Official Report: Tuesday 30 June 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Ms Claire Sugden has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject.
Ms Sugden: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to present a petition of 13,599 signatures that urges the Minister to re-evaluate his decision to cut funding to early years services.
Early years education is a building block — an unsung building block — for the future of any child. The Minister's announcement of cuts of nearly £2 million to the early years fund stunned groups: it shell-shocked them. Many operate within the community and voluntary sector, which has already been an easy and nonsensical target for Executive cuts. The cut was not in the draft Budget. It was under-thought and an attempt to trim fat, yet, with early years, there was only skin and bones to begin with.
For some, this is the only funding that they will receive, and, without it, they will not be able to provide vital services for children, families and communities. I have heard from 16 funded groups in my constituency and other groups across Northern Ireland. This cut will devastate them.
I am concerned that the Minister does not fully grasp the impact of the decision. My biggest concern is that he does not understand the impact on early intervention. This is not about childcare, and if he believes it to be so, then he is more uninformed than the House realises. It is not simply a preschool issue either, because whilst 16,000 preschool places were provided under early years in 2014-15, there were also 900 crèche places for children aged nought to three. One hundred and seventy-seven jobs will be lost — jobs that were mainly for women — in the most disadvantaged areas of our communities. Mums who have been able to go back to work because of the early years provision, particularly in rural areas in my constituency and in constituencies across Northern Ireland, now face the prospect of being unable to stay in employment. That is not equality. Eighteen hundred single-parent families will be directly impacted, and 620 places for children with special needs and 250 places for children whose first language is not English will be lost. Those are the most vulnerable in our society.
There is no indication of funding beyond August 2015. Staff are being put on protective notice right now. They need to be able to plan for the year ahead. You cannot apply a clinical, quantitative solution to budgetary problems. It is not simply a £2 million saving; it is a decision that will impact on families and communities and that will shift pressures on other areas. The lack of thought for the wider ramifications of cutting the early years fund is severely counterproductive, and I urge the Minister to reconsider, as do the 13,599 people who signed the petition.
Ms Sugden moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
Mr Speaker: It is a very heavy petition. I will pass it on to the Minister of Education and to the Committee.
Mr Speaker: Members, in line with yesterday's ruling, if Members are more comfortable in the warm atmosphere that we are presently enjoying, they can feel free to take off their jackets.
Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, the motion on Committee membership will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.
That the Ulster Unionist Party membership of Assembly Committees for Regional Development, Justice and Enterprise, Trade and Investment be changed in accordance with the proposals laid in the Assembly Business Office by the party on 29 June 2015. — [Mr Swann.]
Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement regarding a meeting under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on cooperation on criminal justice matters held in Armagh on Friday 19 June. I represented the Executive at the meeting with Frances Fitzgerald TD, the Minister for Justice and Equality, who was attending her third meeting under the auspices of the IGA. It was the tenth formal ministerial meeting under the IGA since the devolution of justice in April 2010. As I have previously said in statements to the House, I am committed to keeping the Assembly informed of meetings held under the auspices of the agreement on the same basis as North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings.
The meeting on 19 June provided us both with an opportunity to review final progress against the 2014-15 joint work programme, as well as to formally agree a joint work programme for 2015-16, which will run through to next summer. Discussions also took place about maximising opportunities to access European funding for justice-related initiatives, and it is hoped to revisit that area when we meet again later in the year. In the interim, officials have been tasked with undertaking further exploratory research into appropriate potential European funding streams.
It was pleasing to note the positive progress that has been made across the 2014-15 work programme. Recent negotiations between forensic science services have resulted in agreement in relation to the sharing of DNA profiles, and appropriate protocols are under development. The value of the relationships established between the police services within the criminal justice and social diversity project advisory group was evidenced when an Garda Síochána (AGS) and the PSNI shared extremely helpful insights into best-practice approaches to policing in minority communities.
The annual public protection seminar was successfully held for the fifth time, on 21 November in Dublin. The event also saw the launch of the eleventh edition of the 'Irish Probation Journal'. Plans are advanced for the sixth annual seminar later this year in Belfast. Through the work of the youth justice group, staff exchanges and information sharing between the juvenile detention facilities in the two jurisdictions continue. Those are just some of the examples that demonstrate the excellent ongoing cooperation between criminal justice agencies across the island.
I have attached to the printed version of this statement a copy of the joint work programme for 2015-16. That programme seeks to build on the 2014-15 programme and the progress made last year, but Frances Fitzgerald and I have also sought to sharpen the focus for the project advisory groups by assigning to each of them specific activities with anticipated outcomes. I intend to give a brief progress report in December following our next IGA. In the interim, progress will be monitored by the working group of officials.
