Official Report: Monday 19 October 2015

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

Assembly Business

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Tuesday, during proceedings of the Assembly, it would appear that there was some form of breach, and I ask for your guidance. I do not know what can be done about it, but I certainly ask you to investigate it.

On an SDLP social media site, there were two photographs of proceedings juxtaposed beside each other that appear to have been taken in Parliament Buildings because of the time stamp on them. One of the pictures shows our Benches during a debate, and another claims to show our Benches during another debate, but the time shows that it was actually during a division, not a debate. So, I ask — I will furnish the Speaker's Office with both photographs — whether you could investigate that, because, obviously, there was an attempt to project our non-attendance here at some debate by way of a photograph that was taken during a division. The Hansard report and the time on the photograph prove that it was during a division and not a debate, as they erroneously attempted to convey.

Mr Allister: Is that the best that you can come up with —

Mr Campbell: It is accurate, unlike yours.

Mr Speaker: Order. I look forward to receiving the documentation that you mentioned. Clearly, a grab of a TV broadcast does not necessarily mean — it can be interpreted in different ways. I see it; I do see it. If you send that material, obviously we will consider it.

Before we commence, I wish to return to a point of order raised by Mr Dickson last Monday in relation to comments made by Mr McNarry during Question Time to the Minister for Employment and Learning. Mr McNarry may consider himself fortunate that his comments were not recorded in the Official Report, nor were they heard by the Principal Deputy Speaker.

However, as well as obviously being heard by those around him, his comments were picked up by an ambient microphone, and I am in no doubt as to what he said. I found the comments disrespectful and unacceptable, and I have written to Mr McNarry to remind him that I expect all Members, whether speaking on the Floor or sitting on the Benches, to show respect at all times.

I have also reminded him that I consider any comments from a sedentary position, particularly when they result in disorder, to be disrespectful. I have advised Mr McNarry that any further disrespectful behaviour will result in him being sanctioned. Let us move on.

Before we proceed to today's business, I have some announcements to make.

Ministerial Resignation: Mr Bell

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment resigned his office on 14 October 2015. Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held that office may nominate a Member of that party to replace him and take up office. That period expires at the end of Tuesday 20 October 2015.

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Mr Simon Hamilton MLA as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Miss Michelle McIlveen MLA as Minister for Regional Development and Mr Mervyn Storey MLA as Minister for Social Development. Mr Hamilton, Miss McIlveen and Mr Storey each accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on Wednesday 14 October 2015.

Ministerial Resignations: Mr Hamilton, Miss M McIlveen, Mr Storey

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that those three Ministers subsequently resigned their offices on Thursday 15 October 2015. Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held those offices may nominate Members of that party to replace them and take up office. That period expires at the end of Wednesday 21 October 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. Let us move on.

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Ms Rosie McCorley has been given leave to make a statement on amateur boxing world champion Michael Conlan, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom an spotsolas a tharraingt ar dhornálaí ó Iarthar Bhéal Feirste mar atá Michael Conlan a bhain Craobhchomórtais Dornálaíochta Amaitéaracha an Domhain. I wish to highlight the fantastic achievement of Michael Conlan, a young boxer from west Belfast. He became the first Irish male to win a senior World Amateur Boxing Championships title when he brought home the gold medal from Doha a few days ago.

If we take a look at his career in boxing, it is clear to see that he is a very talented sportsman who has had a glittering career up to this point since, at the age of 11, he won his first Ulster novice title. In the 2012 Olympics, he took a bronze medal and, in August 2014, he won the bantamweight gold at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Earlier this year, he took gold at the European Championships and was named boxer of the tournament. As a result of his achievements this year, Michael has secured qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. What a fantastic list of conquests for a young man of 23 years of age.

Tá clubanna dornálaíochta ar easpa maoinithe le fada an lá. It is worth mentioning that boxing has been underfunded here for years. Local clubs have been getting by using extremely poor facilities. Michael's club, St John Bosco, survived for years without heating, water or changing facilities. It is to the credit of the current sports Minister that boxing clubs have recently been able to avail themselves of funding to upgrade their facilities. It is great to see that young, upcoming boxers, for whom Michael Conlan is an excellent role model, can now train and develop in their sport in a much improved physical environment. In communities with high levels of deprivation such as west Belfast, boxing is not just a sport, it can be a lifesaver. It gives children a great interest from a very young age and increases their sense of self-worth. It also encourages a sense of discipline, a focus on healthy living and an enhancement of their physical and mental health. So there is much that is positive to be said about this story.

I am sure that everyone in the Assembly would be happy to join me today in congratulating Michael Conlan on his great success. He is a proud former pupil of Corpus Christi College in west Belfast. We are very proud of him in west Belfast, and I am sure that everybody across the North would say the same. We are also proud of his teammates, and our message to them today is to go on and achieve even more greatness at the 2016 Olympics.

Mr Attwood: I welcome this Matter of the Day and join in congratulating Michael Conlan and his family. As has been said, it is an immense achievement to win any world title in any sport at any time, but Michael Conlan is the first Irishman to win on the world stage, after 41 years of that tournament, at the age of 23, and winning each of the three rounds in his final bout.

In acknowledging this son of Belfast, I also acknowledge and applaud his teammates who won medals in the world championships: Joe Ward, and Michael O'Reilly, who controversially lost his third place bout. We hope that he will still qualify for the Olympics next year.

I acknowledge the head coach, Billy Walsh. No group of sportspersons has, in the history of Irish sport, achieved more on the Commonwealth, European and world stage than the group of boxers trained by Billy Walsh and his team.

In acknowledging Michael Conlan, his fellow boxers and the team coaches, I also acknowledge, as Ms McCorley did, that boxing is very much a grassroots sport. For all the big achievements on wider stages, it is on the small stages in our communities across Belfast that this sport is played out. There are significant working relationships between sports and boxing clubs in west, north and east Belfast. Boxing is in the vanguard of showing what can be done in good sport and good community relations. No club illustrates that better than a small club on the Glen Road known as Gleann ABC. The club works from small premises but builds relationships within the community and across Belfast.

In thanking Michael Conlan and Irish boxing, we should acknowledge the other sportspeople who in recent days and weeks, be it in soccer, rugby or boxing, have lifted the hearts of our people.

Mr Cree: I am pleased to add my voice and that of the Ulster Unionist Party to the words of praise for Michael Conlan, amateur world bantamweight champion. It is not every day that you win a world championship in any sport. To do so in amateur boxing, where there is only one world championship, is even more noteworthy.

Also, to get off the canvas in the third round, as Members will remember, and win against an opponent from Uzbekistan is quite a feat. Michael has already won Olympic bronze representing Ireland at London 2012. Representing Northern Ireland, he won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Glasgow. With the Rio Olympics coming up next year, we wish Michael well in his quest to win gold. After that, who knows? A glittering professional career may beckon.

It is remarkable — and other Members referred to it this morning — how many top-quality boxers are produced in this part of the world. We go back to Johnny Caldwell and Rinty Monaghan, not that I remember all these myself, and, more recently, Barry McGuigan, Dave McAuley, Wayne McCullough, Eamonn Loughran, Brian Magee and, of course, Carl Frampton.

We should all be proud to be associated with sporting success in this country. We have world champion boxers, golfers, motorcyclists, and a football team that is going to the European Championships. We should cheer them all on.

It is my great pleasure to say, "Well done" to Michael, world champion, and best of luck for Rio in 2016.

Mr Lunn: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I would like to join in the congratulations to Michael Conlan. Ms McCorley, in introducing this Matter of the Day, said that west Belfast would be proud of him. Of course they would. So would Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland because he is a credit to his sport. He seems like a fine young man. He interviewed very well after his fight. He is a very modest, unassuming lad. I wish him well for next year when he will represent Ireland at the Olympics again. Others have mentioned his record to date. He got the Olympic bronze as a flyweight in 2012 and has moved up a division. That does not always work out, but it has certainly worked out for Michael.

12.15 pm

I do not know much about the boxing club that he comes from and the other clubs around Belfast, but my understanding from what I have seen up here in questions and comment is that they operate on a shoestring and that their conditions are not as they should be. Yet our boxers, whether they come through the amateur ranks and proceed into the professional ranks or stay as amateurs, frankly punch above their weight — no pun intended.

Mr Cree mentioned the catalogue of other heroes. He did not mention Freddie Gilroy, who I can remember, and I am sure you can too. We have a proud tradition here. It is a very useful tradition in the social mix and the way that boxers conduct themselves. It is one of the more worthwhile sports. I would love to see St John Bosco, Holy Family and whatever clubs there are in east Belfast — there is one in Lisburn — getting a bit more attention and a bit more investment to try to promote this sport further. It is a success story, and we should be proud of our boxers. Whether they represent the UK, Northern Ireland or Ireland is irrelevant frankly, although I do not know that everybody will agree with that. However, it is a great sport and Michael Conlan is a credit to it.

Mr Speaker: I notice that all the Members who spoke said that he was the first male and forgot to mention Katie Taylor, who won five world championships. We have a lot to celebrate on this island.

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Victim Charter (Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

I am grateful to the Clerk for reading the title so accurately. Members will be aware of a range of changes that have been introduced in recent years to improve the services provided to victims and witnesses of crime. Central to these has been the establishment of a Victim Charter, which I launched on an administrative basis in January. The enactment of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 and the approval of this order will enable me to place that charter on a statutory footing, which we all welcome. This will take effect from mid November and will coincide with transposition of the EU directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The charter is being largely used to transpose that directive.

The introduction of a Victim Charter was recommended by the Justice Committee in its inquiry into criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime in Northern Ireland in 2012, building on preliminary work done by officials in my Department. I pay particular tribute to the Committee, in both its first and second guises, for the work and scrutiny that it has undertaken in this area. This has been invaluable to the improvements to services that are now in place. It also demonstrates the value of a positive and constructive relationship between Departments and Committees. As is often the case, the Justice Committee and the Department of Justice have been of one mind, with the Committee significantly influencing what the charter should contain.

The Department and the Committee see the need to ensure that the services provided to victims are of the highest quality. We want to improve the experience of victims and witnesses so that they are treated the way we would all want to be treated ourselves. To this end, the Victim Charter clearly sets out the entitlements of victims, the services that are to be provided and the standard of services that victims can expect to receive as they move through the criminal justice process. Importantly, it follows a victim's journey through the process, rather than being written from the perspective of the organisations providing those services. It also clearly sets out the obligations on a wide range of service providers to deliver information, services and support. Placing the charter on a statutory footing should result in an even greater focus on dealing effectively with the needs of victims.

Combined with other measures that I am taking to speed up the justice system, the charter will improve the experience of victims as they journey through the criminal justice system. The charter explains what measures are available to provide support and will help victims to give their best evidence at court. Importantly, it also makes clear who to contact should services not be as expected or the entitlements set out under the charter not be provided.

The charter will be of most use to victims if they can access it. While the main document is lengthy, due to the need to be clear and comprehensive, alternative supporting documents are available. A summary of the main charter has been prepared and is available in the six most commonly used languages when interpreters are used at police stations or court. An easy-read version of the summary is also available, and a young person's guide to the charter has been developed by young people for young people.

The charter builds on good work that has been done to date and forms an important improvement to the services that are provided to victims as we look to the future. I commend the victim charter order to the Assembly.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): On behalf of the Committee for Justice, I firmly welcome the introduction of the regulations to bring the Department of Justice's victim charter into operation on a statutory footing.

As has been outlined by the Minister, the victim charter gives effect to a key recommendation in the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime in Northern Ireland. The inquiry was one of the first significant undertakings by the Justice Committee during this mandate, and we are, therefore, pleased to see the recommendations of the Committee’s report being implemented by the Department.

During our inquiry, issues around the status and treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system and the need for them to be treated with dignity and respect became a recurring theme in the evidence that the Committee heard from individuals outlining their experiences and treatment by criminal justice professionals. Victims and families frequently described how they felt like a by-product, that the business and interests of the court centre on the perpetrator and the needs of the court not the victim, and that they were not treated on an equal basis with defendants, particularly in relation to access to information.

It was the Committee’s view then and remains the Committee’s view now that the introduction of a statutory charter is necessary to redress the balance in the system and ensure that the criminal justice agencies place appropriate priority on providing the services that victims and witnesses require and should be entitled to receive. It was also a recommendation of the Committee that these entitlements should be made available to bereaved families, and, again, on behalf of the Committee, I welcome the provision that has been made to ensure that bereaved families are entitled to receive the services set out in the charter. The Committee also looks forward to considering the Department’s witness charter, which is under development.

The Committee considered the statutory rule before the Assembly today at two meetings in September, and, as I have outlined, the Committee welcomes the regulations that will bring the Department of Justice’s victim charter into operation and, therefore, supports the motion today.

If I may, I will add, in a party capacity, that the DUP has, for many years, campaigned for the introduction of a victim charter. We very much believe that victims should be at the heart of the criminal justice system, and today marks a positive day for putting the rights of victims central to the justice system here in Northern Ireland.

I also apologise to the House for leaving before the conclusion of this matter, but, in addition to chairing the Justice Committee, I chair the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on the Mental Capacity Bill, which is currently meeting, and I mean no discourtesy to you or the House.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome the introduction of the regulations today in relation to the victim charter, which now puts it on a statutory footing. The Minister and the Chair have acknowledged the role of the Justice Committee in relation to the inquiry, which was carried out by the Committee at the time, and it is right and fitting to acknowledge the role of the former Chair, Paul Givan, who was perhaps the person who steered us through this particular piece of work.

There is absolutely no doubt that, during that inquiry, through the witnesses who came forward to give us evidence and the many places that we visited, we got an insight into the experience of victims and witnesses as they journeyed through the criminal justice system. There is absolutely no doubt that the charter reflects many of the things that they said and, indeed, many of the things that the organisations involved in the criminal justice system also acknowledged, but perhaps there was a gap between what people knew and what should be done, and now it is on a statutory footing. I have absolutely no doubt that some of the things that people said would have struck you as very ordinary and very straightforward, but when they were going through the journey, it seemed like an impediment and, sometimes, an imposition for them.

We are very satisfied that the work of the inquiry has helped to inform the charter. I know that, on other occasions when it was being debated in the House, the Minister acknowledged that. We look forward now to the charter enjoying statutory footing and to people's journey through the process being a lot better as a result.

Mr A Maginness: I lend my support and that of my party to this statutory rule. I also pay tribute to the Justice Committee for its work in bringing this about. It was part of the report of the Committee into the victims of crime. It was certainly a central aspect of that report. I think that it is right and proper to pay tribute to the former Chairperson of the Justice Committee, Mr Givan — the Deputy Chair has already paid tribute to him — in championing this approach by the Justice Committee. I think it is right and proper that we note that.

