Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 9 July 2020
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Christopher Stalford (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Andy Allen MBE
Ms Kellie Armstrong
Ms Clare Bailey
Mr Cathal Boylan
Ms Paula Bradshaw
Mr Jonathan Buckley
Mr Gerry Carroll
Miss Jemma Dolan
Mr Gordon Dunne
Mr Mark Durkan
Mrs Sinéad Ennis
Mr Harry Harvey
Ms Sinéad McLaughlin
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín
Mr John O'Dowd
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Ms Emma Rogan
Mr John Stewart
Mr Mervyn Storey
Ministerial Statement: Communities
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): I welcome members to this meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response. Before I move to the agenda, I welcome the Minister for Communities, Carál Ní Chuilín, to her post. I know that all members will join me in wishing the former Minister — I am sure that she will be the Minister again soon — a very speedy recovery from her recent illness.
Agenda item 1 is the minutes of proceedings for the previous meeting, which was held on 25 June. Members are asked to note those minutes, which I have agreed. Members should also note that the minutes of evidence from that meeting have been published in the Official Report and are available on the Committee's web page.
Agenda item 2 is a statement from the Minister for Communities. The Speaker received notification on 3 July that the Minister wished to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at today's meeting. A copy of the statement that the Minister intends to deliver is included in your pack.
Once again, I welcome the Minister for Communities to this meeting of the Committee. Before the Minister makes her statement, I remind members that, following it, there will be an opportunity to ask questions but not to make speeches. Members who ask short, sharp, focused questions will be invited to ask a supplementary question if they wish. Members who engage in long preambles, however, may find that they do not get to ask a supplementary question. I ask members for their cooperation and I will, of course, ask the Minister to return the favour by giving succinct answers. I invite the Minister to make her statement, which should be heard without interruption.
This is my first time at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee and, apparently, this is the way that it works. I note that we were well and truly slapped there before we even started.
Without further ado, I want to thank the Committee for inviting me here today. I am proud to carry on the good work that my colleague Deirdre Hargey has been doing, and as we begin to move now from the COVID response into recovery and renewal, this is a great opportunity for me to update the Committee on my Department’s ongoing work to support our vulnerable communities and households through this crisis and beyond.
It goes without saying that my Department’s swift and decisive response would not have been possible without the dedication, hard work and cooperation, not only of my officials and those in other Departments but our partners in the voluntary and community sector, councils, sporting bodies, faith-based organisations, and the many grassroots groups and community workers who worked with each other and with my Department to put in place real, practical solutions and supports for those who are most in need. I am sure that members will join me in thanking them for the difference that they have made and continue to make in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members will be aware that, in the June monitoring round, the Department received COVID-19 allocations of £88·8 million, comprising £66·1 million that was previously agreed by the Executive and £22·7 million that was allocated against new bids of £24·7 million. At this early point in the year, it is anticipated that the COVID allocation will be spent in full. As we move into the recovery phase, it is vital that my Department’s financial and staff resources are directed to delivering on my longer-term strategic priorities, while at the same time continuing to respond to the immediate needs of vulnerable people.
One of my Department’s early interventions, in partnership with Advice NI, was the establishment of a freephone COVID-19 community helpline. That service is still available to ensure that the most vulnerable and those at risk of COVID-19 have access to practical support services and emotional support at this most difficult time. My Department also made a significant number of emergency changes to social security benefits. Those include changes to operational practices and legislative changes.
All face-to-face personal independence payment (PIP) and disability living allowance (DLA) assessments, as well as attendance allowance reviews, were paused in March, initially until June 2020. However, given the ongoing social-distancing requirements, I have extended that easement to safeguard people’s health and safety while ensuring that my Department continues to provide the most appropriate support to disabled people.
I will keep this position under review, and my officials are due to meet the advice sector again to keep them updated and to brief them on next steps.
At the outset of the pandemic, my Department put in place measures to provide financial easement for those with a benefit-related overpayment or loan due to COVID–19. Around 90,000 cases were adjusted, which went some way to alleviating financial pressure during the emergency period. A rolling approach will be adopted to restart deductions from this week. This will begin with off-benefit deductions, with all deductions expected to be back in place by the autumn.
To make financial assistance available to people here, 17 sets of emergency regulations, relating to social security and discretionary support, have been tabled by my Department in a compressed time frame.
To reflect the changing public health guidance, as COVID-19 lockdown measures and shielding advice is eased, amendments have been made to statutory sick pay to ensure that it continues to be available as a financial safety net for individuals who are currently shielding, or if any future periods of shielding should be needed. To help people follow self-isolation advice, if recommended, statutory sick pay has also been amended to support the Executive’s contact tracing strategy. This is an important measure to provide an incentive to individuals to follow public health advice, keeping people safe and protecting our health service.
Access to food remains a critical element of the emergency response. Working collaboratively across Departments, health and social care trusts, councils, local community organisations and the private sector, my Department put in place a programme to distribute food to vulnerable people across all communities. My Department invested £10 million in this service, and over 184,000 food boxes have now been delivered.
Access to food was further bolstered by putting in place arrangements for those who are shielding to get priority online shopping delivery slots with major retailers. The food box initiative was set up as a short-term emergency response to support the most vulnerable. It will continue to be available until 31 July to those who are shielding and in critical need of support.
Arrangements were also put in place to ensure the safe delivery of medication to vulnerable and isolated people who cannot arrange for anyone to collect their prescriptions.
These vital services ensure that those in most need in our society, who do not have a support network of family and friends to help them through the emergency, have had access to basic food and medical supplies. The services also allow those at risk of social isolation to see a friendly face and know that we, as a society, have not forgotten about them. There is a tremendous amount of goodwill and generosity in action across our society, which is particularly welcome at this challenging time.