In the years following devolution of justice, six project advisory groups have provided the mechanism by which work is taken forward. They have focused on the areas of public protection, registered offenders, youth justice, forensic science, support for victims of crime, and social diversity.
Following recent discussions emanating originally from the public protection and registered offenders project advisory groups, a proposal to merge those two groups was submitted to Frances Fitzgerald and me to consider and approve at our meeting. Our endorsement to the merger was given, and the 2015-16 work programme will be taken forward by five project advisory groups. This sensible merger creates an enhanced public protection group, optimising the use of resources due to the considerable overlap of operational and policy work areas. The public protection group will continue to be co-chaired by the heads of the two probation services, as well as having members drawn from the respective police and prison services.
Each of the project advisory groups has continued to promote and support cooperation across the broad spectrum of criminal justice agencies on both sides of the border. Examples include: work to develop proposals to improve cross-border information-sharing on persons unlawfully at large from custody; the exploration of opportunities for sharing knowledge and good practice in the area of diversity, specifically hate crime; consideration of relevant developments pertaining to the treatment of victims of domestic and sexual abuse and violence, including the outcomes from the Keir Starmer inquiry; examination of the potential for further PSNI/AGS cooperation on diversion in relation to young offenders; and increasing opportunities for enhanced cross-border awareness relating to policing minority communities.
In relation to the management of sex offenders, there continues to be excellent cooperation between the police services at an operational level. This work area has become embedded into normal policing business.
As the Assembly will know, it is not the purpose of the IGA to provide for discussion of cross-border security issues. However, I used the opportunity on 19 June to briefly discuss with Frances Fitzgerald some cross-border security-related issues. These included the work being done in the areas of tackling fuel fraud and human trafficking. I also relayed my appreciation to AGS in supporting the work to tackle ongoing security challenges, particularly the despicable attempted bomb attack on a PSNI officer in Eglinton the day before our meeting.
Following on from previous meetings, the Irish Justice Minister and I discussed ongoing investigations into sexual abuse carried out by paramilitaries and recent reports on how those were dealt with by the justice system in Northern Ireland.
The intergovernmental agreement provides an extremely helpful framework for supporting North/South cooperation on criminal justice matters. We are tangibly experiencing the true benefits of cooperation as individuals within the criminal justice agencies have developed positive and mature working relationships with their respective counterparts. It is that genuine and sincere type of practical cooperation that Frances Fitzgerald and I are both determined to further develop and encourage in striving to keep all the people of this island safe and secure.
Mr Ross: The Minister has highlighted the work of the project advisory groups in promoting and supporting cooperation across the broad spectrum of criminal justice agencies and cited the example of the potential for further PSNI/an Garda Síochána cooperation on diversion in relation to young offenders, an issue in which he knows I have taken a keen interest. Can he provide further information on the extent of the cooperation to date and outline any areas of future cooperation?
Will the Minister also elaborate on the work that is being done to tackle fuel fraud in a meaningful way, given the scale of the problem and the lack of convictions in the past? Can he assure the Assembly that full cooperation and information-sharing is taking place amongst all the agencies and organisations involved in tackling this crime to ensure that we get better results in the future?
Mr Ford: I thank the Chair for his questions. I will turn first to fuel fraud. As Members may have seen, yesterday I opened a pan-European conference on fuel fraud in the Hilton Hotel. It built very much on the work that has been done over the three years since the last conference, which was also held in Belfast, and led by HMRC and the Irish Office of the Revenue Commissioners with regard to, for example, developing a marker and dealing with the issue of proper management of registered dealers in controlled oils and the equivalent scheme in the Republic. Of course, we have also seen that we now have the potential for referral of unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal. That builds on the work that has been done to see cross-border cooperation since the majority, but by no means all, of the fuel laundering plants have been discovered in border areas, and has been part of ongoing cooperation between the PSNI and an Garda Síochána as they deal with their normal cross-border policing issues. I believe that the introduction of the new marker is showing some benefits. Members will also be aware that this issue was actually discussed at the NSMC as well as at the IGA.
Youth diversion is an issue not just for the police but for the two youth justice agencies. The respective youth justice agencies lead on that project advisory group (PAG). Again, it is a matter of sharing experience from the two sides of the border and learning lessons from each other. We have a lot to show from the work that we have done on youth engagement and recent initiatives across the justice system here, which will show benefits across the board.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be aware that hate crime is on the rise, particularly in this part of the island. His statement refers to:
"insights into best practice approaches to policing in minority communities [and] enhanced cross border awareness relating to policing minority communities."
