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Official Report: Monday 09 March 2015

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

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Mike Nesbitt has been given leave to make a statement on the death of James Molyneaux, Baron Molyneaux of Killead, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24(3)(b). If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject.

Mr Nesbitt: It is with huge sadness that I rise to pay tribute to Jim Molyneaux, James Henry Molyneaux, latterly Baron Molyneaux of Killead. Born in August 1920, Jim Molyneaux grew up in time to join the armed forces and serve in the Second World War. Famously, he was to be one of the first Allied troops to enter and liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, witnessing at first hand one of the worst examples in history of man's capacity for inhumanity to fellow man. I have no doubt that the experience cemented the values that were to guide his adult life, not least as a politician.

Let me place on record his formidable record as an elected representative. He was an Antrim Borough councillor from 1964 to 1973, the MP for South Antrim from 1970 to 1983 and then MP for Lagan Valley from 1983 to 1997. He was also an Assembly Member for South Antrim between 1982 and 1986, and he led the Ulster Unionist Party from 1979 to 1995. These statistics alone confirm that the Ulster Unionist Party has today lost one of its greatest, but there is so much more to say. His 16 years as leader followed a 16-year period when Ulster Unionism had no fewer than four leaders — Terence O'Neill, James Chichester-Clark, Brian Faulkner and then Harry West — so he brought much-needed stability to Ulster Unionism. That stability extended beyond the party. Unionism and Northern Ireland also needed calm, assured leadership in the face of the ongoing terrorist campaign, and, in 1985, the political threat that was the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a challenge of seismic proportions within unionism.

As a man regarded as more of an integrationist than one in favour of devolution, it would be hard to overestimate how painful it was for Jim Molyneaux to discover that he had been betrayed by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her advisers when she signed the agreement in Hillsborough with Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. Jim Molyneaux fought back with dignity. In his own words, he was not attracted to high-wire acts or media sound bites. Working closely with the DUP in the aftermath of the agreement, Ian Paisley may have been the dominant media presence, but Jim Molyneaux was tireless behind the scenes. He was a man of immense political guile, playing the game of political chess, focused on strategic outcomes.

The sight of Lord Molyneaux as Ulster Unionist leader wearing his medals as he laid the wreath on behalf of the party at the cenotaph every Remembrance Sunday in London was a powerful image that epitomised the ideals of dignity and service, which he embodied. His service record is outstanding, militarily and politically. He stood down as unionist leader on his 75th birthday. The following year, he stood down as an elected representative, his values strong and intact. On behalf of the party, I give thanks for a long life well lived in the dedicated service of his people.

Mrs Foster: I feel very privileged today to pay tribute to a man for whom I have the utmost admiration — James H Molyneaux, the Baron Molyneaux of Killead, KBE, PC. Many of us knew that Jim's time was short on this earth, but, still, when the news came this morning, it came as a very heavy blow to those of us who knew and loved him. It is fitting that his death came on Commonwealth Day because he spent so much of his time upholding the values of the Commonwealth.

The first memories that I have of Jim are back at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement — the great betrayal — when I was just 15. I was a young unionist and enjoyed very much being in his company because he was very good company. He was interesting and was interested in you as an individual as well. He was interesting because of his life story, his wartime service, his UK national view of politics and because of those very famous anecdotes that he used to tell.

He was a great encourager to me personally when he was leader of the UUP and, indeed, later when he was Baron Molyneaux of Killead. He could see the shortcomings of the Belfast Agreement when others could not. He was a superb grass-roots campaigner; when canvassing with Jim, it was always a struggle to keep up. He always managed to survive a day of canvassing sustained only by a packet of Polo mints.

Most of all, today, I mourn his passing because he was a friend who gave advice when he was asked and a friend who often made me laugh. He had a mischievous, dry sense of humour, and I consider it a great honour to have known Jim Molyneaux personally. He was a gentleman; he was a leader of utmost integrity. He was a man who genuinely cared about Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom, and he was a fabulous parliamentarian. I pass on my deepest sympathy and prayerful support to his sister-in-law Agnes and to his two nephews and niece.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I want to extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Jim Molyneaux, Lord Killead, who died this morning. At 94 years of age, he lived a long and fulfilling life both politically and personally. Jim Molyneaux was undoubtedly a significant figure in unionism, having led the Ulster Unionist Party for almost two decades. The focus will be on his contribution as a political figure, and his loss to his family and friends can often take second place, so I want his family and friends to know that they are very much in our thoughts today and in the coming days.

To his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party, and from Mike Nesbitt's contribution, it is easy to appreciate the high esteem and fondness in which he is held, and we extend our sympathy to your party at your sense of loss of a valued colleague.

Whereas his political views were different from mine, I have no doubt that Jim Molyneaux would agree that he lived out the last years of his life in a more peaceful and stable place than would have been his experience in his active political life. He served as a constituency MP for some 27 years and enjoyed the obvious support and confidence of his constituents. Today, as we hear of his passing, we hope he finds restful peace. Agus mar sin, go ndéana trócaire ar a anam.

Mr Ramsey: On behalf of the SDLP, I want to extend our sadness and sympathy on the passing of Baron Molyneaux of Killead. I want to offer our sincere sympathy and condolences to the family and many friends of James Molyneaux.

To say that James Molyneaux has had a distinguished career would be accurate. For many years he was a household name and a key player in Northern Irish politics. I have listened to other Members talk with love, passion and emotion in their voice on the loss and the passing of someone who spent 27 years as an MP, elected initially to South Antrim and then to Lagan Valley. He was first elected as an MP in the 1970s, and, only four years later, he became the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and in the House of Commons.

James Molyneaux had a formidable career. In 1979 he became the leader of the UUP, a position he held for 16 years; he was probably one of the longest serving leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party. He led the party, as many leaders have done in Northern Ireland, through many difficult, traumatic and awful experiences. He helped his own party, guiding it through many difficult and trying times for the party as well.

Finally, on behalf of the SDLP, I offer thoughts, prayers and sympathy to his immediate family, the community he represented, his friends and his unionist colleagues who have worked alongside him for many years.

Mr Ford: It gives me pleasure, though a degree of sadness, to add tributes to Lord Molyneaux on behalf of the Alliance Party, although it is hard to remember to call him Lord because locally he was always Jim. He was an assiduous worker in the constituency, previously as a councillor and then, for many years, as Member of Parliament for South Antrim — the largest constituency in the UK — before he took on Lagan Valley following the reform of boundaries.

He certainly had an unusual experience as a leader of unionism, starting off in his early days being educated in St James' Catholic School, where, ironically, he struck up a lifelong friendship with the late councillor Bobby Burns, father of our former colleague, Thomas. It showed something of the reach he had that, as a unionist, even at that stage he appreciated the differences in this society.

As Mike Nesbitt mentioned, there is also no doubt, from some of his radio interviews, that his experience as a young RAF man at the liberation of Belsen must have touched him enormously and given him a commitment and drive to public service. He was, as others have said, the leader of his party for 16 years — something that few of us in this Chamber can appreciate exactly how it amounts to — and he certainly had a significant impact over some of the most turbulent years in this region, as he carried through that role of leadership.

Arlene Foster said that she remembered campaigning with Jim Molyneaux. I can also remember campaigns in which Jim Molyneaux was involved. The only difference was that, three times in a row in the 1970s, my efforts were to reduce the largest majority in the UK by one. That is a measure of the respect and the support that he had in the constituency. He was always a perfect gentleman — he treated others with respect; he had a personal reputation and, whether or not people agreed with him politically, he was Jim — and people saw that in him.

He was, in latter years, a constituent of mine, as a councillor and then as an MLA, but I think he will also be remembered locally by how he served his constituents, how he cared for the people of South Antrim and then Lagan Valley, and how he went out of his way to do what he thought best for all of them. Even in latter years, after he had retired, he would have been out and about for some time at the Antrim show and other public events, wanting to see what was going on in the locality.

On behalf of my party, I wish to express sympathy to his sister-in-law Agnes and to the other members of the family circle at Aldergrove and beyond.

Mr Allister: I readily join in the tributes to Lord Molyneaux.

He has been described variously as a true gentleman, and so he was. He was quiet and unassuming too, both about his military career and his political career. He was a giant on our political scene who moved through it in that quiet, unassuming way that characterised him. Above all, he was a unionist through and through. There was no hint of Ulster nationalism about Jim Molyneaux. He was a wholly committed believer in all the values and all the parts of the United Kingdom.

12.15 pm

I knew him somewhat and have had many conversations about him with the president of my party, Willie Ross, who held him in very high esteem. I have heard many accounts and stories of his steadfastness. If there is perhaps one word that sums up Jim Molyneaux, it is "steadfast". He was not easily blown off course. He stuck to his vision and his view of things and, in that, deserves the respect of us all. Although we have not seen and heard of him latterly, Ulster politics will now be the poorer for the passing of Lord Molyneaux. I salute his memory and express condolences to his family and his party upon their loss.

Mr B McCrea: I knew him of course, but, to me, he was always Jim Molyneaux. The last time I spoke to him was at Westminster, where he courteously took the time to talk to me. It was a few years ago. The thing about Jim was that he always had time for people, no matter what you thought or where you were coming from, and, in my experience in the constituency, I do not think I ever heard anybody say anything bad about him. He was always our Jim and a great man. People talked about his majority. It was indeed a wonderful thing to behold.

It is sad when people must pass away, particularly people of his generation. Being involved in the war gave you a certain base for your thinking about the future. We are at the stage now where those who were actively involved have passed away. His biggest contribution was behind the scenes, and people have talked about him working tirelessly in the background. It is not easy to hold together the unionist community or even the Ulster Unionist Party. His great talent was that he was able to bring all strands of unionism together in such a way that, frankly, you were sometimes not quite sure how he did it, but he did it indeed. That is a great tribute. We are in a different place now. I offer my condolences to his family and, in his memory, offer thanks for his service to Northern Ireland.

Mr Kennedy: I join others in paying tribute to the life of James Henry Molyneaux, Baron Molyneaux of Killead, and I am deeply saddened at his passing. I well recall the encouragement and advice he gave me in my early days as a young political representative serving in local government. He had a very distinguished war record. He served this nation in war and gave very strong and determined leadership in the most difficult period of our country's history. He was a loyal Ulsterman but also a man who knew how important it was for Northern Ireland to contribute to the life of our nation at Westminster and, indeed, the affairs of our Commonwealth.

He also had a very wry sense of humour and, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had a highly developed level of tolerance.

When he set his mind to something that he believed was in the best interests of unionism and of Northern Ireland, he displayed a steely determination. He was enormously hard-working as a constituency Member and a very popular party leader and Member of Parliament. The Ulster Unionist Party will genuinely grieve at the passing of Lord Molyneaux. I know that my Assembly colleague, Sam Gardiner, was with him in recent hours. The entire party will receive the news of his passing with great sorrow.

Lord Molyneaux was for a period the sovereign grand master of the Royal Black Institution. To see him on parade at Scarva on 13 July offered an insight into him, as he conversed and engaged with the people who attended, and still attend, that huge demonstration. He was very much on their level and was very warmly received. He will be greatly mourned as party leader. He was a one-party man: it was always only the Ulster Unionist Party for Jim Molyneaux. He was a highly regarded leader of our party, and his legacy is the values that he represented and passed on.

Mr Humphrey: I am deeply saddened at the loss of a great Ulsterman and true friend, Jim Molyneaux.

Jim Molyneaux was a man of integrity and honour, a true Christian and a great friend and encourager. He was awarded a knighthood by Her Majesty in 1996, and the following year became Baron Molyneaux of Killead. That was fitting, because Jim Molyneaux, as someone who had high regard for the royal family, was in every sense a Queen's man. He was sovereign grand master of the Royal Black Institution for 27 years and a deputy grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, of which he was also a trustee. He was most at home in the Diamond lodge at Aldergrove. He was a great Orangeman and a true inspiration to any young Orangeman.

He joined the RAF at the age of 21 and served this nation for five years during World War II. He was one of the first soldiers to arrive at Belsen, and I remember him telling me about the smell and the sights that met him when he arrived there, which were to remain with him for the rest of his life, a life that sadly ended this morning, when he was called home at 7:30 am.

He was interested in gardening, motorcycling, military history and the Royal British Legion. He was a great encourager of young people, as Arlene said. Indeed, Arlene, Peter and I all benefited from his encouragement and, at times, cajoling, as chair of the Young Unionist Council. Although small in stature, Jim Molyneaux was a political colossus. When I was a young member of the Ulster Unionist Party in North Belfast, Jim Molyneaux encouraged me in a way that others simply did not bother to. He encouraged many of us on these Benches to give leadership when we were members of the Young Unionist Council, and I will never, ever forget that.

I regarded Jim as a personal friend, a political mentor, a true unionist and an outstanding Ulsterman. I shadowed him for three days at Westminster, and I could not believe that someone of his age was so energetic: he was constantly working for Northern Ireland and the unionist cause. Although he was, as we have heard, a quiet man of Ulster politics, he was a man with a great sense of humour. He was a great leader and a superb party manager, with absolutely outstanding personal skills. He campaigned for me in 2007 for the Assembly election in North Belfast, and I will never forget his encouragement.

When I was deputy lord mayor of this city, I hosted a reception for his ninetieth birthday in the Lord Mayor's parlour. He was joined on that occasion by the former Archbishop of Armagh, because Jim was a great and committed Christian, a member of the Church Ireland and a lay reader in his parish of Killead. I, along with many of my colleagues, am deeply saddened at the loss of a true friend. Jim was an inspiration to me, as he was an inspiration and guide to people in the unionist community and, indeed, across Northern Ireland. His loss today is as absolute as it is sudden and tragic. I extend my sympathies to Agnes, Stephen, Ian and Janice, his nephews and nieces. Today, the community in Northern Ireland is weaker and sadder for the loss of James Henry Molyneaux.

Lord Morrow: I, too, would like to be associated with the remarks that have been made about Baron Molyneaux of Killead. He was certainly a man of integrity and principle. You would not have to be long in his company to realise that. He had a very good wry sense of humour, which I appreciate in people, too; I do not know why. You would not be long in his company to discover that he was that type of person.

