Official Report: Monday 23 March 2015

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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Order. I want to return to an issue from last week's Question Time to the Assembly Commission and exchanges between Mr Campbell and Ms Ruane. Having reviewed the Official Report and video footage, it is clear to me that Mr Campbell's behaviour was blatantly disrespectful and contrary to the standards of courtesy, good temper and moderation that are expected in debate in the House. Such schoolboy behaviour falls well short of how business should be conducted in a mature, elected legislature. I have to warn Mr Campbell that I will not let juvenile and disrespectful behaviour like that continue.

The Member is a senior and experienced parliamentarian in this Chamber and in Westminster and knows full well that he has to respect the rules of the House. The rules and conditions of the House are clearly laid out in Standing Orders and Speaker's rulings and conventions. Standing Order 78 provides for Assembly Members to speak in a language of their choice, and Speaker's rulings are clear that, when Members choose to speak in another language, they must also provide an English translation.

If the Member continues in this line of being deliberately disrespectful and discourteous to other Members when they are complying with the procedures of the House, I will have no option but to introduce a sanction against him. The Member is capable of making serious and valuable contributions to the business of the House, and he should concentrate on that.

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Unless you wish to make an apology, I will move on.

Mr Campbell: So you are not taking a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: No. I am giving you the opportunity to make an apology. If not, then please resume your seat.

Mr Campbell: Is it appropriate, Mr Speaker —

Mr Speaker: Please do not challenge the House or I will respond to that.

Mr Campbell: — that a member of a party that seeks to excuse punishment beatings —

Mr Speaker: I have already asked you to resume your seat.

Mr Campbell: — that seeks to ensure that Sinn Féin escapes and does not acknowledge its part in what it has done over the course of many years could spend time going to the Speaker's office to complain about someone yawning?

Mr Speaker: The Member has continued to be disrespectful and discourteous and his conduct is clearly in breach of Standing Order 1(2). I will, therefore, not be calling him to speak for the rest of today or tomorrow. Let us move on.

Ministerial Statements

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in trade and business development sectoral format. This meeting was held in the offices of the North/South Ministerial Council, Armagh, on Thursday 5 March 2015. The Executive were represented by me in my capacity as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and by John O'Dowd MLA, Minister of Education. The Irish Government were represented by Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. This statement has been agreed with Minister O'Dowd.

The Council received a presentation from Martin Cronin, the chairperson, and Thomas Hunter McGowan, CEO, on InterTradeIreland's performance and business activities, including information on performance against its 2014 business plan target. The Council noted the positive performance of InterTradeIreland during 2014, including creating and maintaining 1,881 jobs; delivering a 10:1 return on investment; assisting 64 first-time innovators; assisting 127 first-time exporters; delivering 4% efficiency savings; and delivering a total business value of £67 million.

The Council noted that there was strong demand across all InterTradeIreland's programmes during 2014. It was also noted that InterTradeIreland had continued to carry out business and economic research activities, including production of a report entitled 'SMEs, Credit constraints and Growth — A Cross Border Study', the production of InterTradeIreland's quarterly business monitor survey, and undertaking research into the issue of mapping the potential for cross-border clusters and clustering. The Council approved InterTradeIreland's 2015 business plan and recommended that the 2015 budget/grant provision for InterTradeIreland should be £8,746,440.

The Council noted that both jurisdictions had agreed a joint target of €175 million for drawdown under Horizon 2020 and welcomed the support structures that have been put in place to deliver on this target, including the continued work of the all-island Horizon 2020 steering group, which is chaired by InterTradeIreland; the launch of the Horizon 2020 strategic action plan; and the work of the contact point networks in each jurisdiction. The Council was advised that InterTradeIreland had identified, and will be taking forward, additional activities in conjunction with the all-island steering group to deliver on this target.

The Council was encouraged by the early results from Horizon 2020, including 45 cross-border applications submitted to the programme, with seven being successful. Those seven projects will have an economic value of €8·8 million for successful cross-border Horizon 2020 collaboration. The Council noted the high level of demand for Horizon 2020 funding from across Europe, but was encouraged by the fact that the success rate for cross-border proposals of 16% was higher than the average EU rate of 14%.

The Council noted that officials were continuing to investigate opportunities for cooperation on EU business and enterprise funding, including under Horizon 2020, INTERREG Va, and possibly the Juncker initiative and the competitiveness of enterprises and small and
medium-sized enterprises (COSME) programme. It was noted that €71 million of the INTERREG Va programme is to be allocated to research and innovation and that officials are looking closely at opportunities for cooperation in this area.

Ministers recognised the benefits to be gained through participation in collaborative European projects, welcomed the collaboration between bodies and officials in each jurisdiction, and encouraged officials to continue to seek new opportunities for European funding for projects.

The Council received a presentation on the US Ireland R&D partnership, which reflected the world-class nature of the ongoing work. It was noted that, up to January 2015, a total of 19 projects had been awarded £23·7 million and had brought together over 60 investigators from universities and institutes in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the United States. Ministers noted that the research undertaken through the partnership meets the gold standard of the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer review system. In this regard, the projects supported were recognised internationally as world-leading.

The collaborative research projects involved are subject to the highly competitive National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health peer review systems. The Council was particularly impressed that, for proposals submitted to NSF, the success rate for projects involving institutions in Ireland and Northern Ireland was 38%, compared to the standard success rate of 18% for projects from within the United States.

Equally, although the success rate for proposals submitted to the NIH was 14%, slightly lower than the standard success rate of 16%, that represented a significant achievement. The success rates for the partnership projects are testament to the international standard of research carried out in both jurisdictions.

Minister Bruton and I recognise the benefits that participation in the US-Ireland R&D Partnership brings. InterTradeIreland was asked to track how many of those post holders end up supporting or working in industry in order that they can transfer the knowledge and experience gained. I welcome and support the partnership's expansion into research collaboration at a centre-to-centre level.

Ministers welcomed the work being undertaken by the partnership to expand its scope to include agrifood research. I invited InterTradeIreland to liaise with the Agri-Food Strategy Board (AFSB) and seek its views on potential areas of research of interest to the industry.

The Council received an update on InterTradeIreland's strategic priorities and key activities planned for 2015. Those include increasing joint applications to Horizon 2020; assisting SMEs to access finance for growth; exploring the use of additional funding streams to increase SMEs' capacity; and assisting SMEs to access the public-procurement market.

The Council recognised the importance of public-sector contracts to SMEs in both jurisdictions and was encouraged to hear that 66% of public-sector contracts in the Republic of Ireland and 80% of those in Northern Ireland went to SMEs from both jurisdictions. The Council heard that the complexity and scale of public-sector contracts was increasing and was supportive of the work being undertaken by InterTradeIreland through its consortia facilitation service. The body works closely with SMEs that are considering collaboration as a means of taking advantage of the opportunities and that support the development of successful partnerships. By supporting indigenous SMEs to exploit that market, InterTradeIreland will promote public tendering as a route to export markets.

Colleagues will be interested to note that InterTradeIreland's business monitor survey for the fourth quarter of 2014, which reflects the views of the SME community in both jurisdictions, found that energy costs had dropped down the order of issues exercising businesses. There had been no significant change in the energy prices at the time of the survey, so that would indicate the impact that fuel costs have on businesses in both jurisdictions.

The Council noted InterTradeIreland's annual report and accounts for 2013, which were certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General and laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Council agreed that the next trade and business development meeting should be held in autumn 2015. I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas iontach cuimsitheach sin. I thank the Minister for that comprehensive statement, in which she said that 66% of public-sector contracts in the Republic and 80% in the North went to SMEs from both jurisdictions. An SME has up to 250 employees. Are there figures available for the percentage of public-sector contracts that go on to microbusinesses, which make up the majority of business in the North and have 10 or fewer employees? Does the Minister have detail on the net benefits to microbusinesses from the allocation of such contracts?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Chairman for his point. I was somewhat surprised by the figures when they were given to us at the Council meeting. When we talk about small to medium-sized businesses in that context, it is the European definition that is used, and, as he rightly pointed out, that refers to businesses with fewer than 250 employees.

I do not have the further breakdown. I would be hopeful that microbusinesses were in the supply chain, but I will certainly ask the CEO of InterTradeIreland to see whether we can go further down the chain to see whether impacts are being made. I am sure the Chairman will agree that the issue of small companies not being able to break into procurement comes up a lot at constituency and ministerial level. I made the point at the Council meeting that we really do need to get out there and help people.

I think that the go-to-tender programme has been very useful. It has worked well from InterTradeIreland's perspective, but I think we could do more with the smaller companies. I am hopeful that InterTradeIreland will be able to do that.

12.15 pm

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister her statement. Can she elaborate on the impact that the strong pound against the euro has on our ability to export to the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, countries throughout Europe? I think that we all recognise the need to increase our export targets within this financial year.

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. Exporting has been a struggle during the downturn. We looked at new developing markets for Northern Ireland to try to deal with that, but certainly the strong pound in the eurozone has been a disincentive over the past period of time. You can see that through some of the export market figures that are coming out. I am hopeful that we will continue to work with our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland to try to show them the value of the goods and services coming from Northern Ireland. Indeed, I hope that they will recognise that the short supply chain compensates a little for the increased price that they are having to pay for it, given the exchange rate that we are having to deal with. We have to deal with the realities of the situation. The pound is strong, the euro is a lot weaker now, and we need to look to other markets, as well as to our close neighbours.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. Can she explain why there have been a relatively small number of successful cross-border projects through Horizon 2020 in comparison with the high number of applications?

Mrs Foster: I think that it is the very nature of the programme. We are ahead with successful projects in Horizon 2020. The European average is, I think, about 14%, and we are at 16%. It may appear that we are not very successful, but that is the nature of Horizon 2020 across Europe. It is hugely competitive and, therefore, we must ensure that we take all measures to make sure that we can benefit from it. There has been €80 billion allocated to the project. I am quite pleased that we have as high a number as 45 in place at this early stage in the programme, and we will certainly work very hard to make sure that we benefit even more.

Mr Kinahan: I also thank the Minister for the statement and congratulate InterTradeIreland for its success. I note that the statement is on trade and business development, but when we had Horizon 2020 representatives at the Committee, there did not seem to be any emphasis on education below employment and learning. Will the Minister ensure that, in future, we will be looking for funding that will help schools? STEM funding has been cut, and we need more influence from business. Can we get that on to the agenda so that we prepare children earlier to create more trade and business development?

Mrs Foster: On the Member's point about education and its priority status or otherwise within Horizon 2020, that is really a matter for the Education Minister. I agree with his point about STEM subjects and creating an ethos early on within a child's mind about science, technology, engineering and maths. I am, therefore, supportive of doing that. However, that has to come from the education sector through the projects that come forward.

The three top areas of cross-border collaboration — after all, this is InterTradeIreland — are health, the Marie Curie actions and ICT. ICT could be an area where we could hook education, even outside the formal classroom setting, to encourage young people to get involved in the sector. There have been a lot of private sector initiatives on coding for children that have been very encouraging. That is something that I very much welcome.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her statement. It notes:

"the positive performance of InterTradeIreland during 2014".

However, it does not say whether it met any targets during that year or give any comparison with previous years. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mrs Foster: Yes, absolutely. We hit all our targets, apart from that for first-time innovators: the target was for 66 first-time innovators, and they reached 64. The target for return on investment was 9:1, and the full-year performance on that was 10:1. The target for first-time exporters was 58, and the full-year performance was 127, so that was met very well. The jobs impact target was 1,270, and again, that was well met, with 1,881 being reached. The target for efficiency savings was set at 4%, and that was met.

Mr Frew: I am very interested to hear more detail around discussions on the continuing pressure on energy costs and on what is being done to bring down the costs of bills for business, especially in my constituency of North Antrim, which has a very high level of manufacturing and is a good manufacturing base. Minister, given that we are in a shared single electricity market across the two countries, what discussions were had regarding the North/South interconnector and the implementation of the integrated single electricity market (ISEM) getting up and running?

Mrs Foster: Those last two matters are, of course, not matters for InterTradeIreland but are energy policy matters, so we did not have any discussions about those.

On the issues for businesses, I was interested to see the fact that energy costs had dropped back, particularly in Northern Ireland. At its height back in quarter 2 of 2012, that was the top concern of 47% of the businesses. In quarter 4 of 2014, that had dropped to 7%. That is quite a significant drop back, albeit that that has happened over two and a half years. In the Republic of Ireland, rising energy costs is again an issue of concern. Where it is 7% for our companies, it is 10% for companies in the Republic of Ireland. It still is an issue, and I think that the falling fuel costs will have had an impact on energy costs. I continue to share his concerns about the high energy costs for large manufacturers, and I continue to work with the regulator on those issues. If all goes according to plan, I am having a meeting with the regulator, NIE and SONI at the end of this week on grid connections. We will be able to have discussions around grid connections, which, again, have caused a lot of concerns to consumers and those wishing to connect to the grid. I referred to that in my last Question Time. That meeting is happening, and I am hopeful that we can make some progress.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement, and I welcome specifically the emphasis by InterTradeIreland on assisting SMEs to build partnerships in the context of public procurement. Perhaps the Minister will provide further clarity on how she proposes to ensure that SMEs can fully benefit from island-wide procurement opportunities.

Mrs Foster: This is something that I take a particular interest in, and I always say that the Go-2-Tender programme works very well. There was a bit of a kickback at one stage when some of the Northern Ireland companies were being successful with Republic of Ireland government contracts. I am glad to say that that concern has disappeared, and now some of our companies are competing and competing very well for those government procurements. Go-2-Tender is a very important part of what InterTradeIreland does. As I indicated to the Chair of the Committee, I hope that we can make more of an impact with the smaller microbusinesses, as Europe calls them, so that they can benefit as well as some of our larger companies.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her statement to the House and her answers so far. I welcome the economic benefit that comes from Horizon 2020 and the trend of 16% as opposed to the European average of 14%. How many jobs have been protected and created due to this intervention?

Mrs Foster: I cannot give you figures on jobs from Horizon 2020 because it is the first six months of Horizon 2020. I am quite sure that it will sustain a number of jobs and, indeed, create a number of jobs because of the fact that we have that success rate. As I said, InterTradeIreland's target in 2014 was 1,220, and that was well surpassed, with 1,881 jobs being sustained and created. I am very pleased about that.

Mr Allister: Why did the Minister consent to the appointment, as vice-chair of InterTradeIreland, of a person who acts as economic adviser to Sinn Féin and boasts, in the latest InterTradeIreland report, that she operates out of the office of Pearse Doherty TD? Is the appointment of such a partisan individual to such a position thought to be appropriate?

Mrs Foster: As the Member will know, appointments are made to InterTradeIreland on a party basis. There are a number of party appointees who have been appointed to InterTradeIreland, Tourism Ireland and other North/South bodies, so it is not surprising that Sinn Féin should seek to put their placepeople on. I think that it is disappointing that they do not seek to put on people who have a wider view of the world. However, it is a matter for them who they put on.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wishes to make a second statement.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in tourism sectoral format. This meeting was held in Armagh on 5 March 2015.

Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by Paschal Donohoe TD, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister Ní Chuilín, and I am making the statement on behalf of us both.

Ministers noted the support that had been provided to tourism projects under the EU funded INTERREG IVa programme. They also noted the current position regarding EU funding programmes and agreed that the relevant tourism stakeholders, in both jurisdictions, would closely monitor developments at EU level to ensure that tourism would benefit from all suitable collaborative funding opportunities.

The chairperson, Mr Brian Ambrose, and the CEO, Mr Niall Gibbons, updated Ministers on the work of the Tourism Ireland board over the previous year. The Council noted progress on implementing the corporate plan 2014-16. It also noted progress on delivering Tourism Ireland's SMART objective performance goals for 2014, which include growing promotable revenue and promotable visitors to Ireland and Northern Ireland; maintaining our high competitive interest ranking in GB, US and France, and improving it in Germany; achieving 500 million social connections by the end of 2014 and delivering 1·8 million commercial referrals to trade and industry from digital activity; and driving the delivery of Tourism Ireland's corporate plan objectives.

Ministers were updated on the nine board meetings that have taken place at various locations since the last NSMC tourism meeting. Presentations at board meetings included assessments of the North American, Australian and developing markets. The board also reviewed and noted the high level of cooperation between Tourism Northern Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland on hosting the Grande Partenza of the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Ministers received a presentation from the CEO, Mr Niall Gibbons, on Tourism Ireland’s performance throughout 2014. Ambitious targets have been set for growth in 2015, from all main markets, and it was agreed that strong collaboration across the industry was crucial to deliver on these targets. It was noted that Northern Ireland’s distinctiveness has a very important role to play in attracting overseas visitors, and I stressed that one of my key priorities is to see standout for Northern Ireland. As one of Tourism Ireland’s objectives is to help Northern Ireland achieve its tourism potential, I highlighted the importance, where the market or event lends itself, for the potential visitor to see positive, specific messaging for Northern Ireland. I also emphasised the vital role of direct air access in developing tourism into a billion-pound industry by 2020, and I encouraged Tourism Ireland to continue its ongoing work with Invest Northern Ireland to attract new air services to Northern Ireland in 2015, particularly from Germany and Canada.

