Official Report: Monday 24 October 2016

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

Assembly Business

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise with you a point on Standing Order 19(5) in respect of the asking of questions for written and oral answer. I have in mind questions for written answer. Standing Order 19(5) is emphatic. It says:

"A question must be answered as clearly and as fully as possible."

I suspect that I am not the only Member who finds that some answers are the very antithesis of that; they avoid the question and do not answer it. Two examples of many are AQW 586/16-21 and AQW 4663/16-21. What sanction or capacity is there to ensure that Standing Order 19(5) is honoured by the Executive Office and others and that they answer the questions that are actually asked?

Mr Speaker: Mr Allister, as you will understand, I and every Member would expect a question to be answered as fully as possible. That is within the procedures. You also know that there are other ways in which you can follow up on the matter, and I expect you to follow those procedures.

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Welfare Supplementary Payment (Benefit Cap) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

The regulations are being brought in under article 137 of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and will make provision for mitigating changes to welfare benefits introduced under article 101 of the Order.

The draft statutory rule was approved by the Communities Committee on 13 October.

The regulations have been made following the publication of the welfare reform mitigations working group proposals on how the Executive should help the most vulnerable in society as a consequence of the introduction of a number of changes to the welfare system. I take the opportunity to thank Professor Evason and her colleagues on the working group for the work completed, in a limited time frame, to bring recommendations to the Executive that were subsequently endorsed on 21 January.

Members may recall that an initial set of mitigating measures that was debated in the House in March this year has now been made. Those regulations — the Welfare Supplementary Payments Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 — provided mitigation payments for claimants affected by the introduction of the £26,000 benefit cap that came into effect on 31 May this year. The Westminster Government have already legislated to reduce the benefit cap levels to £20,000 a year for families and £13,400 a year for single people who live outside greater London. Those new benefit cap levels will be introduced in Great Britain on 7 November this year.

The regulations for debate today will enable my Department to implement mitigation payments to claimants with families who are impacted on by the new benefit cap levels, which, it is expected, will also be introduced in Northern Ireland on 7 November. The provisions are to be made by way of amendment to existing regulations, namely the Welfare Supplementary Payments Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016. The existing regulations allow the Department to make mitigation payments to people with children who are affected by the £26,000 benefit cap. Other than the amendments, which I will now explain, the regulations will not make any changes to the administration of the existing scheme.

The regulations provide for the calculation of a welfare supplementary payment from the date on which the new benefit cap of £20,000 is introduced. For those already affected by the £26,000 benefit cap and receiving a welfare supplementary payment, that means that their payments will be adjusted from 7 November. Families not already affected by the £26,000 benefit cap will be entitled to a payment from the first date that the £20,000 benefit cap applies to them.

There is already a basic requirement that all claimants must be ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland and that they continue to reside here while mitigation payments are made. The regulations will also have the effect of ensuring that payments are made only to those who are resident in Northern Ireland on 6 November 2016. This is a Northern Ireland-specific scheme, so it is important to ensure that mitigation payments can be accessed only by claimants from Northern Ireland who have been affected by the welfare reforms.

As Members are aware, the Fresh Start working group recommended that only families with children affected by the benefit cap should receive a mitigation payment. That means that couples and single people without children who are affected by the benefit cap will not receive a welfare supplementary payment. Those claimants will, however, be able to apply for financial support through discretionary housing payments. Discretionary housing payments are extra payments to help people pay their rent.

The Department is currently delivering mitigation payments for the £26,000 benefit cap, as proposed by the working group. The provisions in the regulations will ensure that that important financial support is extended to the many vulnerable people who will be affected by this further welfare reform, while remaining within the agreed budget.

The new benefit cap will restrict the total amount of benefit paid to families to £20,000, and the cap will be applied through a claimant's housing benefit. The main out-of-work and child-related benefits that are included when calculating the benefit cap are jobseeker's allowance (JSA), income support and employment and support allowance (ESA), except where the support component has been awarded. A household is exempt from the benefit cap if it is entitled to working tax credits, carer's allowance or a range of disability-related benefits. Guardian's allowance will also become an exemption from 7 November 2016.

Mitigation payments will be made to families who receive more than £20,000 a year, provided that they have been continuously in receipt of any combination of the welfare benefits that contribute to the calculation of the benefit cap from 6 November 2016 until the point at which they are impacted on by the £20,000 benefit cap. That will include families who may initially have been exempt but later lose that exemption and are impacted on by the £20,000 benefit cap and families who are initially below the benefit cap level but for whom a change in circumstances later causes their benefit income to exceed the £20,000 benefit cap.

Claimants will receive a payment equal to the amount by which their benefit is capped, so there will effectively be no loss of benefit. These payments are transitional in nature and are intended to assist claimants with the transition from the current benefit system to the new welfare system. The mitigation scheme is due to end on 31 March 2020.

Households will continue to receive welfare supplementary payments at the same level unless the amount by which their housing benefit is capped is reduced. Further measures, which were recommended by the working group to mitigate welfare reform, are currently being prepared with a view to these being presented to the Executive in the coming months. These include provisions to mitigate the social sector size criteria and a new cost-of-work allowance scheme.

Mr Eastwood (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): These regulations are the latest in a series that provide the legal basis for the implementation of the mitigation measures recommended by the welfare reform mitigation measures working group led by Professor Eileen Evason. While we have distinct differences about the overall approach to welfare reform, as it is called, it did provide some assurance when the package of mitigation measures was agreed.

Many of us, in all parties, were concerned about the potential for the benefit cap to cause hardship to those on benefits, particularly to families. That cap of £26,000 was introduced in May of this year. However, we will soon be in a position, come 7 November, where the benefit cap will be reduced further. Just to be clear, the new cap for families will be £20,000, and for single people and couples without children it will be £13,400. In DWP-speak, this is to make the benefits system fairer and to incentivise people into full-time employment, but personally, I am not sure about that. I suppose not being able to feed or clothe your family or heat your home is as draconian an incentive as you can get.

The Department has advised that an estimated 2,600 households will be impacted by the new cap. It is important to note that the mitigation payments which the regulations will allow for will only apply to families with children, as per the recommendation of the working group. Couples without children and single people without dependants will not receive a mitigation payment. A mitigation payment will also apply only to those people in receipt of benefit on the day before the cap comes in. In other words, new claims on or after 7 November will not be subject to mitigation payments. This means that, although any current welfare supplementary payments based on the £26,000 cap will end and future payments for families will be based on the £20,000 cap mitigation, mitigation payments will make up the difference, unless, that is, the applicant’s circumstances change. It is important to note that the mitigation payments will only be paid until 31 March 2020, as long as a person’s circumstances do not change in that time.
It is also important to consider how the Department communicates these changes to people who are affected by the revised cap. Members of the Committee have raised this with officials on several occasions and have suggested sending a single letter to people to highlight the change that applies to them and the mitigation measures if applicable. It is also important to consider whether the Department should provide, for example, an annual reminder to those in receipt of payments noting that they are scheduled to end by 31 March 2020.

The Committee has been told that people who will be impacted by the new cap but who will not receive a mitigation payment can apply for a discretionary housing payment to make up the shortfall in their rent. It seems that the discretionary housing payment is the Department’s key safety net for people whose benefits will be reduced. After March 2020, this fund, in lieu of any other arrangements, may well be under considerable pressure. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the current pressures on that fund, whether he anticipates it will increase and for what period, on average, awards from this fund are given. Also, does he have any concerns about people falling into rent arrears as a result of the welfare changes, and is he considering any other contingencies to prevent this and therefore reduce the potential risk of increased homelessness?

12.15 pm

The mitigation measures are important to help people with families in the short term, and the Committee agrees that the Assembly should affirm these regulations. However, consideration needs to be given to what type of welfare system we want and can afford post-March 2020. I encourage the Minister to start that work sooner rather than later.

Mr Beggs: Since 31 May, there has been a benefit cap introduced into Northern Ireland at £26,000 for families. However, since the legislative consent motion, there has been little point in our discussing the merits or otherwise of the policy behind that because with that motion, which was approved with DUP and Sinn Féin support, the authority to set the policy in this area has been passed to Westminster. So, what we are talking about today is purely mitigation.

We need to look at what is being proposed here. Certainly it follows the Evason report in trying to protect some of those who would be most significantly affected by the changes as a result of this further reduction in benefits, with the cap being reduced to £20,000.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what the estimated total cost to the annual budget will be for each of the remaining years of this Assembly. Again, what are the detailed eligibility criteria; and, if not all households are entitled, is there an alternative in place to support them? In particular, can he clarify the situation regarding new claimants?

It would also be helpful if the Minister advised, as was said by Mr Eastwood, on the work he has undertaken to plan beyond 2020 or, if there is nothing planned, how he is going to communicate that fact to those who would be affected so that they can start to plan accordingly.

Ms Gildernew: I support the motion. While I have listened carefully to other Members' contributions, the important thing to remember is that we are dealing with a British Tory party which is hell bent on austerity. We had a very difficult negotiation with the British Government for a long number of months a year or two ago.

The fact remains that there is not a bottomless pit of money. We have done our best to mitigate the worst ravages of this. It was important to protect families with children. I suppose we are concerned about the impact that it will have and I look forward to hearing the Minister's responses to some of the questions here today. I welcome the fact that families with children are being protected. It is incumbent upon us as an Assembly to do all we can to try to alleviate child poverty and take children out of poverty. I think that that has to be a priority for this Assembly.

Mr Givan: I am grateful for the consensus expressed around the Assembly in respect of these regulations. Let me thank Mr Eastwood and his Committee for the way in which they have been able to deal with the regulations. Obviously, it is critically important that we get these improved, given that the impact will start on 7 November. This was put through the Executive successfully, and the Committee had its scrutiny role, so I am grateful that we have been able to introduce these regulations in time to provide the support that I know all of us in the Chamber want to provide.

As stated, the regulations will allow us to implement mitigation payments to assist claimants who are impacted by the revised benefit cap of £20,000. These measures are unique to Northern Ireland. I think that other jurisdictions look with envy at the way in which Northern Ireland has been able to put together a series of mitigation measures in respect of welfare reform. Whilst I accept an element of what Mr Beggs said in respect of these issues being dealt with at Westminster, obviously we have our own proposals to deal with it.
I draw the Member's attention to the fact that the reduction from £26,000 to £20,000 is a result of Conservative Party policy that his party signed up to when it ran joint candidates. The fact that the Assembly has had to introduce a series of — indeed, half a billion pounds' worth — mitigation measures flows from the proposals that the Ulster Unionist Party, when it had candidates, signed up to. It said that it would take the whip of the Conservative Party in London had any of its members been elected at that time. I appreciate that none of its members did get elected, but I draw that to the Member's attention. I value the scrutiny role that they have, but it is always important to go back to the genesis of these issues: Conservative Party policy that was supported by the Ulster Unionist Party in 2010.

I am pleased that we are putting together a very significant mitigation package that will go some way to alleviating the hardship that is being inflicted upon the people as a result of the Ulster Unionists', Conservative and Lib Dem, supported by the Alliance Party at the time, proposals. [Interruption.]

The Executive can rightly take credit for putting together a proposal of half a billion pounds to alleviate some of the worst impacts that the Ulster Unionist Party signed up to. I appreciate that some Members do not like the truth, but it is important that the Ulster Unionists look back at the way in which they supported the 2010 Conservative Party. That is what we have to deal with.

There will be further implications as a result of the policies that the present Conservative Party is taking through Westminster. Those need to be grappled with, and the Executive will need to consider those issues in due course, but I am pleased that we were able to put together the regulation that is going through the Assembly today. It will provide £1 million this year to mitigate, and there will then be £8 million in each of the subsequent three years after it is implemented to help vulnerable people in our society who need support and whom the Executive have decided to support. I am grateful for the support of Members across the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Welfare Supplementary Payment (Benefit Cap) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 be approved.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: As with other similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion. There will be no debate.


That the following Members are appointed as the trustees of the Assembly Members' pension scheme: Mr Ross Hussey, Mr Trevor Lunn, Mr Richie McPhillips, Ms Caitríona Ruane and Mr Jim Wells. — [Mr Maskey.]

