Official Report: Tuesday 16 June 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I remind Members that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the Minister for Regional Development was not able to attend Question Time yesterday. The Minister for Social Development, who was due to answer questions today, took his place, and questions to the Minister for Regional Development will commence at 2.00 pm. All Members were notified of that change last Friday.
Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the twentieth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format, which was held in Dublin on Friday 5 June 2015. The Ministers who attended the meeting have agreed that we can make this report on their behalf.
Our delegation was led by the Finance Minister, Arlene Foster MLA, and me. In addition, the following Ministers were in attendance: Minister Durkan; Minister Farry; Minister Ford; Minister Hamilton; Minister Kennedy; Minister Ní Chuilín; Minister O'Dowd; Minister Storey; junior Minister McIlveen; and junior Minister McCann
The Irish Government delegation was led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD. The following Irish Government Ministers were also in attendance: Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton; Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan; Minister Noonan; Minister Howlin; Minister Fitzgerald; Minister Reilly; Minister Varadkar; Minister White; Minister Donohoe; Minister Humphreys; Minister of State Hayes; and Minister of State Sherlock.
The meeting started with a discussion on the challenges facing both Administrations and the policies being implemented to support economic growth and job creation and to improve living standards. That included discussions on foreign direct investment (FDI) and working together to build trade links with key developing markets. I think that we are all pleased with the positive signs in both economies, but, of course, it is important that we work to support the recovery.
We then had a good discussion on the various EU funding opportunities that are available. Ministers noted the discussions that have taken place across all NSMC sectors in relation to EU funding opportunities and the identification of relevant programmes that are available for collaborative funding applications. There is a real opportunity for us to work together in this area, and Ministers agreed to continue to examine opportunities and progress in drawing down collaborative EU funding.
Approval of the INTERREG V programme by the European Commission was welcomed, and the Council looked forward to the early finalisation of the Peace IV programme. Ministers welcomed the early indications of good progress towards reaching the joint target of €175 million in cross-border collaborative drawdown under the Horizon 2020 programme and the work of InterTradeIreland and the all-island steering group in raising awareness of the programme. The Council agreed that a further update on EU funding opportunities will be brought to the next plenary meeting.
The next item on the agenda was sectoral priorities. The Council noted that sectoral priorities were discussed at the NSMC institutional meeting on 25 February 2015 and that new sectoral priorities will be an agenda item at future institutional meetings. The Council also noted the decision that was agreed at the NSMC institutional meeting that Ministers would review their current work programmes and that endorsement of any changes will be sought at a future NSMC plenary meeting. Ministers agreed that the matter of sectoral priorities and the current review of work programmes will be kept under active review.
Ministers then went on to have an extensive discussion on cross-border smuggling and fuel laundering. The issue had been raised at previous plenary meetings and at recent NSMC environment, agriculture and transport meetings. Ministers noted the ongoing efforts by both jurisdictions to tackle the serious issue and noted the introduction of the new fuel marker in both jurisdictions. The Council noted that the issue is also of concern at EU level. The Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has been in correspondence with Environment Ministers, North and South, concerning latest developments and actions taken to address the issue. The Council recognised the importance of closer cooperation between agencies in tackling and combating cross-border smuggling and fuel laundering and agreed that the topic be revisited at a future meeting.
An update was then provided on the north-west gateway initiative. The Council noted the continued engagement between officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister with stakeholders concerning the future development of the north-west gateway initiative and the ongoing discussions on arrangements to hold a meeting of relevant Ministers in the north-west. The Council further noted the current work by Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council to develop new and collaborative cross-border arrangements at local government level to promote the development of the north-west region consistent with the aims of the north-west gateway initiative. Ministers noted that these arrangements aim to place cross-border cooperation in the north-west on a more formal basis in local government-led structures and will allow for the development of the future direction and priorities for the region in cooperation with central government and other stakeholders. Ministers also noted the ongoing work on the A5.
The Council then noted that, in line with the decision taken at the NSMC institutional meeting on 25 February 2015, the joint secretariat has consulted sponsor Departments and board members of the implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland Limited regarding the proposal to extend the existing terms of appointment of board members for 12 months. This consultation is ongoing. The Council agreed that decisions on board appointments will be made before the expiry of the current board members' terms of office in December 2015.
