enough. Can the First Minister tell us whether additional resources will be made available to our schools to deal with the mental health and well-being issues?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Yes, we absolutely need to get our young people back to school for their mental well-being and their socialisation but also for their education and their life chances. That is really important, given that they have missed out on so much face-to-face teaching. I have said many times that the kitchen table is no replacement for the classroom. Those of us who have been homeschooling are in no way substitutes for the professional teachers in our schools.

I understand that the Education Minister has indicated that he is putting more resources into schools. Since last year, he has already done that for mental health support. I know that he would want to do more on that. However, again, that will be resource-led, and he will need to have the resources made available to him to do that. As I understand it, he has plans to put more money into schools and into the front line so that people can deal with the mental health issues that, unfortunately, we will have to deal with.

Mr Clarke: First Minister, I, like others, welcome the statement. Members have expressed their appreciation of the Public Health Agency and the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

The business sector will probably be disappointed by what it is hearing today. I want to put on record, because I am sure that many in the Chamber would not want to put it on record, the generosity shown by Her Majesty's Government in terms of the sum of the financial packages that have been drawn up to support those businesses. However, many of those packages do not cut it. Many businesses are waiting to get the opportunity to open and continue to trade as normal. Following today's announcement, what is your message to businesses that continue to wait for the announcement that they can open and get back to some form of normality?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I absolutely acknowledge the fact that Her Majesty's Government have put in place a large amount of resource to assist people who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in the position that they are in, particularly on our high streets. However, we also recognise — if the Economy Minister were here, she would say this very clearly — that grants are no substitute for being able to open, to do business and to trade. We want to be able to allow our businesses to reopen as quickly as possible.

I welcome the fact that colleagues have now agreed to a suggestion that garden centres and plant nurseries be included in the click-and-collect scheme from 1 April. That is before Easter, so it will allow people to avail themselves of those facilities. It is important, because we know that spring will move into summer, and many gardens need to be planted out. Many people take solace from their garden, so it is important that we allow that to happen. On 12 April, click and collect will be allowed for all non-essential retail.

It is only a modest proposal, and I accept that. We need to continue to work with the retail sector as we need to work with other sectors, whether that be hospitality, the Churches or all of the sectors with which we have been engaging, so that we can move forward together and there are no surprises in how we do our business. I acknowledge that this is a hugely difficult time for our business community, but we will keep engaging with it as we move along.

Ms Mullan: I thank the First Minister for her statement. Minister, following on from the question on businesses, can you confirm whether the COVID restrictions business support scheme (CRBSS) grant will be extended?

I have been contacted today about a number of things. However, an outstanding one is whether you can give clarity on whether golf is included in the outdoor sports. You would make a lot of people happy if you said, "Yes". Is there any update on whether driving tests are to resume?

Mrs Foster: As I understand it, the CRBSS will continue for as long as it is needed for those businesses. As I said to Mr Clarke, it is not ideal that those businesses are closed, but we are trying to support them as much as we can. The good news is that golf can now occur, as long as it involves only two households. We very much believe that walking along a golf course is the same as going out for a walk, but those who play golf will probably disagree with that. In any event, golf and tennis are allowed, as are those outdoor sports that engage only two households. That is important. What was your final question?

Ms Mullan: Driving tests.

Mrs Foster: Driving tests are deemed to be a close-contact service, so there will be no resumption of them at this time, but we will come back to the House on that. We understand that there are a lot of young people affected, and I know some young people who are desperately waiting to do their driving test. Again, we hope that driving tests will be able to happen in due course.

Mr O'Toole: I thank the First Minister for her statement. As someone who hails from Downpatrick and then spent many years away from here, I have always treasured and enjoyed St Patrick's Day, but I echo what the First Minister said about people enjoying it differently this year. In my constituency of South Belfast in particular, we want to send out the message that people should please stay away from the Holylands tomorrow and not delay our progress in easing restrictions.

First Minister, may I specifically ask about the exact data that is being used to make these decisions? Although I agree very much with the cautious approach, you mentioned in the statement both social contact capital and a risk-based approach, which indicates that there is a degree of quantitative analysis going on. What are the specific data points that you are looking at? For example, are you looking at a decrease in hospitalisations or a certain proportion of people being vaccinated? It would really be helpful to understand precisely what data points you are looking at.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. From the health data, we are looking at the rates of transmission. At the moment, Northern Ireland's infection rate is 66 per 100,000, while in Scotland it is around 64. In Wales, it is much lower, in the mid-40s, I think. In the Republic of Ireland, it is about 75. We are looking at that data. We are looking at the number of people in hospital, the number of people in ICU and the number of positive cases, and we are also looking at the fact that this is a new variant that is more transmissible than the original variant. That is the health data that we are looking at. As I indicated, we are waiting on the efficacy data from hospitals on vaccinations so that we know how they have impacted on the number of people going into hospital.

From the economic data, we are looking at how, unfortunately, the economy has shrunk since the beginning of last year and at the number of people who are unemployed. Again unfortunately, we learned yesterday that Thorntons has decided to leave the high street. We are looking at how the high street is coping with the pandemic. From the societal data, we are looking at how people are dealing with the lockdown and how they are dealing with their well-being and not being able to socialise and play sports in particular. That is one of the reasons that we have front-loaded allowing people to get out and about, enjoy the outdoors and meet outside.