Private Members' Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Beattie: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that HMP Maghaberry is unique in the British Isles and much of Europe for the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with such opposing political and ideological views and criminal backgrounds; further notes the continuing implementation of a flawed decision taken in 2003 to separate paramilitary prisoners and the impact that this is having on the operation of the prison and on the morale of public servants who live with its consequences; believes that the prison should gradually revert to its integrationist policy and that this should be reflected in the Executive’s action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime; and calls on the Minister of Justice to put in place the framework to ensure that, by 2021, there are no new admissions to separate paramilitary wings and that, by 2026, there is a fully integrated prison regime.

First, I praise our Prison Service for its dedication, diligence, professionalism and courage in the most difficult of environments and circumstances. I pay tribute to the families of serving prison officers who were killed on duty; they have taken their hardship with great dignity and should not be forgotten.

The motion is in support of the Executive. It supports the DUP and Sinn Féin, Fresh Start and the action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. 'A Fresh Start' says that we will:

"work collectively to achieve a society free of paramilitarism ... the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures; challenge paramilitary attempts to control communities ... and accept no authority, direction or control on our political activities other than our democratic mandate".

The motion supports the action plan on paramilitaries. It is important, as we take forward this work, that we keep in mind the ambitious outcomes that we are seeking to achieve: ultimately, a society in which citizens and communities feel safe and confident and in which paramilitarism has no place — no place. My motion dovetails with Fresh Start and the action plan. We are not here with this issue because we want to be; it was thrust upon us. I reach back —

Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Member giving way. He will be aware that prison officers do not have a trade union as such. They have a staff association: the POA. Could the Member detail for the House whether the Prison Officers' Association has approved the content of the motion?

Mr Beattie: I thank you for your comments. I have spoken to individual members, and they have accepted and agree with what I propose.

I throw this back to the Steele report, which came out at a time when the devolved institutions had collapsed, and there was a fair degree of concern over security and safety. The Government instigated the Steele report, and, in one month, they decided to revert to a separated regime. Twelve days later, that was where we went. They did so against the recommendations of the Prison Officers' Association, the Prison Governors Association and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The rationale for bringing in the separated regime was health and safety — safety for prisoners — although the institutions I have just named said that there was no issue. Interestingly, Mr Steele gave what was probably the real reason for going back to a separated regime when he said:

"it was clear to me and clear to a lot of people that [the paramilitaries] were about to mount a campaign inside and outside the prison ... I expected that if they were denied separation, those would steadily get worse and indeed that it would escalate to attacks on prison officers".

That is the reason why we went back to a separated regime, and this view was perpetuated by Sinn Féin. Here we have, yet again, terrorists holding a gun to the head of Northern Ireland society, saying, "Do as we say, or we will return to violence".

Mr Givan: I appreciate the Member giving way. Does he agree that, in August 2010, when the then Justice Minister, David Ford, reached what was called the August agreement, he used the same argument as the Steele report to make further concessions to republicans?

12.30 pm

Mr Beattie: Thank you very much for your intervention. I am just about to step into that little nugget now, if I may.

I am looking at the Sinn Féin amendment. It is full of great words, and I have to say that it is easy to support the words. I support some of the words because the amendment recognises that:

"all prisoners and all prison staff must be treated with dignity and respect".

The Member talked about the principles agreed in August 2010, and they are virtually the same. They stated:

"Arrangements are predicated on mutual respect; Prisoner and staff safety must not be put at risk".

That was in 2010. How did that work out? I will tell you how that worked out: it worked out with the death of prison officer Black; it worked out with the death of prison officer Ismay; it worked out with numerous prison officers being targeted for murder.

The amendment goes on to say that Sinn Féin supports:

"the planned independent" —

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beattie: No; not this time.

It supports:

"the planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime".

That would be bravo 8 of the action plan, but it addresses the framework of the separated regime; it does not talk about ending it. Here is where we are: no independent reviewer has been nominated; no one has been found yet; no process has been put in place to find one; and no resources have been put in place to get one. We have not taken a single step forward. We do not even have a term of reference.

Do you know what? I will start with the term of reference. The term of reference is my motion: let us end it. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that the continuation of the separated regime gives paramilitaries an identity, a centre of gravity, a credibility — a perceived credibility — and an ability to direct terrorism from inside the prison at society outside the prison. I know that it is difficult to come up with a plan to end that. My plan is for nine years — nine years. It took them one month to force this on us, and I am looking for nine years to get rid of it. If I am to take criticism, I will take it because I am suggesting nine years when I know that there may be people here who think that it should be done straight away or within this mandate. I ask for nine years because people need time to get used to it. Between now and the end of the mandate, it is about making sure that people understand the idea of ending the separated regime. At the end of the mandate, it is about stopping new prisoners going into that regime. That gives us a full mandate to get into integration. It challenges the status quo. It feeds into Fresh Start and the action plan on paramilitarism.

There are issues, and I step up to those issues. First, the Secretary of State is the man who decides who goes or does not go into that prison. We are the elected representatives. We represent the people, and, if we do not want it, we need to stop it. We need to go to the Secretary of State, if that is what we have to do. We must go to the Minister of Justice. We must tell them that we do not want it any more; we want a normalised society. That is what the people want, and that is what we should deliver.

Should there be an all-Ireland solution? Can we have no separated regime in Northern Ireland while they have one in the Irish Republic? Do you know what? This is something that we have to talk about, and that is why I am talking about nine years from now — nine years. I keep saying that: nine years. Should we be flexible if, in 2026, prisoners who have been in the separated regime for a long time are still in jail? I think that we can be flexible. I think that we should allow them to see out their time in that regime.

It is telling that, in 2007, four years after separation, a Minister acknowledged that it would be desirable to see separation phased out as our political situation improved — I hope that it has improved — but he was quite clear that he did not envisage any early end to it. We believe that ending separation should be a high priority for those responsible for criminal justice after devolution and would welcome an early debate on the issue amongst Northern Ireland politicians.

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

Mr Beattie: Do I not get a minute? Then, I conclude.

Mr Kearney: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "Maghaberry" and insert

"is unique on these islands and much of Europe for the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with diverse backgrounds who are subject to different court processes depending on the nature of their charges; recognises that all prisoners and all prison staff must be treated with dignity and respect; believes that there is a need for ongoing and comprehensive prison reform; and calls on the Minister of Justice to work jointly with the planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime, evidencing the need for any changes and providing useful information for stakeholders to take forward, as proposed by the report from the Fresh Start panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups.".

Maghaberry prison is, indeed, unique in these islands. However, what should take primacy for us, as legislators and political leaders, is to ensure that all prison staff, all prisoners, their families and visitors to the prison are treated with dignity and respect. The penal system is one of democratic society's responses to the social context that produces offenders. Prison is not simply about the punishment of offenders; it is also about rehabilitation and reorientation to assist their transition back into society. Prison is a societal punishment but not at the cost of dehumanising prisoners or prison staff or degrading their rights. That must be the guiding vision and purpose of how prisons, including Maghaberry, should be run.

The history of prisons in this state is one of well-documented conflict. One lesson learned is to ensure that prisons no longer contribute to more or future political or communal instability. There have been significant changes to prison life in the North, including in Maghaberry prison. Placing responsibility for prisons under the control of the local Executive since 2008 has played an important role in promoting penal reform here. However, while prison reform is ongoing, it is neither completed nor comprehensive. That applies especially to Maghaberry prison. Comprehensive prison reform should be at the heart of the political and policy framework for the Department of Justice and the Assembly. Today's UUP motion completely misses the context and the necessary reform agenda. A prison reform based on approaches that make maximum use of all the available resources is necessary to progress that agenda. That means listening to the Prisoner Ombudsman; working closely with the Probation Board, NIACRO and the Children's Law Centre; learning from and being guided by penal reform experts; and engaging with other authoritative agencies. Importantly, the process of prison reform should be set in the context —

Mr Aiken: Will the Member give way?

Mr Kearney: Not at the moment.

— of the Fresh Start Agreement and specifically the planned independent review as proposed by the panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups. But then, of course, the UUP opposed the Fresh Start Agreement.

The change champions in our Prison Service need to be politically supported by the Department of Justice and the Assembly. Sinn Féin will work constructively with the Minister, other parties and all agencies committed to positive change in Maghaberry and all our other penal institutions. For Maghaberry, that requires that management and operational systems are reformed. The security mindset that continues to dominate needs to be replaced by a rehabilitative culture.

Let me be very clear on this point: no prison officer should be subjected to threats or intimidation or be harmed in any way at work or away from work. Prison officers are public servants from whom we expect the highest professional standards and accountability for prisoners' welfare and safety. They, in turn, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and to know that they can depend on our support. However, transparency, consistency and adherence to best practice and human rights — I emphasise human rights — must also be at the heart of how Maghaberry prison is run. In recent weeks, shocking and —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Kearney: Not at the moment.

In recent weeks, shocking and unacceptable failures in the prison have been brought to public attention. I am glad to say that much of it has been extensively scrutinised by the Justice Committee. It has also been discussed here on the Floor. The case of Sean Lynch was an unacceptable travesty. The treatment shown to him was inhumane. It was absolutely wrong.

The internal prison inquiry was deficient, and questions remain to be answered. There was a complete breakdown between the prison and the health services, and an absence of proper medical supervision contributed to the death of Patrick Kelly. As a result of the ombudsman's investigations into those cases, greater attention has been drawn to significant mental health concerns in Maghaberry prison. The Department of Justice, the Public Prosecution Service, the Assembly and society as a whole must look at sentencing and committal arrangements for people who are mentally ill and should not be sent to jail. Maghaberry prison should not be used as society's default option. Prison officers cannot be expected to manage complex cases when the proper skills and facilities do not exist in the Prison Service. However, there are other issues with conditions in Maghaberry that should give us all serious cause for concern.

Prisoners on integrated wings report habitual 23-hours-a-day lock-up, with only one hour for recreation or association. They are obliged to eat three daily meals in the cell space also occupied by their toilet. The routine prison diet has little or no nutritional value. Young prisoners in Maghaberry have reported to me that a lunch typically consists of a small bread sandwich containing a Spam filling with no butter and a small bag of crisps. While education facilities have improved — I commend the commitment of outside educationalists — prisoners who wish to attend classes have told me about difficulties in doing so. Prisoners report that parity of esteem does not exist for the Irish cultural identity, particularly with respect to the Irish language and language learning resources. That was confirmed in the July 2016 report by Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI). Ba chóir go mbeadh meas ag an dá thraidisiún ar a chéile san áit seo, sa stát seo, agus sna príosúin go háirithe.

Controlled movement and strip-searching in Roe House also remains a serious problem. Such practices dehumanise prisoners and prison staff. The template agreed in August 2010 between prisoners and prison staff should be revisited, because it contains the basis for resolution of those issues, which create avoidable and unnecessary stress and conflict in the prison context. The prison environment should be kept free from outside political interference, including that of the NIO, which is currently using Maghaberry prison to wrongfully detain Tony Taylor on an extrajudicial basis.

Members, we need to be de-escalating and resolving contentious issues and practices in Maghaberry, not compounding problems. The UUP motion offers no properly thought-out approach to how that can be done. Our focus, as an Assembly, should be on making Maghaberry a stable, stress-free and safe environment for all staff, all prisoners and all those who visit the prison. Commitment to continuing, comprehensive prison reform based on principles of human dignity, decency and respect must be paramount. That is what the Assembly should work to achieve. That is what the Assembly should be debating today. That is the change agenda required in Maghaberry and what the Department of Justice must be accountable for delivering and demonstrating under the leadership of the Justice Minister. Molaim an leasú.

12.45 pm

Mr Frew: The motion from the UUP on ending the separation of prisoners in Maghaberry is something that, of course, we have aspired to achieve for many, many years from manifesto to manifesto. The decision was taken in 2004 by Her Majesty's Government, and there were options looked at at the time. One option was reopening the Maze prison to allow for separated prisoners. Of course, we could never support going back to the days of the Maze and the regimes in it.