Next, the Council noted the progress report prepared by the NSMC joint secretaries on the work of the North/South bodies and in the other NSMC areas for cooperation and welcomed the following key developments. Cooperation continues with regard to EU-related transport issues. At their recent meeting in April 2015, Ministers noted the opportunity to strengthen the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) application process through the development of cooperation statement templates that will support project applications.
Ministers also noted the position with regard to the INTERREG programmes, including the update on the INTERREG IV funding of the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service upgrade and Drogheda viaduct works.
At the NSMC health and food safety meeting held at Altnagelvin Area Hospital on 15 April 2015, Ministers discussed ongoing cooperation in healthcare. They welcomed the presentation by the Western Health and Social Care Trust representatives on the radiotherapy unit and had the opportunity to view the construction under way on the unit, which they were advised is on target for completion within the agreed time frame.
At the NSMC agriculture meeting on 25 February 2015, Ministers noted the recent developments in plans for the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms agreed in 2013, including administrative measures for direct payment schemes.
The Middletown Centre for Autism successfully hosted a major international conference on the theme of enabling education, targeted at professionals and parents of children with autism. The event, attended by in excess of one thousand delegates, was opened by both Education Ministers and featured a range of eminent speakers from across the globe. Progress continues to be made by the two Departments and the centre in facilitating the expansion of the centre’s range of services.
At the NSMC environment meeting on 13 May 2015, Ministers received an update on the agreed repatriation of waste programme for 2015, under which two illegal waste landfill sites will be addressed. The issue of fuel laundering was discussed, and Ministers expressed concern at the impact of fuel laundering and stressed the importance of closer cooperation between agencies to tackle the issue.
At their meeting in January 2015, Ministers noted the various support structures put in place by InterTradeIreland to assist with the jointly agreed €175 million target for cross-border applications under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Ministers also noted that early results were positive, with 45 cross-border applications to the programme and an economic value of €8·8 million for successful cross-border Horizon 2020 collaboration at that time.
The draft Peace IV and INTERREG programmes 2014-2020 were submitted to the European Commission on 22 September 2014, in line with the regulatory deadline. The INTERREG programme was formally adopted on 13 February 2015, with calls expected to launch in early summer. A number of outstanding issues still remain in the Peace IV programme, and high-level discussions are ongoing between the member states and the EU Commission. It is hoped that the Peace IV programme will be approved shortly and be open for calls later in the year.
At the NSMC health and food safety meeting in April 2015, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast gave a presentation on the topic of "Food safety and traceability: an all-island imperative", which provided Ministers with valuable insight into this important subject.
Ministers welcomed reports on the activities of the Loughs Agency in promoting and marketing Foyle and Carlingford loughs, in particular marine leisure infrastructural developments, outreach and community activity, and promotion of local seafood products.
Progress continues on the publication of the new English-Irish dictionary flagship project, and an app for the new English-Irish dictionary will be available in the near future. Progress continues on the Ulster-Scots community impact programme, which has been extended for a second year following a positive evaluation.
In February 2015, Minister Heather Humphreys announced the approval of the restoration by Waterways Ireland of a 2·5 kilometre stretch of the Ulster canal, connecting Castle Saunderson International Scout Centre to the Erne basin at an expected cost of approximately €2 million.
Finally, the Council noted that last year was another great year for tourism. Total overseas visitors to the North for the first nine months of 2014 grew by 3% year on year. Overseas visitors to the island of Ireland increased by 14% in the January to March 2015 period when compared to the same three-month period a year earlier. The council also noted the very successful greenways and blueways information-sharing and networking event hosted by the joint secretariat on 30 April 2015.
Ministers then noted the current position on a North/South consultative forum.
The meeting ended with the Council approving a schedule of NSMC meetings proposed by the joint secretariat, including a NSMC institutional meeting in Autumn 2015 and the next NSMC plenary meeting in November 2015.
Mr M McGuinness: I think that a bit of nitpicking is going on. Obviously, we had a very thorough discussion in relation to the ongoing economic situation North and South. We were able to record what is good news for us, the fact that we have had steadily decreasing unemployment figures over the last 28 months.
At the same time, we recognise that we are facing huge challenges in relation to the difficulties we are having to deal with as regards the austerity agenda that is coming at us from London. Effectively, something like £1·5 billion was taken out of our Budget over the lifetime of the last Conservative Government, and further cuts are predicted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That leaves us with a very challenging situation. The fact that, even against that backdrop, we have been able to record unprecedented levels of foreign direct investment is obviously good news.
