Official Report: Tuesday 09 June 2015

The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mrs Michelle O'Neill, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Reservoirs Bill.

Moved. — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Speaker: One amendment has been tabled. Members will have received a copy of the Marshalled List, which provides details of the amendment, and the grouping list. The amendment deals with exemption from planning permission for construction or alteration provisions. I remind Members intending to speak that they should address their comments only to the amendment. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

I call Mr Trevor Clarke to move the amendment.

Amendment not moved.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Reservoirs Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Committee Business

That the Final Stage of the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 48/11-16] do now pass.

Members will be aware that the Committee's Public Services Ombudsperson Bill will abolish the current offices of Assembly Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints as of 1 April 2016. Subject to Assembly approval, the powers and responsibilities of the current offices will be merged in a single new office of Public Services Ombudsperson.

The present ombudsman and commissioner holds those offices in an acting capacity and was appointed for 12 months, with effect from 31 August 2014. The current legislation provides for the offices to be filled by an acting office holder for up to 12 months.

Therefore, the acting appointments will come to an end on 31 August this year, at which point there will be a vacancy in the offices that will frustrate the purpose of the current legislation. At 31 August 2015, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) Bill will still be in passage through the Assembly, so the amendment Bill will avoid a vacancy in the offices and will provide the time needed for the Assembly to consider and progress the NIPSO Bill and for commencement of its substantive provisions on 1 April 2016.

The Committee has engaged with OFMDFM, and Ministers are content that the amendment Bill, with the accelerated passage that the Assembly has permitted, adequately manages the risk of a vacancy in the offices of ombudsman and commissioner.

The amendment Bill was introduced in the House on 27 April this year. The Assembly granted accelerated passage, and the Bill passed Second Stage on 11 May. There were no amendments proposed at Consideration Stage on 1 June or at Further Consideration Stage on 8 June to the Bill’s three clauses.

Clause 1 provides that, in the acting ombudsman provisions of the 1996 Orders, the references to "12 months" are to be substituted by "24 months". Clause 2 provides for retrospective effect to avoid any argument or difficulty arising regarding the ability to renew, extend or reappoint, or, indeed, to make a new appointment, and it will provide flexibility regarding the choice of mechanism. Clause 3 states that the Bill will come into operation on the day after it receives Royal Assent, and it provides the short title.

I trust that Members continue to share the Committee’s view that the amendment Bill provides a pragmatic and straightforward means of avoiding a vacancy arising in the current offices and will provide the time needed for the Assembly to consider and progress the NIPSO Bill in a timely manner.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr Speaker: As no other Members have indicated that they wish to speak, I will move straight to the Question.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Final Stage of the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 48/11-16] do now pass.

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

That this Assembly notes that the Committee for Regional Development has lost confidence in the Department for Regional Development’s ability to effectively manage and maintain its budgets, as a result of an over-reliance on in-year monitoring, Translink’s statement that it will cease to trade within the next two years, the potential for infraction proceedings arising from a lack of investment in waste water treatment plants and the risk of the Department exceeding its 2014-2015 budgetary control limits; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to explain how he intends to negate these risks and to set out his financial strategy for the next financial period.

The motion asks the Assembly to note that the Committee for Regional Development has lost confidence in the Department’s ability to manage its budgets. Somehow the Minister has misconstrued this as a personal attack on him and has reverted to type by running to the press to plead his case, as was evident in his appearance on the 'Sunday Politics' programme at the weekend. This is a continuation of his paper-politics tactics to avoid debate in the House and at Committee by making announcements in the press, such as he did when he published his draft budget, when he allowed Translink to announce a fare increase before Christmas and, at the weekend, when, yet again, he did the House a disservice by debating the motion in the press before giving Members the opportunity to speak on the matter. It is the Minister, not the Committee, that has made this about him.

If I may, I will address some of the allegations that have been made in that programme and yesterday during the debate on Disability Action and the rural community transport budgets. The scheduling of business in this place has never been an easy task. We have to take into account the Executive business brought to the House, the Minister's diary and, indeed, the Committee’s forward work programme, which includes Executive and private Members' primary legislation.

There were limited time slots between now and recess to table essential motions, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the Minister has scheduled a visit to Latvia, as I understand it. Yes, Members asked that the Minister attend the Committee to brief it on the impact of his flawed budget, but only at his earliest convenience. It was his private office that first suggested a date later in the month, but then came back to suggest 10 June. The Minister's office, not the Committee, asked for this week. It is disingenuous, therefore, for the Minister to suggest that this is evidence of some type of a purge against him. When asked whether he was embarrassed about today's motion, he suggested that there was :

" more than a whiff of party politics being played".

That was yet another attempt by the Minister to deflect the established and continuous criticism of his Department.

There was muted opposition to the motion from the Minister's party colleague on the Committee, not because he was opposed to the substance of the motion but because it was a criticism of his Minister. The Committee did not divide, and the overwhelming majority of the Committee, comprising representation from my party, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and UKIP, agreed the motion. The only dissenting voice, on the basis that he could not vote for a motion that criticised his party’s only Minister, was that of the UUP member. That is not party politics. Rather, it is a Statutory Committee voicing its opposition to a Department’s draconian budget.

During the 'Sunday Politics' programme, the debate yesterday and, I suspect, the same tired contributions today, it has been stated that the Committee never offered alternatives to the budget proposals. Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and strand one, paragraph 9, of the Belfast Agreement very clearly set out the Committee's role in the scrutiny of the Department, which is to advise the Minister in the formulation of policy, to scrutinise these policies and ask to:

"consider and advise on departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall Budget allocation".

Our role is not to do the job of the Minister but to scrutinise his Department, policies and budget. On Sunday, the Minister bemoaned the fact that it was interesting that none of the major spending Departments currently operated by Sinn Féin or the DUP would face the same level of scrutiny from the Assembly and its Committees that he is facing this week. I welcome the fact that he believes there to be a high level of scrutiny by this Committee, and I welcome the fact that this scrutiny has been successful. I also welcome the fact that the Committee is unanimous in its desire to continue holding the Department to account.

I will now address the motion before the House today. The motion identifies four main areas of concern: over-reliance on in-year monitoring; Translink ceasing to trade in two years; infraction proceedings; and a departmental budget in danger of exceeding its control limits. These are not figments of the Committee’s imagination — they are a reality.

Yesterday, Mr Beggs asked for examples of where the Committee had suggested alternatives, and I will give him an example of where the Committee went beyond its statutory responsibilities to help the Department. We have argued for a long time that the practice of reliance on in-year monitoring for funding was filled with folly. It is a successful tactic when the coffers are overflowing, but, as the Minister is finding out, when the purse strings are snapped shut, it is a foolhardy approach to budgeting. That is borne out by the fact that, since he became Minister, in-year budgeting has resulted in a shortfall of some £160 million in the required road maintenance budget. That could have been negated had the Minister accepted the Committee recommendation that he move away from his Oliver Twist approach to securing funds and the recommendation of the industry, which also addressed the issue. Specifically, the likes of the Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland (QPANI) consistently called for a baseline approach to his budget.

The Minister and his officials have consistently ignored this advice, instead opting for the budgetary version of Russian roulette, meaning that our street lights are out, the safety of drivers and vulnerable road users is being fatally compromised and the risk of homes and businesses being flooded because gullies and drains are not being emptied or cleaned has increased. That is not because of the hand that he and his officials believe that they have been dealt. This was the strategy of his officials long before the budget allocations were even made. This was an announcement in the press before Christmas, and it is what he and his Department have now imposed on Northern Ireland.

How does the Minister inspire confidence in his Department while his officials and his Department continue to support their pet project, Translink? They continue to prop up an organisation that, in the words of the current chief executive, will cease to operate in two years' time if the public purse does not continue to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into it. That organisation has consistently botched procurement exercises such as the Coleraine to Londonderry track and turned down a tender bid of £27 million because it did not represent value for money but comes out with a suggestion last week of £46 million.

10.45 am

I am sure that the Minister, prompted by his officials, will tell the House of the great capital investment that has been made and is planned for Northern Ireland Water. Whilst it is true that there is a significant investment programme in our water infrastructure, the Department still faces severe pressure and the very real potential of infraction proceedings because of the lack of investment in waste water treatment facilities, particularly those in Ballycastle and Belfast lough. The latter is particularly dire and poses a threat not just of infraction proceedings for pollution of the lough but, significantly, of economic investment in Belfast. That, however, seems to be the one area where the Minister and his Department fail to revert to their normal approach of running to the Finance Minister with their begging bowl. Instead, their proposed method is to wait and see whether the European Commission comes after them, at which point they will draw up an action plan that states that they intend to rectify that problem. The plan, however, is missing one key component: where will the Department get the £750 million needed to implement that plan? It is another game of budgetary Russian roulette. How does that inspire confidence in the Department?

The motion is not about the current budget allocation but the endemic failure of the Department to manage its budgets over a number of years. It is about a Department that takes unwarranted risks with its budget, with the public purse being its safety net. That is shown in the fact that it will most likely exceed its budgetary control limits because of a reliance on the public purse bailing it out to the tune of £20 million for the release of value from Belfast harbour, despite not being assured of that funding.

It is schoolboy budgeting, and it is not about the Minister. As you will hear from the contributions today, it is focused on the Department's failings and is about its failures in procurement and its inability to challenge adequately and to plan strategically. I have no doubt that the Department's response will see the Minister cast again in his role as Oliver Twist, when he will ask, "Can I have more?" How does that inspire confidence?

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to speak on today's motion on the management of the DRD budget. We have heard contributions from officials about the budget over the past number of weeks in Committee, and it is important to point out, at the outset, that the baseline for DRD is £770 million for the 2015-16 financial year. Compared with last year, that represents a £70 million reduction in capital and £3 million in resource, but there is a very substantial budget of £770 million to begin with.

The cutbacks that we are looking at are having a great impact, particularly on the most vulnerable people in our community. We are looking at cutbacks in street lights, the emptying of gullies and grass cutting, and no external contractors will be able to be taken on. In Committee last week, we made the point that, even though this is a cutback in the budget, it could ultimately have a great impact on the safety of road users. I represent a rural constituency, and one of the biggest gripes of many of our constituents is potholes. Indeed, those will become more obvious and evident as we see a cut —

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: Yes, OK.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member acknowledge that, in the absence of a voluntary redundancy scheme that would bring savings in-year and allow more funding to go towards issues such as potholes, it is difficult to make significant savings? Will he also acknowledge that he and his party are stopping that scheme coming in?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McAleer: It is important for the Member to acknowledge that this is one of the Departments that is pretty well protected, with a very grand budget of £770 million. The management of that budget is extremely important and that is what we are looking at here today.

If we look at the vulnerable people whom we represent in our areas, we see that the issues of road safety, potholes, gully emptying and grass cutting for things like sight lines on roads are extremely important. We have also been looking in recent times at proposed cutbacks in the region of over 30% to the rural transport budget. Coming from an area that has a very dispersed population, I know that that will have a huge impact on the most vulnerable people in our communities who rely on rural transport to get to local services, to get out and about and to reduce isolation.

Whilst we are looking at a reduced budget, the cuts that are being made are affecting the most vulnerable people and causing a great sense of alarm out there. There is a huge role here for DRD to look carefully at how the budget is managed and spent.

Mr Dallat: At the outset, let me assure the Minister that the SDLP is not looking for his head on a platter — certainly not today and most definitely not in the week following his £46·1 million investment in the Belfast to Derry railway. I have some sympathy for the Minister. He inherited an awful shambles from the past, and some of us who served on the Regional Development Committee in the past remember those dark days when Northern Ireland Water virtually ceased to function, with a dysfunctional chief executive, Laurence MacKenzie; the permanent secretary of the day, Paul Priestly; and, of course, the Minister of the day. I just wonder how many potholes could have been filled, how many grass verges could have been cut and how many street lights could have been repaired with the hundreds of thousands of pounds that was spent on legal fees for a case that never went to court because there was no justification. Sadly, during that time, four directors of Northern Ireland Water were sacked because they dared to change the way things ran. Mr Kennedy, you inherited that, and Northern Ireland Water today is somewhat better than it was then, but let us not live in the past. Let us move to the current dilemmas.

I am seriously worried about infraction — I have raised it on a number of occasions at Committee meetings — and not because the Minister has perhaps mishandled his budget but because the money is simply not there. This generation will not be forgiven for leaving behind a legacy of underdevelopment, which means that the future generation will have to pick up the penalties from the European Union should infraction become an issue. Let us move on from that as well, and let us hope that, in the future, the Executive will provide the capital investment that is needed to make sure that infraction is not an issue, as the Chairman mentioned.

Let us move on to Translink, and let me acknowledge straight away that that company provided a public transport service during the worst days of the Troubles. Nine of their drivers lost their life, but, again, that is in the past. Let us forget about it, at least for this purpose. The Minister will perhaps address this issue, but there is a board of directors in Translink who are sitting on their hands. Many of them serve in multiple organisations. That needs to end, and the public appointments process needs to change to ensure that Translink and Northern Ireland Water, which does not have a single woman on its board, change and move with the times. They need to ask the searching questions that are being asked here today, because the cosy relationship that existed between the Department, Translink and Northern Ireland Water in the past does not work any more. We are in a modern world.

I was, of course, extremely disappointed that the A5 did not go ahead, but, again, that cock-up happened before Mr Kennedy took over. The A6 is parked somewhere, and, again, the bypass at Dungiven was not decoupled, as the SDLP asked for on many, many occasions; but, again, the Minister of the day said, "No, no, just one contract; let it proceed". Of course, it has not.

We are discussing this today, and the message probably going out to the Department is that, yes, there is a lot of disquiet at how things have happened. Let us go through it root and branch — the whole organisation from top to bottom — so that we produce a Department capable of overseeing a bus company and rail company that provide the services that the public wants, and let us never again be embarrassed by having street lights that do not work or having potholes. That is not the message that we want to send to the tourist industry, and it is certainly not the message or the legacy that we want to leave behind for future generations.

Mr Hussey: I am deeply disappointed that we are debating this motion today. I opposed it at the Committee for Regional Development as it amounts to nothing more than petty party political point scoring. It is utterly ridiculous that the Minister is being hauled in front of the Assembly twice this week and in front of the Committee tomorrow to explain why he has lived within the budget that he was allocated and to reiterate the points that he made time and time again at the Executive, in the Assembly and before the Committee.

Danny Kennedy has been unambiguous when highlighting the effects that his budget allocation would have on his Department's ability to deliver front-line services. In fact, he began to outline what it would look like after June monitoring was finally agreed last year. Before the very Committee that has brought the motion today, he has repeatedly been very clear about the difficult decisions that he would be faced with and the implications for front-line services; yet we have motions like the one brought forward today as though the current situation was a surprise. Who moved the motion? It was the DUP Chair of the Committee — a Member of the party that wants the Assembly to support a phantom budget — a budget that has no basis in reality and is nothing more than a fig leaf. Perhaps his fire-and-brimstone approach is more brimstone; yet he thinks that he can lecture others about fiscal responsibility.

The targeting of Danny Kennedy is nothing more than a poor attempt to deflect from the gross financial mismanagement by the DUP and Sinn Féin over the last four years, but we have seen that all before. I am sure that Members can remember the DUP's treatment of Michael McGimpsey when he warned that he was not being given enough money to run the health service and of what the future consequences would be, and now we see — as we knew all along — that he was right.

The DUP has a track record of playing silly games with Ulster Unionist Ministers. Look at how Simon Hamilton dealt with the £20 million Belfast port money. He allowed something that was quite clearly an Executive responsibility — he had accepted it as one the previous year and for this financial year — to create a financial pressure point in 2014-15 that drew money away from core services. I would love to be able to quote what the Chair of the Committee had to say about that during the motion that he brought forward, but I cannot, because he did not. Why not? It should have been of great concern that such an unfair and unjust penalty would bring pressure on the Minister's ability to deliver public services, but that would have required criticism of his own Minister, and we know that the DUP does not do that.

Who can forget the flurry of petitions of concern and disrupted Committees to save Nelson McCausland's blushes? We are all used to the selective memories of Sinn Féin, but surely it is not too difficult for it to recall the mess that Conor Murphy left behind after his time as Minister for Regional Development that Danny Kennedy has done so well to clean up. Indeed, just last week, the Member for East Londonderry Mr Dallat paid tribute to the Minister's revival of the Coleraine to Londonderry rail line after it had been left, as he put it, to wither on the vine by Conor Murphy. How deeply disappointing it is to see that it supports the motion today. However, I am pleased that Mr Dallat does not want the Minister's head.

Let us not forget that it is the action, or inaction, of Sinn Féin that will see the financial instability worsen. Its failure to honour its agreement on welfare reform is costing us £2 million a week. What Minister in the House could not put their hand up and say that that amount of money would have a transformational effect on the Department's ability to deliver services; yet we squander it every week because of the political ambitions of some people in the Chamber.

11.00 am

We will not be supporting this motion. Despite the hand that he has been dealt, Danny Kennedy has kept infrastructure projects on track, held off unfair water charges and invested in our rail and bus networks, seeing passenger numbers rise. It is important to note that the motion offers nothing constructive in how the Chair of the Committee thinks the Minister could apply his budget to achieve a different outcome. Perhaps that is asking too much of a party that will, next week, be asking us to abandon reality in favour of voodoo economics.

Mr Lyttle: I support the motion. It is only right that the Committee for Regional Development express its serious concern that the Minister for Regional Development is operating a budget that is at risk of exceeding its limits. I listened with interest to Mr Hussey raise concerns about the DUP playing "silly games" with Ulster Unionist Ministers. That did not seem to stop the Ulster Unionist Party entering headlong into electoral pacts with the DUP, so it is a bit late in the day to be playing that fiddle.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: I will give way, yes.

Mr Clarke: In his contribution, maybe the Member will remind the previous Member to speak that this is a Committee motion, not a DUP one, and that it was supported by every party on that Committee.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think —

Mr Hussey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The proposal was not supported by every political party on the Committee. I objected to it.

Mr Speaker: You have made your point on the record, but the fact of the matter is that this has been brought forward as a Committee motion. That does not mean that every party supported it.

Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention and I note the comments of Mr Hussey. The fact remains that there are at least four political parties here, perhaps even more, that are expressing their concern on this issue. To reduce it to the critique of political point scoring is inadequate in itself, but I am sure we will hear more of that. Indeed, yesterday, we heard plenty from Mr Beggs and Mr Swann, who were criticising the lack of alternatives and the lack of collective responsibility. Where was the Ulster Unionist Party's support when the Alliance Minister for Employment and Learning brought forward sound proposals on the rationalisation of teacher training and the savings that could be made? Where was the collective responsibility then? When people put forward alternatives, we are misrepresented by the Minister, unexpectedly. I expect better from the Minister than resorting to misrepresenting Alliance Party policy on these issues. When we put forward alternatives, they are brushed aside with the comment that water charging is the only suggestion that the Alliance has. That is a grossly inadequate contribution and I expect more from the Minister.