A number of other strands in the overall emergency response programme relate to food support, and my Department has provided financial support to allow councils to deliver directly or to enable the very important work of local voluntary and community organisations at grassroots level. To date, £1·5million, which included an element for food, has been distributed to the voluntary and community sector through the councils.
My Department has undertaken a review of the overall access to food programme, with the aim of supporting a more sustainable approach to help those who need help to access food.
The Department will provide an additional investment of up to £875,000 to FareShare, a national network of charitable food redistributors, to deliver an increased supply of food to community food providers. In addition, the social supermarkets pilot programme has shown positive outcomes to date and has been extended to allow for the consideration of a full programme being rolled out. This reflects the value of wraparound supports alongside the access to food programme, as well as offering a possible platform for pathways to employment. The Department is developing a supporting business case, with the aim of having the appropriate network established by October.
In the longer term, the Department will factor the findings from the emergency programme into the development of an overarching anti-poverty strategy, to include a clear set of actions on food poverty.
My Department has taken the lead in responding to the challenges that community and voluntary organisations face in introducing a range of flexibilities in terms and conditions around grant funding, including advancing six months' funding for salaries and running costs, and reduced bureaucracy. To enable that to happen, my Department has prepared the necessary contracts for funding, and paid out over £13 million in grant payments to just under 400 organisations, excluding councils, since 1 April. The councils received £4·36 million. That was funded via the community support programme, which provided £1·32 million, the COVID-19 community support fund, which provided £1·5 million, advice services, which provided £890,000, and £650,000 through welfare reform initiatives. On 1 July, I was able to announce that additional funding of £4·5 million had been secured for the COVID-19 community support fund, on top of the £1·5 million that had been released in April. That has enabled local councils to directly support grassroots organisations to help those in greatest need.
I am grateful to my colleague Minister Hargey who launched the COVID-19 charities fund on 15 June 2020. Some 180 applications have been received, to date, requesting funding totalling £4·5 million, and 38 grants, totalling £643,000, have been distributed. In addition, 340 applications are in progress. That suggests that the total spend will be around £10 million, but the position will become clearer when the fund closes for applications on 10 July. I will update members on the final position and, if the fund has a remaining balance, I will present proposals on how that will be spent.
I commend our delivery partner, the National Lottery Community Fund, which has risen to the challenge of getting money, speedily, to the bank accounts of hard-pressed charities. This week, I heard, at first hand, about the impact of the emergency funding. I am delighted that my Department has been able to support Action Cancer, with a grant of £75,000. That will be greatly appreciated by 850 women who have been anxiously awaiting vital cancer screening.
I am conscious that other sectors are facing significant challenges at this time. Following the initial announcement of a £1·5 million COVID-19 creative support fund to enable artists, creative practitioners and small to medium-sized institutions to work on new projects, I have announced a further £4 million. Work is ongoing to assess where that will be best spent and to establish the requirement for recovery of the sector moving forwards.
Following the announcement, on Sunday, of a further £33 million investment in culture, arts and heritage institutions, I will be making strong representations to my Executive colleagues, at the earliest opportunity, on how that money should be spent to support the local arts, culture and heritage sector, which has a vital role to play in keeping spirits high and in promoting creativity in these difficult times.
I recognise that sporting organisations at every level, from grassroots to those who compete at an international level, are facing serious financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. My Department and Sport NI have supported the sports sector by providing financial and practical advice. Sport NI immediately paid to sports’ governing bodies grants that were due to them under existing lottery programmes. We also launched the sports hardship fund, which, with a fund of £1·245 million, will enable 620 clubs to receive a grant of £2,000 to assist with essential maintenance costs for their facilities. I have recently secured a bid for £2 million through the June monitoring round. It will be used to continue to support those clubs, governing bodies and sporting organisations that are experiencing hardship as they move into the recovery period, and it will help the sector build resilience, capacity and capability moving forward.
In addition, Minister Hargey made the case for clubs to be included in the eligibility criteria for the £25,000 hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism scheme. That has enabled around 80 sports clubs to benefit from that funding.
On a practical level, Sport NI has developed a portfolio of advice and guidance for the sector. It is aligned to the Executive’s five-step plan and is based on medical and scientific evidence. That portfolio is available online.
The Department and Sport NI continue to provide support to the sector as it takes gradual steps for a safe return to sport as restrictions ease.
I am conscious that the impact of the crisis on construction and tourism has created a significant challenge for the heritage sector. My Department cares for 190 state care monuments, and I am pleased that we have reopened the sites where it is safe to do so. We are also working closely with the wider heritage sector as it looks to the future.
The retail and hospitality sectors have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus crisis, and the road to recovery for them presents a particular challenge. With the Executive announcing the easing of restrictions for retail and hospitality sectors, guidance for urban centres and green spaces was published on 29 June to provide owners and operators of public spaces, including councils and landlords, with information and examples of measures that may be undertaken to adapt and manage public spaces in order to help social distancing. The outdoor spaces close to hotels, bars, restaurants and cafes can be used by those businesses to deliver their services, while ensuring the safety of staff and customers and keeping under consideration the impacts of the measures on people with disabilities and other groups.
My Department owns sites in town and city centres that have been acquired for regeneration purposes; for example, Bank Square and Blackstaff Square in Belfast. It also owns civic and public spaces in city and town centres, and we have made those available, where that is helpful, to support safe queuing, social distancing or spill-out space for cafes, bars and restaurants. Minister Hargey wrote to council chief executives on 11 June, outlining how the Department was working to support town and city centres in their recovery and encouraging councils to make more use of the existing pavement cafe legislation. My officials are finalising a business case for a revitalisation programme to support our towns and city centres in recovering from the impact of COVID-19. I also recently announced a £300,000 support fund for business improvement districts so that they can continue to play a key role in bringing local businesses and other stakeholders together to help them regenerate their areas and to improve their local trading environment.