Those are the sorts of conversations that are going on at the task force, where we are trying to balance all the different metrics. It is not an exact science. We have tried to prioritise young people and children, and we absolutely recognise the need to get our economy into a state in which it can start to recover as well.

Mr Butler: I thank the First Minister for her address. I also thank her for linking hope with Easter. It is important that we send out a message of hope. I am sure that there are many parents, carers and teachers who are looking forward, as we all are, to their pupils, students and children returning to school very soon.

The Minister will be well aware that there was an inflexibility this year with the transfer test and that some children were left to suffer. There have been many professional calls for the need for children to emotionally regulate before we educate. We now seem to be seeing a lack of agility with GCSE and A-level exams, with returning students facing the immediate threat of having to sit stressful exams. We know that children have been hard hit during the pandemic. Will the First Minister give a commitment that the Executive Office, along with the Education Minister, will look at making our children a priority on their return to school? I take the opportunity to wish everybody a happy St Patrick's Day.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. The Executive have tried to prioritise children's well-being and educational life chances. We are parents as well as Ministers, so we know the impact that schools not being open has had. We pay tribute to teachers on the way that they have engaged in remote learning with our young people. However, it is so important that young people get back into the face-to-face environment, not just with their teachers but with their peers so that they can socialise.

As the Member will know, the Education Minister leads on all issues of exams and testing. He is very alert to the fact that, while they will not sit GCSEs this year, we have to find some form of academic achievement for those young people who have spent so long building up to years 12 and 14. It is very important that we recognise the challenges for teachers and pupils but, at the same time, allow them to do those testing processes so that young people have something to move forward with. That is very important for their life chances.

In respect of linking hope to what we are trying to do, we had a very good meeting with leaders of the four main Churches yesterday. We talked about hope. We talked about the fact that we have been in a very dark place over the past year and that many people have lost loved ones. We hope that most people will recognise this time of reflection — and if you are Christian, this time of prayer — on Easter Sunday as a coming together, though, obviously, apart in our homes. It will be about taking some time to reflect and, from my point of view, to thank God for his mercies over the past year. That is very important.

Mr Stalford: The announcement has been made that pupils from preschool through to P7 will be returning to school. I want to raise the issue of Sure Start. I am given to understand that, for 10 days or thereabouts, the Department of Health has been assessing whether Sure Start can open. The First Minister, my Rt Hon friend, will know the wonderful work that Sure Start does, particularly with vulnerable children. May I encourage her and her Executive colleagues to expedite a decision on this issue in order that Sure Start can recommence its wonderful and important work?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I agree with him wholeheartedly that Sure Start provides a great resource for vulnerable children and their families right across Northern Ireland. I hope that we will be able to have that matter dealt with through the task force that is set up to look at all these matters. As I have said, there is flexibility, so we should be looking at Sure Start and other schemes that are there for our young people. We recognise that, for some young people, home is not the safest place. School is probably a much safer place for some young people, and some very much need the support of their youth leaders. I hope that we can come to this place and make an announcement in relation to Sure Start and other youth programmes in the very near future.

Ms Ennis: I thank the Ministers for their statement. I am delighted that a tentative return to sport has been announced. Personally, I am excited to get home to get the football boots and gumshield hoked out and get back to kicking a football. Does the Minister agree that facilitating a return to sport is crucial for our recovery and our mental and physical well-being? Does the Minister agree that continuing that engagement with sporting bodies and clubs will be critical as we make our way out of lockdown so that we keep our kids and young people on the pitch where they belong?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. Yes; as I understand it, there has been ongoing discussion between the Department for Communities and the sporting bodies. They are very keen. You will have heard a lot of stellar people telling us that we need to allow our young people, in particular, to get back to sport for their well-being. We spoke quite a lot at the Executive about the need to be out in the fresh air and enjoying sport. That is why 10 people from two households can undertake outdoor sporting activities from 1 April; that is before Easter. After Easter, it will be sports training, which is governed by the sporting bodies, of up to 15 people; again, that is not indoors but outside. The sporting codes will welcome that, as will a lot of young people, and not so young people, who want to get out.


5.30 pm

Ms Armstrong: I thank the First Minister. I want to follow up on the comment that has just been made about mental health in the community. Next Tuesday, I hope to take part in a day of reflection that has been called for by Marie Curie and others. When I think about the community and voluntary sector, I think of a sector that will be looking forward to the phased reopening, as we all are, but they are exhausted. It is a community and voluntary sector that has supported us throughout the whole of the pandemic. Many of them have not yet received letters of offer of funding to keep them going. Can we help those who have supported us the most during the pandemic and make sure that they are aware of when they can get back, because they will be providing the community with the mental health support that we have missed?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. I, too, hope to take part in the Marie Curie day of reflection. We are thinking about the fact that we have been dealing with this issue for a year. I remember standing here and saying that I hoped that we would be in a much better place by Christmas. That was at the start of all of this. Here we are in March, still dealing with these terrible issues.