There is an over-reliance on in-year monitoring. The Committee learnt last week that, should the Minister's bid for June monitoring funds be unsuccessful, his Department could be around £20 million short of the funds necessary to deliver only the minimum required standards on street lighting, grass cutting, gully cleaning and general road maintenance, all of which are essential services for public safety and flood prevention in our community.

Of course there are tough decisions as to what should be prioritised, so simply sweeping aside water charges as unfair when the subsidy of £300 million a year for water pricing is being prioritised over issues that are essential to the safety and well-being of the public and to protect their properties is inadequate. We need to have open debate and discussion. The Executive have taken a clear decision not to introduce any type of water pricing for the foreseeable future, and the Alliance Party was part of that decision, but at what point will the Minister show some leadership by at least exploring some of the alternatives and issues?

The Department for Regional Development is also at risk of EU infraction proceedings for failing to introduce a water pricing policy that encourages conservation. The infrastructure is not just at risk in Northern Ireland; the EU has commenced infraction proceedings against the UK on 17 sites, one of which is in Ballycastle. My understanding is that that is for a breach of the waste water treatment directive.

We have heard also that around £750 million is required for the Belfast drainage plan, so where is the leadership, and what are the Minister's alternatives for trying to deal with those particular issues?

My party absolutely acknowledges that the political intransigence around the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform is costing the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland dearly, and we hope to see progress from Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Greens in that regard. We also need to see much more leadership from the Minister for Regional Development, and perhaps he can set out clearly today where exactly he believes the pressures are coming from for his Department for the Committee to work on those issues. We need him to show leadership; we cannot have a passive Minister in taking the tough decisions that are necessary, and we look forward to hearing how he intends to deal with these challenges today.

Mr Easton: I rise to support the motion at a time when money is tight and budgets are coming under increasing pressure. It is vital that Ministers do all that they can to keep within their budgets that have been set and agreed and that they look at every possible avenue to reduce risk and to ensure that services are provided and protected as best they can be and that staff employed and, indeed, the public are given the best possible services that we can provide.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Easton: No, not at the moment.

When we look closely at the budget for DRD for this financial year, we see that it is around £333 million, which is about £11 million less than in the last financial year, when it was around £344 million. That is a reduction of around 0·6%. Yet, DRD claims that it has a shortfall of £60 million in its budget. This was explained by the Department and the Minister in an evidence session to the Committee for Regional Development. We see that the Department has an over-reliance on in-year monitoring rounds, and I have no doubt that, during the next June monitoring round, we will see bids by DRD and other Departments. In the 2015-16 budget set by DRD, we can see an allocation of £152 million for the Department, £61 million for Translink, £109 million for Northern Ireland Water and EU funding of about £0·5 million.

If we look at Northern Ireland Water, we see pressures of £15 million, largely due to rates revaluations. Has the Department appealed these? Instead, we see money being moved from roads to Northern Ireland Water, which, obviously, has caused a problem in the roads budgets. Have any costings been done on the voluntary exit scheme for Northern Ireland Water? Would this have gone some way to help the Northern Ireland Water budget? I also want to ask about the selling of assets that are no longer required. Where is Northern Ireland Water on these issues? I do not see much movement on these.

It is claimed that Translink is projected to lose about £14·3 million yet has assets of £55 million, although it was stated at the Committee meeting that this will be reduced to £41 million and that a further £11 million will then be lost, which will bring the reserves down to £30 million. We have been told that this will go down to £18 million of reserves left. Surely, until now, these reserves have been steadily increasing over the years and have now decreased rapidly, within the space of a year, and are being used to pay its bills. Surely, the overall budget for Translink was being used for paying its bills, not its reserves. That was stated by Mr May when answering questions from the Committee for Regional Development. In my opinion, something does not add up with the Translink reserves, and I believe that the Committee will need to have a closer look at what the reserves are being used for in Translink.

How much money has been saved under the voluntary exit scheme by Translink? Would this not help with the budget? Also, I question why Translink is providing company cars for 40 staff. Indeed, we found out that there were about nine company cars for Northern Ireland Railways. This is costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Surely, this is an extravagance that, in this day and age, we cannot afford. Surely, the Minister must put a stop to this. I believe that money can be found in the areas of Translink that do not have to hurt the public. All that is needed is a bit of willpower and imagination from your Department.

For Transport NI, we see that £10 million was moved from roads to Northern Ireland Water. It is no wonder that we see pressure on street lighting, potholes not being fixed and no grass cutting, as, in essence, we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. We can see that £40 million is needed to meet long-term public-private partnership (PPP) contractual commitments. Has the Department gone back to look at whether those costs can be reduced through renegotiation? That is the logical thing to do. It is done in other Departments, so I hope that the Minister will consider doing that. I also note that Transport NI plans to save £3 million through the voluntary exit scheme and other admin efficiencies. It is a pity that the Committee cannot get the same information from Northern Ireland Water, Translink and Northern Ireland Railways on those issues.

Yesterday, we had a debate on community rural transport, which will see a huge reduction of £2 million in its budget. That is an increase of over 30%, which is quite worrying.

If we cannot agree our budgets across Departments, there will be a £600 million black hole, and the cuts that we are seeing now, which are quite bad, will have a devastating effect on the people of Northern Ireland from everybody's community. It is important that we all try to sort out our budgets and the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Easton: I believe that savings can be found elsewhere, and I urge the Minister to look at that.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé breá sásta a bheith ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I support the motion. I have been on the Regional Development Committee for the past four years, but, if I had landed from Mars this morning, I might think that all the ills that we now face are down to one Conor Murphy. I am very glad that he is back in the Assembly, and I have no doubt that he will acquit himself of some of the allegations that have been constantly made against him for the period in question.

I was not blind to what was going on before I came here, because I had an abiding interest in all aspects of the Committee and the Department. Being from the north-west, I knew that the historical dearth of investment in infrastructure was patently obvious and needed addressing. In the last four years, I have had the opportunity to see at first hand the machinations of the Committee and the Department, the modus operandi and the personnel involved. I have been frustrated at the methodologies employed and at the time taken to make decisions, as well as with the outcomes and results.

We have had our own frustrations in the north-west, as was referred to earlier. The A5 is obviously a major one, and there is also the A6, in which the Minister knows that I have more than an abiding interested. The chair of the Freight Transport Association was airing his frustrations on Radio Foyle this morning. We have seen other projects literally bypass those projects; for example, the Magherafelt bypass, which was well down the list of priorities in ISNI for 2011-2021.

The Minister was rightly praised earlier for his work on the Coleraine to Derry line, although that in itself had a lot of shortcomings, as evidenced by the project assessment review report. That is why we have got to the point at which the line is costing some £26·5 million more than it should have done initially. I have also been vocal in the past about the Magilligan to Greencastle ferry, which I believe is eminently suitable for Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) funding under the motorways of the sea programme. Elsewhere, we have looked at the difficulties in the integrated transport pilot scheme in particular, which has been dawdling along for the past number of years without much in the way of a result. We have seen a £14·3 million projected loss at Translink, and that is coming from a body that has a £55 million reserve.

Yesterday, we discussed at length the saving of some £1·25 million by cutting funding in the community and disabled transport sector. All that time, however, we are still squandering money on a raft of other scenarios. In tomorrow's Committee meeting, we will look at a how a public transport company — namely, Translink — spends £800,000 a year on private-hire taxis and company vehicles. I am not sure whether that can be justified, particularly given the community transport situation. A number of years ago, I highlighted the case of the Belfast to Derry train drivers who were driving the train to Derry and then taking taxis home to Belfast at the cost of some £28,000.

11.15 am

In the past, reference has been made to a cosy relationship between Translink and the Department. I have never had it adequately explained to me; maybe the Minister will take the opportunity to do so today. There is a £9 million investment in Translink this year for the purchase of new vehicles.

The Minister talked about other Ministers and Departments "shroud waving". I am not sure of the biblical quotation about being a weeping Jeremiah, so I wonder if he might address that and give me a lesson on it. Overall, we are looking at a modest reduction in the DRD budget from £344 million to £333 million. Our constituents, as they see grass verges not being cut and the potholes not filled, are not sure that they are getting value for money, especially when it is being squandered elsewhere in the Department. I am sure that the Minister will take the opportunity to address that today.

Mr Byrne: As a member of the Regional Development Committee, I endorse the motion from the Committee. It would, however, be a gross mistake to kick the Minister and blame him for all the prevailing ills and difficulties. The reality is that the budget proposed for DRD in 2015-16 is the primary reason for the debate. The Department will be expected to live with £60 million cuts to its resource budget, and that obviously has immediate knock-on effects in cuts to community transport, Disability Action and roads, including routine maintenance — filling potholes, grass cutting, repairing street lights and emptying gullies. These are the up-front issues that concern the public at large and, indeed, members of the Committee. There have been concerns also about proposed cuts of £15 million in capital to the waste water treatment works and the water supply services. This is of particular concern in the western area where I live, which has a backlog of upgrading, as evidenced by the breakdown in water supply last January in Tyrone and Fermanagh.

We in this party are aware of the 2015-16 Budget problems generally in government here. We recognise that the austerity may get worse, if we are to believe all that we hear from across the Irish Sea. It would be easy to have a party political punch-up about the Assembly's more recent difficulties in agreeing a Budget against the background of austerity and welfare reform proposals. The Minister has to be congratulated for limiting the cuts in the current budget. Other Departments have proposed more severe cuts. We need to recognise that DARD, sorry, DRD — I am confused about what Committee I am talking about, Mr Speaker — has had a custom and practice of relying heavily on in-year monitoring rounds.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Does the Member acknowledge that the Roads Service has always wanted more money for maintenance but the Finance Minister has regularly used it as a means of utilising underfunding in other Departments through in-year monitoring? Although he has made good use of the money late, it is not something that anybody would wish for; it is simply a mechanism that the Executive have chosen to use.

Mr Byrne: I recognise what Mr Beggs has said; indeed, I have commented on that in the past. However, the custom and practice is such that, very often, money that is reallocated through in-year monitoring rounds has to be utilised immediately. The Roads Service has been very good at having shovel-ready proposals and projects available, and, because of that, the Department has fallen into a false sense of security and reliance on in-year monitoring moneys. I hope, however, that the Minister is successful in current monitoring round decisions, because that would help to relieve the immediate pressures that people will experience in road safety and grass cutting. I have to say that I was delighted yesterday evening, on the way home, to see that there has been quite a bit of cutting of grass verges in the last 24 hours.

The Minister has lobbied strongly for extra moneys to protect the general condition of the road network, and I hope he will be successful. I welcome, as my colleague John Dallat did, the courageous decision by the Minister to go ahead with the ministerial order in recommending the Coleraine to Derry phase 2 rail project update. The Minister has demonstrated a commitment to making sure that the general infrastructure across Northern Ireland improves under his tenure. Obviously, as someone who lives in West Tyrone, the A5 project is my continual nightmare issue. I know that the Minister has given assurances about that, and I hope that the Executive generally, with the two Governments, deliver on that economic peace dividend project, because it is still so important. Infrastructure is crucial to the future of the regional economy, as we all know. Road transport is crucial for moving people and goods from production locations to the ports of Larne, Belfast, Warrenpoint and Derry. It is fair to say that there have been some good improvements in recent times, but there is a lot more to be done.

It is important that we all recognise that it is about priorities. The Minister has become a victim of maybe less than full disclosure by his officials when they appear in front of the Committee, and that has damaged the relationship between the Minister and the Committee somewhat.

Mr Beggs: First, I would like to pick up on a couple of comments that Members have made. There was a comment from the Chair of the Committee that the Department continues to prop up Translink. I, for one, value public transport in my constituency, and so do my constituents. I do not wish to go towards a laissez-faire, private approach, where many vulnerable rural routes will be at risk. Even at the minute, the town services are being consulted on.

Mr Easton: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: The Member did not give way to me earlier, and now he expects me to give way to him. Alex Easton also criticised Translink's plan to reduce its reserves. There has been criticism of the level of reserves. The Department recognised that Translink had too many reserves and reduced its budget so that they come down, and you are still criticising that. What do you wish to do with those reserves, keep them at the high level? Whatever you do, it seems to be criticism for criticism's sake.

I turn to the crux of the matter, which is the current financial crisis here. Reductions in budgets are occurring, and difficulties are being created, principally by the parties who approved the Budget — the DUP and Sinn Féin — who then criticise the outworkings of their Budget rather than dealing with the issue and solving some of the difficulties. I go back to what I said earlier: we need our voluntary redundancy scheme to free up money so that it can be used to address the needs of the community. What is stopping it? It was built into the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform, which Sinn Féin, in particular, along with the SDLP, is preventing from going through. That causes knock-on effects for every Department and for the vulnerable in our community.

The motion today is nothing but an attempt to direct attention away from the financial mess that we find ourselves in. It contains a line about losing confidence in the Department's:

"ability to effectively manage and maintain its budgets".

How do you maintain your budget? Your budget is set by the Finance Minister in the annual Budget, so how does the Department get more money into it? It bids for more, but the Finance Minister and the Executive have rejected that, so I really do not understand that criticism. You have to almost admire the sheer arrogance of some of the comments.

We are sitting in the Chamber today where it is anticipated that, very soon, the Budget will be brought forward — a Budget that does not consider the current financial reality that we are in. It is being brought about because three parties in this Chamber killed off a Bill, which is an action that comes with a consequence of at least £2 million a week in the current year, which, as I understand it, may rise to £4 million a week next year. On top of that is the absence of the voluntary redundancy scheme, which would allow us to free up our finances.

The Ulster Unionist Party opposed the Budgets that were brought forward for this mandate. We did not believe that they were fit for purpose. We have been proven right, as the mismanagement over the past four years has led to greater financial pain in the final year. Even at this minute in time, a further £100 million of excess spending last year is hanging over all our heads that could significantly adversely impact this year's spending if that agreement, which would allow it to be paid back on a longer-term basis, is not honoured.

The Committee Chair spoke of the role of the Committee in scrutinising the departmental budget. Yes, that is an important role, but scrutiny should not be about nitpicking and highlighting issues that do not bring about a solution and improvement. In my opinion, criticism should be constructive, with alternatives suggested. Certainly, when I was a member of the Health Committee and saw that there were difficulties, I supported every bid for more money in the annual monitoring rounds. That is not what is happening in this Committee. It is just nitpicking that is going on. I think that everyone should look at what they are doing and at how they can solve the problem.

Given the level of the reduction, some Departments' budgets have been subject to more criticism than others, but undoubtedly there will be problems in every Department, so why has this Minister, whose budget has been severely impacted, been picked out? It is really infantile politics.

Mr Dallat: Will the Member give way?

Mr Speaker: The Member's time —

Mr Beggs: Yes, I will.

Mr Speaker: Just about. Well done. [Laughter.]

Mr Dallat: Mr Speaker, I have just allocated the Member an extra minute, or part of one. The Member worries me. Does he not accept that one of the features of this Assembly is 11 scrutiny Committees that do their job largely above party politics and that are entitled to go in and shine a light in every corner where they think that improvements can be made?

Mr Beggs: Indeed. What I would like to hear are constructive ideas coming forward on how to bring about improvements. Everyone is well aware that, with in-year monitoring last year and money being clawed back from the Department, lights were not being fixed and drains were not being cleared as frequently as they should. That ought to have been a major warning of the severity and critical nature of the Department's finances at that time, and it should have been recognised.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve better. We deserve better than fantasy economics and phantom budgets. Clearly, this is a failure to address the main issue, which is solving the overall economic situation.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up. I am starting to understand why the trains and buses have so much difficulty with their timetables.

Mr Allister: I suppose that, as an outside observer of the marvellous workings of our Government, I am a little bit reluctant to comment on this internecine warfare between the Executive parties, but I will say this: it is no surprise to me that the object of attack is a minority party within this Executive. That seems to be pretty much par for the course.
Of course, the Chairman, in introducing the debate, said that this was not a personal attack on the Minister, and then he spent the first four minutes of his speech indulging himself in precisely that in his own irascible way. I think that one is entitled to question just what is the motivation of the debate.

There was also the suggestion that there were party politics at play, which was dismissed by the Chairman. Methinks perhaps that the outcome of the general election in South Antrim might have had its own bearing on some of the approaches of the Chairman of the Committee.
I am no —

Mr Clarke: You did well in North Antrim as well, Jim. You ran away, Jim.

11.30 am

Mr Allister: I am no apologist for the Regional Development Minister. I have had meetings with him at which I have been critical of some of his policies and their consequences, but I do recognise when a Minister is being picked on in the Executive in Budget allocations and then in criticism of how he seeks to manage those allocations.

Mr Dallat: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dallat: Does the Member agree that, given that the Chairperson has called for the resignation of the Minister, he is just a little bit biased?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Allister: The point is well made. That has been quite obvious, not just in this debate —

Mr Clarke: On a point of order. I seek clarification and your guidance on this, Mr Speaker. At which point did I ask for the resignation of the Minister? I know that another Member did seek that, but I do not think that my name should be associated with those comments.

Mr Speaker: I do not think that that is a point of order and I do not think that the Member had completed his particular reference. He may or may not make that allegation, but I have not picked it up so far.

Mr Allister: If what Mr Dallat says is correct, I am not surprised. It fits within the party politics allegation if it is correct.

The key thing that strikes me in this debate is the assault on the Minister for an alleged lack of budget probity from those who, in two weeks' time, in this very House, will advocate and vote for a fantasy Budget. A Budget that the Minister has already said has a £604 million hole in it. Yet the very people who today lecture on budget probity are the very people who, this day two weeks, will trip through this Lobby to vote for a fantasy, phantom Budget. Those who point the finger should just pause for a moment and reflect as to where the other fingers are pointing back. In that, they leave much to be desired.

Then, of course, onto this bandwagon jumps Sinn Féin, the party that has put us into this budgetary mess. That party is very eager and very quick today to criticise the hapless Regional Development Minister for his budgetary control, with no regard for the fact that it is the architect of the very budgetary quagmire in which the Assembly is wallowing day after day. There is much of a less-than-frank nature about some of the things that are being said.

Then we have lamentations about how there could be infraction proceedings from Europe against DRD. I have a very easy answer for that: exit from the EU would solve that problem, and many other problems, straight away. Indeed, exit would liberate this great nation of ours, uninhibited by all the constraints of Brussels, to make its own way as a great trading nation in the world.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Lyttle: Is the Member seriously diminishing the need for a high standard of water quality in our community with his party policy on Europe?

Mr Allister: I do not think we need Brussels to tell us what is good water and what is bad water, what is clean water and what is dirty water. We are more than capable of working that out for ourselves. Why, therefore, do we pay the phenomenal £17 billion a year to put ourselves under the jackboot of Brussels? I do not understand that and I urge and hope for the day when the British people, who do not understand it, will exercise their democratic right and —

Mr Speaker: Thank you. I call Mr Mike Nesbitt.

Mr Nesbitt: I had not intended to speak in the debate. I came down to listen. I was curious because this is the second day in a row that we have focused on the Department for Regional Development, having had, by the way, a question for urgent oral answer last week. I have no difficulty with Committees scrutinising their Department or with the fact that scrutiny sometimes results in criticism. I prefer it when it is constructive criticism that says that you are doing A but asks whether you have thought about doing B because it might be better. Scrutiny can, of course, also end in endorsement and praise for the way in which a Department is run. As the Chair of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I am always keen to look for areas where scrutiny will result in a positive view of the actions of OFMDFM, although that is sometimes difficult.

Here we are focusing on the Department for Regional Development for the second day in a row as if everything in the garden is rosy, as if there was no Stormont House Agreement not being implemented and as if those who wish to protect the vulnerable are not responsible, through their flip-flop on the Stormont House Agreement, for the Treasury taking back £2 million a week. That is money that could be spent on our vulnerable people but which they are content to see the Treasury redistribute to the people of England, Scotland and Wales — not to our vulnerable people.

If the Committee is serious about criticising the financial management of the Minister for Regional Development, it needs to catch a grip and take a look at what the two main government parties are doing with their Budget. We have vulnerable people, and we call them "people who live with deprivation". In the Programme for Government, there was a commitment to help people who live in deprivation, and that means poverty. The commitment was to spend £40 million over three years, ending on 30 March this year. At the same time, another £40 million was to be spent on those who live in dereliction in areas like the lower Newtownards Road, where all the shops are boarded up and painted over, and we are supposed to pretend that things are better than they are. That is £80 million for dereliction and deprivation. We all signed up to that and thought that it was a great idea to spend that money on the vulnerable in vulnerable and needy areas. What did we discover? How much of the £80 million was spent in the three years to which it was allocated? £1 million. £1 million out of £80 million. If there is a shortage of money for cutting the grass or repairing lights, go and ask Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness. They have £79 million in their joint bank account. That is a disgrace, and that is the focus that the Chamber should bring to our Executive Government.

The Chairman opened the debate by accusing the Minister of misinterpreting the motion as a personal attack. As Mr Allister has just pointed out, the Chairman then spent the first four minutes launching a personal attack on the Minister. It was four minutes and 22 seconds long. It was four minutes and 22 seconds before the Chairman addressed the motion. That tells you all that we need to know about the motivation of the Member for South Antrim.

Mr McNarry: It is a privilege to serve on the Committee, in deference to which I take great exception to any scurrilous spin that, two weeks ago, we met to gang up on the Department and that resulted in today's motion. It is not a fantasy motion; it is about real things. In case that realisation has not sunk in, which I suspect is and always was part of the problem, the Department has only itself to blame. The motion is borne out of months of frustration and bewilderment at listening to evidence from senior officials who fell apart under deep probing and close scrutiny of their decisions and actions. It is not a sudden surprise, and it should not be a sudden surprise to the Minister either. He will recall that, some time ago, I warned him personally that the arrogance of some of his senior officials was causing him to lose his Committee. Nothing changed; it was then and remains a Department out of control.

I say to the pipsqueaks seeking wriggle room with the question, "What would you do?" that it is a silly point. The Committee's role is to scrutinise policy not make it. What could you do anyway with distorted facts and figures presented that did not stack up? It is not a question of "What would you do?"; it is and will remain a question of "What on earth is being done?". We have a litany of serious compounded errors as detailed in various Hansard and Committee reports, showing over a lengthy period — not last week or yesterday — how the Committee's concerns were met by excuses given by officials to exonerate the Department irrespective of how many times their forecasts proved to be inaccurate. Evasion was the name of their game. It was not of the standard expected in managing public money.

In a week when a so-called fantasy Budget is topical, let me say that the Committee has for months been treated to fantasy projects, spending fantasy money on proposed pet projects put together on the canvas of an artist's impression, projects with guesstimated costs, downloaded on costs. The litany of that record is there for all to read. Yet, the Committee was informed only last Wednesday that there was no money for potholes, gully drains, grass verges, road markings, signage or bridges. It was incredible to hear it. We have a management putting public safety at risk, and it is not good enough. Nor is the proposed solution in June monitoring, which proposes to take us from no money to a skeleton service and then on to a minimum requirement service, none of which allays fears about public safety being at risk.

On that day, the financial director told me that the £6·6 million bid was being undertaken at a risk, when the Department has known for several years of a deepening Budget crisis — not yesterday or last week but for years. Instead of protecting public safety, it has put in immediate danger the Department's critical routine and statutory legal responsibilities and duties. It has gone for populism at the price of safety.

The Department's problem is its reliance on and abuse of in-year monitoring, where the guidelines state explicitly that the Department must not plan on the assumption that bids will be met. It is a strategy designed to fail, and it has failed. That has been the problem with the Department. A loss of confidence as a result of today's motion will not be reversed as long as the Department's financial management wastes millions of pounds of public money, admits that its monitoring bid is undertaken at a risk —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is almost up.

Mr McNarry: — and, in doing so, has emptied the money bank. It is a performance of zero rating.

Mr McCallister: I am sure that the Minister is touched by the number of Executive colleagues who have come out to support him today in the effort to reinforce collective Cabinet government. He is probably thinking to himself, "With friends like these, who needs colleagues?". Mr Allister was spot on about the Committee Chair and Member for South Antrim; it is much more to do with an election result in South Antrim. Only a number of weeks ago, DUP colleagues were calling on people in Newry and Armagh to vote for Mr Kennedy; now they want his head on a platter. At least Mr Dallat does not.

11.45 am

Virtually every week in the Chamber the case is made for reforming the Assembly and the Executive. A number of weeks ago, in the water motion, we had the then junior Minister Bell calling on Minister Kennedy to follow Executive policy. That was really an attack on the Alliance Party, which is still in the Executive as well. All the Executive parties gang up on one another. Today's motion — I have to give it to the Committee — is exceptional when you consider where Northern Ireland is heading. Let's all gang up on the Minister for Regional Development — meanwhile, the entire Executive of Northern Ireland are hurtling down the tracks towards practical bankruptcy. We have a fantasy Budget on its way that will, of course, given the title "fantasy", bear no relevance to reality. We could be in a situation by late July or August where the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and Personnel is running our finances. Yet, we are wondering here about Minister Kennedy getting the grass verges cut while our entire finances go down the plughole. Is there any sense of reality?

On this occasion, because of Sinn Féin's stance on welfare reform, we are haemorrhaging £2 million per week. With no real way of passing a meaningful Budget, the Finance Department will have to step in and take emergency measures. That is putting —

Mr Speaker: The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Mr McCallister: — a real dent in our confidence in the Executive. What is worse is that the people out there have long since switched off and no longer worry about what this place does. It is not even a crisis. In Mr Nesbitt's words, it is barely a proper crisis.

Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): At the outset, I apologise for my slight lateness to the debate. I think that a number of Members were, like me, caught by the rolling forward of business. No discourtesy was intended to you, Mr Speaker, the House or the members of the Regional Development Committee. The delay meant that I missed the four minutes and 22 seconds attributed to the Chairman of the Committee, but I caught enough of the end to hear myself being likened to Oliver Twist. I return the compliment by describing the Chair as the Artful Dodger: he seems to be dodging some of the financial issues that confront the Committee, my Department and me.

I welcome the opportunity to set out how I am managing — I stress the word "managing" — my budget in the difficult circumstances that I find myself in. First, I need to address the inaccuracies in the motion tabled by the Committee for Regional Development. We have a well-established public expenditure system here: the Budget sets the total for each Department, and, through the financial year, adjustments are made by the Executive through the monitoring rounds. That allows reduced requirements to be surrendered and some additional pressures to be met. All Departments make use of it for both purposes.

For my Department, particularly for road maintenance, the Executive adopted a deliberate policy of dampening my opening budget in the recognition that any surplus capital emerging later in the year, as invariably happens, can be soaked up by spend on structural maintenance. I have consistently made it clear that the use of my Department as a sponge militates against sensible planning and actually delivers less value for money, as the investment is best spent in the summer and autumn.

Nonetheless, that has been the pattern in recent years. Now, apparently, it is I who stands accused of over-reliance on in-year monitoring.

The Committees of this Assembly have a vital role. One element is scrutiny of Ministers and Departments. As a member of the House and a former Chair of Statutory Committees in previous mandates, I fully support that role, but another role is to champion Departments' interests and act as an advocate for investment. This must be the first time that a Committee is arguing against investment and has come to the Floor of the House to argue that point. I await with interest the Committee's explanation — hopefully it will come in the winding-up speech — to the many stakeholders who appear before the Committee for why it is somehow opposed to bidding for monitoring moneys. In particular, if it had its wish, we would see an even more marked deterioration in the fabric of our roads network in the years ahead. I have no intention of presiding over that.

I am intrigued by the Committee's position on monitoring. Last week, my officials appeared before the Committee to brief its members on my proposed June monitoring bid. That is a significant and important bid. I have reviewed that session with officials and have yet to find any argument against bidding. Indeed, officials were urged to accord a greater priority to one bid, namely that for community transport. It seems to me that the Committee is arguing for both more and less use of monitoring at the same time. I am confused about its position and wonder what it is.

I turn now to the 2014-15 out-turn —

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. The motion clearly states that the concern is over-reliance. There is no confusion in that. Of course the Committee will support monitoring round bids, but the concern is over-reliance. Indeed, yesterday, there was a motion supporting the need for additional funds for disability transport schemes.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member, but he misses the point that I made in my earlier submission, which is that the Finance Minister in the Executive deems it appropriate that monitoring rounds are how this Department is to be funded in terms of structural maintenance. That is my argument at the Executive. I would be a little bit more glad if the Committee actively supported me in that argument with not only the Executive but the Finance Minister.

I turn now to the 2014-15 out-turn. As part of Budget 2010, it was assumed, wrongly, by Conor Murphy — welcome back — that DRD could extract £20 million per annum from Belfast harbour. Hence, £20 million per annum was deducted from my allocations. It is now clear that no legal mechanism existed to extract funds from the harbour. In recognition of this, the £20 million was restored to me in 2013-14 through monitoring. In 2014-15, against the same context, my bid for £20 million was refused. Despite that, in response, I made over £20 million of savings and 4·4% of in-year cuts.

It was abundantly clear towards the end of the financial year that there were sufficient reduced requirements, not least from the Justice Department, available to the Executive to cover the Belfast harbour shortfall. No such allocation was made.

There may have been mismanagement of this issue, but it was not on my part. Others can speak for themselves. The shortfall was down to a fundamental erroneous decision in Budget 2010 and it could have been sorted out in 2014-15.

Mr Ó hOisín: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Kennedy: I have to make progress. I will move on to Translink. The Committee's motion refers to:

"Translink’s statement that it will cease to trade within the next two years".

Regrettably, that is a highly selective and, perhaps, mischievous interpretation of evidence given to the Committee by the Translink chief executive on the February 2015 fare increase. My Department had extracted £9 million from Translink in 2014-15 to meet the budgetary pressure that I have alluded to. The company faced a further reduction of funding in 2015-16 of £13 million. In that context, the chief executive made clear that, should Translink not take action, the company would cease to exist in its present form. The chief executive went on to set out a programme of action: the fare increase; reductions in management and administration of £3·1 million; and a programme of service adjustments to deliver annual savings of £7 million. The chief executive has written to my Department in recent days to confirm that those measures are being implemented and that the company's future is secure as a result. He has described the reporting of his comments, as exemplified, I might say, in this motion, as, at best, selective and, at worst, misleading. I could not agree more.

In the recently concluded price control process for Northern Ireland Water (NIW), the regulator highlighted that while NIW might have expected to have available £1 billion to invest over the next six years, £1·7 billion was what it could, ideally, spend but, more critically, £2·86 billion is what should be spent.

We face huge challenges in upgrading our water and sewerage infrastructure. If we do not do so and put plans in place, yes, there will be a risk of infraction proceedings, but there will also be constraints on economic development. My Department is leading work approved by the Executive to put together a strategic drainage infrastructure programme of work, but making available the necessary funding is a matter for the Executive to grasp in this and the next mandate. More recently, we have been at risk of infraction because of inadequacies at Ballycastle waste water treatment works. I have ensured that a scheme to upgrade the work is now going ahead, with completion due in late 2017. As a result, infraction proceedings are unlikely. Again, Mr Speaker, reality differs significantly from the sensationalism in the motion.

I will now deal with the motion's call for me to set out my financial strategy for the next financial period. We only have a budget for 2015-16, and it looks vulnerable at present, but I have set out a clear financial strategy to deal with the £60 million of pressures that I face. I moved funding from roads and from Translink to fund NIW to within £5 million of the regulator's determined requirement. I levied cuts in my Department's staffing budget and had to make cuts in the budget for community transport. All of those decisions were unpalatable but necessary to ensure that I manage my budget. I would argue that the Committee's problem is not that I cannot manage my budget, but that it does not like the consequences of the reduced allocations to DRD. Some people seek to conveniently ignore those harsh financial facts. I do not like those facts either, but governing is about making decisions and standing over them, not cynical political grandstanding.

I and my officials have explained at length the basis of the £60 million of pressures that I face, yet there seems still to be a lack of understanding. If I did not face these pressures, I would not be making cuts. I came into politics, with so many others, to make a positive difference to people's lives. I have rehearsed the issues facing me for months, and I have yet to receive any alternative proposals from the Committee or anyone else.

Finally, Mr Speaker, I need to spell out the decisions that I have made in road maintenance, where I have a duty regarding public health and safety. With the budget available, I am able to put in place only a severely reduced road maintenance service. It is a skeleton service. It is the bare minimum consistent with protecting the public.

That service will cost money that DRD does not have at present. I am therefore providing it at risk. I have bid for the necessary funds in June monitoring. If the funding is not forthcoming, I will face another difficult decision. In that eventuality, I expect the Committee to support the need for investment.

12.00 noon

The issues before us are the consequence of Executive decisions. The services that DRD delivers affect every citizen. The public expect the representatives in this House to stand up for their needs, not to score political points off political opponents. The Committee needs to stand up and be counted. If it is in favour of safeguarding public services, it should support me.

Today's debate has been characterised by conflict, not just between some members of the Committee and my Department but between the comments of some Committee members and the comments of other Committee members. Those who will no doubt support the phantom Budget next week are criticising those who are endeavouring to live within budget this week. Those who call for more capital investment in infrastructure fail to support bids for additional capital. Those who blame a reliance on monitoring rounds fail to ask why DRD is being used as a valve Department by the Executive and why other Departments are able to underspend in a time of austerity yet DRD is being used as a sponge.

The motion fails to acknowledge the impact of the Budget passed by the DUP and Sinn Féin earlier this year and its impact on public services across a number of Departments. More than ever, the debate highlights the fact that our current system allows those in government to behave as though they are absolutely removed from it and as though they are in opposition.

Mr Speaker: The Minister's time is up.

Mr Kennedy: Sadly, for people in Northern Ireland, some here today seem much more comfortable with the character of opposition — a harum-scarum opposition — rather than the responsibility of government.

Mr Clarke: I will summarise Members' contributions before I conclude. Declan McAleer spoke of the cuts to street lighting, gully clearing and pothole repairs, particularly for vulnerable people, despite the Department having a significant budget.

John Dallat spoke of his concerns over infraction proceedings and the possible penalties that will arise from them. He was also critical of board members. He perhaps forgot to mention that, although Translink had its difficulties, the Minister extended the life of its board and did not dispose of its current members. John also mentioned the nine drivers. I do not think that he meant exactly what he said, which was that we should forget about them. I think that he realised, after he sat down, that that was not his intention.

Mr Dallat: Will the Chairman give way?

Mr Clarke: Yes, I will.

Mr Dallat: I am glad that the Chairman mentioned that. I realised after I said it that I had made the wrong choice of words. Of course we should remember the nine drivers who lost their life.

Mr Clarke: I brought that up because I realised, after he sat down, that the Member had made the wrong choice of words.

Ross Hussey spoke of his opposition to the motion, calling it "party political". I emphasise that the motion was supported, as you now know, Mr Speaker, by all the political parties on the Committee, not just my own.

Chris Lyttle spoke of the over-reliance on in-year monitoring, especially for essential services. He also spoke about the risk of infraction proceedings, in particular for Ballycastle and Belfast lough. He called on the Minister to show leadership and not to remain passive.

Alex Easton also spoke about the DRD's over-reliance on in-year monitoring. He queried whether the Department has applied significant rates variation to NI Water. He also covered the issue of Translink's reserves.

Cathal Ó hOisín spoke about the historical lack of investment in the infrastructure of the north-west and the difficulties in trying to get information out of officials.

Joe Byrne spoke of the knock-on impact of the cuts to Departments' budgets. He said that the Department has a false sense of security through its reliance on in-year monitoring.

Roy Beggs said that the Minister was asking Translink to use its reserves. He forgot to say that it was the Minister's Department that propped up that organisation to the tune of £80 million of reserves. It was not until those reserves reached £80 million that the level of reserves was highlighted and the company was pushed on that matter. That relates to what Roy talked about yesterday. He was critical of the reserves held by the community transport sector and Disability Action transport. That is £80 million versus a few hundred thousand pounds in the community sector.

I also want to point out that, when Roy Beggs was on his feet, he was very supportive —everyone on the Committee has also been supportive — of Translink. The Committee may be critical, but it welcomes the fact that Translink delivers a good service in our constituencies. It is disappointing that he did not say that yesterday about community transport or the Disability Action transport service. Today he was very quick to point out about Translink, a publicly funded body —

Mr Beggs: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Member is misquoting me. If he examines Hansard, he will see that I made constructive comments about community transport. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Sorry, I cannot hear the point of order. Would you mind repeating that? It was interrupted.

Mr Beggs: The Member is incorrectly quoting what I said. If Hansard is examined, it will show that I made complimentary comments about community transport during my speech yesterday. I ask the Member to withdraw his remarks.

Mr Clarke: Mr Speaker —

Mr Speaker: I accept that the Member feels that Hansard will support his assertion that he recognised that. I ask you to take that on board. You have no more opportunity than I to adjudicate on the issue for now, but if it transpires that Mr Beggs' account is correct, I am sure you will acknowledge that at a suitable opportunity.

Mr Clarke: I am very happy to do that now. If Mr Beggs acknowledged that yesterday, that is good and proper and fine, and I accept it. However, today he did not. He outlined the valuable work that Translink does, but he forgot about disability transport today, he forgot about the community transport and he forgot to mention that they were cut by 33% when his Minister only lost 15% of his budget.

Jim Allister suggested that the Minister was being picked on by his Executive colleagues, and then he went on to talk about elections. This is Jim "runaway" Allister, who did not even run in an election. It is the Jim Allister who talked about how the sky was going to fall in on Northern Ireland years ago. Well, Jim, look outside: the sky is still there. The sky is still there, Jim.

Mike Nesbitt talked about the constructive criticisms in the Committee, but he forgot to mention that the Committee came up with the cycling inquiry, as well as integrated transport, for example. Mike criticised me for talking for four minutes and 22 seconds. I forgot to start the clock when Mike Nesbitt got up, but he criticised the Committee for tabling motions in the House. Woe is us, as a Committee, putting down a motion to talk about DRD. He spent most of his contribution talking about OFMDFM business. Maybe he should table a motion to talk about what he wants to talk about in OFMDFM. I think this Committee is doing a reasonably good job at holding the Minister to account and tabling motions, because that is what it is supposed to do. He used half of his slot to talk about OFMDFM.

Mr Speaker: Remarks through the Chair.

Mr Clarke: Maybe he should follow his processes, rather than being critical of others.

David McNarry spoke of his pride at sitting in the Committee and of the months of frustration caused by the evasive evidence of departmental officials.

I do not really know what John McCallister said, but it seemed that he was cosying up to his ex-partners in the Ulster Unionist Party and jumping to the defence of the Minister. Maybe we are going to see something there over the coming months. Much has been said today about elections. Maybe we will see John try to cast favour to Mike to get back into the wings of the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Minister spoke about the process and blamed the Executive for the over-reliance on in-year monitoring. I have to give it to the Minister that he recognises that. The Committee has said that previously. Our concern today is that, looking at the current budget and this current round, there has been more bid for in this in-year monitoring round, if it is added to what he has already got, than the Minister got in total last year. I think the Minister was being disingenuous as he forgot to say that not one member of the Committee that day spoke against the budgets that were being made. Everyone supported the budgets being made, because we understand the pressures that the Minister is under. When my colleague was on his feet, he forgot to say that we could give an example that, rather than leaving the potholes in disrepair, and instead of taking £10 million off Transport NI to give to NI Water, maybe more of a torch should be shone on NI Water to find out what is going wrong, because it raided the coffers of Transport NI. That is the difficulty that many of us have. It was not about insufficient budget, but about how the Minister and his officials allocated that budget.

The Committee is not opposed to investment. It is opposed to the ad hoc begging-bowl approach that has been adopted by the Department.

That does not lend itself to strategic planning, nor is it good for fundamental planning.

Whilst others want to characterise this as a DUP motion, I am glad that other Members spoke today. It emphasised the fact that this is a Committee motion. We want to see better financial planning in DRD, and we want it to stop raiding the coffers of the most vulnerable, whether it be through community transport, our roads, grass cutting or street lights. I support the motion.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.


That this Assembly notes that the Committee for Regional Development has lost confidence in the Department for Regional Development’s ability to effectively manage and maintain its budgets, as a result of an over-reliance on in-year monitoring, Translink’s statement that it will cease to trade within the next two years, the potential for infraction proceedings arising from a lack of investment in waste water treatment plants and the risk of the Department exceeding its 2014-2015 budgetary control limits; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to explain how he intends to negate these risks and to set out his financial strategy for the next financial period.

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

The sitting was suspended at 12.25 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Finance and Personnel

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): "Accruing resources" is the term used to refer to the income received by a Department that it is authorised to retain to offset related expenditure rather than surrender to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The limits for such income are voted by the Assembly in the Budget Bills associated with the Main and spring Supplementary Estimates.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Will the Minister confirm that the prospect of a senior civil servant setting a Budget at the end of July would be catastrophic for our public services? Rather than a so-called phantom Budget, the only sensible and responsible thing to do is for every party in the Assembly to support a real Budget that will balance our books and also provide —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Can we have a question, please?

Mr McCarthy: — the continuation of a half-decent service to our population.

Mrs Foster: Thank you for the supplementary. Indeed, it would be, to use the Member's word, "catastrophic" if we had to go into a situation where the permanent secretary of DFP had to act under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. That would be absolutely catastrophic for the Northern Ireland public because of the cuts that would have to be made to public services.

I have heard the Budget that I have circulated to Executive colleagues and, indeed, to the Committee being described in various ways: a fantasy Budget, a phantom Budget and whatever it is that the BBC deems to call it at that particular time. In fact, the Budget that I am bringing forward is a Budget that is based on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Therefore, the people who are not standing by the Stormont House Agreement have to look at themselves and ask themselves why they are not standing by their commitments in the Stormont House Agreement. To do otherwise will cause grave difficulties to public services in Northern Ireland. There are two choices if the Budget goes ahead: either the Westminster Government will have to implement welfare reform or those who have turned their face against welfare reform will have to deal with it. Those are the choices ahead of us.

Mr I McCrea: I can only echo the Minister's comments in respect of ensuring that the Stormont House Agreement and the Budget that comes out of it are implemented. The Minister will be aware that people in the rural community are concerned about single farm payments. Can the Minister provide any detail on how that will be resolved and how payments will be made if this Budget process is not completed?

Mrs Foster: Obviously, EU funding, including the single farm payment, is provided for specific reasons, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that that funding goes to the intended recipients. With the progression of the Budget Bill, which, as I said, I have already shared with Executive colleagues and the Committee, I anticipate that payments will continue as normal. If the Budget Bill should be rejected, however, I am taking steps, and I am confident that the single farm payment will be paid, although possibly not through the normal processes. I want to ensure that farmers are in receipt of their single farm payment because I know how important that single farm payment is to the rural community.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh mile maith agat. Is the Minister aware that other legal advice in respect of the spending of accruing resources runs contrary to the view that she has expressed?

Mrs Foster: Yes, I have received correspondence from the Committee. I have studied that correspondence, as the Member would expect me to do. I have to say that it does not lie alongside the very clear legal advice that I have, which indicates that I and the Department have no legal power to set accruing resource limits in the absence of an appropriate limit. That appropriate limit is set by the Budget Act. The Committee's letter in no way negates the legal advice that I have received. I am quite content to have a conversation with the Member as Deputy Chair or with the Chair about that advice, but, as far as I can see, that legal advice does not negate the very clear legal advice that I have received.

Mr Allister: Has the Minister yet met the Treasury to discuss the Budget mayhem? When she does, will she deal with the issue of how she can possibly set a Budget with a £604 million black hole without setting herself on a course of breaching Treasury constraints?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. As he probably knows from public commentary, I have asked for a meeting with Her Majesty's Treasury. That meeting was to take place on Thursday of this week. Unfortunately, that clashes with the Executive meeting, so I will not be able to attend. However, I have asked for another meeting date as soon as possible in order to discuss the situation that we find ourselves in.

As to breaching our controls, I am bringing the Budget forward on the premise that the whole of the Stormont House Agreement will be implemented: not parts of it, but all of it. If all of it comes to fruition, the Budget will not have a hole of £604 million.

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 2, 11 and 12 together, as they all relate to the Northern Ireland Civil Service voluntary exit scheme.

In her St Patrick’s day speech, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said:-

"All the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement would fail if the welfare aspects are not implemented".

The voluntary exit scheme and the £700 million required to fund it are key elements of the Stormont House Agreement, so, at present, we are unable to access that funding. That has significant implications for the Executive’s Budget, the budgets of public-sector bodies and, importantly, the individuals affected.

Mrs Overend: I agree that it is a worrying time for those who have applied and have not yet had confirmation of their future. Will the Minister outline how much every month of the delay on the agreement or finalisation of the voluntary exit scheme is costing the Executive?

Mrs Foster: There are two aspects to the voluntary exit scheme. We have been allocated £700 million under the Stormont House Agreement to allow people to apply to the scheme. As the Member will know, over 7,200 people from the Civil Service applied. The head of the Civil Service has sent out the first tranche of conditional letters to 1,200 people. Those letters indicate their offer, that they could leave at the end of September but that that is conditional on our being able to access the £200 million for this year.

It is important that those people be allowed to leave in a timely manner because Departments have factored in savings from the pay bills of those leaving. I do not have the specifics in front of me, but each Department has factored a particular amount of money into its savings plan to allow those people to move on. Pay bill reductions will come into their savings plans, so there are two sides to it. It is very important that we can proceed with the voluntary exit scheme.

Mr Spratt: What interest has there been in the voluntary exit scheme from the Northern Ireland Civil Service? Is the scheme oversubscribed?

Mrs Foster: As I indicated, 7,285 individuals applied to be considered for selection by the closure of the NICS scheme. All Departments provided a profile of the numbers of staff by grade and discipline that they required to exit under the scheme in order to achieve the required pay bill savings. Not all applicants were selected, and we anticipate that not all those selected will choose to leave. They may decide to stay and work on, so it is not necessarily the case that all 1,200 will leave. At this stage, it is not possible to say whether the scheme is oversubscribed. We will know more later in the year.

Mr Easton: Can the Minister outline what other funding is dependent on the Stormont House Agreement being implemented?

Mrs Foster: In addition to the loss of £700 million reinvestment and reform initiative borrowing for the voluntary exit scheme, we would lose £150 million over five years to pay for institutions that help to deal with the past, and we all know how important it is to deal with those very difficult issues; £500 million over 10 years for capital projects in support of shared and integrated education; and certain flexibilities agreed in this year's Budget relating to the scope to continue repaying the £100 million loan taken out in 2014-15 from capital receipts and capital budgets. We would have to pay the full-year cost of not implementing welfare reform, £114 million, and would lose the flexibility to repay that from the capital budget. Very significant issues and funding are dependent on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. What criteria have been used to determine eligibility for the voluntary exit scheme? Are they based just on finances or is consideration given to departmental needs?

Mrs Foster: Very much so. When Departments were determining their savings, they looked at business needs moving into the future. Business needs are very much part of the selection for the first tranche. As I said, Departments provided a profile of numbers, grades and disciplines of staff. What we do not want is the complete loss of a particular skill to the Civil Service because everyone has left under the voluntary exit scheme. We have seen that happen in other organisations that have run voluntary exit schemes. It is very important that the Civil Service continues to be run in a businesslike fashion.

Mr McCallister: Can the Minister confirm that, had she put a recruitment freeze on the Civil Service four years ago, we would not have needed a voluntary exit scheme and the £700 million of borrowing could have been used in other, more useful areas? Would she care to say which parties in this Chamber she thinks still support the Stormont House Agreement in full?

Mrs Foster: When I attend meetings on the Stormont House Agreement, I am told that all parties in this House support it. It is for others to determine whether that is right or wrong. The party that I represent certainly wants to see full implementation. I say that because it is a balanced agreement; you cannot have one part implemented and not the rest. It has to be implemented in full because it was a balanced agreement that took some considerable time to reach.

As for the other issue he raises, I am afraid that I was not in post four years ago, as I think he realises. I will check with the then Minister of Finance about what he believes is the case.

Mr McElduff: The revaluation is a long overdue correction and a help to many businesses that have been facing difficulty. Sectors and locations that have not performed well since the last revaluation 12 years ago are now paying less. Conversely, those that have fared better are paying more. The revaluation is informed by the property market, and we are not raising more money from it. However, should the correction present individual business with excessive financial pressures, I encourage them to speak to Land and Property Services about the possibility of a payment arrangement.

Mr McElduff: Is there anything that the Minister and her Department can do to assist businesses for which the revaluation exercise could become a tipping point, forcing them to lay off employees or even to close their doors? I am thinking about a number of small rural towns in west Tyrone, where it appears that local businesses have been hammered. One business in the Carrickmore area has seen a rise of 618%.

2.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Can we have a question?

Mrs Foster: The results across Northern Ireland are very much as expected. There may be individual businesses — he referred to one — that stand out, but it is a correction. If the Member watched television last week, he will have seen a report on Belfast city centre and how the correction has really helped to bring developers into the city centre because the rates were much too high in the past and a revaluation was needed.

I accept what he is saying in relation to the scale of the increase in percentage terms, but if you look at the real value of the rates that they are paying, you will see that they are, I would say, tens of times lower than in other places in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the revaluation did need to occur. I think it was the right thing to happen. I have said before that I am happy to speak to Members about individual cases that are at either end of the scale, if you like, in terms of the differences that have been made to them, but we already provide a wide range of reliefs, particularly to the non-domestic sector, so those should be looked at.

I also say to him that the Executive have frozen the regional rate. Actually, because of the revaluation exercise, the regional rate has reduced. Was that the case with the district rate? In many cases, council areas have increased the district rate and have not kept to the very prudent exercise that the Executive have been involved in.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Can she outline what she is doing to support the ratepayers who are adversely affected by the revaluation?

Mrs Foster: As I indicated, we have a wide range of reliefs available in Northern Ireland to support ratepayers. We all know that it is a shrinking public purse available to us. Indeed, a package of support worth up to £30 million has seen the impact of rates convergence effectively removed for any business ratepayer through an 80% subsidy in this year. We have small business rate relief still in existence. The empty shops rates concession, industrial derating and an exemption for rural ATMs have all been extended for this financial year, 2015-16, at a time when we are under significant pressures in relation to our funding. I ask Members, when they are asking for rate reliefs to be brought forward, to recall that we have a fixed amount of money. If we are going to give rate relief to businesses, rural businesses, or whatever it is to be, we have to find the money for that. We already have great constraints from our central government Departments, and we need to bear that in mind.

Ms Sugden: Is the Minister aware of how many successful appeals there have been against the net annual value, and does that suggest that the revaluation process in itself was flawed?

Mrs Foster: I do not have the precise figures in front of me. The draft rate went out in, I think, November last year and there have been a number of appeals since then, but there are many appeals still to be heard. Indeed, there are over 1,000 appeals in, and I encourage anyone who is not content with the rates that have been set to appeal. I do not take it in any way as an error in the revaluation to see appeals coming forward. I think it is actually testing the system to see what happens, because it is evidence-based, and, in many cases, some of the forms that were sent out to ratepayers for evidence before the rates were set were not actually returned. Therefore, the evidence may not have been available. If there is evidence available that was not taken into consideration, they should bring it forward.

Mr Cree: The Minister will be aware that many types of business have been affected quite dramatically, one of them being petrol forecourts. My question is based on the number of appeals that have been lodged. Is any trend emerging from those appeals to suggest, bearing in mind that it is a zero-sum game, that somehow those particular forms of business are suffering more adversely than others?

Mrs Foster: I think that it is a little bit too early to say whether there is a trend in a particular sector. I am aware at a constituency level of the petrol forecourts issue. I understand that there may even be a class action taken concerning their shops. I have already met those people at constituency level. Now that I am Finance Minister, which I was not at the time, I may well meet them again to discuss where their concerns lie. It is important that we be as transparent as we possibly can be. For example, where are the comparators? How did we arrive at a particular rateable valuation? I think that it is important to do that. We owe it to our constituents and, indeed, businesses to allow them to find the answers to those questions.

Mrs Foster: Of course it is important to work with other Administrations on areas of mutual concern and on where best practice can be shared. My officials are in regular contact with their Scottish counterparts on a broad range of matters that are relevant to the work of my Department.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a freagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer thus far.

Following the recent visit by the Committee for Finance and Personnel to Scotland, it was widely perceived that the Scottish Executive have a much more robust approach to dealing with the Treasury in London than the Department here has. Does the Minister believe that it is time to step up her demands for a fair deal from London?

Mrs Foster: I am very pleased to hear the Member use the term "fair deal" because, of course, not so long ago, it was the DUP slogan, in that we would deliver a fair deal for Northern Ireland.

A Member: That worked out well.

A Member: It did not go down well for you.

Mrs Foster: I am hearing that it did not go down well for some Members — exactly.

Since my appointment, I have received correspondence from my counterpart, John Swinney MSP, the Scottish Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance. I met John in my previous role and very much look forward to meeting him again so that we can discuss issues of mutual interest, including, I have to say, public-sector reform. I am also looking forward to meeting the Welsh Minister for Finance. She has also been in contact. So I look forward to a trilateral with those two Ministers, but I will probably be meeting John on an individual basis as well.

Mr Beggs: I recall a number of years ago, when I was a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, that a new Budget process was being arranged that would improve transparency and adopt best practice, but that was ultimately blocked by Sinn Féin Ministers, so I find it rather strange that that question was asked by a Member from that party.

Can the Minister advise the House of the actions that she has taken to ensure that we have a real Budget and, apart from that, to ensure that we have a better process such as the one that was previously approved by the Committee for Finance and Personnel and, indeed, the Assembly?

Mrs Foster: I say to the Member that he is absolutely right to call for more transparency in departmental budgets. That is what Committees need to see. It is what the public need to be aware of as well. I am now engaged in a process on how we can do that and how we can make, dare I say it, the Northern Ireland finances more accessible to the public. I very much want to be able to do that.

Regarding the Budget, I believe that it is a real Budget. I say that because it was agreed on figures that were agreed back on 23 December 2014 under the Stormont House Agreement. That is the process under which I am bringing the Budget forward. Whether it is through Sinn Féin and the SDLP stepping up to the mark on welfare or the Westminster Government taking action to deal with it, those are the options. As far as I am concerned, I am fulfilling my responsibility to bring forward a Budget when it comes to the House next week.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mr Ross Hussey is not in his place.

Mrs Foster: I plan to introduce the social innovation fund in the 2015-16 financial year. A consultation will issue shortly inviting views on, amongst other issues, the spending priority and distribution mechanism for the fund. Subject to the outcome of the consultation exercise, the Northern Ireland spending priorities will be subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure in the Assembly.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Is the consultation process likely to include feedback on topping up funds from additional contributions from trusts or sponsors that are supportive of the peace process?