My Department continues to provide assurances to households facing difficulties in paying their rent. We received initial commitments from the Housing Executive and all of our housing associations to treat such cases with extreme sensitivity. Minister Hargey also postponed the Housing Executive’s rent increase for 2020-21 until October of this year. As well as providing strengthened protections for private renters during the COVID-19 crisis through the introduction of legislation that requires that private landlords give tenants a 12-week notice to quit period, my Department has produced guidance to assist tenants and landlords — social and private — to remain safe and secure and to comply with obligations while observing social distancing guidelines. Those documents are hosted on the DFC website and nidirect and are linked on the websites of partner organisations such as Housing Rights, councils and housing providers. They are regularly reviewed and have been and will continue to be updated as COVID-19 arrangements evolve.
Like Minister Hargey, I am very aware of the impact that the restriction on house moves was having on many households, with many individuals and families being forced to live in unsuitable accommodation because they were prevented from moving into more appropriate housing. Housing officials worked with colleagues across the Executive and experts across the housing sector to analyse the evidence and to produce guidance to permit the housing market to reopen from 14 June. Of course, that action was made possible only because of the progress made over the last few months in reducing the spread of coronavirus here. In that context, it must be emphasised that the reopening of the housing market does not represent a return to normality. The process of finding and moving into a new home is different. Everyone involved in the process has had to adopt practices and procedures to ensure that the risk of the spread of coronavirus is reduced as far as possible. That includes doing more of the process online, such as initial virtual viewings, the use of appointment systems and strict infection control procedures before, during and after viewings. With those new practices and procedures in place, the house-moving process is as safe as it can be, and that has allowed households to recommence or to start the process of looking for a new home.
In her statement to the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, Minister Hargey outlined the importance of protecting the homeless during the crisis. The Housing Executive set up a dedicated team to manage its response to the crisis and has put in place interventions to support homeless individuals or those threatened with homelessness. The Housing Executive is drawing up an exit strategy that will assess and evaluate the measures that it put in place to address homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak and consider what long-term strategies will need to be put in place to support those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness in the long term. I will continue to take all possible measures to prevent vulnerable people from sleeping on our streets, and I commend all those who have worked with us to make sure that they are kept safe. Additional funding of £7 million has been allocated for homelessness. That has allowed the Housing Executive to deal with the initial surge and will allow it to take more long-term actions as we go through the recovery process.
I acknowledge the joint working with the Department of Health. It provided funding to the Housing Executive to provide accommodation for homeless individuals with no recourse to public funds, which ensured that those residents were protected from contracting COVID-19 and enabled them to comply with government guidance on shielding, self-isolation and social distancing.
Executive colleagues approved £10 million in funds for the Supporting People programme, which, along with the unfreezing of £3 million in Supporting People restricted reserves, will be used to address staff shortages and mounting pressure in that area. That funding allocation represents my commitment to the vulnerable people in the Supporting People schemes and the staff providing support to them. We support them and are working hard to ensure their safety and well-being. I also acknowledge the very quick response from our Finance Minister in allocating £3·5 million to be used for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for singly commissioned Supporting People schemes.
Our partnership with councils has been vital in responding to the crisis, and I am well aware of the financial pressures that face them, as they have lost practically all their self-generated income while much of their operational expenditure and, in particular, staff costs remain. While £20·3 million was allocated to councils for quarter 1 of 2020-21 to assist them with financial pressures as a result of COVID-19, as we move forward, my Department continues to work closely with councils to identify the continued financial pressures and constraints arising as we move through the various phases of recovery. It is clear that we cannot expect that council finances will return to pre-COVID-19 levels immediately, and I have asked that officials look at council pressures for the July to September 2020 period. Councils have highlighted concerns about any potential economic downturn with the resultant reduction in the rates base and how that could have a significant longer-term impact on the financial sustainability of each of our councils.
Finally, as we move out of the response phase and plan for our recovery, it is important that we build our operational resilience in preparation for any further wave of COVID-19 or any other disruption to our business, and plans remain in place to enable the rapid scaling-up of contingency operations should that occur. My Department has taken considerable steps to support staff during the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the provision of ICT to enable working from home and by ensuring that office buildings across our estate are safe for increased numbers of staff to return.
I am committed to working with colleagues across the Executive and in local government and with our stakeholders and partners to ensure that we face the challenges in a cohesive way, with the well-being of our citizens, our communities and our economy at the heart of all our decision-making. I thank Committee members for their attention, and I am happy to take questions.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Thank you, Minister. Before I call the Chair of the Committee for Communities to ask her question, I inform members that I have 21 names on my list. If everyone asks two questions, that is 42 questions. The time for questions on the statement allows roughly 60 minutes. Do the maths, and you see the need to be succinct.
Ms P Bradley (Committee Chair - Committee for Communities): I join in wishing Deirdre Hargey the very best. On a purely selfish level, we want that Minister back in our Committee pretty soon.
Minister, you spoke about the £20·3 million that was allocated to councils. Even if councils are able to open up, we know that a lot of their self-generated income was subsidised by ratepayers. Have you had any conversations with the Minister of Finance around the estimated penny product and the rates guarantee that councils asked for when they last briefed us?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for her questions. My officials are working very closely with local government. They gave a fairly good presentation to the Committee, so you will know that they are looking at the next quarter from July to September. They are also liaising with colleagues across the Executive to ensure that we provide appropriate and speedy support to councils. It is accepted that all the opportunities for councils to raise their own revenue are practically defunct during this period. Officials have done due diligence for the first quarter. They will do the same due diligence for the second quarter to see what spend is needed and what we can do to ensure councils' sustainability.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. I absolutely agree that her Department has worked very closely with councils. We have seen that in any of the briefings that we have had from her Department.