The South were also amplifying their decreasing unemployment figures. During the meeting, they made the case that their economic situation was steadily improving, to which I asked, "When is the election?". All I got was a smile in return and fingers pointing towards the Taoiseach.
Overall, the economic discussions that take place at these meetings are of great importance to all of us.
Mr Moutray: The deputy First Minister is no doubt aware that many of those involved in fuel smuggling, especially along the south Armagh border, are former IRA members. Many, like me, believe that they act with relative impunity to this day. What tougher measures would the deputy First Minister like to see introduced to help tackle this crime, given that, to date, no one has served a custodial sentence for it?
Mr M McGuinness: As far as I am concerned, the people involved in fuel smuggling and fuel laundering in south Armagh are criminals who need to be arrested and brought before the courts. My party fully supports the authorities North and South that are charged with the responsibility for tackling this.
Quite apart from everything else, people involved in fuel laundering are endangering the lives of the people who live in the community. The environmental fallout from the activity is disastrous for the local community, endangering people's health and animal health. During the meeting, we were very encouraged by the fact that there is a new marker in the fuel, which makes it much more difficult for people to be involved in fuel laundering. We welcome that very much. We also welcome the fact that in the region of 100 illegal fuel-laundering plants have been detected and put out of business.
So, my party is absolutely of the view that anybody involved in this type of illegal activity is a criminal who needs to be arrested and brought before the courts.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. What discussions took place regarding the efforts to resume the A5 project?
Mr M McGuinness: We had a useful discussion on the prospects for the A5. The issue comes up at all of the meetings that we have and at the margins of the meetings. As I said, we did have a useful discussion on the prospects for the A5 project being resumed.
The next step is now for the Regional Development Minister to publish the draft orders. I understand that, in response to a question for written answer on 24 April, the Minister stated that he would be bringing a new Executive paper on the way forward for the A5 within weeks. I also met the Minister on 30 April, when he confirmed his intention to publish the draft orders imminently. I welcome that commitment and, given the time frame that he has outlined, expect to see the new Executive paper in advance of the summer recess.
This is a vital project for the west and for all of the counties in the west from Derry right through Tyrone into County Fermanagh. It is a project that will not just supply a first-class route in the northern stretch to link up with a first-class route in the southern end to Dublin; it is also a vital route for people in County Tyrone travelling to Belfast to link up with the M1 at Ballygawley. The sooner that we see this project moving forward the better, and I look forward to the early announcement of the draft orders.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the deputy First Minister for the statement to the House, and I very warmly welcome the more determined approach in terms of the north-west gateway initiative. I want to ask the deputy First Minister about the apathy felt in the north-west and Derry and Strabane, which have the highest levels of unemployment and economic inactivity. Will the economic development of the north-west, including third level education and access to more employment opportunities, be the focus of any future deliberations?
Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely agree with the Member. That is one of the reasons why the First Minister and I agreed that we would form a subgroup of Ministers to deal with the very strong perception — it is more than a perception — that there are areas of the North that are not getting their fair share. Quite clearly, that was a declaration of both his and my intent to ensure that the subgroup would tackle the unacceptable, high levels of unemployment that exist, particularly in the Derry and Strabane area. There was to be a meeting of the north-west gateway initiative, but it did not happen for unforeseen reasons, and the health of the First Minister intervened on the second occasion. We are hoping that that meeting will happen very shortly.
Obviously, we accept that the combined efforts of the Ministers involved in the north-west gateway initiative and the ministerial subgroup that we have formed need to tackle the whole of issue of, for example, Magee university and the numbers of students there. The expansion of the university is absolutely critical for the importance of future economic development in the city. Of course, the whole issue of infrastructure is of major importance, so the A5 and the A6 are very much in the forefront of all our minds. Obviously, these contribute to the ability to attract foreign direct investment.
Mr Lyttle: Can I ask the deputy First Minister what the outstanding issues with the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme IV are? How will those be overcome, when will the programme open and how will it be linked with the OFMDFM regional good relations strategy, Together: Building a United Community?