I was honoured to have him as one of my co-sponsors when I was elevated to the House of Lords in June 2006. I got to know him much better when I went over to the Lords and was often in his company, which I always found good company. He was a principled man and a man of integrity, as I stated. I have no doubt that this country will be the poorer because of his passing. Due to his age and health, he was not to the forefront like he used to be, but his influence somehow always seemed to be there, even in the House of Lords, where others would enquire about how he was doing. He was a man who was not out of people's minds, although he was not able to be in attendance.

He was certainly someone who led the Ulster Unionist Party during the worst excesses of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He was a man who was steadfast and sure in everything he did. He was unflinching, and he was undoubtedly and unflinchingly a unionist in every sense of the word. He had no truck with anything that would be deemed to weaken the Union or to depart from it. He was steadfast in that.

No doubt the Ulster Unionists will miss him the most as he was their former leader, but I think that unionism in general, and Northern Ireland in general, will miss him because of the man who he was. I extend my sympathy and prayers to the Molyneaux family today. I wish them everything that is right in the days ahead.

Mr Givan: As an elected representative for Lagan Valley, I put on record a tribute to Lord Molyneaux. I did not know Lord Molyneaux; I never met him. However, as a Member for Lagan Valley, I feel as if I got to know him very well from his constituents. Every time that I am out on the doors, people bring up to me Jim Molyneaux and his work ethic in serving the people. He was a very faithful constituency Member of Parliament. My colleague Jeffrey Donaldson mourns his passing most keenly. Jeffrey continued Lord Molyneaux's legacy in the Houses of Parliament when he took over as the MP for the Lagan Valley constituency in 1997.

Lord Molyneaux served during the darkest days of the Troubles. I put on record my thanks to him. Today, my generation and the generation to follow have a legacy that is inherited from him whereby Northern Ireland, despite the most serious threat from terrorists, remains and will continue to remain part of the United Kingdom. I thank Lord Molyneaux for his stand during that time.

Mr Kinahan: I will be very brief. I am very lucky to have followed Lord Molyneaux in South Antrim, where he was known as a phenomenally hard worker. Others mentioned how much of a gentleman he was, as well as his great integrity, and how he really cared for Northern Ireland, especially Crumlin, and all his constituents. Like others who canvassed with him, I know how difficult it was to keep up with him. Everybody knew him and spoke to him. I echo what others have said. We all owe him a great sense of gratitude.

12.30 pm

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes.

That this Assembly approves the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on its Review of Women in Politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly [NIA 224/11-16].

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As Deputy Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I move the motion on the day following International Women’s Day, which makes this debate more poignant.

The purpose of this debate is to approve the report, 'Women in Politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly', but, on this auspicious occasion, it is also an opportunity for the Assembly, political parties and the Executive to commit to turning the recommendations made in this report into meaningful actions that will address the lack of women in politics here in the North.

I will put in context why the Assembly and Executive Review Committee agreed to review this topic. In 2013, following a review of the responses received from political parties, the Committee commissioned a paper from the Assembly's Research and Information Service on one of the topics identified, entitled 'Women in Politics'. The paper summarised the background to women’s representation or, more specifically, under-representation in politics here in the North. The stark facts outlined in the paper were enough for the Committee to consider prioritising this issue as its next review. With only 21 females out of 108 elected representatives in the Assembly, the North has one of the lowest levels of female representation of devolved and national legislatures in the UK and Ireland. If placed in international legislatures, the Assembly would rank 70th out of 189 countries.

In June 2014, the Committee agreed the terms of reference for the review and agreed to analyse barriers and challenges facing women seeking to enter political life, examine the potential of existing initiatives, explore the merits of positive action and, finally, provide recommendations and conclusions. The Committee listened to evidence on this issue from leading academics, representatives from the women’s sector and a former Deputy Speaker of this House. The Committee received 20 substantial responses to the written call for evidence, including from academia, trade unions and the women's and youth sectors. Finally, 60 key stakeholders attended a round-table event in October 2014, which was opened by the two junior Ministers, Minister McCann and Minister Bell. I would like to take this opportunity to express the Committee’s appreciation to all those who contributed to the inquiry.

While encountering a wealth of knowledge within the North, it was important for the Committee to experience how other legislatures had approached increasing women’s participation in politics and the Committee undertook a fact-finding visit to the National Assembly for Wales. During its visit, the Committee was able to explore how the National Assembly for Wales managed to maintain 42% of women Assembly Members. The Committee considered the impact of an initiative developed by the Presiding Officer for the National Assembly for Wales, Dame Rosemary Butler, in order to encourage more women into public life for the 2016 elections. Members were able to discuss future plans of the National Assembly for Wales in increasing women’s participation in politics as well as taking evidence from academics and those who delivered the public life initiative.

The Committee was aware of the four Nordic countries that have consistently held the highest positions of gender equality in the world. One of those countries, Iceland, was considered a country to visit as the Icelandic Government have taken systematic steps to introduce and promote gender equality in all areas of society. One third of current Ministers are female and, in the Parliament, women hold nearly 40% of parliamentary seats. Iceland has had special legislation intended to ensure equality between women and men since 1976. The Icelandic Government and political parties have introduced a number of key actions to increase women’s participation in the political, social and economic life of the country.

While undertaking the review, the Committee was made aware of a number of programmes, policies and strategies undertaken by the Assembly, political parties and Departments. It was apparent that, in order to increase women in politics, a more holistic approach across the Assembly, political parties and Departments is required.

The final report has made a series of recommendations for the Assembly, political parties and the Executive to assist women into politics and support our existing female politicians. Here are three of the recommendations demonstrating what would have a positive impact on addressing the barriers for women. The Assembly needs to establish a working group, made up of elected women and men, who will monitor and promote measures to ensure that the Assembly becomes a gender-sensitive Parliament. While no consensus was reached on mandatory quotas or financial penalties, many other recommendations to political parties, if adopted, could have a major impact. For example, given the vital role that the media can play in telling us more about the views of women in political life, parties should ensure that their internal media strategies give women greater visibility. Time and time again, childcare was named as one of the main barriers to women. A childcare strategy for the North needs to be a priority, as that issue will remain a challenge for women considering a political career.

I take this opportunity to thank both the previous and present Speakers for their letters to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee supporting and encouraging more women into politics and committing to be mindful in the conduct of the Speaker’s responsibilities.

Finally, I would like to end by drawing attention to how the Assembly and Executive Review Committee reached consensus on all of the 29 recommendations; a clear indication as to how increasing women in politics should be a priority for political parties, the Executive and the Assembly. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee now requests that the Assembly approves the Committee’s report.

Mr Ross: It has been mentioned by the Deputy Chair that yesterday was International Women's Day. I noticed the number of people who made reference to it on my Twitter feed and Facebook feed and put up women from right across the world who inspired people, whether they were in business, politics, sport or community activism. It was a very positive message and an indication of the positive role models that there are out there for young women. Sadly, I doubt that the report will get an awful lot of media coverage today, given the actions of Sinn Féin on welfare, which is disappointing, because I think that it is an important issue and one that should receive significant amounts of media coverage.

I only joined the Committee in the last number of months, so I did not have the advantage of the evidence sessions like other members did, but I have read through the report and some of the evidence sessions, and there are some stark findings. One would imagine that, given the fact that 50% of the population or thereabouts is female, a representative body such as the Assembly would also be around 50% female and that we would expect to have around 54 female Members of the House. The fact that we do not and that only a quarter of Members are female clearly says that there is a disconnect between the proportion of women in society and the proportion of women represented here in the Chamber, and that is something that is of concern. We are far from the worst Chamber anywhere in the world. There are Chambers much worse than ours in terms of their representative nature.

I was struck by looking at the particular areas. I know that the Committee went to Wales and to Iceland as part of its investigations. I notice that the Seychelles is much more representative in terms of females, and I wonder why the Committee did not take the opportunity to go for a study visit there. But why we have a lower number of women coming forward to put themselves up for election and, indeed, among those who are elected is a serious issue.

I read an article over the weekend in 'The Guardian'. It is not a newspaper that I read very often, but it said that there would be a significant number of female candidates for the Westminster election, which is only a number of weeks away, and they imagine that the next cohort of the House of Commons will have a significantly higher proportion of females.

I know that, at a local level, many of us will have the same experience of community groups or resident associations. When there is an issue in our local constituencies, it is often women who garner people together and are the drivers and force behind getting action taken in their local communities. It leads to this question: why are those women not putting themselves forward for their local council or, indeed, for the Assembly? Clearly there is an issue there, in that the electorate will pick who they want to represent them, but parties, too, have a responsibility in putting their candidates forward.

I know that it is not in the Committee recommendations — I am glad that it is not — but, during the evidence sessions, a number of people talked about quotas. I think that quotas can actually be a very dangerous thing if we want to have women who are empowered and put forward for election. What that means is that women may be put forward for reasons other than merit. I think that that actually does a disservice to females who want to come forward and stand for office, Therefore, I am glad that that is not part of the Committee's recommendations.

Ms Lo: I thank the Member for giving way. Dame Rosemary Butler was here last Friday and said, on quotas, that there has never been an issue about asking for merit in nominating men. That is a very interesting point that she put forward. We are always arguing that we should not have this issue about merit in nominating women, if you know what I mean.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Ross: Obviously, meritocracy is important. Anybody, whether male or female, who is put forward should be there on the basis of merit. I hold that view about young people going to grammar school and people joining the police. I take the same view about people standing for public office, namely that it should be based exclusively on merit. That is just the view that I take, and I think that most people would agree with that.

One of the other issues that was brought up was the culture of politics and how that can be off-putting to women. We need to be realistic that there is a certain adversarial type of politics in legislatures right across the world. That is what politics is. It is quite often a very passionate profession where arguments are put forward. We also have to realise that being a politician is not like any other job. It is not a 9.00 am to 5.00 pm job. It is not five days a week. All of us would appreciate that, most nights of the week, we are out at different community events. We get phone calls at all hours of the day. It is not a particularly family-friendly profession to be in.

That is not to say that we cannot mitigate some of those things. In the report, there were discussions about whether or not we would limit the number of late-night sittings and whether there could be pairing in voting and even job-sharing. Some of those suggestions are wholly unrealistic. You could not job-share in being a representative. I just do not think that it would work. There are also issues with pairing, particularly in the type of Assembly that we have here and the way that votes often break down. However, there are other areas that we could look at to try to make it more family-friendly.

In conclusion, I would say that one of the most important things that we could all do is encourage females in our local community to put themselves up for election. I have spoken to many women who are involved in community groups in east Antrim and asked them why they have never put themselves forward for election. Their simple message is that nobody has ever asked them. There is an important role for parties to talent-spot within their constituencies, look at people who play a positive role in their local communities, and ask them if they would stand for election. That would go a long way to encouraging more women.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I remind Members of the Speaker's ruling on electronic devices. Someone's phone is interfering with the speaker system, which, in turn, makes it very difficult for Hansard.

Mr Rogers: This is a very important report, and I am pleased that the House is discussing it in the wake of yesterday's International Women's Day. However, the debate is somewhat bittersweet. It is great that we are having a discussion on how to improve women's participation in politics, but it is disappointing that it is a discussion that still needs to take place in 2015.

This is a movement that is, and rightly should be, led by women, but men must recognise that they have a responsibility to celebrate and support gender equality. Men and women suffer from gender stereotypes and gender inequality. Yes, we may keep in mind our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends, but that is not the reason why we should fight for women's rights. It is a simple matter of equality. As the Committee report notes, this is an issue that requires a diverse range of actions across public life. We need a concentrated effort to increase and enhance women's participation in public bodies and to tackle gender stereotypes in schools as early as possible, and for this Assembly to recognise the added challenge for women to participate in politics arranged along communal and conflict lines.

Women's demonstrable participation in the Assembly will impact on the character of Northern Ireland's politics as a whole and will act as a positive signal to young women and girls within and beyond the Northern Ireland Assembly.

12.45 pm

Addressing the under-representation of women in politics will require a cultural shift, but that is not an excuse for us not to take action. The political system in Northern Ireland and across the world was largely created by men for men. Changing that system is not a patronising concession to women and should not be framed as such. We need to make progressive changes if we are ever to achieve a truly democratic and modern Parliament.

Many strategies and policies are in place in other parliamentary institutions that we can adopt and tailor to the Assembly. Those include the provision of on-site childcare and the mainstreaming of gender equality to all parliamentary work. A Member who spoke previously said that the role of a politician is not family-friendly. This institution needs to become more family-friendly. Voting at 1.00 am is just not on. In the short term, we should designate a time for votes on a Monday or Tuesday during Assembly time and, in the long term, we should be thinking about a more efficient electronic voting system.

Political parties also need to work with the Assembly to increase the number of women Members, the number of women who are selected for election and support those women when they are participating in public life. The centre for advancement of women in politics stated in a recent report that, of the 906 candidates who stood in Northern Ireland's local elections in 2014, less than a quarter were women. I am proud that 40% of the SDLP's new councillors in local government are women, yet we also realise that a lot more can be done and are examining the recommendations of the Committee's report with great interest. Most importantly, we need to listen to women in the Assembly about the barriers that they have overcome and those that they still face. They have the insight that will ensure that the recommended general action plan is meaningful and worthwhile. The SDLP will support the report.

Mrs Dobson: I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. At the outset, I join with others in welcoming the Assembly and Executive Review Committee's (AERC) review of women in politics and the Assembly. I also welcome the timely nature of the debate, given that, as Members who spoke previously said, yesterday was International Women's Day.

The Ulster Unionist Party welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the AERC's consultation, and my party has historical roots in promoting women. Indeed, the Ulster Women's Unionist Council continues to make an important contribution to this day, and I pay tribute to its officers and members. The council was established back in 1911 to encourage women to develop and contribute politically and to ensure representation at the highest levels within the party. I am proud to serve as the council's chair for my constituency of Upper Bann.

Every year, schools across Northern Ireland send pupils to take part in the Edgar Graham public speaking competition, which is held in the Senate Chamber. That is just one of many events that help to encourage and inspire young people — girls and boys alike — to engage with politics and play a role in society. I would also like to pay tribute to the staff of the Assembly's Education Service for the invaluable work that they do, and I know that their role is appreciated by Members across the House. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for pupils and their teachers to come to this Building, and I am pleased that the Committee's findings acknowledged the importance of the education sector in encouraging women to consider a career in politics.