The Rugby World Cup 2023 was also discussed, as was the bid by the IRFU to host the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017. The opportunities presented by sporting events, which put Northern Ireland on a world stage, were noted.

I updated Ministers on the Hunter review of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and wider tourism structures. I advised that I will be working with the industry to bring forward a new strategic plan for tourism, which will coordinate the work of key partners in the industry and in central and local government.

Ministers approved Tourism Ireland's 2015 business plan and recommended the budget provision for 2015 of €53·885 million.

12.30 pm

The Council agreed to meet again in tourism sectoral format in autumn/winter 2015 on a date to be confirmed. I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá mé buartha nár thug mé an t-ainm sin ort roimhe. I am sorry if I miscalled you earlier; I think that I was somewhat distracted by Mr Campbell's antics to hit the media. There must be an election on or something.

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

The Minister's statement refers to the role of air passenger duty (APD) in attracting:

"new air services to Northern Ireland in 2015, particularly from Germany and Canada."

Has the Department done an impact study, independently or in cooperation with the Irish Government, on our ability to attract passengers and, consequently, additional trade from overseas?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. You will know that the Department commissioned the then Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy to carry out a study of the economic impact on Northern Ireland of short-haul air passenger duty, and it recently published its report The report's central conclusion is that, when the cost to the public finances in Northern Ireland is taken into consideration, APD on short-haul flights is not a strong economic development tool. We, of course, set the air passenger duty for band B long-haul flights at zero; we have already dealt with that. The Finance Minister and I have continued to stress that there is an urgent need for central government to look at APD as it affects the UK as a whole, and we will push for that on behalf of industry here, because it is set in a way that is unfair to the regions of the UK. We need, therefore, to deal with the issue at Westminster, and I hope that my colleagues who are returned to Westminster will be able to assist me. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am trying to work out who is in control at the moment; I hope that it is not Mr Campbell.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her statement today. I think that we all enjoyed Ireland's success in winning the Six Nations championship at the weekend. We pass on our congratulations. What progress has been made on bringing the Rugby World Cup here in 2023?

Mrs Foster: It was a tremendous weekend of sport. I say weekend, because we should not forget that the ladies' team was also successful; it is important to recognise that. The Rugby World Cup bid for 2023 is moving along, and, since the announcement on 5 December 2014, a bid director has been put in place, and work has commenced on compiling the bid, with the support of the Executive and the Government of the Republic. We will put an overview group in place in the near future to help to oversee progress on the bid. I am very confident in the bid, and we hope that our success on the pitch will be of assistance.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It was, indeed, a big weekend for sport. The Tyrone hurlers beat Roscommon, which I would like to add to the list of feats over the weekend.

The Minister mentioned reaching out to developing tourism markets such as North America and Australia. Is work being done by Tourism Ireland to reach out to the Irish diaspora and to those who have emigrated to assist us in this work? There are a lot of Tyrone people in Philadelphia and New York. A joint mission by the Minister and Minister Donohoe might prove very fruitful.

Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member is aware that Northern Irish Connections has started that work and is reaching out to our diaspora across the globe. The Republic of Ireland, however, is ahead of us in this game, and it uses its diaspora very well.

We need to be able to reach out to people from Northern Ireland in a similar way, and I am hoping that Northern Irish Connections will be able to do that. It has held a number of events across the world and is now looking for strategic partnerships with people who have left our shores for whatever reason but still want to be positive advocates for Northern Ireland. So, yes, absolutely, we will be working on that.

Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for the statement, and I congratulate both the ladies' and male teams of Ireland for their terrific success at the weekend. Does the Minister recognise that there is more than a perception that Tourism Ireland is not delivering for Northern Ireland in line with the amount of money that we put into it? Is she satisfied with Tourism Ireland's performance and, if not, will she instigate a review?

Mrs Foster: Of course, any review would have to be instigated jointly because it is a joint body. The Member is correct in saying that Tourism Ireland needs to have regard to the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland. Indeed, its terms of reference in the legislation have specific regard to that. It is important that Tourism Ireland gives a distinctive standout, particularly in the Great Britain market, where there are very natural synergies between the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. That point was made at the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting, and I will continue to make it with the board and with the CEO. However, I point the Member to the fact that our visitor numbers from Great Britain have continued to rise. I welcome that, and I think that it is a positive step forward.

Mr Lunn: Again, I thank the Minister for the statement. My question is really a repeat of the one that I asked on the previous statement. The statement notes the progress in delivering Tourism Ireland's performance goals for 2014, and it lists them in bullet points, but it does not actually say whether Tourism Ireland has met targets or make any comparison with previous years. Can the Minister comment?

Mrs Foster: Unfortunately, I cannot be as definitive as I was in relation to InterTradeIreland, because it is over a different period of time. I only have the January to September 2014 figures; I do not have the full year as yet. But I have to say that, in most sectors, it is looking very positive. The one area where we need to see an improvement is in relation to Republic of Ireland visitors. Again, that is probably a lot to do with the euro during this year. We need to pay concern to that. Domestic visitors are up, GB holidaymakers are up, and external visitors are up as well, so things are going in the right direction, but we just need to watch the Republic of Ireland visitor numbers. Again, that is to do with the exchange rate.

Mr Frew: Minister, you mentioned that Northern Ireland has a distinctiveness, which has a very important role in attracting visitors and overseas visitors. Given the distinctiveness of the Giant's Causeway and, indeed, the north Antrim coast, and given the fact that the Gobbins path in East Antrim — my neighbouring constituency — will soon be opened, what more can the powers that be and Tourism Ireland do to promote it to get even further traction?

Mrs Foster: I congratulate the Member on moving from North Antrim to East Antrim today; that is a great step forward. He is right to mention the Gobbins path, because that is going to be a new product in our portfolio for this year. It is a very important piece of product that we have, and I look forward to its opening very soon. It adds, of course, to the whole coastal driving route and gives reasons for people to stop and stay. It really is key for tourists that they have not just somewhere to go on a one-off visit but a range of products to take advantage of. Particularly for those who are interested in independent travelling and who drive, I think that the Causeway coastal route has more potential, and I look forward to them fulfilling it.

Mr Givan: I commend the Minister for her ongoing good work in increasing the number of visitors to Northern Ireland through the tourism strategy that she is taking forward. As the Minister moves forward in implementing the corporate plan up to 2016 and as the Southern Ministers, and, indeed, political parties here in Northern Ireland consider how they will commemorate or celebrate — whatever term they wish to use — the Easter rebellion, what message does she have for her counterpart in the South that such events need to be ones that do not cause disrespect and, indeed, put off international visitors because of any attempt to glorify IRA terrorism?

Mrs Foster: I think that, from a tourism perspective, any event that takes place has to be a positive event. It has to be one that encourages people to come and visit. Certainly, that is what is in my mind when I look at 2016, and that is one reason why I have designated 2016 as the Year of Food. I think that we can really build on our agrifood produce and on what we do best, which is provide very good food, along with good service, for our visitors, building on the product that we have invested in. It has to be respectful and something that people enjoy and will want to come back to, and I am hopeful that that will be the case.

Mr Humphrey: I am sure that the Minister will join me in wishing the Northern Ireland football team well for Wednesday night's friendly against Scotland and the qualifier against Finland next week. I agree entirely with the Minister's comments about standout for Northern Ireland, and, following the Hunter review of tourism, what standout does the Minister hope Tourism Northern Ireland will be able to deliver, working with Tourism Ireland in marketing Northern Ireland internationally to tourists?

Mrs Foster: I absolutely wish the Northern Ireland team well, and I look forward to hearing the results.

The idea behind the Hunter review of tourism was to build on relationships within the tourism sector in Northern Ireland to allow Tourism Northern Ireland to develop strong relationships with Invest Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to tourist accommodation and grant making, and that Tourism Northern Ireland would work closely with Tourism Ireland. I hope that that will happen. I think that everybody will benefit from it, if we take that collaborative approach. I should, of course, mention that the new councils will have a role to play in tourism in the future. I hope that they will play their part in building up our strong tourism sector.

I was at a tourism event held by the Hotels Federation on Friday, and there really is a very positive sense of the potential of tourism for Northern Ireland, and I hope that we can build on that.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her statement and acknowledge the good work she is doing in building tourism potential here, especially in south Down. I add my congratulations to both our rugby teams for their tremendous victories at the weekend.

Minister, the SMEs in tourism and hospitality are the lifeblood of a successful and sustainable tourism industry, but there are two stumbling blocks. One is the VAT rate, and the other is the licensing laws. What recent discussions have you had with the Westminster Government about reducing VAT for tourism? What discussions have you had with your colleague in DSD, Mr Storey, about the licensing laws?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his questions. Indeed, VAT was one of the main issues discussed on Friday at the Hotels Federation's summit on tourism. It is something that I know our MPs are taking a particular interest in. Indeed, the Finance Minister has written to his counterpart in Treasury to raise the issue again, to make him aware that it has a very disproportionate impact on Northern Ireland, particularly on tourist accommodation businesses along the border. Therefore, it has been raised again.

I am not too sure which issue he is mentioning in relation to licensing. If he wants to give me the specifics, I am sure that I will be able to speak to my party colleague the Minister for Social Development on that issue.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give an assurance that Tourism Ireland, which her Department so generously funds, will not, next year, promote or sponsor events marking the grubby rebellion of 1916?

Mrs Foster: I know that there are Members in the House who are absolutely myopic in what they want to talk about today, but this is a statement about what happened at the last tourism sectoral meeting. It might surprise the Member to know that there was no discussion in relation to the 2016 commemorations at all because, if the Government of the Republic of Ireland decide to have a commemoration, that is a matter for them, and it is a matter for them to decide what they do for it. As far as I am concerned, Tourism Ireland has a duty to make sure that it promotes all of the island in a way that does not offend anybody.

12.45 pm

Executive Committee Business

That the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be affirmed.

These regulations are made under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 and increase the compensation payable under that order to those suffering from certain dust-related diseases and to their dependants. I will outline briefly the purpose of the scheme established by the Order, which covers five respiratory diseases, most of which are directly related to asbestos exposure: mesothelioma, diffuse pleural thickening, primary carcinoma of the lung, byssinosis and pneumoconiosis, which includes asbestosis.

People suffering from an industrial disease can sue their employer if the disease was contracted as a result of working for that employer. However, in some cases it has taken years to develop symptoms of the diseases covered by the Order, and diagnosis may not be until decades after exposure to the dust. Given the long time frame involved, it is possible that employers responsible may no longer exist, and consequently sufferers and their dependants can experience great difficulty in obtaining compensation.

The scheme, which was introduced in 1979, provides a lump sum payment for sufferers who are unable to pursue employers through the courts as those employers are no longer in business. To receive payment under the Order, there must be no relevant employer who can be sued and court action must not have been brought, or compensation received, in respect of any of the diseases for which the person is claiming. In order to receive a payment, a person must have been awarded industrial injuries disablement benefit. The lump sum payment under the Order is in addition to the weekly industrial injuries disablement benefit that is paid in relation to the same disease. A claim can also be made by dependants after the death of the sufferer.

The lump sum payment is based on the age of the sufferer and the level of disability, with higher amounts paid to people with higher levels of disability and whose disability arises at an early age. Lower amounts are payable to dependants who make a claim after the sufferer has died. The regulations increase the amounts payable under the order by 1·2% in line with this year’s uprating of industrial injuries benefits and they ensure that payments are the same as those in the corresponding scheme operating in Great Britain. The maximum amount that can be paid under the scheme is increased to £86,607 for a person aged 37, or under, at diagnosis and will ensure that compensation provided under the Order maintains its value.

I am sure that we all agree that no amount of money can ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by these terrible diseases. I am also sure that Members across the Assembly will support the regulations to ensure that those who make a claim on or after 1 April 2015 will receive the higher amounts.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee for Social Development, I thank the Minister for bringing forward this statutory rule. The Committee considered the Department’s proposal to make the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations at its meeting on 5 February 2015 and considered the statutory rule at its meeting on 26 February 2015.

Members will know that the effects of dust-related lung diseases, as the Minister outlined, can be chronic and long term and can seriously impact on one’s quality of life as well as impacting on families. The effects can take a long time to develop and may not be diagnosed for a considerable number of years after exposure. Pneumoconiosis can be brought about simply by doing one’s work over many years in conditions that a person believes are safe.

Therefore, the scenario in which the employer who is responsible for the dust exposure has wound up by the time that claims arise can be quite common. However, the regulations will at least ensure that the amounts payable offer some assistance to sufferers and their dependants, so it is important that the increases be provided for.

The regulations will increase the amounts payable to sufferers of certain dust-related diseases that are noted in the regulations or to the dependants of such persons who were disabled by such a disease before they died. The increase in each case is 1·2%.

The Committee for Social Development recommends that the statutory rule be affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Storey: I thank the House for the consensus of support for the regulations. I also thank the Committee for Social Development for the positive way in which it dealt with the regulations. That has been outlined by the Chair, and we thank him and the Committee for that. I am certain that we all want to ensure that the value of compensation payable under the 1979 Order is not eroded by inflation, and the regulations will make sure that that does not happen. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be affirmed.

That the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

The regulations are made under the Mesothelioma, etc., Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 and will increase the compensation payable under the Act to persons diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma or, if persons have died, their dependants. The amounts payable are to be increased in line with the corresponding scheme operating in England, Scotland and Wales.

I will briefly outline the purpose of the scheme. The mesothelioma scheme provides financial support within a matter of weeks of diagnosis without the need to establish an occupational link or, indeed, any causal link. Many people who were previously not eligible for help — for example, those who are unable to pursue a civil claim or to claim a lump sum under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 — have access to financial help for that terrible disease through the scheme. That means that sufferers of mesothelioma are eligible for a payment whether they were employees, were self-employed or, indeed, have never worked, provided that they have not already received a compensation payment from another source.

The regulations will increase the amounts payable under the mesothelioma scheme by 1·2%, in line with this year's uprating of industrial injuries benefits from April 2015. For example, the amount payable to a person aged 37 or under at diagnosis will be increased from £83,330 to £86,607, which is the same maximum that can be paid from April 2015 under the pneumoconiosis scheme. I am sure that all Members will warmly welcome that increase in the amounts payable, which will ensure that the compensation provided under the scheme maintains its value. I am sure Members across the House will support the regulations.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): The Committee for Social Development considered the regulations at its meetings on 5 February and 26 February, at which time the Committee was content that the rule be made. As the House has just heard, the rule increases the payments to sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma and their dependants by 1·2%, in line with the uprating of industrial injuries benefits.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the thin membrane that lines the chest and abdomen. The most common cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos, and the disease may not appear until 30 years or more after exposure. In that time, of course, companies responsible for failing to provide a safe working environment, which ultimately results in people developing the disease, may have gone out of business. The statutory rule provides a little more money for sufferers of mesothelioma and their dependants, so the Committee for Social Development is happy and content to recommend that it be confirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Storey: I thank the Chair of the Social Development Committee for the positive way in which the Committee dealt with the regulation. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

Committee Business

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended until 16 October 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Road Traffic (Speed Limits) Bill [NIA Bill 30/11-15].

I am seeking the House's approval to extend the Committee Stage of the Road Traffic (Speed Limits) Bill to 16 October 2015. I appreciate that that may appear to be a significant period of time for the consideration of a Bill. However, I am sure that the House and the Member sponsoring the Bill will appreciate that there is an onus on the Committee to fully consider the Bill and, indeed, to conduct a fuller consultation on it than has previously been undertaken.

As the Member will be aware, there were only 41 responses to the consultation exercise that the original sponsor of the Bill undertook. Given the significance of the principal objective of the Bill and on the basis that the consensus is that 20 mph speed limits need our communities' support, the Committee believes that a much more substantive consultation is required, particularly as the Bill has road safety, health and justice consequences that will require input from the relevant Departments and Committees. The Committee favours a minimum period of six weeks to undertake the consultation.

In addition, the Member agreed during Second Stage that the Bill would require amendment. It is important that both he and the Committee allow themselves an appropriate amount of time to consider what amendments might be required to achieve the Bill's principal objective, namely, the reduction of the level of fatalities and accidents on our roads. I very much hope to meet the Member shortly to discuss how best that can be achieved.