When I was a junior counsel at the Bar dealing with criminal matters, victims played no part in the considerations of the court. They were simply like part of the furniture. That, sadly, was my experience. The victim of crime was mentioned in passing, but it was really the defendant and the prosecution, as such, who were the two central characters in the trial situation. Now, victims, quite properly, are recognised universally.

I also mention that this arises not just out of the considerations of the Justice Committee but from the European directive. Those who campaign now on Europe should remember that it has brought many positive things into our political life, and this is just one of them.

The point I make is that victims are now quite properly recognised in law as having certain rights. If I could just point out that, in relation to this particular statutory rule, the right of victims to receive information about their case is very important. It relates to information about the police investigation, decisions to prosecute, time and place of trial and the nature of charges.

The experience of individual victims in the past was that they did not know that a person was prosecuted, convicted or acquitted. That may surprise people in the House, but my personal experience in 2001 when my office was bombed and there could have been very serious injury to three people who were in it at the time, was that, although I knew that a police investigation had taken place and I somehow found out that maybe somebody had been charged, it was not until some weeks after a person had been convicted that I was told that. Indeed, I had to call on the police to give me further information on it. I did not expect any special treatment as a public representative, but if that represented the way in which ordinary people were treated by the police and the prosecution service, I think it is quite right to say that victims were let down by the public services.

12.30 pm

One further point is on rights in the event of a decision not to prosecute. Article 11(1) provides:

"victims, in accordance with their role in the relevant criminal justice system, have the right to a review of a decision not to prosecute"

and the processes associated with that.

Paragraph 79 and standard 2.2 of the victim charter provide for the review of a decision not to prosecute and for information to be received about this. This is an important right for a victim; that, in certain circumstances, there can be a review of a decision by the Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute.

Further, article 19 establishes the right to avoidance of contact between the victim and the offender. Article 19(1) provides for:

"necessary conditions to enable avoidance of contact between victims and their family members, where necessary, and the offender within premises where criminal proceedings are conducted".

Article 19(2) ensures:

"new court premises have separate waiting areas for victims."

That, I believe, is another important step forward. On quite a number of occasions, people have told me of their feelings of discomfort and, sometimes, intimidation, on finding themselves almost cheek by jowl with defendants in court premises. Hopefully, this will ease that situation, and there will, at least in new court premises, be a complete avoidance of that unnecessary and discomforting contact between the victim and those who are charged with injuring them in some way.

Those are just three examples; I am not going to go on. I welcome this. Those are practical examples of the benefits of this charter, and I congratulate the Committee on its good work. I congratulate the Minister, of course, on his good work arising out of the recent legislation in this matter, and I look forward to the full and faithful implementation of the charter. I think that it will be of benefit to everyone, but, naturally, to those who have been the victims of criminal activity.

Mr Lunn: I warmly welcome the decision to create this charter and to place it on a statutory footing. As the Minister said, today's motion makes statutory what is already in place on an administrative basis. It is commendable that the Minister did not wait until he had statutory provision in place but instead pressed ahead with the charter on an administrative basis. Similarly, it is to his credit that he was not content with that but went on to place the charter in statute.

The Minister referred to the fact that the charter and other measures that he has put in place to improve the experience of victims and witnesses who come into contact with the justice system are a product of work that the Justice Committee has undertaken, working closely with the Department of Justice. Today's measure is a product of what is a consistently constructive relationship between the Department of Justice and the Justice Committee. I join others in paying tribute to the successive Chairs of the Justice Committee, Mr Givan and Mr Ross.

The charter is part of the Minister's five-year victim and witnesses' strategy. Too often, the media portray a justice system in which more care and attention is paid to perpetrators than to victims and in which the needs of victims are overlooked or forgotten. This strategy is evidence to the contrary, with the charter being but one of a suite of measures and initiatives being taken by the Minister, with the support of the Committee, to improve the way the justice system recognises and responds to the needs of victims, measures such as the development of victims' and witnesses' care units; the introduction and extension of the registered intermediary scheme; arrangement for victims' personal statements; new literature to provide advice when people report crimes; and other measures already provided for in legislation but yet to be commenced. In these ways, the Department of Justice, and the Assembly, should be seen as making genuine and significant efforts to ensure that, when people become victims of crime, they are not re-victimised by the way the system treats them. I think that this is a good day for justice, and I am happy to support the motion.

Mr Allister: This charter arises from obligations articulated in an EU directive back in 2012. When one looks at the wording deployed in that directive, the first thing, given the Northern Ireland context, that one cannot fail to be struck by is the very proper definition that that directive contains in respect of "victim", because it emphatically states in article 2 that "victim" means:

"a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence".

There is no room there, thankfully, to include the victim-maker. The victim there identified is the innocent, actual victim. We could learn much from that.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister arising from other content of the EU directive, which states in article 6(2) that the victim is entitled to:

"information enabling the victim to know about the state of the criminal proceedings".

When I look at the charter and find the corresponding article, which appears to be paragraph 73, I am not sure that it entirely meets that standard. My question to the Minister is whether what he has enacted in this charter gives the victim of crime the right to know if, in the case in which he or she has an interest, there was an on-the-run (OTR) letter. Is the victim of crime, in the context of the criminal proceedings covered by the EU directive, entitled to know the very simple but far-reaching consideration of whether, in his or her case, someone who was a suspect in those criminal proceedings and that criminal act holds an OTR letter?

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

If this charter does not afford that right to victims, and I suspect it does not, it is deficient. The Minister must know the depth of hurt that the entire shameless saga of OTR letters has caused to innocent victims. If he has brought a charter to this House that simply sweeps that matter under the carpet, it is a charter that is deficient. I am asking the Minister to put on record whether a victim is entitled to know, under the charter, if there is a relevant OTR letter in his or her case. The answer to that question will, for many, be the defining judgement on the worth of this charter. I trust that, as the Minister answers, he will not, as is his wont, duck or dive or try to dodge, but will answer the question. Under this charter, is a victim entitled to know whether or not there is an OTR letter? It is a simple question; let us have a straightforward answer.

Mr Ford: This short debate this afternoon has probably confirmed, yet again, Ford's first law of Assembly business, which is that the length of time taken on any item of business is inversely proportional to its importance for the people of Northern Ireland. However, I thank those who have contributed to what I believe has been a useful debate as we look to make tangible differences to the experience of those who are victims of crime.

Particularly in the context of ongoing talks, issues that may have happened in the past are not easily reflected, because my responsibility is to deal with what you might call "devolved crime" in the present, not the past. The charter, I believe, sets out clearly the services that victims are entitled to receive and how those services will be tailored to their individual needs. We had practical examples, in particular from Mr Maginness and Mr Lunn, of what is in the charter and the significant improvement that that will make to the experience of victims and of other work being done by my Department in the partnership that we are currently engaged in. Through the Department working in partnership with the Committee, and with a range of voluntary sector partners and other justice agencies, I believe it is possible to continue to improve the quality of services provided to victims, focusing on those most in need and those who have particular concerns.

I note that a number of Members praised the work done not just by the current Chair of the Committee, who contributed this morning, but by his predecessor, Paul Givan, and I have no difficulty in confirming my thanks to them. It would also be fair in that context, if it is not too much of an embarrassment to him, to also confirm that the Committee's interest in the needs of victims originated in the first point after devolution, the year in which Lord Morrow chaired the Committee. I am grateful for the fact that he flagged up issues then, although they were taken forward at a later stage. It is also appropriate to recognise that there are those in the House this morning who have been members of the Committee all the way through that process, including the vice Chair, Raymond McCartney, and Alban Maginness, both of whom have played significant parts in the development of the process. I believe that it has shown constructive and positive development, and most of the contributions made have reflected that.

Mr Allister, in his usual intemperate way of accusing me of ducking questions, raised a specific issue about the OTR letters. Mr Allister, like other Members of the House, is well aware of the fact that the OTR letters were not an issue that came anywhere near the Department of Justice; they were a matter for the Northern Ireland Office, and they were concealed from the DOJ at the point of devolution anyway. On that basis, I simply do not have the knowledge of the status of any extant OTR letters. I have made my personal position extremely clear over a considerable period of time as to what I think of those letters and how I regard them. I simply cannot say exactly how they would impact on the way in which operational agencies might consider their role in the Victim Charter, because it is not something of which I have direct knowledge.

Mr Allister: I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand his personal position about OTR letters, but I am talking about a case that comes before the courts now in respect of the prosecution etc and the investigation. Under this charter, as drafted by the Minister, whatever one thinks of OTR letters — and I am not asking the Minister to endorse them in any way — is a victim entitled to know whether there is an OTR letter? That is the question. I suspect that, as it is drafted, they are not, but I want to hear that from the Minister. Are they or are they not, because that is the litmus test for the charter for many people?

Mr Ford: I did not need Mr Allister to repeat the point he was making. I got the point that he raised, and I made the point — and I am quite happy to repeat it for him — that I simply do not know what the effect of an OTR letter, details of which may be held by an operational agency, might be. I am very happy to assure the House that I will seek to find out what the status of an OTR letter might be and inform the House of that if it is possible. Given that the issue has not been devolved, I cannot guarantee that it will be possible to get answers, but I will certainly seek those answers.

However, I want to take up a point that Mr Allister just repeated. He said that the issue of OTR letters would demonstrate the worth of the charter for many. I accept that there are victims of the past who have major concerns about OTR letters, because they are very personal to them, as many of us had concerns about the way in which the justice system was perverted by the issue of OTR letters anyway. However, to suggest that that is the worth of the charter, as opposed to the worth of the charter in the value that it will have for individuals who will become victims of crime in the future, misrepresents the value of the charter. For that small number of people, clearly it will be a concern.

For most people, the issue is how we provide for the needs of victims in the future and how we ensure that the agencies of the justice system respond to them and do not treat them as a piece of furniture while the court case is going on, concentrating on the perpetrator and ignoring them.

There is much in the charter to commend it to the House. On that basis, I am happy to commend the draft Victim Charter (Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Victim Charter (Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

12.45 pm

Private Members' Business

Scrap Metal Dealers Bill: First Stage

Mr Beggs: I beg to introduce the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill [NIA 65/11-16], which is a Bill to amend the law relating to scrap metal dealers; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

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

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Steven Agnew to move the Bill.

Moved.—[Mr Agnew.]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. Amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments for debate. The debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 6, dealing with children's well-being, reporting and cooperation.

I remind Members intending to speak that during the debate they should address all of the amendments on which they wish to comment. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (Well-being of children and young persons)

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 6. The amendments deal with the definition of children’s well-being; the deadline for the first report on the Bill; the impact of a report under the Bill on the Programme for Government; guidance and regulations relating to clause 4; and the definition of "child". I call Mr Chris Lyttle to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Mr Lyttle: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 11, at end insert

"(h) living in a society in which equality of opportunity and good relations are promoted between persons who share a relevant characteristic and persons who do not share that characteristic.
(3) In this section "relevant characteristic" means a characteristic mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 5, page 3, line 40, leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 3: After clause 5 insert

"Programme for government
6.—(1) In preparing a programme for government, the Executive must take account of the most recent report published under section 5 of this Act.
(2) In this section "a programme for government" means a programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement.". — [Ms Fearon.]

No 4: In clause 6, page 4, line 12, at end insert

"(2) Before issuing guidance relating to section 4, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister must consult the Department of Finance and Personnel.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 5: After clause 6 insert

"Regulations relating to section 4
7.—(1) The Department of Finance and Personnel may by regulations make provision for procedures to be followed by children’s authorities when exercising the powers conferred by section 4(2).
(2) Regulations under subsection (1) are subject to negative resolution and may include saving, transitional, transitory, supplementary or consequential provision.". — [Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

No 6: In clause 7, page 5, line 5, after "Article" insert "21(5),". — [Mr Agnew.]

Mr Lyttle: I am glad to rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to give our continued support to the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. It is a long-standing manifesto commitment of ours to support legislation that introduces a statutory duty on government Departments to cooperate and collaborate. Indeed, improved cooperation is needed on many issues, but it is particularly encouraging to see that brought forward by the proposer in relation to the planning, implementation and monitoring of children's services. I am glad that the Bill includes a statutory duty to cooperate. It also covers the pooling of budgets and enhanced reporting mechanisms.

It was regrettable that, given some considerable work in relation to the Bill by OFMDFM officials, there was no Minister available to bring forward an amended draft of the Bill at Consideration Stage. I have made my views known in relation to that. It is regrettable that it required the proposer to take the initiative to do so himself, but I welcome the initiative that has been shown in that regard.

That was the first stage at which we were able to see the new high-level outcomes that are to be monitored and achieved as part of the Bill: physical and mental health; enjoyment of play and leisure; learning and achievement; living in safety; economic and environmental well-being; enablement to make a positive contribution to society; and living in a society that respects the rights of children and young people. As I said, that was the first stage at which those new high-level outcomes were redrafted in that form. They are all issues that I have worked on as an Assembly Member with the sponsor, Steven Agnew, on the all-party group on children and young people, and it has been a pleasure to work closely with the children's sector on those issues.

In the time between Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, I thought it prudent to table amendment No 1, which will add to that important list of high-level outcomes for the well-being of children and young people:

"living in a society in which equality of opportunity and good relations are promoted".

Whilst it was not ideal to table the amendment at that stage, I have referred to the mitigating circumstances that required it to be done then. Whilst the process may not have been ideal, the amendment is consistent with the high-level outcomes being brought forward, and the substance of the amendment — to seek to ensure that our children and young people live in a fair, shared and prosperous society — is reasonable and good and is a good aim for us to have for our children and young people. I look forward to hearing the contributions from other parties and will be glad to respond to those.

Amendment No 2 deals with a proposal to have the Executive report on the operation of the Bill not more than 18 months after the adoption of the children's strategy rather than after three years. I am content to support that amendment, and, indeed, I did so on that issue at Committee Stage. I am also content to support the proposal in amendment No 3 that the report on the operation of the statutory duty and other provisions introduced by the Children’s Services Co-operation Bill be considered in the production of a Programme for Government.

I understand that there has been agreement between the sponsor and the Minister of Finance and Personnel on amendment Nos 4 and 5, and I am content to support that approach. I am also content to support amendment No 6.

It is essential that the Assembly require the Executive to coordinate services and to maximise resources as effectively as possible, particularly on behalf of children and young people in our community. That will ensure that we deliver improved outcomes across the board for the children and young people in our society.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I too welcome the opportunity to speak at this stage of the Bill. It is positive to hear support from all sides of the House on the progress of the Bill and the amendments that are in front of us.

