Official Report: Tuesday 11 November 2014


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Good morning. I remind Members that the Business Committee has agreed to suspend the sitting for 10 minutes from 10.55 am to 11.05 am to facilitate Members who wish to mark Armistice Day.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Food Hygiene Rating Bill [NIA 41/11-16] be agreed.

The food hygiene rating scheme was launched in Northern Ireland on 6 June 2011 and rates the food hygiene standards of 14,000 local businesses where people can eat or buy food. It is operated in Northern Ireland by district councils in partnership with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on a voluntary basis. It also operates in England on a voluntary basis but became a statutory scheme in Wales in November of last year. The aim of the scheme is to help people make informed choices around the purchase of food by providing information about food hygiene standards, found at the time of inspection by district council food safety officers, in the places where food is eaten or sold from a shop. This in turn will provide a strong incentive for businesses to achieve and maintain compliance with existing food hygiene law.

The information is provided to consumers through a simple numerical scale operating from nought to five, where nought means that urgent improvement is necessary and five means a food business fully complies with legal requirements and has a very high standard. The rating is made available on the Food Standards Agency website — food.gov.uk/ratings — but businesses are also provided with a food hygiene rating sticker to place in the window or the door at their premises so that information is available to consumers before they enter the establishment. In Northern Ireland each year, there are approximately 48,300 cases of food-borne illness that result in 450 hospitalisations, 24 deaths and an equivalent total cost of £83 million to the Northern Ireland economy.

The overarching aim of the scheme is to reduce that burden.

Whilst the scheme has delivered positive outcomes to date, it operates on a voluntary basis in Northern Ireland, which means that food businesses are not obligated to display their rating sticker. Consumer research has shown that decisions about food are typically made quickly and without conscious thought, and the most effective way to influence consumers about whether or not to eat in a certain food outlet is for the information to be seen from outside so that a decision can be made before entering. Further research undertaken this year shows that only 40% of businesses in Northern Ireland are displaying stickers that are visible from outside. It is not surprising to learn that display is much lower amongst establishments with a rating of 0 to 2. The Food Standards Agency and councils are working to encourage businesses to display ratings, but it is reasonable to conclude that such activity is likely to have little impact on those businesses with a low rating.

As Members will appreciate, the voluntary nature of the scheme can make it difficult for consumers to find out the food hygiene rating of a food business. I want to change that, and the main purpose of the Bill is to place the food hygiene rating scheme on a statutory footing to ensure that food hygiene rating stickers are visible at all food outlets for everyone to see. The Bill will therefore make it mandatory for food businesses to display their food hygiene rating sticker, and, in doing so, will ensure that consumers have access to the information at the point of choice.

People in Northern Ireland are becoming more aware of the voluntary scheme, with 83% of consumers recognising the stickers and certificates. They are also accustomed to seeing the rating stickers in the doorways of food establishments. However, once we introduce the mandatory scheme, the full range of food hygiene rating stickers will be more apparent, and people will be much more aware of them.

A 12-week formal consultation on the policy informing the Bill was carried out between February and April 2013. The consultation paper was widely circulated to interested parties, including the food industry, district councils, Departments, community and voluntary groups and consumer organisations. A series of stakeholder events and one-to-one meetings were also organised to address and discuss the proposals outlined in the consultation paper.

The consultation attracted 29 responses from a wide range of stakeholders, including individual food businesses, food industry trade associations, enforcement representatives from councils and their representative bodies, the voluntary sector and, of course, the general public. Views were also sought from small food businesses and consumers through the Food Standards Agency’s independently conducted citizens forum research programme.

In general, responses to the consultation showed strong support for the mandatory display of food hygiene ratings at food premises to better inform consumer choice. A full consideration of all the consultation responses resulted in a review and modification of some aspects of the policy proposals that were put forward in the consultation paper. That has helped to shape the Bill, which was endorsed by the Executive on 19 June and introduced to the Assembly by me on 3 November.

The Bill comprises 20 clauses and one schedule, and makes provision for the production of food hygiene ratings, the display of food hygiene ratings and the enforcement of the requirement to display ratings. It will apply the scheme to all food businesses that supply food directly to consumers, including restaurants, takeaways, mobile caterers, schools, hospitals, residential care homes, delicatessens and supermarkets. It will require councils, following inspection of food business establishments within their areas, to assess the food hygiene standards and produce a food hygiene rating, which will be scored against criteria set out by the Food Standards Agency.

Within 14 days of an inspection, councils must provide written notification of the inspection outcome, and the appropriate food hygiene rating sticker, to the food business operator. The food business will be required to display that sticker at its establishment, and the Food Standards Agency will be required to publish the rating on its website. The Bill will also require councils to enforce the requirements to display food hygiene rating stickers, and will provide them with the means to do so through the use of fixed penalty notices and, where appropriate, prosecution.

Given the wide range of food business establishments in Northern Ireland to which the scheme applies, it is intended to prescribe in regulations where the sticker must be displayed at establishments. The format of the sticker will also be prescribed in regulations.

Importantly, the Bill will also require food business operators to inform a person verbally of their establishment’s food hygiene rating, if requested to do so. That will not only provide access to the rating for blind or partially sighted people but enable consumers to find out a business’s food hygiene rating when making a telephone order.

Whilst my main objective is to provide information on hygiene standards to consumers, I want the Bill to be fair to food businesses. Although they will be required to display their food hygiene rating, the Bill will provide a number of safeguards for businesses. There will be safeguards to provide food business operators with, for example, a right of appeal against their ratings where they believe the rating does not reflect the hygiene standards at the time of the inspection; a right to request to have their rating reassessed where they have made necessary improvements; and a right to reply to explain to consumers any mitigating circumstances, and that explanation will be published on the Food Standards Agency’s website.

It is important to note that the Bill will not impose any significant burden on food businesses, as the main requirement for them arising from it will be to display a rating sticker that will be provided by the district council, free of charge, following a food hygiene inspection. Any improvements that businesses need to make to get the top rating are already required by law, so the scheme does not impose additional financial burdens on them.

In addition to the scheme incentivising food businesses to comply with food hygiene law, businesses that achieve a good rating will be subject to less-frequent inspections by district councils, thereby reducing the regulatory burden on compliant businesses.

The increased transparency provided by the statutory scheme will also provide an effective and more sustainable alternative to formal enforcement action by district councils for securing and maintaining compliance and so provide a non-intervention approach.

I believe that this is a timely and important Bill which makes good sense for the consumer and the food business operator alike. It will allow consumers to make informed choices, but local food businesses also understand that a good food hygiene rating is good for customers and good for business. I want to see food hygiene standards throughout Northern Ireland improved and maintained, and I am convinced that the introduction of the Food Hygiene Rating Bill will make a positive difference to the health of people across Northern Ireland.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I welcome the Bill.

The Committee supports the overarching aim of the Bill, which is to seek to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness by introducing legislation that will make it mandatory for food businesses to display information to consumers about hygiene standards, based on inspections by district council food safety officers. Not only will that provide an impetus for businesses to achieve and maintain compliance with food hygiene law, it will allow consumers to make an informed choice regarding where they choose to eat or shop for food.

The food hygiene rating scheme has been operating here on a voluntary basis for over two years. It provides a simple numerical rating, displayed by way of a sticker placed in a prominent position in the premises of the food business. The scheme also operates in England and Wales, although the Welsh scheme is mandatory.

The Committee took evidence from officials, prior to the introduction of the Bill, on 23 January 2013 and 5 February 2014, and, from the outset, was broadly supportive of the aim of the Bill. Statistics provided at the Committee briefing in January 2013 gave reasonable cause for concern, highlighting a surprisingly high number of incidents of food-borne illness. The Minister alluded to those. On average, there are around 48,500 cases of food-borne illnesses here each year, 450 of which result in hospitalisation, and, unfortunately, up to 20 deaths.

There is also an associated cost to the economy of £83 million. Therefore, we are mindful that this is a very serious public health issue.


10.45 am

The Committee noted that, although the voluntary scheme has been deemed generally successful, it was disappointing that only something in the region of 50% of businesses are choosing to display their ratings. Perhaps understandably, that figure drops considerably among businesses with lower ratings of around zero, one or two. At the time of the Committee briefing in January 2013, it was 22% for those businesses, and that had further dropped to 13% by the February 2014 briefing. Therefore, the Committee is supportive of the need to put the scheme on a statutory footing.

During the briefings we held with the Food Standards Agency on the proposed Bill, members raised a number of issues that I expect we will explore further during Committee Stage. The first issue was around the effectiveness of penalties for businesses that fail to display a sticker showing their rating. We were concerned that minimal fixed penalties would not act as much of a deterrent and that some businesses might be prepared to risk not displaying a poor rating. While the option of a court conviction will exist for repeat offenders, we want to ensure that the penalties are sufficiently robust and that consumers will be made aware of those businesses that have not complied with the law.

The second issue for the Committee was around ensuring that businesses were treated fairly under the new legislation. It is important that the appeals process is transparent, robust and timely, so that businesses that believe there has been a genuine mistake in their rating score can get it sorted out quickly without it negatively impacting on their trade.

We also welcomed clarification from officials who advised that the legislation is not designed to close establishments with low ratings but to help encourage businesses to improve their hygiene standards. To that end, rerating inspections will be available in addition to appeals, and the Committee commends that aspect of the Bill.

The third issue that the Committee discussed was the resource implications of the legislation. The rating process will be carried out by district council officers, as is currently the case with the voluntary scheme. However, we want to ensure that, by making the scheme mandatory, we do not impose any unnecessary bureaucracy on district councils in carrying out their duties.

We also noted that the proposed statutory scheme remains in most aspects very similar to the voluntary one. It also shares much in common with the Welsh model, in an effort to maintain a degree of consistency across all jurisdictions. However, if there are lessons that can be learned from the Welsh experience, I am sure that the Committee will take those on board so that we can have the best possible legislation in place here.

To conclude, the Committee welcomes the Bill's intention to make the food hygiene rating scheme mandatory and looks forward to carrying out detailed scrutiny of the Bill at Committee Stage.

Ms P Bradley: As a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I support the Second Stage of the Food Hygiene Rating Bill. I was not a member of the Committee when the Bill was being discussed in Committee, but I have read Hansard and the supporting documents, and I commend the Committee for its scrutiny and the Food Standards Agency for its invaluable input.

Since the inception of the food hygiene rating scheme in Northern Ireland, I, like many other consumers, have actively used the Internet to check hygiene ratings of the many businesses that I use in my local community. Online, I can find the ratings for my local supermarkets, butchers, filling stations, bakeries, newsagents, schools, care homes, churches, playgroups, social clubs, garden centres, fruit and veg shops, hotels, restaurants and the many takeaway food outlets in the area that I represent and I live in, as you can tell. I realise that not everyone is quite as obsessive as me when it comes to checking food hygiene ratings. Some people have a life and do not think that looking up the Internet is the best use of their time, but I believe that it is essential that the food hygiene rating scheme is made mandatory in all places where we eat out or shop for food.

In the briefings provided to Committee from the Food Standards Agency, it states that the rating system is designed to improve public health and provide an important driver for businesses to achieve and maintain compliance with food hygiene laws. As the Minister and the Chair of the Committee stated, associated costs to the Northern Ireland economy in relation to food-borne illnesses are £83 million annually; therefore, as an Assembly, we need to take decisive action and endeavour to reduce that figure substantially.

The other issue that I want to touch on is consumer choice and the bearing that it will have on businesses to improve food hygiene. We, as consumers, expect a certain standard when we pay for goods and services, and that should not be any different when it comes to the purchase of food. Customers should be made fully aware of the level of food hygiene and, in doing so, as the Chair already stated, we are then provided with an informed choice of where we want to eat. As an Assembly, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that the onus is put on service providers to provide and maintain the very highest food hygiene standards. I support the Bill at Second Stage and look forward to its swift passage through the House.

Mr McKinney: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the debate and to support the Food Hygiene Rating Bill and the rationale that underpins it: to give the customer the opportunity to make an informed decision when purchasing food in a particular establishment. My colleague Paula Bradley outlined that eloquently.

I will deal with some of the context. While we are here, principally, to deal with health, we are daily reminded of the pressure on our budgets. To hear that a bill in the region of £83 million annually is attached to cases of food poisoning, with 450 hospitalisations and, sadly, as Maeve McLaughlin pointed out, 20 deaths, that underpins the need for this legislation, particularly when we hear that only 10% of cases are reported. This is an under-reported issue and demands the actions that are being taken. It is something of a hidden undercurrent of public concern in our society, to the extent that we could argue that it is endemic and, as I said, that underpins the need for action. Without doubt, the existing voluntary food scheme has been very successful, and I underscore, like colleagues, that it operates on a voluntary basis. When we hear that only 56% of establishments adhere to it, that also calls for greater action.

The proposals in the Bill will enable customers to make informed decisions. The fact that a number of safeguards have been built into the scheme to encourage compliance and self-regulation must be welcomed. I also welcome the fact that there are provisions in the Bill to promote an equal playing field among businesses.

I have one or two concerns reflected by the FSB, which voiced its concern over the definition of "food business establishment", and I would welcome the Minister's remarks on those concerns, particularly in the context of business-to-business implications. There have been concerns over the economic impact of re-inspection fees, particularly for small as opposed to larger businesses. Therefore, a balance has to be struck. Clearly, we have to have a robust piece of legislation that ensures that consumers can shop and eat in the most high-quality businesses that they can. However, we do not want to overburden businesses with administration or extra costs.

Mrs Dobson: I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of what I expect to be an uncontroversial piece of legislation. The overall aim of the Bill, which is to make the display of stickers mandatory, makes sense. I suspect that many members of the public will be surprised to learn that it was not already compulsory. The current voluntary scheme has, to its credit, worked quite well. The biggest disappointment, however, was the fact that those businesses with a lower rating were — not at all surprisingly — the least keen to publicise it. Some business will rightly consider the current scheme a benefit, especially if it is a chance to advertise their impeccable hygiene standards, but many others with lower ratings may avoid the scheme for fear of deflecting possible business. I believe that it is even more important that consumers be informed about establishments with lower ratings. It is all about giving consumers enough information —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. I pray your indulgence, but I must interrupt the Member.

In accordance with the Business Committee’s decision to facilitate Members who wish to mark Armistice Day, the sitting is suspended until 11.05 am. The Member will be called immediately to continue her contribution to the Second Stage debate.

The sitting was suspended at 10.55 am and resumed at 11.05 am.

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

Mrs Dobson: Some businesses will rightly consider the current scheme a benefit, especially if it is a chance to advertise their impeccable hygiene standards, but many others with lower ratings may avoid the scheme for fear of deflecting possible business. I believe that it is even more important that consumers are informed about establishments with lower ratings. It is all about giving consumers enough information to make those informed decisions. As has been said, if people knew about the poor hygiene standards of some establishments or if a mandatory scheme were in place, I have no doubt that it would help reduce incidences of food-borne illnesses in Northern Ireland. The Bill will remove the luxury of opting out of the scheme. That may be bad news for the 83% of businesses with a mark of 0, 1 or 2 that currently do not take part in the voluntary scheme, but it is great news for consumers. I am conscious, however, that the scheme will have a regulatory impact on businesses, especially those not already complying with the voluntary scheme. It makes no distinction between large and small and so some will inevitably be better prepared to deal with it than others.

I am aware that the Department has made some changes following responses received during the consultation exercise and I commend it for that. For instance, I especially welcome the decision to increase the time for a food business to appeal a rating from 14 days to 21 days, and I note the call from the Federation of Small Businesses for clarity on what types of establishment may be exempted from the scheme. That is an important point and one that I urge the Minister and his officials to think carefully about. I trust that if they do decide to make such a regulation under clause 1, they will only do so in consultation with councils and bodies such as the FSB. I would appreciate it if the Minister could make such a commitment in his remarks later.

Whilst the Bill may have the greatest impact on businesses, I appreciate that the scheme will not enforce itself. Councils will also invest significant staff resources in properly applying the current system, and that will only increase with the passage of the Bill. At a time of fundamental reform of our local government, I believe that it is a rather apt opportunity to bring in these responsibilities. I ask the Minister, however, looking at the commencement clause with the Bill, when approximately he envisages his Department making the order to bring in the bulk of the Bill? Will he be linking it, for instance, to the establishment of the new 11 councils in April?

One last issue that I would like to raise with the Minister is the future budget for the Food Standards Agency. It is directly related to the Bill and many other areas of work relevant to the Department of Health. It is proposed that, next year, the FSA's budget will be cut from £8·5 million to £7·4 million. That is a cut of 12·8%, which is the largest of any Department or body in the draft Budget. As we have heard today already, food safety and food hygiene are hugely important, and so I am concerned that the body tasked with protecting the public is having such a large cut to its budget. What impact does the Minister think the budget reduction will have on the FSA's ability to deliver its body of work and introduce new policies such as the one that we are discussing today?

Mr McCarthy: I rise to speak in favour of the Bill. I am a member of the Health Committee, and, as our Chair said, we fully support the efforts being made to make our food safe, particularly to ensure that food prepared and consumed in many eateries throughout Northern Ireland is safe for human consumption and, more importantly, that clients and customers have the knowledge that the premises have been examined and given a rating number indicating how the authorities regard the eating establishment. The Bill will make it mandatory for food businesses to display their food hygiene rating in a public place where clients can see it before they enter any of the premises.

There are, of course, safeguards built into the scheme, including the right of owners to appeal against a rating that they have been given. After the consultation period and discussion with the Health Committee, the preferred way forward was a new scheme with the mandatory display of ratings at food premises, plus recovery costs where businesses choose to request a rerating.

The Bill contains some 20 clauses. The implementation of the Bill will fall on local councils and their food inspectors. I support the comments of the small business group, the FSB, about ensuring that all inspectors are given the best training to enable them to fulfil their duties. The FSB also noted clauses 10 and 11, where offences are created and the fixed penalties kick in. Its concern is that all eateries and food supplies are subject to the same rules and regulations. There may be an assumption that, once again, the small cafes or restaurants will be the soft touches, in comparison to the bigger establishments, and be disproportionately affected by prosecution, fines etc.

To date, the voluntary scheme has operated and has been relatively successful. However, it has its limitations. As I understand it, just over half of businesses display their rating, and, naturally, the rate of display tends to follow the higher scores awarded. I think the Minister made some reference to that in his introductory remarks, and we know that it is correct. I do not think that businesses have anything to fear from that voluntary process becoming mandatory. First, most businesses are run well and responsibly, with a high standard of hygiene. Secondly, there is an advantage to the food sector as a whole from a process that will assist in driving standards up even higher.

In conclusion, I suspect that most of the detailed debate will now revolve around the capacity of the district councils to implement the scheme. I have no doubt, as a former councillor of 28 years in the best council in Northern Ireland — namely, Ards Borough Council — that the council officers will rise to the challenge. Also, the rules and regulations around the right of appeal and the capacity to ask for a reassessment of the business are slightly different concepts.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Bill and look forward to giving it more detailed consideration later on.

Mrs Cameron: As a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I support the Second Stage of the Food Hygiene Rating Bill. The Bill has relevance to everyone who eats food from outside of their own home from the various establishments, as my colleague Paula Bradley outlined at length. It is a matter of huge public significance but, until now, it has gone largely unnoticed, due, in part, to the fact that the current scheme is operated on a voluntary basis.

We heard that we have in the region of 48,500 food-borne illnesses each year in Northern Ireland, accounting for some 450 hospitalisations and 20 deaths. What is perhaps even more troubling is the vast number of illnesses that go unreported, are simply written off as an upset stomach and are treated at home without even being reported to a doctor, therefore not making it into the statistics. I am sure you will agree that the potential figure for those who actually suffer from food-borne illnesses could be astronomical. With that in mind, the reduction of food-borne illnesses is paramount.

A mandatory rating scheme will not only provide consumers with the tools to make an informed choice but will serve to increase food hygiene standards across the industry. The current scheme in its voluntary form has been extremely well received by the general public. It has been administered through our local councils by environmental health teams through routine inspections, with the rating provided as a sticker that can be displayed within the food outlet.

I think there is a common misconception amongst the public that it is compulsory for food outlets to display their ratings. I have often noticed when a food hygiene score of an establishment is displayed but have not always noticed when the score is absent.

I recently experienced an example of this. After a conversation with a friend who worked in a restaurant that I ate in regularly, I learned that the establishment had a 2 rating and was, therefore, not displaying the sign. Needless to say, I have chosen not to eat there since.


11.15 am

Therein is the crux of the problem with the voluntary scheme. Fifty-six per cent of businesses display their rating; however, that falls to only 13% of business ratings between 0 and 2. It is therefore safe to assume that people could, unwittingly, be eating in an establishment that has a far from perfect standard of food hygiene.

Whilst there has been some opposition from the food industry, it has been, unsurprisingly, from those at the lower end of the rating scheme. The aim of the Bill is not to increase administration or workload for businesses but to provide consumers with knowledge of how their selected food outlet performs with regard to hygiene. A mandatory scheme will provide a consistent approach to food-hygiene rating; will undoubtedly increase customer confidence; and ensure that best practice is carried out across the industry.

As I mentioned, the voluntary scheme is managed by local district councils and, as such, it is anticipated that there will be no additional cost to councils in moving from a voluntary to a mandatory scheme. It is anticipated that any additional cost for rerating a business at its request will be met by the individual business. It is proposed that failure to display a rating or to display an incorrect rating will result in a fixed penalty notice. That will allow for offences to be dealt with quickly and means that only the most severe breaches of food hygiene standards will be dealt with through the courts.

However, I feel that a loophole exists around the displaying of hygiene ratings for businesses that operate online. In a world of ever-increasing reliance on technology, many of us order food through websites or apps and pay and arrange delivery without ever visiting the premises. Whilst it is proposed that should a member of the public wish to, they can check the hygiene regulations through the Food Standards Agency website, I feel that that defeats the point of having a system that should be instantly recognisable and identifiable. I hope that this point is considered and that a mechanism for online business is put in place as the Bill progresses so that customers can instantly see food hygiene ratings displayed on the website or app as prominently as if they were visiting the establishment in the flesh and observing the rating in the window or on the door.

In closing, the Food Hygiene Rating Bill will provide consumers with a clear and user-friendly way to identify the hygiene standards of any food outlet and enable them to make informed choices. It will undoubtedly increase standards across the hospitality industry and ultimately, most importantly, reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses. I support the Bill.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis labhairt ar son an Bhille inniu. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill today. Members have already spoken, but, as a member of the Health Committee, I add my own words about the Bill and what it seeks to do. It introduces legislation that makes it a legal requirement for the food industry to display its food hygiene ratings.
As we have heard, the aims include the following: to allow members of the public to have an informed choice about the establishment in which they are provided with food, whether they are in a restaurant, hotel, café or any of the other outlets mentioned. It also seeks to improve the standard food provision by incentivising businesses to improve and reduce the incidence of food-related illness.

Baineann an pointe deireannach le tinneas bia a laghdú, agus mothaím gurb í sin an ceann is tábhachtaí. I feel that the final point about the reduction of illness brought on by food is the most important. When we go into a restaurant, or any food outlet for that matter, we want to feel reassured that the food for which we are paying is safe and properly cooked and that the standards of kitchen hygiene and food storage are the highest possible. These measures are absolutely necessary to minimise the likelihood of disease or illness being contracted in the process of food provision.

As we have heard, the scheme exists on a voluntary basis and is administered by district council environmental health officers. They visit and examine premises and then issue a rating. The owners or property holders are then at liberty to display the rating or not. That rating has been useful for people seeking to eat in restaurants. Tá an meastachán seo an-úsáideach do thomhaltóirí, go háirithe nuair a bhíonn siad ag tabhairt cuairte ar áit nua gan fios ná gan eolas áitiúil.

It is particularly important if people are visiting new places where they have not been before and they do not have any local knowledge or information to go on. This will give them something to base their judgement on. As we heard, the information is on a scale from 0 to 5, so it is easy enough to make a decision based on that rating.

We heard that mixed results came from the consultation that was carried out. Tháinig torthaí measchta amach as an chomhairliúchán sin. As would have been anticipated, there was much support from consumers and council stakeholders for the mandatory display of ratings. Those businesses with high ratings concurred with that, and, not surprisingly, those with lower ratings were not supportive. While some businesses might not like the idea of the scheme and might view it as intrusive, safeguards are nevertheless built in for protection. Agus creidim go bhfuil gá leis seo. I believe that that is necessary. Any business that is unhappy with the rating can appeal the decision and have a reassessment carried out after making changes. They can also respond to explain any mitigating circumstances to consumers.

I look forward to the Committee Stage, when we can subject the Bill to proper scrutiny. Molaim an Bille. I commend the Bill.

Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I thank those Members who contributed to the debate. I believe that all of them are members of the Committee, and they will therefore have a large degree of input at Committee Stage.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I served on the Health Committee for five years, and I noted the way in which it interacted with the Department to improve all the legislation that was brought before it. I can think particularly of the legislation on sunbeds and on the Safeguarding Board. I think that everyone agrees that both those Bills went into Committee Stage quite strong and detailed but came out considerably improved as a result of the Committee's scrutiny. Therefore, I would like to think that the Committee would carry out its normal role when I refer this Bill to it.

Individual Members teased out various issues, and I am very open to hearing their views on them. One issue that the Chair raised was penalties. She was concerned that there may be those who would simply disobey the law, fail to display the sign and then accept the small penalty as the cost that they would pay for not displaying. I suppose that they would argue that they would make more money by not displaying their sticker than if they displayed it. Of course, as the Chair pointed out, there is the option of the district council taking the offender to court, but I would be interested to hear from Members about whether they feel the penalty scale is appropriate. I know that on the Sunbeds Bill Committee members voted to increase the penalties, and the Department quite readily accepted that. That is one issue that I think that the Committee can look at very seriously.

The Chair raised the point that everything had to be "transparent, robust and timely", and I think that that is a very good line to use about this Bill. It has to measure the consumer's interests and balance them against the needs of the industry. I think that the Bill, as it stands, has achieved a very fair balance, but, again, I am very interested to hear Members' views.

I will deal with some specific points that were raised. Mr Fearghal McKinney asked what the definition of a food business is. That definition relates to an establishment selling food directly to consumers. It does not, at the moment, include business-to-business trade. However, the Bill provides the flexibility to extend the definition to bring other businesses within its ambit. I was fascinated by Mrs Bradley's comment about sales of food over the Internet. I have to say that that has not occurred to me before. I can see all sorts of difficulties with including that in the definition of a food establishment, but I think that it is worth the Committee looking at that to see whether it can come up with something that can deal with it. I do not know the extent of food sales over the Internet; I presume it is quite unusual, but you never know. Perhaps that is something that we need to tighten up in the modern era.

