Official Report: Tuesday 13 October 2015

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

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The first item of business is a motion from the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on its review of workforce planning. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

That this Assembly welcomes the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety's review of workforce planning; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that workforce planning is fully integrated with the implementation of Transforming Your Care.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to take the motion to the Floor of the Assembly today on an important piece of work around staffing requirements and workforce planning in the delivery of health and social care.

Since the publication of Transforming Your Care in December 2011, the Health Committee has carried out extensive scrutiny of various aspects of the policy and the proposals for implementation. We have looked at Transforming Your Care through the lens of health inequalities, learning disability, supported living for older people, outcomes frameworks and, most recently, workforce planning.

Transforming Your Care aspires to place the individual at the centre of health and social care services, with a shift left from hospital-based services to more community-based services. The strategic implementation plan for TYC acknowledges that achieving that shift left will require substantial workforce planning to ensure that the appropriate staff are in place to deliver that new model of care. Therefore, in light of the importance of workforce planning for the implementation of Transforming Your Care, the Committee decided to conduct a review of the workforce planning model in that context. We wanted to find out what level of progress had actually been made on workforce planning at regional and trust levels. We were also very interested in scrutinising some of the original assumptions in relation to workforce planning, specifically the notion that implementation of Transforming Your Care would require a 3% reduction in the overall workforce. The review looked at the difficulties around recruitment and retention of staff and whether those issues were being addressed by the Department at a strategic level. We also examined the Department's approach to involving staff, professional bodies and staff-side organisations in workforce planning and whether that approach has been appropriate or, indeed, effective to date.

In the course of the review, the Committee took evidence from a wide range of professional bodies representing staff across the health and social care sector, the unions, the health and social care trusts, the Department and the regional workforce planning group that it chairs. We also did a videoconference with officials from the Scottish Government, who provided us with very interesting assumptions on workforce planning.

I would like to refer to the situation regarding recruitment and retention of GPs. There have been 18 recommendations as a result of our inquiry. This was highlighted in the evidence from the BMA, and the Committee heard that GPs are increasingly choosing to leave or retire due to unreasonable workloads. The BMA advised that it has no evidence that investment has been shifted from hospital settings to primary care. It pointed out that there has been no additional investment in GP training places to allow for GPs, as a workforce, to take on new work that has traditionally been carried out in secondary care settings, as envisaged by Transforming Your Care. The Committee is deeply concerned that, while a number of successive reviews have recommended an increase in GP training places, this quite simply has not been implemented by the Department. The Committee therefore recommended that the Department implements the recommendation of the most recent review to recruit an additional 15 GP training places.

Secondly, I wish to highlight the Committee's concerns about the projected size of the workforce under Transforming Your Care. Specifically, the Committee wished to scrutinise the Department's original assumption that the implementation of Transforming Your Care would require a 3% reduction in the overall workforce. That assumption was contained in the public consultation document on Transforming Your Care, which clearly stated that a 3% reduction in the workforce, representing 1,620 staff, would be required for implementation. However, during an evidence session with the Department, the Committee was advised that the 3% figure had only been a working assumption at that time. It had been produced by the Health and Social Care Board, and the Department could not provide details of how the figure had been calculated.

The Committee wrote to the Department on two occasions to ask how the 3% figure had been arrived at, but, as yet, has not received a clear answer. The Committee asked again, in a further evidence session with the board itself, and was surprised by the response from board officials that they simply did not know where the figure came from.

When the Committee asked the professional bodies that gave evidence whether a 3% reduction in the workforce was feasible or realistic, the unanimous opinion was that it was neither. In evidence sessions with the Department, it became apparent that not only was the 3% reduction no longer a working assumption but that it was likely that an increase in the workforce would be required. However, the Department was unable to give an estimation of the size of that increase. In correspondence with the Committee, the Department advised:

"Going forward, no overall target for either an increase or decrease is being set for the HSC workforce as that would be arbitrary and would serve no useful purpose."

Given the increasing growth in demand for services over recent years, we welcome the fact that the Department is not working towards a 3% reduction in staffing as a target required to implement Transforming Your Care. However, we find it somewhat surprising that the Department was not able to advise us exactly how and why that figure was ever in a public consultation document on Transforming Your Care.

Given that it is now more than three years since the publication of Transforming Your Care, and the number of workforce reviews that have been carried out, the Committee finds it difficult to understand why the Department is unable to provide a figure for the size of the required workforce. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department produces an estimation of the percentage increase or decrease in the workforce required to implement Transforming Your Care.

Speaking as a constituency MLA, I would say that workforce planning is central to implementing Transforming Your Care. Staff are our most valuable resource. They are the foundation of our health service, and we need to work with them to bring forward the improvements and changes we all want.

This, today, is another sad indictment of the fact that we do have the DUP in the Chamber to listen but we do not have the DUP Minister at his desk, when evidence after evidence tells us that in terms of our staffing requirement we are heading for the rocks. Nor is he at his desk to respond to the clear recommendations that the Committee brings forward today.

I ask the Assembly to support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McKinney: As SDLP health spokesperson, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and give my party's support to the review into workforce planning by the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

I concur with the remarks of the Chair. I find it ironic that we are discussing workforce planning when the Minister is not at his desk and the Chief Medical Officer is double-jobbing as head of the Belfast Trust. I am disappointed that the Minister is not here.

The health service employs almost 55,000 staff, who are dedicated and professional, and who are working to achieve the highest standards of care for patients in often difficult and stressful circumstances. Their commitment, energy and compassion must receive the highest praise. It is important that we acknowledge that. The pressure they are under is intolerable and the reason for it is systemic failure.

We are here to discuss the key strategic direction of workforce planning in relation to the Transforming Your Care plan. That plan foresaw the strain on the health service, particularly on the expense side, with a growing older population, growing long-term health conditions and a growing need to reach into communities with meaningful health interventions to avoid, as much as possible, people having to go into hospital and essentially racking up big bills.

10.45 am

What did TYC say about workforce planning? Recommendation 79 called for measures to be put in place to ensure that staff are able to work in a manner that supports TYC. Recommendation 95 called for the development of new workforce skills that shifts care towards prevention, self-care and integration to the home. Recommendation 97 called for integration of workforce planning into the commissioning process.

The Committee heard views on these articulated by many substantial representative organisations in the system. The Royal College of General Practitioners said that TYC sets:

"key priorities and performance indicators ... but there has been no outline of how we get to where we want to be ... in two years ... four years and ... six years."

Systemic failure. The unions told the Committee:

"Even though we have asked for it three times, we have not yet seen a breakdown of where the £25 million [for implementing TYC] was spent, how it was spent and where it was applied."

That is the considered view of leading health unions four years into the process. It reinforces the fact that the public have not yet benefited from the implementation of TYC and have scarcely seen its implementation. Worryingly, the BMA advised that it has no evidence that investment has been shifted from hospital settings to primary care. The Royal College of Nursing also pointed out that there has been decline in the number of community nurses over recent years, which similarly seems to be out of step with the direction of shift left under TYC. So, we were getting an absolute chorus of key representative organisations saying the same type of things albeit in slightly different ways.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that we are now faced with added pressures in that a new contract is being talked about for our junior doctors, and they are most unhappy about its direction of travel?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Member for his intervention. We have all been receiving correspondence in this regard; I am sure that the Member has too. While it is not within the confines of this discussion, the new terms of that contract would bring about a complete removal of the GP training service, cut junior doctors' pay by 30% or 40% and stretch the working week at a time when there is a shortage of GPs, A & E and psychiatry trainee doctors, which once again underlines the irony here and the fact that there is not proper strategic planning. We, as a party — I am sure that other parties are too — are concerned that the proposed changes will dissuade medical students from going into the profession, or from staying here if they have gone into it, at a time when we need more of them.

The consensus is clear. These views point in only one direction, which is towards a plan that is simply not being implemented. I should know. I have spent the last two years constantly asking questions about its implementation, only to be fobbed off with obfuscation. First, we were given assurances that it was being implemented and that there were targets in the plan. Then, as the questions piled up, the evidence conveniently disappeared. In the end we had the Donaldson review, which basically called it as it was: a failure of leadership, a failure in commissioning and a failure to deliver. It is the workers, the patients and the public who suffer as a result, and they all deserve better.

The response of the Department and the absentee Minister is even more concerning. During the inquiry, the Committee heard that the plan is not so much a plan any more, rather it is a philosophy. We all love to have a philosophy, but, if you do not have some strategic plan to work to, you are going nowhere. The Health Minister, according to himself, has diluted it even further. It is now about the "principles of TYC" and some vague ambition for world-class healthcare. I remind the Minister that the TYC document made one very important point. It said that to fail to plan for the future would lead to unplanned and haphazard change that will not be in the best interests of patients. So it has come to pass.

Mr McGimpsey: I support the motion on the review of workforce planning and our way forward. I note, as others have, that the Minister is absent, although I will make a prediction here: I think that we are about to see a U-turn, and I have no doubt that the next time that we all stand up to do such a debate, the Minister will be in place and the gag will be off George Robinson, for example, and his party colleagues will be allowed to take part in the debate.

This is an important issue. It is about having the right people in the right place at the right time, with the appropriate skills to address the needs of patients. It is clear that our health service is under enormous stress. We have a plan that we talk about, TYC, Transforming Your Care, which we used to call, in the Department, "shift left" and still sometimes do. That is about moving care increasingly into the community. The principle of moving care into the community was that patients will do better. Patients who are looked after in their own homes will do better, will be happier and will live longer. Their life expectancy will be longer if we can manage to provide that care in the community, as opposed to a hospital setting. The hospital setting has been very much the traditional way that we do things.

The problem, of course, is how you move from one to the other. That needs front-loading and investment. You cannot simply say, "We are not taking them into hospitals. We are keeping them at home," and move staff from hospitals into the community. It cannot work like that. This needs a lot of planning. It needs different skill sets for our staff. The very first thing that you have to do is engage with staff side — BMA, RCN and all the workforce. The representatives must understand what is happening, must not feel that they are being taken by surprise and must feel that they are part of the move. Like others, I was somewhat surprised to discover that the regional planning group excluded staff side and the trade unions. I found that very difficult to understand because, in my time at Health, I had regular engagement with staff side. Sometimes it was quite uncomfortable for me, but we did that on a regular basis. I took the view that, if the trade unions were not on board, whatever you wanted to do would be very difficult.

The big thing that you have in your favour when you are talking to the trade unions is that the health service is essentially their creation, so they want to make it work. They are onside, as are RCN and BMA, so it is not a conflict situation. It is always a situation of partnership. That is the very first thing that I want to see. As we move forward, I want to see re-engagement with staff side, otherwise we will continue in this sort of discussion with the deaf.

We also need to invest in our staff. For example, we talk about planning. The planning is there. The Health and Social Care Board, which I established with a cap of 350 members and no more, is the essential management tool of the health service. When I left there were 335, and it is now over 500, which is an increase of around 40%. When I asked Jim Wells why there was that increase, he said that 70 staff had been recruited specifically for TYC. So we have a TYC workforce in there doing the work. They know what they need to do. They have the plan. I think that they need to share it with us. I am not quite clear that any of us really understand what the plan is. The plan will have benchmarks, not least a time frame.

There are a number of issues here. A much greater burden will fall on general practice and primary care, so the investment needs to be there. We are told, for example, and it is true, that we have the lowest cover as far as GPs per head of population in Northern Ireland as opposed to the other home countries. Also, a percentage of our GPs now are heading towards the end of their career and looking forward to retirement. They need to be replaced. They need that sort of investment. Like many of us, I was shocked to discover that, last year — again, Jim Wells told us — 50 young doctors who graduated from Queen's elected to go and work in Canada and Australia. Each one of those cost the health service £600,000 to train, and away they went. It seems to me that that is a fundamental problem. We have to hold on to our staff. We provide fabulous training. We have the plans, we need the investment and we must hold on to our staff.

Mr McCarthy: As a member of the Health Committee, I fully support the comments made by the Chair and other members who have spoken on this very important issue. Again, however, I express disappointment — indeed, it is shameful — that no Health Minister is present in the Chamber to listen and, more importantly, take action on what is a very important topic. We should be really committed to the pathways outlined in the 'Transforming Your Care' document and backed up by the review commissioned by the Department and delivered by Sir Liam Donaldson.

Our health service is experiencing extreme difficulties, as the permanent secretary reported at the Health Committee last week. Some people say that we are in a crisis; I suggest that the health service, at this time, is in a total and absolute shambles, given the ever-increasing waiting lists. Look at this headline from last week: my constituent has been waiting for two years for hospital treatment — she is one of 373,000. What a shame. Not only that, we have people waiting on vital drugs, and, indeed, there are many other inequalities in our present-day health service, which leave so many people to continue suffering in agony.

This is not what this Assembly is about, and the sooner a Minister gets back to work to overcome the shambles, the better. Let me say loud and clear at this juncture that I, the Alliance Party and everyone in the Chamber have the highest regard for every person engaged in providing our community with an excellent health service, from cleaners right up to the consultants and the highest in the profession. The problem is this: how do we get our constituents to receive this fantastic treatment within a reasonable time frame?

Our report has been a very useful exercise. It arrived at 18 recommendations in total, which, if implemented, would allow our patients to receive the necessary health provision as and when required. One of our terms of reference was:

"To examine the Department’s approach to involving staff, professional bodies and staff side organisations on workforce planning in support of the implementation of Transforming Your Care".

We had nine evidence sessions, and we are grateful to all the witnesses who appeared and for the written submissions received, which resulted in the Committee coming up with the recommendations that I mentioned. I take this opportunity to thank the Committee staff for the work that they did in helping us to produce this report.

One disappointing outcome was the delay in the publishing of the work of the regional workforce planning group. That group started work in August 2012, and its report was only published in April this year. One could be forgiven for questioning why there was such a delay and wondering what opportunities may have been missed.

One of the key outputs of the group is the regional workforce planning framework, which is described as:

"key to moving forward, as it sets out the respective roles of the Department, of the HSCB and the Public Health Agency (PHA) as commissioners, and of the trusts."

Our Committee expressed concern that the RWPG had not been as inclusive as it should have been, thereby missing out on the views of experienced people, such as the Royal College of Nursing, trade unions, the allied health professionals and others.

We recommend that our Health Department asks the board to produce an annual workforce plan as part of its annual commissioning plan and also to consider taking a longer-term approach to workforce planning, rather than the proposed five years.

The Transforming Your Care pathway, now regarded not so much as a plan but as an ethos, has been running for a number of years, from 2011. It would appear that money has not been transferred to places where it ought to go, thus the slowdown and perhaps stoppage in the workings of Transforming Your Care, giving us the shambles that we are presently experiencing.

Workforce planning must surely be an essential component in making best use of all the staff within our Health Department. I believe that our Health Committee has done an excellent job in producing this report. I sincerely hope that, despite having no Minister at the helm — at this time, indeed, we simply do not know who is actually in charge of the Department — progress will be made on behalf of all our constituents who are presently ill or on a waiting list.

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

Mr McCarthy: Staff are the backbone of our health service and are central to delivering the best. They must continue to play a pivotal role. I have every confidence that staff —

11.00 am

Mr Speaker: Thank you. I call Mr Daithí McKay. Your time is long up.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak in support of the motion, obviously. It is ridiculous that we find ourselves once again addressing an empty chair across the way. I see that Mr Robinson is the sole representative of the DUP today; perhaps he would like to sit in the Minister's chair, so that we can have some semblance of a real debate and a response from the other side of the House. This is getting beyond ridiculous.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)

A Phríomh Leas-Chathaoirligh, having just come on to the Health Committee, I am not across the full work of the report, but the importance of workforce planning to productivity, better outcomes, better health outputs and, indeed, the improved health of staff within the health service itself is clear to anyone. From the Committee recommendations it is clear that there are a number of serious concerns that the Department needs to address in terms of Transforming Your Care. These include, for example, the number of GP training places, which has not been implemented by the Department. The Committee is recommending that the Department implement the recommendation of the most recent review to provide an additional 15 GP training places.

The Committee is also concerned that the regional initiatives on normative nurse staffing have not been completed or implemented and by the potential impact that this may have on patient safety. It also recommends that the Department consider how primary care services can be reconfigured across a range of health and social care professionals to deal with the increasing demand for GP appointments.

Recommendation 21 is interesting. As the Chair has already stated, it calls on the Department to produce an estimate of the size of the workforce that will result from Transforming Your Care. This should really be a given. It is surprising that the Department, at this stage of Transforming Your Care, has not carried out this very basic exercise. There are also some real concerns about how the VES (voluntary exit scheme) is being carried out. Such a sizeable movement of staff needs to be a core part of the workforce planning group's work. These need to be strategically aligned urgently to mitigate negative impacts on service delivery.

There also needs to be a common understanding of what TYC is. Is it an ethos? Is it a realisable objective? There seem to me to be a lot of mixed views among stakeholders responding to the Committee. In the Committee's view, the approach to Transforming Your Care of not working to a measurable, costed plan raises key concerns and questions in terms of monitoring, governance and funding. How can an organisation work towards key objectives if there is not a shared view on what they actually are? There is no certainty about what the specific aims and objectives actually are. These are some fundamental basics lacking here, in my view.

There is no doubting the potential in Transforming Your Care. There is no doubting the benefits that there are to be gained. In a situation like this, we need clear leadership and we need clear direction. That would instil confidence in the workforce about where the health service is going and when and, until we get that, we will continue to have all sorts of problems.

It goes without saying that we need a Minister in post to give that leadership and direction. Again, we have a situation where we do not have someone at the helm to respond to the needs of our communities and our workers. This is people's health; this is people's lives; this is a crucial issue for the people whom we represent. Mr Hamilton should really step aside if he is not going to do the job. A lot of people out on the street and around the country would tell you that they would get sacked on the spot if they were not to turn up to work on a Monday or Tuesday morning, as the Minister has been doing for the past few weeks. Of course, Ministers are responsible for billion-pound budgets, so it is a reasonable point made by people that Ministers responsible for those kind of things should be just as accountable as anybody else working in our society.

I have just noticed this morning that it has been noted that the Enterprise Minister is still at work. You have a situation where the Enterprise Minister has been at work, officially, for the past four days, and the Health Minister has not. I do not know what the priorities are within the DUP, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Department of Health is not a number-one priority. There seem to be concerns that the Enterprise Minister needs to be in post to do his job and to sign off on certain things, but it is not as important that the Health Minister be in post.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it is disappointing to hear the present Minister — I do not know whether he is present or not — dismissing the fact that, because he was not there, progress in the health service would not be affected in any way?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McKay: The Member makes a very important point. Some will argue that the Health Minister has one of the most important jobs full stop. Making the argument that it is perfectly acceptable for that post to be left vacant for a few weeks or a few months is absolutely ridiculous.

If the Minister does not want to do his job, let somebody else do it. Let somebody else from the party or someone else in the Assembly do it. There are plenty of capable people across all parties here who should take up the mantle if he is not going to do it, because this is people's health that we are dealing with. The DUP may be more concerned about wind turbines and wind energy at the moment —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr McKay: — but it should be more concerned about hospitals and waiting lists.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an rún seo inniu, agus aontaím le gach rud atá ráite ag na daoine eile. I welcome the debate today and agree with everything said so far by other Members.

TYC was brought forward as a new policy direction for the delivery of health services by the then Minister in 2011. At that time, it was anticipated that £83 million was to be spent and that the shift left would move services from hospitals to community settings in what was seen as a positive move to reflect the changing needs of our population. Agus d’aontaigh muid uilig go raibh athrú de dhíth. We all agreed that change was needed.

The reality is that our health service is constantly under pressure and often in crisis. We live in the context of a growing ageing population; an increase in long-term illness; a constantly growing demand on hospitals and services; a continual drive for greater productivity and value for money; and a workforce that is changing in profile all the time. TYC was heralded as the right direction to take. It was always a requirement that, given such a major change in how services were to be delivered, there would be significant implications for staff in terms of training, work location, job profile and skill sets.

In that context, the Committee agreed to undertake a review of workforce planning to support the implementation of TYC, taking evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. D’fhoghlaim muid cuid mhaith ó na daoine siúd, ach is cúis díomá é an dul chun cinn go dtí seo. We learned a lot from those stakeholders, including that progress to date has been disappointing. The evidence given to the Committee shows that there is a lack of clarity in the planning timetable for implementation. There were failings in the communication between the Department and staff bodies. The regional workforce planning group was set up in 2012, but we learned that, by April 2015, all it had succeeded in doing was producing a planning framework. At a time when we would have expected to have seen many changes bedded in, it seemed an unnecessary delay to be still at the planning framework stage.

A couple of years ago, the Minister said:

"my aim is to have a health and social care system that is safe, resilient and sustainable into the future. For that to be the case, it is essential that we take decisions that will ensure that our services are fit for purpose for the challenges that lie ahead. To achieve that vision, we need to look at how we can improve our health and social care and, in so doing, reshape how we interact with all those who use our services." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 78, p95, col 1].

Cad é a tharla ó dúradh sin? What has happened since that was said? The allied health professionals and the Association of Social Workers told us that they were unsure whether new service models were even being planned for their workforce as part of TYC. Further to that, there was no clear picture of whether a new model operating in one trust area would happen across all trust areas. To illustrate this, the allied health professionals said that, under TYC, some trusts have introduced a practice that enables paramedics to assess, treat and discharge. That is a positive development, but it does not apply across the North as a whole, and they do not know whether it is planned to be so in the future.

Similarly, the BMA advised that it has no evidence that investment has been shifted from hospital settings to primary care. The Royal College of Nursing pointed out that there had been a decline in the number of community nurses over recent years, which seems to be out of step with the shift left under TYC.