Given the statement released by the chief executive of Belfast City Council last night and the problems faced there, when does she feel that it would be appropriate to get involved, if she has not already, to steer that council forward?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I saw the statement last night and have heard some of the commentary today. I will talk to my officials to see what action, if any, I can take or it is appropriate to take. Belfast City Council has had difficulties for a long time. The statement was certainly very concerning. I need to be careful about what I can and should do. I urge all leaders in Belfast City Council to come together despite the difficulties. Belfast City Council, which I was a member of from 2003 to 2007, has come through many difficulties. We need to knuckle down and see what we can do collectively; hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, she referred to the recent allocation of £33 million to the arts, culture and heritage sector. Will she elaborate on how best she thinks that that could be spent and on what initial discussions she is having?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Some of the commentary that I have heard is that £33 million is not enough. OK, but I know that there are many sectors that would certainly appreciate an injection like that. There has also been some commentary about how it should be spent. I notice that the Arts Council has an online survey asking artists and creatives for feedback on how it should be spent. For me, the statement is very clear: it needs to be spent on arts, culture and heritage. We need to look particularly at freelance artists, creatives and musicians who could not access any benefits at all during this crisis and who did not get access to universal credit or any discretionary funds. We need to look at a hardship fund to help those people; that, in itself, will help the economy. We then need to look at how that money will be used for venues, not just in Belfast but right across the board.
Ms Ennis: I concur with the Minister's comments. We know that the issues affecting the arts sector predate COVID. The year-on-year funding reduction as a result of austerity had huge impacts on the arts sector. I urge the Minister to make the case to Executive colleagues again that, across the Executive, we need to fundamentally change the way that we view the arts. Yes, the arts provide entertainment but these are also highly skilled individuals and people who, as the Minister said, deserve some sort of stabilisation fund in line with what the hospitality and other sectors were able to access during the COVID crisis.
Mr Durkan: It is good to see you back, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for her statement, and commend her work, that of her predecessor and her Department at this extremely challenging time.
I pay particular tribute to the many volunteers and groups who have been a lifeline in their communities. Will the Minister outline whether she intends, along with ministerial colleagues, to look at how some of those voluntary groups, who fall outside normal DFC funding streams, such as neighbourhood renewal, can be supported with their core costs to enable them to do their vital work?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for his question. He has been consistent in asking about this. I am looking at that. There might not be a budget headline in the Department for particular funds throughout the COVID crisis, but money has been made available. I am looking at what additional support we can get in. The member is right: groups have done vital work, outside neighbourhood renewal or areas at risk, and they need to be supported.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answer and commitment. The small grant for volunteering has not been renewed this year. Over the past four years, that small grant enabled some of those small groups and organisations to keep their doors open and lights on. Does the Minister concur that it seems perverse that, at a time when their value has never been more evident, or the need for them as great, those groups cannot now avail themselves of that vital assistance?
Ms Ní Chuilín: As I said to the member, the groups have applied through different routes in the Department, including for money that the Department has put into arm's-length bodies and the councils. The volunteering small grants programme that was launched in 2013 was very successful. I will look at that as part of an anti-poverty strategy, because some of that work, particularly volunteering, should be reflected in that. Last year, the Department allocated £521,000 to 662 organisations. That is evidence that a small bit of money goes a long way and has a great outcome for people.
Mr Allen: I declare an interest as a charity trustee. Minister, you provided a helpful update on the COVID-19 charities fund. I appreciate that you cannot pre-empt it at this stage, but you said that you suspect that it will be a £10 million scheme overall. Given that £15·5 million was allocated initially, dedicated towards a charities scheme, do you have the flexibility to re-prioritise that in your Department or will it be repackaged for the charitable sector?
Ms Ní Chuilín: It will be a bit of both. I said that any remaining money would be reallocated, but the indications are that there will be no remaining money. We might need additional money. This is relevant to the question that Mark asked about volunteers. A lot of those charities have volunteers and voluntary schemes that have been helping people for years. Whatever money is there will be well used. We may need to look for opportunities to get additional funds.
Mr Allen: I do not require a supplementary question.
Ms Armstrong: I will take this opportunity to thank you, Minister, and all your staff, particularly those working in the front line at jobs and benefits offices, who, behind the scenes, have helped so many through this.
You mentioned the revitalisation programme to support towns and city centres to recover from the impact of COVID. In particular, you talked about using the pavement cafe system. In rural areas, it is difficult for pavement cafes to be facilitated. What are you doing with other Departments about that?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for her question. It is timely, because Minister Poots and I are meeting this afternoon. I am looking at the revitalisation programme for £5,000 and above. He and I are both looking at what we can do for £5,000 and below. As I said at the Committee yesterday, some villages do not have footpaths to allow for tables and chairs to be put outside but that does not mean that they do not need support.
That is the sort of initiative that we are looking at. I am working with Minister Mallon on the development of local councils' licensing regimes for cafes, and using whatever open spaces that we can. We are also working with the Department for the Economy to try to help those small businesses and give them every opportunity to ensure that they flourish as much as possible under the circumstances.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister. I will use my second question to draw out another aspect, which is sport. Can you provide clarification on when the £2 million that has just been allocated will be announced and when there will be an update on contact training in groups for up to 30 people?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Taking the last point first, we had an Executive meeting today, and that is not long finished. Obviously, easements are going through, but I do not want to pre-empt any announcement that is coming. We certainly looked at that issue.
I anticipate that an announcement about the £2 million will be made very soon. We did ask for more money, but we did not get it. We will certainly be looking at opportunities in future monitoring rounds and, indeed, at any other opportunities to try and get some money out to the grassroots organisations in particular.
Mr Buckley: The Minister will be acutely aware of the impact of COVID-19 on the housing market, which, in turn, could place further stress on the social housing stock. One of the most alarming aspects is the impact on first-time buyers in Northern Ireland, where the four main banks are asking for higher deposits, making it virtually impossible for them to get on the housing ladder. Will the Minister agree to engage earnestly with the Economy Minister and the Finance Minister and present a united front, meeting with banks to encourage greater flexibility and a return to low-deposit mortgages?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I certainly will give the commitment, and any commitments that I give will be in earnest. Watching the news last night, I saw that there was an announcement from the British Treasury about stamp duty while there were other announcements that appear to show that what you get on the one hand will be taken away from the other. In particular, some families who had the opportunity to move into a home have now been priced out of it, and none of us want that to happen. I will take up any opportunities with Executive colleagues after today to see what we can do.