Our voluntary and community sector organisations and individuals have been absolute heroes in many communities across Northern Ireland and have gone the extra mile in delivering and in dealing with isolation. As the Member will know, the Red Cross brought us a report recently about the real problems of isolation that are being experienced. We hope that the task force can look at the issues with isolation. The Member also asked about funding. Given that we are coming towards the end of March, I would be concerned if bodies have not received their letter of offer but which have been successful in gaining funding. If the Member wants to come to us about any body in particular, she should do so and we will look at that.

Mr McNulty: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her statement and her answers. About a month ago, 15 sporting bodies were represented in a correspondence to you and your fellow First Minister relating to the reopening of youth sports. Those sporting bodies have not received a response from you. In advance of the review, there was anticipation, discussion and huge excitement about the potential restart of youth sports, yet I see no detail in relation to that in the statement. Can the First Minister provide clarity on when a return to youth sports will take place?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. We decided that we should make sport available for people of all ages, so 10 people from two households can undertake outdoor sporting activities after 1 April. If the Member is talking about organised sport, then, after 12 April, outdoor sports training will be resumed, in small groups of up to 15 people, by sports clubs that are affiliated with recognised sports governing bodies. However, indoor spaces will be closed. We are listening not just to youth sports but to all sports. That is important for people of all ages.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Ministers for their statement. In my East Derry constituency, businesses in Portrush, Portstewart and Portballintrae thrive and, oftentimes, depend heavily on tourism. Will the Executive give them appropriate prior notice to reopening so that they can get in the stock and supplies that are necessary for reopening? Does the First Minister recognise the huge impact that the lockdowns have had on towns that depend on tourism?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. I acknowledge that there are towns and villages in East Londonderry and across Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, that are very dependent on tourism. We recognise that the tourism industry has taken a huge hit. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we had built the tourism sector up to larger than it had ever been, so we hope that a lot of people will decide to stay at home during the summertime for their holidays this year.

Hopefully, people will be able to visit all the beautiful parts of Northern Ireland, but it is important that we continue to speak with the tourism sector. As I understand it, officials from our Department had a discussion with Colin Neill from Hospitality Ulster yesterday, and we will continue those conversations, because the Member is absolutely right to say that the sector needs to have advance notice. It does, because the businesses need to bring in their stock and their staff and train them up and get them into a position where they are ready to welcome guests. That is why there needs to be a space between an announcement and the time that they will open. We will continue that engagement with the sector. We know that it needs that advance notice, and we hope that we will be able to give that to it.

Miss Woods: I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for coming here and for their statement. I am looking forward to getting my football boots back on. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I have two detailed constituency queries that I received this afternoon to ask about. First, Mr Stalford mentioned Sure Start, so when will the Sure Start development programme for two- to three-year-olds begin? Secondly, does the outdoor sports training from 12 April include outdoor yoga that adheres to social distancing? If not, could it?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her queries. Yoga can absolutely take place outside after 12 April. I cannot see a reason why you would not be able to engage in yoga outside in groups of no more than 15.

As I indicated to my friend Mr Stalford, the request on the Sure Start development programme from the Department of Education has gone to the task force, so I hope that we will have a response from it. It is very important that those young people have that support, and I hope that that will be dealt with sooner rather than later.

Mr Allister: I welcome the overdue return of our children to school, but this timid Tuesday will be a disappointment to many, most particularly our retailers and critical businesses. The last statement was built around a buzz phrase about being data-driven. This statement is built around a new buzz phrase, "social contact capital", although it seems to be blighted by a lot of Executive austerity when it comes to spending that capital. If we are still data-driven, what targets were attained today to enable the first triggering of relaxation? What will be the next targets for each of the data transmissions, hospital admissions etc that will enable the next phase to be triggered? I think that the public should be trusted by knowing that rather than having to wait hopefully. They should know what the standards are, surely.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I have a lot of sympathy for his point. As I think I indicated in my speech, "social contact capital" is a phrase from the Department of Health. My goodness, has this year not been a year of new phrases and new acronyms that we have become familiar with? I think that it is about the headroom that we have to make these decisions.

I wish that we had been able to have all children back at school before Easter. I think that I have been very clear on that. We are in a position now where we at least have certainty for those young people. All primary-school children and years 12 to 14 will go back before Easter, and the rest of the children go back directly after Easter.

We have, I think, set out that these are cautious steps. I know that there are some in the Chamber who feel that they are too cautious, but we are led by the advice that is given to us by our medical advisers, and they are saying that this is what is available to us at this point.

I will certainly pass the Member's remarks on more clarity about data to the Department of Health. As I said, I do not disagree with him. I think that it is important that we are as open as possible with the community so that it can understand why these decisions are being taken.

Dr Archibald: I thank the First Ministers for their statement. First Minister, the business support schemes, for which there is a whole raft of acronyms, have been really important in helping businesses during the restrictions. However, families and businesses will also need practical support to rebuild once we are able to reopen our economy and society, which, obviously, will be guided by the pathway. One of the support schemes that has been proposed is the high street voucher scheme. Will you give an update on that?