Mrs Foster: We want any organisation that thinks it can help with the fund to become involved in the consultation. As I said, any definitive programme will be laid before the House for affirmative resolution, so the House will also have its role in relation to the fund. This is a good opportunity to be able to access funding, in particular for those organisations that perhaps do not feel that they can apply to the Big Lottery Fund. I welcome that and know that it will be welcomed in the general third sector.

Mr Ramsey: Certainly, Minister, the SDLP warmly welcomes this project. Although it is at an early stage, can you outline what type of social enterprise projects are likely to succeed or be entitled to funding?

Mrs Foster: I think it was my predecessor who decided to widen the scheme out to the wider social economy, and that was absolutely the right thing to do. We do not want to limit access for those involved with the third sector, particularly at a time when — let us be honest about it — they may be facing constraints from other areas of government.

The main benefit of the scheme is that it will give access to funding to organisations such as social enterprises that wish to invest in their activities but have, until now, been unable to access that money, whether through loans or grants. I think it will be broadly welcomed by the third sector, and I very much look forward to bringing it to the House.

Mr Craig: I thank the Minister for her answers. Can the Minister outline the exact purpose of this fund? I am assuming it is not to substitute existing schemes.

Mrs Foster: Absolutely not. This is to be an additional scheme and will not form part of public spending. I think that is why it will be welcomed not just by the third sector but by everyone in the Assembly, who should welcome this as an additional source of money for that sector. It is not a substitute for mainstream government spending but an additional source of funding. Although I do not want to pre-empt the consultation, it will probably be through loans so that they can proceed and develop their particular social enterprise.

Mrs Foster: The Northern Ireland composite economic index provides information on the state of the Northern Ireland economy and, as such, may be used alongside other data to assist the Executive in determining their priorities.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will be aware that the indicator was flat in three of the last four quarters. How do you propose to drive sustainable economic recovery?

Mrs Foster: The Member will have seen the purchasing managers' index (PMI) for this week, which looks back at April and indicates that there has been an increase, particularly in the manufacturing sector — not in the retail sector, not in the construction sector, but in the manufacturing sector — which I warmly welcome. It is about building on those sectors that can bring growth to Northern Ireland, and in particular looking to new export markets. We must be in an export-driven growth situation and, of course, continue to increase the amount of research and development money that is spent in Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to topical questions. The first question on the list has been withdrawn.

2.30 pm

T2. Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for her analysis of the potential impact on the local economy of a British exit from the EU. (AQT 2622/11-15)

Mrs Foster: As she knows, it is a potential exit. We are at a very early stage of negotiations, and the Prime Minister is engaged in discussing issues with other members of the European Union. It is rather early to be talking about an exit from the European Union when the negotiations have just begun.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister commit to providing a risk assessment of the impact of the in/out referendum on the local economy?

Mrs Foster: I am not quite sure how one could provide a risk assessment for part of a member state when it is the member state that is involved in the negotiations on the European Union and what needs to change with it. We are part of the United Kingdom; it is a member state, and negotiations take place at that level.

T3. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to comment on the Ulster Bank purchasing managers’ index (PMI) that was realised last week. (AQT 2623/11-15)

Mrs Foster: Yes; absolutely. As indicated by a previous questioner, the Ulster Bank PMI indicates that, following a disappointing start to the year, the private sector has reported significant improvements to business conditions, with firms reporting the fastest rate of growth in business activities and new orders in seven months. That is significant. Furthermore, firms have continued to increase their staffing levels at a faster rate than the long-term average prior to the downturn. Those are very encouraging signs for the Northern Ireland economy.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. With the potential for further cuts in the public sector, does she accept that the argument for rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy by supporting more jobs in the private sector has never been stronger?

Mrs Foster: That is the other side of public-sector reform. It is important that we proceed with public sector reform, but, on the other side, we have to ensure that rebalancing occurs. In other words, we have to ensure that jobs are available if, indeed, those civil servants decide that they want to go into the job market. I know that others may have other plans for their futures. Some may want to start their own businesses and some may simply want to retire. For those who want to seek a job, we need to ensure that we continue to grow the private sector.

As the House knows, Invest Northern Ireland had a record year for job promotion last year. I was also delighted that the Enterprise Minister announced 80 new jobs for RLC at Global Point today. That is a very significant announcement, and I am delighted to see those new jobs at Global Point.

T4. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for her assessment of the impact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement last week will have on Northern Ireland. (AQT 2624/11-15)

Mrs Foster: As most Members are aware, on 4 June George Osborne announced £4·5 billion of measures that are designed to reduce the public debt in this financial year — 2015-16. Some £1·5 billion relates to the sale of the Government's stake in Royal Mail, with the remaining £3 billion coming from departmental savings in Whitehall. The outworkings of the Barnett formula mean that Northern Ireland's resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) will be reduced by £33 million and the capital DEL will be reduced by £5 million.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her responses so far. Does she expect further significant cuts to be announced in July?

Mrs Foster: We are all well aware and, indeed, are reminded on numerous occasions by Members across the way, that the Chancellor is to make budgetary announcements on 8 July. We, of course, have no specific input to those announcements, and the Executive's Budget will be impacted again by the Barnett formula adjustments. That is even more reason why we should put our Budget in place at this time so that we have a definitive Budget in place before the Budget announcement on 8 July.

Scotland and Wales have their Budgets in place. I often hear people here talking about getting together with Scotland and Wales and going to the Westminster Government and pushing them. That is fine, and we can do that in relation to the Budgets for 2016-17 and 2017-18. However, we must have a Budget in place for Northern Ireland for 2015-16 and, as yet, we do not have that. If we are to be taken seriously on other matters, we need to get that Budget in place.

T5. Mr Craig asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she still believes that we are in a position to set our own rate of corporation tax. (AQT 2625/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I do, because it was part of the Stormont House Agreement. As I have said many times during this Question Time, the Stormont House Agreement was a very balanced document, and part of it was to allow us to proceed with corporation tax. To be fair to Her Majesty's Government, they have taken through the Bill on corporation tax, and it has received Royal Assent. Therefore, it is now a matter for us whether we want to proceed with what would be an incredibly useful tool for Northern Ireland.

Mr Craig: Does the Minister also believe that we should look to devolve further powers? I think in particular of air passenger duty for short-haul flights.

Mrs Foster: I understand the frustration that is expressed by a number of our airports about air passenger duty. I share that frustration. However, I believe that the reduction of air passenger duty should happen on a UK-wide level. It is not just Northern Ireland's airports that struggle as a result of air passenger duty; other regional airports also suffer as a result of the imposition of what is, as far as I am concerned, a very unfair tax. In my role as Finance Minister, I will continue to push Treasury on the reduction of air passenger duty on a UK-wide level.

T6. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to define the three categories of expenditure — inescapable, high priority and ministerial priority. (AQT 2626/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I think I know where this is coming from, having had a conversation with one of my colleagues at lunchtime. As far as I am concerned, "inescapable" means that we are contractually committed to expenditure. An example of an inescapable pressure from my previous days in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is a signed letter of offer to a company, where we have contractually committed to that company that we will give it money to allow it to grow. To me, that is an inescapable pressure; we are legally obliged to provide it. A ministerial priority that does not have a contractual obligation behind it is not an inescapable pressure. It may very much be a priority for that Minister, but it is not an inescapable pressure, as far as I am concerned.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that clarification, and I hope that it used by all Ministers. Minister, bearing that in mind, what is your best estimate of the likely resource and capital that will be returned as reduced requirements in June monitoring?

Mrs Foster: I am currently going through the reduced requirements in June monitoring. All I will say to the Member is that it will not take me very long.

T7. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what role her Department had in the contract for the Coleraine to Londonderry line, given that she will be aware of last week’s good announcement about that service. (AQT 2627/11-15)

Mrs Foster: As the Member knows in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee for Regional Development, DRD announced the award of a contract for phase 2 of the upgrade of the Londonderry to Coleraine railway line on 2 June last year. There were some difficulties in and around that contract, and some errors were made in the original cost estimates for the project. Following receipt of the tenders for the work and confirmation of the revised costs, I gave approval for it to proceed, because the Minister for Regional Development had to issue a direction to go ahead with the work. It is tremendously good news for the people who live along that line and use that service. We will be able to have hourly services between Coleraine and Londonderry, and that is something that the citizens of that area and, indeed, the many tourists who go to the area will very much welcome.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for that answer, and I welcome it. The Committee visited the area while it was waiting for the long-awaited announcement on the railway line. However, given that the costs have ranged from £20 million to £46 million, are you content, Minister, that the Minister will be able to live within his budget means?

Mrs Foster: Of course, I cannot guarantee that any Minister will live within their budget means. All I can do is monitor the situation and give advice and assistance where I can to any Minister. The case was made to me that this was worth doing. I agree with that, and I very much hope that it benefits the region.

T8. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the development of the Peace IV programme. (AQT 2628/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The draft Peace IV programme was submitted to the European Commission on 22 September 2014 in line with our regulatory deadline. The Commission has provided formal comments on the draft programme. Most are requests for clarification, and officials are working to address those. When that work is complete, the Executive will consider the final draft programme. Subject to Commission approval, I anticipate that the programme will be open for applications in late 2015.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. When will the new programme be open for applications for youth projects?

Mrs Foster: I hope that the general applications will be open late this year. The Member is right to talk about youth projects because they form a key element of the new Peace IV programme. We are, of course, delighted that there will be a Peace IV programme. A lot of hard work has gone into ensuring that we have it. It will certainly bring additional benefit to Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the Republic of Ireland. We very much welcome the fact that, hopefully, the Peace IV programme will roll out at the end of this year.

T9. Mr Spratt asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the development of the Northern Ireland investment fund. (AQT 2629/11-15)

Mrs Foster: As the Member knows — we have had conversations about this — I am keen to ensure that the Executive do everything they can to support investment in infrastructure and that local project promoters have access to affordable project finance. Because of that, we have put in place the Northern Ireland investment fund. It is still at an early stage, but I hope that it will lever in additional funding that will help to boost investment and promote economic growth in Northern Ireland.

Mr Spratt: Will the Minister tell the House about the kind of projects that the fund will invest in?

Mrs Foster: The Executive have commissioned a feasibility study to find out the optimal scale, structure and investment strategy of the proposed fund. Deloitte has been appointed to advance that study, so it will look at where it would be best to focus the Northern Ireland investment fund. There will be many opportunities to put forward investment projects. I hope that the private sector, as well as the public sector, becomes engaged in the feasibility study so that we can make sure that we have the right mix moving forward for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question 10 has been withdrawn. As the next period for questions does not begin until 2.45 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then.

2.45 pm

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr Leslie Cree, who has just arrived.

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust’s public consultation on the future of intermediate care in north Down and Ards closed on 29 April 2015. The trust is analysing the consultation responses.

The trust's preferred future option is to provide up to 105 intermediate care beds across the area. That would not include the 20-bed GP unit in Bangor Community Hospital, which is temporarily closed. In deciding whether to approve the implementation of that proposal, my Department will take into account the extent to which the proposal is consistent with my priorities as set out in the commissioning plan direction; the impact of the proposal on the quality, sustainability and accessibility of services and assurance on adherence to established standards of service; and the views of public and local community representatives.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that reply. Minister, can you tell me and, indeed, the House whether the proposal to close Northfield House in Donaghadee is likely to have any bearing on the 20-bed unit in Bangor?

Mr Hamilton: I was pretty sure that that issue would come up in this context, because, as the Member will be aware, the consultation on the closure of the 20 GP beds in Bangor Community Hospital was set, as I said, in the context of a wider need to provide 105 intermediate beds across the north Down and Ards area. Fourteen beds had been identified in Northfield House in Donaghadee. A consultation on its proposed closure is due to start soon. Those 14 beds were identified as part of the mix of 105 intermediate care beds. I can understand why the Member wants to raise that in the context of the GP bed situation in Bangor Community Hospital. Bear in mind that the consultation has been completed only recently. It has not yet come to me in the Department, but I am happy to place on the record to the Member that I will rigorously and robustly examine the proposal, particularly in light of the issue with Northfield House. I am told that the trust believes that those 14 beds can be dealt with through domiciliary care and by keeping people in their homes and out in the community. Whilst it is a factor in the overall mix, it does not have a direct bearing, because the type of patient in the Northfield beds would be very different to those in the 20 GP beds that were previously in Bangor Community Hospital. As I consider the issue, I am happy to examine the evidence that comes forward rigorously and robustly and whatever determination or recommendation the trust makes to me.

Mr Easton: What estimate is made of the cost of beds in the independent sector compared with those in statutory facilities?

Mr Hamilton: The 105 intermediate beds that I mentioned in response to Mr Cree's question have an element of use and greater use of the independent sector, which is quite strong in the Ards and north Down area. The average cost per bed, per annum in the independent sector is just over £30,000. The weekly cost of a bed in Northfield House is £808, which equates to roughly £42,000 per bed, per annum. By contrast, the 20 GP beds in Bangor Community Hospital cost nearly £1·5 million, which equates to roughly £75,000 per bed, per annum. On a direct contrast, you can see that it is considerably more expensive to provide a bed in Bangor Community Hospital than it is in the independent sector. I must point out, however, that the closure of the 20 beds in Bangor Community Hospital would not recover all of that £1·5 million. Some of that cost could not be recovered, but there is an anticipated saving of around £840,000. So on those figures — I appreciate that obviously it is not just those figures that we look at — on a pure value-for-money analysis, it is very clear that the greater use of independent beds is cost effective. If you were procuring more independent sector beds, you could obviously reduce that price further. On a pure value-for-money analysis, the independent sector is obviously much more cost effective. However, it is not just that that is considered; it is a factor, a considerable one, but not the only thing that will be examined.

Mr McKinney: Following the concerns raised over the Transforming Your Care plan in the Audit Office report and in the Human Rights Commission report last week, does the Minister accept that it is absolutely paramount that community services, however they present themselves, domiciliary or such as those in Bangor and elsewhere, are invested in and bolstered?

Mr Hamilton: Transforming Your Care still represents the cornerstone of my vision for health and social care in Northern Ireland. The Member has been a great supporter of Transforming Your Care in recent times. It is something that he wants to see pushed forward, and I agree with him. I think that he appreciates the resource constraints that I am placed under and my inability to roll out Transforming Your Care at a pace that he, I and others want to see.

The vision of care being wrapped around the patient and the person or service-user being looked after in their community or in their home, with the home as a hub for their care, is something that I very much subscribe to. I want to see that enhanced and increased, because it is responding appropriately to the needs of the person, and analysis of people's views in our changing population has shown that that is what people want. That is where people want to be looked after and taken care of, and it is clearly, as I pointed out in a slightly different way in response to Mr Easton's question, a more cost-effective use of our resources. It is not always the best use for the person, but, where it is appropriate, I think that that is what we should be going for. That is certainly a vision that I want to see rolled out and progressed as we go along. As I said, Transforming Your Care set that vision out very clearly and it is still something that I want to see achieved progressively over time.

Mr Hamilton: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will group questions 2 and 15 together.

There can be no doubt that our health service needs reform. Rising demand for services, a growing and ageing population, an increase in chronic conditions, technological advances and scarce resources create serious challenges for health systems across the world. Addressing those challenges requires innovation and transformation. We need a health and social care sector that constantly challenges itself to be better. I want to make it much easier for health and social care staff to promote innovation, whether it is big or small. To enable that, I have established a new strategic leadership group to help support and drive the culture of change and innovation that we need. The focus of our reforms must remain the delivery of person-centred care, with home as the hub of care wherever possible. To deliver that vision, we need to ensure that organisational boundaries do not limit the effectiveness of care, and we must continue to ensure that people take responsibility for their own health. That was the vision of care set out in Transforming Your Care in 2011. Those remain my priorities for reform.

The Chief Medical Officer and I are in agreement about the need for reform. His comments reflect the findings of reports like Transforming Your Care and, more recently, that by Sir Liam Donaldson. His report is clear that reform of health and social care services is required to meet the future health and social care needs of the citizens of Northern Ireland. The Chief Medical Officer was also, rightly, very clear that "no" and "slow" are not acceptable options in response to the drive for transformation.

Mr Ross: The Minister had a reputation for pushing through reform in his previous role, and I hope that he will be able to continue that in this role. Given the constraints on public finances, more than ever we need to have innovative approaches to old problems. I ask him, in that vein, what assessment he makes of the approaches taken in Antrim Area Hospital, in the measures it is taking not only to reduce the pressure on the emergency department (ED) but to improve the patient experience when they go to the hospital.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. I visited the emergency department at the Antrim Area Hospital last week. Although it is not in the Member's constituency, many of his constituents avail themselves of the services provided out of that hospital. We are all well aware of the much-publicised problems that the old emergency department, in particular, at Antrim Area Hospital had in the past.

I have to say that the new emergency department is, aesthetically, a very impressive building that has been designed to alleviate some of those problems. I was particularly impressed with several innovations taking place in and around the emergency department. Probably the most impressive was the acute assessment unit, which is located in the old emergency department, where GPs can speak directly to staff, get advice, and arrange for a referral to the acute assessment unit for diagnostics and management. That can help to alleviate pressure on the emergency department because, where people might traditionally have gone directly to the emergency department, they can now go, through their GP, instead to the acute assessment unit. They can even be referred to it from the ED, which helps to relieve pressures.

As a new father, I am sure that the Member would be impressed with the new children's area in the emergency department. I hope that he never has cause to use it, but having had cause to use emergency departments before with children, particularly late at night, it is very good to have a separate area where they can be treated differently and separately. I was also impressed with the telemedicine that is being used there, particularly for stroke patients.

There are a lot of impressive reforms and innovations going on in our health and social care sector. Mr McKinney mentioned Transforming Your Care. Not all of those will be branded or badged as Transforming Your Care, but they are things that are happening day in and day out, right across the health and social care sector. They should be welcomed and celebrated. They are a sign of the way ahead.

Mr McCarthy: The Minister's party and other parties in the Assembly continually speak about protecting the vulnerable in our community when it comes to reforming the health service. Nobody will object to that. However, will the Minister follow the lead of a former Health Minister in the Assembly, namely Mr McGimpsey, who decided to reverse the decision taken by the Health Department to reduce the volume of continence products used by the most vulnerable in our society: those with learning disabilities? Will the Minister undertake to stop that, as it has been advised from this week onwards?

Mr Hamilton: I am not aware of the specifics of the issue that the Member raises. I see Mr McGimpsey rising in his place. He might be able to advise me if he gets called by the Deputy Speaker. I am not aware of the specifics, but I commit to examine the issue and to return to the Member. I will see what is happening, what the current position is, and whether something can be done. The Member knows that I seek always to do my best about these matters. I am happy to look at it and see what is possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr McGimpsey for a question. [Laughter.]