Mr M McGuinness: Obviously, this is something that has contributed tremendously for all of us in recent years. The new Peace programme has not yet been finalised, and officials, North and South, are making every effort to reach agreement. Minister Foster and Minister Howlin had a bilateral meeting on the morning of the NSMC plenary to discuss the Peace IV programme, and I know that there is a strong desire on both sides to get the programme agreed as quickly as possible. Delays at the start of the programme will place us under pressure to meet spending targets later, so it is very important that we reach agreement as soon as possible.
As I recorded in the initial statement that I made, it is also very important for us to continue the work of maximising the success of Horizon 2020.
Good progress has been made by officials and Ministers, North and South, on that issue in relation to drawdown.
Mr Spratt: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I notice from the joint secretaries' progress report that cooperation on transport issues and opportunities to strengthen TEN-T applications continues. Exactly what progress has been made and what project applications are being considered for TEN-T?
Mr M McGuinness: The Minister for Regional Development advises that his Department submitted four applications under the Connecting Europe Facility call for funding, launched in October 2014. Two of the applications submitted are for rail projects: track refurbishment and upgrade work on the Belfast to Dublin lines and upgrading work on the Coleraine to Derry line. The other two are road projects: works relating to the A26 dualling scheme and studies for the Newry southern relief road. In total, those projects are seeking up to £34 million of co-funding.
The upgrade to the Enterprise service is important to improve rail services between Dublin and Belfast, and we understand that the supply issues that had the potential to delay the project have been resolved, and NIR and Irish Rail are confident that the lost time can be recovered. The total cost of the project, which is funded by INTERREG, is approximately £17 million, including the refurbishment of the Drogheda viaduct. Once completed, this project will be a further positive example of North/South cooperation and will be of real benefit to rail users from both jurisdictions.
As many people know, there is a lot of focus on the Juncker plan, which has been much discussed recently, and we are continuing to explore how that can be exploited in our interests.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I noted, Minister, that you alluded to a meeting of the north-west gateway initiative. How soon do you think it can take place?
Mr M McGuinness: It should take place before recess. It did not happen, due to unforeseen circumstances, but there is a strong commitment that the meeting should take place. There is clear recognition that the north-west gateway initiative and the work of the ministerial subgroup is a priority in beginning the process of redressing the difficulties faced by people west of the Bann.
Mr D McIlveen: I, too, thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Deputy First Minister, of the projects in this list, some are aspirational, some have commenced, and all have a degree of cost attached to them. On the basis that the Assembly continues to haemorrhage over £10 million a month due to the failure to implement welfare reform, did the Ministers of the Irish Republic offer to pay for these projects?
Mr M McGuinness: The Member will be as aware as we are that we had a commitment from the Irish Government on shared funding for the development of the A5. Their commitment was to something in the region of £400 million in match funding for our side of the bargain. Of course, the offer was withdrawn due to economic circumstances. That was apart from the difficulties that the A5 then faced from the fallout of the judicial review, which we hope will be remedied shortly.
The challenges we face with the issues and the projects that we deal with on the North/South Ministerial Council are real. Although some may be described as aspirational, they are very important for future development on the island, for the benefit of everyone on the island.
There was a bit of political point scoring in relation to funding. People have to remember that this is about protecting the most vulnerable, marginalised and disabled in our society, and, yes, that comes at a cost.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My question follows on from those raised by Bronwyn McGahan and David McIlveen. Is the deputy First Minister satisfied that Minister Paschal Donohoe and an Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, remain fully committed to the A5 project from the Dublin Government side? I note the comments by the deputy First Minister on the expectation that a paper from Minister Kennedy on taking the project forward will come to the Executive in the coming weeks.
Mr M McGuinness: The next stage in the process is the publication of the draft orders. As the Minister for Regional Development indicated, both in an answer to a question from a Member and in a meeting that he participated in with me, he intends to do that within weeks. For us, that is the next stage of the process.
How we will fund the road obviously represents a challenge for us, North and South, but the £50 million commitment that the Taoiseach made, which, of course, falls short of the £400 million, is still on the table. I hope that, in the context of, as the Irish Government describe it, an improving economic situation in the South, if we can get the green light to proceed with the road, they will recognise their responsibilities to come up with their side of the bargain. It is a commitment of the North/South Ministerial Council.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Were any specific measures discussed or opportunities identified for EU funding to provide better high-end job opportunities and real employment opportunities and/or training for our young people to address the high levels of youth unemployment across the island?