Mr Buckley: Continuing on the theme of housing, the Minister will be aware of the Chancellor's announced green recovery scheme for home insulation in an attempt to stimulate local growth post-COVID-19. Has the Minister considered extending this scheme to Northern Ireland homeowners?
Ms Ní Chuilín: That was an England-only announcement, as far as I could see. We would certainly like to see some Barnett consequentials from it. Any green schemes, including retrofitting, that not only benefit people who are living in fuel poverty but which will help the construction industry, particularly in new methods of construction, will be welcome. This morning, when I was looking through the papers, I saw that it was an England-only announcement and that we had yet to benefit from any Barnett consequentials.
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the Minister's comments about the overall anti-poverty strategy, including direct learning regarding access to food. Can the Minister provide an update on the progress of the development of the anti-poverty strategy?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I spoke to the Committee yesterday, and I have met officials on this since coming into the Department. I have had a webinar with a lot of groups that were involved in the emergency leadership group. They went through all the emergency arrangements from 20 March, and central to that and acknowledged by all those people was the work that the grassroots groups did in the community to get the food and all those supports out. They all said yesterday that being able to scale up and scale down and help neighbours who are really vulnerable has to be reflected in the anti-poverty strategy, and I concur with that because we have all heard well-used phrases, particularly in winter time, about heating or eating. An anti-poverty strategy needs to tackle that head on.
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I look forward to working with her on that. You touched briefly on this, but an issue in many of our homes is fuel poverty. Can you provide an update on the affordable warmth scheme?
Ms Ní Chuilín: There are lots of great ideas and lots of policy developments out there. We have all been lobbied by many the people, and the fact that we are getting lobbied does not mean to say that all the lobbies that are coming to us are not good. However, we need to make sure that people can live in a house that not only they can afford to rent but that they can afford to run. We need to make sure that people, particularly those who are on a low-to-middle income, are facilitated as much as possible. That is something that we are looking at, and, hopefully, we can bring that forward in the autumn.
Mr Storey: Sadly, the Minister's message today will be tarnished and damaged by the actions of her friends and colleagues in west Belfast last week. Much in the statement is about social distancing, keeping the law, keeping the rules and so on, and what happened last week will detract from much of the good work that has been done by the Department.
The Minister referred to £10 million that has provided 184,000 food boxes? Will she give the House a breakdown of the geographical spread of that particular amount of money?
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Before the Minister rises, I would say that she should answer the question at the end. Mr Storey's introduction did not directly relate to her statement. It is simply the question about food boxes.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. That is exactly what I was going to do anyway, and I am sure that Mervyn knew that I would do that. [Laughter.]
I do not have a geographical breakdown, but we will need to get one because it is important that that level of support is reflected. To give the member some assurance, the criterion is people who are shielding for medical reasons. It is not a political or ideological criterion. That is what it is.
I suspect that it will take some time to breakdown the information from GPs. I have had difficulties, even as an MLA, in that some of my constituents — I am sure that we have all had this — did not get their shielding letter until a lot of weeks ago, when they should have had it a lot earlier. I will certainly endeavour to get the member that information.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for that commitment and I look forward to seeing the breakdown.
The statement refers to the work of the Housing Executive for the homeless and vulnerable. The Minister will be aware that a property in Portstewart in the East Londonderry constituency has raised public concern. It comes out of the fact that there is a shortage of properly structured and properly provided supported living. Will the Minister ensure, in conversations with the Housing Executive, that that particular type of provision will be made available? We can clearly see that there is a need for that at the moment.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for raising that. Under Supporting People — he will know from his tenure in the Department — there are much-needed funds to do a lot of work, particularly within families and communities that are vulnerable. What we do not need to do is put people in further jeopardy, or make them more vulnerable, in a property that will perhaps endanger them, emotionally, physically or mentally.
I think that I am aware of the property that the member is talking about. I am happy to talk to him about it afterwards. I would be willing to go to the Housing Executive to ensure that there is more appropriate accommodation to suit some of the people who need our help the most. What we do not need to do is put them somewhere that will put them at risk.
Mr Boylan: The Minister mentioned strength and protection for the private rented sector following COVID. Does she intend to develop further protections and regulations for the private rented sector?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for his question. In short, the answer is yes. It was a priority for Minister Hargey, and I will continue with that.
At the start of the emergency, when the legislation came through, particularly about the extension of the notice to quit, that helped. Given the fact that more housing benefit is paid into the private rented sector than the social housing sector, we need to look at strengthening and furthering some of those regulations, both to protect tenants and to protect those landlords who want to be good landlords who offer good protections for their tenants and their property.
Mr Boylan: Thank you, Minister. In the light of that, does the Minister agree that there needs to be a big roll-out in social housing to give people an opportunity of ownership? What is the time frame for rolling out some of those regulations?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We are going to come back to look at rolling out the legislation further. At the start of the week, the Department for Communities introduced its first bit of legislation not done under the accelerated passage procedure.
That was the Pension Schemes Bill, so it had nothing to do with housing. We need to look at that.
In answer to all this, I am not saying that the private rented sector is bad and the public sector is good — we need a blend of both — but one thing that we all agree on is that we need more social housing. We need to increase the supply to reduce the demand. Unfortunately, there have been inconsistencies in the private rented sector. There is no security of tenure, and the conditions and standards of housing that people live in are not as good as they are in the social sector. We need to have better and stronger regulation of the private rented sector.
