New Assembly Member: Mr Alastair Patterson
Question Time: Standing Order 20(8A)
Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4): Suspension
North/South Ministerial Council: Tourism
North/South Ministerial Council: Trade and Business Development
Departments Bill: Further Consideration Stage
Rates (Amendment) Bill: Further Consideration Stage
Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Housing and Planning Bill: Legislative Consent Motion
Housing (Amendment) Bill: Consideration Stage
Standing Order 39(1) and Standing Order 37A(1), (2) and (3)(b) & (c): Suspension
Public Services Ombudsman Bill: Exceptional Further Consideration Stage
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I wish to advise the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Alastair Patterson has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Neil Somerville's resignation. Mr Patterson signed the Roll of Membership and entered his designation in my presence and that of the Clerk/Chief Executive on 27 January 2016. The Member has now taken his seat. I welcome him to the House and wish him every success.
Mr Speaker: I want to return to the point of order raised by Mr McCarthy after last Tuesday's Question Time. Standing Order 20(8A) is very clear that answers to questions may be no longer than two minutes. For a Minister to continue to exceed that time in the face of repeated reminders is discourteous to the House and unacceptable. Ministers may, from time to time, need more time to provide answers on complex issues, and the Deputy Speakers and I will regularly accept requests for additional time in those circumstances. However, filibustering or waffling is not in order, and, if we find that Ministers persistently slip beyond their time, we will intervene and move on to the next question. I hope that that is clear.
Ms Ruane: I beg to move
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 1 February 2016.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.Resolved (with cross-community support):
Mr Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House, and there is no dissent, the motion is carried.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion regarding Committee membership. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Committee membership be changed in accordance with the proposals laid in the Assembly Business Office by the party on 27 January 2016. — [Mrs Overend.]
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in tourism sectoral format. The meeting was held in Armagh on 2 December 2015. Minister Carál Ní Chuilín and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I chaired the meeting. The statement has been agreed with Minister Ní Chuilín, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Ministers noted the current position of the EU funding programmes that may be of assistance to the tourism sector and agreed that the relevant tourism stakeholders in both jurisdictions will continue to monitor closely developments at EU level to ensure that tourism may benefit from all suitable collaborative funding opportunities. The chairperson, Mr Brian Ambrose, informed Ministers of the work of the Tourism Ireland board since the previous meeting, including delivering the 2015 business plan and developing the 2016 business plan, as well as progress on implementing the corporate plan for 2014-16. Ministers also learned of the progress in delivering Tourism Ireland's performance goals for 2015 and the development of the 2016 goals.
Ministers received a presentation from the CEO, Mr Niall Gibbons, on Tourism Ireland's performance throughout 2015. It contained highlights of Tourism Ireland's marketing campaign throughout the year, with particular regard to the Wild Atlantic Way and Causeway coastal route; the global greening campaign; Game of Thrones; the Irish Open; the British-Irish visa scheme; and overseas publicity.
Ministers received a performance overview of the 2015 season and were informed of emerging promotional themes for 2016, in particular, Ireland's Ancient East; Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink 2016; the Wild Atlantic Way and Causeway coastal route; and Dublin — A Breath of Fresh Air.
The NSMC welcomed the strong growth in visitor numbers from all main markets to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Ministers noted the current position of the 2016 business plan and the intention to bring it to the next available NSMC meeting for approval. The plan has since been approved at the NSMC Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) meeting on 11 December 2015.
The joint work to develop a compendium report on tourism statistics was noted. The study is expected to be finalised shortly, and a detailed report will be made available to Ministers at their next meeting. Ministers noted that work is progressing on the preparation of an all-island cruise tourism strategy in consultation and collaboration with key stakeholders and that it should be completed in early 2016.
The NSMC noted the ongoing work by relevant Departments in Ireland and Northern Ireland to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the preparations in hand in both jurisdictions to host the Women's Rugby World Cup in Belfast and Dublin in August 2017.
The NSMC noted Tourism Ireland's annual report and accounts for 2014. It consented to the grant of right of way over the Royal Canal towpath at Kilbrook, County Kildare, to Cathal Fitzsimmons and to the deed of transfer and grant of right of way between Waterways Ireland and Bord Na Móna Energy Ltd for lands at Begnagh, County Longford.
Ministers also consented to the transfer of lands to Waterways Ireland and a 20-year licence to Longford County Council. That is to facilitate the development of the shared pedestrian and cycle route along the Royal canal from the junction of the Longford branch at Cloonsheerin to the Westmeath county boundary at Cloonbrin for a distance of 28·2 kilometres.
The Council agreed to meet again in tourism format in spring 2016. I commend the statement to the Assembly.
Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement. He stated:
"the relevant tourism stakeholders in both jurisdictions will continue to closely monitor developments at EU level to ensure that tourism may benefit from all suitable collaborative funding opportunities."
Will the Minister provide detail on what those developments are, which stakeholders will be monitoring them and the nature of the monitoring that is ongoing?
Mr Bell: Essentially, we are working with all our partners. I regularly meet directly with the leadership of Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland. In fact, I am just back from a very successful meeting, not in the EU but in the United States, specifically in relation to the EU programme. We know that, in our work with our EU partners, our tourism figures are up. They are up in Northern Ireland and up across Ireland. Indeed, it is almost the case, which we want to encourage, that that rising tide does lift all boats. I am pressing to ensure that we maximise every opportunity that we take with our EU partners. I have asked the groups that are working directly with our partners in Europe to look specifically at all the funds to ensure that we sweat all the assets to make sure that the trajectory of upward tourism numbers is supported by every resource that is available to us from the European Union.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his statement. Can he give us some assurances that Tourism Ireland is promoting Northern Ireland across the world as a visitor destination and not just promoting Ireland as one unit, with Northern Ireland losing out?
Mr Bell: I am pleased to see the work that Tourism Ireland has taken forward. It has set itself very ambitious targets for growth in 2016 from Great Britain and from all the main overseas markets. They have been set together in the 2016 business plan. I can reassure the Member that the targets have been set in the business plan and that it has been agreed.
Mr Dunne is absolutely right. Northern Ireland has a unique distinctiveness, and it has a very important role to play in attracting overseas visitors. We have stressed to Tourism Ireland — it accepts and understands the point — that one of my key priorities is to see standout specifically for Northern Ireland. To help Northern Ireland achieve its tourism potential, I have highlighted the importance of the market or the event lending itself to the potential visitor being able to see positive specific messaging about Northern Ireland. A great programme has been put together by Tourism Ireland across the United States on the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink. I was in a packed hall — I mean packed — in New York, and there was a tremendous amount of energy and goodwill among dozens of tourism providers, who were all taking a specific interest in Northern Ireland and telling me of their specific plans not only for the Year of Food and Drink but for the Gobbins cliff path; the Causeway coastal route; Titanic Belfast; the huge success that we can offer in golf; the expansion of the Waterfront Hall to bring business tourism in; HMS Caroline coming online; and city breaks to Belfast and Londonderry. All that has a specific Northern Ireland standout, and I compliment the work that Tourism Ireland is doing to ensure that that standout gets as wide a market as possible.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fosta buíochas a ghabhail leis an Aire agus fáilte a chur roimhe ar ais go hÉireann ghlas. I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome him back from his successful tour of the United States. It is 4.00 am in California and so, if the Minister yawns, he has an excuse.
I suppose that I have two questions, Minister, about this successful engagement with Tourism Ireland. The first is, before we all go on our way and seek election, those of us who are standing again in May, can we perhaps get the air development route fund up and running? I think that it would make a difference. As you know, tourism is 9% of GDP south of the border and 6% up here. Closing that gap would be enormously helpful to our airports. I think also, of course, of the States and the great wish that Belfast and its sister city of Boston could be united by an air route. Additionally, Minister, welcome back.
Mr Bell: There is an important point to be made about air access. I congratulate both of our airports, which I notice have seen an increase in numbers. I also met City of Derry Airport about proposals that it has. We met in its boardroom and looked at what we can do there. I notice that Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport are reporting increased numbers of visitors and travellers, which shows that we are on the right trajectory.
The answer to your question is yes, we hope to get an air route development fund out within the financial year so that people could be aware of that. The purpose is to develop the connectivity, as the Member says, between business destinations and look at those inbound routes that have tourism potential. I am thinking of key destinations such as Germany and Scandinavia, and city destinations such as Munich, Madrid and Milan.
The Northern Ireland fund has to meet the requirements not only of Northern Ireland but also of European Union state-aid rules. It is also under the constraints of whatever the Executive can afford. I will do all that I can to ensure that I can announce the way forward in respect of air route funding before the end of the financial year.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: I welcome the Minister back from the United States. I welcome the statement. I am keen that the 2023 World Cup is brought to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Tourism from sport is attractive to us all.
There is a huge imbalance between Dublin Airport and Belfast International, in my constituency, particularly in north Atlantic travel. It could be as much as 12:1, United being the only north Atlantic carrier out of the International. Is there any way that Tourism Ireland could promote the benefits of Belfast International and help you and others in attracting more inward travel? One aspect attractive to the traveller is that entry and customs can be cleared at Dublin Airport. I appreciate that the volume of travellers is probably not there, but it would be a huge benefit to Belfast International if the volume was there and we could do that at Belfast before travel.
Mr Bell: I appreciate both points that the Member makes. In support for the Rugby World Cup bid, there is considerable work going on to ensure that it goes ahead. A director has been put in place, work is ongoing in progressing the bid, and both Administrations and agencies are fully behind it. We are trying to guide the bid preparation with an overview group, and we have set up interdepartmental groups in both jurisdictions. They have agreed the terms of reference for the groups, and Deloitte consultants will meet key government representatives to discuss several issues over the coming weeks.
There is real potential for a number of Rugby World Cup games. I met former Tánaiste Dick Spring in my offices in Netherleigh. I have been down to the Aviva. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister were recently at Kingspan to try to make sure that that bid goes ahead. The potential that we have is for hundreds of thousands coming here onto the island for up to eight World Cup games and a quarter final. Moreover, the fact that we could get key rugby international nations to base themselves here would be tremendous for spend, hotel beds and everything else.
We will be throwing our work fully behind that, and we are well supported by the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and other key ambassadors who have key influence in the rugby community. If I can use a pun, with Brian O'Driscoll and others, we will stand shoulder to shoulder, and let us hope that the selectors select Ireland for 2023 and we answer the call.
On access, funding is already provided via Tourism Ireland. It is working with the Northern Ireland airports to provide the cooperative marketing that is aimed at inbound tourism performance on new and existing routes. We will continue to look, with both airports, at how we can maximise the potential. There is a debate on this. I am pressing the UK Government on air passenger duty, and I do think that, as we have said, it does unfairly impact on Northern Ireland. I want the UK Government to address that and to deal with it and, ideally, to abolish it. I have to say that we do not seem to be getting a lot of traction back from the UK Government on that, but we will continue to press that case.
There then becomes an issue locally as to whether we take the financial hit and do it ourselves. As the Member knows, we commissioned the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy at Ulster University, which informed us that it was a weak financial tool. An additional report was brought to us to challenge that, and we asked the expert economists to look at that additional report. Again, they came back to us and said that the cost to the public finances in Northern Ireland would be so high that it would be a weak economic tool. So we are looking at what we can do, which is the air route development fund. I congratulate the Member's constituency and Graham Keddie and his team, and I want them to continue to challenge us. I want to be challenged, as long as people understand that I have to take that money out of the public finances somewhere along the line to justify it. I also have to justify it against expert advice that is saying to me that this is a weak financial tool. I will continue to work with all of our airports to maximise the potential that is coming through there, and I do believe that, in Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland, there is the willingness to do so.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Minister, you may not have heard the statement made yesterday by Mr Howard Hastings, who I think most of us will agree is an expert on tourism in Northern Ireland. How do you propose to assuage his concerns and the concerns of other experts in tourism in Northern Ireland that not enough is being done to market Northern Ireland and that there is a disproportion in the way that funds are allocated to deliver that marketing of Northern Ireland? Very briefly, you made reference to the Rugby World Cup and other events and also to food and drink. Will the Minister agree that the time is right now to alter our licensing laws to make those events more friendly and amenable to that legislation as well?
Mr Bell: I will answer those points in order. I thank Dr Hastings for the work that he does. He regularly gives up time and comes in, almost as an official adviser, to some bodies of mine, and he has put in a huge amount of intelligence and energy and used a wonderful network from an earned reputation for excellence in tourism that the Hastings group has to help us going forward. I am not sure that there is a single Minister who has not been challenged to spend more in any particular area. The House will be aware that my Department has invested significantly in tourism in the last number of years. We have put over £100 million into the tourism infrastructure, and tourism budgets are still healthy. We have allocated £30 million to our two tourism bodies, and we need to be smart with the resources that are available. I know that both of our tourism bodies are looking to maximise the marketing opportunities that Howard has challenged us to look at, specifically through the use of some digital marketing. Tourism Ireland has specific expertise in the digital marketing sector.
With £100 million having gone into infrastructure and £30 million having gone into both tourism bodies, our tourism figures are up. We will certainly want to keep being challenged by the industry on specific areas that it thinks that we should put more money into.
I understand the specific position on the licensing laws. I understand the difficulties, particularly for craft breweries and distilleries where, if people are visiting, you can give them a bottle, but you cannot sell them one. To a certain extent, you have to say, "Look, you can't buy it here, but if you go 300 yards or 2 miles down the road, you can buy the product". There is a difficulty there, and the Executive have agreed to look at it. I think that we want the change to maximise the economic potential of Northern Ireland commensurate with our responsibilities on alcohol.
Mr McKinney: I am sure that, like me, the Minister will welcome the announcement that Northern Ireland will host the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2021. Can he reflect on the benefits to the economy of the Commonwealth Youth Games, as well as the costs, infrastructural implications and marketing? What discussions are being had with Tourism Ireland about how it will be involved?
Mr Bell: First of all, I want to congratulate the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council (NICGC) on its winning bid for the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games. It has significant potential in Belfast. It is an opportunity for our young athletes from the Commonwealth family to take part in international competition. It also offers spectators the chance to see the sports stars of the future in action. DETI officials, Tourism NI and the Commonwealth Games, with responsibility specifically for Belfast for Tourism NI, are working together to ensure that the necessary business case is in place. I am working on that business case specifically to see how the event can be hosted. There is a lot of work involved with the business case. I hope to see both Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland maximising the potential of the project.
Mr Givan: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. The Minister will be aware of the loss of the Troon ferry service. Is he able to comment on that and on what actions, if any, can possibly be taken by DETI to ensure not only that air access into Northern Ireland is enhanced but that our sea ports are a way for people to access and come to Northern Ireland?
Mr Bell: The Member raises a very important point. The decision by P&O Ferries to cease operating its Troon to Larne service was and is disappointing. However, the ferry companies operating Irish Sea services are private commercial entities and, as such, decisions regarding the viability of specific routes are commercial matters for those companies. I can tell the House and the Member specifically that no jobs will be lost due to withdrawal of the Larne to Troon service, because the staff will be redeployed to other routes.
The Member raises a key point. The sea links with Great Britain are essential for business, for tourism and for the growth of the Northern Ireland economy. I and my predecessor, the First Minister, have met ferry operators on a number of occasions. The Larne to Cairnryan service operates year round, with up to seven daily sailings each week, and additional passenger capacity will be added to the service in the coming months. Tourism Ireland will continue to work with P&O Ferries and Stena Line to promote holidays to Northern Ireland via the Irish Sea routes, including the Cairnryan to Larne service.
Mr Speaker: That went so well that the Minister wishes to make another statement.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): You are not giving me a break this afternoon, Mr Speaker.
I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council NSMC) in trade and business development sectoral format. The meeting was held in the offices of the North/South Ministerial Council, Armagh, on Wednesday 2 December 2015. The Executive were represented by me, in my capacity as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and by Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Irish Government were represented by Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. This statement has been agreed with Minister Ní Chuilín, and I am making it on behalf of us both.
Ministers received a joint presentation by the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) and Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) on their joint study of the retail sector across both jurisdictions. The Council noted the summary findings of the NIIRTA/REI joint 2014 survey of the retail sector, including that the two retail agencies intend to establish a retail forum comprising representatives from both jurisdictions.
The Council received a presentation from Martin Cronin, the Chairperson, and Thomas Hunter McGowan, the CEO, on InterTradeIreland’s performance and business activity against 2015 business plan targets. Ministers noted that, during the first 10 months of 2015, InterTradeIreland had delivered the following: assistance to 65 first-time innovators; assistance to 44 first-time exporters; 4% efficiency savings; a total jobs impact of 916; and the delivery of a total business value of £67 million or €84 million.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
Ministers were advised that there was strong demand for InterTradeIreland programmes in 2015. Business and economic research activities carried out by InterTradeIreland included continued production of the InterTradeIreland quarterly business monitor; a report on ‘SMEs, Credit Constraints and Growth', which is a cross-border study relating to access to finance; and, most recently, ‘Mapping the Potential for All-Island Sectoral Ecosystems’, which examines the opportunities for developing the potential of clusters across both jurisdictions. Ministers noted the current position of the 2016 business plan and that officials continued to engage in discussions on the plan. The Council noted InterTradeIreland’s annual report and accounts for 2014, which had been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General and laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Ministers received a presentation by officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, previewing the implementation of the research and innovation theme of the new INTERREG Va programme for the period 2015-2020.
Ministers noted a paper prepared by InterTradeIreland providing an update on the Horizon 2020 programme and the early results for the period January 2014 to May 2015. Twenty-two collaborative projects, involving 64 applicants, have been successful to date. They have secured €29·67 million in funding, and, of that total, Northern Ireland partners have secured €14·24 million and partners from Ireland have secured €15·43 million. The average award per partner is €463,500.
Ministers welcomed the wide range of activities organised by InterTradeIreland to encourage engagement to date. They included a total attendance of 486 participants at 'Focus on' events; the hosting of a range of conferences; the organisation of advisory service workshops; and the provision of financial assistance for scoping out partnerships and proposal opportunities.
Ministers also noted that InterTradeIreland had identified and will undertake additional promotional and awareness-raising activities in conjunction with the Horizon 2020 all-island steering group. That will utilise the contact point networks in each jurisdiction to drive delivery of the €175 million target. The work by InterTradeIreland with Horizon 2020 applicants to identify further resubmission opportunities was also noted.
The Council agreed that the next trade and business development meeting should be held in the spring of 2016. I commend the statement to the Assembly.
Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Thanks very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I again thank the Minister. In his statement, the Minister referred to the:
"strong demand for InterTradeIreland programmes in 2015"
"the wide range of activities organised by InterTradeIreland to encourage engagement".
I fully endorse that. Its work has been tremendous, and its support of the SME sector in particular has been phenomenal.
Although I welcome the additional funding allocated to InterTradeIreland in January monitoring, it should be noted that the additional funding does not contribute to the baseline for future InterTradeIreland budgets, leaving it very vulnerable to further cuts in future budgets. The budget for InterTradeIreland continues to decline in the face of what the Minister rightly referred to as growing demand right across the island of Ireland. Despite increased demand for its services, the budget remains at 30% below the 2008 level. Therefore —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Chairperson to come to his question.
Mr McGlone: I am coming to it right now. Thank you for your indulgence.
In the face of growing demand for its services and in recognition of the very positive impact that InterTradeIreland has on economic growth and development across the island, what assurances can the Minister give that its budget will not continue to be eroded at that level?
Mr Bell: Let me take the first part. I welcome the very positive commitment given to the work undertaken by InterTradeIreland. I will pull out some of the highlights of 2015 that I have seen. The Acumen programme stimulates cross-border business for SMEs. In 2015, there were 134 applications, resulting in 103 approvals. The Elevate programme was put together to focus on helping microenterprises to take the first steps in exporting and to explore opportunities in a new cross-border market. During 2015, the programme received 514 enquiries from SMEs and 139 applications, which resulted in 80 of those companies being approved for support. The FUSION programme is the flagship technology transfer programme that provides support to companies with new product or process development needs. There was a staggering result from that programme, with over 80% of FUSION graduates being offered jobs. The point that you initially made about the work that is going ahead was well made and is endorsed by me.
The business plan for 2016 remains subject to approval. For 2016, I decided to maintain InterTradeIreland's 2015 baseline. That is a reasonable outcome, given the current budgetary pressures across the Department. I have discussed the matter in some detail with Richard Bruton TD, and, as with Tourism Ireland and other arm's-length bodies, I have advised InterTradeIreland that it can make bids as part of the monitoring round process. In connection with that I am pleased to report, as I said to Mr Ó Muilleoir in response to a question for oral answer in recent weeks, that we were able to bid for £206,000 of additional money for 2016 as part of the January monitoring round. I am pleased to report that all parties, including the InterTradeIreland board and officials and the two co-sponsor Departments, have agreed to that additional funding. That gives an idea that I have not only maintained the budget from 2015, but, where there are specific programmes that deliver jobs and opportunities in Northern Ireland and help to take our businesses to new levels of sales, exports and graduate employment, I will do my level best to get funding where I can.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his detailed statements. We are all very aware of the need to support businesses in research and innovation, especially our SMEs. Will he give us an update, in some detail, on the progress of INTERREG Va, the programme for 2015 to 2020?
Mr Bell: I welcome the allocation of €71 million to research and innovation activities in the 2014 to 2020 INTERREG Va programme. That investment will support increased cross-border research and development competence-building in the life and health science and renewable energy sectors. A further key objective is to grow the number of small to medium-sized enterprises across the region that engage in research and innovation activity on a cross-border, collaborative basis.
We want to establish and are establishing robust and comprehensive governance arrangements to underpin an efficient programme implementation.
That is the key focus for my Department, and we continue to liaise with our colleagues in DFP, SEUPB and the Republic of Ireland to this effect.
Calls for applications are being publicly announced and managed by the SEUPB, in its role as the programme managing authority. Following a call for projects under the "business investment in research and innovation" (R&I) priority, which closed on 21 October, successful applications were approved by the programme's steering committee at the end of November to proceed to full development of the business case. A call for projects under the "enhancing research and innovation" priority is scheduled to open on 22 February this year.
Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. He may or may not be aware, due to his travels, that the Assembly's Enterprise Committee went to Dublin last Thursday and met with its counterpart in the Oireachtas. We attended the launch of this report on the all-Ireland economy. I commend it very much to the Minister and, indeed, to his senior officials and those in Invest NI. We also had the opportunity, at a joint Committee session, to hear from InterTradeIreland. I very much welcome the fact that he secured additional funding for InterTradeIreland and that he has extolled the virtues of a lot of the work that it is doing.
The Minister mentioned in his response to our Chairperson that there is an opportunity for an in-year monitoring bid. But does he accept that, when running programmes like this with a long lead-in, it is not ideal for a body such as InterTradeIreland to have to rely on moneys that may become available and then spend that very quickly? Will he continue with his commitment to the fight to secure additional funds in the baseline budget for InterTradeIreland? Because you can see quite clearly, from this and its own report that it released recently, that, for a modest investment, there is a very significant return in business development right across the island.
Mr Bell: What comes through clearly from the reports is that not only have hundreds of jobs that were potentially at risk been secured but new jobs and the promotion of potential further new jobs have been gained through this programme. My strategy is that anything that brings jobs to Northern Ireland will have my full and unequivocal support, and I accept the point that for this amount of money there is quite a high performance level. This is evidenced in the fact that I can give you examples where some 80% were successful, in the number of programmes that are going through and in the demand for the service.
There was big pressure on me, as Minister, and the Department. There are competing demands in the Department. Tourism will make a demand, as stated earlier. It is difficult to manage with a limited amount of resources, and when you get a plan coming through, the psychologist in me believes in B F Skinner's theory of classical conditioning: you should always try to reward good behaviour so that it is increased. In reality, the behaviour, industry and energy of InterTradeIreland in bringing jobs to Northern Ireland, securing jobs for Northern Ireland, bringing additional jobs to Northern Ireland and giving our graduates an enhanced programme, as well as its success rates, is very clearly something that I want to reward. So, I did not make the cut, as some proposals were made, to its 2015 budget. I maintained that against other competing needs, and I said that — both myself and Mr Richard Bruton — where possible, we can bid for additional resources and probably need to put additional energy into monitoring rounds. At our first go at it, we had another £206,000 into the budget. Of course, it would be better to always give people money up front, so that they can plan for the period. Given the fact that I have maintained the budget as it was from the previous year, and sought successfully to get additional money into the budget, demonstrates not only ministerial endorsement of the programme but my encouragement for them to go ahead. I will not waste any opportunity, in terms of monitoring rounds, to try to get additional finance to get more jobs into Northern Ireland.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank the Minister for his statement. Like others, I attended the joint Committee, and I fully endorse and support the work of InterTradeIreland and would be very supportive of any efforts to maintain and enhance its budget.
As outlined in the statement today, the establishment of the retail forum comes on the back of extensive surveying and research by NIIRTA and its partners. One of the main issues raised through that was the impact of rates and the instability that excessive rates bills can add to microbusinesses, particularly those in our town centres. Will the Minister work with his Finance and Personnel colleague to look at opportunities, through rates relief perhaps, to support SMEs or small businesses, particularly those in the retail sector in our town centres?
Mr Bell: There are vital points to be made about rates, and the Member has made some of them. I will certainly have further discussions with him and also Minister Storey about how we can continue to support rate relief. What we have tried to do to keep rates low, through specific initiatives, has been one of the success stories of devolved government. If the Member has additional specific proposals that he wishes to make, I am willing to hear them and take them to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Overall, when we look at our economic conditions, we can genuinely say that there are signs of improvement. Almost 40,000 additional jobs have been created since 2012 and, today, more than 26,000 fewer people are claiming unemployment benefits than did so in February 2013. In 2015, real earnings increased for the first time since 2009. I will discuss specific proposals that Mr Cochrane-Watson may have, to see how we can get the trajectory of additional jobs, fewer people claiming unemployment benefit, and real earnings increases, particularly in the retail sector which, I agree, has not only valiantly supported Northern Ireland through very difficult economic conditions but continues to support the lifeblood of our town centres.
Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that he, his Department and the Assembly need to send out a very clear message that Northern Ireland is better in Europe and that the development of programmes such as InterTradeIreland depend on us remaining in Europe? Will he also tell the House what contingency plans he has should the UK Government decide to withdraw from the European Union?
Mr Bell: There are very important matters to consider when we look at the issue of Europe. My Department has sought to provide people with the most informed choice they can make in relation to Europe. We asked for the best advice that we could get; we asked Oxford Economics to give us specific advice — which will be available in the coming period — in relation to a potential exit from the European Union, the potential of the status quo, and the third potential, which we do not know about at the moment, which is whatever reforms could be given by the European Union to the British Prime Minister. We will have to look at those very carefully.
We have also asked to look at other models. There is the Norway model, the Swiss model, and the Turkish relationship in terms of customs union. The best thing we can do is look very carefully at the expert evidence and see what the British Prime Minister brings back from his negotiations with the European Union. I believe that there needs to be change and that the status quo is not an option. We will look very carefully at what the British Prime Minister brings back and we will examine it against the best evidence we have in order to make an informed decision when we know what the referendum question, which is due before the end of 2017, is going to be. When we know the question and the plan, we will examine them against the evidence and give more definitive news then.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Buíochas arís leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for the statement on cross-border economic cooperation. I want to commend him on managing to find the £206,000 for InterTradeIreland because, of course, Minister Bruton was able to double that and put £600,000 into InterTradeIreland at this time when there is so much momentum behind the work that it is involved in.
I want to follow up on what Conor Murphy said about the visit to the Dáil last week and the report on the all-island economy. We are sometimes critical of unionist Ministers for not doing enough for the all-island economy. This is the first report on an all-island economy since the Oireachtas came into being, so the criticisms and blame can be shared.
It is very relevant to what you said today, Minister, that one of the big proposals is for one economic and enterprise agency on the island. Will you ensure that your officials work proactively, in a professional and systemic fashion, with the IDA on corporation tax harmonisation and reduction, because it has been there, done that, got the T-shirt. It has shown that it can maximise the full benefits of a reduced level of corporation tax. I would be really pleased, Minister, if you could come back at some stage and tell Members that Invest NI is having regular dealings with the IDA and ensuring that it is getting all the information and knowledge that it has, so that that is also brought to bear north of the border when corporation tax is harmonised across the island, as we hope and trust will happen if it is affordable.
Mr Bell: The Member is right: we have an enormous opportunity in that, on 1 April 2018, our corporation tax will be at 12·5%. We will be able to compete for business across the world, as I was competing for several businesses in San Francisco and New York in the past week. I hope to see fruit flow in jobs and investment from those, given that Northern Ireland now has a unique opportunity because our business costs are estimated to be 85% of those for the rest of the United Kingdom and about 95% of those in the Republic of Ireland. You can add to that the talent of our people, a very young population and the excellent work that the Department for Employment and Learning has undertaken in bespoke training and tailor-made initiatives to support business.
Allstate said that it came to Northern Ireland for the costs but stayed for the people. Companies such as Citi came in with 369 jobs and has now created some 2,000 jobs. Here is another interesting fact: 80% of all foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland has subsequently reinvested. At Invest NI, we try to get those businesses to tell their story about why, when they come here, they subsequently reinvest. That foreign direct investment comes from companies such as Baker and McKenzie, Citigroup, Allen and Overy, Allstate — a whole list that created thousands of jobs. So we have the best foreign direct investment proposition; more foreign direct investment per head than any other part of the UK; the lowest costs; and now we can add corporation tax.
I will certainly talk to Invest Northern Ireland about ensuring, with the IDA, that all opportunities are maximised. Invest Northern Ireland has done an absolutely spectacular job. When we sat as an Executive, we set it an initial target of some 20,000 jobs. At the Programme for Government meeting in 2011, that was increased to 25,000, and, to date, it has delivered some 44,000 jobs. Before the Assembly is dissolved, I hope to make additional job announcements on the back of a programme that Invest NI has done. In many cases, it has done that in very difficult conditions against a backdrop of a falling euro, the strength of the dollar and everything else.
If the Member is asking me to ensure that we maximise every opportunity and look at maximising every opportunity to harness the economic power across the two jurisdictions to deliver jobs and success, my answer is: absolutely.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister. Will he update the House on the status of INTERREG's EU monitoring committee? Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done to maximise the drawdown of funding across INTERREG's range of funds?
Mr Bell: Yes, I can assure the House that we have the maximum drawdown. All my information to date is that we are on course to meet all the targets that we have set ourselves, but I will continue to keep those targets under effective scrutiny, monitoring and evaluation to ensure further success.
Mr Allister: Briefly reverting to Mr Dickson's question, may I say that I look forward to the Minister coming off the fence on the issue of the EU and joining the ranks of those who want to liberate our great trading nation from its shackles?
His statement is clear that the 2016 business plan for InterTradeIreland has not yet been approved. Will he explain to the House how ongoing expenditure is lawful when the business plan has not been approved?
Mr Bell: The business plan is set to be approved at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, and I am advised that no expenditure reflects what the Member says. There is no unlawful expenditure.
I say to the Member, too, that it is easy to make a point — he is a learned QC — about coming off the fence. As I stand here today, we do not know what the referendum question is.
Mr Allister: We do.
Mr Bell: We do not know. Through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, we have not been given the terms of the referendum question. Will it simply ask whether we wish to leave the European Union? In that case, I imagine that the Member will say yes. However, if the question is whether we wish to remain in the European Union, I imagine that the answer from the Member will be no. In the absence of knowing the exact nature of the question, it is a very, very foolish person who answers it.
As I have said, there are concerns — some businesses, including international businesses, have reflected them to me — about how, were the UK to come out of the European Union, the potential loss of a market of some 500 million people would impact jobs and investment. Equally, I have been advised that, were we to come out, there is the potential for new trade agreements. The volume of trade between the EU and the UK is so significant that new trade arrangements could be put in place, and there is the possibility that we could look towards other markets in Asia, and specifically at things that we could do there that we cannot do now.
I say to the Member that the best thing that anybody in Northern Ireland can do is to take the most informed decision that they possibly can. That is why we have commissioned work from Oxford Economics to look at what a Brexit could mean and what the status quo could mean. Earlier, I said to the Member, in words as strong as I can use in the House, that I do not believe, as my parliamentary leader and our Member of the European Parliament said, that the status quo is an option.
We have to see what the Prime Minister achieves in the negotiations. It would be foolish and would not serve the people of Northern Ireland well if we made decisions when we do not know what the UK Prime Minister has negotiated. At the end of the day, it will be the decision of the people of Northern Ireland. They will look at the economic advice and at all the different models — the Norwegian, Swiss, Turkish and other models that could be followed — to get the best information on staying in or coming out. Give the people of Northern Ireland the best information, let them examine it against the reforms that the Prime Minister brings back and let them decide how to vote on the basis of facts. That is the most sensible and intelligent way to proceed.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions —
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Should the Minister mislead the House to suggest that we do not know what the question in the referendum is? Section 1 of the European Union (Referendum Act) 2015, which already has Royal Assent, sets out the question:
"Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
Why does the Minister pretend to the House that we do not know the question, when the law of the land states what it is? A couple of weeks ago, he did not know what the unemployment rate was. He told us that it was at a third of European and Republic of Ireland levels.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr Allister: He was wrong about that, and he is wrong about this.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member has his point on the record. I am sure that the Speaker will note it.
Mr Bell: May I reply, Mr Speaker —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No. Time is up.
Mr Bell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The latest unemployment statistics given to me were 6% in Northern Ireland, 8·9% in the Republic of Ireland and a European Union average of 9·3%. I thought that the difference between six and nine was three.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the Minister's statement.
Executive Committee Business
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the junior Minister, Mrs Emma Pengelly, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Departments Bill.
Moved. — [Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments — amendment Nos 1 and 2 — dealing with a technical issue relating to the references to the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 in the Bill. We will debate the amendments in turn. Once the debate on the group is completed, the second amendment in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question will be put without further debate. If that is clear, we will move on.
Clause 2 (Consequential amendments and repeals)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 2, which is consequential. I call the junior Minister, Mrs Emma Pengelly, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendment in the group.
Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I beg to move amendment No 1:
In page 2, line 7, leave out subsection (1).
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 3, leave out schedule 2. — [Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]
Amendment No 1, together with amendment No 2, makes a technical adjustment to the Bill that does not change its substance or affect the policy behind it. The Bill, as drafted and as it now sits, takes account of the current law, including the legislation that covers the operation of the statutory office of the Assembly Ombudsman, the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. That Order specifies the remit of the ombudsman by referencing the names of individual Northern Ireland Departments. Given the nature of the ombudsman's role, the Order is frequently accessed by the public. Consequently, when the Departments Bill was being drafted, it was considered that it would be helpful to make specific textual amendments to the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 to reflect the Departments after restructuring in May 2016. That would have been achieved through the amendments reference in clause 2(1) and listed at schedule 2 to the Departments Bill. However, with the Departments Bill in its concluding stages, it is necessary now to take account of how it interacts with another Bill currently before the Assembly, namely the Public Services Ombudsman Bill, sponsored by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
In my introductory speech at Second Stage on 8 December, I referred to the possible need for a technical amendment to this Bill at a later stage, pending the progress of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill. That Bill would establish a new combined Public Services Ombudsman in place of the existing and separate offices of Assembly Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints. It is now expected to complete its Assembly stages next week. It will establish the new Public Services Ombudsman position with effect from 1 April 2016, and, on that date, the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 will be repealed and the office established under that legislation will cease to exist. This means that clause 2(1) of and schedule 2 to the Departments Bill will be superseded. Consequently, they will be redundant and can now be removed from the Bill.
Amendment No 1 would remove from the Bill clause 2(1), which references the amendments to the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 contained in schedule 2 and consequential on clause 1. Clearly linked to that is amendment No 2. It would remove schedule 2, which details the consequential amendments, all of which relate to citations of Departments in the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. These are technical amendments that will improve the Bill by removing provisions that will become redundant as a consequence of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill and its anticipated progress in the course of the next week.
Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The Committee noted the amendments before the House today when we met on 27 January. As the junior Minister pointed out, our Public Services Ombudsman Bill is nearing the end of its passage; indeed, the Committee is seeking an Exceptional Further Consideration Stage late today. We hope to bring the Final Stage to the House next week. When that Bill comes into operation, the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 will be repealed. On that basis, it seems nothing other than logical to make these changes to the Departments Bill at this stage. I support the amendments.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As has been outlined by the Minister and the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee, these are logical amendments to redundant provisions — clause 2(1) and schedule 2 — which need to be removed as the Public Services Ombudsman Bill progresses. I support both amendments.
Mrs Pengelly: I thank Members for their contributions and support in relation to the technical amendments. As I said at the outset, the amendments make small technical adjustments to the Bill that do not change its substance or affect policy. They are necessary as a result of the progress of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill and its anticipated repeal of the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. They remove references to the 1996 Order, which will become redundant on the coming into operation of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill. I should say at this point that the Bill does not need to be reflected in the text of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill, as that Bill refers generically to Departments rather than listing them by name in the way that the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 did. The Departments Bill is important legislation, and I am glad to see it progressing through the Assembly today.
Amendment No 1 agreed to.
Schedule 2 (Amendments)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 2 is consequential to amendment No 1.
Amendment No 2 made:
In page 3, leave out schedule 2. — [Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Departments Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill.
Moved. — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration.
The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two amendments, which will be debated in a single group. Both amendments deal with the entitlement to rates reductions. I remind Members intending to speak that they should address their comments to only the amendments. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 2. I call Mr Daithí McKay to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendment in the group.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move amendment No 1:
In page 1, line 8, at end insert"(5B) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (5A), prescribed cases in regulations under that paragraph shall include, subject to such conditions as may be prescribed, where a hereditament is occupied by a community amateur sports club. (5C) The first regulations under paragraph (5A) shall be no later than 30 September 2016,", (b) in paragraph (6) insert at the appropriate place —""community amateur sports club" means a registered club within the meaning of section 658(6) of the Corporation Tax Act 2010;"."
No 2: After clause 1 insert"Specified recreations: pigeon racing 1A. In the Schedule to the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 (list of specified recreations), where appropriate insert "Pigeon Racing"." — [Mr Cree.]
Amendment No 1 is a straightforward amendment. At last week's debate at Consideration Stage, I gather that there was consensus on the need to make regulations within a fixed timescale. The thrust of the amendment is to ensure that the first regulations under paragraph (5A) be made no later than 30 September 2016. It is also useful to put community amateur sports clubs (CASCs) in the Bill.
I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his engagement with me on this issue last week. I, of course, would have preferred it if we could have dealt with the issue of CASCs with bars with licensed premises as part of the extension of the rates relief, but the Assembly ruled otherwise. Nonetheless, I hope that the Department will take the opportunity, ahead of the introduction of the regulations, to find a solution or an option for those clubs. My primary concern is that there is a greater disincentive for clubs with bars to build further facilities for their communities and associations. I say that particularly as a rural representative. Of course, on the other hand, clubs without bars will no longer have that disincentive, so, if they decide to build a new pitch or hall, there will be no added rates burden.
The Finance and Personnel Committee has heard of possible options, including assessing according to the different levels of turnover, changing how club bars are rated etc. The Department now has an opportunity to consider the options more fully. I hope that it will bring forward recommendations that represent a step forward for those clubs. All community amateur sports clubs play a vital role in our community. That point has been laboured at other stages of the Bill, so, hopefully, that will be the case.
In regard to amendment No 2, put forward in the names of Mr Leslie Cree and Mr Robin Swann, Sinn Féin has no issues with the pigeon-racing amendment. There are many and a very wide variety of recreations on the list of sports already. Some might argue that some of them are lesser sports than pigeon racing, and some may have a contrary view. I see no reason why that should not be included as well. No doubt, if it is passed by the Assembly today, it will give Mr Swann something to tweet about — or should that be coo about? I give my support to amendment No 2.
Mr I McCrea: My comments will be very short, as we have discussed and debated this a number of times over the last couple of weeks. The Member, to be fair, as I have said before and will say again, has been to the fore of trying to promote this issue. It was unfortunate that we had to go down the route of bringing it forward in the Minister's name and not his, but we are where we are. The Member brought forward his amendment last week, which, unfortunately, did not go through. We had a quick chat about it. In respect of my conversation with the Minister, the fact that the Member took up the offer to consult with the Minister and figure out a way forward on this gives a wee bit of assurance that, when these things happen, things can move forward.
In that sense, it is a wee bit unfortunate that, in respect of the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party, consultation has not really happened with the Minister. We had an issue with Mr McKay's amendment last week because consultation had not taken place. However, it now has, and we are therefore able to support it. Unfortunately, that consultation with the Minister has not happened with the Ulster Unionist amendment, and there are still some questions around pigeon racing. I have nothing against it; I have some such clubs in my constituency, although, as far I am aware, they do not have premises that would benefit from this rate relief. I am not saying that I do not sympathise with them, but we do not have enough information to be able to support the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party.
However, as the Minister outlined the last time we debated the Bill, his door is open for a conversation with Mr Swann. Mr Swann has flown off to America, which may be why we have not had the consultation. Who knows what might happen between now and the end? We are content to support the amendment from Mr McKay, but unfortunately we cannot support the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr Cree: I rise to speak primarily to amendment No 2, although we support amendment No 1.
I start by noting that it was my colleague Robin Swann who drove amendment No 2 forward. As has just been said, he did fly off to America. It is interesting that we have not heard a tweet from him since, but it will be a good test to see if he can home his way back. [Laughter.]
Unfortunately, he is unable to be here, and I am only too happy to take this forward on his behalf.
The issue was raised at the Bill's Second Stage by Mr Swann, and I want to expand on three points: why the Bill is an opportunity to pursue this, why pigeon racing should be included as a prescribed recreation by Land and Property Services (LPS) and how pigeon racing can meet the requirement to satisfy the definition of a sport.
The first clause of the Bill refers to the 1977 Order, and it is that Order that is the parent legislation for the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007, which sets out the prescribed definition of recreations, as recognised by Land and Property Services. I believe this Bill is the best vehicle for correcting an oversight, whereby pigeon racing is excluded from the LPS list of prescribed activities. As Mr Swann stated at the Second Stage, that would give the Minister an opportunity to be a trailblazer and a champion for pigeon men and women across Northern Ireland. Mr Swann asked me to make sure I put that in.
In previous exchanges with officials and special advisers, it was implied that pigeon clubs as registered charities was the answer. However, that is not the case, and it is an easy cop out because it would place a disproportionate burden on clubs that have the ability to take up the opportunity, against any benefits that they might achieve. The application process via the Northern Ireland Charities Commission is daunting in itself, never mind the financial cost of obtaining and retaining certification, and likely would outweigh any benefits that clubs might accrue through rate relief. The inclusion of pigeon racing in the list of prescribed activities will allow it to avail of the 80% rate relief, despite what happens in other clauses.
At Consideration Stage, the Minister made reference to:
"article 31 of the 1977 Order, which details prescribed recreation."
He quoted it as stating:
"'prescribed recreation' means a recreation, whether conducted indoors or outdoors, which in the opinion of the Department demands an appreciable degree of physical effort and which is of a kind specified".
At that stage, my party highlighted what it believed to be an irregularity, because it is disingenuous that some recreation sports are listed under the 2007 prescribed activities list but are not recognised as sports by Sport Northern Ireland.
The Land and Property Services list of prescribed recreations, which is predicated on the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007, includes camping; model power boating; recreational walking; paddleball; bicycle polo; and power boarding. All those sports or, perhaps more accurately, recreations can avail themselves of the rates relief that can be obtained through the current legislation, never mind what may be possible through any future legislation.
What makes those activities different from the other 125 that are named as "prescribed recreations" is that they are not recognised by any of the UK sports councils as disciplines of other sports or on a stand-alone basis. That has been confirmed by Sport Northern Ireland. I believe the premise to exclude pigeon racing due to a perceived lack of physical activity of the pigeon man or pigeon woman to be misguided. In any event, if the Department or LPS were to be exact in that stipulation, how could they and the UK sporting bodies explain — I will give you another list — ballooning, model aircraft flying, gliding, which is a special case, wildfowling, yoga and rambling as activities that require a greater degree or level of physical activity than that involved in pigeon racing? In fact, to refuse to treat pigeon racing equally in the rates legislation with those non-sporting activities is wholly discriminatory and should not be condoned by the House.
There is a lot of work being undertaken to get official recognition for pigeon racing as a sport. When that is achieved, LPS will have to amend the list anyway, so it may as well do it now when it has the chance. The arguments being put forward will demonstrate that a significant amount of physical activity is undertaken by the pigeon owner in preparation for and during pigeon races. We are not putting forward an argument regarding the physical activity of the pigeon owner to be recognised solely on the basis of a race. When you take the definition of "sport" as laid out in the Council of Europe's European sports charter of 1999, you see that it states:
"'Sport' means all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels."
It is that definition that is recognised in law, and that is crucial to the argument. For the purpose of the debate, I will break the definition down. It states:
"physical activity, which, through casual or organised participation".
It cannot be denied that pigeon racing is organised through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the Irish Homing Union, Northern Ireland Provincial Amalgamation, Ulster Federation and East Down Combine. The rules and regulations in place, especially for dispute resolution and anti-doping, leave many sports trailing in their wake. The definition also states that "sport" means all forms of physical activities that:
"aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being".
How can it be argued that the 25 to 30 hours per week of physical activity that is undertaken by pigeon men and women ranging in age from 10 to 90-plus do not improve physical fitness? It can and will be shown that the amount of physical activity undertaken by the pigeon man or woman as part of one pigeon race is greater than the combined activity of more than 10 athletes at an athletic meeting. How many 80-year-olds actively compete in athletic events?
Where "mental well-being" is concerned, it can be shown that pigeon men and women need to have significant mental capabilities to participate in the sport. Striving to be the best requires mental toughness, the ability to deal with stress and excellent memory capacity.
Turning now to "forming social relationships", I will say that that is a lot of what pigeon racing is about. Pigeon racing was breaking down political, religious and class barriers long before anything or anyone else. In what other sport can you compete against the pensioner next door and the Queen of England on the same day? Pigeon clubs provide the only social contact for some older pigeon men and women and an opportunity to meet friends on a weekly basis. Given that the majority of pigeon men and women are over 60 years of age, such social contact is, we argue, essential for their physical and mental well-being.
Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way?
Mr Cree: Yes.
Mr McNarry: I am intrigued by the debate, never having raced a pigeon in my life. I am wondering whether communications in my old party are still carried out by pigeon carrier. On a more serious note, can the Member inform the House of the training element that goes into pigeon racing and the physicality that he is talking about, which I think is a good point? Can he maybe give us an insight as to how long it takes to train a pigeon and what that entails? Are other pigeons involved in that or is it purely human contact?
Mr Cree: Thank you very much for the question. It is an interesting one.
Mr McNarry: I just want an answer.
Mr Cree: I have to say that it is not just the actual pigeon racing: you have to feed the birds and clean them out every day. Indeed, there is a lot of toing and froing. I am no expert on pigeon racing, but my father kept pigeons. He, in fact, had us doing a lot of the work. Not only was he doing sufficient recreation, working at them every day, but he had us doing it as well. It is one of those things that perhaps you do not fully understand unless you are involved in it directly. There is all that ongoing treatment; looking after the birds, doing small runs, taking them out, letting them free and hoping that they come back. There is quite a lot of work in it.
Moving back — I am almost finished — I was talking about the mix of people and the social interaction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the annual charity pigeon shows in Dublin, Lisburn and Blackpool, where pigeon men and women in their thousands gather together, as it says here — I was going to say flock together — to meet friends and colleagues to compare experiences and simply enjoy one another's company once again. The opportunity to put something back into society through the millions of pounds given in charitable donations is something that all pigeon men and women can rightly be proud of. Pigeon clubs are also an excellent source of education for younger members. They learn discipline; respect for their fellow members, especially the older members; and a sense of fairness and honesty. Trials in America using pigeon racing as a means of breaking down gang culture in inner cities have proved very successful; something that we could all learn from here. We would draw similarities —
Mr Lyons: Will the Member give way?
Mr Cree: I will if the Member is short and to the point.
Mr Lyons: I cannot guarantee that. I thank the Member for giving way. He has been very informative. I did not know that pigeon racing has helped to break down gang culture in the United States. Is it not the case that, although what he is saying and trying to achieve is worthy, he is going about it the wrong way? There should be legislation to change the list of prescribed recreations rather than doing that in the way in which he is trying to go about it.
Mr Cree: I thank the Member for his intervention. Clearly, we are where we are. Mr Swann raised the issue at Second Stage. Not a lot of consultation was carried out. That does not make it right that these people should be overlooked. As I said at the start of my presentation, that has to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Getting back to the gangs issue, we would draw similarities in a lot of respects to boxing clubs in Northern Ireland. Again, many Members here will have experience of the good work that they have done in breaking down these sorts of barriers.
Although it is not strictly required in the definition, pigeon races can be and are competed locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. They are competed at club level; regional level, with the nine counties of Ulster being divided into 11 geographical regions; and nationally across the whole of the nine countries of Ulster. In addition, the King George V Challenge Cup is competed for by members across the whole of Ireland. That is why Mr Swann has been working with the excellent Northern Ireland Pigeon Association at a Northern Ireland level and through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association at a UK level to have pigeon racing designated as a sport. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been in support of that.
I will conclude by urging Members to support amendment No 2.
Ms Hanna: I will speak briefly on these, because we have covered them at length. Amendment No 1 is, I suppose, a softening of the previous amendment. We remain supportive of that. Amendment No 2 deals with the new clause. I will try to kill two birds with one stone and address them both. In the context of the other activities that are outlined, we think that it is compatible. In the target demographic that the Member has outlined who participate in the sport, we think that it is appropriate. There is a relevant social benefit. We will let this one fly. We think that the policy does have wings and that those clubs should get their rates cheap, cheap.
Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Thank you to the Members who spoke about the two amendments. I will try to resist using some of the analogies that were used already during the debate.
Mr McNarry: Are you a hawk or a dove on this issue?
Mr Storey: I do not want to enter into the internal workings of UKIP and whether it uses pigeon carriers or whatever it is. That is entirely an issue for the Member's party.
On amendment No 1, I advise the House that I met Mr McKay to discuss the new amendment and agree a form of words that would develop the amendment that he tabled at Consideration Stage. At that stage, I highlighted that there were elements of his proposed amendment that would have been acceptable to me and that would fall within the stated aim of the Bill, as it was introduced, and my preferred policy position for further consultation. The present amendment complies with those standards, and, although I am not convinced that it adds material value to the Bill, it certainly does not conflict with its aims as agreed at Executive level when it was originally introduced.