Mrs Dobson raised a series of interesting points. I will seek to deal with those first of all. She, too, asked about the definition of what constitutes a body or business selling food. The Bill provides power to make regulations to set out what type of business would be exempt from the scheme. For example, at the moment, craft shops selling small quantities of low-risk food, such as tins of biscuits, may or may not come under the definition. Again, I would be very interested in the views of the Committee and the various bodies that represent those types of retail outlets. We are very open to positive suggestions one way or the other on whether that imposes too much of a burden on those shops or is required. I will very much be directed by the Committee's views on that.

Mrs Dobson also raised the issue of the impact on local government. Mr McCarthy raised it as well. Several Members behind me were also concerned about the burden that would be placed upon district councils. Remember, of course, that district councils already carry out this function. They regularly inspect premises' food-hygiene standards, sometimes on the back of a complaint and sometimes, sadly, as a result of an outbreak of something like salmonella or other food poisoning. This is simply an extension of something that councils' environmental health officers are extremely experienced in doing. Indeed, the voluntary scheme already encompasses a large number of food retail establishments, takeaways etc. Therefore, I do not see this imposing a considerable extra burden on councils; but, again, I will be very interested to hear the wise views of the Committee on that issue.

Mrs Dobson raised the issue of when the Bill will be implemented if it is passed by the House. We are very conscious of the fact that local government in Northern Ireland is undergoing a huge overhaul at the moment. We are aware of that. The Food Standards Agency is very aware of it. It is anticipated that the Food Hygiene Rating Bill, if passed, would not be mandatory until at least early 2016. Therefore, those MLAs who are concerned about the new district councils can rest assured that they will be up and running well before that and will have the necessary experience and knowledge. We do of course realise that these councils will have larger budgets and larger numbers of environmental health officers. They should be in a better position to carry out this work.

I thank Members for their positive contributions. I think that there is very clear cross-party support for the basic ethos of this legislation. We are actually dealing with a very serious situation here; literally with life and death. In the average year, more than 20 people in Northern Ireland die as a result of consuming food in the Province. Therefore, we have to do all that we can to ensure that food establishments, takeaways, restaurants etc comply with the very highest possible standards of food hygiene and cleanliness. For me, that is a no-brainer. It is so obvious that we need to do that.

Clearly, many establishments out there have taken the voluntary approach and have already invited inspectors in. Most of them have achieved a high rating and have displayed that. I take the point that, at the moment, you see an awful lot of 4 and 5 ratings around the Province; you see very few 0, 1 and 2 ratings. I think that it is very obvious why that is. Indeed, I am told that some people who display a 0, 1 or 2 rating do not actually understand what the certificate is saying.

I would also add that, to be positive to the food industry, there is clearly an enormous benefit for an establishment to achieve a 5 rating. Mrs Cameron has quite rightly pointed out that she has withdrawn her considerable trade from an establishment based on the fact that she found out that it has only a 2 rating. Clearly, it is a severe blow to that outlet's future that it has lost the Cameron income. The industry need not fear the change of moving from voluntary to compulsory.


11.30 am

The other thing that encourages me is that, quite clearly, all the evidence from surveys shows that the public recognise and understand the process and have a large degree of confidence in it. Therefore, we are pushing an open door in educating our public as to the importance of the new scheme. I have not heard anyone today who has not been supportive of it.

I am confident that the rating Bill will provide a simple but effective public health measure that will make it easy for everyone to identify the businesses that are committed to complying with food hygiene requirements. I also believe that the Bill will provide a strong incentive for businesses to achieve and maintain compliance with existing food hygiene law. Members should recall that there is no change in the law in what is expected of businesses here. There is no upgrading or strengthening of the law; we are simply expecting businesses to comply with the existing law and to tell their clients whether they are doing that. No great onerous burden is being placed in that sense.

The scheme presents a real opportunity for local businesses to demonstrate how seriously they take food hygiene by displaying their ratings for all to see. The consistency and transparency of the scheme makes it easy for consumers to use, and it should bring increased business to the food outlets that clearly take pride in their work. I believe that the Bill will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the health of the people of Northern Ireland. I am delighted that we are seeking to move, as Wales has, to a mandatory scheme. I ask Members to support the Bill. I look forward to working with the Committee and others with an interest in the food hygiene rating scheme as they scrutinise the Bill.

Several Members raised concerns expressed by the FSB. It has an obvious platform as the Committee goes through its scrutiny to come forward and express those concerns. It has a legitimate right to do that on behalf of thousands of its members. I will watch with great interest to see what happens at Committee Stage. I will welcome the Bill coming back strengthened, improved and thoroughly scrutinised. I commend it to the Members and wish it a speedy passage.

Mr Easton: On a point of order. Last Tuesday, in the debate on the BBC 'Spotlight' programme, the deputy First Minister made comments about unrepentant bigots in the DUP. I am certainly no bigot, and I take great offence at those comments. Will you, Deputy Speaker, take those comments away, have a look at them and come back to the House?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I reiterate the previous advice that has been given: there should be good temper and moderation during debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Food Hygiene Rating Bill [NIA 41/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, to move the Consideration Stage of the Work and Families Bill.

Moved. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments — amendment Nos 1 to 6 — which remove language associated with welfare reform and make two other technical changes.

I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debate on the amendments, they should address all the amendments in the group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

No amendments have been tabled to clauses 1 to 4. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group these clauses for the Question on stand part.

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 (Statutory shared parental pay)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 6. Those amendments remove language associated with welfare reform and make two other technical changes. I call on the Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendments in the group.

Dr Farry: I beg to move amendment No 1

In page 16, leave out lines 6 and 7. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 17, leave out lines 22 and 23. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

No 3: In page 20, leave out lines 43 and 44. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

No 4: In page 22, leave out lines 13 and 14. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

No 5: In clause 21, page 61, line 31, leave out "a statutory provision" and insert

"Northern Ireland legislation or an Act of Parliament". — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

No 6: In schedule 1, page 73, line 26, leave out head (b) and insert

"(b) in paragraph (4), for ‘paragraph (5)’ substitute ‘paragraphs (5) and (5A)’,
 
(c) in paragraph (5), after sub-paragraph (b) insert—
 
"(c) an order under Article 85ZS(6) or 107AB(4);",
 
(d) after paragraph (5), insert —
 
"(5A) An order under Article 85ZS(6) or 107AB(4) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid
before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly."’". — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

I thank the members of the Employment and Learning Committee for their detailed consideration of the Bill. As always, the Bill has got to this stage due to partnership between the Department and the Committee.

While the amendments are relatively minor and somewhat technical in nature, they are, nonetheless, necessary and reflect the detailed work carried out by the Committee, the Office of the Legislative Counsel and officials in my Department. I thank everyone involved for their efforts.

Amendment No 1 will remove paragraph (d) of section 167ZU(2), which is part of an insertion into the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 under subsection (2) of clause 5. That paragraph makes reference to the requirement of a claimant mother to have met prescribed conditions regarding her entitlement to be in the relevant employment. However, as that relates to welfare reform proposals, it is appropriate, given the present circumstances, for that paragraph to not be inserted by the Bill. It will only become relevant if welfare reform is taken forward, and, in that event, it would need to be considered as part of that package.

Amendment No 2 will remove paragraph (e) of section 167ZU(4) from the provisions to be inserted into the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 under subsection 2 of clause 5. Paragraph (e) makes reference to the requirement of the other claimant — that is, the person who is not the claimant mother — to have met prescribed conditions regarding his or her entitlement to be in the relevant employment. As with amendment No 1, the paragraph being removed relates to welfare reform proposals, and it is, therefore, appropriate that that is considered as part of any welfare reform legislation and not as part of this Bill.

Amendment Nos 3 and 4 address similar issues to amendments Nos 1 and 2 but in relation to adopters. Amendment No 3 will remove paragraph (d) of section 167ZW(2) from the proposed insertion into the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 under subsection (2) of clause 5. That paragraph makes reference to the requirement of a primary adopter to have met prescribed conditions regarding his or her entitlement to be in the relevant employment.

Amendment No. 4 will remove paragraph (e) from section 167ZW(4). That is part of the same insertion into the 1992 Act under subsection (2) of clause 5. The text that the amendment seeks to omit makes reference to the requirement of an adopter who is not the primary adopter to have met prescribed conditions regarding his or her entitlement to be in the relevant employment.

As with amendment Nos 1 and 2, the text to be omitted by amendment Nos 3 and 4 relates to welfare reform proposals and, once again, may need to be considered as part of any welfare reform package that is agreed by the Assembly.

Amendment No 5 is a technical amendment. It modifies the draft to make clear that the draft affirmative procedure should be followed for subordinate legislation provided for under the Bill that amends Northern Ireland legislation or any Act of Parliament. The amendment replaces the term, "a statutory provision", with:

"Northern Ireland legislation or an Act of Parliament"

in subsection (5) of clause 21 of the Bill. It reflects a change to drafting practice that legislative counsel has advised will be adopted in other Bills.

Amendment No 6 makes an adjustment to the Assembly procedure applicable to an order made under newly inserted article 85ZS(6) or article 107AB(4) of the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. The amendment to paragraph 4(19) of schedule 1 to the Bill ensures that any such order amending the definition of "approved foster parent" or "approved prospective adopter" as a consequence of changes to relevant DHSSPS legislation will be subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure. As a result, no order of that kind can be made unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.

Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): To begin, I will set out the work that the Committee for Employment and Learning has done to date on the Work and Families Bill. The Committee recognises the Minister’s aim in bringing forward the Bill, which is to allow parents the ability to manage their parental and work priorities with flexibility, and supports him in that endeavour. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the Minister and his officials for his open engagement throughout on the Bill and for responding promptly to Committee concerns.

The Bill was referred to the Committee on 12 May 2014. On referral, it wrote to key stakeholders and inserted public notices in the regional newspapers seeking written evidence by 23 June. Seven organisations responded to the request for written evidence, of which three provided substantive comment. Those three organisations were invited to give oral evidence to the Committee. One took up the invitation, while the other two agreed to provide in writing any further clarification that the Committee might wish to seek.

The three organisations that made substantive submissions were the Engineering Employers' Federation Northern Ireland (EEFNI), the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland (CBINI) and the Northern Ireland Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NICICTU). However, their submissions drew heavily on their responses to the Department's consultation on the general proposals rather than on the detail contained in the clauses. As a result, a number of the comments related to issues not contained in the Bill but that will be outlined in secondary legislation to be established if the Bill is passed.

The Bill refers throughout to the fact that "The Department may make regulations" and that "Regulations ... are to provide for". Consequently, it is clear that the regulations and not the Bill will provide the detail of how the rights will operate in practice.

The Examiner of Statutory Rules reported on the Bill and the subsequent regulations and noted that he was content. He pointed out that, although there are powers to make subordinate legislation throughout the Bill, the Department has explained that the more significant regulations are subject to the confirmatory resolution procedure while more minor regulations are subject to the negative resolution procedure. He said that that seems to be appropriate.

On the issues that the submissions did make, the EEFNI, although broadly supportive of the main provisions, voiced concern about how the rights will operate in practice and how the Department will balance those rights against the needs of employers who need to be able to continue to operate their business effectively.

The CBINI also gave qualified support for the Bill. It supports the reform of the existing system but warns that, for reform to have the confidence and backing of the business community, it is imperative that, in a time of continuing economic challenge in which the burden of red tape must continue to be reduced, the system be simple so as to be truly effective.

NICICTU points out that, although it supported the Department's proposals outlined in its consultation, it is disappointed that the new Bill does not address many of its original concerns. It argues that international evidence shows that fathers are more likely to take leave that is clearly available solely to them — on the basis that, if they do not use it, they will lose it — and that shared entitlements are used mostly by mothers. NICICTU feels that the absence of reserved leave for fathers means that they are less likely to apply.

On considering the evidence, it was clear to the Committee that the actual concerns being voiced were not specifically set out in the legislation but will be developed in the subsequent subordinate legislation and guidance, which, if the Bill is passed, the Committee will be keeping a close watch over.

With that in mind and in support of the Bill's aim, the Committee formally considered the Work and Families Bill on 1 October 2014 and was content with the Bill as drafted. However, the Committee noted a number of issues during its scrutiny that it will return to and be cognisant of in coming months.

Many issues and concerns were raised by the organisations that responded to the Committee’s evidence-gathering. They aired their misgivings and concerns but have not had any meaningful assurances because their issues will be dealt with through subordinate legislation and/or guidance that will be issued by the Department later.

I refer Members to pages 13 to 26 of the Committee's report on the Bill. When it put organisations' issues and concerns to the Department, the Committee was pleased with its response and will be looking to see how each one is resolved.

I will now highlight the issues on which the Committee made further comment. The CBI view on the proposed two-week negotiation period is that there are practical concerns about instances in which that period might be impossible for certain employers to implement. For example, in cases in which an employee's line manager is on annual leave or of employees who work shift patterns that do not coincide with their manager's, the negotiation period might need to be significantly longer.

The CBI warns that the period of notice could prove difficult, as ensuring temporary staff cover for short periods of leave with only eight weeks' notice could prove challenging and costly. It recommends that the two-week negotiation period therefore be a minimum guideline rather than a requirement.

With regard to the process for requesting leave, the EEFNI made the points that an employee's initial notification of leave should be binding and that employers should be able to veto an unsuitable period of leave.


11.45 am

On the issue of allowing parents to take leave in one-week blocks, there is a difference of opinion between the ICTU and the CBI. The ICTU pointed out that allowing parents to take leave only in one-week blocks is highly inflexible and will discourage shared parenting. The CBI, however, feels that allowing parents to take leave in a minimum of one-week blocks would be very difficult for employers, especially small businesses, to manage. In addition, both the EEFNI and the CBI ask that the legislation is backed up by user-friendly processes and point out that the high proportion of SMEs in Northern Ireland and the fact that the rights outlined in the Bill disproportionately impact on the small employer, mean that the secondary legislation coming from the Bill reflects the difficulty faced by these employers. The CBI argued that minimising the administrative burden on businesses must be at the heart of the Government's aims and argues that this will allow parties to focus discussions on issues of substance and minimise the opportunity for disputes based on process.

The CBI agrees with the EEFNI that the success of the legislation depends on good guidance. For the changes in the Bill to succeed, the CBI believes that it is imperative that detailed, practical and understandable guidance for employers and employees is published well in advance of April 2015 so that all involved can familiarise themselves with the new processes. That will require the legislation to be kept as clear and practicable as is feasible so that effective, user-friendly and timely guidance can be published. The EEFNI advocates the use of an at-a-glance guide setting out the main rights, with supplemental guidance providing further detail on particular aspects of those rights. The EEFNI also suggests that standard documentation, such as the notification document of the intended leave pattern, would be helpful. On this range of issues, the Committee was content with the Department's assurance that the associated guidance would be reviewed by key stakeholders.

The ICTU also has concern that the new rights for shared parental leave, as they stand in the Bill, will not have any impact on the number of fathers applying for parental leave and notes that the Department has given a commitment to:

"keep the uptake of shared parental leave and pay by fathers and partners under review".

The Committee also noted this undertaking and has asked to receive further information on how and when the Department will review uptake of shared parental leave, including the terms of reference for the review. The Committee notes that the Department has tabled a number of amendments. While the Committee accepts that these are technical amendments relating to welfare reform, I am disappointed that they were not brought to the Committee during its deliberation rather than afterwards. The Committee supports the Bill and will watch closely how it is implemented.

I will now make a number of comments as the Ulster Unionist member of the Committee and seek clarification from the Minister in relation to the tabled amendments. The Minister stated that the amendments as listed on pages 16, 17, 20 and 22 are welfare reform-related. The Minister's officials were questioned a number of times during evidence sessions with the Committee about whether any part of this Bill was in relation to welfare reform. On each occasion, it was said that the Bill stood separate from welfare reform. I seek assurance from the Minister on how, if these sections are removed at this stage and should welfare reform be presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly and be accepted, he intends to reintroduce these sections and provide the protections that they entail within the Bill. I also welcome the Minister's amendments to introduce the draft affirmative process in the Bill.

Mr Buchanan: I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this today. The Minister has quite rightly pointed out that the amendments are minor and technical in nature and that they were brought forward as a result of the stalemate in welfare reform here in Northern Ireland. However, one of the issues of concern when the Bill was going through the Committee was shared parental leave.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I ask the Member to ensure that he is speaking into the microphone in order that Hansard will be able to report everything that is said. Thank you.

Mr Buchanan: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. One of the issues of concern in the Committee was shared parental leave and the difficulty that that could create for small businesses. The Chair of the Committee pointed out in his deliberations that the CBI has concerns in that regard. Hopefully, that will be fully addressed by the officials and proper legislation will be in place to ensure that small businesses are not affected by this shared parental leave. Should a husband and wife work in the same business, that could have a detrimental effect on the business. I ask the Minister to ensure that proper legislation is in place to ensure that small businesses are not adversely affected by this type of scenario, should it arise in the small business sector.

We are also disappointed that the amendments that have been brought forward did not come before the Committee. As the Chair pointed out, welfare reform was not mentioned. This was said to be a stand-alone Bill, despite all the times that the officials were questioned on it.

There are some issues that we are concerned about, and perhaps the Minister will address those in his closing remarks.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I recommend the Bill as a progressive, if fairly minor, piece of legislation that gives new parents greater flexibility in organising their parental leave, if their employer agrees, and gives equal rights to adoptive parents.

As not all workers are aware of their rights to maternity and paternity support, I commend all the trades unions that are organised in involving their members in the process of implementing better working conditions in the workplace, as well as the many NGOs spearheading progressive campaigns on the issue.

The argument for providing more generous maternity and paternity rights in the workplace is being won, with more and more employers realising the importance of assisting and retaining staff through the challenges of pregnancy and raising young children. However, we need to work harder to defend the rights of working parents, especially in the context of ageing societies and low birth rates.

I point to the recent situation in the European Parliament, where my party colleague Martina Anderson MEP and other MEPs who sit as part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group had to strongly defend women's rights to maternity leave after the European Commission moved to withdraw the maternity leave draft directive in July. The aim of that draft directive, which has been stalled in the EU Council of Ministers for almost four years, is to strengthen women's rights by ensuring 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave across the European Union and to ensure that women are protected on their return to work. The impasse has been caused by a blocking minority of states, made up of Ireland, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Sweden, Malta and Latvia. The directive also includes provision for paternity leave and special arrangements for working parents with disabled children.

Sinn Féin will continue to defend the rights of women and men to combine work and parenthood without discrimination in the labour market and in the social security systems.

Much has been said over this past number of months about welfare reform, which has been injected into every discussion, mostly by the DUP. When people start talking about welfare reform, they should at least get the facts right and tell it as it is.

Mr Ramsey: I welcome the Bill. Any Bill that comes to the House having gone through the Committee in a non-contentious way is most welcome. For that, we owe a debt to the Department for Employment and Learning staff who have been constantly briefing the Committee, our own Committee staff for their concentrated efforts over recent months and, clearly, to the Minister as well. It is a most welcome Bill

As regards families, the SDLP is committed to continuing to ensure that standards of development in early years are raised. We believe that good parental leave policies must be complemented by good family policies, including childcare, early years and nursery provision. The SDLP believes that support for the family structure is central to positive childcare policies. It is important that support be given to hard-working families, and government support for families should focus on easing external pressures on them. It is vital that the legislation be sufficiently flexible to benefit parents and children in the different social situations that they so often find themselves.

The legislation permits qualifying birth parents, adopters and intended parents in surrogacy arrangements to qualify for shared parental leave, which is crucial. The Bill is an excellent opportunity to address inequality in society by creating a culture of shared parenting. I welcome legislation that will help to reduce women's disproportionate caring responsibilities and go some way to tackling the discrimination too often felt by women in the workplace.

I take on board the comments on the legislation from, for example, Citizens Advice. It mentioned that the Bill will allow working families greater flexibility, control and choice over caring arrangements.

On the part of the Bill that deals with adopters and appointments, I believe that more must be done to help different family situations. I am glad to say that those who are planning or are in the process of adopting are considered in the parameters of the Bill. The change in adoption leave rights and the enhancement of statutory adoption pay will give adoptive parents the ability to spend more time with their child. The proposed changes in appointments, entitling intended parents to take unpaid leave to attend up to two antenatal appointments, is another way to help parents to begin to establish a bond with their child.

A number of representations were made to us from business. On the effects that the legislation will have on business, I reiterate the importance of creating a one-stop shop. One of the key elements that came out of the consultation that we had, certainly from the business community, was, Minister, that there has to be a website to ensure that, at an early stage, businesses are aware of the changes that are coming and, more importantly, of how those changes will affect them.

We heard from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which stated that it was unaware of the need for guidance and online tools for businesses. DETI officials informed the Committee that they would aim to put those mechanisms in place as quickly as possible. I know that the departmental officials who came to us were very keen to progress that area as well. I agree with the Department's response, and I suggest that those tools are introduced before the legislation comes into effect so that stakeholders are educated and aware of all the issues. I believe that that is vital for the uptake of the scheme and, more importantly, for the success of the legislation. For example, I welcome the news that small businesses will be able to recoup 100% of statutory payments that they make, plus 3% compensation.

In conclusion, this legislation will be not only beneficial to parents, adopters and those using surrogates but will be as important to small businesses and business in our community. In fact, as it aims to mirror the content arrangements already in place, it is beneficial to users. From the SDLP's perspective, we are fully in support of this Bill.

Dr Farry: I thank all the Members who spoke for their comments. It is probably fair to say that most of the comments were of a general nature on the Bill as a whole rather than on the specific amendments. They were also about the important points on delivery and implementation and ensuring that we provide regulations that are balanced and appropriate for the situation and that proper guidance is provided through all the different media that are available to us.

I will start with the Chair's comments. I reiterate our appreciation to the Committee for its deliberations on the Bill and for the prompt delivery of the Committee report, which I and my officials have read. There are a number of aspects to that, including areas where the Committee raised concerns or caution about the delivery of certain aspects of the Bill while supporting them going into legislation. We will certainly take note of that, and the Committee will signpost us towards areas where particular work needs to be done on delivery and implementation.

The Chair also made the point, quite rightly, about the situation where fathers will perhaps be less likely to take advantage of what are shared provisions as opposed to dedicated rights that are available to them. It is worth making the point that this is an enabling Bill and is not about enforcing any particular type of situation on the parents or those who are in any relationship with the child or newborn child for how they must take forward their leave. It is about providing them with options on that. It is our expectation that the current situation where the mother takes the balance of the leave entitlement will probably remain the case, but, on the margins, if we can facilitate a change in patterns of behaviour, that is all to the good. While the Bill removes the current entitlement for additional paternal leave, the basic paternal leave is still there and the expectation is that it will be taken.


12.00 noon

Concerns have been raised by different stakeholders about the approach that will be taken to leave through consultation periods and how the leave will be allocated. On the periods in which decisions have to be made, a threshold has to be drawn that balances the needs of employers and employees. I think that the thresholds that we have set in the Bill are a fair balance in that regard. There will always be particular difficulties with any type of scheme that is put in place, but there is enough space to accommodate very particular situations that may arise and create difficulties in businesses.

It is worth emphasising that, if an agreed pattern of access to shared parental leave cannot be agreed, there will a default to the leave being taken in a single block. Ultimately, there is that protection for businesses. We also recognise the importance of making sure that the administrative burden is as simple as possible, and we will give full guidance on the implementation of the measures.

Speaking in his party-political capacity, the Chair asked for an assurance that the Bill is not related to welfare reform. Let me be very clear: the Bill is a free-standing piece of legislation that is not inspired by welfare reform nor dependent on it taking place in the rest of the UK or, indeed, in Northern Ireland. This is something that we should be doing on a free-standing basis, because it is the progressive thing to do. Also, as I will come to in a moment, it is the right thing for businesses and the wider economy. But, quite simply, no piece of legislation exists in a vacuum. All sorts of cross-references have to be made to other pieces of legislation and anticipation made of other legislative changes that are being made elsewhere.

An assumption was made that welfare reform would progress through the Chamber, but, to date, that has not transpired. I wish that it was otherwise, although I appreciate that other Members do not share that point of view. All we are doing is taking out technical references to welfare reform or its implications in the surrounding knock-on effects of the Bill, and the issue will be left to the welfare reform legislation that will be going through the Assembly. If we get to that stage, I imagine that amendments will be tabled to the Welfare Reform Bill, the current draft of which is about 18 months old and which will need to be updated in a whole host of areas. I imagine that we will be able to provide the technical amendments at that stage and that it will be taken forward in that format if we come to that situation.

Tom Buchanan and Pat Ramsey touched on the wider rationale of why we are providing shared parental leave. At times, there was maybe a slight degree of reservation from some quarters, but, equally, there was very strong endorsement from others. Let me reiterate the rationale of why we want to do this. Shared parental leave is important for individuals and families. It is about facilitating choice and recognising that households today come in all shapes and sizes and that there are different pressures on work and the need to bring in income. In so far as the Assembly can give flexibility in that area, we should seize that opportunity and enshrine it in the policies that pertain in Northern Ireland.
There is also a very strong business rationale for the reform. I appreciate that we often get trapped by looking at the technicalities and the administrative burdens that it is perceived will be imposed, without having a full recognition of the opportunities for business and the wider economy. The Bill will make changes, albeit on the margins, and will have the effect of creating a more inclusive workforce. We want to aspire to that for a whole host of reasons. At its heart, we will be moving towards a greater maximisation of the talent pool out there.

We know that talent is spread across genders. At times, very strong segmentation in certain businesses or sectors of the economy means that we do not fully draw on the talent that is there and do not operate purely on the basis of merit, but that is what we should be aspiring and trying to do. So, if, subject to choice and decisions being made, we see greater potential for women to return to the workplace more quickly and can create another leg that allows us better to retain women in the workplace, we will move towards a greater maximisation of the existing talent pool.

I move now to the situation that may pertain in individual businesses. Businesses are aware of the clearly defined right to a paternity break. A female employee may be off work for a number of months or, on some occasions, for a period approaching a year. A business could see a situation in which an important employee could, if her partner took advantage of their shared parental leave entitlement, return sooner. So, rather than companies having employees away for a longer period, this may facilitate key personnel returning to work earlier. That situation may become more apparent at higher skill levels, so this legislation may, in its own way, add to the productivity gain occurring in our economy.

Tom Buchanan raised the issue of what would happen if a husband and wife, or two partners, worked in the same business. The same point applies. At present, parental leave entitlement lies with the mother. If the couple takes a decision to share that entitlement, the company will not see any greater level of absence. We are talking about the same level of access to maternity leave as pertains at present. The Bill creates options for that leave to be shared between partners to a greater extent than is the case at present. So, companies should not expect any greater absence in relation to the birth of a child.

Fra McCann made points about welfare reform. The position of his party has been clearly articulated. Again, I stress that this legislation has nothing to do with welfare reform; it is simply the case that it is sometimes cross-referenced in the wider context of other policy developments. This is free-standing legislation that stands entirely on its own merits. I am more than happy to return to welfare reform on another occasion, but I will not get into that debate today because it is not pertinent to our discussion. However, I echo the comments that Mr McCann made about the importance of proper maternal rights, and I stress that there is a very strong rationale for individual choice and respecting family life. There is also a very strong business rationale for why it is important that we invest in that. He referred to what is happening, sometimes negatively, elsewhere in the European Union. However, there is also a lot of good practice elsewhere in the European Union that we should seek to draw on.

Pat Ramsey referred to the wider benefits of and rationale for the Bill. I welcome his strong endorsement of the legislation. Like others, he stressed the potential additional administrative costs and difficulties that businesses may experience. I have pointed out the wider business and economic rationale for doing this, but let me focus on the flip side of the coin for a moment: how we will deal with the situation by way of regulation and guidance.

I am keen that the legislation will be in place by 1 April 2015 and that we will have a common approach to shared parental leave across the UK. There is a very strong rationale for meeting that target, particularly given the changes that HMRC will conduct in relation to the changes happening in Great Britain. If we are able to buy into that at the same time, it will make life a lot easier for all of us, including businesses. A large piece of work will be accelerated on how we work through the regulations and the development of the guidance. I have made the point already that we will look to make that as user-friendly as we can and to make full use of the different media available.

In conclusion, I will reiterate that the concept of entitlement to be in the relevant employment in this particular context is associated with a package of welfare reform proposals, which has not been agreed by the Assembly. Therefore, there is no rationale for including those paragraphs in the Bill, which is the rationale for amendment Nos 1 to 4. We are, therefore, removing references in the text of the Bill. So, for anyone with any lingering concerns, we are removing references to welfare reform from the Bill, even though I have explained it, there is no entrenchment even with the language in the Bill; it is the opposite.

Amendment Nos 5 and 6 are purely technical amendments, which adjust and improve drafting. Nonetheless, it is important that we make those changes. So, I leave those amendments before the House.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 17, leave out lines 22 and 23. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 20, leave out lines 43 and 44. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 22, leave out lines 13 and 14. — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No amendments have been tabled to clauses 6 to 20. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group these clauses for the Question on stand part.

Clauses 6 to 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21 (Supplementary, incidental and consequential etc. provision)

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 61, line 31, leave out "a statutory provision" and insert

"Northern Ireland legislation or an Act of Parliament". — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Clause 21, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No amendments have been tabled to clauses 22 to 24. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group these clauses for the Question on stand part.

Clauses 22 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 (Minor and consequential amendments)

Amendment No 6 made:

In schedule 1, page 73, line 26, leave out head (b) and insert

"(b) in paragraph (4), for ‘paragraph (5)’ substitute ‘paragraphs (5) and (5A)’,
 
(c) in paragraph (5), after sub-paragraph (b) insert—
 
"(c) an order under Article 85ZS(6) or 107AB(4);",
 
(d) after paragraph (5), insert —
 
"(5A) An order under Article 85ZS(6) or 107AB(4) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid
before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly."’". — [Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning).]

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.


12.15 pm

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Work and Families Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Education, Mr John O'Dowd, to move the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis an díospóireacht seo a oscailt. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on this group of amendments. I should first like to address amendment Nos 1, 4, 7, 8, 12 and 15. These amendments concern the provisions agreed by the Assembly —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I simply asked that you would formally move the Bill.

Mr O'Dowd: Sorry.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I wish to clarify to Members the subsequent procedures, the Bill having been moved. Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list.

There are two groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 4, 7 and 8, and 12 through to 17, which deal with amending existing duties of the authority, the commencement of certain provisions and committees of the authority. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 5 and 6, 9 to 11 and 18. These amendments deal with membership of the authority and technical matters.

I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debates on the two groups of amendments, they should address all of the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate.

I also remind Members that debate at Further Consideration Stage is restricted to debating further amendments to the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Mr O'Dowd: Apologies —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I have not quite finished.

We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 4, 7 and 8, and 12 to 17. These amendments deal with amending existing duties of the authority, the commencement of certain provisions and the committees of the authority. Members should note that amendment No 2 is an amendment to amendment No 1; amendment Nos 1 and 2 are mutually exclusive with amendment No 3; amendment Nos 13 and 14 are mutually exclusive; and amendment Nos 16 and 17 are mutually exclusive.

I now call the Minister of Education, Mr John O'Dowd, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Clause 2 (Functions and general duty of ESA)

Mr O'Dowd: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (3) and insert

"(3) It is the duty of the Authority (so far as its powers extend) to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education.".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: As an amendment to the amendment to clause 2, page 1, line 12, tabled by the Minister of Education on 03/11/14, after "promote" insert "integrated and". — [Mr Lunn.]

No 3: In page 1, line 13, after "promote" insert "integrated and". — [Mr Lunn.]

No 4: In page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (4) and insert

"(4) It is the duty of the Authority (so far as its powers extend) to encourage, facilitate and promote the community use of premises of grant-aided schools.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 7: In clause 7, page 2, line 39, at end insert

"(za) section 2(3);". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 8: In clause 7, page 3, line 2, at end insert

"(c) paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 1.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 12: In schedule 1, page 6, line 37, leave out from "will" to end of line 38 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(3).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 13: In schedule 1, page 6, line 38, at end insert

"(2A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (2) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the different school sectors of the Education system.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 14: In schedule 1, page 6, line 38, at end insert

"(2A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (2) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 15: In schedule 1, page 6, line 39, leave out from "will" to end of line 40 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(4).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 16: In schedule 1, page 6, line 40, at end insert

"(3A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (3) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the different school sectors of the Education system.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 17: In schedule 1, page 6, line 40, at end insert

"(3A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (3) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle, and apologies for jumping the gun. I am sure that you will appreciate that, after seven years of waiting to move even some form of review of public administration in education, my eagerness is well founded.

I should like to address amendment Nos 1, 4, 7, 8, 12 and 15. These amendments concern the provisions agreed by the Assembly at Consideration Stage for the Education Authority to have duties in relation to shared education and the community use of school premises, and to establish standing committees to fulfil those duties. Fortunately, in regard to shared education, there is currently no legal definition of that concept. Without one, we risk a situation where the Education Authority, when established, is placed in an untenable position. It will have a statutory obligation to promote shared education without there being a definition acceptable to the Assembly of that form of education.

As I stated during the debate at Consideration Stage, I will shortly be bringing forward a stand-alone Bill on shared education, which will provide a legislative definition and define the role of the Department and its arm's-length bodies in relation to shared education. I firmly believe that it is essential that the Assembly and the Education Committee are given the opportunity provided by the stand-alone Bill to debate and scrutinise the proposed legal definition of shared education. Therefore, rather than introduce an amendment that will define shared education, I have tabled an amendment to the effect that the duty placed upon the authority to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education will commence on a future date determined by the Department. That is amendment No 7.

If the authority's duty is to commence on a future date, it follows that the provision establishing a standing committee to fulfil the duty should also commence on a future date. That is the effect of amendment No 8, which is consequential to amendment No 7.

As for the duty itself, it would clearly be inappropriate to require the Education Authority to implement any high-level general duty to any extent beyond the specific powers available to it to do so. I have therefore tabled an amendment to the effect that it is the duty of the authority, so far as its powers extend, to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education. That is amendment No 1.

For Members' information, I hope to publish a policy document on shared education within the next number of weeks to move that matter on.

If the duty on the authority is to be qualified in that way, then the remit of the standing committee would need to be similarly qualified to ensure that it is not established to do things that the authority itself has no power to do. I have therefore tabled an amendment to the effect that the standing committee will exercise the functions of the authority as set out in the relevant clauses of the Bill. That is amendment No 12, which is consequential to amendment No 1.

I hope that Members will support those amendments, which will allow legislative recognition of the duty to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education whilst providing opportunity for mature consideration of a legal definition.

Secondly, in regard to community use of schools' premises, Members will appreciate that there are practical limits as to what the Education Authority may do as regards school premises that it does not own, such as in maintained schools, most Irish-medium schools, voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools. Notwithstanding the requirements on schools that are already in place under the education orders, I appreciate the importance of opening schools up for community use. However, as with the duty in relation to shared education, it would be inappropriate to require the Education Authority to implement a duty to any extent beyond the specific powers available to it to do so. I have therefore tabled an amendment to the effect that it is the duty of the authority, so far as its powers extend, to encourage, facilitate and promote the community use of premises of grant-aided schools. That is set out in amendment No 4.

Again, if the duty of the authority is to be qualified in that way, the remit of the relevant standing committee would need to be similarly qualified. I have therefore tabled an amendment to the effect that the standing committee will exercise the functions of the authority as set out in the relevant clauses of the Bill. That is amendment No 15, which is consequential to amendment No 4. I hope that Members will support those amendments, which I have tabled simply to make the relevant provisions more practicable and to avoid any uncertainty surrounding their future operation. I believe that they are sensible and necessary.

I will turn to amendment Nos 2 and 3. The Assembly debated an amendment at Consideration Stage that would have placed a statutory duty on the authority to encourage, facilitate and promote integrated education. As that amendment was voted against on a cross-community basis, I am surprised to see these new amendments at Further Consideration Stage.

As I explained during the Consideration Stage debate, there already exists a duty on the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education under article 64 of the Education Reform Order 1989. My Department continues to have a rigorous approach to that statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. The Education Authority will be accountable to and operate within the strategic framework set by my Department.

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will not, no, because I am conscious of the time restraints before the lunch break.

That will include assisting the Department as appropriate in discharging its statutory duty in respect of integrated education. In addition, the Department will hold the authority to account through the management statement and financial memorandum as it currently does with the five education and library boards.

Members will also be aware that the Department has a similar duty to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education under article 89 of the Education Order 1998. So, I think it is both unnecessary and not in the spirit of further amendments to the Bill, which include all sectors on the authority, to single out one sector that already has legal protection under a statutory duty from another sector that has legal protection under a statutory duty and name it in the Bill. I think it is not in the spirit of the discussions that we have had in the Chamber and outside the Chamber in relation to trying to move the Bill forward. Therefore, I will not support those amendments.

Amendment Nos 13, 14, 16 and 17 deal with the membership of the standing committees to be established to fulfil the authority's duty in relation to shared education and the community use of school premises. Amendment Nos 14 and 17 seek to ensure that the respective committees are representative of the membership of the authority. While I do not see the need for such provisions, the Bill specifies that, except for a teaching appointments committee, any committee that performs functions on behalf of the authority must be composed exclusively of members of the authority. How, therefore, could the relevant standing committees not be representative of the membership of the authority?

Amendment Nos 13 and 16 seek to ensure that the respective committees are representative of the different school sectors of the Education Authority. Again, I believe that such provisions are not necessary. As the standing committees will be performing functions on behalf of the authority, they must be composed exclusively of members of the authority. They will therefore be representative, by definition, of the membership of the authority. They could only be representative of the different school sectors within the education system to the extent that those sectors are represented in the membership of the authority. While there is nothing in those amendments that does harm to the Bill or the outworkings of the Bill, I believe that they are unnecessary. However, I await the decision of the House as to whether they will form part of the Bill. That brings an end to my deliberations on this grouping of amendments.

Ms Fearon: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise for being absent during questions to OFMDFM yesterday.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Thank you.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension today. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business that we return to will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.


2.00 pm

On resuming (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair) —

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): The mandatory minimum learning period, to which the Member refers, is part of a package of measures in the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill. The combination of those measures, often referred to as graduated driver licensing (GDL) has been designed to provide new drivers with experience and skills, over time, in lower-risk environments.

Integral to any such scheme is a mandatory learning period, within which learner drivers follow a prescribed programme of training. The Bill, as introduced in the Assembly, makes provision for a 12-month mandatory learning period. The rationale of this period is to encourage provisional licence holders to focus on learning to drive and not simply passing the practical driving test.

The mandatory learning period provides learners with time to take additional training, to practise and to gain experience on a variety of roads, traffic environments and weather and light conditions. By gaining this experience throughout the year, and during the different seasons and associated weather and light conditions, drivers become better prepared for solo driving after passing the test. The minimum period also accounts for differences in learning ability, which a specific number of lessons cannot address.

New drivers are over-represented in fatal and serious collisions. Over the period 2008 to 2012, R drivers, who account for fewer than 1% of licence holders, were responsible for 7% of fatalities and serious injuries. I want to encourage drivers to gain experience before they drive unaccompanied. It is this experience of real-life driving, with the benefit of a supervising driver, that the mandatory learning period seeks to encourage. The Bill is at Committee Stage, and I look forward to hearing the Committee’s views on the full range of its provisions.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer and take on board the last point that he made about road safety being paramount. Will the Minister outline his Department's thinking on evidence from the Ulster Farmers' Union and driving instructors that suggests that the driving test should not be about age but driver ability? The oft-made point is that young people from a farming background may be ready for the test sooner than 12 months after they secure their provisional licence.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr McElduff for the question and his supplementary. The purpose of Committee Stage is to consult. I value input from any organisation and individual that will improve the Bill and road safety.

The organisations to which Mr McElduff referred — the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) and, of course, approved driving instructors — are most valued by me and will certainly inform us, going forward. However, the contention that rural drivers or those from a farming background are better equipped for driving on the road, merely because they have driven a tractor since they were young, does not, unfortunately, stand up to scrutiny. The sad reality is that the majority of serious injuries on our roads or collisions that result in fatalities occur on rural roads — 80%, in fact.

I believe that the points made by Mr McElduff, which echo those of approved driving instructors and the UFU, are good; I will not ignore them. The Bill, as presented, is not, in my opinion, that which will finally be passed in the House. I am prepared to accept amendments to it and will possibly bring amendments to it myself, all with a view to making a Bill that is workable and which works to reduce fatalities and injuries on our roads.

Lord Morrow: Does the Minister feel that one driving test in a lifetime is adequate, bearing in mind how the volume of traffic is changing? It is changing certainly annually, but it seems that there is more and more traffic on our roads nearly daily.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Lord Morrow for his question. The point that Lord Morrow makes is one that has been made before and one that would warrant further exploration, in my opinion.

When we talk about road safety, it is not just about drivers and the fitness of people to drive. Look at how we assess fitness of vehicles on the road and their roadworthiness. Vehicles have to be tested after four years and every year thereafter, so people might quite sensibly ask, if someone passes their driving test aged 17 or 18, whether they should not be examined for 70 years thereafter, or however long they may be lucky enough to be able to remain behind a wheel. Then there are our professional drivers, as you might call them, such as HGV or taxi drivers. The taxi legislation, with which Lord Morrow is very familiar, requires new training for drivers on an annual basis to ensure that their standards of driving remain extremely high. Again, people might ask whether ordinary drivers should also have to have continued development in that respect.

Ms Lo: The Minister said that the rationale for this legislation is to improve road safety and that it particularly targets young people. Some organisations, when giving evidence, question the Minister's logic for lowering the age of learner drivers to 16 and a half. I would like to hear his comment on that. Also, there is a question about our being out of sync with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland for a younger learner driver when they drive across the border or to other parts of the UK. Also, there is the fact that —

Ms Lo: Yes, it is on the same question about lowering the age of learner drivers. What will the impact be on insurance premiums?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Ms Lo for her questions. She is probably quite right in that people giving evidence to the Committee are questioning my logic. It is not just people who appear before Committees in this place who question my logic or the logic of many others here.

The issue of reducing the age at which someone can start learning, however, is something of a red herring. The impact of a minimum learning period on increasing the full licensing age to 17 and a half, which this legislation also does, limits the fact that provision is made in the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill to reduce the provisional age to 16 and a half, as Ms Lo has pointed out.

Recent figures demonstrate that the number of people currently achieving a full licence prior to 17 and a half years of age is limited. It is estimated that around 540 persons aged under 17 and a half currently hold a restricted or R-plate driving licence or have passed a test and not yet applied for their licence. This represents some 4·4% of the population in that category.

The fact is that, if we allow people to start learning at 16 and a half and introduce the mandatory minimum learning period of one year, people will not be on the roads until they are 17 and a half. As I have highlighted through those statistics, currently, there are people driving before they reach 17 and a half. There is an old adage that, if you are good enough, you are old enough. However, evidence from the other jurisdictions to which Ms Lo refers shows that with age comes responsibility and a reduction in the likelihood of involvement in collisions.

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

Mr Durkan: My Department has a statutory duty to pay special attention to the "desirability of preserving or enhancing" the character or appearance of conservation areas under article 50(5) of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. The Department has planning officers with particular expertise in conservation matters, and their advice is sought on development proposals that may impact on a conservation area. This advice is one of a number of considerations taken into account when reaching a planning decision.

The Department must give full regard to all material considerations, including the policy guidance set down in chapter 7 of Planning Policy Statement 6, 'Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage'; the advice and guidance in the relevant conservation area document to which the proposal relates; the relevant development plan; consultee responses; council views; objections; and any other representations made.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that the question that I put to him was not new. He quoted article 50(5) and said that full regard had to be taken by the Department. Out there, the view is that planning just ignores these reports, which obviously cost a lot of money. Does he have any notion of how he could strengthen conservation officers' power through legislation or in some other way so that their reports would actually have an impact? The experience in councils, and it has been raised many times here, too, is that they are ignored.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. I thank Mr Kelly for that supplementary question.

First, let me assure Mr Kelly and the House that these reports are not ignored, however it may seem. Believe me, I have heard concerns that they are ignored or that, shall we say, sufficient weight is not always — even not often — attached to them. As I said, the report of a conservation officer is a material consideration that must be balanced with other material considerations for each application. Each application is unique and assessed on its own merits or otherwise.

As for strengthening this policy, or perhaps giving more weight than is currently given to conservation officer reports, the Member will be aware, as will other Members, particularly those on the Committee for the Environment, that work on the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) is well under way. We have had over 700 responses to the consultation on the draft SPPS. A summary of those responses went to the Committee just last week or the week before, and my officials and I are working through them. This SPPS is not and, in my opinion, should not be merely a consolidation of existing planning policy statements but a great opportunity to improve them.

Conservation issues will be in the mix. I will also look to see how and whether this particular element can be improved.

Mr A Maginness: In the context of what the Minister referred to, in north Belfast, we have a very old part of the city. There is Clifton Street, including Clifton House, which is a very historic building. We also have the Grand Orange Lodge building as well, which was the former headquarters of the Orange Lodge in Belfast. In addition, we have other historic buildings, such as St Patrick's Church and also maybe 'The Irish News' building — I do not know whether it is historic or not.

In that context, how would the Minister prevent an adverse impact on the development of student accommodation in that area that might feed the student population of the new University of Ulster buildings in that area?


2.15 pm

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Maginness for not just the supplementary question but the virtual tour of the north of Belfast.

I am committed to ensuring that my Department plays its full role in ensuring that the provision of student accommodation has no detrimental impact on the built heritage or the amenity of local communities. In order to achieve that and to maximise the benefits associated with investment in the area of north Belfast — there has been quite a lot of publicity around proposals and potential proposals in your constituency — I have asked my Department to explore options to develop a comprehensive approach to that form of development. However, I must also recognise that we take full account of the statutory planning process, which will include the Belfast metropolitan area plan (BMAP) and policies contained in the HMO subject plan.

I recently met the Mayor of Belfast, Nicola Mallon, about concerns that the council had with regard to some of the proposals and potential proposals and their impact on not just the built heritage but the amenity of local communities, as I said. A holistic approach to assessing and dealing with those applications is necessary to ensure that the right and appropriate balance is struck between built heritage and the economic benefits that can and should come to the local communities with investment in that area.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn. A written response will issue.

Mr Durkan: I am committed to ensuring that the protections for the interests of minority communities in council decision-making, which are enshrined in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, apply to all decisions by the new councils, including those taken during the shadow period. Many of the decisions will establish the framework and ethos within which a council will operate once it takes on its full responsibilities from 1 April 2015.

Taking that commitment into account, section 41 of the Act, which makes provision for members to request the reconsideration, or call-in, of a council decision in specified circumstances, was brought into operation by commencement order from 2 June 2014 and is therefore available to members of a new council during the shadow period. Section 41 also requires a council to make provision in its standing orders to require the clerk to the council to obtain the opinion of a practising barrister or solicitor where the call-in has been requested on the grounds that the decision would disproportionately affect adversely any section of the inhabitants of the district.

Section 37 of the Act, which also came into operation on 2 June, places a duty on a council to make standing orders for the regulation of the proceedings and business of the council. Therefore, during the shadow period, a council is under a statutory duty to make provision for the call-in procedure. In addition, the local government regulations specify that a council's standing orders must include provision that a qualified majority is required in relation to a council's decision on a call-in made on the ground of disproportionate adverse impact. Section 38 provides the Department with an enabling power to specify in regulations the provisions that a council must incorporate in its standing orders.

As I indicated during the passage of the Bill in the Assembly, my Department intends that the call-in procedure will be specified in regulations made under section 38 as a mandatory aspect of the council's standing orders, which will ensure a consistent procedure across all councils.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that very complex answer. I am sure that everybody took in every detail of the points. Will he advise whether any shadow council so far has used the call-in procedure? Have there been any queries through his Department on any legal advice sought yet on the procedure?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Elliott for his question and supplementary. The supplementary was not as complex, nor will my answer be, you will be relieved to hear.

No council has officially gone down that route. However, there have been representations and questions from a couple of councils regarding particular decisions. There have even been questions as to whether decisions that have been made were decisions or not, let alone whether they could be called in. One that springs to mind is the representation made by Limavady council on the decision to defer making a decision on leisure facilities in Dungiven. There have been a couple of queries, but there has been no concrete action from any council on this matter, much to my relief.

Mr Campbell: The Minister will be aware that there was a major decision taken by the Londonderry and Strabane council surrounding the name of the council that had ramifications going back 30 years and all the consequences in community division that flowed therefrom. Is he aware that there will inevitably be a call-in on those grounds? What will the outcome be once that call-in procedure has been activated?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle agus go raibh maith agat don Uasal Campbell as an cheist sin. I thank Mr Campbell for that question. The major decision to which he refers is one that he may deem controversial; however, I am not sure how many others do. As the legislation and the regulations are about protecting the rights of minorities, he may feel that that warrants a call-in. He says that it is inevitable, but I have yet to hear of any approach by the council or any of its members. Perhaps, they are seeking the legal advice that is required before anyone goes down that route.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. He made reference to Limavady, which of course is only one of two councils that have switched from nationalist control to unionist control. Could the call-in procedure be used on the decision by the Causeway Coast and Glens Council to defer a decision to develop leisure facilities in Dungiven? That caused huge controversy.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Dallat for his supplementary. As he pointed out, I referred to that decision in a previous answer. It is my understanding that Limavady council or members thereof are seeking legal advice, as is required, to establish whether the decision to defer making a decision qualifies as a decision. He rightly said that the decision to defer making the decision was controversial and could be very detrimental not only to leisure provision in the Dungiven area but to community relations in the new council area.

Mr Campbell: And the Londonderry one did not?

Mr Durkan: The HGV road user levy is a UK Government tax, which was brought in by Westminster on 1 April 2014. Whilst I remain concerned and continue to monitor the impact of the levy on hauliers on this island, I believe that my pragmatic decision that the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) will enforce payment of the levy alongside its normal activities will have the least detrimental impact on hauliers. Therefore, I have no plans to reverse the decision. On 4 November, the Assembly affirmed my decision by voting down the prayers of annulment against the five statutory rules that provided for domestic enforcement of the levy by fixed penalties.

The levy has been developed in compliance with EU rules on road user charging. To avoid infraction, the UK Government must ensure that payment of the levy is enforced. If DVA were not to enforce the levy, the Department for Transport would have no option but to introduce its own enforcement regime in the North. I do not consider that Irish hauliers would benefit from another enforcement agency operating here, as that would significantly increase the chance that they would be delayed en route as a result of encountering multiple roadside checks. In addition to the greater efficiencies that having the DVA enforce the levy would bring, there are financial benefits in staff and equipment resources that will give the DVA greater flexibility in ensuring that road transport in Northern Ireland is as safe as possible.

Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will know that the HGV levy will have a very negative impact on the North/South economy, not least in my constituency of Newry and Armagh. Has the Minister sought to re-engage the British and Irish Governments to try to achieve an arrangement that reflects the situation on the island of Ireland? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Brady for that supplementary question. This was the subject of a long enough debate last week. Coming from a border constituency myself, I fully recognise the impact that the levy could have on cross-border trade and cross-border traders. Prior to making the decision, I engaged in exhaustive correspondence and negotiation with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland and the Department for Transport in London with a view to initially avoiding the introduction of the levy here and then seeking exemptions around particular routes, the A5 being one of particular relevance to my constituency and that of others. I secured from Minister Robert Goodwill in the Department for Transport a commitment that this would be monitored. If we, Mr Brady or the hauliers themselves are able to provide evidence of any detrimental impact being caused to business by this levy, the enforcement and implementation of the levy here in the North could be reviewed.

Mrs Cameron: Following on from the suspiciously long debate on the issue last week, could the Minister outline what action the Department for Transport at Westminster would have taken if the Assembly had not approved the regulations to enforce the road user levy?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mrs Cameron for that question. As outlined in my initial answer to Mr Brady, had I not decided to proceed with enforcement of the levy here through the DVA, the Department for Transport, due to EU regulation and rather than face EU infractions, would have had no option other than to come here to enforce the levy itself. I indicated during the debate and again today that having one local agency doing that could, should and will work to the advantage of these hauliers, rather than having multiple agencies carrying out roadside checks that would lead to delays that would inevitably and definitely have a detrimental impact on the business of hauliers. We were able to secure from DfT funding that will enable us to provide three additional jobs in DVA to enforce the levy and £0·75 million that can be spent on automatic number plate recognition cameras that can be used not just around levy enforcement but to help DVA with the other checks that it has to do to ensure the roadworthiness and safety of the vehicles using our roads here in the North.


2.30 pm

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

T1. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister of the Environment to outline his commitment to the protection and development of the built heritage. (AQT 1721/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Eastwood for that question. The built heritage of Derry, as Mr Eastwood well knows, is a key selling point for the city, in the attraction of visitors and the encouragement of inward investment.

Mr Wilson: Are you going to guard auld Derry's walls?

[Laughter.]