I welcome the outcome and the recommendations of the review. If politics and political decision-making in Northern Ireland are to become more reflective of society, there is undoubtedly a greater requirement for female representation. It is only by making politics more attractive to young women that we will truly see that future becoming a reality for the next generation of our political leaders.

Another issue that Michael McGimpsey and I have raised on a number of occasions in the Chamber is the lack of female representation at the top of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. While I welcome the Committee's recommendation that Ministers commit to addressing inequality, this should be led from the top of the Civil Service; it is a job for the Finance Minister, and one that needs urgent action to address. That leadership should come from the top. My party will continue to assist and empower the next generation of politicians.

I want to pay tribute to the councillors who will take up their new roles in the super-councils on 1 April; many of them will be first-time councillors and many are women. In making my contribution on the motion, I would like to pay particular tribute to Abigail Taylor MYP. Abigail, who is studying at Lurgan College, was elected just last week as a Member of the UK Youth Parliament for Upper Bann. She is an example of a young woman engaging in public life. As Members, we all need to be conscious of nurturing that interest to create the public representatives of the future. I had the privilege of having Abigail shadow me at work at Stormont recently and of watching her campaign successfully. She has a bright future ahead of her and I look forward to supporting her in that new role. I also pay tribute to the close runner-up, Adam Kinneen from Banbridge Academy, and all the entrants across Northern Ireland, candidates, teachers, teams and elected MYPs. They have done so much for their schools and have made Northern Ireland proud. What they have achieved is in the spirit of the Committee's report: increasing interest and representation amongst women.

In conclusion, young women will follow role models. I feel that it is for this House to lead by example. It is for Members to inspire and not to deflect young women, or indeed young men, from entering politics and to nurture their interest wherever we find it. I pay tribute to the Education Service, the teachers and pupils who come to Parliament Buildings, and also to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for profiling issues that females are raising in Parliaments across the Commonwealth.

I welcome many of the Committee's recommendations, but the point that I make is that we must inspire change and not force it.

Mr Lunn: I am very happy to support the Committee report on this occasion. It makes a change from the last time that the Committee reported, which was on petitions of concern, when I used the word "rubbish" far too many times. I certainly will not be using the word "rubbish" in connection with this report because it is a good and thoughtful report. It has been argued over at the Assembly and Executive Review Committee for quite a long time. I am glad that we have come to this day. It is particularly appropriate that it happens to be the day after International Women's Day, as others have said. I note that the Building was coloured purple for the occasion. I note the fact that that was due to a recommendation by my colleague Judith, who is just behind me here. I hope that it carries through. Next week, we could perhaps see a green colour and, in two or three months' time, we might see an orange colour lighting up the Building. It is the way forward.

I want to quote a couple of lines from one of the people who gave evidence to us, which was Jane Morrice, a previous Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. She talked about her personal experience of being an MLA, particularly:

"the incessant attempts to demean, humiliate and treat with disdain."

She also said about the media that:

"most of the men in the building would not be treated in the way that some of the media treat the women."

I hope that, as time goes on, no other female Member ever has to say something like that again. It is a fact. There have been recent examples here of when female Members were abused. Abuse is common practice in this place, but, once or twice, there was perhaps an edge to it that did not need to be there just because it happened to be a female person.

The issue of co-options came up during our discussions. Since the last election, there have been 14 opportunities in the House to improve the balance. In all 14 co-options, the replacement Member was a man; even, on three of those occasions, when the Member who was being replaced was a woman. One of the suggestions that my party made was that perhaps there may be some room for leeway there by way of, at least, a voluntary agreement to try to replace Members who are retiring or standing down with a member of the opposite sex. It would certainly have a beneficial effect with regard to what we are talking about today.

As part of the Committee's consideration of the issue, we went to Iceland. It was a very short and intensive trip. The culture in Iceland is completely different, and so is its voting system. Although they have been remarkably successful, some of the things that they do would not translate easily across to what we do here, because their voting system is different. They have a list system, and it is possible to arrange it in such a way that there will be a decent female representation.

The big issue of quotas came up as perhaps the most important issue that we talked about, and there is a recommendation here in respect of voluntary quotas for the parties. That is what this condenses down to, because there are recommendations here for the Assembly and how we could make it a bit more, dare I say it, female-friendly, but it would also become more male-friendly as a result of most of those recommendations. The real crux of it is this: how do parties bring forward their potential members? How do they cultivate them? How do they groom them? I use the word "groom" in its most polite sense. How do they go about changing the habit of ages, frankly, of making an assumption that it is a job for men only? That still applies in Northern Ireland culture, and it is something that we have to break through. Twenty-one out of 108 is not a proper representation. Women have a real contribution to make to our deliberations. They bring something to it — in some instances, common sense — that we can only dream about. I would absolutely —

Ms Lo: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that a number of pieces of research have shown that female voters like to see more female candidates because they like to vote for female politicians.

Mr Lunn: I hope that they would vote for the politician who most meets the demands that they would place upon their politicians and not worry too much about whether it was a man or a woman. The point is to put a relevant number of females on the ballot so that the population has a choice. Then it is up to the females, just as it is up to the males, to make the right impression, to bring forward their policies and, hopefully, to obtain the vote.

I end with this, Mr Speaker: it is up to the parties. We can do things up here to make the place a bit more user-friendly. I think it was Seán Rogers who talked about the voting system and the absurdity of having to sit here until 2·30 am to vote on something that you cannot even speak on. To have a set voting time on a Monday or a Tuesday, to tidy up the votes from the previous week, would, I think, be a major step forward for all concerned. I will leave it at that, Mr Speaker. I am very happy to support the motion; it will be a good day for the Assembly if we can carry it through.

Ms P Bradley: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I, too, welcome the opportunity, as one of the only two female representatives on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, to talk about our review on women in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I thank everyone who was involved in what has culminated in what we have before us. I thank the Committee Clerks, those who provided us with written and oral evidence and the Icelandic Parliament and the Welsh Parliament for their valuable help. I also say a big thank you to Michael Potter for the wonderful, wonderful research papers that he presented to the Committee on many occasions. No matter what we asked for, he seemed to be able to turn it up.

As others have done, I welcome the fact that we are having the debate today, the day after International Women's Day. I think I also need to give a vote of thanks to the Business Committee for tabling it today, because I know that there was a bit of difficulty in doing that.

As other Members have said, it is very timely that we are discussing this today, having seen over the weekend — on Saturday, in Belfast, and on Sunday, all around the world — women and men going out to join together to seek equality for women and to remember those wonderful pioneers in our history who came before us to make a difference, political and societal.

Therefore, it is very timely, albeit, as my colleague said, other issues will, I imagine, take up the news and media tonight. We will be very fortunate if we get as much as five seconds on the news tonight, but let us hope that someone out there actually sees that this issue is equally important to the others that will be discussed today.

1.00 pm

Under the terms of reference, we examined the barriers that women face when entering politics, with particular reference to the Northern Ireland Assembly, initiatives to assist women entering politics, including positive actions, and the role of current Members. You will note from the Committee's conclusions that it was agreed unanimously that under-representation of women must be addressed by the Assembly as a matter of urgency.

I will turn to the submissions received in relation to the barriers that women face when entering politics, which are under the following headings: institutional barriers; political barriers; socio-economic barriers; and individual or psychological barriers. Like many other female Members in the Chamber, I go out regularly to speak, especially to women's groups — especially to young women's groups — and the feedback I get time and again is the great barrier that women face and how we are projected as women in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I remember being at an event not that long ago that was run by the Northern Ireland Women's European Platform (NIWEP) and Youth Action in the MAC, and Megan Fearon was with me at that event.

I sat with a group of young educated women, and their explanation of a politician was as follows: middle-aged, middle class, graduate and male. I thought, "Oh my goodness, is that the message we are putting out from the Assembly; is that a true representation of what we are in Northern Ireland?" I went on to tell them that I grew up in a working-class family, lived in a housing estate and was a single parent of two children by the age of 23, and still managed to break into political life and still managed to have an important role in the Assembly.

I think that we need to dispel a lot of the myths that surround politicians in Stormont. We also need to look at our culture in Northern Ireland. We have a culture where the woman's role is seen very much as the caring role, which we are, and, of course, I am happy to be that, but we are so much more than that. We are so much better — not that we are better than that but that we are more than that. We have so much to say and so much to give.

Working with our local communities, I see an underlying current of strong, capable women who want to put their point of view across but are so much put off by this political institution and what it is. Time and again within those groups, women come and speak to me about the issues that matter to them. I recently went to see a cross-community group of women from Ardoyne.

If anybody would like to come in at any stage and intervene to give me an extra minute, I would appreciate it.

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Ms P Bradley: I certainly will.

Thank you very much for your intervention; it was very welcome.

As I said, I met a cross-community group of women from Ardoyne not that long ago. What did they want to talk to me about? They wanted to talk to me about health, education, suicide and legal highs — all the problems that are happening in their community. Way down at the bottom of their list were the orange and green issues of Twaddell and the parade. That was important to them, but other issues were much more important. We need to look at how we deliver our politics and send out the strong message that we, as an Assembly, do many more things than argue and debate over orange and green politics.

That leads me on to the press and the media. I think they have a lot to answer for, and this came up time and again in the submissions. The 10 minutes that people see on the news at night about this party, that party or other parties having debates and arguments is not really the life of an Assembly Member, and it does not show a true reflection of what we do and how we work together.

I will finish off, Mr Speaker, by saying that this is timely and that we do need to see changes. It also shows that we are debating this matter — albeit we debate it only once a year, and we need to debate it more than that — and that we are evolving and maturing as an Assembly where we can now put this on the table and say, "We need to make changes". I would like to think, Mr Speaker — I know that I am very late — that this time next year or the year after, I will not be standing here having the same conversation.

Mr Speaker: As a man, I resisted telling you that your time was up.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I join my colleagues in welcoming the fact that the Assembly Commission unanimously supported Judith's proposal that we be purple today. I also thank the Business Committee for its support in changing times, dates, and so on. I put that on record.

We had a very good few months in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. It began when each party leader was asked to nominate some issues that they felt should be addressed. Our party leader proposed gender equality. I thank the Assembly and Executive Review Committee for supporting that recommendation and for the work that has been done in the past number of months.

I join Paula Bradley in thanking the officials who expertly facilitated the report. There have been some very thoughtful presentations from men and women in the debate, but, despite Irish and British women leading the way in the suffragette movement, we are one of the worst in Europe. There is no point in us try to justify it: we are one of the worst. I am not going to cite loads of statistics, but I am going to give some. In the South of Ireland, 25 out of 166 Dáil seats are held by women, which is 15%. Some 91 women have been elected since the foundation of the Southern state. Since 1918, out of 4,744 Dáil seats, 260 have been held by women, which is 5·4%. Lest we get too cocky here in the North, where we have a new institution and an opportunity to do things differently, 14% of seats were held by women in 1998; in 2003, it was 18%; in 2007, it was 18%; and, in 2011, it was 19·5%. As my colleague Trevor Lunn said, we have the potential to improve that through co-option. I hope that he does not take it the wrong way if I do a little correction and tell him that four out of our six co-optees were women: Maeve, Bronwyn, Megan and Rosie. That is good, but not good enough. We still need to be doing better.

I welcome the fact that our youngest MLA is a young, articulate woman. I also put on record that last week was not a good place to be in the Chamber, when some of our men, who should have known better — only some, thankfully — asked Megan whether she had written her own speech. That is ridiculous and should not have happened.

Anyway, on the international stage, the South — Megan, to whom I referred, has just entered the Chamber — is 106th out of 184 when it comes to representation of women in Parliament, and we are 24th out of 27 in Europe.

I welcome the report, and each and every one of its recommendations. I have a very short time to speak, so I will not deal with them all, but I will single out a couple of issues. We need political leadership from the top of every single party. Trevor Lunn is right: this is about parties taking action. The Assembly cannot take action, but parties can. Leadership is about promoting women but also about promoting feminist women. I leave that there, and we can debate it. It is about putting women into winnable seats. Let us look at the Westminster election, right across the board, and see how many women are standing in winnable seats. It is also about quotas, which I support. I will say that again in case anyone did not hear it: I support quotas. Unless we bring in things such as quotas and financial penalties, I do not believe that we will really have the change that we need.

Sinn Féin is a party in which women having political power is normal: our vice president is a woman; we have three Ministers who are women; three of our four MEPs are women; and our Chief Whip is a woman. However, that is not good enough. We need 50:50. We need women managers and strategists. I would like to see our public bodies constituted as those in Iceland, where a law has introduced quotas in public appointments. Boards of publicly owned and publicly limited companies with over 50 employees have to have at least 40% of either gender represented.

Adversarial politics is a turn-off. It is not that we are not capable of dealing with it —

Ms P Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: I will.

Ms P Bradley: Would the Member like some extra time?

Ms Ruane: I would love some extra time. Thank you very much. I was hoping that I would be asked that.

Adversarial politics is about intimidation and fear, and about creating that culture.

We women are not afraid of that. We are bored by it. We are put off by it. We do not want it. It is the same with other women out there, so I hear from all parties that we want real change. We need to take a hard look at how we do our job and how we need to put the report's recommendations into action.

At the current rate of change, it will take 250 years to bring about 50:50. That is not good enough. None of us wants that, so it is now time for men and women to get off the fence and take the side of gender equality. No more ifs, buts, excuses or explanations. Please, do not quote the merit principle at us. We are sick of the merit principle. Seán Rogers hit the nail on the head on that. Well done, Seán.

We know the extent of the problem. Let us now change it together.

Mr Swann: As a new member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I welcome the report. Unfortunately, I joined the Committee only at the end of the process when we were going through the report, so I missed all the evidence sessions. There is quite a lot of reading in the report. I am surprised that we are here today, given that we debated for 10 or 15 minutes whether a word in the report should be a "should" or could be a "could". Given that we got down to that level of detail and agreement, there is not a party in the House that has not agreed with the Committee's work and its remit to try to bring about gender balance in the Assembly.

Einstein said:

"The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before."

On the Committee for Employment and Learning, our studies and work on increasing women's participation in STEM subjects and the sciences reflects where we are.

The report is about attracting women into elected politics. Members have touched on the perception of politicians being old men in grey suits with grey hair. Sorry, Trevor, that is no reflection on you; I just happened to look at you. That is the same as the perception of scientists.

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: I will certainly give way.

Mr Lunn: I just want to make sure that you get the extra minute. [Laughter.]

Mr Swann: We are all being very friendly today. Thank you.

As was mentioned, it is about role models in this place and in Northern Ireland society in general. There is a perception in Northern Ireland society, across even the whole island, about the paternal figure. That is a challenge that we face and a change that we must bring about not just in politics but in wider society.

I was glad to hear Caitríona talk about putting women into winnable seats. My party has definitely taken that on by putting Jo-Anne Dobson in as our candidate in Upper Bann. That is the plug. When that fact came out earlier, I saw the Committee Chair grinning to himself because he knew exactly what would be said from this end of the Chamber.

Our party takes the issue quite seriously. Ms Ruane mentioned that we are fed up hearing about the merit principle and being elected on only the merit principle. The Ulster Women's Unionist Council has firmly expressed the wish of our female members to be selected and elected on merit and on no other stance. That is why we created and work through our Dame Dehra Parker programme, which has been in place for quite some time. Dehra Parker was our MP for Londonderry for a long time, so we have always had elected women officials in here.

Part of the report and the discussion was about civil servants coming before Committees. The Committee thought that there could be a greater gender balance. As Chair of a Committee, I would far rather see the appropriate officials than civil servants being taken from their work to make sure that there is a gender balance.

That reflects what Mrs Dobson said about the case that she and Michael McGimpsey put forward that more should be done to promote women in the Northern Ireland Civil Service so that gender balance is not enforced but is there, and we had a cross-section of male and female permanent secretaries. We have been critical about the percentage breakdown of men and women in the Chamber. All our permanent secretaries are and have been men.

1.15 pm

Ms P Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: I will.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for bringing that up, because it is a very important point. We were talking about meritocracy and the merit principle, but the merit principle has been in for some time in the Civil Service, and yet we still have not seen that increase in women promoted to the top jobs. Would you comment on that?

Mr Swann: The merit principle is there, but maybe the willingness to use it in some cases for promotion is the blockage within our Civil Service and is something that needs challenged.

In regard to encouraging women to be participants in active politics, as Mr Ross said, when we get down to community group level, women are the ones who are driving the community groups, the playgroups and everything else that we have in general society. That is where we are seeing the power of women. This place has a lot to do, and the parties in this House have a lot to do on top of the words in this report; they have a lot to do in how they portray themselves.

I do not want to break up the positive side of this report, but the issue is how parties interact with women and the general public. I reflect on the case of Maria Cahill and how she has been commented on and treated in social media. It is a discouragement to women when they see that sort of veiled attack coming from political parties.

Also, we talk about bringing women civil servants in front of Committees, but I despaired when I saw Jenny Palmer being brought in front of the Social Development Committee and nearly being left in tears by members. If that is how we treat women when we think they are behind the scenes, are not in the public sphere or are standing in here for those five or 10 minutes, that is where we are failing women. That is where we, as elected representatives, can take the extra step and make sure that those women have an opportunity. As was already said by other Members, female Members seem to be an easy target for some. We, as an organisation and a corporate body of elected representatives, should not be treating women like that.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. A lot of this has been said, but I would like to make a few comments as the only female MLA in Derry and Foyle. Given the population mass there, that is a challenge to other parties equally. My colleague Megan Fearon had hoped to speak today, but unfortunately she has a sore throat. I hope that I will give voice to her radical, progressive and hard work on the issue.

First of all, I congratulate the AERC. I am pleased that we are having the opportunity to have the debate, but the proof will be in the pudding, and we need to see the recommendations being advanced and delivered. I have a sense that society and the wider community will watch this one very closely.

We should acknowledge that this place, whilst far from perfect, has changed. I reflect on coming to this Assembly as a PA to another very formidable MLA, Mary Nelis, at a time when women candidates and women MLAs were almost hissed at during their contributions to debates. So, whilst we have not got it perfect, we should reflect on the fact that this place has come so far from where it was back in 1998.

Hopefully, we will have actions coming out of the recommendations. As a party, we changed our constitution to tackle and properly reflect gender representation. Those recommendations need to be both progressive and radical, and we need to reflect on other parliamentary structures. For example, if we look at the South African model, we see that 45% of the Parliament is made up of women. So, we have a long way to go.

In relation to the role that we have played, whilst we have to do more, as Caitríona Ruane said, five of the last six co-options for Sinn Féin were women, three out of our four MEPs are women, and we have three female Ministers. So, certainly there has been a heavy lift and a lot of work done, not only to ensure that women are part of the process but that they are active participants in leadership and decision-making processes.

There are two important points that have come out of this discussion. The media's representation of this place, the media's rush to our male leadership and the negativity that comes from certain elements of the media will put wider society — of course, I include women in that — off the whole notion of active participation in politics and this place. There is a big lift there.

The bigger lift is within the leadership of the political parties. They have a responsibility to be proactive and radical in not only attracting female candidates but retaining them, and not in a tokenistic type of way but in a way that means that women actively participate in political leadership at the very top of structures.

I think that delivery will be key to these recommendations for our way forward. I also think that our society and community will monitor this one very closely.

Mrs McKevitt: I am also delighted this afternoon to be able to speak on the review of women in politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I will begin by commending the Assembly and Executive Review Committee for undertaking this important and necessary review. I would like nothing more than to see more women of all ages and backgrounds entering politics. Indeed, the debate is very timely because, as has already been pointed out, yesterday we celebrated International Women's Day. I know that many women's organisations are keen to hear the recommendations that are outlined in the report.

The report makes a number of recommendations for the consideration of the political parties to increase female representation. The SDLP is certainly a female-friendly party, as demonstrated by the fact that we had the highest percentage of female candidates in the 2014 local government elections. However, we also acknowledge that we could do much more to reach 50% in female candidates and particularly to increase female representation in the Assembly and to ensure that more females hold high-profile positions.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the great work of my party colleague Nichola Mallon, who, during her current term as Lord Mayor of Belfast, has given young women the opportunity to shadow her as she carries out her mayoral duties. In doing so, Nichola has helped young females to consider politics as a career path.

The report outlines recommendations for the consideration of the Assembly and the Executive. Recommendation 15 refers to the establishment of:

"a working group on a gender sensitive parliament."

Indeed, a collective group of people will certainly be required to oversee and push many of the implementations that are needed for the many recommendations. Rather than a working group, I would have liked to see the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee is to be applauded for the work that members and staff put in to the review. However, it already has many issues to address; therefore, it may not be possible for it to give its full attention to gender equality. I believe that the issue deserves full attention in 2015 going forward.

If an Ad Hoc Committee was established, its lifespan would run until there is 50% female participation in the Assembly. That would send a stronger message to women in our society that the Northern Ireland Assembly is serious about committing to gender equality. That Committee would then play a leading role in implementing the recommendations laid out in the review, such as the development of a gender action plan, the review of the voting mechanism for family-friendly sittings, the establishment of a women's parliamentary caucus and much more. If implemented, the recommendations in the report will bring us vastly closer to reaching our target for gender equality in politics, but we need to ensure that there is a powerful, authoritative body pushing the recommendations through.

If you want, I can add one further point. As a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I have noticed the male dominance in the artwork in Parliament Buildings and around the grounds. We have the paintings of the late Rev Ian Paisley. Indeed, we have one of David Trimble and, of course, our own Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan, to name but a few. On the drive to the "house on the hill", the statue of Carson is unmissable. We need to send a message about the role that women have played and, indeed, will continue to play in political life. We should have a permanent display of artwork or something to that effect that will complement the picture of Eileen Bell.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I welcome the report. Indeed, I have been on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee since its inception a number of years ago, and I think that this will be seen as one of its better pieces of work.

I think that it is a comprehensive report, and I echo the sentiments of other Members about the quality of the research. I was not on any of the trips, but the feedback from the trips showed us how other institutions can tackle this problem. The research was not just about pointing out where inequalities existed but gave us templates for how things could be changed. I think that the report is very important and provides an excellent snapshot of where the Assembly now sits. I think that from reading it, it is fair to say that, while there are positive aspects of the work carried out here in the Assembly, we could and should be doing better. That is the task ahead.

The other strength of the report is that we can see from the research and particularly the recommendations where we should go next. I think that the report would not have the same meaning, effect or deep purpose if there was not provision for how we can tackle the issue. I think that the question of how we change is the most important thing for the Committee, as it should be for all the parties in the Assembly. There are very clear recommendations on what the Assembly can do to make the place more approachable and better for people with caring responsibilities. Various parties have outlined some of the measures and some of the steps that can and should be taken in relation to this, which is very important.

I also think that we have to be very mindful and very careful that we do not believe that nothing needs to be changed or that, if we continue to do what we are doing, we will have different outcomes. If we do believe that, we are certainly deluding ourselves. Alastair Ross made the point that the population make-up is around 50:50, yet, when you look across many, many sectors — the Assembly is no different — you see a lower percentage of women. That has to put us in a position where we are asking questions. I do not think that you can retreat into the position where you say that it is all down to merit and that merit dictates it; that is too simplistic.

I think that we all know that, in certain institutions and with certain cultural values, you can use merit as a cover for prevailing and dominant views. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice has been in front of our Justice Committee, and, particularly at senior level, the legal profession has a complete predominance of men. I think that he took the approach that, while he knows that people can retreat into saying that it is down to merit, there are certain procedures in place that can skew merit in a particular way. He invited the Committee to invite him back in a number of years, and he said that, if he had not changed that, he would be open to criticism. I think that that is the type of approach that we have to take, because, where there is an obvious bias and an obvious inequality, it is appropriate to take steps. Other people in other institutions in other places have done that and done it quite successfully. I think that people who try to defend the merit principle are frightened of positive and affirmative action. I do not think affirmative action in any undermines anybody's position, particularly —

Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. It allows me to correct the statement that I made earlier about co-options. The 14 co-options were in the last mandate, 2007 to 2011. Will the Member agree with me and encourage other parties to use the co-option process in the way that Sinn Féin appears to have done as a means of redressing the balance overall?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCartney: I think that every measure possible should be taken. I can say now that we had a very successful ard-fheis at the weekend in Derry. Where else to hold it, and why would it not be success? Our ard-chomhairle, or national executive, if you like, is made up by a quota. There is an open election by the membership, but we have to elect six men and six women. That is the type of thing that has done Sinn Féin no harm. Indeed, I could sit here and say that perhaps that is a good way to be because, after all, we are the largest party on the island of Ireland. Sometimes, positive and affirmative action can lead to positive and affirmative outcomes.

My general point is that it is very important to say that, if we retreat into old arguments, we will end up doing the same thing again.

We have to be positive; we have to look at all the measures that have been outlined in the report. Parties have to be bold. The position that Trevor Lunn outlined is also the way to do it. Where opportunities present themselves, we can be imaginative and innovative and have a very positive outcome as a result.

1.30 pm

Ms Sugden: I was giving off on Twitter, saying that I was going to be timed out and said "oh the irony" of that, but anyway. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the review of women in politics, and, like many others, I note the importance of the debate on the day after International Women's Day. To pay my respects to the women in East Londonderry, Northern Ireland and across the world, I will quote a post from the timeline of another fantastic woman and Northern Ireland Assembly colleague Judith Cochrane. She said:

"Here's to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them."

Women in politics are entirely necessary, not as a token, not as an antidote to men, not as colour in a sea of grey suits, but in our own right as capable representatives of half the population in Northern Ireland and across the world. I commend the instigators of the review because of the gross disproportion of women in this House. I am, however, somewhat disappointed with the recommendations. Generally, I support the messages, but I do not feel that they go far enough. I do not feel that there are specific targets, a time frame or rigour to ensure that it happens. It worries me that this will be just another tokenistic report.

I will, however, focus on one area of the report. It is the —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Ms Sugden: Yes, go ahead.

Mr Swann: What sort of targets would she like to have seen? Can she give us a specific idea?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute. You are not timed out.

Ms Sugden: I will come to that in my next point. One of the areas that the report focused on was the responsibility of the political parties to encourage women in politics. The Northern Ireland Assembly is a party house, and enhancing the participation of women in politics cannot happen without genuine leadership from the political parties — leadership that goes beyond mechanisms to ensure more women are selected for candidacy and the entire approach of politics. Today, we are aware of yet another merry dance of old, stale politics between the two main parties. How many women — how many women and men — will become involved in politics because of that? This House needs to get its act together to stop the rot of people turning off from politics so that we can encourage more young people and women into politics.

Women need to support women. I do not like to say that we are the fairer sex because we are much better than that; we are the fantastic sex. We are fantastic in that we hold ourselves to such high standards. I heard recently from a woman that females should be concerned only with business and not necessarily how they look. I say do both if that is what you want to do. A leader is not necessarily a woman in a suit; it is a woman not afraid to wear a dress and own it.

Men also need to support women. I was asked this morning about how my male colleagues treat me in the House, and I must admit that I have not really witnessed much of that nonsense, but, let us face it, that hostility is their insecurity, not mine, so I do not really pay much attention to it anyway.

My last point is that I will stand here and say that I am a feminist. Feminism is not about criticising men or about getting one over on men; it is about equality. It is brave, but, my goodness, is it necessary. So, in the last few seconds — maybe I do have a minute — I will ask how many Members — in particular, men — will use the opportunity of an intervention in my contribution to stand up and say that they are a feminist? Not one. OK.

Mr Speaker: I am a feminist. [Laughter.]

Mr Moutray (The Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee): As Chair of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I rise to make the closing remarks on this debate on the report, 'Women in Politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly'. I do not propose to summarise all Members' contributions to the debate; they speak for themselves and will be available in the Hansard report. However, what I have heard today indicates that what this report has identified as key barriers and challenges need to be addressed with robust actions to encourage more women into politics.

The Assembly, political parties and the Executive cannot truly deliver for all their citizens if half the population remains underrepresented in the political arena. The participation of women in politics and government is essential to building and sustaining peace and democracy.

As you have heard in the Chamber today and in the conclusions of this report, women face abundant barriers. Institutional barriers such as adversarial style of politics and unfriendly working hours; socio-cultural barriers such as childcare and caring responsibilities; political barriers such as the selection processes; and psychological barriers faced by individual women.

As noted in the report, and as we heard today, the Committee considered and put forward recommendations aiming to remove these barriers, including the establishment of a women's parliamentary caucus; a review of the voting times in the plenary sitting; greater engagement with young women and schoolgirls; and recommendations for political parties to review their membership and candidate selection strategies.

Increasing the number of women in politics will require the recommendations of this report to be turned into meaningful actions by the Assembly, political parties and Departments to address the lack of women in politics in Northern Ireland. With a joined-up approach, it can be achieved.

Finally, in the words of Madeleine Albright, Chairperson of the National Democratic Institute:

"Every country deserves to have the best possible leader and that means that women have to be given a chance to compete. If they’re never allowed to compete in the electoral process then the countries are really robbing themselves of a great deal of talent."

I believe that the Northern Ireland Assembly, political parties and the Executive should strive to ensure that women get the chance to compete.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee now request that the Assembly approve the Committee's report.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly approves the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on its Review of Women in Politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly [NIA 224/11-16].

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I inform Members that a valid petition of concern has been lodged.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 13/11-15] do now pass. — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

Motion not moved.

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): Mr Speaker, I am seeking to reschedule the Bill.

Mr Allister: On a point of order.

Mr Speaker: I will take the point of order after we deal with this matter. The Final Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill is not being moved. The next matter of business is Question Time. Before we suspend for Question Time, I will take a point of order from Jim Allister.

Mr Allister: Is it in order to observe that Sinn Féin has obviously been following a strategy to subvert the supposed agreement at Stormont House, and should we not now move to an election for the House?

Mr Speaker: The Member will take his seat. A valid petition of concern: that is the information that answers your rhetorical question. I keep reminding people that they should not abuse the procedures of this House. If you want make political points, join the debate.

The sitting is suspended until Question Time at 2.00pm.

The sitting was suspended at 1.38 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Questions 2 and 10 have been withdrawn.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): The EU emissions trading system has been a cornerstone of the European Union's policy to combat climate change, and it is a flagship tool for cost-effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources across Europe. The review is being undertaken as a result of the agreement on the 2030 framework for climate and energy, which contains a revised target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. A reformed EU emissions trading scheme remains the main instrument to help achieve that reduction target, but the review also provides an opportunity to address some areas of concern with the existing scheme, most notably the issue of carbon leakage, as well as providing the opportunity to consider a number of ways in which the scheme could better support low-carbon innovation across the industrial sectors and modernisation of the energy industry.

I believe that a robust and reformed emissions trading system can play a significant part in reducing greenhouse gases at minimum cost, and will also contribute towards achieving our Programme for Government target of a reduction in emissions of 35% by 2025. However, while around 1,000 organisations across the UK are currently participating in the emissions trading system, there are only 23 participants registered here, and so it is vitally important to ensure that the review does not have a detrimental effect on local participants after 2020 when any proposed revisions are to be introduced.

My officials are in regular contact with their colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on the trading system and specifically on this review. They will provide me with advice later this month, following which I will provide a response on the current consultation on the review of the trading system.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. Has he had any discussions on the matter with his Southern colleagues under the aegis of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC)?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question and his supplementary question on this extremely important and topical matter. Climate change knows no borders, and it is imperative that I engage in discussions not solely with our counterparts in the South, which I do on a regular basis, but with those in other jurisdictions. This comes up regularly at North/South Ministerial Council meetings, and Alan Kelly, the Minister in the South, is committed to addressing it on a joined-up basis, as was his predecessor Phil Hogan. I am sure that it will be in a prominent place on the agenda of the next NSMC meeting in environmental format also, and I look forward to updating the Assembly on that meeting in due course.

Mr A Maginness: Climate change should not only be, as he pointed out, on the agenda of the North/South Ministerial Council but on agenda of the British-Irish council as well. Can joint efforts be made across these islands by all the Administrations to tackle climate change?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Maginness for his supplementary question. Yes, there can be, should be, and are, joined-up approaches to tackling climate change. While I have a close working relationship with my counterpart in the South, a lot of what we do on climate change is in partnership with our partners across the water and with DECC. In fact, it is through it that we make our representations in Europe and even further afield on this extremely important subject.

Ms Lo: Given that DOE will be merged with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and that there has always been, as the Minister knows, a tension between the environment and the interests of the farming industry, what steps is he taking to ensure that climate change mitigation stays in focus in Northern Ireland?

Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Lo, the Chairperson of the Environment Committee, for her question. I described this earlier today as important and topical, and it will become even more important. It is vital that climate change remain at the forefront of everything that we do following the, shall we say, amalgamation of the Departments. The Member refers to what she perceives as a tension between my Department and its regulatory arm, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), and the agricultural industry, but it is safe to say that both sectors' relationships have been improving and, hopefully, will continue to do so before amalgamation with the Department of Agriculture.

I have to put on record my delight that "Environment" has warranted a place in the name of the new Department. That is very important. Just last week, there took place the inaugural meeting of my new prosperity panel, which includes members of the very important agrifood industry. The input of agriculture here, into not just our economy but our environment through emissions, means that there are a lot more similarities between us and the Republic of Ireland. It is therefore vital that we work closely with that sector. As I said, we are much more similar to the Republic of Ireland than to England, Scotland and Wales. As such, I believe that we should look at it and learn lessons, not just from what it is doing right but from what it could be doing better.

Mr Durkan: The planning application for the redevelopment of the Brandywell stadium and showgrounds was submitted on 12 September 2014. The proposal comprises the demolition of the existing terraces and stand along the Lone Moor Road and their replacement with a new 2,400-seated stand. The development also provides for the relocation of the existing dog track within the site.

My officials have met the agent to progress the application. However, some further details are required on a number of issues, including contamination, drainage and boundaries. A consultation response is also pending from the environmental health department of Derry City Council.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. I am glad to hear that the application is progressing. Can he give us an idea of when it will be finalised and when we will see the long-overdue redevelopment of the Brandywell stadium?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Eastwood for his question. I know that the Brandywell is dear to his heart, as it is to mine. We are both regular attenders. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating Derry City on a winning start to the season against Galway on Friday night.

My officials are fully engaged and fully committed to pursuing the scheme to a positive conclusion. Meetings and discussions have already taken place on the information required to bring the application forward to approval. It is expected that, once the information necessary to address the issues raised by Transport NI and the NIEA has been submitted, and once the objectors, of whom there are a couple, have been notified and given the opportunity to comment, if they so desire, the application can proceed.

Given that planning powers are to be transferred to councils in a few weeks, on 1 April, most applications will be considered and finalised by councils. However, in this instance, as the applicant is a council — many instances of such applications will arise over the coming months and years — careful consideration will have to be given as to how such applications are processed, so as to address any issues of potential or perceived conflicts of interest.

Mr Durkan: The European waste framework directive required member states to collect separately at least paper, glass, plastics and metal by 1 January this year. The directive was transposed into law here in 2011. When the Department was transposing the directive, it consulted councils in writing and held stakeholder events and bilateral meetings with councils and the three waste management groups. My officials have also had regular discussions with the waste management groups regarding the development and implementation of the food waste regulations, which were made last month. The regulations require councils to provide receptacles for the separate collection of food waste from householders. Councils may continue to provide commingled collections of food and other bio-waste when they are satisfied that the amount of food waste collected is not substantially reduced.

The issue of the separate collection of food waste from householders has been discussed as part of the formal consultation process in 2013 and subsequently at meetings of the waste programme board, which I chair, and the waste coordination group, which involves officials from my Department and the three waste management groups. My officials have also had specific discussions on the issue with the SWaMP group, the shadow Fermanagh and Omagh council and Arc21.

The provisions of the new food waste regulations relating to householders come into effect on 1 April 2017. I anticipate that the discussions with waste management groups and councils will continue to ensure the appropriate implementation of the regulations by that date. To help councils to increase their levels of recycling, my Department has provided funding to councils and the waste management groups from the Rethink Waste fund. The fund covers the capital costs of improving or extending their existing waste collection and reuse and recycling infrastructure to meet their EU targets. Over the past four years, capital grants totalling in excess of £12·4 million have been made available to councils under the grant scheme.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers today. Does he recognise that Arc21 has waste responsibility for 300,000-odd householders, which equates to approximately 54% of the Northern Ireland population? At present, it has a commingled waste system for garden and food waste. Does the Minister recognise the proposed impact of his changes on ratepayers in the new council areas? It is important that we get assurance that consultation on these issues will continue.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I think that we have had a question. Thank you.

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Dunne for that supplementary question. Without a doubt, there will be an initial impact on ratepayers. As I said, through the Rethink Waste fund, I have been able to mitigate many, if not most, of those costs to date through the funding of new receptacles, vehicles and so forth to councils. However, over time, there will be savings to councils as a result of those types of arrangements. It is anticipated that, over the next 10 years, there will be savings in excess of £12 million. It is safe enough to assume that those savings will be passed on to ratepayers.

Mr Cree: Minister, have you had any discussions with your colleague in DETI about the effect of the regulations on food businesses generally? It will work through to the rest of us who like to eat in places like that. Has any high-level consideration been given to combined heat and power biomass applications?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. While I have not had direct contact with Minister Foster on these issues, our officials are in regular contact on these and other matters. You quite rightly pointed out that opportunities can be created for businesses by initiatives such as this, whereas it has historically been perceived that any environmental regulation is perhaps a threat to economic development. We are moving onto a platform where the economy and the environment work together rather than being at loggerheads.

Work has been done with businesses, and it continues to be done through my Department and our sponsorship of programmes such as the ARENA Network and Business in the Community, which deals directly with businesses and shows them not just the regulations to which they have to adhere but the way in which they can turn the obligations into opportunities.

2.15 pm

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. Is é an rud a ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire: an raibh aon phlé ann idir na comhairlí áitiúla agus a Roinn féin mar gheall ar dhramh-bhia? I thank the Minister for his answer. What discussions have there been between councils and his Department about waste food?

Mr Durkan: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Uasal Ó Brolacháin as an cheist sin. I thank the Member for his question. My Department engaged with councils and waste management groups on the general issue of placing restrictions on the landfilling of food waste through an initial consultation in 2010. Following that, there were opportunities to discuss aspects of the food waste restriction in greater detail during the development of the revised waste management strategy and the complementary development of revised waste management plans by waste management groups in 2013.

My Department consulted on the proposed food waste regulations between September and December 2013. There were 44 responses to the consultation, including 20 from local government. A stakeholder event held on 15 November 2013 attracted over 100 delegates, including many from local government. There were also further discussions on separate food collections with officials from the waste management groups at meetings of the waste coordination group held last year and at specific meetings, as I mentioned in my initial answer, with the shadow Fermanagh and Omagh council in July 2014 and with waste management groups, namely SWaMP2008 and Arc21, in August 2014.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Does he agree that Banbridge District Council, which went onto a monthly bin trial and showed a 35% increase in recyclables, a 35% decrease in the amount going into black bins and a 120% increase over Christmas —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member put his question, please?

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is a shining example of a policy that was working. Does the Minister share my regret that the council has now backed away from that?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McCallister for his question. Obviously, I regret anything that could be seen as a retrograde step by any council in meeting their obligations or in failing to fulfil their obligations to meet their recycling targets. I am aware of the great work that had been ongoing in the Banbridge area, however different councils have different approaches to dealing with waste, and, as councils are now merging, we will see more of this after 1 April as they try to bring together different schemes from different areas. It is vital that I, as Minister, and my Department support councils to do so and ensure that the schemes that they eventually decide on are those that yield the type of results that Mr McCallister outlined.

Mr Durkan: It is unfortunate that these draft regulations were not approved by the Assembly when they were debated on 24 February 2015. They would have ensured that the protections for the interests of minority communities in council decision-making, supported by the Assembly when it passed the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, were enshrined in statutory provision. In particular, the draft regulations made provision that a decision that had been called in on the grounds of disproportionate adverse impact would have to be taken by a qualified majority.

As a result of the regulations not being approved, there is no statutory basis for the process for reconsidering a decision beyond that specified in the 2014 Act. The absence of prescribed provisions in relation to the administrative arrangements for the call-in process and the specification of those decisions that must be taken by a qualified majority will mean that each council can determine its own arrangements. As a result, the key policy objective of ensuring a consistent approach to governance arrangements across all the councils is not guaranteed.

My officials are currently examining the options to provide a legislative basis for ensuring that the necessary provisions are included in council standing orders on a consistent basis across all the new councils. I will advise the Assembly of the outcome of that examination and how the matter will be progressed at the earliest opportunity. In the interim, my officials are also examining the approaches that may be available to provide a framework for councils that reminds them of the specific requirements of the 2014 Act in relation to matters that must be provided for in standing orders.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that answer. Is he aware if there may be any legal implications for either his Department or the councils from the non-implementation of the regulation?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Elliott for that question. As of yet, no such implications have been brought to my attention. However, I fear that, if there is a continued failure to adopt and approve, if not the regulations that I brought forward in their exact form, something very similar, doing what I set out to do, what the Department set out to do, and what the Assembly agreed to do in passing the 2014 Act, there could be ramifications, and they could manifest themselves in a legal challenge of some description.

Mr Attwood: Whilst I note what you say, Minister, in terms of what your own Department's officials are doing, it is three weeks today until the new councils go live. Is it not the case that there is going to be a free-for-all in many councils around Northern Ireland, given the failure of the regulations to pass and the reckless conduct of the DUP in that regard?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I think the Member has asked the question.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. The free-for-all that the Member describes is not only something that I fear but something that everyone in the Chamber should fear. I am sure that everyone outside the Chamber across the North — all the citizens of the North — will fear it. In what should be an exciting new era for local government, when local government and new councils have been empowered to make more decisions, to make more changes and to make more impact on the lives of the citizens within their areas, those citizens do not want their councils to be blighted from the outset by petty arguments, things being called in that should not be called in and a complete lack of progress in that regard. My officials continue to work on it and will engage with other parties, as will I, to ensure that we get something through in regulation, but we are going to have to rely on leadership from local government and locally elected councillors. I hope that they are able to show more leadership than many in the House often do.