I assure the House that the Committee has developed a very testing time frame to complete its consideration of the Bill and to report on its deliberations to the House. That time frame also takes into account the Executive's legislative programme, which will shortly be introduced to the House, and, of course, the Department's continued scrutiny.

Mr Ramsey: I thank the Chair for the offer of a meeting. I met the Committee staff, who briefed me on the Committee's consideration stage. I greatly appreciate that and was very content with it for going forward. Given the magnitude of this Bill in introducing 20 mph speed limits across Northern Ireland, it is important that the Committee examines thoroughly every possible avenue. Coincidentally, I also met some of the senior staff of the Department for Regional Development this morning, and I am very appreciative of that too.

I look forward to Consideration Stage and to being in the position where I can address the Committee on how we can best progress the Bill, given that its principles were unanimously agreed here when it was introduced. Clearly, we have to reflect at all times on not just Members' comments but those of the people, and we have to encourage and motivate others to participate in the consultation. Of the councils that I consulted with, separate to the original Member's consultation, only around six made a submission. There was either a lack of interest or another reason.

I wish the Committee well. It is an important matter. I have shared some ideas of who the Committee should consult, including community safety partnerships, the new councils and user groups across Northern Ireland. I look forward to the challenges that this presents and to the conclusion of that in October.

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Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for his conciliatory approach. I note his comments about everyone supporting the Bill. It is not a case of trying to put it on the long finger. When we get to the stage of doing it, we need to do it right. It is important that we try to widen the consultation as much as possible, and I know that the Member referred to that. There were a small number of responses, and we really need to make an effort to try to reach out as far as we can to get the public to engage.

Question put and agreed to.


That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended until 16 October 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Road Traffic (Speed Limits) Bill [NIA Bill 30/11-15].

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I ask Members to please take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.

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

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next item of business is a motion from the Committee for Regional Development on the report on the inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Regional Development [NIA 168/11-16] on its inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues and other relevant bodies, to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

I welcome the opportunity to speak — if I can and my voice holds out — to the House on this very important subject and on our report on the benefits of cycling to the economy. This represents a significant body of work, and I would like at the outset to record my thanks to the many contributors to the report, including the members of the Committee; the members of the all-party group on cycling; external witnesses; and officials from the Department for Regional Development, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of the Environment. In particular, I would like to thank those from the Great Western Greenway and Chain Reaction Cycles for hosting the Committee on external study visits. I also record the Committee's thanks to our own support team, Hansard and our Assembly researcher for their invaluable contributions.

H G Wells said:

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

The Committee recently held an external meeting in Ballycraigy Primary School. After that meeting, we had the opportunity to witness how the children were being introduced to cycling and how they were developing their cycling skills through the Active School Travel programme. The Committee would like to thank the principal, teachers and children at Ballycraigy Primary School for the inspirational display that they provided to members on that cold, snowy morning. The Committee therefore welcomes the fact that the Minister is continuing to support this valuable programme and hopes that this will continue for the long-term future, irrespective of the financial pressures that his Department might otherwise be facing.

It might be more apt, therefore, to say that every time we see a person, rather than just an adult, on a bike, we no longer despair for the future of the human race. It is also very apt that the Department's draft strategy recognises that education, both of children and adults, is a key component in helping to make the transition from inactivity to activity, from the car to the bicycle and from non-cyclist to cyclist. It is not the only action that is required, but it is nevertheless integral to helping both to change people's mindsets about cycling and to bring about the modal shift from vehicular forms of transport.

I would like to dwell a little bit longer on the draft strategy. Firstly, I would like to thank the Minister and his officials within the very enthusiastic cycling unit for bringing forward the draft strategy. Whilst the Committee might be seen to have been critical of its content, it is nevertheless a valiant attempt to bring cycling to the fore of our thinking. It is, however, the Committee's view that it is more a statement of intent than a strategy. This viewpoint has been endorsed by the Department, as recorded in Hansard. Sustrans described the vision as being more of an aim than truly visionary.

This aim talks of culture, mutual respect, freedom and confidence as all being very aspirational, but, put in its most simplistic terms, cycling should be no more difficult than getting into a car or on a bus or train. That is why the Committee has suggested a very ordinary vision; a vision of a Northern Ireland where people from all sectors of the community cycle for transport and enjoyment. Cycling must become an ordinary, everyday event that is carried out by ordinary people, in ordinary clothes, as an ordinary form of transport. If we accept this as our vision, we can begin to plan for all those other things that the Department aspires to in its statement of intent.

We can plan for an infrastructure that goes beyond the Belfast-centric aspirations of the statement. With this will come the confidence for people to begin cycling and walking or to get back on bicycles. Our culture of dependence on the car will begin to erode. Communities will have the freedom to travel, and we will start to build the mutual respect that is needed by all road users. By striding towards this simplified vision, we can journey towards a healthier population, connected and cohesive communities, and a more affordable, integrated, safe, responsive and sustainable transport system.

Those should be our targets because, unlike the Department, the Committee and many of the cycling fraternity believe that the strategy must have targets. It is ridiculous and unacceptable that a Department has consciously chosen to set an arbitrary Northern Ireland-wide target for the percentage of people cycling, as we do not think that it would encourage people to use a bicycle at a local level.

Cambridge has just achieved 30% of all journeys being taken by means of cycling and walking, but has it consciously chosen to do away with targets? No; it has instead increased its targets for people walking and cycling to 40%, which is higher than that in the Netherlands. The Committee believes that objectives and targets are essential to provide clarity for the end vision, to drive the strategy and subsequent delivery plans forward and, very importantly, to make the Department accountable for the success of the strategy. We have made recommendations about those in our report. Additionally, the Department should not try to distort the measurement of success against the targets, as it has for rural provision. When we asked the Department to identify cycle tracks and lanes on main roads in rural areas, we were given the Sydenham bypass, the A55 Parkway, the Holywood Road, the Saintfield Road and Belvoir Road as examples, because the Department uses the classification that some of those roads have been classed as rural roads and are subject to a speed limit of more than 40 mph, while our urban roads are subject to a limit of 40 mph and under. Such distortions are unacceptable.

The Committee made a number of other recommendations that aim to strengthen the strategy, some of which will undoubtedly be touched on by other contributors to the debate. I want to cover other contributions that cycling can make to our economy, tourism and the health sectors. A recent UK report stated that some cycling schemes have a benefit:cost ratio of 35:1. To put that into perspective, the £43 billion HS2 proposal has a benefit:cost ratio of 2:3. There is no definitive evidence about the value of cycling to the Northern Ireland economy. The Committee heard evidence from Sustrans that, extrapolating figures from a London School of Economics study, the benefit of cycling to Northern Ireland could be in the region of £89 million. CTC, on the other hand, put that figure for Northern Ireland somewhere between £300 million and £400 million.

We can substantiate some contributions to the economy. During the inquiry, the Committee conducted a site visit to Chain Reaction in Doagh, which is the world’s leading online cycling product retailer. The company has approximately 500 employees and a turnover in excess of £150 million. Through employment, mail distribution, capital investment and taxes, Chain Reaction contributes around £40 million to the Northern Ireland economy annually. That is a consequence of having no targets. The Committee believes that establishing a baseline that allows you to measure progress through the lifetime of a strategy is essential, and we recommend that accordingly.

Our friend H G Wells stated:

"Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia".

Unfortunately, the Committee fully recognises that there are limitations on the levels of investment, and many of the solutions that will most likely effect a significant change in cycle numbers must correlate to the nature and consistency of existing and future infrastructure. That is why the Committee has called on the Department to be imaginative with its budget for cycling. Cycling provision in Belfast is, for example, very piecemeal. Indeed, the Committee, while visiting public hire taxi ranks in Belfast, noted a length of cycle track that went no more than 100 metres before disappearing in its entirety.

A strategic and well-planned cycling infrastructure is needed, and, whilst it might not be segregated by separate kerbs, for example, more cost-effective segregation should be considered. Investment should not be Belfast-centric, and consideration should be given to investing in communities through, for example, funding an equivalent to Walking in your Community, which is being delivered by Outdoor Recreation and other such programmes and initiatives.

I will turn briefly to the impact of cycling on tourism. The success of the Giro d’Italia and the follow-up, with the staging of the Gran Fondo in June, have been major contributors to the impetus for cycling and cycling products in Northern Ireland. That has been recognised by the managing director of Chain Reaction, who stated:

"From our perspective as a business, it would be great to see an increased level of investment in facilities and infrastructure here in Northern Ireland because that would help to support the growth of cycling globally and tourism coming into the area".

1.15 pm

It is disappointing, therefore, that NITB, or Tourism Northern Ireland as it is now, has not followed up on those successes through the publication of its much-heralded, but unseen, legacy report. The impetus that I have referred to must not be allowed to diminish but built upon to promote Northern Ireland as a cycling tourism venue as part of the EuroVelo cycling package. That does not require significant levels of investment, as the Committee witnessed at first hand in Mulranny, County Mayo, when it visited the Great Western Greenway. That 42 kilometres of disused railway line between Westport and Achill Island cost little more than €5·6 million. It has contributed to and maintains 65 new jobs, has in excess of 210,000 users each year and, in 2010, was estimated to be contributing over €7 million to the local economy. That is a significant return on a reasonably insignificant investment.

The Committee noted the progress that has been made in developing over 450 kilometres of off-road trails in Northern Ireland over recent years, including the international mountain bike trails in Davagh forest, just outside Cookstown in County Tyrone, and Rostrevor and Castlewellan in County Down, which attracted up to 82,000 visitors in the first year of operation. Figures from Scotland show that such trails can generate 1·3 million visitors per annum for mountain biking alone, which is equivalent to about 300,000 bed nights. In 2009, it was predicted that the economic value of mountain biking in Scotland would rise from £119 million to £155 million.

The Assembly research paper on cycling for leisure, recreation and tourism detailed the benefits of cycling tourism. Cycle tourism can provide incentives for people to visit an area and help to attract new types of visitors who can stay longer and spend more in a particular destination. It can also support existing local trade, particularly in the hospitality sector, and offer business start-up opportunities, such as bike hire, particularly in rural areas. It is an environmentally sustainable form of tourism, with minimal impact on the environment, and it can help reduce traffic congestion. It also utilises existing and often underused facilities such as quiet laneways, canal towpaths and disused railway lines. Ultimately, those who participate in cycling, while on holiday or as a leisure activity, may be encouraged to cycle more frequently, other than for utility purposes The Committee has recommended, therefore, as a matter of urgency, that Tourism Northern Ireland, in conjunction with relevant Executive Departments, develops a cycling tourism package for Northern Ireland.

Finally, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, the Committee has received substantial evidence about the positive impact that cycling could have in respect of tackling obesity. Evidence from the Chief Medical Officer stated that just 53% of adults meet the current physical activity guidelines, whilst research shows that children in Northern Ireland are the least physically active anywhere in the United Kingdom, with 50% of seven-year-olds here not getting the recommended one hour of physical activity each day.

Those statistics support the fact that physical activity is number four in the global causes of mortality. Whilst the Committee believes that it is erroneous to claim that cycling is a cure for obesity, it is, if properly targeted, a powerful tool to encourage physical activity. That is one of the reasons why the Committee is so supportive of the Active School Travel programme and other initiatives and events in the likes of our forest parks. Those venues offer a degree of safety and segregation for cyclists and walkers, and all efforts should be made to open up other venues. In addition, the Committee believes that future road capital infrastructure investments should be health proofed.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, the Committee is content that the potential for significant contributions to the economy through cycling can be achievable. The impacts of cycling transport can be environmental, social and economic, and the benefits of promoting cycling occur in society as a whole, as well as on an individual level. I look forward to hearing the remaining contributions from Members and, in particular, the Minister. On behalf of the Committee for Regional Development, I commend our report to the House. Thank you very much.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of my fellow colleagues on the Committee, I support the motion and call for the recommendations made in it to be implemented by the Department.

We welcome the fact that the Department created a cycling unit and developed a draft strategy, which, I understand, will be finalised this summer and with the delivery plan commencing thereafter. The strategy has a vision of establishing a cycling culture to give people the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle and where all road users can safely share a space with mutual respect. We noted that the draft strategy had not been rural proofed. However, we have been assured that the delivery plan will be subject to rural proofing, and we feel that this is extremely important.

In terms of current provision, we feel that there is a relatively limited cycling network across the North at present. At the minute, there are about 25,000 miles for vehicular traffic, compared to 800 miles designated as a national cycling network, and 700 of those miles are shared by vehicles. So, only 106 miles are dedicated as traffic-free cycle paths. We share the view of many cyclists that the current provision is relatively fragmented. This is compounded by the fact that there is no single agency or Department responsible for the current network, which has resulted in missing links and a variation in quality. Indeed, Andrew Grieve, the head of the cycling unit, and colleagues, came to Omagh to inspect the network there, and whilst we are very glad of the network that is currently there, we noticed a number of missing links. We hope that the strategy will help to fill in those missing links. I have no doubt that the situation is the same in other towns across the country.

In terms of the master plan approach referred to in the strategy, it must involve other stakeholders, such as councils and Sustrans both at reception and delivery stages.

Recommendation 26 refers to the importance of rural areas. We felt that the draft strategy was a little bit vague on rural areas. We note that the document said, "where opportunities arise", and where there is "cycling demand" in reference to rural areas. Combine that with the decision not to rural proof the draft strategy, and we are very anxious that rural and urban areas get equal treatment in the delivery of any strategy.

Recommendation 30 refers to the development of greenways. We believe that there is great potential for the development of greenways in rural and urban areas throughout the North. We strongly feel that disused railway beds that straddle the North should be scoped out at as potential greenways; indeed, that motion was passed at our ard fheis two weeks ago. In particular, we propose that the DRD should look at the Great Northern Railway with a view to bringing all or parts of it back into use as a greenway. The Minister made many references to the cycling revolution, and we think that this would be a major step forward in creating that cycling revolution.

Along with other colleagues on the Committee, I visited Westport in County Mayo to learn about the social and economic impact of the greenway there, which is based on the Great Western Railway line. It is a huge benefit to the area, with over 200,000 cyclists using it last year. Indeed, the Committee went there in May, and I went back on a family holiday with the children in August, and we cycled from Achill right back to Westport. We saw the huge impact that that has on the vibrancy of Mulranny and Newport and the number of businesses that have been established. Indeed, it has consolidated Westport as a destination for activity tourism.

We believe that, from an engineering perspective, and as the foundations are already there, the greenways should be relatively easy to construct. Obviously, there will be issues with securing the agreement of local landowners, but it should be a relatively cost-effective means of establishing a comprehensive cycling network through the North and on a cross-border basis.

In planning the development of the greenways, we propose that the DRD works in conjunction with its counterparts across the border — the National Roads Authority, the county councils and the tourist board — to ensure that the network here is connected across the island and across Europe. We believe that the Minister and the Department should look at INTERREG as a potential basis for securing funding for such greenways. We support the recommendation for pilot greenways in those areas and believe that they should be spread geographically throughout the Six Counties and on a cross-border basis.

In conclusion, I support the recommendations.

I commend Paul Carlisle and all the team on the DRD Committee for pulling this together and for organising the fact-finding visits and witnesses. I support the recommendations laid before us.

Mr Dallat: I am very happy to take part in the debate and welcome publication of the report. We accept that Northern Ireland is well behind other European centres of population in cycling provision, despite substantial and growing interest in it. That should not be the case because the man who invented the pneumatic or inflatable tyre for bicycles was Dr John Boyd Dunlop.

OK, he was a Scotsman, but he spent all his life in Ireland carrying out veterinary practices in Downpatrick, Belfast and Dublin. He used his skills in stitching to invent the first bicycle with pneumatic tyres. Dunlop's bicycles went on to win major races in Ireland and England. The famous Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company benefited substantially from his knowledge. He was one of our great inventors. As a child, despite a humble background, I have happy memories of owning a Raleigh, a Rudge and a BSA.

The SDLP is sympathetic to the needs of cyclists. We recognise the many benefits that cycling can bring to communities and individuals socially, environmentally and economically. As well as the benefits to the economy, the cost of our excessive dependence on private cars and other vehicles is great. There is just too much dependence on motorised road transport in Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas, where, for many people, public transport is not cost-effective or sustainable and, frankly, is not a realistic option.

As other members of the Committee highlighted, ill health, obesity, congestion, road traffic accidents and pollution could all be partly addressed by greater investment in a culture of cycling. The benefits of a greater uptake of cycling to the economy are wide-ranging, so I would like to focus on tourism. As was mentioned, the Giro d'Italia was a testament to the appetite for cycling here and to Northern Ireland's potential to attract international cycling events. I am sure that Dr John Dunlop, hopefully in a better place, must have been very happy with that and with other recent events.