Mr Durkan: It is also a key focus of pride for residents, and that is why I am committed to ensuring that important work to realise its full potential continues into the future. Over the past 10 years — I heard Mr Wilson calling out there; he will remember — my Department has worked in partnership with Derry City Council and other key stakeholders on a range of built heritage projects in the city. That has included delivery of the Walled City signature project, focusing on the conservation of the walls and six key buildings, including the Guildhall. We have also worked with the Foyle Civic Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund to deliver the Townscape Heritage project. We also provided assistance to an Gaeláras and the Inner City Trust to purchase and conserve two very important listed buildings.

My Department also works with partners to build on the efforts of 2013 to offer events focused on the city's heritage and increase awareness. It delivered an Archaeology Day event in June and a strong celebration of the city's built heritage, focused on European Heritage Open Days in the summer.

Of course, a key area of action is in the processing of applications for planning permission, listed building consent and conservation area consent. I am committed to ensuring that my Department continuously seeks high standards of design and protects the special architectural and historic character of the city's buildings and areas throughout this process.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the work done on the built heritage, the protection and support of it, has been of great economic benefit to our city? Will he further give a commitment — if he is able, in these economically straitened times — to continuing that work and ensuring that we have protection for the built heritage and the economic spin-off as a result of that?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Eastwood for his supplementary question. He touches on the economic benefit that can be generated through investment in the built heritage, and that is something that cannot be denied. It has been evidenced that for every £1 spent by the Department on built heritage — be it on restoration or renovation of listed buildings — a further £7 from other sectors is attracted. That is of major benefit to any area, but particularly to an area like Derry where, I suppose, other economic opportunities are so unfortunately sparse.

I remain committed to the built heritage in Derry. However, given the swingeing cuts in the Budget, I cannot say that the commitment that has been given by the Department over recent years can be maintained. That is something that causes me great concern and will cause great concern to people not just in Derry but right across the North, those with an interest in built heritage and those who see the economic driver that our built heritage has become.

T2. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of the Environment whether he agrees that the coming of Christmas is topical and, if so, what cooperation he has had from other Departments and from London to make Christmas a little bit more hopeful and to extend some goodwill and prosperity to the former Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) workers in Coleraine who are now about to run out of the temporary work they were given by DSD. (AQT 1722/11-15)

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Dallat. It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that Christmas becomes topical as soon as we reach Halloween.

I understand and sympathise fully with the DVA workers who are in limbo and who face great uncertainty. As a result of the DFT decision, 272 DVA licensing staff became surplus. To date, 118 of those staff have been redeployed to other duties or cleared by other means; for example promotion or retirement and transfer to DOE posts, relocated by me from Belfast to Coleraine. In total, that was about 50 administration jobs.

The agreement of the previous Minister for Social Development to temporarily provide work for staff in Coleraine was very much appreciated, and it helped to ensure that more than 60 surplus DVA staff had been utilised in meaningful work on behalf of the Child Maintenance Service since the licensing services ceased at the end of July. However, that work is temporary and will continue only until the end of this year; the complement of staff required for that work has already begun to reduce. I wrote to Minister Storey on this just last week, and he informed me that there is no scope for DSD to transfer any further work to Coleraine on a permanent or temporary basis.

One glimmer of hope for staff there is a guarantee or an assurance that I have received from the DVLA in Swansea that it will contribute significantly to an early-exit scheme for workers. It is geographically limited, but it is not limited to these DVA staff and could and should free up positions in the Civil Service in and around the north-west to which they can transfer.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I commend him for the strenuous efforts that he has made to alleviate the plight of those wonderful people in Coleraine. I have to say, though, in my supplementary question that I am extremely disappointed that he has not been able to report greater cooperation from other Departments. Can the Minister update us on the situation not only with the jobs but with the services? My indication is that there are horrendous problems.

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Dallat for that supplementary and his recognition of the battle, I suppose, fought by me and my predecessor, Minister Attwood, to retain these jobs. That was not just about protecting public servants but was about protecting a high-quality public service that people in the North had come to expect. Sadly, since the transfer to Swansea, there has been, without doubt, a diminution of that service. I am sure that that has manifested itself in many representations and calls to me from other Members of the House and councillors across the North representing constituents who are encountering difficulties in Swansea.

I have followed this up continuously with Minister Goodwill, and I have to say that, in response to a letter to him, I got a letter from Claire Perry MP. She replied to me recently, confirming that she is aware that there were issues with what they deem a small number of records, reassuring me that they would be rectified as a matter of priority. DVLA has since stated at official level that the initial teething problems have largely been rectified and that any issues identified with individual records are being dealt with through a normal line of business. I also provided a special hotline for elected Members to Swansea, should they have any particular constituent complaints. They contend that most of these issues have been rectified, and I think that that is reflected in the reduction in the amount of correspondence that I am getting on these issues.

T3. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister of the Environment what measures he is taking to ensure that Northern Ireland Environment Agency-owned property is as accessible as possible to the public. (AQT 1723/11-15)

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Miss McIlveen for her question. As I outlined in my answer to Colum Eastwood, I fully appreciate and recognise the value of our built heritage, not just as part of our rich tourism product but as something to be cherished and enjoyed by residents here. It is my intention to ensure that our built heritage assets remain as accessible as they have become over recent years to tourists and locals alike.

Due to unforeseen budgetary cuts in the summer, I had to make a decision that resulted in a reduction of staffing at some of the assets. A lot of the staff at those locations are employed on a temporary or seasonal basis, and some had to be let go a couple of weeks earlier than normal. However, by shifting around the workforce in the NIEA, I have managed to address those problems, and, hopefully, they will be back at full throttle next summer.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answer. As a Strangford MLA, I find it disappointing to see built heritage closed, such as Scrabo Tower, which closed quite recently, Newtownards Priory and Kirkistown Castle, which I wrote to the Minister about recently. Along with other striking historical structures that have been closed to the public for many years, they could draw additional tourists to those areas. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that sites are opened and are tied into a tourism strategy that will benefit the people who live and work near them, particularly in my constituency?

Mr Durkan: I thank Miss McIlveen for that supplementary question. In particular, I have gone to some effort to ensure that Scrabo Tower is reopened. I have not yet got round to replying to the correspondence she referred to, but I will do so in the near future. I am sure that it will reflect what I am saying here, which is that I am committed to exploring any option that is available to us, as a Department, or the NIEA, as an agency, to ensure that those facilities can be opened, so that we can maximise the benefits of these assets to the local community.

T4. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the number of compensation payments made in south Belfast not only for the floods on 16 October but following the much worse floods in 2012 and during the last 10 years, if the scheme existed then, and thanked the Minister for his intervention to provide emergency compensation payments to those families in south Belfast that were devastated by the floods on 16 October. (AQT 1724/11-15)

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Ó Muilleoir for his question and welcome him to the Assembly.

In October, heavy rainfall resulted in flooding in properties in south Belfast. The Member, of course, is well aware of that. I am sure that he was up to his eyes in it, or at least to his knees. I activated the scheme of emergency financial assistance, which allowed residents affected by flooding to apply through their local council for a £1,000 emergency grant. That practical assistance is available only to those who have suffered severe inconvenience, to help make their home habitable as quickly as possible.

I do not have figures for the floods a few years ago. They predated my time in office. However, I understand that some 35 homes in south Belfast were affected by the more recent flooding in October and were entitled to the £1,000 payment.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, but I do not have time for a supplementary question.

Finance and Personnel

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I inform Members that questions 7 and 13 have been withdrawn.


2.45 pm

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Whilst I meet the local banks regularly, the focus of the discussions is on current levels of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises and restructuring to ensure that local areas continue to have adequate access to financial services. I would be happy to raise with the banks any concerns or evidence in respect of customers in Northern Ireland being unfairly subject to higher bank charges, but I am not aware that it is a major issue. In addition, differences in banking charges are a consumer issue, which, perhaps, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment would be in a better position to take forward. It is, of course, a matter for the Irish Government to represent the interests of banking customers resident in the Republic of Ireland, although that should not be to the detriment of Northern Ireland customers.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. I heard what you said, Minister, but local banks have higher standard and non-standard bank charges than the same banks operating in the South and, indeed, some of the British banks. Does the Minister agree that that is not appropriate and that the issue should be addressed promptly?

Mr Hamilton: As I said in my response, I am not aware of it being a major issue. If the Member is in receipt of different evidence, I am happy to look at it. In fact, if the Member wishes to furnish me with any information that she has on differences or perceived discrepancies between banking charges on this side of the Irish border versus the other, particularly within the same bank — bearing in mind, of course, that whilst they may be part of the same group, they are different companies and operate in different currencies — I would be very content to do so. There are, perhaps, a range of explanations for why it may be the case, but, as of yet, I have not received a wealth of correspondence from anyone suggesting that it is a problem. However, if the Member has been informed differently, I would be happy to take receipt of that information and take it up with the banks in the regular meetings that I have with them.

Lord Morrow: What progress has the access-to-finance implementation panel made to date?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. The House will recall that the access-to-finance implementation panel was established by my counterpart the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and me to take forward the recommendations in Minister Foster's economic advisory group's report on access to finance. We have been very well served by the members on the panel, namely, Russel Griggs, who heads up the appeals mechanism for the British Bankers' Association; John Trethowan, head of the Irish Credit Review Office: and Ann McGregor, who will be familiar to many in the House as the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. Their direct experience with banks and local businesses has been invaluable to Minister Foster and me in improving access to finance. We took receipt of their report and its recommendations, which covered four broad areas: looking at the structure of our banking sector in Northern Ireland, which is recognised as being different and unique to this part of the United Kingdom; property overhang, which the Member and the House will be familiar with as being a particular problem in Northern Ireland; the education needed across the board on the changed circumstances in banking in Northern Ireland; and, importantly, and something that we can take forward quite quickly, the need for banks, business and government to work much better together and to improve communication between them.

Members will be aware of the difficulties that we have had as a House, and which the Committees have had, in engaging with banks in the past. If there is an attempt, and I believe there to be a genuine willingness on the part of banks, to engage better with government, we will all be the beneficiaries. The recommendations were put to the joint ministerial task force on banking. The Secretary of State, Treasury and business Ministers from Whitehall were also present. There are many parts of the recommendations that they can take on board as well. I put on record my thanks to the members of the panel for their work to date.

Mrs D Kelly: The Minister said that there is an overlap with DETI, but are there any recommendations that could be followed up in relation to your discussions with banks and small businesses on procurement in the public sector or have any been actioned? Further to that, have the banks made any threat of closure to some small businesses?

Mr Hamilton: That is a fairly wide-ranging question. The Member has successfully inserted the issues of procurement and small and medium-sized enterprises into a question about banking. It is an area that I receive a lot of correspondence about from time to time, not least from the Member and others. I appreciate that it is impossible to satisfy everybody with regard to procurement. There are always winners and losers, given the nature of the contest that goes on for public sector tenders, which are sizeable. We are a large customer in Northern Ireland. Government spends about £2·6 billion each year on public procurement. I am content that we have managed, in so far as we can, to strike a balance between value for money and ensuring that local small to medium-sized enterprises get a fair chunk of the business.

There is always scope for improvement, and I am always willing to listen to people who will suggest that improvements can be made. Some 81% of contracts between April and August have been awarded to SMEs, with 74% of contracts awarded to Northern Ireland firms. So, Northern Ireland firms do pretty well in respect of government procurement in Northern Ireland.

With regard to issues with banks and small to medium-sized enterprises, we are seeing from the published lending data that, as a result of the work put in over the last number of years, there is a loosening up in the availability of cash to small to medium-sized enterprises. It is not quite right yet, and it is not quite where we need it to be, but there is an improvement, with a sizeable increase between quarter 1 and quarter 2 of this year and a year-on-year increase. So there are signs that there is an improvement in the availability of finance for small to medium-sized enterprises, which is so essential for wanting to grow our economy.

Mr Hamilton: The Northern Ireland Civil Service is generally regarded as an exemplar employer in its flexible working human resource policies. The Civil Service offers a range of flexible working patterns such as flexitime, term-time and part-time working and job sharing to support staff in the balance between their work commitments and life responsibilities. Whilst there is a guiding and overriding principle that the flexibility should be achieved without adverse effect on the overall efficiency of Departments or on service to the public, the aim of the flexible working policies is not primarily to reduce costs.

My Department provides the technology to support a range of flexible working options. However, decisions to deploy technology to support a more flexible or agile work style are a matter for individual business areas in Departments.

Mr McCartney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. This morning, the former Finance Minister was involved in a very interesting discussion on Radio Ulster. Despite the different political perspectives, productivity featured, which would be no bad thing for all aspects of the economy. Are there any other steps that the Civil Service could take through flexitime to increase productivity, which would be a bonus for all concerned?

Mr Hamilton: I heard the Member's contribution on the radio this morning. We might come on to that, as question 4 is probably more relevant to that. So I do not want to say anything about that just yet.

In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with less money available to government in Northern Ireland to spend, we want to see increases in productivity. That can be a challenge in the circumstances, but, irrespective of the circumstances, we should always seek to increase productivity across the board. I appreciate that being a more flexible employer and making new practices, new policies and new technologies available to our staff is important.

We had a short but, nonetheless, useful debate on the subject yesterday in the Assembly, and we were able to highlight some things. Whilst there was understandable criticism of some elements of our policy development by the Committee in its report, it was an opportunity for me to highlight where we have been doing a good job in becoming an exemplar, particularly in the use of teleconferencing. The Member will be interested to know that, in his constituency, on a daily basis, NI Direct staff in Belfast have teleconferencing meetings with their counterparts in Londonderry, which allows staff to work closer to home.

We have also developed a range of business zones, or hubs, across Northern Ireland. That is something that I am keen to take forward with the Department where opportunities might arise. So we have some in Belfast and Castle Buildings on the Stormont estate. There is also one in Marlborough House in Craigavon and one in Academy House in Ballymena, and they allow staff to plug into the system securely, even though they are not based in those buildings. There is a range of other measures that we have been able to bring forward. My job is to ensure that the policy is there and the technology is there. It is very much up to the Departments, where and when appropriate, to take that forward. I will not be found wanting in making sure that the policies and the technology are there to allow increased productivity in the way that the Member suggests.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin agus tá ceist agam don Aire faoin chóras oibre solúbtha san earnáil phoiblí. I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister heard the debate yesterday on flexible working. One of the points made during that debate related to the considerable savings made through flexible working arrangements in Whitehall Departments. Does the Minister agree that it is preferable to make savings through the promotion of flexible working arrangements rather than a reduction in the headcount in the public service?

Mr Hamilton: I do not actually agree with the premise that the Member is putting forward. When we are facing — as we are in the next financial year — over £200 million worth of reductions in public spending, and when we are looking at a public spending landscape to the end of this decade where 13% in real terms reduction is what we could face in cuts to our spending, which would be equivalent to over a further £1 billion coming out of public spending in Northern Ireland, with the best will in the world, the adoption of all of the flexible working practices that you could think of will not bridge that gap. For example, if you take Marlborough House as the business zone that allows staff to work there even if they are not actually based in Marlborough House in Craigavon, the indicative monthly saving on travel costs to those staff is £5,300. We would need a lot of savings like that across different places to bridge a £200 million spending gap, never mind a £1 billion spending gap.

We can certainly use that to help make savings, although it is not the principal objective. The principal objective for me is to ensure that you get better work/life balance, that people are working closer to home, and that it fits in around their care and the other needs that they might have as ordinary citizens. Of course, you will not get significant savings through flexible working if you do not have a commensurate reduction in the footprint of the Civil Service estate across Northern Ireland, and that is something that we have been aggressively pursuing. The asset management strategy is seeking to realise, and has been realising, over £15 million of savings a year as we consolidate the Civil Service office estate. However, with the best will in the world, and with respect to the Member, I do not think that adopting flexible working policies is going to see us through a £200 million spending shortfall in Northern Ireland, never mind a £1 billion spending shortfall between now and the end of the decade.

Mrs Cochrane: Has the Minister assessed whether there are any gender differences in the uptake of the current flexible working practices and, if so, are those a barrier to women progressing in the Civil Service?

Mr Hamilton: No, I have not assessed whether there are any gender differences. As we talked about yesterday during the debate, sometimes there is a focus on flexible working being around flexitime, which is available to a wide range of civil servants, or it is about homeworking and things like that. However, it can be about job sharing and other aspects that may be, I am guessing, more prevalent among female members of staff. I have no evidence to back that up, but I will certainly dig that out for the Member and provide her with it. It may be helpful in revealing whether there are issues around the take-up, particularly by female members of staff and whether that is a barrier to progression to the Senior Civil Service, where, of course, we have an issue about attracting more women into Senior Civil Service grade posts.

Mr Hamilton: The Executive are facing a 1·6% real terms reduction in their resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) in 2015-16. Combined with a number of central and departmental pressures, that means that all Departments will be required to deliver significant savings in 2015-16 and beyond. The draft Budget, which I announced on 3 November, sets out the Executive’s plan for a balanced budget in 2015-16.

The only strategic lever open to the Executive to raise significant amounts of additional funding is the regional rate, which contributes approximately £650 million to public services. The Executive have agreed that, in 2015-16, regional rates will increase by the rate of inflation only. I consider it unfair to ask our citizens to pay more at a time when our economy is still recovering. For the most part, the power to generate additional income lies with individual Departments rather the Executive as a whole. Although no specific proposals have been included as part of the draft Budget, Ministers are encouraged to consider options for increasing revenue where appropriate.


3.00 pm

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. Has the Minister considered any new progressive levies that might broaden the revenue base?

Mr Hamilton: I am tempted to put it to the back to the Member to suggest where he thinks that could take place. We have to be careful. I know that the Member and his party are prone to thinking that money grows on trees sometimes. Even just inserting the word "progressive" in front of something almost seems to suggest that it takes away the pain of having to pay any tax, but people and businesses have to pay in some way.

A study has been undertaken by my Department, which will conclude very soon, into additional tax-varying powers that we might want to take on as an Assembly. Some of those that might be in a more favourable position are things like landfill tax or stamp duty. It is interesting to observe what they are doing in Scotland at the minute, where they are attempting to have a more progressive stamp duty land tax system put in place or a transactional tax as I think they call it. I am open to looking at all of those. I do not think that they would have the same transformative effect on our economy as, for example, the likes of corporation tax would, but they are interesting to look at nonetheless, and if they provide some benefit for Northern Ireland and are affordable, I would be supportive of devolving them, particularly if they have a defined social and/or economic benefit.

We have to bear in mind that our ability to raise revenue off a very small tax base is limited and, even if it was progressive, somebody still has to pay for it. Whilst the economy, in my view, is recovering, doing a lot better and improving all the time, we have to be mindful and very careful about increasing the tax take from our citizens at a time when many of them are still feeling under significant pressure.

Mr Campbell: It is refreshing to hear the Minister directly answering questions. It is refreshing when compared to his DCAL colleague last Monday, who refused to. Could I ask the Minister —

[Interruption.]

I obviously hit the bullseye again.

When the discussions and debates are going on —

[Interruption.]

Mr Campbell: — in response to the draft Budget, has he outlined or identified any areas of additional revenue that he may begin potentially to explore beyond that stage?

Mr Hamilton: Some have tried to characterise the Budget as not raising revenue at all. It does include an increase in our rates, and the regional rate will go up by the rate of inflation, which I think is the right level for it to go up by. I think that people understand that our costs are rising, just as their costs are rising, and I think that an inflationary increase is acceptable. Anything beyond that, and you are into the sort of difficulties that I was outlining to Mr Ó hOisín in terms of the pressures that households are under. Our rates take will go up because of increasing the regional rate by the rate of inflation.

I think that there is limited scope for other charges or costs to be implemented. I am happy — "content" is probably a better word — to look at a range of other measures that might have broader political support, and it is important that, if we start to entertain other ideas, they have a measure of broad political support and cannot just be one party or another party introducing it itself through a Department.

I am thinking of things like rates. Rates is what is called an unhypothecated tax, where the money comes in and goes to a range of services. It does not go to particular services. I would be content and prepared to look at hypothecating revenue from some sources going to particular areas. I am thinking primarily of things like prescription charges and a reintroduction of some level of prescription charges so long as the revenue is targeted towards some of those pressures that our colleague the Health Minister is facing over drugs for cancer and other serious illnesses.

I listened with interest to the contribution by the two vice chancellors last week. A similar argument could be made for a small increase in student fees that would go to support the higher education sector through some of the difficulties it is going to have in the next financial year. I am happy to explore and look at those things, but I think it needs a measure of reality in all parts and broad support around the Chamber —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Time is up, Minister.

Mr Hamilton: — for doing those sorts of things.

Mr Kinahan: Following on in the same way, has the Minister looked at and discussed with Westminster ways of gearing more money out of the income that we get, either from the Treasury or from others, so that we could make more use of the money that we get to lever more money from other sources?

Mr Hamilton: I think one of the ways in which the draft Budget does that is through the proposal to create an investment fund. Mr Cree is just over the Member's right shoulder; he is a frequent questioner in the House about the use of financial transactions capital. That is an innovative and imaginative way in which we can use that financial transactions capital. We actually run the risk of not being able to spend all of our allocation this year.

The investment fund that I speak about ticks the box that the Member is talking about because it is going to put in about £100 million of financial transactions capital over the next number of years and will leverage in around £1 billion additional investment from, we hope, the European Investment Bank. So that is extracting better value out of the money that we receive from Treasury. I am thinking about imaginative and creative ways of exploiting that and getting, in that case, a 10:1 benefit out of it.

Mr Hamilton: I do not see how the introduction of a living wage would impact on savings or receipts in Northern Ireland. Whilst an analysis of the economic impact of replacing the minimum wage with the living wage has not been conducted by my Department, the key issue is that any increased tax receipts would accrue to the Treasury, as would any social security benefits savings.

Whilst the Northern Ireland Executive might in theory benefit from increased revenue through the regional rate, any impact is likely to be marginal at best. It is also important to recognise that the living wage for Northern Ireland may be lower than in the rest of the UK, reflecting the lower house prices and the support that the Executive are providing by holding rates low and not introducing water charges.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer so far. I hear what he has said but does he not agree with me that an increase in wages would actually boost the economy and lift a lot of our people out of poverty? Will he commit to carrying out a full and detailed analysis of the potential impact of the living wage on the local economy?

Mr Hamilton: The Member and I will not disagree about whether increased wages are a good thing. In fact, the essence of the previous Minister's contribution on the radio this morning was that what we want to see in our economy is increasing wages. That is precisely what the economic strategy that has been agreed by the Executive is all about. As Mr Wilson pointed out today, the majority of the jobs that Invest Northern Ireland has attracted have been for well in excess of the median wage in Northern Ireland. That in itself is a way in which we can combat low pay in our economy — by attracting new jobs that pay in excess of the average wage. That is something that we should continue to pursue. It is a worthy goal of our economic strategy. It is not even a worthy goal; it is something that we have actually been achieving.

I do want to see wages increase. I think that there is an obligation on employers, as the economy improves and they see their own positions as companies improve, to pass on the benefits of those improvements to their staff. Whilst I and other colleagues in the House could ream off a whole selection of statistics that show that our economy is growing — economic growth is happening, unemployment is going down, employment is going up, property prices are rising; there is a whole range of indicators — the one place in which I do not think economic recovery is being felt is in people's pockets. That is why I think it is right that we keep household taxes low in Northern Ireland, but we have to be mindful that that is caused by the fact that perhaps their wages have not been increasing, or, particularly in the private sector, their wages have gone down over the last number of years. So I do want to see, as the economy grows — I think that all of us would want to see, as the economy grows — employers uplifting the pay of their employees. I think that we would all agree with that.

As for conducting a study, I have nothing against it. I am not entirely sure, given the nature of the subject, whether it is my Department's responsibility or the Department of Enterprise's responsibility to do something like that. Certainly, it is something that I will consult colleagues on.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. I wonder, Minister, whether you would be willing to introduce a living-wage condition as part of public procurement contracts.

Mr Hamilton: This was the subject of a debate some time ago in the House, and, as far as I am concerned, the issues have not radically changed. Again, we want the people who are winning procurement contracts to pay those who work for them an appropriate wage. The difficulty, I think, is that there is a range of issues that we would have to be mindful of if we were to seek to enforce it in all Government contracts.
The first is that it is likely that the successful contractor would push the price onto us as the customer, and that we would see the price that we are paying for contracts go up as a result of increased costs. That would ultimately mean, as it happened across the board, that there would be less money in the public purse to spend on projects that benefit Northern Ireland.

There would also be an issue of policing it: how would we police it and ensure that they were doing it? There would also be a situation where somebody in a firm was generally getting paid a normal wage that was below the living wage, but for Government contracts they would be on a living wage. You could have a situation where for three days of the week they were getting paid a living wage, and for two days of the week they were back down to, say, the national minimum wage. There are issues and practical difficulties. It is not something that I am pursuing as a policy. I imagine that, for most of the contracts that we are letting, people are being paid around or above the minimum wage anyway, but I think that there are practical concerns that we would have to bear in mind if we were to head down that route.

Mr Lyttle: Does the Minister agree that one of the most important ways to increase people's wages is for the Executive to prioritise investment in the skills of our community? I ask him whether he thinks that the 10% reduction included in his most recent Budget reflects that priority.

Mr Hamilton: I hope that the whole House, including the Member and his party colleagues, recognise the very difficult financial circumstances that the Executive find ourselves in. It would be incredibly difficult; every area of public spending, at Budget time, becomes a priority. I am already starting to hear representations from a wide range of groups saying that their area of funding should not merely be protected but increased. Whenever those representations come forward, I very rarely get any suggestions from those people as to where the money might be found, what other budget it might be taken from, or what source of revenue might be increased to bridge the gap.

I have said — I think that I said it last Monday — that the area of the Budget settlement that I am least satisfied with is probably the Department for Employment and Learning's settlement. There are reasons to do with how the Minister put forward his bids. They were not inescapable bids, which would have allowed me to meet them much more easily than I might otherwise have been able to. However, I am prepared to work with him, and I will be meeting him in the next number of weeks. I am prepared to meet those in the broad university/college sector, and others as well, to see what we can do in these difficult circumstances.

Let us bear in mind that money is not just going to drop from the sky to the Executive between draft and final stage to allow us to give it all to universities or colleges, much as we might like that. However, I am prepared to commit myself to working towards doing that. It is an area of the Budget that I would like to see increased, or certainly the impact of the cuts on it reduced, between draft and final Budget. However, that will take considerable effort, and it will not be an easy task, given the financial circumstances that we find ourselves in.

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

T1. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to explain why, although the Executive were to receive, as part of this Budget, £20 million from the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, they actually did not. (AQT 1731/11-15)

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Seo í mo cheist ar an Aire. De réir an Bhuiséid atá i réim faoi láthair, bhí £20 milliún le teacht ó Choimisinéirí Chalafort Bhéal Feirste, ach níor tháinig an t-airgead sin chuig an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire cad chuige nár tháinig an t-airgead sin.