Will the Minister expand on that?
Mr Ford: Mr Lynch highlights hate crime. I have one slight caveat: we know that the reporting of hate crime is on the rise, but we are not sure whether that is crime on the rise or the result of increased encouragement to ensure that people are more aware of it and report it. However, the issue needs attention from the PSNI as well as an Garda Síochána.
With regard to working with minority communities, Mr Lynch in particular will remember a recent murder in Newtownbutler in his constituency relating to a wedding in the Traveller community. There is no doubt that, in the response that the PSNI was required to make, it benefited significantly from work done in engagement with the Traveller community by an Garda Síochána. The cross-border sharing of information was of direct practical value in that operation. It shows that these are not always high-level discussions. These can affect day-to-day policing, and the PSNI dealt very well with a potentially difficult situation in the Newtownbutler incident, because of assistance from the gardaí.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his statement. I also endorse the valuable work being done between Ministers and Departments, North and South.
With regard to the management of sex offenders, the statement says that:
"there continues to be excellent cooperation between the police services at an operational level [which] has become embedded into normal policing business."
Is there anything more that you can say, Minister, about cooperation between North and South in this matter that could provide further confidence to the public that the free movement of sex offenders from one jurisdiction to another will be firmly restricted or, in the event of movement, properly supervised?
Mr Ford: I thank Mr Maginness for his endorsement of the work of the IGA. It is good to know that some Members sometimes appreciate things being done by Ministers. I know that that was a genuine comment on the nature of the good work being done on a cross-border basis.
Members will recall that, whilst there are specific issues with sex offenders being required to notify travel outside the UK, for obvious reasons, it is slightly different in this jurisdiction, where it involves cross-border travel. Nonetheless, there is a requirement that people register if they are travelling for more than, I think, three days. There is an allowance that some people travel daily for work, but things are different there.
There is no doubt that there is good liaison, which is exemplified by the fact that the registered offenders and public protection groups have been amalgamated because of the crossover in their work. The fact that that work involves the two probation, police and prison services shows a very high level of cooperation. It also shows that, while sex offenders are relatively free to move across the island, they are subject to the same notification and supervision arrangements of whichever jurisdiction they are in. That is an extremely good example of a number of agencies on both sides of the border working closely together.
Mr Swann: Minister, the work programme appended to your statement, under the heading "Support for Victims", states:
"Consider relevant developments around the treatment of victims of domestic/sexual abuse and violence".
Like the previous Member, I note the work being done by Ministers, North and South.
When did the Executive's ministerial group on domestic and sexual violence last meet and what recommendations will it feed into this programme advisory group?
Mr Ford: I congratulate Mr Swann on what is, I think, his first direct question on a justice issue. I am not sure whether that means that he will now be on the Committee, given the secret nomination process that has just taken place. I congratulate him on his creativity in seeking to get a matter that is led by DHSSPS in this jurisdiction into a statement dealing with justice cooperation across the two jurisdictions.
To take his first point: the way in which we ensure that we look at how the victims of domestic and sexual violence are treated will be informed by the recent report to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) by Sir Keir Starmer; by the ongoing work of the Police Ombudsman here into investigating how allegations made by Mairia Cahill and others were treated by the police and by the PPS; and by the fact that related inquiries are being conducted by the Garda Síochána. All of that means that we will look at a process as we consider the best way of responding, whether together, in parallel, or separately, to ongoing work in the two jurisdictions.
Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for the work that is done with Frances Fitzgerald and the cross-border cooperation between a wide range of security and justice agencies.
I have a question about psychoactive substances, which have caused a great deal of concern in many constituencies, not least in my constituency of East Antrim. What active work will be undertaken, particularly by Forensic Science NI, and in the control of psychoactive substances on a cross-border basis?
Mr Ford: I thank my colleague for his endorsement of the work of the IGA, although, of course, it is less significant when it comes from a colleague than when it comes from somebody else.
New psychoactive substances (NPS) are a major issue, as has been correctly highlighted, in both jurisdictions and on a wider spread across Europe. As Members will know, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is a reserved matter, but I am pleased that the Home Office has responded to a certain amount of lobbying, including from the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, to look at new legislation that has been introduced in the House of Lords, which builds on the Irish experience.
There will clearly be further pressure on forensic laboratories as they deal with these substances, but the fact that we are now working on a precautionary basis and not having to test each substance individually before it is banned will, I think, make life slightly easier for forensics. Ensuring that we get the best possible benefits of learning from the Irish experience will be an ongoing piece of work. I have no doubt that the fact that I was able to quote the Irish experience to the Home Office has helped to move matters on in the UK.