I will kick off with amendment No 3, on behalf of my colleague Megan Fearon, who cannot be here to move it. Amendment No 3 perhaps makes explicit what we already know is implicit in what we are dealing with, in that it will put into the Bill the importance of reporting. It should not be reporting for reporting's sake. When Executives put together Programmes for Government, they should learn from the lessons of such reporting, and where co-design between Departments is maybe not what it should be on tackling issues like child poverty and gaps in mental health provision, we will have the lessons and the record to go on. It is very important. I welcome the fact that the Alliance Party has agreed to go with it, and agreement from all sides of the House would be very welcome when we deal with it.

On amendment No 1, sometimes it is important that we do not conflate the issues of equality of opportunity and good relations, but it adds something to the Bill to have that amendment in it, and I am more than happy to go with it. On amendment No 2, it is positive to reduce the period for the production of the report, for the first or initial report anyway, from three years to 18 months and three years after that.

That is a positive, and we said that the last time. I understand that there is an agreement between Mr Agnew and DFP on amendment Nos 4 and 5. Amendment No 5 provides the guidance and framework that are necessary if we are to look at the pooling of resources and better use of funds. Appropriate guidelines on accounting, governance and accountability will be important, so that is valuable.

Finally, on amendment No 6, it is only right that we extend the definition of children and young people to cover an additional category of young persons for whom an authority may have to provide services.

On the whole, we are more or less content for the amendments to be made here today. They all do a bit of tidying up and strengthening of the Bill as it was. Again, I call for support for our amendment — amendment No 3 — and I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say.

Mr Attwood: I confirm that we will support amendment Nos 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, subject to the questions that I have to ask, in respect of which I anticipate satisfactory answers.

First, I again acknowledge the work of Mr Agnew and the Bill Office. Mr Agnew can be rightly pleased, and it should be properly acknowledged that he is now within touching distance of another private Member's Bill, of which he is the sponsor, being passed in the Chamber. However, much more significantly, it is a Bill that can, over the lifetime of future mandates in the Assembly, have great authority and impact and can potentially positively change for the better the lives of children, young people, their parents and carers. That is no mean achievement and no mean success by Mr Agnew and those outside the Chamber who have argued for this approach, especially in the children's sector.

I will deal briefly with the amendments. As I said, we are inclined to support amendment No 1, which is from the Alliance Party on equality of opportunity and good relations. The SDLP as a matter of principle believes that those are some of the standards that should inform legislation as it goes through the Chamber and is then implemented. I ask Mr Lyttle to confirm to the House that adding paragraph (h) at line 11 will not end up reconfiguring the balance in that clause. Clause 1(2), which defines the well-being of young persons, has been carefully drafted. It has been reworked, and it borrows from international best practice and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Therefore, it has as its concentration and attention the standards that are necessary for our domestic law to achieve fully as informed by international law.

Whilst the SDLP very strongly supports the sentiments of equality of opportunity and good relations for the reasons that I outlined, I do not want to create and am sure that Mr Lyttle does not plan to create a tension in the legislation between subsection (2)(a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f) and (g) and the wider issue of equality of opportunity and good relations. There cannot be a hierarchy in that list; there has to be an integration in it if the Bill's purpose is to be achieved. If there is now to be a further paragraph, I seek reassurance from Mr Lyttle that there is no tension in the Bill as it would be amended and that the right assessments would fall to Departments to live up to the various paragraphs in a way that does not, somehow or other, create some tension that is hard to manage. I look forward to Mr Lyttle's reply to that matter. I am sure that I will be satisfied on the far side of his reply.

1.00 pm

Amendment No 2 would leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months". A number of people — certainly, if I recall properly, that included me — made the point at Consideration Stage that the early life of this Act and how it is or is not shaped and taken forward by Departments will be critical. The best example, in my view, of a reporting function, if you like, was with the implementation of Patten. It had 175 recommendations and 675 performance indicators. Those performance indicators were assessed and managed by not just an oversight commissioner but a panel of experts that was brought in to force home the implementation of Patten, not least in the circumstances at that time when there was a suspension of these institutions.

The issue of strong, hard accountability is necessary if you are going to shape society in a better way, especially a society like ours which, in too many ways, clings to the past. Therefore, I very much welcome the fact that the reporting period will be 18 months. Whilst endorsing that, I would like to think that, even if there is not a statutory reporting function, especially in the early days, there will be architecture in relation to the implementation of the new duties arising from the Bill and that, even if it does not have to come to the Assembly in the early months, there will be rigorous architecture to ensure that that which is needed to be implemented is seen to be implemented as quickly as possible.

I confirm to Mr Hazzard that my party will support amendment No 3. There could have been a potential risk that:

"the Executive must take account of the most recent report published under section 5 of this Act"

might mean only that most recent report. However, the relevant clause, as drafted, makes it clear that the report, whenever it is — most recent or more historical — has to cover the full range of potential issues and responsibilities arising from the new duty in a way that ensures that the most recent report will very much capture the character and content of all the reports in order to ensure that the new duty is implemented as fully as possible.

I understand that amendment No 4 will not be moved. I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to confirm the intent in respect of the regulations to make provision for procedures to be followed by children's authorities. I am sure it is the intention not that it will be overly prescriptive but that it will be enabling. The reason I make that point, if I may stray momentarily, is that there is a power proposed for the Secretary of State under the draft legacy Bill, in respect of which I am not able to say very much, which grants the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that could prescribe the life of the work of the proposed historical investigations unit (HIU) in a way that would create so many obstacles and difficulties for people going to the HIU for the reinvestigation of past murders that it would not be able to do its job in a way that is enabling as opposed to prescriptive. I ask the Minister to confirm the character of what is intended by that amendment, although I anticipate that her reply will be satisfactory.

Mr Nesbitt: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, thank you very much indeed. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I can say that we are broadly content to support the amendments before us this afternoon.

Before I give any detailed reaction to those amendments, I first congratulate Mr Agnew on bringing the Bill before the House. Our support for it informs our decision-making on the amendments. It seems to me that what Mr Agnew is doing is recognising that the Government, like many, traditionally operate vertically, which is sometimes disparagingly called "Ministers working out of silos". To get a real effect and real improvement in the delivery of government, we need to go from the vertical to the horizontal, which means cooperation between Departments and the agencies that are associated with them, as well as a switch in focus from inputs to embracing outputs and, above all else, outcomes — in this case, for our young people. I believe that Mr Agnew does both in the Bill.

Amendment No 1 would add "equality of opportunity and good relations" to the list in clause 1(2). We are broadly content to support the amendment, but I ask Mr Lyttle to provide us with more definition of what exactly he has in mind, not only regarding equality of opportunity but, and perhaps more importantly, good relations, because a definition of "good relations" is something that he and I think would be beneficial going forward. It is something that has been debated on more than one occasion in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Indeed, there has been debate not just about the meaning of "good relations" but about whether "good relations" or "good relationships" should be the marker that we lay down in legislation.

In amendment No 2, the proposal is that the report should come after 18 months rather than three years. We have no difficulty supporting that, the idea being that an early indication of success for outputs and outcomes would be better served by the earlier deadline of an 18-month report. Were we to stick to three years, I imagine that we would be well into the second half of the next Northern Ireland Assembly mandate before we began to see the outworkings of Mr Agnew's proposals.

As Mr Attwood said, there was a concern that amendment No 3 might refer to only the most recent report regarding the focus that the Executive had to bring to the Bill when preparing the next Programme for Government, but we are satisfied that that is not the case.

I take it that Mr Agnew will not be moving amendment No 4, so I shall leave that. Amendment No 5 relates to the Department of Finance and Personnel. We see some merit in nailing down the exact nature of relationships there. My party also supports amendment No 6.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Alex Maskey.

Mr Maskey: I am sorry, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but I am not speaking at this point. I will just move amendment No. 3 later.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I will not refer to the other amendments, just the one that I am moving, which is amendment No 5, because it is a departmental amendment, and I am speaking as the Minister.

I say at the outset that I support the overall aim of the Bill; namely, the achievement of a coherent and comprehensive service-delivery system that is efficient and cost-effective and that works across government — picking up on Mr Nesbitt's point about silos — horizontally as opposed to vertically. Hopefully, amendment No. 5 will deal with that issue for children's services. The new statutory power to share resources and pool funds, for which clause 4 provides, is clearly intended to advance the aims of efficiency and cost-effectiveness and to eradicate any duplications or gaps in the commissioning of services or the development of work programmes. The goal of a smarter, more streamlined and better targeted system will, I believe, be achieved only if appropriate operational and governance arrangements are put in place. Those arrangements need not be cumbersome or over-bureaucratic, but they should draw on established best practice and ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and that there is consistency of approach.

One might not expect the Bill to refer explicitly to operational matters. However, one would expect some indication of how such matters will be addressed and, in this instance, the Bill is silent. During discussions at official level, it was suggested that such matters could be addressed in the guidance for which clause 6 provides. However, that guidance will issue from OFMDFM, and although Mr Agnew had sought to amend the Bill to ensure that DFP would be consulted on that guidance, it would be best if there were a specific regulation-making power to allow DFP to ensure that appropriate operational and governance arrangements are put in place.

I thank Mr Agnew for his cooperation and his indication not to move amendment No 4 and to accept and support amendment No 5. Mr Attwood — he is not here, unfortunately — made a point about being prescriptive and referencing other pieces of legislation. I want to be very clear that the Department fully supports the drive to avoid waste and to maximise resources. It would be very unlikely that we would stand in the way of arrangements that are designed to do just that. We are, however, keen to maintain strong governance arrangements, and we believe that this amendment will ensure that the legislation is not used to circumvent the Executive's role in agreeing public expenditure decisions. At Consideration Stage, Mr Agnew said that the Bill was part of the drive towards good governance, and the amendment that I have tabled is in keeping with that.

It is often said that you have to plan for success. A clear operational framework for the handling of resources and funds will allow us to do just that. I commend amendment No 5 to the House.

Mr Agnew: At the outset, I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate and for their work on the Bill. As I have said all along, it is important that a Bill that requires Departments to cooperate is, in itself, produced in a cooperative manner. That has been the case throughout among Members, the OFMDFM Committee, OFMDFM itself, the children's sector, as well as the other Departments.

I welcome the amendments and the input that they bring to the Bill in getting the final details correct before we move to Final Stage. I will speak to each of the amendments briefly and refer to Members' comments on them.

Amendment No 1, which was proposed by Chris Lyttle, adds a new high-level duty to the definition of well-being. It is certainly the case that a child's well-being can be enhanced only if we live in a society that promotes good relations and equality. Mr Attwood made a point about the international nature of the outcomes in the original Bill. I suppose that the local nature of this amendment reflects our local circumstances that that is required, whereas in other international practice, a reference to good relations may not be necessary. However, we know the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the promotion of good relations and equality can only help outcomes for children and young people.

Mr Hazzard made the point that equality and good relations should not be conflated, and I can see the point that he is trying to make.

I think that, in the amendment, they are mentioned as separate entities, and, in my reading, neither appears to take precedence over the other. I am content with the amendment in that regard.

1.15 pm

Once again, I thank the Chair, Mr Nesbitt, and the Committee for their work on the Bill. Mr Nesbitt made the point about a definition of "good relations", which I know is an ongoing issue that has come up with other legislation. In the context of the definition of "well-being", around some of the other high-level duties, we were given advice that the drafting allows for some less precise language. That is why, I suppose, they were moved from being outcomes in themselves to being part of the definition of well-being, with well-being itself being the outcome so that the legal language was tight. I think that the amendment can sit within the all-encompassing definition of well-being, but I agree that progress on the definition of good relations is something that the Assembly needs to address and put right in the future.

Amendment No 2 is my amendment on reducing the reporting time from the point when the Bill is enacted. Credit goes to Mr Alex Attwood, who made the point at Consideration Stage that there was a risk that, if a report were not required until three years after Royal Assent, it may take two years before anybody starts to really have any urgency or drive around the implementation of the Bill. My intention in the original draft with three years was to ensure a balance between the operation of the Act and reporting and the need to maybe answer some of the questions about bureaucracy, ensuring that a children's authority's time is spent enacting the Bill rather than reporting on it. I think that his point was well made that, when the Bill, hopefully, receives Royal Assent — I am confident that it will — there must be an urgency and a drive and that, from day one, children's authorities are engaged in ensuring that cooperation takes place and children's well-being is improved. The amendment will help to ensure that there is urgency and that the Bill can start to take effect from the moment it is passed.

The Bill has been long in progress, and Departments and other authorities were well aware that it was under way. I think that some of the intention of the Bill has already hit home with Departments. That process has already started, but the passing of the Bill will ensure urgency. Indeed, its coming to the Floor of the Assembly has really got Departments to grapple with it, which is why, for example, we see amendments from DFP. The will of the House is clear that we progress this, and Departments are already stepping up to make sure that it is right. I include in that, as well as DFP bringing its amendment today, the work of the Health Department alongside OFMDFM in getting the clauses right and the drafting correct. I urge Members to support amendment No 2. From the comments to date, it appears that there is broad support for it.

Amendment No 3 was spoken to today by Chris Hazzard and will be moved by Mr Maskey. First, I wish Megan Fearon well. I am aware that she is unwell, and I hope that it is not serious. She took the time to text me to wish me luck with today's debate and apologised for not being here in person to move her amendment. I appreciate that and the time that she has taken to give consideration to the Bill throughout.

The amendment is very welcome. It had not occurred to me to link the operation of the Bill to the Programme for Government, which adds another element to ensure that cooperative working and the children's strategy are at the heart of what government does. In that regard, I am pleased to see the amendment, and I thank the Members for putting it forward today. Along with the reporting, the feedback and the Programme for Government, it will give another line of accountability in respect of how cooperation is taking place and how the efforts to remove duplication, end waste and improve efficiency are being achieved.

In addressing amendment Nos 4 and 5, I have said that I will not move amendment No 4 and will instead support amendment No 5, the reason being that it was, I suppose, a somewhat late-in-the-day amendment. I was aware of concerns in the Department of Finance and Personnel about drafting guidance and what it would mean in relation to pooling budgets. It was certainly always the intent of the Bill that DFP would take a lead role in that, albeit, with my amendment going through OFMDFM, I have certainly engaged with that Department. The Department is content, as indeed am I, that it should be explicit that the power to regulate the pooling of budgets and any guidance in relation to that should come from DFP; that is where the expertise lies. As I say, I think that that was always how it was intended to work, but perhaps it was not explicit.