As I stated last week, I have no difficulty committing my Department to making the first set of regulations by the end of September. That requirement is again encompassed in the amendment being considered at present, and I am content to endorse it. Likewise, I am happy to include a reference to community amateur sports clubs in the Bill now that such a requirement no longer affects the generality of the new enabling power brought forward in the Bill. The change also avoids the enabling power being pinned down too tightly and should help allay the concerns raised by Mr Cree at Consideration Stage in that it will allow the consultation process to take place without artificially confining the enabling power for the enhancement. It is important to underscore and underline that. I can, therefore, endorse the second part of the amendment.
On the outworking of the revised clause, I will make a number of points in relation to the next steps. Now that the Bill has taken its final shape, my Department will undertake a targeted consultation on the use of the clause in the coming days and weeks. That consultation will present my preferred policy that unlicensed community amateur sports clubs get the enhancement of 100%. Given the law of unintended consequences, I think that it is wise and logical to have a starting point for developing policy in that area.
I have taken heed of the views of other business sectors, which were reiterated and well articulated in front of the Finance Committee just before Christmas, and I think that it is safe to say that any club with a successful bar can already count itself lucky in comparison with commercial bars in their area and that getting a minimum of 80% relief on their sporting facilities could not exactly be deemed unreasonable. Ms Hanna made a valid point on that issue at Consideration Stage. I accept, having met Mr McKay last week, that policy can and should evolve over time and that this support measure can be refined in due course. While the preferred policy will take the starting point of enhanced relief in the sector, there is the case of community amateur sports clubs that operate a small bar that serves a few pints to members and visiting teams after a match. I and, I am sure, my successor will be happy to review that issue at a later stage.
We have a review of the whole system of business rates running at the moment, and that is asking some difficult questions about the way reliefs are targeted. That includes the rules around the existing 80% scheme for amateur sports clubs and whether that needs changed. I do not think that there is a way that we can develop a balanced, sound, effective and working policy to allow some clubs with bars to get 100% rate relief and for the regulations to be taken through the Assembly by September.
I would like to put on record that I am happy for such matters to be looked at further in light of the outcomes of the specific consultation exercise on that area and in the fullness of time when we have looked at the whole issue of reliefs in the round following the wider non-domestic rating review.
Incidentally, that review highlighted the differences in valuation treatment of clubhouse bars and restaurants compared with normal licensed premises. In the final analysis, the valuation method is normally left to the courts to decide and is not something that anyone would normally legislate for. It is, however, a factor in considering future rate relief policy and the competition issues that make this policy area so complex. To understand how complex it is, I recommend that Members review the evidence sessions organised by the Finance Committee before Christmas, which will give them some indication of those complexities.
Should amendment No 1 pass, I am content with the final form of the clause and endorse the wording brought to the House by Mr McKay following our meeting.
I thank the proposer of amendment No 2 for his commitment to the issue. Mr Swann is out of the country, so I thank Mr Cree for meeting us this morning and having a discussion, albeit we would have preferred an opportunity for a longer discussion prior to the amendment being tabled, which created a difficulty and challenge for us. I underscore the commitment of Mr Swann — he has been a strong advocate on the matter — and his colleagues. Unfortunately, I am still in a position of being unable to support the amendment. The proposer will be aware from recent responses to questions for written answer from my predecessor and my response to him during the Second Stage debate that such an amendment is untenable. It is more appropriate that the change proposed in the amendment be in the subordinate legislation that lists prescribed sports and recreations. In response to his amendment, part of the usual standard for revision of the list of sports and recreations is a compulsory requirement for consultation with sporting bodies and representatives of local councils under article 31(6). Members will note that such a consultation process is not in evidence for this amendment.
Leaving aside the appropriateness or otherwise of the amendment, it is legally unworkable in practice as it expressly refers to a statutory rule, the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. The use of the express legislative reference in the amendment means that, if that statutory rule were to be replaced, the provision inserted by the Member would have no effect and would fall into disrepair.
I am happy to undertake a review of prescribed recreations for the Member, should he think that that would be of benefit. Such a process could, however, go both ways. The proposer of the amendment has, understandably, pointed out anomalies in the existing list — those were well listed by Mr Cree — such as model powerboating, model airplane flying and wildfowling. I agree with the Member that those pursuits are not exactly in keeping with the principle enshrined in the governing primary legislation that the activity should involve:
"an appreciable degree of physical effort".
I estimate that the inclusion of those anomalous activities has no practical effect because no rateable premises are associated with them, so their removal from the list would be a straightforward tidying-up exercise, which I am sure the Member would support. Hopefully, a commitment for further review in this area will provide some reassurance to the Members who tabled amendment No 2.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I will keep my comments relatively short. I thank the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and, indeed, the DUP for giving their support to amendment No1. I fully take on board the Minister's comments that he felt that this work would be carried out anyway by the Department, but I think that it is worthwhile that the Assembly gets the assurance that, whoever the incoming Minister may be, there is pressure to ensure that it is done for community amateur sports clubs.
The Minister commented on the work of the Finance Committee, and it was quite interesting to hear the different views and options that were put before the Committee. I welcome the commitment from the Minister and the Department to review the issue of community and amateur sports clubs with bars. This is a complex area. There are different rates for different bars, and perhaps the Department could put forward proposals to bring some clarity. I do not envy it in that task, but I think that it is very worthwhile that we look at the issue and see what we can do for clubs that are not covered by the 100% exemption.
As I said earlier, we support amendment No 2. Mr Cree put forward the argument that other sports already included do not require much exertion at all, so adding pigeon racing to the list should not be a big ask. We will support amendment Nos 1 and 2.
Amendment No 2 proposed:
After clause 1 insert"Specified recreations: pigeon racing 1A. In the Schedule to the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 (list of specified recreations), where appropriate insert "Pigeon Racing"." — [Mr Cree.]
Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.The Assembly divided:
Ayes 55; Noes 29 AYES Mr Agnew, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr McNarry, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Overend, Mr Alastair Patterson, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Cree, Mrs Overend NOES Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Lord Morrow, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Weir Tellers for the Noes: Mr I McCrea, Mr G Robinson
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Oral Answers to Questions
Mr Speaker: We will start with listed questions. Questions 1, 4, and 6 have been withdrawn.
Social Investment Fund: East Belfast
2. Mr Newton asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on social investment fund projects in East Belfast. (AQO 9495/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): A Cheann Comhairle, with your permission I will ask junior Minister McCann to take the question.
Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The social investment fund is a growing success story. It is at the heart of the Executive's Delivering Social Change framework, making life-changing differences to people in communities facing disadvantage. Twenty-five projects, valued at £37 million, have now commenced, with 10 operational and more in the pipeline. In addition, over 600 participants are benefiting from projects in areas such as early intervention, employment and childcare. We can expect these numbers to ramp up significantly as delivery continues.
Belfast East allocated £8 million to employment, education and capital projects. Good progress has been made on the capital side with two of the capital projects — Best of the East and Bryson Street Surgery — due to complete construction by 31 March 2016. Also, letters of offer have been issued to the approved components of the zone's capital cluster project. We are working to expedite approvals for the remaining three revenue projects.
Mr Newton: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. I do not think I have to spell out just how important the revenue projects are, but I ask the junior Minister if she will take on board the need to push forward, in particular, on the employment and education revenue initiatives. Does the junior Minister agree with me that, in addressing capital investment, it is much better to take a strategic approach in an area — I suggest the Clarawood estate — rather than a piecemeal approach to the development of any capital projects.
Ms J McCann: I totally agree with the Member's last comment. I think we learned the lesson, through the Urban Village programme, that you have to make a connection with the council, particularly in terms of community planning. It is very important with capital projects that you are not doing one thing in central government and another in local government. These projects, particularly those relating to the social investment fund, were ones where the community came together and decided who would be in the steering groups. They were the ones who decided which projects were the most important going forward.
You are totally right about the early intervention and employment projects. In other areas, the other junior Minister and I have been at launches, and, from talking to people who have participated in the programmes, we know that they have been quite successful in the way they were rolled out.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I scarcely recognise the description of the social investment fund as one of the most successful programmes of the Executive, given that we are so far behind in delivering it. Does the Minister not agree with me that, five years into the Programme for Government, we should be doing post-project evaluations and not trying to get letters of offer out? What will happen to the money that is unspent? Does the Minister anticipate that it will run into the next Programme for Government? Will it be another five years before it is spent?
Ms J McCann: I understand that everybody was frustrated that the programme took a while to be rolled out, but I remind the Member that £58 million has been committed since 22 January. A further £22 million of the £80 million has been allocated to projects that are in the approval process. There are about nine revenue projects that are in the process now and have started. Five capital projects are at the construction stage, two are due to be completed, as I said, by 31 March, and one has already been completed in Coleraine.
You have to understand that revenue projects are not just projects that you spend money on right away. Some of the revenue projects will be over a two or three-year period, so you do not just spend it right away anyway. They will have to be given money as they go along. We have to remember that this was a new programme. We are now in a position where £58 million has been committed and £22 million has been allocated to projects that are in the approval process. In my opinion, that is progress.
T:BUC: Rural Areas
3. Mr McCarthy asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the progress made in implementing Together: Building a United Community in rural areas. (AQO 9496/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: The actions and commitments within the Together: Building a United Community strategy will impact on all areas of our society, including rural areas. Under the United Youth programme, 13 pilot projects have commenced, providing around 360 places. Young people from all areas can avail themselves of those, and one of the pilots is being delivered by the Rural Development Council in Mid Ulster. Of the five shared neighbourhoods under construction, two are in rural areas — Crossgar Road, Saintfield, and Burn Road, Cookstown. The three shared education campuses announced to date are located in rural areas: Limavady, Moy and Ballycastle. One hundred and one summer camps have been delivered in 2015 involving around 4,200 children and young people, mainly from rural areas.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is also considering the expansion of its cross-community youth sports programme into a rural area. As with all other Departments, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is represented on the ministerial panel and the good relations programme board. Under the strategy, DARD has committed to working with rural community organisations to encourage increasing openness and accessibility and to reduce the chill factors and fears that prevent open access. Contracts are in place with lead service providers for the delivery of a rural community development support service, which is promoting and supporting work in a number of areas, including community relations.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the deputy First Minister for a detailed response. He will know that, in some rural communities, divisions can often be subtle and less visible than elsewhere. Has his Department any separate or special regeneration plans to tackle that where they see that it may arise?
Mr M McGuinness: Quite obviously, the ministerial panel is consistently keeping under review how the programme is being delivered. Thus far, we have made good progress on it, not least in the allocation of £60 million through the Fresh Start Agreement over the next five years. If the Member has a concern about a particular area, my door is open and we are willing to have a conversation about it. I think that we are very focused on the need to ensure that all rural areas are included and that the programme is delivered in a very inclusive way.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am sure that the deputy First Minister will agree with me that community safety is at the core of cohesive rural communities. I invite him in his role as a joint leader with the First Minister comment on the situation developing in my community of West Tyrone, where in the past week five Masses have been targeted for car break-ins and thefts. I am really emphasising the importance of community safety in rural communities by making our communities cohesive and safe.
Mr M McGuinness: First and without hesitation, the First Minister and I would unreservedly condemn the actions of those who are involved in such criminality in or around any place of worship. There is obviously a huge responsibility whenever there is an outbreak for the local community, working in harmony with the Police Service, to ensure that it is combated as effectively as possible. Obviously, somebody out there knows that this is happening, and there are people with information. I encourage anybody with any information to pass it on to the police.
Mr Speaker: Congratulations to the Member for that imaginative use of his question.
Mr McCrossan: What progress has been made on implementing T:BUC in my constituency of West Tyrone?
Mr M McGuinness: We are very focused on ensuring that the delivery of the Together: Building a United Community project is implemented successfully in every single constituency. The detail of your constituency is something that I will write to you about.
Obviously, it is a very exciting programme. It is one that we are prepared to put a tremendous amount of funding into because it is absolutely vital that we ensure that we bring our community together. It is also important to recognise the huge responsibility that politicians have, not just to deliver the programme but to lead by example. We must also ensure, however, that we are not just bringing people together at a grass-roots level. The people at grass-roots level have to be able to see that the politicians here in the Assembly are prepared to work together for the common good. That it is why the negotiation of the Fresh Start Agreement prior to Christmas was so vital, as it showed the community that decisions can be made that will improve their lives. Of course, a whole range of decisions was made at that negotiation.
West Tyrone is a very important constituency, as are all the others. The programmes are being rolled out effectively, and we will write to you about what is happening in West Tyrone.
Mrs Overend: I wish to ask the deputy First Minster what the total spend has been, and how much of that is additional. How much would have been spent anyway?
Mr M McGuinness: We have allocated £10 million for this financial year. We agreed, as I said in my earlier answer, to put aside £60 million over the next five years, and that is extra money that we have budgeted for. We believe that the programme is worthy of not just one year or two years but an extended period of something like five years, as it will have enormous benefits in bringing our community together. In short, the answer is that the £60 million is new money.
Active Ageing Strategy
5. Ms Ruane asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the delivery of the active ageing strategy. (AQO 9498/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer this question.
Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The Executive's active ageing strategy was published on the Department's website on Tuesday 26 January. The purpose of the strategy is to transform attitudes to, and services for, older people. It is important that we fully acknowledge the enormous contribution that older people make to our society and that we challenge the negative stereotyping of them. The strategy will provide direction for Departments' policies; make connections between strategies; and lead to the improvement of services for older people.
In developing the strategy, we worked closely with the former Commissioner for Older People, Claire Keatinge, and the ageing strategy advisory group, which included as members older people and people working for organisations that represent older people. The strategy sets out a vision for an age-friendly region, in which people, as they get older, are valued and supported to live actively to their fullest potential, with their rights and dignity protected. The strategic aims of the strategy are based around the UN principles for older persons. There are 18 of those, which are grouped under five themes: independence; participation; care; self-fulfilment; and dignity. The strategy's vision and strategic aims will be implemented by those Departments and agencies with the resources, expertise and specific responsibilities for key programmes and services that improve the lives of older people.
Ms Ruane: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the junior Minister for her comprehensive answer. I wonder whether she will outline the next steps in the active ageing strategy, especially given the number of older people in our society.
Ms J McCann: The next steps will be to monitor progress against the outcomes set out in the strategy, and we will consult on the draft indicators as well. Junior Minister Pengelly and I were at an event earlier today, called Dignity Action Day, which was organised by the National Pensioners Convention. Basically, we signed up to what was called a "dignity charter", if you like. At that event, it was very clear that people's dignity and rights need to be respected throughout their life. Just because someone gets older does not mean that they have any less of a contribution to make to society. When we were looking at the strategy, we were saying that it was a very live strategy. It is not just about the strategy; it is about how the strategy and those services are rolled out, and how those rights are protected and that respect is given to older people. Certainly, that is the way that we will be monitoring and progressing it.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra. The active ageing strategy, in common with a number of other strategies included within the role of OFMDFM, will be transferred to the Department for Communities in the next mandate. Will the Minister outline what level of communication and discussion has taken place to ensure that that transition is as smooth as possible?
Ms J McCann: Obviously, there has been some discussion at Executive level on where different areas of policy responsibility should sit. The Member will be aware that, over the next period, we will have time in the Assembly to discuss the different functions that go into the different Departments. We have tried to keep that fit as well as it can be kept. The important thing for a strategy such as the active ageing strategy is that it is an Executive strategy, not an OFMDFM one. It is a strategy for which all Departments are accountable. They fulfil their responsibilities when they are caring for older people in society. That is done right across the board, in services or whatever. It is an Executive responsibility, as opposed to an OFMDFM one.
7. Mrs McKevitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister why they plan to retain in the new Executive Office the power to appoint commissioners, including the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. (AQO 9500/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: 'A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan' confirms the reduction in the number of Departments from 12 to nine, from May 2016, along with detailed proposals for specific aspects of implementation for which the Executive are responsible. That will reduce the number of Ministers, special advisers, permanent secretaries and staff working in central support functions.
As part of the agreement, it was proposed that the Department for Communities should assume sponsorship responsibilities for the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Commissioner for Older People, with the exception of the appointment of the respective commissioners. In putting forward this proposal, it was considered that the roles of the two bodies were a more natural fit within the Department for Communities, given its focus on issues affecting citizens here. However, while the proposal provided a better alignment of roles and responsibilities, it was also recognised that the postholders in these significant posts should have the confidence of both the First Minister and deputy First Minister. This will also help to ensure that the important work that these bodies carry out will receive the appropriate cross-party support to ensure that they deliver on behalf of the community. These public appointments are, of course, subject to open competition, with appointments based on merit, and the process is subject to regulation by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
Mrs McKevitt: I thank the joint First Minister for his response. Given that the commissioners will be under the new remit of OFMDFM, how do you think communications are going to work? You are the employer, yet they are under the remit of a different Department. Has there been any discussion of that?
Mr M McGuinness: Obviously, we think that it will work. The decision has been made that these important agencies will transfer to the Department for Communities. The responsibility that the First Minister and I have is an overarching one for the work of the Executive. I do not think that there will be any difficulty whatsoever in us working with whoever is the new Minister in that Department to ensure that there is continuity of service to the public.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: It is clear that the functions of the Executive Office have moved radically since they were first announced last March. It seems to me that it will now retain delivery functions and has moved away from the more coordinating role that was first envisaged.
Mr M McGuinness: Is that a question or a statement?
Mr Cochrane-Watson: It is a question.
Mr M McGuinness: What is the question?
Mr Cochrane-Watson: Will the deputy First Minister comment on that? It seems to me that it is now retaining delivery functions. Initially, the new Executive Office was to have more of a coordinating role. Why has that move taken place?
Mr M McGuinness: The decisions that have been made in relation to the reduction in the number of Departments and the transfer of various services to what will be, effectively, a new Department are part of a very natural process for us to be involved in. It is all about ensuring that we have proper delivery for the benefit of citizens. The First Minister and deputy First Minister, being in the lead in the Executive and representing the two largest parties, have a duty and responsibility for the work of the Executive, including coordination but also ensuring that all Departments in the Executive deliver in the context of the changes that have been made as a result of the decisions to reduce the number of Departments. It is about effective delivery against the backdrop of 'A Fresh Start', and I think that we are off to a good start in ensuring that we continue to deliver for citizens. We can do that as long as all parties in the Executive — there will be a new Executive after the election — recognise that the demand of the people is that we continue to work together for their benefit.
Mr Speaker: Mrs Judith Cochrane is not in her place.
9. Mr Campbell asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how they are showing leadership in progressing the Together: Building a United Community strategy. (AQO 9502/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: Achieving our vision of a united community based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation requires collective commitment and effort from everyone. Government must work alongside statutory, voluntary, community and private sector partners to achieve the shared vision and aims of the strategy. We acknowledge that continuing political leadership is crucial to the effective implementation of this strategy, and we will continue to give the leadership and drive forward this important agenda. Much wider than this, however, is the need to have a collaborative approach across society: everyone in society has a role in progressing this work, and everyone can make a contribution to achieving positive good relations outcomes and to building a united, shared and reconciled community.
Mr Campbell: The deputy First Minister indicated that everyone has a role to play, and that is welcome. How does he feel, while trying to show forward thinking and leadership to bring the community together, about the former terrorist who, when questioned by police in the Republic on Friday, followed his lead by declining to give any information about a person, still alive, who had been involved in the Birmingham pub bombs — given that the deputy First Minister took exactly the same stance when he was in the box at the Saville inquiry by refusing to name anyone involved in terrorism with him?
Mr M McGuinness: Sometimes, I think that this particular Member does not understand that he is asking a question of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I am here to answer on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I do not believe that his question is in any way appropriate.
Mr Campbell: It is like you to refuse to answer the question.
Mr Speaker: Order. I call Mr Chris Lyttle.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Why, three years on from the publication of the Together: Building a United Community strategy, has the Department failed to introduce an enhanced good relations impact assessment for all Executive policies to ensure sharing over separation in all policies?
Mr M McGuinness: Huge progress is being made on the Together: Building a United Community policy strategy. The very substantial funds that we have allocated over five years are a clear indicator of our absolute belief in the need to ensure that good relations is regarded as a priority for the Executive. On the particular strategy that the Member mentioned, the delivery mechanisms that are now in place under the auspices of the ministerial panel are about putting in place not just the pilot projects but the very proactive structures and strategies that are required to ensure the ongoing bringing together of our community. If there is a particular aspect of that that concerns the Member, we are quite willing to meet him and discuss it.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What is the funding situation with the implementation of this strategy?
Mr M McGuinness: In my earlier answers, I clearly indicated that very substantial funds are available for the programme. Building a United Community represents a key building block of the Programme for Government. In recognition of this, £10 million revenue funding was made available in the 2015-16 Budget to aid implementation of the strategy, supplementing other good relations funding provided by OFMDFM. In addition, £1·27 million of capital funding was secured to enable Departments to progress work on the headline actions. Following ministerial approval of proposals, the subsequent allocations enabled officials to progress with the headline actions as well as various funding programmes.
As I indicated, the recent Fresh Start Agreement committed to the provision of £60 million over five years in support of the Executive's delivery of confidence- and relationship-building measures within and between communities contributing to the creation of a shared future. We are working with other Departments to identify their financial requirements, which will enable consideration in 2016-17 of proposed allocations of the £12 million available to us.
Mr Dallat: As Building a United Community is the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I hope that the children were all safely in their classrooms and did not hear the exchanges between Mr Campbell and the deputy First Minister. Does the deputy First Minister agree that this is the most serious subject, because children are our greatest asset, and the present generation do not deserve to be lured into the terrible deeds of the past? Does he also agree that summer camps on their own are only a beginning and that much more needs to be done?
Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely agree with the Member about the importance of the strategy. I agree that the huge priority in all this is the future of our young people. In the Assembly today, we have had young people involved in politics from three schools: two in Enniskillen and one in Omagh. Some of them were here for the early stages of this session. The Member is absolutely right. All of us have a duty and a responsibility to recognise the importance of building a better future. Unfortunately, a tiny number of Members are only really interested in recrimination and are not interested in reconciliation. That is very sad.
I spoke about this at the weekend at the Kinsale Peace Project in County Cork in a hugely well-attended conversation between me and people who are interested in what is happening here, particularly in the peace process. During that engagement, a man stepped forward and informed the audience that he is a former member of the Grenadier Guards. He was very generous in his remarks, and we shook hands. Encouragement comes from the fact that many people in our society were previously at odds with one another but recognise the need to be involved in this sort of work. The others, we can leave behind.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.
North-west Ministerial Subgroup
T1. Mr Diver asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given today’s OECD findings, which, unfortunately, indicate that some of our students are struggling with literacy and numeracy, and given the particular level of disadvantage suffered in the north-west and in the Foyle constituency, which is not immune to the skills challenge, why the north-west ministerial subgroup, which has been tasked with dealing with disadvantage in the north-west area, has met only on two occasions, the second of which was a meeting that was called with 24-hours’ notice, and to state what he hopes the subgroup will achieve in 2016. (AQT 3401/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: There have been, as the Member said, two meetings of the ministerial subgroup that came about as a result of a conversation between the previous First Minister and me. The present First Minister has clearly shown her intention to continue what is important work. Last year was very much taken up by negotiations, and that presented a huge difficulty. However, action has flowed from the conversations that took place, and that resulted in an allocation of £130 million in the recent Budget for improvements to the A6, which was a big demand in the north-west. Funds were also put aside for the first stage of the A5. There have been important conversations in recent times about how we can advance the situation in Magee university. That is without mentioning the fact that hundreds of millions are being spent on turning Altnagelvin into a state-of-the-art hospital for the north-west. What disappointed me about the events of the latter part of last year was the fact that the SDLP voted against the Budget that allocated those funds for the north-west. The SDLP needs to explain that.
Mr Diver: I will take the deputy First Minister's answer in relation to the other matters that he listed, but it did not address the point that I made about disadvantage and the lack of skills among our young people. It is a matter of very serious concern. I would like to know what the Executive will do to battle that.
Mr M McGuinness: The Member does a disservice to schools in the north-west and the city where he lives. I am proud that I was the Minister who took the decision to build the new St Mary's Primary School, the new St Cecilia's College and the new St Patrick's Primary School in Derry. They are first-class schools, as are all the other schools in the area. They provide first-class — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr M McGuinness: People can heckle from the sidelines if they want, but I work on the basis that the people heckling really do not want to hear the answer, which is that huge progress is being made, with first-class schools being provided for the people of Derry and the north-west.
On skills, we need to do work in relation to Magee university, and great work is happening at the North West Regional College even as we speak. We need to ensure that people have the skills so that, when we are successful in bringing in foreign direct investment, we have people with the ability to take up those vital jobs.
Brexit Referendum: June/September
T2. Mr Ross asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, following speculation over the weekend that the Prime Minister is likely to look at a referendum on the European in-out question in early June, whether they share the concern that an early European referendum, rather than one in September, could cause difficulties with the Assembly election, given the possible danger of confusing the two messages. (AQT 3402/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely share that concern. It is obvious that we are not the only people concerned about that. I listened — I think that it was last weekend — to the First Minister of Scotland expressing her disagreement with such a referendum being held in such close proximity to their elections. It is an important matter, but even more important is what will be put to people in that referendum. Over the next, probably, two days, further important meetings will take place between David Cameron and senior representatives of the European Union, the outcome of which will probably decide what will be put to a referendum. It is no secret to anybody that I have huge concerns that the strategy that has been adopted by David Cameron is sleepwalking all of us into an exit from Europe.
Mr Ross: The debate around our membership of the European Union is important, and, in order to make sure that we have a proper debate, it is important that we have enough space between the Assembly election and the European referendum. What discussions has OFMDFM had with other devolved regions across the United Kingdom or, indeed, our national Government on the timing of the referendum and whether there is scope for negotiation on a September date rather than a June date?
Mr M McGuinness: The point made by the Member is important. Up until now, although there have been conversations, because of the inability to work out exactly when the referendum will be, it has been difficult to zero in on how we take things forward. On account of it being flagged up that there could be a referendum in June, it is important that the First Minister and I engage with David Cameron and others, including the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, about the issue.
It is all on public record. The First Minister of Scotland has put it on public record, and it will come as no surprise to anybody that we share concerns about the close proximity of a referendum to the Assembly elections. We have not even dealt with the arguments on the merits of staying in or leaving. One thing we all need to bear in mind is how it could economically affect us in the North, particularly when you have, for example, the Confederation of British Industry in the North saying that over 90% of its members are against an exit.
Brexit: Financial Implications
T3. Mr G Kelly asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to expand on the financial implications of Britain exiting the European Union, given that this region is a net beneficiary of the EU. (AQT 3403/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: The financial implications are absolutely massive for us, not least for our farming community. The North of Ireland is a net beneficiary of the European Union. We have received significant support from the EU through a number of funding programmes to which, in the event of a Brexit, we would no longer have access. They include structural and regional development funds, comprising the European regional development fund, the European social fund, INTERREG and the Peace IV programme, which are worth €982 million over the period 2014-2020. Loss of that funding would be severely detrimental to society here and would be devastating for our local economy.
We would also lose access to funding under the common agricultural policy, which is worth approximately €2·5 billion in the 2014-2020 period. That represents a massive investment in the sector. We all recognise the importance of the agriculture sector to our economy and our rural communities, and CAP funding has been vital to its sustained growth and development for years. Furthermore, there is the potential loss of access to competitive EU funding, which, in the period 2011-12 to 2014-15, amounted to over €95 million. That would be a huge blow, particularly to the business sector and research and development, which are central to developing the economy.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an LeasChéad-Aire as a fhreagra go dtí seo. I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Given what he said, does he feel that the British Government have kept the devolved regions up to date on the negotiations and involved them in them?
Mr M McGuinness: I cannot say that they have. My answer to the previous question addressed the issue; the British Government have informed but not involved or consulted OFMDFM on their negotiations on EU membership.
That is probably true of Scotland and of Wales.
Mental Health Spending: Barnett Consequential
T4. Mr Nesbitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the £1 billion of spending to enhance mental health services in England, which was announced by the Prime Minister three weeks ago, has a Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland. (AQT 3404/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: If he made the announcement in the context of it being for England, we need to explore whether it will have a Barnett consequential for us. I have no doubt that when such announcements are made the Department of Finance and Personnel will explore how we can benefit from them.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the deputy First Minister. As he said to Mrs McKevitt a few minutes ago, he has an "overarching" responsibility for the working of the Executive. It is on that basis that I asked that question and that I ask the follow-up question: will he support me in saying that if there is a Barnett consequential that money should be ring-fenced for mental health provision in Northern Ireland? I ask that because, while it is fine to build roads, create jobs and enhance skills, it is meaningless for the one in four of us who suffers from poor mental health and well-being, because of the debilitating nature of the illness.
Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely agree with the Member: if there is a Barnett consequential flowing out of that announcement, I believe that it should be ring-fenced, because I accept, absolutely, the argument that he has made consistently about the need to vastly improve our services to those who are affected by poor mental health.
Social Investment Fund: UUP Proposals
T5. Mr I McCrea asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, if we had taken on board the Ulster Unionist Party’s suggestions as part of its Budget proposals for the last financial year, which were to use up the money from the social investment fund, we would have been able to deliver the projects that we have been able to deliver. (AQT 3405/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: Rather than focusing on what other people do, whether in relation to a party voting against the Budget, or parties not voting against the Budget but uttering criticisms of it, we prefer to focus on what we are doing: constructively and positively delivering for communities. Of course, the social investment fund has a bottom-up approach, in which local communities identify their priorities. We have been happy to go with that. There have been criticisms in the House about delay, but the delay is about getting it right. These are huge amounts of money, and we need to be sure that they are being spent properly in the interests of all of our people.
You can clearly see from the projects that are being rolled out that they are having, and will have, a very positive effect in communities. I remember an SDLP Member for West Belfast, at the beginning, when the social investment fund was being spoken about, trying to make out that it was a slush fund for paramilitaries. I think that the working out of all of this, and the very careful nature of how it is dealt with, has proven that statement to be totally and absolutely wrong. The social investment fund is bringing, and will continue to bring, huge benefits to local communities. It is they who have made the decisions, and all the projects that have been put forward thus far are highly creditable.
Mr Speaker: Ian McCrea for a very quick supplementary.
Mr I McCrea: Obviously, the £1·4 million investment from the social investment fund into my constituency is something that I welcome. I take it from the deputy First Minister's answer that he does not want to get into the, "He said, she said" aspect of those who were for and against it. Does the deputy First Minister believe that those who would oppose such a measure, or who intend or propose an alternative use for it, are, in essence, saying that they do not believe that these projects are good projects and that the Executive should re-prioritise their Budget?
Mr M McGuinness: There has been criticism from the party that the Member has identified. I think that that criticism was wrong-headed. Clearly, these projects, whether in mid-Ulster or elsewhere, will bring enormous benefits to local communities. It ill behoves anybody in the House to try to undermine projects that we are funding on foot of communities having identified for us developments in their areas which would bring them enormous benefits.
Structural Maintenance Resurfacing
1. Ms Ruane asked the Minister for Regional Development for her estimate of the level of structural maintenance resurfacing in the 2015-16 year. (AQO 9508/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen (The Minister for Regional Development): As the House may be aware, structural maintenance includes structural drainage, patching and surface dressing as well as resurfacing. I can advise the Member that, in respect of resurfacing, the current projected expenditure for 2015-16 is estimated at just over £21 million. It has been a challenging year for capital funding for resurfacing compared with previous years, and it is an area where I have had discussions with industry representatives to listen to their concerns.
I sought and obtained additional funding for structural maintenance in the November monitoring round. The Executive allocated an additional £5 million. I am aware that this was very much welcomed by the construction industry. The overall structural maintenance budget for 2015-16 is estimated to out-turn at around £44 million against the independently assessed requirement of £141 million. That is a significant shortfall for this year, but has to be seen in the context of an investment of £454 million over the last four years. I would like to assure the Member that I will continue to make strong bids for additional structural maintenance funds at every opportunity.
Ms Ruane: I am very concerned about the Minister's answer. As she will be aware, the annual average is £70 million, so there is an enormous gap. Obviously, that has led to deterioration of the roads. I would just like to let the Minister know that the Tamnaharry Hill road in Hilltown has subsided. I would welcome an update — in writing, if she does not have the answer today — on when it will be dealt with.
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, the structural maintenance budget for 2016-17 is estimated to start at some £46 million. Compared with 2015-16, that is a much better starting place than where we were last year. While I appreciate the Member's concerns, I hope that she understands that I share those concerns about investment and will continue to call for additional money to be spent on the roads infrastructure. She has been very specific in relation to the Hilltown area. I will write to her with regard to that scheme.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. While there has been a welcome improvement in Transport NI's dealing with street lighting and potholes in north Down, there is obviously still quite a considerable backlog with regard to potholes. What is Transport NI's inspection process for potholes and the criteria that would apply for roads services?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. My Department does have a duty of care to maintain all public roads in a reasonable condition. Irrespective of budgetary constraints, the Department still has been trying to meet that legislative requirement. Transport NI regularly inspects all road networks and defects are prioritised for repair depending on their severity. Earlier in the year, although roads were still being inspected as normal and defects prioritised for repair at that stage, there has been a build-up of a considerable backlog, as the Member said, of patching and other routine maintenance works.
Thankfully, as part of November monitoring, I sought and was successful in securing the additional £50 million of resource, which was prioritised by the Executive for road maintenance. That has allowed external contractors to be re-employed in many areas. I am hopeful that Members will actually see that work is being carried out quite quickly in their areas — certainly much more quickly than before. I am keen for the public to see the difference quickly, but I also ask for understanding from Members with regard to the fact that there has been a backlog.
Mr Dallat: Far be it from me to suggest that we are going back into the Dark Ages when those wonderful Roman roads all but disappeared due to lack of maintenance, but the situation is now so radical and so serious that some roads are not due for resurfacing for 102 years. Does the Minister agree with me that, for the sake of the ratepayers, taxpayers and contractors, there has to be a new approach to how we maintain our roads?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I am of the same mind in that a stitch in time saves nine, and we should look after the roads that are currently part of our infrastructure. There has been a major consequence of reduced funding, and maintenance costs are likely to increase the longer we leave our roads without increasing the amount of patching and so forth. I am of a similar vein to where the Member is with regard to that. I see that as a priority, and it will continue to be a priority for me while I am in the Department. I will certainly be lobbying for additional moneys if and when they become available.
Mr Speaker: Before we move on, I inform Members that question 7 has been withdrawn.
Sea Defences: Antrim Coast Road
2. Mr Lyons asked the Minister for Regional Development what action her Department has taken to prevent landslide risk and improve sea defences along the Antrim Coast Road. (AQO 9509/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I can advise that, over the past five years, extensive maintenance work has been undertaken to prevent landslides and rockfalls and to improve sea defences along the A2 Antrim Coast Road. In the last two years, Transport NI has delivered a £950,000 structural maintenance programme to repair and strengthen sea defences and minimise landside risk. The required work had been identified following detailed inspections by Transport NI staff. As you will be aware, in a recent visit to the area, I witnessed the ongoing challenges faced by my Department through storm damage and coastal erosion. I was also able to see at first hand the crucial engineering works that are being carried out to address the engineering problems and maintain the integrity of that key route.
In light of the severe storms and heavy rainfall this winter, a further detailed inspection of the sea defences and slopes will be undertaken this spring with a view to identifying further work and funding required along that strategic part of our road network. In the meantime, Transport NI engineers will continue to monitor the road closely and will carry out temporary and/or permanent repairs as appropriate in a bid to keep that vital transport corridor open.
Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for her answer. She will be aware of how important the coast road is to the promotion and development of tourism in the wider east Antrim area. She obviously notes its importance as a route, so, further to her answer, can she give more detail on the nature of the structural maintenance that has taken place and outline what areas specifically are most at risk of landslide?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I can advise that the majority of the work entails strengthening of the sea defences or construction of new sea defences where existing structures were damaged beyond repair. Other work includes the construction of landslide-retaining walls at Glenarm, soil nailing of slopes at Carnlough and construction of new roadside parapet walls in the vicinity of Ballygalley.
With regard to areas at risk, I am advised by officials that, due to the soil conditions along the A2 coast road, it is extremely difficult to predict where or when a slope may fail and cause a landslide. Efforts are being focused on active areas where slides that affect the road occur, and remedial works are undertaken to minimise further deposits affecting the road in future. Unfortunately, with the current levels of rainfall, slopes are susceptible and there could be failures. Those are inevitable, and they may present future funding issues for my Department. I recently visited the area and am very conscious of the challenges there. I pay tribute to the engineers who work very hard to keep that road open and to keep it safe.
Mr Beggs: If additional work is required, improving the sea defences along the coast road could involve a range of agencies: the Department of the Environment in planning; the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in the environment; the Rivers Agency at river mouths; and the Department itself has responsibility for roads. Whether it involves protecting the public road or private property that is being endangered, how can all those groups be coordinated to allow speedy decisions to be made and speedy results to emerge so that the necessary work, by Roads Service or to a private property that needs additional defences, can occur?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He will understand that I, too, represent a coastal constituency and am very aware of the issues. Sometimes, putting in defences is not necessarily the right thing, and there may be alternatives.
He will be aware that I coordinated a group before Christmas. I brought together representatives from councils, the Rivers Agency and the National Trust to discuss exactly what he described. It is about looking towards a lead Department, which, until this point, has been absent in this place. The conversations are ongoing, and I hope to have another meeting within the next few weeks to set in place a strategy for the incoming Minister to take forward. I accept the point that he made. The issue is being recognised and, hopefully, can be dealt with.
A5: Draft Order
3. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Regional Development when she will agree the draft order to enable the A5 project to advance to its next stage. (AQO 9510/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: The Member will be aware that included in the Fresh Start Agreement is a commitment by the Executive to advance the A5 western transport corridor project. The Irish Government have made a commitment to contribute £75 million match funding towards the project. That funding commitment is intended to ensure that, subject to the successful completion of statutory procedures, construction of the New Buildings to Strabane section can commence in 2017, with an estimated completion date of 2019.
In December, I invited landowners to meet me. That was an open and frank discussion, and I have since followed up on concerns that they raised. Work on the new draft statutory orders and environmental statement is now complete. The next step is their publication, and I hope to make an announcement on that shortly.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answer. I understand that signing off the draft orders will trigger a six-week public consultation. I know from questions to your predecessor that there will be public exhibitions on the back of that. Can the Minister give us any clarity on when those will be signed off and when the six-week consultation will start?
Miss M McIlveen: The Member will be aware that I have been doing considerable work on this. That is in addition to the announcement that I am looking to introduce a land acquisition and compensation Bill to assist landowners as we move through the process. That, accompanied by work that I have been doing in relation to land agents, is part of the preparation that I wanted to complete before moving on to any announcement. I am hopeful that an announcement will be made quite shortly.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for her answers. I welcome the article in 'Farming Life' at the weekend that referred to enhanced compensation for those losing their land to vesting. I welcome that announcement, but why was this or something like it not announced or done sooner in this mandate?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. To be honest, I cannot answer that, other than to say that I really do not know. Since coming into post, I have made it my business to have conversations to see what the issues have been with the A5 and A6. As I said in answer to a previous question, I met land agents, who highlighted a number of concerns, one of which was about land acquisition and compensation.
I have sought and am seeking Executive approval on the introduction of a land acquisition and compensation Bill. I will be seeking accelerated passage for this Bill to bring compensation levels into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly England and Wales, around compulsory land purchase. This is a clear anomaly, and I want to ensure that landowners in Northern Ireland are treated fairly and equitably. That is the purpose of the request around this Bill.
Mr McCrossan: Will the Minister agree that there is a serious legacy issue relating to infrastructure in the north-west? What additional funding or financial backing will be allocated beyond this point, given that the draft Budget for 2016-2021 does not allow for major investment in infrastructure in the north-west?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question, although I am a wee bit perplexed by it given that the flagship projects for the A5 and the A6 have recently been announced in the Budget statement. This will significantly help the connectivity around the north-west. If the Member has other projects that he thinks would be of significance and would assist with all of this, I am more than content to meet him to discuss his concerns.
Mr Allister: With eight miles of this stage having to be constructed through a floodplain, why is her Department not able to say how much that will add to the cost of this project? Does cost not matter when it comes to this project? Is cost only an inhibitor when it comes to fixing our potholes?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, cost does matter. In relation to this particular scheme, a considerable amount of work and research has been undertaken to find the appropriate route. Once the announcements are made, the Member will see what that is.
Belfast Bicycle Network
4. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the Belfast bicycle network. (AQO 9511/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: The Member will be aware of my recent announcement about three bicycle routes in Belfast that are under construction. Work started on these last week, and Members who have been in the city centre may have seen the activity in Alfred Street. I expect these to be completed by Easter. These routes will link existing cycle tracks from the west and south of the city to the city centre and will provide greater protection for people who choose to make journeys in the city by bicycle. The schemes will also support the successful Belfast bike share scheme and help more people gain the confidence to use the bicycle as an enjoyable sustainable mode of transport. For example, the Alfred Street scheme will link the two docking stations at the Gasworks with the docking station behind Clarence Court in Alfred Street and the docking station in Arthur Street.
These schemes are three of the five schemes consulted on last summer. Designs for the other two schemes, which will link the east of the city to the city centre, are still being considered, taking account of comments from the information days held as part of the consultation process. Those schemes will complete a 2·5-kilometre route from the Westlink shared foot and cycle way through the city centre to Titanic Quarter station and on to the Ballymacarrett Walkway, the Connswater Community Greenway and the Comber greenway.
Mr Lyttle: I warmly welcome the investment that the Minister has outlined. Adequate investment is essential to delivering safe cycle routes in Northern Ireland. The DRD cycle strategy aims for £10 to be spent per person, and the DRD/Sustrans Bike Life report shows that Belfast residents support a £25 per person spend on cycling. Given that the spend in 2014-15 was £4 per person and in 2015-16 is £3 per person, does the Minister think that that is an adequate level of investment? What will her allocation be for cycling in the 2016-17 budget?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, I have been quite active, in the short period that I have been Minister, in relation to cycling, and I hope to continue that in the coming weeks. This year, it is anticipated that the Department will spend £2·4 million on cycling. This includes expenditure on the Active School Travel programme. In 2014-15, a total of £7·5 million was spent on cycling. That included quite a significant amount of capital for active travel demonstration projects. Other Departments also contribute to the spend on cycling. It is very difficult, then, to calculate exactly how much there is from the Executive overall.
I am aware of Sustrans's manifesto and plans. You will be aware that my Department is undertaking to develop a bicycle network plan for Belfast that will guide the development of infrastructure around the city for the next 10 years. I also have plans for a greenway strategy, and I am hopeful that any incoming Minister will see the benefits of both those plans when allocating funding.
Mr Douglas: I welcome the Minister's answers today. Since the 2014 Giro d'Italia, there has been a big increase in cycling. Will the Minister outline what steps her Department is taking to promote and foster cycling in east Belfast?
Miss M McIlveen: All politics is, obviously, local. The Giro d'Italia was a wonderful showcase event that focused on a remarkable interest in cycling, not just in east Belfast but across Northern Ireland. Cycling is, of course, an important, healthy and sustainable way of travelling for everyday purposes. As I have said, to support and promote the growth of cycling, we are taking forward elements of the 2015 bicycle strategy, which includes a number of flagship schemes in Belfast city centre, the development of the Belfast bicycle network plan and the strategic plan for greenways. Those are all very relevant to east Belfast where we have seen the development of a number of excellent greenways, which I am keen to improve and extend, where possible. I am particularly keen that the Comber greenway joins the Connswater Community Greenway as a first-class facility.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister give an update on the usage rates of bicycles in the Belfast scheme?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I am delighted to say that there have been 150,000 journeys to date through the bike share programme, and that is in just nine months. I am also really pleased that the Belfast Trust and Belfast City Council are working to further expand Belfast bikes across three Belfast hospital sites. I understand that a decision on those schemes is due to be taken at the council today, and they are expected to be in place by Easter 2016. It should include a link from the Royal Victoria Hospital site into Belfast city centre, and that will give people more confidence to be able to make journeys by bicycle. I think that the announcement is very timely given the ongoing works that my Department is undertaking in order to provide a safer space for bicycles in the city centre.
A6: Dungiven Bypass
5. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister for Regional Development following the commencement of the Moneynick section of the A6, will the Dungiven bypass be her next priority. (AQO 9512/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: The A6 Londonderry to Dungiven dualling scheme, which includes a bypass of Dungiven, is well advanced in its development. It has been through a public inquiry, and the inspector has produced a report embracing various recommendations. My officials have prepared a report addressing the recommendations arising from the public inquiry and are reviewing the extent of the scheme, which can be built with the funding allocated in the December 2015 Budget statement. Once I have received those reports and considered them in full, I will make a decision on how the scheme should proceed.
The indicative allocations for the 2017-18 to 2020-21 period will allow my Department to construct elements of the A6 Londonderry to Dungiven scheme, which will include a bypass of Dungiven. Subject to making statutory orders, approval of the final business case and successful procurement, it is possible that the first phase of the Londonderry to Dungiven scheme could commence in the latter part of 2018-19.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for that and, indeed, for the commitment to address the issues coming from the public inquiry, but I am probably going to pursue this a bit harder.
Will she provide any more detail on timelines? I think specifically about the Dungiven-Claudy, Claudy-Drumahoe and Drumahoe-Maydown sections.
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question and for her perseverance. At this stage, I cannot give any specific timeline, other than to say that any announcement will include the Dungiven bypass. I am hopeful that an announcement on the scheme will be made in the coming weeks, once I have received all the final reports and been able to set in place a timescale for delivery.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister agree that the completion of the much-needed road project will enhance the tourist and economic potential of this large area of Northern Ireland, including smaller towns such as Magherafelt, Dungiven and Limavady?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I am conscious of the areas that he represents. It is a key corridor, and the scheme has been on the cards for a long time. I feel privileged to be in a position in which I will be able to make an announcement shortly and to see the area open up and be able to fulfil its tourist potential.
Mr Diver: I thank the Minister for her responses so far. Does she agree that it is shocking and bitterly disappointing that we are still discussing the issue half a century after the initial decision was made to bypass Dungiven?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I share his frustration — probably not quite as much, as the area is not in my constituency — but I have travelled that road many times to see its condition and the time it takes to get to Londonderry through Dungiven, and I share his concerns. However, as I said, I should be able to make an announcement on it very shortly.
Mrs Overend: Will the Minister provide an update on her Department's work with landowners on the Moneynick section of the A6? Do any outstanding disagreements need to be resolved? What action is in place for that?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I understand that officials are liaising with landowners, but, if there is something of a particular nature that, the Member feels, needs to be resolved, I am more than content to meet her and the said landowners.
Structural Maintenance Underspend
6. Mr Milne asked the Minister for Regional Development for her assessment of the Quarry Products Association's assertion that the £97 million underspend on structural maintenance in 2015 has cost the local economy a further £122·2 million and 650 jobs. (AQO 9513/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I am acutely aware of the pressures facing the local industry as a result of budgetary pressures on capital funding for structural maintenance. I met a delegation from the Quarry Products Association on 30 November to discuss the impacts that budget pressures are having on jobs, the loss of skills in the industry, the need to work across the water and the impact that that has on families.
You will appreciate that I have been in this role for a relatively short time, but I have been active in that time. Structural maintenance is one of my highest priorities, although I am conscious, as I am sure the Member is, that there are many competing priorities at departmental and Executive level. The structural maintenance budget for 2015-16 is estimated at £44 million, leaving a shortfall of £97 million when compared with the independently assessed annual funding requirement. However, that has to be seen in the context of a £454 million investment over the last four years.
I do not doubt that budgetary pressures are impacting on jobs. I met the Minister of Finance to discuss the funding arrangements for structural maintenance. It has to be recognised that the Executive have invested in many high-profile capital road projects over a number of years, which has been a significant boost for the local industry. I am pleased to say that the starting position for structural maintenance in 2016-17 that was announced in the recent Budget is £46 million. I will continue to make strong bids for additional funds as we move through the process.
Mr Speaker: Thank you. I am afraid that we are out of time for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions.
Rail Link: Belfast International Airport
T1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister for Regional Development for her assessment of the prospect of a rail link to Belfast International Airport. (AQT 3411/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I imagine that he is talking about the Knockmore to Antrim branch line, which is maintained by Translink.
The DRD investment prioritisation strategy for Northern Ireland, which was published in May 2014, sets out a vision for future railways over the next 20 years. There is obviously an economic benefit relating to the Antrim to Knockmore line, and there are opportunities to establish a rail link to Belfast International Airport, although my understanding is that the usage of the airport would need to increase to around 10 million passengers to make that rail link viable. I suppose that, in some ways, it is aspirational, but if we were able to open such a line again it would be seen as very positive for Northern Ireland.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. The economic case for reopening the Knockmore line, with the link from the Dublin line to the north of the country and the airport, is fairly obvious, although it would be expensive. Does she not agree with me that Ryanair coming to Belfast International Airport will obviously produce a major uplift in the number of passengers? Do we really need to wait until we have 10 million plus one passengers before we do something about it, or can we not anticipate what is liable to happen in the next few years?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Sustainability is obviously key in everything that we do, particularly in relation to our public transport routes. You need only speak to colleagues in East Antrim about the Larne line and Members from Newry about the services that they have. We need to look at cost. That is also key to where we are. The Member also needs to be aware that we have a very good bus link from the international airport to the city centre.
Park-and-ride Facility: Portadown
T2. Mr Anderson asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the proposed park-and-ride facility in Portadown, along with the potential costings for the project. (AQT 3412/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Translink has appointed a design team that has very advanced plans for a 340-space park-and-ride facility beside the rail station in Portadown. Several very successful meetings have been held between Translink and Transport NI, which owns the site. I have met other Members about this, and our next step is a pre-planning meeting with the council, in the hope that a planning application will be put in place somewhere in mid-2016, with the project commencing somewhere around 2016-17.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her answer. Are any other park-and-ride facilities proposed for the Upper Bann area?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I meant to say that the cost of the project in Portadown is in the region of £3 million. I understand that areas in and around Lurgan and Banbridge are also being considered for park-and-ride facilities. Those are obviously in his constituency.
York Street Interchange: Update
T3. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the York Street interchange project. (AQT 3413/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. My officials are reviewing the inspector's report on the public inquiry into the scheme that was held towards the end of last year. I have not been updated on that at this stage, but I hope to receive that very quickly, hopefully in advance of going into purdah, so that we can make a decision on the way forward. I expect that to be with me in the next few weeks. Subject to a satisfactory outcome, the notice to proceed and the designation order will be published.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire le haghaidh a freagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer. Is this project eligible for TEN-T funding or any other EU funding?
Miss M McIlveen: I understand that the interchange scheme has already received £1·2 million of EU funding as part of the development and is one of very few schemes to be pre-identified for future funding. The proposed construction programme of November 2017 to December 2020 aligns the funding profile expected for the next call. Therefore, the scheme will be in a pretty good place to have a good strong bid. The project lies on the North Sea/Mediterranean corridor in the TEN-T network. Officials have successfully negotiated for the interchange's inclusion as a pre-identified project in the corridor work plan.
Enniskillen Bypass: Update
T4. Ms McGahan asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the Enniskillen bypass. (AQT 3414/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: The preferred alignment for the A4 Enniskillen southern bypass was published in June 2015. Further progression of the project, through the statutory procedures to construction, are dependent on the availability of finance. Should finance become available, it would take around 18 months to two years before work could start. So it is still some time off.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Does the Minister agree with me that, following the capital funding for the A5 and the A6, it is vital that this bypass becomes a priority?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Minister for her question. Obviously, this matter is a priority in Fermanagh. However, the pace of the development of all major road schemes is very much dependent on financial resources and, at this time, the Executive's priority is being given to the A5, A8, A6, A26 and the Magherafelt bypass. So, while it is a priority, it has other projects ahead of it.
Roads: Flood Damage
T5. Ms Ruane asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on her Department’s plan to deal with roads damaged by flooding in South Down, given the severe weather conditions, the lack of investment and the deteriorating effect that that is having on our roads. (AQT 3415/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. The severe weather has taken its toll on all our roads, not just those in South Down. We have a duty to keep all public roads in reasonable condition, and, despite budgetary constraints, the Department has been trying its hardest to keep roads open and in good condition. I ask the Member to contact me if there are particular roads in her constituency that she feels need to be attended to. I will certainly look into it and give her a response.
Ms Ruane: I thank the Minister for her response. I certainly will write and let you know the names of the roads. I told you of one earlier: the Tamnaharry Hill road in Hilltown. Can the Minister outline how much of the £1 million earmarked for flood-hit roads will be spent in the South Down constituency.
Miss M McIlveen: At this time, the priority has been in Fermanagh and in areas around the A1 and Portadown. I will get back to you about South Down.
Derry to Coleraine Rail Line: Completion
T6. Mr McCartney asked the Minister for Regional Development whether she has a completion date for phase 2 of the Derry to Coleraine line, including the halt at Bellarena, which featured on a Radio Foyle news broadcast this morning. (AQT 3416/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I visited the halt at Bellarena to see the progress on it. I understand that it is on schedule to be substantially completed by the end of this year.
Mr McCartney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer and for visiting the site. Having seen that work, does she have an update on progress on phase 3 and the sort of capital investment that will be required for it?
Miss M McIlveen: My understanding is that phase 3 will take place in and around 2020 or 2021. The project would have to be established in order to take phase 3 forward, and it would be after phase 2 is complete. That is still on the cards to be looked at.
Woodburn Forest: Exploratory Drilling
T7. Mr Ross asked the Minister for Regional Development, given that she will be aware that DETI has granted an exploratory drilling licence for Woodburn forest in the East Antrim constituency, where Northern Ireland Water owns a portion of the land, what plans are in place to allow that exploratory drilling to take place. (AQT 3417/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Northern Ireland Water owns the land at Woodburn forest, and it has agreed to lease a small portion of the forest for the drilling of the well. This work will be undertaken by an independent company under a licence, which, as the Member said, has been awarded by DETI. Planning functions, as he is aware, transferred to local government with effect from 1 April 2015, and the issues of permitted development rights and any requests for a certificate of lawful use of development are the responsibility of the local council planning department. In this instance, the council responsible is Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. I understand that all work will be subject to the approval and agreement of the council, DETI, and DARD's Forest Service, which owns the trees and manages the land as a forest.
Mr Ross: The Minister will be aware that any time drilling is involved, there is, quite rightly, concern among the public around safety issues, particularly around water supplies. Has she assessed whether there is any risk to the water supply following on from the exploratory drilling?
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. My understanding is that the exploration project at Woodburn has been designed to prevent liquids on site from soaking into the ground below it, thereby protecting the local water courses and ensuring that there will be no adverse impact on the Woodburn river and the dam's catchment. Northern Ireland Water, as the licensed public drinking water provider, has a duty under drinking water quality legislation to assess all potential risks to drinking water sources in the catchments and to put in place appropriate sampling and, where required, any possible mitigation measures. Northern Ireland Water has advised that it is satisfied that the proposed work will have no detrimental impact on the impounding reservoirs or the public water supply.
Blue Badges: Application Delays
T8. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister for Regional Development, given that she will be aware of the considerable delays felt by new applicants and those who are renewing their applications to the blue badge scheme, whether current badge holders who are awaiting renewal can use their outdated badge. (AQT 3418/11-16)
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I am more than aware of the issues around delays in processing blue badges. The blue badge unit has been given additional staff to help deal with the backlog of applications, and I am pleased to say that the backlog has reduced quite considerably from over 8,000 applications to 4,602 at present. Staff are dealing with assessed applications that were received in early December 2015 and the automatic eligibility applications that were received on 30 December 2015. At present, the new application can be completed online. I also want to assure the Member that my understanding is that those badges are still valid while the new badges are being processed.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for her answer. She has, more or less, answered my supplementary question. I just wanted some details on how the new scheme will be rolled out, and the time frames for it.
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. A project is ongoing to modernise the blue badge application process, and that is similar to the system that is available in the rest of the United Kingdom. This should make the application process much easier and less susceptible to fraud, and it will make all aspects of application easier with regard to renewal and duplicate requests being available online. This is all good news moving forward.
Mr Speaker: Mr Daithí McKay is not in his place, and nor is Mr Sammy Douglas. I congratulate the Minister on a very busy and brisk Question Time; well done. The House will take its ease while we wait for the next Minister. Thank you.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill dealing with enforcement of the estate agents legislation.
The Housing and Planning Bill was introduced in Parliament on 13 October 2015 by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The overall purpose of the Bill is to make changes to the law in England and Wales concerning housing, rent charges, planning and compulsory purchase. In addition, the Bill was considered to be a suitable legislative vehicle to introduce changes that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills considered necessary to make to the UK-wide Estate Agents Act 1979, which I will refer to as the 1979 Act. These changes relate only to the 1979 Act’s enforcement responsibilities.
Before outlining these changes, I will give a brief history of these enforcement responsibilities and provide some information on the scope of the 1979 Act’s provisions. The 1979 Act is largely limited to regulating the activities of estate agents in selling property on behalf of their clients. When it was enacted, the then Office of Fair Trading — the OFT, as it was commonly known — had certain responsibilities under the 1979 Act, most notably the power to ban unfit persons from carrying out estate agency work.
The 1979 Act also contained other enforcement responsibilities that were carried out by local authority trading standards departments within their respective areas in Great Britain and by my Department in Northern Ireland. The responsibilities falling to trading standards departments include requirements relating to the handling of clients’ moneys, and ensuring that requirements to provide vendors with certain information are complied with. Essentially, all complaints about estate agents under the 1979 Act were investigated and assessed by trading standards departments, who referred the most serious complaints to the OFT to consider, with a view to warning or banning an estate agent. In 2007 the OFT was given additional responsibilities following the amendment of the 1979 Act by the passing of the Consumer, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007. These amendments gave the OFT powers to approve consumer redress schemes for complaints concerning estate agents, and the power to require estate agents to join such a redress scheme.
In 2011 the UK Government consulted on proposals to reform the consumer protection landscape in Great Britain. These proposals included a review of the OFT’s functions under the 1979 Act and, in particular, whether these functions could be more effectively carried out by a trading standards department. The responses to this consultation supported the proposal to transfer the OFT responsibilities under the 1979 Act to a trading standards department. Consequently, in 2014, the UK government decided to appoint Powys County Council as the lead enforcement authority for the 1979 Act. This transfer of functions involved both an order made under the Public Bodies Act and a tender process involving a contract for a three-year term.
In September 2015, the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, wrote to me concerning the proposed amendment of the 1979 Act’s enforcement arrangements. The Secretary of State asked for my agreement, in principle, to seek the consent of the Assembly for those amendments to extend to Northern Ireland. The UK Minister was seeking to amend the 1979 Act because the contract awarded to Powys County Council to carry out the role of lead enforcement authority will expire in 2017. Furthermore, there is no scope in the Public Bodies Act to carry out a further transfer of the responsibilities of the lead enforcement authority under the 1979 Act.
Without the proposed amendment of the 1979 Act, Powys County Council would continue to be named as the lead enforcement authority after its contract to provide the role expires in April 2017. Therefore, an amendment to the provisions dealing with the 1979 Act’s enforcement arrangements is necessary so that a new lead enforcement authority could be appointed in the event that Powys County Council should no longer be considered best placed to provide the role, and to ensure the continued effective enforcement of the Act’s provisions. A failure to amend the 1979 Act could result in unfit and fraudulent estate agents being allowed to continue to operate. That would cause increased harm to consumers and prevent compliant estate agents operating on a level playing field.
The proposed amendment of the 1979 Act would allow the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, or a person whom they have appointed, to take over the role of lead enforcement authority for the UK. The person chosen by the Secretary of State could be any local authority trading standards department in GB or the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. In effect, the provision will allow the Secretary of State to appoint a new lead enforcement authority for the 1979 Act from time to time as necessary.
The proposed amendments of the 1979 Act deal with a transferred matter, as they enable the possible appointment of DETI as the lead enforcement authority for that Act. Such a change to departmental functions falls within the definition, in Standing Order 42A, of a devolution matter requiring a legislative consent motion. The inclusion of DETI in this provision will necessitate a minor amendment to the generic set of enforcement powers for consumer legislation in the Consumer Rights Act 2015. That amendment would allow DETI to use the enforcement powers in part 3 of schedule 5 of the Consumer Rights Act for the purposes of the 1979 Act, in the event that DETI might at some time in the future be appointed as the lead enforcement authority for the UK.
Although it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which my Department would seek to be appointed as the lead authority for the 1979 Act, the same assessment could be made of many of the approximately 200 trading standards departments across the UK, which, because of their size, for example, may not wish to put themselves forward for the role. However, it is appropriate that my Department should also be in a position to be considered for the role of lead authority in the same way as any of the existing enforcement authorities in the UK. Therefore, my Department should be included in these proposals.
I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On 9 October 2015, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wrote to the Committee to advise that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills had informed him that proposed provisions to amend the Estate Agents Act 1979, which are included in the UK Housing and Planning Bill, were required to enable the Secretary of State for BIS to appoint a new lead enforcement authority, as necessary, by means of a tender process. The enforcement authority could be any trading standards department in GB, as the Minister said, or DETI in Northern Ireland, through the Trading Standards Service.
The Committee noted that, although BIS carried out a broad-ranging consultation in 2011, which included Northern Ireland, there were no responses from Northern Ireland to the proposal. It was unclear from the information provided by the Department whether DETI would apply to become the new lead enforcement authority.
The Committee asked the Department if, when the legislation is changed, it is envisaged that the Trading Standards Service would respond to a tender for the appointment of a new lead enforcement authority for the UK. The Department responded that it considers it unlikely that DETI would respond to any tender to become the lead enforcement authority but that, on balance, DETI should be included in the proposed amendment of the Estate Agents Act 1979, so that it is treated on an equal footing with all the other existing enforcement authorities in the UK and Northern Ireland.
Having fully considered the proposals, the Committee supports DETI in seeking the Assembly's endorsement of the legislative consent motion.
Mr Dunne: I, too, support the legislative consent motion. It is important that we allow the Secretary of State for Business to amend the Estate Agents Act 1979. I believe that the LCM is the most appropriate means of legislating in this area and will ensure that Northern Ireland is brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. This is a very important area of work, and it will lead to greater accountability within the estate agent sector, which will ultimately improve the sector for the agents and the public. It will also allow for the possible appointment of DETI as the lead enforcement authority for the Estate Agents Act.
As this is the most effective means of updating the legislation, I am happy to lend my support to it. I welcome this motion, and I am happy to commend it to the House.
Mr Bell: I thank both Members for their supportive and helpful contributions. I also thank my colleagues in the Executive and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee for considering the matter in such a timely manner, which has allowed the debate to take place today. The brevity of the Chairman's remarks do not reflect the seriousness and professionalism with which his Committee addressed the matters. By carrying out the role in the way that it has become known for — scrupulously and fairly — it allowed the motion to come to the House today. I personally thank the Committee and the Chair.
I hope that, from both the responses that we have had today, Members know why we should vote for the consent motion. By passing the motion, the Assembly will ensure that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland continue to benefit from the effective enforcement of the Estate Agents Act 1979. I commend the motion to the Assembly and thank all Members for their support.
Question put and agreed to.Resolved:
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister for Social Development, the Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, to move the Consideration Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill.
Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I beg to move amendment No 1. This is one of three amendments that —
Mr Speaker: Thank you for coming in by accelerated passage. We are just taking your proposal for Consideration Stage at this point. Will you just confirm for me that the stage is moved? That is all we need.
Moved. — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]
Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of three amendments that deal with the criteria for information disclosure. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendment in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
No amendments have been tabled to clause 1. The Question is that clause 1 stand part of the Bill. All those in favour say Aye.
Some Members: Aye.
Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.House counted, and, there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.Upon 10 Members being present —
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Disclosure of information relating to anti-social behaviour)
Mr Speaker: We now come to the amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 and 3. These amendments deal with the criteria for information disclosure. I call the Minister for Social Development to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendments in the group.
Lord Morrow: I beg to move amendment No 1:
In page 3, line 4, leave out subsection (4).
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 4, line 1, leave out "or 3". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]
No 3: In page 4, line 2, leave out from "(convictions" to end of line 3 and insert"(conduct and convictions) (whether or not the order is also sought on other Grounds);". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]
Amendment No 1 is one of three Government amendments that were discussed in some detail during the Social Development Committee's clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill. I am pleased that the Committee was able to support the amendments, and I thank its Chair and members for their constructive scrutiny. The amendments all relate to clause 2, which provides that certain information relating to antisocial behaviour may be disclosed to the Housing Executive and registered housing associations for certain purposes. The amendments are being dealt with in a single group.
I should first explain that the Housing Executive or a registered housing association can apply to the court for an order for possession of a secure tenancy where certain statutory grounds apply. Ground 1 relates to breach of a tenancy agreement. Ground 2 relates to conduct causing nuisance or annoyance and convictions for certain offences. Ground 3 relates to acts of waste, neglect or default that have caused the condition of a property to deteriorate.
Clause 2, as introduced, would have allowed any person to disclose to the Housing Executive or a registered housing association information relating to behaviour that would be grounds for possession under grounds 1, 2 or 3 where the information is disclosed for the purposes of applying for, or deciding whether to apply for, orders for possession on those grounds. The purpose of clause 2 is to facilitate the disclosure of information to the Housing Executive and registered housing associations to enable those landlords to take appropriate action to deal with antisocial behaviour.
The clause therefore made specific provision that, in relation to applications for orders for possession on ground 1, information could be disclosed only where the breach of tenancy agreement involved behaviour causing annoyance or nuisance. However, the Social Development Committee took the view that any application for an order for possession that relates to any description of antisocial behaviour can be made under ground 2, and that it is not necessary for clause 2 to provide for the disclosure of information relating to any other grounds. I accept this view and have therefore tabled amendments that would remove the references to grounds 1 and 3 from this clause.
Amendment No 1 would remove the provision that information that indicates or suggests that the condition of a dwelling has deteriorated owing to acts of waste by, or neglect or default of, certain persons is "relevant information" that may be disclosed to the Housing Executive or a registered housing association.
Amendment No 2 would remove the provision that applying for, or deciding whether to apply for, an order for possession on ground 3 is a "relevant purpose" for which information may be disclosed to the Housing Executive or a registered housing association.
Amendment No 3 would remove the provision that applying for, or deciding whether to apply for, an order for possession on ground 1 is a "relevant purpose" for which information may be disclosed to the Housing Executive or a registered housing association, while ensuring that applying for, or deciding whether to apply for, an order for possession on ground 2 will still be a "relevant purpose" even if the order is also being sought on other grounds.
Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for moving the Consideration Stage this afternoon and for his comments so far. The Committee for Social Development welcomed the Bill and noted that it encompasses three key areas, as the Minister outlined.
They are the sharing of information relating to empty properties; the disclosure of information relating to antisocial behaviour; and the registration as a statutory charge of certain loans. During the briefings and evidence sessions, stakeholders and members raised a number of issues about the Bill.
We have voted on clause 1, so I move swiftly on to clause 2, "Disclosure of information relating to anti-social behaviour". The Committee report deals with a number of issues on the clause, and I will deal with a couple of them now. The Committee considered stakeholders' concerns on the appropriateness of the information-sharing provisions that relate to antisocial behaviour and related definitions in the Bill. The Bill will introduce new powers for information sharing for the purpose of pursuing possession action in accordance with grounds 1, 2 and 3 of schedule 3 to the Housing (NI) Order 1983. The Committee agreed with the Housing Rights Service, which said in oral evidence that it believed that the definitions of "relevant information" and "relevant purpose" went beyond what was necessary. The Committee discussed that issue at length with the Department. Ultimately, the Department stated that, while the Minister did not believe that the references to grounds 1 and 3 went beyond what was necessary, if the Committee requested their removal, he would accept that in order to ensure the Bill's timely progress through the Assembly. The Committee very much appreciated that commitment from the Minister. At its meeting on 10 December, the Committee agreed that references to grounds 1 and 3 in clause 2 should be removed by way of an amendment provided by the Minister.