Mr Durkan: The DOE is aware of the European Commission’s fitness check of the birds and habitats directives. That is the latest part of the programme that is designed to determine the effectiveness of the directives in terms of implementation and outputs.

I understand that the Commission appointed consultants in late December last year to develop an evidence-based questionnaire for all member states to complete. The UK and nine other member states have been selected for greater in-depth follow-up action in relation to the programme. That action is to gain more detailed information on implementing the directives. DEFRA is leading on the UK response, with all three devolved Administrations feeding into the process. The DOE, as lead Northern Ireland competent authority under the directives, has engaged with the process and has provided input to DEFRA. The initial response is due with the consultants by mid-March. It is intended by the consultants to have a 12-week public consultation on the findings starting in April.

In addition to DEFRA etc detailed responses will be sought from specific bodies with experience of the directives. These bodies include the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the National Farmers' Union and the Seabed User and Developer Group. RSPB is coordinating the NGO response through Environment Link.

It is the intention of the Commission to get potentially differing views on the effectiveness of the directives from a number of perspectives.

DEFRA and the devolved Administrations are putting forward factual evidence based on scientific evidence and data, much of which has been shared previously with the Commission as part of our reporting obligations under the directives. In addition, links to respective planning policy documents, biodiversity strategies etc are being highlighted for the consultants to consider. Following consultation, it is likely that follow-up action with the consultants will be required during the second half of this year. It is intended that the overall exercise will be completed with a final report published by March 2016. While it is the intention of REFIT to reduce the bureaucracy associated with EU laws, it is difficult to determine at this stage what, if any, legislative changes will result from the exercise.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his very detailed response. What impact, if any, will the recent Budget have on implementing these possible changes?

Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Boyle for the question and her supplementary. It is inevitable that the most recent Budget passed by the Executive and subsequently the Assembly will have an impact on many, if not most, areas of service across all Departments. My Department is no different. In fact, the cut administered to my Department's budget was greater in percentage terms than that to any other Department. However, that will not dilute my determination or my officials' enthusiasm to ensure that we do everything, and continue to work as hard as we have been doing, to meet these very strict targets that are set down to us from Europe. It is important that we do so in partnership with NGOs and so forth, who are those with great authority and knowledge of these matters.

Mr McCarthy: What is the Minister doing to ensure that the upcoming midterm review of the 2020 biodiversity strategy provides a strong opportunity to strengthen rather than dilute the birds and habitats directives?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McCarthy for that question. It is important that the review is as wide as possible and that participation in the review is as wide as possible with, certainly in my opinion, an intention of strengthening the directives and the protections that we have in place, which, I dare say as it is regularly brought to my intention, are not quite strong enough. I see a review as an opportunity to improve, and I look forward to participating in it. I am sure that it will not be in a ministerial capacity at that stage, but it is extremely important that we get as much input as possible and as good an outcome as possible.

Mr Rogers: Minister, in an earlier response, you mentioned the NGOs. How are the environmental NGOs specifically being involved in this process?

Mr Durkan: The NGO sector is extremely important to many areas of life here in the North. The environmental NGO sector is certainly extremely important to the work that we do. It is important that we work in partnership with it. We will not always agree on everything. The environmental NGO sector here is understandably extremely keen to be involved in providing input to the Commission. To that end, Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) will be coordinating responses from local NGOs, and those responses will be fed through to NIEL's parent organisation, Environment Link. As I said, NGOs here are extremely keen, perhaps too keen in some cases, to participate, but, as I said, I welcome any participation in this.

Mr Durkan: Burning tyres generates toxic fumes and by-products that can be extremely dangerous to humans and animals. I am fully committed to working with and supporting local councils in reducing and ultimately eliminating the burning of tyres on bonfires. Whilst the legal position in relation to bonfires is complex and the relevant powers are exercised by a number of public bodies, including the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and local councils, I want to ensure that the environment is protected. Whilst I have directed the NIEA to seek to prevent the illegal dumping of tyres and to work with local councils to help progressively to reduce the number of tyres burned on bonfires, that is not enough.

2.30 pm

Let me be clear: where the NIEA obtains evidence that pertains to the identity of the producer or transporter of controlled waste who allows or transports tyres to be burned on a bonfire, investigations will be carried out. Any enforcement action will be taken against the producer or transporter of the waste and not against the landowner. Whilst the NIEA does not have powers to remove waste from bonfire sites, it can issue article 27 notices to landowners, directing them to dispose of the waste in a specified manner. However, in most cases, that would result in one public body taking legal action against another public body, and that is clearly in no one’s interest.

A complex problem needs us all to show willingness to develop a resolution. To that end, I will be hosting a used tyre/bonfire forum early next month and will invite all local councils in the North with a role to play in helping to deliver a solution to that intricate dilemma.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As that is the end of the period allotted for listed questions, we are unable to take supplementary questions. We move on to topical questions.

T1. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of the Environment for his assessment of the current waiting time for the renewal of taxi driver licences. (AQT 2221/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. While I do not have the information as to the exact waiting time to hand, I have been contacted over a number of months by a number of, shall we say, irate tax drivers about the wait that they have had for their licence.

I stood in the Assembly a couple of months ago and outlined the importance of the taxi industry to Northern Ireland. It is very important that we do all that we can to facilitate the drivers, who are the drivers of that industry, who get people to work every morning and who make transport possible for those who may not be able to make it from A to B. That is why I was keen to get the regulations on single-tier taxiing through, which the Member's party blocked. Apologies, I digressed. It is vital that we ensure that taxi drivers do not have to wait an undue length of time for their licences and are allowed to go about their business in an expedient fashion.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. Like him, I have had taxi drivers in my office who have applied for licences and have been left in debt because of the Department. What measures can he put in place to speed up the process or even to compensate those taxi drivers who applied in plenty of time and who, because of delays in the Department, are left unable to work?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. While I would be loath to get into the realm of compensation on the Floor of the Assembly, I have spoken to my officials about the need to expedite the process and will do so again. Just last week, I got another call from a constituent about that issue.

As I said, it is vital. Those people are in a very difficult industry in which the fares — I know from my constituency — have been the same for some 10 or 15 years, while all other prices have increased, although there has been a slight drop in the price of diesel. I will endeavour to ensure that those cases are dealt with quickly.

I say to the Member, and to any Member, that, if there are specific cases, they should feel free to lift the phone or come to my office and we will deal with them case by case, although I know that that is by no means a satisfactory approach. It will get the outcome that that person desires, although you will not catch everyone that is affected by doing so.

T2. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of the Environment whether he has made any progress in seeking an amicable solution to the placing of the Union flag on driving licences. (AQT 2222/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. I thought that the solution that we had reached was a fairly amicable one in that there should not be a flag on the licence due to the division that that will and would cause in the North.

For too long, flags have been used here as tools by some and targets by others. While our debate on the issue in the Assembly was very good and very frank, it might not always have been "amicable", which is the term that the Member uses. I outlined quite clearly that day and in previous and subsequent media interviews that the decision had been made and that it was here to stay.

I know that one of the Member's party colleagues had outlined what his party would do when it gets this ministry, but, as this ministry will not exactly exist after this mandate, that will remain to be seen.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he has already indicated, no amicable solution was reached on that day. Certainly, we, on these Benches, did not see it as amicable that the flag would be excluded from licences. There should be opt in.

Has the Minister arranged a meeting with the national Transport Minister, who, I understand, has written to him to seek a meeting with him to take this matter forward? Has he arranged that meeting? Has he been in contact?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. To date, that meeting has not been arranged. He referred to an opt-in option. I would certainly be happy to explore that option. However, due to the costs of it, it was not actually presented as an option. As I coined it in the Chamber in my answer to a question from Mrs Overend, the option option was not an option. If it becomes an option, it is an option that I will consider.

T3. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of the Environment whether he can give the House a cast-iron guarantee that he will be able to meet his Department’s budget commitments, given that he has said that he expects one third of his staff to leave through the voluntary exit scheme. (AQT 2223/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, I outlined in response to an earlier question the impact of budget cuts on all Departments and the fact that — I can never resist saying it — my Department has been hit harder than any other. In order for my Department to continue its service as it has done up until this point, we would require somewhere in the region of 500 people to leave their posts. I have stated publicly — and here, in fact — that there will be no compulsory redundancies in my Department. I know that the voluntary exit scheme opened recently. To date, I have heard of some interest in it in my Department and wider interest across other Departments. It is vital that we concentrate on delivering the same level of service, ensuring the protection and promotion of the environment, albeit with what will inevitably be a reduced workforce. It remains to be seen whether it will be reduced by the requisite number.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Since he has not been willing or able to give that cast-iron guarantee, what contingency will he be able to make in his incredibly optimistic budget plans?

Mr Durkan: I am not sure whether Mr Dickson has looked at my budget plans. If he has, he will be just about the only person whom I have heard describe them as "optimistic", that is for sure. We have not budgeted on the fact of anyone leaving the Department. You cannot budget on the assumption that people will leave, so the figure that we have set aside for salaries next year is the same figure for salaries this year. If and when people leave throughout the year — and it will also depend on when they leave — money will become available which will be able to go into the functions that I outlined earlier.

T4. Dr McDonnell asked the Minister of the Environment to explain why Kelly’s Cellars, an important historic building in Belfast, has been proposed for delisting. (AQT 2224/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank Dr McDonnell for that question. The NIEA has been undertaking a review of the historic buildings of the North since 1997. This second survey provides detailed information and records. Its aim is to help improve the protection of historic listed buildings.

Over the last three years, this work has been under way in Belfast. As part of this process, the Department is consulting on delisting a number of buildings. I have been advised that Kelly's Cellars was subjected to the same review as all other listed buildings. Although it has important historical connections, it was found to have changed significantly over the years: walls have been rebuilt due to bomb damage and internal fittings have been removed. Its authenticity as a historic building was, therefore, considered to have reduced. It is clear however that there is widespread public interest in the building and that the majority of comments and articles have expressed a desire to see that the heritage that remains continues to enjoy the protection of listing. I can assure the Member that no decision will be taken until all views have been received and carefully considered.

Dr McDonnell: Does the Minister agree that to delist the building would be counterproductive for heritage tourism in Belfast?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. The short answer is yes, I do agree. I am also aware that Belfast City Council was opposed to the decision. Clearly, local views such as those will be very important when decisions are finally taken.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question 5 has been withdrawn by the Member listed.

T6. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of the Environment for an update on the transfer of planning functions to the new council structures. (AQT 2226/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. The transfer of planning draws ever closer; in fact, many councils have had their last planning committee meetings in their old form. It is, of course, my hope, and the hope of everyone here, that the new councils will be able to hit the ground running as of 1 April with their new planning function.

There has been an awful lot of investment. First, there has been the investment of money that has been sanctioned by the Executive, and, secondly, there has been a huge investment of time in the training of the new councils and councillors, with specific attention paid to the new function that they will have of planning. I remember sitting on Derry City Council not that long ago, and many of the councillors were rubbing their hands at the prospect of getting the planning power. However, I think it is fair to say that I have seen, in my interaction with councillors and councils, the realisation that with that power is going to come a great responsibility, and there is a wee bit more trepidation about it now.

In my opinion, we have done everything we can do, as a Department, to ensure that councillors will have not just the competence to take on and make these planning decision, but the confidence. It is vitally important that they have the competence and confidence. If they have that, they will have the confidence of the public.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. As he is the Minister responsible for local government, is he content that the amount of training that has been allocated is sufficient? Going forward, is he confident that it will be successful?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary. As I said, I am confident that, as a Department, we have done all that we could and should have done to date in order to build the competence levels of councillors to deal with this extremely important function. However, I have no doubt that there will be further requirements for continued professional development, if you want to call it that. Problems will arise, no doubt, across the councils; decisions will be made; and, sometimes, decisions will be unmade. Due to the failure of the Assembly to approve the regulations I brought last week, I fear that some councils will start calling in planning decisions that had been passed. I think that that is very dangerous. They will not be cut adrift. The Department will retain oversight and a close relationship with planners in all of the council areas. I anticipate that a lot of hand-holding will need to be done, but it is important that the councils are allowed time to make their own decisions and, in some instances, learn from their own mistakes.

T7. Mr Easton asked the Minister of the Environment what his Department is doing through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to combat evasive and alien species that are threatening our natural wildlife across Northern Ireland. (AQT 2227/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. My Department, under the auspices of the NIEA, remains committed to tackling invasive and alien species, which are manifold and take many forms.

At a recent meeting that I had with the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, it was a real education for me to learn what some of our alien species are. What may seem like a harmless deer is actually very detrimental to the ecosystem and to the food chain of other native or indigenous species. We work with partners in the NGO sector to identify species, the harm that they do and humane ways of dealing with problems as they arise.

2.45 pm

Finance and Personnel

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Credit unions already benefit from special corporation tax rules that mean that, where a credit union makes a loan to its members, the related income is not subject to the tax. Those rules would not be altered by the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill. More generally, and in order to manage the potential for artificial profit shifting, certain tradable activities, including those related to lending, leasing and certain types of insurance, are to be excluded from the Northern Ireland corporation tax rate. Nevertheless, mutual building societies and other firms that may be affected by those exclusions can elect to have back-office activities included in a new Northern Ireland regime. Furthermore, all organisations that service the local marketplace stand to benefit from the significantly increased activity that a lower rate of corporation tax will bring.

I have plans to engage with representatives of local credit unions and the Progressive Building Society to discuss how a lower corporation tax rate can deliver benefits for them, for their members and for Northern Ireland more generally.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure that you will agree that we must secure a good, fair deal on corporation tax, one that delivers for SMEs and works for all our people. From your perspective, can you give me more detail on how we can ensure that that can be achieved?

Mr Hamilton: The Member's question appears to be about SMEs more broadly and not specifically on credit unions and mutuals.