I welcome the Minister's support. Indeed, she articulated some of what are for me the key elements of the Bill: to advance the aims of efficiency and cost-effectiveness — I think that those were her words. That is precisely what the Bill is about: to ensure that resources are spent not on bureaucratic processes, duplication and silo working in Departments but on a more joined-up, coherent system of governance, particularly in delivering for children. I welcome her presence and her contribution to the debate today.

I welcome the amendment, which I think adds to and strengthens the Bill and ensures that the pooling of resources is on the Department's agenda. The clause provides an enabling power to allow the pooling of resources, which is a necessary outworking of the Bill if we are to achieve those aims and really end the silo mentality. I think that I made this point at the previous stage: we will have all the reporting and that will be necessary to scrutinise the operation of the Bill, but, for me, the real sign that the Bill has taken effect will be when Departments start pooling budgets for children.

I think of the example raised by the Children's Law Centre of a girl with cerebral palsy who had to go through a two-year legal battle to get the physiotherapy that she needed in school. The Department of Health perhaps had the resources in staff and skills to provide the physiotherapy, but it was, I suppose, in the Department of Education's setting that the needs were not being met. There was wrangling over who should pay for the provision of that physiotherapy in school, and there was nervousness in each Department about taking responsibility. That is an example of where, if resources were pooled in areas such as special educational needs, the focus would be on ensuring that a child gets the provision that they need to meet their full potential, and we would not have, as happened in that case, a two-year legal wrangle to ensure provision so that a child could meet their full potential and achieve in school. We need to ensure that we do not have that wrangling and do not make it a challenge and something that has to be fought for.

It should happen as a matter of course, and the pooling of budgets will go a long way to resolving such issues.

I move on to amendment No 6. I mentioned collaborative working with Departments. This was raised by the Department of Health. The provision of accommodation to young persons over the age of 16 but under the age of 21 is captured by the Children Order but was not captured by the definition of "children and young persons" in the Bill. I thank them for bringing that to my attention. The legislation that I sought to replicate in the Bill was that which defined "child or young person" for the role of the Children's Commissioner. I am not sure why that section of the Children Order is not referenced in that legislation, but I know that there were concerns about that provision being left out of the Bill.

Housing is another area where the health and accommodation needs of a young person may fall between two Departments. Again, it is important to note that cooperation is required in those instances to ensure, once again, that the needs of the young person, rather than the responsibilities of the Departments, are the focus. Cooperation should ensure that that is the case. I ask the House to support amendment No 6 to ensure that all children and young people are captured by the Bill, including all those in need, as referenced by the Children Order. I believe that the amendment makes sure that that is the case.

In closing, I thank all Members for their contribution. I welcome the continuing support of the House for the Bill. I anticipate that the amendments, with the exception of amendment No 4, will receive unanimous support and that we will move to Final Stage in the near future with a good wind behind the Bill. It is about ensuring good governance. It is about effectiveness of delivery. It is about the efficient use of resources and ensuring that we move away from the silo mentality that can be wasteful and can mean that time and resources are wasted in a lack of coordination. If we start working together on the planning, commissioning and delivery of children's services, we can improve outcomes for children in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyttle: I begin by saying that the cooperation that we have seen today demonstrates what can be achieved in the Assembly when we work together. We have to begin by giving sincere credit to the proposer of the Bill, Mr Agnew, and the children's sector for the way that they have generated the cooperation in relation to the Bill. That will see its further progression through the Assembly and hopefully lead to the conclusion of achieving much better-coordinated outcomes for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the contributions today. Mr Hazzard emphasised the need to connect the learning and progress that is achieved by the Bill to the Programme for Government. Mr Attwood rightly commended the proposer for his work on the Bill. Mr Nesbitt referred to the need for Departments to take an approach that would see horizontal cooperation rather than vertical-down delivery and the need for more of a focus on outcomes rather than outputs, as can too often be the case. The Minister of Finance and Personnel helpfully supported the aim of the Bill and its dedication to achieving more efficient, cost-effective delivery for children and young people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, tabled amendment No 5 to enhance the good governance of the Bill.

1.30 pm

Mr Agnew, the sponsor of the Bill, deserves great credit for the progress that has been made. He emphasised his encouragement at seeing the cooperation that had gone on between MLAs and the OFMDFM Committee and that he had had from officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who also contributed to the Bill.

Some specific questions were raised with regard to amendment No 1. Mr Hazzard sought assurances that there was not a conflation of equality of opportunity and good relations. Mr Attwood sought assurances that there was not the creation of a tension between the amendment and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. Mr Nesbitt sought assurances in relation to definition. I give those reassurances. Equality of opportunity and good relations are not to be conflated. They are complementary aims essential in a Northern Ireland context. The amendment refers to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to ensure that it is complementary with that legislation in terms of Mr Attwood's concerns. Indeed, in terms of a definition, which was raised by Mr Nesbitt, the work of the OFMDFM Committee, of which he is Chair and I am glad to be Deputy Chair, in its inquiry into the Building a United Community strategy has referenced the need for stronger definitions of terms such as "good relations". Work by the Equality Commission has given us clear points of reference in that regard. They have developed a working definition of "good relations" to mean:

"The growth of relationships and structures for Northern Ireland that ... seek to promote respect, equity and trust, and embrace diversity in all its forms."

As other Members have said today, that is an important aim for us to have for our children and young people in Northern Ireland.

That concludes my contribution. Again, I commend the sponsor of the Bill for the further progress that is being achieved on it.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Clause 5 (Report on the operation of this Act)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 3, line 40, leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months". — [Mr Agnew.]

New Clause

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I understand that Ms Megan Fearon cannot be in the Chamber today and that Mr Maskey has indicated his intention to move the amendment.

Amendment No 3 made:

After clause 5 insert

"Programme for government
6.—(1) In preparing a programme for government, the Executive must take account of the most recent report published under section 5 of this Act.
(2) In this section "a programme for government" means a programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement.". — [Mr Maskey.]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 (Guidance)

Amendment No 4 not moved.

New Clause

Amendment No 5 made:

After clause 6 insert

"Regulations relating to section 4
7.—(1) The Department of Finance and Personnel may by regulations make provision for procedures to be followed by children’s authorities when exercising the powers conferred by section 4(2).
(2) Regulations under subsection (1) are subject to negative resolution and may include saving, transitional, transitory, supplementary or consequential provision.". — [Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 6 made:

In page 5, line 5, after "Article" insert "21(5),". — [Mr Agnew.]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Children’s Services Co-operation Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Private Members' Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Lyttle: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have resigned and resumed office more than 20 times since 10 September 2015; believes that this practice of rolling resignations has had a significant and detrimental effect on the governance of Northern Ireland and on the public's faith in the political institutions; and further believes that engaging in this practice of rolling resignations amounts to a breach of the terms of the Pledge of Office.

I move the motion somewhat reluctantly, but I think that this is an important opportunity for MLAs to state clearly that there are Members of the Assembly and Ministers in the Executive who are working to deliver effective power-sharing government and who are committed to supporting the rule of law in our community. We recognise that there are serious issues to be addressed, including our Budget and public finance challenges. We need to take responsibility for difficult decisions on welfare reform and, of course, to ensure that we work together to tackle all forms of paramilitarism in our society. However, I fail to see how the resignations that we have seen, including the Ulster Unionist Party resignation but, in particular, the DUP approach of rolling resignations, are doing anything other than damaging fragile public confidence in our Assembly and imperilling our public services. Indeed, they may well be a breach of the ministerial Pledge of Office, which requires Ministers to discharge their duties in good faith, to participate fully in the Executive and to be accountable to the Assembly.

Despite that, we have seen the absurd situation of the DUP Minister of Enterprise, for example, coming to the Chamber, albeit on the important matters of renewable energy and credit unions, yet the Minister of Health is continuing to refuse to respond or take up his ministerial responsibility to show strategic leadership on urgent issues such as spiralling hospital waiting lists. In any other jurisdiction, urgent action would have been taken to address those. We believe that this part-time, theatre politics has to stop and that we have to get back to dealing with the serious issues that need to be addressed. We do not see how walking away from ministerial responsibility for delivering strategic leadership in our public services is doing what is right for the people of Northern Ireland.

The Alliance Party reluctantly accepted the proposal for a short adjournment of the Assembly, but we certainly would not have supported and do not support the abdication of ministerial responsibility for our public services or the rolling resignation policy that is bringing the Executive into further disrepute.

I place on my record my party's revulsion at the heinous murder of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan and our concern at the suggestion that members of the Provisional IRA were involved. Where there was evidence of any party political paramilitary connection in the past, the Alliance Party did not hesitate to take action, and we supported the exclusion of Sinn Féin during previous talks processes and Assembly mandates. We will not be found wanting in that respect. However, we did not, at any point, propose action that would prevent key decision-making in Departments. The running of our public services should not be subject to political whims. The serious allegations in connection to the Provisional IRA should not be allowed to plunge our public services into crisis as well as our institutions.

There is mounting evidence that the DUP's actions are affecting the governance of Northern Ireland. One example is, as I mentioned, the ridicule that is being heaped on this institution. It is deeply damaging to public confidence in key Ministries. Equally worrying is the impact on public services. I am deeply concerned, like many others, about that development. Perhaps most pressing, however, is the inability to agree a monitoring round due to the failure of the Executive to meet. The increase in waiting lists is deeply concerning to many in our community. Indeed, the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board spoke openly about the challenges facing our health service in regard to waiting lists and the need for significant additional investment from the monitoring round to help to reduce that immediate issue.

The monitoring round was not agreed by the Executive in June, and it appears that the October monitoring round will also be missed and that the best that we can hope for is to work towards the January monitoring round. That is not the only example of issues in the health service. It is my understanding that a joint strategy on domestic and sexual violence has been agreed by the Minister of Justice and requires the urgent approval of the Minister of Health. It is also my understanding that, in the Department for Social Development, there has been a delay in legislation on regeneration powers, housing and pensions. Those Bills may not have the same immediacy as the growing waiting lists, but their passage is important for the lives of many in Northern Ireland.

Those are just some examples of delays and pressures being put on our public services, which are having a significant detrimental effect on the governance and the people of Northern Ireland.

A much wider range of aspects of ministerial office is also being neglected, such as policy accountability and leadership. The lack of ministerial presence also prevents Departments responding to events and to a number of Question Times here in the Assembly, which is when we seek to raise urgent issues and hold Departments to account.

I was concerned by the DUP's suggestion that it does not really matter whether Ministers are in post. Not only is that untrue, it is disingenuous. It also, rather bizarrely, suggests that the DUP is, at best, lukewarm about the impact that its Ministers make. To my mind, the continued Executive absences may well constitute a breach of the ministerial Pledge of Office. The process of taking up office safe in the knowledge that a resignation will issue within 24 hours brings into disrepute whether that office is being accepted with the good faith to discharge duties and to participate fully in the Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. Accepting office with no intention —

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it highlights yet again the need for a process to investigate breaches of the ministerial code?

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that is an important point to make. The independent investigation of potential breaches of the ministerial code and some form of enforcement appear to be urgently needed, given the mockery being made of it. The fact that Ministers are accepting office with no intention of attending Executive meetings or North/South Ministerial Council is a serious concern. I believe that the ministerial code of conduct requires Ministers to be accountable for activities within their responsibility, their stewardship of public funds and the extent to which key performance targets are being met by their Department.

1.45 pm

If a Minister accepts office, knowing that they will be unable to perform these roles, answer questions, attend Committees or give account to MLAs for their actions, they have clearly brought into question their commitment to that Pledge of Office. It is important that we remember that accountability for inaction is as important as accountability for actions. For these reasons, I ask the Assembly to pass this motion and make it clear that the "Now you see them, now you don't" approach to politics is not acceptable.

Mrs Dobson: The events of recent weeks, when DUP MLAs became momentary Ministers, have only further lowered the public reputation of this Assembly and the institutions. No one could be oblivious to the fact that these last few weeks have caused real and lasting harm.

On Wednesday 26 August, the Ulster Unionist Party announced our decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland Executive to form an opposition and offer people an alternative, as is the case in any normal democracy. We all know that the background to this was a statement from the PSNI Chief Constable, who stated that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the murder of a man in east Belfast and that an infrastructure still exists at a senior level of the Provisional IRA. The blanket denial from Sinn Féin about all of this meant that we had to act, and we acted decisively.

The Ulster Unionist Party is not in denial about the existence of any paramilitary organisation. When we withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive, we explicitly called on the UDA, UVF and the rest to go away, taking their paramilitary flags and markings with them. However, they are not in the Executive of Northern Ireland; Sinn Féin is. If this institution is to retain any credibility and if we accept the word of the Chief Constable, who implicated still-active members of the Provisional IRA, which is still inextricably linked to Sinn Féin, in the murder of a man on the streets of Belfast, then true democrats cannot and should not tolerate that.

The DUP's immediate response was predictable. They took their historic position of blaming the Ulster Unionist Party. What was said in their early statements about an exclusion motion against Sinn Féin was nonsense, and unworkable under their St Andrews Agreement. It is ironic that yet another aspect of that agreement has come back to bite that party the hardest.

Their other fudge was to seek an adjournment of the Assembly. When that failed, the DUP acted in the most ham-fisted and stupid way possible. The First Minister did not resign; he merely stepped aside. The Finance Minister stayed in post to keep an eye on so-called rogue or renegade behaviour in the Executive, and took on the First Minister's position, though not when it comes to signing documents, apparently. Then the other DUP Ministers resigned and were reappointed, as the motion says, "more than 20 times". Wikipedia can barely keep up. All this nonsense has been done in the interests of the DUP, not of Northern Ireland.

For the past month, the focus has been on the nonsense of the in-out, hokey-cokey, yo-yo Ministers. Instead of a Health Minister who is at his desk, tackling the growing crisis in our hospitals or coming to this Chamber and responding to Ulster Unionist motions on waiting times and the delays in cancer services or the SDLP motion on autism, what we have seen is that he is often seen wandering calmly through the corridors upstairs. The fact that one in five of the population, or 373,000 people to be specific —

Mr Eastwood: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Dobson: I will.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Member for giving way, and I agree with her in her characterisation of what has happened since the DUP started their hokey-cokey antics. Does she not agree with me, though, that the UUP stepped out of the Executive and handed over the important Regional Development Department to a Minister who is not even going to turn up for work? Does she not agree that that was a dereliction of duty? Your party allowed a hokey-cokey Minister to come in one day and out the next when it could be in there working and trying to provide infrastructure that we all need for places like my city, Derry.

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

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Member. I do not agree with him. My party has never shied away from taking difficult decisions and never will.

The fact that one in five of the population — 373,000 people — is waiting for treatment, a hospital appointment, or a diagnostic test, was not weighing on his conscience.