Mr M McGuinness: We are all very conscious of the challenges that most European countries face in addressing what are unacceptable levels of youth unemployment. The key to all of that is for all of us to continue to bear down on the unacceptable unemployment figures out there. Given the report that I gave earlier to the Assembly and the improving economic situation recorded at the meeting by Irish Government representatives and by us, based on a steady decrease in unemployment figures over 28 months, there is a big focus North and South, and, indeed, in the rest of western Europe, to recognise that young people are disproportionately affected by the unacceptable unemployment levels.
So, yes, there are projects that both Governments are pursuing, through DEL and DETI at our end and the relevant Departments in the South, to ensure that we continue to bear down on the figures with some degree of success, but we have to accelerate that success over the coming period.
Mr Campbell: The deputy First Minister referred to extensive discussions on cross-border smuggling and fuel laundering. Given that, over the past number of years, I and others have endeavoured to get the deputy First Minister to own up to having known people or to personal involvement that he would have had in terror-related activities in the distant past, is he now prepared to own up to knowing any former colleagues, whom he is bound to know of, who would be involved in fuel smuggling and laundering in border areas? His denials are quite implausible.
Mr M McGuinness: I do not think that that is a question that featured in the course of the North/South Ministerial Council meeting.
Mr Allister: Will the deputy First Minister elaborate on the reference to the EU's interest and involvement in the fuel smuggling issue? What exactly does that amount to, and are infraction proceedings a possibility on foot of that? Given the inextricable links between fuel smuggling and the republican movement, does the deputy First Minister know any fuel smugglers, and has he identified any to the authorities?
Mr M McGuinness: No, I do not personally know any fuel smugglers. In my earlier answer, I described any people involved in fuel smuggling or fuel laundering as criminals. That is what I regard them as. I believe that people who are involved in that type of activity need to be arrested and brought before the courts. I give my wholehearted support to the authorities North and South in that endeavour. As I said, I welcome very much the new marker that has gone into fuel, as it will make it very difficult for anybody to continue with fuel laundering. I very much welcome that over 100 illegal fuel laundering plants have been shut down.
At the end of the day, in my opinion, the authorities North and South are well aware of who the fuel launderers and smugglers are. It is not my job as the deputy First Minister to investigate that. It is certainly my job to support the authorities in apprehending those criminals.
Dr McDonnell: I note that paragraph 9 mentions Horizon 2020. Can the deputy First Minister perhaps elaborate on the all-island steering group or how we might gain more from the Horizon 2020 programme? It has long been a bugbear of mine that we are drawing down only a fraction of the amount of research and development money in that context and that only three or four major players, like Queen's, the Ulster University and Shorts, were drawing down that money. To my mind and in my opinion, it is vitally important that we exploit that opportunity to ensure further economic development here.
Mr M McGuinness: As I indicated, we had a discussion at the meeting on the opportunities that are presented by the Horizon 2020 funding programme. We are committed to increasing our success in Horizon 2020, and we have agreed a joint target of €175 million with the Irish Government for projects that have a cross-border element.
We recognise that this is a very competitive programme, but we see real opportunities for increased cooperation between companies and universities from both jurisdictions to drive greater success. Between January and September 2014, there were 12 successful cross-border proposals. The economic value of that cooperation is €14·9 million. The average award per partner for a cross-border project is €450,805, which is higher than that for a Northern project partner at €330,509 or a Southern project partner at €373,432. The current focus is on establishing, developing and extending cross-border partnerships to ensure that we achieve the target of €175 million. I share the Member's view that we need to continually examine how we can exploit those opportunities for our mutual benefit.
Mr Swann: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. He covered quite a number of topics. I note that both Health Ministers were there. Were any updates either sought or given on the recommendation that was made by the international working group on children's cardiac surgery? Are we still on track to being able to provide those surgeries in Dublin for Northern Ireland children, as recommended in that working group's report?
Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely understand the Member's interest in this issue. We all recognise the challenges that we face in ensuring that we provide first-class services for children who are affected by this medical condition. I understand that good progress is being made with implementing the international working group's recommendations. The Executive have allocated £1 million from their change fund towards the cost of establishing the all-island congenital heart disease network.
The network board has met twice since 1 April 2015. It has formed subgroups to plan and implement the phased transfer of surgery and cardiac catheterisation to Dublin from Belfast and to strengthen the cardiology hub in the network at Belfast children's hospital. However, we remain reliant on the majority of elective procedures being carried out by specialist heart centres in England until sufficient capacity has been developed in Dublin to accommodate our patients. Therefore, we look forward to the expansion of the service in Dublin. Once in place, like the new radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin, it will be a further example of how close cooperation can deliver improvements to public services North and South.
Mr Speaker: Thank you, deputy First Minister. That concludes questions on the statement.
Before we move to the next item of business, I would like to inform Members that as today's sitting is likely to be quite late, the Whips have agreed to a shorter lunchtime suspension. We will, by leave of the Assembly, be suspending at 12.30 pm until 1.30 pm.
Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry for intervening, but I was looking for a statement earlier on. Has it been published? Where is it? We know nothing about what is going to be said. Did anybody get it?
Mr Speaker: I am informed that the statements were, in fact, lodged in time. I just cannot explain if you have not been able to access it at this point in time.
Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I can confirm that the statements are in the pigeonholes. Apologies if maybe they were late into the pigeonholes but, as you said, they were there on time.
With your permission, Cheann Comhairle, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the 1998 Act regarding the twenty-seventh meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in aquaculture and marine sectoral format, in Armagh on Wednesday 27 May. The Executive were represented by Minister Mervyn Storey and myself. The Irish Dublin Government were represented by Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. We received apologies from Minister Alex White, who was unable to attend. I chaired the meeting. Minister McHugh offered his best wishes to the First Minister and wished him a speedy recovery. This statement has been agreed with Minister Storey and I am making it on behalf of us both.
Ministers received a progress report on the work of the Loughs Agency from its chairperson, Winston Patterson, and its chief executive, John Pollock. We welcomed the report on the activities of the agency and noted its ongoing conservation and protection efforts and continued participation in the climate change adaptation initiative. We were pleased to learn that the Loughs Agency has successfully prosecuted across a range of offences, including illegal fishing, pollution and removal of gravel. Thankfully, enforcement staff have not faced any violent threats.
The Council was given an update on the survival of the native Lough Foyle flat oyster. The spring stock assessment has been completed. All oyster beds in Lough Foyle were surveyed. Initial findings suggest that the spat that settled last autumn has survived well, with very little evidence of mortality. We were pleased to note that there was no evidence of any unusual mortality in the adult oyster stocks last winter. We were also pleased to hear that the Loughs Agency has already engaged with local fishermen in the run-up to the opening of the fishery and that further communication with these stakeholders is planned. Tribute was paid to the chair, the chief executive and their team for making the decision to partially reopen the oyster beds at the end of last year.
We were provided with an update on the management agreement. The ongoing jurisdictional issue has been discussed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and an exchange of views has occurred. Further communication from the FCO is awaited. Minister McHugh undertook to raise the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Minister Storey and I offered our support in an attempt to expedite the outstanding issues.
In parallel with the ongoing discussions on the jurisdictional issue, the Loughs Agency continues to engage with other relevant agencies in developing an implementation plan that will address the operational issues. The Council noted the progress made in relation to the agency's financial statement for 2013 and its business plan for 2016.
The NSMC welcomed the successful completion of the €8 million EU INTERREG IVa-funded IBIS project. That was marked with a two-day event in Newry hosted by the agency and its project partners the University of Glasgow and Queen's University Belfast. Students presented their research findings, which covered a wide range of topics, such as aquaculture and fisheries management.
Ministers received a very informative presentation on the sustainable development fund. This small grants scheme provides support for small-scale capital investment, training and events. The Council acknowledged the significant contribution that the scheme has made in providing sustainable social, economic and environmental benefits to the communities of the Foyle and Carlingford areas. We were impressed with the detailed report that was given on the activities of the Loughs Agency in promoting and marketing the Foyle and Carlingford areas, including angling development initiatives, marine tourism, education and outreach events.
We paid tribute to the agency for its efforts and the partnerships that it has developed with funding partners and others to promote and develop the Foyle and Carlingford areas. We also noted its success in securing EU funding and its plans to avail itself of future funding initiatives.
The Council noted the Loughs Agency’s annual report and draft financial statements for 2014. It also noted that, following certification of the financial statements by the Comptrollers and Auditors General, they will be laid before the Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. Ministers approved the continuation of the framework that is designed to support the Loughs Agency in dealing with emergencies, such as a serious pollution incident, for a further period of one year with effect from 20 July this year. Ministers agreed to review the operation of that procedure, including its possible renewal, based on a report from the Loughs Agency and the sponsor Departments, before 20 July next year.