The second key issue that I will deal with today is the fact that private landlords will not be included under the information-sharing provisions of clause 2. The Committee was concerned that that created an imbalance and that tenants engaging in antisocial behaviour could be pushed into the private sector. While the Committee believed that there was a legitimate argument to include private landlords, it recognised the serious concerns about individual landlords being equipped or not equipped to handle personal data in accordance with data protection legislation. The Committee, therefore, decided against amending the legislation to include an enabling clause for information sharing with private landlords. Crucially, the Committee welcomed the fact that the issue had been well discussed with the Department and had been included in the recently launched discussion paper 'Review of the Role and Regulation of the Private Rented Sector'. In other words, members and others had concerns about this being a missed opportunity and a gap being left in the regulations process, but, given that it will be dealt with in the 'Review of the Role and Regulation of the Private Rented Sector', the Committee was content to leave the situation for now. The Committee, therefore, is supportive of the Bill and the amendments tabled by the Minister.
Ms P Bradley: I support the amendments as listed by the Minister for Social Development. As we heard, the Bill has three aspects. While it is relatively short, it was not without debate, especially on clause 2, "Disclosure of information relating to anti-social behaviour". As MLAs, we should all be acutely aware of the impact of antisocial behaviour on our communities. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive and registered housing associations already have a duty of care to protect their tenants from antisocial behaviour as well as a duty to protect other people from antisocial behaviour caused by tenants of social housing. During 2013-14, the Housing Executive received and processed 3,206 reports of antisocial behaviour, the most common of which was noise.
As I said, the effects of antisocial behaviour have a great impact on our communities. Those who suffer most are often the most vulnerable, including older people. It most certainly causes added strain to those with poor mental health. From my constituency, I know that those living in areas where antisocial behaviour exists suffer great fear and intimidation. When I was planning to speak at Consideration Stage today, I thought about information sharing. It is good that it is becoming information sharing at this level because we already have information sharing in many social housing areas. I know, as will many MLAs here who are actively part of their community and working in their social housing areas, that a lot of information is already being shared, and they often know who people are and their background even before they move in. It is good to see that becoming an official practice instead of just being down to the jungle drums in our social housing areas.
Turning to the amendments from the Minister, I welcome the removal of clause 2(4). In Committee, we heard from many stakeholders, in particular Housing Rights, who felt that the clause could lead to persons with poor mental health being unduly penalised. It is not just about the penalties that could be imposed; there is a need for sensitivity in the disclosure and sharing of information. In conclusion, I welcome the Bill and the amendments and hope that it can lead to a difference in our social landlord areas.
Mrs D Kelly: I will be brief, given that colleagues have covered most parts of the Bill and said much of what needs to be said. Ms Bradley eloquently talked about the issues facing us as MLAs. Antisocial behaviour is, without doubt, one that comes across our desks day and daily.
I welcome the amendments and thank the Department for having listened to and worked with the Committee to produce a better Bill that reflects the concerns that have been raised by a number of stakeholders. I support the amendments and look forward to the Bill progressing.
Mr Beggs: I and my Ulster Unionist colleagues also continue to support the Bill, recognising the benefits that it can bring in addressing community issues that arise as a result of empty homes and antisocial behaviour. Sharing information on vacant properties between the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department for Social Development and the Housing Executive will, I hope, mean that antisocial behaviour can be headed off at an earlier stage and that concerns can, therefore, be addressed, minimising disruption to neighbours.
The sharing of specific information on antisocial behaviour will help to better manage such situations and hopefully address issues earlier. There was a situation in the Monkstown estate a few months ago that could have been addressed earlier if the information had been shared. The Bill will, when it comes into effect, bring about some practical benefits.
Clause 2 deals with the disclosure of information relating to antisocial behaviour, particularly the sharing of information between the Housing Executive and social landlords. I would have thought that sharing that information should enable social landlords to be better aware of difficulties that have caused annoyance and a nuisance to neighbours, such as where a tenant had previously been involved in a dwelling that was being used for illegal purposes or had allowed or incited others to engage in antisocial activity. I welcome and support that aspect of clause 2.
As others have indicated, there was some discussion of how widely the information should be shared. In principle, it should be widely shared so that private landlords are aware of what they might be taking on. However, it was pointed out to us that there were issues regarding data protection and data security, because information falling into the wrong hands could endanger individuals. That being the case, I am content with the general wording of clause 2.
Amendment No 1 would take out clause 2(4). The Housing Rights Service expressed concerns and asked whether it was necessary or went beyond what was necessary to address antisocial behaviour. We are dealing with a Bill that is trying to address empty homes and antisocial behaviour. The Committee relayed the concerns of the Housing Rights Service to the Minister, who has, ultimately, tabled the amendment. Having reflected further on this area and on clause 2(4), I ask the Minister what is wrong with sharing key information if someone has carried out an act of waste or has damaged public property, whether it is a Housing Executive property or a housing association property.
I think that if a tenant is moving to a different landlord, it would be appropriate, where there has been a difficulty, to pass that information on with a constructive mode in mind so that the new social landlord will know that they will need to take particular care of the tenant to ensure that no further acts of waste might occur in the new social housing property. I seek an explanation from the Minister as to why he thinks that it should be removed. He and his officials have not made much of a defence of that area when questions have been posed. It would be helpful if we could have that.
I turn now to amendment Nos 2 and 3, which refer to clause 2(8). Again, if those amendments go through, it will remove the ground 1 and ground 3 aspect of transferring relevant information. That is another area on which the Housing Rights Service expressed concern. If you wanted to put it under a heading of "antisocial behaviour", I can see how it may not be seen as antisocial behaviour that is affecting others, but it is certainly antisocial behaviour affecting a publicly owned property. I seek an assurance from the Minister that if he moves amendment Nos 2 and 3, resulting in the removal of this area of information that can be transmitted, he is satisfied that adequate powers will remain to ensure that those who damage public property will be identified, and that that warning signal will be transmitted to the new landlord so that more regular inspections can, perhaps, occur to allow a new tenant to get off to a positive start in their new property, not be carrying any legacy from the past and making sure that previous difficulties will not be repeated.
Other than that, I am generally satisfied with the Bill; it has brought about improvements elsewhere. The registration as statutory charge of certain loans is new to Northern Ireland and may enable further innovative forms of support that might not otherwise be available. I am supportive of the rest of the Bill and the clauses.
Mr Dickson: I too support the Bill and, indeed, welcome it back to the House. As Members have heard, it is a short but important piece of legislation. I note that most of the information-sharing has been limited to the Housing Executive. Although, on principle, that does not present me with concerns, it is important that there are synergies between the relevant parties and the property users to ensure that those who need, and should have, access to such information can obtain it in an easy, timely and efficient manner. That includes working effectively with housing associations and local government, which is, unfortunately, often forgotten in a top-down process. The Bill will also create a duty to do so.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
I note with interest that DSD intends to work with councils to provide information, where possible. However, without meaningful regeneration powers, the role of local government is rather limited. It is disappointing that the Department decided to drop the entirety of the Regeneration Bill. Most of this information will originate from DFP, but, at Committee Stage, it was suggested that utilising the resources of Land Registry could provide considerable benefits with regard to information collected. We were told that DSD would explore that option, so perhaps today the Minister could provide us with further information on whether that may be a viable way forward and whether he would require further legislation in that respect.
As others said, antisocial behaviour is a very difficult issue and is a scourge on many communities. The Bill is a step forward, although I think that I have to share some of the concerns voiced by the Housing Rights Service to the Committee regarding the relatively wide scope of incidences in which disclosure could be made. The Alliance Party is generally content to support the Bill at this Stage. We look forward to its coming back.
I apologise to the House and the Minister because I have another meeting to attend and will not be able to remain for the remainder of the debate.
Lord Morrow: I am grateful to Members for their contributions to the debate on the amendments. As I explained in my earlier remarks, the amendments had been agreed by the Committee and will ensure that clause 2 is focused on conduct that constitutes antisocial behaviour as the term is generally understood. I noted that some Members focused on the antisocial behaviour aspect. It is right that that should be done. Some have also noted that, while this is a small, short Bill, it is nevertheless a very necessary one. I welcome those remarks.
In response to the question that Mr Beggs posed regarding information about acts of waste being shared between social landlords, I will just say that the Housing Executive's role in allocating all social housing and assessing individual eligibility for such housing means that the issue would be addressed when tenants are transferring to other social landlords. I hope that that goes some distance to reassuring him.
I will close my remarks by, again, thanking the Committee for its work on the matter and all those Members who have spoken today.
In page 4, line 1, leave out "or 3". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]
Amendment No 3 made:
In page 4, line 2, leave out from "(convictions" to end of line 3 and insert"(conduct and convictions) (whether or not the order is also sought on other Grounds);". — [Lord Morrow (The Minister for Social Development).]
Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 3 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I beg to move
That Standing Order 39(1) and Standing Order 37A(1), (2) and (3)(b) & (c) be suspended in respect of the Exceptional Further Consideration Stage of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill [NIA Bill 47/11-16].
The purpose of the proposed suspension is to enable an exceptional Further Consideration Stage of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill to take place. Standing Order 37(A) makes provision for an exceptional Further Consideration Stage, but it does so only in strictly limited circumstances where a provision of a Bill is outside legislative competence or a Bill has a serious technical defect as a direct consequence of an amendment made to the Bill, which is not the case at this time.
The Committee has agreed to seek to amend clause 50, which provides for non-disclosure notices, in response to a concern raised by the Attorney General that it might be outwith the Assembly's legislative competence. However, that concern does not arise from any of the minor amendments to clause 50, and, accordingly, Standing Order 37A, as it stands, would not facilitate a further amending stage. The Committee sought the advice of the Speaker on the appropriate procedure to bring the matter before the Assembly, and, in light of that advice, the Committee agreed to submit today's motion to suspend in part Standing Order 37A and Standing Order 39(1).
The House will recall that some Members and parties have consistently opposed the non-disclosure notice power in clause 50 but, notwithstanding that, have been willing to support the Bill in the round as a reforming measure and, to that end, the pragmatic way forward that the Committee is proposing by way of this motion and the amendment to clause 50. Approval of the motion would remove the requirement that the issue of legislative competence arises from an amendment to the Bill. The suspension is limited to the Exceptional Further Consideration Stage of the Ombudsman Bill. Subject to Members' approval of this motion, that will be the next scheduled item of business and will provide the House with the opportunity to consider the Committee's proposed amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Mr Mike Nesbitt, to move the Bill.
Moved.—[Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): A single amendment has been tabled for debate. Members will have received a copy of the Marshalled List, which provides details of the amendment. The amendment deals with a reference to public safety. I remind Members who intend to speak that they should address their comments only to the amendment. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 50 (Disclosure contrary to public interest)
Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I beg to move the following amendment:
In page 20, line 2, leave out from "the safety" to "United Kingdom" on line 3 and insert "public safety".
The Committee agreed to bring the amendment to address a concern that was raised by the Attorney General that clause 50 was outside the legislative competence of the Assembly. Prior to exercising the power in clause 50 to issue a non-disclosure notice, a Northern Ireland Minister or the Secretary of State must form the opinion that disclosure of a document or information would be prejudicial to the safety of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom or otherwise contrary to the public interest. The Attorney General's concern arises from the reference to the "United Kingdom" in clause 50, which he considers may mean that the clause would be outside the legislative competence of the Assembly because of section 6(2)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Section 6(1) of the 1998 Act provides that:
"A provision of an Act is not law if it is outside the legislative competence of the Assembly."
Section 6(2) states:
"A provision is outside that competence if any of the following paragraphs apply—(a) it would form part of the law of a country or territory other than Northern Ireland, or confer or remove functions exercisable otherwise than in or as regards Northern Ireland".
The Attorney General considers that conferral of the power to issue such a notice would take clause 50 outwith legislative competence because of the inclusion of the term "United Kingdom". It might be used where the danger in disclosing the document relates to, for example, only Wales and not in or as regards Northern Ireland.
While the Committee does not agree with the Attorney General, it was mindful that referral by the Attorney General to the Supreme Court would inevitably delay Royal Assent and create uncertainty about commencement and implementation planning. Accordingly, the Committee engaged with the Attorney General's office and the Northern Ireland Office to see whether a pragmatic solution could be found. That solution is reflected in the amendment before the House.
In essence, it replaces the reference in clause 50(1)(b):
"prejudicial to the safety of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom"
with the words:
"prejudicial to public safety".
A Northern Ireland Minister or the Secretary of State would, therefore, have to form the opinion that disclosure of the information or document in question:
"would be prejudicial to public safety or otherwise contrary to the public interest".
The Attorney General and the Northern Ireland Office are content with that amendment.
While some Members and parties have consistently opposed this type of power in principle, they have, nevertheless, consistently supported the Bill as a whole as a worthwhile measure of reform and have recognised the need for the amendment to progress the Bill. The Committee is mindful that this power has existed in our ombudsman legislation since 1969 and, so far as anybody knows, has never been exercised here.
I commend the amendment to the Assembly.
Mr Lyons: The Chair of the Committee set out the reasons why we have had this Exceptional Further Consideration Stage. Obviously, the Attorney General had an issue with clause 50. The Chair is absolutely right in saying that we have found a way to combat that, even though there were disagreements about the effect it might have. However, we came to a consensus, you could say, by the fact that we have this amendment. I think nobody wanted to see the Bill derailed at this stage. That is why we have the amendment and why I am more than happy to give it my support.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Committee Chairperson alluded to the fact that a number of members on the Committee, as a matter of principle, consistently voted against the provisions in the Bill that would provide for non-disclosure, as was described by, I think, the term "national security".
Obviously, our party has been consistent in this matter. We see absolutely no need whatsoever for such a provision in the Bill and in the role of the ombudsman, presently to be the NIPSO. We have made that very clear on the record since the Bill was tabled.
We were content to support the suspension of Standing Orders to have an Exceptional Further Consideration Stage. However, I put on the record on behalf of Sinn Féin that we still see no need whatsoever for any provision relating to what is called "national security" in the NIPSO Bill. We will vote against the amendment, but we will not push the Assembly to a Division.
Mr Attwood: I acknowledge the role of the Assembly structures and the Speaker in allowing this Exceptional Further Consideration Stage. This is a very rare moment in the life of the Assembly. I think it might have arisen once before in this mandate, although I will stand corrected on that. It is a proper interpretation of the role of the Assembly and the processes on legislation that this Exceptional Further Consideration Stage has been enabled to deal with this outstanding matter, not least because of the reasons the Chair outlined.
This is a worthwhile measure of reform that has been in gestation for probably as long as some of us have been Members and certainly longer than some others have been Members. Therefore, having got to this stage of creating an office of some authority — time will tell whether its authority is all that it should be — and given that the legislation has got this far after this long period of time, it would be unfortunate if it was derailed.
As the Chair indicated, there were members of the Committee — maybe all the members, although I will stand corrected on that — who might differ from the Attorney General's interpretation of things. That is healthy, because the Attorney General may have a particular role in respect of the law in Northern Ireland under the relevant legislation, but he is another lawyer, and people can accept or reject legal advice. The view of many people, maybe on other issues beyond this one, is not to accept the advice of the Attorney General. Certainly, my view on this matter is that the Attorney General may be false in his interpretation and may be in a different place from many other interpretations on this legislation.
It is curious, of course, that, as the Chair read into the record, the references to issues of disclosure now refer to those that are prejudicial to public safety or otherwise contrary to the public interest. They are very wide words, and, therefore, they themselves could be interpreted in different ways and, indeed, be open to abuse. They do not refer to the issue of national security, although that may well be captured or, in the view of some, will certainly be captured in those words. It is curious that, when we come to legislate, we do not refer to those words even if other words are meant to capture that particular issue. I think that it is better of us to do it in that way than to rely upon these highly charged words of "national security", which is in the gift of the British Government and exclusively interpreted by the British Government. I think that it is good that we are not using their language, even if those words may be very extensive. Given the narrative and the history around all this legislation, our party, in line with Mr Maskey's comments, will not support this particular approach, but we will not force a Division in the House on this occasion.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the three Members who contributed. Mr Lyons was content. I acknowledge again that Mr Maskey and his party had deep concerns and expressed them consistently and rightly the whole way through the debate or certainly the part of it that I was around for. As Mr Attwood said, this has been in gestation for longer than some of us have been Members of the House. In fact, in my case, it has been in gestation for more than twice as long as I have been a Member. It has taken 11 years to get to this point. I can put it no more starkly than to say that, when the passage began, few if any of the Members of the House had ever heard of Barack Obama, and we will just get this into law before he completes his second and final term as president of the United States.
As I said, I think that there has been an entirely pragmatic approach by all to this legislation, which will improve services and, particularly, the ability of our citizens to complain when they believe that they have been let down by public services. I commend all the members of the current Committee and thank them for their cooperation and their pragmatism in getting us to the stage where we will back, I hope, next week for the Final Stage of the Bill.
Amendment agreed to.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That concludes the Exceptional Further Consideration Stage of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Adjourned at 4.24 pm.
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