There is substantial interest in cycling across the island of Ireland, as was indicated by other Members, nowhere more so than here in the North, as a sport to watch as well as to take part in. The Tourist Board has made an effort to capitalise on that and informed the Committee that it invested about £2 million over the last two years in development projects for mountain biking trails and off-road cycling trails. It is suggested that activity tourism, including cycling, could be worth £100 million to our economy. The SDLP support for investment in activity tourism runs parallel with our support for reducing VAT to 5%.

Northern Ireland has beautiful countryside and a landscape that attracts people from all over the world. With the right infrastructure and strategic vision, Northern Ireland could be a prime location for cycling holidays and international cycling events. Who is to say that the Tour de France could not come to Ireland just as it went to England last year?

If we are to reap those benefits for the people of Northern Ireland, the Minister for Regional Development needs to make a solid commitment. As we noted in the report, the bicycle strategy lacks the real commitment and funding that it needs, with no objectives or targets. The strategy needs to be reviewed and revisited if cycling in Northern Ireland is to yield all the benefits that it has to offer.

Let us build on that great man of the past, John Boyd Dunlop, who took his bicycles to Dublin in 1888 and won all the races. The people down there initially did not understand how he had done it, but it was, in fact, the pneumatic tyres.

I heard old railways mentioned a couple of times. I think that I have the attention of the Minister. Minister, don't you dare close railways to create greenways. You have done a good job so far of revitalising our railways, so that is one idea that I would shoot down immediately. No greenways from railways.

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Mrs Overend: As a member of the all-party group on cycling, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I read with interest the Regional Development Committee's report. I, along with the Committee Chair and other members of the all-party group, made representations to the Regional Development Committee, and I thank it for giving us the time to do so.

Many people at home listening to the debate will not have been able to miss the huge excitement generated last May by the Giro d'Italia and the great success of the pink celebrations across Northern Ireland. Everyone embraced Giro d'Italia fever and turned out in their masses to watch and cheer on the cyclists who came from all over the world to our wee country. There was also great community involvement, with the spread of pink in town and country.

Of course, we have our very own home-grown successful cyclists, such as Wendy Houvenaghel from Upperlands in County Londonderry, who all work to highlight the increase in Northern Ireland's interest in all things cycling. Speaking of mid-Ulster, I cannot go on without mentioning the very challenging mountain-bike trails in Davagh forest, which the Chair of the Committee mentioned. It is in the heart of my constituency and is a place for people of all ages to trek the mountains on their bicycles.

It has been a prime time for the Minister for Regional Development to attune his desire for a cycling revolution, and I commend him for the time that he has spent researching what is successful in other cities and countries in Europe and further afield, for developing a bicycle strategy and for opening a consultation to listen to the views of the people of Northern Ireland. I am certain that there has been an uptake in cycling in the past year or so, with an increase in numbers joining cycling clubs and making regular visits to mountain trails in various parts of Northern Ireland. Of course, we look forward to the Gran Fondo later this year, and I hear that a few MLAs may be taking part in that.

As someone who lives in a very rural part of Northern Ireland, a bicycle, unfortunately, is not a method of transport that I can use to get to work or that my children can use to get to school. However, it is very important that we combine cycling as something that we can do for transport and enjoyment in our vision for its future in Northern Ireland. Cycling can be used for even part of a trip, and that is a mindset that we need to encourage.

As regular cyclists, I and my husband and children cycle for enjoyment, and it is important that we do so for our health and well-being. Cycling is something that we do together as a family, and we use our cycling time to teach the children about road safety and how to treat others. In other more urban areas, cycling has the ability to become a real and meaningful method of transport, and the work that can be done to encourage an increase in that is the mixed responsibility of the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Health.

I understand that over £100 million is saved in health care owing to the high level of cycling in Copenhagen. Therefore, the Department of Health can work to promote cycling as part of healthy living and the Department for Regional Development can work to provide a better infrastructure for cyclists to cycle on.

The timing has been right for the Regional Development Committee to take an interest in cycling and, in particular, to analyse the benefits of cycling to the economy. Generally, the report is very positive and shares the Minister's vision for the future of cycling. It has gone somewhat further than simply being a critique of the Minister's bicycle strategy. I was keen to read the five articles in the terms of reference. The fifth one is:

"Identify any additional funding/funding sources required to deliver agreed objectives."

Perhaps I need more time to read the report, but I am not sure that that term of reference has been met. It may be something that the Chair will address later, or perhaps I need to analyse the report again.

Although there are many points that I agree with, I want to raise a particular issue. The recommendation at paragraph 27 states:

"The Committee recommends that the Minister seeks to ring-fence an appropriate level of funding for the delivery of the strategy as opposed to individual projects".

However, the recommendation at paragraph 40 states:

"The Committee recommends that, in the light of the restrained budgetary period facing the Executive departments, DRD produce imaginative proposals and appropriate bids to enhance the cycling experience within Northern Ireland. At a minimum, the Department should ensure that funding is ring-fenced for the Active Travel schools programme."

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Mrs Overend: Yes.

I think that there is a bit of a contradiction, in that we are looking at it overall, yet funding for individual projects as well.

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I will leave it at that.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak today in favour of cycling provision. Alliance strongly supports investment in sustainable and active travel, and, as Chair of the all-party group on cycling, I have facilitated engagement with a wide range of organisations to promote awareness and the development of effective cycling policy and provision in Northern Ireland.

We have seen an increasing momentum behind cycling in Northern Ireland. The Active School Travel programme is doing excellent work. The Giro d'Italia put cycling on an international stage here in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we have a Giro legacy plan that it would be good to hear more about today. The Belfast bike scheme is ready and waiting to go. We have legislation passing through the House on 20 mph speed limits. We have fantastic organisations in the community like NI Greenways, the Fréd Festival and the plethora of cycling clubs across our community doing excellent work.

As Mrs Overend mentioned, the all-party group on cycling presented to the inquiry into cycling. As part of Bike Week 2014, we facilitated a round-table discussion that Sustrans assisted with and facilitated. I am extremely grateful for the support that it has given to the all-party group, as well as other organisations like CTC and NI Greenways, to mention a few. I am grateful to the Minister for Regional Development for his engagement with the group.

The session identified three key barriers to cycling: bike ownership; infrastructure and safety; and weather and misconceptions about cycling. Some of the recommendations that we submitted to the inquiry on bike ownership were on the improvement and enhancement of the bike-to-work scheme. We said that there is some inconsistency in employer participation, a lengthy application process and only one bike per applicant. We also suggested that access to more affordable bikes would be a step in the right direction, as would bike storage and access to bike maintenance and repair. On infrastructure and safety, we emphasised the need for appropriate infrastructure provision for cyclists in Northern Ireland and mutual respect between road users. Where weather and misconceptions are concerned, we wanted to see improved access to changing facilities and perhaps, indeed, radio traffic updates to include cycling-related information.

I will move to the report's recommendations. Cycling has been seen as marginal for too long, and the report establishes that cycling spending has some of the best payback on transport expenditure. The report sets out a positive vision for cycling in Northern Ireland where people from all sectors of the community cycle for transport and enjoyment. It also recommends that we set targets to allow for meaningful measurement of the success or otherwise of the bicycle strategy and of progress against other important Executive commitments, such as a reduction in obesity levels and in greenhouse gases. It also makes clear that we need to see ring-fencing of appropriate levels of funding for the strategy's delivery and to establish the scale of expected cost-benefit return for the provision. It also makes an important recommendation about connecting the existing greenways, and I support the DRD vision of focusing on linking the Belfast greenways to Newry canal through Portadown up to Derry, through Omagh and Strabane and down through Enniskillen to the west as an all-island strategy that is crucial to unlocking EU funding to get the investment that we need to really move cycling forward.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, I will give way.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member agree with me that, contrary to Mr Dallat's contribution, the use of disused railway lines is an ideal way of creating cycle lanes such as that that we have at the Comber greenway?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, the Members are in agreement: I think they both support the use of disused railways without losing any further railway provision in Northern Ireland. The disused greenways have an important contribution to make to the advancement of cycling in Northern Ireland.

All roads should be designed to protect all users. The report recommends that, where cycling provision in urban centres is being considered and designed, there should be an emphasis on providing some form of segregation from other vehicular traffic. We need to see much better plans in relation to the York Street interchange than are on the board at the moment. I also welcome the recommendation that Translink should establish targets in its corporate plans to increase the number of bicycles accessing trains and buses for integrated transport, and that a Cycle to Work scheme be compulsory in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We also need to see a baseline showing the precise current value of cycling to the economy. The benefits and opportunities of cycling to transport, the environment, health, sport and the economy are many. There is a gathering momentum behind the growth of cycling and a clear need for action and investment to meet the increasing demand for improved and imaginative cycling provision in Northern Ireland.

Mr Easton: At the outset, I thank the Regional Development Committee team for putting together the report and all those who have contributed to it. It is very important that the Committee report is taken seriously by the Department and the Minister. That is why I will touch on the Department's draft strategy, which recognises that education is the key component in helping to make the transition from inactivity to being active: a key component in making the transition from the car to the bicycle.

In the Committee's view, the draft strategy is a statement of intent rather than an actual strategy. This viewpoint has been endorsed by the Department and is recorded in Hansard. Sustrans described the vision as more of an aim rather than being truly visionary. It is strange that the Department's draft strategy does not set Northern Ireland-wide targets. I do not believe that zero targets would encourage people to use a bicycle in their local community. The Committee believes that objectives and targets are vital to provide clarity in respect of the end vision and to drive the strategy and delivery of any project.

The Committee made a number of other recommendations that aim to strengthen the strategy. The Committee heard evidence from Sustrans on the benefits of cycling in Northern Ireland, which could be in the region of £89 million. CTC has put figures of somewhere between £300 million and £400 million of benefit to Northern Ireland, and that is something that we cannot afford to ignore.

If I may, I will turn briefly to the impact of cycling on tourism. The success of the Giro d'Italia and the follow-up with the staging of the Gran Fondo have been major contributors to people wanting to get on their bike and develop cycling across Northern Ireland. The Assembly Research paper 'Cycle for Leisure, Recreation and Tourism' shows the following benefits of cycle tourism: it can provide incentives for people to visit the area and spend more money in the local community; it can support local traders and offer business start-up opportunities, such as bike hire; it is an environmentally sustainable form of tourism, with minimal impact on the environment; and it utilises existing and often underused facilities, such as quiet laneways, towpaths and disused railway lines.

The Committee has recommended that Tourism Northern Ireland works in conjunction with all relevant Executive Departments to develop a cycling tourism package for Northern Ireland. The Committee also looked at the health benefits as a positive impact of cycling. The Chief Medical Officer has stated that 53% of adults meet physical activity guidelines, while research shows that children in Northern Ireland are the least physically active of anywhere in the United Kingdom, with 50% of seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland not getting the recommended —

Mr Clarke: I appreciate the Member giving way. I forgot to touch on this when I was reading my contribution. Maybe the Minister can address this point. It is obviously not in the Minister's bailiwick, but we are aware, from the day we did the visit, that some of the funding for the Active School Travel programme was in jeopardy, not from DRD but from DOE. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will work with his colleagues to ensure that DOE plays its part? Unfortunately, on the road safety aspect of this, the number of deaths was very high last year; probably one of the highest in quite a number of years. It is important, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, that the Minister does what he can with Executive colleagues to ensure DOE's continued support.

1.45 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Easton: I thank the Member for his contribution, and, certainly, I hope that the Minister takes on board what my colleague has said. It is important that we keep DOE on board and that we do not lose funding on that aspect.

In conclusion, encouraging people to get on their bike could improve our health and, indeed, save lives across Northern Ireland, thereby helping our health service. I support the report.

Mr Moutray: I believe that this report includes significantly useful information that the Minister should analyse and use as he seeks to implement a policy to encourage further interest and community involvement in cycling. I feel that it is important to note a widespread acceptance of cycling and the enhanced cycling infrastructure can make a notable contribution to our local economy. When it gave oral evidence to the Committee, the Cyclists' Touring Club claimed that the economic contribution of cycling to the UK economy was just below £3 billion. On a pro rata basis, the contribution to the Northern Ireland economy is believed to be in the region of £300 million to £400 million. While these figures are positive, the value of cycling to our economy can be grown in the years that lie ahead.

The Committee believes that, although the Department is experiencing a restrained budget, DRD should aim to produce imaginative proposals and appropriate bids to improve the cycling experience in Northern Ireland, because cycling not only brings notable benefit to the economy overall but enhances the tourist market in particular. Only last year, we witnessed the outstanding success story that was the Giro d'Italia. This was a significant cycling event, which positively portrayed Northern Ireland on a global stage and showed yet again that we are more than capable of hosting international events and doing so successfully. Praise must go to the efforts of the Executive and others for attracting this event to Northern Ireland and also for their work in attracting the Gran Fondo of 2015-17.

Cycling tourism has many economic benefits, such as providing support to local businesses and attracting more people to visit different areas across our Province. Additionally, the further enhancement of cycling tourism offers the potential of business start-up opportunities, such as those for businesses involved in bike-hire schemes, particularly in rural areas. It must also be noted that cycling can play a major part in building exercise into our lifestyles, allowing us to become more healthy and reducing our risk of developing conditions and diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Improving our health through exercise, such as cycling, benefits society at large. A healthier population means that less needs to be spent on tackling problems like obesity. As cycling is one of the most accessible activities for people of all abilities and ages, we should not underestimate the role that it can play in a healthy lifestyle.

In conclusion, I feel that the work undertaken by groups such as Sustrans, the Cyclists' Touring Club and Outdoor Recreation must be recognised and praised, as they have played an important role in education and the development of cycling in Northern Ireland. The bike to work schemes introduced by public bodies and other organisations have also proven to be a catalyst in encouraging people to take up or return to cycling.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Moutray: Yes, I will indeed.

Mr Clarke: I note that the Member refers to the Cycle to Work scheme. I think that I have raised this point before, but does the Member not find it ironic that the scheme that is operated in this very Building is not open 12 months a year? Each of the Departments encourages cycling, but the Assembly, through the Commission, only opens the scheme for a very limited time, and I have to say also that it is very difficult to access. I am sure that the Member will be surprised.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Moutray: Thank you. I agree with my colleague's sentiments. We need to be more flexible: people have busy lifestyles and work long hours, and we need to work more to tailor schemes around that. I feel that such schemes and the Active School Travel initiative should be further enhanced and expanded. I look forward to seeing how the Minister and the Department will work alongside the rest of the Executive to implement and build on the recommendations of our inquiry.

After many years, I recently started to cycle again. While I may never be a Chris Lyttle or a Sammy Douglas, I hope to do the Westport to Achill cycle trail this year.

Mr Byrne: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and to support the Committee's recommendations. As many of us will recognise, cycling has seen a resurgence in recent years, with people seeking to use bicycles as their primary mode of transport as well as their primary mode of exercise. Needless to say, a growing cycling culture in Northern Ireland will have new impacts and raise new issues in areas such as health, public safety, tourism, transport and our regional and local infrastructure.

The expansion of cycling in Northern Ireland presents an exciting opportunity to develop a market that promotes healthier lifestyles, reduces our carbon footprint and, as my colleague said, opens new areas for Northern Ireland tourism. In my constituency in the Omagh area, I have already seen the positive effects of this developing sector. The Omagh Wheelers club is a vibrant collection of cycling enthusiasts who seek to promote cycling as an alternative mode of transport and the best form of exercise. The club was formed in 1999 with only a handful of members, but it has grown to over 140 members.

Local clubs regularly organise leisure, competitive and charity events that continually bring crowds and revenue to the local area. In 2013, for example, the Wheelers promoted around 40 events, including the prestigious all-Ireland vets/junior time trial championships and the junior/A3 road race championship.

The club's signature event, the McCann Cup, sees an entry of around 300 cyclists across five races and attracts people from all over the island. This June, the club will help to host the all-Ireland cycling championships, one of the most prestigious racing events in the Irish cycling calendar. The event will bring world-class cyclists and para-cyclists to Omagh to compete not only for first place but for the honour of wearing the Irish national champion's jersey in this year's Tour de France. I suspect that the event will bring in an even greater number of spectators, who will spend significant amounts of money and bolster the local economy. With that in mind, I support the efforts of the Wheelers and the Omagh cycling initiative in promoting greater participation in cycling, better transport planning and in-town development to facilitate cyclists.

I have spoken about the Omagh Wheelers and the Omagh cycling initiative not simply in admiration of their efforts to promote the sport of cycling but to demonstrate that the cycling phenomenon is real and that its rise is plain to see. The expansion of cycling means the galvanisation of an economic resource. For every charity or race event that draws hundreds of people, we see a boost to our local economy. I believe that this sector needs the support of the Assembly.