Ms McLaughlin: I add my appreciation to the Minister for her statement today and for the work that her Department has done throughout the pandemic. It has been very well received in my community. However, in February, her Department stated that it was targeting resources to ensure that they engaged with those furthest away from work and those in the constituencies that have the lowest employment rates. She will be well aware that my constituency has very high levels of economic inactivity — almost one third of our working-age population is economically inactive — and that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Will the Minister tell me what she is doing to support those who are unable to work and to tackle economic inactivity in the Foyle constituency, please?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that a lot of the face-to-face support for people, particularly those who are long-term unemployed, was cancelled due to COVID-19. Some was restored, if not at the same level, through teleconferencing and telephone calls.
There are many reasons why people are unemployed, as the Member will know. Some are unemployed due to regional disparity; some due to physical and/or mental health problems; and others because there has been no consistent investment to create jobs and apprenticeships. She will probably be aware or the announcement that was made about apprenticeships, and I will work with my ministerial colleague Diane Dodds to see what we can do in a joined-up way to ensure that areas that have experienced long-term economic deprivation get an opportunity to change.
Ms McLaughlin: I totally agree that there are lots of reasons for economic inactivity, but some of the reasons for economic inactivity are down to bad policy as well. Poor childcare and social-care policies create barriers to employment, particularly for women. Will the Minister agree to cross-departmental collaboration with the Health, Economy and Education Departments to tackle economic inactivity, because it is pushing down Northern Ireland's productivity? Our economic inactivity is extremely high — the highest of all the regions in the UK.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will certainly commit to doing that work. I endeavoured, even at the webinar meeting, to look, in particular, at the budgeting process, given that we have heard about gender imbalance and economic imbalances that depend on where people live, and we all agree that we need to have a robust childcare strategy. You cannot offer people opportunities, on the one hand, when, on the other hand, they cannot avail themselves of them and, ironically, get sanctioned because they will not take a job that they really cannot afford because they do not have access to childcare. I will absolutely work with Health, Education and Economy on this.
Mr Nesbitt: First, can I check some figures with the Minister on the arts and sports? I see pots of £1·5 million, £4 million and £33 million for creative industries, culture, arts and heritage. Sport gets £3·245 million plus £2 million from the hospitality and leisure pot. Is that £38·5 million for the arts and £5·3 million for sport?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that is a very attractive figure, particularly if it is on the front page of the 'Belfast Telegraph' tonight. However, the Member will be aware that the £33 million came as a result of the statement through Barnett consequentials. If I could split it up and help other areas in my Department, I would, but that is not the case.
As I said in response to Kellie Armstrong, I think, I bid for additional money for sports and did not get it. I got £2 million of the £4 million that I bid for. I will commit to you and other members that I will continue to try to put money into sport, given the fact that a lot of the work at grassroots has been crucial, particularly during the COVID-19 period. Someone asked me about food parcels: many sporting organisations in my constituency and others were right at the middle of ensuring that the most vulnerable people were protected.
Mr Nesbitt: Given the fact that both sectors are Province-wide and have elite performers as well as grassroots performing in venues of various shapes and needs, a discrepancy of £33·2 million, you would agree, Minister, is not acceptable.
Ms Ní Chuilín: If there are further Barnett consequentials to come for sport — I anticipate that there will be — sport will get that. It is a bit disingenuous to say, first of all, that I have created that imbalance or that my Executive colleagues have created it. I am glad that you are not saying that. However, there is a big disparity in the figures. I will continue to try to bid for additional funds for sports. I will also continue to try to get additional funds for the arts, because, let us be honest — the member will know this from his own experience — any economic recovery must include our artists, our creative industries and all the rest. However, we have all enjoyed seeing our sportspeople and athletes on both the international and the local stage and even in grassroots groups. They, too, need our support. I will recommit to try to put additional money into sports wherever I get it and look forward, potentially, to more Barnett consequentials coming to sport.
Mr Dunne: Thank you for your statement, Minister. You have mentioned sport. You will be well aware that a large number of local sports clubs missed out on a previous scheme. There was a short lead-in time and limited funding. Can you assure us that more clubs will be included in the next funding round?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The member may already be aware that, at the time, his colleagues who are on the Committee for Communities, along with the rest of us, expressed disappointment to Sport NI about the way in which the hardship fund was managed. First of all, people did not get to know about it until the last minute; then there was a scramble. I do not mean that in a derogatory way, but there was a rush to get applications in. Many of them were extremely disappointed and remain so. I want to get more money, if possible, to those groups. Hopefully, the £2 million that I received in the June monitoring round will go some way to alleviate their pressures.
Mr Dunne: Will the Minister encourage small clubs, in particular, to work with Sport NI and assure us that any future funding will be spread equally across all sporting clubs, not just a few specific organisations?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The answer is yes, but we also need to look at the reality that soccer, rugby and the GAA make up over 80% of participation in sport. You cannot give a lesser — not a "lesser" sport but one that people do not participate in in the same numbers the same amount of money as those three codes. That would not be fair. However, the member is right to say that those small groups also need funds, regardless of whether they are involved in the big three. They need help, and I am committed to that; for example, there is boxing, MMA, gymnastics, rowing and all sorts, all of which have all achieved medals in international competitions. Even beneath all that, there are the walking clubs and all sorts. We need to try to get them some support.
Ms Rogan: I thank the Minister for her statement. Ensuring that everyone has some form of accommodation throughout the crisis has been a major positive step in the midst of the global pandemic. Can the Minister outline what steps she will take to continue that trend in the future?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We can all say with some pride — it is a mixture of pride and shame, really — that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we had no one sleeping on the streets of our towns and villages.
To be frank, they should not have been there in the first place, and we all need to make sure that they are not there again. I hate the term "rough sleepers". It obviously comes from someone who has never slept on a cardboard box in a shopfront. We need to make sure that there is proper and appropriate accommodation for people who, for all sorts of reasons, find themselves homeless. Regardless of whether they have an addiction or not, they are entitled to a bed and an address, and we will make sure that they get that.