We owe a large debt of gratitude to the prison staff who work day in, day out, in our prisons, not only at Maghaberry, of course, but across our prison estate. They do tremendous work, and nobody, with the exception of their families, realises just how tremendous that work is. If there is a message that we need to send, it is this: we support you, we respect you and we will try and do everything that we can to better support you in your day job. Of course, it is not only a day job. Officers in the Prison Service are faced, every hour, with the risk of death, of assassination, of being blown to smithereens. That is something that I suspect is unbearable at times for the families and for the prison staff involved, both male and female, of course.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. Did it not gall prison officers, their families and the wider Northern Ireland public when the report that concluded that Maghaberry was the most dangerous prison also claimed that prison officers were under no greater threat here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom? Was the death of Adrian Ismay not a clear indication that our prison officers operate under a very different regime from that in any other part of the United Kingdom?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his intervention, and he is absolutely right: it is pie in the sky to think that our Prison Service operates in the same climate as that in the mainland UK or anywhere else in Europe. That is not the case.

We want to see an end to paramilitarism. We want to see an end to organised criminality. We want to see an end to any sort of terrorist organisations or activity. How do we achieve that? We have all said that we want an end to it, but how do we work and operate to achieve it? Our best way of achieving it is through the Fresh Start Agreement and the Executive action plan that has been published. That is our road map to ending not only the separation in our prisons but paramilitarism in its entirety. If there are paramilitaries out there, of whatever hue, and they are conducting terrorist activities, I want them arrested and imprisoned and out of harm's way.

We should also send out the message today that we are not back in the days of the Maze. Prisoners cannot dig tunnels and stockpile soil in a cell. It is controlled by the prison staff. Maghaberry is controlled by the very staff we place in there to protect us.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for giving way. I would just like to hear what he thinks about special treatment for paramilitaries when everybody else is locked down at lunchtime and dissident republicans are out playing football. Does he think that is fair? Does he think it should continue?

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for the intervention. That is not the message that should be going out. It is not special status. That is my point: they are separated, not special.

I have been to Roe House and Bush House: they are locked down. Prisoners are able to move in threes and fours, but that is all. The prison authorities have control, and it would be a mistake for a paramilitary organisation to get publicity from the fact that we think they control the prison. They do not, and they will not, because the prison authorities have it under control. Paramilitaries do not control Roe House, and the loyalists do not control Bush House. There is a lot of psychological warfare going on — there is absolutely no doubt about that — and they can pick on individual prison officers. That is wrong, but that is the calibre of prisoner that we are talking about.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will.

Mr Allister: It is interesting to hear the Member so assured that there is no control. Is part of the cancer in prisons that the present system creates an aura of Mr Bigs in the prison and then, when they are out in the streets, they still think that they are Mr Bigs who can dictate to the Government as well as everyone else?

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Attwood: The SDLP submitted an amendment to the Ulster Unionist motion in an attempt to comprehensively manage this issue across the island and across the multiple issues that we have to manage. When it comes to dealing with issues that have this sort of character, it is best that the Chamber is able to hear all the voices in that regard, so I want to address what we would have been proposing in an effort to navigate through this very difficult issue.

First, and I ask the Minister to reply to this in her response, there are two separate regimes on the island of Ireland, and the proposer referred to this. It is the view of the SDLP that if we are going to deal with the issue of separation, and the SDLP believes that it should be addressed, then it needs to be, as best as possible, addressed across the island of Ireland. Therefore, I asked the Minister to meet with the Minister of Justice and Equality in the Republic of Ireland to discuss where they see the issue of separation going, so that we try, as best as possible, to manage this in a coherent and common way as we go forward.

Secondly, the motion may have been less acute if the independent review that was endorsed by the Executive in the middle of July had actually commenced by now. I ask the Minister to advise where we are in respect of the independent review because, as indicated to the Justice Committee last week, as of now, a person has not been appointed to conduct that review. Given that it is part and parcel of the three-person panel report, we need to have action, and action quickly, in respect of the review.

Thirdly, how is the current system of separation operating with regard to those who seek to enter into a separated regime in the prison, because people of far greater authority than me, who observe and are involved in the management of prisoners, say to me and to others that those who seek to benefit, as they might see it, from the separated regime are rather casually able to do so. There is a lack of rigour in the assessment of a prisoner going into prison as to whether that prisoner should be permitted to go into the separated regime. It is becoming a matter of first choice — an easy option — and that is not the purpose for which the separated regime was established.

I remind the Minister that this issue has been interrogated by the Irish court system when it comes to the separated regime that exists in Portlaoise to the point where a court decided that a person seeking a separated regime in Portlaoise was not going to be allowed to have that option. There is a need for robust management of the current regime as we move beyond that, if that is the decision, to a different regime.

That was the spirit and content of what the SDLP would have proposed. In my view, it would have been a more comprehensive way, even more comprehensive than the words used by Sinn Féin, to navigate our way through this. Navigating a way through this is what we have to do. This issue is part of the residue of paramilitarism in our society, and all the issues that arise from that residue need to be addressed.

I know the reasons why the Ulster Unionists have brought this forward but, in our view, some of the language being used by them does not best serve the outcome required in this situation. As I said, in our view, what we would have proposed goes beyond where Sinn Féin is. I make all those comments in the context that I think that there should be a moderate tone in this debate.

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

Mr Attwood: The reason why there should be a moderate tone is that we are talking in the shadow of a murder in the streets of Belfast. That should focus our minds on paramilitarism and on moderating our language when we come to debate the matter.

Mr Lunn: I will deal with the motion first. We like it and support it, but that is not to say that it is perfect. It refers to the flawed decisions taken in 2003, and I think that Mr Beattie referred to subsequent decisions by the previous Justice Minister. All that I will say about that is that decisions were taken by people who knew what they were talking about in the best interests of security and health and safety in the prison. If they turned out to be flawed, it does not mean to say that they were automatically flawed to start with. It is a really difficult area, and I suspect that the current Minister will have to deal with it as a difficult area as well.

Other Members referred to the situation with prison staff, and I join with them. Nobody in our society, except, perhaps, PSNI officers, has had to suffer the level of threat, intimidation, strain and stress on their everyday lives that prison staff have had to suffer. Maybe it is because I represent Lisburn and, perhaps, others would say the same thing, but we hear a lot from prison staff on these issues, including from some who have had to retire prematurely because of activities that have happened in the separated regimes in Maghaberry. So, I absolutely agree that we should make every effort to come up with an integrationist solution and to end the separation as soon as possible.

The motion refers to timescales of 2021 and 2026 to finish all separation. Who could argue with that? If we cannot solve this situation within 10 years, frankly, what are we doing here? How many current prisoners will still be there in 10 years' time, clinging on to some kind of separationist status? It is time to move on this, so I thank the Ulster Unionists for bringing the motion before us.

It also refers to an Executive action plan. Sometimes, I think that, frankly, that is a contradiction in terms. However, that is not to say that, perhaps, this review, if it eventually starts — it is already five months behind — may not produce some fruit and will not sit on a shelf gathering dust. It is too important for that.

The panel made various recommendations, not all to do with separation. In fact, the one that it made on separation was pretty bland and vague. It just said that it should:

"Revisit the framework related to the separated regime and arrange for an independent review".

It did not commit itself to very much. In fact, it did not commit itself at all, except to set up a review. We could have looked for more than that from the panel, but there we are.

We have no difficulty with the amendment except that, perhaps, it does not go far enough. It refers to prisoners with diverse backgrounds who are subject to different court processes depending on the nature of their charges. Well, I am sorry for the proposer, but, as far as I am concerned, a criminal is a criminal. If he is in Maghaberry because he was sentenced to be there, the nature of the court does not really matter. This notion of political status and separation should be far behind us by now. We do not need that.

The rest of the motion —

Mr E McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr E McCann: Does the Member not agree that not all prisoners in Maghaberry are exactly the same or have exactly the same status? Will he factor the case of Mr Tony Taylor into his argument about all prisoners being the same in Maghaberry? Some have had due process; some have not.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

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Mr Lunn: Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a matter of opinion, is it not? I see a prisoner in Maghaberry as a prisoner in Maghaberry, and they should all be treated in the same way and have the same status. I do not find that a hard argument to defend.

The amendment seeks to get to the same solution without actually saying so and without timescales. Its wording is:

"evidencing the need for any changes and providing useful information for stakeholders to take forward, as proposed by the report".

Hopefully, we are all heading in the same direction and are on the same journey. We want a normalisation of our prison regime, and, whether we do it on the basis of fixed timescales or ongoing deliberations, surely it is not beyond us to have this settled within 10 years or, as Mr Beattie said, nine years; I see it as 10 years. We will support the motion — absolutely. We will not vote against the Sinn Féin amendment, but we will have to see what way the House goes on it.

Mrs Cameron: I rise as Deputy Chair of the Justice Committee and as a DUP Member to speak on the motion. Since 1986, Her Majesty's Prison Maghaberry has served to accommodate remand prisoners and those paramilitary prisoners not released under the Belfast Agreement. During the summer of 2003, a number of prisoners, largely dissident republicans, staged a series of protests aimed at reinstating the former Maze style of segregation and pushing for political prisoner status. A number of incidents occurred, including assaults, the planting of hoax devices, damage to cells and intimidation of officers, escalating to rooftop protests and dirty protests. This, coupled with demonstrations at the prison gates, attacks on officers' homes and the sending of a parcel bomb to the prison, led to the Government commissioning the Steele review to look at conditions in the prison. The findings of the report were accepted by the Secretary of State, and the process of segregation was quickly implemented. The changes caused immediate concern amongst prison officers. Indeed, the Prison Officers' Association at the time described it as a retrograde step. To my mind, it seemed that the voices of the people whom we rely on to deal with the changes on the ground were completely ignored. Whilst the changes were implemented with the safety and welfare of paramilitary prisoners in mind, it appears that the well-being and security of officers were disregarded, a position that continues to this day.

The separation of prisoners takes up a disproportionate amount of staffing resources, with separate units prioritised over the rest of the prison. Recent cases such as that of Paddy Kelly, who overdosed in March 2015, and of Sean Lynch, who blinded himself in custody, highlight the need for prison reform and a need to look at the mental health issues of prisoners and staff members. "Ordinary prisoners", to use that phrase, particularly those who are vulnerable, are being put at risk due to the additional pressures that are being put on the officers in monitoring the separated paramilitary wings.

I have spoken to a number of serving prison officers in recent months, all of whom highlighted the incredibly challenging conditions that they are working under. We are aware that, due to retirements and high sickness levels, a large number of staff have left the service. Newly recruited staff, following initial training, are learning on the job without the support of more experienced staff to fall back on. Coupled with a cut in the budget for training, we are left with staff who are overstretched and ill-equipped to deal with this incredibly difficult and specialised job. High staff turnover and sickness levels add to the pressures. Indeed, to quote one of my constituents, people view a job in the Prison Service as a stepping stone before they apply to the PSNI.

I believe that morale is incredibly low in the service, which must be addressed to advance a more settled regime for officers and prisoners alike. Any move towards ending the separation of paramilitary prisoners must be done primarily with the emphasis on ensuring the well-being and safety of prisoners and staff. It is encouraging to note that, since the unannounced inspection of the prison in May 2015, standards appear to have improved. I hope that that situation continues.

There is no doubt that Maghaberry is a completely unique prison, dealing with a completely unique set of circumstances. I have concerns about ending the separation of prisoners as it will need to be handled very carefully. It could be said that there is a catch-22 situation at play and that changing the status quo will require a considerable amount of dialogue not only with the prisoners themselves but with the associated organisations on the outside to ensure that change is received and implemented in a safe and non-violent manner, both for prisoners and officers.

In closing, the situation in Maghaberry is entirely like no other, and, therefore, any change to the regime is sure to be fraught with difficulties. There is a significant job of work to be carried out before an ending of separation is undertaken. The construction of the new cell block at the prison may, upon its 2019 handover, present an opportunity to implement change. In the interim, I hope that the Minister will engage with the review and subsequent reform process. The move to a normalised prison community will not be an easy process, but I feel that, in doing so, we will be taking a further step forward into the future of Northern Ireland.

Mr McCartney: I will speak in support of the amendment and in opposition to the motion tabled in the names of the Ulster Unionists. Central to our amendment is that there is already an independent review in place. The place to take the points outlined today is the independent review, where all of us can inform whatever decisions will be made. We will bring to that review, when it is in place, the same logic that we brought in 2003, when there was a resolution in August 2010 and to the Anne Owers prison reform report in 2011. Everyone should do that when having this discussion. The Ulster Unionists, in my opinion, have tried to predetermine the outcome of the review. Let us have the review, and let everybody have their input. The points can be made to that review, and then let the review determine what is the best way forward.