A draft strategy for developing a plan for the future of cycling in Northern Ireland is now timely, and it is good to hear that the Department will, hopefully, bring forward a strategy soon. The Dublinbikes park-and-hire scheme has been very successful. It was started some years ago by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Andrew Montague. Hopefully, Belfast will have an equally good bicycle scheme in the future.

As the Committee rightly notes, there is an almost universal acceptance that cycling and an improved cycling infrastructure can mean a significant boost to the economy. I note how the Department for Transport report, 'Value for Money Assessment for Cycling Grants', has found that cycling schemes can have a benefit:cost ratio of up to 35:1.

The Committee was unable to come up with any exact figure for the value of cycling to the Northern Ireland economy, but Sustrans estimates a contribution of about £87 million, and the Cyclists' Touring Club mentioned that £300 million to £400 million is an estimate of the economic impact that cycling can have to Northern Ireland.

I support the Committee's recommendation that the Department must establish a baseline for the current value of cycling to the economy so that we may regularly assess all progress going forward. I want to mention the comments of the managing director of the Antrim bicycle retailer Chain Reaction, who said:

"it would be great to see an increased level of investment in facilities and infrastructure here in Northern Ireland because that would help to support the growth of cycling globally and tourism coming into the area."

It is a sentiment that I support.

As my fellow Committee members no doubt know, Chain Reaction in Antrim is the world's largest cycling product retailer, selling over 600 brands and 60,000 products to more than 1·5 million customers —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Byrne: — in over 100 countries by electronic retail. I support the motion.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Sammy Douglas.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mr Speaker: Ms Megan Fearon is not in her place. She called to my office to indicate that she was feeling unwell and she has gone home. We wish her a speedy recovery.

Mr P Robinson (The First Minister): OFMDFM officials have been engaged in discussions with Department for Social Development officials and other stakeholders in relation to the future regeneration of St Patrick's Barracks. A public-sector stakeholder group has been established and continues to meet to ensure that public bodies with an interest in the site will have an opportunity to shape its development. The Department for Social Development is preparing a proposal to purchase the site from OFMDFM for the purposes of regeneration. This approach should enable early progress to be made on the regeneration of the site and the delivery of a range of economic and social benefits, subject to any formal commitments required by the Department for Social Development from the stakeholders.

Mr Frew: I thank the First Minister for his answer. Given the impact of the JTI Gallaher job losses on Ballymena and the Province as a whole, what discussions has he had with the new Social Development Minister about the proposed plans for the site to ensure that progress is made as quickly as possible, not only for public-sector investment but private-sector investment alongside it?

Mr P Robinson: I suspect that the Member has had some discussions with the new Social Development Minister on this matter as they share the same constituency and the same interest in this scheme. I spoke with the Minister on Friday to see how we could speed things up. He is keen to have the site and we are keen to pass it on, so my hopes are that this will happen in the very near future. Of course, there are some legal issues to be resolved around the transfer of the site.

The Minister is also keen that the proposal is worked up for the future shape of the site. There is already a proposal in relation to housing and he is looking at some educational value on the site. I know that he has had meetings with the Minister for Employment and Learning in relation to ensuring that there is some skills element to the site as well. Who knows whether there might be some possibility of the future use of the site for the private sector as well? I understand as well that it is possible that it might help some of the traffic flows in the Ballymena area, which would be useful to local residents.

Mr Swann: I thank the First Minister for his answers so far. He said that there had already been communication with the Minister for Employment and Learning in relation to the relocation of the Northern Regional College's (NRC) Ballymena campus. Does he think that there will be any delay? We do not want to lose the capital investment that is there for the NRC.

Mr P Robinson: If there is delay, it will not come from our side. It is a simple transfer exercise. There are some issues relating to the potential contamination that has existed on the site. We understand that this is not as profound as in some of the other military sites that we have taken over. We had an initial decontamination survey carried out which showed that the contamination was fairly low-level. The stakeholders and DSD required a further survey, which is under way at present but I do not expect that to be a major issue. As far as the rest of the transfer is concerned, the Department for Social Development has, at the same time, to start working up the scheme and, no doubt, the Minister's stakeholder group will assist with their views as to what could be on the site.

Mr Allister: Speaking of delay, in 10 days' time, I think, it will be four years since the site was transferred to OFMDFM, so there has been substantial delay already. When this and other sites were transferred, they were gifted on the basis, it was said, that proceeds from the sale of them would be used to meet the exceptional pressures caused by the devolving of policing and justice. Is that still the intention, and will there be an actual sale at market value of this and other sites, or has that been overtaken by events?

Mr P Robinson: No, if one Department transfers to another, it does so at a value set by the valuation office. My understanding is that, in December, it was gauged that that was about £3·5 million for the remainder of the site. That is a sale, because, if the Department was going out to carry out a regeneration scheme and purchasing land, it would probably purchase it from the private sector or wherever, so it is a sale. As for where the money goes, it will go eventually into the Department of Finance, which will determine, on the basis of the priorities, where it should be spent, because, in the interim, funding has been given to the Department of Justice.

Mr Speaker: Before moving on, I further inform Members that questions 3 and 9 have been withdrawn within the appropriate time frame.

Mr P Robinson: The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is an Executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, as such, is independent of government and Ministers in respect of its operation. Unfortunately, there is no departmental authority to interfere in operational decisions of the commission. In addition, there is no shared departmental position on the matter between the deputy First Minister and me.

Mr Craig: I thank the Minister for that response. Minister, taking note of a poll published in the 'Belfast Telegraph' today, is it not remarkable that 70% of those polled were in favour of Ashers, but, more astonishingly, 90% believe that equality issues should not be used to force people to say or do something that they oppose? Does he agree with me that there is an overriding issue of the right of religious freedom as well?

Mr P Robinson: To me, the only thing that is surprising is that 30% of respondents to the poll thought that Ashers should not be given sympathy for the way that it has been treated by the Equality Commission. We live in a society where there will always be competing rights. This is not an issue of discriminating against any section of the community, in terms of the gay or lesbian community, nor is it a matter of attempting to get some special privilege for people of faith. The issue, where there are competing rights, is ensuring that there is a reasonable accommodation so that people can express their views and behave in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. I think that that is what the Equality Commission has missed. When you consider that they have set aside potential spending of £33,000 for the court case, in which they are seeking damages of £500 against Ashers, it is fairly clear to me that there is a better use that that money could be put to, particularly in the tight fiscal situation that the Executive face.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the First Minister update us on progress in the development of the sexual orientation strategy?

Mr P Robinson: This is a new question, not the one that is on the Order Paper. Of course, as I understand it, the strategy is out for consultation, and responses have been returned. The responses are being considered in the Department in order that it can draft a potential strategy document for us, and hopefully that will happen reasonably soon.

Mr Attwood: My view is that the Equality Commission has overreached in this matter, but I also believe that any legislation in respect of a conscience clause is overreaching. That said, do you agree with me, First Minister, that the Equality Commission would be better advised to spend its time and resources dealing with the structural long-term male Catholic unemployment, which has been unchanged for decades, and the increasing long-term male Protestant unemployment that is now witnessed in too many of our communities in Northern Ireland?

Mr P Robinson: If I were to look through the list of issues that the Equality Commission has responsibility for, I could find an awful lot that it would better serve the commission to deal with. However, it is an independent body and has the ability to decide for itself what its priorities are. Equally, we in the House have the independence to comment on or criticise what it does.

Ms Lo: What does the Minister believe the Equality Commission's thoughts would be on recent media reports regarding the alleged vetoing of a proposed unionist unity candidate in South Belfast on the basis of his sexual orientation?

Mr P Robinson: I am delighted to see that the nerves are beginning to jangle in the Alliance Party about unionist pacts. It is a matter entirely for individual voters which party and candidate they vote for and a matter for each party whether it stands or does not stand in any constituency and, indeed, for what purpose. I rather suspect that the Equality Commission will not spend an awful lot of its time on this issue at least.

Mr P Robinson: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer this question.

Mr Bell (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The Child Poverty Act 2010 requires the Executive to prepare and publish annual reports on the strategy and to review it formally every third year. To date, three annual reports have been published. A review of progress was completed in 2014, in consultation with Departments. As the Member is aware, the new framework, Delivering Social Change, was launched in 2011 to oversee the delivery of the Executive's commitments under priority 2 of the Programme for Government. One of the key programme building blocks is the delivery of a child poverty strategy. The framework is supported by two Executive subcommittees — the poverty and social inclusion subcommittee and the children and young people subcommittee — and a programme board that is charged with overseeing the work of the subcommittees.

In 2012, OFMDFM commissioned work to develop a joined-up approach that would allow each Department to understand better its role in tackling, addressing and, indeed, reducing child poverty. That resulted in the publication of the child poverty outcomes framework in October 2013. It proposed the introduction of outcomes-based accountability as a method of both planning and assessing performance. It sets the baseline information relative to where we are at present in relation to meeting our targets and helps us ensure that actions taken are measurable through the established indicators. A child poverty advisory group with representatives from the Departments was established to oversee the development of a new outcomes-based child poverty strategy. That new strategy will allow us to assess and review the action taken and is due to be published shortly.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answer. We know that access to education is extremely important in addressing child poverty. Considering the recent cuts to Sure Start, early years and the special educational needs budget, how can we address the needs of our young children and raise the achievement levels of our disadvantaged young people?

2.15 pm

Mr Bell: The Member's question hits on the key aspects of reducing child poverty, namely, education and the role of organisations such as Sure Start. It is important that, as an Executive, we say what we are doing, because a lot of good work has been undertaken to tackle child poverty. Let me give some examples of that. There was the expansion of the Sure Start programme to the top 25% most deprived wards — previously, it was the top 20% — and that is under way. Secondly, the Bright Start childcare grant scheme was launched in March 2014, and, to date, nearly £2 million has been allocated to it. Thirdly, £80 million was allocated through the Executive to the social investment fund, which is aimed at making life better for people who live in targeted areas, reducing poverty and unemployment and tackling physical deterioration.

The Member asked about education in particular. We have 20 new nurture units operational in 20 primary schools across Northern Ireland. At the end of the 2013-14 preschool admissions process, 99·9% of target-age children whose parents fully engaged with the process were offered a funded place in a preschool setting. We put in funding of £38·4 million to provide free school meals and gave £4·2 million to provide school uniform grants in the 2013-14 school year. In its first year, approximately 9,700 of our pupils have received support through the Delivering Social Change literacy and numeracy programme, giving children the opportunity to lift themselves and, indeed, their families out of poverty.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. Can the Minister explain the delay in bringing forward the updated child poverty strategy and provide an update on when it will be brought to the Assembly?

Mr Bell: We have the draft child poverty strategy. It is coming to the Executive imminently or shortly. I cannot do any better than that — I think that that was the question that was asked. That strategy has been the result of a lot of work. It began in 2012 with the development of the child poverty outcomes framework. It was published in 2013. A review of the previous strategy to see what we got right and wrong, where the gaps were and what we needed to do was completed in 2014. The public consultation on a new strategy was launched in 2014, and further work followed that to take on board the views and comments that arose.

The next steps will be to publish the new child poverty strategy to set out a new approach to child poverty. We will also set out what we are looking to achieve — the outcomes and the indicators — at the beginning and to establish the group that will monitor and implement the work. We want to include our external partners and representatives of the relevant stakeholder groups and to work with our partners so that we can agree, implement and evaluate all our actions to reduce and mitigate the worst effects of child poverty. Those future annual reports will seek to report progress against those outcomes. We are looking to see evidence-based reports on the agreed indicators, the measures that are set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the key agreed actions.

The annual report on child poverty for 2013-14 was published in March 2015. In that report, we set out the measures that we undertook in line with the child poverty strategy.

Mr Beggs: The junior Minister highlighted the importance of education in allowing our young people and their families to move out of poverty in the future. Can he explain why early years funding has been reduced for a number of organisations in my constituency, including Kids Korner in the Antiville area, where there are some of the highest levels of child poverty in Northern Ireland?

Mr Bell: In the first instance, we had to look at the key areas. That was the evidence that came to us from a lot of the charitable organisations. We regularly meet Barnardo's, Children in Northern Ireland, the NSPCC and Include Youth. Many of those organisations came together.

Secondly, we had to look at what the evidence was telling us and where best practice actually came from. In previous mandates and under previous authorities, we had dealt with only 20% of the most deprived wards through Sure Start specifically. The evidence was telling us that, what we had to do in those wards, was to up that by an additional 5%. We have actually increased the amount of help that we are giving to the areas of most acute need. When we go into child poverty statistics and specifically into targets, I am always very conscious of saying how well we have done, but against much of the assessed need in the specific areas of relative low income, absolute child poverty, combined low income and material deprivation, and persistent poverty, we have seen a consistent reduction.

The Member mentioned children and education in his constituency. I am not sure how many of the 9,700 children are from East Antrim. I can get him those statistics. I know that some of them are. We were told that the key aspect was to help children in numeracy and literacy because that was the way in which they could lift themselves and, in many cases, their families out of poverty. With that numeracy and literacy strategy, we will certainly have helped a number of children in the East Antrim constituency who were never helped before.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the junior Minister's responses. I have consistently made the case in this Chamber about the need for early intervention and those strategies that address child poverty in particular.

Does the junior Minister agree that those are the places where government and this Executive should focus? What cost will there be if we do not move on welfare reform? Can he keep some of those programmes going? Are the programmes that he has outlined not a better use of money than squandering it on paying penalties to Treasury?

Mr Bell: There are ongoing discussions on welfare reform. One thing that I am particularly keen on is that no front-line service or service that delivers to children can be adversely affected. The work that we are doing on child poverty is an Executive programme. It is not just OFMDFM: every party is included in that and is signed up to do work, particularly around Delivering Social Change.

What we are doing specifically is ensuring that our strategies are informed by the research that has been undertaken; that we assess the impact; that we challenge ourselves in terms of child poverty; and that we also use organisations like the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which we commissioned to provide projections of how child poverty in Northern Ireland and in the UK as a whole is likely to evolve, not only in 2013-14 but right through to 2021.

We are using the best evidence that we have and translating that into very practical measures, such as the early interventions that he mentioned; early support in childcare; developing social enterprises in childcare specifically so that more people can afford to send their children; looking at how we can use Northern Ireland's school estate, where children already are, so that we do not have to deal with the significant costs of transportation for many parents who want to get back into work and lift their families out of poverty; and looking at how we can use the school estate for those particular enterprises, which we have done in Bright Start and, as I said earlier, one of the key strategies for literacy and numeracy in primary schools. We will not see the results of those measures in GCSE outcomes for many, many years to come, but we are already seeing some initial evidence that children's educational achievement is going up. That is what we need to do to ensure that children can lift themselves out of poverty.

Mr P Robinson: The Stormont House Agreement implementation group, attended by the five party leaders, continues to meet with officials every Monday and to work towards the previously agreed timescales. However, unless an agreement can be reached on welfare reform, the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement cannot be implemented. The Secretary of State has made clear the repercussions of such a failure: corporation tax will not be devolved, despite the Bill having passed its Final Stage in the House of Lords last week; there will be no funding for the public sector voluntary exit scheme, which could have created a potential saving of up to £500 million per annum; and the planned reduction in Departments and reduction in the number of Assembly Members will not go ahead.

The failure to agree welfare reform is already having a direct financial impact. Every day that welfare reforms are not implemented is another day of shortfall payments having to be made. Having already been fined £100 million by HM Treasury, a failure to agree welfare reform will result in a further penalty of £114 million, which would have a dramatic impact on our Budget; that is, £2 million every week being lost. If we do not reach agreement, the Executive will still have to confront the challenges of how people in Northern Ireland will be paid their social security and tax credit payments in the future, as the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs will be closing their legacy IT systems, which we are presently using. Their systems currently make all the £5·5 billion of payments made each year to over 700,000 people and families in Northern Ireland, and if there is no agreement, there will be no method of payment.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the First Minister for his answer. Does the First Minister agree that further financial resources, beyond what was agreed at Stormont Castle, are not available to be allocated to welfare reform?

Mr P Robinson: The Executive can do whatever they want and could allocate further funds. To do so would be taking those funds away from front-line services. I want to make it clear that we are all agreed, as five parties, that we already have an agreement. It was an agreement that we reached at Stormont Castle, and it was fronted up in the Stormont House Agreement. That agreement at Stormont Castle set out spending limits and an envelope of spending over a six-year period. We are looking at implementing that agreement, not changing the figures in it.

It is clear that there are a number of benefits, and we were given estimated figures by DSD, so we are flexible about what the allowances might be within that, but the overall spending envelope has to be maintained or we will have to reduce front-line services, and I am simply not prepared to put my hand to that.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the First Minister agree that it is more important to get welfare reform right and, in so doing, to ensure the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement?

Mr P Robinson: It is vital that we get it right, but we should be mindful of what the process was and is. There is a Bill that needs to be passed by this Assembly. Arising from that Bill, there will be schemes that will outline how we intend to take the agreement reached at Stormont Castle forward. That would need to be passed by the Executive. Arising out of that, there are over 800 regulations, which should keep his Committee fairly busy for the next year, I would have thought. That is the process. There is nothing to stop us moving on with other elements of the process. The Bill going through the Assembly is the trigger — if I can use that word — for corporation tax powers to be devolved and the decision to be taken by us and the various arrangements that there are with the Treasury involving £2 billion of spend. All of that will be actioned by the passage of the Bill. Those are the steps in the process. The stage that we are now at is looking very seriously at how we can put together the scheme for Executive approval consistent with what we have agreed at Stormont.

Mr Cree: The First Minister has mentioned the penalty of £2 million a week. Will he perhaps develop the implications of the change in the IT system and what that is likely to mean for us?

2.30 pm

Mr P Robinson: If we do not agree the Bill, the scheme and the regulations, we will end up in circumstances, in a year or two, in which we will have no IT system to make payments. If we were to have to purchase the IT system, it would cost us close to £1 billion. If we were not to purchase the IT system, we would be asking staff in offices around the Province to do manual payments. One can imagine the kind of difficulties that that would raise.

Those are the implications of not getting it done. It is still doable; it is still doable within the time set out in the Stormont House Agreement, but it requires everybody to roll up their sleeves and make sure that we get it resolved.

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

T1. Mr Lyttle asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how the Assembly and the community can draw any conclusion other than that the delivery of racial equality is not a priority for their office, given the extreme delay to the racial equality strategy, the revelation that outdated race relations law in Northern Ireland will not be updated during this Assembly mandate and the poor administration of the minority ethnic development fund. (AQT 2281/11-15)

Mr Lyttle: I give the First Minister my reassurance that it will take an awful lot more than anything the DUP has to throw at us to rattle the nerve of the Alliance Party at this stage.

Mr P Robinson: Mr Speaker, I am shaking too much to answer that question, so I will ask my colleague the junior Minister to do so.

Mr Bell: If people care to take a serious look at what we have done on racial equality, at the funding that we have secured for the minority ethnic development fund or at my diary for the last four years — be it work with the Chinese community, at the Belfast Mela with the Indian community, with the Somali community or with the representative legal bodies — they will see the level of priority that has been attached to the work that we have undertaken. We have also put out our work on racial equality. We are working on that in consultation, because we are listening to what racial minority groups are telling us. In previous work, I spent several hours looking at the people who are falling through the gaps in our strategy. I looked at how best we can help and support them, and what better legal support can be provided to them.

If people look at the budget and the budget cuts that we received, and then look at what we delivered by way of support to groups and our work on the minority ethnic development fund, they will come to a very different conclusion to the political point scoring that just happened.

Mr Lyttle: I guess that we have seen the priority that the First Minister gives to the issue; he cannot even answer the question. Given how late his office will be in calling for and awarding minority ethnic development funding for the 2015-16 financial year, which is just upon us, will he consider extending the current level of funding for another year to allow a proper system to be put in place?

Mr Bell: It is disappointing that, having done cheap political point scoring in his first question, the Member feels the need to continue it into his second question, particularly given that the First Minister and deputy First Minister tasked junior Minister McCann and me with taking this under our portfolio and meeting the groups. I notice that the Member did not come back on any of the points of substance. Have we met all the ethnic minority groups? Have we given serious time to that? Have we looked at their needs? Have we been at every major ethnic festival from the Chinese new year to the Belfast Mela to support groups? Absolutely we have. Have we developed the ethnic minority development fund? Yes we have. Have we sought to protect that fund against large and competing items? Yes we have. Have we sought to show and highlight the very positive role that our Chinese, Indian and ethnic minority communities have played in our society? Have we pointed out the net contribution that they have made to the economy, education and the health service? On each of those points of substance, we have sought, as best we can, to support our ethnic groups.

Indeed, at 4.30 pm this afternoon, junior Minister McCann and I have a meeting with Ms Anna Lo in relation to the ethnic development fund. If we are serious about supporting our minority ethnic communities, I encourage the Member to develop some substance to what he has to say, to see what the needs of the ethnic groups actually are and to see what has been provided. Certainly, if there are positive and constructive ways to take that forward, we will listen to them. Cheap political point scoring on ethnic minorities is not helpful.

Mr Speaker: Mr Sammy Wilson is not in his place.

T3. Mr Kinahan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to comment on the reports that the PSNI has identified six additional individuals whose circumstances are similar to those of John Downey and on the fact that detectives now believe that the so-called comfort letters do not protect suspects from prosecution. (AQT 2283/11-15)

Mr P Robinson: Yes, I read the article on the issue. This has, perhaps, confirmed the necessity to have the investigation carried out by Lady Justice Hallett. Her recommendation is that there should be a clear statement from the Government that the letters of comfort have no further validity. They should never have been sent in the first place but, as they have been sent, I recognise that the Secretary of State has made a statement in the House of Commons indicating that they cannot be relied on. I am sure that it will be of interest to all of us to see what happens if and when those matters come before the courts.

Mr Kinahan: That is very good to hear. I would very much appreciate confirmation also from the First Minister that at no time did his office know anything about those letters until the Downey case came forward.

Mr P Robinson: I can give an absolute assurance to him that we had no awareness at all of this outrage before the Downey case. I cannot say that other parts of the office may not have been aware of it. Certainly, as far as the First Minister's part of the office is concerned, we were not aware of it. Everybody also recognises that the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee has carried out a very detailed and prolonged investigation, and I expect its report to be out literally within days.

T4. Mr Humphrey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on their recent visit to the United States of America. (AQT 2284/11-15)

Mr P Robinson: First of all, it was the speediest in-and-out visit that I have had. We literally arrived and did not get a chance to get cases to rooms, but went straight to the first engagement. The next day, we carried out a list of appointments and got the flight back that night.

The engagements that we had were very valuable. We met two very significant world brand name companies that have been spoken to by Invest Northern Ireland over a prolonged period of time. I have — I do not want to say "certainty" — certainly a very firm view that both of those companies will be looking to invest in Northern Ireland with a substantial number of jobs. Northern Ireland continues to be a very attractive proposition, not just for North America but for countries throughout the world. We have a very skilled workforce; we have good infrastructure; we are cost-competitive when it comes to salaries and property. All of those factors joined together, along with the loyalty of staff and the low churn rate that comes with that, shows that Northern Ireland has a hard-to-beat proposition for inward investment.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the First Minister for his answer. I very much welcome the news that he has given to the House of the interest that has been expressed to him. Is there genuine interest from other potential investors to invest in Northern Ireland should we get reduced corporation tax?

Mr P Robinson: There are two elements to the answer to that question. First of all, while we were in New York, the deputy First Minister and I met a large group of business heads over lunch. He and I heralded the coming of a lower level of corporation tax in Northern Ireland. There has been significant interest.

The second element is that the chief executive of Invest Northern Ireland has already indicated that he has been taking enquiries about when that decision will be taken by the Executive, what rate will be struck, when it will commence and whether it will be a long-lasting development. We hope that now that the Bill has passed, if we can clear the issues of welfare reform we can look to take those decisions, which would have a significant impact on job creation in Northern Ireland.

T5. Mr Moutray asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they agree that the Delivering Social Change literacy scheme should continue. (AQT 2285/11-15)

Mr P Robinson: The scheme has been running for, I think, two years. I recall answering questions a few weeks back when I gave some evidence that the success rate was such that it not only justified our decision to start this scheme but would justify its continuation.

I understand that there are budgetary difficulties. It was to have been mainstreamed and taken on by the Department of Education. The Department of Education has suffered real-term reductions, which makes it difficult for it to take on new schemes. However, the success level of the scheme thus far would justify us making every effort to ensure that it continues.

It is helping those who are, in many cases, disadvantaged. It is helping those on the borderline of getting five GCSEs. It is also helping at primary-school level. Reports from teachers have all been positive. Indeed, the education and library boards are indicating that they and their members firmly believe that the scheme should continue.

Mr Moutray: I thank the First Minister for his answer. What measure of success has the Department been using? If the scheme is successful, is it not a priority that it should continue?

Mr P Robinson: There is no question that it has been successful. The statistics from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) for the first year of the scheme show that there has been an increase at grammar and non-grammar schools in the percentage who have been able to achieve five GCSEs.

In grammar schools it increased by 4·3% and in non-grammar schools it increased by 6·3%. This means that grammar schools have gone from just over 60% to 65%. That is a marked change. We would look for NISRA's confirmation of the statistics for the second year to see if that pattern develops. If it does, it makes it an easy decision for the Executive to take, namely that the scheme has shown its value and should be continued. We would have to try to find the money from somewhere to do that.

T6. Mrs Dobson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given the rise in domestic and sexual violence and recent figures that show a prevalence of domestic abuse in Craigavon, Londonderry and north Belfast, what steps are being taken to address these worrying increases and the needs of victims. (AQT 2286/11-15)

Mr P Robinson: Mr Speaker, this also is the junior Minister's portfolio, so I will ask him to answer.

Mr Bell: I thank the Member for a serious question and for highlighting what we are aware of, which is the alarming rise in cases of domestic violence in those areas that have been identified.

2.45 pm

Junior Minister McCann and I visited a specialist facility in Londonderry. What we need to do, in the first instance, is make sure that victims report what has occurred. Secondly, we need to make sure that the place where they report it is tailored and sensitive to their needs and that it has all the relevant psychological and emotional support, and, in some cases, the necessary medical interventions, to achieve and gather evidence.

I was thoroughly impressed on that visit to Londonderry with the professionalism of those involved. They are very much over the detail of what a person needs when they have experienced a violent sexual or physical assault.

We have seen huge progress in the work that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has undertaken. We have seen the public protection units develop from the child abuse rape inquiry units; we have seen dedicated domestic violence officers and an enhancement in their training; and we have seen a growth in the support services available to women, and, in a number of cases, men, who have had to suffer sexual and physical violence. Developments in the Department of Justice in how we treat victims and how that is taken forward have also been significant in what is a very real and very present problem.

Regional Development

Mr Speaker: Questions 1, 2 and 4 have been withdrawn.

Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): My Department takes the safety of children on their journeys to and from school very seriously and has implemented a significant number of safety schemes, many through the Safer Routes to Schools programme, which was introduced in 2005. Those schemes use engineering measures to warn drivers of the presence of pupils and to reduce vehicle speeds.

The Safer Routes to Schools measures included enhanced electronic signing, road markings and coloured road surfacing to draw drivers’ attention to the presence of school children. As each school is unique, additional measures, including central islands, footpaths, lay-bys, drop-off and collection areas, and enforceable keep clear zigzags can also be considered.

My Department also provides road safety awareness and bicycle training each year in 60 schools through the Active School Travel programme, which is jointly funded by the Public Health Agency. The programme was supplemented in 2014-15 with additional capital funding of £1 million, which provided infrastructure near or en route to a number of schools with the aim of encouraging safe active travel for the school journey. That included the widening of footways, new and improved crossing facilities, and new cycle tracks.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that I have been working with Carniny Primary School and Clough Primary School over the past number of years. The hold-up seems to be match funding or investment from the Department of Education. Does the Minister agree that the Sinn Féin Minister of Education would be better using money for school safety than for a new Irish school in Dungiven?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary. He makes a very valid point. In these days and months of very constrained financial circumstances, clear priorities have to be established, not least of which is the safety of our school population. I agree very much with what the Member said, and I hope that, on further reflection, sense will prevail with the Minister of Education.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his responses so far. A recent survey indicated that eight in 10 of those surveyed had seen people using their mobile phones in the vicinity of schools. Given that serious and alarming level, is he prepared to work with his Executive counterparts and the police to tackle that very serious issue?

Mr Kennedy: In circumstances in which that is happening, it is to be deplored. It is a worrying circumstance indeed, and I hope very much that parents and drivers will reflect on it carefully and cease such activity. Obviously, road safety is a matter principally for the Minister of the Environment and DOE, but, as the Member rightly indicated, there are the cross-cutting issues of road infrastructure, justice and potentially health and education to be considered. I am open to anything that will improve the situation, because it is intolerable that people behave in such a way. They clearly pose a danger, not only to themselves but to people in the immediate area.

Mr Byrne: Can the Minister state whether any formal meetings have taken place with Departments such as DOE and the Department of Education, and, indeed, with the PSNI, on how to tackle the problem in a coordinated way?

Mr Kennedy: The Member may know that there are regular meetings on road safety issues involving agencies and Departments, under the chairmanship of the Minister of the Environment. I and my officials play a part in those meetings through looking at issues and identifying areas in which progress needs to be made, not only through education but, if necessary, through enforcement.

Mr Lyttle: I commend the Minister for his investment in the Active School Travel programme and Sustrans for the delivery of the project. Will the Minister be able to maintain the current level of funding for the programme, which I understand to be around £1 million a year, and extend on-road cycle training to all P6 pupils?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his comments. I think that he makes a very important point. It is my view that the active schools travel programme should continue to be funded, and I will look at every possible method by which I can continue to do that. My Department, along with the Public Health Agency, continues to fund Sustrans to promote cycling and walking in schools as part of the Active School Travel initiative. We are currently meeting other Departments and the Public Health Agency to consider the future of this programme beyond 2016.

Mr Kennedy: At the outset, I express my very sincere sympathy to the family of Jamie Nelson after the recent tragic accident on the A4. Indeed, I express my sympathy to families of all recent accident victims.

I am aware of traffic congestion on the A4 through Enniskillen town at peak times and have decided to include a road widening scheme in the 2015-16 programme on the Dublin Road, close to its junction with Wickham link. The scheme, which will have construction costs in the region of £650,000, will create an additional traffic lane exiting Enniskillen and travelling eastbound towards Belfast and Dublin and will improve traffic flows in that part of the town. Delivery of the scheme in 2015-16 will be dependent on successful completion of land negotiation processes. As well as taking forward the scheme in 2015-16, my Department will be taking forward a number of other smaller local transport and safety measure schemes, and that programme is currently being developed.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that, and I add my sympathy to the family of Jamie Nelson, who was killed in a tragic accident on the A4 last week.

The Minister mentioned land negotiations for the project on Dublin Road. He also mentioned some smaller schemes. Have there been any negotiations at this stage on land for the Enniskillen southern bypass, which is a larger scheme? What is the situation with that? I think that discussions on the southern bypass must be into their third decade now, and I am wondering whether any progress has been made on it in the Minister's time.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I am certainly not prepared to take responsibility over 30 years, but to give an update on the Enniskillen southern bypass, my officials are seeking to grant approval to stage 2 of the scheme assessment report before the end of March this year. That would leave the Department in a position to announce the preferred alignment and to hold a public information day to help to inform and invite comment from the public.

The new road will be almost 2 kilometres in length, and the overall project cost is put in the region of somewhere between £25 million and £30 million. Costs are dependent on whether the new River Erne crossing will be a landmark structure or a more conventional design.

With modest funding in 2015-16, the scheme could be advanced to draft order stage. That would be the notice of intention to make the direction and vesting orders and the publication of the environmental statement. That would facilitate holding a public inquiry in 2016, if required, and possibly making the direction order in 2016. Thereafter, the delivery of the bypass would be dependent on the availability of finance. In the event that capital funding becomes available, the bypass could commence in 2017, with construction taking approximately 20 months to complete. Landowner consultations have been ongoing, and the project is being reasonably well received.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. He is probably in a unique position, in that he is also responsible for public transport. He will be aware that, in recent times, 23 buses have experienced fire. Can the Minister assure the House that everything is being done to investigate the causes of those fires, which I believe resulted from leaking fuel and electronic problems? Can he reassure those tens of thousands of people who travel daily that the transport system is, in fact, safe?

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I absolutely and firmly state, on behalf of myself, the Department and Translink, that safety remains our prime concern and absolute priority. That goes for the maintenance of the entire fleet. The Member has my assurance on that.

Mr Kennedy: My Department’s grass-cutting policy provides for two cuts per year in rural areas and five cuts in urban areas. It also includes the areas required for sight lines. However, due to severe pressures in my Department’s resource budget, routine grass cutting and a number of other essential services will either have to be scaled back or stopped altogether in 2015-16.

The budget allocated to my Department leaves no funding whatsoever to employ external contractors to carry out grass cutting. I do, however, appreciate the hazards and economic issues that would result from the complete cessation of grass-cutting services by my Department. I am, therefore, likely to approve some limited work by my Department’s internal workforce, allowing it to commence a single cut of grass for 2015. I will be able to confirm that that cut can be completed only after I see the outcome of the June monitoring round.

In some areas, my Department has previously part-funded grass cutting by councils that wish to have a higher standard of grass maintenance for aesthetic and amenity reasons. I will have to cease that practice in 2015-16. Budgetary pressures in 2015-16 are such that my Department will not be able to employ external contractors. However, my Department will endeavour to ensure that it meets its legislative requirement on noxious weeds.

3.00 pm

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that road users and residents have real concerns about road safety and amenity of areas? Is it the understanding that grass cutting will not be carried out to acceptable standards? It is my clear understanding that, in the southern division, which covers north Down, grass cutting will be carried out internally, as it was last year following the Minister's decision to ditch external contractors, and that there are no contractors in place to manage weed control.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. He highlights the severe challenge I face in balancing the books of my budget. I indicated in my answer that I simply cannot afford external contractors even at this stage. Addressing that situation will depend on in-year monitoring rounds. It is a very challenging situation, and I understand the concerns expressed, but I also understand that I cannot provide services for which I do not have the money.

Mr Kinahan: I congratulate the Minister. When I have raised issues of lighting or spraying or something that has been a risk to health or safety, it has been sorted out very quickly. How much are we going to need to carry on with the cutting, lighting and everything else that we require?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his comments, his sympathy and his supplementary question. It is a relatively small amount of money in the context of the overall budget, but I face cutbacks of about £60 million over the responsibilities of my Department, and we therefore have to look closely at all aspects of the business as they affect NI Water, Translink and Transport NI. We are trying to be as creative as we can, but, ultimately, the scarcity of resources is the really big issue. Whilst, as some people say, it is a 0·6% impact, in real terms, it is a deficit of some £60 million. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain all front-line services as we desire, or even as we need to, when facing cuts of that magnitude.

Mr Kennedy: The formal consultation on this much-needed £125 million project, which links three of the busiest roads in Northern Ireland, concluded on 10 March 2015. My officials are collating and reviewing the responses before submitting the information to me for a decision on whether to hold a public inquiry.

Officials will prepare and forward a full business case to the Department of Finance and Personnel for approval when the full context of the scheme is determined, following the outcome of the consultation and a public inquiry, should I decide one is appropriate. The scheme will then be procured through an open tendering process in accordance with my Department's procurement policy.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answer. He may note that the Committee for Regional Development discussed recently an alternative to the full-scale model that has been suggested for the interchange. Will the Minister take that on board when considering the results of the consultation that he has embarked upon?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question and for his interest in the scheme. It is, potentially, a very important scheme. In very large measure, it could unlock some of the key congestion issues in central Belfast.

I am aware of the alternative suggestion that was made. In fact, my officials met the individuals involved, and we are, of course, prepared and open to consider such suggestions. Ultimately, decisions will have to be made, and I will continue to advise and update the House accordingly.

Mr Clarke: Following on from the previous question and maybe the one before that, when the Minister was complaining about his budget, given that the other solution will save probably in excess of £100 million, I do not take from your language today, Minister, that you are exploring it with much vigour. Maybe the Minister could outline exactly how much more consultation there has been with the person who made the suggestion, where exactly those plans stand and whether they will work or otherwise.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. I assure him that there is no lack of enthusiasm for any of my responsibilities. I have indicated that officials met the individual concerned. They are currently reviewing what might be called the alternative proposal. When they are in a position to report to me, they will do so. If further discussion with the proposer of the alternative is necessary, we can engage in that.

I have an open-door policy; I think that the Chair of the Regional Development Committee realises that. He does not always use it, but it is important that we leave ourselves open to other ideas and engineering solutions.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for his answers. This is a very important scheme for Belfast because of the tremendous traffic congestion that we get in that area. All things being equal, as we go forward, can he indicate what steps he will be able to take to minimise disruption during the actual construction process, bearing in mind the disruption to traffic in the area at the moment?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his comments. He is absolutely correct about the importance of the scheme. It is important that we move forward on it because even this scheme has been talked about for quite a long time. Earlier, Mr Elliott talked about delays with the A4 Enniskillen bypass, and other Members will bring to mind schemes that have been delayed. It is important that we get these schemes to a shovel-ready position. That is what I fully intend to do.

Mindful of the point that the Member has made, my project team has examined the construction programme and developed plans to demonstrate that the project can be built while maintaining access for all traffic movements. The project economics take account of the inevitable disruption that will result, and any compensation payable will be in accordance with departmental policy. That does not include compensation for any reduction in trade, as access to all property will be maintained. Any detailed compensation claims will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Kennedy: Given the difficult financial context facing Translink this year and next, unfortunately the recent fare increase — the first since January 2013 — was unavoidable. It should, however, be recognised that, since coming to office, I have ensured that fares have increased at around half the rate of inflation. Translink is also continuing to promote the various smart ticketing options, which will help to reduce the impact of the recently introduced fare increases on passengers. For example, an annual rail ticket includes a substantial discount for a regular commuter.

No one, myself included, wanted to see the recent fare increase, but it has been kept to an absolute minimum. It remains the case that Translink fares compare very favourably with those in the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. I had been able to freeze public transport fares for over 18 months, but, given the shortfall of some £60 million in my overall budget for next year, revenue grants to Translink will be cut by around £13 million. If I were to insist that Translink continued with a freeze on fares, that would have a detrimental impact on Translink finances into the future.

In the 2011-12 financial year, the number of passenger journeys was just over 77 million, and, in the current financial year, Translink is on target to achieve 80·5 million passenger journeys, an increase of over 4·5%. This growth is most significant on the railways but, in overall terms, compares very well with trends in other parts of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland.

It is important to say that Translink will be expected to save £7 million next year from greater efficiencies, and this helps to minimise fare increases. I am hopeful that the positive trend in passenger journeys in recent years will continue despite the increase in fares.

Mr Attwood: The Minister will be aware of the efforts that were made to protect the consumer interest by ensuring that the future of the Consumer Council was not put in jeopardy, as some had proposed. Will he indicate what consultations his Department and Translink undertook with the Consumer Council in advance of the decision that has been referred to?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. He may recall that this ground has been covered not only by me in the House but through correspondence with the Committee for Regional Development. I had a very friendly and successful meeting with the acting chief executive of the Consumer Council in the wake of the decision. There had been concern on the part of the Consumer Council that procedures had not been completely followed through. I was able to give an assurance that, in this case, the reasons were quite exceptional and that there was no intention of excluding it from any information in any such future discussions.

Mr Beggs: A reduction in the public transport subsidy has been passed down through the Finance Minister, and, despite the increase in local fares that has been implemented, some think that Translink is still under significant pressure. Would the Minister agree with a second fare increase for Translink?

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his question. Let me say this: absolutely not. I do not believe that it would make any economic sense or in any way attract greater usage of our public transport system to put forward a second fare increase at this time. I rule that out without any reservation. The situation is challenging, and there is a need for streamlining and for savings to be made. However, simply putting up fares is not a solution that is on my radar at this time.

Mr McNarry: Should the Consumer Council ever again be ignored in the manner in which it was ignored by Translink, will the Minister tell the House what action he would take?

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his question, but I do not foresee such circumstances. I believe that the oversight was relatively minor, and I do not think that it will be repeated as we go forward. As I said, I was heartened by my discussion with the acting chief executive of the Consumer Council.

Mr Clarke: Following on from the previous question, Minister, we would not describe it as minor, given that you were told by the chief executive of Translink on 4 November and you did not make the decision until around 11 December. It is not somewhat minor. You ignored the chief executive of Translink, who reminded you of the protocol with the Consumer Council.

3.15 pm

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. He will know that final decisions were not made until much later. That has been explained not only to him and the Committee but to the House, and it is time to move on.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to topical questions. Questions 1 and 2 have been withdrawn. I call Mr Patsy McGlone.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Question 3.

Mr Speaker: We have moved to topical questions, so please proceed.

Mr McGlone: Oh, sorry.

T3. Mr McGlone asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the dualling scheme between Randalstown and Castledawson. (AQT 2293/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question, even though it might be number three in his book. My Department continues to look at the A6 scheme, and he will know that we brought forward a scheme by which we could, subject to the available finance, move on-site at the Castledawson section fairly quickly. That remains our position, and I hope very much that, whilst the economic situation is relatively bleak and challenging, at some point capital moneys can be released to bring forward that element of the A6 scheme.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. I thank the Minister for that. Can he provide us with any clarity at all? I realise that tender documents were issued on 7 January for the scheme. Has he any clarity at all on any sources of funding that might secure at least a wee bit more progress on this? I regularly travel that route, along with thousands of others, and it is really a problematic route.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. I can update him by saying that the tender process commenced with the publication of a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union on 28 July 2014 seeking expressions of interest from contractors to provide a shovel-ready contract that would enable an early start to construction when finance became available. Tender documents were issued on 7 January 2015 and returned, after a six-week tender period, on 17 February. However, as I said, actual construction of the scheme will not commence until further funding is confirmed by the Executive.

T4. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Regional Development what consideration there is in his 2015-16 budget for the Londonderry to Coleraine rail track project. (AQT 2294/11-15)

Mr McNarry: I cannot think of a more topical issue than one that is breaking news.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his topical question. I can confirm that the signalling procurement is still ongoing and the original tender timetable has been extended by a few weeks. However, depending on a successful procurement process, the end date for the substantial elements of the project is still expected to be towards the end of 2016. Of course, that means that we have earmarked and allocated funding for that outcome.

Mr McNarry: That sounds like good news, and I thank the Minister for that. In light of what he has said, will he advise the House how many expressions of interest in tendering for the project have been registered?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. Rather than work off the top of my head, I would prefer to confirm that answer in writing to the Member as quickly as possible.

Mr McNarry: Is it one or two or three? It cannot be hundreds.

Mr Speaker: Order. I call Mr George Robinson.

Mr G Robinson: Mr Speaker, question 5.

Mr Spratt: You have to ask it.

Mr G Robinson: Sorry about that; my apologies.

T5. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister for Regional Development for his assessment of how traffic will be managed in the Castlerock Road area of Coleraine after the merger of Coleraine High School and Coleraine Inst. (AQT 2295/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his topical question. Obviously, it is very topical in the Coleraine area, particularly with the merger of the two schools. The Member may well know that I attended a meeting with the representatives of the boards of governors and the teaching staff of both schools recently. We discussed and looked at the various options as that merger moves forward. Yes, it is in a fairly constrained part of town and congestion, though not inevitable, will always be a challenge to deal with. My officials are aware of that and will work positively and constructively, not only with officials from the local education board but with the management of the school.

Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he confirm if he will have any meetings with public representatives on the future merger?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. I am aware that his party colleague the mayor was at that meeting, and a representative from East Londonderry, Claire Sugden MLA, also attended, so I believe that the council interest was represented and reflected successfully at that meeting and will be included in any ongoing discussions.

Mr Speaker: Questions 6 and 7 were withdrawn within the agreed time protocol.

T8. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Regional Development what he plans to do to address the historical deficit in transport investment in the north-west and the west, given that there has been no progress on the A5 and the A6 and people there are concerned that the distribution of resources is not panning out as it should, especially as he has been highly successful in attracting capital investment to the east of Northern Ireland, with some people even saying that he has been toving about it. (AQT 2298/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. I want to absolutely assure him of my commitment to enhance and improve the entire road network infrastructure and public transport aspects of all of Northern Ireland. There are no areas excluded. The Member will know the commitments that I have made good, particularly the reopening of the Coleraine to Londonderry line and the saving of that line, effectively.

I understand the point he makes and, to a certain extent, I understand his concerns on it, but, as far as I am concerned, I have a commitment to enhancing and improving the entire network wherever it is and as quickly as I can possibly do it. Indeed, my Department has the best record of drawing down European subsidy and grant aid for schemes that we have been involved in. We are always on the lookout to see how that can be enhanced and improved.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. He seemed to struggle with my use of the word "toving", which is really just a country term for boasting. Of course, the Minister is not responsible for the historical neglect of the north-west, but he is the current Minister. Will he tell the House, in view of the applications he has currently made to the European Union, what impact that might have on the north-west to address the serious historical problem that exists there in terms of transport, both road and rail?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. Indeed, I was not familiar with the expression "toving". I was generally always told that boasting is not a thing to engage in. I have always tried to show an attractive modesty.

As I indicated, we continue to bring forward schemes. Part of the job of the specially created section in my Department that looks at EU funding opportunities is to seek out and identify where we can to do that as quickly and as speedily as we can. He will know the European funding record that gave assistance to the track relay scheme. If there are other road infrastructure schemes that we can pursue, we will pursue those opportunities. We might have some hope in terms of the A6, although I do not want to predict, boast or tove about anything.

T9. Mr Douglas asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the major work that has been taking place at Mersey Street, which has been closed for the past number of months, and its timescale. (AQT 2299/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. Of course, there are significant schemes happening through capital moneys in all areas and all parts of Northern Ireland. It slightly surprises people then when they hear of budgetary concerns, but it is due to the difference between the resource budget allocation and the capital budget allocation. Happily, we have been able to bring forward schemes. There will always be a level of inconvenience in the practical outworking and working through the completion of any scheme, whether it is resurfacing, pipeline, track laying or whatever. We seek to work with communities, and our contractors and those engaged in it, to continue to do that.

Mr Douglas: I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that, when working in those areas, you need to work along with the local communities. The Connswater Community Greenway also operates in that area, so would the Minister encourage his workers to continue to work in partnership with the Connswater Community Greenway?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful that the Member makes that very important point. I am very much aware of the Connswater greenway project. All agencies, including other agencies not even under my remit, are cooperating. I expect that of the officials and agencies of my Department.

T10. Mr Maskey asked the Minister for Regional Development when he will publish the PAR review into procurement for the Derry to Coleraine rail line, albeit that he could publish a redacted version. (AQT 2300/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. The Member will know that the Committee for Regional Development has made repeated requests for sight of the project assessment review (PAR) report produced for the Department in September 2014. The Department has been consistent in its position that it will share the report with the Committee following the conclusion of the procurement process, which is under way. However, it is not in a position to do so immediately due to sensitivity around the commercial confidentiality of the report. The scope of the review has been released to the Committee already. I should tell the House that there is an ongoing competition. I have taken the view that the report should be released when the competition is complete but not before then. I also want to stress that I have acted throughout on legal advice. I believe that I have not breached the law in any respect.

Mr Speaker: Order. Time is up. We will not have time for a full supplementary and answer. I ask Members to take their ease while we change at the top Table. We will then return to the debate.

3.30 pm

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

Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Regional Development [NIA 168/11-16] on its inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues and other relevant bodies, to implement the recommendations contained in the report. — [Mr Clarke (The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development).]

Mr Douglas: As the vice-chair of the all-party group on cycling, I welcome and support the motion. I thank the Committee for the sterling work that it has engaged in. I also want to thank my colleague — in fact, I do not have too many here at the moment. [Laughter.]

I want to thank my colleagues for turning up now and again. [Laughter.]

Stephen Moutray made some very kind remarks about me earlier, and I am delighted that he is now involved in cycling and has applied for the cycle-to-work scheme in Stormont.

I took up cycling three years ago in a serious way, in that I got on my bike for the first time in many years. For me, it was mainly for health reasons. I had gone through a very difficult time — I experienced a traumatic death in my family — and I found that, when I started to cycle, it really helped me to get out into open spaces and to relieve stress and pressures. I can honestly say that it is one of the best decisions that I have made this century.

I would certainly encourage all those MLAs who do not cycle to consider cycling and to get on their bike. For me, especially in the early days, I came across areas of east Belfast that I did not know existed — some wee streets — but you also get to see the issues as you cycle along those streets and roads that you certainly would not see driving past in your car. The only regret that I have about cycling is that I did not embark on it when I was much younger. I wish that I had done that.

Last year, as a birthday treat, my family sent me and my wife to Utrecht in the Netherlands for a few days, and I experienced cycling there. It was the first time in my life that I had been in a traffic jam of cyclists. There were hundreds and hundreds of cyclists, and it was a new experience for me.

I believe that the Minister is personally and genuinely committed to a cycling revolution, and I am glad that that revolution is under way. I see it on a weekly basis.

I recently spoke to a person whom you will know, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, Glenn Kinning, who runs a cycle repair and sales business on the Castlereagh Road. He told me that, since last year and the Giro d'Italia, the number of parents who are coming in to buy bicycles for themselves and their children has increased dramatically, The cycling revolution is definitely under way, and an increase in cycling has led to an increase in business for the Kinnings and other cycling businesses. Sales of bicycles and bicycle equipment are definitely up.

Mr Douglas: I will.