Ms Rogan: We know the negative impact that COVID has had, and will continue to have, on our hospitality and tourism sector. I welcome the steps already taken by the Minister, some of which she outlined in her statement today. The much-needed reform of the liquor licensing laws would be welcomed by the sector at this time. Can she give us an update, and when does she plan to bring forward this legislation?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Again, we discussed liquor licensing today, and we are, hopefully, going to try to get it resolved as soon as possible. Liquor licensing has been about DSD and DFC for a long time and there have been loads of consultations and reviews on it. We just need to get it over the line, and I am sensing that we are nearly there. Hopefully, we will be able to make an announcement soon on the outcome.
Ms Bradshaw: Apologies, Minister. I was at the Health Committee; that is why I missed your statement. I have a question about the money from the Treasury that was announced for the arts. Given the urgency of the help needed for the arts sector, can you allocate that funding before the September monitoring round, so that the sector can get the preparations under way and the money spent before the end of this financial year in March?
Ms Ní Chuilín: First, we did cover it, and it was covered earlier. We want to try to get the money out as soon as we can. We need to ensure that as many people as possible in the arts and culture sector and the heritage sector are supported. It is a substantial amount of money. The member will be aware that some other groups have said that it is not enough, but it is a good start. Certainly, my priority will be to get it out as soon as possible and to try to help those musicians, freelancers and artists who did not get access to public funds, whether through universal credit or discretionary funds as a result of this crisis. They are living in dire straits, and they need our support.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for that commitment. Regarding broader and longer-term issues around the arts, you mentioned the word "recovery". Are you going to put together a specific plan for the recovery of the arts?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am going to have a meeting fairly soon with a lot of people involved in the arts sector who have come forward with ideas about recovery. I want to bring them together. I am aware that there are strategies out there, and I am aware that there are reviews and plans, but a lot of them are disjointed, so we just need to bring them together. Whether there is agreement or not, we need to get something done. So yes, I am aware, and I said, when you were not in the Chamber, that arts, culture and creativity have to be part of any economic recovery — they absolutely must, because they are just as important as hotels, bars, restaurants and all the rest. We need to ensure that they are supported.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. With the announcement of the allocation of lifeline support and funding for the arts, can the Minister give assurance that the money will be distributed fairly, reflecting the need for help in different areas, being mindful that the theatres' box-office losses will be in the region of £25 million and that the reopening of theatres will be difficult due to social-distancing requirements?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for his question. I am assuming that, when he spoke about different areas, he meant different geographical areas. I am a Belfast girl, as you know, and I am also aware that a lot of people have concerns that the bulk of this money will be spent on a few theatres in Belfast. However, I am going to look at it right across the board, because we made public investment across the board, and we need to sustain that investment. The people who live in those areas also should be entitled to have an expectation to go back and see their favourite musical, play, drama or whatever.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister. I also have concern about our museums, for example the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, which is not far from here. Can the Minister assure me that those visitor centres will also be catered for?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Again, the member might have seen the five-point recovery plan from the Executive. Museums and libraries put different dates in, because it is an operational issue for them. They know what they need to do, and we need to give them the respect and the space to do it. Depending on how they are organised, and what expectations there are, indoors and outdoors, they need to do that. Museums and libraries need to open as soon as possible to ensure that their budgets are protected.
Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the Minister's extensive statement, as it shows that when a Minister or, in this case, Ministers identify legislation or policy in their Department that is a problem, they change it. Debt recovery, which was suspended during the worst of the crisis, is to return. Can the Minister set out for us what measures she will put in place for the months ahead?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the member for his question. Debt recovery was, as I said in my statement, suspended for about 90,000 people for a three-month period. Some people wanted to continue their payments; there were also many who could not. Emergency measures were brought forward by DWP, but there was a suspension on the basis that it would recommence three days ago, and that is happening. It will done in a manner that does not put people under any more pressure. It will also be done in their adviser's office to ensure that they can meet the commitments that they have made, even if it means going back to the original agreements that they made.
Mr O'Toole: As the Minister will see, I am wearing a mask. Although it is slightly awkward, and I felt slightly self-conscious coming into the Chamber, it is really important that we all start to get used to wearing masks. Tomorrow, they become mandatory on public transport in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister advise us whether she is having discussions about making face coverings mandatory or least issuing guidance to some of the many sectors that her Department covers, such as arts and heritage venues, which, hopefully, will be opening soon, local council premises or benefits offices? Is she preparing guidance on face coverings?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have worked with the member's colleague Minister Mallon and other Executive colleagues on the mandatory wearing of face coverings on public transport. I visited a jobs and benefits office in east Belfast the other day and looked at the social-distancing measures that it is putting in place. Some people will need to wear face coverings, which could include visors, depending on their proximity to those with whom they work.
The answer is yes, but we are taking our lead from our arm's-length bodies on what they feel is appropriate. We are also working with our trade unions and their staff-side representatives to ensure that they are protected in the recovery and in coming out of this process.
Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Further to it, and going back to the arts sector and the welcome support that the Minister will be disbursing in the coming weeks, Paula Bradshaw mentioned the need for a long-term recovery plan for the arts sector. Will part of that plan be a strategy for mitigations in spaces, including face coverings and social distancing? Can the Minister work on a comprehensive plan that joins up how we reopen arts and cultural venues while making them safe and disbursing money for support in one, joined-up process?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that that is a reasonable ask. The Arts Council also needs to issue guidance and to work with big venues in open spaces, as well as in indoor spaces, to ensure that people are protected. That may mean wearing face coverings, and that is fair enough.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for her statement and for her work, and that of her Department, thus far. Minister, you will no doubt be aware that COVID-19 has posed particular problems for individuals suffering from gambling addiction or gambling disorders. The Gambling Commission in Great Britain, which does not operate here, recently conducted a survey in England, Scotland and Wales during COVID-19 that found that 60% of those who identified themselves as at-risk gamblers saw an increase in their online activity during that period. That is deeply worrying. I have no doubt that if we conducted a survey here, we would see a similar, if not worse, result.