I echo the remarks made by Declan Kearney and Eamonn McCann about Tony Taylor. In the middle of this, there are prisoners who have not received due process. We have to come at the arguments or discussions on whether prisoners are the same and should be treated the same with that in mind. There is no doubt that, at the heart of this, there are political perspectives, and people have views of how prisoners should be treated. What people should bring to the independent review is the issue of good governance. Whatever your view of the prisoners and the impact of particular individuals inside and outside a prison, bring good governance to the discussion. My opinion, based on years of experience and talking to prison managers in recent times, is that forced integration as a policy does not work. That is what is at the core of the separated regime in Maghaberry. In my opinion, that was recognised by the John Steele report in 2003. Forced integration does not work. Indeed, it makes prisons very difficult to manage.

Look at it in the context of Maghaberry: the Anne Owers report in 2011 said very clearly that it was a difficult prison to manage, and each and every single CJI report reinforces that position. We should consider that when trying to steer a way out the last report of the CJI. People have their own interpretations of that. There was a quote from one of the inspectors and that was if it carried, but I think that all of us would agree that where Maghaberry found itself in the last report is not where it should be. Imagine implanting into that a decision that would force prisoners to integrate. If Maghaberry is difficult to manage in the current circumstances, how much more difficult would it be to manage if we took the decision to support a motion on forcing prisoners to integrate? Show me a prison system in a similar circumstance anywhere in the world where the governance of a prison is designed so that people are forced to integrate. I can tell you that it has not worked and will not work. That is why we tabled an amendment. When there is an independent review, we will bring that to it.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank Mr McCartney for giving way. I assume that he agrees with his colleague Mr Kearney that one of the functions of a prison is to help to prepare prisoners for rehabilitation into society. How does he think that it is helpful in preparing somebody to go into a society based on a shared future and shared space to force them to live in a segregated present?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCartney: Thank you very much. They are not forced to live there; they do it by choice. Anybody who has looked at rehabilitation knows that you cannot force people into a rehabilitation process; it has to be a process where the prisoner volunteers and works with the prison staff to get the outcome of rehabilitation so that when they go back out they will be better people. If people choose to opt out of that, you cannot force them into rehabilitation either. Your point reinforces the point I am making, which is that the independent review is the place to bring all these issues.

Where the Alliance Party is concerned, in 2011 Anne Owers explicitly said that Maghaberry should be separated into three mini-prisons, with one to house that particular group of prisoners. That was supported at the time by the Minister and, indeed, in broad terms across the Assembly. I heard no objections at the Justice Committee or at the debate in the Assembly saying that that was the wrong thing to do. It was not called a "flawed decision" then. I think what we are seeing here is that, as opportunities now arise with this new world of the Opposition, they have to find things that, in my opinion, divide people when it is not necessary. The review will examine all the issues, as it should, but I will say this, and I will say it with confidence: if you talk privately to prison managers, you will find they will tell you that forced integration in Maghaberry will ensure the next report from the CJI will be worse than the reports we have had to date.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Mr McCartney: We will not be supporting the motion.

Mr Douglas: I will speak as a member of the Justice Committee, and I certainly welcome the debate. When I look at the Justice Committee, I realise these issues have been raised a number of times, so I think it is quite timely we have this debate and look at the way forward, and part of that way forward is to have the prison review and to go through that.

Doug Beattie paid tribute to the bravery of the prison officers, and I certainly reiterate that in terms of their commitment and dedication. Over the years, many of those people have made the ultimate sacrifice. Just in March this year, Adrian Ismay, one of my neighbours down the road, made the ultimate sacrifice himself.

In one sense, we have a problem. I have often been involved in mediation between various groups over the years. One of the things I came to realise is that if there is a problem, we should name it. Brendan McGuigan, the chief inspector of the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, came to our Committee on a couple of occasions. He said that the separate regime for dissident republicans and loyalists at Maghaberry jail was a disproportionate drain on resources that requires a radical new approach. That is what we are looking for, no matter how long it is going to take us, because:

"They are taking up a disproportionate amount of senior management attention and resources to deliver an unrestricted regime often at the expense of the rest of the prison population."

There are major issues surrounding Maghaberry prison. But let me say that we are not alone. My colleague Alastair Ross, when he was Chairman of our Committee, said at the time that:

"We often talk about Maghaberry being one of the most complex prisons in Europe and unique",

— we agree with that, but that:

"in Great Britain, Islamic terrorists are kept in prison, so there are, one would imagine, similar challenges there."

It is interesting that, at this point in time, the Government are investigating specialist units on the mainland. Those are made up of convicted extremists who promote terror and violence and who are to be isolated from the general prison population and placed in new specialist units under plans to be announced by the Government. In one sense, we are not alone, and the British Government have realised they have a major problem with young Muslims being radicalised within prisons.

There has to be a recognition that there is a problem. The Minister said, probably just this morning, that integration was generally best. I think that we all agree with that. However, she went on to say that, if it is not done right — I am paraphrasing her — it will have a serious and disruptive impact on good order, discipline and the security of the prison as a whole.

1.15 pm

We need to ensure that the security and safety of prison officers is at the heart of the changes that come about. It does not matter when they occur, whether it is in four years, as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, or in Doug Beattie's suggested nine or 10 years.

We certainly do not want to exacerbate the situation, but I see it as being similar to the one for peace lines. I live a mile from a peace line, and I would love to see every peace line in Northern Ireland taken down. The reality is that the people who live in those communities, particularly those living behind the peace walls, will not argue for them to come down until they feel safe and that they are not worrying when they go to bed at night about a petrol bomb or a brick coming through their window. The situation with prison officers is similar. I have spoken to some, and of course they want to see change, but that change has to be done in a managed and professional way, taking in what the Minister has said today.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Mr Douglas: If we do not do it in a disciplined fashion, it will come back to haunt us all.

Mr Butler: Like many Members have done, I go on record to thank my former colleagues in the Prison Service for their bravery and for the work that they do in arduous circumstances.

I welcome the opportunity to support Doug Beattie's motion, which is critical to the continued viability of Maghaberry prison. I feel that I am in a unique position to speak to the motion. I speak with the benefit of four years' experience working as a prison officer in Maghaberry prison, from 1996 to 2000, which is the hardest job that I have done to date. I have first-hand experience of the difficulties faced by staff, particularly around safety and the management of facilities and resources. Moreover, that I live just outside Maghaberry and represent Lagan Valley in the House gives me a unique insight into issues that are faced there. Frankly, my main concern is safety: for the officers, the non-uniform staff and the prisoners. There is no reason that we cannot have all three.

As has clearly been evidenced today, however, the current policy of prisoner segregation is not working. In no way does it increase the safety of staff or prisoners. In fact, it undermines it. The decision taken in 2003 to enforce prisoner segregation was flawed at the time and makes even less sense in 2016. It promotes a two-tier prison service, which only heightens tensions in the prison and perpetuates the false narrative that we have political prisoners.

That the staff and even the families of staff — that is my family whom I am talking about — have had, and continue to have, their personal safety jeopardised from the outworkings of prisoner segregation is disgusting. Did the deaths of David Black or Adrian Ismay further a peaceful political cause? The truth is that they absolutely did not. They were murdered. I cannot accept the mantra that we are still living in a peace process with ongoing political prisoners. At what point do we, as a society, finally move from a process into normality? As we seek to integrate our society and our societal differences more and more, why do we allow ourselves to be haunted by the spectre of the past?

We find ourselves at a critical juncture regarding making history. By not allowing the mistakes of the past to influence good decision-making and by accepting and recognising the amendment from Sinn Féin, we would be legitimising an artificial regime. That would tell us that we have not learnt from our mistakes and would perpetuate the Executive's inability to develop Maze/Long Kesh for the people of Lagan Valley and Northern Ireland.

Let us not forget — it has been well covered today — the purpose of custodial establishments like Maghaberry. There is a duty on the Justice Minister and the Executive to ensure the safety and well-being of staff, visitors and inmates. I can tell you that resources are stretched to breaking point. I am in regular contact with former colleagues who are concerned not only for their own well-being but for that of colleagues and prisoners as well. The strain of the current regime at Maghaberry cannot, and should not, be maintained indefinitely, as has been suggested, not solely for financial reasons but for the poor impact on the mental health of staff and prisoners alike.

I wholeheartedly commend the motion proposed by my party colleague, and I believe that nine or 10 years is more than generous, Mr Beattie, in which to normalise the Prison Service at Maghaberry, and we have more than enough time to do that.

Mr E McCann: Thank you, Mr Speaker; I was not expecting to be called, but it is a pleasure.

When we talk about the changes that have been made in Maghaberry prison and the problems that have arisen there, we ought to look back a wee bit further than the last couple of years. We have heard mentioned the cases of Sean Lynch and Patrick Kelly, after which, of course, we had all manner of assurances that lessons had been learnt and that things were going to change.

I put it to the Members who made those arguments or observations about Maghaberry that they should ask themselves whether all the problems, difficulties and inadequacies that were referred to in relation to those cases were clear to be seen in the case of Annie Kelly, aged 19, who hanged herself from the wire mesh covering of the window in her cell, back in 2002. At that time, there were extensive inquiries and clear-cut, explicit and ringing declarations that all the problems that had been identified would be seen to. Indeed, I have had from the Minister of Justice, in an answer to a recent question, a suggestion that the defects in the Prison Service at that time had been remedied.

Annie Kelly's family, from Strabane, with whom I have been speaking in recent days, are still waiting for some explanation as to how a 19-year-old child, whose problems had been widely signalled, including by the prison staff, could have ended her life in that way. Indeed, a senior member of the prison staff at Maghaberry at that time wrote to Annie Kelly's solicitor. I saw the letter. It said that the prison staff knew that Annie Kelly should not have been in Maghaberry and that it was no place for her. It said explicitly that she was in danger of harming herself and even of suicide. That was said, and, as she did commit suicide, we are entitled to ask questions about the overall regime in Maghaberry and whether the present situation, regime or authorities would be capable — assuming that they are mindful — to manage the transition suggested in the motion in a proper and legitimate way.

I can tell you now, and Mr McCartney was, I think, coming close to saying the same thing, that if you impose integration on the prisoners at Maghaberry, you will not solve any problem. You will reap a whirlwind. You are going to have serious violence within the prison. I do not say that with any sense of pleasure or anticipation of it happening; I am simply telling you that, in my view and judgement, based on my experience of campaigning on these matters and my knowledge of prisoners, some of them in Maghaberry at the moment, I have no doubt that you will be making a very serious mistake to push this.

A couple of moments ago, the point was made by Mr Douglas, I think, that it is simply not the case that all prisoners are regarded as having equal status in this jurisdiction, the Southern jurisdiction or across the water. We heard a few moments ago that all prisoners are the same. They are not the same. If a prisoner is in Maghaberry on the basis of the signature of a Secretary of State and not on the basis of having been brought to court on any charge — that is the situation in the case of Tony Taylor — then we have established clearly that there are differences in status. If Tony Taylor is not a political prisoner, what type of prisoner is he? He is certainly not a convicted prisoner.

Incidentally, if we begin to look at separation in our schools then maybe we can move on to the more difficult question of separation in Maghaberry. If children were allowed to learn multiplication tables in the same room then, perhaps, we would have some ground of principle on which to stand to say that prisoners should be kept in the same accommodation. It is not going to work.

Finally, my main point is this —

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

Mr E McCann: We should look back. When I hear that Annie Kelly's case has been resolved to the satisfaction of her family, I will take the motion seriously.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Edwin Poots, who will have two minutes.

Mr Poots: We will not be supporting the motion or the amendment. The motion is flawed in that it identifies that the Steele report was wrong in the first instance but then proposes to take nine years to unravel it. If the separation of prisoners is worth ending, it is worth doing it much faster than over nine years.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Poots: I cannot; I have only two minutes. The motion is wholly and completely flawed. What else should we expect from a party whose previous policy on prisons was to allow the prisoners out and let them go free? When you see weak policy coming from the party that agreed to free prisoners in the first instance, that does not come as any surprise.

What is absolutely important here is the safety of the prison. I have to say that Maghaberry prison has become a much less safe place for prisoners and prison staff to be over the last five years than it was before. There has been an absolute failure in prisons over the past five years. I wish the current Minister well, but she will have to listen to the people on the ground and not ignore them. Our staff are hugely important. They have a wealth of experience, and to have that dismissed and to fly people in from England to stay in the Culloden Hotel to run our prisons and fly them back again after spending two or three days here was a failed means of carrying out the running of our prisons. We need to listen to the people on the ground and we need to identify the issues that they are raising with us.

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

Mr Poots: We must ensure that their voices are heard and that our prisons are better managed.

Ms Sugden (The Minister of Justice): I would like to thank Mr Beattie and Mr Beggs, for bringing this very important issue to the Assembly, and the proposers of the amendment. I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue in the Chamber today. It is something that we often tend not to talk about, but it is important that we do.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service has a very important role to play in keeping Northern Ireland safe against the backdrop of a continuing threat from dissident republicanism and all types of paramilitarism. No one should underestimate the considerable challenges that arise from having separated areas for paramilitary prisoners in Maghaberry prison.

In accepting the recommendations of the Steele review team report in 2003, the Government at the time committed to providing separate accommodation for paramilitary prisoners who, on the grounds of their personal safety, wished to be held apart from prisoners belonging to other paramilitary groups and those who belonged to no such groups. The rationale for that decision was that separation provided the best option for improving conditions at Maghaberry prison, particularly in relation to the safety of all staff and prisoners.

Some may question the efficacy of that decision and cite the challenges that operating a separated regime in Maghaberry has posed since its introduction in 2004 as evidence that it was a flawed decision. However, it is important to remember that the review was commissioned in response to violent clashes between rival groups in the integrated population in Maghaberry prison at that time and in the face of a dirty protest by some prisoners.

As Members are aware, decisions on who can be admitted to separated conditions are made by prison staff acting under the direction of the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State also has responsibility for setting the criteria under which applications for separation are considered. However, the operation and management of the separated regime are the responsibility of the Prison Service. It is provided at Maghaberry prison with Bush House for loyalist prisoners and Roe House for republican prisoners. There are 42 prisoners in separation: 16 in Bush and 26 in Roe.

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I want to be clear from the outset that, contrary to opinion, the arrangements for separation in Maghaberry are very different from those that existed previously in prisons in Northern Ireland. A key principle of Steele was that the Government would never again concede complete control of landings in a prison, as had happened at the Maze. Separation at Maghaberry prison today is not the same as Maze-style segregation, which allowed prisoners to be unlocked continuously and saw the withdrawal of staff from the landings. The Prison Service ensures that the separated landings, as is the case with the rest of the prison, are controlled by staff and not by prisoners. There will not be a return to Maze-like conditions.

As far as possible, the Prison Service strives to deliver a regime consistent with that of the integrated population, whilst cognisant that many of the prisoners are in custody because they have committed very serious offences. However, as the motion notes, there are consequences to operating a separated regime, and it is most despicable that some members of our society have sought to use it as justification for attacks on prison staff, including the awful murders of David Black and Adrian Ismay. Attacks such as these and the ongoing intimidation of staff are of grave concern to me and are entirely unacceptable.

I know that working in such an environment can have a far-reaching impact on the lives of the staff affected and their families. The determination of prison staff and management to continue to deliver a positive and constructive regime against such a challenging backdrop must be commended. I will listen to the people on the ground so that I can best understand how to support them and how I can ask my Department to support them.

Maghaberry can be a stressful environment to work in, and I want to make sure that adequate support is made available to all my prison officers in this respect. I am committed to ensuring that specific training continues to be provided to maintain staff resilience and to prevent conditioning; that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure that officers working in separated conditions are rotated on a regular basis and have the opportunity to work in different areas of the prison; and that, where needed, prison officers are provided with the appropriate supports and services to prevent this environment from having an impact on their mental health and well-being.

Notwithstanding the impact on staff, operating a separated regime within the confines of a normal prison presents other significant challenges. Whilst prisoners held in separation account for less than 5% of the total population of 919, the management of separated accommodation places significant pressures on the Northern Ireland Prison Service in a number of ways, including the staffing resource required to manage this challenging group of prisoners; the ability to establish and maintain a stable, normalised regime without impacting on safety and security; and the provision of services and interventions that meet the needs of that segment of the population. Those are the real challenges that operational staff in Maghaberry face daily, and I wish to put on record my appreciation of their continued dedication and professionalism. Prison officers serve the entire community in Northern Ireland, and I am so grateful for their commitment and dedication to that service.

It is also the case that prisoners in separation require a disproportionate amount of senior management attention. As reflected in the motion, Maghaberry is unique. It is a large, complex prison, and the requirement to provide a separated regime is, undoubtedly, a significant contributory factor to that complexity. Management decisions are made in the context of intense public and political scrutiny, and it is often necessary to balance considerations in respect of issues such as controlled movement and searching arrangements against ensuring that a safe and secure environment is maintained. It also means addressing the impact that such decisions may have on the safety of staff inside and outside the prison and the impact that managing a resource-intense separated area has on the rest of the prison. It is not an easy balance to achieve.

The motion refers to the Executive's action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. I fully agree that the three-person panel report and the Executive plan provide important context for the discussion of the motion. Members will be aware that the Executive published their action plan on tackling paramilitary activity on 19 July. The plan set out our initial response to the three-person panel report on disbanding paramilitary groups and sought to draw together the recommendations made by the panel and the commitments made in Fresh Start. That response demonstrates the Executive's intention to develop a strategic approach to this programme of work, and, for that reason, the action plan is based on the four themes set out in the three-person panel report: promoting lawfulness, support for transition, tackling criminal activity and addressing systemic issues.

The action plan outlines a combination of approaches to tackling paramilitary activity and the associated criminality. It recognises the importance of a strong law enforcement response to the threats created by the issue, whilst noting the need to support communities in transition and to focus on preventative work, particularly with young people who may be susceptible to becoming involved in paramilitary activity.

Importantly, the independent three-person panel report recognised that the time is not yet right to end separation. It noted, however, that the ultimate aim must be to secure the end of a separated regime for paramilitary prisoners as we move to a more normal and peaceful society. I agree. Having noted that this is a longer-term commitment, the panel recommended that the DOJ revisit the framework related to the separated regime and arrange for an independent review to be undertaken to examine the operation of the regime. I have accepted the panel's recommendation and have instructed officials in my Department to develop terms of reference for an independent review and to identify the stakeholders that will need to be engaged in the process. Work has also begun to identify individuals with the necessary skills to lead the review. When complete, the review will provide me with a report and recommendations on the future of separated conditions in the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

In summing up, I want to make a number of points. I absolutely recognise the difficulties associated with operating a separated regime in Maghaberry prison and the daily challenges that it presents to staff and to operational work. Accommodating prisoners in normal, integrated prison accommodation is the most appropriate approach to the management of prisoners in Northern Ireland, as it provides the best opportunities for rehabilitation and successful reintegration into the community on release. It is clear to me, however, that, as long as prisoners who refuse to integrate into the normal prison population remain, it is my duty to ensure that the safest possible conditions exist for staff and prisoners. I believe that forcing those prisoners to do so would have a serious disruptive effect on the good order, discipline and security of the prison as a whole.

As I stated, the three-person panel report noted that our ultimate aim must be to secure the end to a separated regime for paramilitary prisoners, but it is only in the context of a more normal and peaceful society that a proper discussion about the timescale for an end to separation can take place. In the meantime, I am fully committed to delivering on the panel's recommendation on separation, which is to revisit the framework and arrange for an independent review to be carried out.

I do not disagree with the intent of the motion: we should aspire to end separation, and we have already committed to ending all paramilitarism through Fresh Start. Maybe it will happen in nine years, but it needs to happen in a more peaceful and safer Northern Ireland. We must not underestimate the current severe threat that has claimed the lives of two prison officers and threatens officers daily. Members are correct: we need to address separation. However, the focus needs to be on the right solution in the safest environment for prison officers and wider society. I cannot support a motion that focuses on a time frame rather than on the right solution. We have committed to a solution through Fresh Start: a high-level series of actions to be taken in response to the recommendations made by the three-person panel.

Mr Attwood made comments about the action plan and progress. As I stated, there will be an independent review. I do not have a time frame for you today, but it is not sitting on a shelf. We are developing it. The terms of reference are in development, and work is progressing. The action plan is a high-level acceptance of our commitment to tackle paramilitarism. It is not an easy issue, and there is no overnight fix or even a five-month fix. It is irresponsible to expect anything sooner. The correct mechanism for delivering progress on the challenging issues that result from the separation of prisoners at Maghaberry is through the action plan in response to the three-person panel report.

Ms J McCann: At the outset, I want to say that the Ulster Unionist Party motion beggars belief. The proposer was quite exercised about his support for the Fresh Start Agreement, but the fact that his party does not even support the Fresh Start Agreement makes it a bit ridiculous that he was quoting pieces of it and picking and choosing pieces that he wanted to support.

We heard from a lot of Members. Our amendment would give the best possible outcome in prisons. We want prisons to be manageable — that is what we are about — but human dignity, decency and respect, both for prisoners and for prison staff, has to be made paramount, and that is what our amendment does.

I will just go over the 2010 August agreement very quickly. Independent facilitators took a lot of time and energy to go into the prison to speak not only to prisoners but to prison staff and management. They came up with recommendations that controlled movement and strip searches be stopped and that prison officers be allowed to do their job without fear, threat or intimidation. That agreement seemed to be the best at the time for all the people involved. We then saw the toing and froing and what happened when that agreement was not put in place.

As my colleagues said, forced integration of prisoners does not work. Sammy Douglas crystallised it when he said that, if we do not force people on the outside to live together, how can we force people on the inside to live together? We have to get to a place where people want that. The reality is that Maghaberry prison is not there yet, and people need to be realistic and take cognisance of that.

I will go through some of what Members said. The proposer of the amendment, my colleague Declan Kearney, said that all prison staff, prisoners and their families should be treated with dignity and respect, and that neither prisoners nor prison staff should be degraded in any way. He quite rightly pointed out, as I did, that, although the proposer of the motion quoted the 'Fresh Start Agreement' — he was quite exercised about it — his party opposed the agreement at the time. He went into the issue of there being a security mindset that needs to be replaced by a rehabilitation culture. We saw what happened years ago when a security mindset was forced into prisons. We need to see that prisons are about rehabilitation and treating people with dignity and respect, and that goes right across the board: I am not talking just about prisoners; it has to be for prison staff as well.

He went on to point out the recent case of Sean Lynch from Derry. It was most traumatic even listening to that young man's father on the news, talking about how his son had blinded himself, and then to Sean Lynch himself. As a number of Members said, we need to look at how prisoners with mental health issues are treated in prison. It is not the place for them, and even some of the staff would tell you that. Quite a lot of Members mentioned others who had taken their life in prison. We need to look, in any review of prisons, at why people with severe mental health issues are there is the first place.

My colleague Raymond McCartney made the key point that the prison environment should be kept free of all outside political interference. That is crucial because that is not what prison is about. Prison is not about us coming here and battling it out over wee motions, which is what the Opposition seem to be doing. Prison is there for the care and rehabilitation of prisoners —

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

Ms J McCann: Sorry. Very quickly, our focus should be on making Maghaberry a stable, stress-free and safe environment for all staff, prisoners and those who visit, as my colleague Declan Kearney said. I support the amendment.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Roy Beggs to wind up the debate on the motion. The Member has up to 10 minutes.

Mr Beggs: Like my colleague Doug Beattie and many others, I will start my comments by praising prison officers and staff for their dedication and professionalism in the very difficult environment in which we have placed them to look after prisoners on our behalf. The system that we set up results in shortages and difficulties for them in doing their jobs as best they can. There were other comments from Paul Frew, Trevor Lunn, Sammy Douglas, Robbie Butler, Pam Cameron and indeed the Minister recognising this during the debate.

1.45 pm

My colleague Doug highlighted that the motion that we have crafted is an attempt to dovetail into Fresh Start and the action plan to end paramilitary activity, because if we are going to end paramilitary activity outside prison, we also need to work to end the arrangements for segregation of paramilitaries inside prison, where they do have undue influence. He indicated that segregation was introduced in haste in 2003 against the wishes of prison governors, the Prison Officers' Association and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was adopted within a month, and we still have it today. Many in the Chamber are saying that a maximum of nine years is not sufficient time to have it removed. Some say that it is too long. If you look at the motion, you see that we have said, "by 2021" and that, "by 2026", it should be completely over. If there is willingness, it could be done much sooner. I hope that that would be the case. It is false to criticise the motion on those longer time frames.

I turn to some other things that were said. It is important that the Assembly indicates its view on the matter, because ultimately the Secretary of State has a role in bringing about that change. Like Doug Beattie, Alex Attwood highlighted the need to deal with the separated regime. He specifically indicated the difficulty with there being a segregated or separated regime in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland. I agree that that issue needs to be dealt with. Again, the time frame that is envisaged should allow that to happen easily if there is goodwill.

The Assembly faces a stark choice; a choice between the motion in my name and that of Doug Beattie, which sees a normal society and prison system, and the torturous language of the Sinn Féin amendment, which can be easily read as blaming our court system for a separated regime in our prisons. When you look carefully at the wording, you see that that is how it can be easily interpreted.

2016 is 20 years after the announcement of the paramilitary ceasefires and 18 years after the Belfast Agreement. Surely that is long enough for change to happen. Why do we have any paramilitary prisoners? That is the question that must be asked. The motion calls for no fresh admissions by 2021 — let us endeavour to have it sooner — and to end separation by 2026. Again, let us have that sooner. There is a vision of integrating prisoners within the Executive's action plan for tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. Again, many spoke about the need to do that. It needs to happen in prisons as well as in outside society.

The Ulster Unionists have been to the fore in moving Northern Ireland towards a normal society. We believe that the decision to establish separated wings was a flawed one in 2003. As my colleague Robbie Butler very ably explained, if the decision was flawed then, the experience that we have seen since — particularly the violence that we have seen, with prison officers being attacked in their homes and, indeed, prison officers Black and Ismay having lost their lives — shows that it is still flawed today; even more so.

Some DUP Members, Paul Frew for instance, spoke of their party's opposition to separating prisoners. It was with surprise that I heard later that Edwin Poots indicated that their party would vote against the motion. I cannot explain that one. There can be little doubt that concentrating paramilitary prisoners in separated wings has a significant adverse effect on other aspects of the prison, including prison officers' morale, and, indeed, it also has consequences outside our jails.

The 2015 Criminal Justice Inspection report is also damning of the current arrangement, which gives special treatment to paramilitary prisoners. Paragraph S48, which is about separated units, states:

"They provide only a containment function but ... consume a disproportionate amount of staff and management resources to the detriment of the majority of the population."

It also states:

"Staffing levels in the units were prioritised ... regardless of what happened in the rest of the prison."

That point was also highlighted by Sammy Douglas. The report also refers to knock-on effects, such as the inadequate care of vulnerable prisoners, which Eamonn McCann highlighted. When you take prison officers away from other sections of the prison, regardless of the impact on those other sections, to maintain the separated regime to a very high level, including playing football at lunchtime when everybody else is locked down, guess what? Mistakes happen, and things go wrong. There are consequences to blindly going forward and maintaining a separated unit. There are consequences to prioritising staffing levels over those in the rest of the prison and creating more favourable conditions in the separated unit. Alex Attwood highlighted the issue that how people enter the prison is highly questionable. Are people thinking that they will be better off if they move into the segregated unit? Is the system encouraging people to link up with paramilitary organisations and benefit from the segregated unit? It is vital that we do not encourage and maintain such structures. Doing so will possibly even contribute to recruitment.

Other aspects of the report indicated that, on the day of the inspection, the mail facility was closed owing to staff shortages. No doubt,staff were providing supervision for football in the segregated unit or something like that. The important aspect of handling mail for all prisoners was not facilitated. Paragraph 2.12 indicates:

"Managers and staff told us that a large proportion of staff sickness was caused by working conditions in Roe House, with shortages met by staff from other houses."

That is just what I have been saying.

The Minister, in her response, indicated that there was training for staff resilience and rotation of staff on the segregated wings, but I am still picking up that there is a chill factor and a difficulty for prison officers operating in the segregated units. Is that because of the concentration of prisoners? Do they think that they can dominate and impose their wish on the staff? While some Members spoke of the fact that the prisoners did not control the wings, it is undoubtedly the case that they have undue influence.

We benefited greatly from hearing from Robbie Butler about his experience. I thank him for that. His concern for officers, non-uniformed staff and prisoners was obvious. He made the point that segregation was not working.

I am particularly concerned about the language of the amendment. It states that Maghaberry is unique because of:

"the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with diverse backgrounds who are subject to different court processes depending on the nature of their charges".

It is almost saying that we have the segregated units because of the court processes and it is all the courts' fault. Much of Europe does not have juries. That is a British judicial tradition that I wish to uphold. It is reflected largely in the Republic of Ireland as well. In February this year — this epitomises why there is a difficulty — a Fianna Fáil councillor highlighted why there was a need for the Special Criminal Court in the Republic: 12 jurors could not be got from 729 people for a case in Limerick. It is important —

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

Mr Beggs: — that we protect the jury system and the justice system and do not allow courts to take the blame. We must move forward as a community and create an integrated prison, just as we need an integrated society.

Mr Speaker: Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, so I suggest that, by leave of the Assembly, we suspend the sitting until that time. The Question on the amendment will be put immediately after Question Time. The sitting is, by leave, suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.54 pm and resumed at 2.00 pm.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions


Ms Sugden (The Minister of Justice): Educating the public on how to keep safe online and prevent cybercrime is a high priority for government. The Get Safe Online website is an ongoing resource that provides advice, including a specific section on safeguarding children. This year’s Get Safe Online Day was on 18 October, and an associated awareness campaign urged the public and small businesses to make every day safer by treating online security as essential "life admin". I had the opportunity to visit the PSNI’s e-crime centre, where it was clearly demonstrated that there are considerable challenges in safeguarding children and young people against the associated dangers of online exploitation and grooming.

The Marshall report on child sexual exploitation contained recommendations for my Department, including the need to examine a range of legislative issues. A review paper is currently under development. A range of protective measures are already in place including sexual offences prevention orders, statutory notification requirements and child protection disclosures. The Probation Board for Northern Ireland delivers a range of programmes to convicted sexual offenders, one of which specifically targets those who have made, possessed or distributed indecent images of children through electronic media. Policing and community safety partnerships across Northern Ireland also play a key role in educating our children and young people to stay safe online. Many, including those in the Member's constituency, will deliver a diverse range of initiatives in local schools and communities this year to keep the awareness of children, young people and, indeed, their parents heightened to the dangers that can and do lurk online.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the detail that she has outlined. One of the UK's most senior police officers has said that he believes that at least 100,000 men in the UK regularly look at obscene images of children online. Can the Minister really provide any assurances that she, her Department and, indeed, the Executive are increasing the prioritisation of the safety of our young people and are investing in real online protection and in the identification of such predators, especially considering that years after the call for a cross-departmental Internet safety strategy, it remains outstanding?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. Yes, I believe that there is a renewed focus on child sexual exploitation, particularly online forms of it. We are becoming more aware of the nature of these offences, and current legislation, such as the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 and the disclosure scheme on child sexual exploitation, enable us to militate against them. I take on board the Member's comments that it is something that we need to have continued focus on, because these are our children and, often, when the bedroom doors are closed, we are not aware of what they are doing. We have a responsibility, both as a Government and as parents, to ensure that we keep our children safe online. I think it was said that 70% of the population now accessed material online, and, undoubtedly, the majority of them are children and young people. There is a definite need to provide a more targeted focus. When I visited the PSNI's e-crime safety unit only last week, that focus was happening, but much more needs to be done. It is almost one of those issues that I am not sure we will ever get on top of, because it is so colossal, but, as a Government, we are looking at how we can mitigate it in as many circumstances as possible.

Ms Armstrong: Just following on from what the Minister has discussed, this week is Parenting NI week, and it is discussing online digital safety, especially for teenagers. Can the Minister confirm what correspondence she has had with the cybercrime unit about the changes in legislation that are needed to combat the increasingly difficult challenges from this sort of crime? How will that be communicated to parents to ensure that they can support teenagers to stay safe online?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. I have had no specific suggestions about what legislation we need to put in place to better tackle this issue.

However, I do agree that this is a multiagency approach, not only with the PSNI, but also in our schools, in the Department for Communities, and in the Department of Health. We need to look at all Departments to see where these crimes can impregnate themselves, particularly amongst our children and young people.

I appreciate the Member's highlighting this important week for parenting. Parents and families have a responsibility to understand what their children and young people are doing whilst they are online. It is not always easy. We conduct a lot of our activity on smartphones, and children, I am sure, do not like you looking over their shoulder, but there needs to be a sense of trying to educate children and young people to the dangers that they face online. That is not something that the Government can do alone, and indeed, they need to support parents in doing that.

Nothing has been done as yet, but I am keen to look at this. Other Members have raised it with me, and it is one of those issues that unless we start tackling it now it might be difficult to get on top of later.

Ms Sugden: The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) takes the duty of care for all individuals it holds in custody extremely seriously. Identifying and supporting prisoners with mental health issues during custody remains a priority for NIPS, and, since becoming Minister, I have instructed officials to ensure that focus on addressing prisoner and prison officer mental health remains at the forefront of their work.

The prison population stood at 1,499 on 16 October 2016, and 391 prisoners were recorded as having been diagnosed with a mental health issue on that date: 26% of the prisoner population. There is an obvious problem here, and it is something that we need to give full consideration to. In the overall prisoner population there were 1,107 sentenced prisoners, of whom 173 were recorded as having a mental illness.

The Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which is responsible for the delivery of healthcare in prisons, are committed to providing effective services to vulnerable people in custody.

The Minister of Health and I visited Hydebank Wood on 27 September to discuss health issues in prisons, particularly mental health. I will continue to work with Minister O'Neill to ensure that children, young people and adults in the criminal justice system are healthier, safer and less likely to be involved in offending behaviour.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. If I heard her correctly, it sounds as if there is a suspicion that perhaps one in four people in the criminal justice system should not be there because of their mental health and well-being. I ask the Minister whether she is considering a multi-agency approach. For example, the PSNI argues that sometimes they go to the scene, lift somebody, and put them in a cell and therefore into the criminal justice system where the proper path, for the benefit of that individual, and therefore of society, lies elsewhere.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his comments and, indeed, his question. Entirely, there needs to be a multi-agency approach to tackling mental health, not just for those in custody but right at the beginning of the criminal justice process, and that begins with the police.

We also need to feed that through, perhaps in courts before a conviction has even taken place. However, if that results in a custodial sentence, how do we deal with prisoners whilst they are in our care and then afterwards? After all, prison sentences are not indefinite, and prisoners will eventually come out into society.

In the best interests of a safer community we need to ensure that we have rehabilitated not just prisoners' behaviour but their health as well. There has to be a multi-agency approach to tackling mental health issues in prisons. I recently met a forensic mental health team in the Northern Trust, and a lot of the work that it is doing is a good model for how we could move forward in this area. I look forward to seeing how we can explore that further.

Ms S Bradley: Given the acute issues with mental health in our prisons, and across society in general, can the Minister advise on details of any new bid for increased moneys to address mental health issues as part of the proposal to deal with the past?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. No, I have not received any bids in that area, but the Member raises an important point. I have said in the House before that one of the biggest legacies of the past is mental health. The Troubles were a deep trauma for everyone involved, both directly and indirectly, and we need to focus on the fact that there will be out
workings of that.

It is happening now, particularly when a lot of people are now in retirement and are starting to think about those issues. I have not had a bid in that area, but I am interested to see how this area of work develops, alongside the Health Minister. This is her area, but when it comes into the justice system it crosses over into my remit. I think that, together, whether it is Health, Justice, Communities or Education, we need an interdepartmental approach to mental health. Outside the Executive and the House, we also need to look at agencies and our communities to see how we can best tackle the matter.

I am quite heartened by the conversations that we are having on mental health because it is important, and it is too often forgotten about. Indeed, since the beginning of this term, there has been a focus on it. That can be only a good thing because there are significant mental health problems throughout society, not least in my prisons, and, if we were to address them, we could address significant wider societal problems.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Does she agree with me that mental health issues do not just stop when a prisoner gets out of prison? When a prisoner is released, they are transferred into the community and into families. Will the Minister also look at the mental health work that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland is doing with clients?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. The Probation Board does fantastic work in preparing prisoners on their release. Indeed, mental health does not begin or end by coming into prison. The structure of prison can help to regulate some mental health problems — namely, through medication. However, it takes a wider approach than that, perhaps through other types of therapy. My difficulty is that, when prisoners are released into the community after serving their time in custody, they almost go back to square one because those support mechanisms are not necessarily in place, so their chances of reoffending increase. My approach to mental health, alongside the Health Minister, is that I am quite keen to begin with a preventative approach, perhaps even looking at whether we should send people with severe mental health issues to prison at all, looking at the support available when they are in custody and a post-custody approach to ensure that they do not reoffend, with the vicious circle beginning all over again. It helps no one: it does not help wider society, and it causes a lot of problems. From a pragmatic point of view, it wastes an awful lot of resources and money. I think that there is a responsibility on this Government to address the matter quite seriously.

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Will she tell us what provision exists to support prisoners with autism or ADHD?

Ms Sugden: When prisoners come into custody, their circumstances are assessed. If I am really honest, I am not quite sure what provision exists for autism and ADHD, which perhaps suggests that provision is not quite satisfactory. I am keen that we look at the issue. Again, mental health is not the only reason for leading people to offending in society, and learning disability, autism and ADHD should be considered as well. Indeed, I met the forensic mental health team from the Northern Trust, which I mentioned earlier. It looks at all these issues because it comes from a multi-agency approach. It is not just about the clinical care of mental health through prescribed drugs; it is about the therapy of mental health, the environment and the circumstances, so occupational therapy will be in there as well.

I entirely agree with the Member. I believe that no one is born bad; people tend to be a product of their circumstances and upbringing. If we can tackle those issues upstream, perhaps we will not have people offending in the first place. If we can tackle them whilst they are in our custody, they will, hopefully, not reoffend when they are released.

Ms Bradshaw: To follow on from your last point, will you give us some specifics on proposals that you are bringing forward to diagnose and treat those people in the youth justice system so that they do not become adult prisoners of the future?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. Conversations around children and young people in our criminal justice system are at a very early stage. I have, however, met the Health Minister to look at the issue because I believe that putting children and young people in the criminal justice system could be to their detriment and begin a spiral of destruction that does not help the individual or make for a safer community for wider society. It also causes a lot of other wider repercussions.

I am not sure how that will look. I am keen to develop it and see whether there is a necessity there. We also have to bear in mind the point of sentencing and people coming into custody: it is about finding the balance between rehabilitation and, in a sense, people being held to account for their offences, which makes this quite a difficult issue. It would be remiss of us not to look at it, because we see the outworkings of the current system, and, frankly, I am not sure that it is good enough.

2.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As David Hilditch is not in his place, I call Steve Aiken.

Mr Aiken: May I ask the Minister of Justice for an update — sorry.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member. I am committed to reducing expenditure on legal aid through a range of measures to tackle demand and the cost of individual cases. I am bringing forward proposals to introduce a standardised fee structure for legal representatives in family cases, I am conducting a review of the cost of expert witnesses, and I am making some adjustments to the types of cases that can be funded through legal aid. The proposals will build on changes that have already been implemented, including reduced fees in the criminal courts and measures to ensure that the appropriate level of representation is granted in civil and criminal courts. Administration costs are being addressed through a transformation programme in the Legal Services Agency, which includes a digitalisation programme. I am considering the recommendations in Access to Justice II and will bring forward an updated strategy for legal aid. I will also consider any relevant recommendations from the Gillen review to ensure that we take a strategic approach to reform. Legal aid is demand-led and exists to provide support for the most vulnerable in society to get access to justice. Last year, the budget provided for over 90,000 acts of assistance.

Mr Aiken: I apologise for getting it slightly wrong earlier.

Given recent high-profile cases, including that of Hazel Stewart, in which, allegedly, over £600,000 has been spent on legal aid, does the Minister agree that more must be done to restore public confidence in the legal aid system?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that the Member will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases, but I take the point that there has been a lot of conversation about the cost of legal aid. Indeed, the bill is significant. I suppose that some could say that that might demonstrate that we are providing access to justice in all of these types of cases. We need to look at it in a wider context; indeed, the Access to Justice review part II enables us to do that, as will other reviews, such as the Gillen review that I mentioned, that we should also take into account. I am very aware of the public perception of legal aid, and I am working towards seeing how I can do something to ensure public confidence in it.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. The Minister indicated her intention to introduce a domestic violence offence. Can she tell us what impact that might have on the legal aid bill, and does she have a timeline for introducing the offence?

Ms Sugden: I am working on the offence. I have given myself a very definite timetable for the domestic violence offence, and I am really confident that I will stick to it. On the question of how that will affect the legal aid budget, it is really a matter of considering access to justice in the provision of legal aid and ensuring that the most vulnerable get that access to justice. I imagine that it will be facilitated in a similar way to other cases.

Ms Boyle: Minister, can you confirm that plans to reduce the cost of legal aid will not in any way impede proper access to justice for all sections of society?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. As I outlined, we need almost to reframe the message of legal aid and the purpose of it. From my perspective, legal aid should be the resort of access to justice for the most vulnerable. That is the focus that my Department and I are putting on legal aid to ensure that those who require access to justice should indeed get it. However, I will balance the argument: some would say that this is access to justice; others would say that this is a significant bill to come out of my budget, which is correct. We have to try to ensure that we can meet that bill in our budget. We are quite confident that we can do that this year. Overall, we have to ensure that this is about access to justice. The figure in itself is significant, but we should look at the fact that it is demand-led and we are satisfying access to justice in that respect.

Mr Attwood: Can the Minister give a firm personal commitment here and now to legal aid funding for the family court? The Minister has made issues of abuse and trauma priorities for her. If the funding for the family court is undermined, vulnerable families, parents and children will be put in jeopardy. Will you give that firm personal commitment to funding for the family court?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. The Member, as a member of the Justice Committee, will be familiar with the challenges that I have faced on legal aid. As I have reiterated, it is a challenge and a significant amount of budget, but, as I have said to other Members, it is about access to justice and providing access to justice to the most vulnerable in our society. That is something that I am keen to move forward with.

Ms Bailey: Does the Minister have any figures for cases in which legal aid has been rejected since the implementation of the budget cuts?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. I would not say that anything has been rejected because of budget cuts. There is a budget, and it is demand-led. If the cases that are brought forward satisfy the criteria for legal aid, they will get it. I would not suggest that anything has been rejected due to budget cuts.

Ms Sugden: The Stormont House Agreement was an agreement between the Northern Ireland Executive and the British and Irish Governments. Since coming into office, I have been in discussion with Executive colleagues and the United Kingdom Government to ensure delivery of the justice elements of that agreement. In particular, discussions have focused on the remaining policy issues that lie behind the development of the draft Bill to deliver the Stormont House Agreement. Members will recognise that, as with any policy development, Ministers require the space and time to develop thinking and establish policy proposals. Once the policy position is sufficiently advanced, I, along with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, will be in a position to discuss our agreed position.

Mr McNulty: Thank you for your answer, Minister. Justice officials have been meeting NIO officials for months on the implementation of and legislation around legacy proposals. Does the Minister agree that devolution and openness are undermined when the Minister refers questions to her on her Department's work to the NIO rather than giving answers to the people of the North?

Ms Sugden: As always, I am happy to provide answers to the people of Northern Ireland. I will provide clarity to the Member who has raised the question: the draft legislation in relation to the historical inquiries unit is led by the UK Government. It is the most appropriate thing for me to deal with any questions in that way, because I do not speak for the Northern Ireland Office nor the UK Government. I speak for the Department of Justice. I will confirm that we have been meeting regularly on how we can progress the issue. I am very much of the mindset that we need to progress the issue. It was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. It is the only show in town, and I believe that it is the best way of addressing our past.

Ms Archibald: Has the Minister challenged the NIO to release funding for the Lord Chief Justice's five-year plan for legacy inquests and pointed out that the British Government are in breach of article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights by not doing so?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. I have said publicly on a number of occasions that I support the mechanism that the Lord Chief Justice has proposed to bring to a conclusion a number of legacy inquests, which will go ahead regardless of whether we find a solution to do it in a shorter period. As I have asked the House before, do we want to address this in five years, or do we want to address it in 25 years? Our approach to addressing legacy is ultimately about the victims and their families. We are time-bound by that. I am keen to ensure that we move forward on it as soon as possible so that we can move on and provide some answers to the victims of our past.

Mr Kennedy: Does the Minister agree that the current mechanisms for dealing with the past operate in an incomplete, imperfect and imbalanced manner that serves only to rewrite history and disproportionately focus on the state? Will she give an assurance to the House that she will not permit that to continue?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. It is my preferred option that we address the HIU and the legacy inquests in parallel and move them forward together. When we talk about victims, let me say that I have met a number since becoming Minister, and not one of them is telling me that their pain or hurt is any greater than anyone else's. They just want answers. That seems to be the case right across the communities and with the people whom I have met in the past six months. From my perspective, we need to progress on this and on addressing our legacy inquests, which are progressing already, just at a very slow pace. We also need to get the HIU up and running as soon as we can.

Mr Lyttle: On 21 June this year, the Justice Minister said that, as a result of the support that she had from the First Minister and through the commitment of the Executive to work together, she was confident of progressing funding for the Lord Chief Justice's proposals to grant inquests, denied for decades, into the death of people's loved ones. How credible is that support and commitment, given the First Minister's ongoing veto of those legacy inquest proposals?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. From any discussions that I have had, I can reiterate my confidence that we will progress on legacy inquests. It has always been a case for me of when that will be. I am hopeful that it will happen as soon as possible, but I am afraid that I cannot give you a time frame, because I am unsure, and discussions are ongoing on the issues. I do have confidence that we will move forward, however. Post the May election, we are in a very different political space and there is a keenness to try not only to address the challenges that we find in the Northern Ireland Executive but to deliver and get things done. The opportunity exists now that perhaps did not exist before, so I am confident that we will move forward on this.

Ms Sugden: I will say up front that any attack on any symbolic building is unacceptable. I am aware that there have been a number of attacks on premises across Northern Ireland, some of which have been investigated as hate crimes by the PSNI.

At a strategic level, my Department is committed to tackling hate crime from the criminal justice perspective through the delivery of the Executive's community safety strategy, and it works with a range of statutory, voluntary and community organisations to take that work forward.

At an operational level, I understand that the PSNI has a control strategy dealing with attacks on symbolic buildings and that patrols pay attention to such buildings. In addition, policing and community safety partnerships (PCSPs), which are jointly funded by my Department and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, work at a local level to develop solutions to local issues and enhance community safety.

Information on prosecution and conviction data sets in my Department is sourced from the integrated court operation system (ICOS), which is the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) information management system. Within that system, information on the type of building that may have been attacked is held only in the detail of charges for which an individual is prosecuted at court and is not searchable in an automated way. Therefore, it is possible to identify prosecutions or convictions resulting from an attack on symbolic buildings only through a manual trawl of court records.

Offences committed through such attacks may be criminal damage or arson, of which there are a number prosecuted each year. For example, in 2015, there were 1,908 convictions, where at least one offence was that of criminal damage. While only a small percentage of those will relate to attacks on symbolic buildings, given the number of cases involved, a search of the records would incur a disproportionate cost.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I have time to allow a very quick supplementary and a very quick response.

Mr Allister: Is it not quite appalling that, having been able in another answer to indicate that there have been 132 attacks on Orange halls in the last five years, the Minister cannot tell the House how many prosecutions there have been? Is that because of embarrassment? Surely if there is a spreadsheet showing the number of attacks, there must be a column, so to speak, that shows whether anyone was prosecuted or brought to justice. Is the Minister too embarrassed to tell us?

Ms Sugden: No, indeed I am not embarrassed to tell you. The people who commit those crimes should certainly be embarrassed. They are something that I condemn. These types of attacks, whatever the intention behind them, are abhorrent. It is not that I am too embarrassed to tell you the figures; we cannot provide the figures due to the disproportionate cost of doing so.