I am aware of the issues that have been raised about credit unions and mutuals. In the next 24 hours, I will be engaging with the Progressive Building Society, which is our only building society based in Northern Ireland. I also plan to engage in some way or other with credit unions in the next number of weeks.

A lot of SMEs in Northern Ireland would not benefit directly from a reduction in corporation tax because of the way in which they are structured, but the hope and the expectation, based on the evidence, is that the creation of 37,500 net new jobs over the next 10 years and a growth in our economy of around 10% will assist all businesses in Northern Ireland, whether they are small, medium-sized or large enterprises and whether they are indigenous firms, firms that already invest in Northern Ireland or firms that are investing because of a lower rate of corporation tax. It is that growth in the economy, with more jobs and more high-paying jobs, that we hope will benefit all businesses in Northern Ireland. Some of the larger firms that are already here and some of the indigenous firms that will see the release of additional capital into their accounts as a result of a lower rate of corporation tax will take a decision to invest and to create more jobs. It is that sort of virtuous circle that we hope to achieve by lowering the rate of corporation tax.

Mr Wilson: Does the Minister agree with me that the previous question illustrates the Alice in Wonderland world that Sinn Féin is living in at present? Either the Member does not know that her party has reneged on the Stormont House Agreement, and no corporation tax will be devolved to the Assembly as a result —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I take it that that is the question.

Mr Wilson: Will he outline to the Members opposite just what the consequences are of their disgraceful and dishonest behaviour this morning? [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. The Member has asked a question.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. He is right: there was an air of unreality coming from the opposite Benches in asking a question about the benefit of devolving and lowering corporation tax in Northern Ireland for small to medium-sized enterprises here. As the Member, the House and, more importantly, those outside the House will appreciate, the devolution of corporation tax was dependent on getting a Budget agreed, which we did, and getting welfare reform legislation through the House, which was proceeding. Devolution of corporation tax was contingent on both those things happening. Given the actions of Sinn Féin in welshing on the agreement that was made at Stormont House and at Stormont Castle, the welfare reform element is clearly not happening now. My party — the Member's party, our party — has kept its side of the deal. We stand by every word and number in the Stormont House Agreement and the Stormont Castle agreement because of the many benefits that those agreements brought to Northern Ireland, not least the fact that they were securing the rate of corporation tax and our ability to lower it.

From his membership of another place, the Member will know that that Bill has been proceeding through that House at a pace. It was likely to come on to the statute book in the next number of weeks. The campaign that we have been waging, for I do not know how many years, was about to become successful. It seems that, moments and days away from grasping what some people thought was the impossible, Sinn Féin, which I thought supported the devolution of corporation tax and lowering of the rate of corporation tax to bring those 37,500 new jobs to Northern Ireland and increase our economy by an estimated 10%, is now going to back away from that opportunity, and we are going to lose the opportunity of a lifetime to change the Northern Ireland economy for the better.

It is up to Sinn Féin to explain not only why it has welshed on the agreement on welfare reform but why it has walked away from corporation tax, which is the inevitable result of what it has done today.

Mr Dallat: I am more than keen to return to the question of corporation tax and how it can be used to affect credit unions. The Assembly has a good relationship with credit unions. Will the Minister perhaps tell us, or at least undertake to look at, how the millions of pounds that are invested by credit unions and banks could be lent to people in the wider world who depend on payday loans, loan sharks, moneylenders and others, who rip them off?

Mr Hamilton: I am not surprised that the Member does not want to talk about corporation tax because his party is no better than Sinn Féin in that regard.

Mr Dallat: Shame on you.

Mr Wilson: Shame on you.

Mr Hamilton: There is no sense of shame from me or anybody on this side of the House today. We have stuck to our word and to what we agreed. I do not think —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask that all remarks be made through the Chair, please.

Mr Hamilton: Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am more than happy to say that my party has stuck to every word and number that it agreed to in the Stormont House Agreement. To be fair, it took Sinn Féin several weeks to back away from the agreement. It was several hours before Mr Dallat's party backed away from what was agreed at Stormont House.

I am content, however, and prepared to work with credit unions, building societies and anybody else to deal with the issues that the Member raises. Perhaps as a result of the discussions that we will now inevitably have with credit unions because of this issue, an opportunity — an unwitting opportunity, perhaps — may present itself to discuss other opportunities for that movement. In fact, in recent times, the Minister for Social Development and I have discussed how we might assist the credit unions to move to another level. He may wish to continue to discuss that with me at this minute, if he is not distracted by other matters.

Mr Swann: May I return to the main subject? I declare an interest as a member of Slemish n' tha Braid Credit Union. The FSA undertook a review of the powers and abilities of credit unions in GB within the last two to three years. Does the Minister see any opportunity for the powers that were devolved to credit unions in the rest of the UK coming to Northern Ireland credit unions?

Mr Hamilton: Responsibility for credit unions rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I was a member of its Committee at that time. It was a period when a lot of financial institutions were having difficulties, and there was an attempt to get the cover of the protection scheme for savings. That required regulation by what was then the FSA. One of the other objectives at that time was to be able to expand what credit unions in Northern Ireland are able to do and the products that they are able to offer. Compared with their counterparts in mainland Britain, they are unable, or have not traditionally been able, to offer current accounts, mortgages and those sorts of financial products. I think that there is a view that it would be beneficial, even if some credit unions do not want to offer those things, for the option to be there for them.

I would certainly support that expansion of their role.

The Member has declared his interest as a member of a credit union, and I am sure that he is not the only one in the House. Around 20% to 25% of people in Northern Ireland are members of a credit union, yet across the water it is around 4%, so the opportunity to offer those additional financial products is much greater in Northern Ireland. That could address some of the issues that Mr Dallat raised in respect of people having to borrow from moneylenders and having low levels of financial capability in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hamilton: The Northern Ireland Law Commission was asked to review the law on defamation and, on 27 November 2014, issued a consultation paper that invited views on a range of issues. The consultation ran until 20 February of this year.

The commission is to close on 31 March 2015. Although it is hoping to produce an analysis of the responses by that date, it will not have produced its final report, which will contain any recommendations for legislative reform. It may be possible to retain the services of the lawyer who is leading the review project for a further short period to allow for the completion of the final report. My officials are exploring the options with the commission and officials from the Department of Justice.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response. Given that the law in England and Wales has helped to ensure free speech and deter reckless defamation claims, which specific clauses does the Minister object to being implemented here?

Mr Hamilton: I am concerned that the Member is seeking to curtail my right to free speech by suggesting that there are elements of the proposed defamation reforms or what is now the law in England and Wales and elsewhere that I object to. I asked the Law Commission to step in and do its work, and at that time there was no threat to the existence of the Law Commission. The Member's party colleague, the Minister of Justice, has signalled his intention for the Law Commission to be done away with at the end of this year, and I understand why he is doing that. I referred the issue to the Law Commission because there were strong arguments on both sides about whether we should adopt what has happened in England and Wales, retain the current position in Northern Ireland or go for some middle way.

Mr Nesbitt, who is in the House, was bringing forward legislation in respect of the issue. Whilst he was in favour of adopting the England and Wales position, others were stridently against moving in that direction. I thought that it was important to get an independent voice and perspective from the Law Commission, which is what has been done through the consultation that has been carried out. I want to complete the work of bringing out a final report that may or may not contain recommendations for legislation that I would then consider.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his responses. How many people or groups responded to the consultation, and what was the range of those groups?

Mr Hamilton: My understanding is that there were 32 responses. The last update I received was that there were two pending, so whether they have come in or not I do not know. Thirty-two is not what I would consider a large volume of responses. As they come, as you might expect, more from those in the legal community and the media who have a particular interest in the issue, it has not exactly set the heather on fire for public discourse in Northern Ireland.

Not a single constituent has raised the issue with me, and I think that many of us in the House would be able to say that. It seems not to be an issue at the top of people's agenda in any way, shape or form. That does not mean that it is an issue that we should not take an interest in, which is why I asked the Law Commission to do the work that it did. Whether we get that work completed before the end of this year — I suspect that we will not — or have to extend the lead lawyer's work by a number of weeks, I am keen to see what recommendations for reform come back. Whilst 32 responses is not a large volume, the more important piece of work is any recommendations suggesting where we in Northern Ireland might change the law on defamation.

3.00 pm

Mr Nesbitt: I preface my remarks by assuring the Minister that I am not wedded to cutting and pasting the Westminster legislation, but I am wedded to the idea of reforming our libel laws.

The Minister makes it clear that corporation tax could yield 37,500 new jobs. Has he any idea how many jobs will be lost if we stick with our current defamation regime across sectors including new creative media, academia and, of course, the media themselves?

Mr Hamilton: The Member has taken a clear position that one might expect him to take, given his professional background in journalism. There are a range of arguments that he has put forward, just as there are a range of arguments that others have put forward from a contrary position that I am keen to explore rather than just slavishly adopting what has happened in England and Wales. That is the essence of devolution: it is up to us to examine, from the particular perspective of Northern Ireland, what we want.

In respect of estimates of job losses and whether that would happen — I am not entirely sure that that would be the case — that is exactly the sort of issue that I want to see teased out through the work of the Law Commission. In some ways, it is unfortunate that the Law Commission is going out of existence in a number of weeks, because that has disrupted the work that it has been doing on our behalf on defamation. I am keen that, in the limited time available to us in this mandate, we continue to move forward with the work and consider what changes to our law, if any, we should implement here in Stormont.

Mr Hamilton: There is no single business case for the public sector voluntary exit scheme. Each public sector organisation will prepare individual business cases to support bids to the public sector restructuring fund. The Northern Ireland Civil Service business case for the voluntary exit scheme covers the Northern Ireland Civil Service only. That business case was developed over a period of months before being approved by the project board and senior officials in January 2015. The Executive agreed the preferred option at their meeting on 5 February 2015.

Mr Allister: The exit scheme was part of what was hitherto optimistically called the "Stormont House Agreement". Now that the central plank of that agreement has been demolished by Sinn Féin over welfare reform, does this part of the agreement still stand? Will the exit scheme proceed? In light of what he said about corporation tax, is he confirming to the House that he does not now expect that legislation to proceed? What is the impact of all this further untrustworthiness of Sinn Féin as a partner on his Budget?

Mr Hamilton: The Member raises a good point in respect of the financial consequences of not proceeding with welfare reform. Those in this House or elsewhere who think that not moving forward with welfare reform impacts only on welfare reform are kidding themselves. I have already described the impact that it will inevitably have on corporation tax. It could well — this is something that I will have to consider, not least in tandem with conversations with Treasury counterparts over the next number of days — have an impact on the available funding that was agreed through the Stormont House Agreement for a voluntary exit scheme.

There has been reasonable debate in the House between me and the Member and other Members about whether we should have been borrowing that amount of money, but in all of those discussions I do not think that anybody believed that we should not proceed with a voluntary exit scheme of some kind, in some way or another, to relieve pressure on budgets in future years. I will have to clarify with Treasury very urgently the financial consequences of not proceeding with welfare reform on that element of the Stormont House Agreement, as indeed I will have to clarify the implications for our Budget of not moving forward with other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement. Members will recall that large elements of what we are moving forward with in what is a difficult year in 2015-16 was predicated on a degree of flexibility, not least around a voluntary exit scheme. That is every bit as urgent to me as not moving forward with any other element of the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Can he give an indication of the other measures that are being taken to reduce the public sector pay bill? In light of today's announcement, they are all the more important.

Mr Hamilton: A lot of misinformation has been put out, either deliberately or otherwise, about the voluntary exit scheme. For example, one piece of misinformation is that 20,000 jobs will be lost and that the figure that the Executive parties agreed at Stormont Castle was the target for getting rid of 20,000 individuals from their jobs. That was not the objective; it was about getting rid of that number of posts from the broad public sector. We have already been acting to do that in a range of different ways and through a lot of different strategic personnel interventions that will reduce our pay bill.

Whilst a voluntary exit scheme will certainly reduce the size of our public sector and help to rebalance our economy, the overriding objective is a permanent pay bill reduction. You can see how that would obviously happen through a voluntary exit scheme, but we have been conducting and acting on other strategic personnel interventions, including a freeze on new recruits. The headcount in the public sector has already been reduced by around 1,000 by just suppressing those vacancies. We have also been suppressing what are called funded vacancies, which are already in the system. There has been an embargo on substantive promotion, and I am still committed to bringing forward to the Executive a paper on further pay restraint in future years.

We hope that all those issues, plus the voluntary exit scheme, will help to achieve the 20,000 target but, more importantly, will suppress and lower on a permanent basis the pay bill. Given the very difficult financial circumstances that Northern Ireland faces not just next year but for several years into the future, that is the overriding and most important factor.

Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. The original voluntary exit scheme was announced as being open to all grades, except permanent secretaries. Why was it then skewed towards the lower ranks by an enhancement offer? Was that to make sure that we did not lose all the experience and skills?

Mr Hamilton: A range of factors in skills and experience will have to be dealt with. It is a completely open scheme, with the exception of permanent secretaries, which the Member noted. Even they will be dealt with, because there are a few acting permanent secretaries at the minute, and the reorganisation of Departments will obviously deal with that situation. Officials from my Department have been on the record saying where people will exit the public sector, and at this minute in time, that will principally be from the Civil Service because that is the main scheme that is out there. That could leave issues with skills and experience in certain parts, and we will have to redeploy people from elsewhere in the system to those areas so that there can be continuity of business. An incredibly important issue in all this is that we continue to provide services at the standard and level that people expect. That will be difficult and incredibly challenging, and there will be some change for people that they would perhaps rather not undertake, but those are, unfortunately, the circumstances that we are in.

I will correct this for the Member in writing if I get it wrong in any way, but the enhancement for those on lower pay as a result of a superannuation Act that my predecessor took through the House some years ago ensured that those who were lowest paid had some degree of protection if, in the sort of situation that we are now in, there is a voluntary exit scheme or, indeed, a voluntary redundancy scheme.

Ms Sugden: In conjunction with the Finance Minister, the Environment Minister announced in June last year that a geographical voluntary exit scheme would be run to generate vacancies for those who lost their jobs in the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) Coleraine. Can the Minister give me an indication of how many jobs from the scheme will go to Coleraine?