I am conscious that this is a cross-departmental issue, but, as it falls under your remit, what is your Department doing to monitor the activity of problem gamblers and what more can we do, as an Assembly and Executive, to help them?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Robin Newton, I think, raised the issue in depth yesterday at the Committee. I have no jurisdiction over online gambling, which, as the member will be aware, is harder to regulate. He is absolutely right that, particularly during the crisis, the evidence from and the concerns and experience of people who work with those with addictions, including young people and families, are that there has been an increase in online gambling. That is really worrying. Certainly, in the consultation, the increase in online gambling was one of the things that, people said, they were concerned about.
There is a need for regulation. When you are looking at vulnerable people, particularly children, there needs to be greater responsibility in the industry. Some of the legislation introduced in England is not strong enough, so whatever we bring forward needs to include the necessary level of strength and prevention to put people off becoming addicted to gambling.
Mr Stewart: I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister's response and appreciate it.
I will pivot quickly to sports clubs, which you raised in the statement. Sadly, while some got support, many missed out. They are at the centre of our communities, and they have massive outdoor spaces. Whether it is our cricket clubs — I am a member of one — our GAA clubs or our football clubs, they have an opportunity to provide big beer gardens and places where people can socialise safely while maintaining socially distancing. Sadly, due to the restrictions on licensing laws, clubs are unable to sell alcohol outside, which is an anomaly that could be looked at quickly to maximise their ability to sell and provide a place where their clients can socially distance. Is that something that we could look at?
Ms Ní Chuilín: It has certainly been raised in the Executive: the difference between a "wet" and a "dry" bar. OK, I thought that they were all wet bars, but there you go. I think that it relates to the provision of food.
There is an anomaly. I do not want to pre-empt any discussions, but we are aware of the issue, and I will try to bring forward your concerns. Sports clubs and private clubs are involved in those discussions as well, as that is how they sustain their premises.
Ms Bailey: I agree with the Minister that £33 million for the arts and creative sector is nowhere near enough, no matter how welcome it is. It is because of that that the Music Venue Trust and other organisations that work with grassroots music venues, such as the Oh Yeah centre in Belfast and Sandino's in Derry city, have expressed serious concern that those venues will be lost to us for ever if we do not do what we can to save them and the vibrant community that they help. Will the Minister commit to some sort of ring-fenced financial assistance to save those venues?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I cannot commit to ring-fencing for those venues or any others at this stage, to be totally honest. If you commit to ring-fence for one part to the detriment of another, you will have the same argument. I am completely aware of the member's concerns and the point that she makes. Those venues will not operate unless we have the creatives, the artists, the groups, the bands and the acts back. Those artists and venues have been hit really hard during this period, so I commit to her and the Committee that I will try to get them as much support as I can, not only through this announcement but, potentially, through Executive colleagues and other funding measures.
Ms Bailey: In Northern Ireland, we have a long history of underinvestment in and, indeed, in-year funding cuts to the arts sector. We have the lowest levels of funding across these islands, which should be to our shame. We talk about the creatives, the artists and the freelances, but what can we do to encourage them not to leave the sector because they find it impossible to pay their bills and have done for years?
Ms Ní Chuilín: It is shameful that, even in that contribution, the Tory Government were not mentioned once. They have cut the block grant, including for the arts, for decades. That is what we are dealing with. We are also dealing with a mindset among people — not the member and certainly not others — who think that the arts are a luxury and that they do not contribute to mental health, to the economy and to the sustainability of families. Let us be clear about where the cuts have come from. If we are serious about sustaining the economy, then, we have to include our arts and cultural package as part of that. We cannot talk about tourism or revitalising towns and cities and economies if arts and culture are not part of that. We cannot expect artists to perform for nothing because it is good for tourism. People need to start paying up. I absolutely agree with the member but I also want to make sure that she and other members are clear where the gap has been for decades and will continue to be under that regime.
Mr Carroll: I missed the Minister's statement because I was attending the Health Committee. I hope that my question, which is about PIP decisions, has not been asked. The Minister will be aware that a lot of people in my constituency and in hers are still waiting for decisions on appeals and dates for appeals to be made. That situation has, obviously, been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. Is she aware of any plans to address that backlog and recruit more staff to the appeals service and the Department more generally to address that issue?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have answered several of the member's questions for written answer on that issue. Indeed he may have received those answers today, but if not he will get them soon. He is right that there needs to be a bit more focus on the appeals service because anybody who gets to that stage is already sick and vulnerable and going through a lot of stress. The process takes quite a long time; it takes a long time for an application to be assessed and, if it is appealed, it takes even longer. I think that that is unacceptable.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for her reply. I look forward to reading the replies to my questions. I want to ask about the upcoming PIP review. I appreciate that it may well be that Minister Hargey will be involved in that, but does she know whether looking at the actions of Capita and Atos Healthcare will be part of the PIP review?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Marie Cavanagh, who is well known to a lot of people in the community, will take the PIP review forward. If she did not say it in a statement, Minister Hargey certainly mentioned it in the publicity that she wanted to look at the potential for in-house facilities when contracts run out. I do not wish to disparage individuals who work in those organisations, however a scary amount of decisions have subsequently been overturned on appeal, so there is something wrong and we need to fix it.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Thank you, Minister. That concludes questions on the statement.
Agenda item 3 is the time, date and place of our next meeting. We have yet to receive confirmation from the Executive about when Ministers will next come to make a statement to the Committee. As soon as that confirmation has been received, written notification of the time, date and place of our next meeting will be issued to members in the usual way. I remind members that a plenary sitting of the Assembly is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 21 July and that Ministers may continue to make oral statements to the Assembly on sitting days. That concludes this meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee.