Official Report: Monday 11 January 2016

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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: It is the usual Monday morning attendance, I see.

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just before the Christmas recess, each Member received a letter from your office dated 7 December. It was a letter from the deputy First Minister. I will not read the entire letter, but it said that he was writing to correct a reference that he made during Question Time, which was that another Member had not voted in the recent debate on the legislative consent motion for welfare reform, but that a review of the voting records for that item showed that he did vote on that matter. Obviously, it is good that, when an error is made, the Member responsible rectifies it, but did an apology for the incorrect reference accompany the letter and we did not get it, or was no apology given for the incorrect assertion?

Mr Speaker: I cannot answer your query at present. I am not particularly au fait with the full correspondence. I will take a look at it. That is the best that I can offer in the circumstances.

The first item of business will be the filling of vacancies in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. As Members will be aware, those issues will have to be given precedence over the ordinary business that was set out by the Business Committee.

Before we proceed to that item, I have some announcements to make.

Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that the Children's Services (Co-operation) Bill received Royal Assent on Wednesday 9 December 2015. It will be known as the Children's Services (Co-operation) Act 2015.

Resignation of Members: Pat Ramsey and Joe Byrne

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I received a letter from Mr Pat Ramsey giving me notice of his intention to resign as a Member for the Foyle constituency with effect from 31 December 2015. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I wish to advise the House that I received a letter from Mr Joe Byrne giving me notice of his intention to resign as a Member for the West Tyrone constituency with effect from 31 December 2015. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

New Assembly Members: Gerard Diver and Daniel McCrossan

Mr Speaker: I wish to advise the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Gerard Diver has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Foyle constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Ramsey's resignation. Mr Diver signed the Roll of Membership and entered his designation in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on 7 January 2016. The Member has now taken his seat. I welcome him to the House and wish him every success.

I wish to advise the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Daniel McCrossan has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the West Tyrone constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Byrne's resignation. Mr McCrossan signed the Roll of Membership and entered his designation in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on 7 January 2016. The Member has now taken his seat. I welcome him to the House and wish him every success.

First Minister Peter Robinson: Personal Statement

Mr Speaker: I have received a letter from the First Minister, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, notifying me of his resignation, under section 16B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with effect from 11 January 2016. Mr Robinson also sought leave to make a statement, and I will call him shortly. However, before doing so, I am sure that all Members would want me to convey the Assembly's best wishes to him as he leaves the office of First Minister and would wish to recognise his long years of public service.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr P Robinson (The First Minister): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to make this statement. It is typical of the fairness and courtesy that you have demonstrated during your time in office that you provided me with this opportunity and made all the necessary arrangements. I can assure you that I do not intend to trespass on your generosity by speaking for too long.

It has been a great privilege to serve the people of Northern Ireland for almost 40 years, with nearly eight of those as First Minister. In this Assembly, we have had our share of trials and ordeals but, through them all, we have emerged much stronger. Every new institution composed of politicians who have known nothing other than being in opposition will have a learning curve while Members mature, develop and adapt to taking responsibility and while the more sensible ones adjust their ambitions to fit the politics of what, with effort, is achievable.

Crucially, after centuries of division, we had to outlive the growing pains of learning to work together, fashion shared policies and create a more inclusive society. It is a feature of every societal transformation that some will be displeased at the pace of change, some believing it to be too fast, and others feeling that it is too slow. Yet, so much has been achieved and the platform now exists to do even more.

Politics, by its nature, is a combative endeavour and we do not always take time to recognise the role that others play. I differ from some in the House on many issues but, in my long experience in politics, there are very few who are not well motivated and who do not act in the best interests of society as they see it.

In whatever capacity they serve, I admire those who devote their lives to public service. When we take a step back, and with the perspective of history, we can see just how far we have come, because we now live in a new era. You have only to look around you to see the progress that there has been, not just in the physical structures that did not exist a decade ago, but in the lives of our people. Although we do not always fully appreciate it, devolution underpins a level of peace and stability that we enjoy today. After 35 years of stop-go government, devolution, with local people taking the decisions, is once again the norm. That has allowed us the platform to recast Northern Ireland's international image and bring in more jobs than at any point in our history. Whereas, once, tourists avoided coming here, we now attract people from right across the globe.

We not only provided for partnership government but agreed the devolution of policing and justice functions. In recent months, we have resolved the welfare reform issue and put the Assembly's finances back on a stable footing. We have secured the devolution of corporation tax and agreed a rate and a date for commencement. We have agreed significant reforms to the way in which government operates, with a reduction in the number of Departments and Assembly Members and the creation of an official opposition.

In politics, there is never a full stop and much remains to be done, but I believe that this is the right moment for me to step aside and hand over the burden and the privilege of office. Dealing with the legacy of the past is a work in progress, and reconciliation will be an ongoing enterprise, but, even there, real progress has been made. The foundations have been laid, and it will be for others to continue building.

It would be remiss of me not to thank the deputy First Minister and all those whom I have served alongside in the Executive over these past years. Through good times and bad, we have worked together, despite our many differences in background, temperament and outlook. Strangely, we were at our strongest when the threat from outside the political institutions was at its greatest. The collective revulsion across the community and across the Chamber following the murders of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, as well as those of Constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr, was the surest sign to me that we were never going to go back to the dark days of the past.

I thank my party colleagues for the opportunities that they have given me, and I wish all of them well for the future. I am absolutely certain that in Arlene I have a worthy successor. I can assure her that I will not interfere in her work, but, if she ever needs a word of encouragement or advice, I will always be there to offer it.

Mr Speaker, consistent with the terms of my letter of last Monday, I hereby resign the office of First Minister, with confidence that the political institutions that we have together created will be here for generations to come. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: I remind the House of the convention that, when a Minister is making a resignation statement, there will be an opportunity for others to comment afterwards. How that is managed is at my discretion, and, in order to be as fair and inclusive as possible, I have decided to adopt the procedure regularly used for a Matter of the Day. I am allocating the next 30 minutes for others to speak, and I ask Members to limit their remarks to not more than three minutes.

By way of a personal perspective, I add my congratulations to the contribution that you have made to our community over many years. I think that those comments will be recognised as being absolutely fair and that there will be recognition of your sacrifice and commitment. At times such as this, it is important that the Chamber, which is an arena for very robust debate, also demonstrates that it can recognise with magnanimity the sacrifice that is involved in taking on public office and, in particular, in holding high office. Today is such a day, and, for that reason, I am only too pleased to give Members an opportunity to put their comments on the record.

Mrs Foster: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that, after you, I am the first to have the opportunity to pay tribute to Peter and thank him for his lifetime in politics, from Castlereagh Council, via Westminster, to the Assembly.

He leaves enormous political shoes to fill. Three minutes cannot do justice to the career of the person who has been the most astute unionist political leader of this or, for that matter, any era in Northern Ireland's history, but when the history of this time comes to be written, his leadership will define the period. In his time, he has helped redraw the unionist political map and has ensured a better future for Northern Ireland in the most challenging of circumstances. Few have endured more difficult political times and come out the other side successfully.

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Few will ever know, or indeed fully appreciate, the lifetime of service and single-minded commitment that Peter has brought to public life. He has been a leader, not just of the DUP, but of unionism and, indeed, of Northern Ireland as a whole. It is a daunting task for me to follow him in not just one but two of those roles. There are many who deservedly share the credit for the Northern Ireland that we have now but few more than Peter Robinson.

His legacy is not just that he became First Minister but that he ensured that devolution survived the early rocky years. It is because of Peter's work that what was remarkable at one time now seems routine. Few believed that devolution led by the DUP and Sinn Féin would ever happen; fewer still believed that it would last. Yet it has, even through the toughest of times. In every era of history someone is called upon to fulfil the role of leadership. Never in the recent history of Northern Ireland was anyone so crucial as Peter Robinson.

On a personal note, I would not have had the chance that I had but for the work of Peter, first of all, in encouraging me to join the DUP, then helping me through the ranks of the party and, lastly, providing me with the opportunity to serve the people of Northern Ireland as a Minister. I will always be grateful for that. More than all, he has been a political mentor to me. I have watched and listened at first-hand, and I hope that even a little of his insight has rubbed off on me.

Mr Speaker, I am certain that at critical moments over this last seven — nearly eight — years, there was no other unionist leader who could have held things together and ensured that devolution proceeded. Peter was never better than in a crisis, and, on more than one occasion, did not simply survive difficult events but prospered from them. It was almost as if he revelled in adversity and thrived in the face of impossible odds. At a political level, the return of 38 DUP MLAs was a remarkable achievement. To exceed the result of 2007 and elect more MLAs than any party since 1998 was truly historic.

In recent decades, few unionist leaders have been able to choose the time and manner of their departure from office; Peter has done so and leaves office with devolution and the Union secure. Peter Robinson would have been a significant political figure no matter where he was born on these islands. It has been our collective good fortune, and to Northern Ireland's benefit, that he was born here.

Finally, I know that I speak for all on these Benches when I wish Peter well in his retirement, although I am quite certain that he will not be putting his feet up just yet. He can enjoy his well-deserved retirement in the knowledge that, when his time came to serve his country and community, he was not found wanting and leaves behind him a far better Northern Ireland because of his work.

Peter, we will never adequately be able to thank you for the service that you have given; we can only strive to build on the strong leadership that you gave us. You said late last year that listening to tributes to oneself was "surreal" and that you were still very much alive. Well, I hope that you enjoy listening to what we have to say today, because nobody — nobody — deserves the plaudits more than you.

Mr Speaker: I have the names of some Members who have indicated that they wish to speak. I ask all Members who would like to contribute to continue to rise in their places, and I will endeavour to accommodate as many as possible. Of course, the briefer you are, the more opportunity there will be for others. I call Mr Martin McGuinness.

Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I too rise to express my deep appreciation for the leadership shown by Peter Robinson, particularly over the last eight years.

It is no secret that we first met during the course of that famous weekend in March 2007 at Stormont Castle. I was accompanied by Gerry Kelly and Conor Murphy; Peter by Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley junior. Of course, the outcome of the engagement was our agreeing every word, dot and comma that Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams would say the following Monday, in a statement that confounded the world's media, which thought that it was here to proclaim another failure in the peace process. As a result, I spent one year in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister with Ian Paisley. Incredibly, despite our different ideological outlooks and allegiances, Ian Paisley and I developed a positive working relationship and, just as importantly, a friendship that existed until the day he died. I very much treasure that friendship with Ian, his wife Eileen and the Paisley family.

Peter took over in 2008 and, in one of the first conversations we had, he said to me, "No matter what happens on the streets, we must ensure that these institutions do not collapse." We were mindful that the institutions had collapsed on several previous occasions, albeit under other political parties. During our stewardship of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we faced many huge challenges, not least the challenges posed by those who try to plunge us back to the past, including those so-called dissident republicans who murdered the young soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in Antrim, those who killed constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr and those who killed prison officer David Black. We also faced huge pressure from the extremes of loyalism through the reaction to the decision taken at Belfast City Council on flags and the situation at Ardoyne. That is without dwelling on or mentioning the pressures that were imposed on our Executive by an austerity agenda that came from the Tories at Westminster. During that period, against the backdrop of a world economic downturn, the work that I did with Ian Paisley and the work that I did with Peter through our regular visits to the United States paid huge dividends in foreign direct investment and the provision of jobs for our people. Even at a time of economic downturn, we were able to buck the trend in investment and deliver for the citizens that we represent.

I pay tribute to the leadership that Peter showed from that first engagement right through. We faced many challenges and many difficulties, but we came through them in the end. As I said, I had a friendship with Ian Paisley that existed until the day he died. I have no doubt that I have a friendship with Peter that will exist until the day we both die.

Mr Eastwood: My political career does not go back decades like the former First Minister's, but we have come from different places and have been on different sides of different arguments. I understand, as does everybody in this Chamber, the commitment that it takes to be a full-time political representative, the toll it takes on your family and the toll it takes personally. I have no difficulty in recognising the effort and commitment that Peter Robinson has given to Northern Ireland and the people he represents. He is a formidable political character and, obviously, a capable strategist and party builder. He has a tremendous work rate, although maybe not the best diet in the world.

After years of rejecting, it has to be said, what we saw as possible solutions to the problems here, Peter Robinson has cemented unionism's commitment to these institutions and ensured that we have lasting institutions in this part of the world. The SDLP had long argued and struggled for the creation of these types of institutions, and it has to be said that, although we might disagree on how they have evolved or delivered, it is clear that Peter Robinson's commitment and leadership has ensured that they will survive the test of time, as they have over the last number of years. I wish him a very long and happy retirement and hope he gets the time to enjoy it.

Mr Nesbitt: The last time that I was in Mr Robinson's company was, sadly, at Roselawn over Christmas at the funeral of the journalist Liam Clarke. The order of service focused on the words that Liam wrote when he realised that he was terminally ill. Those words encouraged us to think about the importance of personal relationships rather than winning arguments. That will be my theme because, after all, three minutes would not do justice to the number of disputes between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists down the years, so I will stick to interpersonal relationships.

I have known Mr Robinson for what seems like a very long time. As a journalist, one of the first interviews that I remember was in 1988. I do not know whether Mr Robinson remembers, but he was just back from Duisburg, a German city where he had been involved in secret talks with ourselves, the Alliance Party and the SDLP. The BBC gave me three minutes to get the low-down on what he had been up to. He would not even tell me what the weather had been like. It is 7°C and drizzly currently. On 10 October 2002, in the UTV studios, I sat between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as they engaged with each other for the first time ever. As it said in the 'News Letter', "McGuinness, Robinson in studio war; the picture you thought you'd never see." Who knew then that it would end as it does now?

More recently, of course, I have developed a relationship with the First Minister politically, not least our cooperation in the general election of 2015 to ensure that we returned to the position where the majority of our 18 Members of Parliament are pro Union. That cooperation was most keenly seen and evidenced in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Mr Robinson has been around the DUP a very long time, so it is perhaps surprising to remember that he only ever led the DUP into one Assembly election, but, as Mrs Foster said, it was an incredibly successful one. I am sure that, at least privately, a part of Mr Robinson will join me in hoping that history reflects that that was the peak of the DUP's electoral successes. [Laughter.]

Let me wish Mr Robinson and his family a healthy and prosperous future.

Mr Speaker: Good wishes and wishful thinking. [Laughter.]

Mr Ford: I will try to get away from the party politics a little and just express some good wishes to Peter Robinson from my colleagues. I am a few years older than Colum Eastwood, but I do recall that, when I became involved in full-time politics as general secretary of the Alliance Party, Peter Robinson had already been a Member of Parliament for 10 years. That is a measure of an extremely long and very significant career covering very significant events in the life of this region. During those times, his party and mine have had many disagreements; in fact, probably more disagreements than agreements. However, today, I want to recognise his commitment to the political process and the work that he has done, much of it as deputy to Ian Paisley but, in recent years, as the leader in his own right.

There is no doubt that he has played an extremely key role in this institution and the life of Northern Ireland for many years but most particularly since the restoration of devolution. He mentioned the devolution of Justice. I do not believe that that would have happened without the commitment that he made to ensuring that devolution was fully embedded and capable of taking on the difficult task of Justice, particularly in the light of the tragedies that he has highlighted that we have suffered in recent years.

Leaving aside a brief spell in Regional Development in the first Assembly, he had a major role as Minister of Finance in seeing how matters were put into order for devolution on restoration in 2007. He has then had a very significant career as First Minister. There is no doubt that his efforts, alongside those of the deputy First Minister, kept these institutions going through some very difficult times, particularly over the last couple of years. He referred to trials and ordeals. There is no doubt that the Assembly has survived very significant trials and ordeals, and he played a large part in ensuring that that happened.

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Presumably, he will regard the Fresh Start announcement before Christmas as being the summit of his work. It will, of course, now be for others to deliver on that so-called fresh start to ensure that we fully embed the principles of moving forward. He talked about the pace of change. In this corner of the House, we were probably seeking a faster pace of change than was possible elsewhere. Even saying that, I acknowledge that, without his work, we would not have had the solid embedding, the strength of the institutions or the strength of the political process against those who would seek to disrupt and disturb it. He has played a very significant part in ensuring a better future for all of us.

Mr Campbell: I first stood for election in 1977 — 40 years ago next year. In that time, I have known Peter Robinson as a colleague and a friend. We engaged throughout Northern Ireland on a whole series of political meetings and discussions. Those discussions, particularly in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, involved conversations about how we could move the country forward. They involved going to places such as the United States of America, South Africa, mainland Europe and elsewhere. Of course, Peter brought to unionism an incisive knowledge and belief that terror had to stop, those who advocate terror had to cease doing so, those who did not recognise the courts had not only to recognise but support them and the rule of law, and, when they did so, anything was possible. That was the nub of the difficulty that we had for so many years. He never shirked the responsibility that he had for all those years.

We wish you well for the future, Peter. We hope that you will not take your retirement too seriously and that you will be available, if called on, for advice. We hope and pray that you and your family will enjoy your retirement. May God richly bless you for the future.

Mr Allister: I certainly wish the retiring First Minister a long and healthy retirement. Forty years of a political career, in Peter Robinson's case, has been a quite remarkable event. He has scaled many heights and attained much in his ambition. He undoubtedly is, was and, I suspect, under another guise, will continue to be a very formidable parliamentarian. His contributions have been very notable. His debating skills are in a class of their own, and anyone who has encountered him knows that.

Our paths and policies in our early political years coincided significantly. In latter years, you could say that they have diverged emphatically. However, the retiring First Minister and I, from our different perspectives, would probably have the view that the other took the wrong road. In holding that view of each other, I suppose that that is something about which we still agree. [Laughter.]