During the review, we also heard from trade unions that represent healthcare staff in relation to the impact of the shift left on the workforce. They told us that most organisations were not aware of how that had affected staff on the ground. Having been told earlier by the Department that £25 million had been spent to date on TYC, the trade unions further stated:

"Even though we have asked for it three times, we have not yet seen a breakdown of where the £25 million was spent, how it was spent and where it was applied."

Níl aon bhriseadh síos go fóill ar an chaiteachas go dtí an pointe seo. There is no breakdown yet on what has been spent to date.

We also know that there is a looming GP crisis if steps are not taken soon to address very serious concerns. Our GPs are the valued first point of contact for most of us in the health service, yet we have the lowest number of GPs per head of population here compared with other regions. It is the oldest GP workforce, with 24% over the age of 55 —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Ms McCorley: — and we have an ageing practice nurse population.

Finally, I would like to refer to the recommendations of Claire Keatinge, the Commissioner for Older People —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Ms McCorley: — which are still sitting on the Minister's desk a year after they were recommended.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up. I call Ms Jo-Anne Dobson.

Ms McCorley: I call on the Minister to immediately get back to work and implement the workforce review.

Mrs Dobson: I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Unfortunately, however, as my colleague Michael McGimpsey said, it appears that Mr Hamilton once again has decided that he has better things to do than to be held to account by the Health Committee. Of course, this is the same Mr Hamilton who thought it appropriate four weeks ago to neglect the plight of the 373,000 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or an inpatient treatment at hospital. Then, last week, he failed again to respond to the Ulster Unionist debate on cancer and the SDLP motion on autism. So, today, it has come as no surprise that he thinks it is acceptable to avoid some of the most pressing issues facing his staff across the health service.

The Assembly has spent considerable hours discussing Transforming Your Care. Much of the debate has been constructive, although some of the rest has been less so. Few people will object to the overall objective of the plan, not least in ensuring that Northern Ireland's health and social care system meets patients' needs well into the future. Unfortunately, however, the initial report also made a number of errors. Its comments regarding 50% of statutory care homes were unnecessary and utterly took away from the value of it. Of course, the decision by some of the health trusts to equate the phrase, "at least 50%", to effectively mean 100% was totally disingenuous and caused very real hurt. I well remember meeting scared and frightened care home residents in my constituency, so I think that policymakers need to be much more sensitive when formulating their words.

Of course, aside from that, the implementation of TYC has been completely bungled. As was highlighted in the Committee, the Department could not even give a proper answer on how the £25 million, so far, had been spent. My party has always warned that seeking to move in excess of £80 million from secondary to primary care, at a time of growing pressures, was always unlikely. The Department effectively left the future of TYC at the mercy of monitoring rounds.

Members, demand is changing. As recently revealed by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), the number of people aged 85 and over has grown by over 1,000 each year in the last decade. During that time, the population aged 85 and over increased by 41% — six times faster than the population aged under 85. Whilst that is very welcome, it ultimately has an impact on the health service as it adapts to supporting more people with chronic conditions for longer.

However, the Department is failing even to plan for the present, let alone the future. There are serious staff shortages across our GP service, with many over 55 set to retire next year in radiology and emergency medicine, to name just a few. If people cannot see their GP on time, many of them will be forced to attend A&E, which, in turn, will cause further delays there. That led to our recommendation for the Department to prioritise the recruitment of an additional 50 GP training places.

11.15 am

So TYC was broadly heading in the right direction, albeit with those few issues that my party would like changed, but it was never given the attention that it deserves. The last number of Ministers have referred to it in high-level terms only, as if it was a convenient strategy to use as a fig leaf when they were challenged on what they were doing in regard to the growing problems across our health service. I hope that the Department will read the Committee's report, but if it is not followed up with action then, ultimately, it has been a waste of our time, a waste of their time and a waste of time for the staff and organisations that contributed so openly to it.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I first want to thank the Members for their contributions today. Suffice to say that all of the Members who spoke reflected on the fact that we have an absentee Health Minister. Particularly in the hugely important and very human remit that is health, it is nothing short of a disgrace that, when we are debating critical issues like workforce planning, we have no one to act, listen and respond accordingly.

First of all, I want to refer to a number of Members' comments. Fearghal McKinney highlighted the lack of strategic planning in relation to Transforming Your Care, its implementation and its investment, and referred to the clear consensus that we were actually moving towards a plan that was not being implemented.

Michael McGimpsey said that the system does, of course, need a lot of planning and that part of that engagement has to be proper and meaningful engagement with staff. He specifically referred to the regional planning group, which had excluded the staff side, and called for immediate and proper re-engagement with the staff side.

Kieran McCarthy talked about the extreme difficulties that the health service was experiencing, and said that what is happening in our health service is actually a shambles. He stressed the need for staff involvement in workforce planning.

Daithí McKay is surprised that the Department has not carried out an estimate of workforce requirement. That is a critical piece of learning that has come from the review and the need for a common understanding around Transforming your Care. He questioned whether it was a policy direction or simply an ethos. There was no certainty on what the objectives were. He said that, if the Minister does not want to do his job, he should simply step aside.

Rosie McCorley talked about the reality of the health service, which is currently under extreme pressure. Again, there is a lack of clarity on the way forward. All that had been produced over the period of years was the planning framework. She questioned why so much more had not been implemented.

Jo-Anne Dobson referred to the fact that, given the last number of weeks and our in-out Minister, it is no surprise that the former former Health Minister finds it acceptable not to turn up today and respond to the needs of our staff. She also questioned the 50% target for closure of residential homes that was contained in Transforming Your Care and the fact that the report needs to be followed up by actions.

I just want to refer to another few points in terms of the review. As many have stated, the review contained 18 recommendations, and much has been said in relation to GPs. Critical to that, however, is the entire primary care workforce. As my colleague Rosie McCorley said, that means addressing issues around allied health professionals and, indeed, front-line community and district nursing. We heard very specific evidence from the BMA and the college of GPs. They certainly threw into question the Department's commitment to the goal of Transforming Your Care in terms of leadership.

Both organisations — we should not lose sight of this — referred to a crisis in general practice that cannot be ignored. The BMA and the college of GPs highlighted their concern — again, some Members mentioned this — around the number of GPs. The college said:

"we have the lowest number of GPs per head of ... population ... the oldest GP workforce, with 24% of our GPs over the age of 55; and an ageing practice nurse population."

It went on to refer to the:

"three workforce reviews since 2006, with each highlighting the need to increase the number of GPs."

I suggest that those concerns have, quite simply, fallen on deaf ears.

In conclusion, I thank the Committee members and the staff and researchers for their very robust work on the inquiry and recommendations. Three years into Transforming Your Care, the very benchmark of the delivery of TYC, namely our staffing requirement, is not yet resolved. It is simply not good enough that while, over the last three years, 1,620 staff posts were under threat, now, in the last number of months, we have been told that that was simply a working assumption.

Mr McCarthy: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. We all recognise the problems that she is indicating. You will know that the junior doctors are facing an immense plight: their contracts are up for renewal, and there are proposals, as Fearghal McKinney said, to reduce their pay. What would you, as Chairperson of the Committee, say in view of the fact that we have just conducted this very important inquiry about workforce planning? Where are we going if that junior doctor contract is allowed to go ahead in the way that they are talking about across the water?

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The very clear message is that, at a time when we need to be supporting primary care, which means addressing issues like recruitment and retention, it seems that the most vulnerable end of the system is being targeted. It is a sad indictment that we do not have a Health Minister at his desk to ensure that those changes to contracts are not implemented here and that we protect the rights and entitlements in the contracts of junior doctors.

In conclusion, our health service needs radical reform. That view is not just from me or the Health Committee and most members on it. It has been well documented by many sectors, including professional and staff sectors. The system is complex and overly bureaucratic and it lacks accountability. We need a Minister, for workforce planning and many other issues, to deliver that blueprint. We need a Minister for health, not a Minister for half an hour.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly welcomes the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety's review of workforce planning; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that workforce planning is fully integrated with the implementation of Transforming Your Care.

Private Members' Business

Human Transplantation Bill: First Stage

Mrs Dobson: I beg to introduce the Human Transplantation Bill [NIA 64/11-16], which is a Bill to make provision concerning the consent required for the removal, storage and use of human organs and tissue for the purpose of transplantation; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That constitutes the Bill's First Stage. It shall now be printed.

Mr Allister: I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 61/11-16] be agreed.

In other circumstances, a Bill such as this would not be necessary, but the absence of self-restraint, self-control and self-regulation makes this Bill essential. Over recent times, the provision for and the remuneration of special advisers has got wholly out of control. I say that in the context of the benchmarks created by the provision for special advisers in the other devolved regions of the United Kingdom.

We are the smallest of the devolved regions, yet we have 19 special advisers. Wales, with its greater population, has eight, sometimes nine, but essentially eight special advisers. Scotland has 14. Not only that, but we pay them sums of money that are excessively out of kilter with those which are applicable elsewhere in the devolved regions. In Northern Ireland, the latest figures show that, last year, our 19 special advisers cost the taxpayer £2,016,362. That is an average cost of £106,000 per special adviser. That is what the average package per special adviser costs.

The figures for 2013-14 in Scotland and Wales paint a very different picture. They show that, in Wales, the average cost, in contrast to our £100,000-plus, was £58,500 each. That rose the following year because of an increase in number, which seemed to have been temporary, to £69,000, which is still well shy of the £100,000-plus cost in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, with its 14 special advisers, the average cost is £73,000. What is it about special advisers in Northern Ireland that makes them so special that they have to cost the taxpayer in excess of £100,000 — currently £106,000 — a year, in contrast to £50,000, £60,000 or £70,000 in the other devolved regions?

Yes, there is a role for special advisers, and the more specialist they are — some are and some are not — the more that role perhaps is to be valued, but there is something seriously wrong when, within this jurisdiction, we are overpaying in terms of the benchmark that exists elsewhere. That has been contributed to by deliberate political action in Northern Ireland. A freedom of information request, finally answered after two years, indicated that, in 2011, at the start of the mandate, there was a deliberate political decision to raise phenomenally the top line of special advisers.

11.30 am

Special advisers in Northern Ireland, supposedly in financial terms, fall under two bands — band A and band B. Band A embraces a salary range of between £37,000 and £53,000 a year. Band B embraces a salary range of between £59,000 and £92,000 a year. It evolved to £92,000 a year because of a political decision by the First Minister and the Finance Minister at the start of this mandate, in July 2011, when it rocketed from just over £80,000 to £90,000. That, at a time when senior civil servants, and special advisers are civil servants, were subject to a pay freeze. Also, at the very time when senior civil servants were subject to a pay freeze, a political decision was taken by the Finance Minister to break that freeze as far as this brand of civil servants was concerned, to give them a 10% increase and take them to the dizzy heights where they are today.

The freedom of information (FOI) information is very interesting, because it reveals that it was indeed the First Minister. A memorandum written by the Department's director of corporate human resources at the time indicates that, in May 2011, there was concern. The Minister had been asked by the First Minister how the maximum for the upper pay band for civil servants could be increased. That document from the director of corporate human resources advised that pay rates for special advisers (SpAds) were linked to changes in Civil Service pay bands and were based on the average pay increase agreed for civil servants.

The civil servant who wrote this document went on to say:

"I made clear that these arrangements had been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive in May 2007. I pointed out that Senior Civil Service pay had been frozen for two years and there was to be no increase either in the Senior Civil Service pay reference points or in the base pay between April 2010 and March 2012."

So, the situation was that, back in 2007, the Executive agreed that any pay increase for special advisers would be in line with the arrangements applicable to senior civil servants. However, come May 2011, the First Minister intervenes to see, with the Finance Minister, how, despite that, pay increases could be obtained. The documentation on the FOI goes on to record the fact that on 14 July that year, another civil servant — having been told that the Minister was minded to give the phenomenal increase, to break the pay freeze as far as these civil servants were concerned — wrote in a memo:

"I indicated I had serious reservations about this particular issue, considered that the Minister should reconsider, given the decision taken by the Executive and the recent events surrounding special advisers and wanted the Minister to reflect on the matter."

The civil servant added:

"Nothing could happen because it was a holiday time, and I wanted to reflect on this issue, as I considered that it conflicted with the code of ethics which I was required to follow".

That is a senior civil servant advising the Minister that what they were being asked to sign off for special advisers potentially conflicted with their Civil Service code of ethics and urging the Minister to reconsider. Did he? No, he did not. In July 2011, at the height of the holiday season, the Minister slipped through a top-line increase for special advisers from over £80,000 to £90,000 a year. It breached the attachment of increases to those in the Senior Civil Service.

One of the purposes of the Bill is to protect against further flagrant breaches of that nature and to bring a very defined legislative attachment between the pay of this brand of civil servant — special advisers — and other senior civil servants. Of course, once the salary band had been increased to £90,000, events took their natural course, and, lo and behold, we discovered that, until Ms Pengelly resigned as a special adviser, all three of the First Minister's special advisers were on the £92,000 top line of band B.

The evolution from 2011 to 2015 is most interesting. In the first days of this Assembly — the 2007 Assembly and the 2011 Assembly — there was, as you would expect, a spread of special advisers across band A, the lower band, and band B, the higher band. However, by last year, every one of the 19 special advisers — surprise, surprise — was on band B. There was no one left on band A. Indeed, it was not until the Minister of the Environment changed his special adviser — in July 2014, I think — that a special adviser, again, fell within band A. So it is clear, and should be clear to the House, that the idea that this matter can be left to self-restraint and self-control is a myth. Every opportunity has been taken by some to exploit the situation and cream off from the taxpayer the maximum special advisers' remuneration.

What of the number of special advisers? We have 19, compared with eight in Wales and 14 in Scotland. Indeed, the office of the joint First Ministers has the same number of special advisers — eight — as the whole of the Welsh Government. That is how preposterous and out of hand this matter has got. The Bill proposes that, there being no self-restraint, we should restrict the number of special advisers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The formula that is suggested — and I am not wedded to this formula whatsoever — is that the three special advisers that the First Minister and deputy First Minister each have presently should be reduced to one and that the junior Ministers have one each. The junior Ministers historically did not have special advisers. That was a creation of 2007, when it was decided to add to the number of special advisers and to give the junior Ministers in OFMDFM a special adviser each. Before that, there were three for the First Minister and three for the deputy First Minister; a total of six. By that method, it became eight. My ambition and suggestion in this Bill is to reduce the number to four. Whether that is done, as the Bill stands, by reducing the number for the First Minister, deputy First Minister and junior Ministers to one each or by reducing the number to two each for the First Minister and deputy First Minister and taking away the provision for the junior Ministers to have a special adviser each, which apparently was not needed before 2007 — I do not really have a strong view. I think that it can be done either way.
It is preposterous that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister needs the same number of special advisers as the entire Welsh Government and pays them something like 50% more than they are paid in Wales. Even in the whole United Kingdom Government, which is one that deals with the full range of governmental issues and international issues, the average cost of a special adviser in Westminster is more than £20,000 less than the average cost in Northern Ireland. On the latest figures, the package for a special adviser in Westminster costs £83,500. In Northern Ireland, a special adviser's package costs £106,000.

Whether you make the comparison, which I think is the relevant comparison, with the other devolved institutions, or whether you make it even with the national Government — and take upon yourself all the pretensions of such a comparison — it is totally out of kilter. Since it has got there by deliberate political meddling in the setting of the bands to push them ever higher and to decouple them from the natural progression of any increases that come within the Senior Civil Service pay bands, and since it has been that political meddling that has ignited the increase, I am saying to this House that it should get a grip on this thing and should itself legislate to put a ceiling on the runaway costs of special advisers.

I suggest that we link them properly and permanently to the pay scale of a relevant senior civil servant. I suggest that that would more than adequately be met by attaching special advisers' pay to the pay scale that is applicable to assistant secretaries — grade 5s — in the Civil Service. What is that pay scale? Currently it starts at £65,422 and maxes out at £78,275, so it ranges from £65,000 to £78,000. I am not saying, and the Bill does not say, that that should be the pay of every special adviser. I anticipate retaining bands A and B. I remind you that band A starts at £37,000. What this legislation will do is say that, in every case, special advisers' pay is capped at the grade 5 Senior Civil Service pay rank. In other words, no one could earn more than £78,000 as a special adviser, which still keeps them handsomely ahead of what their counterparts in Wales or Scotland are paid.

11.45 am

It is not a matter of being mean to the Northern Ireland special advisers. This legislation is still generous to them, but in a way that restores some element of accountability in pay structures. It removes the potential for political meddling such as we saw in 2011 in the massaging of those pay structures and it puts us on something of a par with what you would expect elsewhere.

The Bill tackles the number of special advisers and, if there is a reformulation of Departments, those numbers will, naturally, fall in consequence of a reduction in the number of Departments. However, that does not address the primary irritant, when it comes to a common-sense approach to the issue, of OFMDFM being oversubscribed with special advisers. The Bill seeks to address that and seeks to bring some reasonable measure to the pay issues.

The third thing that the Bill does — since special advisers are civil servants — is to address the problem that arose on foot of the Red Sky affair, where an independent, fact-finding investigation by the Department of Finance and Personnel into a DSD special adviser Mr Brimstone recommended that there should be a disciplinary process in respect of him. What happened? His Minister, who appointed him, quashed it. He stepped in and said that it was not needed and that there would be no investigation. It is not the purpose of a Minister to determine when there should or should not be a Civil Service disciplinary process. Civil servants are civil servants and it is for the processes of the Civil Service to apply to him and to them all. Special advisers cannot expect to gain from all the benefits that come from being a civil servant, such as the pension scheme and all that, but dodge and evade the disciplinary possibilities that come as to their conduct. The Bill, on that third limb, would make it abundantly clear that the normal disciplinary processes of the Civil Service would also apply to these civil servants who are special advisers and would expressly prohibit any ministerial meddling in that. That, I think, is right.

I respectfully suggest to the House that, because of the failure to self-restrain in all these matters, legislation is now necessary on this matter and that what the Bill contains is not a punitive but a measured response to the situation. I trust, on that basis, that it will find favour with the House.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for outlining the general principles of the Bill and his rationale for bringing forward the proposed legislation. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which, presumably, will scrutinise the Bill's provisions should it pass Second Stage today.

I note that the main provisions, as outlined by Mr Allister, are: first, to ensure that special advisers are subject to the Civil Service disciplinary code; secondly, to limit their remuneration to the Senior Civil Service grade 5 scale, which is £65,422 to £78,275; and, thirdly, to reduce the number of special advisers or SpAds in OFMDFM from eight to four.

Whilst I was unable to attend last week’s Committee meeting, I understand that members received a useful briefing from Mr Allister, which provided an initial opportunity to tease out the policy intentions of the Bill and related issues. I also noted the significant media interest in the discussion. If I may, I will summarise and reflect on some of the main points covered at last week’s session that perhaps will help to inform today’s debate.

The proposer of the Bill set out the policy context of the current special adviser arrangements and the associated cost, especially during this time of austerity. He pointed to the potential for the Bill to make "modest but significant" savings to the public purse. Members were advised that over 98% of the 150 respondents to the policy consultation were in favour of the Bill. However, it was noted that the responses were from individuals, as opposed to representative groups, and some members also queried the extent of information provided in the consultation document.

On the absence of views from representative groups and other bodies, I can advise that members subsequently agreed that, subject to the Bill passing Second Stage, written and oral evidence will be sought from key stakeholders, including the Department of Finance and Personnel, the trade unions, the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. I also anticipate that the Committee will issue a wider call for evidence, which would be published on the commencement of the Committee Stage.

A further issue that the Committee explored with Mr Allister was the rationale for setting the special advisers pay scale at the level of NICS grade 5. I expect that members will wish to give further consideration to the setting of this particular scale and associated pay progression, the job evaluation used to grade a special adviser post as well as the logistics of setting this salary. Members may also wish to explore further the mechanism for agreeing the starting point for a special adviser and whether this should change in the future. Members were also keen to explore the extent to which the position of special advisers here can be compared with that in other devolved Administrations, including other multi-party Governments. In particular, the question was raised as to whether additional skill sets and requirements arise from the particular political divisions and complexities of our power-sharing arrangements here, including the nature and extent of negotiations that are undertaken and, obviously, are always ongoing.

A further question that was raised during the session was around how we can ensure that the right calibre of person is attracted to the special adviser post and that the salary is commensurate with their level of skills and qualifications. Reference was made, for example, to the role of the special adviser in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. There was also some discussion on the possibility of including a speciality clause in the Bill, which would enable particular professional requirements for SpAds in given Departments to be defined and as regards what the remuneration may be in such cases.

Other points discussed during the session with Mr Allister included the impact of the restructuring of Departments on the number and role of special advisers, the fact that the provisions of the Bill would not take effect until the beginning of the next parliamentary mandate and that there will be no issues with contractual obligations or retrospective application and whether the Civil Service disciplinary procedures would need to be amended, either via the Bill or administratively, to enable their application to special advisers.

Subject to Second Stage being agreed, the Committee will want to give detailed consideration to the Bill. Whilst this will take place against an already very heavy work programme, I am sure that the Committee will do its very best to ensure that it concludes its deliberations within a reasonable time frame.

To conclude, I believe that the evidence session that the Committee had last week with Mr Allister was useful in providing an initial opportunity for members to explore the principles of this Bill and the related considerations. Today's debate offers a further opportunity for that, and I look forward to hearing Members' contributions in that regard.

Mr Lyons: I welcome the opportunity to put my party's views on the Bill on record. I am speaking on the subject further to Mr Allister's appearance before the Finance and Personnel Committee last week.

If I were to bring a private Member's Bill to the Assembly, I would seek to maximise the opportunity for support. I would speak to other parties, listen to concerns and try to find a way for my original objectives to be incorporated in a Bill that could gain the support of the House. The lack of consultation and cooperation with other parties, along with Mr Allister's words and tone this morning, suggest that the Bill is more of an opportunity for him to grandstand than to provide better government for Northern Ireland. In my opinion, he should have followed the example set by the Member for South Down Mr McCallister in how to consult with good grace on a private Member's Bill.

The Bill is short, touching on three main issues. However, I believe that each of the three main issues in the Bill has its weaknesses, and, in concern, I want to address those. The first one is in relation to discipline. The Bill completely removes the power of Ministers in those matters. It ignores the fact that a special adviser is a temporary political appointee who is appointed by, and supports, the Minister in his or her duties in a way that permanent civil servants cannot. To remove Ministers from such decisions is out of step with the practice in the rest of the UK, and it seems illogical for Ministers not to have authority in those matters.

Secondly, the Bill attempts to change the pay band for special advisers by linking it to the pay scale for an assistant secretary at grade 5 in the Civil Service. However, there seems to be no justification for it being tied to that level. Mr Allister mentioned that grade 5 is the level at which some special advisers would communicate with people in the Civil Service, but I do not think that this is an appropriate way in which to tie it. Mr Allister was pressed on that a couple of times in Committee, and I do not believe that proper justification has been given. What are the duties required in that job? What are the necessary skills that are comparable to those for a grade 5 in the Civil Service? We are not arguing that the pay levels of special advisers should not be reviewed. However, setting pay scales has always been a matter for the Executive and the Minister of Finance, and I do not believe that it should be specified in legislation.

Finally, the Bill seeks to cut the number of special advisers. Mr Allister stated today, and when he was before the Committee, that he believes that the cost of special advisers is too high, that government is too big and that we need to cut down. I could not agree more: we do need to do all those things. That is why I am pleased that my party has led the way on the reform of government in Northern Ireland. As a result, we will cut the number of Departments from 12 to nine next year and, as a result of that, we will have at least three fewer special advisers. In addition, we will cut the number of MLAs by the 2021 election. I would prefer that to happen sooner; I would prefer it to happen next year. I think that 108 is too many.

I do not think that we need that many. We are more than happy for that to be brought forward if other parties agree.

12.00 noon

Let us take all the different reforms, such as cutting the number of Departments, SpAds and MLAs, as a whole. These are significant reforms that will help to tackle the concerns that many people have about the cost and size of government in Northern Ireland. However, the problem with the Bill is that it seeks to cut the number of special advisers in OFMDFM without taking into account the ongoing discussions on the size and functions of the new Executive Office. It is inconceivable that the number of Ministers and special advisers in that new Department would not be up for discussion as a result of the removal of functions from that new Executive Office to other Departments. To change in legislation and specify the number of special advisers that a Department should have while those discussions are ongoing would tie the hands of the Executive, and it is much more preferable, in my opinion, that we work out what the functions and responsibilities of that Department will be, and then decide what support is needed for Ministers.

Much has been made of the comparison between Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales, as other devolved nations in the kingdom. In my opinion, we cannot compare them. Scotland and Wales are one-party Governments. I am sure that Members will have read the written evidence that was submitted to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee on political special advisers when it held its inquiry at Westminster. The evidence is clear that the nature and role of SpAds are different in a coalition Government in comparison with in a one-party Government. That shows us that they cannot be directly compared. Similar statistics from New Zealand, which has operated with multiparty Governments over the last number of years, show the same thing. Yes, there is perhaps a need for greater advice, as Mr Allister indicated during his evidence to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. I want to be very clear; I am not saying that OFMDFM, or the new Executive Office as it will be called, should be protected from reductions in the number of SpAds, and it is very likely that we will see reductions, but cutting it to a single adviser for the Ministers in that new Department does not seem appropriate to me when you consider the difficulties and problems that exist in Departments such as those.

Even taking that into consideration and understanding that there are differences between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let us just consider Scotland for a short period. I am sure that Members will be familiar with the Research and Information Service pack that was provided for this debate. If Members were to read that, they would see that the First Minister of Scotland has six special advisers who answer only to her and are responsible only for her Department. In addition, her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, is also responsible to the First Minister and works the majority of her time for the First Minister, but she also works on a temporary basis for the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs. I argue that there is a difference between Northern Ireland and other devolved regions such as Scotland, but it is very clear that, even in a one-party Government, there is a requirement for special advisers. I am not saying that they should be protected in the new Executive Office; I am saying let us make a rational decision on what is required in that Department.

In summary, the Bill changes the role of SpAds in the Department in terms of the disciplinary procedure, and it would be to the detriment of the Minister and the effective running of the Department if they were brought closer into line with the Civil Service. There is also no justification given for linking the pay of special advisers to grade 5 in the Civil Service. The Bill ignores reforms that are already taking place, and the number and cost of SpAds are going to be cut.

Mr Allister made a point very clearly at the start of his presentation to the Committee for Finance and Personnel that the reason for the Bill was to cut the cost and number of SpAds. We say very clearly that that is already taking place. That is happening through the reforms that have already been discussed, negotiated and agreed. I am pleased that we can stand here towards the end of this Assembly term and say that we have gone further in this mandate than in any other in terms of reform of the Assembly and the structures here. I want to see further reform. I hope that that will happen but we have made good progress and that should be welcomed by everyone in the Chamber. As a result of those issues and what I have said, we make it clear that we will be opposing this Bill.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé sásta éirí anseo ar maidin le tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo a fhéachann le leasú a dhéanamh ar phá agus ar dhisciplín na gcomhairleoirí speisialta.

I support the Bill at this Second Stage, albeit with some reservations. Mr Allister is fast becoming the special adviser to the Assembly on special advisers, although he may not be rewarded with the same level of remuneration that is average for existing special advisers. Nonetheless, the SDLP welcomes this Bill and the areas that it seeks to probe and amend.

Mr Allister came to the Finance Committee last week and outlined the reasons behind tabling his Bill, those being the controversy surrounding the number, cost and disciplinary regime applicable to SpAds. Clause 1 aims to amend the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 to make special advisers subject to the prevailing Civil Service disciplinary process. That would require the code of conduct to provide that special advisers are subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code operative in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As was pointed out earlier, that would prevent Ministers from blocking attempts to discipline special advisers. As Mr Allister pointed out, the genesis of this seems to be an incident that arose in relation to the Red Sky affair.

Special advisers are classified as temporary civil servants. As such, they are supposed to be subject to the NICS code of ethics and a special adviser-specific code of conduct. In relation to special advisers being subject to Civil Service disciplinary proceedings, I asked Mr Allister if there was any need to change or amend the existing disciplinary code to include the work of SpAds. He thought that the code could still apply. I would welcome the opportunity to explore this area in more detail, perhaps at Committee Stage, with the advice of the head of human resources in the Civil Service or, indeed, the head of the Civil Service. Although special advisers are classified as temporary civil servants, they have a different role from civil servants and are not the same. We must ensure that that difference in role is reflected in the Civil Service disciplinary code in order to accommodate them.

Clause 1 also requires the code for appointments to prescribe that special advisers must not be remunerated above the rate applicable to grade 5 civil servants, which is between £65,000 and £78,000 approximately. Mr Allister pointed out that the collective current cost of special advisers is in excess of £2 million and that the average individual cost is around £103,000. That certainly is a high salary. Ironically, in some cases, special advisers are paid more than the Ministers who they advise and work for. We are all led to believe that the buck stops with the Minister, but, with a salary of this magnitude, one wonders whether it should stop with the special adviser rather than the Minister. It seems ridiculous that special advisers are paid more than the heads of Departments, namely the Ministers.

A question arose about the comparisons that Mr Allister made between Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales and Whitehall. Some Committee members believe that he was not comparing like with like. Once again, that is an area that can be explored in more detail and with more evidence at Committee Stage. I note that 98% of respondents to the consultation carried out by Mr Allister said that the salaries of SpAds should be reduced to bring them into line with what is paid in other devolved institutions, although we have heard some aspersions cast on Mr Allister's consultation that it did not throw the net widely enough, most of the respondents were individuals and no public or corporate bodies responded. Maybe Mr Allister would like to respond to that when he sums up this debate.

He explained during the Finance Committee meeting that his rationale for setting special advisers' pay at grade 5 of the Civil Service pay scale is that that is the level of civil servants with whom special advisers engage. Whether or not that should be the determining factor could also be looked at in more detail. I questioned Mr Allister at the Committee as to the savings that would be made through the enactment of his Bill. For obvious reasons, he was unable to give precise sums, but he did say that a substantial amount of money would be saved each year. When we look at the average cost of a special adviser at around £103,000, we see that substantial savings would be made were that to be reduced to a maximum of £78,000. At this time of austerity, we need to make all the savings that we can.

Clause 2 seeks to amend the Civil Service Commissioners Order to reduce the number of special advisers in OFMDFM from eight to four. Under the current system, each Minister of the Executive, including junior Ministers, is entitled to make one appointment, but the First Minister and the deputy First Minister can appoint three each. That, again, is higher than is the case in Scotland and Wales, where they have 14 and eight special advisers respectively across all the Government. Even with the reduction in OFMDFM SpAds from eight to four, we would still have more special advisers than Scotland and Wales. In OFMDFM, we have junior Ministers to advise and support the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and we also have SpAds to advise and support the junior Ministers. That seems to be a little bit ridiculous.

12.15 pm

I note that, during the consultation process, 98% of respondents to the consultation on the Bill agreed that the number of SpAds should be reduced. Some 92% said that it was reasonable to reduce the number in OFMDFM from eight to four.

At the Committee, Mr Allister was asked how he could be sure that the roles and responsibilities of SpAds in Scotland and Wales were comparable to those of SpAds in Northern Ireland, especially in relation to complexities arising out of political divisions here. His response to that was that the fact that four special advisers are afforded to the First Minister and deputy First Minister more than allows for those special circumstances and possible complexities. The SDLP agrees, as I have said before, that there should be a reduction in special advisers. We believe that eight SpAds for a single Department is extremely excessive.

Mr Allister was also asked about how the restructuring in Executive Departments would impact on the need for special advisers. He said that if the number of Departments decreases, the number of special advisers will go down accordingly. That would have an added impact on the cost reduction of special advisers.

The SDLP is happy to support the Second Stage of the Bill, in the knowledge that, at Committee Stage, we will have the opportunity to explore some of the issues that we have raised in more detail and in the context of evidence from a wider selection of individuals and public bodies than Mr Allister had access to.

One of the points that I raised with Mr Allister at the Committee was the nature of the speciality that these advisers lay claim to. Since his Bill contains the word "special", should his Bill not have reflected what degree of speciality special advisers should have? He replied to me that he was open to looking at any amendment that might seek to define "speciality" in relation to advisers.

Ag an phointe seo, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé sásta gur phléigh mé leis na mór-phointí a eascraíonn as an Bhille seo, agus, mar a dúirt mé cheana féin, beidh deis agam ag Céim an Choiste na rudaí seo a iniúchadh níos mine. As I said, I look forward to the Committee Stage of the Bill and to examining some of the issues in more detail. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Cree: At this stage, the difficulty is always that nearly everything has been said, but, seeing that I have written it out, I will say it anyway.

Mr Allister's Bill is really straightforward and very simple, as referred to by many Members. There are three distinct clauses. The first deals with special advisers — this is my order of priority — and stipulates that these advisers should be subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that applies to the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. The second is remuneration, a subject well ventilated today. There is logic in having a cap and a scale, and, therefore, I do not see any difficulty with that. The third clause deals with the reduction of the number of advisers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Allister referred to the Red Sky investigation. Following that, a special adviser was subject to a fact-finding independent investigation by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Department recommended the instigation of a disciplinary investigation. As Mr Allister pointed out, the relevant Minister was able to override that, and I think that that was wrong. Special advisers are civil servants and, therefore, should be amenable to the existing disciplinary code.

We heard a lot about the number of special advisers, a subject fairly well trotted over. There are 19 in Northern Ireland, costing £2 million at the last count, which is an average salary of £103,500, as I have it, though I heard figures of up to £106,000 mentioned. Wales has only eight SpAds — the same number as employed in OFMDFM — costing £58,000. Scotland has 14 SpAds, whose average earnings are £73,000. The question is this: why do we in Northern Ireland need so many special advisers? The eight SpAds in OFMDFM certainly have not improved the performance of that Department.

The third objective of the Bill is to set a salary scale and a cap to control the cost of special advisers. Mr Allister pointed out that this is necessary, and I believe that, too, particularly in these difficult financial times. Unilateral action was taken by the Minister to upgrade the salaries, but that should not be at the whim of a Minister.

Much has been made of the necessary qualifications of advisers. We discussed at the Committee what were the necessary qualifications, if any. There is a contrast between the salaries that can be commanded in the private sector and those in the public sector. My view is that this is a red herring, as individuals decide their career structure, and the qualifications and job specifications for special advisers set out the terms for the respective posts.

In 2011, the First Minister — I learn now that it was only the First Minister, though I have written down that it was the First Minister and deputy First Minister — increased the salaries of special advisers from £80,000 to £90,000 during a period of pay freeze, which is certainly not a very good example.

It seems to me that action needs to be taken to control the numbers and costs involved, and, therefore, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I am satisfied to allow the Bill to proceed to the next stage.

Mrs Cochrane: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which seeks to put in place stricter measures for the remuneration and accountability of special advisers, as well as to amend the number of special advisers who can be appointed by Ministers. Others have covered a number of the points, so I will try not to repeat them. Also, because I have a very sore throat, I will keep my comments shorter.

I support the principles of the Bill. When it comes to spending public money, any measure that seeks to improve transparency and efficiency should be welcomed, especially as we are keen to try to make savings in other areas. As others said, the Bill focuses on three key areas. First, it ensures that special advisers are subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that operates in the Civil Service, and, given that a SpAd is treated as a temporary civil servant, that seems like a natural step.

Secondly, the Bill looks at the salaries of special advisers and makes proposals to limit them. Currently, as others have said, a SpAd can earn between 25% and 90% more than an MLA and in and around the same figure as senior civil servants. To some, this would appear to be excessive, given that they can be appointed without abiding by typical recruitment rules and the principle of merit, nor are they democratically elected. Others acknowledge the capabilities of many special advisers and argue that they work at a level that should attract current salary scales. I think that the Bill gives us a good opportunity to consider this issue, and I look forward to discussing this further in Committee Stage to ensure that fair and appropriate measures and remuneration guidelines are in place.

Thirdly, there is the proposal to reduce the number of special advisers that exist in OFMDFM. We have said that there are currently 19 special advisers overall in the Assembly, and clause 2 deals specifically with cutting the number in OFMDFM from eight to four. Again, I welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to consider this important issue. At face value, it seems that we are way out of kilter with other devolved institutions. However, I do think that the current proposal seems quite a blunt tool, and I think that more could be done in this area. We could be even more creative with it, so that the Bill actually becomes much more operationally effective. For example, in the past I have proposed that junior Ministers should perhaps be reallocated to the larger Departments with a greater spend, such as the Department of Health. Perhaps there is an opportunity to put in place stricter rules to ensure that we have different levels of special advisers with varying salary scales and appropriate skills to ensure that they are better utilised to help deliver better public services, because that is what we are actually here for. So, I look forward to exploring this issue also at Committee Stage.

In closing, I support the passage of the Bill today to Committee Stage, but I think that there is work to be done on it to make it a really operationally effective Bill.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I suppose that, in one respect, some of the issues in the Bill do require some sort of public focus. That is fair enough, but we do not believe that the legislation is the vehicle to do that. Indeed, in terms of reductions in salaries, Daithí McKay, the Chair, who has already spoken, on behalf of Sinn Féin on a number of occasions has put the challenge out that perhaps there should be a 15% reduction across the board, but even the sponsor of the Bill did not reply to him. I suppose that it is no surprise given that Sinn Féin is the party that proposed this.

I think that even in principle this Bill is an amendment to the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act 2013, which we believe was bad and discriminatory. Indeed, in our opinion, that Bill was vindictive and targeted at a republican ex-prisoner, who subsequently had to leave that particular post. We do not see this Bill as in any way materially different. There may be a popularity around this. Mr Allister is well known as an opponent of these institutions, and he takes every opportunity that presents itself to attack them.

I even look at the consultation, and our points have been made. It is a very poor consultation document, even in terms of the disciplinary code. There was one single question and no explanation of the need or rationale. Indeed, he describes them as "other civil servants". SpAds, whatever you think about them — and people are entitled to their opinion — are not "other civil servants". The legislation is very clear: they are temporary civil servants. They are not recruited by the Civil Service, and they do not go through the same procedures. Indeed, we would have difficulties with how the Civil Service recruits, because, again, we believe that it is discriminatory, and even putting someone into the realm of that disciplinary code could create the situation where other people would be asked to leave their position. We would certainly never be in a position to support that.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Why does the Member defend, in a time of austerity, the significant increase in SpAd pay from the £80,000 cap to £93,000? Can the Member explain and justify that increase in pay to a level well above an average wage?

12.30 pm

Mr McCartney: I certainly could not, nor will I. There has to be a discussion around that. People can vote with their feet. We proposed a 15% reduction in all regions in times of austerity. In this party, we know that, because we take the average industrial wage for our salaries, so perhaps if we had discussed this before Danny Kennedy left, then if his SpAd had been on a different band, the Member might have had a different position.

However, this idea of consciences suddenly being pricked about particular things in the absence of anything being done about them — whited sepulchres — will ring hollow with people. We will vote with our feet. We asked whether people wanted to make a voluntary contribution of a 15% reduction across the board. Sinn Féin tabled that as part of a Budget, which people opposed. So, I will not take lectures from the Member on that.

As I said, there may be issues here that need some teasing out in the public domain. We do not think that legislation is the proper way forward. We do not think that the motivation of this particular Member is about the public good; it is more about attacking these institutions. He is on record as having done so: we have seen how he used the Special Advisers Act in the past to attack republican ex-prisoners in particular, and we will stand as gatekeepers to ensure that that does not happen in the future.

Mr Agnew: I welcome the Bill. To reiterate a point I made yesterday; it is good to see private Member's Bills coming forward in the absence of legislation coming from the Executive. For a number of weeks, sessions were finishing at 3.30pm, after ministerial questions. However, due to the debate on Mr McCallister's private Member's Bill yesterday, we had a full plenary session, and I anticipate that that will be the case again today due to this business. It is to be welcomed that, whilst the Executive may be failing, the Assembly and the Back-Benchers are showing leadership and ensuring that the House continues to do the work that we are paid to do.

I welcome the Bill and, in particular, the proposal to bring SpAds under the code of conduct for civil servants. Again, speaking to Mr McCallister's Bill yesterday, I expressed my concern about the lack of accountability for Ministers. Where there are perceived breaches of the code of conduct for Ministers, and this extends to SpAds, there is no formal mechanism for investigation. These people are paid through the public purse, and the public should, and do, rightly expect there to be transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, in the case that Mr Allister referred to, that accountability was not there. Accountability to your own party and to your own Minister is not sufficient. There must be independent investigation and adjudication, and that element of the Bill is very welcome.

In the Assembly, we cannot set the standards for society and somehow expect those standards to not apply to us. As an MLA, I am subject to the code of conduct; I am subject to independent investigation. The same should be true for Ministers and their special advisers.

I think that the sponsor of the Bill will find much sympathy with the cap on pay among the wider public. I am wary that, somehow, there is always an attack on high pay and we have to look at whether it is justified, but a pay cap of £75,000 would certainly not make victims of special advisers. I think that that is a fair cap. Mr Allister referred to other jurisdictions and the salaries paid there. I do not think that there is an argument to be made that, somehow, special advisers are required to work at a higher level here than in other jurisdictions, or that their job is somehow more onerous. I think that we can, and should, take evidence from elsewhere and base our salaries here on those findings.

Reference was made to the number of SpAds within OFMDFM. Mr Allister has said that he is not wedded to the formula suggested, and others have said that there may need to be more flexibility at the Committee Stage should the Bill pass today, and I hope that it will. The Committee can take time to tease those issues out.

It seems to me to be hard to justify having eight SpAds within the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Due to the nature of that role, we do have two joint Ministers and not one, as Mr McCallister pointed out yesterday, and the junior Ministers that go with that., but to justify a total of eight SpAds seems difficult. Whilst four seems to me to be a sensible proposal, others seem to think that there needs to be more flexibility, and, of course, we need to have regard to the proposed changes in the number of Departments and the structure of the Assembly. However, under our current structures, a reduction from eight to four certainly seems to be a worthwhile proposal to consider, and I look forward to seeing what evidence comes out during the Committee Stage.

This is the second private Member's Bill on special advisers to come forward from Mr Allister. With his first Bill, I made a point about the recruitment of special advisers, and I will make it again now. Many have made the point that they are appointed by Ministers; and that appointment process should be examined as part of the scrutiny of the Bill. In bringing the pay and code of conduct into line with that of senior civil servants, I think that the recruitment method also needs to be brought into line with that of senior civil servants. I made that point during the passage of the previous SpAd Bill.

No one is sadder than me that Mr Sammy Wilson is no longer a Member of the House. Somehow, he made an argument that, "No, this is politics; you cannot recruit people from outside; you could not possibly have a DUP SpAd who was not a member of the DUP." That type of attitude feeds into the perception out there, which is that the political class believes itself to be a class apart and that, somehow, what we do is so different from any other profession, that it is right that we should be able to get around recruitment rules and legislation and can have something different for ourselves because we are different, and what we do is different here, and we run government, which is special.

I question that logic. Many professions require secrecy and require staff to access confidential information, whether they are workers in the health service with access to people's medical records, people in the justice system with access to criminal records, or those who work in banks with access to people's financial records. Processes are in place to ensure confidentiality, propriety and probity. Whilst those standards would be required in any special advisers recruited, I do not think that there is an argument to say that recruitment cannot be done with openness, transparency and accountability.

I use my own recruitment of staff as an example. I recruit openly and have recruited a number of staff from outside the pool of Green Party membership. Due to the nature of the work, many of them have then become members of the party, but if I am recruiting a researcher, I see no reason why that researcher has to be a member of the Green Party. Equally, I see no reason why special advisers should be appointed solely from within the pool of a political party and appointed without interview and merit criteria set and without that being done transparently. Possibly, Ministers do that: I do not know. Possibly, when they are appointing people, they set the criteria for what they are looking for; but it is not transparent and public money is being used to pay the wages of special advisers. It is a public role, and it is to serve the public good through advising the Minister on public policy.

So, I think we should have an open, transparent and accountable process, and the recruitment of special advisers should be brought into line with that of other civil servants.

They have been referred to as temporary civil servants. Even in the case of temporary recruitment for Civil Service posts a recruitment process is required. I would certainly be interested in the Member's views, if that is something he has considered, and urge the Committee to look at that aspect of special advisers' employment.

Mr McCallister: I would like to begin by congratulating Mr Allister on getting to this stage; it certainly looks as if it will get through. There is agreement on the broad principles of various parts of the Bill from various political parties.

The key parts of the Bill are around the disciplinary code being applied when people are temporary civil servants. I think that is important. It is important to set a standard and have something to measure that standard. We would expect it of others, so why would it not apply to SpAds?

On the issue of pay, if I picked it up correctly at the Committee last week, it is actually a salary of £78,000. Bear in mind that it is £30,000 more than MLAs get paid, and probably close to four times the average salary in Northern Ireland. The Member proposing the Bill is not exactly restricting SpAds to a life of destitution. I would have thought that, at £78,000, he was setting the bar fairly high, with a decent balance between attracting people that we need into the specialist roles that a special adviser should fulfil and putting in a cap.

The very fact that average salaries in Northern Ireland are lower than in other constituent parts of the nation makes you wonder how on earth our settlement costs us, on average, £30,500 more per head than in Scotland and a staggering £45,000 more per head than in Wales. These are the difficulties that the Bill seeks to address. In a time of austerity, when Departments are struggling for cash — and when many are not entirely sure what their agreed budget line is at this stage of the financial year — we are spending significantly more on SpAds than our Scottish and Welsh counterparts, which are easy to use for a direct comparison because they are devolved Governments.

This may be a more powerful institution than the Welsh Assembly Government; it may have more powers. It does, of course, have a coalition form of Government, but so had the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The Scottish Government had a Lib Dem/Labour coalition from 1999-2007 and several First Ministers at that time. The Welsh, over that time, have had a mix between the Labour/Lib Dem and the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalitions. It is difficult to find much evidence for the idea that, somehow, there is a huge problem of negotiating between the SpAds, and that we therefore need huge numbers of extra SpAds and that they need to be so highly paid. It is also difficult to maintain that argument when you have the First Minister describing the Executive as dysfunctional. It is hard to say that having so many SpAds and paying them £92,000 a year is adding much to functionality.

12.45 pm

Mr Lyons, who is not in his place, lauded the DUP. I welcome the DUP to the debate. The fact that the farm lobby and Mr Allister have been the only two so far who could get the DUP to the Chamber sets the bar quite high. Mr Lyons made the argument that the DUP agrees with parts of the Bill but that much of it was already being done. He said that the timing of the Bill was all wrong and that we should wait for the reduction of Departments that will deliver three fewer SpAds anyway.

I gave a warning last week at the Committee: we were to get rid of the Department for Employment and Learning sometime in the autumn of 2011, but it was then decided that a better time to do it would be the end of the financial year — it is still here, and, by the looks of it, is likely to be here for the rest of the mandate. It survived all that. There was a promise of jam tomorrow from Mr Lyons, when he said, "Look, we're taking care of all this". As Mr Agnew said, at least this corner of the Chamber is producing legislation that can change and reform and, in this case, restrict the excessive expenditure of the Government on itself.

I support, as I made clear in Committee, moving to an Executive Office and a reduced number of Departments. I have also made it clear on previous occasions that, when you take the departmental responsibilities out of OFMDFM and change it to being a much more coordinating body, there is no need for it to have eight SpAds and two junior Ministers. The two junior Ministers might be much better served by being in other places. There could be a junior Minister with responsibility for social care and another with responsibility for skills in the Department of the Economy. That would be a much better place for them to go, and it would be much better practice. If you follow through on the logic that junior Ministers would be an unnecessary addition to a future Executive Office, you will find it very difficult to say why on earth you had eight SpAds in it.

Not only is Mr Allister on to something with the Bill but the timing is right. We are looking at reforming government and reducing the number of Departments and special advisers. Indeed, my Bill is about reforming the way in which the Executive and Assembly carry out their business, so, in that sense, the Bill is timely.

Mrs Cochrane mentioned the skill set that particular advisers bring, and Mr Agnew talked about the recruitment process that he uses. Any time that I recruited in the last number of years, I went outside the narrow bounds and down the road of a more open contest. The process for special advisers, as well as being more open, should demand some evidence that a special adviser possesses the skill set necessary to advise in the Finance Department, the Health Department, the Department for Social Development or the Department for Regional Development. Instead, the perception is that, sometimes, it is more a case of, "Oh, we had better bring Joe in; it's his turn to be special adviser for a while". There is too much of that. It is not a good image for the Government and the Assembly, and Mr Allister's Bill can and should be used to address that. The great thing about its passage through Second Stage and going to Committee is that not only the Committee but Members can look at amending and possibly improving the Bill or addressing some of the concerns that they have about it. I certainly support the Bill's passage through Second Stage.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. 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 debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.50 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Questions 1, 3, 7 and 11 have been withdrawn.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will combine the answers to questions 2 and 9.

The purpose of the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) for Northern Ireland, which I published on 28 September 2015, is to assist in furthering sustainable development under the new two-tier planning system. In the context of development in the countryside, the regional strategic objective of the SPPS is to manage growth to achieve appropriate and sustainable patterns of development in support of a vibrant rural community, whilst, at the same time, conserving the landscape and natural resources of the rural area and protecting it from excessive or inappropriate development.

The SPPS pitches planning policy at a more strategic level than the planning policy statements that have been previously prepared by the Department. It enables councils to bring forward bespoke local policies for the development of the rural parts of their own plan areas through their local development plans (LDPs), which will address their specific economic, social and environmental needs. Such policies can reflect and complement the provisions of the SPPS and may involve recognising areas that are particularly sensitive to change and areas that have lower sensitivities and, thus, provide opportunities to accommodate sustainable development.

The SPPS recognises that the LDP process is the main vehicle for assessing future housing land requirements and managing housing growth across a plan area, both urban and rural, to achieve sustainable patterns of residential development that are consistent with regional guidance in the regional development strategy (RDS). In preparing LDPs, councils must bring forward a strategy for housing, together with appropriate policies and proposals that reflect the approach set out in the SPPS, which is to ensure an adequate and sustainable supply of housing across the plan area. As long as a council’s local planning policy takes proper account of the SPPS and the objective —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Minister's two minutes are up, unless he is asking for more time.

Mr Durkan: I would be most grateful if you could afford me more time, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a composite answer to questions 2 and 9.

Mr Durkan: Councils may develop their own approaches to deal with the local issues they face.

In addition, due to the responses to the public consultation on the draft SPPS, my Department is now taking forward a full review of strategic planning policy for development in the countryside. That review will require significant additional research and consideration and extensive engagement with key stakeholders, which will give them an opportunity to influence the future strategic planning policy direction in that important area. My officials have commenced preparatory work on the scope and content of the review, including the time frame for completion.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for a very good answer on sustainable development, the link across councils and regional planning policy. Sustainability, of course, has many interpretations and there is the need for sustainable populations in rural areas. In my constituency, under the area planning policy, white land is not to be developed across the whole of the Craigavon borough area until all the land that is deemed to be area plan policy 1 land is used. It is causing considerable problems in some rural communities. Minister, it would be useful if you could outline that, in some parts of the rural area, there are —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I urge the Member to get to a question.

Mrs D Kelly: — dispersed rural settlements. Perhaps you could outline why the dispersed rural settlement community is not included in the strategy.

Mr Durkan: I thank Mrs Kelly for that supplementary question, which might even have been longer than my answer to the previous questions.

As Members will be aware, PPS 21 allowed for the designation of dispersed rural communities. That approach was retained in the final draft of the SPPS, following public consultation, but I was ultimately unable to secure Executive agreement to its inclusion in the final document.

Although dispersed rural communities no longer feature in the SPPS, I am confident that the SPPS retains an appropriate degree of flexibility. As I have said, the SPPS enables councils to bring forward bespoke local policies for the development of rural districts in their area through local development plans that address their specific economic, social and environmental circumstances. As long as the council's local planning policy takes account of the general thrust of the government policy in respect of development in the countryside, councils are free to develop their own approaches to deal with the local issues that they face.

Mrs Dobson: The Minister will be aware of the concerns, as highlighted by his colleague there, across rural communities about the continued rollback of services, including GP surgeries and post offices. Indeed, schools in my constituency have certainly not been immune to it. Can the Minister give the House a commitment that the new strategic planning policy statement will lead to vibrant rural communities in the future and not continued rollbacks?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mrs Dobson for that question and certainly sympathise with communities in rural areas that are seeing an erosion of services available to them, often due to dwindling populations in those once vibrant communities. Although I cannot give her a guarantee that the SPPS on its own can address these issues, I am confident and can assure her that the SPPS gives councils the opportunity to address these issues through their own local development plans. It affords them the flexibility to do so. No one should be more aware of these issues and the impact that they are having on local communities than the councils and councillors. I am very confident that they will use the flexibility that the SPPS affords them to ensure the best possible outcome for their council areas and their communities.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Minister, I think that you will agree that one of the concerns is the inconsistency with which councils sometimes view planning policies. At times, they are so inconsistent in the application that it causes great alarm among those applying for planning permission for development. Some councils are really struggling to meet any level of service to the public, and long delays are building up. Will he consider setting an Executive target for planning applications?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McCallister for his question. He referred to inconsistencies in interpretation of planning policy statements across council areas, and I can certainly sympathise with that. I often see inconsistency in the interpretation of existing planning policy statements among planners. Indeed, planning is not really black and white, and nor should it be. It allows different people to interpret policy differently. It does and should afford flexibility. Every application should be judged on its own merits. However, there should not be the glaring inconsistencies of interpretation to which the Member referred.

I have acknowledged previously in the Chamber that the transition period of the handover of the planning function to councils on 1 April and subsequently has not exactly been seamless. Nevertheless, I believe that, despite initial teething problems, the majority of councils are now coping admirably with what is, I have to say, a much-increased workload. I was speaking to planners in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area, and they are now dealing with 150 more applications than the same office was at this time last year. That is obviously indicative of an upturn in the economy, which we should all welcome.

However, if there are issues with particular offices or councils, I will certainly be happy to speak to the Member. I will also meet the chief executives of all the councils to see how we can make planning work better for people.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Will he undertake to review staffing levels at the new Newry, Mourne and Down council area? I am aware of significant pressure of work, which means that some assistance is needed to deal with the significant delays that are now occurring in the planning process?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Kennedy for his question — the first that I have had the pleasure of getting and the privilege of trying to answer. Employment levels in councils are clearly a matter for the councils. As I have said, I will meet the chief executives and chief planners in all the council areas in the coming weeks. Certainly, if Members here and members of the public have raised issues with me about problems that they perceive to exist in certain areas, I will urge the council chief executives to pay particular attention to those areas. Often, the backlogs can be due to a multitude of factors: perhaps they are awaiting consultation responses from Transport NI, NIEA or other such bodies.

Mr Durkan: I recognise that our high streets continue to face difficult challenges. Whilst the planning system is not the panacea, I believe that it has a key role to play in allowing town centres the opportunity to retain and develop their retail base. The strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) that I published last month furthers that belief. It introduces new strategic planning policy to assist with supporting and sustaining vibrant town centres across the North through the promotion of established town centres as the appropriate first choice locations of retailing and other complementary functions, consistent with the regional development strategy 2035.

The SPPS recognises the wide range and complexity of issues that influence the development, role, function and success of town centres. It therefore encourages councils to work collaboratively with all relevant stakeholders to inform the preparation of local development plans based on robust and up-to-date evidence. Under the new planning policy framework, councils will define a hierarchy of centres, consider their role and function and develop a strategy for town centres and retailing that must promote town centres first for retail and other main town centre uses. In addition, a sequential approach will have to be adopted, with preference given to town centre sites and then edge-of-centre sites, before consideration is given to out-of-centre sites. Plans will also incorporate a new call-for-sites approach to identify available land to meet retail need.

I consider that more can be done to support town centres and the retail sector. My assessment is that the new strategic policy context and its key features can be a catalyst for facilitating successful, sustainable and attractive town centres.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister and welcome his comments around collaboration. Does he share the concern of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association that the development of town centres and the retail sector requires a joined-up approach involving the Executive, councils and the sector?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McKinney for those very pertinent and timely questions. As I have said, going forward, more can and must be done to support town centres and the retail sector across the region. I wish to see closer working among Executive colleagues, who have key roles to play in the creation of the thriving town centres that we all want to see. Urban regeneration, the provision of public transport and other infrastructure, rates and effective town centre management are but some of the necessary ingredients to create the mix of uses essential to the continued attractiveness of our town centres. I also believe that, with a greater array of powers or functions, councils now have considerably more power to influence positively the shape, attractiveness and use of city and town centres. The retail sector is one of the most important elements of our economy, and I am confident that it has the resolve to respond successfully to the present challenges and difficulties with which we are all familiar. Collectively, we can all bring about positive change, economic growth and a more sustainable future for city and town centres.

2.15 pm

Mrs Overend: What are the Minister's views on how the SPPS now fits with such proposals as the John Lewis development at Sprucefield?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her question and remind the House that there is no application for or from John Lewis at Sprucefield or anywhere else in the North.

The purpose of the SPPS is to set out a clear regional strategic planning policy for the new two-tier planning system. This will allow the new councils to take account of the strategic direction in their plans and policies at local level. Therefore, it is not considered appropriate to include a specific site in the SPPS. Such issues should be and, I have no doubt, will be dealt with through the local development plan of the new council.

Mr Durkan: Due to a recently instigated legal challenge in relation to the Department's ongoing enforcement case, I am limited in what I can say on these matters. By way of background, when the situation was brought to my attention, I instructed officials to seek a voluntary cessation of operations and to investigate and monitor any ongoing activity on the lough. Warning letters were sent to operators on 25 September 2014, advising that the unauthorised dredging activity constituted a breach of planning control and should:

"cease until this situation has been addressed".

On 27 May 2015, enforcement notices were issued to all relevant parties and were to take effect on 30 June 2015 unless appealed to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). The Shaftesbury estate appealed the enforcement notices on 24 June, and the five sand operators lodged appeals with the PAC on 26 June. No parties have appealed the environmental impact assessment (EIA) determination. The enforcement notices have ceased to have effect, pending the PAC's determination of the appeal.

The grounds specified in the appeal have also had the effect of passing statutory responsibility from the Department to the PAC for determining whether planning permission should be granted for the sand extraction activities concerned. The PAC, in considering its decision in the matter, will consider, inter alia, an environmental statement to be prepared by the appellants. Thus, responsibility for determining the status of enforcement action and whether planning approval should be granted for the sand-dredging activities concerned has passed to the jurisdiction of the PAC.

I am acutely aware that this is a complex issue involving important environmental and socio-economic considerations. In order to respect both the judicial process and the independent appeals process, including the rights of the parties involved, I do not intend to comment further on these issues, pending the outcome of the procedures.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response, and I appreciate that there is a legal case. Considering the recent concerns expressed by the fishermen who work on the lough, when does the Minister expect the case to conclude?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her supplementary. I am aware of the concerns of the fishermen on the lough and the impact that this is having and has been having on their livelihood for some time. However, given that jurisdiction has now passed to the PAC, I could not even hazard a guess as to how long it will take. It is now the subject of a judicial review. Legal action has been brought by a third party who would like stop notices to be issued, which would, I suppose, satisfy the fishermen to some extent. That is currently the subject of a legal process.

The PAC has also received a request from the appellants to extend the time granted to them to submit environmental information until October 2016. I know that that has raised eyebrows and hackles in some quarters as well.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra ar an ábhar seo. I thank the Minister for his response to this question. Does he acknowledge that sand extraction on Lough Neagh directly supports 150 jobs and up to 500 jobs indirectly in the asphalt, concrete and precast sectors?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr McGlone for that question. As I said in my response to the original question, I am acutely aware that this is a very complex issue involving a lot of extremely important environmental and socio-economic considerations. Industry estimates of the number of people directly employed in the working of materials from Lough Neagh vary from between 150 persons to 200 persons. Mr McGlone gave a more conservative figure, but I have heard that up to 1,000 people are indirectly involved or employed in the supply chain. As I said, a legal challenge has been initiated against my Department, and I am not able to comment further at this stage.

Mr Agnew: As the Minister outlined, he issued warning letters, but unauthorised sand dredging continued; he then issued an enforcement notice, but unauthorised sand dredging continued. Will he now issue a stop notice to make sure that unauthorised sand dredging cannot continue?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I gratefully accept his acknowledgement of the attempts that I have made in this regard. When the matter was first brought to my attention, I instructed officials to seek a voluntary cessation and to investigate and monitor ongoing activity on the lough. The warning letters were sent out over a year ago now, advising that the unauthorised activity constituted a breach of planning control.

Between that stage and issuing the enforcement notices, we had to go through a lengthy process of gathering sufficient evidence that work was ongoing. We had plenty of anecdotal evidence, but it had to be evidence that we thought was robust enough on which to defend an enforcement action. We now find ourselves having to defend that enforcement action. As regards the failure, as Mr Agnew might describe it, to serve a stop notice along with, or now subsequent to, the enforcement notice, given the legal challenge that has been initiated, I cannot comment further on that.

Mr Durkan: An interdepartmental group has been established to take forward an agreed guidance and policy document for run-of-river hydroelectric schemes. The interdepartmental group comprises DCAL, the Loughs Agency, the Rivers Agency, DOE planning officials and the NIEA. The guidance and policy document will set out clearly the requirements for each of the various Departments. It is not the intention to provide a design brief for these installations. It is anticipated that the group will produce an interdepartmental guidance and policy document by summer 2016.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that a design brief and guidelines exist in the other jurisdictions on these islands. Does he not agree that, given the numbers of hydro schemes being installed in rivers at the moment, it would be opportune to develop such guidelines in accordance and in consultation with angling clubs and groups?

Mr Durkan: Thanks to Mr Ó hOisín for that. I take on board the Member's comments or suggestions, and think that that is always useful, as it certainly will be in this case, to look at the practice in other jurisdictions. He also touched on a very important matter, which is consultation with river users who, primarily, are anglers. I get plenty of correspondence from anglers on this and many other issues. I know that many are very opinionated, but there is a great degree of expertise in the angling community that I believe that I, as Minister, and we, as a Department, should be availing ourselves of and utilising to get the best outcomes for our environment.

Mr Eastwood: The Minister will be very aware of the real concerns that the anglers on the River Faughan have with some of these applications. Can he give us an update on where those applications are at?

Mr Durkan: They are in the River Faughan. [Laughter.]

I thank Mr Eastwood for that question. My Department retained three planning applications for hydroelectric power schemes on the Faughan and a further application associated with one of those schemes for the proposed installation of a fish pass. I recently issued a notice of opinion to refuse planning permission for A/2011/0237/F, a proposal at Crockahilly Road, Claudy on the grounds of the potential impact on nature conservation interests and the loss of active peat. The applicant can, of course, request a hearing before the Planning Appeals Commission if they do not accept those reasons. Consideration of the remaining applications is ongoing. I will be the final decision-maker and will fully consider all the relevant issues and all the relevant correspondence that I have received before deciding on the way forward.

Mr Durkan: The overwhelming scientific evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) fifth assessment report highlights the dramatic changes to our climate and their causes. Pope Francis’s recent interjections on climate change to EU and USA leaders helped to highlight the moral responsibility that we all have to protect the poorest and most vulnerable groups and regions from the dangers of climate change. I will be attending the Conference of Parties 21 (COP21) as part of the UK delegation, along with Ministers from Scotland and Wales. It is my intention to engage with colleagues from the devolved Administrations, Ireland and other countries to encourage and provide support for a comprehensive global agreement on action on climate change.

I am in regular contact with Minister Kelly in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on a range of environmental matters. With the Paris summit on climate change taking place at end of November, I have agreed that a discussion on climate change will be held at the next North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) environment sector meeting scheduled for 18 November. Furthermore I am keen to frame my input to the Paris discussions from an island-of-Ireland perspective. To that end, I have written to Minister Kelly and representatives of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference to arrange a meeting to discuss common issues of concern to be taken forward at COP21. I believe that it is vital that we explore how together we can offer leadership on climate change matters for all the people of Ireland and provide hope to those beyond our shores who are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but yet have done the least to cause the problem.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra ansin. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, on such a small island, it is important that he liaises with his counterpart on the issue of climate change. I am glad to hear that he is going to have a meeting with his colleague at the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting on 18 November. Can he give a commitment that he will report back on the outcome of that meeting?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Sheehan for that supplementary question. As with all NSMC meetings, there will be a report back to the Chamber. A statement will be given, and questions can be asked.

Hopefully, I will not have to wait until that date to have those discussions with Minister Kelly. As I said, I am hopeful of convening another meeting or seminar of sorts in the interim, on which I will also be more than happy to report back to the Assembly.

2.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move to topical questions.

T1. Mr Allen asked the Minister of the Environment whether his Department is on course to meet its household recycling targets. (AQT 2981/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Allen for that very important question, which is the first that I have received from him, and which many householders and business owners ask me on a regular basis.

Different councils deal differently with their recycling. As a consequence, different councils perform differently when it comes to the recycling rates that they achieve. Tomorrow, I will meet the waste programme board, which is the strategic oversight body for dealing with waste right across the North. That will give me a better insight into who is performing well, how they are performing well and who maybe needs extra help. My Department offers much assistance to councils in that regard through capital grants that are available to councils for plant and machinery to aid them in their recycling efforts.

In response, I suppose, more to the question, at last glance, councils were performing well, and we as a region are performing well. In fact, the quarter before last was the first time ever that we actually recycled more waste than we sent to landfill, which was quite a landmark achievement. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to keep reinforcing the messages to and through our councils on the importance of recycling not just to our environment but to our economy.

Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Can he outline what engagement his Department is having with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to meet the target for electricity from renewable sources by 2020?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. My officials are in regular contact with their DETI counterparts on that issue. We have a target set down for the outputs from renewable energy that we aspire to in the Programme for Government, and that is that 35% of energy should be produced from renewable sources by 2025. Currently, as things stand, and if we keep going as we are, we would hit about 33·3%, which is less than the target but is an admirable enough effort nonetheless. Other considerations, though, will now have to come into play following on from Minister Bell's statement in the Chamber two weeks ago on the Northern Ireland renewables obligations and the culling of subsidies to renewable energy providers. That will obviously have an impact on how much renewable energy is produced.

T2. Mr Byrne asked the Minister of the Environment to outline any action his Department is taking around the Volkswagen emissions controversy regarding the software that is misrepresenting pollution levels, which is receiving such strong publicity at the moment. (AQT 2982/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question, which is, indeed, very topical, and which concerns me as a Volkswagen driver — I know that you are one as well, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I strongly support the development of the European Commission proposals for real driving emissions standards legislation. The legislation, if adopted, will require car manufacturers to ensure that real-world vehicle emissions comply much more closely with European emissions standards.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for tackling the issue. What can the UK Government or this regional Government do to protect the interests of consumers and those who have purchased such vehicles and are concerned about the environment and about the miles per gallon performance of the vehicles?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Byrne for that supplementary, and I am sure that the Deputy Speaker is extremely concerned with miles per gallon. I am also sure that he will be equally concerned about the prospect of an increase in his road tax.

This is a matter for the Department for Transport, and, at this stage, I have heard nothing to indicate that there is any potential impact on future levels of road tax. In a statement on 2 October this year, the Transport Secretary advised that Volkswagen users and taxpayers, including those in the North of Ireland, will not incur higher vehicle excise duty if their existing vehicles are found to be fitted with illegal software that manipulates emissions tests.

T3. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the procedure for substituting independent councillors when they resign their position. (AQT 2983/11-16)

Mr Durkan: The legislation that makes provision for the filling of casual vacancies on district councils, including vacancies arising as a result of resignation, is the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. The 1962 Act was amended in 2010 to change the way in which vacancies and district council seats arising during term are filled. That provides, amongst other matters, for members who stood as independents when elected to be replaced using a list of substitutes provided by the member prior to the vacancy arising. As elections are an excepted matter under section 4(1) of and schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, this is therefore a matter for the Secretary of State.

I am aware that the Electoral Office here has issued guidance on the filling of casual vacancies. That states that members elected as independents may submit, to the Chief Electoral Officer after the election, a list of up to six substitutes who will be contacted in order to fill their seat in the event of that seat becoming vacant during the council term. On receipt of a notification of a vacancy from an independent member with a substitute list, the Chief Electoral Officer will write to the first-named substitute on the list, asking them to confirm in writing within 14 days of the request if they are willing and able to take the seat. If the first-named substitute is unable to fill the vacancy, the Chief Electoral Officer will repeat the process of contacting the named substitutes in order until the vacancy is filled or the list is exhausted. If the list is exhausted and no substitute has been declared returned, the vacancy will be filled by way of a by-election.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he believe that it is acceptable for an independent to resign and then to nominate somebody who has professed to be a member of another political party as their substitute?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. While it is not illegal or unlawful, it is certainly, in my opinion, unacceptable. I think that it is an abuse of electoral rules, which may not be fit for purpose to begin with, and also an abuse of the democratic will of the people who might vote for a candidate as an independent without knowing who is on the substitutes list to which I referred earlier. Even now, the people who voted for independent councillors across councils in the North have no way of ascertaining who the six substitutes are. That is not open for public consumption.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mr Fra McCann is not in his place.

T5. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of the Environment to outline his plans for the creation of an independent environmental protection agency, for which he welcomes his long-overdue public support. (AQT 2985/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Lyttle, not just for the question but more so for the support. His party colleague and Chair of the Environment Committee, Ms Lo, has also been extremely receptive to the idea since I floated it, as she was to the work done in 2011 by my predecessor, when he had discussions and consultation on this very important matter.

It is my intention to attend the Environment Committee on Thursday to fill it in on my plans for how we proceed towards, hopefully, the eventual establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I do not want to disappoint or upset Ms Lo by revealing those details here first.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his response. I am glad that my colleague Anna Lo, as Chairperson of the Environment Committee, will get a front-row seat for the unveiling of his plans for the creation of the agency. How important is an independent environmental protection agency to safeguarding our natural environment? Does he anticipate Executive agreement for it?

Mr Durkan: I believe that it is very important. It is telling that every other region on these islands has gone down that road and has the model of an independent, or at least arm's-length, environmental protection agency, and most European nations have similar arrangements.

It will become even more important as we move to the new departmental structures, when most of the classic environmental functions of DOE will be amalgamated with those of DARD. That has caused a lot of concern for environmental NGOs, but not just them. We have to work with others on achieving or securing Executive agreement. Naturally enough, we have to make people aware — not just politicians but those in industry and agriculture — that they have nothing to fear from an independent environmental protection agency.

T6. Mr Hazzard asked the Minister of the Environment whether he and his Department are aware of the environmental health issues at Ballyhornan beach, given that he will know that, although we have corresponded about the recent marine litter survey, which was quite damning about the environmental health of beaches at Ardglass, Kilkeel and Ballyhornan on the south Down coast, in response, there seems to have been a departmental focus on the good beaches around Newcastle, Murlough, Tyrella and Cranfield. (AQT 2986/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. I am familiar with the marine litter survey. My Department has been active, along with the council, which retains ultimate responsibility for beach cleanliness, in working on all beaches in the south Down area. Where there are specific issues on specific beaches, I would be happy to meet the Member and have my officials meet their council counterparts to devise ways in which those can be best tackled.

In Ardglass, which is in the Member's constituency, a lot of work has been done with the fishermen. My Department continues to fund the Fishing for Litter scheme, which has had an impact on reducing the litter washing ashore on the beautiful beaches of south Down. I know that the Member has a particular interest in this, and, being familiar with the natural beauty of south Down, I cannot blame him.

A Member: Is that Margaret?

Mr Durkan: It is not Margaret. [Laughter.]

Mr Hazzard: I am sure that Margaret will be delighted to hear that. [Laughter.]

I thank the Minister for that answer, but, when it comes to Ballyhornan, there is a specific reference to the continual pumping of raw sewage into the sea. That would not be accepted on the gold coast of north Down. Why should the people of south Down have to accept raw sewage being pumped into our sea?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary. I have undertaken to work on this with him, the council and other Departments that clearly have an interest in and responsibility for addressing and eradicating the issue.

I do not know where in DRD's plans there might be plans to upgrade the pumping system there. However, if we can lend support to locals in that area in lobbying DRD, we will certainly do so, given the negative environmental impact that this clearly has.

2.45 pm

Finance and Personnel

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Questions 3, 4 and 14 have been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I have had no discussions with the Minister for Social Development regarding the use of financial transactions capital (FTC) for planned social housing. However, I am aware that there are a number of affordable housing projects exploring options to utilise financial transactions capital.

Mr Ramsey: There is a major crisis in social housing across Northern Ireland, and every Member would agree with me that we need many more housing developments of a social nature. Will the Minister ensure that she has that conversation with the Minister for Social Development to see how the Department of Finance could help to progress capital moneys to housing associations?

Mrs Foster: The current funding model for social housing utilises an element of public grant funding to try to lever in additional private finance. Even during the very recent housing turmoil, there was no problem in accessing private finance for social housing. If the social housing programme were to be fully funded through financial transactions capital, the rent that would be required to service the debt in relation to FTC would make it unaffordable for most social housing tenants. Now, if there are new ideas on using FTC for social housing, I will, of course, look at them. As I said in my substantive answer, we have been able to work with developers who are looking at affordable homes and to help them to build new homes. We have done that through a range of measures, including Get Britain Building, affordable home loans and the Empty Homes scheme. We have used FTC in that context, but, if there are new, innovative ways to use it for social housing, I stand ready to look at those as well.

Mrs Overend: Can the Minister provide details of any schemes under the control of her Department where financial transactions capital funding has been used in the past two years?

Mrs Foster: As I have just indicated, we have used FTC funding in a number of affordable home pilots. In 2012-13, we allocated nearly £12 million to Get Britain Building. In 2013-14, we granted £7·2 million to Get Britain Building, £5 million to affordable home loans and £3·7 million to the Empty Homes scheme. There was also money passed to affordable home loans and Empty Homes schemes in 2014-15. In 2015-16, £25 million has been granted to Northern Ireland Co-Ownership, and that has freed up £15 million of conventional capital, allowing it to be reallocated. We think that that is a good use of the financial transactions capital that we have access to.

Mrs Foster: Such consideration is given during the in-year monitoring process when determining whether it is necessary to apply reductions to Departments' budgets to fund pressures in other areas. It will also form part of the deliberations in the upcoming Budget exercise.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does the Minister agree that it might bring some reality to some parties if demands for expenditure to do one thing had to be balanced by requisite cuts to something else, rather than just top-slicing across Departments perhaps, or, indeed, by having to consider increasing revenue?

Mrs Foster: This is the argument and discussion that we have every time we have a monitoring round. If people are making bids for their Department, where does that money come from? Does it come from top-slicing other Departments, or do we reduce the allocation to other Departments?

Thus far, we have had those discussions and, obviously, we have used the Programme for Government to inform those discussions in and around our various priorities in that Programme for Government.

In the next Programme for Government, we will very much focus on outcomes and what is the best use of our resources to give us the outcomes that we desire for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that all the parties will look to that outcomes-based process because I think that it will give us an even better outcome in the next Programme for Government round.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Minister for her answers. Bearing in mind that the June and October monitoring rounds are now not likely to be carried out until December, how can our Departments be expected to balance their books, particularly on capital expenditure?

Mrs Foster: I wrote to the Departments on 1 June this year, indicating that they should not engage in discretionary spend and should engage only in inescapable spend because I knew that we were going to face difficulties. That was before we passed the Budget (No. 2) Bill. Departments know that they have to live within their means, otherwise we will breach our control totals, and that is certainly not a position that we want to be in coming into the new year. Of course, this is all going on in the context of the talks and the fact that we need to have welfare reform sorted out and the flexibilities that were agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. I can only hope that we get that sorted out in the very near future.

Mrs Foster: I can confirm that all relevant information held by my Department has been shared with the Committee to support its fact-finding review.

Ms Hanna: Can the Minister advise what documents, if any, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has requested from her Department?

Mrs Foster: I cannot, because it continues to meet the Department, and I think that it would be wrong if I indulged the Member in what has been discussed with the NCA. It is a criminal investigation, and I am sure that she respects that. We will have ongoing discussions with the National Crime Agency, but, as I said, all the information has now been forwarded to the Committee for its perusal, and I have no doubt that it will look through it and ask questions appropriately.

Mr Allister: In three recent written replies, the Minister advised me that no record had been kept of the ministerial meeting in March 2014 with Cerberus, that there were no records in the Department of the alleged briefings of Executive colleagues on the NAMA loan book and that she was unable to give any information about departmental ministerial meetings with Ian Coulter, Frank Cushnahan and Gareth Robinson because it would be too difficult to collect the information. Why is there that culture of not keeping records? Is it so the Department can cover its tracks when it comes to NAMA?

Mrs Foster: No, it is not.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister believe that Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton should now follow her example and cooperate with the Finance Committee inquiry to establish exactly what their dealings were with PIMCO and Cerberus?

Mrs Foster: I am unaware as to whether they have been asked to attend the Committee. I am sure that, if they are asked, they will consider the request as to whether they should attend to help the Committee in its investigation and whether they can be of use to the Committee in its investigation. It is up to them, at the end of the day, whether they attend, but I am not aware whether they have been asked to attend at this time.

Mrs Foster: Over 120 bids were received from across the public sector, with the total amount requested equating to approximately five times the value of the fund. Allocations were agreed by the Executive as part of the Budget 2015-16. The list of successful bids is published in the Executive's Budget 2015-16. All selected projects have received funding and are at various stages of implementation. A mid-year update on progress has been sought. Spend is being monitored in-year, and evaluations will be completed in 2016-17, as per the 'Northern Ireland Guide to Expenditure Appraisal and Evaluation' guidance.

Mrs Dobson: Is the Minister satisfied that the fund will achieve what it was intended to do during the current financial year?

Mrs Foster: I am very encouraged by the level of applications to the fund. I recall that, when I was in my previous role as Enterprise Minister, we were able to draw down a significant amount of money to deal with skills in relation to the workforce. So I am hopeful that it will deliver on the aims and objectives that were set out for the fund, which were, of course, to encourage innovation in the public sector; improve integration and collaboration between Departments, arm's-length bodies, the private sector and the third sector; support a decisive shift towards preventive spending with a focus on improving outcomes for citizens; and support transformational change required to sustain medium- to long-term efficiency measures. Those are the aims of the fund, and I am certainly hopeful that the money that we are spending right across the Northern Ireland Civil Service will help us deliver on those aims.

Mrs Foster: The Department of the Environment was allocated £50 million of financial transactions capital (FTC) for the ARC21 waste facility project by the Executive in their Budget for 2015-16. The Member will be aware of the announcement by the Environment Minister on 24 September 2015 to refuse planning permission for the ARC21 waste facility at Hightown Road. DOE has now formally confirmed that the £50 million of financial transactions capital is now not required in 2015-16, and it is being surrendered for the Executive to reallocate.

Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for her response. My party repeatedly argued that the money should not have been allocated in the first place. Does the Minister now agree that the allocation of £50 million was premature, not least given the fact that permission was always uncertain?

Mrs Foster: The money was allocated after a request from the Department of the Environment. It now indicates that it does not wish to use that financial transactions capital. I accept and wholeheartedly agree that announcing a reduced requirement of this scale so late in the financial year is disappointing. However, there is no reason why it should be lost to Northern Ireland, and the Executive will consider reallocating the £50 million FTC, along with any other financial issues facing the Northern Ireland Executive and the block grant, through the in-year monitoring process, which I hope will happen after the talks are finished.

Mr D Bradley: Is it not the case that the amount of financial transaction capital that is available to Northern Ireland was oversubscribed? Does the surrender of this £50 million now enable those who did not benefit from it previously to benefit from it now?

Mrs Foster: That is not how it works. If it was oversubscribed last year, it does not just follow through into this year. We have to make yearly allocations. We will try to reallocate this money. As the Member is probably aware, we are setting up the Northern Ireland investment fund, and we may reallocate it to that fund. We can move forward on that basis. It is disappointing that it is so late in the year, but we will try to do our best to make sure that it is reallocated.

Mrs Foster: The Executive have not made any decisions regarding Budgets beyond the 2015-16 financial year. The Department for Regional Development has responsibility for the SmartPass scheme, and any issue regarding its future operation should be taken up with DRD.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the importance of this to elderly people, is it likely that we will see this funding maintained in the longer term?

Mrs Foster: Well, certainly, the concessionary fares scheme remains an Executive commitment. It would be a very foolish Member of the Assembly who sought to do away with it. It has brought tremendous benefits to the older population and has proved to be very successful.

So, as she will know — in ring-fencing and moving forward — only front-line health and social care was protected in the 2015-16 Budget and, therefore, it really is for the Regional Development Minister to decide during this year.

I have no doubt that it will become a matter for discussion during the next Programme for Government discussions, and I predict, quite confidently, that we will keep the SmartPass scheme.

3.00 pm

Mrs Foster: Departments have registered pressures in the June monitoring round of £234·6 million on resource departmental expenditure limits (DEL) and £327·1 million on capital DEL. A recent high-level assessment by my officials indicates that over £100 million of these pressures are inescapable.

In addition to departmental pressures, failure to implement welfare reform has put at risk the budgetary flexibilities negotiated in the Stormont House Agreement, which included flexibility to repay the £100 million reserve claim in 2014-15 and the £114 million reduction to our Budget for non-implementation of welfare reform from capital budgets.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her information. She has even replied to what I was going to put to her in my supplementary question, so I do thank the Minister for that.

Mr Lyttle: How is inescapable pressure defined, and how does her Department scrutinise such bids from other Departments?

Mrs Foster: As you can imagine, we have to go into quite some detail with accounting officers to find out which bids are speculative as opposed to contractual. That is the element — whether Departments are contractually obliged to deliver on particular issues — that we really look at. After that exercise, as I have indicated, we believe that the inescapable pressures, not the things that it would be nice to do, or good to do, would be in and around £100 million.

Mrs Foster: There are no plans to publish monthly details of rate collection for domestic and non-domestic customers.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister for her answer. She is really on form today in providing informative and concise answers, which is good to see, even though we do not always agree with the content of them. Does the Minister agree that the release of timely and accurate information would give the public a greater insight into the workings of government and increase the confidence of businesses in Land and Property Services (LPS) and how it works?

Mrs Foster: I do, absolutely. As he will know, LPS provides unaudited information to the Finance and Personnel Committee at regular intervals throughout the year. It makes every effort to support those who are struggling to pay, and we do recognise that there are a number of people who struggle to pay their rates bills, but it must also rigorously pursue those who do not pay, and that has to be taken into account. In the collection of rates against the target for 2014-15, a total of £1·175 billion was transferred to the Paymaster General against the target of £1·165 billion for 2014-15, which was £37 million more than 2013-14. So, last year was a good year for rates collection for Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member will be aware that I have been encouraging concise questions, as well as answers, for years.

Mrs Foster: The ministerial advisory council (MAC) was established in July 2014 and brings together an international expert advisory panel of practitioners, business people and academics to provide independent expert advice on public-sector reform, improvement and innovation in Northern Ireland.

The MAC has met on three occasions to consider and provide advice on a range of reform-related themes and initiatives, including the OECD review, staff reward and recognition and outcome-based measures. The most recent MAC meeting involved members working alongside senior officials from all Departments in a workshop format to explore the challenges and obstacles associated with addressing and implementing cross-cutting reform. The topic of ageing was used as a practical exemplar. Outputs from this work will help to inform future approaches to cross-cutting reform.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am sure that the work of this body is very important and potentially fruitful, but it is a fact, I think, that it has not actually met since March. Is the Minister satisfied with that situation and satisfied with the general progress of the project?

Mrs Foster: I welcome the work that the MAC is engaged on. The meeting that was scheduled for 17 June was cancelled, not by the group but by me, because I was called to attend an urgent meeting at Her Majesty's Treasury in London. A second meeting was to take place on 10 September, but, if I can remind the Member, that coincided with the commencement of all-party talks, so there have unfortunately been two dates on which meetings have not been able to be completed. I look forward to chairing the next meeting of the ministerial advisory council on 3 December, when we will focus on communication and public engagement. I am sure that everybody in the House wants that meeting to take place.

Mrs Foster: On 1 April 2015 and 30 September 2015, the district valuers within Land and Property Services received 2,334 challenge-type applications in relation to the revaluation of non-domestic properties. That equates to some 3% of the total number of non-domestic properties in Northern Ireland. Of the cases completed by the district valuers, 94 have proceeded to the next stage in the appeals process, with an appeal to the Commissioner of Valuation.

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. She will be aware of concerns from a great many of my constituents in Newry and Armagh, not only about the appeals process but the outcome of the revaluation. Is the Minister prepared to meet me to discuss these issues?

Mrs Foster: I am happy to meet the Member in relation to any specific issues that he has. I am a little worried that he has concerns about the appeals process, which I had hoped was pretty transparent. However, if he has particular issues in and around the appeals process, I am happy to speak to him. As he knows, the revaluation was carried out not to increase the amount of money raised but to redistribute it on modern rental evidence as there had not been a revaluation for some 12 years, and we had been through the highs and lows of the property boom by that stage. I am happy to have that meeting and look forward to discussing the issues with him.

Mrs Foster: My permanent secretary, David Sterling, provided oral evidence to the Finance Committee's fact-finding review into the sale of the NAMA Northern Ireland loan portfolio on 23 July 2015. Mr Sterling is available to attend a further oral evidence session should that be deemed necessary.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. One of the issues that surrounds the NAMA situation is the idea of claim and counterclaim: sometimes confusion but sometimes evasion. When the permanent secretary was before the Committee, he said that he could not answer questions because of the possibility of a criminal investigation. However, other people have said that he could answer some questions because they were not related. It is a good sign that he is coming back in, because I think that it is in the public interest that he clears up any issues that he can.

Mrs Foster: Indeed, I indicated to the Committee just last week that he was prepared to come back, and we await hearing from the Committee as to when they wish him to do so.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We have exhausted tabled questions to the Minister and can move on to topical questions.

T1. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she has met with Gareth Robinson, Ian Coulter or Frank Cushnahan in any of her ministerial roles and, if so, was NAMA ever discussed. (AQT 2991/11-16)

Mrs Foster: To answer the last part of the Member's question: no, NAMA was never discussed. Have I met Gareth Robinson? Yes, I have. Have I met Ian Coulter? It would be rather strange if I had not because he was chair of the CBI when I was the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Have I met Frank Cushnahan in my ministerial role? I do not believe so. I have met him, but I do not believe that I have met him as a Minister.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister. Was the idea of fixers' fees of millions of pounds mentioned at any stage?

Mrs Foster: I am tempted to say, "Unfortunately not", but that may be construed wrongly. No, at no time were fixers' fees mentioned to me. As the Member will realise, I was the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment up to May of this year, and at no time were those matters discussed with me.

T2. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to state at what level of advancement negotiations on enterprise zones are proceeding with the Westminster Government and the Treasury, given that he knows that some research has been carried out, with a scoping exercise having been completed, either by her officials or other departmental officials. (AQT 2992/11-16)

Mrs Foster: As the Member knows as Chair of the Enterprise Committee, we were granted the prospect of having an enterprise zone, and Coleraine was put forward. The letter from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister has been sent to Her Majesty's Treasury to request that that is allocated as an enterprise zone.

On the wider issue of further work on enterprise zones and other matters, and I know that some of his colleagues have been raising issues in and around city deals, for example, and other issues, we are looking at all those issues in the round to see what is the best fit for Northern Ireland, particularly in regional disparity, and whether there are some other ways in which we can deal with those issues that are suited to Northern Ireland.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for her response. Once those areas have been identified, has she any kind of timescale for when they might be advanced to the next stage of the body of work that is required, in the same way that Coleraine has been done?

Mrs Foster: First of all, it is a pilot, so we have to see how Coleraine works and give that a bit of time. However, that should not stop my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Social Development engaging. I had a very useful meeting with both those Ministers in the summer in and around how we could develop further the concepts that were there and how we could make the best fit for Northern Ireland as opposed to just copying what was happening on the mainland. I think that it is important to do what is right for Northern Ireland. Is it at an advanced stage? No, it is not, but I think that we have to wait and see how the pilot works in Coleraine first.

T3. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in light of the developments with etendersNI, what steps are being taken to ensure that all SMEs have access to suitable broadband to ensure that they can complete online tenders. (AQT 2993/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I am glad that you asked that question after Mr McGlone's question. One of the elements that we are looking at in regional disparity is to make sure that everyone has access to good power supplies — that they have the level of electricity supply that they need — that there is good physical infrastructure and that good broadband infrastructure is in place. The Member will be aware that there have been many interventions from DETI to try to help businesses and homeowners to access broadband infrastructure. Indeed, I spoke to a business in my constituency over the weekend about the use of the SuperConnected Cities vouchers, which allow you to access up to £3,000 to connect to broadband. It is important that we all make our constituents aware of the different schemes that are out there to allow them to become connected, and then they can avail themselves of all the services that are going online.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answer. I acknowledge the work that you have done to get broadband out to rural areas. As you know, in your constituency as well as mine, certain areas are miles away from the green box or the possibility of that green box. Is there any possibility of grants, so that those people could have satellite broadband to ensure that they can get on to etendersNI as well?

Mrs Foster: Really, that is what the SuperConnected Cities vouchers are about. It started as a scheme for Belfast, and then it was rolled out to Londonderry. Now, it applies to the whole of Northern Ireland. The voucher is technology neutral, if I can put it that way, and you can access different types of technology, whether satellite, line of sight or fixed line. The voucher allows you to apply and then to have that. It actually empowers businesses to engage in some negotiating with the private sector providers to allow them to get the best deal possible.

I think that it is working.

I am told that Fermanagh and Omagh are second only to Belfast in the uptake of SuperConnected vouchers. I think that it is very encouraging that such a rural area has achieved that level of uptake.

3.15 pm

T4. Ms McGahan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what contingency planning her Department has completed in the event of the Brexit. (AQT 2994/11-16)

Mrs Foster: We have not done any contingency planning for that because we have our own difficulties to deal with. Whilst others might want to talk about European exit, we certainly do not want to talk about devolution exit. That is the problem that faces us at present. We need to concentrate on our own particular financial difficulties, sort out welfare and sort out the rest of the Stormont House flexibilities so that we can move forward.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree with me that a Brexit would destabilise our economy and undermine efforts over the past 20 years to market this region to foreign investors as a gateway to Europe?

Mrs Foster: No, I do not agree with that assessment. I think that a lot of our companies feel very downtrodden because of the amount of regulation that they have to face on a day-to-day basis. Recently, I met a delegation from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association and was very alarmed to hear about the amount of form-filling that goes on in a small business with a couple of employees. One employee has to be allocated to fill out the forms. It is absolutely disproportionate. We need to tackle that, and I hope that we can do so through the red tape review. We also need do have a fuller discussion on the European legislation that really impacts local businesses here.

T5. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she accepts the comments made by her predecessor, Simon Hamilton, who talked about poor budget management in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and to outline any changes that have been made in conjunction with that Department to deal with that issue. (AQT 2995/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I think that we all accept that not all the growing pressures in the Department of Health relate to its budget. I am sure that he is aware of the demographic pressures. I was struck by the fact that NISRA, in some of its recently published statistics, was able to tell me that, by 2020, the population will grow to 1·9 million, but 50% of that growth will be older people. That brings with it particular pressures for the Department of Health, and we have to deal with that. How do we deal with it? I believe that we deal with it by doing things differently. I hope that, on the other side of the talks, we can have conversations about doing things differently. If you keep doing things in the same way, you get the same results. Therefore, we have to innovate in the health sector, and I know that the Minister of Health is very committed to that.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister did not really answer the question on that occasion. Does she now accept that her party has no credibility in the community, given the way its Ministers are coming in and out of office like 'Lanigan's Ball' and not dealing with scandalous waiting lists or other pertinent issues? Without a full-time Minister of Health in office, how will her party deal with the crisis in the health service?

Mrs Foster: I will certainly not take lessons on credibility from the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone who posed the question, which, coming from him in particular, is almost laughable. For almost two years, the party opposite has engaged in burying its head in the sand in relation to welfare reform. Yet we all know, in the House and outside it, what the situation is. Do not be under any illusion or try to distract from the fact that, because you have not grasped the reality of the budgetary situation here in Northern Ireland, we are losing £10 million from the Budget every single month — £10 million that could do quite a lot in the health service. I think that it would pay for over 2,000 hip replacements or even more knee replacements, so I am not taking lectures from the Member on credibility, and certainly not on financial management.

Mr Campbell: The Health Minister in England —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. Up to now, Members have been extremely good and have not been shouting from sedentary positions. One Member has just joined us and is doing it. I ask him not to do it again.

T6. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to clarify how many NAMA-related meetings involving her Department were not minuted. (AQT 2996/11-16)

Mrs Foster: The Member cannot expect me to have those figures in front of me. If she wants me to provide that information, I am quite happy to write to her.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I look forward to that detail from the Minister. Does she believe that it is highly inappropriate and questionable for Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton to have had un-minuted meetings and to have carried out actions relating to the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) under the radar of their Department?

Mrs Foster: No, I do not accept that at all. We look forward to the evidence of the First Minister tomorrow at the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

T9. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the number of rate relief schemes available to the domestic and non-domestic sectors. (AQT 2999/11-16)

Mrs Foster: As the Member will be aware, a wide range of rate-relief schemes is available to both sectors. The Department, at the time of local government reform, put in place a rate convergence system, which cost £30 million, to ease the burden of change that was coming to some ratepayers. The small business rate relief scheme has been hugely successful right across Northern Ireland; we have the empty property relief scheme and industrial derating as well, which has been very helpful to our manufacturing sector.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her response. Does she intend to extend all those schemes into the next financial year?

Mrs Foster: We will be keeping those schemes for the current financial year. We are looking at the small business rate relief scheme, which was meant to be a short-term intervention. We rolled it forward into this year. We are looking with the Department for Social Development as to whether that is the best use of that money or whether it would be better to use it in a different way. Those are discussions that we will have. We will not just end it suddenly; it is something that we will do in consultation with the small-business community because, as I said, it has been hugely beneficial to that community.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That concludes Question Time. I should have said that question 7 from John McCallister was withdrawn, question 8 from Alex Maskey was withdrawn, and question 10 from me — mise — was withdrawn. My question was withdrawn because I was chairing the meeting.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 61/11-16] be agreed. — [Mr Allister.]

Mr Allister: I am grateful to the Members who contributed to the debate. Some significant and constructive points were made, and I want to acknowledge that.

My starting point with the Bill is not to suggest for one minute that it has all the answers or that it is not capable of improvement. No Bill is ever in that category. The Members who raised issues about the need to widen the Bill to include matters such as the qualifications of a special adviser made useful points, and there were some others in the same vein.

It is clear, however, because of a Sinn Féin U-turn and an obvious deal that it has done with the DUP, that the cabal that controls the House has determined today to kill the Bill. I say "Sinn Féin U-turn" because, at the Finance Committee last Wednesday, it was abundantly clear from the contributions made by Mr Ó Muilleoir that he and his party appeared to be in support of the principles of the Bill. He did caution that he expected that my former colleagues might halt the progress of the Bill.

I think he was suggesting that there might have been a petition of concern, but they did not need it because it seems that Sinn Féin has ridden to the rescue and done a deal with the DUP on this.

Significantly, Mr Ó Muilleoir was not here today, perhaps out of embarrassment at the U-turn that has been done, but it was clear from what he said in Committee that the Bill was likely to meet with his and their support. Be that as it may, that deal has no doubt become part of the sticking plaster that has been utilised to stick together that which is necessary to cause these institutions to limp along a little bit further until the next crisis. It would appear that some arrangement of vested interest has been made in that regard.

Of course, it is in the vested interest of both parties to protect the very special unwarranted treatment that the current arrangements provide for their parties. Take Sinn Féin, for example. They tell us that their special advisers do not benefit from the full salary. The full salary is taken, but the balance above whatever is the current threshold for Sinn Féin members is donated, it is claimed, to the party. So, it is in the interests of Sinn Féin to continue to take from the taxpayer the tens of thousands of pounds that come to the coffers of that party through having a surplus of special advisers and overpaying them up to the level that they are paid. When Sinn Féin joins with the DUP, it is joining in that same vested interest. Between them, those two parties now have entitlement to 16 of the 19 special advisers. As I said, as a consequence of Sinn Féin's position, that means tens of thousands of pounds going into its coffers every year.

The DUP is, of course, in the business of protecting the useful vehicle that special advisers are for reward within the party and for maintaining that golden circle of special advisers who, given the quality of some Ministers, I suppose are indispensable in running Departments. They are very much in the business of self-interest.

It is that vested self-interest of those two parties that appears, today, to be going to unite them to go through the "No" Lobby so that they can continue the squander at a level wholly out of kilter with expenditure on special advisers anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and continue with the squander of one Department having the same number of special advisers as the whole of the Welsh Government. It will also allow them to continue to make special advisers exempt from discipline, as we scandalously and shamelessly saw in respect of the Red Sky inquiry, when the appointing Minister was able to throw a human shield around the offending special adviser, who independent fact-finding had found should face disciplinary proceedings. The Minister was able to protect him from that. Well dare anyone, such as in this Bill, suggest that, though we pay them as civil servants, pension them as civil servants and cosset them as civil servants, we should subject them to the discipline of civil servants or remove that right from the Minister to protect his own, as he so shamelessly did in the case of Mr Brimstone.

3.30 pm

It is that utterly unashamed defence of the indefensible in the protection of the vested interest that they have that the DUP will vote no, and Sinn Féin, as part of some deal with the DUP, will vote no today. Of course, Mr McCartney dressed it up in the most threadbare clothes imaginable. He said that Sinn Féin was going to vote against this Bill because it was an amendment to my last Bill, and it was against my last Bill, therefore it must be against this Bill. That is such absolutely illogical nonsense, but it is the point that its Members were driven to in their U-turn from Mr Ó Muilleoir's position of last week.

However, the debate did do one thing: it did provoke a DUP contribution, underscoring the vested-interest point. Oh yes, this House can debate health, and the DUP sits silent. This House can debate waiting lists, and the DUP sits silent. This House can debate cancer, and the DUP sits silent. Let this House debate daring — daring — to bring some financial restraint to the squander of special advisers, daring to curb the number of special advisers or daring to think that those civil servants should be subject to discipline, and it is business as usual for the DUP — back to protecting its own vested interest. That is what we saw today, when it sent in an MLA to oppose the Bill.

Maybe that was part of the sticking-plaster deal with Sinn Féin. Maybe Sinn Féin said, "Well, if we are going to help you out; if we are going to save your SpAds, then you are going to have to put a face on it, and we are going to make you break your boycott and make you speak in this debate". Maybe that was a little down payment from the DUP to Sinn Féin for whatever else the pay-off is. Who knows? The machinations of all of that are all but imponderable.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Let the watching public remember that the plain truth is that when this House had the opportunity, in a time of austerity when other public servants are expected to tighten their belts, to take the axe to the squander of OFMDFM having the same number of SpAds as the whole Welsh Government; had the opportunity to take the axe to the indefensible position that a SpAd in Northern Ireland costs £106,000 a year but £60,000 in Wales, and even in a proper Government, the Westminster Government, they cost only £83,000 a year, but here they cost £106,000 a year; when the watching public asks the question, "Why was Stormont not prepared to do something about it?", let them get the very clear answer that the vested interests of the two parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, circled the wagons to protect their own. That is apparently going to be the outcome of this debate.

I made mention of the DUP breaking its boycott and returning to business as usual to protect its own. That caused an interesting little exchange on social media. Someone tweeted:

"DUP couldn't show up for the health debate but they are on their feet to defend salaries of their SpAds".

In a moment of forgetfulness, one of their own MLAs — Gordon Dunne — retweeted it and favoured it, until the thought police got to him, and he deleted it. He retweeted:

"DUP couldn't show up for the health debate but they are on their feet to defend salaries of their SpADs".

It is a pity he did not have the courage of his convictions. Of course, he will not have the courage of his convictions today, because he will meekly troop through the "No" Lobby to protect the vested interests that are dictating this debate.

I believe that the Bill was addressing a serious subject in a serious and measured manner and in a way that it required to be addressed, because we cannot go on asking for public credibility if, within the confines of the House, we demonstrate such gross, appalling irresponsibility that we think that that which is preached to others should never apply here and that we should merely continue to squander. The DUP and Sinn Féin say, "Why not let us continue with all this surplus of special advisers paid for out of the public purse? Why not continue to overpay them? Why not cocoon them from basic disciplinary proceedings?" It is as barefaced and shameful a defence of self-interest as anyone will see when those who walk through the "No" Lobby do so, shortly.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Speaker: The Second Stage of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill is not agreed. The Bill falls.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Flanagan: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the reliance of thousands of low- and middle-earning families on the tax credits system to top up their earnings; deplores the recent attack by the British Government on the tax credits system, which will reduce further the income of thousands of working families and drive them into greater poverty, as well as making it more difficult for people to move into employment; further notes the proposed introduction of an increased minimum wage by the British Government but recognises the study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that shows that the impact of cuts to the tax credits system is much greater than the increase proposed in the minimum wage, which falls significantly short of the wage required for someone to have a decent standard of living.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht tábhachtach seo agus tá mé sásta a bheith ábalta labhairt ar an díospóireacht tábhachtach seo inniu. Many families here are reliant on the tax credits system to top up their earnings. Some are dependent on tax credits as a result of being in low-paid employment, and others need it because they cannot get enough hours to make enough money to bring them out of poverty. The current tax credits system, whilst not perfect, is a good system as it provides a safety net for many workers who may well be earning the minimum wage but are underpaid or underemployed to such an extent that they require additional financial support from the Government to have a decent standard of living.

For many employees working in large companies, the tax credit system amounts to corporate welfare whereby, instead of employers paying their staff a decent living wage, the taxpayer has to step in and pay the difference. That is unfair on employees and on taxpayers. Companies earning hundreds of millions of pounds in profit every year should pay their staff enough so that they earn above the current threshold for tax credits. Employees in such profitable companies should not be living in poverty. Tax credits can also be paid to unemployed people with children.

Despite the success of the tax credit system in raising living standards and helping to prevent and take children out of poverty, which is scandalously high, the British Government, intent on imposing further unfair austerity measures, are changing how the system works. The recent Budget announced by George Osborne will lower the threshold at which payments to families start to reduce. Current tax credit payments start to reduce — what they call "taper" — once a family income reaches £6,420. From April 2016, the threshold at which payment starts to reduce will be £3,850. There are 109,000 claimants in this part of Ireland who earn about the £6,420 threshold and have a tapered tax credit award. Once the threshold is reduced to £3,850, those claimants will have their tax credit award reduced further. An additional 12,000 claimants will become subject to the taper once the threshold is reduced to £3,850. That information was published in a report produced by the Social Security Agency last month. It revealed that, in total, by 2019-2020, £105 million a year will be removed from the pockets of the least well-off through the changes to the tax credit system. Not only will that have a devastating, knock-on impact for those directly affected — 120,000 families will lose out by, on average, £918 a year — it will result in further constraints on the domestic economy. Every economic publication that I have studied on the matter clearly shows that those with least money spend what they have, usually in the local economy, which supports and sustains local employment and returns money in a cyclical fashion around the local economy. That is in direct contrast to what happens to money given to already wealthy people. As those people already have enough to meet their needs, they tend either to save or invest that money, hire a top-class accountant to make sure that they do not pay tax on it or buy luxurious items that are neither produced nor sold locally. Either way, that additional money brings little in the way of economic stimulus to the local community.

The proposed cuts to the tax credit system can in no way be claimed to be tackling people whom the Tories and their cheerleaders wrongly describe as "work-shy". Those affected by the cuts are, by and large, working people who are underpaid or underemployed but are, nonetheless, in employment. They deserve the support of a Government, instead of being pushed deeper into poverty and destitution.

Some, usually to the right of the political spectrum, will claim that the increase in the living wage will counter the cuts to the tax credit system, but they are wrong. I support the introduction of a proper living wage to all employees and believe that working people should be paid a rate that enables them to sustain a decent standard of living. I do not think that a Government should have to step in to top up the earnings of somebody in full-time employment, but too many employers avoid that responsibility, and now the Tory-led Government in England are shirking their responsibility to protect people in poverty once more.

Statistics released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in London show that a much greater proportion of workers here are paid below the living wage than in any part of Britain. That is the actual living wage, by the way, and not the new rate falsely promoted by neo-liberals and the Tories, which is actually just an increased minimum but still a poverty wage. The statistics from the ONS show that we cannot be lumped into the simple considerations of an economic policy designed to meet the needs of a small section of the population in the south and south-east of England.

Tory millionaires and billionaires sitting round a Cabinet table do not have a clue about the realities of everyday life for working families and for low and middle earners. They think — maybe they do not care — that everyone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. That is not the case. Even though the people sitting round that table have considerable assets and considerable wealth, not everybody else in society has. Almost 40% of jobs in places like the north coast, Fermanagh and Omagh, and Mid Ulster district council areas are paid below the living wage. Compare that with parts of London where 5·2% of jobs are paid below the living wage. Proportionately, eight times as many people in some of our district council areas are paid below the living wage than is the case in London.

Statistics generated by the Asda income tracker reveal that the average discretionary income in London is now £254 a week, whereas here the figure is not even half that, at a mere £95 a week. The households below average income report published by the Department for Social Development last month shows that 21% of individuals or 376,000 people are in relative poverty. Countless families depend on the small amount of income that they get through the tax credit system merely to keep their heads above water.

4.00 pm

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has carried out an extensive piece of work on the impact of the cuts to the tax credit system and the countering increase to the minimum wage, which, by the way, only benefits people who are over 25 and is a measly 50p an hour. The findings of the IFS paint a very bleak picture. The IFS found that, among households with someone in paid employment, those eligible for benefits and tax credits are estimated to lose an average of £750 a year as a result of the changes to the tax and benefits system, yet they will gain, on average, only £200 per year through the increase to the minimum wage. On average, those affected by the changes will be compensated by only 26% of the total amount that they lost through the cuts to the tax credit system by the increase to the minimum wage and will be worse off, on average, by £550 a year. For me, that is not a glowing commendation of the policies being pursued by the Tory Party in England, which, unfortunately, we are subject to here.

There has been an ongoing debate here about welfare cuts and proposed changes to the welfare system. It is important that we, as an Assembly, stand up and send a clear message that we are opposed to these measures and that they will have a deeply negative impact on the people we represent. [Interruption.]

Maybe some people want to make an intervention; I am not sure. I can see Gregory's lips moving, but I do not see him rising in his place to get up and down. Maybe the DUP will contribute to the debate.

Mr Speaker: Order. Through the Chair.

Mr Flanagan: It would certainly be welcome to see Members from all parties rising in their place to contribute to the debate and to send a clear message to David Cameron and George Osborne that we do not accept their political ideology of cutting money that is going to the most vulnerable people in our societies.

People who are working hard, living in poverty and trying their best need a hand up; they do not need a foot on their head to keep them down. Unfortunately, those are the policies that are being forced on us. We need to adopt a different approach where we invest money to bring people out of poverty. There is an alternative to the proposals that are in front of us. We need to see people being paid a proper living wage. If we give more and more of our people a living wage, that would seriously help to tackle poverty, which is a serious problem in our society. The proposed cuts to the tax credit system are a regressive step. They will take us back a generation in terms of the number of families and children living in poverty.