The disgraceful way that the DUP has acted over recent weeks was clearly illustrated last week. Whilst the DUP and its Ministers had repeatedly failed to take part in major debates, including on Bills, they all rushed in to vote down the reduction of SpAds' salaries. Talk about putting party interests ahead of matters of real public importance. I can think of no clearer image of the DUP acting in a selfish, arrogant or contemptuous manner. Shame on them, and, when, ultimately, they take up their ministerial posts again — using the report on paramilitaries as a fig leaf — they should not think that all will be forgiven. People will long remember the actions of the DUP over the last few weeks: undemocratic, unBritish and unworthy of office.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Like others, I welcome this debate in the Assembly today because I believe that it is unacceptable that we have Ministers who are not Ministers or who are sometimes Ministers. That method of engaging in politics is just unacceptable; it is wrong and is not fulfilling the Pledge of Office that people committed to.

As a member of the Health Committee, I would like to focus on the role of the Health Minister. We have many serious issues in the Health Department that need to be addressed. No Minister in place in such an important Department is just wrong; it does not give leadership to constituents who elected him to lead, to take those decisions, and to resolve the serious issues facing the Health Department. It is not acceptable.

The Department of Health has the biggest budget of all Departments — £4·6 billion — and employs over 54,000 people. You could argue that it affects everybody in society. A Minister being in place for half an hour a week, or whatever time he comes into office for, is just not good enough. The Minister said on 11 May that he would continue to drive the momentum for change across the health service. He said that:

"There will be tough decisions ahead, but I will not shy away from doing what’s right."

I think that he is completely going against his own stated word, and he needs to get back to his desk.

I want to talk about the reform that is needed in the health service. There is duplication in commissioning and a lack of accountability and clarity in decision-making. The system as it is configured means that the Department can say that it wants to protect front-line services, but it allows the trusts to cut those very services. These are serious issues that need to be addressed. Over the last weeks, with no Minister, we have heard from many sectors and individuals who depend on ministerial decisions. The all-Ireland network on children's heart services needs investment in the Crumlin clinic. The majority of children are still going to England for surgery. The business case is on his desk, but who is making the decision?

Similarly, there are recommendations by the Older People's Commissioner to reform services, or certainly make things better, for older people who are in residential homes or who depend on domiciliary care. However, he has ignored that report up until now; I do not even know if it is on his desk. Those are big issues.

On Saturday, there was a protest by junior doctors. They need clarity on what their working conditions will be; they need to be addressed because they are unsafe and unfair. A recent Transforming Your Care policy forum heard calls in a packed room for leadership and reform of the system. GPs are another area that needs to be resolved, and we have spoken about that in the past couple of weeks in the Assembly. There is a looming crisis in the GP sector, and no Minister in place even to look at the issue is just shameful. There are also issues around the regulation of social care and the ban on smoking in cars. That is all failing to move forward because the Minister is not in office.

The situation has become farcical, but for the many patients and others who depend on the health service, it is not a farce; it is just a calamity. Much has also been said about welfare cuts. Is the Minister now saying that we should take money from the vulnerable and disabled to pay for the health service? These conditions and circumstances just cannot be allowed to continue.

Other Members have referred to the ministerial pledge. All Ministers, including those from the DUP, took a Pledge of Office that requires them to represent all people and be accountable to everyone, not to their own political party, which is exactly what is happening. The ministerial code says that Ministers must, at all times, be accountable to users of services and that they must ensure that all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly and others are responded to. Many Members have put questions to Ministers and have been told that they cannot be answered because the Minister is not in office. Currently, the Metal Capacity Bill is being processed, but —

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

Ms McCorley: — questions to the Health Minister have been rejected, so this is having serious implications. I support the motion.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Fearghal McKinney.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mr Speaker: I inform Members that questions 6, 9, 10 and 13 have been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): The Civil Service is committed to providing equality of opportunity and creating an inclusive working environment where individual differences are valued and respected. A diversity champions network group was established in June 2015, with a senior civil servant as diversity champion appointed for each Department. Those champions have already met on two occasions and have developed a work plan for the coming 12 months. The work programme takes into account the restructuring of Departments but it will not wait for that to happen before actions are taken.

As part of the work plan, each Department has undertaken to promote diversity issues through its existing communication channels and to undertake specific diversity-related activities. A diversity champions network has already commissioned research on representation of diversity groups within the NICS and their distribution across organisations and grades. We welcome that initiative. It is important that the Civil Service, in serving all the people of Northern Ireland, is representative and has the best people using their diverse skills and knowledge to provide excellence in delivery. We believe that a good start has been made and that the work programme set out by diversity champions will move the Civil Service forward in a way that values our diverse and changing population.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Acting First Minister for that reply. I endorse the efforts being made in that regard by our diversity champions across Departments. In the time ahead, could the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister look at expanding the idea of diversity champions into our arm's-length bodies and, perhaps, into the community sector? If we cannot appoint those people, at least could we encourage their appointment and recognise the diversity champions who are out there?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that that will be considered in OFMDFM. Last week, I noticed that the Department for Employment and Learning, through its Minister, was involved in a scheme with various organisations. It was a diversity champions event hosted by Lloyds Banking Group to try to encourage employers to become involved in diversity, not just leaving it to government to take the lead, and for the private sector to become involved as well.

Of course, when we think of diversity, it is right across all those section 75 characteristics. I noted that the new Commissioner for Public Appointments recently mentioned the need for more females to be appointed into positions of authority, particularly to public appointments. We recognise that there is a need for us to do that, and all Ministers need to hear that very clearly. When Ministers are appointing people to public bodies, they should take the balance and diversity of those public appointments into consideration.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Acting First Minister tell us how success be measured?

Mrs Foster: We need to look across where we are at the moment and look at the evidence in front of us. It is not difficult; in fact, I think that I have an Assembly question in at the moment asking me what progress has been made over many years. We need to look at the baseline and go back as far as the start of devolution to see what progress has been made on the issue. I do not know whether the Member agrees with me on this or not, but there is a need for us not only to appoint women when they come into the pool but encourage more women to put themselves forward so that they come forward into that pool. Often, when a Minister is presented with a pool of candidates, it is quite restrictive. Therefore, we need to make sure that that pool is as wide as possible.

Mr Hussey: Will the Acting First Minister tell us what consideration has been given to appointing a mental health champion?

Mrs Foster: Obviously, the first stage would be for a recommendation to come forward from the Minister of Health. I do not know whether the Department has had any thought on that matter. Certainly, we would consider it if such a recommendation came forward from the Department, but, as I understand it, no such recommendation has come forward.

Mrs Foster: Both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have given evidence to the Finance and Personnel Committee on the issue. I do not believe that I can profitably add to the information that has already been provided in that regard.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for that answer. As both Acting First Minister and Finance Minister, will she tell the House whether she is satisfied that she knows sufficient detail about the NAMA sale and, if not, what gaps in her knowledge she would like addressed?

Mrs Foster: All I can say to you is that I obviously came into office a long time after the NAMA sale. I am therefore relying on the information that has been brought to me by the Department, which has been fully shared with the Committee for Finance and Personnel. As the Member would expect, I have been through the various documents, and they have now been shared, as I said. My departmental officials have met the National Crime Agency in relation to the issue, and I am satisfied that I am aware of all of the salient points.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I asked the Minister last week in her role as Finance Minister whether two former Ministers should follow her lead and give evidence to the Finance Committee. I ask her now if she will encourage Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton to give evidence to the Committee.

Mrs Foster: I have not given evidence to the Committee in relation to NAMA: I think he probably meant to say that the First Minister has given evidence to the Committee on the issue. As I said last week, it really is a matter for the Ministers involved. As I understand it, they have been asked. When he asked me the question last week, I was not sure whether they had been asked to the Committee, but, as I understand it, they have been asked to appear in front of the Committee. I think that, before they do so, they want to speak with the National Crime Agency to make sure that they stick to the relevancy of the issue before the Committee. It will therefore be a matter for them whether they go forward and give evidence.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In light of the diverging narratives from the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the events leading up to the Project Eagle sale, whom does the Minister believe?

Mrs Foster: The Member is being rather mischievous on that matter. His Committee is engaged in an evidence- and fact-finding situation, as I understand it, although sometimes, when one listens to the Committee, it is hard to get away from the suggestion that members have already made up their mind in relation to the outcome and are now retrofitting the facts in and around that. However, they are involved in an evidence-finding situation, and it is therefore up to them what the outcome of their evidence finding is. I do not think it is for me to say whom I do and do not believe. Let us just say that the evidence has been provided to him, and it is therefore up to him and his fellow Committee members — [Interruption.]

Mrs Foster: — to come out and decide where the issue lies. He knows very well what the situation is. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have given their evidence to the Committee, and therefore it is a matter for the Committee.

Mr Allister: Up until May 2013, the First Minister and the Finance Minister contended that NAMA was playing a positive role in Northern Ireland. Then the First Minister's friends — Messrs Cushnahan and Coulter — arranged a secret meeting for the First Minister and the Finance Minister with PIMCO, and suddenly the First Minister was advocating the liberating of the assets through the sale of the loan book. What induced the DUP Ministers to change their mind?

Mrs Foster: As I have indicated, I have nothing to add to the evidence of the First Minister. I am sure that Mr Allister listened intently to the evidence. It was evidence, not opinion, that was given last week.

Mrs Foster: The purpose of the good relations indicator is to monitor progress on good relations here as a result of the Together: Building a United Community strategy. The first baseline report under that policy was published on 22 September 2015. It provides us with a picture of the current state of good relations. Future updates of the indicator report will provide us with statistical evidence on changes in good relations. It will allow us to make a strategic assessment of the progress made towards achieving outcomes in Together: Building a United Community, aligned with the four key priorities: our children and young people, our shared community, our safe community and our cultural expression.

Mr B McCrea: Would it surprise the Acting First Minister to know that the percentage of people who think that relations are worse now than they were previously is at its highest since the Belfast Agreement? Why might that be? Is it because of the Executive's failure to tackle contentious issues such as flags and emblems?

Mrs Foster: There is a wide range of indicators. Mr McCrea has picked out one that he thinks is very negative, but, when you look through all the indicators, you see a positive trend in relation to the issues. If you look at the trends since 2007, you see that there have been ups and downs, but the trajectory is in the right direction.

We will come across difficulties, and there have been difficulties over the past couple of years. The Member mentioned the issue of flags, and there was a particular issue in and around the taking down of the flag from City Hall that led to a range of difficulties, particularly in the city of Belfast. Therefore, we have to be realistic that we have to deal with those issues. However, if he looks at the trends overall, he will see that they are going in the right direction.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister elaborate on what work has been carried out to date in attempting to bring down the so-called peace walls?

Mrs Foster: That was set out very clearly by the office as something that needed to be dealt with, but we have to deal with it in a very sensitive way. We are not just speaking in abstract terms; we are dealing with real communities who live beside those walls, and we have to work with those communities to deal with the issues in front of us. Therefore, it has to be a process of co-design — we have heard that a lot — and working with the different communities to make sure that, if we remove the walls, it is something that everyone welcomes.

Mr Eastwood: What is the Minister's assessment of the relatively high number of racially motivated hate crimes?

Mrs Foster: Most of the hate crimes were sectarian in motive, which remains a difficulty for us in Northern Ireland, as I am sure the Member accepts. The second largest group was racially motivated. That was quite a high number, and I was quite surprised — I should not be surprised, because there has been a lot of coverage of racially motivated crime. That points to the fact that we, as a society, need to deal with the sectarian issue, of course, but, equally, we need to deal with the issues of race and the fact that, particularly in our inner-city areas, we have difficulties integrating people of different races into our society.

Mr Lyttle: Does the Acting First Minister welcome the inclusion of an indicator on integrated education in the new good relations indicators? Does that suggest a need to revise the Building a United Community strategy to include specific reference to the need to promote integrated education?

Mrs Foster: The Member will know that I have been heavily involved with shared education in Fermanagh over a time, and I was particularly pleased to see that a high percentage — I do not have the figure in front of me, but I think that it was around the 80% mark — had been involved in shared education, whether through games or classes. The communities are working together in a more cohesive way than when he or I were at primary school. I very much welcome that and think that it will lead to the longer-term trends going in the right direction.

The integrated sector will be a matter for the Executive as a whole. I am sure that we will take that forward when we look at the indicators as an Executive, I hope, in the near future.

Mrs Foster: The implementation of the Stormont House Agreement is a fundamental part of the current talks process. As this round of talks is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to discuss matters that are part of the negotiations.

The Member will be aware that, prior to the talks, the parties had been meeting on a weekly basis since January 2015, and, during that time, good progress was made on a range of commitments, including those for which OFMDFM has responsibility.

However, those cannot be fully progressed until such times as matters relating to welfare reform are resolved. All aspects of the Stormont House Agreement are being considered as part of the talks process.

2.15 pm

Mr Beggs: The document speaks of improving efficiency and reducing the burden of administration. On 2 March, there was an oral statement in the Assembly in which the Executive agreed to draft a departmental Bill and a more detailed transfer of functions order. Given that we are now approaching a period where there will be a narrow window for new legislation in the life of the Assembly, can the Acting First Minister update us on the progress of those important matters and on when the Assembly will have an extensive opportunity to consider and debate these issues?

Mrs Foster: The Member is absolutely right that a Departments Bill will need to be brought to the House to establish the future nine-Department framework and that a transfer of functions order will make the detailed provision for the statutory responsibilities that are to be moved between the Departments in consequence of the earlier Executive decision. The Departments Bill has been drafted. Prior to its introduction in the Assembly, detailed work on the transfer of functions order is also at an advanced stage. Extensive administrative preparations for reorganisation are being taken forward under the sight of the cross-departmental programme board. For example, I know that in my own Department, DFP, we are planning budgetary provision not for 12 Departments but for nine. So, the administrative work has begun in the different Departments, the Bill has been drafted and the transfer of functions order is at an advanced stage.

Mrs Foster: The only formal programme under which we would receive refugees is the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. That programme aims to relocate those who are most vulnerable and to resettle them in suitable locations where their needs can be addressed. Officials are making preparations to ensure that we are able to respond effectively to the needs of what will likely be a vulnerable group of refugees. Two groups of senior officials have been established to take forward arrangements. A strategic planning group led by OFMDFM has been established to advise Ministers on the response of Departments and agencies and to consider the strategic issues and local implications.

An operational group led by the Department for Social Development will consider and address the practical steps that will be needed to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of those who may arrive under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. The details of how the scheme will work here have not yet been finalised. The operational group is working to put in place arrangements to manage the arrival of refugees through the scheme. That will include the provision of appropriate services and support to facilitate their integration.