No one expects me, I would have thought — if they do, they will be disappointed — to endorse or embrace the legacy that the retiring First Minister leaves us: a legacy of terrorists in government; a dysfunctional system that, just last year, he described as "not fit for purpose"; a system that gives year after year of failure and disappointment, as it has; and a system that denies the most elementary of democratic rights — the right of a people to change their Government and the right to vote a party out of government. None of that I embrace, but continue to oppose.

Pinned to my noticeboard in my office, it may surprise some people to hear, I have a speech of Peter Robinson's. It is a speech of 8 May 2001, and, from time to time, I take it down and read it. I read it again this morning. The message of that speech is very clear: it conveys the grasp that Peter Robinson has of Martin McGuinness and that he knows the real Martin McGuinness, all he stands for and all he did. I recommend that anyone who wants to contrast the earlier career of Mr Robinson with his latter actions read that speech, in which he talks, amongst other things, about the "unseemly and immoral sham" that is Belfast Agreement devolution. I could not put it better myself. My only regret is that he ended his career by embracing Belfast Agreement devolution and inflicting it upon us. However, that apart, I wish him and his family many years of happy retirement, and of healthy retirement, because I think that, as he has realised, health is very important. In that, —

Mr Speaker: Thank you. The Member has had some indulgence already.

Mr Allister: — I am sure that we all join.

Mr Agnew: I would like to add to the previous congratulations from many Members to Peter Robinson on what has been a long and distinguished career. As somebody who hopes that he is still at the beginning of his political career, I am not placed to judge the achievements of Peter Robinson. Others, maybe those who are longer in the tooth and more experienced, will do that. I am sure that there will be plenty written about his career, but, undoubtedly, it will be seen as having been successful. That said, as an elected Member, I have the right to disagree and to purport a very different political opinion. When Mr Robinson speaks of the pace of change, I always say that I am very proud of how far Northern Ireland has come, at the same time as being very frustrated that it has not moved further, faster. I believe that transparency in politics still has a long way to go. Despite the many achievements of Peter Robinson in his time, that is a legacy that remains. There is still suspicion and mistrust in politics because we do not have the levels of transparency that exist elsewhere on these islands.

On a personal level, I thank Mr Robinson. When I sought meetings with him, he obliged. I always appreciated that, knowing the many commitments that he had. Whatever his future holds after his time in the Assembly, I wish him good health and happiness.

Mr Bell: May I begin by saying a sincerest word of thanks to Peter Robinson for the leadership that he gave? I thank him and his family for all of the sacrifices that they made over decades of politics to take us to the place we are in Northern Ireland. I will take some of the words, from a few moments ago, of Lord Morrow, our party chairman. Many of us echo these words, personally, as MLAs and as a political party. Peter, we and Northern Ireland owe to you a debt that we can never repay. In Peter Robinson, we had the best strategic thinker of unionism. He used his God-given forensic intelligence for the good of everyone, and I mean everyone, in Northern Ireland.

I was recently at an international manufacturing conference at Queen's University. It led with a slide that said that United Nations figures show that Belfast is now the second-safest city in the world. We are second only to Tokyo. We see that Northern Ireland's unemployment levels are about one third less than the European Union average. That is a healthy unemployment rate. We compare over the past five years to both the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. There is now immense interest in Northern Ireland into the future. We look to you, Peter, because you were a linchpin and foundation of that success. I almost said, Peter, that you were a rock.

We look to the past: a legacy of death, when people tried by means of violence to expel us from the United Kingdom. You were a rock against that. When I look to where we are in the present, both socially and economically and with the structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I see the hope that we now have going into the future. You were a linchpin in establishing that present. Into the future, you have laid for us the foundations of a Northern Ireland with economic costs that are about 85% of those of the rest of the United Kingdom and 95% of those of the Republic of Ireland. Today, we are able to take around the world a message that Northern Ireland will have the lowest rate of corporation tax in the United Kingdom from 1 April 2018.

You have a deep love for Northern Ireland, and I know that you have deep satisfaction that the leadership is being taken over by the safest of safe hands — someone who will progressively continue that legacy to take Northern Ireland forward.

Many want to thank you for running that race. You were not a shepherd who followed the sheep, but you were a shepherd who was able to stay in sight of the leadership that Northern Ireland needed to take it forward. You led to the primacy of politics and to a peaceful and economically successful Northern Ireland. More than anything, your legacy of excellence has defeated the previous maxim that all political careers end in failure.

Mr McNarry: Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all our colleagues. It is a fresh start indeed.

Last night, I watched the BAFTAs for a very short time. You know where the winners make the crummy speeches and the losers grin through gritted teeth, thinking, "It should have been me"? I am not looking in any particular direction, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.]

It is for some to be careful what they might wish for.

This afternoon, I use the occasion to wish, very sincerely, good health and good luck to the outgoing First Minister and all the best to Northern Ireland. As First Minister, Peter Robinson was at all times courteous and respectful to me and my party leader in UKIP, Nigel Farage, and that, I am glad to say, was reciprocated. We grew up in politics together. He was, is and, I am sure, will remain a formidable opponent. His progress far outstripped mine and that of most, if not all, of his contemporaries.

As for advice, it is time to stop the fags, ditch the booze and cut out the late nights. Well, that is what you told me not so long ago. [Laughter.]

Two out of three is not too bad. In reality, if 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!' comes knocking, just tell them that you have left the Stormont Executive jungle. I think that you could say that 'Strictly Come Dancing' looks more promising. As you have always said, it takes two to tango. You have certainly proved that.

As regards where we are and where we are going, thanks to you, outgoing First Minister, we are still moving on to wherever that is. In a short time, your successor moves in.

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From your party's perspective, you will be a hard act to follow. So, too, UKIP wishes Arlene Foster well in the role that she will have to address so very soon.

Somehow, Peter, I am sure that it will be said often that "you haven't gone away, you know". Wherever this journey takes you, God speed and walk tall, and thanks for what you have done for Northern Ireland.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: I recognise that a number of people did not have the opportunity to contribute at this point. However, I advise the House that there will be a further opportunity for Members to speak when the next item of business has been concluded, and I will recognise those Members who did not have the opportunity just now. We will move on.

OFMDFM Vacancies

Mr Speaker: The First Minister's resignation has now taken effect and, in accordance with section 16B(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the deputy First Minister has also ceased to hold office. The next item of business is the filling of both vacancies, and I will conduct that process in accordance with the procedures required by section 16B(3) of the 1998 Act. I will begin by asking the nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation to nominate a member of the Assembly to be the First Minister. I will then ask the nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation to nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.

As the persons nominated to fill the vacancies shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office contained in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, when I have received both nominations I will ask each of the persons nominated to affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office. Before we proceed, Members may find it helpful if the Pledge of Office is read into the record so that it does not have to be read in full by the persons nominated to the office of First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Pledge of Office is as follows: To pledge:

"to discharge in good faith all the duties of office; commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means; to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination; to promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future; to participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council; to observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister; to uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement; to participate with colleagues in the preparation of a programme for government; to operate within the framework of that programme when agreed within the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly; to support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly; to comply with the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

Paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement says:

'We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.'"

The Pledge of Office has now been read into the record of proceedings and, for the information of Members, copies are also available in the Hall. I will now proceed with the nomination process, and I call on the Rt Hon Peter Robinson to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the First Minister.

Mr P Robinson: Mr Speaker, it is a great pleasure and a huge honour for me, in carrying out my last duty as nominating officer for the Democratic Unionist Party, to nominate my good friend and successor as party leader, Mrs Arlene Foster, to be First Minister of Northern Ireland. I know that I am only permitted to make a formal proposal at this stage, but I want to say that Arlene has been an excellent Minister in each Department in which she has served. She is eminently qualified for the post that she is undertaking, and I am confident that she will continue to take Northern Ireland forward in the years to come.
I have no doubt that she will apply her skill and judgement to great effect as First Minister, and I wish her every success and God's richest blessing as she faces this new challenge.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Mrs Foster, are you willing to take up the office of First Minister?

Mrs Foster: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act.

Mr Speaker: I was worried about all the reading that you might have to do.

I have received a letter from the nominating officer of Sinn Féin advising me that Caitríona Ruane will serve as nominating officer for the party today. I call Ms Caitríona Ruane to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Ba mhaith liom an tUasal Máirtín Mac Aonghusa a ainmniú ina LeasChéad-Aire. I would like to nominate Martin McGuinness as the deputy First Minister.

As we know, the next few months are very important in the history of these institutions — the Assembly, the North/South bodies and the British-Irish Council — and the public want to see our institutions delivering for people on the ground. They want to see us all working together, and they want this generation and future generations to benefit from peace. They want to see stability and more mature politics. We now have our Fresh Start Agreement, and I pay tribute to Peter Robinson for the key role that he played along with Martin McGuinness and other political leaders. I worked with Peter when he was Minister of Finance and also First Minister, and I have to say that, while we did not always agree on issues, I do believe that we had a very polite, courteous and friendly relationship. I thank Peter for that. I also wish him and his family well in the coming months. I am sure that they will be glad to get some time with him.

I welcome Arlene Foster's nomination as First Minister. We look forward to working with Arlene and her team in the weeks and months ahead. I wish her all the best, and I think that it is important that we acknowledge that it is historic that we have a woman in such an important office. People will know that Paula and I and many other women in the Assembly are really trying to ensure that we have greater gender equality, and I think that we will all agree that today is a step forward in that. We want to see women right across the political spectrum taking up our rightful places.

Martin McGuinness is a man who I have worked with for many years. I consider him a friend. He is ethical and principled and has shown incredible leadership. He is also generous on a personal and political level. He uses his good office to outreach across all political classes and creeds, and, most recently, Martin and Peter led the way in welcoming refugees to our shores. As a mother and a grandmother, I understand just how difficult it is for families of politicians, and, without family support, this job would not be possible. I thank Bernie, Martin's wife; his four children, Grainne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmet; and his seven grandchildren, Tiarna, Cara, Rossa, Óisín, Ciana, Dualta and Sadhbh for sharing Martin with us. I have no doubt, as I make this nomination, that Martin will continue to show leadership, to be a deputy First Minister for all the people and to build a strong relationship with Arlene Foster in the same way as he did with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Mr McGuinness, are you willing to take up the office of deputy First Minister and affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office?

Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat, a Caitríona. Yes, I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. I now confirm that Mrs Arlene Foster and Mr Martin McGuinness, having affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office, have taken up office as First Minister and deputy First Minister in accordance with section 16(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I offer my warmest congratulations to you both and wish you well for the future.

There will now be an opportunity for Members to comment, and I will begin by calling the First Minister and then the deputy First Minister to address the House. I call Mrs Arlene Foster, the First Minister.


Mrs Foster (The First Minister): Mr Speaker, it is with great humility, an enormous sense of responsibility and, indeed, the imagination of endless potential for Northern Ireland that I affirmed the Pledge of Office and take up this post today.

I can think of no greater honour than to have the opportunity to serve my country and the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister. I am truly humbled by the trust and confidence that have been placed in me and am grateful to all those who have kept me in their prayers in recent days.

As a young girl growing up in rural Fermanagh, the most westerly constituency in the United Kingdom, in the days when we were plagued by terrorism and decisions affecting our fates and futures were taken far away, I could not have dreamed that I would be in this position today. Is it any wonder that, in politics, I believe that nothing is impossible? The real measure of success, however, is not in obtaining the office but in how it enables me to help others to realise their dreams, ambitions and aspirations. For my part, I want to make sure that what is possible for me is possible for any young girl or boy growing up in Northern Ireland.

For so many reasons, this is an historic moment. I take great pride in the fact that, since Northern Ireland was created almost a century ago, I am the first woman to hold such a post. It was with even greater trepidation that I learned that I am also the youngest person to have assumed this post. I hope that I can bring the perspectives of both those attributes to the office. Indeed, at this turning point in our country's history, as we seek to address the challenges of the future, I believe that the moment is right for the next generation to assume leadership. The challenges that this generation faces are very different from those that our forefathers faced a century ago, but our fundamental values remain the same. In just five years' time, the challenges will be different again. Although I may be the youngest holder of this post, Mr Speaker, I am not new to ministerial office. You will be aware that this is not the first time that I have taken the Pledge of Office: over the past eight years, I have done so as Environment Minister, economy Minister and, most recently, Finance Minister. I have learned much in those roles that I will bring to my new office, but I will be forever grateful for the opportunity that Dr Paisley and Peter Robinson gave to me to serve the community in ministerial office and the rich legacy that I inherit in this office. That experience has prepared me for the challenges that will undoubtedly lie ahead.

Last autumn, we published the Fresh Start Agreement, and we make a new start today, with our eyes focused firmly on the future. In looking to the future, we will never forget the past. I am conscious of those who have not lived to see today; of course, I think particularly of my father, who would have been so proud of what has been achieved. I also think of all those who served the community in the security forces during the dark days of the Troubles and those whose lives were cut all too short. I make this promise: in all I do, I will honour their memory. We are all shaped by our history and our experience. Many of us live with the scars, emotional and real, of what we had to endure. Far too often during my earlier years of life, I saw the devastating effect that terrorism and violence had on our community. We cannot, however, allow the past forever to blight our future. That is why I want to make sure that we never, ever go back to the bad old days. I believe that the duty on me to make Northern Ireland work is all the greater for the sacrifice that they have made. The reward and legacy of those who gave their life defending our country is a stable and secure Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

I also pay tribute to those who have served our community so well in positions of leadership over the last decades. It is because of what they have done that we have the hope for the future that we do. They have laid the foundations for the new Northern Ireland that we seek to build, but, at this moment in our country's history, it is time for a new generation to step forward, to build on all that has been achieved and to move our country forward. Abraham Lincoln once said:

"The best way to predict your future is to create it."

That is our responsibility now: to create a better future than the past and one in which we can live together in a society free of strife and conflict.

1.00 pm

The challenges of our time are great, but they are different from those of the past. The challenges of our time are great, but the opportunities for the next generation are greater still. The challenges of our time are great, but there are none that we cannot overcome. With Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom secured, devolution safeguarded and the economy growing again, we can have hope for the future. Over the years, people from this small corner of the world have done remarkable things, and we can do that again.

In my role as the economy Minister for seven years, I travelled the world, seeking to bring jobs and investment home. I am proud that, in that time, we created more jobs from international investment than at any time in our past. One thing that made that easy was the quality of our young people. When I travel across Northern Ireland, I sometimes see people with abundant gifts and talents being held back by nothing but a lack of confidence and a poverty of ambition. The only thing that they lack is belief. I want to use this office to restore that belief and give new hope. I want to instil a new confidence in our people and a pride in our Province. I want everyone to love this country with the same passion as I do.

Leadership has many facets and many responsibilities, but there is no greater challenge than to motivate, encourage and inspire. I want to bring hope to those who lack it and help to those who need it. I want us to live in a more harmonious society, where we seek accommodation with one another, not conflict. Those in positions of responsibility in government cannot do everything, but we can act as an example to others. If only we believe in ourselves, all things are possible.

I make no apology for being a unionist, but my role as First Minister calls on me to serve the whole community. I see that not just as a legal duty but as a moral imperative. I want the same opportunities for every child in Northern Ireland as my own have. I want no section or part of the community in Northern Ireland to be isolated, marginalised or left behind, whatever their background or way of life. That was Edward Carson's vision of the Union, and it is mine too. The best way to safeguard our history, culture and traditions is to make sure that we can create a society in which everyone can have a say and play a part. That is why it is no coincidence that support for our constitutional position has never been stronger. I believe in Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland. We are a special people.

People ask me what I want to achieve during my time in office, and my answer is simple. Like every mother, I am a practical person. Above all else, I want to move into the future and to get things done. I want to make Northern Ireland a better place, and I want to strengthen our United Kingdom. I want to give our young people the future that has been denied to so many for so long. I want Northern Ireland to be a beacon to the world of how, by working together with political opponents and old enemies, we can create a Northern Ireland that we can all be proud of. I want to do all of that not in spite of my past but because of it. I will work with anyone who can share that ambition of hope and will oppose anyone who would deny our people the future that they deserve. The people whom we represent deserve no less.

I am tired of Stormont being a watchword for arguing and bickering. That is not why our people elected us; they did so to provide a better future for us all. I will do all that I can to change the political culture of this place, but I cannot change it alone. We can do it only by working together. I know from experience that it will not be easy — real change never is — but I ask today that we find a new way of doing business, one that places a greater premium on consensus than on conflict.

It is with great honour that today I accept the nomination to become First Minister. It is truly humbling that the girl who was raised and reared in Fermanagh has been given the opportunity to lead the country and the people whom she loves so much. Today is a new chapter in Northern Ireland's story, but, when the history of this time comes to be written, let it be said of all of us that we fought the good fight, we finished the race and we kept the faith. Thank you.

Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I am very thankful and appreciative to my party for the renomination as deputy First Minister.

As we say goodbye to Peter Robinson and wish him and his family well into the future, we similarly, as Arlene Foster takes over as First Minister, wish her and her family well. I am very conscious that Arlene's mother, husband and children are here today, and I acknowledge the hurt that their family endured as a result of the conflict. It is important that we acknowledge that hurt, because we on this side of the House have also been hurt and have lost neighbours and friends as a result of the conflict. What we have done in ending that conflict has been remarkable. It was not down to one or two people to do that; it took a combined effort from all. I pledge a positive spirit, a constructive spirit and a good heart in working with Arlene as First Minister through these important and historic times.

Like Caitríona, I am delighted to see women elevated to the highest positions in government. I have been very privileged to work with exceptional republican women Ministers like Bairbre de Brún, Michelle Gildernew, Caitríona, Martina Anderson, Carál Ní Chuilín, Michelle O'Neill and Jennifer McCann. It is important that we all recognise the role of women in politics and do everything in our power to ensure that people who are highly talented have every opportunity to move forward and contribute, as they clearly do, to our political development.

We will have huge challenges in the time ahead. We have the Fresh Start Agreement, which is an agreement that, I believe, can propel us forward if we implement it: that is the big challenge. As George Mitchell said at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, it is one thing forging an agreement but a whole other enterprise implementing that agreement. This is a real opportunity to move forward, away from the negativity of the last couple of years, and try to deliver for the people whom we represent.

Let me say this: as far as we as Irish republicans are concerned, unionists are not the enemy, and loyalists are not the enemy. Who is the enemy? The enemy is poverty, the enemy is inequality, the enemy is unemployment, the enemy is denial of rights, the enemy is intolerance, the enemy is sectarianism, the enemy is racism, the enemy is homophobia and the enemy is violence. We know to our cost and to the cost of people who have lost their life in recent years even against the backdrop of the peace agreements that we have forged that there are still people out there on all sides who are committed to plunging us back to the past. I believe that there is a total determination in the Assembly, across all the political parties, to show the futility of that effort to those who would try to do that.

I am a proud Irish republican, and this is an important year for Irish republicanism, with the 100th anniversary of the Easter rising. I know there are different views about all of that. It is also an important year for unionism, with the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme. How we conduct ourselves through these vital anniversaries over the next number of years will tell the international community a lot about how we are as people. I am pledged to do everything in my power to ensure that we all conduct ourselves in a very dignified and respectful manner in how we move forward, recognising the different emotions that are out there.

Arlene is committed to the continuation of what she calls the United Kingdom, and I am a committed Irish republican dedicated to the reunification of Ireland by purely peaceful and democratic means. There is absolutely no diminution of Arlene's unionism or my republicanism in us working together in the interests of all our people. When we talk about how we can break down divisions, it is not just about breaking down divisions between our communities or between ourselves as political leaders; it is about breaking down the divisions between North and South that have been so much to our detriment. We all know that working economically on an all-island agenda does not diminish in any way our allegiances to the different political aspirations that we have.

This is a time of great change, and I look forward to working with Arlene in the time ahead. Over the past few weeks, quite a number of people have said to me, "How are you going to work with Arlene Foster?". I said, "Well, if you can work with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, you can work with anybody". I have no doubt that Arlene and I will have a good personal relationship and a good working relationship, and I look forward to engaging with her on the vital issues that affect all our people.

Mr Speaker: As I indicated earlier, there will now be an opportunity for others to speak. The Business Committee has agreed a maximum time of 30 minutes and that Members should limit their remarks to no more than three minutes. I have the names of some Members who have already indicated that they wish to speak, but I ask all Members who would like to contribute to continue to rise in their place, and I will endeavour to accommodate as many as possible. As previously, the briefer you are, the more opportunity there will be for others.

Lord Morrow: It is with considerable pleasure that I rise to comment on the elevation of Arlene Foster today to the position of First Minister. I do that for a number of reasons, not least because she is my colleague in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and has been one whom I have got to know quite well since she came into politics and, in particular, the DUP.

I have no doubt that Arlene Foster will do a sterling job, and not because she comes from Fermanagh, although that would be a good enough reason. I simply say that she has all the attributes that such a position will need. Arlene Foster has demonstrated very clearly that she is a person with foresight and leadership qualities, and I think that, as a result of what has happened here today, Northern Ireland will be a better place, and she will continue in the same vein as Peter Robinson in leading Northern Ireland forward.

Arlene comes from a county that has had more than its share of bad news in the past; indeed, her family was at the cutting edge of that. Her father came under severe attack as an RUC officer, and, of course, as we have been learning, Arlene was on that school bus on that day. As a young student at the Collegiate, she was not afraid to give her views to the media on what was planned that day. I believe that the hand of God was upon her and her colleagues, and I believe it is no coincidence that Arlene Foster is now the First Minister in Northern Ireland.

Mike Nesbitt paid a very full tribute to Peter Robinson. However, there was just one wee thing that he got wrong, and I want him to pay attention to that. He made the comment that Peter had led this party to a phenomenal success of 38 seats but he hoped that that would be a high-water mark. Mike Nesbitt, I say this to you in as nice as a way as I can [Laughter.]

: you have seen nothing yet. Today, this party has a leader and the Assembly has a First Minister who will take the eyes off you. You keep your eye on her, because, I can tell you, she will run you out of breath. [Laughter.]

How do I know that? Because I am her colleague in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and I have good reason to believe that.

I wish Arlene Foster well today, and I know that the future is bright for Northern Ireland. I believe that what she wants for us in the DUP she wants for everybody in Northern Ireland, not only in County Fermanagh but right across the Province. I believe that her real desire is to bring prosperity, peace and good government to Northern Ireland, and I wish her well in the future.

1.15 pm

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I endorse the remarks made about Mr Robinson on his retirement.

I want to comment particularly on the election of the First and deputy First Minister, Arlene and Martin, and the contribution that they have already made to politics in and changes to this society, as well as on the changes that they can make into the future.

Martin is an old hand at this in many ways now, but his enthusiasm, determination and leadership continue to guide not only my party but this society. The friendship, the trust and the leadership that grew between him and Peter Robinson saved this pillar of the peace process from collapse in recent weeks and months. Many in the Chamber will realise — perhaps others outside it will not — that this pillar of the peace process, the Assembly, was finished. Wiser heads took charge and prevailed, and Martin and Peter were to the forefront of that. That leadership role, trust, friendship and determination will have to be built between Mrs Foster and Martin going into the future. There are many, many enemies of the peace process in our society, and they do not all wear balaclavas. We face huge challenges from many different quarters, and it will take strong leadership, such as that that was seen over the past number of months from Peter and Martin, to see us through those days as well.

In a recent interview, Mrs Foster used the quote from C S Lewis that now hangs in the Assembly, which is:

"There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind."

I am sure that she was referring not to Mr Robinson's leadership but to the terrible events that plagued our lives over the past 40 years. I have no doubt that far, far better things lie ahead of us, but it will take the determination of everyone in the Chamber to make those happen.

I often reflect on those in leadership positions. At times, it has to be a very lonely and difficult place to be. It is very easy for people to sit in the corner and tell everybody what you should not be doing or what they would do if they were in leadership. However, the fact of the matter is this: when you are in a leadership position, the buck stops with you. We have seen in our society that there is perhaps an advantage to the joint office of First and deputy First Minister, because, despite the difficulties that we have faced over many years, we have seen that, when that joint office works together, we achieve real change in our society and make real differences to people's lives. Yes, there are huge challenges ahead, including economic and social challenges, and, as has been mentioned already, there are challenges from those who want to bring down this institution.

I will end with a quote from Seamus Heaney, who said:

"Believe that a further shore is reachable from here."

As Mrs Foster will know, when the deluge comes, the shore looks further away. I believe that, by Martin and Arlene working together, we will be able to reach that further shore.

Mr Eastwood: Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I join others in congratulating Arlene Foster on her new position and Martin McGuinness for continuing as deputy First Minister. In our view, it is a joint position, and it is very important to note that Mrs Foster is the first woman to hold that post. Another glass ceiling in the North has been smashed, and I am very glad to see that. I also welcome very much her very positive speech today about the renewal of politics and a new generation stepping forward. We in our party recognise that as well, and we are beginning that process.

Whilst we all wish you all the best today, there will be no honeymoon period. I am sure that you are aware of that. I spent quite a bit of time on Saturday in your constituency up to my knees in water, and one of your first duties should be to try to develop long-term solutions to those problems. There are people in Fermanagh and other parts of the North who have been under water since 5 December. I do not think that it is good enough, in this day and age, that that can continue.

Her predecessor's first words in, I think, the first days of this mandate were that we would be judged on delivery. She and I will probably disagree on how good that delivery has been in this mandate, but we need to get to a position in which this place is judged on delivery, where we are setting out positive agendas for the future and making changes that people can touch, feel and understand. It is good to see that our two First Ministers are now from west of the Bann. I am sure that the people whom I and, indeed, they represent will be glad to hear that. We will wait and see what that means for delivery for those people. I wish them all the best.

Mrs Foster talked about the fact that we are all shaped by our history. I think that she has obviously been shaped by her personal experience; but, as a people, we are all shaped by our history. That history includes the events of 100 years ago. I would like to see all leaders of this place engaging positively and respectfully; not necessarily celebrating events if they cannot do so, but commemorating them, learning from them and thinking, talking and planning for the next hundred years. With that, I wish both First Ministers all the best in their endeavours.

Mr Nesbitt: Let me begin by congratulating Mrs Foster on her personal achievement. As she says, she is the youngest — younger, just, than James Chichester-Clark — and the first female First Minister. I know that recently she quoted Marin Alsop, the American musician who became the first female to conduct the 'Last Night of the Proms', and reacted by saying that she looks forward to the time when these things are so commonplace that they are no longer newsworthy. I certainly join the First Minister in supporting that.

Now, of course, Mrs Foster has the baton, and we wait to see what sort of music she can squeeze out of an often discordant Executive. It is an Executive of just four parties these days, only two of which support the Budget and the self-styled 'A Fresh Start'. So, the First Minister clearly has challenges internally.

There are challenges externally as well. Northern Ireland and our people have many unmet needs. They seek a healthier and more prosperous future. I note, from recent remarks, that Mrs Foster, like me, is focusing on offering a vision. Of course, Northern Ireland, the people, and the other parties in the Executive bought into a vision in 1998: Mrs Foster did not. I remember flying her to London for an Ulster Television debate, ahead of the referendum, in Downing Street with Prime Minister Blair, and I well remember at dinner afterwards that she reacted to the praise that she was being given for her articulate stance by saying that she well believed that it was the end of her career as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. Some will see it as ironic that she is now living that vision in these very institutions.

Of course, we will not always agree. Indeed, we appear to disagree over how to mark the significance of the 1916 Easter rebellion — but that is for another day. Today is about wishing our new First Minister well in her new role, not least under the now intolerable pressure put on her by Lord Morrow.

We wish the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, well. I believe that we are to debate in Bundoran soon, which, for an Ulster Unionist, represents an away fixture. I look forward to it nevertheless.

Dr Farry: I start by recognising the contribution that Peter Robinson has made to politics in Northern Ireland over the best part of four decades. I wish him a very long and happy retirement. His fate and that of the Alliance Party have been intertwined, for better or worse, for many years, and particularly over the past number of years. We wish him every success and happiness in his future.

I move to congratulate Arlene Foster on her appointment as First Minister and Martin McGuinness on his reappointment as deputy First Minister. I am not sure who is the more surprised about that particular outcome, but we recognise the importance and significance of today.

With particular reference to Arlene Foster, as she the new incumbent in the joint top office in our society, I can say that I have known her for many years. Indeed, our paths crossed when we were at Queen's probably the best part of a quarter of a century ago. I am sure that she will not thank me for referencing it in those terms.

Of course, back then, she and, indeed, many of her colleagues who are also in this Building today were in the youth wing of a different political party, but that is a sign of the evolution of our politics over that time. I reassure her that I cannot recall, at this stage, any particular skeletons from her time at Queen's, though, if my memory serves me well, I will let her know first.

There has been a lot of comment about the historic importance of today's events from a number of angles, in particular the fact that we have a joint leader who, for the first time, is female. Indeed, that is truly historic. It is important that that now acts as a spur to greater participation on a gender basis across our society. It does not always follow that, when the leader of a society is female, that percolates down to other aspects of public life, business life and civic life. So, there is a challenge in that regard, and while we are making great strides on participation, there is a way to go with progression on that.

Alliance will work very closely with the new First Minister and the returned deputy First Minister in the Executive and the Assembly, particularly when they are acting in an inclusive way and are articulating a common good and a common vision for this society. We will undoubtedly have many challenges on the road ahead, including economically, socially, environmentally and, in particular, in genuinely building a shared future and tackling problems in the rule of law. We are up for those challenges and are happy to work in collaboration with others when they share that common vision.

Mr Storey: Today is undoubtedly a day of mixed emotions. We come to the House recognising that we have had many historic occasions in the Chamber. My long-standing friend and colleague Lord Morrow said to me when I came to the House in 2003 that nothing remains the same and there is always change. Today we see the outworking of that change.

I want to say on a personal basis to my friend and colleague Peter Robinson a sincere word of thanks and appreciation for all that he has done for Northern Ireland. In saying a fond farewell but not goodbye to Peter, it is with the greatest joy that we say a fond welcome to Arlene Foster on becoming the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the leader of unionism. I joined the DUP over 36 years ago, and I have no doubt that the leadership of Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson formulated a formidable duo in the history of Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster takes on that mantle in a way that I believe reflects her ability and the vision that she has for Northern Ireland. She has undoubtedly proved her capabilities, not because of her gender but because of the person that she is, because of the qualities that she has and because of the history that has helped to form her as an individual.

I have worked with Arlene over the last number of years and have found her to be someone of the highest integrity and someone who is extremely personable and approachable. I have no doubt, Arlene, as you take on the role of First Minister, as you have today, that you will do it in the same way that you have to date displayed your capabilities in the ministerial portfolios that you have held.

Northern Ireland is a better place today. When I was a young person growing up, the news was dominated by the latest atrocity, the latest murder, the mayhem and the division of our society. Today, as we enter 2016, we have a relative peace in Northern Ireland. Our communities are seeking and endeavouring to come together. I have no doubt that that is the legacy of Peter Robinson, and it is that baton and that mantle that I have every confidence Arlene Foster will pick up and run with to ensure that Northern Ireland continues to be a prosperous place.

Solomon, in words of wisdom that we all do well to heed, said:

"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

The Lord bless you, Arlene, in the future.

1.30 pm

Ms Sugden: I wish the outgoing First Minister well in his retirement and the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, well on his reappointment.

For me, however, today is all about one woman: Arlene Foster. She is not just a good politician: to be fair, she is a great politician, and she is a woman. Today, she is First Minister — the first female First Minister — of Northern Ireland. That is incredible, and I am inspired. I hope that young women — all women, in fact — across Northern Ireland will also be inspired. Today, we are beginning a necessary new generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland that welcomes and encourages young women into politics.

Mrs Foster is not just the right woman for the job; she is the right person. It is a milestone that two out of three of the First Ministers of our devolved nations are women. Today, we have ensured that capable female leaders are acknowledged alongside their male counterparts. Mrs Foster demonstrates that well.

I disagree with Mrs Foster on many things and will continue to be critical from this back corner, telling you what you are doing wrong because that is my job. Indeed, she would expect it from me, and surely she should expect it from all MLAs. I see it as a point of reference to do better. Mrs Foster should embrace that challenge because she has earned it.

I sincerely wish Mrs Foster well in her new role in driving Northern Ireland forward into a new, positive space. The most important aspect of leadership is not the leader but the people behind the leader: the followers and the people of Northern Ireland, who deserve better than this past year. I hope that today is the beginning of better.

Mr McCallister: I will begin by paying tribute to the outgoing First Minister and wish him health and happiness for a long and prosperous retirement. I am sure that his successor will, from time to time, want his wise counsel and advice. As I said during the former First Minister's last Question Time, in all my personal dealings with him, whether seeking meetings for constituents or progressing my private Member's Bill, he extended time and courtesy to me, for which I am grateful.

Reference was made earlier to a speech of the former First Minister. One of Peter Robinson's speeches that most struck a chord with me was, I think, his 2011 party conference speech, when he said that we were going to end "us and them". That remains the big challenge for the new First Minister and the deputy First Minister: to get to work in ending those divisions.

I offer my warmest congratulations to Arlene Foster as First Minister. For somebody of my generation, she brings huge ministerial experience. I am not sure whether she wants to be reminded that she is a couple of years older than me. It is interesting that there is now a generational shift in that most DUP Ministers were born in the 1970s. That is a shift in age that tells us that Northern Ireland is progressing and moving and that a great deal of what has gone before is being put in the past, and we are looking to a brighter future.

The challenge is to end the "us and them" in our politics and right across our society, and I wish Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness well in addressing that. In their contributions, they talked about their unionism and republicanism respectively. I say to both of them that the key, in doing all this, whether unionist or republican, is to make Northern Ireland work.

Mr Hamilton: I begin by echoing earlier tributes to Peter. This party, the Assembly and, indeed, Northern Ireland as a whole have a lot to be thankful for in Peter's service down through the last 40 years. I am sure that we all wish to thank him and his family for his service and for the sacrifice that they have all collectively made down through the years.

Today is a significant day for Arlene and her family. It is, as other Members mentioned, a significant day for women in Northern Ireland. Colum Eastwood talked about a glass ceiling having been broken. For the Arlene Foster whom we know, there is no glass ceiling, and, if there were one, she would bust right through it, as she has done today.

I have known Arlene for many years; not as many as Mr Farry and others have known her, but probably for the best part of 20 years. When you know somebody for that long, you get to know them pretty well. What I have learnt over the years about Arlene, which is most relevant to today and her taking up the post of First Minister, is the fact that she loves Northern Ireland greatly. She has an abiding love for this place and its people, and, given the important role that she has taken up in leading everyone in Northern Ireland, it is important that she has that attribute. She has, of course, displayed all of her other many abilities down through the years in this place in various ministerial roles, including Environment Minister, Finance Minister and Economy Minister. Particularly in her role as Economy Minister, she stood up for Northern Ireland and went around the world, as she said, fighting for Northern Ireland and trying to bring investment here. That type of role, standing up for Northern Ireland on a global stage, will be incredibly important in her role as First Minister as well.

I know that Arlene, like many of us, believes that, great as Northern Ireland has been throughout its nearly 100-year history, in spite of all the challenges that we have faced, our best days lie ahead. At this time in the history of Northern Ireland, we are fortunate to be led by somebody of the calibre of Arlene, with her stature and experience. I am confident, as I know that many others are, that Arlene will continue to lead Northern Ireland on its journey to better days.

Mr Poots: I congratulate my friend and colleague Arlene Foster on her elevation to the office of First Minister. Back in 2003, I was one of those in Lisburn Orange Hall who welcomed her into the DUP. That night, about 500 of us packed into the hall. It was a tremendous demonstration of leadership on the part of Arlene and Jeffrey Donaldson, in terms of where we were going in Northern Ireland. I suggest to Mr Nesbitt and his party that the die has been cast ever since, and the people have demonstrated that in vote after vote.

In congratulating Arlene on her elevation to the post of First Minister, I should say that it is the second most important job that she will ever take on. Her most important job has been, and will remain, that of a wife, mother and daughter. Family will always come first. I know that that will be the case with Arlene, and it should be the case.

It is a really positive day for Northern Ireland, in that we have a new First Minister to lead us forward. In looking at the attributes that Arlene has for the office, I find that she is feisty, fiery and passionate but also intelligent and articulate, compassionate and caring. Anybody who takes up a role like this needs to embody all those things. In doing the job that she has to take on, she will be in the coalition that we happen to be in. I got a bit of flak from some people for saying that we "hold our noses" to work with Sinn Féin. That expression was commonly used in the last Westminster Parliament in exchanges between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Sinn Féin is not our first choice as a coalition partner. However, the people make the decisions, and the people decide who get the seats. If the people decide that Sinn Féin is to have the number of seats that puts them there, we will get on with the job that the people task us to do. I know that Arlene will be tough on occasion, and there will be other occasions when we will seek to drive projects forward together because they are in the wider public interest. I have absolutely no doubt that what we are doing is in the wider public interest, that we will do the job well and that Arlene will give us the leadership to do it.

Mr Nesbitt used a musical analogy when he referred to Arlene as holding the baton. I suggest to Mr Nesbitt that, in this instance, he is the drum and should expect a good beating. [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Members. Time is up.

Mr Speaker: The next item in the Order Paper is a motion to suspend Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4).

Mr Weir: I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 11 January 2016.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quietly. Before I proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 11 January 2016.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: The Minister of Justice wishes to make a statement.

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I will make a statement regarding a bilateral meeting under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on cooperation on criminal justice matters, which was held in Farmleigh in Dublin on Monday 21 December, and the ministerial trilateral meeting that followed, focusing on the elements of the Fresh Start Agreement dealing with cross-border organised crime, including the establishment of a joint agency task force. I intend first to cover the IGA meeting, before turning to the trilateral meeting.

I represented the Executive at the bilateral meeting with Frances Fitzgerald TD, the Minister for Justice and Equality, who was attending her fourth meeting under the auspices of the IGA. It was the eleventh formal ministerial meeting that I have attended under the IGA since the devolution of justice in April 2010. As I have previously said, I am committed to keeping the Assembly informed of meetings held under the auspices of the agreement on the same basis as North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings.

The bilateral meeting on 21 December provided Frances Fitzgerald and me with an opportunity to review early progress against the 2015-16 joint work programme, which runs through to summer 2016. Members will recall that I previously shared the work programme with the House following agreement of the programme in June.

Further discussions took place about maximizing opportunities to access European funding for justice-related initiatives, and it is hoped to revisit progress in that area by the early summer. In the interim, officials have been tasked with undertaking further exploratory research into appropriate potential European funding streams arising from Horizon 2020.

Five project advisory groups (PAGs) currently provide the mechanism by which work is taken forward. They are focused on the areas of public protection; youth justice; forensic science; support for victims of crime; and social diversity. The PAGs continue to promote and support cooperation across the broad spectrum of criminal justice agencies on both sides of the border. Examples include further work to develop proposals to improve cross-border information-sharing on persons unlawfully at large from custody; the exploration of opportunities for sharing knowledge in the area of diversity; and exploiting increased opportunities for enhanced cross-border awareness relating to policing minority communities.

It was encouraging to note the progress that has been made against the current work programme, which this year contains an enhanced focus for the project advisory groups by assigning to each of them specific activities with anticipated outcomes. An excellent example arising out of the work programme was the successful staging of the sixth annual joint public protection seminar, held in Belfast City Hall on 20 November. The theme of the seminar was innovation for safer communities. It provided a forum for professionals from various justice agencies, North and South, to discuss a number of key topics, including a most relevant session on tackling hate crime. Indeed, through the public protection PAG, the probation services have been cooperating to prepare a research paper relating to 'Working with hate crime offenders: Perspectives from the Probation Service' for the law faculty at the University of Limerick.

It is anticipated that the final paper will be published by the summer. The seminar also saw the launch of volume 12 of the highly professional joint Irish Probation Journal. Having addressed the five previous annual seminars, which were introduced following the devolution of justice powers in 2010, I was very pleased to open the sixth annual seminar.

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The IGA had a presentation on the mutually beneficial cooperative support that exists from the co-chairs of the support for victims PAG. The co-chairs gave a joint presentation that covered the transposition of the EU victims’ directive, which was effective from November, and developments in victim services in our respective jurisdictions. Good working relations and the sharing of best practice and expertise between the forensic science services continue. That has resulted, for example, in instances of informal and practical assistance between the laboratories on DNA profiles, an important area in criminal investigations. Through the youth justice PAG, staff exchanges and information sharing between the juvenile detention facilities in the two jurisdictions has proved extremely beneficial, particularly in the development of the Oberstown facility in County Dublin. Those are just a few examples to demonstrate the ongoing cooperation between criminal justice agencies across the island.

As the Assembly is aware, it is not primarily the intention of the IGA to provide for discussion on the full range of cross-border security issues. However, I used the recent opportunity to briefly discuss with Frances Fitzgerald some cross-border security-related issues as well as the work being undertaken to tackle fuel laundering.

The intergovernmental agreement provides an extremely helpful framework for supporting North/South cooperation on criminal justice matters. It is that level of mature cooperation that, along with the current Irish Justice Minister and her two predecessors, I have worked at over the past six years, being committed to striving to keep all the people of this island safe and secure. I am grateful for the support of so many individuals in all the relevant agencies.

I also want to take the opportunity to update Members on the ministerial trilateral that followed the IGA on 21 December. The Fresh Start Agreement stated that a trilateral cross-border ministerial meeting would take place in December 2015, involving the United Kingdom Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive and would agree new measures to enhance law enforcement cooperation aimed at tackling organised crime and criminality, including that linked to paramilitarism. The Irish Government were represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, the UK Government by the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Executive by the then First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Minister of Justice.

Following detailed work by officials in both jurisdictions, I am pleased to say that those present were able to agree the working arrangements of the new cross-jurisdictional joint agency task force, which will be chaired by the two police services. Organised crime is a scourge on civilised society across the island of Ireland and is a source of funding for further criminality and paramilitarism. Many organised crime groups on this island take advantage of the existence of a land border and commit the classic cross-border crimes of smuggling and excise evasion. They also use the ability to move easily between jurisdictions to cover their activities and to evade the authorities. The resulting criminal activity affects everyone in society, but the impact falls particularly heavily on those living in border areas, who have the same right as all of us to live free from the fear of criminal activity. The new task force brings together a range of law enforcement agencies from both jurisdictions to work jointly and equally to tackle this crime and make it clear that it is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

In addition to the task force, the funding provided under the agreement will allow my Department, together with law enforcement bodies, to take forward a comprehensive range of actions designed to tackle criminal activity. The £25 million that Westminster has committed over the next five years, along with the additional £25 million provided by the Executive, will allow increased investigative and specialist capacity in addition to scope for research and awareness raising. That major programme of work will be based on the work of the new three-person panel, which will make recommendations to the Executive on a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups. The members of the panel — Professor Monica McWilliams, Lord Alderdice and Mr John McBurney — met for the first time on 23 December, and their independent report is due to be presented by the end of May.

The agreement, of course, builds on the existing excellent working relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an Garda Síochána, which provides a firm basis for practical and strategic cooperation between the two services. The 'Cross Border Policing Strategy', published in December 2010, highlights the breadth of cooperation that exists and the determination of both services to use all the tools available to them to ensure that those who would seek to exploit the border for criminal ends will not succeed. The strategy has been reviewed by both police services, and it is anticipated that the revised strategy will be launched in the very near future. The document is particularly relevant at this moment, with a focus on the island on paramilitaries and organised crime.

In concluding, it is worth noting that North/South cooperation on criminal justice matters has been both increased and intensified since devolution. The local accountability under devolution has provided the environment to further improve cooperation and working relationships between criminal justice agencies in the two jurisdictions. The cooperation that we have now has never been better, and I am proud of the work that has been undertaken at ministerial and official level under the auspices of the IGA. Consequently, solid foundations already exist that can be built on in order to meet the tasks and challenges ahead.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the House. The Minister mentioned looking to access European funding for justice initiatives: can he tell us what areas, in particular, he is thinking about that could be funded through those streams and what funding he has been able to access from European funds over the last four years? Secondly, I turn to the cross-jurisdictional joint agency task force flowing from the Fresh Start Agreement, which is aimed at tackling organised crime and criminality including that linked to paramilitarism. When does the Justice Minister believe we will start to see the results of that work in arrests, prosecutions and securing convictions of those involved in illegal smuggling, particularly around the border, and fuel fraud?

Mr Ford: I thank the Chair for his questions. On the issue of EU funding, work has been ongoing; indeed, I launched a seminar a few months ago looking at the opportunities under the Horizon 2020 European scheme. There are particular difficulties for us in Northern Ireland, as our colleagues across the border are able to access some funding that is not accessible to us because of the UK's withdrawal from certain justice and home affairs measures. That is a difficulty that impacts on an Executive target. However, work is ongoing, and I trust that we will see specific information coming back in the next few months that will show where there are further opportunities.

As to when we will see results from the task force, I am not sure that it is possible to say that we will see results in quite such a clear-cut way as the question perhaps implied. The reality is that we have seen some extremely good work done. Members will be aware of the press conference staged by an Assistant Commissioner of an Garda Síochána last week in which he highlighted some of the weapons and explosives that had been seized, particularly in border areas, over the last year or so. It is clear that very good work is already under way. The important issue will be to see the task force bringing together a variety of organisations on both sides of the border, not merely the two police services, to enhance the cooperation across all aspects of justice enforcement.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the Assembly and for his answers to date. I will take up one of the points made by the Chair of the Justice Committee. A sizeable amount of funding has been provided to the task force, and the Minister outlined the detail of some of the work that it will do. Does the Minister believe that a focus should be placed on preventative measures to make smuggling a bit more difficult for people who use the border as a way of escaping excise duties and for fuel laundering?

Mr Ford: I appreciate the Deputy Chair's question. The funding has not been specifically provided to the task force, but funds are available to be bid for by organisations that are involved in the task force through their individual work. A business case was put together in the Department, and that is the basis on which the £25 million of Treasury funding and £25 million of DFP funding has been allocated. The specific decisions will, to some extent, depend on the outcome of the three-person panel's recommendations and getting full Executive or DFP approval for how individual items are spent. The specific issue of funding that will be provided to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Revenue Commissioners in the Republic is a little unclear at this stage, but they will clearly have a major role to play in fighting smuggling alongside the two police services.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive and detailed report to the Assembly. The trilateral cross-border ministerial meeting must be a very significant meeting indeed. Does the Minister envisage that meeting being repeated? Will the task force that was established as a result of the Stormont House negotiations be given teeth, and will it be able to attack criminality between North and South? Will the Minister reassure the House about that?

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Maginness for the question. At this stage, no specific arrangement is in place for the trilateral meeting to be repeated. The expectation is that the co-chairs of the task force — a Garda assistant commissioner and a PSNI assistant chief constable (ACC) — will make their reports, which will go to future IGA meetings to the two Ministers. In a sense, therefore, the Secretary of State will not be part of that. The expectation is that that will be the reporting mechanism. If the Justice Ministers wish to report on issues, the opportunities will then be there for information to be passed to an NSMC meeting in plenary session. The key issue is to ensure that resources are applied as best required. I cannot speak for anything other than the devolved agencies, but the fact that we have protection in the current Budget for policing activities but not for other aspects of the justice system is an indication that the task force will have teeth and that good work will be done at ACC level about ensuring that resources go to operational activities. However, that is where we get into operational details, so the Minister should perhaps steer slightly clear of that.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his answers to date. Will he outline what further practical measures he is considering to tackle the long-standing scourge of fuel laundering in the border area, particularly in my constituency of Newry and Armagh? At what level in the PSNI will the new cross-jurisdictional joint agency task force be chaired? Finally and quickly, what level of administration and budget will be provided for the work of the new three-person panel that will bring forward recommendations on the disbanding of paramilitary groups? Will that panel seek the views of the communities most affected by paramilitaries in a confidential manner in order to ensure their safety?

Mr Ford: I congratulate Mr Kennedy on managing to get in more questions than anybody else so far. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs leads on specific issues to deal with fuel fraud. It is not possible, therefore, for me to say anything in particular about that, other than the fact that the police will continue to provide the support that HMRC requires. We have, however, seen good results from the fuel marker that was introduced in the spring of last year. Mr Kennedy will probably be aware — others may not be — that, as a result of a recent fire in his constituency, when the Fire and Rescue Service discovered a fuel-laundering plant, it was clear that the old marker had been successfully laundered out of that fuel but the new marker had not, which is very encouraging. There is some evidence — it is at a relatively early stage — to suggest that fuel laundering is happening less frequently than previously, although it is inevitable that criminals will turn to other activity given the opportunity.

Mr Kennedy asked about the level at which the cross-border task force will be chaired. The strategic group will be chaired by an assistant chief constable, and the operational group will be chaired by either a PSNI superintendent or chief superintendent. I do not think that that post is quite resolved yet.

As far as the three-person panel making recommendations on fighting paramilitarism is concerned, the specific arrangements for admin are that full support is being supplied by staff from the Department of Justice, who were introduced to the panel at the meeting on 23 December, have already engaged and are setting up arrangements for email systems and so on. That is already under way. The budget is the amount agreed by the Executive that would be paid to the individuals for their work for that period. Other costs are being borne by the DOJ. I believe that what we saw at that meeting was the three members getting down to identifying how the work would be done, and I think they are satisfied with the support that is currently being provided by some of my officials to them.

Mr Speaker: Thank you very much. Questions on the statement can resume after Question Time, which is about to start. Members may take their ease until we change the top Table.

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Regional Development

Miss M McIlveen (The Minister for Regional Development): My Department and the Department of Finance and Personnel approved a business case for that project in 2015. The project is complex and includes a number of elements. First, it aims to replace Translink's existing ticketing equipment, which is at the end of its useful life. Secondly, it aims to update existing concessionary and Translink smart cards to align with new technology, particularly online card top-ups. Currently, that is available only on rail services. To put that in context, there are currently half a million smart card holders. Thirdly, it aims to expand ways in which customers can use retail channels to purchase and top up travel cards or use mobile technology to a greater extent. Finally, it aims to facilitate off-bus ticketing on Belfast Rapid Transit.

Technical and customer-led enhancements planned include ticket vending machines and more tickets sold off-vehicle, stored value mobile cards, online top-ups, and gates which will automatically validate smart cards in Northern Ireland. Consultation has taken place with other transport operators here, in Great Britain and in Europe. Some of the key benefits expected include improved bus boarding times, reduced use of cash, improved data and communication channels and improved customer choice.

The procurement phase of the project started in early 2015, and the invite to tender was issued to a number of interested suppliers in December. Full implementation will take a number of years to complete, but initial developments will be rolled out from 2018. The system will be developed with suppliers and must be feasible and affordable, with income maintained.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Minister, you say that the initial roll-out will be in 2018. Are we looking at the programme being rolled out in 2018, or will it be phased in? I would like to know a time frame for implementation so that the public will know exactly when it is going to happen.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. At this stage, I can advise that, subject to a successful procurement, the award of the contract is expected to be complete by the end of 2016; the design of systems will run up to the end of 2017; ticketing equipment replacement will begin during 2018; and full implementation, with enhancements, could run into the early part of the next decade. The project will obviously align with the timetable for Belfast Rapid Transit, which includes off-bus ticketing. I can say that the advice that we have been given is that, due to its complexity, it is better to phase this in. I hope that that gives an adequate response.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for her very detailed answer. You talked about the technology, the difficulty with the implementation and the challenges that would be afforded to that. Can you give the House an indication of how many have been, or who was, consulted in relation to the system?

Miss M McIlveen: Again, I thank the Member for his question. It is quite a comprehensive list. Translink has consulted widely with other transport operators and authorities on the mainland, in Ireland and in Europe.

That includes Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester, the National Transport Authority in the Republic of Ireland and Transport for Edinburgh. It has had engagement with the ticketing systems supply industry and financial services suppliers, including MasterCard, Visa and various banks. It has also consulted local stakeholders, including the Consumer Council in Northern Ireland (CCNI), the Education Authority and Tourism Northern Ireland. It has undertaken qualitative and quantitative consumer research with costumers and focus groups across Northern Ireland, including around 2,000 face-to-face surveys. It issued a comprehensive document to which the following organisations responded: the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (IMTAC); the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland Environment Link; Belfast City Council; Sustrans; the Western Health and Social Care Trust; and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. In June 2015, a meeting occurred with the Education Authority transport officers for each respective region. Translink is also fully involved with CCNI in complying with the surveys for the ticketing customer survey exercise and reviewing the subsequently produced report.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answers. Minister, when do you expect to get a final report on integrated transport, including community transport?