Mr McGimpsey: It is not in relation to Mr McCarthy.

Mr McCarthy: You did stand up for the vulnerable.

Mr McGimpsey: I did my best, thank you, yes. Absolutely. [Laughter.]

This is in reference to Antrim A&E. I also had a part to play in delivering that. I remind the Minister that the four-hour waits, which should be at 95%, are down at around 60%, so clearly we need reform. I bring him to Transforming Your Care (TYC). It is a process that we used to call "shift left", before Edwin Poots changed it to Transforming Your Care. Will we get a published timeline, with money, which is properly benchmarked? There is a lot of confusion in the Health Committee about exactly where we are with the process. It is essential to keep the patient at the centre of care, and, frankly, the Committee, as well as many of the officials, appear to be in the dark —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mr McGimpsey, you have gone beyond the question.

Mr McGimpsey: — about exactly where this is going. Thank you.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his oration; I think that there were a couple of questions included there. He is right about Antrim Area Hospital. I would not be content, and nor should any of us be, with the figures of four-hour waits in Antrim Area Hospital. It is still short of the target. However, improvements are being made, and I think that many of those improvements are down to the innovations that have been taking place in the Northern Trust and in Antrim Area Hospital. We should welcome those innovations, which are having an impact.

Interestingly, however, they are making those improvements at a time when the number of people coming to the ED at Antrim Area Hospital has risen annually from around 70,000 to around 75,000 in the last year. There has been a significant spike in the number of people presenting themselves to the emergency department, yet it is still making progress in trying to reach that four-hour target.

3.00 pm

The point about a published and funded timeline for TYC comes from the recommendation along those lines in the Donaldson report. The Donaldson report is being considered and will be responded to in due course. It is not fair — I appreciate that the Member did not say this — to say that TYC has not been rolling out. There are many examples of where Transforming Your Care has been implemented in various areas such as new pathways for care through the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, the establishment of 17 integrated care partnerships and the commencement of the roll-out of primary care infrastructure. There are other examples. So things are happening. Would I like to see more happening? Absolutely, but he hit the nail on the head when he talked about the budget. He will know and understand the difficulties around the budget and the availability of finances. Whilst we have been able to invest a considerable amount in TYC over the last number of years, it has not been enough to do everything that we want, and, on that basis —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Mr Hamilton: — I have made a bid through the June monitoring round for more funds to develop and roll out more of TYC.

Mr Rogers: Minister, thank you for your answers thus far. When the trusts review services, they speak about identifying areas for decommissioning. Can you outline the cuts in service provision that are being brought forward by trusts and the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) through the £105 million in efficiency savings planned by your Department for 2015-16?

Mr Hamilton: I heard the Member talk about decommissioning and I thought that we had gone back in time in this place.

A commissioning plan is being brought forward by the Health and Social Care Board. I believe that it is due to come forward this week, and it will outline what is being commissioned for this year. There are well-publicised pressures that my predecessor and I acknowledge the Department is under. We are short of roughly £30 million to £40 million to enable us almost to keep going on the previous year's position. That is after having made savings and is predicated upon making roughly £157 million of savings in year, but we are still short of that £30 million to £40 million. Understandably, that will result in pressures and perhaps people not getting the services that they want within the time that they want them.

There is an understanding and an acceptance that we are under financial pressure, and that is not helped by the fact that we are continuing to lose £9·5 million a month because of the inability of some in the House to move forward on welfare reform. Even in the four weeks that I have been in post, there is hardly a Member who has not written to me about the need for some service development, including several Members from his party, who want more for this and more for that. The ability of the Executive as a whole to do more is inhibited by the fact that we are losing cash to the tune of £2 million a week because of the welfare reform fines. Members write to me or complain in the House or to their local press, but those who are inhibiting the welfare reform legislation from passing would do well to reflect on their part in our inability, as a Department, to deliver services at the level that they or, more importantly, their constituents want.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Minister, Transforming Your Care began three and a half years ago, and it is now three Ministers later. It was originally meant to move £83 million in the idea of a shift left from acute to community. How much money has actually moved from acute to community at this stage? Does he not need to give a very strong signal to the community that Transforming Your Care is still alive? I find that most people I meet in the health sector think that it has gone.

Mr Hamilton: I cannot lay my hands on the exact figures on what has been moved from acute to community. If I cannot find that, I will provide it to the Member. There has been some discussion over the last couple of weeks about the position of Transforming Your Care, not least at the recent Committee meeting.

It is something that you would expect me to reflect on personally as I have come into post. As I said in response to Mr McKinney, whilst it is a cornerstone of a vision for health and social care in Northern Ireland moving forward, it is not the only part of that vision. As I said in response to Mr Ross, there are many transformations and innovations going on across our health and social care service that we should be immensely proud of, but they are not necessarily part of Transforming Your Care. It is not dead by any means at all. It continues, albeit, as I said previously, not at a pace that perhaps I or many of the rest of us would want to see, but that is something that is affected by resources.

In the current year, we have just over £15 million in the board, which will be spent on transformational projects. I have a bid in, as I mentioned, to the June monitoring round of around £5 million to progress five Transforming Your Care projects, and £1·5 million from the Executive change fund was secured during the Budget to implement three Transforming Your Care projects. There has been considerable investment from 2012-13 to 2014-15. There was £19 million allocated in 2012-13, nearly £10 million in 2013-14 and between £8 million and £10 million in 2014-15. The spend was around or slightly above that. So, money has been spent. It has produced good results around the creation of integrated care partnerships, the roll-out of primary care infrastructure around resettlement and better care pathways for the —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Minister, you have gone over the two minutes.

Mr Hamilton: — Ambulance Service. So, there are things happening. It is certainly not dead. It is part of a broader vision for the health service in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hamilton: Since the initial implementation of the Protect Life strategy in late 2006, a wide range of programmes has been put in place to prevent suicide in Northern Ireland. The programmes have been regularly updated and new programmes developed to reflect emerging international evidence of best practice. Suicide prevention services and initiatives include: Lifeline crisis de-escalation; counselling; training and awareness raising; improved in-patient safety; psychiatry services in hospital emergency departments; bereavement support; suicide cluster emergency response; local research; the self-harm registry; mental health crisis response teams; and self-harm intervention.

Suicide rates have not changed substantially since 2006, although the fact that they did not rise during the economic downturn may be an indication that prevention efforts have had some success. Provisional figures for 2014 show an 11% reduction in suicides on the previous year. That is encouraging. However, rates can fluctuate from year to year, and, given the very wide range of influences on suicidal behaviour, it is not possible to assess the impact of a single strategy on suicide rates.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for his answer. Sadly, as we think particularly of Ronan Hughes's family at this time, unfortunately, too many families know how distressing suicide is for those left behind and how the aftermath is incredibly difficult to come to terms with. What actions are being taken to encourage responsible reporting by the media in suspected cases of suicide?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for her question. She is absolutely right. The tragedy and the impact of suicide is particularly in our minds today after the news of the tragic death of Ronan Hughes, and I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that I pass our condolences on to his family.

Reporting suicide presents a range of challenges for our media. On the one hand, there is an important role to be played by the media in Northern Ireland in raising awareness of suicide, but, on the other hand, sensationalist reporting can distress bereaved families and can run the risk sometimes of encouraging copycat suicidal behaviour. So, it is a balance that the media has to find in reporting.

Media guidelines were issued in 2007 by my Department to our media in Northern Ireland. That was updated last year, and the update took account of advances in technology, particularly around social media and the Internet, over that period. The Public Health Agency conducts media monitoring in conjunction with the Samaritans, and it looks at any reporting of suicides in Northern Ireland and identifies what might be described as insensitive reporting. The guidelines also try to encourage the media to use different, more sensitive terminology around suicides and to talk about "died by suicide" rather than "committed suicide". We can all understand that we get used to using a certain lexicon. It can be hard to change vocabulary. Occasionally, training is also provided for journalists, because some people move in and out of newsrooms, and it is therefore important to keep them updated on the guidelines. I can also report that a new resource, in the form of a pack, has been issued to newsrooms in Northern Ireland to try to encourage sensitive reporting of what are tragic events for families and communities.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. What is the Minister's view on the University of Ulster research that highlighted the fact that 51·7% of people who took their own life had mental health disorders?

Mr Hamilton: I am not familiar with that particular piece of work, but I am happy to familiarise myself with it.

There is no one cause of suicide. There is a range of reasons. Sometimes, we do not even know the reasons for people taking their own life. Obviously, there are many connections, and, as the Member highlighted, there are connections with people's mental health. There can also be connections with alcohol or drug abuse. There is a developing school of thought in Northern Ireland from looking at the spike in the number of suicides in and around 2006 and the evidence that flowed from that, with many people drawing correlations between the Troubles and the end of the Troubles and the latent post-traumatic stress that people may suffer from and saying that that is causing an increase in suicide.

There is no one particular reason, as I said. Mental health obviously plays a significant part, and post-traumatic stress may be associated with it, too. I am happy to go away and look at the research that the Member mentioned. I think that the whole House would acknowledge that it is a problem that we are aware of and one that we have considerable resources applied to, right across the region and subregionally. Many initiatives are taking place that work in conjunction and in partnership, as came up in a recent Adjournment debate secured by Gary Middleton on suicide in the north-west. There, partnership with community and voluntary sector organisations has greatly helped to improve awareness and, hopefully, to combat suicide right across the Province.

Mrs Dobson: Does the Minister agree that 338 children attending Northern Ireland's emergency care departments for suicidal and self-harming actions or intentions is a shocking statistic? Will he detail specifically what support is available for under-16s with poor mental health?

Mr Hamilton: I agree with the Member that it is a shocking figure and a worrying upward trend. In some ways, it is deeply worrying that that has come about. That young people are able to present themselves is perhaps a sign of better awareness in the community. I suspect that numbers would not have been at that level in the recent past. However, a greater awareness among parents and communities has perhaps resulted in young people being able to present to hospital with suicidal tendencies. Once people enter that environment, the system will kick in and support them through community adolescent mental health services and other services. Again, many of those services are provided through the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, and they will wrap themselves around that individual to help and support them and their family. Clearly, the young people are the most important people in this case, but support will also be given to families to ensure that they get the care that they need.

I agree entirely with the Member that it is a shocking and worryingly high figure, and it is the figure only for the young people who are presenting themselves. The problem is that there are obviously many more who do not call out or ask for help or whose issues are not spotted by their friends or family. It is deeply worrying that so many young people are having suicidal thoughts and, unfortunately, as we are tragically aware of today, taking their own life.

3.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to topical questions. Mr Basil McCrea is not in his place. Mr Mike Nesbitt is not in his place. Question 1 was withdrawn.

T5. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to encourage all stakeholders with an interest in the minor injuries unit in Armagh city to participate in the ongoing consultation process, given the number of cuts to such facilities in the Armagh area in recent years. (AQT 2635/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: Yes, I am aware of a consultation being conducted by the Southern Health and Social Care Trust in respect of the Armagh minor injuries unit that will run until 11 September. Whilst not wanting to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation, I join the Member in encouraging people who have an interest in the local community to participate in it.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Looking to the future, does he have any plans for the future delivery of services in the Armagh city and district area, such as through a health hub? We have seen cuts over recent years and a transfer of jobs out of that area. Maybe a health hub in the central area would facilitate a number of services, including GPs and everything else. Will the Minister encourage or does he have any plans to facilitate a central hub in Armagh city and district?

Mr Hamilton: I assure the Member that, whilst a consultation is being taken forward on the future of the Armagh minor injuries unit, it is proposed that all other services that are on site will remain there. There is no threat to them.

The Member mentioned getting a primary care centre in the Armagh area. I noticed early on in this job that there is a bit of a media fascination with decisions to close hospitals wholesale. That is not on my agenda. In fact, I want to see the further roll-out and progression of what we have seen being done to a very high standard, particularly in cancer care and coronary care, where we have regionalised specialist centres, where, in some cases, world-class care is taking place as we speak, supported by community hospitals such as those in Armagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. There is a vital role to be played by those hospitals in supporting the network of acute hospitals across Northern Ireland.

In respect of a primary care centre, I believe that Armagh is earmarked in the Southern Trust area for a primary care centre. However, we are moving forward, as the Member will appreciate, with the centres in Ballymena, Banbridge and Omagh, and then we will move forward with a different procurement model for the ones in Lisburn and Newry, which is in his constituency. We will evaluate that process and, beyond that, the strategic implementation plan, which is there to roll out the remainder, including Armagh. We will assess the future of those, their roll-out, the timing and the budget for all of that on the basis of the outcome of the evaluation of Lisburn and Newry.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I should have pointed out that question 4 has been withdrawn. Mr Robin Swann is not in his place.

T7. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on what legal basis he thinks fatal foetal abnormality can be covered by guidance rather than through legislative change, given that the legal advice to the Department, while Edwin Poots was Minister, said that it was not possible. (AQT 2637/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: This is another issue that is in my in tray, and it is one that has to be — I am sure the Member will agree — handled with the greatest sensitivity. That is the approach that I will take to the issue. We are dealing with a small number of cases, but they are very sensitive and difficult cases and they involve individuals and families in some of the most difficult of circumstances. I want to at all times — I hope that the House shares this view — bring that degree of sensitivity and appropriate handling to the issue.

I am very clear on what my concern is, and I have said this publicly already. Whilst I am aware that the Member's colleague and my colleague in the Executive, the Minister of Justice, is intent on bringing forward legislative change, it is my view and the view of many in the House that there is a risk, because it is always the case with any legislation that is brought forward that it can get changed, altered or amended through the various processes in the House. It may not make it through all the processes in the House. The big concern that I have is that, in a situation where, clearly, something has to be done on the issue and it is not acceptable to continue with nothing being done, the worst possible outcome for the difficult cases that may unfold in the future is to do nothing.

I fear and worry about having no legislative change, and that is not with any prejudice. Nothing has been published, and nothing has been put out there. I am not committing myself to supporting that legislation. In its absence and even with the fact that it might take some time for it to pass, something has to be done, and I believe that the new guidance has the potential to deal with many of the issues that have unfolded in the last number of years. On that basis, I will bring forward guidance to the Executive in the not-too-distant future, and I make the point that it is not my guidance but guidance that has been developed by experts in my Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Minister's two minutes are up.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for a comprehensive answer. Can I ask the Minister exactly when the guidance will come out?

Mr Hamilton: I cannot say when it will be made public because there is a process to go through. In fact, I was discussing it with officials only this morning, and they hope to have it with me very shortly, this week. Obviously, I will take some time to consider it before forwarding it to Executive colleagues for, hopefully, their agreement. Thereafter, it will be published.

I hope that the House and the Member can see the motivation I have in ensuring that we do not have a situation where nothing is done. The Minister of Justice has a particular view, and others will have different views. Whilst I have a view that it may not pass through the House, I know that legislation takes time. Guidance has the potential to deal with many of the issues. I have been discussing the potential of guidance with leading obstetricians and others in Northern Ireland, and I think that there is an acceptance on their part that guidance may have the potential to resolve many of the issues. It is on that basis that I hope to bring forward the guidance and unite the Executive around it and, hopefully, get the support of the House and, more to the point, the support of the wider community and of people who have been affected.

T8. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether he has given any thought to meeting representatives of NI Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADDNI) — a wonderful children’s charity based in south Belfast that does wonderful work with children who are living with ADHD — given that its financial difficulties have been raised with the Minister who knows that it is facing some choppy waters, with turbulent times ahead. (AQT 2638/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: I am glad the Member raised this because it gives me an opportunity to speak about it. He may not have expected to get to his question, but I am glad he was able to raise it nonetheless.

On the question of meeting, I have committed to meeting NICVA — it is in the diary already — as an umbrella organisation for the community and voluntary sector, much of which is affected by the issue that the Member has raised. The Member raises an issue that revolves around something that has been described as core funding. This is core funding that goes to 67 organisations across Northern Ireland. As you would expect in the current climate, every spending line is being looked at across the board, and every Department should be doing that. Mine certainly is doing so, given the pressures that it faces. Those 67 organisations receive many millions of pounds in grants each and every year. It is 67 organisations and not 68, and there is no potential to grow that to 68 or 69. It is exclusively for 67 organisations, and that, in itself, raises some issues for me around procurement, state aid, equity and fairness.

The issue has been around for some time. Previous Ministers in my post have signalled to the sector that reform will happen to the core funding but that they were considering how that might be implemented. I am now doing that. However, from examining the core funding, I also found that it is not going to organisations to pay for services. It is, as I saw in one case last week, contributing towards salaries for the organisations' chief executives and finance directors. Particularly at a time when we have scarce resources, I think that we should be focused on giving that scarce and limited funding to organisations to provide services that have defined outcomes. It is in that context that I will look at the issue.

That is not to say that the work of any of those 67 organisations is not worthwhile, but I hope that the Member and, indeed, others can appreciate the circumstances that we find ourselves in and why I will continue to look at them and to carry on the work of my predecessors.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. While we await that review and reform, the Minister's colleague Mr Girvan and I are united in one aspect of our concerns for ADD-NI. It is that the Belfast Trust has referred over 300 children who have ADHD to that service, but it does not want to pay for it. I think that that is an area where the Minister might be able to use his good offices with the Belfast Trust to tell it that, if it wants and needs the service, which it does, it also has to pay the piper.

Mr Hamilton: That is a different issue, and I am happy to take it away and examine it. While it is first and foremost a matter for the trust, I am happy to examine it and to report back to the Member.

T9. Mr Girvan asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether he believes that we are getting value for money from the grants awarded to the community and voluntary sector, particularly given that he mentioned the 67 groups, not all of which are as needy as each other, with some making a better case than others. (AQT 2639/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: Mr Ó Muilleoir said that he and Mr Girvan were as one, and it seems that they are also in league in asking the same question. At this time, when resources are precious, limited, tight and very scarce, and when my Department's budget is under pressure, like every other Department in the Executive, I think it is very important that we look at the spending that we are doing and ensure that not only is it getting value for money but it is producing outcomes.

The core, infrastructure funding is something that I am keen to look at. As I said, it has been signalled to the organisations that have received it that previous Ministers wanted to move away from the current system. It has been a matter of transition and of how that might be implemented. When there are many organisations, like the aforementioned ADD-NI and others, that need money, there are questions about our giving money to organisations to pay for the salaries of staff, as opposed to getting outcomes and better results for our citizens.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am giving my own view here, but sometimes I feel that the Department tries on many occasions to protect what it delivers, as opposed to trying to get better value for money from the community and voluntary sector. When can these organisations expect to hear about the prospective changes to their funding for the future?