Mr Frew: How does the fact that the public protection and registered offenders project advisory groups have been merged, which seems to me to be common sense, and the fact that there will be respective police and prison services along with probation services involved in that advisory group, tie in with public protection arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI)? How will the introduction of a child protection disclosure scheme — Northern Ireland's equivalent to Sarah's law — affect that group and how it shares information?
Mr Ford: Mr Frew raises an interesting point, which is a euphemism for "I am not quite sure of the exact answer.". However, the merged public protection group will, in effect, be a North/South mirror on the way PPANI operates with the agencies that have been brought together in Northern Ireland. PPANI considers individual cases; the project advisory group (PAG) looks at the overall policy matters. It will undoubtedly help that there is a single PAG looking at the range of issues that will rate directly across to PPANI arrangements in the same way as we look at the development of a child protection disclosure scheme, in which the Member has a very legitimate interest. We will then have the opportunity to see how that ties in with similar work being done across the border. Again, it is all part of learning lessons because, as far as I am concerned, I want to ensure that the justice system in Northern Ireland is responsive to trends wherever we can learn lessons. If positive work is being done in any part of the world that can affect our work, we should learn the lessons from it. However, we will learn most from our colleagues across the border and across the Irish Sea.
Mr Allister: The important subject of sexual abuse carried out by paramilitaries merits but one sentence in the statement. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the discussion that he has been having with the Republic's Minister about the relocation of Provo perverts over the years? What advances have been made on getting to grips with that historic issue?
Mr Ford: In response to Mr Allister's point about the length of the mention, the simple reality is that, as I said to Mr Swann a few moments ago, inquiries are ongoing. Although the Keir Starmer report is now being considered by the PPS, work by the Police Ombudsman is ongoing. I hope that that work will be completed later this year. An Garda Síochána also has ongoing investigations. All of that means that there was very little that could be considered directly of relevance at this stage by the two Ministers. We therefore noted the ongoing work, but there was little that we could do in the way of decision-making. Mr Allister makes the entirely reasonable point that this is an issue of significant, ongoing public concern in both jurisdictions on the island, and we will need to ensure that we learn lessons from the work on reviewing what happened in Northern Ireland without wishing to create difficulties for the potential for prosecutions in further criminal cases, in whichever jurisdiction they might be.
Mr Douglas: I apologise for my phone going off. I set it to silent, but my cyclometer decided to tell me how many miles that I had travelled from my home to here.
I thank the Minister for his very full statement. Did he have any discussions with his counterparts on maximising European funding, and, if so, can he outline to the House some of the European projects that we can potentially access money for?
Mr Ford: I thank Mr Douglas for highlighting that point, because it will be a significant issue as funding becomes tighter. It was indeed mentioned, and we have asked for a specific report for the next meeting in the autumn. My official who looks after European matters was present to outline some of the work that is being done at this stage, largely under the Horizon 2020 programme, as part of which I had the opportunity to launch what was effectively an all-Ireland publicity day back in April in Belfast, looking with people from different parts of the justice system on both parts of the island at what opportunities there will be in the Horizon 2020 security strand to develop funding opportunities for us. We have one significant advantage: if we cooperate with our colleagues 100 miles down the road, we get the benefits of cooperating with people from a different European state who speak our language, share a large part of our culture and understand our problems, as we then seek to build wider pan-European networks. There have been some very significant successes in that area, mostly led by the PSNI. Unfortunately, because of the tightening of funds, we have not been so successful over the past year or two, and we are hoping to ensure that the Department of Justice does its part — [Interruption.]
— in the general Executive commitment to draw down European funding as far as possible.
It looks as though you are not the only person who was cycling this morning, Sammy.
Mr Speaker: I am glad to see so many Members keeping track of their fitness regime. [Laughter.]
That concludes questions on the statement and interference from telephones. Thank you very much, Minister.
Mr Speaker: I have received notification that the Minister for Employment and Learning wishes to make a statement.
Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Today, I announce the outcome of our review of youth training and our final policy position through the publication of 'Generating our Success: The Northern Ireland Strategy for Youth Training'. At the outset, I emphasise that it was a significant root-and-branch review.
The outcome is not just a series of adjustments to existing provision, but, rather, it constitutes major changes that will culminate in a new system of professional and technical learning for young people in Northern Ireland.
The new system, as outlined in the strategy, will promote progression and greater social mobility by preparing our young people for higher-value opportunities and the jobs of the future. It will better match the needs of and provide a range of benefits to young people, parents and guardians, employers and the wider economy. It will constitute a high-quality parallel route to the traditional academic pathway and provide young people with opportunities for professional education at level 2 and training that will facilitate seamless career progression to sustained employment, an apprenticeship or further education (FE). That will be achieved through a broad curriculum and qualifications to support ongoing career development.