Miss M McIlveen: Discussions are ongoing. Community transport is beneficial to all our constituencies, particularly the rural ones. I was delighted that, in association with DARD, we were able to get additional funding to help the Community Transport Association. Integrated ticketing for rural transport is causing it some concern, particularly around its budget, but discussions will always continue with that lobby.

Miss M McIlveen: The Moneynick section of the A6 is included in the Randalstown to Castledawson dual carriageway project. The scheme comprises two distinct sections of dual carriageway located on either side of the A6 Toome bypass: a 4·5-mile stretch from the end of the M22 to the eastern end of the Toome bypass; and a 4·2-mile stretch from the western end of the Toome bypass to the existing Castledawson roundabout. When completed, the scheme will significantly improve connectivity between Londonderry and the wider north-west region and Belfast.

I previously announced that funding had been provided to progress the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson scheme to an advanced position so that it would be ready to commence construction at short notice should the necessary funding become available. In May 2015, as part of this process, a Graham/Farrans joint venture was appointed to assist Transport NI and its consultant advisers with the development work, which is going.

Yesterday, as the Member will be aware, I announced that the allocations for the A6 that were set out in Minister Foster's Budget statement of December 2015 will enable construction of the scheme to commence in the next financial year. This is good news for the Northern Ireland construction industry and those who use the road. Work on the site is expected to start by the end of the summer.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer and the announcement that she made yesterday. My question is perhaps a bit out of date. It is welcome news. Perhaps, she heard the commentary this morning. I heard Cathal Ó hOisín and the Chair, Trevor Clarke, being asked about it. The date is very important. If I may, I will offer the Minister this advice: when she has the opportunity, she should give people a precise date; otherwise, all the sceptics will forever question it. It is a very welcome decision. Does she have any certainty on a starting date?

Miss M McIlveen: We are hoping that it is going to happen at the start of the summer. That is very much dependent on budgets moving forward and on the next Minister, but my commitment is certainly that we move forward with the work and do it as quickly as possible. As you say, it has been very well received. I know that there are sceptics out there and critics of the design, and so on, but the project is something that has been long waited for, and I hope that we are in a position in the summer to commence it.

Mr I McCrea: I thank the Minister for her announcement of the, I believe, £130 million project. Although I will leave it to my colleague to refer to the Randalstown section, I certainly welcome the announcement on the Castledawson to Toome section. As a driver, I have to say that it is long overdue. The Minister mentioned a start date, but will she tell us how long she believes the project will take to reach completion? I agree with her that it is something that will benefit not only my constituency but that of my colleague Trevor Clarke, as well as other road users in Northern Ireland.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his comments. I have met him on a number of occasions on that and other schemes in the area. As I said, the construction is intended to start in the summer of this year, and, with a fair wind, it should be completed around 2019.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her reply and wish her well in her job. She is, of course, far too young to know that the first houses were demolished around Dungiven for a bypass more than 50 years ago. She will therefore realise why we have sceptics. Will she give us some indication of when our two cities, Belfast and Derry, will have a roadway that is at least of dual carriageway standard to enable the north-west to participate fully as an equal partner in economic growth?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I am too young, thankfully, to remember that. Again, I have had a discussion with Mr Dallat on the critical connectivity that is needed between Londonderry and Belfast. He is aware from those conversations that I see the A6 as being critical to that, and I hope that that project will come to fruition in the not-too-distant future. It is something that I regard as being a priority.

Mrs Overend: I am sure that the people of mid-Ulster will welcome the news that the A6 is progressing to yet another stage, and I hope that the remainder of the money is forthcoming in the next financial year. I welcome the responses to all the questions so far. Does the Minister foresee any problems for daily commuters along the A6 while the project is under way?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, that is a concern for a local Member, but we should reflect on how well the ongoing A26 project has been managed. I assume that the lessons that have been learnt from the A26 project, which has been successful, can be carried across to this project. Again, it will be seen as a risk that needs to be managed.

Miss M McIlveen: My Department has not incurred any financial penalties as a result of environmental pollution offences in the past five years. Northern Ireland Water, however, has incurred financial penalties as a result of environmental pollution offences in the past five years, and those amount to £61,250. That figure equates to £16,250 for 2011; £22,500 for 2012; £7,950 for 2013; £9,300 for 2014; and £5,250 for 2015.

These figures show a marked reduction in the number of fines from 2011-12 to 2015 and reflect the hard work undertaken by Northern Ireland Water (NIW).

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Northern Ireland Water has steadily improved its environmental compliance over the past number of years, and that improvement has led to Northern Ireland Water achieving the best ever waste water compliance in recent years: 98·4% in 2014. That can be attributed to significant investment in sewerage services and improvements to the management and operation of the waste water assets. To achieve that, Northern Ireland Water has developed and implemented a pollution-reduction strategy to minimise the risk of prosecution cases arising. The strategy is centred on the three areas of operational management, capital investment and education and awareness. The delivery of identified actions stemming from this strategy has been linked to the steady improvement in the number of pollution incidents attributed to NIW.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer thus far, and, indeed, it is to be welcomed that we are seeing fewer instances of the need for such fines. We do, however, still have a situation in some places such as Ballyhornan, where the Department is pumping a level of sewage into the water that it would not in other places in the North. Will the Minister give a commitment to make 2016 the year that this ceases?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question and his remarks in relation to this. I would like to think that that will not be the case. If it is, I would like to think that any debris is cleared up very quickly and that we do not lead to an environmental issue that becomes much more difficult to contain.

Mr Lyons: It is good to hear that there has been additional investment that has helped to reduce instances of environmental pollution. Can the Minister give the House an assessment of the current state of the drainage infrastructure in towns and cities across Northern Ireland and how that infrastructure fared during the recent heavy rain?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. In most Northern Ireland towns and cities, there are sections of the sewerage network that require investment to reduce the risk of sewer flooding and to improve combined sewer overflows that are causing pollution. Northern Ireland Water's PC15 business plan states that it requires £185 million of capital investment to address this by 2021, excluding Belfast and treatment works across Northern Ireland. However, due to public expenditure constraints, less than 50% of that could be funded in the Utility Regulator's PC15 final determination. Significant investment is also required by Transport NI and the Rivers Agency to improve drainage infrastructure.

During the recent flooding, Northern Ireland Water was part of the inter-agency cooperation in responding to the general flooding around Upper and Lower Lough Erne. The company has been involved in regular conference calls with other responders, including the PSNI, the Fire Service, Transport NI and the Ambulance Service. It has also been working in conjunction with local councils. Northern Ireland Water reviewed the resilience of the Killyhevlin water treatment plant following the 2009 flooding in Fermanagh. The subsequent flood resilience construction works were completed in 2011-12. Northern Ireland Water has invested £600,000 in measures at the site, including the construction of an earthen levee and the installation of additional storm-pumping sensors and alarms. The scheme is specifically designed to provide protection to the treatment works during flood conditions. It was evident from discussions that I had during the flooding, and also from the meeting that we had last week, that this had been successful and had made a difficult situation less difficult.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Will the Minister be in a position today or in the near future to share with the House where these financial penalties have been incurred by Northern Ireland Water? I am particularly concerned with Sixmilewater in south Antrim. I fully appreciate that the Minister may want to come back to me on that.

Miss M McIlveen: I am happy to share that information; I have it here and can make it available to the Member.

Miss M McIlveen: In dealing with flags on street furniture, my Department's primary consideration is in its duty of care for the safety of the public, employees and contractors. Where unauthorised flags pose a hazard to road users, my Department will seek to remove that danger. When there is no such danger, my Department acts in accordance with the multi-agency 'Joint Protocol in Relation to the Display of Flags in Public Areas', which was introduced in 2005.

My Department is generally not perceived to be the lead agency under the protocol. In most cases, other signatories such as the PSNI, OFMDFM, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, DSD or DOE are better placed to assume the lead role in arranging for the removal of flags, through their contacts with community groups, local elected representatives and other relevant contacts.

Under the protocol, when called upon by the lead agency, my Department provides the access equipment and resources to remove unwanted flags, once agreement has been reached for their removal and where they are not easily accessible. As I have said, my Department has a duty of care to its staff and, in situations where flags need to be removed, the safety of personnel tasked with the removal work must always be taken into account.

Mr B McCrea: I am glad that the Minister referred to the 2005 protocol. Let me ask her a specific question about legislation. Is she aware that, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, if it attempts to take down flags of whatever nature from a lamp post, it is actually committing trespass? There is a legal impediment. How does her Department deal with the legal issue of trespass for the PSNI in following the 2005 protocol?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I know that he is spending some considerable time looking at this and a possible amendment to legislation and so on. I am happy to have a discussion with him about that point. If he would like to liaise with my office, I would be happy to discuss it with him.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for her answers to date. I agree with others that the flags protocol is being widely ignored in many places. In my constituency, paramilitary flags fly on many lamp posts, including on main thoroughfares. I share your view that DRD is probably not the appropriate lead agency on that, but, in the absence of a regulatory framework, it is in charge. Can you comment on the fact that, last month, my colleague Councillor Declan Boyle was ordered to immediately remove posters that he had erected on lamp posts relating to a spate of burglaries and why the same prompt action is not taken on flags, particularly paramilitary flags?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, she will understand that the removal of flags and so on is quite complex and requires a lot of community negotiation because of the sensitivities around that. The issue that she raises in relation to her colleague's posters would fall under the advertising section in the legislation, which goes beyond flags. An assessment would have been taken at that stage in relation to that particular aspect, and it would have been deemed that there was not any issue in relation to intimidation and so on to my staff. I know that that probably sounds like quite a complex answer — or perhaps even a waffly answer, if I am going to be fair — but it is within my Department's remit to be able to do that.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister confirm that there is no way to obtain lawful authority to display flags on street furniture owned by her Department and to explain why she has taken no action to deal with flags on street furniture owned by DRD or to report that to the agencies that she suggested should be lead agencies on the issue? If she says that community consultation is required, will she explain why she has not undertaken such consultation on an issue on which, surveys consistently find, approximately 80% of people do not believe that lamp posts are respectful places from which to display a flag of any colour?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As he knows, there is no provision under the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 to give the Department the powers to issue licences to place flags, so it is regarded as illegal. He is asking me to take the lead on this. He will be aware that, under the Fresh Start Agreement, a flags commission is being established. Those discussions will be held around another table, and it will then go out to consultation, which is probably the appropriate place to have it.

Miss M McIlveen: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will group questions 5 and 9.

There are proposals to construct a dual carriageway on two sections of the A6, those being from the end of the M22 at Randalstown to Castledawson and from Londonderry to Dungiven. I had previously announced that funding had been provided to progress the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dual carriageway project to an advanced position so that it would be ready to commence construction at short notice, should the necessary funding become available. In May 2015, as part of that process, Graham/Farrans Joint Venture was appointed to assist Transport NI and its consultant adviser with the development work, which is ongoing. Yesterday, as I said, I announced that the allocations for the A6 set out in Minister Foster’s Budget would enable construction of the scheme to commence in the next financial year.

The development of the A6 Londonderry to Dungiven scheme is well advanced. It went through public inquiry in 2012, and the inspector produced a report embracing various recommendations, some relating to complex issues. My officials have prepared a report addressing the recommendations arising from the public inquiry and are reviewing the extent of the scheme, which can be built with the funding allocations in the December 2015 Budget statement. Once I have received those reports and considered them in full, I will make a decision on how the scheme should proceed.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her statement and her answer. I am on record as welcoming her announcement yesterday on the Toome section. She will be aware that the public inquiry into the A6 Dungiven to Drumahoe section closed in October 2012, so we are now into the fourth year. Is there any reason why it has been delayed for that time?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As he said, public inquiries were held on the scheme in late 2012, and the inspector delivered his report to the Department in March 2013. One of the inspector's recommendations was that an alternative route for the Dungiven bypass be considered in sufficient detail to allow an informed comparison to be made between it and my Department's published route. Transport NI's project consultant subsequently reviewed the alternative route, and its findings endorsed my Department's published route. However, there was a view that that was not sufficiently independent and may not have given the alternative route a fair consideration, so an independent review of the alternative route was commissioned by my Department and has now been completed. Reports have been prepared outlining the findings of the review and addressing the other recommendations arising from the public inquiry. Once I have received those reports — I have not as yet — and get the opportunity, I will consider them in full and make a decision on how the scheme should proceed after that.

2.30 pm

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the detail on the A6 this afternoon. Can she confirm that her Department has been working with the landowners along the A6 in the Moneynick/Castledawson area and that it has been able to find satisfactory resolutions with all the farming businesses there?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I have asked exactly the same question, and I understand that there has been good cooperation in resolving some issues that may have come up. Again, that is something that I will continue to ask. As with other schemes, starting a scheme does not necessarily mean that discussions have concluded; they continue throughout the process.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Time is up. We must now move on to topical questions for the Minister.

T1. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the specific responsibilities of her Department in response to the immediate aftermath of the recent flooding, particularly for rural dwellers who rely heavily on septic tanks, and to state the initiatives that her Department will announce in the coming weeks, given that they have spoken over recent days about the flooding incidents and that she trusts that the Minister will support her colleagues Colum Eastwood and Mark H Durkan at today’s Executive meeting to identify support for businesses that have been adversely affected. (AQT 3281/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question; indeed, I have had discussions with Mrs Kelly over the last number of weeks, in particular about her constituency. In general, my Department has worked well as part of the multi-agency approach to the current flood situation with Rivers Agency, councils and other responders. At this stage, I want to pay tribute to the work of all the staff who have been involved in trying to alleviate some of the pain that has been felt by those who have been left stranded and who are also, I am sure, very weary after what has been a long process, given the rainfall that we have had and the levels that did not ever seem to be going down. Thankfully today, however, we can see a significant change in that.

My key priority has always been to make sure that roads are safe and, where possible, are kept open. We will be immediately looking at remedial work that needs to be carried out on the roads that have been flooded, and we will be able to get a better assessment of that once the water has subsided. As well as carrying out emergency repairs, we will obviously be looking to longer-term measures and identifying where structural maintenance is really required on those roads in and around Fermanagh, Upper Bann and other areas.

The Member mentioned septic tanks: obviously, that is something that Northern Ireland Water will give support to. It is particularly important that you remind people that they are entitled to a removal of sludge once a year, so it is incumbent on all Members to make that and the councils' role in all this and the emergency payments known.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she give instructions to NIW to look at a second clearing? That is a real problem that people are very worried about with some septic tanks. Further, in moving forward and looking at the amalgamation of Departments in the next mandate, does the Minister agree with me that there needs to be greater collaboration? I have attended many site meetings where there has been a blame game: Rivers Agency blames Roads Service, Roads Service blames Rivers Agency, and we never get anything done. Perhaps you will look specifically at some of those areas — I will write to you about those in my constituency that have been part of that blame game — and put a particular focus in any assessment and evaluation of the last number of weeks on how the situation has played out in rural areas in particular.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I think that the good working that there has been over the last number of weeks has been reflected on. As a constituency MLA, I have hit the same problem, and I imagine that, as we move forward into the new Department for Infrastructure, that should be much easier to deal with and those agencies will work much closer together. In some ways, this is perhaps a lesson of good practice learned in moving forward, and we can also see how that has worked out in working alongside councils.

Her suggestion in relation to the second clearing is something that could be considered, given what has happened in recent weeks. I will certainly pass that on to NI Water for comment.

T2. Mr Agnew asked the Minister for Regional Development whether there have been any expressions of interest in the sale of Cairn wood and Ballysallagh reservoir by NI Water and, if so, to provide some detail of the nature of that interest and the commercial opportunity. (AQT 3282/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Ballysallagh reservoir in Cairn wood, as the Member is aware, is one of 26 impounding reservoirs owned by Northern Ireland Water but regarded as surplus to use. It is therefore obliged to put them up for sale. Having gone through the normal processes of discussions with other government agencies and statutory bodies, and them not giving any expression of interest, it has been moved to the open market. This is all part of commercial life, and I understand that there are interested bidders. I believe that Northern Ireland Water hopes to close that sale in the coming weeks.

As to the long-term plans, those will be something that the buyer will want to explore, as regards viability, along with what it intends to do with it. However, it will be restricted as regards the forest area as well.

Mr Agnew: I am very grateful to the Minister for her answer. She will be aware that there has been great concern in the community about access to the forest and its protection and, indeed, access to the site in general. What reassurance can she give to my constituents and beyond in relation to continuing public access and the protection and conservation of the site?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I know about that, as my constituency borders this facility very closely. DARD's Forest Service owns and manages the trees in the area. Although someone who purchases the area will own the land, the trees will still be in the possession of DARD. So, the same arrangements that are in place with Northern Ireland Water will continue with the new owner, who will be obliged to comply with DARD's deforestation policies.

As regards access, that is something that will probably need to be explored. I am happy to meet the Member and discuss any of these issues.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.

T4. Ms Fearon asked the Minister for Regional Development for an outline of the current procedure for the clearance of roadside gullies. (AQT 3284/11-16)

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Phriomh LeasChaeann Comhairle. I want to initially offer my congratulations to the Minister on her new role. I do not believe that I have had the opportunity to do so yet.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. During 2015, Transport NI aimed to inspect and clean gullies once during the year. I believe that additional inspections and cleanings were carried out if there were known problem areas, and that was done very much on a reactive basis.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answer. Is the practice of leaving removed material to the side still pertinent, and does it pose a further risk to the safety of our roads, given the recent flooding?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. If she is aware of that happening in particular areas, will she please let my office know, and I can ensure that that does not happen, particularly if it causes a risk to drivers or pedestrians.

T5. Mrs Overend asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on her key priorities in the Mid Ulster constituency. (AQT 3285/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, there was an announcement made yesterday, which was in the Mid Ulster constituency and which is very much deemed as a priority. We also have the Magherafelt bypass, which is ongoing and progressing particularly well. There will be smaller schemes being worked on, and if the Member has a particular issue that she wants to highlight, I will be happy to hear it.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that response. I appreciate the work that has been put into Mid Ulster thus far. Going forward, we need to keep progressing and looking to see how we can make improvements in Mid Ulster. Access to the constituency of Mid Ulster is now improving with the A6 etc, but we need to ensure a good flow of traffic in Mid Ulster. Considering that 27·5% of jobs in Mid Ulster are in the manufacturing industry, compared with 11% for Northern Ireland overall, it is really important that we ensure the flow of traffic. Will the Minister consider upgrading the importance of the A29 from a link corridor to a key transport corridor in her priorities?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Traffic flow throughout Northern Ireland is incredibly important and, given the statistics that she shared about manufacturing, those links to the ports are doubly important. I am happy to have a discussion with officials about the A29 and get back to the Member.

T6. Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Regional Development, given the recent allocation of funding to the A5 project, which was announced as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, whether she can give an assurance that there will be significant progress on the A5 dual carriageway project in 2016. (AQT 3286/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As he indicated, it was a critical part of the Fresh Start programme, and additional money was secured from the Irish Government as a contribution towards the A5. An outline programme identifying the next steps is being developed. I gave a commitment in the House that I would speak to land agents who will be affected by the A5. I honoured that and had the meeting with them prior to the Christmas break. They raised a number of issues that I am looking at. The anticipated new environmental statement and new draft statutory orders will be published shortly, and further information on that will be available.

Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. The Minister said that the draft orders will hopefully be signed off shortly, but could she be more definitive and more specific about the timeline for signing off the draft orders to enable the project to move to the next stage?

Miss M McIlveen: I am hopeful that I will have an announcement to make on that before the end of January. The first section is for new buildings north of Strabane, which is where the money has been identified for. Obviously, that is my focus at present and we will move forward on that, but I will give more detail towards the end of the month.

T7. Mr Swann asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on her Department’s review of the safety measures on the A26 Lisnevenagh Road, given that she will be aware that that road has been the scene of a number of serious and fatal accidents. (AQT 3287/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Transport NI (TNI) is carrying out its annual review of collision sites. It is from Ballee to Dunsilly. It is expected to be completed within the coming weeks, and TNI will take forward any appropriate remedial measures after that review.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for that. Minister, would you be willing to have a meeting about any future proposals that come forward, especially in regard to the Woodgreen junctions and the junctions at Cromkill, which have been the scene of a number of serious accidents recently?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I do not really want to comment on particular accidents, but I am content to have a meeting on the back of that review and discuss those measures with the Member.

T8. Mr Maskey asked the Minister for Regional Development for an assessment of the work ahead to address coastal erosion. (AQT 3288/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As a representative of a coastal constituency, I am very much aware of the effects of coastal erosion and the need for better coastal management. The problem is not coastal erosion itself but how we approach our response to it. At present, there is a somewhat fragmented approach that sees different Departments and local councils exercise different responsibilities.

2.45 pm

As a result, you will be aware that, in full awareness of that, I called together a number of stakeholders, including the Minister of the Environment. The chief executive of the Rivers Agency attended on behalf of the Agriculture Minister, along with representatives of the National Trust and councils affected by coastal erosion. That proved to be a positive forum and one that can, I feel, be built on. I plan to have another meeting of that forum in February. At this stage, it is difficult to set out a programme of work, given that we are moving into a change of Departments, but it is a good basis for moving forward. There have been critics who feel that it has not gone far enough, but I have been in this role for only a short time, and at least I am taking the initiative and being seen to do something.

Social Development

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): I thank the Member for his question. You will recall that the sites were originally vested in 2008 for social and affordable housing. Since then, 136 new social houses have been delivered. Unfortunately, the provision of affordable housing in the current housing market is not a viable option for housing associations.

The Housing Executive is undertaking an economic appraisal of a range of options for redeveloping the vacant land for residential housing. A completed economic appraisal is expected to be submitted to the Housing Executive board for approval before the end of this financial year.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for that answer. Yes, I recall his visit to the Village. He is aware of large areas of vacant land in the Village area, as, indeed, there are in Hope Street, Wellwood Street, Sandy Row and Posnett Street in Donegall Pass. Those three communities have land sitting waiting for social housing. There is the need and the demand, and we are looking for a date — a notional date, at least — on which we can come to a decision.

Mr Storey: I share the Member's frustration, having visited the area. The point made to me by a number of political representatives from the area is that the quality of what replaced what had been taken away is to be welcomed. However, the issue is quantity. Having only 136 houses in place still leaves the challenge of ensuring development in that area.

Since taking up this post, my objective has been delivering quality homes. To that we have to add quantity. I can come to the House and say that, over the period of the Programme for Government target, we met that target. However, Members are right to question the number of properties in areas such as south Belfast. The economic appraisal that is expected to be submitted to the Housing Executive board for approval will form part of that. I trust that it will be finalised for the board by the end of this financial year.

Mr Allister: The Minister referred to the number of demolitions. In fact, there were 539 demolitions. Hearing that there have been only 136 replacements is discouraging, given that we are in the latter part of the 10-year programme. The original commitment was to build 273 houses in addition to refurbishments. Has that commitment been abandoned or will it be kept?

Mr Storey: It is not a case of trying to abandon commitments that were made on replacement. We are in the business of trying to identify how and when the replacements will be put in place and we can have further progress. The Member is right, and that is why, in response to the initial question from the Member for the area, I said that the 136 houses were not enough. It is not just an issue of quality but one of quantity. Over the next period, I am keen to review why there has been a delay and to say that the economic appraisal will go to the Housing Executive's board before the end of this financial year. However, we need clarity and certainty, and, I repeat, we still need to have quantity.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. The final tenant participation strategy for Northern Ireland 2015-2020 will be published later this month, along with an action plan. My officials will be working with stakeholders to ensure that the elements of the strategy are implemented. It will include the introduction of a new consumer standard to the regulatory framework for social housing providers, which will put tenants at the centre of the process. Other elements of the strategy will include the development of guidance for landlord and tenant groups and support for an independent tenant organisation.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he think that there will be any delay in the implementation of the strategy?

Mr Storey: The difficulty that all Ministers face is ensuring that we do not bring about unnecessary delay. Obviously, when we have the action plan published, it is my intention to ensure that we move forward in a way that is in the spirit of what has been set out so that we can see delivered what we said we want to achieve. I do not intend that there should be delay, but I cannot be definitive because, as with all these things, issues can sometimes arise that must be dealt with at the time, and those can become something of a distraction. As far as I as Minister and the Department are concerned, we will work in conjunction with others to keep the focus on implementing what we said we want to achieve.

Mr Hilditch: As part of the overall social housing reform programme, will the current Housing Executive stock transfer out of public ownership?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Options for structural reform have been identified and assessed, but the work is being revisited in the light of the Executive's Fresh Start commitment to progressing structural reform in social housing delivery in a manner that focuses on reducing departmental expenditure limit (DEL) subsidy pressures. The Member will be well aware of what those are. That remains the trajectory. It is where we want to go on that particular issue.

Mrs D Kelly: How inclusive will the tenant participation strategy be, given that more and more tenants are the tenants of private landlords, sometimes on an individual basis? How will their views be captured in the strategy?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question and also for her interest in the issue. It is one that she has raised with me on a number of occasions.

She raises a valid point about the private rented sector. The strategy is focused on tenant participation from tenants in social housing. My officials have published a discussion document on the review of the role of the regulation of the private rented sector, which states:

"The aim of the review is to consider the current and potential future role of the sector and assess the effectiveness of current regulation, identifying where improvements can be made to make the private rented sector a more attractive housing option."

The consultation opened on 12 November 2015 and closes on 5 February 2016.

Mr Storey: The number of people accepted as being statutorily homeless over the past five years has in fact been fairly steady, with a small decrease of 3% between 2010 and 2015.

Homelessness has been at the top of my list of priorities since I came into office. Over the past month, having visited many hostels and facilities, I have learned at first-hand of the experiences of a number of vulnerable and marginalised individuals in our society. While the decrease in homelessness figures is quite small, it is a step in the right direction, and we are in a far better place than many regions.

My Department will provide funding this year of over £35 million to homelessness services. This will fund help for those in emergency situations, work to prevent homelessness and to provide appropriate advice, as well as housing support-related support services, through the supporting people programme.

While I am satisfied that the work that we do has a positive impact on the lives of many, I know that there is no room for complacency. Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a number of organisations to continue to work together to tackle it. I want to pay tribute, in conclusion, to the many organisations that, particularly over the Christmas period, have continued to work tirelessly to ensure that we make available the best possible provision to address what is a very challenging and difficult issue in our society.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for his response. I concur with his sentiments about those organisations. Many of these people give of their time voluntarily to support people on our streets and to pull things back together for them in difficult and traumatic times.

Bringing it back to the issue of homelessness, I am sure that the Minister, being a grass-roots constituency worker himself, will acknowledge that a lot of the pressure to provide homes for the homeless previously went over to the private sector. In my experience from my constituency, the private sector is now largely being eaten up by tenants. Does the Minister feel —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr McGlone: — that the public sector, or social housing sector more specifically, has provided an adequate response to that need?

Mr Storey: We are always challenged in Government as to whether we have provided adequately in any set of circumstances. We have to, many times, respond on the basis of the resources available. However, when we come to deal with this issue, we have to stretch ourselves, given its nature.

Sometimes there is a misunderstanding of the definition of "homelessness", and we could touch on that. I want, however, to deal with the issue that the Member raised in relation to the private rented sector and how it has sought to address the issue by meeting housing need. The Member will be well aware that the private rented sector access scheme operated by Smartmove seeks to assist the more vulnerable with a rent deposit guarantee and with other housing management issues. The introduction of the landlord registration and tenancy deposit schemes has made the private rented sector a more attractive housing option. Tenants and prospective tenants can check whether a landlord is complying with the law and report them to their council for an enforcement action.

My Department recently launched a discussion paper on a review of the role and regulation of the private rented sector to make it more viable and attractive as a housing option. The closing date for responses is 5 February 2016.

Mr Douglas: In the Minister's response to the earlier question, he mentioned those who are "statutorily homeless". Can the Minister outline what that term actually means in Northern Ireland?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I welcome the opportunity to place on record, and in the public domain, what we mean by "statutorily homeless". We can use these phrases in such a way as to mask the reality in our communities.

3.00 pm

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has a statutory responsibility to respond to homelessness. To be accepted as being statutorily homeless under the scheme, a number of factors are taken into account, as set out in the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. Applicants who are accepted as being statutorily homeless either have accommodation that is deemed to be inappropriate or have no accommodation available to them.

Homelessness, as I said in answer to the previous question that was asked by Mr McGlone, is a complex issue and is often characterised as being solely about rough sleeping when that is not the full picture. Homelessness figures also include people who are living in temporary accommodation or those who are living in inappropriate or overcrowded accommodation. It also includes those who are threatened with homelessness, such as people who face eviction from their home.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I firmly believe that our town and city centres play an important role in driving competitiveness and economic growth.

Over the past 10 years, my Department, working with a range of stakeholders, has sought to improve the viability and vitality of our city and town centres and has invested in excess of £83 million in more than 78 public realm schemes across Northern Ireland. My Department has funded numerous public realm improvement schemes in town and city centres over the past 10 years, ranging from the £28 million in phase 1 of the Belfast Streets Ahead project to more modest schemes, such as the £225,000 scheme in Dromore, County Down.

In addition, DSD has delivered over 60 ReStore revitalisation projects in towns and cities across Northern Ireland through an investment that is in excess of £8 million, largely focusing on physical enhancements to shopfronts to help promote town centres and the independent retail sector, primarily.

My Department has also invested £10 million over the last five years to support our city centres within the Newry and Armagh constituency, using a range of regeneration measures to achieve that purpose. Those include comprehensive development, public realm improvements, revitalisation projects and urban development grants. It is well accepted that the economic benefits include job creation, the creation of new business opportunities and the facilitation or stimulation of private sector investment.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. How much has DSD spent on regeneration in Armagh city centre?

Mr Storey: How often have we come to this House and said that all politics is local? Given the year that we are in — 2016 — I suspect that we, as Ministers, will be asked similar questions more directly and pointedly over the next number of weeks.

In the past five years, my Department has invested approximately £5·3 million in support of city centre development in Armagh city. That included approximately £4 million towards the public realm improvements throughout the city centre; £92,000 towards the creation of a master plan to shape future development within the area; £431,000 towards the revitalisation schemes to sustain the city's vibrancy; £400,000 towards to the purchase of a development site to invigorate an important area of the city centre, namely The Mall West; and £265,000 by way of an urban development grant to assist with city centre investments.

That investment adds to a considerable commitment on the part of my Department, working in conjunction with the local authority, to enhance and improve the aesthetics of Armagh and the way in which the city continues to be a place that people want to visit and a place of which the local residents and the rest of Northern Ireland can be rightly proud. I pay tribute to all those who have helped us achieve that.

I have seen, from my visits to the city and to other places across Northern Ireland over the last year, the impact and the benefit that investing even a small amount of money can bring.

My budget is under considerable pressure, but I look forward to working with our colleagues in local government as we roll out the schemes for the next financial year.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. We may have the opportunity to do this before the end of the mandate, but, just in case we do not — the ballot process means that a Member may not be selected — before I answer, I want to thank the Member for his contribution to the Assembly. He will be missed by his party and for the very distinctive way in which he makes his points. I have no doubt that today will be no different. I wish him well for the future. I would not want other events that took place in the Chamber today to overshadow my wanting to give my personal best wishes to Mr Dallat.

I turn now to the answer that he is looking for, which is more important. Following my statement to the Assembly on 26 November, the Member will be aware of my decision not to proceed with the Regeneration Bill, with the result that my Department will continue to have operational responsibility for the delivery of urban regeneration and community development services across Northern Ireland. Organisations currently delivering services to neighbourhood renewal areas have been written to advising them of the position.

As you are aware, the Executive are again facing significant financial pressures, which are likely to result in reductions to my Department's budget. Those budget reductions will further limit the amount of funding that will be available through the programmes that my Department currently delivers. At this stage, I cannot give any commitment that any projects or programmes funded by my Department will continue at their current level, if indeed at all, from 1 April 2016. However, I am aware of the excellent relationships that have been built up between councils and departmental officials through the transition planning process, and, despite the delay in extending regeneration powers to councils, I anticipate that we will all continue to work together on delivering key services for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Mr Dallat: I am so touched by the Minister's remarks that I am almost incapable of asking a supplementary. [Laughter.]

I am glad that it caused great amusement to Lord Morrow on the Benches opposite.

The Minister quite rightly acknowledges that the neighbourhood renewal scheme has been of enormous benefit, particularly in towns like Coleraine, which needed precisely that type of investment. I am sorry that he has had to indicate that the budget has to be reduced. Will he confirm that the responsibility will transfer to the Department for Communities (DFC) and give the Assembly an indication of what the reduction will be?

Mr Storey: I can confirm that the decision to transfer regeneration and community development powers to local government will ultimately rest with the Executive. The new Department for Communities will have a much wider range of responsibilities. In that context, it would be prudent to wait until the new functions have been assimilated into DFC. The Executive can then determine when any of those responsibilities would be best delivered at a local level.

I face a considerable challenge with a 5% to 6% reduction in my budget. However, the Member may recall that, when I came into office, I faced the same situation, particularly with neighbourhood renewal. We worked extensively with the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and the community and voluntary sector and were able to make considerable progress, so the outcome was not as bad as had been originally envisaged. Unfortunately, I am in the same position and have had to ensure that I prioritise my budget. I have given commitments — I do it publicly again today — to programmes such as Supporting People. That is the right thing to do. Neighbourhood renewal and working with councils is a given, and I will continue to have discussions with them. Indeed I hope, before the end of February, to have again met all the local authorities and had discussions with them. Obviously, they have concerns around the pause in the transfer of functions. I was committed in 2015 to this issue, and I remain committed in 2016 for as long as I am in this post.

Mr McQuillan: Will the Minister confirm to the House that the spend across local council areas will reflect what was anticipated to transfer to each council under the reform of local government?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Councils were advised of the budgets anticipated to transfer to them had the Regeneration Bill successfully completed its legislative passage. However, as that is no longer the case, there will be no specific allocations to councils to deliver services to tackle deprivation in 2016-17. The responsibility remains with my Department. However, I rehearse what I said to the Member: over the next number of weeks, I will continue to have discussions with the local authorities so that I can go some way towards trying to alleviating their concerns. I am not naive; I recognise that there are concerns. There is a mixture of disappointment and, in some cases, relief; some local authorities believe that, because of the other challenges that they face in terms of having just been established and the considerable challenges around the new powers that they already have, the pause may be advantageous. It is my duty and responsibility to work with them to ensure that we do not lose out in a way that is detrimental to projects such as those that the Member referred to through neighbourhood renewal. That is my commitment, and that is the challenge that I have in the next number of weeks.

Mr Lyttle: How will the Minister ensure sustainable funding for the women's centre childcare fund for 2015-16, given that his joint neighbourhood renewal funding bid was not accepted by the Minister of Finance and Personnel?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for that question. He is absolutely right. It needs to be remembered that, in terms of that fund, it was my Department that stepped in and, over the last number of years, gave funding in a way that has ensured continued delivery. I remain committed to that position. I indicated last year in terms of the Budget process that this would be the last year. However, given that we have an OFMDFM childcare strategy that will not come into operation until 2017, there is the issue of what we do in the interim. I assure the Member that that is an issue that I am particularly exercised about at the moment. Other Members have written to me in relation to it. It impinges on a number of constituencies. I am well aware of the issue in relation to his constituency of East Belfast and other places. It remains a priority for me. I have to work now with the new First Minister to ensure that we have a transition that, as far as possible, is not detrimental to the delivery of the service.