Mr Hamilton: I appreciate the uncertainty that the issues around the infrastructure funding has created for many of these organisations. Whilst we would always like to see speedier decisions in all these things, I have been carefully considering it, because I value the work that the sector does. As I said, it is more that we have limited resources and are ensuring that we are getting good value for money and outcomes for the money that we invest that has delayed a final decision.

T10. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for an update on what the Public Health Agency, which has a duty to provide advice on care facilities, is doing for those people who self-harm. (AQT 2640/11-15)

Mr Hamilton: My response to Mrs Hale's question outlined a considerable number of ways, particularly on suicide and, indeed, self-harm, in which a lot of work is going on, not just by the Public Health Agency, which does a lot of work to raise awareness and to try to prevent self-harm, but in response to self-harm when it does happen. There is, I feel, an impressive list of services provided in hospitals to people who present and who are at risk of self-harm, including counselling, training, response and intervention.

3.30 pm

I am happy to come back to the Member with greater detail on the specifics of what is being done on self-harm for people across Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We do not have time, unfortunately, for a supplementary because time is up.

Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not in my place when called for a topical question, as I had popped out to take a call. That explains my absence but does not excuse it. I meant no disrespect to the House or the Minister.

Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): There is another point of order from the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Swann: Likewise, I apologise to you, the Minister and the House for not being in my place for topical questions.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): There is lots of contrition today. Before we move on to the Adjournment debate, I invite Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

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

Motion made:

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


Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately five minutes. We will try to get as many in as we can.

Mrs Cochrane: I welcome the opportunity to raise this important issue once more in the House. I should probably start by declaring an interest as a mum of children at primary school in East Belfast and as a member of the board of governors at Strandtown Primary School. I also take the opportunity to thank the Minister for attending today and for his previous assistance to preschool and primary education in my constituency. I hope that the debate will be constructive and allow Members for East and South Belfast not only to raise their concerns but to put forward proposals to resolve what appears to be an escalating problem. In recent days, issues with secondary-level provision have been in the press. However, today's focus will be on the primary and preschool sectors.

I will start with preschool provision. Members will be aware that, further to my proposals, there have been a number of changes to the application process in recent years, through the two-step process, which gives priority to those in their immediate preschool year over those in their penultimate year, and through the removal of the July/August criterion. There has also been an increase in the number of places provided by new nursery schools, such as the one in Dundonald, and by some day-care providers. We continue, however, to hear complaints from constituents about the lack of preschool provision. Whilst this may be due partly to parents' unrealistic expectations, it is surely an issue that requires constant review and improvement.

I am sure that the Minister will be able to quote figures showing that only a handful of children are unplaced for the 2015-16 school year. However, I do not believe that that is an accurate reflection of the situation. I have heard of many parents who do not apply for a place or cannot take up a place because it is simply impossible to juggle that with their personal work circumstances. Some parents, for example, pay £48 a day to have children dropped in a day-care environment, which then sends them to an afternoon session for two and a half hours with a preschool provider. There are others who want their child to have the benefit of preschool education but simply cannot afford the expense, and there are no other options to combine it with their work. In reality, therefore, far more children could be unplaced, and I ask the Minister to outline today what he is doing to assess the number of children who will not receive a preschool experience but are not included in his unplaced figures.

That leads me on to ongoing complaints about the social disadvantage criterion. I have spent many hours trying to explain the rationale behind that approach to constituents. I agree that it is important that those children receive a place. However, given that the Minister has committed to ensuring that every child who wants a place will receive one, there is a question as to whether that criterion is still required. Is it causing more of a headache in the system? I think that all it does is to make it more difficult to explain to constituents why their child has not been allocated a place in their first choice of setting. They see the criterion as being unfair on working parents.

I have analysed intake figures in many of the East Belfast providers, and it appears that the majority of children who are placed under social disadvantage would still receive a place in the same provider if that criterion were removed, because they would get in under the distance criterion. I ask the Minister again to review the ongoing need for that criterion, because it is creating more of a headache than it needs to.

With preschool provision, I ask the Minister what more can be done to provide better information to parents to assist them in making the choices on their application forms. Every year, I see examples of those who have missed out on a more suitable setting because they marked unrealistic choices on their forms. It is clear that more needs to be done to encourage parents to visit the settings in advance and talk through the admissions criteria.

I do not know how many times I have raised this issue, but I continue to see parents being sent lists of options for preschool and nursery settings that are miles away from their homes. If someone lives on the Gilnahirk Road and has applied for a place at Kings Road and Dundonald nurseries but has been unsuccessful in securing a place, does the Minister think that it is appropriate to send a letter to the parents telling them that there are places free in Portavogie but not telling them that there are places in Ballyhackamore? Surely, with the new Education Authority, we should have a more joined-up approach across the old education and library board boundaries, or is that too much to ask for?

Mr McCarthy: What is wrong with Portavogie?

Mrs Cochrane: There is nothing wrong with Portavogie — [Laughter.]

— apart from the fact that it is a long way from Gilnahirk.

Is the Education Authority simply the same structure as our previous boards, with an additional layer of bureaucracy on top? Perhaps I am being harsh, but the Education Authority needs to do more to ensure that relevant information is provided to parents.

I will move on to primary-sector provision. There has been a distinct rise in the number of my constituents who have been unable to secure a primary 1 place for their child in their first, second, third and, sometimes, fourth preference. As a parent, I know how much interest you take in ensuring the best educational start for your child. Most parents try to select a school based on its educational reputation, location, links with the community, family connections and the quality of leadership shown in that school — indeed, many of the same criteria that are assessed under the sustainable schools model. It is no wonder how distressing it can be for parents when they are asked to list five, six or seven choices for their children.

Parental choice is important, but I appreciate that not everyone will receive their first preference. However, given the increase in population evidenced with the demand for preschool places in recent years, we need to ask what is being done about proper area planning in East and South Belfast. Should we look at the schools that have offered quality education, strong leadership and are financially viable to see whether we should expand some of them, or should we focus on improving the schools that are seen to be failing in order to make them a more acceptable choice for parents? Those are the sorts of questions that need to be asked but do not appear to have been adequately asked in recent years. That is why we are starting to see pressures in the primary sector.

I believe that area planning should, first and foremost, be about developing a network of sustainable schools, raising standards and matching provision with the demand for places, but raising standards should not just be about throwing money at poorly performing schools. In East Belfast, there are few, if any, examples of our successful, popular schools being supported, whilst unpopular schools are receiving high levels of support in the form of subsidy, favourable advice and intensive curriculum support. It appears that the current system simply rewards underachievement. There are massive differentials in the part of the budget being administered by schools, with some receiving £2,400 per pupil in the last funding round while another school in the Belfast area received an average of £3,800. There are also further centrally administered amounts, which bring the pupil difference to one school receiving almost twice as much as another.

Whilst I understand that the centrally administered amounts for certain programmes can be beneficial, they do not always deliver the desired outcomes. For example, the additional funding allocated due to free school meals might be a way of assisting those from a disadvantaged background, but, when it is allocated as a percentage of school population thresholds, it can mean that some schools with more pupils on free school meals receive less than smaller schools. It needs to be addressed. Furthermore, much of the money allocated from central budgets does not actually lead to the rise in school standards that we look for. If we genuinely want to raise standards across the board, there should be more focus on supporting successful schools to provide the support and ambitious targets for clusters of schools. Change needs to be made in terms of self-evaluation, challenging standards and pedagogy. With the greatest respect to our civil servants, it is the school leaders and not the Education Authority who will be able to take this forward.

I also have concerns that the new Education Authority has been created with administrative control of over £400 million of expenditure on schools, whilst the budget that is being controlled by the actual schools is £800 million. The balance between school-administered and centrally administered amounts is already the lowest in most Western countries. I do not think that it is the best way to ensure investment in the classroom. When budgets are so tight, the focus must be on reducing the administrative burden, particularly somewhere as small as Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to enter into direct dialogue with school principals' representatives to look at the concept of greater autonomy, incentives and disincentives in the system to ensure the reduction of shadow activities in the Education Authority. As a start, the layer of administrative burden for employment matters, financial transactions and admissions could be removed and those savings directed straight into the classroom.

At the same time, we must continue to focus on area plans, which should not be seen as static. Recent high birth rates in my constituency will have an impact on primary provision in years to come, as will some of the new large housing developments. It is important that the Education Authority and the Department foresee the challenges and are equipped to deal with them. Indeed, last month, at a meeting with the Education Authority, I queried the issue of future primary provision in the Dundonald area, as I have already begun a process of surveying residents in the new housing development in order to ascertain likely future demand. However, I met only the officers who are responsible for the Belfast district, and it would appear that the matter was not on their radar at all. They were focused on other smaller pockets of increased demand further into east Belfast. It could mean that they propose smaller but costly changes there, less than two miles away from a better and more cost-effective solution. If there is one thing that comes out of this debate, could it be that the Minister directs those in the Education Authority to move away from arbitrary lines on a map?

I was given an assurance that future plans would not be drawn up behind closed doors by civil servants and that there would be open and transparent engagement going forward. I welcome that approach as I think that many schools and stakeholders have creative ideas and need to be included in area-based planning. We also need leadership from elected representatives. Some will champion a cause for political gain when they really need to consider the wider educational needs of the whole community. When difficult decisions need to be taken, whether it be a school closure or amalgamation, they need to be honest and focus on actually bringing the community with them, rather than raising fears.

Finally, I would like to specifically raise the issue of Strandtown Primary School. I know that the Minister would be so disappointed if I did not, given the number of times that I have hassled him about it. The Education Authority has finally agreed to submit a development proposal to match the intake number at primary 4 with the admissions numbers for primary 1 in Dundela Infants' School, Greenwood Primary School and Belmont Primary School. I am obviously delighted that the blood, sweat and tears have paid off, although it would have been preferable not to have had to fight so hard for it given that it was always the common-sense approach. I trust that, when the proposal comes before the Minister, he will be swift to approve it, if only to keep me out of his office.

That still leaves the issue of the outstanding capital works required to provide permanent accommodation for all pupils on the Strandtown site. Further to the Minister's visit to Strandtown at my request, plans have been drawn up for new wings, but I am concerned that the plans include a large new kitchen area that would be owned by the Education Authority. Can the Minister confirm that, if money is available for some capital build through the schools enhancement programme, the Strandtown pupils will not be expected to forfeit classrooms at the expense of a kitchen for the Education Authority? Obviously, this may be irrelevant if there is no money at all, so, again, I would welcome an indication from the Minister of the likelihood of there being money under the programme going forward.

I will leave it at that for the moment. I think that I have asked enough questions. I thank the Minister for his attendance and look forward to his response.

3.45 pm

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for bringing forward a debate on an issue about which there is much concern currently and, indeed, about which there has historically been much concern. There has been an improvement in the situation, but further improvement is required. Many points have already been covered, so I will approach this generally rather than being specific.

There is a need for the Minister to address the issue, which has been going on for some time. The first question that I asked on this was in 2008 or 2009, yet the problem continues. There is a need to build confidence in parents and in school professionals that there is a solution to the problem and that next year we will not face the same situation. There is a need to address the ongoing issues. Parents are concerned initially when they get a letter saying, "Your child has been rejected. Please apply for ... ". An example that was given was a facility in Millisle — 25 miles from where those folk live. That needs to be addressed so that we provide stability in our education system for teaching professionals, parents and children.

I think it has been mentioned that the Committee has produced a report on area planning. To my mind — the Minister did not dispute this to any great extent when we debated it in the Chamber — the report suggested a positive approach to area planning and outlined how a rational and professional look at the school estate not just across east Belfast but across Northern Ireland needed to be taken. It was admitted in the report that this is a complex problem because of the disparate nature of our education system and the various sectors that we operate in.

The report indicated that the Minister should not take an approach to area planning that was, as one witness described it, a cut-and-paste exercise. Whether that is valid or not is for the Minister to judge, but that was recorded when the Committee took evidence on the report. The report indicates that there needs to be a holistic approach to area planning and there can be no clauses for schools to opt out of area planning for whatever reason. The benefits of addressing the issues that we are talking about this afternoon can be achieved, providing stability for children, teachers and parents. All the school estate should be included in area planning.

I want to mention a couple of the report's recommendations. The Committee recognised, as the genesis of the report, the critical importance of education for parents and pupils. Indeed, it accepted that extensive costs were associated with the sectors in our education system and that those needed to be managed judiciously to get the maximum benefit for our young people.

Recommendation number one stated:

" ... in order to ensure that Area Planning is undertaken in a transparent and consistent manner with clearly communicated sustainability criteria for schools and with Area Plans which are produced and updated within reasonable timescales."

It was the objective of the report to ensure that that recommendation can be taken forward.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to thank my young colleague Mrs Cochrane for bringing the subject forward and, in a remarkable show of generosity, for including South Belfast and East Belfast. It gives me a chance to praise some schools. I think that it would be inappropriate to praise the Minister, because self-praise or praise from a party colleague is no recommendation, but I want to praise some of the wonderful schools, primary schools in particular, that I have had the opportunity to visit.

In East Belfast, Strandtown Primary School strikes me as the most engaged primary school that I have ever visited. I have never seen that level of community and pupil engagement, especially during the Giro d'Italia. If any backing is needed for Mrs Cochrane's request to speed up the project she mentioned, I am happy to give it.

I am also a great fan of Holy Rosary Primary School in South Belfast, which is certainly one of the most diverse schools I have ever visited. It is also one of the most generous schools in reaching out to people who have moved to Belfast in recent times. Every time I visit the school, I come away buoyed up by the enthusiasm not only of the teachers but the pupils.

I also want to mention Scoil an Droichid, scoil lánGhaeilge i ndeisceart Bhéal Feirste. Áit a bhfuil spiorad iontach bríomhar i measc na ndaltaí uilig. Am ar bith a thugaim cuairt ar Scoil an Droichid, bím iontach dóchasach maidir le todhchaí Bhéal Feirste, mar is léir go bhfuil siad ag tógáil glúin úr atá bríomhar, atá tallannach, agus atá ag smaoineamh ar an am atá le theacht. I was at Scoil an Droichid Irish-medium school this morning and, every time I visit, I come away amazed at how the next generation; this young generation — they are certainly several generations after me — are so focused on the future. They are so vibrant and dynamic, with high aspirations and ambitions. The teachers at Scoil an Droichid also deserve praise, and I got a chance to say that this morning. To give you a little example of why we are so impressed by all our schools, I learned this morning that the pupils at Scoil an Droichid had raised £7,000 to send one of their colleagues who had suffered from leukaemia, with her family, to her father's native country of Turkey in the summer. That struck me as a great testament to the big-hearted nature of the pupils and teachers.

I want to raise one other issue of importance. It is a different issue altogether, namely the expansion of South Belfast to include Carryduff. Of course, that cheers us all, because we want to see our city grow. In particular, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has not managed that growth properly. As the Minister knows, on several occasions I have had to implore him to try to find more places at St Ita's Primary School in particular. The growth in that area has been rapid, yet the response of CCMS has not been as efficient as we would have liked. It is my hope that, in the time ahead, we get a plan for that area that accommodates all the parents, particularly those who have had great difficulties and who want a Catholic education for their children but have not been able to receive it.

I endorse some of the comments that my colleague made about the difficulty in getting preschool places. I am also aware that 99% of those who stick with the process get schools, thankfully, and that — the Minister explained this and will probably explain again — the letters that say that you can go to Portavogie from Dunmurry are not very sensible. That would not be a good way to start your child's education. As the Minister explained, that is not expected of people and, if it is not expected, hopefully the letters will change in the time ahead. I hope that we continue to achieve those sorts of numbers, 99%, in the difficult hotspots around South Belfast such as Finaghy, Malone and Dunmurry, where parents have problems getting preschool places. I hope that we can do even more in the time ahead to facilitate those parents.

Mr McKinney: I, too, would like to thank Judith Cochrane for bringing this important debate to the Assembly. I apologise to the Chamber: I have an urgent meeting that I need to get to after I make my contribution and I will have to leave. Obviously, I would normally stay until the end of the debate.

I would also like to thank all the staff of the schools in South Belfast and East Belfast for their hard work, commitment and dedication.

That dedication, in increasingly difficult circumstances, seeks to provide the best outcomes for children, and they deserve our full gratitude and support. We all recognise the importance of nursery and primary schools for young children. Those schools are at the heart of our community, and they play a vital role in influencing children's attitudes and providing them with all the necessary skills to progress through education and life. Without that strong foundation, many children may suffer greatly in educational development. I will touch on that later.

We all have high expectations of primary schools, but, critically, in Belfast and all across the North, teachers and principals now have to make significant cuts and compromises. I am left in little doubt that those will have a negative impact on the quality and standard of education that children may receive. Worryingly, in the current Budget, we have seen vital funding stripped from early years programmes, nursery schools and nursery units. The impact of the cuts on vulnerable children will be further compounded by drastic cuts to special educational needs provision, early years capacity building and the extended schools budget.

The issues of funding, education standards and future sustainability have all been well rehearsed. As has been outlined, the Bain report recommended area-based planning, which informs sustainable schools. That has been endorsed by the current Minister. They all have the objective of raising educational standards and creating strong school networks. However, we are all aware of the criticisms, with concerns raised about whether such a policy will achieve better educational standards. My colleague referred to it as "cut and paste"; some may have referred to it as just cuts, closure or amalgamation. We all recognise the current budgetary pressure that the Minister faces, but the area plans currently cannot be a slash-and-burn exercise. There must be openness and transparency at all stages, and parents' views have to be given the fullest consideration where robust plans are firmly centred on the children's best interests.

One of the issues that I was about to address has already been touched on. There is a major problem in Carryduff. I acknowledge what the Minister says about CCMS monitoring that situation, but there is a major problem with the demand for schools in an area that is growing far faster than the educational provision caters for. Of course, that is true for other major facilities in the area, but it is a situation that causes major annual stress for parents and pupils not just when they are picking their schools but subsequently, when people find themselves in schools that are far from where they live. The headlines have also been dominated recently by the issues in south-west Belfast, but it is important to say that, when these proposals were put forward some 15 years ago, the race issue was not the dominating agenda: educational achievement was.

The major headlines underscoring the localised issues are still the unregulated transfer test that continues to cause stress and uncertainty for parents and a system that fails as many pupils as it delivers for. How, otherwise, would we have 400,000 people living in Northern Ireland without any qualifications whatever? Of course, there are headlines around how the system fails many young Protestant boys. Too often, it can be seen that we are actually breeding our children for export. For those for whom the system is delivering and even those for whom it is not, the only option is to leave. This goes to the heart of our economic debate and is the big question: what is our education system delivering for? What more could we do to link its ambition to our overall economic ambition?