Mr McGlone: Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her response. Based on my practical experience at constituency level on issues associated with migrant workers, will the Minister accept that key areas of advice will be on employment, healthcare, educational needs and particularly housing, and that those matters should be pivotal, key elements of whatever advice and facilities are available, especially for refugees?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question, and I entirely agree with him. It is for that reason that we established the operational group, which is being led by the Department for Social Development in recognition of its role in connection with housing. That is because housing will be a huge issue for these refugees. They will be incredibly vulnerable. Because we have decided to take the most vulnerable from the camps in Syria, they will need the most care and attention. Therefore, housing will be a key element in the situation when they arrive here in Northern Ireland. So, DSD is leading on that operational group, but, as I understand it, all the other Departments are feeding into it as well.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Minister, what, if any, points of difference exist between the First Minister and deputy First Minister on this issue?

Mrs Foster: As I understand it, there are no points of difference. I know that some parties always like to look for points of difference between the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I have been in this role for less than six weeks, and I realise that that is the case but, as I understand it, there are no points of difference between the two gentlemen.

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): I am pleased to confirm that we have received seven proposals for the Shackleton site as part of the open, competitive sale process. The size of the site for sale is approximately 621·5 acres, so anyone who submitted a proposal to purchase and develop a site of that size has demonstrated a genuine commitment to making a significant economic impact in the north-west. We are undertaking a detailed assessment of those proposals against the set criteria and look forward to the process being completed in early 2016. With Northern Ireland Water developing approximately 85 acres of the site and DARD's relocation plans well under way, it is a very exciting time for Ballykelly and the north-west.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Acting First Minister for that detail, and I welcome the seven proposals and the level of interest. Will the Minister give assurances that the number of jobs and economic opportunities will be key to any decision on the sale of the site?

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): Absolutely, and I thank the Member for her question. The preferred proposal, when it comes out the other side of the process, will have gone through very rigorous testing against the set criteria. Of the criteria set — job creation, the financial offer, community benefit and environmental benefits — job creation is given the highest weighting. It has 45% of the weighting, and 35% goes to the financial offer, 10% to community benefit and 10% to environmental benefits. She can see from that weighting that job creation and the difference that it will make to the area are key to deciding who the successful bidder will be and who will be able to develop the rest of the Shackleton site.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the Minister's response to the question. She will realise that there is a lot of anxiety whether this project will go ahead. Is the Minister certain that the environmental assessment has been carried out, that all issues relating to decontamination, given that this is a former army site, are cleared and that, in the future, we will not be embarrassed by any hold-ups?

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): Certainly, it has been a rigorous process. As I said, the environmental benefits to the area will form part of the criteria in deciding from whom the successful proposal has come. This is the first time that I can remember such a weighting being put in, and it is, probably, in recognition of the sensitivity of the environmental value of the site, as well, of course, as its potential in relation to the creation of jobs and the economic benefit for the area.

I know that many in the north-west have been waiting for a long time for this to happen. I can understand why they might wish it to happen more quickly than, perhaps, has been the case in the past, but we hope that the process will be completed by early 2016 and that we will then be able to move on to the development. Hopefully, it will be a very good news story for not just Ballykelly but the whole of the north-west.

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): I do not have that paper — yes, I do. We welcome the Committee's report. Since the launch of the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy, we have engaged with a range of stakeholders as part of the detailed design of the many actions being delivered. We greatly value the input of all the stakeholders who engage with us in the design of good relations work. Our stakeholders have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that we will continue to draw on in shaping and implementing our policies, actions and commitments.

Co-design has provided an opportunity to engage with our stakeholders, including the people directly impacted by the headline actions. There has been extensive co-design for headline actions, including the summer camps and the United Youth programme. That engagement was instrumental in shaping the way forward for both and involved a wide range of stakeholders, particularly the young people whom the actions are aimed at. The establishment of the thematic subgroups, under the auspices of the ministerial panel, is key to engaging with stakeholders in the sector. Through that, we will ensure that their input informs how action and commitments are being delivered.

It is important to seek to improve communications and engagement with stakeholders continually. The Department is in the process of looking at the establishment of a quarterly engagement forum for stakeholders to receive updates on Together: Building a United Community. They will provide feedback to the Department on the strategy, including feedback on progress, issues, identification of best practice and areas for improvement.

Mr Speaker: That was a very impressive recovery, seeing as you did not have the paper in front of you. [Laughter.]

Mrs Foster: I found it.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Acting First Minister for her answer. Does she agree that the creation of a forum to harness the collective ingenuity of people across sectors in society, such as leaders in business and people from the community and voluntary sector, could help and enhance the design and delivery of the Together: Building a United Community strategy?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, the Department has been looking at the recommendation to have a T:BUC forum chaired by a representative from the sector.

We have been working with the Community Relations Council to try to make better use of fora that it already has in place. One of the proposals being examined is to reconstitute the interface community partners' forum as a group that will help further enhance engagement with stakeholders across the four key priorities of T:BUC. We are continuing to work in that respect. In other words, to answer the question succinctly, we do not want to reinvent the wheel. We believe that there are already representative bodies that we can make use of. We do not want to overburden people by setting up yet another forum if we can make use of the fora that are already there.

Ms Hanna: Can the Minister provide the House with an update on progress on the implementation of shared neighbourhood projects, following the success of the Ballynafeigh development in south Belfast?

Mrs Foster: I do not have much specific detail on that issue in front of me. I apologise for that. Certainly, the shared neighbourhood aspect is one that is key to the development of T:BUC. It is one that we will want to pursue and see working in reality on the ground. We had a question earlier on the peace walls. What we want to see are fewer peace walls and more shared communities. That is why we are determined to move ahead with that part of the T:BUC strategy.

Mr Speaker: Mr Gerry Kelly is not in his place. [Interruption.]

For those who are tut-tutting, Mrs Sandra Overend is not in her place and Mrs Judith Cochrane is not in her place. That means that we have come to the end of listed questions. We will move directly to topical questions.

T1. Mr Beggs asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Acting First Minister has had a detailed briefing from the National Crime Agency on its investigation into the NAMA affair, which encompasses meetings involving the First Minister and the operations of OFMDFM. (AQT 3001/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I have had no briefings from the National Crime Agency. In the Department of Finance and Personnel, my permanent secretary has had direct engagement on the issues that the Member mentions, but I have not received such a briefing from the National Crime Agency.

Mr Beggs: The public could easily understand why it may not be appropriate for OFMDFM to have detailed briefings on this affair, given any role that it may have played, but can the Acting First Minister explain why the First Minister met potential bidders in a private meeting without departmental officials there to provide a degree of scrutiny and transparency?

Mrs Foster: As I indicated in my previous answer on the matter, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have given evidence — quite full evidence, by the First Minister in particular. All those issues were covered at those times. I am sure that, if the Member wishes to, he will be able to read the First Minister's evidence.

T2. Mr D Bradley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether DFP carried out a financial appraisal of the potential sale of the Northern Ireland portfolio by NAMA. (AQT 3002/11-16)

Mrs Foster: No, I do not believe that such an appraisal occurred.

2.30 pm

Mr D Bradley: That being the case, on what did the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the former Finance Minister base their view that the sale of the Northern Ireland portfolio to Cerberus was good for Northern Ireland?

Mrs Foster: The sale was not a matter for DFP; it was a matter entirely for NAMA as to how it proceeded. As the Member knows, that was a matter for it and it alone. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have given evidence to the Member's Committee. I am quite sure that he had an opportunity to question the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on those issues, and I am quite sure that, if the Finance Minister at that time comes before the Committee, the Member can ask him a similar question.

T3. Mr Cochrane-Watson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Acting First Minister agrees that it is important that, if the panel assessing paramilitary activity has evidence, it will clarify whether the IRA still exists, and, if so, is that an issue for the Acting First Minister and the DUP. (AQT 3003/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I am here to answer as First Minister on behalf of the First Minister, so I will answer in that capacity. Of course we look forward to the panel's report; my party pushed for that. The issue will, I believe, inform the talks that we are all so heavily engaged in. Unless the Member has had prior sight of what is in the report — I certainly have not, and I look forward to it. I hope that it will come forward this week so that we can move forward in a positive way. I am sure that he wants to move forward in a positive way as well.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Of course I want to move forward. In public statements, the DUP focused on what the IRA is doing rather than on whether it exists. Will the Acting First Minister confirm that the existence of the IRA is not a problem for the DUP?

Mrs Foster: I am not going to confirm a negative, if that is what the Member wants me to do. If paramilitary structures are in place, of course that will have to be dealt with. That is an issue not just for the republican community but for the loyalist community. We have to deal with paramilitarism across the piece in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, there are still many communities in Northern Ireland in which it appears as if those structures are still in existence. Despite the fact that we have had a long period under which those structures should have disappeared, it appears that they have not disappeared, so we have to deal with the issue. We will wait to see what the panel brings forward tomorrow, but if it says that those structures are still in place, we will need to look at how we can make sure that they come to an end. That will certainly be the focus for me and my party.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next question, and before you leave us, Mr Cochrane-Watson, your question directed the Minister, who was speaking as a Minister, to a party position. Members should be aware that that is an abuse of the facility for questioning Ministers on their brief. I want to make that point before I move on to Mr Fearghal McKinney.

T4. Mr McKinney asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what options are being considered for the financial transactions capital that had been set aside for the Hightown waste incinerator, planning for which was rejected. (AQT 3004/11-16)

Mrs Foster: The Member is correct; £50 million was set aside in financial transactions capital for the Arc21 incinerator. It has now been communicated to me in my role as Finance Minister that the Department is no longer in need of that financial transactions capital, so, despite the fact that it is late in the day, we will have to determine, first, by looking across Departments and, secondly, by looking at the Northern Ireland investment fund whether we can use that money. We certainly do not want to hand it back; we want to be able to use it in Northern Ireland.

Mr Speaker: I have another point, because I do not know what the Member's supplementary question is going to move on to. We are speaking today to OFMDFM, and the questions are for OFMDFM. I do not want any confusion as a result of an overlap with the Finance Ministry. A couple of questions have tempted the Minister, who has avoided the temptation.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Speaker, and I hope that, with my supplementary question, I am not frustrating his attempts for clarity on the issue. This would involve major decisions at Executive level and would involve the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in my humble opinion.

The Minister might be aware of plans for the cancer centre in south Belfast, and I would see the benefits of any expansion there as much more regionally. Is her Department and all of the Departments discussing the potential for financial transactions capital in that regard, given the economic and health benefits that would be had of linking academia, health and pharma?

Mrs Foster: If there is a way that we can use even a part of that £50 million for the extension of the cancer centre in Belfast, which is, of course, a regional hub for the whole of Northern Ireland, I would be more than happy and more than sympathetic to hearing that argument. As I said, we will be talking to the rest of the Departments to see whether they have any requirement for financial transactions capital.

I have to say to the Member that we have been disappointed with the way that Departments have looked at this. I accept that it is a new way of funding capital projects in Northern Ireland, but I am hoping that, in the future, we will see more take-up from a public-private partnership in trying to use that money, which is money that can make a real difference. We have seen that through the way in which we were able to use financial transactions capital at Ulster University and, indeed, through many housing schemes.

T5. Mr McCallister asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the Acting First Minister’s assessment of this Government’s performance during this mandate. (AQT 3005/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I think that we have made a number of very important developments on strategy and, more importantly, on delivery. Over the Programme for Government period, we have delivered 37,000 new jobs to Northern Ireland against a target of 25,000. We have passed our targets on investment from outside Northern Ireland. We have passed our targets in relation to the amount of money that has been put into research and development, and we have passed our targets on the number of tourists who are coming to Northern Ireland. While some in the House may want to talk down the achievements of devolution, I think that we have made an impact on the lives of people living here in Northern Ireland, and I hope that we can continue to do so.

Mr McCallister: Mr Speaker, I did mean to offer an apology for missing a question two weeks ago.

Although the Acting First Minister has named some successes, I think that you would need to be living somewhere else to not say that we have significant problems. Does she accept that, when we come back after the next election, presumably next May, we cannot come back to the same level of dysfunctionality and zero decision-making as we faced in the current mandate? Does she agree that the next mandate truly must be about delivery?

Mrs Foster: The next mandate should be about delivery, and that is one of the reasons why the Programme for Government will now be looked at as an outcomes-based process. Instead of just setting targets, we will look at what impact a particular action will have on the people of Northern Ireland. I think that that is right; I think that our focus on outcomes is where we need to go.

I do think that he is being rather downbeat in saying that there is zero decision-making. Some decision-making is still happening, and I think that he knows that. Things are still happening in Northern Ireland, and I was delighted to be in the north-west, for example, on Friday, when the deputy First Minister and I opened part of the Ebrington site to a cluster of new digital companies that are making a real difference in that area, creating jobs and using the digital infrastructure that we put in place. The devolved Administration put the digital infrastructure in place, and now, because of the development at that Ebrington site, we are seeing real jobs being created.

I suppose that it depends on whether you see the glass as being half-empty or half-full. I prefer to talk about the positive impact that we are having on lives while not taking away from the dysfunctionality that we have run into at the moment. Is it not good that we are talking about that dysfunctionality and trying to find a solution rather than walking away from dealing with the issues in front of us?

T6. Mr Allister asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given that, since being appointed, the Acting First Minister has affirmed that her partner, Sinn Féin, is inextricably linked with the IRA, if the panel confirms that IRA members murdered Kevin McGuigan, is she nonetheless ready to sweep that murder under the carpet and resume business as usual. (AQT 3006/11-16)

Mrs Foster: There are so many ironies in that statement that it is incredible. The Member and others did not support us when we tried to make sure that we did not have business as usual in the House. When we do not have business as usual, we are criticised, and when we do have business as usual, we are criticised. People need to make up their mind as to what they actually want.

Mr Allister: Perhaps the Minister could try to answer. Let me say that I would have more than supported the First Minister if he had done the proper thing and resigned rather than taking the hokey-cokey option that kept Sinn Féin in the Government. If the IRA murdered Kevin McGuigan — dress it up as you like, massage it as this report may — the Minister has a choice to make: is she going to resume full political cohabitation with Sinn Féin, which she says is inextricably linked to that killing machine, the IRA?

Mrs Foster: I prefer to wait for the panel to report before I make up my mind. Jim does not have to do that, of course, because Jim has made up his mind already, and that is the reality. The fact of the matter is this: Mr Allister has always engaged in wanting to wreck the Assembly. Even in his supplementary question, he made the point that he would have much preferred it if the First Minister had resigned and walked away, and what would that have meant? It would have meant the end of devolution.

Mr Allister: Meant an election.

Mrs Foster: Would that not have suited Mr Allister —

Mr Allister: Meant an election.

Mrs Foster: Would that not have suited Mr Allister that the people of Northern Ireland did not have a devolved Government?

Mr Allister: Meant an election.

Mrs Foster: He has exposed himself again as having a wreckers' charter. He should wait to hear what the panel has to say before making up his mind.

T7. Mr Eastwood asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the Acting First Minister’s assessment of the benefit of the reduction in corporation tax now, given that corporation tax in Britain is being reduced overall. (AQT 3007/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I think that the benefit of having a reduction in corporation tax still stands. The fact that the Chancellor has acknowledged the impact of having a lower rate of corporation tax strengthens our hand when going out and selling Northern Ireland as a place to do business. It actually reduces the cost to our block grant, so that is a good thing. It still gives us that marketing edge, I believe, when we go to companies that heretofore we have not been able to go to because they wanted to talk about tax and we did not have the advantage that, I think, we would have if we had a lower rate of corporation tax. So, I absolutely think that it is still the right thing to do.

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Time is up. Thank you, Minister.

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Mr Speaker: The next item of business is questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. As there is a vacancy in that ministerial office, Question Time cannot proceed. Let us return now to the debate on the absence of Executive Ministers — very appropriate.

Mr G Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: If it is an apology, I will accept it in advance.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly notes that the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have resigned and resumed office more than 20 times since 10 September 2015; believes that this practice of rolling resignations has had a significant and detrimental effect on the governance of Northern Ireland and on the public's faith in the political institutions; and further believes that engaging in this practice of rolling resignations amounts to a breach of the terms of the Pledge of Office. — [Mr Lyttle.]

Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I do so as SDLP health spokesperson. Before making my comments focusing on health issues, I would like to make a number of wider points, principally on the nature of DUP abstentionism. Peter is out, but Arlene is in twice. The party is putting pounds before patients by keeping the Finance Ministry open while pretending to be in and out of the Health Ministry. Jonathan is out, but he is in when he is out of the country. You literally could not make it up.

We have held a number of very important debates in the Chamber in the last number of weeks: on autism, which affects many thousands of young people and their families; on cancer, which reaches into all levels of society here; and on SpAds, which has a much more limited audience. The DUP was absent for the first two, which had the public interest at their core, but it turned up for the much narrower and self-interested SpAd issue, and I notice social media's outrage.

As I listened to the BBC news this morning, I was intrigued to hear a DUP contribution on this debate today on the airwaves. So, the DUP is happy enough to go to the radio stations, but it is not happy to turn up in the Chamber. In my view, that is perpetrating a deceit on the public: pretending that it is making a contribution while, of course, it is not. Ultimately, the fact that the DUP has either turned up to vote on issues or participated narrowly in others shows that there is no principle at the heart of this approach. The party has continued to put enormous public concern over issues, such as health, second in favour of a spat between it and the Ulster Unionist Party over who is taking the hardest unionist line.

We all agree that the current situation in society is not pleasant, but it is not a situation that should allow Ministers to abandon their post, abandon the public and abandon the democratic process.

2.45 pm

In health, we have seen it translated down into elective care, cancer services and autism. Instead, we have a smokescreen, with the Minister turning up for five or 10 minutes to do a small bit of business to make it look as if the bigger bit is being done. The public are not blind and are not fools, and the issues are not restricted to those that I have listed. There are others such as the availability of cancer drugs and the Transforming Your Care plan, which is at the very heart of our health service. Think about the strategic difference that that would make if it were being properly driven. Other issues include the well-deserved pay rise for health staff and the recent focus on the air ambulance service here. Punitive changes to junior doctors' contracts is another issue that is now coming to the surface. I take a moment to congratulate all those who turned out at the weekend to support our junior doctors and the NHS overall.

If the DUP's in-out approach says anything, it is that the strategy has not been properly thought through. It has been an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of patients and the public. It has not worked. Indeed, the DUP said that it was doing this to put a focus on the murders that were talked about in earlier contributions: if anything, it has taken focus off those horrendous murders, which we should all, quite rightly, abhor. By any measure, their strategy has cataclysmically failed.

We have no leadership and no strategy. Health staff, the public and patients continue to be failed. Where else would it be acceptable to have a part-time Health Minister as we continue to witness crisis after crisis, as I have outlined? It is important to remember that the Ministries that are occupied by the DUP retain the key policy levers that are paramount in dealing with the long-term issues facing Northern Ireland.

Part of this morning's contribution elsewhere was that those who had supported the concept of an Assembly adjournment — the Alliance Party — had no room to criticise the DUP when it took further escalation measures. I remind the House that the SDLP objected completely and unanimously to the concept of an adjournment and, by the DUP's logic, is therefore in a stronger position to criticise its in-out approach today. It is letting down patients —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: I will.

Mr Lyttle: I am reluctant to get drawn into a war of words, given that the purpose today is to send out a clear message that MLAs and Ministers want to work in the best interests of people in Northern Ireland, but, given that the Member has criticised the Alliance Party, does he accept that the abdication of responsibility to take difficult decisions on welfare reform is damaging our community just as much as the abdication of actual ministerial office?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McKinney: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Member may have misinterpreted what I was reflecting on. While I have my criticisms of your party's support of the adjournment process, I was making the point that the DUP said that you had little room to criticise when it escalated its approach beyond that. I am comparing and contrasting that with the SDLP's very robust approach of saying that it wanted the Assembly institutions running. We do not accept the principle of adjournment and therefore, perhaps uniquely in the Chamber, we can stand here and say that this is wrong in terms of adjournment, wrong in terms of escalation procedures and, as I say, wrong from a strategic perspective. The party that adopted that process claimed that it was —

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mr McKinney: — going to bring a focus on the murders when, in fact, it has only brought focus on its own failed strategy.

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the Assembly today.

We need to remind ourselves of the timeline of the DUP's hokey-cokey strategy, if you want to call it a strategy, of resigning and reappointing Ministers. When the Ulster Unionist Party decided to withdraw from the Executive and my colleague Minister Danny Kennedy resigned, the DUP had no intention — repeat: no intention — of following suit. They made noises about excluding Sinn Féin from the Executive, yet they knew fine well that, under the St Andrews Agreement, the possibility of excluding Sinn Féin from the Executive through an Assembly motion simply did not exist. I remind Members that, when we withdrew from the Executive, we did so cleanly and clearly on a point of principle — the point of principle being the complete undermining of trust in the serial denial of Sinn Féin in the wake of the implication of a still-operational Provisional IRA in the McGuigan murder.

From the public statements of various DUP spokesmen in late August/early September it is abundantly clear that they had no intention of withdrawing from the Executive, which would have triggered Assembly elections — no intention whatsoever. Sammy Wilson stated on 28 August:

"The UUP's decision to leave government is cowardly rather than courageous and self-serving rather than selfless. It is premature and opportunistic. This is a time for sensible leadership not knee-jerk reactions."

How Sammy must regret those comments. On 7 September, Peter Robinson stated:

"If it becomes apparent to us that a satisfactory resolution in the talks is not possible then, as we indicated in our earlier statement, as a last resort ministerial resignations will follow."

The day after, Mrs Foster attacked my party leader, stating:

"One day Mike Nesbitt is in the Executive and the next day he's out. One day he's in the talks and the next day he's out."

The next morning, on 9 September, she berated the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on Radio Ulster, unfortunately for her just minutes before news broke of a certain Mr Copeland being arrested and Mr Storey joining him. On 9 September, we were told that, if the adjournment of the Assembly did not happen or the Secretary of State did not suspend the Assembly, DUP ministerial resignations would follow. Next day, we were told by Peter Robinson that he was, therefore, standing aside as First Minister and that other DUP Ministers would resign with immediate effect, with the exception of Arlene Foster.

There is no record from the DUP on its website or by any other means of the tactic to resign and then take up their ministerial positions. The DUP can shout and yell at fellow unionists, but the truth is that the guiding principle through the past weeks was to protect the DUP at all costs. Their so-called clever tactic is all about self-preservation, and that is always their motivation. The mantra is this: the party comes first. The fact is that, despite their occasional hard line rhetoric, through it all the DUP have been joined at the hip with Sinn Féin for the past eight years in a carve-up of this dysfunctional Executive.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. I find strange his analysis of another party that he is trying to criticise as being joined at the hip with Sinn Féin odd when his party was joined at the hip/inextricably linked to the DUP at only the last Westminster election.

I appreciate the aim of doing what is right for Northern Ireland, but how is abandoning a Department that is scheduled to make a £15 million underspend and has serious issues in road maintenance and street lighting doing what is right for the people with public services?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Member, but I remind him, as a member of the Committee for Regional Development like me, that the Committee unanimously agreed to ask the permanent secretary to go back to the Minister to do a ministerial directive to spend an additional £20 million, so the concerns felt by the Member were not shared by him in the Committee meetings. I remind the Member, who declared on Radio Ulster this morning that the in-out policy was the hokey-cokey policy, that my party is out of the Executive. We made that clear in August.

Over the past six weeks, we have watched as the DUP Ministers have been absent from responding to debates and questions in the Assembly. Yet we all witnessed in disbelief the Minister coming back to talk about the very urgent and important matters of the Renewables Obligation Closure Order —

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

Mr Cochrane-Watson: — the Credit Unions and Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Bill, and, last week, the Civil Service —

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Mrs D Kelly: I am disappointed to have to take part in this debate. I had hoped that, by now, common sense would have prevailed and we would have a functioning Executive and Assembly, particularly in light of dissident activity over the last few days where lives were very clearly put at risk. We all know the danger of a political vacuum here in the North and of who steps in to fill such a vacuum. If for no other reason than that, I appeal to the DUP to get back to work.

Many contributors to the debate have outlined the challenges waiting in many of the Ministers' in trays — not least, of course, in Health. Once again, we have seen and heard of job losses over the last number of days. We hear about potential investors who will not commit to that investment in the absence of political stability. It is long past the time. The argument as to why DUP Ministers ought to get back to work is well made right across the political, civic, voluntary and business sectors.

In the words of the DUP's Chief Whip in the Assembly, their tactic is messy. He said that in an interview over the weekend on 'Sunday Politics'. Many Members, particularly those from the DUP who want to get back to work, believe that it is very messy and counterproductive. Unfortunately, it is not just counterproductive for all those businesses, the community, the patients on waiting lists, the homeless or those waiting for announcements on benefits, pensions and housing, but to the detriment of us all as the public loses faith in these institutions. Of course, it was the will of the people and the votes of the people back in 1998 that established these institutions. It is those people who have been most betrayed by the failure to make politics work in the North.

I listened carefully to the Sinn Féin contribution earlier. I cannot help but reflect that, some two years ago, Sinn Féin blocked the Executive from meeting for three months. So, at times, Sinn Féin has little to offer in the way of criticism that could be stood over. When the recent crisis occurred, someone asked me what I thought the DUP would do. I said, "Well, they cannot just block the Executive. They will do something like that, but they will do it differently because Sinn Féin has already done that." That is why we have such a messy situation. That is why some strategist, on a very dark night when they were obviously not performing at their best, came up with the ploy of in-out, hokey-cokey Ministers. It does a disservice not just to the people of Northern Ireland but to all of us.

We have heard others say that they are defending these institutions. I do not know how they are defending them. There are quite a few weaknesses in the fortress surrounding these institutions because of the antics of some. One of the biggest risks to these institutions is the failure of, in the main, the two big parties to work together collaboratively. That is why we have seen so many strategies stuck, particularly in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Why can there not be an effective anti-poverty strategy, particularly in light of all the Tory cuts? I welcome the current backlash in England in relation to the attack on the tax credit system. I hope that that particular cut is stood down. Imagine that the House of Lords, where people have the most privileged of all backgrounds, one would think, might well be the last defence of those who are most vulnerable across England, Wales, Scotland and here in the North. It is quite ironic, is it not?

In relation to earlier comments about my party and the issue around welfare, at least we did not acquiesce on the issue of welfare. We are still in the business of seeking mitigation and having a sensible way forward for the benefit of all.

3.00 pm

Mr Allister: This is the time of year of falling leaves. Seldom can a First Minister have waited so anxiously beneath the fig tree in Stormont House to grasp the falling fig leaf to enable him to get back into government, and yet, patently, that is the ploy now afoot.

The DUP tell us — the Acting First Minister told us — that its partner in government is inextricably linked to the IRA. The Chief Constable told us that members of the IRA murdered Kevin McGuigan. The DUP said that, in consequence, it cannot be business as usual. Hence, we become "sometimes Ministers", in and out, but always careful to preserve our pension continuity and our positions.

The panel report is to issue. It may be tomorrow or it may not be — it was supposed to be last week, but maybe it took a little more massaging than anticipated. If the panel report can sanitise, present and suggest that there might have been a little recreational murder but the bigger picture is that the paramilitary organisations have the best of motives and really want to help the peace process, and, in fact, it is a great idea that we have them, as Mr Powell tried to tell us last week, and if the panel report does its business and provides the fig leaf, rest assured that the DUP will be back in office, begging the question that it could not have done business as usual because of an IRA murder. If the panel, despite all the massaging, has to confirm that it was a murder by members of the IRA, why oh why are they standing ready, brush in hand, to brush that murder under the carpet? That will be the consequence of the resumption of business as usual. The very thing that could not happen because of that murder, now, it seems, under the fig leaf that they hope is going to fall into their hands, can be done, despite that murder. In other words, sweep it under the carpet. That is the spectacle that we are going to see, I believe, this week. It is a spectacle that is wholly lacking in principle and sincerity because it effectively creates the licence to kill again.

If a paramilitary organisation can kill in those circumstances and there are political consequences, and then the political consequences are ameliorated and withdrawn, what does that say to that paramilitary organisation or any other paramilitary organisation? If you kill, we will huff and puff, but we will not really do anything about it, and, when a decent interval of time has passed, we will carry on as if it never happened. By that very approach, a licence to kill again is created.

Of course, what does that matter in the world of political expediency, where the expedient is to avoid an election, cling to office and get back into full cohabitation with Sinn Féin? That, sadly, is the DUP approach in this matter.

Mr B McCrea: It has been an interesting debate thus far. People are struggling to find some rational explanation for why we have got into this place in this way. There are a number of people who I feel a little sorry for. This may be somewhat surprising. Number one is Simon Hamilton, who, as Minister for Health, has, I think, found himself in an invidious position. I agree with the points that he makes in the briefing document. He says whether he is in the Executive:

"has no bearing on the standard of health care",

in the short term. But he is caught in this morass, where his reputation is being trashed. Of all the winners and losers in this debate, I happen to think that Simon Hamilton is the biggest loser of all. This was a man on the rise, someone who had a future and opportunity. He has been in lots of ministerial positions, and he was going to go and do something. Together with his absence from the Chamber and, potentially, his association with other events being discussed by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I think that he deserves the opportunity to come and explain himself. Yet he is not able to do that because of party political positions.