Mr Beggs: The small pockets of deprivation (SPOD) funding was created to avoid discrepancy and prevent inequalities under neighbourhood renewal guidance because of the minimum threshold. Will the Minister assure me that the small pockets of deprivation funding will continue to support the communities that would have qualified under neighbourhood renewal but for the threshold?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I give the assurance that we value the work that the SPOD funding did in terms of the contribution that it made. I face a particular challenge in relation to the budget. As with neighbourhood renewal, other funds such as Supporting People and all those things, those are decisions that I have to make. I assure the Member that good work was accomplished by that. In some cases, it was not a huge amount of money.

This is always an issue that we face in the House. Some Members are always critical of spending that amount of money, because it may not suit them politically to have to say that certain elements in society need that help. I am not referring to the Member, but it is an issue that continues to be under consideration. That is the only comfort that I can give to him. There may be a clearer picture by the end of next week or the beginning of the following week, when we have a settled budget position, but, at the moment, the next number of days are particularly challenging for me to ensure that I know exactly what the final line of my budget will be.

3.15 pm

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

T1. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Social Development, having noted his provision of £35 million for the homeless, which he certainly welcomes, to advise how our welcome guests from Syria are settling into their homes as refugees, whether their needs are being addressed satisfactorily and whether they have any specific requirements that have come to his attention. (AQT 3291/11-16)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, the issue of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Northern Ireland was a very interesting topic of discussion prior to Christmas. I can confirm that a group of 51 Syrian refugees arrived in Northern Ireland on 15 December. I am happy to report that the plans that we put in place worked very effectively. The arrangements at the airport worked extremely well, and the refugees were taken through the necessary processes and transferred to the welcome centre without incident. The refugees stayed at the welcome centre in Belfast for three nights. During that time, they were helped through and provided with essential information and help that we believed it was important for them to have. I can tell the House that one of the interpreters who assisted us at the welcome centre said that he had worked at several similar locations in other parts of the United Kingdom and the quality of response in Northern Ireland was, by some distance, the best that had been seen.

On the Friday after their arrival, all the refugee families had been successfully settled into their new accommodation. I had the privilege of meeting the refugee families while they were at the welcome centre, and it was clear that they were very grateful for the kindness and support that had been shown to them by the people of Northern Ireland.

I conclude by placing on record my sincere appreciation to the other organisations that helped us during the process. It was an example of what can be done when a particular need is presented to us here in Northern Ireland.

Mr McNarry: It is pleasing and gratifying to hear the answer from the Minister so far. Will he say whether he has had any reports of discontent on the part of locals that would have a bearing on those who are already here and particularly on those coming in the next tranche of refugees, when they arrive? Will he join me in repudiating those who act with racial prejudice?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member, genuinely, for the comments that he makes. I know that he has raised legitimate issues on benefits and many other things, but he has done so in a way that has not been akin to some of the other very negative and, I have to say, deplorable comments that have been made. Some of those comments have been attributed to political representatives, and that is unfortunate and shameful. I am not aware, although the Member might be, of an issue of concern. I have had discussions with the police, and I have ongoing discussions with my colleagues in the Department, obviously, the Red Cross and others who have been involved.

The Member mentioned the next number of refugees who will come in. The next group to arrive in Northern Ireland will come as part of the second wave of Syrian refugees to come to the United Kingdom under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. The timing of that is not yet known. Our understanding is that our national Government wish to review the arrangements that have been put in place for the first wave of 1,000 Syrian refugees, who arrived just before Christmas, to learn lessons for future groups. The timing of the arrival of future groups will follow that review. At the minute, there is no definitive date, but, as I said in answer to the first part of the Member's question, I am very satisfied and, indeed, very pleased with the huge amount of effort and goodwill that was shown. It is an example that we can use. Are there lessons to learn? Yes, I am sure that there are. We are looking at what those may be, and I will be happy to inform the Member when we have come to a definitive answer on those issues.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

T2. Mrs Cochrane asked the Minister for Social Development what discussions either he or his Department have had with Professor Eileen Evason about the overall amount of money available for welfare reform mitigation now that the Chancellor has announced that tax credits will not be reformed. (AQT 3292/11-16)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question and wish her well in her recovery.

Maybe I could set the issue that she raises in some context. The Fresh Start Agreement set out the total amount of money that the Executive agreed could be made available to mitigate the impact of welfare reform and the Chancellor's announcement on tax credits in July 2015. The total amount of money was £585 million. Of that, £75 million was to be made available in 2016-17, with £150 million in each of the following years for welfare. The Executive proposed £60 million on tax credits in each of the four years covered by the Fresh Start Agreement. The Chancellor's decision not to proceed with the changes to tax credits clearly altered the position, with the need for mitigating measures not happening. In 2016-17 — this is an important point — the Executive propose to allocate the £75 million for mitigating measures to address the impact of the welfare changes. In addition, in December 2015, the Minister of Finance and Personnel announced in the Assembly that £30 million of the money previously intended for the tax credit changes would be held in reserve to address the recommendations of Professor Evason's working group. At this time, the Executive are waiting for Professor Evason to complete her work, and we look forward to giving her report the proper consideration that it deserves.

Mrs Cochrane: I could not quite hear the Minister's full response due to the talking just to my right. If I am right in thinking that some of the money has been set aside for the outcome of the report, does that mean that the Minister will perhaps think that that money could be used for other schemes such as job creation and skills development, rather than just welfare reform mitigation?

Mr Storey: Obviously, that is an issue for the Executive. When we have receipt of the report and have worked our way through it, the Executive will be in a place to come to a definitive conclusion. I think that we have made progress in dealing with what was, in 2015, a very difficult situation. None of us wanted to be in the place we were in dealing with welfare. The Member knows well the history of all this. A year ago, we started the year trying to have a good news story about what came out of the Stormont House Agreement. Unfortunately, that then had its challenges. However, we have ended 2015 in a different place. I want to ensure that what we do as we move forward in conjunction with my Executive colleagues is in the spirit of what has been agreed and can still deliver for the communities and families who have challenges when it comes to accessing the welfare system.

T3. Mr Poots asked the Minister for Social Development, in light of the importance that he has previously recognised and that he attaches to social enterprise and social economy, how he sees us going forward in supporting those schemes given the financial constraints that have been imposed upon us as a result of austerity. (AQT 3293/11-16)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I know that he takes a particular interest in this in relation to the work that is done in his constituency through a number of organisations. In particular, one that comes to mind is the Resurgam Trust.

Innovation NI, the Northern Ireland Executive's innovation strategy, aims to deliver a vision for Northern Ireland by 2025. Northern Ireland will be recognised as an innovation hub and be one of the UK's leading high-growth, knowledge-based regions that embraces creativity and innovation at all levels of society.

The strategy also recognises the importance of social innovation: new ways of doing things or altogether new things that deliver social benefit. I concur with the Member that it is an important issue. Sometimes, there are those who are dismissive of having such a strategy, but I do not think that that is the case. It is something that we need to continue to improve and build on. My Department chairs a social innovation working group, the aim of which, in its initial phase, is to bring together the key policymakers and practitioners to identify areas where social innovation could make a difference and scope out the areas of activity that they want to continue to work in.

Mr Poots: I welcome the fact that Northern Ireland will be a leader in social innovation. I take it, therefore, that we will be able to provide support for innovation in the social economy sector to ensure the sustainability that many groups require but which public funding will make it a challenge to achieve?

Mr Storey: Yes. The other area that would be useful to place on record is, of course, my Department's support for The Young Foundation in doing some pilot social innovation work. This work supports people across communities and sectors to come together to create the social innovations needed to deliver that change. Through a co-creation process, they will identify, scope and prioritise. This is not a generational issue, but we still need to have a focus. As mentioned earlier by the First Minister when she took up office, it is about giving young people a sense of hope and a sense of place. These initiatives are a means, although not the ultimate place where we all want to be, of achieving benefit and progress.

T4. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the community asset transfer scheme. (AQT 3294/11-16)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. He refers to an issue that, for me, has been an area of concern. I have been disappointed by the way in which the modalities of the community asset transfer process have worked. I have had a number of occasions to be concerned about the way in which it did not work. I have had discussions with some of the Member's colleagues about particular areas where issues have been raised.

I am reviewing community asset transfer because I believe that it needs to be more proactive. There has been an issue of some people not fully understanding what they have signed up to. In my constituency, had it not been for the work of the council, the asset transfer of Broughshane police station would not have come to fruition. That project will now, I believe, move ahead successfully and be of great benefit to that community.

Mr McAleer: On the basis of the Minister's response, is it fair to conclude that he feels that the process is currently not fit for purpose? In what specific areas could it be improved?

Mr Storey: The phrase "not fit for purpose" might be too strong, but I was concerned. We need to focus on certain areas. When organisations that are required to have a capital receipt against a particular asset face particular financial challenges, they end up focusing on the capital receipt as opposed to the community benefit. That is where, working with colleagues in the Executive and with other agencies, we can try to find a more acceptable way of delivering what I still believe is a valuable tool for government to have. There are many assets that can be transferred and make an invaluable contribution to communities.

3.30 pm

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Sydney Anderson has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.

Mr Anderson asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for her assessment of the impact of the severe flooding across Northern Ireland, and what action her Department, in conjunction with other Departments, is taking to address the growing crisis being faced by families and businesses.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. The three storms in December, along with heavy rainfall, have resulted in saturated ground conditions and generally higher-than-normal levels in loughs and watercourses. It is estimated that 30 properties, both private and commercial, have experienced flooding.

The response to the numerous flood events in recent weeks has been a multi-agency approach. That has mostly been coordinated locally through western, southern and eastern emergency preparedness groups (EPGs). However, escalation to level 1 regional coordination was deemed necessary on 29 and 30 December as a result of an amber severe weather warning being issued, and again on 6 to 8 January.

DARD continues to discharge lead government Department (LGD) responsibilities, particularly in providing support and expertise, as defined in the framework for coordination of flooding emergencies. We also provided LGD support to the regional level 1 coordination. The main concern at present is the water levels of Upper Lough Erne and Lough Neagh. Multi-agency coordination remains on high alert. However, the regional conference calls have been discontinued for now. Staff continue to check grilles, monitor water levels and ensure that pumps are kept running.

Water levels in Upper Lough Erne are falling. They are down 6 centimetres overnight. They peaked at just less than 1 metre above the normal winter level and were about 150 millimetres below the 2009 peak. Only one property is flooded as a result of that high water. The road network was suffering significant impact, with many minor roads closed and a number of key routes only passable for HGVs. The key routes are likely to be opened today, as the lough levels are continuing to fall. Property has been cut off, and there was concern that vulnerable people might need help. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has re-established its emergency number for those who need practical assistance, such as the delivery of emergency supplies. Few calls were received, as the local community is very resilient.

Lough Neagh was at a 30-year high and, at its peak, was threatening a small number of dwellings, and it flooded some business properties at Kinnego marina. The Lough Neagh water level is starting to fall. It peaked at 1 metre above the normal winter level, which is approximately 200 millimetres above the last significant peak in 2009. Some pumping to stop property flooding has stopped, and others are likely to finish today. Once weather conditions improve, an overall review of the response to the flooding experienced in the past two months will be carried out. The weather is forecast to become colder over the next few days, with less rain, and that will allow levels in the loughs to reduce further. They will, however, remain high, and Rivers Agency will continue to be on high alert.

I and ministerial colleagues Minister McIlveen and Minister Durkan met last week to be reassured that all the agencies on the ground were doing everything that they absolutely should, and we had a very frank discussion with them in Cookstown on Thursday of last week. The Executive will meet later today to discuss the response to flooding also.

Mr Anderson: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for accepting my question. I also thank the Minister for attending and for her response. I pay tribute to the sterling work that has been done by Rivers Agency staff and other agencies' staff since Christmas to try to protect homes and properties.

Focusing on the Lough Neagh issue, the flooding being experienced at this time is not just happening now but has been happening for a number of years. It is not just this year, although it has peaked at one of the highest levels at Lough Neagh for 30 years. We need to get something done, and done urgently. That is something that is coming through to me. I was out on the ground from shortly after Christmas until yesterday.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr Anderson: I would like to ask the Minister whether she accepts that there needs to be an urgent assessment — you talk about that — of statutory lough levels, which have not been looked at since, I am told, 1959. That is almost 60 years ago. Also, is there an opportunity here to make sure that the rivers, especially the River Bann at the mouth going into the lough, are dredged and that maintenance works are carried out in those rivers, which, the local community tells me, are contributing to a lot of the issues in Lough Neagh?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I absolutely concur with him about the work that staff have been doing on the ground; they have been working round the clock 24/7 from the start of December to try to protect properties. The fact that only 30 properties flooded — albeit it was very distressing for the people and businesses affected — is testimony to the ongoing work to maintain watercourses all year round. So, I really want to put on record my thanks to all the staff who have been working to help people and businesses.

To put it into context, the flooding incident that we are dealing with is a result of extreme rainfall. The Armagh Observatory's records go back to 1838, and this is the heaviest rainfall that we have ever seen; it has been the wettest December since records began. So we have to remember the context in which we are dealing with the flooding scenario. Extreme weather led to the flooding. Because we had such a wet period, even in advance of December, lough levels were high and lands were already saturated, which led to the difficulties that we have seen, with quite a significant body of land being flooded.

With every flooding incident, we, as the lead Department, review the engineering response and the entire multi-agency response. As part of that, we have to look, in the round, at the level of the lough and the different interests on it, whether that be Lough Erne or Lough Neagh. We can look at everything. It is so important that we continue to keep it under review. Obviously, we are seeing a change in the weather pattern. One flooding incident does not give you enough evidence to look at where you need to improve things, but I think that we are experiencing more and more extreme weather as time goes on, so we may need to take a fresh look at all those things, and that will certainly be considered as part of the review.

Dredging comes up quite often. Again, just to be very clear, dredging helps areas that repeatedly flood but, in instances such as this where we had extreme weather, dredging would not have made any difference to the land that has experienced flooding. Dredging, the levels of the lough and the response — we need to look at all those things in the review. One thing that was very clear to me last week at the joint ministerial meeting was that the multi-agency approach served the public well and worked practically and well among all the agencies. That is to be commended.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule. If she feels that it is a particularly important issue and she needs an extra minute, maybe she would ask for such.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I do not need to outline to the Minister the major impact of the flooding in Fermanagh, as she came down to see it for herself and to talk to communities that had been marooned for five weeks. I want to thank the Minister for doing that. Can she provide any further details on the protection scheme that she intends to launch this week?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. For the last number of years, I have been designing, and working with Rivers Agency officials on, the individual property protection scheme. We had already planned to launch the scheme this Wednesday; it just so happens that it coincided with the latest flooding incident that people are experiencing, particularly in Fermanagh.

The scheme will be an opportunity for individual householders who want to help themselves to make physical changes to their property. It is actually a very generous scheme as it will provide up to 90% grant aid, up to a cap of £10,000. Where there is no engineering solution and no affordable protection scheme for property, it will allow us to help people to make their properties more flood-resilient in their own right. I will officially launch the scheme on Wednesday and get the detail out there. It will be very much welcome where there is no central scheme from Rivers Agency to help people. As I said, this is quite generous in terms of the grant aid, and it will allow people to help and protect their properties, where that is possible.

Mr Kennedy: I join others in sympathising with all those who have been impacted so severely as a consequence of the flooding, including in areas of my constituency and a neighbouring constituency. I also take the opportunity to thank all the staff and officials from Departments and agencies for their efforts to provide relief to communities.

Does the Minister think that it is either acceptable or fair that home and business owners affected by flooding across England are entitled to some £5,000 each, whereas, in Northern Ireland, it is limited to £1,000? Will she give a commitment that she will seek to get that changed from within the Executive? Will she also give a commitment that the support will extend to farmers?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. What we now know is that we have £1·3 million available to the Executive to look at supporting communities that have been impacted by flooding. Later today, we will meet and discuss that. I certainly have ideas about how that allocation of funding could be well spent. I am quite sure that the Regional Development Minister, for example, also has ideas, because one of the major challenges that we have seen over the last number of weeks has been the fact that so many rural roads were closed, cutting people off from getting to school, accessing doctors or doing any of their everyday activities.

We will certainly have a conversation about that at the Executive later today, but, for me, I think that we need to focus the effort on the prevention work, on preparedness and on helping people to be resilient to flooding — helping to protect them and guard against flooding, as opposed to always looking towards the endgame, which is the clean-up operation after people have been devastated by flooding. I think that the priority should be on prevention and protection. As I said, we will have a full discussion about that in the Executive meeting later today. I and the other two Ministers who have agencies that are responding to flooding had some initial discussions around that last week, when I convened a meeting in Loughry to discuss it. We can look at all those things in the round later as part of that overarching discussion, but suffice it to say that the £1·3 million will not go very far, so we need to work out how we can best use that money to make as big an impact as we can to protect people against flooding.

Mr Irwin: My colleague Sydney Anderson and me visited a number of farms at the weekend. Indeed, at one particular farm, a pump has been going from New Year's Eve right up to now to keep the water away from the cattle houses. Indeed, one 82-year-old farmer said that it is the worst that he has ever seen in his lifetime.

Given that farmers are aware that there is a very high level of silt in the River Bann where it enters Lough Neagh, will the Minister give an assurance that that will be comprehensively looked at? There is a strong feeling that that has played a part over the last number of years. As my colleague said earlier, it has been a very high level of flooding this year, but, over the last number of years, it has been getting higher each year. It is very important that that is addressed. The previous Member asked for compensation for farms —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to —

Mr Irwin: I would appreciate that.

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I will come back to that. I omitted that in the last answer. The priority had to be about protecting people and trying to mitigate the worst effects of it, but, as part of the review, we take a look at all the levels of the loughs and the rainfall that came down. We look at everything in the round and the multi-agency response to the incident itself. Certainly, as part of that review, we will take a look at all the things that you have set out.

In relation to farmers, because it is still early days and we have been prioritising dealing with the situation as it developed, I have tasked officials to go and make an assessment of the actual impact on farmers. Then we can take a look at that in going forward. As I said, the priority in the last number of weeks — six or seven weeks — had to be about trying to work with people on the ground, but we are in the middle of trying to get an assessment of the impact on farmers.

Mr Rogers: Thanks to the Minister for her answers so far. Minister, we cannot prevent flooding, but we can reduce the risk of flooding. I suppose that there are really two issues. We have too much rain, but the second point is that we have a 20- or 30-year backlog of river maintenance. Will you commit to the reintroduction of a significant and consistent river maintenance programme?

Mrs O'Neill: We do not have a backlog of 20 years of river maintenance. Watercourses are maintained on a regular basis. In urban areas, watercourses are maintained every year and inspected once a year, and, in rural areas, it is every six years, so I do not understand where you are coming from on that point.

As I said, when it comes to reviewing the situation, we will look at the levels of the lough. I have heard quite a number of people commenting on the gates not being opened and on how the levels of the lough could have been lowered. The gates were open on Lough Neagh, for example, from 10 November, which was well in advance of the December rainfall. On the Erne, the gates were open from 16 November. All that could be done practically on the ground was done. That said, you can obviously understand everybody's frustration, especially people who were affected by flooding. As part of the review, we look at everything, but there is certainly no 20-year backlog in river maintenance.

3.45 pm

Mr Poots: As mentioned, the dredging of some of these rivers is absolutely vital to reducing the levels of Lough Neagh. It is unacceptable that this situation continues, and that needs to be addressed urgently.

I know farmers who have had livestock, particularly sheep, washed away in the River Lagan basin. What compensation is the Minister looking at making available to those farmers?

Mrs O'Neill: As I just said to the Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I have asked for an assessment of the impact on farmers, and we will then look at what supports, if any, we decide to bring forward. We need to get an assessment of the situation, because we do not have that at the moment.

I will just be clear about dredging: it would not have helped in this scenario. Dredging helps where there is repeated flooding; it does little or nothing to deal with the extreme weather that we experienced throughout December. Let us be very clear about dredging. As I said, all these things are considered as part of my Department's role as the lead agency in the review, both from an engineering point of view, which looks at levels of the lough, dredging, the inspection and all that, and from the point of view of the multi-agency response and how that worked. Even at this stage, I am certainly able to say that that response worked.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Minister, now that the water level is going down, it is important that insurance claims are dealt with quickly. Can I get an assurance from you that you will liaise with the insurance companies, including the farmers' union, to ensure that no red tape is involved and claims are paid quickly to the people who need the money to put things back?

Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to do that and to take that on board as an action. It is a helpful suggestion, because people in the 30 properties that have been flooded are distressed about the impact that it has had on their homes and businesses. If my Rivers Agency needs to help by providing assessments of situations, we will be up for doing that. I take that on board.

Mr Dunne: I put on record our thanks to all the agencies for their efforts throughout, especially over the Christmas and new year period. Will the Minister give us an assessment of the effectiveness of the floodline number? I have experience of using it: you dial an 11-digit number, sit in a queuing system and get answered by some lady in England. You explain to her that there is flooding in Holywood, but you then have to explain further that that is not in the USA but somewhere in Northern Ireland.

Mrs O'Neill: The priority to date has been the physical work and the agencies responding and doing everything that they can on the ground. As part of the review, we can certainly look at how effective the floodline was. I hear quite often that the fact that you now have only one number to ring is an improvement. You identified a story that I have not heard to date, but I am happy to take that and to incorporate it into the review.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the many community and elected representatives, councils and, indeed, the Rivers Agency for the sterling work that went on in my constituency area of Strabane and Clady during the recent floods. The Minister said that there would be an Executive meeting later this afternoon, but what discussions has she had up to now with her ministerial colleagues in response to the flooding?

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely concur with you in relation to the role that councils have played. Obviously, councils have the lead in emergency planning, and they worked so well with local communities and the relevant agencies. Certainly, last week, when I convened the meeting with the other two Ministers in Cookstown, one of the strong messages that came from that was that the multi-agency approach certainly works, that it has been successful and that things have improved on the ground as regards communication. I commend all those partner agencies for working together and for being so effective throughout December.

In relation to the Executive, as I said, I do not want to pre-empt what they will discuss later. Certainly, there is now additional funding available to deal with flooding. I have said where I think the money should be prioritised: it should be around prevention work, it should be around protection and it should be around mitigation before we deal with the flooding. Where we can protect properties, we should do that. We will have that discussion later today and will take an Executive decision on how that funding will be allocated.

Mrs D Kelly: It would be fair to say that this is not the first flooding incident, and the infrastructural review has been ongoing for a number of years. I am getting quite angry at the responses that Members are receiving today from the lead Minister with responsibility for dealing with flooding incidents. I have yet to hear from the Minister about what comfort she will give or whether she will confirm here today, before the House, that she will support Minister Durkan's call for the eligibility criteria for funding to be extended to businesses — businesses in my constituency that, at this moment, have to tell staff that they will have to go to the dole office because of the failure of the Executive to respond to an urgent request for an Executive meeting, from last week and from before December, to expand the eligibility criteria. There was not three feet of rain that fell over the last week, Minister.

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for her question. I listened with interest to her contribution — or her short speech. While Minister Durkan and the SDLP were calling for meetings, others were actually out on the ground doing the work.

Mrs D Kelly: Well, I did not see them.

Mrs O'Neill: Others were out on the ground doing the work, and it is clear that the multi-agency approach has worked.

We have been right throughout, and I really do put on record my support for the staff who worked through the holidays to help people and try to protect them and mitigate the worst effects of the flooding. Whilst some sat cosy in their homes over the holidays and others sat cosy behind their desks in Stormont or wherever else, other Ministers were out on the ground and actually making sure that the work was being done.

Mrs D Kelly: Well, I do not see it. Are you going to support the money or not?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member is an experienced parliamentarian. I do not expect remarks to the Minister from a sedentary position.

Mr Allister: Historically, our farmers and river agencies engaged in a regular programme of dredging. Then the EU water framework directive came along, which, in its terms, says that rivers must be undisturbed in their natural condition. This means that to dredge now you have to get permission and, if you dredge, that which you dredge is regarded as controlled waste that must be disposed of at great expense, hence the severe drop-off in dredging across our watercourses. Is it not patently obvious that that is a contributor to the flooding of rivers and floodplains and the growth of those floodplains? Is it not time that this was acknowledged and efforts made to reduce the inhibitions of the water framework directive?

Mrs O'Neill: There is a lot of focus on dredging. I understand your point in relation to directives and the water framework directive, but, when it comes to dredging, let us be very clear that, in this instance, it would not have made any difference to the flooding. The fact that we had, I suppose, such a poor autumn meant that the ground was already saturated and lough levels were high. Even the fact that the gates were opened and the level of the lough had been brought way down far in advance of the actual extreme weather meant that we would have been in a poorer scenario had all that work not been done. In this instance, we need to remember that this was extreme weather; this was not about dredging or those factors.

As part of the review, we will take a look at the level of the lough, dredging, the response, the engineering solutions and how the infrastructure responded. We will work with all the multi-agency responders and see if there are improvements that can be made. As the Minister in the Department responsible for taking the lead, I will make that recommendation to my Executive colleagues.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes this item of business. I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

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

Ministerial Statement

Business resumed.

Mr Dickson: Minister, I would like to thank you for your statement to the House today, which I am sure, given the other business today, may not receive the amount of notice that it should. Nevertheless, you have brought to the attention of the House a highly important notice about cross-border cooperation. Minister, given the level of cross-border cooperation that you have with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland, particularly on tackling issues such as fuel fraud and paramilitarism, which is now on the agenda, will you outline for the House your concerns about any withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU and how it would affect those matters?

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): I thank Mr Dickson for his question. There is no doubt that the great bulk of the cooperation on justice matters in recent years has been on the basis of the UK and the Republic of Ireland's joint membership of the European Union. That has meant, for example, that Irish authorities have used the European extradition warrant to return offenders to Northern Ireland in a way that previously caused considerable difficulties, as those of us old enough to remember those days in the 60s and 70s will recall. I have significant concerns that the level of cooperation that we are seeing today could not continue if the UK were to leave the EU. There is no doubt that it would affect extradition and a number of other issues and would make cross-border cooperation significantly more difficult than it is currently.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his contribution so far. In his statement, he said:

"officials have been tasked with undertaking further exploratory research into appropriate potential European funding streams arising from Horizon 2020."

When that research has been carried out, will the Minister ask his officials to look at the extent of support from Horizon 2020? Certainly, when I was on the Committee for Employment and Learning, there was a sense that Northern Ireland was punching way below its weight when compared with the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Douglas for that question, which, to some extent, builds on Mr Dickson's question. There are already problems because the UK Government have not opted into the justice programme and the internal security programme, and, therefore, authorities in Northern Ireland cannot access that kind of funding. During the previous Programme for Government (PFG) period — I suppose that we are still technically in the extension of it — the Department of Justice did well in accessing European funding. The PSNI was particularly assiduous in seeking opportunities and building partnerships. Of course, it had the advantage that the first leg of the partnership could be just down the road, speaking the same language and understanding the same culture. That was a significant benefit for us. Nonetheless, there have been difficulties in accessing funding more recently, specifically because the justice and internal security programmes are not available.

4.00 pm

When we had the Horizon 2020 secure societies information day last spring, we looked at the cross-border options. Those continue to be explored with the Northern Ireland contact point working with the Irish national contact point. However, there are difficulties if we cannot access the full range of European funding, and the people who are suffering are our citizens.

Mr Frew: I agree with the Minister that organised crime is a scourge on civilised society across Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland. It is also a source of funding for further criminality and, indeed, paramilitarism.

The Minister talks about good results; can he tell us what good results look like? We see and hear of plenty of seizures with regard to fuel laundering, but very rarely do you hear of arrests and convictions. Could the Minister provide evidence that that is and will be the case? Also, does he think that the cross-border policing strategy published in December 2010 has been a success? If so, can he provide examples as evidence?

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Frew for his question. It is always nice when somebody quotes back a statement and agrees with its contents. When we look at fuel laundering, we need to be careful that we do not assume that we can do more than is likely to be easily the case. In many cases, fuel laundering plants are operating more or less automatically in areas that are not always the easiest for unarmed HMRC or Revenue Commissioners officers to go into without a significant escort. If a fuel laundering plant is operating on the basis that a lorry is driven in, a pipe is connected, the guy walks away, 24 hours later somebody goes back, disconnects the pipe and drives another lorry away, we can understand why it is not always easy to arrest people and why, frequently, those who might be arrested are simply the individuals being paid a small sum to drive the lorries.

The assumption that seems to be in some quarters — I am not suggesting that Mr Frew is making it — is that Mr Big is sitting presiding over a factory, looking down at a massive workforce on a factory floor, and is available to be arrested any time people turn up. That is the challenge and why seizures are important. We certainly seek to get arrests, and HMRC has been successful in some areas but the key issue is to stop laundering happening in the first place. That is why the introduction of the new fuel marker, with its apparent successes, is extremely useful in the fight against those who seek to launder and in ensuring that we can deal with that problem and not have the continuing issues of criminality, pollution and threat to private business.

Mr Allister: The Minister's statement said that a major programme of work for the task force will be:

"based on the work of the new three-person panel, which will make recommendations ... on a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups."

Can the Minister comment and shed some light on this conundrum? The paramilitary groups, as the Minister patently knows and the previous three-person panel confirmed, include the existence of the IRA. Yet, one of the parties to this so-called agreement is a party, namely Sinn Féin, which denies the existence of the IRA. So, what credibility is there in the supposed political support for a task force to deal with the issues of disbanding paramilitary organisations that engage in crime when one of the support actors denies even the existence of such an organisation?

Mr Ford: I am not quite sure how far I go down the road of Mr Allister's references to support partners and so on, but the reality is that he highlighted the two areas where work is being done, one being the task force and the other the three-person panel.

The three-person panel has been set up with a clear remit to produce proposals for the fight against paramilitarism. There are clear lines there, and I do not think that there is any suggestion that any of the three members is in any way associated with paramilitary organisations. The task force is led by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an Garda Síochána, and it will also include bodies such as Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency, the Revenue Commissioners and, potentially, the environment agencies and social security agencies on either side of the border. The task force has to work out its final membership, but there is no suggestion that any of those bodies is doing anything other than enforcing the law and ensuring that the law is upheld on either side of the border. Whatever view Mr Allister may have about the bona fides of some of those who set up the process, there can be no doubting the bona fides of the panel or the task force.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions to the Minister on his statement.

Executive Committee Business

Rates (Amendment) Bill: First Stage

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to introduce the Bill on behalf of the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I begin by saying that it is nice to be back doing DFP business — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Sorry, hold on. I have missed some of the provisions. Sorry, back to you, it is correct.

Mr Hamilton: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I beg to introduce the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16], which is a Bill to amend the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 to enable regulations to be made permitting an increase in the level of reduction in the normal rate to 100% for certain hereditaments used for prescribed recreation; to provide that certain hereditaments are not to be treated for the purposes of the Order as occupied by reason only of them containing certain window displays; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Fisheries Bill [NIA Bill 74/11-16] be agreed.

The Bill would allow DARD and DCAL to fully meet EU obligations and commitments, therefore avoiding the threat of sanction, and ensure adequate and proportionate protection for marine and inland aquatic environments.

The Bill amends three pieces of fisheries legislation: the Fisheries Act 1966, the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 and the Fisheries Act 1981.

In the case of the 1966 Fisheries Act, the Bill makes changes on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Both Departments currently have powers under that Act. As the majority of the amendments contained in the Bill as introduced relate to powers for my Department, it was agreed that my Department would take the lead in bringing a single Bill to the Assembly on behalf of both Departments, rather than each Department bringing a separate Bill. Broadly speaking, my Department has responsibility for sea fisheries, and DCAL is responsible for inland fishing and salmon fisheries.

Sea fishing for the main commercially exploited species is regulated through the common fisheries policy (CFP). The CFP is directly enforceable here under the Fisheries Act 1981 or, in some cases, is implemented and enforced here using powers conferred by the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.

While the EU legislates for most sea-fishing activities, the 1966 Fisheries Act regulates inshore fishing, which covers fishing vessels that mainly target shellfish by potting. Under the 1966 Act, my Department can make regulations for the management of sea fisheries in the area closest to our coastline. As noted, the Act also covers inland fishing and salmon fishing, both currently the responsibility of DCAL.

Sea fisheries legislation is required to ensure the protection of finite resources and to protect sensitive aquatic environments. The nature of sea fishing, and the difficulty regulating much of an activity that takes place at sea, means that there is a requirement for a lot of regulatory and enforcement activity. Robust legislation is required to ensure the protection of vulnerable fish stocks. Therefore, the industry accepts the need for strong enforcement powers. That is the only way to ensure that law-abiding fishermen and businesses can compete, as well as to ensure the sustainability of the stocks.

Changing the existing legislation is considered necessary to ensure that the regulatory framework remains fit for purpose and, crucially, to ensure that we can meet various EU requirements and other statutory obligations.

I will begin by briefly discussing Part 1, which relates to sea fishery powers. Clause 1 extends existing sea fishery regulatory powers specifically to allow regulations to prohibit or restrict fishing for sea fish without a permit issued by the Department. Specifically allowing for sea-fishing permit schemes would help to protect fisheries in the inshore area by ensuring that fishing could continue where environmental protections, for example, might otherwise curtail it.

Clause 2 amends existing order-making powers, which allow the Department to regulate for the catching and selling of undersized sea fish, by extending them to cover fish-over-maximum-size limits. That could allow larger shellfish to be returned to the sea to breed, should evidence come to light that that might improve stocks in any given area.

Clause 3 amends sea-fishing licensing powers on protection of the environment. My Department currently has the power to prohibit fishing by boats in any specified area without a licence. Such licences are subject to certain conditions relating to the protection of fish quotas and stocks. The clause will extend the conditions that can be included on licences in order to protect environmental features, as well as fish stocks, and could ensure that fishing continues in protected areas.

Clauses 4 and 5 seek to ensure that enforcement powers are both adequate and proportionate by affording DARD fisheries officers the same powers as their counterparts in Britain. In the main, the powers in the Bill are already enjoyed by fisheries officers here but are otherwise tailored to the piece of separate legislation to which they apply. The clauses provide clarity to industry and enforcers alike by providing consistent powers across all sea fisheries legislation.

In a technical yet vital amendment to the Fisheries Act 1981, clause 6 ensures that all EU common fisheries policy rules are directly enforceable without the need for additional legislation. Given that such EU measures are directly applicable here, there is little or no discretion available in the implementation by the Department, bound as we are to operate in a way that is fully compatible with EU law. However, recent EU audits have questioned why such EU legislation is not directly enforceable, as the Commission would expect it to be. Without that change, my Department will find it challenging to implement EU legislation by required deadlines. The Commission is already threatening to take action as a result of our inability to enforce legislation directly, and thus the change is essential at this point.

Clauses 7 and 8 provide considerable increases in the maximum penalties available to the courts for sea fisheries offences. Increasing maximum available penalties reflects th