The Council agreed to meet again in aquaculture and marine sectoral format in the autumn.
Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I refer the Minister to paragraph 11 of her statement and the management agreement between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Ireland. She will know that that agreement is required to enable the agency to carry out its job fully. Will she outline what progress has been made since the issue was last discussed in the Assembly during the ministerial statement in February 2015?
Mrs O'Neill: The Member will be aware that that issue has been going on for a number of years and that we are obviously anxious to resolve it. Licensing is one of the functions of the Loughs Agency, and, to date, it has not been able to assume that function due to jurisdictional, legal and policy issues. We discussed that during our meetings, and, at the recent NSMC meeting, we had quite a lengthy exchange on the actions and on trying to put as much pressure as we can on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have had some communication with that Department, and Minister McHugh said that he will raise the issue with the relevant Minister in the Dáil. We need progress on that issue.
We will continue that conversation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Alongside that work and in parallel with the ongoing discussions on the jurisdictional issues, the Loughs Agency continues to engage with other relevant agencies to develop a management agreement. The outworkings of that will address the practical and operational issues that may arise.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her detailed presentation. Minister, the statement shows that the Loughs Agency has had successful prosecutions. Will you give us more detail on that?
Mrs O'Neill: I start by saying that we are pleased that the Loughs Agency staff have not faced any threats of violence or any incidents over the last number of years. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber will agree that we want that situation to continue.
The Loughs Agency has been very successful with prosecutions. Currently, 19 outstanding cases that date back to 2014 are being pursued by the agency. Those cases can be broken down into the five categories of oyster, netting, angling, obstruction and pollution cases, and the agency is proactively pursuing all of them. As I said, I certainly want to put on record the fact that Loughs Agency staff have not faced any violent threats in recent times. We can all welcome that.
Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to point out the two-day conference that was held in Newry. The Minister spoke about its success and the fact that it celebrated 70 years of scientific research that has been undertaken through the IBIS project. There have been successes with that €8 million EU-funded project, with objectives delivered and information generated, particularly on shellfish resources. Paragraph 20 of the statement notes the Loughs Agency success in securing EU funding and:
"its plans to avail of future funding initiatives."
Will the Minister give any details on whether further research, through a project similar to IBIS, will be available through that funding?
Mrs O'Neill: That is certainly the plan. The IBIS project has been extremely successful, and it was right and proper that we celebrated those successes. The agency has been really successful in drawing down EU funding, and I expect that to continue into the future.
You will probably be aware of some of the other significant EU funding opportunities that it has availed itself of. Those include around €4 million for marine tourism and angling development and the €8 million that it received for the IBIS project. It is certainly looking to strengthen that work and to work in partnership, particularly with local councils, communities, businesses and stakeholders, on further opportunities and research opportunities. The agency will look at all the EU opportunities, but particularly at INTERREG funding, Peace funding, the rural development programmes and funding for marine affairs and fisheries — the EFF. There are plenty of opportunities. It is actively working up those plans, and I have no doubt that it will be as successful in future years as it has been in the last number of years.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for her statement also. Looking to the future, what percentage of her Department's savings does she intend to realise from the Loughs Agency?
Mrs O'Neill: The Loughs Agency, like every other agency, has been tasked with finding efficiencies and has done so very successfully. Just recently it has been working towards its 2015-16 budget, which will be finalised in the coming period. I do not have the actual figure as a percentage of the budget, but I will be happy to provide that to the Member. Like every other agency of the Department, the Loughs Agency has been asked to find where it can be more efficient and do things better.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her statement, late though it may have been. She said that:
"Ministers received an informative presentation on the sustainable development fund."
Is this fund widespread or is it simply for the Foyle and Carlingford areas? What is the value of the small grant?