In case you think that that was a Gregorian chant, it was not.

[Laughter.]

A Gregorian chant is a form of liturgy that came into vogue during the reign of Pope Gregory.

[Laughter.]


3.15 pm

Mr Hamilton: I am glad that the Member clarified that that was not a Gregorian chant. If that was anything to go by, I certainly do not think that a recording career awaits him.

The Member is right that the current Budget that we are in, which is the 2011-15 Budget, was predicated on "releasing value" — I think that was the term that was used — from the Port of Belfast. The Port of Belfast is one of our biggest and most profitable companies in Northern Ireland, and there was a widespread view in the Executive that there was value to be extracted from it. That is because the port has done incredibly well not just in growing its core business of being a port but principally in the development of land in its ownership. Whilst I supported seeking to get that £20 million from the port, unfortunately that has not been possible due to legal difficulties. I am incredibly disappointed that the Department for Regional Development has not pursued that £20 million with the gusto that I would have expected it to. I would not be alone in taking the view that there was never really seriousness in that Department about pursuing that £20 million. That is why we are in the situation now where we do not have it.

I have had to restore that £20 million to the baseline in next year's Budget, the 2015-16 Budget, because I do not think that it would be feasible to continue without doing that or dealing with the issue conclusively. In monitoring rounds in the last number of financial years we had been allocating £20 million to the port, although we have not agreed to do that this year because of the difficult circumstances that we are in in-year.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat arís, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra chuimsitheach sin. Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. Does the Minister agree with me that the Executive have been hoodwinked by the Harbour Commissioners? Will he now give us an assurance that he will make efforts to ensure that we receive the £20 million that is due to us?

Mr Hamilton: I am not sure that I would agree with the characterisation of being "hoodwinked". Whilst next year's Budget will not be predicated on releasing £20 million from the port, I do not think that we as an Executive should give up on the pursuit of releasing value from the port. It is, after all, a public asset, and, whilst I am not pleased with the endeavours made by the Department for Regional Development, I am equally not pleased with the way that the Harbour Commissioners have behaved in this respect. In my view, they have not been willing to meet with the Executive to meet halfway or even to compromise in some way. This is a publicly owned asset that is operated on our behalf by the Port of Belfast and the Harbour Commissioners. It is doing pretty well, and I commend the Harbour Commissioners for their stewardship of the Port of Belfast and for the development of land around it. However, I think that it is only right and proper that, occasionally, although not all the time, government here at Stormont should seek to release value from it that can be deployed elsewhere on behalf of our citizens. I think that is perfectly reasonable, and I do not think that it should be met by the threat of legal challenge by the port. They should seek to work with us to release value from it as a one-off or on a short-term basis.

The fact that it is not in the draft Budget does not mean that I have given up on it. I am not sure whether the same could be said for the Minister for Regional Development. I feel that he gave up on it some time ago, and, as a result, we are in a position where his Department is £20 million worse off this year.

T2. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the review of commercial rates. (AQT 1732/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: Most of the fieldwork for the review of non-domestic revaluation has concluded. Some final bits and bobs of work are going on. I hope that we will be able to publish a draft list of the new valuation of our 70-odd thousand non-domestic properties across Northern Ireland within weeks.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for that update. Given that we have seen some high-profile closures in my city, including Austins, which has, thankfully, been bought this week from the receivers, can the Minister tell us whether the review will do anything to prevent major established businesses in my city and other towns and cities across the North going out of business as a direct result of rates issues?

Mr Hamilton: I cannot commit to no major businesses anywhere in Northern Ireland, including Londonderry, going out of business as a result of anything. I cannot make such a commitment. The Member is chancing his arm in asking me to do that.

With the revaluation, we are trying to re-establish fairness in the non-domestic rating system. I had what, I hope, was a useful meeting with his party colleague Mr Ramsey and traders from the city of Londonderry, at which I explained the history of non-domestic rates and what I anticipate will be the results for Londonderry city centre of the non-domestic revaluation.

I cannot, conclusively, say now — I do not want to pre-empt publication of the draft list by saying what I expect from it — but I expect a rebalancing of non-domestic rating values across Northern Ireland. In towns and cities, such as the Member's, where there has been a proliferation in the last number of years of large out-of-town and edge-of-town shopping centres and retailers, one would expect — I put it no more strongly — to see that reflected in changes in non-domestic valuations for businesses within a city centre, town centre or on streets or roads that have not, perhaps, done as well. Some places will do well out of the revaluation; some will do not so well because they have held up; and others will remain more or less unchanged.

The attempt is to re-establish fairness that, I accept, has not been there over the last number of years. We were not able to proceed with a non-domestic revaluation because the market was in such a state of flux. I hope that businesses in the Member's constituency and others will welcome the results of the non-domestic revaluation when they are published.

T3. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline his strategy for sectoral engagement and equality-proofing of the draft Budget. (AQT 1733/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: The same people are drawn to ask topical and oral questions here.

The Member will be aware that the draft Budget is out to an eight-week consultation. The key part of the eight weeks will be used by Departments to establish spending plans for the budget allocations that they now have. They will outline where they want to spend money and where the savings that they are required to make will impact. There will be work for the House and its Committees to do scrutinising that. I hope that Committees will engage with interest groups in each Department's area of responsibility.

My Department will engage in sector-by-sector stakeholder meetings with the likes of trade unions, the business community and others, including those in the third sector and community sector who have a particular interest in the outcome of the Budget. That will continue over the coming weeks. Obviously, equality screening of the Budget will also be done in accordance with the relevant legislation.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Can the Minister confirm that he will also be in contact with the likes of the community and voluntary sector, women's groups, disability groups and the LGBT community?

Mr Hamilton: It is important, given that it is an eight-week consultation, that we try to structure that engagement as best we can to ensure that we get the best out of it in the run-up to its conclusion on 29 December. Many of the groups that the Member talked about will be directly or indirectly represented at those stakeholder engagements.

The draft Budget is out for general public consultation. We know from past experience that it will get some responses but not in a structured and focused way. That is where, I think, stakeholder meetings are important and valuable. I will not be able to engage personally with everybody over that period, but I will conduct bilateral meetings with each Minister and expect them to reflect the views expressed to them by various interested groups in their Department. We will try to make it as thorough and comprehensive a consultation over the eight-week period as we can.

T4. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel how the infrastructure action plan is progressing. (AQT 1734/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: The House may be familiar with my plan some time ago to speed up planning — I am sorry, speeding up planning is someone else's responsibility. We could do with speeding up planning as well, of course. My plan was to speed up the delivery of major infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland. That flowed from analysis that showed that we were significantly slower than other parts of the UK or Ireland in delivering big infrastructure projects. Perhaps planning was, in many cases, the reason why they were slowed up.

I developed an infrastructure action plan that focused on the greater centralisation of infrastructure delivery. The proposal was that the delivery arm for a range of infrastructure projects would be centralised in my Department. That was not a power grab by me; it was a way of ensuring that there was uniformity of delivery and efficiencies through cost savings in delivering through one service rather than several. There were some areas of infrastructure development that would remain outside my Department's responsibility for delivery, but we were going to try to amalgamate as much as we could. We have already seen Health Estates move into my Department from 1 October. It was also an attempt to prioritise big infrastructure projects. We have had a problem in the past, particularly with the likes of the A5 not moving forward, in trying to then fast-track major infrastructure projects to fill the breach.

The plan has been circulated and has received support from several Ministers: Enterprise, Social Development, Justice, and Employment and Learning. I intend to take up the issue with the Ministers who are yet to respond. I am optimistic and take the fact that they have not yet responded to mean that they are not being negative about it. In the bilateral meetings I will have on the draft Budget over the next month, I want to engage with them on the infrastructure action plan so that it can be endorsed by the whole Executive as quickly as possible.

Mr Dunne: Is the Minister satisfied that the cuts will not hit his plan dramatically?

Mr Hamilton: The Member asks a good question about the impact of reductions in public spending on the delivery of infrastructure. The capital budget is the one brighter spot in the Budget. The Member will be familiar, as will the whole House, with the reduction in our resource expenditure, which is down 1·6% in real terms. With the decisions we have taken as an Executive, that equates to a £213 million reduction in our public spending for the next financial year. The capital budget has been rising and is slightly above this year's figure, so I do not anticipate that funding per se will be a particular issue in delivering infrastructure moving forward. The investment fund I mentioned in response to Mr Kinahan gives us another vehicle through which we can continue to invest in infrastructure in Northern Ireland. I do not imagine that a lack of funding will be the problem; it is probably more, at this stage, that the lack of broad political support for the action plan will see it not move forward. However, I hope to iron out those problems, which I think are minor, with Ministers over the next month or so.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is the end of Question Time. I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Much is made in the Chamber when Members fail to attend for Question Time. Can I seek your guidance on what happens when a Member submits a Question and then withdraws it but remains in the Chamber during that Question Time?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is an interesting question, and I will take a look at it. I do not want to give you an off-the-cuff response. It would seem to indicate a certain abuse of the process, but let me check it, if you do not mind. I will come back to you.


3.30 pm

Executive Committee Business

Clause 2 (Functions of the Authority)

Debate resumed on amendment Nos 1, 2 ,3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14,15, 16, 17, which amendments were:

No 1: In page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (3) and insert

"(3) It is the duty of the Authority (so far as its powers extend) to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 2: As an amendment to the amendment to page 1, line 12, tabled by the Minister of Education on 03/11/14, after "promote" insert "integrated and". — [Mr Lunn.]

No 3: In page 1, line 13, after "promote" insert "integrated and". — [Mr Lunn.]

No 4: In page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (4) and insert

"(4) It is the duty of the Authority (so far as its powers extend) to encourage, facilitate and promote the community use of premises of grant-aided schools.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 7: In clause 7, page 2, line 39, at end insert

"(za) section 2(3);". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 8: In clause 7, page 3, line 2, at end insert

"(c) paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 1.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 12: In schedule 1, page 6, line 37, leave out from "will" to end of line 38 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(3).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 13: In schedule 1, page 6, line 38, at end insert

"(2A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (2) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the different school sectors of the Education system.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 14: In schedule 1, page 6, line 38, at end insert

"(2A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (2) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 15: In schedule 1, page 6, line 39, leave out from "will" to end of line 40 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(4).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 16: In schedule 1, page 6, line 40, at end insert

"(3A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (3) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the different school sectors of the Education system.". — [Mr McCallister.]

No 17: In schedule 1, page 6, line 40, at end insert

"(3A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (3) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

Mr McCausland: With regard to group one, I intend to deal with the amendments that are proposed by the Minister of Education first of all.

I am glad that we are at Further Consideration Stage today because it is imperative that we get the Education Bill through the entire process and move forward to the creation of the new education authority because, at the moment, there is a level of uncertainty. The current education and library boards are in a difficult position. Many of them have depleted staff and resources. The sooner we have this completed, there is some certainty and work can get really under way, so much the better.

As regards the issues raised by the Minister of Education in his amendments, we certainly agree with his proposal in amendment No 1 to clause 2. The insertion of the words,

"so far as its powers extend",

is perfectly reasonable. The other amendments that he has tabled are, again, ones with which we have no issue. The key thing with all of these is that the focus should be very much on shared education.

That brings me to the point concerning amendment Nos 2 and 3, which have been tabled by the Alliance Party. My concern is that, when we say that we promote shared education, it is something that is available to all sectors. No matter whether a school is in the controlled sector, maintained sector, voluntary grammar sector, controlled grammar sector or Irish-medium sector, it can be part of a process of shared education. Therefore, that commitment and determination by the Education Authority to promote shared education is one that is inclusive. No one is excluded or left out. The difficulty that I see with amendment Nos 2 and 3 is that, as was stated earlier, these things were raised previously and voted against in the Assembly. They would put one sector — the integrated sector — in a special, privileged position where it alone of all the sectors would be promoted. I believe strongly in the principles of equality and fairness. I believe that the different sectors should all be treated fairly and equitably. Having that additional special treatment for a sector is inappropriate.

It is right that all sectors should be supported. It is right that we should promote shared education. It is right that there should be support for the integrated sector along with others, but that additional term is one that we think is unacceptable in so far as it has a particular legal connotation. We are opposed to amendment Nos 2 and 3.

The other area dealt with in group one is in amendment Nos 13, 14, 16 and 17, which were tabled by Mr McCallister, regarding representativeness. I will wait to hear what he says in due course, because amendment Nos 13 and 14 appear to be contradictory to Nos 16 and 17. We will see exactly which amendments he moves in due course. We certainly strongly subscribe to the concepts of representativeness and equality. I am sure that the Member to whom I have just referred, who has tabled amendment Nos 13, 14, 16 and 17, will explain to us in due course which ones he intends to move. We will look at that in due course. We certainly hold to the concept of representativeness.

On the group 1 amendments, our position is that those tabled by the Minister are acceptable, amendment Nos 2 and 3 are not, and we will see how the other four amendments are moved or which of them is moved in due course.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Like Members who spoke previously, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Further Consideration Stage of what is very important legislation.

I will outline where we are coming from in regard to some of the amendments. We will not support amendment Nos 2 and 3 — the Alliance ones — which I will touch on. We are happy enough to go along with the rest in group 1. My colleagues and I raised legitimate concerns around the notion of trying to define shared education before it was done by the Department. We referred to statements from the Minister —

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hazzard: Sorry. I want to get through this.

We referred to statements from the Minister that outlined his intention to bring forward a policy paper and a stand-alone Bill. That brings a certain amount of clarity to the situation again today. As the Minister has already outlined, I welcome the fact that the Assembly and the Committee will have the time to consider a definition of shared education and what it means going forward in light of the authority and will work with the authority.

It is important to support the amendments around allowing the legislative reorganisation of the duty to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education in light of this. It is something that the community wants to see. Likewise, on the community use of schools, I do not think that anybody in here would deny the fact that we need to see the greater use of schools. However, to my mind, what was proposed last time did not sit comfortably with the legislation. I am glad that, hopefully, it will be tidied up today. The amendments in that regard will undoubtedly make the relevant provisions more practical and sustainable.

Finally, I will touch on the Alliance amendments, Nos 2 and 3. As we outlined rigorously the previous day, the duty already exists on the Department and all associated bodies to encourage and facilitate integrated education under article 64 of the 1989 Education Reform Order, as with article 89 of the 1998 Order for Irish-medium education, and so it will be with the Education Authority. We should be under no illusions: those duties will still apply to the body. No matter what we discuss or decide today, that will be the case.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. I just want to make the obvious point that Sinn Féin has done a complete about-turn on this. At Consideration Stage, you voted for exactly the same wording as we are now putting forward.

[Interruption.]

Yes, you did. Your party voted for amendment No 1 at Consideration Stage.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for the intervention. I am trying to make it clear that these amendments exclude the Irish-medium sector. If passed, they would be open to legal challenge. If we had an authority here that excluded one sector in particular while promoting another, it would be open to legal challenge. That is why we will not support the amendments.

Frankly, John McCallister's amendments are probably unnecessary. I will wait to see how the Member describes what they will do or the real need to have them. I do not see the real need for them, but that is not to suggest that I am opposed to them in any particular way. As I said, I will wait to hear what the Member says, so I will leave it there.

Mr Kinahan: I welcome the Bill back to the Chamber. I am glad that we are going to get somewhere today quite quickly. I still find it sad that we have had accelerated passage, as numerous conversations still needed to be had to get things right and improve the Bill, but so be it. I hope that this will be an interim Bill and not one that is here for a long, long time.

As you will have seen, we dropped my wish to have two practising teachers on the board; that does not mean that my wish has gone away. It is important that we include practising teachers, particularly those who are young and are in the system, if it is possible. However, I realised after the last debate that it would be difficult to find a way to do that. I am also sad that a review clause has not been put in because one will be necessary if we are going to look at a vision for the future of education. If the Bill is in place for a long time, it should have a mechanism in it to fit with how things change. We have not got there with that.

I am pleased that we have got to a day when we have no petitions of concern, we have all had a chance to talk to each other and we have got somewhere. We could have done things better if there had been a little less speed.

We are happy to support amendment Nos 1 and 4, which just tidy things up. I ask the Minister to please keep pushing on shared education. I look forward to seeing the Bill and seeing the way forward because shared education is the way forward for our education system.

I, too, struggle with amendment Nos 2 and 3 on promoting integrated education within the shared and the community-use-of-buildings concepts. I would love to support integrated all the way through, but I see it still, as I said last time, as a subset of shared education. We have shared education in the Bill, we have a shared Bill coming and, as others have said, integrated already has a preferential position. Many schools have contacted me since the Treacy judgement on Drumragh and others to voice their concern that the integrated sector could be in too strong a position. There are certain controlled schools that are concerned about the future. They are as good as integrated — with a small "i" — they have a great mix and yet they stand or look as if they stand second fiddle to integrated schools. We need to find a balance. We will not support amendment Nos 2 and 3.

On amendment No 7, I was waiting for the Minister to provide clarification. However, having spoken to him, I understand that the next two amendments are linked to getting the shared Bill in place. I did not want the education and library boards struggling for longer than necessary on their current resources, so I asked the Minister to ensure that they will be properly resourced until the Bill is in place. I hope that what we do today does not delay anything on the definition of shared education or hold the Bill back, so I wait for the Minister's guidance.

On John McCallister's amendments — amendment Nos 13, 14, 15 and 16 — I will wait to hear a little bit more about them. The second two in each pairing are likely to be the ones that he proposes. I like the fact that we are looking at sharing more. Sitting at the back of my mind is a concern about whether we are tightening up standing boards in the authority to having exactly the same members as those who are on the main board. If things continue the way they are going today, we will have left out the community, youth and the unions, so there are a whole lot of people who are not involved; I want to make sure that everyone is involved when the board wants them to be and that we are not limiting it.

In summary, we support amendment Nos 1, 7 and 8. We are waiting to hear about amendment Nos 13, 14, 15 and 16 and we oppose amendment Nos 2 and 3.

Mr Lunn: I am glad that we have got to this stage. I am also glad that we are having a petition of concern-free day, which is very refreshing after the 10-spot the last time. The only reason I can think of for the DUP not lodging a petition of concern against amendment Nos 2 and 3 is that they know perfectly well that Sinn Féin will not support them so they will fall anyway.


3.45 pm

I will go through the amendments in reverse order so that I will be well warmed up before I get to amendment Nos 2 and 3. Amendment Nos 16, 17, 13 and 14 are John McCallister's amendments about representation of the membership and the different school sectors on the standing committee on sharing and the community use of schools. Like others, I am slightly puzzled by these, but Mr McCallister will no doubt enlighten us in due course. I do not see any harm in them — on the face of it, there is nothing to vote against — but we will listen with interest to his learned explanation.

The only thing that I would say about amendment No 12 is that it just refers to section 2(3) rather than repeating the words "promote, facilitate and encourage". I notice that the Minister, in his amendments, has introduced a change of words from "will" to "shall". I thought that that was interesting, so I did a wee bit of research this morning. "Shall" actually has more legal effect than "will". Legally, under the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954, "shall" means "must". That is the correct use of terminology, so I have no problem with amendment No 12. Amendment No 15 is the same as amendment No 12 only in relation to the community use of schools.

In amendment Nos 7 and 8, the Minister wants to defer commencement of the clauses on shared education until there is a proper definition of sharing in education. Originally, we thought that we were not very much in favour of that, mainly because we had hopes, perhaps unreasonable, that our amendment Nos 2 and 3 would be passed, in which case it would have affected integrated education as well. However, they are clearly not going to be passed. We see no reason to disagree with the Minister on amendment Nos 7 and 8, so we will support those.

Amendment Nos 1 and 4 seem to be just a change from the exercising its functions wording to:

"so far as its powers extend".

I am sure that the Minister has taken the correct advice on that, and that is fair enough with us.

That leads me inevitably to amendment Nos 2 and 3. The reason that amendment Nos 2 and 3 have come back is that the Bill Office and the Speaker's Office have allowed us to do that. It was a slight surprise, but they perhaps accepted the argument that, although the motion was defeated in cross-community terms the last time, as the Minister said earlier, it was not actually defeated by a majority of the House. The majority voted for it. It was only by one vote, but a majority voted for it, including, as I said earlier in an intervention to Mr Hazzard, the Sinn Féin Members, who have now decided to vote against the very same thing.

The Bill Office told us, and evidently the Speaker's Office agreed, that, because the Minister had produced his own amendment, amendment No 1, it was in order for us to re-amend that and bring in the word "promote", which is what we have tried to do. There is no fancy parliamentary manoeuvring, sleight of hand or smart tactics here. The Minister may have said before lunchtime that it was slightly improper, but it is nothing of the sort. It is allowed under the rules. It does not look as if we will be successful, but that does not mean that we should not try.

I cannot help thinking that it is a bit too easy for Sinn Féin on this occasion. The last time, Sinn Féin voted with us on this matter knowing that there was a petition of concern and it was not going to pass anyway. Today, there is no petition of concern, but it is still not going to pass because you have changed your minds. I really do wonder what is going on. I am perfectly happy for somebody to tell me at some stage before I sit down.

Mr Kinahan actually talked about there now being a preferential position for the integrated sector. That is not the case. The integrated sector is going to be the one that does not have the word "promote" attached to the departmental obligation. There will be a departmental obligation even to promote the community use of schools and shared education, but not, it appears, integrated education, even though, as I said at a previous stage, the Assembly voted, in 2011 on a private Member's motion, to include the word "promote". I know that it was non-binding, but the Assembly voted to include that word in relation to integrated education by 39 votes to nil. Nobody voted against.

There will be a clear difference now, because today's vote will mean that there will be a greater obligation on the Department and the authority to promote sharing, and it will be a more onerous obligation than that which they have "to encourage and facilitate" integrated education. I know that the Minister has frequently said that he intends to honour his obligations in respect of integration. I have no reason to doubt that he means what he says, but I think that the proof will be in the performance over the next few years. As it stands, there is a different approach to and a different obligation on the two sectors, if I can call "sharing" a sector.

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for giving way, especially as I shall have the opportunity to respond at the end of the debate. However, I think that it is important to clarify this. Article 64 of the Education Reform Order 1989, which refers to integrated education facilitation and promotion, is not in any way neutered, amended or lessened by the Bill that is before us; and it is in no way amended, neutered or lessened by the provision that refers to shared education. So, I do not think that the Member should present that case in public, because I think that that argument is deeply flawed and undermines his argument that integrated education has legal protection. That legal protection is there and will continue to be there, regardless of the views of this Minister or any other. The legal obligation remains.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his clarification; however, it is something that we are not going to agree about. I accept that integration has had that protection and that there has been such an obligation on his Department for 25 years; but what has it meant? Suddenly, this whole concept of shared education has come over the horizon. Millions of pounds have been thrown at it and more millions are to come. It suddenly has the status of promotion, facilitation and encouragement. I cannot give you a dictionary definition of the word "promotion", though I did in 2011, if you want to look at Hansard. "Promote" means more than "facilitate" and "encourage". One of the things that it means is "actively encourage". That is what "promote" means.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. What we have seen is that, whilst there is a legal obligation for integrated education, there is a Programme for Government commitment for shared education; so I think that the difference we are seeing is political will, and the lack thereof, when it comes to integrated education.

Mr Lunn: Yes. I thank Mr Agnew for making that point for me.

I am nearly done, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I just cannot help thinking that it is a pity. The big buzz around this place at the moment is for a shared future, for Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC). We have strategies galore for trying to bring people together, at adult level and, particularly, at childhood and school level.

If this place is going to make progress, one of the things that we have to do is let our children get to know each other, at an early age, and remove so many of the taboos and barriers that we all know about, and that we all profess that we are trying to break down. Yet the most obvious measure, bringing children together into the same school to be educated together, seems to cause this kind of disagreement. I think that that is a shame.

I will stop there, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I am disappointed today but hardly surprised.

Mr Newton: I welcome the opportunity to move this Bill forward again. It is key that we remind ourselves where the Bill is coming from. It is intended to establish the Education Authority and was prompted by the local government reform that will take place next year. Just for clarity, it is not the Education and Skills Authority by the back door, side door or any other door; it is a different Bill altogether. I say that in the sense that I recognise that good progress is being made on it. When there was the potential for accelerated passage, there was some concern from other sections of the House. However, look at where we are now. When the objective is to provide for the education of our children, it is amazing what we can do in such a short time. The objective relates to the pupils, parents and schools of Northern Ireland, and, in that context, I think that we are making good progress.

The first group of amendments relates to the duties of the authority and the committees. I support amendment No 1, I am against amendment Nos 2 and 3, and I am supportive in general of the others. Like my colleague Mr McCausland, I seek clarity on amendment Nos 13, 14, 16 and 17, which are Mr McCallister's.

It is important that we establish the authority and establish it on an absolutely sound footing that every section of our community can buy into. It is important that equality runs through the authority. It must run from top to bottom, from the board right through to the establishment of the committees. Its structure needs to give confidence to every section of the community and every education provider that what we are doing is on a fair and equal basis, and that is how they will be treated.

There cannot be any preference given to any section. Nobody can be gold-plated; nobody can be disadvantaged. There has to be a level playing field across all sectors. Other sectors need to be brought up to the same standard of achievement as those that, in the past, sought, and perhaps got, preference. All sectors need to have the same level of responsibility and be on the same platform — a platform enjoyed across the whole of the Education Authority.

It would be remiss of us if we were to put through legislation that gave preference to any one sector or part of the education estate. Certainly, the two largest education providers, the controlled sector and the maintained sector, cannot be disadvantaged, or even perceived to be disadvantaged, against any other sector.

I agree with the closing remarks of Mr Lunn, who said that our children need to get to know each other from an early stage. I presume that he means that children need to be educated together, and I agree wholeheartedly with that. In the previous debate, I made the point that I sought out a school for my children where they would come together with children from all sorts of backgrounds, religious and ethnic, and gain from that experience in education. It really is a question of how we do that, and I favour the approach of what we now refer to as shared education.

A number of years ago, shared education was an idea. It has now become a concept in the minds of many. It needs to move to a position in which it can be defined. We need to see what it will mean, what its outworkings will be and what support it will eventually need. It needs to be put into practice and we need to see it working.


4.00 pm

The Committee heard about a number of examples of where shared education is working. It is maybe not working in an ideal or totally holistic way, but we have heard about moves towards it. It needs to be continual and it cannot stop at a certain point. We also need an evaluation of shared education at some stage.

The Minister has indicated his desire to bring forward a definition of shared education. He has also indicated that there will be a stand-alone Bill on shared education, and the House should welcome that. Certainly, from where we are coming from, I see that as a very definite move. It needs to be done with a degree of energy and urgency, with an emphasis on it so that we do not reach the conclusion of the Bill and miss the definition of shared education.