Mr Clarke: This is unprecedented from me, but I join the Member in his congratulations to the Minister. I know that he and the Minister were at the event last year. If more people could have embarked on something like that, they could have opened up their imagination to what cycling is about and the enjoyment that they could get from it. If I had not gone, I could not have appreciated what some of the contributors brought to the event.

As the Member says, it is about lifestyle and how you change it, but you have to embrace it. If it had not been for the conference in Belfast last year, many of us would not have had that experience. It was a very useful event.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Douglas: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I certainly welcome the Member's intervention and concur with him that it was an excellent event. It brought so many people together and was a great opportunity.

I was out in Victoria Park and Orangefield Park yesterday, and it was amazing to see the number of families and children out cycling.

Not so long ago, I spoke to one of the key civil servants in Stormont. He is from Lisburn, and he told me that he drives from Lisburn to Victoria Park in east Belfast. The reason he does that is not just that it is a wonderful park with beautiful scenery, ducks, swans and everything else but because of the quality of its good, clean surfaces on which his children can actually cycle in safety. That is very important as well.

I am certainly aware, as all MLAs are, that money is scarce. The Connswater Community Greenway was a major project that brought £23·5 million from outside sources, and we need to look at how we can attract more resources from outside and other agencies.

I know that my time is running out, but I just want to finish with a quotation from the excellent NI Greenways site:

"An impressive year from a politician who is working from no party manifesto commitment to cycling and operating in a space which can easily draw criticism from lobbies hostile to cycling."

I wish that they had said that about me, but they actually said it about the Minister.

Mr Agnew: I welcome the debate and the focus that the Regional Development Committee has brought to cycling. It is a perfect example of an issue that, if we invest in it, can bring benefits to the economy, people and our environment.

It is worth saying at the outset that I think we should separate two things that, whilst they are connected, are different: cycle tourism and leisure cycling and, I suppose, cycling as a mode of transport. The needs of the two types of cyclist, whilst connected, will in many cases be different, and the provisions that are required may be different. If we are going to achieve the modal shift in what we use as our daily or commuting transport, it is important to bear that in mind to ensure that the two are not confused and we end up doing neither one nor the other. As the Committee Chair rightly said at the start of the debate, cycling should be a normal form of transport. It should be an option along with taking the car, using public transport or walking. It should be one of our choices for how we get to and from work and go about our daily needs.

I will speak of my own experience of public transport from Bangor. Despite the numerous civil servants etc who travel from Bangor to the Stormont estate and although it is easy to get to Stormont, if you work past 5.15 pm, you cannot return home by public transport. When I worked as a researcher for an MLA, I discussed the possibility of biking it here with another worker in the Building. We decided that the Craigantlet hills were a bit dangerous — and a bit hilly, I have to say. They were a bit of a challenge. We thought that we could cycle to the train station, get the train, get off at the nearest stop and cycle to Stormont, which might be safer and easier. Then, of course, we faced another hurdle, which was the fact that we might not get on the train with our bikes during the morning rush hour, when cyclists are not always permitted on trains with their bikes. The barriers are there to making that modal shift and that transition to cycling being one of the choices.

To change that, we need investment. I recently asked the Minister to outline the ratio of spend of public to private transport. I was delighted to see the projection of 35% spend on public transport in next year's budget. I know that this is about cycling, but the two very much need to link together, as my experience shows. To date, the numbers have been going in the opposite direction, and the percentage spend on public transport has been decreasing. So, I welcome the Minister's answer to that question, and I hope he meets his commitment to a 35% spend on public transport.

To come to the other side, I believe that there has been a failure. In another question for written answer, I asked the Minister about the recent resurfacing works in Ballymiscaw, and, in the same answer that he told me that there was no consultation with his cycle unit about cycling provision on the road, he told me that his Department would seek to seize opportunities as they arose. With the continuous road works that we are doing around the country, we should always consider cycling and consider the opportunities. It is a wide road, and there is definitely the space for it. Prior to that, I had noted that Massey Avenue was being resurfaced. It is a very wide road, which confuses people as to whether it is one lane or two. There is plenty of space for cycling provision, but, again, the focus was not given to it. Furthermore, an example of where we have, to some extent, failed with existing cycle lanes is on the Newtownards Road in Bangor, which is in my constituency. There is a perfectly good cycle lane —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Agnew: — but there is just one problem with it: there are cars parked the full length of it.

We need to ensure that we put the investment into public transport and into cycling and that we do so in a strategic way to ensure that the provisions that we create are not tokenistic but strategic.

Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): At the outset, I welcome the Committee's year-long inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy and the report that it has produced. I am encouraged that we have an opportunity to debate the report in the Assembly today. I thank all Members for their contribution to the debate and assure them that I have been taking careful note of all that has been said.

The Committee for Regional Development's decision to undertake the inquiry was timely and opportune. Following on from my announcement in September 2013 that I wanted a cycling revolution for Northern Ireland, it sent a very clear signal of shared determination to drive real change. For my part, this is not change for the sake of change or cycling for the sake of cycling; it is about seizing the economic, social, environmental and health benefits that higher levels of cycling can deliver.

I am grateful to the Committee for providing me with an advance manuscript copy of the report in January. I have read the report, and I must say that I am encouraged that it has much in common with my draft bicycle strategy in the benefits and priorities that they each identify. I assure the Committee, the Chair and Deputy Chair that I will make a detailed formal response to the report. I particularly welcome the Committee's recognition that progress is not a given but requires strong leadership, political commitment and funding, and I look forward to working with the Committee to provide that leadership. Together, we can build political support and make the case for increased funding for cycling. Part of the challenge is to build support in the Chamber, but there is also a need to engage businesses and communities. Alongside my bicycle strategy, the inquiry provides us with the foundations on which to do that, and I commend the Committee for its work.

The report makes 23 recommendations. More than half of those are specifically for my Department. Of those, seven are recommendations in respect of my draft bicycle strategy, and I welcome that input. The Committee's recommendations reflect many of the public responses to the consultation on my draft bicycle strategy. As with the public responses, the Committee's recommendations can strengthen my strategy, and I believe that they do. For that reason, I am sympathetic towards many of the points that the Committee has made and others have echoed during today's debate. I want to explore some of those briefly.

I agree that it is important that the cycling unit has a specific annual budget and that funding is ring-fenced to allow it to deliver on the strategy. I have done that for 2015-16, despite the very challenging budgetary position in my Department. In addition, I have ring-fenced the funding for the Active Travel schools programme. My officials are also looking at ways in which the programme might be extended beyond 2016, working with other Departments.

3.45 pm

I believe that building cycling provision at park-and-ride facilities, railways and bus stations offers significant opportunities to make cycling linked to public transport a viable alternative to the car. That is something that we heard latterly from Steven Agnew. That is under way, and I am determined to build on it. I previously set out my intention to bring forward primary legislation to encourage active travel. I look forward to the Committee’s support in taking that forward.

I can assure Committee members that their comments and, indeed, those of other respondents will be used to reshape the content of my bicycle strategy as it is finalised. As a result, I have asked my officials to revisit the vision to make it more concise. To develop baselines for monitoring, my Department is also working with Sustrans in developing a Copenhagen-style bicycle account for Belfast.

At this stage, I want to move on to address a number of issues raised by the inquiry that would, I feel, benefit from further clarification. The Committee has suggested that the draft bicycle strategy is more a statement of intent. I recognise the criticism, and I take that in a positive manner. If we are to build support and drive change, a statement of intent is exactly what is needed. However, I am equally clear that change needs more than a statement of intent if it is to happen. It needs direction and direction supported by action. I believe that the draft bicycle strategy also provides that direction, and I expect that to be clearly reflected in the final strategy.

I am also sympathetic to the recommendations relating to the Cycle to Work scheme. I would support it being extended as widely as possible, and I will do everything I can to see that happen. I think that the Chair of the Regional Development Committee raised a very fair point about how it is handled by the Assembly Commission and how Members and the staff associated can participate in the scheme. We need to make that better and easier for people to join. I remind Members that the Cycle to Work scheme is a Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs scheme. While my Department actively promotes the scheme, individual employers must decide to join the scheme and are responsible for how they implement it.

I have carefully considered the Committee's recommendation that rural proofing be undertaken as a matter of urgency. That was, I think, raised by Mr McAleer in his contribution. I am committed to rural proofing as a Minister and as a rural dweller, but it must be meaningful and must benefit rural communities. In order to do that, my officials spoke to their DARD counterparts to explain how best to carry that out. They agreed that it would be more meaningful to rural proof the bicycle strategy delivery plan. I can give a very clear commitment that that will happen. I also remind Members that the draft bicycle strategy directly addresses the issue of rural routes and that that will be an area for development.

I am a little puzzled at the Committee's statement about the perception that the strategy is anti-motorist. That issue did not arise in any of the 106 consultation responses. Let me be clear: I believe that it does not reflect the spirit, tone or content of my bicycle strategy or any part of my departmental policy. This is not war on the motorist. It also, I believe, potentially creates a tension where none need exist and undermines efforts to build support. As I said, I welcome positive criticism, but I do not welcome criticism for the sake of criticism.

I think that those comments do a disservice to all those who contributed to the development of the strategy.

At the suggestion of the Committee, my officials specifically wrote to motoring organisations about the draft strategy. In response, the RAC warmly welcomed the development of the strategy and, indeed, suggested that it provided a sound basis on which to move forward. However, I agree with the Committee that we need to balance the needs of all road users. Too often, we refer to motorists and cyclists as if they were two different species. They are all people — people who sometimes use a bicycle and sometimes drive. People are important, and we must promote the health and well-being of people. I am very mindful that the message —

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. I think that that is an extremely helpful clarification about the shared use of our roads and footways. That contribution in the Committee's report may reflect an isolated individual's view of the strategy rather than the view of every member.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful for that clarification. I do not think that I will pursue that much further today.

I am very mindful that the message that we want to continue to communicate is one of respect for all road users. I agree with the Committee about the need for a cross-cutting approach to cycling in Northern Ireland. That is why I established and chair the cross-sectoral cycling group, which includes representatives of other Departments and agencies: the Public Health Agency, the PSNI, Sport NI, Northern Ireland Local Government Association, Belfast City Council, Sustrans and Translink.

Mr Clarke, the Chairman of the Committee, asked about ensuring that the Department of the Environment plays its part in developing cycling. I am happy to confirm that my officials work with DOE colleagues to develop cycling issues, and it is also done through the cross-sectoral group.

Mr Clarke: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Clarke: I do not want the Minister for one minute to think that I was suggesting that his Department does not work closely with the DOE, because, from the day that we spent at Ballycraigy Primary School, I know that they work very closely. My concern is that one of the DOE officials said something about funding being withdrawn. Road safety should be part of the DOE's bailiwick. If we do not teach children at school, an opportunity is missed. I encourage the Minister to work with Executive colleagues to make sure that they do not remove funding from the DOE and that there is an effective mechanism in schools. As I said that day, we had cycling proficiency at school many years ago, and it seems to have drifted away. The work that is being done now is invaluable in educating children at a young age.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for expanding on his point. I accept that fully. I think that there is an ongoing role to play not only in input but on finance to ensure particular safety issues. That will also be helped by the realignment of Departments, as road safety, together with my cycling unit, will potentially be housed in the same Department. I suppose that there is comfort there too.

We are working to ensure that there is greater joined-up working between all of us, and we are striving to develop and promote cycling in Northern Ireland. I note the Committee’s recommendation that targets should be included in the final bicycle strategy; that was one of the significant points raised in the consultation. Let me be absolutely clear to Members: I am not against targets, but I am very clear that, if targets are set, they should be appropriate and measurable and should reflect the political commitment that the Assembly and the Executive are prepared to make to promote and provide for cycling — everyday cycling and every-way cycling. It is essential that the Committee acknowledges that, if targets are to be achievable, wide-ranging political commitment and funding will be necessary. I ask the Committee to continue to give me that support.

I am convinced that Northern Ireland has the potential to develop a successful cycling culture over the next 25 years. I have stated before that it is my ambition for us to be the UK's cycling capital and the cycling capital on this island. Taking into account the Belfast bike share scheme and my plans to progress a number of other schemes in Belfast city centre over the next few months, it is an ideal time to push on with the promotion of the bicycle as a convenient, accessible and viable way to travel.

With the support, enthusiasm and influence of Members, and with their political commitment and the commensurate funding, even in fiscally restrained circumstances, we can look forward to a bright cycling future that I believe we can and should deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Lynch (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.

I welcome the opportunity to make a winding-up speech on what was an important debate. As Deputy Chair, I want to put on record my thanks to the many contributors who made this report a success and made it possible. I thank the members of the Committee; the all-party group on cycling, a number of whom spoke in the debate; and all the witnesses and officials from the Department for Regional Development. I thank the Departments of Health; Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Environment. In particular, I thank those who we met when we visited County Mayo. I thank our support team, Hansard, and our Assembly researcher for all the excellent support. I thank the Minister for coming here today, and the Members for their contributions.

As I said, this was an important debate. The range of contributions show how important cycling is to the economy. If I may, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I will refer briefly to some of the points made.

My colleague Declan McAleer noted that the strategy had not been rural proofed, which is a valid point and one that the Committee laboured over during the inquiry. I welcome the Minister's commitment in his speech to rural proof the strategy. Declan referred to the need for equal treatment between rural and urban areas. That supports the Committee's position that the cycling strategy and cycling initiatives are urban-focused.

Declan and others referred to INTERREG funding. The Committee supported the Department in calling for a larger budget for cycling within the INTERREG programme, and saw at first-hand the desire for cross-border cycling projects. He highlighted the potential for opening greenways across the island of Ireland, citing the Great Western Greenway project at Mulranny. I think we would all agree that that is an example for success across the island.

John Dallat, in welcoming the report, highlighted the relevant fact that the North lags behind the rest of Europe. Whilst I am sure that he was referring to a particular rail line, I think we received clarity that he would be supportive of disused rail lines being developed as greenways. Again, the Committee is supportive of that concept, but it did not want to see any further pilot projects as there were sufficiently successful greenways operating.

Sandra Overend, as a member of the all-party group that came before us, welcomed the report as positive, although critical of the Department's strategy. Other contributions today supported that criticism. She suggested that recommendations 27 and 40 of the report were contradictory. The Committee does not necessarily agree with that, and cites examples of innovative projects in recommendation 40. I find it somewhat rich that the Committee is criticised for not identifying alternative funding streams when the Minister and his officials have not identified any sources of funding in their strategy.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Member for giving way. The only reason I raised that issue was because it was a point in your terms of reference that you did not meet.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member, and I take her point.

4.00 pm

Chris Lyttle is another member of the all-party group who came in front of us and made a valuable contribution. He referred to the three barriers to cycling, including ownership.

The Committee, as the Chair indicated during the interjections, has called for an extension to the bike-to-work scheme, including making it a compulsory programme in the public sector. He also, quite rightly, highlighted the absence of integrated transport solutions. We have called for Translink to identify better means of integrating cycling with public transport.

Alex Easton and Stephen Moutray highlighted the health benefits of cycling. We have called for roads to be health proofed, similar to the assessments being carried out on the Connswater greenway, through the World Health Organization's health economic assessment tool.

Joe Byrne spoke about the cycling phenomenon, particularly in his home town of Omagh, and the positive impact it had on the local economy. He highlighted the need to establish appropriate baselines.

Sammy Douglas said he took up cycling three years ago for health reasons and that his only regret was that it was too late. Sammy, I do not think it is ever too late. Like you, I took up cycling and I totally agree with you that the health benefits are significant. He rightly encouraged more people to cycle and heralded the benefits, personally and for the wider population, including family outings. Sandra Overend mentioned family cycling as well. Sammy welcomed the cycling revolution, and both he and the Chair commended the Department on its cycling conference.

Steven Agnew welcomed the focus that the Committee has brought to cycling. He spoke about cycling creating a modal shift and said that it should be one of our choices of transport. He also spoke about the hurdles and barriers to using public transport and cycling.

The Minister welcomed the report, said that the inquiry was timely and opportune and commended the work of the Committee. He welcomed the fact that he is sympathetic to many of our recommendations. He also indicated his continued support for the Active School Travel programme, which is welcome. We look forward to working on the primary legislation on physical activity in due course. We agree that the strategy needs to drive forward, and we look forward to helping it do that. We again welcome his comments on the cycle-to-work scheme.

The Minister stated that the strategy was not a war on motorists, and they will be glad to hear that. Those were not criticisms for the sake of it, they were perceptions expressed by one or more members during the inquiry. He said that hopefully there will be a successful cultural change over the next 25 years. I hope we all live to see it, Minister. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Regional Development [NIA 168/11-16] on its inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues and other relevant bodies, to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

Adjourned at 4.04 pm.

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