I welcome the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party. I do not have any great opposition to it. I am prepared to listen to what it has to say. I do not think that the House should divide on the matter. I encourage people to support the motion and, if they want, the amendment. I commend the motion to the House. [Interruption.]

Mr Beggs: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after the second "Government" and insert

"and the increase to the personal income tax allowance but recognises the study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that shows that the impact of cuts to the tax credits system is much greater than the increase proposed in the minimum wage, which falls significantly short of the wage required for someone to have a decent standard of living; and calls on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that working households on low wages are not financially worse off following the introduction of the Government’s changes.".

Why did I think that an amendment was needed to this motion about tax credits? When I read the motion, I really was quite shocked. The motion "notes", then it "deplores" and then it "further notes". I do not think that it is the responsibility of an Assembly to note, deplore and note. The Sinn Féin motion does not seem to be trying to change the proposals; it is just whingeing, moaning and complaining from a distance, a bit like what they do by boycotting their Westminster seats. This note-and-deplore motion raises valid concerns, but it is not focused on seeking to make the Chancellor change the proposals or alleviate the problems, hence I have tabled the amendment. It seems rather pointless to have a motion of which the first section "notes" the reliance of many families on tax credits, the middle section "deplores" the changes that will adversely affect low-paid working families and the final section "further notes" that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has highlighted that the increase in the minimum wage will not fully compensate for the reduction in tax credits. There must be more that the Assembly does than noting, deploring and further noting. There was no call for action in the motion.

Otto von Bismarck is credited with having said:

"Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best".

We must seek change through striving for achievable goals.

The motion echoes Sinn Féin policy in their opposition to welfare reform to date. There are links between the Tax Credits Bill and welfare reform in how it will impact on some of those who are less well off. Sinn Féin opposed the Welfare Reform Bill at Stormont earlier this year. Even with the mitigation proposals emanating from Stormont House, to date they have failed to present achievable objectives. As such, they are grandstanding, and vulnerable citizens are at risk from the full implications of the unmitigated GB Welfare Reform Act, without any protections or additional support. Where is the art of the possible, the attainable and the next best?

For too many, Northern Ireland is a low-wage economy. That means that tax credits are even more important here than in other regions. As was said by the proposer of the motion, that has been recognised in the statistics. We should not be surprised by that. Indeed, 'The impact of Summer Budget 2015', a paper by NISRA, the Social Security Agency and DSD highlights the scale of changes afoot in Northern Ireland.

Some 109,000 households earning above the £6,420 threshold for tapered or reduced tax credits and some 121,000 households in Northern Ireland in receipt of tax credits will exceed the £3,850 threshold. It has been estimated that for them the tax credit changes will result in average reductions of £17·60 per week or £918 per year. However, that may be much more severe in individual families or sections of that group.

The Prime Minister told the 'Andrew Marr Show' on BBC One that we were moving to an economy where you got paid more and paid less tax. Rather than paying more in tax and getting money back in tax credits, that was a better system. He insisted that a family with someone earning the minimum wage would be better off overall as a result of the changes made by the Government to tax thresholds, benefits, tax credits and the minimum wage.

In the amendment, we largely retained the original motion but, for completeness, added the issue of increased tax thresholds. Changes to tax thresholds are part of the cumulative changes in the Prime Minister's argument, but I am adding it for completeness and, ultimately, to use it against him. Even when it is added, I and my colleagues have concerns that, when you take the cumulative changes — the national living wage, increased tax thresholds and the reduction of tax credits — many working households will be worse off.

Such a situation should not be allowed. Potentially, many households on lower wages will be even worse off. Many of those families will have no cushion to fall back on. How will they survive with such reductions? As a society, we must ensure that work pays, and it must pay right from April 2016, not at some future date when the national living wage reaches a certain threshold.

Those in receipt of tax credits should not be worse off as a result of these changes. We will be working to gauge their effects and lobbying so that that is recognised and further changes are put in place before we reach the critical date of April 2016, when these changes are due to take effect.

Some very influential MPs appreciate the dangers of what is being proposed. David Willetts, the former Skills Minister in the Conservative Government, who was recently elevated to the House of Lords, was reported as stating that changes to tax credits in the Budget meant that the welfare system was no longer making work pay. What a damning statement from a Conservative grandee.

The Labour MP Frank Field, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee at Westminster, and a recognised expert on welfare, suggested to the Prime Minister that he should adjust the threshold and taper to protect those who would be adversely affected by the tax credits and other cumulative changes. He has suggested that this can be achieved without significant additional moneys being required. More information is required on that one.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP, Mayor of London and rival to George Osborne as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party, and who made the proposals, has indicated his concerns with the cumulative effects of the changes, which will adversely affect many households. I note also that the Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, has rightly stated that more information is required. There are concerns even there.

Another Budget statement is due from the Chancellor later this year, so there is still an opportunity for refinement and changes to tax credit and other regulations. Changes could help protect the low paid, who may be affected adversely by these cumulative changes. I, for one, urge Members to support my amendment so that we do not just note, deplore and further note but go on and urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that working households that rely on tax credits are not worse off as a result of the introduction of the Government changes to tax credits, the many other changes to the tax system and the cumulative effect that these changes would have on their lives.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and the amendment. We are quite happy to support the motion and the amendment. I wish to highlight the wide-reaching and devastating impact that the proposed reduction of tax credits will have on low- and middle-earning families here and on our economic growth in general. As it stands, over 127,000 households are in receipt of tax credits. In many cases, they are vital in topping up earnings and ensuring that people can make ends meet.

The current proposals seek to reduce the tax credit income threshold from £6,420 per annum to £3,850 from April 2016. This new threshold is a significant reduction, being nearly half of the previous threshold. So, in very real terms, the new threshold will result in an income cut of £17·60 a week and a loss of over £900 per year. In my opinion, this accurately reflects the vital source of income that tax credits are to families here in Northern Ireland who rely on them in their daily lives.

Of particular concern is the effect that the new tax credit changes will have on Northern Ireland's children. As Members have noted, the current family element of child tax credit is worth £10·50 per week and its loss will amount to £545 per annum. This, in combination with the reductions mentioned above, is a substantial loss to families who depend on tax credits to function. The reduction is all the more horrifying when we consider that 101,000 children are already in poverty. This has resulted in nearly one quarter of Northern Ireland's children living in poverty.

The British Government justification for these changes seems to rely solely on the fact that they have introduced an increased minimum wage or, as they would call it, the national living wage. Since this announcement, the SDLP has been highly sceptical of the Tories' commandeering of this term. We recognised early on that, while any increase in the minimum wage is to be welcomed, it is wrong to claim such as the national living wage as we know it. It is wrong to claim that it will offset the pressures being created through reductions in the tax policy.

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The dangers were recognised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in its analysis of the new policy, which noted a serious reduction in household incomes. The institute noted that, on average, the new so-called national living wage will only compensate 26% of the losses that households with someone in work will face. They will be £550 worse off per year. That is in contrast to those currently living without the national living wage, who face losses of £750. Despite the seeming benefit, the gap will close as time moves on, as the institute noted. The national living wage offers such little compensation because the boost to gross wages is smaller than the announced fiscal tightening. Even at that, the national living wage will not benefit the households that are being most damaged by tax reductions.

The SDLP believes that the institute made a clear case for the positive outcomes that in-work benefit have brought to workers. In the face of the British Government's national living wage, we have called for a robust discussion on the proper implementation of a true living wage, and we hope to discuss it in the Chamber in the future.

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

Mr D Bradley: A true living wage must recognise the cost of living, not what the market can bear. Mr Speaker, thank you for allowing me to contribute today. We support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Dickson: I support the motion and the amendment by the Ulster Unionist Party. We should be glad that it has now clearly broken its links with the party that is introducing this legislation in Westminster.

The issue is one that genuinely affects my constituents and constituents of Members around this Chamber. Many of them have come to me expressing grave concern about the change in the tax credit system. It provides considerable financial support to many of the poorest people in our society, often subsidising, as many people do not realise, employers and wages that are far too low to live on, helping to top up incomes to a liveable level. The tax credit system, therefore, is a vital part of maintaining a decent standard of living for people. However, there are a number of issues with maintaining a large tax credit system. First, tax credits are inefficient, often simply returning the tax that has already been deducted from previous payslips, with the assistance of a large system of bureaucracy. Secondly, tax credits seek to treat rather than cure a central issue: that is, poverty wages. Indeed, tax credits can and do subsidise some of the biggest names in the high street. Those are often the names that aggressively avoid tax.

In those establishments, a full-time worker or even one on a zero-hours contract is working all the hours that they can, but they still cannot afford a decent standard of living. Nonetheless, tax credits play an important role for part-time workers. Tax credits are a vital lifeline to alleviate poverty for workers and children alike. It is for that reason that I utterly deplore the way in which the Conservative Government are going about cutting tax credits in a cruel, uncaring and, indeed, may I suggest, deliberate manner. Again and again, the Tories wheel out the same explanation how they basically are pulling the carpet from under the poorest working families in our country. Apparently, the shiny new national living wage, which we all know is just a rebrand of the minimum wage, is to make up for losses from tax credit cuts, while they happily turn a blind eye to their tax-dodging multinational friends.

Although I welcome an increase in the minimum wage, I reject the cynical attempts of the Tories to trick us into thinking that this is some form of living wage. Furthermore, there is research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as others have said. It is simply arithmetically impossible for the increase in the minimum wage to compensate for the loss in tax credits when the gross increase in employment income and the higher minimum wage is about £4 billion but welfare spending as a whole is due to fall by £12 billion. That means an average loss of £200 a year; but, for some, it is upwards of £1,000.

To further insult the intelligence of the electorate last week, the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, vowed an all-out assault on poverty, despite the fact that his tax credit changes are due to abandon an estimated additional 200,000 children into poverty by 2020.

Indeed, if there is anything that we have learned since the Tory Party secured its majority in May, it is simply this: that compassionate Conservatism is truly dead. The Tories are an undisputed nasty party of British politics, completely out of touch with real life. How can a cabinet of millionaires, who have never known want or financial troubles, ever claim legitimacy in understanding the problems that face my constituents, the ordinary people of Northern Ireland?

Nonetheless, we can make a difference in the lives of those who struggle to earn a decent income and wage in Northern Ireland. We do that by growing our economy, fixing our healthcare system and implementing the welfare mitigation measures that have already been secured. If anyone thinks that the Tories are going to cave in on welfare, they are clearly misguided. Tax credits, however, is an issue on which they are weak. The basis on which they have been concocted is weak. The constituents of Tory MPs, I understand, are already voicing their misgivings on this clearly ideologically-driven and charged policy.

Maybe if all the Northern Ireland MPs turned up to vote, we could put further pressure on the Government. We know that Sinn Féin does not bother to put its pressure on the Government by voting, but where were the missing SDLP and UUP MPs when the vote on the welfare of their constituents was taken? Was it not that important to them? This House was capable of filling its Benches by two parties to vote for money for special advisers. I do not see too many Members here when it comes to dealing with the real people that we all represent: our constituents.

Mrs D Kelly: Mr Dickson was doing very well until the last couple of points, I think. He seems to forget that the Alliance Party's sister-party, the Liberal Democrats, was part of the Tory-led coalition Government that introduced many of the initial cuts to people's benefits. Maybe that is a part of the Alliance Party's history that it would rather forget. However, he is right to point out the absence on the Benches opposite of Members who milled in, in their numbers, to ensure that the money for special advisers was retained. It is interesting that not too many of them were holding their noses going through the Lobby as they were voting for Sinn Féin. The only stench at that time was the stench of money, when they went through those Lobbies in their party's interests.

Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that, in my constituency — I suggest that it is so in all our constituencies — households of families with children will be hit hardest by the tax credit reductions. In 'The Irish News' today, there is an excellent article about Facebook. Mr Dickson also referred to the corporation tax loopholes that prevail amongst many of the friends of the Tory cabinet. The article states that Facebook has to pay a corporation tax bill of around £5,000: full stop. That is less than the tax that an average worker on a salary of £26,000 would pay. Surely, there is something inherently wrong about that. Mr Dickson is right to point that out.

I think that there is a slow burner of Tory Back-Bench rebellion. I do not think that Tory MPs will be able to sustain that and face many of their constituents, particularly in the north of England where families will be hit harder and quicker than many others in the south of England. Therefore, Mr Dickson is right to point out that MPs should be present in their numbers to vote down these odious Tory plans.

What we see across the water is that Mr Cameron has said that he is not going to stand again as Prime Minister. We see the wannabes line up to take his place.

Of course, they are all trying to move further and further to the right. They are waging war against people on benefits but not against their employers. This is hitting working families hardest: these are not people who do not want to work; they are people who are in work. Quite often, the money from tax credits goes towards the payment of childcare.

It is lamentable that the Executive were taken to court by the Committee on the Administration of Justice over their anti-poverty strategy and found guilty. That is a damning indictment of this Executive. Let us not hear the wailing cries about what others should or should not be doing. We should want to find out more and hold to account the Executive parties, in particular the two big parties. They have the responsibility to adopt an anti-poverty strategy that can allay some of the worst excesses of the Tory plan for people here who are finding life very, very tough.

I am sure that we all know people — not just constituents but people in our family — who are weighing up whether it is worth their while to take a job or whether they need to stay on benefits. We all know that working is of benefit to individuals' self-esteem and to their role in life. By working, they provide a role model for their children. However, when deciding whether to take a particular job, people have to weigh up the financial pros and cons and whether their family might suffer as a consequence. Very often, people are having to make very real, tough decisions. Our party is, therefore, very much behind the motion. Not only does it highlight the discrepancies and the failed ideology of the Tories, it accepts that it is not enough to wail and cry. When it comes to the friends of the Tory Cabinet, we will look for and support any ways of closing the loopholes in Westminster.

Mr B McCrea: I join others in saying that I am surprised that the Chamber is so empty for what is, I think, a really important debate. In fact, I was a little surprised that, when the cut in tax credits was announced, it did not achieve as much prominence as welfare reform, which has dominated political discussion and the popular press. To my mind, tax credits have a much deeper impact on our society and on what we are trying to do, because they affect people who are in work and trying to make something of their lives, so it is useful that we are having this debate. I hope that the issue is being addressed in other areas, too, because, if you take such an amount of money out of our economy, you will not only create hardship but you will, I suspect, run the risk of civil unrest. I do not say that lightly.

I listened to David McWilliams, an economist in the South famous for predicting the crash. He was saying, and I have a great deal of sympathy with this, that the whole balance of an economy lies in giving some incentive for people to work harder, and, if they work harder, they will get more money. That is a positive. I am not totally socialist in my outlook on that; I want to reward people who work for a living. However, I also have to say that, if the gap between those who have and those who do not have increases exponentially, as it appears to be doing now, ultimately, you will have an unstable place that you will not be able to sustain.

An issue raised by a number of contributors is that the Tories appear to think that everything is equal across the land. What works in London does not work in the Midlands and most certainly does not work in Northern Ireland. I was not at the Tory conference — I do not think that I have ever been to one — but I heard hear from people coming back that the Tories are very pleased with the way that the economy is going. They point to the figures and say, "Our policies have worked; look at the way things are going", and they will point to here.

4.30 pm

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. Is it not a fact that real wages in Northern Ireland have dropped by 9% in the past number of years?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr B McCrea: I thank Mrs Kelly for that point. The key issue, and perhaps she is aware of this, is that there are Members of the Assembly — Ministers — who keep telling us that the economy is going really well here. However, this very helpful briefing from the Department for Social Development that examined the median household income in Northern Ireland states that it increased from 2002-03 to 2008-09 but that it has been in decline since. In fact, median income levels in Northern Ireland for 2013-14 are lower than in 2002-03. We have gone right back. When people tell us that things are getting better when they patently are not, we have a problem.

I stayed on for this debate, despite the absence of numbers, in order to say that this is a very real and pressing issue. I am not sure how, given the sums of money concerned, the Assembly can address it. However, if we do not, the people of Northern Ireland will look at government in general, including us, and say, "You are not making my life any better; you are making it worse."

The big issue that we have to address is how this is put on the negotiating table. I am not sure; perhaps those involved in the talks can say whether it features or not. For all the talk about welfare reform, it is only part of the issue: tax credits are fundamental. It is insidious when you try to convince people that they should go out and get work —

Mr Dickson: I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate what he is saying, specifically about the talks, because the reality is that tax credits will pile on top of the misery of welfare reform. However, we in Northern Ireland have substantially mitigated welfare reform. Therefore it is important that we deliver the welfare reform package that was agreed at Stormont House and at Stormont Castle, because, if we do not, we will have even more misery once the tax credit cuts hit us as well.

Mr B McCrea: I agree with Mr Dickson on that, but his intervention highlights the thing that I find most strange. The mitigation that we have for welfare reform and the effort that we put into it, which I personally think we have to take, are in stark contrast to tax credit cuts, which we appear to have ignored in their entirety but which are just as detrimental to the people of Northern Ireland. Whoever is doing the negotiations needs to address that issue.

Mr Cree: I will be very quick, because I realise that I do not have much time. In his summer Budget on 8 July this year, the Chancellor announced a range of measures to be taken in order to achieve the £12 billion per annum reduction in UK benefit spend by 2019-2020. Included in the measures was a package of reforms to tax credits, including reducing entitlements for many households.

Tax credits are reserved matters, and changes could be introduced in Northern Ireland without the approval of the Assembly. Tax credits are calculated on the basis of hours and gross income. A household needs to work for a set number of hours in order to qualify for working tax credit, and their gross household income is then used to calculate how much tax credit a household is entitled to.

We are told that approximately 20% of our population is living in relative poverty; therefore a reduction in tax credit will have a significant impact on their lives. Several Members touched on that. The Chancellor said that the new national living wage and the raising of the income tax threshold will offset the loss of tax credits, but there is little clarity on how the phasing of the changes will work out.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies advised in a recent assessment that, while there may be strong arguments for introducing the new living wage, it should not be considered a direct substitute for benefits and tax credits aimed at lower-income households. A higher living wage will certainly help those in employment, although there is some doubt about whether it will increase the UK's GDP. I believe that the reduction of tax credits could increase hardship and undermine the importance of making work pay.

I turn to some of the comments that we heard this evening. First, in bringing forward the motion, Mr Flanagan referred to the £105 million in reductions by 2019, which is an average of £918 per annum for each family. He supports the living wage, but said there should be no cuts to tax credits. He said that people in Northern Ireland are eight times more likely to be below the living wage than those in London. He welcomed the Ulster Unionist amendment.

In moving the amendment, Mr Roy Beggs referred to the Sinn Féin motion, which he said really only whinged and noted various things; no action was called for. He quoted the Prime Minister and the "better pay, less tax" vision, mentioned the higher tax threshold and the Tory peer on no longer making work pay. He was concerned about that, and maybe several Back-Benchers were of the same mind. Our amendment calls for action, and people will not be less well off in the meantime.

Mr Bradley supported the motion and the amendment. He referred to 120,000 Northern Ireland households on tax credits and the losses, again, of £900 per annum. He mentioned the effect on children and said that 101,000 children were already in poverty. He said that the SDLP was sceptical of the national living wage and what it would actually mean.

Stewart Dickson then took the Floor and made the point that tax credits were inefficient and were really a return of tax already paid. Nevertheless, they were important at this time. He referred to the shiny new national living wage, which he saw as a rebranded minimum wage. He referred, this time, to 200,000 children in poverty. He said that the Tories were out of touch with reality on the ground, and that they would not cave in on welfare.

Mrs Kelly said that families with children would be hardest hit. She referred to the north/south split in Great Britain and the Tory opposition to the welfare reforms. She also referred to the legal action on the anti-poverty strategy here against the main parties.

Mr McCrea, bringing up the rear, referred to tax credits and said that they had a deep impact on lower-paid working people here. He talked about the likelihood of civil unrest if this continues in the way it is. He said that Tories were pleased with the way that the economy had picked up, but said that that was not the case. He said that we appear to have ignored tax credits on the bigger scene. I can tell Mr McCrea that they were touched on in the talks this morning. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, very much. You were paying attention to the other Members.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I thank all the Members who participated in the debate this afternoon. As Basil McCrea pointed out, he, and I think all the parties, recognise that this is a very important issue and one that requires fairly significant debate. I thank the Research and Information Service for providing the paperwork and the research pack for Members' benefit. It is worth reading and considering in the time ahead. Obviously, this afternoon just gives the parties an opportunity to express their views on the issue and highlight the major problem that we all have to face.

We have no hesitation in accepting the amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party. In fact, it is interesting that Roy Beggs spent a fair wee bit of his contribution criticising my party, and Leslie Cree followed that up and also decried the fact that the motion noted, acknowledged and so on and so forth, but did not make any specific recommendation that we do a, b or c. That was quite deliberate on our behalf, because we simply wanted to air the issue and get maximum consensus around the Chamber.

In fairness, and I say this respectively to Ulster Unionist Party colleagues, their amendment does not exactly represent the clarion call to mobilise the masses. It basically asks the British Government to try to be kinder to people who may fall foul of their tax credit changes and other tax measures. Nevertheless, it is recognised and respected by our party as a genuine attempt on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to add to the motion.

We are very pleased to accept that amendment, and we share the concerns of the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party about the impact that the tax credit changes will bring to bear on many people who will be even more vulnerable following their introduction.

I will actually go further and say to Mr Beggs that most of what he said actually vindicates the Sinn Féin position on trying to challenge and face down some of the welfare cuts that have been proposed by London. Indeed, if the Member will acknowledge it, as late as today at the talks, our party made it very clear. In terms of dealing with welfare issues and budgetary and financial matters, we specifically highlighted the changed environment since the last general election, with the election of a Tory Government, who are now introducing a whole range of other cuts, including the attacks on the tax credit system, which, everybody around the Chamber today has acknowledged, will have a negative impact on the people who we all represent in the various constituencies.