We have not yet reached the end of the debate, but, generally speaking, the Bill has been a very positive move for education in Northern Ireland. I feel certain that the general feeling in the education community will be that progress is being made, particularly from our previous position on education, where it was reflected in the Chamber that we could not get agreement and where the pupils, the schools and the parents of Northern Ireland suffered. We are taking a step forward, and that is to be welcomed.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Agreement seems to be breaking out everywhere. I do not have much to add to what my colleague Chris Hazzard said. I do have some sympathy for Trevor Lunn and understand how aggrieved he may feel. I want to make a number of points about the amendments that he and his party tabled.

It has been mentioned that, if the amendment on integrated education were to become part of the Bill, it would give integrated education a privileged position. Had the Alliance Party also mentioned Irish-medium education, we may perhaps have taken a different view. I know that the Member is a realist and knows that, whatever decision Sinn Féin took on the issue, the amendment would never have got into this piece of legislation.

The other issue is the statutory obligation that the new authority will have to encourage and facilitate integrated education and Irish-medium education. The Department already has that obligation, and the new authority, through the Minister and the Department, will also have it. I note that the Member said that the obligation has been in place for a long time; however, it was only relatively recently that both sectors tested the legislation that contains the obligation in the courts, when both received favourable outcomes. If there was any ignorance of the legislation in the Department or a tendency to forget about it — certainly not from the Minister, but maybe from his officials — they have been reminded that the statutory obligation exists.

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: Certainly.

Mr Lunn: I want to return to the point he made about Irish-medium education. He knows perfectly well that we support the Irish-medium sector. If something is missing from the Bill that could be addressed by an amendment in relation to Irish-medium schools, I am at a loss as to why Sinn Féin did not bring it forward. The reason we did not bring it forward was that we knew it would arouse the ire of your colleagues opposite. There is no point in us trying to put through an amendment on the Irish-medium and integrated sectors knowing that the inclusion of the Irish-medium sector is going to drag it down. So, it was maybe a forlorn hope in our case that perhaps your colleagues opposite would see a bit of sense and run with the integrated. I feel sorry for the Irish-medium sector, but that is the way it is. There is, however, nothing to prevent you bringing something forward.

Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I know that he, in particular, is supportive of the Irish-medium sector; I have no argument with that whatsoever. I suppose that, in the real world, we have to face up to the fact that no one is going to get everything they want in this legislation. I understand your fears about raising the ire of the Members opposite when it comes to the Irish language. We have seen the behaviour of some of them in recent times with regard to the Irish language. That is unfortunate, because I know that not all Members opposite share those views.

However, it is my understanding that, if we were to allow this to go through, the integrated sector would, effectively, have a privileged position over and above the Irish-medium sector. I think that both of those sectors, like all the other sectors, should be on a level playing field. Unfortunately, the integrated sector and the Irish-medium sector are far behind the rest and need assistance from the Department to get up to the starting line with the rest. That is why the statutory obligation to encourage and facilitate is there.

While I sympathise with the Member on this issue, I am afraid the realpolitik of the situation is that it was never going to get through. He knows that better than I do. On that point, I finish.

Mr Eastwood: I am not a member of the Education Committee; I am playing a sub's role today, as Seán Rogers is ill. I thank him for the work that he has done on the Bill thus far. It is a very good thing that we are, finally, at this stage and that we have no petitions of concern. We might have a couple of Divisions but nothing that is going to halt the progress of the Bill. Quite a bit of good work has been done behind the scenes to ensure that we can move the Bill forward. It is not going to be a perfect Bill, but we will have a Bill, and this delay will have, finally, ended.

We are largely happy not to oppose the amendments in this group. We have some concerns around the need for standing committees and everything else, and we understand Sinn Féin's concerns on the topic that has been most discussed so far. We share the concerns about the fact that the Irish-medium sector has not been particularly mentioned in the amendments. However, our view is that we have an opportunity here with the Alliance amendment. Amendment No 1, one of the Minister's amendments, proposes that we insert, "facilitate and promote shared education.". I think there is an opportunity there to add integrated education. Again, it is not perfect, but we are happy to support that.

We need to guard against the debate falling into an argument about whether it is shared education, integrated education or whatever. We have to understand that we come from a very difficult place in education. We can go back as far as you want in the North of Ireland.

We have a unique set of circumstances. We need to move as much as possible to a shared community, whether that is in housing or education. We need to begin that process. The people who are involved in integrated education are doing a fantastic job, and people involved in the new process of shared education are beginning to do a lot of good work around that.

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: The Member made the comparison between shared housing and shared education. If you take that analogy to its conclusion, you could paint on each door whether the person walking through it is a Protestant or a Catholic, and you could stick them next to each other. In the case of schools, you put them in different uniforms to let people know what side they are from.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Member for his intervention. I understand and sympathise with that point of view, but I will go back to the point that we are coming from a very difficult place. We have parental choice. We also have a very difficult history. We have places in the North of Ireland where, 40 or 50 years ago, people could not get educated in a secondary school because some of them just did not exist and were not open to people. We have a lot of other difficulties in terms of our history.

We have to understand that the different sectors are imperfect and that we have not quite cracked it yet when it comes to building a shared and truly integrated society, but I think that whether it is shared education or integrated education, people are moving to the right place. We need to support that with its imperfections and support the amendments' imperfections with regard to the Irish-medium sector. We are happy to support them. I think that we need to move in that direction.

Mr Allister: Can I crave the indulgence of the House at the beginning of my remarks to make some reference to the tragedy in my constituency this morning because it has a very direct educational link? This morning, a young boy walking to meet the school bus was tragically killed, his brother is fighting for his life and his mother is very seriously injured.

The relevance is this: three weeks ago, that mother came to see me in my constituency office in Ballymoney. She explained that the education and library board had refused school transport to her family and, in consequence, every morning, she had to walk six children — five school attenders and a child in a buggy — down a narrow country road with no footpaths so that they could rendezvous with the school bus in the village of Cloughmills because the education and library board refused to allow the bus to drive the half mile up to her gate and pick up the children.

Her very foreboding words to me were, "Mr Allister, one morning we are going to be wiped out", and, this morning, it happened. Whatever driver was involved has a lot to answer for, but the education and library board has very serious questions to answer.

Three weeks ago, I immediately wrote to the education and library board asking it why it was taking that attitude. The answer has not come, but now it is going to come too late. Will the Minister require the North Eastern Education and Library Board to report to him on how it has treated the request from the family and its public representative for school transport because this was an accident waiting to happen? It did not need to happen if the education and library board had acted as it should have. I am grateful to the House for permitting me to make those remarks.

Turning to the Bill, I think that the Minister is right when he says that amendment No 7 is essential in a Bill that seeks to promote something called "shared education" because there is no definition of shared education — it seems to mean whatever you want it to mean. To Mr Agnew, it is that cynical matter that he described. To others, it is some sort of panacea. It is whatever you want it to be. You cannot draft legislation espousing a cause without defining what shared education is.

It is absolutely right that, before those aspects can be implemented, there must be a statutory definition of shared education. So I think it is right that those amendments were tabled in the regard.


4.15 pm

The whole issue of shared education is a profound muddle. It means whatever, as I said, you want it to mean. That, for me, underscores the folly of two things in the Bill. The first is the fact that there was not even a consultation about the Bill so that issues such as this could be fleshed out. The reason why we were not given a consultation, according to the accompanying explanatory document, was because there was a consultation for the ESA Bill, which confirms to me, if ever there were any doubt, that this Bill is simply ESA lite. If the justification for not holding a consultation is that there was a consultation on the ESA Bill, no matter how much some people like to deny it from the very top of the Administration, patently, this is ESA lite.

The second thing that the muddle, the lack of clarify and the procrastination of dealing with the issue of shared education speaks to me about is the sheer folly of having rushed the Bill through the House with accelerated passage, so that there has not been the opportunity to tease out and to get to answers. It has been so rushed through the House that this is the first occasion that I have been permitted to even speak on the Education Bill. That speaks to one of two things: either the inordinate period for which I was gagged or the indecent haste with which the Bill was rushed through the House. Maybe it is a bit of both. Either way, I think it is regrettable that important issues such as these are not capable of being addressed and that the means of addressing them through proper consultation and through a proper Committee exercise were shunned.

I welcome the fact that the Bill has been amended somewhat to this point. I welcome the amendments that were made to clause 6 and the limitation on the powers of the Minister to appoint, almost into perpetuity, the chief executive officer. I think that we have had enough manufactured niches for Mr Gavin Boyd and his prime ministerial salary without creating any more. So, I welcome the fact that the Bill has been amended to date in that regard.

Speaking of some other amendments, I simply do not understand the need for the Alliance Party's amendments. As has been pointed out, there is already statutory special status for integrated education; it already has it. What more does it want? According to Mr Agnew, it wants an endless supply of money to promote its own particular perception and agenda of education and to be given even more preferential treatment in capital spend. That, it seems, is what it wants. I have to say that these amendments seem to me to be irrelevant. The duty already exists.

I also welcome the fact that the Bill has been amended to right a long existing wrong: the provision of a sectoral body for the controlled sector. I look forward to that happening and to that sector being given the status, the voice and the authority that it has too long been denied.

Those are my remarks at this stage. I may return at the second batch of amendments to speak on other matters.

Mr Agnew: I wish to refute Mr Allister's scurrilous remarks that completely misrepresented what I said. I said that the integrated sector would like some new schools or new buildings and would like to grow rather than simply being maintained at 62 schools. That is neither here nor there. I just wanted to put the record straight on that because I spoke from a sedentary position, which, of course, I should not have done.

The integrated sector clearly has widespread public support. Unfortunately, it does not have sufficient support in the House to pass amendment Nos 2 and 3, and it does not have the support of those in positions of power in the sectors that have, over time, been losing pupils to the integrated sector. There is a challenge for Members, particularly in the DUP and Sinn Féin, as to whether they wish to lead on education or follow vested interest. The public are clearly saying one thing, and, as I say, the sectors with vested interests are saying another. Unfortunately, it is not the parents or the public who are being listened to; it is those in the different strands of the education sector.

I will not labour points that I have made in the past, but, for me, there is no doubt that shared education is nothing but an attempt to maintain the status quo in times of decreasing enrolments in schools and in times of financial hardship by providing a solution that works for the finances and allows us to maintain a segregated education system. It is essentially a rebrand.

We call the education system that we have "segregated", and so we rebrand it as "shared" but actually maintain the same problems and the same divisions that we have had for generations and, in effect, decide that yet another generation of children will be separated at the age of 4 into essentially Protestant and Catholic schools, taught from day one that they are different and should be taught in different schools and wear different uniforms. The emphasis remains on difference.

We have had enough division in our society. We had the opportunity, through the Bill, to tackle the division that we institutionalise in our education system, and, unfortunately, we have failed to do it. In my view, it is not good enough.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. Could he provide some clarity? He bemoans what he refers to as the public interest being overruled by sectoral interest, yet his name is to a DUP amendment that promotes sectoral interest while getting rid of community representation on the board. Can he square the circle, please?

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for his intervention. With the Deputy Speaker's indulgence, I will answer briefly and speak to it more in the debate on the next group of amendments. The amendment that we will discuss in the next group was a compromise amendment. It is not an amendment that I would draft, and I suspect that it is not an amendment that the DUP would have drafted were it not for the attempts to get cross-party support. So, there are elements that I think are positive.

I would like to see the integrated and Irish-medium sectors in particular have representation on the board and that to be facilitated by an increase in the numbers on the board. If I were drafting the amendment and had the party support to get such an amendment through, that is what I would have brought forward. Alas, given that it is myself alone, I did not have that power. So, I have gone with a compromise.

I was leading up to amendment Nos 2 and 3. I support the amendment brought forward by the Alliance Party and will answer those, including Mr Allister, who said that the legal duty already exists. As Mr Lunn pointed out, the addition of the word "promote" for shared education goes beyond "encourage and facilitate". It is not just an extra word but an extra word of force and importance. If we are to be told that shared education and integrated education are all moving in the one direction of educating our children together, surely we should not in any way seek to disadvantage integrated education. As I said in my intervention to Trevor Lunn, there is clearly a legal duty for integrated education. Unfortunately, what it does not have, as recognised in its lack of mention —

Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: When I finish this point. It is not mentioned in relation to the promotion of shared education in the Programme for Government or the T:BUC strategy. What we have is a political will supporting shared education, which, as I said, is a rebrand, from my point of view, maintaining division. What we do not have is the political will to encourage, facilitate and promote integrated education. I will give way to Mr McCausland.

Mr McCausland: If it is possible for a school in any sector to participate in sharing, how does that disadvantage one particular sector?

Mr Agnew: A lot is going to be played out in the definition of shared education. Since I am addressing that, I will say that I support amendment Nos 7 and 8. I think that we do need a definition of shared education. I have sought that definition previously from the Minister in questions and will scrutinise any definition that comes forward, because, for me, it is at the crux of the debate. As Mr Allister said, currently shared education is, to some extent, whatever you want it to be. My fear is, as I have laid out, that it is about propping up a failing segregated system, so we will see what the definition of sharing is.

Yes, the integrated sector can be involved in sharing, but, to me, the conflict comes because, had we not come up with the solution of shared education, a natural outworking of area-based planning would have been that more schools within the controlled sector and the Catholic-maintained sector would have either had to become integrated or close. Now we are saying that we will maintain the two separate schools, but we will just do so in the same building, because that saves money, but what it does not do is change the nature of our segregated education system.

Those are my concerns over shared education. As I said, I will support amendment Nos 2 and 3, and I regret that others will not do the same. I will support amendment Nos 7 and 8, because, as I said, the definition of shared education is the crux here. If, as much as possible, shared education is made to look like integrated education, I will welcome that. If my cynicism — as Mr Allister calls it — forces the hand of those who want to rebrand our segregated education system as a shared one to actually make it look like it is shared, so be it. I will take that as a victory. To me, that has not been the intention to date, but the Minister now being forced to define it is a good thing. We can see what the agenda is and shape it through the House holding it to account. We can get the best possible outcome from what, to me, is a shoddy Education Bill.

I think that I have addressed the more controversial amendments. As many have said, I will wait to hear from Mr McCallister on his amendments, but I am inclined to support them. I look forward to speaking to the next group of amendments.

Mr McCallister: At the outset, I associate myself with the remarks that Mr Allister made and assure him that my thoughts and prayers are with his constituent.

Turning to the Bill, scarcely have I had such a build-up from every Member as to what the motivation and intent of some of my amendments are. I will hopefully address some of the concerns that I have around the Minister's amendments and why I feel that we should not go down that road in some of those instances. Under normal circumstances, if we were faced with a functioning Executive, amendment Nos 1, 7 and 12 might be deemed fairly reasonable to Members.

However, as the Minister stated, there is no current legal definition, and, as said by others, we risk the Education Authority, when established, being placed in an untenable position. It will have a statutory obligation to promote shared education, without there being a definition of that form of education that is acceptable to the Assembly.


4.30 pm

Amendment Nos 1, 7 and 12 attempt to deal with this legal anomaly. My concern is that they allow the Minister and the Executive to kick shared education into the long grass. The House unanimously supported the amendments at Consideration Stage, and I fear that these new amendments diminish the previous ones and enable the Minister to put his plans on the long finger. We have a shared education document from an advisory group, and we have the Minister's statement of over a year ago on it. That is why I am reluctant about this.

Amendment No 6, in my opinion, certainly waters down the original amendment, basically affirming that the authority has no power in this area. Amendment No 7 allows the Minister to enact the reduced amendment at a time of his choosing, as does amendment No 12. It brings the proposed standing committee into line, making the work that it would carry out questionable.

The Minister tells us that the reason why he intends to do this is that he is bringing a stand-alone shared education Bill. I believe the Minister's intent; I just warn that an old adage is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I have limited confidence in the Executive and in the Minister getting his Bill through the Executive and into the Chamber, and we need that to happen within in a very short time frame. He has already said that he will bring a paper, hopefully this side of Christmas, on his proposed Bill.

The Education and Skills Authority process began a number of years ago, and here we are today with a diminished Bill, which still has quite controversial elements. I am of the opinion that, if we leave the Bill as amended by me and with the support of the House at Consideration Stage, much greater urgency will be placed on the Minister, the Department and the Executive to deliver a stand-alone shared education Bill in good time. That is why it is important not to make these amendments, and it is why I oppose them.

Amendment Nos 4, 8 and 15 deal with similar issues. However, I believe that, in all aspects, they are actually worse than the previous set. My reading of amendment No 4 is that it basically tells the new authority, "You have no business encouraging, facilitating or promoting the community use of schools in maintained, Irish-medium, voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools." That is a terrible message to send out, and it almost thwarts the will of the House. As stated at Consideration Stage, all these schools are funded by taxpayers. Regardless of who owns the land that they are built on or who runs the school, they should at least recognise the duty to encourage, promote and facilitate community use of those facilities, which are paid for by all our citizens. What, in that example — or indeed who — is the Minister afraid of?

At least, with shared education, the Minister is promoting a plan to meet the will of the House through a set of amendments. He is saying that he will overrule. Amendment No 8 is another kicking-into-the-long-grass amendment, allowing the Minister to introduce the duty on only half of schools when he sees fit. I firmly believe that amendment Nos 4, 8 and 15 contradict the Minister's stated commitment to shared education. Rather, they say that all schools are equal, but some schools are more equal than others. I therefore strongly oppose those amendments and urge the House to do likewise. I know that Mr Sheehan was getting complete agreement and that harmony was breaking out, so I will almost apologise for interrupting that. I hope that Members give serious consideration to those amendments. I believe that they ensure that virtually no difference will be made to the provision of the community use of schools.

The Minister questioned the merits of my amendments, and I think that, by his actions, he has proved their necessity. On a cross-party basis, I and colleagues tabled amendment No 11, which is in the next group of amendments for debate. If that amendment is made, I will not move amendment Nos 13 and 16. The reason for that, which I hope has been clarified, is that we will have that cross-sectoral representation to promote the community use of schools and, to a lesser extent, shared education.

If amendment Nos 4, 8 and 15 are made, my concern will have been proved warranted. I want to make sure that the standing committees to promote the community use of schools include all sectors in our education system. If amendment No 11 is not made, we would be left in a situation where a number of sectors are left out. That amendment may be agreed along with amendment No 4, which I fear could be a bad amendment, and that is why I am worried about how we get into that area. I want amendment No 11 and my other amendments to be made to make sure that we have that cross-sectoral representation.

Turning to the Alliance amendments, I fear that there is a misunderstanding in Alliance and possibly the Green Party about what the definition of shared education could possibly be. I suggest that they should maybe read some of the work that has been carried out on shared education, as that is where this society is going. I realise that, certainly after getting his hair cut, Mr Agnew has maybe lost his radical edge. What more evidence do you need that he is becoming much more of a conservative and a reformist? The very point in what Mr Agnew was talking about is the argument to move to a single, secular education system, if that was what we were going with.

The very point of the debate and where we are with shared education has to be that we are recognising that there are many different sectors and that, effectively, we are where we are in this education system. If you were starting from scratch, you would find that this Minister or, indeed, any other Minister, may not design the system that we have, but how do we make the best of it? How do we get community use of schools or schools from different sectors sharing without lifting any sector above another? How do we get that sharing that we want to see?

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: I will certainly give way when I finish this point.

Educational outcomes have to be at the top of the list when we are talking about the point of shared education. From a societal perspective, I hope that other benefits flow from that for better community cohesion and harmony. However, the very essence of any education system is to produce the very best education for our kids across whatever sector they happen to be in, and the Minister should always be striving for that.

Mr Agnew: I thank Mr McCallister for giving way. I assure him that I have not lost my radical edge, and I am certainly not conservative with either a small or a large "c".

The Member said that "we are where we are", and the point has been made before that we would never have designed an education system like this. Does he accept that, with falling pupil numbers, we were moving away from those sectors, given that more and more schools were having to become integrated to sustain themselves? In doing this, we are stopping that move towards greater integration.

Mr McCallister: I do not agree with that. There are places where it will be desirable to keep schools open, such as Newtownhamilton High, where we need to share and want to keep a school in that area. I would always make the case for having a school in my constituency. Down High is an excellent school. It is effectively non-denominational, but to lose a school from that area could seriously damage community relations. You almost make a town a cold house for one section of the community. That is why sharing, where possible, driving up educational standards and extending the choice that any school can offer in its curriculum is what I want to see.

I had no disagreement with — indeed I supported at Consideration Stage — the Alliance Party amendments around integrated education. However, in this instance, where the amendment is being lumped in with shared education, it is not appropriate. That is where I disagree.

Mr Allister has resumed his seat, and where I disagree with him is in his argument that if we do not pass the Minister's amendments around shared education and community use of schools, we somehow leave a legal anomaly. The Minister is bringing a Bill, and that is sometimes almost the only way to get the Executive and this Department called to action. The Minister is bringing a Bill, and, at least from the perspective of the amendments having been passed at Consideration Stage, there is a collective view from the Assembly that shared education is a good thing and something that we as an Assembly should be moving forward on.

On Mr Allister's broader points about the speed of the Bill's passage, it will be of no surprise to him that I spoke strongly against that. Probably, one of my highest-profile converts to that cause was none less than the First Minister of Northern Ireland, who questioned whether accelerated passage may have been a little rash and did not give all sectors time to participate as meaningfully as possible in the debate.

However, I look forward to hearing from the Minister and hope that he does not let us down on his shared education Bill. Otherwise, we will have to put in about five questions every day to ask him where it is and when it is coming. However, those are my reasons and, around the community use of schools, I strongly urge Members to think carefully about whether we are almost writing in a protection for certain schools that, even though we collectively pay their way, we are letting them off the hook of engaging meaningfully over how we sweat the assets of premises that we all, as taxpayers, built. That is why I particularly urge Members to think carefully, because there is no plan B on the community use of schools. At least in shared education, the Minister has a plan for the community use of schools. Otherwise, there is no plan, and he is letting some sectors off the hook.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): After that hair-raising contribution, I call the Minister of Education, Mr John O'Dowd, to wind up the debate.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Members for their contributions. I have listened carefully to the arguments that they put forward and shall address a number of the specific points raised. I apologise to Members for maybe going back and forth on their contributions, but I will try to cover them as succinctly as possible.

The House, as has been pointed out, has already rejected an amendment that would place a duty on the authority in relation to integrated education and the amendments around the standing committees would have no practical effect. I listened intently to Mr Lunn's contribution about his discussions with the Bill Office and the Speaker's Office. Without wishing to bring the wrath of either of them down on me, I found it an interesting interpretation of Standing Orders and the legislation that governs the House. That is because it appears, certainly from Mr Lunn's interpretation, that if an amendment is defeated at Consideration Stage by the use of a petition of concern, it can be reintroduced at Further Consideration Stage. I am not sure —


4.45 pm

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will let the Member in. I am not sure that that would be my interpretation of Standing Orders or legislation governing the House, but, as I said, I have no intention of bringing the wrath of the Speaker's Office or the Bill Office down on me.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not want to bring that wrath down on my head or anyone else's, but it is an interesting problem. I am not sure whether it has cropped up before. Fair enough, you should not be able to bring an amendment straight back again at Further Consideration Stage, but if the argument is that it was defeated at Consideration Stage on a cross-community basis, that means that it was defeated by a petition of concern. If it had been defeated by majority vote as well, we would probably not be making the point, but it was not. It was passed by majority vote. Frankly, I think that there is something there for the Speaker's Office and the Bill Office to think about for the future.

Mr O'Dowd: This is not the time to be debating Standing Orders on legislation, but, regardless of your opinions on them, petitions of concern are a perfectly legitimate tool to use in the Chamber. It is not up to others to interpret them one way or the other.

I have already answered some of —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I need to say that Members will be familiar with admissibility criteria for amendments to Bills. Members should contact the Bill Clerks for further guidance on admissibility.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. See what you have done now? You have brought the wrath of the Bill Office down on us.

[Laughter.]

As for the other points raised during Mr Lunn's contribution, I have made quite clear that, at a personal level, I would have no difficulty in supporting an amendment on the integrated sector, but it has to be married to those other sectors that also have departmental duties, and those sectors include the Irish-medium sector. During the previous debate, I spoke in favour of those amendments. The problem arises when you separate them. Regardless of what wrath it will bring down from where or whom it will irk, the principle of inclusivity, which the integrated sector promotes, has to be adhered to at all times, in my opinion. I will return to some of those matters as we move on.

In the case of shared education and integrated education, I am of the view, and I have said this to the House numerous times before, that it is not a case of either/or. Shared education is one strand of building community relations and better community networking among our schools. Integrated education is another ethos. Judge Treacy recently ruled that integrated education is defined as an ethos within the school. It is not simply the bringing together of Protestant and Catholic children. I hope, and I will sincerely outline this as I bring forward the shared education Bill, that young people will be brought together in a meaningful way to learn about each other's differences from each other.

That brings to mind Mr Agnew's comments. I do not believe for one second that our children are sent to non-integrated schools by their parents to be taught that they are different. It is not the purpose of non-integrated schools to be taught that you are different. That is certainly not my experience of my engagement with the education sectors. I accept that, in the minority of cases —

Mr Agnew: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will in a moment.

In the minority of cases, some parents may regrettably chose a school to send their child to to ensure that he or she does not engage with anyone other than those who have a single community identity, but, in my engagement across many levels of education providers, I have never come across a scenario in which a school is providing education to teach children that they are different. I have experienced many inclusive educators and many inclusive schools in our society that teach our children about respect: to respect themselves, to respect others and to be a respectful part of the community.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for giving way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he misunderstood my comments as opposed to misrepresented them. My point was that, when you send children effectively to the same campus but put them in different uniforms, give them a different principal and have a different ethos in the school, it emphasises their differences rather than promotes their similarities, which integrated education does. That was my point.

I at no point claimed that any sector or school is teaching or effectively encouraging sectarianism. I never made that assertion.

Mr O'Dowd: I suggest that the Member reads Hansard tomorrow. Then, he will find out exactly what he did say.

I will move on through the comments. I have to say that most of the debate concentrated on the shared education provisions and the Alliance Party's proposals on integrated education. Most Members touched on them as they spoke either for or against the proposals. It appears that the majority of the House is opposed to the Alliance Party's amendments and understands the reasons why I am bringing forward my amendments on the various elements, which were originally Mr McCallister's amendments in the Consideration Stage of the Bill. It might be useful if I touch on those now. As I said, a number of Members referred to them.

Before I refer to Mr Allister's comments, I want to echo the condolences to the family involved in the tragedy this morning. It was a shocking, terrible event. I assure the Member that my prayers and thoughts are with the family involved. While not wanting to cross over a PSNI investigation, I will raise his comments with the relevant board and ask it to report back. Although I suggest that there may be some crossover between that and the PSNI investigation, I assure the Member that I will raise his comments with the relevant board. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family involved in that tragedy this morning.