Through investing in the skills of our young people and integrating them into real working environments, we will develop their knowledge and understanding of chosen occupational pathways. Consequently, young people will be better skilled to meet employers' current and future needs, to sustain employment and to support economic growth. Employers are integral to the success of the new system of learning. They will be involved in the design of curriculum content and delivery requirements. Employers will assist with the delivery of the system and the development of the new skilled workers that they require through the provision of work inspiration activities to young people who are not yet sure of their career choice by offering work placements and by establishing a workplace buddy support system.
The new system for youth training should be considered in conjunction with the review of apprenticeships and the new strategy for apprenticeships, Securing our Success, which was launched in June 2014 and is now being progressively implemented. The apprenticeships strategy covers professional and technical training between level 3 and level 8. The new system of youth training presents a transformed offer at level 2. Fundamental changes to the apprenticeship model informed the focus and remit for the review of youth training. It is essential that young people have the opportunity to progress to the highest level, should they wish to do so.
Research has shown that, over the next decade, more than 70% of vacancies will require qualifications at level 2 or above, while employment opportunities for individuals with skill level 1 or below are predicted to decline. In addition, a level 2 qualification is regarded as the minimum prerequisite for further study. To prepare young people for the demands of the labour market, achievement at level 2 will therefore be critical, but there are challenges on the supply side in ensuring that young people reach that level. Last year, approximately two out of five young people left school without five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and mathematics. That measure of achievement at level 2 is, in many cases, the minimum requirement for prospective employers. However, it is encouraging that the majority of young people do leave school with a level 1 qualification and have the potential to progress into the system of youth training.
The youth training review considered the professional and technical training currently provided at level 2, which includes training programmes such as Training for Success — Skills for Work Level 2, apprenticeships at level 2 and mainstream further education at level 2. One of the key challenges identified was the complexity of the current offer, with a variety of different options available to young people. Greater clarity on progression routes was also a key concern highlighted by stakeholders. Employers also expressed concerns about the rigour and relevancy of the qualifications available, as well as the number available at present. Many current options at level 2 only require that literacy and numeracy skills be developed to level 1, which subsequently restricts a young person's access to higher-level training or alternative careers. The review also recognised that the current options face challenges in delivering training that can respond to industry needs and deliver the breadth of skills, knowledge and experience that young people require.
Finally, at an individual and system level, young people require support to guide their choices through independent careers advice and guidance, supported by up-to-date labour market information. Greater monitoring of outcomes and destinations of participants is also required. The review therefore proposed a brand new youth training system to greatly expand the scope of training beyond its present boundaries and, consequently, replace the current options and address gaps to fully provide for the needs of young people who leave school without level 2 qualifications.
The review drew from international best practice in professional and technical education and training systems, a call for submissions and an employer survey. My Department published the interim report on the review for consultation in November 2014. The review benefited from a robust consultation process, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including young people, employers and providers of training. Overall, the response to the consultation was very positive, with broad support for all of the proposals. The expert panel that I established last year has been particularly helpful in providing advice on the emerging proposals, and I am very grateful for their key contribution. Additionally, I wish to thank the Committee for Employment and Learning for its typically positive contribution to the review process throughout the development and consultation stages.
The review resulted in the strategy that I present to the Assembly today, and which will also be published online. Entitled 'Generating our Success: The Northern Ireland Strategy for Youth Training', it is not just another initiative simply to replace existing programmes. It is an innovative and revised system of professional and technical learning for young people aged between 16 and 24. It provides equality of access, irrespective of entry point, that will take youth training at level 2 into new areas. In essence, young people who traditionally may have found themselves trapped in low-paid jobs can now access a pathway to progression that will allow them to move forward, should they wish to do so.
The extensive research base of stakeholder feedback enabled the refinement of the 26 proposals in the interim report, and there are now 22 key policy commitments under four themes: the core features of the youth training system; supporting young people; delivery and employer engagement; and ensuring quality.
The first theme ensures that the new system will be underpinned by a set of core features defining the target group, the routes of progression, the curriculum offered and the expected duration for participants.
All young people aged between 16 and 24 who require training at level 2 will be offered the opportunity to participate in the new system. It is a significant departure from the current provision, as it widens the focus of the new system beyond the current emphasis on training 16- and 17-year-old school-leavers not yet in employment. The offer will be extended to those in employment, those starting a new role and those who wish to change occupation, as well as those not yet in employment. The system will also provide distinct routes of progression: an emplo