I thank the Members for their contributions. While we may always disagree on some nuance or minor detail, nothing has been said in the Chamber today by any Member from any party that has taken away from the intention behind the motion, which is to highlight what can only be described as an attack on the underemployed and the underpaid — people who, for the most part, are trying to rear a family, go to work and make ends meet.

There are a number of figures presented. The Institute for Fiscal Studies actually says that, even if you take it in the round, with the introduction of what it calls the living wage, about a third of that will actually go back directly to the British Government in lieu of additional tax revenue raising. There are also more limited obligations on welfare benefits and tax credits. Right away, you can see that attempt by the British Government to say, "We're taking this off you, but, here, we're looking after you. We're giving you this other money on the other hand". It still works out less.

The conservative figures — I do not mean the Conservative Party — tell you that families could lose anything from £550 to £900-plus a year after that. Again, no matter what way you look at it, people who are on low pay or low income or who are working a limited number of hours will all suffer as a consequence of those latest announcements by the British Government.

All our party says is that, yes, people who go to Westminster can go to Westminster. We do not "not bother" — somebody said earlier on that we "do not bother" to go. We actually bother a lot to get a mandate, which mandates us not to go to Westminster. That does not mean to say, by any stretch of anybody's imagination, that we do not work, lobby and fight very hard for those who will be adversely affected by British Government legislation. I do not think we have been found wanting on that in any respect. Our voice has been, and will continue to be, heard, and the people who we represent will be effectively represented. I wish well to anyone who goes to Westminster and wants to challenge the British Government. They are entitled to do that. That is their mandate, and good luck with it. However, today and in the short time ahead, all of the parties in the Assembly have our own opportunity to do something about the tax credit cuts that are being imposed on people out there, whatever about how we agree or disagree in our attitudes to welfare.

I heard Stewart Dickson earlier talking about the welfare reform misery. Again that is another acknowledgement that what is coming down the line to people in relation to welfare cuts is not a happy prospect. What we all have to do is work and do our best to mitigate that. There has been a row over the issue for the last number of years. It was a very central part of the Stormont House Agreement talks. That still needs to be on the table in the current round of talks, and it will be. We all still have a responsibility to tackle that problem, which was made worse by the Tory Government in their last number of announcements on their Budget and their projections for the time ahead.

We have a direct responsibility and opportunity in the upcoming talks to tackle, to the best of our ability, the issue of the cuts to welfare, which the British Government are trying to impose on the most vulnerable in our society, and the cuts to the tax credit system. Let us vow to do what we can. We may disagree on what we can do or the extent to which we can do it, but one thing that we can do is unite in our opposition to those tax credit cuts and our opposition to the British Government's continuing assault on the welfare system and attacks on the public services. Do not forget that our block grant is going to be reduced by about £1·5 billion over the next four or five years. This is something that we cannot escape from. I think that Basil McCrea said that people out there will be looking to us to see what we can do to mitigate the worst excesses of Tory rule from London. That is what we have a responsibility to do.

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As I said earlier, my party made it very clear today that a big focus for us in the upcoming talks around the financial side of things in terms of the negotiations will be around tackling the welfare cuts. It will be about trying to do what we can around the whole issue of tax credit cuts. I invite all the other parties to join us in doing that.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: In the discussions, will he and his party present achievable objectives? I understand that that has been one of the difficulties to date.

Mr Maskey: All I would say in that regard is that significant progress was made during the Stormont House talks. Whatever about how the wheels fell off the wagon after that, we are very satisfied that very clear and specific proposals were on the table that were agreed by the parties. Today, as the Member will be aware because he was at the meeting, we made it very clear that the landscape has changed since the last election. We will certainly get round the table to try to hammer out the best that we can all do to defend the most vulnerable in our society.

The Member took a few minutes of his time earlier to criticise my party for not having, as he said, specific plans or proposals. We had proposals and specifics, and we dealt with them in the Stormont House talks. I invite the Member to bring forward your party's views. Your party, in this afternoon's contributions, talked about the problems around the tax credit cuts and welfare. Let us hear any ideas that you have. You cannot simply rely on criticising Sinn Féin for not having a plan. If you disagree with the welfare and tax credit cuts, you have a responsibility to bring your proposals to the table. In our bilateral discussions with your party, we have raised that with you. We have asked you to produce your own goods, but we have not heard anything yet. However, the talks, hopefully, will commence in a much more intensive way in the next week or two, and you will have the opportunity to put your proposals on the table.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: Very briefly, I pay tribute to Sinn Féin. It is a good motion that you have brought forward. You have raised the issue. The stark reality is that £1,000 out of anybody's wage is a significant factor. Even here, if you lose £1,000, you have a problem. We need to fix it.

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

Mr Maskey: I appreciate that contribution from the Member. It just underscores the importance of bringing such a motion forward today. We are more than happy to accept the amendment. I take encouragement from all the contributions today; the Members who spoke recognise the burdens that the tax credit cuts will impose on families who are working hard to put a loaf on the table.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the reliance of thousands of low- and middle-earning families on the tax credits system to top up their earnings; deplores the recent attack by the British Government on the tax credits system, which will reduce further the income of thousands of working families and drive them into greater poverty, as well as making it more difficult for people to move into employment; further notes the proposed introduction of an increased minimum wage by the British Government and the increase to the personal income tax allowance but recognises the study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that shows that the impact of cuts to the tax credits system is much greater than the increase proposed in the minimum wage, which falls significantly short of the wage required for someone to have a decent standard of living; and calls on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that working households on low wages are not financially worse off following the introduction of the Government’s changes.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]


Mr Speaker: The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes and all other Members who are called to speak will have approximately 10 minutes.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to bring forward this Adjournment debate today. This issue has been greatly exercising my constituents in my local offices in Carrickfergus and Larne. I take this opportunity to thank the Larne Line Passenger Group for its work in holding Translink to account and seeking to develop and encourage the use of the line for the future. The Larne Line Passenger Group's commitment stands in stark contrast to the commitment shown by Translink and the Regional Development Ministers. Clearly, the Minister, by her absence, does not see it as a priority today. With the exception of Mr Beggs, that applies also to other Members from East Antrim.

In September, Translink downgraded — there is no other description for it — its service to the people of east Antrim.

The new timetable means that trains now run less frequently, fewer stations are serviced and, ultimately, it makes it downright awkward to use the train in East Antrim, driving commuters back to their cars.

The timetable changes were brought in following a so-called consultation exercise that was wholly inadequate. In fact, it has been described by many as nothing short of a farce. Section 75 obligations were not met as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, no indication of the scale of cuts was given, and the surveys that were conducted were inappropriate and questionable in their methodology. In response to correspondence that I had received on the matter, Translink said that passenger surveys showed that passengers preferred a less frequent service to a complete cut of service. I find that an inane and ridiculous point: of course someone would prefer a reduced service to no service at all. What the people of East Antrim truly need is a good, efficient and frequent service to encourage people to leave the convenience and comfort of their car and use our new, quality trains.

I have been informed that the passenger figures that Translink used to justify the cuts may have been taken from a week that included a bank holiday and when schools were off. That is hardly a representative sample of passengers using the line. That only adds to the overcrowding on trains during the morning and evening rush hours, with passengers, including schoolchildren and commuters, being forced on to fewer services with less hope of getting a seat on their journey home. All of that has happened in the context of higher fares.

In recent weeks, in an attempt to assess the scale of the impact of the cuts on the Larne line on my constituents, I have run a survey on my Assembly website. The results make for sobering reading. Of those who responded, 71% said that the changes had impacted on them negatively and made journeys less convenient. Of those, 64% said that they had had to seek alternative means of transport. Unsurprisingly, the chief alternative means is the car. Therefore, we have a ludicrous situation in which Translink is pushing more traffic onto the roads, clogging our motorways and Belfast city centre in the morning and evening rush hours. Ultimately, travel by car is, by most people's perception, faster, cheaper and more convenient.

It is far from surprising, therefore, that, in my survey, only 16% rated the service as good. Further to that, a massive 75% believe that the service is getting worse. As may be expected, 80% identified frequency as an issue; 45% said crowding; and 42% said cost, with others expressing concern about punctuality, station amenities and park-and-ride.

Let us look at some of the particularly illustrative examples of the inconvenience and lack of sense that is seen in the timetable. First, there are early and late trains to Dublin that residents of East Antrim simply cannot access by train or even bus any more. In fact, it is now impossible for residents of Carrickfergus to reach Belfast city centre before 7.00 am via public transport. That is simply unacceptable. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Belfast lough, residents in Bangor, a town which is two miles further from Belfast Central than Carrickfergus, can reach that station as early as 6.37 am. Larne Harbour is unique in its proximity to a passenger ferry port, a potential benefit that Translink appears to have ignored altogether, as it terminates many of its services in Larne Town and even runs a two-hourly service after 7.20 pm. Indeed, it seems that, bit by bit, Translink is starting to abandon the Larne line by reducing services to Larne, Whitehead and even Carrickfergus.

We need a sensible approach to connections, rather than salami-slicing services. Translink should look for areas of development to encourage a greater use of the Larne line and, ultimately, increase its revenue. Translink's policy is to cut services to the bone, cram passengers in and push them back into their cars.

I turn to what I believe should be done instead and what I envisage Translink and DRD need to do to develop the Larne line for the future to increase passenger numbers, get people out of their cars and stop the line becoming an afterthought. As we will be aware, the York Street road junction is due to be upgraded to a free-flowing junction in the coming years. This development in road infrastructure will be a one-off-in-a-generation chance to dual track the Dargan viaduct, which travels from Yorkgate to Central station on the Larne line. Translink and DRD must act now to ensure the future development of the Larne line for the people of East Antrim. I am informed that, if only the roadworks proceed, the railway line will never be able to proceed. The engineering works must proceed hand in hand.

There is a major opportunity for expanding rail use in the provision of park-and-ride facilities at commuter stations. Such amenities have produced major benefits at stations such as Greenisland, Whitehead, Larne and Carrickfergus, but many more could benefit from park-and-ride, most notably at rural halts where the only practical means to reach the station is your car. Ballycarry is a case in point. This is the most accessible station to practically all of the Islandmagee peninsula and Ballycarry village. However, it is, by and large, accessible only by car, although it is practically impossible to park anywhere near the station. A park-and-ride would open up an entirely new region for train travel. Furthermore, with the opening of the Gobbins path as a tourist opportunity, it would provide a more efficient way to move tourists to the new attraction. I appeal to Translink and the DRD to look at this with genuine urgency, as they are clearly missing an opportunity at Ballycarry.

I also think that consideration should be given to the reopening of certain halts along the railway line, particularly that at Whitehouse in Newtownabbey. The halt there closed in the 1960s, but, with the construction and expansion of the Abbeycentre from the 1980s onwards and the general up-use in rail usage, a stop here is clearly in demand. Previous reasons given for not reopening the halt included the poor quality of rolling stock that found it difficult to start or stop. With the new trains, that should no longer be a problem. The opening of a halt at Whitehouse Abbeycentre would help to reduce congestion on surrounding roads, particularly at peak times such as the busy Christmas shopping period.

I recently had contact with the Regional Development Minister, when we actually had one, about the possibility of electrification of the line and utilising it for freight to and from Larne. Many may say, "Why on earth would we electrify the line?", but, actually, there is a major project in Europe called TEN-T that is delivering exactly that, right across Europe, from very many small countries to some of the largest. Such proposals may be far in the future and may not even be economically viable today, but Translink needs to have ambition. European initiatives provide financial support to such schemes, but there is no evidence from DRD or Translink of even starting to seek to access such funding. Again and again, we hear that it is just too difficult and too expensive for us to have an integrated ticket or live bus route information system. Our buses in Belfast got that only last year, years behind the rest of Europe.

We need a bold strategy to develop the Larne line and Northern Ireland's rail network. DRD needs to fund this accordingly. We know how difficult are the financial times that we are in. Much of the massive rail infrastructure is sourced in Europe. I think that we will all agree that the current use of the car is neither sustainable nor desirable. The timetables that sparked this debate have been a farce from the beginning, and it is time for Translink to put that right. Instead of slicing the service ever thinner, I call on Translink and DRD to restore the previous timetable. The people of East Antrim do not deserve a second-class rail system. We should be developing and investing, not trying to push passengers out. Thank you very much.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Member for bringing the debate forward. It is healthy to have a debate about the Larne line, to highlight its successes and the improvements that there have been but also the difficulties that have arisen, particularly with the recent reduction in services.

It is disappointing only two of the six East Antrim MLAs are present to share their views on the subject. I welcome a third Member, Daithí McKay, who is with us.

The Larne line has received significant investment over the past decade. We have had highly successful park-and-ride facilities and must not underestimate their success. Carrickfergus now has over 300 car parking places and, frequently, they are full. That is a great success and has eased traffic congestion. It has also eased the travelling costs of those who had to park in Belfast and the frustration of people who had to queue to go to Belfast and then, ultimately, to come back home.

A successful park-and-ride facility at Whitehead is fully occupied, and there is another at Whiteabbey. There are also improved facilities at Greenisland. We need to look at where additional park-and-ride opportunities can be created. I recognise that there are difficulties in locating space close to stations. Nevertheless, that must be attempted. I note and support Mr Dickson's view that Ballycarry should be considered as a park-and-ride facility, given that Whitehead is at full capacity and there are few other options in the area.

We have to recognise that the other success has been the complete relaying of the rail track and the welded rail. That, together with the new trains, has transformed the rail service from something of the 1960s to something of the modern era. On top of that, we now have Wi-Fi, which is very popular. You can see many of those who travel by rail using their smartphones, reading their books and partaking in other activities.

Mr Dickson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Certainly.

Mr Dickson: By way of information, I happened to travel on the train from Greenisland to Great Victoria Street on Friday, and I assure Mr Beggs that, sadly, the Wi-Fi was not working. That is one of the many complaints that people bring to me. I accept that it is a benefit, but only when it works.

Mr Beggs: I agree entirely with the Member that it is vital that any new service works. If it does not, there will be many, many complaints. I hope that the message goes through to Translink and that it resolves any difficulties that have occurred.

The investment has supported the growth of the Larne line — a line in which there had been a dearth of investment for many, many decades. In fact, at one stage, it was clear that some officials wished to end the line at Whitehead. I am pleased that, even in recent times, that was not the case.
The Glynn river railway bridge has been renewed with further investment. I perceive that as an indication of continuing recognition that this service should continue, and rightly so.

We have a new timetable, but there are some problems with it, and I will come to that later. I have engaged with Translink. I went to its consultation at Larne town station, but it struck me as being more of an information session and an opportunity to tell people about alternative trains than a true consultation. I certainly got a sense that the change was a fait accompli. The new timetable may even have been printed at that time. I think that indications were being given of the new timetable, which was about to start in a few days' time.

One issue raised with me by Translink officials was the cost of providing rail transport in Northern Ireland. The figure thrown at me was £18 a kilometre, so, if you want to run a train, you need a critical mass of paying passengers so that it can provide the service. That consideration has to be taken on board. We also have to recognise that public transport in Northern Ireland generally receives less funding per passenger mile than its counterparts in Great Britain and that the subsidy provided from the public purse has been cut. I have a certain sympathy for Translink in that it has had to ensure that it continues to provide a service and yet remain financially solvent. I welcome the fact that it is reducing the sizeable war chest that it had built up, which was much too high — it was over £50 million at one time — and that, as a result of those changes, public money will be put to better use.

I appreciate the efforts of the Larne Line Passengers' Group to improve the service; it has frequently highlighted difficulties and made suggestions for improvement. The sooner issues that are going wrong are addressed, the better it will be for the travelling public and, indeed, for Translink, which will be able to retain its travellers.

One of the issues highlighted recently is the lack of capacity on the 7.30 am train from Whitehead to Belfast. Frequently, passengers have had to force themselves onto trains, and occasionally the train has not even stopped at Whiteabbey station. I understand that that has largely occurred when a six-car set has not been dispatched. It is clear that, on that particular service, there is demand for a larger train. It is vital that Translink have the resources and the ability to ensure that it is dispatched reliably all the time, because you cannot provide a bad service and expect to retain passengers. It is vital that there is a reliable service. If passengers turn up at the station and cannot get on a train and get to work, their jobs could be at risk. They cannot accept that. It is not acceptable. It is vital that it does not happen. I understand that it is no longer a problem. I hope that that is the case. It certainly should not have happened, but there are pressures nevertheless.

One of the changes brought in has been to cut the two early-morning train services from Larne to Belfast; both the 5.48 am and 6.25 am services. Now, the first train leaving Larne is the 6.50 am service, which does not get into Central Station until 7.45 am; it gets to the City Hospital at 7.55 am and Great Victoria Street at 7.58 am. That is much, much too late. Many people have to get to work in Belfast at an earlier time. There has to be a rethink of how those services can be reinstated so that those who need to get to work in Belfast earlier can do so. Of course, the Ulsterbus alternatives equally cannot get those people to Belfast particularly earlier. I think that you can get in about 7.15 am, but that will of course be to Glengall Street bus station. You have to travel on from there to your place of work, which may not be possible depending on where exactly you work.

With regard to the late-night service, similarly, if passengers want to return on the Larne line by train, they must depart from Belfast at 10.45 pm. Very few people who travel to Belfast for some form of entertainment would be able to get back to the station for 10.45 pm. Frequently, that is too early, and it is not a practical train. Again, there needs to be a rethink on that.

As has been said already, some of the services are two-hourly, particularly at weekends. There is great risk with a two-hourly service: will passengers recognise it as a deliverable service? If you miss your train, how will you cope with waiting another two hours? That is a huge length of time. There are risks in going to such a service.

Whilst many would wish the retention of the timetable, given the costs, I am fearful that that may not be easily achievable. If not, I ask Translink to say what it will do, how it will build the numbers and work with Ulsterbus feeder services to build those numbers and provide a public transport service so that more and more people will be able to travel earlier — and later for that matter — and get to their work or place of entertainment. I thank the Member for bringing the topic forward. It has been worthwhile.

Mr Speaker: You are in danger of missing your train.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the proposer of the motion for raising this very important issue. I give apologies for my party colleague Mr Oliver McMullan, who has to attend a medical appointment this evening.

This is an issue that you could replicate in a lot of constituencies but the general issue that always comes back is that there is, in government, a car-centric attitude that needs to be addressed. Of course, I recognise that there are many good examples of people in Translink and DRD who see the need to improve and build on our rail and bus infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. We are lagging behind much of Europe and, whereas traditionally there has always been a great focus on investment in our major roads, we can realise a lot more savings and reduce congestion on some of our main roads by improving our rail and bus infrastructure.

A good example of that is the park-and-ride facility that the proposer of the motion mentioned earlier. There is a park-and-ride in Ballymena in my constituency that has been extended again and again, such was the demand for people to simply park their car and put their feet up on a bus for the trip to Belfast. The demand is there, and that is what is very frustrating; we want to see a good public transport system but where we fail again and again — this has come up in some of the Public Accounts Committee's reports — is the fact that we have not invested enough in public transport to get the return that we are looking for.

There should be greater investment in the Larne line and there should be more common sense when it comes to the timetables. If we want to improve the night-time economy in our towns and cities, we need to have a late-night train service. As Mr Beggs said, the service could operate much later than 11.00 pm because anybody who is going for a night out and is going to spend £30, £40 or £50 in a restaurant might want a later service to ensure that they do not leave their function earlier than they have to.

We need to apply a bit of common sense but we also need a bit of ambition. The park-and-ride facilities have been a success where there have been bold initiatives — we built it and they came. If you build the park-and-ride infrastructure around the train halts, increase the uptake of the service by increasing the number of halts and increase the electrification of the line in the longer term, you will have a better service with better choice and you will have more people using the railways.

You only need to look at the line to Derry, which almost reached the end of the line in recent years. It is a great success now; I have used it many times. It goes through Ballymena, Ballymoney and Cullybackey, right through my constituency, and it is a huge asset. It has not a bad Wi-Fi service, I have to say; it may be better than the service on the Larne line but it is a great way to travel. It is good for people's health as well, because being stuck on the M2 at Sandyknowes or Toomebridge is not a very pleasant experience when you have to do it each and every day. The train service is something that we need to improve on.

We have very little infrastructure as it is. Everybody who watched the television programmes that Barra Best did about the old railway lines will be shaking their heads and saying, "If only we still had those railway lines going up through the glens of Antrim and Armoy to Ballycastle today, we would have a completely different and much better infrastructure." It is such a crying shame that that was done away with. It also, of course, produces other opportunities. We are exploring trying to change those old railway lines into greenways for cyclists in rural areas. That is something that the Department needs to look at as well.

5.15 pm

I will keep my contribution to this debate short. The Larne line needs investment, and the other lines need investment. We need a change in the general approach from the Minister — or the ex-Minister or the soon-to-be Minister — for Regional Development in that, when she does return to her desk, she needs to ensure that we see an increase in the percentage of funding that goes towards public transport because, increasingly, it seems barmy that we are spending money on road maintenance. If you spend the money on public transport infrastructure, you get people off the roads, so there is less need for maintenance of the roads. It makes sense economically, so we need to see a greater commitment and bolder moves to increase spending on public transport. We need to see better buses and better trains.

I do give some credit to the previous previous Minister for Regional Development, Mr Kennedy, for some of the things that he did around cycling and public transport, but I think that we need to put on a European head in regard to this, not only in terms of the culture but in availing ourselves of and drawing down funding, which every other country seems to be good at. I do not see why, here in the North, we cannot do the same for our local rail commuters.

Adjourned at 5.16 pm.

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