I will move on to the hard-nosed politics of the debate. You and I seldom agree on anything, but we do agree on the reasons why I brought forward the amendments. Without wanting to sound condescending, I will say that there is an important lesson for Members and the Assembly: if we are bringing forward legislation and amendments, it is very different from bringing forward a motion to the House, because once those become legislation, they have implications. The outworkings of that have implications for the services that we deliver to the public and the public servants we expect to deliver them.

First, the reason why I brought forward my amendments on the shared education element and the community use of schools is to ensure that the practical outworkings of the legislation are workable and enforceable going into the future. In relation to questions on the consultation on the Bill and whether or not it is ESA, it is also worth noting that, even if this Bill had gone out to consultation, I would not have asked the question about shared education. The shared education clause that is in this draft of the Bill is there as a direct result of an amendment that was brought forward by Mr McCallister during Consideration Stage. The Assembly debated it and accepted it. Now, it is part of the Bill. So, it would not have formed part of any consultation that I brought forward anyway.

I was not forced to bring forward legislation on shared education. I do not wish to be seen to be picking on Mr Agnew again, but my intention has always been, since the publication of the ministerial advisory group's report on shared education, to bring forward legislation that sets out the definition of shared education. So, I had no intention of including shared education in this Bill; the Assembly decided, and I respect the right of the Assembly to do so. My amendments clarify the role of the authority in that.

In relation to the community use of schools, again, my amendment is necessary, in my opinion, to clarify the role of the authority because we are asking public servants to carry out the duties of the authority. If we allow the Bill to go through as it is currently outlined, we are actually asking them to carry out a duty for which they have no legal authority. The Education Authority can encourage and facilitate the community use of all grant-aided schools. It is only the promotion that is restricted to the controlled sector. As the owner of controlled sector schools, the authority will be able to act in a promotional manner in them, but it will not be able to do that in schools that it does not own. Whether Members are annoyed by that or not — as Mr McCallister has quite rightly pointed out, taxpayers pay for these schools — the legislation currently does not facilitate it.

I published guidance to schools about a year ago. At that time, I said that, if schools did not embrace and increase the use of their schools by the community, I believed that the Assembly would have no other choice but to bring forward legislation to make them do so. Again, it goes back to the point that we are not passing motions here; we are passing legislation. There is no legislation in place that would impose a duty on the authority to enable it to act against any school that refused to carry that out.

I will let the Member in.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister. I have two points. In the previous Assembly term, David McNarry brought forward legislation, and it was dropped mainly because, at that time, it looked as if the Department was going to do something.

The Minister's wider point was that we have to be very careful when we are legislating. The point about making sure that the Department has a drive in shared education was exactly my intent; the point about making sure that the Department took seriously the community use of schools was exactly the point of putting it in. For years, we had a shadow education and skills authority, with no chance of getting the legislation to back it up. Millions of pounds was spent on it. How does that sit with his view on legislation?

Mr O'Dowd: It sits very well with my view on legislation. I cannot bring legislation through the Assembly unless, first, I get it through the Executive and then I bring it through its stages in the House. Before us today is a compromise from front to back. I am sure that, if any other Members were writing an education Bill, it would be different from this. It is one thing writing an education Bill; it is another getting it passed in the Assembly. What we have before us today is a compromise. That does not divert from my point: we can pass Mr McCallister's amendment, but it will mean nothing because the authority will not have the legal duties to enforce it on all schools.

I am not dismissing the community use of schools. About 80% of our schools estate is involved at one level or another in the community use of schools, so it is not as if we are facing major resistance. Some schools still refuse to do it, although I think that they are making a huge mistake. The Assembly can always return to legislation on the community use of schools; it is its right to do so.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. Whilst it is a scandal that the Programme for Government sets no targets for integrated education, given the express commitment in the Good Friday Agreement, it does set targets for shared education. There are two targets. The first is to:

"ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015"

and the second is to:

"substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015".

Will the Minister provide us with an update on how his Department has performed to date in relation to this to give some reassurance to those who doubt the sincerity of his shared education plans?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member will understand that I do not have those facts and figures in front of me, but I am more than happy to share them with him. Another Member referred to the fact that shared education was mentioned in the Programme for Government and integrated was not. Programme for Government commitments do not trump legislation; Programme for Government commitments are political commitments to be delivered by the Executive. Legislation is passed by the elected body. In that case, it would have been Westminster. The Programme for Government cannot trump that. If the Executive, the party, my Department or I wished to undermine or negate the legislation on integrated education, I would have to bring legislation to the House to do it. I have no intention or wish to do that. The principles and demands set out in that piece of legislation are fair and deliverable.

I am going to return to Mr Agnew, and it has nothing to do with his haircut. It fits in quite neatly with the comments about having a legal duty to do something. When you have a legal duty to do something, particularly in the case of integrated and Irish-medium education, you are being put in a position where you have to positively discriminate in their favour. When you positively discriminate in favour of one group, another group may believe that it is being discriminated against.

Mr Agnew issued a press release to the 'County Down Spectator' on 3 July 2014. He covers that very point. The initial comment is not in quotation marks, but the next one will be. Mr Agnew said that he was worried that Irish-language schools, integrated schools and places with high numbers of kids getting free school meals are now getting priority treatment. The legislation tells me that I have to give them priority treatment. He said in the article that, because of north Down's demographics, local schools would miss out.


5.00 pm

This is a quotation:

"Also the minister was clear that there was some positive discrimination in favour of Irish medium and integrated schools."

The article continued:

"Mr Agnew added, "I'm worried the goalposts have moved"."

Yes, the goalposts have moved, because I am living up to my statutory duty in the legislation in relation to integrated and Irish-medium education. That is what you demand of me, but you cannot demand that of me and then issue a press release saying that you are worried about me doing it. That goes back to my point at the start of this debate: Members are voting on legislation today not on motions. Pieces of legislation have outworkings and actions that flow from them. So, if the intention of the legislation concerns you, do not pass it. However, if you are supportive of the intention of the legislation, do not criticise it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): As amendment No 2 is an amendment to amendment No 1, we shall need to dispose of it before I put the question on the substantive amendment.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Amendment No 1 has already been formally moved.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I believe the noes have it.

To clarify and to clear up some confusion, we have voted on amendment No 2, as it was an amendment to an amendment. We will now vote on amendment No 1. I hope that that is clear.

Amendment 1 has already been moved.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I will not call amendment No 3, as it and amendment No 1 are mutually exclusive, and amendment No 1 has been made.

Amendment No 4 has already been debated.

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (4) and insert

"(4) It is the duty of the Authority (so far as its powers extend) to encourage, facilitate and promote the community use of premises of grant-aided schools." — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 5, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 6, 9, 10, 11 and 18. The amendments relate to membership of the Education Authority and technical matters. Members should note that amendment No 10 is consequential to amendment No 9.

Before I call the Minister, I ask those Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quietly.

Clause 5 (Amendments, repeals and other consequential provision)

Mr O'Dowd: I beg to move amendment No 5:

In page 2, line 21, leave out from "which amends" to end of line 24 and insert

"unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly."

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 6: In clause 6, page 2, line 35, at end insert

"(2) Other words or expressions which are defined in Article 2(2) of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 have the same meaning in this Act as in that Order." — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

No 9: In schedule 1, page 3, line 24, leave out "11" and insert "12". — [Mr Hazzard.]

No 10: In schedule 1, page 3, line 30, leave out "3" and insert "4". — [Mr Hazzard.]

No 11: In schedule 1, page 3, line 34, leave out sub-head (iii) and insert

"(iii) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of integrated schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests;
 
(iv) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of voluntary grammar schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests;
 
(v) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of controlled grammar schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests; and
 
(vi) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of Irish Medium schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests." — [Miss M McIlveen.]

No 18: In the long title, after "Authority;" insert

"to confer power on the Department of Education to make grants to sectoral bodies;". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis an díospóireacht seo a oscailt ar an ghrúpa seo.

I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on this group of amendments. I am proposing three technical amendments, which I ask Members to support.

Amendment No 5 seeks to provide for all orders to be subject to approval by the Assembly in draft. That is necessary following the amendments made at Consideration Stage to clause 4 of the Bill as introduced. The original clause provided for the Department of Education, by order, to make such supplementary, incidental, consequential or transitional provisions as may be required in connection with the purpose of the Bill. The clause distinguished between orders that would amend or repeal an Act of Parliament or NI legislation and those that would not. The former will be subject to approval by the Assembly in draft form while the latter will be subject to the negative resolution procedure. That would have allowed my Department to act quickly to deal with any unforeseen problems that arose from the implementation of the Bill's provisions. However, the agreed amendment to clause 4 as introduced left out "negative resolution" and inserted "affirmative resolution". The effect of the amendment is that orders that amend or repeal legislation will be subject to approval by the Assembly in draft, while any other order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That distinction is meaningless, as the process in each case is effectively the same.

In advance of the debate, I wrote to the Members who tabled the original amendment to explain why I was tabling amendment No 5. I hope that they and all Members understand the rationale behind what I am proposing and agree with me that that is a sensible and practical step to take.

Amendment No 6 provides for clearly defined definitions for a number of terms, such as "school premises", "grant-aided schools", "controlled schools", "transferors", and so on. The education system that we have, as Members will be fully aware, is peppered with numerous descriptors that can be interpreted in many different ways. Therefore this small but important technical amendment ensures clarity and consistency in the use of many of those terms.

Amendment No 18 is a technical amendment to make a change to the long title of the Bill. This is necessary to cover the new clause 4 on the funding of sectoral bodies. There will now be a reference in the long title, which states:

" to confer power on the Department of Education to make grants to sectoral bodies;".

I now move to membership of the authority. Amendment No 11 seeks to provide representation on the Education Authority for voluntary grammar schools, integrated schools, controlled grammar schools and Irish-speaking schools. I should say that this is at the expense of having any publicly appointed community members on the authority.

I feel that it is important that we reflect on the purpose of the Bill for a moment. This is not the ESA Bill. Instead, this Bill seeks to make the minimum structural and technical changes necessary to align education administration with the reform of local government. As I said previously, a future Education Minister and Executive should return to an ESA Bill.

As I explained during the Consideration Stage debate, membership of the authority has been carefully balanced to give a broad representation, while, at the same time, recognising established rights. I acknowledge the concern regarding the absence of representation for grammar schools, although it is possible and reasonable that the transferors may choose a representative from the controlled grammar schools as one of the board members.

As voluntary grammar schools are funded directly by the Department and have no direct funding relationship with the education and library boards, there are questions as to why their representation is necessary.

I believe that to have no community members appointed to the education board would be a mistake, particularly if we are to create a modern, fit-for-purpose authority that commands the respect of the community. But, again, I also understand that there have been acts of compromise on all sides of the House to facilitate this and other amendments. As is the case in any compromise, every side has had to give and take a little. Amendment No 11 is not one that I would have drafted, and I doubt whether other Members, if left to their own devices, would have drafted it on their own. However, it is a compromise amendment, and I will not be voting against it.

Amendment Nos 9 and 10, particularly in light of amendment No 11, would allow for an increase in the membership of the trustees on the Education Authority. Given the reshaping of the authority under amendment No 11, and in the mood of compromise as I have mentioned, the overall make-up of the board of the Education Authority would provide a balance of political members, yet-to-be-decided community members and members drawn from the transferors and trustees. It has been carefully balanced to give a broad representation while recognising established rights.

Consequently, the Bill retains the weighting effect of the provisions that have applied to the balance of transferors and trustee members within the ELBs since 1986. That provided for four transferors and three trustee members. Amendment No 11, if agreed by the House, would adjust that balance and, in those circumstances, I understand why amendment Nos 9 and 10 have been put forward. Increasing the membership of the trustees to four would help to address the imbalance in representation that amendment No 11 would create. So ends my comments on the second group of amendments.

Miss M McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): At this point, I extend my party's sympathy to the family involved in the tragic accident in Cloughmills this morning. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this very, very sad time.

During Consideration Stage I outlined, on behalf of my party, our views on the proposed Bill, in some detail. I do not propose to repeat that detail. We are content with the broad approach that the Minister is taking in an attempt to move the reform of education administration forward. Indeed, as the First Minister, my party leader, stated last week, he had discussed the idea of amalgamating the five education and library boards as far back as 2002. In our 2011 manifesto, we advocated that if we were to hold the ministerial post in Education we would move quickly to amalgamate the five education and library boards into one body as a first stage of a major reform of the system. For us, as a party, that is an option that has always been on the table.

The Bill is not the "dog's dinner", as Mr McCallister colourfully described it during Consideration Stage. These are major steps towards much-needed and managed reform. It ensures that, for the first time, the controlled sector has a voice and that the authority does not give any other sector priority over that. I hope that that will not be unpalatable for Mr McCallister or, indeed, his dog.


5.30 pm

Until now, the Minister and his Department have had a different approach, which, instead of moving the situation forward, has led to increased frustration in the system and continued in-fighting amongst the various sectoral interests. Thankfully, the ESA Bill is now consigned to the shredder, and we now have an approach that will see five boards merged into one. A new streamlined Education Authority is to be established under the terms of the 1986 Order. The new body will continue to protect the rights of transferors and trustees and ensure that there is democratic accountability through the appointment of political nominees. The users of the Education Authority's services will also be represented in the community representation.

Our approach has also ensured the continuation of a choice of schools in a pluralist system of provision, as well as beginning the process of ensuring that there is fair treatment for all sectors. In the previous debate at Consideration Stage, there was much discussion about the need for all the sectoral interests being represented in the new authority. Most of the amendments tabled at that stage attempted to deal with the issue by increasing the size of the board. Whilst we were not unsympathetic to the calls from the various sectors for a seat on the board, as a party, we were unable to support many of those amendments as they diluted or unbalanced the representation on the board in the context of the 1986 Order. I said then that we did not want to see ESA by amendment.

As I also pointed out in the previous debate, equality for all in the Bill and the integrity of the 1986 Order have been twin pillars upon which our consideration of the current legislation has been built. However, we recognise that there is a need to ensure that all the various interests are involved in the strategic management of the new authority. That would mean that continued reform and improvement of our education system in the interests of children and young people will have the support of all. That support is crucial if we are to equip our young people with the attitude, skills and knowledge to enable them to be effective contributors in the twenty-first-century global economy.

Consequently, we have sought to provide leadership on this issue since the passing of the Consideration Stage of the Bill. We have engaged positively with all sectoral interests and various parties in the House in an attempt to resolve any perceived feelings of exclusion and achieve a consensus on how best to include those interests while maintaining the integrity of the Bill. We believe that amendment No 11 achieves that purpose.

The amendment rose out of a conversation that my party had with Seán Rogers of the SDLP, as we sought to ensure that the authority was able to represent all sectors in a way that ensured that the authority remained balanced. Seán is unwell at present and cannot be here today, but I would like to pay tribute to him for the assistance that he gave us in this matter. I would like to send him my best wishes and wish him a speedy recovery. While, in the end, they did not sign the amendment, I am delighted that the SDLP whip has indicated to us that his party will be supporting the amendment. I would also like to thank John McCallister, Trevor Lunn and Steven Agnew for recognising immediately the value of what we were seeking to achieve through the amendment.

At a time when there is criticism of the parties at Stormont, this amendment is an example of how cross-party agreement can be obtained for the benefit of education as a whole. Mr Kinahan will recognise too that all parties involved have shown their willingness to step away from representing narrow sectoral interests to consider the needs of education across the sectors. That, in my view, represents a major step in the right direction.

The amendment proposes that the Department appoint individuals to the four community interest seats on the authority following consultation with the bodies that represent the integrated, voluntary grammar, Irish-medium and controlled grammar interests. The first three interests were mentioned by all the other parties during the previous debate. The controlled grammar is included because, although it will now be part of the controlled new sectoral body, it is the transferors who are represented on the new authority, and, as Members know, the transferors have never had any representation or responsibility for controlled grammar schools.

My party sought all-party support for the motion, and, as Members can see, it has cross-party support in the House. It is hoped that others who felt unable to sign the motion will, nevertheless, give it their backing at the end of the debate. It is also worth noting that, should we receive that support, we are content that amendment Nos 9 and 10 also pass. The reason for that is that, throughout the passage of the Bill, we have consistently sought to ensure that the spirit of the 1986 Order is protected in the process. Amendment Nos 9 and 10, which increase the trustee representation on the authority, are still in the spirit of the 1986 Order.

As a party, we have attempted to provide leadership on the issue. We need to see education moving forward, and that is best done by ensuring that all sectoral interests are included within the tent. For too long, we have had an unequal playing field in education, with some interests playing both inside and outside that tent. The Bill, with amendment No 11, will not stop that behaviour in the short term, but, with the establishment of the new authority with all of the interests included, there is an onus on all the partners to set aside their differences and begin to work in the interests of all the children and young people of Northern Ireland. Anything less than that will be a disservice to those young people and those they serve. As a party, we are committed to working for a single education system that celebrates diversity and promotes cohesion. The Bill begins that process, and the inclusion of the amendment would ensure that everyone has an opportunity to play their part in shaping an education fit for the 21st century. We will also support amendment Nos 5, 6 and 18.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On the back of what the Chair has outlined, I will concentrate on amendment Nos 9, 10 and 11. We are happy to support the technical amendments as outlined by the Minister.

Going back to a point raised by Mr Lunn about Sinn Féin tabling an amendment and everything else, Sinn Féin, with other parties, talked about a compromise position, which I am disappointed was not accepted. I think that it was inclusive to give membership for the integrated, Irish-medium and voluntary grammars on the board, but it would still protect the four community places, which, I think, are so important to the authority. Unfortunately, that has not been accepted. However, in the very spirit of compromise around the Bill, we are happy to see amendment No 11 go through. A compromise is the best way to look at this, but it is disappointing that there is no longer a voice for the community on the authority. Some parties need to ask themselves how they can argue in the Education Committee and bemoan the lack of community voice when it comes to education decisions — they often point out that the interests of sectors often trump that — and yet come in today and back an amendment that removes the community voice because the sector that they are closest to now gets a seat on the authority. I do not want to labour the point, but I think that it is a double standard. If we wanted to ensure that the community voice was on the board, the Sinn Féin idea for the inclusive amendment, which gave a seat to the Irish-medium, the integrated and the voluntary grammars while protecting the four community places, would have been a preferable option. It is also significant, as the Minister outlined, that only the chairperson is now appointed through a fair and open appointment process of merit, and that is something to be looked at.

With regard to controlled grammars — again it is getting back to the point of balance — I think that that is where amendment No 11 tips the balance and why it is necessary that amendment Nos 9 and 10 come into place. The controlled grammars could have been represented by a place from the transferors, and the interests of the controlled grammars could have been secured that way. I believe that amendment No 11 —

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hazzard: Go ahead.

Mr Wilson: Does the Member accept that the controlled grammar schools are a distinctive part of the controlled sector and that their interests and their needs are sometimes different from other controlled schools and, therefore, it is important, if we are going to have a balanced body, that there is representation for that sector, especially given that the controlled grammar sector has infinitely more students attending its schools than, say, the Irish-medium or integrated sectors?

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention, but I cannot get away from the fact that, to me anyway, this is a duplication of representation. The interests of the controlled grammars still would have been best served — certainly adequately served — through representation of the transferors.

I turn to our amendment Nos 9 and 10, which would simply redress the imbalance created by amendment No 11, as outlined by the Minister. That is what they have to do. The four places each for the transferors and trustees give balance and representation while recognising the established rights and the growth of the Catholic sector in recent years. I am happy to support the technical amendments outlined by the Minister.

Mr Eastwood: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I beg your brief indulgence because an issue has come to light in the last couple of hours. The lives of a number of community safety wardens, who work tirelessly in my city, have been threatened by so-called dissident republicans, and all have had to go home from work today. I just want to make the point that the people who made the threats have nothing to contribute and stand in stark contrast to the community safety wardens, who work tirelessly every night for our communities. I thank you for the opportunity to make that point.

This is a rare occurrence in the House. I have been here for about three and a half years, and it seems that compromise has broken out. It is sort of strange and hard to get used to, but it is a good thing. I am not sure what 'The Nolan Show' will do with it tomorrow, but it is good that we are finally at the point at which the legislation can pass. It is important for all the young people progressing through school that we finally get this work done. I echo the Chairperson of the Committee's words about Seán Rogers, who is not able to be here, and his work on the Committee. I said that during the discussion on the earlier group, and I want to repeat it.

Our view is that the Bill is imperfect, again, but we are in a situation in which we can find a level of agreement that might not have been imagined a while ago. Like Mr Hazzard, we would far prefer there to be an opportunity for community representation so that people from early years, for example, and those from organisations representing young people who are not in education — maybe young offenders or whatever — were included in the Bill. The SDLP tabled an amendment at Consideration Stage and is glad that people can now represent the Irish-medium and integrated sectors.

Our position on amendment No 11 was that we were happy to accept it, if people across the House were happy to accept amendment Nos 9 and 10. I am glad that we have got to that position and that greater balance will be given to representation on the board. That is a good thing. Like anything that is a compromise, we do not agree 100% with the Bill. It is imperfect, but it is good that we have finally got here. We have probably the most balanced board that we can expect to have, and we are glad to see that. When you expect to stand up here and have a row with people and it does not happen, it takes the wind out of your sails, but I am glad that we are now in this position and glad to support the amendments that I talked about.

Mr Kinahan: I welcome this stage of the Bill, particularly the chance to take it forward. As the Chair said, we need to keep in mind the interests of children and bettering the education system, which is where the Bill is meant to take us.

Amendments Nos 5 and 6 are technical. I will not go into them in detail but will happily support them, and I understand why the Minister is putting them in.

When we talk about the membership of the board, amendment No 9 is really the nub of the whole Bill. I remind Members that, last time, I detected in the Chamber that we were all virtually on the same page, but, due to petitions of concern, we were all going in the wrong direction. It became essential that we all spoke to one another and tried to find a way forward. Although what we have coming up is not perfect, we have all had to give way and have found a way forward. On that, I congratulate everyone for working together. I too pay tribute to Seán Rogers for all the hard work that he put in, as well as all the other parties. Everyone got involved, and that is something that it is unusual to see in the Chamber. It was a case of everyone working together to find some agreement that we could all live with.


5.45 pm

I particularly wanted to see all sectors on the board. Like Chris Hazzard, I did not want to see us losing the community or the other four places. I would like to have seen another four places on the board, but that is something that we have ended up having to give, because one of the sectors did not want to lose the strength that it has. I sometimes wonder whether we need to move away from the 1986 agreements and try to have some vision of where we are going. I hope that the shared education that we are all looking at, even if we all have slightly different ideas on it, is where we are going. I therefore hope that all the members of the board in the future will not just act for their sectors but will try to look at a way forward for our children and their future.

I have some unease about the fact that we are giving the trustees another place. It may seem fair when you relate it to 1986, but, after all we have seen going through the papers about their lack of interest in integrated education and, at times, almost opposition to shared education, I have some difficulty with the fact that we are giving them another place on the board. However, that is what we are willing to sign up to so that we get everyone on board, and I hope that everyone will carry on in that way into the future. I am pleased that we have the integrated, voluntary and, indeed, Irish sectors on the board. There were many who did not feel that we should have the Irish sector, but we have come up with a compromise, and we should all be extremely pleased that we got there.

We will support amendment Nos 9 and 10 on the understanding that amendment No 11 will be supported in return, but I mark very clearly to the House that I have discomfort. I want to see everyone on that board in the future trying to lead us towards the vision of shared education. That includes keeping the integrated sector on board. We must all work together.

The final amendment — amendment No 18 — is about giving grants to sectoral bodies. A lot of the agreement today hangs on the controlled sector getting its body, and I am very pleased that, at long last, it looks as if it will get it. I also feel that we must keep looking at giving the other sectors their bodies and try to get some equality into the system. We have an integrated system that has a different arrangement and does not have the same power. We need to try to get it so that it is the same but, equally, does not have preference. We have the same with the voluntary sector. We need to find a way forward so that it has its own sectoral bodies and it too has the same strengths as CCMS has. We must not forget that CCMS is in the strongest position of all. It already has a very good body and runs very good schools, but it is better placed than everyone else. We need to make the whole system much more equal.

It is not a perfect result, but I am glad that we have got there. There was a lot of hard work from everyone. I look forward to seeing the Bill go forward.

Mr Lunn: We will support all the amendments. Amendment No 5, on the effective implementation of a greater use of affirmative resolution, is fine with us. We have no problem with that or with amendment No 6.

I do not think that anybody has a particular problem with amendment Nos 9 and 10, but they link in to amendment 11, which is what I really want to talk about. Any of the amendments that were proposed the last time by Sinn Féin or the SDLP, may I say, in particular — and Steven Agnew's, which I think was withdrawn because it was slightly defective —

Mr Agnew: I would not have said "defective".

Mr Lunn: Well, there was something missing, I think.

Any of those would probably have been a better result, frankly, than amendment No 11, which we are looking at now. It is a fair point to make that at least five parties around the Chamber would prefer that there was space for community representation on the board. I am glad to see the DUP compromising, because we are all a bit war-weary now, and we need to move on and get something done. What we have here is the best result we can achieve without facing another petition of concern. That is what it means, but we are where we are. Amendment No 11 gives everybody something and not everybody all they wanted.

Amendment Nos 9 and 10 are on the back of that. Look at the two sectors involved: the controlled sector and the maintained sector. Frankly, I do not know if they are the same size or not in terms of pupil population, but there is probably not much in it, so equal representation is OK. All of us, except for the DUP, would have been able to live with a slightly bigger board to bring in whatever balance was necessary plus some proper community representation, but it is not to be.

Amendment No 18 is the one about conferring power on the Department to make grants to sectoral bodies. I am surprised that it does not say, "the controlled sector body", to be honest. I think the DUP might give you a sign, Minister, to hang in your office just to remind you that you have to make grants to controlled sector bodies. However, it is fair enough. As for Mr Eastwood's comment that there has been a level of compromise, it is called war-weariness really, but "compromise" will do. As for what 'The Nolan Show' says about it, does anybody really care? We will support all the amendments.

Mr Craig: Like others, I will start off by remembering today the family who have lost their young one. Our sympathies and prayers are with that family indeed. It reminds us all about the dangers that there are around the issue of transport to schools.

Like others here, I support amendment Nos 5 and 6. I will not waste anyone's time today by going into the technical nature of them, but we are relatively supportive of them. Amendment No 11 is the one which obviously there seems to be cross-party support for today, though some did not actually sign it. It is a level compromise to try to ensure that all the education sectors have a say on the new authority. With that in mind and as my colleagues have stated, we are minded to support amendment Nos 9 and 10 with regard to amendment No 11 being successful. As I said, we will welcome amendment No 18, even though the words "controlled sector" are not in there, as the honourable Member for Lagan Valley stated. We will still support that.