Mrs O'Neill: It is particularly for the Lough Foyle and Carlingford areas so that projects can be developed to work in partnership with communities and business. The sustainable development fund grant goes up to £7,500. Some of the projects featured in the presentation that we received benefited from the fund. Those are fantastic projects, which are about enhancing activities on the lough, developing business opportunities for people on the lough and working with young people on the water, canoeing and so on. Quite a range of projects have benefited from the fund, but it is specifically for those areas.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned an implementation plan to address operational issues. Will she elaborate on the other relevant agencies that are involved and the timescale for the completion of that implementation plan?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said in my answer to the Committee Chairperson, we are working our way through the jurisdictional issue and the problem that we have of the Loughs Agency assuming its full role, which it should be playing. Alongside that, while we are trying to get that issue resolved — it has been ongoing for quite a number of years — we are working in parallel with all our partners on the ongoing operational and practical issues on the ground. We are working with fishermen, angling organisations, councils and a range of partners that the Loughs Agency engages with regularly.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister share my view and, indeed, the view of many that the Loughs Agency can and does play an important role in maximising the value of natural assets for angling development, education and wider community benefit?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I absolutely concur. The agency continues to provide support to a range of community and business projects, not just through the sustainable development fund but in its everyday work. The Member will be aware of a quite significant body of work that the Loughs Agency got involved with in his constituency at Lough Macrory, where we had the water recreation activities and where the angling club launched its world championships, I think, in 2013. That clearly shows the Loughs Agency's track record in wanting to engage with local communities. The agency is very keen to do a lot more of that and, through the sustainable development fund, to engage in practical working on the ground with young people to educate them about fishing activities and the potential of the water courses. I am quite sure that that work will continue into the future.
Mr Dallat: I hope that the Minister will not claim that I am pushing the boat out too far. She will be aware that there is a ferry service across the Foyle that has carried over two million passengers since its inception and gets not one brass penny of public money from the Republic or from this Assembly. Will she use her ingenuity at a future meeting to find out why one ferry service here gets no funding while the other two get something like £10 million? Perhaps she will remind Mr McHugh that he is part of the solution.
Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to take up any issue that a Member raises. It is not something that we have discussed in the NSMC in the past, but I am happy to take a look at it to see whether there is potential for the Loughs Agency in that regard. One of its key objectives — it is key to what it is all about — is to develop the Foyle and everything to do with the Foyle. I will be very happy to explore that further.
Mr Rogers: Thanks to the Minister for her statement. I apologise for missing the start of it. Minister, a couple of months ago in Clare, an oyster fisherman tragically lost his life when the tides came in on him. As you know, good communication between land and sea is vital, but, with competing phone signals in the likes of Lough Foyle and Carlingford lough, the mobile phone is not an answer. Is there any opportunity in the small grants programmes to provide grant aid for a responder device for our oyster fishermen?
Mrs O'Neill: I do not believe that it is within the remit of the sustainable development fund, but I am happy to explore it further. Obviously, the safety of fishermen on the lough is something that Loughs Agency concerns itself with. I know that it has partnered with organisations such as Seafish around life jackets and different safety equipment.
I have not been privy to any kind of conversation about responder devices in the past, but I am very happy to explore that because, as I said, Loughs Agency really wants to work with all the stakeholders, particularly the anglers and fishermen who use the lough. If there is scope and potential for Loughs Agency to be involved in that, perhaps in partnership with the likes of Seafish, I am sure that it would be very happy to explore that.
Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): I beg to introduce the Water and Sewerage Services Bill [NIA Bill 51/11-16], which is a Bill to amend, and to confer power to amend, the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That the Second Stage of the Mental Capacity Bill [NIA 49/11-16] be agreed.
In recent weeks, I have been setting out my vision for the future of health and social care in Northern Ireland. That vision involves, and, indeed, demands, reform, transformation and innovation across the sector. The Mental Capacity Bill delivers on all three of those. Developed jointly by my Department and the Department of Justice, the Bill is a first example of how, when we work together, we can overcome challenges and do things that will bring about real change for the better. I pay particular tribute to Minister Ford and his Department for all the hard work and dedication they have contributed in bringing the Bill before the Assembly today.
As far as I am aware, the Bill adopts an approach that has not been attempted anywhere else in the world. It has been a hugely complex and challenging process. As many Members will know, the Bill has been a long time in development. The reasons for that are clear and will, I think, emerge from our debate today.
The Bill provides a framework that will govern some of the most serious decisions that professionals in the health and social care sector and others make on a daily basis; decisions such as whether it would be best for someone to have a major operation that they are unable to consent to, or whether to place restrictions around a person's care or treatment to the extent that the person is, in fact, being deprived of his or her liberty.
As the scrutiny process begins, the Assembly can have confidence that the Bill has had the benefit of extensive stakeholder engagement and input, initially by those involved in the Bamford review, and, in more recent years, by the various sta