I am also interested in following up on the point that Mr Allister made, which was this: where is the panel? Where are the three wise men who were going to tell us whether there is an issue with paramilitaries? That was supposed to happen last week, but it is not even today. It might be tomorrow. Who knows? The very issue that brought about this crisis has been forgotten even by those parties that walked out on it. They are now caught up —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mrs D Kelly: I cannot help but think that, in relation to the loyalist paramilitaries, we got the answer and analysis from them last week when they came with their begging caps out looking for help to get out of extortion, drug dealing and other criminality. It seems the case in point that they are very much active.

Mr Speaker: The Minister has an extra minute. [Laughter.]

I mean the Member has an extra minute.

Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Speaker. As Mrs Kelly points out, there are many contradictions in this place that in any other part of the world you would look at in disbelief. However, being here, we have some people saying, 17 years later, "We are going to stop doing bad things." Other people are saying, "We never did bad things in the first place." You get this strange argument going on about what form of democracy we have here.

The point I really want to make on this issue is that the whole crisis was based around some form of shooting, whether there was an allegation of paramilitary activity and whether it is still in place. And yet, it is gone. It is hardly mentioned. What we are talking about now is process: how are we going to deal with a non-functioning Executive? How are we going to deal with flags? How are we going to deal with the past? This is not what this crisis was about. It has morphed into something different.

When I look in this very helpful pack provided by the Library, one of the key questions I have for ministerial officeholders is on the Pledge of Office, which states they should:

"discharge in good faith all the duties of office".

I want to know this: does that stop the minute you are no longer a Minister? Do you say, "I am no longer going to act in good faith"?

Mr McKinney: I thank the Member for giving way. He is aware that, under paragraphs (ii) and (iii) of article 1.5 of the ministerial code, there is a duty to communicate with Assembly Members and the public. Given the number of times that those Ministers have been out of their seats, is there a risk that they have, in fact, breached the ministerial code?

Mr B McCrea: I was coming to the ministerial code, and I will say just that 1.5(ii) states that Ministers should:

"be accountable to users of services, the community and, through the Assembly, for the activities within their responsibilities".

My argument is that you cannot just do it one day and then not the next day.

The last point that I want to make on the Pledge of Office is that I was struck by its inclusion of the commitment:

"to support, and to act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly".

I think that, on multiple levels, the Ministers who are not here are failing to live up to those conditions. I am quite happy to accept that there are serious political issues to be resolved. There are some things that need to be brought to the fore and that we need to resolve. However — it is stating the obvious, but I state it for the sake of clarity — this strategy on the part of DUP Ministers, whether well-intentioned or not, is backfiring spectacularly.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr B McCrea: There is not a person I talk to who does not say, "This is wrong. It has exposed this place, and we really have to do something to try to regain the trust of the electorate."

Mr McCallister: When looking at the strategy and debating the motion, we look back, and all colleagues referred to events over the summer that were the precursor to this. I have always taken the view that paramilitary activity over the last number of years has become very clearly linked to criminality. The act of brutal criminality that we had on our streets — the murder of Mr McGuigan — is, to my mind, a matter for the police, who should have all the resources that they need to investigate such a crime. If there are wider implications of organised crime, we have the National Crime Agency to investigate and deal with that. An act of brutal criminality like that should never have been in a position to bring down the entire Government of Northern Ireland. These institutions were hard won in 1998. It is no surprise that I want them to change, progress, evolve and normalise as much as possible, but a brutal act of criminality should not have brought our Government down or to their knees and the very being of the Assembly into question.

What of the DUP strategy of absentee, or in/out, Ministers? I do not think that it is remotely helpful to the Assembly or the public at large. I do not think that it is remotely helpful to the DUP. There is some argument about what impact a Minister in position would have on the health service. Nearly four years into the Transforming Your Care strategy, and three Ministers later — if you count Mr Hamilton's time as continuous service — what have our Government delivered? Twenty per cent of our population are on a waiting list. What impact is that having on our economy? We do not have an Enterprise Minister, except when he has a trip to China to go on; and we do not have a Health Minister, although he says that his absence has no impact. Meanwhile, we have people waiting, people who should, and want, to get their operation over with and, possibly, go back into the workplace. Companies are depending on some people coming back to work. This is bound to have a detrimental effect on our economy.

Look at the state of our economy: we have not achieved the level of growth that we see in other parts of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland is heading for a growth rate of 6·2%.

Where are we with any of that debate? The best that our economy Minister can do before he has to resign is to take a trip to China or bring in legislation on credit unions.

3.15 pm

The key drivers of inward investment are delivering political stability and delivering on skills. Where are we with either? That is the impact that the situation is having. Looking across government, I note that Minister O'Dowd is bringing forward legislation on shared education. I welcome that and want to see it, but Minister O'Dowd cannot get that legislation out of the Executive, because they are not meeting. How can we make progress and find agreement on an agenda that we want to see moving on? It almost reminds me of the Major Government in 1996 when BSE hit, when they decided that they would veto all European Union rules for a while, even the ones that they agreed with.

We are now in the ridiculous situation where nothing is going through the Executive, because they are not meeting. We have in-out Ministers, and the only thing that they can come together on is to vote against a reduction in the number of SpAds.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. A lot of sensible stuff has been said here today, especially about the consequences of the resignations. Take the Minister for Social Development and probably the rest: he has resigned five times since 10 September. The DUP has taken a silly position on resigning, which has not only made this place a laughing stock but left everyone in the House open to ridicule. Its picking and choosing of when its Ministers are in and when they are out not only makes life difficult for the business of this place but impacts on its constituents.

There does not seem to have been a pattern to Ministers' time spent in office. Some remain in office longer than others. Does that indicate that there is a difference of opinion in the ranks of the DUP? Since 10 September, the House has been held to ransom by this disruptive practice. There is no logic to what the DUP is doing. Its only objective seems to be to disrupt the normal working of the Assembly. That has had serious implications for the smooth running of business. It has delayed the passage of important legislation.

A Minister must:

"be accountable to users of services, the community and, through the Assembly, for the activities within their responsibilities".

Those include key performance targets and objectives being met. That is in the Pledge of Office, and there are other things in the ministerial code of conduct:

"ensure that all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with".

The Pledge of Office states that Ministers will:

"participate fully in the Executive Committee".

Surely those two aspects of public life have been upset by the activities of the DUP. Many Members have been denied the opportunity to question Ministers on aspects of their work, and the smooth passage of legislation has been affected.

One of the seven principles of public life, under the heading "Accountability", states:

"Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office."

Surely that has been denied to Members. Ministers are not available to the Chamber or to Committees so that MLAs can tackle and challenge them. One can take the Housing (Amendment) Bill, which deals with antisocial behaviour and information-sharing protocols: it could be lost because of the absence of the Minister for Social Development. My colleague Alex Maskey, the Chair of the Committee for Social Development, has done two things to try to ensure that Bills are kept going. He has called the senior official to the Committee to give us an RD — a rundown — of what is happening, what decisions have been made and how the Department is dealing with the Bill. He has demanded that someone attend the Committee weekly to keep it informed on the decisions that have been made.

The DUP said quite a lot about the perceived delays in the recent Red Sky inquiry, which the Chair challenged. At that time, he said that we needed to be able to get back to dealing with the serious question of housing and all its aspects, including the crisis in new build, social housing, the future structures that will guide housing over the next 30 years and the serious flaws in the housing selection scheme that condemn people to lengthy waits for housing. In my constituency, over 4,000 people are on the waiting list, which impacts socially on many families in hostels or in overcrowded conditions. The absence of the Minister for Social Development is denying me, as an MLA, the right to question him on those matters. There are many other aspects of his Ministry that affect the most vulnerable in society, such as dealing with deprivation and other issues that come up in Committee. It is time to put an end to this nonsense and get down to the real business, which is protecting the people out there who need protection.

Mr Lunn: I obviously support the motion, and I thank all those who contributed. I will agree with Mrs Kelly straight away: it is a pity that we had to table the motion, and it is a pity that Mrs Kelly had to speak — I quite often say that. The motion is really about the image of this place, and others have referred to that. The image of this place as a legislature is at an all-time low. It could not have got much worse prior to this episode blowing up, but it has. The population is indifferent, critical or just could not care less. The media are queuing up to poke fun at us or, more likely, to pour scorn on us. The business community is completely exasperated and frustrated, and it is fearful about the economy and the future. Our image across the world must be suffering through all this. We are also leaking money at £10 million a month, and we have no Executive meetings. I could probably go on for 10 minutes just being negative.

We have had so many stand-offs and blockages at the Executive, and we now have rolling resignations, hokey-cokey, in-out or — a new one that came up today — yo-yo Ministers — I like that one — introduced by the DUP following a formal resignation by the UUP. I listened to Mrs Dobson with a sense of irony, because its resignation was just as premature — even more so — and just as reprehensible.

How does this affect the running of a Department, which is what this is really about? I would say that, in this place, Ministers are normally the busiest of people. Of all Members, Ministers have the most onerous task and should be the busiest in their job, possibly with the honourable exception of you, Mr Speaker. They are supposed to adhere to the Pledge of Office, and others have mentioned sections of the Pledge of Office. The meaning of the Pledge of Office is pretty clear: they are supposed to act with integrity and diligence and do their best in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland — the people who put them here and the people whom they are supposed to serve. Are they really doing that when they are not attending briefings, meetings and events as Ministers? They are not able to make decisions, except very quickly on the hoof before they have to resign again, and they are not attending to legislation. Other Members quoted instances of legislative matters having to be put back because we do not have a Minister.

Mr McKinney and others mentioned the Health Minister — that is the big one — and the assertion made by DUP representatives that it does not really matter because it is relatively short-term and, whether the Health Minister is at his desk or not, it does not really affect waiting lists. I will tell you what: in the next DUP manifesto, if we manage to get waiting lists down, the Health Minister and the DUP will take the credit for it. You cannot have it both ways.

We also have the unedifying spectacle of the disagreements over whether their salaries are being paid in full or are being stopped when they are out of office. Pension rights were also mentioned, along with the use of ministerial cars. A couple of instances have at least made me smile. One was the attendance of a Minister who was out of office at a cycling event.

We had the spectacle of his car being visible while his chauffeur pumped up the tyres on his bike. I mean, really. We had instance of another Minister who was out of office but apparently coming back here to retake the Pledge of Office and pick up the reins of power again — in his ministerial car from Ballymoney. I do not like to use the word "farce", because I am just adding to the general impression that it is a farce.

All of this is because a republican was murdered, evidently by other republicans. In the DUP's case, its ultimate reason for withdrawing its Ministers was the arrest and questioning of three senior republicans: Bobby Storey, Eddie Copeland, and I forget the other fellow's name. It is so full of irony. I listened to Mrs Foster at Question Time telling Mr Allister off for being premature in wanting to bring this place down and saying that he should have waited for the report. According to Mrs Foster and the DUP, the fact that Bobby Storey was taken in for questioning is apparently proof of guilt. It defies belief. This is a solicitor lecturing a barrister. What happened to the presumption of innocence in this country? Somebody being taken in for questioning should not, as Mr McCallister said — it was a brutal murder, fair enough — be a reason for bringing down a Government, threatening to bring down a Government or threatening the institutions of a place like this.

I make this point too: how many murders have there been since the IRA ceasefire? I wonder how many murders were, possibly, committed by members or ex-members of the IRA. I wonder, in the longer term, how many murders have been committed by members, dormant members or ex-members of the UVF or UDA. The panel report tomorrow may well be a very interesting document, but I have heard so much condemnation of the murder of Mr McGuigan that I cannot help wondering where was all the condemnation of the murder of Jock Davidson, which apparently precipitated that murder. I hardly heard a word. It is pick-and-choose, tactical stuff. The DUP wanted an excuse to take action on the back of the action that the UUP took, and it found that excuse — that three people had been arrested and, therefore, must be guilty.

I will quickly run through what Members said in the debate. Chris Lyttle, in introducing it, talked about the discharge of duties in good faith. He made the case that many have made about the DUP turning up for certain motions and not for others: it is OK to talk about SpAds, but it is not OK to talk about autism. I could make various comparisons like that. He also made the point that we would have favoured a short adjournment, but in no way did we ever agree to the kind of tactical nonsense that has been going on here for the last month or five weeks.

Steven Agnew interjected and asked about a process for investigation of breaches of the ministerial code. It is long overdue. He is gone, but he is right. Mrs Dobson referred to the DUP's decision to withdraw its Ministers and start this hokey-cokey nonsense as being "undemocratic" and "un-British". Words fail me: that is a bit rich from the party that started this.

Ms McCorley said that it was not good enough and mentioned the problems with DSD, junior doctors and Transforming Your Care. She mentioned welfare cuts. The SDLP introduced welfare cuts as some kind of a reason to bring up in this debate. Welfare cuts cost this country and our Budget £10 million a month because of Sinn Féin's obstinacy.

Mr Cochrane-Watson — I liked this — criticised Sammy Wilson's comments, which criticised his party. All he did, frankly, was confirm that unionism generally is all over the place on this. They do not know how they got here, and they do not know how to get out of it. Somebody said that Peter Weir had called the situation "messy". My goodness, "messy" is right, is it not, Peter? It is a mess of your making. You can blame other people for it, but your party — sorry, Mr Speaker — Mr Weir's party made the decisions that have caused the mess.

3.30 pm

Mr Allister waxed lyrical about falling leaves and fig leaves. I am afraid that, after that, I lost interest slightly. We have heard that speech so many times, and we know where he is on this. That is fair enough. Mr McCrea said that he was sorry for Simon Hamilton. Some of us would have a grain of sympathy for Mr Hamilton; he clearly wants to be at his desk. John McCallister pointed out that it should have been left to the police. It is a police matter and never should have been allowed to bring down an Executive or a Government. Fra McCann spoke about this place being a laughing stock and all the problems of DSD at the present time.

I wish that I had 20 minutes. This cannot go on; it is a farce. It is a DUP-instigated farce, and it needs to stop. Hopefully, tomorrow's panel report will be the beginnings of trying to stop it. I support the motion.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.


That this Assembly notes that the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have resigned and resumed office more than 20 times since 10 September 2015; believes that this practice of rolling resignations has had a significant and detrimental effect on the governance of Northern Ireland and on the public's faith in the political institutions; and further believes that engaging in this practice of rolling resignations amounts to a breach of the terms of the Pledge of Office.

Adjourned at 3.44 pm.

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