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mrs Cochrane for securing this debate on a very important subject. Like her, my office has had a huge amount of interest from constituents who have expressed concerns about preschool and primary provision.

We should start with a first principle: we are here to provide an education system that is free and specially tailored for the mixed talents and abilities of all our children — not some of them or most of them but all of them. A key part of that education system is, of course, preschool and primary provision. It is clear that some of our children lose out on preschool and nursery provision. I will talk about primary provision in a minute. One of the things that was impressed on me very much when I was Health Minister was how important those early years were for children. It was put to me that that is the time when children's brains are effectively hardwired. It is very difficult for them to catch up if they miss out on the opportunity at that time.

4.00 pm

There are certain conflicts. One of the conflicts, as has been pointed out, is that working parents appear to be disadvantaged in provision compared with parents who are defined as "socially deprived", which appears to be based on the criterion of certain benefits. Working parents who do not derive those benefits are not designated as socially deprived, and their children may lose out. That is not good enough. It is wrong. All children have the right to be treated equally, no matter who their parents are. Those who are socially deprived must, of course, have our support, but no parent should be coming to me and saying, "Because we're not on benefits and not meeting that criterion, our children lose out".

The issue in inner south Belfast has been well pointed out. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir pointed it out, as did Fearghal. Without rehearsing all of that, let me point out the situation in inner south Belfast. At Arellian Nursery School on Sandy Row, there were 104 applications for, I think, 54 places. I had meetings with the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) and the chief executive of the new board. They have found 40 extra part-time places, which has done an awful lot to address the issue this year. I am grateful to them for their support, and the parents clearly are as well. That has gone a long way to addressing the gap, but it is a gap that we knew was coming. It is not rocket science to work out the birth rate and what the needs and demands will be and match those to provision. If we had demand and provision matched, it would avoid an awful lot of angst in schools and, not least, families. That is very important.

A second point concerns the provision of primary schools. In inner south Belfast, we have the issue of the consolidated primary school. That issue has been running for about 15 years. I have been involved in it with various communities, and it just seems to go from one hurdle to another. The latest hurdle is the director of the Council for Ethnic Minorities appearing to say that newcomer children will not go to the new school and that they want to stay in Fane Street Primary School. That would jeopardise the provision of a new school. I will speak to Patrick in due course, and I am quite sure that he did not intend to get the reaction that he did, but that type of situation is most unhelpful. In the society that we are trying to build, in which we are all together, the key thing for us is that we live together, work together and are educated together. This is an absolutely perfect example of how we address the issue. It is about the provision of that new school, which has been so long in the planning. We have hit hurdle after hurdle. We have communities on board. It seems that that is the best way in which to address this.

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

Mr McGimpsey: I will draw my remarks to a close by making a plea to the Minister to intervene. Here is another reason that this should be provided: to give our children the best start that we can in the communities that, by any definition, are seriously socially deprived.

Ms Lo: The topic of nursery and primary-school provision in south and east Belfast has been talked about quite a few times. It was only a few weeks ago that I asked the Minister about the issue.

For parents whose children have missed out on nursery placements close to home, it means that they have to attend a nursery school further away and sometimes even one outside a catchment area. That puts additional time and cost pressures on parents.

Another common concern is that failure to secure a place of choice could impact on the child's eligibility when applying for a primary-school place. Of course, that is dependent on particular schools' admissions criteria. I welcomed the Minister's update that the majority of children were placed in the first round and that he has funding to provide extra places, should it be required.

As a governor of Cranmore Integrated Primary School, I understand that the school had 45 applications for its playgroup, with only 24 permitted places available for the coming year. The school has also applied twice, unsuccessfully, to change the playgroup to nursery status, which would give it more places for children.

Recently, I visited Fane Street Primary School. I know that the school's nursery is oversubscribed for this year by 2:1, yet, when the school applied for an additional nursery class for September, the request was turned down, even though it has adequate accommodation within the building to provide for it.

I move now to primary-school provision. The Minister will be familiar with the issues in South Belfast. I have written to him and tabled many questions over the years. There is a continuing increase in demand for places in my constituency, particularly in Carryduff. Demand for Catholic maintained schools such as St Ita's, St Bernard's and St Joseph's primary schools is growing each year, and oversubscription inevitably leads to disappointment for some families. As with nursery schools, parents are concerned about the prospect of being unsuccessful in getting a place in their first-choice school because of oversubscription in popular schools in South Belfast. That also means that many pupils face having to bypass their local schools.

The Department of Education needs to take into account change in demography. Inner south Belfast schools are facing amalgamation due to lower enrolment numbers, but outer Belfast areas, such as Carryduff, with new housing developments, are crying out for more school places.

There is an argument that part of the problem is that integrated schools have not been allowed to grow in the way that they should and that they are still being held back. Over the last few weeks, my office has been contacted by numerous disappointed parents whose children did not get into Lagan College in South Belfast because of oversubscription. Surveys have clearly shown that there is an increase in demand for integrated education. I have said this before: there is still too much focus on established schools. During the recent debate on area planning, my party colleague Trevor Lunn mentioned that the needs model works against the integrated sector, given that the other sectors have to agree before there is any increase or potential increase in the capacity target for integrated schools. There is a need for better forward planning and a vision for integrated education for all children in a shared society.

Mr Douglas: I certainly welcome the debate, and I thank my colleague for East Belfast for bringing it forward. I think she has put forward a very comprehensive argument in a number of areas. I also thank the Minister for attending, because, too often, these Adjournment debates have little or no representation from Departments. So I thank the Minister for being here. I also declare an interest as a member of the board of governors for the Braniel Primary School and, today, I was appointed to Ravenscroft Nursery School.

It is interesting; I was speaking to the principal of Ravenscroft today. It is oversubscribed. It is a very successful nursery, but the problem is that it is too small, so I want to record a bid to the Minister for an extension to that nursery school. Maybe he can keep that in mind for the future.

Seriously, though, I was looking through the mission statement of the Ravenscroft Nursery School today. This is what it says:

"teachers and nursery assistants offer a welcoming, secure, caring and stimulating environment for each child, with the aim of establishing a lifelong love of learning."

If this debate is about anything, it is about raising the expectations and interests of parents and children so that they will embark upon a lifelong love of learning. What a tremendous mission statement. So, it is building for the future and is an investment in our children and society.

I know that the colleague who brought forward the debate mentioned a number of areas. However, I want to raise some concerns over the next couple of minutes. The first thing that Fearghal McKinney mentioned was the number of children in East Belfast who have additional or special educational needs. I detect that that number is growing across East Belfast. The question is this: how do we protect and support the most vulnerable in our society?

I was speaking to a primary-school teacher earlier today who said that, of 30 children who were assessed, 28 had speech and communication difficulties. The big question is this: why is that happening? I am not quite sure why there is a growing number of children like that.

In the past, some of these children would have been assessed in October. One of my concerns is that they are now talking about January. In fact, I know of some children who have not yet been given a date for assessment. So, they are going into year 1 and already have a big problem in trying to catch up with other children. Hopefully, the Minister will address that problem.

Then, there is the whole issue of parents scrambling to get a place in nurseries and primary schools. It is a big issue. We have all faced those emails, phone calls and letters. My concern is that there seems to be a major problem in communication. I think my colleague mentioned that. Also, people must be given enough time to work out the areas that their children can go to.

I know that the Minister was at the launch of the EastSide Learning Partnership. There was no mention of asking for money; they were just celebrating the importance of lifelong learning. It is their mission to support children at the earliest possible stage, and I just want to let the Minister know that they are meeting the board, along with Early Years, in order to plan for next year. Instead of leaving it to the last minute, they are trying to get things organised. There is a problem with the lack of a strategy. It is the same every year; there seems to be an sense of absolute chaos.

I want to raise another issue. We discussed this recently in connection with support from the community and voluntary sector. The Dee Street Playgroup that I am involved with has just organised a petition, and we have signed up dozens of MLAs and a number of Ministers. Hopefully, during the June monitoring round, that petition will have some sort of influence, because playgroups like this do a tremendous amount of work.

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

Mr Douglas: Mr Deputy Speaker, I have heard you mention how such groups in your area do tremendous work. They need support. I have spoken to the Minister about this before, so, hopefully, he will have a bit of good news for us for the future. I welcome this Adjournment debate.

Mr Lyttle: I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute on the issue of preschool and primary-school provision in East Belfast. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the teachers and schools in East Belfast that are serving our children and young people so well. I also pay tribute to the parent-teacher associations, which are central to the life and well-being of our schools.

I understand that approximately 15 preschool settings were oversubscribed in East Belfast at the end of stage 1 of the preschool admissions process this year, and that included nursery schools, nursery units attached to primary schools, and voluntary and private settings.

My understanding is that, in our primary school sector, approximately eight primary school settings in East Belfast are oversubscribed and that, whilst we are not discussing it today, there are also schools in our post-primary settings in East Belfast that are oversubscribed. Indeed, my colleague Anna Lo MLA made reference to what seemed to be quite a serious oversubscription issue at Lagan College this year. That, of course, also affects families in East Belfast who have a strong preference to send their children to an integrated school setting.

4.15 pm

That oversubscription has associated consequences, as many MLAs have pointed out today. It raises anxiety and confusion amongst families in our constituency, as well as a sense of a lack of fairness and common sense in the system. The Minister will, of course, respond to that ably and say that parents are advised of alternative options and that eventually most pupils will be placed in an appropriate preschool and primary school setting. The question is this: how reasonably located are some of those alternatives? As my colleague Judith Cochrane MLA suggested, how many parents and children does that exclude who have given up on the process altogether, such has been their frustration with it?

The Minister will also say that he is allocating sufficient funding to the provision of preschool and primary places, but the issue is not just one of finance. As many MLAs have said, not just the Minister but elected representatives, teachers and the community all have a part to play in these issues, particularly in improving area planning. There should also be better coordination of the available resources, and, as has been mentioned, the provision of timely information to parents should be improved to assist them in navigating what is a challenging application process. I do not think that we can overstate that point. As other MLAs said today, we can go a long way to alert parents at the appropriate time about when the applications must be submitted. We can try to provide them with the informal information on oversubscription that they need to improve the order of choices that they make about preschool and nursery provision.

I welcomed a recent opportunity I had with my colleague Judith Cochrane MLA to meet the Education Authority about the need for more places in East Belfast. I was encouraged by the Education Authority's responsiveness to the need to work up development proposals to increase admission numbers in East Belfast, in particular at Strandtown Primary School and, indeed, other primary schools. I, too, hope that the Minister will be able to give his commitment to deal with any such proposal as promptly as possible to ensure a resolution to that issue.

I welcome the Minister of Education's recent attendance at the launch of the EastSide Learning Partnership, and I hope that that will be a collective effort between teachers, parents and elected representatives to work together to ensure that we improve provision in East Belfast and work along the key aims of raising aspiration and the value that we put on education —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member will draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Lyttle: — for our children and young people.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Fáiltim roimh an deis labhairt sa díospóireacht seo. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate and will do my best to respond to as many of the points raised by Members as is possible.

To cover the broader points of the debate, planning education provision in any given area is now the statutory responsibility of the Education Authority working in close conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and actively engaging with other sectors. It will take some time for it to establish itself, but I do not envisage any immediate changes to the area planning process, although I expect them to cross the old borders of the education and library boards and to engage on a regional basis, particularly in areas around south Belfast and east Belfast that cross over between the old boards. Members will be aware that it is an issue that I raised previously in a development proposal relating to post-primary education in the area, so I expect matters to improve there. My officials will, however, liaise closely with the Education Authority to develop comprehensive guidance on the area planning process. It will draw on the experiences of the process to date and build on the lessons learnt.

Area planning will continue to be the process through which the planning authorities examine primary and post-primary provision. It is important for the planning authorities to hear the views of all interested parties so that they can shape the educational provision to meet their needs. Initially, that will be through the local area planning groups, and part of their role will be to bring together all local stakeholders, planning authorities, sectoral bodies and any other interests. One of the tasks of the local group will be to consider the needs of the primary sector at local level.

I noted the comments of Mr Newton about the recent debate and the report of the Education Committee. I will respond formally to the Education Committee on its report, but I assure him that it will play a significant part in shaping the views on area planning going forward and that we will consider the lessons learnt from that report.

The Education Authority can provide details of representatives on local groups, and I encourage representatives from East and South Belfast to make their views known to the relevant schools' planning authority representatives. My Department will continue to scrutinise and challenge area plans and monitor progress towards delivering the changes required.

The statutory development process is the only means by which any significant change to the school estate, such as an increase in a school's capacity, can be made. Members mentioned a number of primary schools, in particular, and nursery units whose numbers should, they believe, increase. The only way to do that is through the development proposal process. I note that Strandtown was mentioned and that a development proposal is in the making or will be delivered to me very shortly. I will deal with that as I deal with all other development proposals. I cannot comment on any funding that may be aligned to that. The school enhancement programme for this financial year is fully committed. It is an important programme that future Ministers should take forward in planning because it allows the expansion of schools, but that will be for future budgetary rounds.

While statutory nursery provision is not covered by the sustainable schools policy and is not part of the area planning process, any significant changes there require a development process. The preschool advisory groups in each region of the Education Authority are responsible for ensuring that there is sufficient provision in their area to meet the Programme for Government commitment to ensure a preschool place for every child whose parents want it. It has to be said again that 99·8% of children have been placed at this stage of the process, and we continue to work with families. I will go into more detail on south and east Belfast in a moment.

As far as primary school admissions for 2015-16 are concerned, only three children remain unplaced in East Belfast, and one child from the south-east region is still seeking a place in the area. We will continue to work with the parents of those children to secure educational provision for them. No child is unplaced in South Belfast, as far as we are aware. However, the situation will continue to be monitored. It is also worth noting, as many Members did, that great work is going on in the primary schools in south and east Belfast. Mr Ó Muilleoir mentioned a number of schools, though he failed to praise me for my work and that has been noted. Many Members rightly praised the work going on in our primary schools, nursery schools and other providers of preschool provision.

Another way of dealing with an increase in demand — we have used this in south and east Belfast in recent times — is the temporary variation process whereby we can temporarily increase the number a school can take in in recognition of particular demand in the area. The terms are often mixed up: it is not to deal with "parental choice"; the term in legislation is "parental preference". We cannot live up to fulfilling the choice of each parent. We do our best on parental preference, and temporary variation is there to deal with significant demand in an area. A number of years ago, I introduced temporary variations into the nursery school sector, and we have used that again in South Belfast. I believe that we also used it in a number of areas in East Belfast —

Mr Douglas: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: Just give me one second. We used it in East Belfast to deal with the increased demand in a number of settings. I give way to the Member.

Mr Douglas: The Minister mentioned increased provision in some schools. A school principal said to me recently that it is strange that, in her school, over the last 15 years, there have always been empty places, which are often filled by underage children, yet a school up the road has 10 extra new places. There seems to be a lack of strategy.

Mr O'Dowd: I would be concerned if a trend in an area was not being recognised through area planning and sufficient planning was not put in place for that.

When we talk about preschool provision, we often refer to nursery-school places. Members used examples of being lobbied about nursery schools having 54 applications for 26 places and so on, but be careful what you wish for in those circumstances. The community and voluntary sector plays a crucial role in the quality of the provision of preschool places. In a recent Question Time, I mentioned that Members are quite right to lobby me over the early years fund. That fund goes into the community and voluntary sector not the statutory sector, but if I were to remove more preschool places from the community and voluntary sector and put them into the statutory sector, I would not be able to fill the hole with the early years fund, even if I were to get more money for it. I caution Members that it is quite right and proper for the statutory sector to lobby, but all those things have a knock-on domino effect. It is only right and proper that the issue is being moved forward. There will be a mixture of provision from the community and voluntary sector and the statutory sector, and we have to get the balance right in each area.

Members raised a number of matters of concern, one of which was the socio-economic deprivation criterion for preschool provision and how that affects applications. It affects only 25% of applications for preschool places. Mrs Cochrane said that her surveys showed that those children who gained a place through that admissions criterion would have gained a place anyhow. I go back to why the criterion was brought in in the first place. Children from socially deprived backgrounds are less likely to succeed in education than those who are not, and the criterion was brought in in recognition of that. I accept that the criterion is somewhat tight in its remit of the benefits that it refers to, and I have asked my officials to take a look at the matter to try to widen it out to take account of working families on low incomes to see whether we can broaden out the criterion. However, it has a limited impact on preschool admissions.

Mrs Cochrane: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will give way in a minute.

It catches the attention of the media and others, and working parents are sometimes frustrated because they believe that it is the reason why they are not gaining a place in a preschool. That may be so in individual cases, but it is not as significant a problem as is sometimes portrayed. It is more of a significant opportunity to rebalance and give opportunities to young people than is portrayed.

Mrs Cochrane: I have argued the point with my concerned constituents and explained the rationale behind it. It was, however, brought in at a time when not as many preschool places were available. It was, therefore, important to make sure that those children got a place. What I am saying to you now is this: if it were to be removed, would it have such a detrimental impact? It is now just providing a headache. It is giving people an excuse to say that that is why they do not have a place when the evidence is starting to show that it is not. There are nearly enough places now, and it should not matter whether people do not get their first preference.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will give the Minister an extra minute.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. At this stage, my priority is to look at broadening the criterion. It may be that, in a number of years' time, the criterion will no longer be necessary.

There are a number of specific issues. Members constantly mention Carryduff in the Chamber, and Members mentioned it today. I will continue to raise provision for the Catholic sector in that area with CCMS. If there is a demand in other sectors, we will continue to raise it, move forward and try to ensure that we plan properly for the rise in the population in Carryduff and for facilities to meet those demands.

During Question Time last week, I made a commitment to raise the letters issue with the Education Authority. It may come down to administration and the cost of breaking down those letters into tighter geographical areas, but I recognise fully the angst that it can cause parents when they receive letters listing facilities in a wide geographical area. I will ask the Education Authority to see whether it can take a look at that and do it in a better way without raising administration costs.

I assure Members that I will continue to monitor closely preschool and primary-school provision in South and East Belfast. I am aware of the issue around post-primary provision in the area, and I will continue to monitor that. The only way forward is on an area plan basis to ensure that, whatever decisions we make, we know the impact that they will have on other schools and settings in the area and that no unintentional impact is made by decisions that are taken in isolation of other settings. Thank you, everyone.

Adjourned at 4.30 pm.

Find Your MLA


Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more



Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up