The Bill has been a long time in coming. In fact, it feels like my seven years on the Education Committee now. I remember my first day on it: ESA was still being debated. I remember making the very simple suggestion "Maybe we should just go for a single board. Would that not be the simplest way forward?", only to be shot down in flames by others. Here we are, all these years later, debating that same issue and principle. It is not a case of "I told you so"; it is a case of "I only wish they had discovered this six years ago".

There is a need for all sectors to be represented on the body. I believe that what we have got today is a reasonable compromise on that issue. I am fairly hopeful that the new authority will be able to take on board the issues that all the sectors have. It is interesting because here, for the first time, there are not just transferors on the authority but people from the voluntary grammar sector and other sectors. That will be an interesting mix. It will be interesting to see how that all plays out.

I wish the authority all the best. The one thing that I realise is that it will face huge challenges, and the tragic news that we heard today is but a symptom, unfortunately, of some of the very serious issues that it will have to face up to. With that said, I will sit down.

Mr Agnew: I speak to a group of amendments on which, if not complete agreement, there does not seem to be any dissent. Little is left to say. I am glad that I was able to be part of the compromise solution. We each laid out our stall at Consideration Stage of what we sought to achieve. I welcome the fact that the integrated sector will be represented on the new authority. That is important, particularly because the Minister has stated all along that it is not an administrative body but a strategic body. Therefore, it is important that each sector's voice be heard.

Credit has to be paid to the DUP, because, despite some of its Members' representation of Irish, we have seen the party sign up to an amendment that gives the Irish-medium sector a place on the board. That is to be welcomed. It is progress. I suspect, for that reason, that 'The Nolan Show' will not report on it, because progress does not make the news. However, we have seen progress made here today. I welcome that and will let the Assembly get on with its business.

Mr McCallister: Thankfully, I strike a slightly more positive note on this group, although I remind the Minister that it is for the Assembly to change the law if it sees fit. Members should table amendments. It is up to Departments to deal with those as best they can. I suggest that they accommodate them rather than row back from them. That is the purpose of this legislative stage.

In general, this is an example of why accelerated passage is not a particularly good idea, because without it you would have time to tease out much more of the issues. Miss McIlveen was keen to say that this is not quite the dog's dinner that I referred to. I am still not convinced that I can get my dog to eat this dinner, but we are where we are on the Bill. I support this group of technical amendments: amendment Nos 5 and 6; Sinn Féin amendment Nos 9 and 10; and the effectively cross-party amendment No 11.

I commend in particular Miss McIlveen as the Committee Chair and her DUP colleagues for going the extra mile in trying to accommodate various sectors. While we would have liked different bits in the Bill, and people would have liked more community representatives on the authority, it is and was important that, given the time pressures, we achieved getting in an amendment that is acceptable to the majority in the House. That is where the pressure came in. I know that Mr Lunn is about to leave, but, after hearing his contribution, I was almost surprised to see his name put to the amendment. Good work has been done with colleagues, and I also pay tribute to Seán Rogers and wish him a speedy recovery. I hope that it is not too long before we see him back in the House.


6.00 pm

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

It was not easy for some parties to come to this compromise. In previous debates and at Consideration Stage, Mr Agnew and I were happy to make the case that integrated, voluntary grammar and Irish-medium schools should be represented. I know that that was not easy for every party, particularly in the circumstances. However, I think that the Chair of the Committee has shown leadership, both as the Committee Chair and within her party, in achieving that. I, for one, was more than happy to sign my name to the amendment and to be associated with it. I think that it is a good, workable compromise and one that seems to be attracting support from across the House. I also support the ministerial amendment No 18, so I am pleased to say that I support all amendments in this group.

Mrs Overend: I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I think that the temper has been more cordial than the initial and previous debates that we witnessed in this Chamber. I could say that they were depressing, with personal attacks as opposed to proper political policy debates.

I reiterate the concerns of my party that the Bill was pushed through under accelerated passage. Consultation and scrutiny did not happen, and that is regrettable. It might have been easier to find a compromise if there had have been an opportunity to discuss the Bill in Committee Stage or after public consultation. You never know, we might have been able to come up with a better compromise or solution.

I congratulate my colleague Danny Kinahan for instigating discussions between parties to find a compromise. I understand that they may have started in Flanders fields when Mr Kinahan and Mr Rogers were there with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I commend the other participants in those discussions, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Now we find ourselves with this compromise. The public may be surprised to hear about it, and I hope that, at this stage, those in the education sector — the principals, teachers, governors and staff — find that the result of this Education Bill is something that delivers an improved working environment for them and, ultimately, an improved and better education for our children.

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis na Comhaltaí uilig a ghlac páirt ins an díospóireacht seo. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate.

I suspect that we may be on the verge of an agreement on the next steps in reshaping our education administration. It is long overdue, but, all the same, it is a huge step forward. Compromise is not a dirty word. It may be uncomfortable, but I recognise the steps that have been taken by all sides of the House tonight to move this programme forward. I think that our political and, more importantly, our education system is in a better place for it.

I also once again pay tribute to our education and library boards and CCMS, who have continued to deliver education services to our schools through very uncertain times and, at times, very difficult times. We all owe them a huge degree of gratitude for the work that they have carried out. They, our teachers and our education staff all deserve certainty on the way forward, and the work of all political parties in the Chamber has ensured that we can now move forward with that certainty.

Community places has been discussed as part of the ongoing debate. As legislators, we may wish to return to that in the future. I think that the board or the authority is diminished by the fact that there are no community representatives on it. However, that will be a matter for the Assembly at another time if that body continues for a considerable period in the future.

As I said earlier, the long-term way forward is for a future Education Minister and Executive to return to an ESA Bill. Not to disregard how any votes will go on this matter, we have all been able to make compromises this evening that will bring the Education Authority a step closer. If we can make similar compromises in years to come, I believe that we will be able to deliver an ESA in future.

I will not concentrate on Members' comments because I believe that Members are in general agreement that all these amendments will pass. Of course, they have their individual opinions on different aspects of the Bill. I just want to clarify for the record that amendment No 18, which refers to the funding of sectoral support bodies, is a technical change to the long title of the Bill. It in no way impacts on how sectoral bodies will be funded or amends the amendment from the last stage that ensures that the controlled sectoral support body is named in the Bill. It is just a technical amendment.

I think that the controlled sector support body will make a significant difference to education in that sector. I have no doubt that it will be able to learn from and engage with CCMS, which has made huge strides forward in the Catholic sector over many years. While others might look jealously upon CCMS, the success story of CCMS is largely down to CCMS itself. It made strategic decisions at the right time; it made critical decisions at the right time and moved the programme forward.

In conclusion, success has many fathers; failure is an orphan. I have no doubt that over the weeks and months ahead, many people will claim the success of the new Education Authority. From my point of view, I have spent seven long years trying to get some form of public administration into the education system. I do not mind who claims success, but I do believe that the true story of that success will be the delivery of an effective, efficient education system to young people.

Amendment No 5 agreed to.

Amendment No 6 made:

In clause 6, page 2, line 35, at end insert

"(2) Other words or expressions which are defined in Article 2(2) of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 have the same meaning in this Act as in that Order.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Amendment No 7 made:

In clause 7, page 2, line 39, at end insert

"(za) section 2(3);". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Amendment No 8 made:

In clause 7, page 3, line 2, at end insert

"(c) paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 1.". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Schedule 1 (The Education Authority)

Amendment No 9 made:

In page 3, line 24, leave out "11" and insert "12". — [Mr Hazzard.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 10 is consequential to amendment No 9.

Amendment No 10 made:

In page 3, line 30, leave out "3" and insert "4". — [Mr Hazzard.]

Amendment No 11 made:

In page 3, line 34, leave out sub-head (iii) and insert

"(iii) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of integrated schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests;
 
(iv) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of voluntary grammar schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests;
 
(v) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of controlled grammar schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests; and
 
(vi) 1 shall be a person appearing to the Department to represent the interests of Irish Medium schools, appointed after consultation with persons or bodies appearing to the Department to represent such interests.". — [Miss M McIlveen.]

Amendment No 12 made:

In page 6, line 37, leave out from "will" to end of line 38 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(3).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 13 is mutually exclusive with amendment No 14.

Amendment No 13 not moved.

Amendment No 14 made:

In page 6, line 38, at end insert

"(2A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (2) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

Amendment No 15 made:

In page 6, line 39, leave out from "will" to end of line 40 and insert

"shall appoint a standing committee to exercise the functions of the Authority under section 2(4).". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 16 is mutually exclusive with amendment No 17.

Amendment No 16 not moved.

Amendment No 17 made:

In page 6, line 40, at end insert

"(3A) The membership of the standing committee referred to in sub-paragraph (3) shall, as far as practicable, be representative of the membership of the Authority.". — [Mr McCallister.]

Amendment No 18 made:

In the long title, after "Authority;" insert

"to confer power on the Department of Education to make grants to sectoral bodies;". — [Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Education Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease before the Adjournment debate.


6.15 pm

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs).]

Adjournment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately six minutes.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I am delighted that Loane House has been selected as the topic for the Adjournment debate. This important issue came to my attention when I visited a neighbour to find out how her husband was keeping. She told me that he was in Loane House receiving excellent care and that the nursing staff were friendly. However, she said that there were strong indications that Loane House was earmarked for closure. Sadly, my neighbour's husband has since passed away, but that was my inspiration, as a public representative, to try to save this facility.

I heard many neighbours' sentiments over and over again during the campaign to gather over 8,100 signatures opposing the closure of Loane House. A copy of the petition was handed to the then Speaker of the Assembly, Mr William Hay MLA, on 2 July. The huge number of signatures on the Loane House petition reflects the public's satisfaction with the excellent services and facilities provided by the Southern Trust, which, in its consultation document, notes:

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the level of medical cover necessary at Lurgan and South Tyrone hospitals. This is partially due to a difficulty in attracting and recruiting specialist doctor grade staff in stand-alone/off-site units."

However, an Assembly research paper obtained on the services at Loane House states:

"A multi-disciplinary team of professionals including medical, nursing, social work, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy ... provide care to patients with medical and rehabilitation needs during their stay in Loane House."

So, it is not clear what the difficulties are with the provision of the required level of medical cover. In an overview of the range of care needs for patients placed in Loane House, the research paper states:

"These hospital beds are necessary for patients who are ready for discharge from an 'acute' hospital bed but not medically fit for discharge and/or their rehabilitation needs cannot be facilitated in either their home, a nursing or residential facility. These patients require ongoing daily medical care from a consultant-led medical team, specialist assessment and intensive rehabilitation."

Loane House is a complementary service to Craigavon Area Hospital.

The Older People's Commissioner, in her response to a consultation by the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, said that she had concerns that the creation of a specialist stroke unit would mean the closure and relocation of stroke rehabilitation beds at Daisy Hill, South Tyrone and Lurgan hospital sites. She pointed to the travel distances from Daisy Hill and South Tyrone hospitals as being of particular concern, as it will mean that patients and visitors will have to travel much further.

The Assembly research paper states that Dungannon and surrounding areas represent 63%, nearly two thirds, of all admissions. Regarding catchment population, the number of admissions by local government district in 2013-14 was 152 from Armagh; 200 from Dungannon; 92 from Cookstown; and 20 from other areas including Craigavon, Magherafelt, Omagh, Fermanagh and Ballymoney. So, looking at the issue of local capacity, it is clear that there will be a much broader impact on mid-UIster and north Armagh. It is also stated that 464 patients from the Southern Trust area — not the council area — are referred to Loane House per annum.

There are 45 non-acute hospital beds in Loane House and eight of them are used for stroke patients. The closure of Loane House would lead to a further blocking of acute beds in the trust's two acute hospitals, neither of which can cope with their workload as things stand.
The emphasis in the consultation document is on stroke services, as you would expect, but there is no mention of rehabilitation from other medical and surgical conditions, such as heart attack, heart failure, repair of fractures etc. When looking at the trust's consultation document, the section on hospital rehabilitation services in Lurgan and Loane House states that in 2012-13 there were 128 patients and in 2013-14 there were 166. That is a year-on-year increase of 30% in the number of patients requiring rehabilitation services in those facilities.

If the community stroke services have been so successful, why has there been an increase of 30% in the numbers requiring rehabilitation in Lurgan and Loane House? Perhaps community stroke services do not have the human and economic resources to cope with the present workload and, if that is the case, how would they cope with the increasing demands put on them if Loane House were to close?

Some 20 years ago, the then health boards introduced Care in the Community. We had the same ideals as those of Transforming Your Care, which is to reduce the time spent in hospital by increasing availability of community-based services, and enabling patients to return to home quickly following an acute hospital inpatient stay. High ideals indeed; but it did not work then, and it is not going to work now. Community services, from home help to community nursing services, are already stretched and are faced with more cutbacks as we heard in recent weeks. Care in the Community did not work 20 years ago because it was underfunded and under-resourced.

In section 4.1 of the Southern Trust consultation document, which is the overview of stroke care, phase 3, which is the discharge home with community support, notes that:

"Patients from the Newry and Mourne area requiring in-patient rehabilitation can be transferred to Daisy Hill at day 16".

However, there is no mention of what happens to patients from Armagh, Dungannon and all those rural areas. Of course, we are the Cinderella of the Southern Trust. So, what will happen to those patients on day 16?

The Southern Trust, having already announced a phased reduction of beds in Loane House, will probably secure the closure of the unit by stealth. There is a strong feeling that the Southern Trust will just ignore the results of the consultation, that a decision has already been made, and that the consultation is purely a paper exercise.

According to the trust's own figures, strokes are increasing by 33% year-on-year in the North of Ireland. That being the case, the expected need for inpatient rehabilitation in Lurgan and Loane House should increase as follows. I have already mentioned the first two figures; that in 2012-13 there were 128 patients and in 2013-14 there were 166. In 2014-15, there may be 220 patients; in 2015-16 there may be 293; in 2016-17, there may be 390, and in 2017-18, there may be 519. By the time the new unit opens in 2017, the number of patients requiring inpatient rehabilitation will have gone from 166 to 519, which is an increase of 300%. Where will those patients receive inpatient rehabilitation?

Bed capacity in Craigavon Area Hospital is under pressure in most months of the year. This year, the winter bed crisis started in September despite the fact that the Met Office tells us that it was the driest and warmest September since 1910. We do not agree with the proposed relocation of non-acute hospital beds from Loane House, South Tyrone Hospital, to a new building development on the Craigavon Area Hospital site. As well as the fact that it will take a considerable period of time, it will also cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. Given the existing budgetary pressures, I believe that that is a non-runner.

In a sustainability development assessment carried out by the Southern Health and Social Care Trust — which took me three weeks to receive — it states that the policy will impact on rural areas but, in its wisdom, the trust felt that there was no need to carry out a full rural impact assessment. The document suggests that, in this context, a full rural impact assessment should be considered, and we as a political party believe that this full rural impact assessment should be carried out.

We also believe that a full rural impact assessment would show that a section of people in our community would be even more disadvantaged by having to travel 30 to 40 minutes over and above journeys that take up to an hour at present. If you are to consider that, for relatives who have to visit daily, you could multiply this disadvantage by up to seven times a week. There is a very strong feeling out there that centralisation of services is the end game, and we who live in that constituency are not happy about this proposal. I ask the Minister to sincerely give consideration to all of the issues that I have raised.

Lord Morrow: I apologise for my few moments of late arrival. The other debate closed marginally quicker, and I was on my way to the Chamber when the debate started. I congratulate the Member on securing the debate this evening on the future of Loane House. Those of us who live in that area know the importance of Loane House and the wonderful service that it provides.

Loane House is a step-down unit for elderly care. It is not a trust-owned residential or care home. It is well placed as a central hub in what was a very successful thriving hospital in south Tyrone before the then Minister, Bairbre de Brún, ordered its running down in favour of larger acute services elsewhere. In June 2000, the then Minister, Bairbre de Brún, announced the removal of acute services, including geriatric input at the site. At that time, her colleague Francie Molloy publicly stated that Ms de Brún had promised that the hospital would not be closed and he believed that acute services would be restored to the area. Almost one year to the day later, the trust confirmed that acute service closure would be permanent in the downgrade of local hospitals, and that is taken directly from the Hayes report and can be easily checked out.

The threat to Loane House is the continuation of this downgrading, which flies in the face of fact-based evidence and public opinion. Loane House has a tremendous reputation for quality care with dignity and respect for patients. Elderly persons are vulnerable in many ways, and closing this facility will be detrimental to the well-being of those in the hinterland that it serves. Along with colleagues not only from the political world but the community itself and medical and disability sectors and, most importantly, representatives of patients, families and carers and others, I have lobbied strongly against the trust's decision. I believe that it is ill-informed and that the consultation has been a gross waste of time and money because little heed is paid by the trust.

Sometimes, I can well understand why the public become disillusioned with what is called "consultation", because it does appear that, despite what the consultation throws back — I can recall very vividly the thousands, yes, thousands, of people who stood in the market square in Dungannon and protested vehemently — they are pushed to one side, and their voice is not heard. It appears that no heed is taken of the voice of the community any longer.

The suggestion is for patients to be moved into other larger facilities, some distance from Dungannon and the South Tyrone Hospital site. Geographical factors are a major contributor to this argument. While the emphasis is doubtless on the best possible care for the patient, it must also be remembered that family and friends will both need and want to visit, and the distances to be travelled to alternative facilities is significant, especially as many such visitors are elderly themselves, and public transport and road infrastructure is not the best.

The distance to Craigavon Area Hospital is 22 miles or thereabouts. Lurgan Hospital is some 24 miles away, Omagh hospital is 34 miles away, the South West Acute Hospital in Fermanagh is 52 miles away and Armagh Hospital is some 18 miles away.


6.30 pm

Let me also state that I think that there is sometimes a myth abroad. Yes, a new A4 dual carriageway has been built from Moygashel, Dungannon to the Ballygawley roundabout. However, that is the smaller part of the journey, because you have still to negotiate the long distance from Ballygawley roundabout to Enniskillen on quite narrow and very busy roads.

The rural community does not have the luxury of facilities on its doorstep, nor does it have facilities within a distance in single figures. Quite the contrary. We should be ever-mindful of the wider impact that such closures have on rural communities generally. In recent years, we have seen the closure of our rural schools, post offices and police stations and the demise of what we would call the local shop or store. The hospitals are next on the hit list, and the rural community feels very sore about that. It seems that one facility or service after another is being picked off and that there is no stopping that.

If you are a rural dweller, you will be penalised more than if you are a urban dweller. That should not be the case, and there should not be an attempt to force rural dwellers out of the areas in which they have been born, bred, reared and brought up and into an urban environment. The local community is no longer prepared to be treated as the poor relation. Why should it?

Every time that there is a cut or the threat of a cut, rural communities invariably take the hit, or it appears that way at least —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Lord Morrow: That is despite their paying the same rates and taxes as their urban and suburban counterparts.

There is much more that I would have liked to have said. It would be good for the Minister to come up to Loane House to see for himself what exactly is happening there. I extend that invitation to him this evening.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate.

I commend my colleague Bronwyn McGahan for securing the Adjournment debate and for the energy that she has put into the campaign to save Loane House. The 8,000-plus signatures that she placed before the Assembly in July is testimony to the efforts she has put into something that she passionately believes in and that should remain in the community in the Dungannon and Clogher Valley area.

As she said, the large number of signatures in support of Loane House is reflective of the public's satisfaction with the excellent services and facilities that are provided at present. Some of those who signed the petition said that it would be shameful if Loane House were to close, given the quality of care that the facility provides.

I also know the family that Bronwyn visited when she became aware of the campaign. I have been in communication with her all the time during the campaign.

Another comment made on the petition was:

"The nurses are brilliant and they have really helped my mother in her recovery."

Loane House is a vital community service that must be kept open and properly resourced.

I want to focus on one particular aspect of the trust's figures, which Bronwyn mentioned. It is that there has been a 33% year-on-year increase in strokes in the North of Ireland. Those figures are very concerning for us as a society in health terms, and I know that the Minister would like to see an education programme around better health so that fewer strokes take place in future. Some 150,000 people annually on these islands have a stroke. It is the largest cause of disability in the North of Ireland and the third most common cause of death. Rehabilitation is a major part of treatment, and stroke sufferers have complex medical needs. Loane House can play a major role as a rehabilitation facility, not only for stroke patients but for those with other minor, non-acute ailments. With the predicted rise in strokes, the expected need for inpatient rehabilitation in Loane House will increase significantly. By the time the unit opens, the number of patients will have increased by 300%. One has to ask where those patients will receive inpatient rehabilitation.

In its consultation, the Southern Trust states that it wants to improve the quality of care delivered to everyone who has a stroke, regardless of age and type of stroke, and ensure that its community has the best possible care and treatment for stroke victims. The best way in which it can do that is by keeping Loane House open.

Mr Elliott: I, too, apologise to the proposer, in particular, and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for missing the start of the proposer's speech. As Lord Morrow said, the previous item of business moved on slightly quicker than we imagined it would. Anyway, I welcome the opportunity to debate the topic, and I thank the Member for bringing it forward.

South Tyrone has suffered a lot from a reduction in services, particularly medical services. We see that now at Loane House, but, prior to that, we saw it in other services, and none more so than in the South Tyrone Hospital, which lost many services over a number of years. One of the more recent losses was the reduction in the time available for the minor injuries unit. It was, and continues to be, very well used for the number of hours that it is open. It is unfortunate that it lost some of those hours in recent times. Unfortunately, it almost appears that Loane House will be the next in line for a reduction in services. It is a facility that provides a quality service for those suffering from stroke conditions, and it provides an excellent rehabilitation service. I have talked to the officials about that, and they have indicated that it is maybe much easier to provide the level of care that is required at a bigger unit. I know some of the people who have been inpatients in Loane House, and their families, and they would have no hesitation in saying that the level of care and provision that they got was excellent. I put on record that they have no difficulty with that. Those who have gone through the system at Loane House do not have any difficulty with the provision of services that they got.

Another factor, which has been brought out by other Members, is the localised nature of the service and having a family member close by and being able to visit that family member with ease, instead of having to travel the long distances that Lord Morrow and others have related. Fermanagh or the Clogher valley area is not particularly close to a facility at Lurgan or the Craigavon Area Hospital, for instance. It is that extra distance that makes a huge difference to the families, especially when you have to travel it every day.

It will have a serious impact on rural communities. I listened to what was said about the rural communities. It would be detrimental to the rural communities, but not as detrimental as it would be to the inpatients in Loane House and their families. One of the most difficult aspects of this issue is the patient not being close to their families and their families not being close to the patient.

I ask the Minister whether there are any opportunities to develop services at Loane House. Maybe its services could be widened to include more than the rehabilitation of stroke patients. Are there opportunities for the rehabilitation of other medical conditions for inpatients, or maybe even respite care? I am interested to hear whether the Minister has looked at any other opportunities for the facility, or if the Southern Trust has recommended any other opportunities. Lord Morrow has invited the Minister to Loane House. I invite him to ask the Southern Trust whether there are any other opportunities and proposals. We could have a discussion about those at a later stage, rather than just taking a decision that will, I am absolutely sure, go against the consultation responses and the overall responses, thoughts and needs of the area.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. At this stage of the evening, there is not a pile left to say or do, apart from wait for the Minister's response. Hopefully, it will be reflective of the comments that have been made to date.

We are debating a very serious issue, which affects people from across a considerable geographic area; it is not just a Dungannon issue. As Bronwyn outlined, people come from a considerable number of places to avail themselves of the excellent facilities on offer in Loane House. As we have heard, the Southern Trust is undertaking a consultation process that could spell the end of Loane House, which has served elderly and vulnerable members of the local community for decades. There is considerable community anger at the proposal. Over 8,000 people have signed a petition calling for Loane House to remain open, and my colleague Bronwyn McGahan submitted a petition here in July.

The trust is proposing that, in future, all inpatient hospital services will be based at Daisy Hill Hospital or Craigavon Area Hospital; that will mean that inpatient services at Loane House will transfer to Craigavon. The trust, in its spin, claims that it is caring for older people at home with more complex needs, through the development of new community services, day hospitals and engagement with local communities. Conditions that were previously treated in hospital can now be managed without the need for a hospital admission, and that has led to a reduction in demand for beds in Loane House in recent years, especially during summer months. That is what the trust is saying; it says that that is how it is dealing with the community. People do not need to go to the hospital any more; they can be dealt with adequately at home. It also says that about two thirds of the 45 beds are empty. In my opinion, that is not as a result of a lack of need but a lack of willingness by the Southern Trust to adequately utilise the much needed facility and explore options for using the facility in a way that meets the changing needs of our health service.

Personally, I do not agree that the current non-acute hospital model has to change. I think that the current service is a very effective alternative to an acute setting for people who do not require such treatment. There are 45 non-acute hospital beds in Loane House, eight of which are used for stroke patients. As I have said, the local community is strongly opposed to the closure of the facility. I found a couple of quotations that indicate the strength of feeling and logic behind that. One person said, "it is a good place" and the rehabilitation is "second to none". Someone else said:

"The nurses are brilliant. They have really helped my mother in her recovery."

This is not about an institution, a building or a facility; it is about the people who use it. Asking elderly, vulnerable people to completely move out of the area that they have lived in all their lives and travel 30 or 40 miles to access rehabilitation services, which then means that their loved ones, their family and children and those around them who generally support them have to travel that same distance to visit them, will have serious consequences on the mental well-being of the person who is in there for rehabilitation.
We are dealing with elderly, vulnerable people, some of whom are suffering from complex medical needs, and they need the support of their family, friends and neighbours around them at this time. Transferring them somewhere where they will not know anybody and where people will be more reluctant to travel to visit them is not, in my opinion, a sensible idea.

We have been told by the Southern Trust that everything will be OK because community services are in such a great state that people will be fit to live at home and will not need rehabilitation in hospital; but they are saying that if they do need it, they can travel to one of those other hospitals. Let us take a look at how the community services are providing that. All of us as political representatives regularly engage with people who are employed as home helps. They travel round the country and look after people who are trying to live in their homes; they have 15 minutes to go into a house and do everything that they need to do. Fifteen minutes is just not enough to provide the very basic services needed by people who are not well and who are trying to live at home.

The other aspect that home help gives you is a bit of mental stimulation, and 15 minutes is not enough to meet the basic requirements of people. If any of our trusts were serious about sorting the issue out, they would do away with those 15-minutes of time when people are expected to provide home help. The front line staff who are providing the home help are completely under-resourced and underfunded. They are being asked to work for poverty wages but ar