Mr Hamilton: I am not sure; I think that the Member has conflated two issues, but I am happy to come back to her. I think that elements of what she is talking about probably concern jobs that have moved. I know that the Environment Minister moved a small number of jobs from Belfast and other parts of driver vehicle licensing to the Coleraine area. I think that a very small number moved from Belfast for that.

This voluntary exit scheme is for the whole Civil Service across Northern Ireland. It is open to civil servants wherever they are based, whether that is Belfast, Coleraine or wherever it might be. In that sense, there is no specific targeting of numbers for the Coleraine area, just as there is not a targeting of numbers for the Belfast area. That is because, as I said, the principle is to reduce the pay bill permanently. In that respect, it is not a targeted scheme on a particular number of grades or a particular location or a particular section of the Civil Service. I am happy to follow up with the Member on the fallout or the outflow or what happened in respect of the DOE-run scheme that took place last year to respond to the shift of work from Coleraine to Swansea.

Mr Hamilton: My Department has submitted an initial list of infrastructure projects that has been included in the EU investment pipeline along with projects from the rest of the UK and other member states. Whilst not all the projects included in the pipeline will be suitable for financing under the EU investment plan, work is ongoing to identify those projects best placed to benefit from financing available. I have also invited EU vice-president Jyrki Katainen to Northern Ireland with the intention of promoting the investment plan. I want to ensure that the local business community is well placed to benefit from the financing opportunities arising from the investment plan for Europe, and I believe that an information event involving the EU vice-president would greatly assist in that.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. What are the implications for the planned Northern Ireland investment fund?

Mr Hamilton: There may be positive implications; I do not think that there any negative ones. There is potential for hugely positive implications for the creation of a Northern Ireland investment fund, and, when I look at the timeline of the EU's investment plan and our own Northern Ireland investment fund, it looks as if our decision in the Budget to create an investment fund and to stimulate that with some of our own capital and to draw down finance from the European Investment Bank might work in our favour.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), as the EU's own bank, is heavily involved in financing the EU investment plan. The fact that it is involved in the EU-wide fund and in our investment fund may mean that there are ample opportunities for us to work together to improve the investment fund. We are already working with the EIB to try to draw down substantial millions into our investment fund, but the fact that this EU-wide supported fund — the Juncker plan — is in place may help us to draw down even more. That may well be on top of other schemes, perhaps in the energy sector, and, indeed, others, where we could draw funds that would help the private sector to develop those infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland to enhance our economy.

Mr Cree: The Minister will know that there are three basic elements in the plan. Minister, how would the high-risk project funding work in Northern Ireland?

Mr Hamilton: We have to be careful in seeking investment from the plan. I am glad that we have been able to input into the UK-wide pipeline of projects, and I do not think that we should miss an opportunity to fly Northern Ireland's flag for particular projects that we have here that may be able to avail themselves of funding.

Obviously, there are some projects that we may instinctively think of as high risk. A big roads infrastructure project, for example, may not be as suitable for this type of financing because it requires a private-sector element. That does not mean that such projects are out, but they may be a bit more difficult to realise than others, particularly those in the energy sector, where, because of the heavy involvement of the private sector in our energy infrastructure, there may be better opportunities.

However, some of the projects that I can think of are high risk in the sense that they are good projects but are very novel; they are trailblazers, not only in a UK sense but across Europe, so there is perhaps a degree of risk. What is being taken forward here by the European Union is precisely as the Member identified. These are the types of projects that the EU wants to back: those that are perhaps a little risky and that the market, therefore, is not fully behind or finds difficult to back. This cheaper financing from the EU would take away some of that risk and make those propositions a lot easier to bank or finance from conventional sources for whatever is left over. It may help with those higher-risk projects, and I think that, when we have the opportunity at least to find out from Europe whether we can avail ourselves of them or not and, therefore, enhance our infrastructure, we should take those opportunities.

3.15 pm

Mr Hamilton: All contracts that are based on Central Procurement Directorate’s (CPD) standard forms of contract will contain social clauses that relate to equality and health and safety. Departments can also include additional social clauses intended to deliver their departmental responsibilities and policy priorities and support the Programme for Government commitment.

The first year of reporting on the Programme for Government commitment was 2012-13. Reports provided by Departments show that, for financial years 2012-13 and 2013-14, 1,914 contracts included additional social clauses. However, not all Departments provided a report. It is disappointing that reporting is therefore incomplete. CPD will ask Departments to provide figures for 2014-15 in April.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends our period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Ms Ruane asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline his Department’s proposals for revenue generation, given the constraints on the local Budget. (AQT 2231/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: Again, there is an air of unreality. The House will know that, tomorrow, we will bring forward our Regional Rates Order, which is the largest source of local revenue that this Executive rely on. That is about 5% of our total Budget. It raises over £1 billion a year, which goes to central and local government. I am very pleased that the Executive have agreed to freeze in real terms the regional rate for the eighth consecutive year, which ensures that Northern Ireland continues to have the lowest level of household taxes in all of the UK.

The House had a debate around revenue raising a fortnight ago, and one of the things that I found enlightening about that debate was that no one was prepared to enlighten me about areas in which they would support the raising of substantial revenue. Some proposals came forward, but, to be perfectly frank and honest, many of them were messing around the edges and would not have had a significant impact on our Budget.

Ms Ruane: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Maybe he will widen his horizon and re-examine the debate. It would be interesting for us to know if you have any proposals for ensuring that we can maximise the potential for the European Investment Bank to drive local infrastructure development.

Mr Hamilton: The first question was about revenue raising and, indeed, the second question started off about raising revenue. Going to the European Investment Bank for support is not revenue raising. In fact, anything that we would raise would have to be repaid by the Executive.

I am not surprised that, not for the first time perhaps, Sinn Féin are slow learners. I went to the European Investment Bank about a year ago and started a conversation that has ultimately led to agreement by the Executive to create an investment fund for Northern Ireland. The objective of that fund, which I referenced in response to Mr Irwin a few moments ago, is to pump-prime that with roughly £100 million of our own financing and to draw down close to £1 billion from the European Investment Bank. To do so in that way and support a range of infrastructure projects in social housing, urban regeneration, energy efficiency and energy production will ensure that we get around the very strict Treasury rules about borrowing for conventional capital projects like roads and hospital expansions.

I am very happy to do that, and I will continue to do that. I will avail myself of any opportunity to bring in finance that is suitable for Northern Ireland. I encourage the Member and all sides of the House that, when we talk about revenue raising in the traditional sense, let us not forget that someone has to pay. There are people in Northern Ireland, whether in businesses or in the community, in households, who are still suffering and still finding it hard to make ends meet. I am very proud of the fact that, even in those very difficult years, in the face of a very difficult Budget over the last number of years, we have maintained our record of having the lowest household bills in the whole of the United Kingdom.

T2. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans are in place to deal with the public-sector strike planned for Friday. (AQT 2232/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: It is difficult to estimate at this stage in the week what the complete impact of the strike will be. As the House will expect, we will continue to monitor, over the next number of days, what the likely impact on public services, particularly key public services, will be as a result of the strike that is proposed for Friday.

Whilst I cannot predict the actual impact, the one thing I can predict with a degree of confidence is that services will suffer and that it is the public who will feel the ill effects of a strike of our public sector. It will be felt in hospitals, with delayed or cancelled appointments, or surgery, and it could well be felt in schools, if they have to close.

Sometimes, we forget that there will be a knock-on impact on the private sector as a result of strike action, particularly around school closures. Parents who work part-time and are reliant on putting their kids into school in the morning may have to take the day off. There will be revenue and income lost to households that rely on that work and rely on the schools to be there, and be open, every day of the week.

I am not entirely sure what the impact will be, but one thing I am absolutely certain of is that the people who will suffer in Northern Ireland will be those who use our public services and rely on them every day.

Miss M McIlveen: Further to that, can I ask the Minister for his view on the strike action and whether he considers it to be counterproductive?

Mr Hamilton: It is, in many respects, counterproductive. Not only do I not think that strike action is justified, it would appear that, if the ballot for NIPSA, the largest public sector union in Northern Ireland, is anything to go by — where the vote was 52% in favour of strike, and 47% against strike action — that not all of the members of the trade union movement are convinced of the need to go on strike. It is not a hugely convincing win for strike action, particularly when you consider that it was voted for by only about 10% of all of NIPSA's members.

I can understand that there is concern within trade unions, just as there is concern across society at large, that we are facing a very difficult Budget situation next year, but whenever I hear — as I do frequently on the radio and television — unions talking about job losses in the public sector, let us bear in mind that, as I said in response to questions earlier, no one is being forced to leave the public sector in Northern Ireland. The voluntary exit scheme is exactly that: a voluntary exit scheme.

I can inform the house that, as of midday today, 3,774 expressions of interest have been made for the voluntary exit scheme, and that is just within the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Roughly 15% of the Civil Service have expressed an initial interest in the scheme. Many of those people are NIPSA members, volunteering to come forward to see whether they might want to leave the public sector. This is not something that is being forced on anybody. If there is protesting, disagreement or anger to be put in any direction, it should be put in the direction of 10 Downing Street. That is where 95% of the Budget for Northern Ireland comes from. We have to make the best of what we have. We have a good Budget that is focused on key public services and economic growth. If the unions have anger and want to direct it somewhere, direct it where it should go.

T3. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether today’s failure to progress the Welfare Reform Bill has any implications for the 2014-15 Budget, given his earlier reference to the impact on the 2015-16 Budget. (AQT 2233/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: The welshing, today, on the Agreement that all five Executive parties — including that which the Member leads — agreed to before Christmas and have been implementing post-Christmas, has a lot of implications flowing from it, not least budgetary implications and financial consequences. I will be studying that very carefully for the remainder of today and probably into tomorrow and will want, as I said in response to Mr Allister earlier, to take that up with my Treasury counterparts.

I do not foresee any implications for this financial year, but I can certainly see consequences for the next financial year and beyond.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. He will be aware of the letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the First Minister, dated 9 October 2014, in which the Chancellor notes that the Executive will be unable to live within its 2014-15 Budget without an extraordinary loan of £100 million, and the number of bullet points that represent the conditions attached to that £100 million surely has implications, given today's decision on welfare reform.

Mr Hamilton: It is one of the factors, in my head, where there will definitely be a consequence.

That consequence could be the withdrawal of the available funding, which would have serious implications for the Executive's block grant and whether we could live within it or not. I do not suspect — I am guessing at this stage — that that would happen, but, irrespective of whether it did or not, there is an implication for how we repay the loan next year, because, as the Member and the House will recall, flexibility has been given to the Executive over how and from where we repay it. That was part of the agreement that was reached at Stormont House, and, if the Stormont House Agreement is out the window, so is that flexibility, and it will have very serious implications for our Budget, if not for this year, certainly for next year and definitely for years beyond that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Members listed for topical questions 4 and 5 have had their names withdrawn.

T6. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the equal pay settlement for staff from the PSNI, the Courts Service and the NIO who did not qualify for Civil Service equal pay. (AQT 2236/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: I responded on that issue to Mr Elliott's colleague Mr Hussey at my previous Question Time a few weeks ago, and the situation has not changed since then. For the Member's benefit, I will reiterate the point that I made to Mr Hussey.

As the Member and the House will be aware, there is no equal pay issue here. That was settled by the court in the judgement made roughly a couple of years ago that there was no equal pay issue in that case. However, I and others were convinced of the moral case for the staff who were not able to avail themselves of the Northern Ireland Civil Service equal pay scheme. I developed with officials a scheme that I thought capable of resolving the issue, not to everybody's satisfaction, I am sure, but it is a scheme that would go some way to resolving the issue and addressing the moral argument put forward. That paper has been with the Executive since roughly this time last year. It has not been tabled, because Sinn Féin has not agreed to table it. I believe that I have done everything that I can to produce a solution. I think that it is a viable solution, and I am sure that, if I were to reveal it to the House, people would ask about this and about that, but it is, I think, the best stab at a solution that is available in the circumstances.

I had hoped that the changes to the process for bringing business on to the Executive agenda that were agreed at Stormont House would allow the issue to be brought forward to the Executive in the not-too-distant future and allow those who, I thought, supported the claims being made by the members of staff whom the Member talks about to put their money where their mouth is and back the solution that I had put forward. However, given today's events, I am not even sure where those procedures will now be at.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that update. He said that the issue has been with the Executive — I assume that he means ministerial colleagues — for a year now, and he hinted that there was maybe a mechanism in the Stormont House proposals to get it to the Executive. Is there no existing mechanism under which you as Minister can bring the matter to the Executive table without the agreement of other Ministers?

Mr Hamilton: There is a convention that allows me to bring it for discussion but not for agreement. We could do that and have a discussion, but it will not go anywhere. I had hoped that the agreement reached at Stormont House would allow us to put the item on the agenda for a decision, and I will proceed on that basis in the next number of weeks, if we are still able to do that. I hope that, by doing that, the solution will be put on the table and Executive members can vote it up or down. The solution is probably far from perfect in the eyes of those whom it is targeted at, but it is at least a solution. I know from talking to many members of the PSNI and former NIO staff that they just want some form of resolution, because the situation has gone on for so long. I have done all that I can, and I hope, in spite of everything else, that in the next number of weeks we are at least able to table the paper and see where people really stand on it when the cookie crumbles.

T7. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to comment on the fact that, at a recent meeting with young directors through the Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust, one of the issues raised was the high business rate in comparison to rent paid for business premises. (AQT 2237/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: I will make two points in the limited time that is available to me. First, the small business rate relief scheme, which is targeted specifically at small business properties, has been extended for a further year from 2015-16, giving £20 million support to small businesses across Northern Ireland. Secondly, non-domestic properties were revalued, both to adapt better and to distribute the rates burden, which has not increased, more fairly across businesses, using analysis of more current rents than for previous rates. It will not be the case in every instance, but I hope that many of those who were bending the Member's ear last week will see an improvement when the new rates bills are issued in the next number of days, not just because of the small business rate relief scheme but because the revaluation reflects more accurately their rates liability and the rates valuation compared with the rental value.

Adjourned at 3.30 pm.

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