2.30 pm

I am not quite sure why the Member is so focussed on the figures. The point he raises is a good one in that the attacks are continuing to happen. We need to look at the reasons why hate crime is happening and see how we can best address it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Aiken asked the Minister of Justice whether she has been briefed by her officials on the possible implications for Northern Ireland of the Criminal Finances Bill that has its Second Reading at Westminster tomorrow. (AQT 376/16-21)

Ms Sugden: No, I cannot recall any such briefing. That could be down to my ignorance, but I will come back to the Member with a response as soon as I get it.

Mr Aiken: I am sure, Minister, it is not down to your ignorance; I imagine that if it was brought before you, you would be fully aware of it. Will the Minister make representation to the Home Secretary to ascertain whether any of the £9 billion that belonged to the Libyan regime and is being sequestered in the UK can be used to compensate victims of IRA violence? The IRA used, and republican terrorists still are using, weapons and explosives provided by the Gaddafi regime.

Ms Sugden: Yes, I am quite happy to take that request forward and see what response we can get.

T2. Ms Seeley asked the Minister of Justice whether, following recent comments by the Chief Constable that the legislative framework would benefit from a review, she too would support a review into part III of the Public Order (NI) Order 1987 in relation to acts likely to stir up hatred or arouse fear. (AQT 377/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for her question. I have not had conversations with the Chief Constable on that particular issue. However, further to her question today, I am quite happy to raise it as a matter of interest to the House.

Ms Seeley: I thank the Minister for her answer and her honesty. Following that conversation, will she come back to us to explain whether she intends to initiate a review of the legislative framework concerned?

Ms Sugden: Yes, I am quite happy to come back to the House on that.

T3. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Justice whether she and her Department value the role of volunteers in Safer Streets projects in various towns. (AQT 378/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. I value the role of all volunteers and people who come from the community and voluntary sector. I am a big advocate of the community and voluntary sector because those people are best placed in their communities to know what is best for the people they are working voluntarily with. I very much support the work of all volunteers. As a Government, we are not placed and do not have the exhaustive resources to provide a lot of services, so it is appropriate that we look towards the community and voluntary sector to see how we can better produce the public services that Northern Ireland expects of us.

Mr McElduff: The town of Omagh recently achieved purple flag status as a safer town in relation to evening entertainment etc. That is down not least to the voluntary efforts of the Omagh Safer Streets project. Will the Minister initiate discussions with the project leaders and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council regarding funding difficulties that they are having?

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. I congratulate Omagh for that initiative. The role of local government and the community and voluntary sector in finding solutions to the problems that we find in our local communities is very important. That is an apt way to tackle crime, whether it is antisocial behaviour or other forms of crime. I am quite happy to speak to anyone; it is important that we listen to a lot of the stakeholders involved. I reiterate that people involved in the community and voluntary sector know their communities best, and it would be remiss of us to not take their views into account. So, I am happy to do so.

T4. Mrs Barton asked the Minister of Justice whether the fact that Enniskillen courthouse is open only two to three days a week for court hearings is the start of a process of closure by stealth. (AQT 379/16-21)

Ms Sugden: No, certainly not; closure by stealth is not my intention at all. However, as the Member is aware, and as I reiterate to the House time and again, courthouse closures are subject to a judicial review which will be heard this week. I imagine that the outcome of that will be known some time later. Until I am aware of the outcome of that particular judicial review, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.

Mrs Barton: So, Minister, you cannot categorically give an assurance to the people of Fermanagh that the courthouse will not close within the next five years?

Ms Sugden: I cannot comment on any aspect of the courts estate, pending the judicial review. When that has come to a conclusion, I am happy to have a conversation with the Member on the issue she raises.

T5. Mr Robinson asked the Minister of Justice to outline what action her Department has taken since closing Foyleview Buildings at HMP Magilligan following the discovery of asbestos. (AQT 380/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question and I can indeed confirm that Foyleview was closed due to the discovery of asbestos in that prison. We were able to move people in that facility to other parts of the prison, so it has not had a hugely detrimental effect. However, this consolidates the view that we need to look forward to a new build at Magilligan. Indeed, that is something that I have always been committed to, but it will be subject to securing the appropriate funding.

Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she tell us whether any other buildings at HMP Magilligan were found to contain asbestos?

Ms Sugden: Not that I am aware of, but I am happy to come back to the Member with a written answer in case that issue arose in other buildings.

T6. Mr McGuigan asked the Minister of Justice what kind of educational or behavioural-change programmes are available for prisoners serving a sentence of six months or less given that there were a total of 104 such prisoners at the end of September 2016. (AQT 381/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. He will appreciate that it is very difficult to rehabilitate prisoners in custody who are serving such short sentences. Indeed, the number of challenges around resources and putting effective plans into place to ensure rehabilitation are really quite large. It is something that we need to look at. We must ensure that, whilst people are in our custody, in a lot of cases for a short period of time, we can put programmes in place to ensure that rehabilitation.

Ultimately, rehabilitation is for the safety of the community. Whatever the sentence, six months, six years or 60 years — it would not be for 60 years — prisoners will come back into the community and we need to ensure that they are being rehabilitated so that, ultimately, they will not reoffend.

Mr McGuigan: Given the fact that the Minister said that this is something she plans to look at, does she plan to introduce measures that will enable the administration of effective community sentences as a preferred option for dealing with those who would otherwise receive a short custodial sentence?

Ms Sugden: I am happy to do that. Alongside agencies like the Probation Board, we can look at how we can better prepare prisoners for when they come back into the community. The Probation Board does a lot of fantastic work in that area. It looks at the special individual circumstances of each offender and the community that they will come out into. It is important that that is the focus of anyone who is in the Prison Service because, again, it is about having a safer community and limiting opportunities for reoffending. The Probation Board is successful in doing that, but it is limited and there is more work that needs to be done. That is something that I am keen to look at.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Keith Buchanan and John O'Dowd are not in their places.

T9. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Justice for an assurance that the significant weekly reduction in education hours from 22 to 15 for people in juvenile justice centres will not have a huge impact on them when they return to mainstream education. (AQT 384/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I take the Member's point about young people's education while they are in custody. Education, particularly for young people, is critical in rehabilitating that type of behaviour. I have issues with the fact that we take children and young people into the criminal justice system. We need to provide support so that when they come back into the community they do not fall behind. If that is the case, it points to a wider societal problem. Along with the Education Minister and the Health Minister, we are looking at children and young people in custody and at the appropriate measures that are in place to better support them. Education needs to be central to all those things, because it will reduce the likelihood of reoffending and give them better opportunities for employment when they come out.

We have found that people who have opportunities for employment are less likely to reoffend, so that is something that we need to focus on. Indeed, there is a programme at Hydebank Wood that has focused on education, but that is something that we need to strengthen. We need to look at that in Woodlands as well.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I will write to her on the details of the transition process. She has partly answered my question on the details of what is available for children and young people who go through the criminal justice system. However, we need to make sure that children who are not academically inclined have opportunities for vocational training and education as well.

Ms Sugden: Yes, that is entirely the right approach. Too often, we associate education with academia, but not everyone is academically minded, and that is perfectly fine. We need to look at vocational opportunities. Some of those initiatives are already happening in the custody arrangements, and, often, they are the ones that are deemed to be quite successful. We have to look at how we can strengthen that to provide young people with skills so that when they come out of custody they have better opportunities. To me, that is the best outcome for all.

T10. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Justice what aspects of mental health care in prisons she hopes to prioritise through the project advisory group that is responsible for public protection matters. (AQT 385/16-21)

Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his question. Mental health in prisons, for prisoners and prison officers, has been given a renewed focus since I became Justice Minister and the new Minister of Health took up her post. As I have reiterated many times, I am pleased with that approach because a lot of the issues that we find in our prisons are primarily down to mental health, including addiction problems and learning disabilities, as we discussed earlier.

I was pleased to meet a group that I have mentioned a number of times already: a forensic mental health team that looks at the specific circumstances of people who find themselves in custody. Those arrangements are particularly for people with severe mental health issues. There could, perhaps, be an opportunity to extend that to everyone in prison. It is not just about the healthcare that they receive; it is about the wider support that they also receive, whether that is the social care aspect or the environment in which they are living. It has to be a before, during and after approach.

People are coming into our prison system with mental health issues and, whilst they are there, those are often being manifested because being in prison is not an easy environment. I am sure that we can all appreciate that. Coming out of prison is probably the critical stage, because we are almost putting prisoners back to square one. If we are sending them out into the community again and the support systems are not there, we are pulling the rug from under them that we have worked hard to put in place. There needs to be a threefold approach, with a beginning, a middle and an end. This will not be an end for an awful lot of people who find themselves in the criminal justice system. I am quite pleased that the Minister of Health has made it one of her priorities and, moving forward, it will be one of mine.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We have time for a quick supplementary question and a quick answer.

2.45 pm

Mr McAleer: I note and welcome the very good joint work that the Minister is doing with her colleague the Minister of Health in dealing with the mental healthcare needs of people who are in prison. Has that looked at support for young people who have ADHD and autism who are imprisoned?

Ms Sugden: As I mentioned earlier, we often talk about mental health. When I talk about mental health, I look not only at the specific issues of mental health but at mental disorders, including autism and ADHD, which can sometimes be seen as behavioural disorders. They are a contributory factor to people offending, their difficulties in prison and why they could reoffend when they come out of prison. We need a more holistic approach. It is a good sign that we now have this focus because, hopefully, an upstream approach will ensure that it does not get downstream.


Mr Givan (The Minister for Communities): As outlined in AQW 3432/16-21, my officials are taking forward activity to increase the participation of women in community development in order to address paramilitarism, as outlined in section A, paragraph 3.9 of the Fresh Start Agreement through two related strands of activity. Strand one relates to a detailed co-design process. Through this, my officials are engaged with key stakeholders from the statutory and voluntary and community sectors, including my Department, the Department of Justice, the Executive Office, Co-operation Ireland, the Training for Women Network, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Women's Resource and Development Agency, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, the Women's Support Network, the Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network, the Rural Community Network, the Foyle Women's Information Network and Intercomm. This work between my officials and key stakeholders has been ongoing since June this year, and it is planned that the output from the co-design work will form the basis of a Northern Ireland-wide consultation process, with the implementation of an agreed programme early in 2017-18.

Ms Bailey: Given that women have been allocated so little targeted resource under the Fresh Start Agreement and that this new co-design process of working is meant to target grass-roots organisations working in the field, is the Minister content that all the organisations that he just listed are expert in women's participation or, indeed, even have a strong record in the area?

Mr Givan: The rationale for how those organisations were identified was through their experience, the networks and sectoral intelligence to identify the key stakeholders whom we believe to be well positioned in the community development sector in the areas of women's participation and conflict transformation.

The proposed time frame for taking forward the process is challenging, and that was a major determinant in the selection of key stakeholders. Officials identified organisations with the key experience and capacity that could contribute to the co-design process, whilst ensuring that any other organisation that expressed an interest could join the process.

Membership of the co-design group represents the groups that were willing to become involved in the co-design process and agreed to the conditions outlined in the terms of reference. Participation on the co-design group is dependent on all stakeholders involved agreeing to be actively involved in a positive contribution to the process and not merely being part of an oversight group.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he confirm that, when the real stage rather than the preparatory stage of Fresh Start funding is advanced, that will give expression to the Fresh Start strand that is about empowering women and not just rolling it up with the wider aim of tackling paramilitarism? Does he agree that part of tackling paramilitarism will be about empowering women to stand up to paramilitaries in their communities and that therefore emboldening groups related to paramilitaries will be counterproductive?

Mr Givan: This is very much about emboldening women in communities to take a community forward. I know from my engagement across the community that women are very much to the fore in challenging government and those in their own community about the things that hold the next generation back. I very much want women to be empowered. That is why, in Fresh Start, we have identified a key role to be played, and this work is being taken forward to do exactly that.

Mr Stalford: The Minister outlined some of how the organisations were identified to be involved in the co-design process. Can he detail for the House what monitoring processes will be put in place while they carry out their work and how the Department will ensure accountability?

Mr Givan: My Department, which has oversight, is carrying out ongoing work to ensure that what is designed will deliver what we want it to deliver. The expectation is that the co-design process will be completed in the autumn, and that will be followed by a public consultation process. The tendering process for potential delivery partners is planned for early 2017, and the formal launch of the programme is planned for early 2017-18.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Minister, thank you for your answers thus far. I want to expand on the question that Clare Bailey asked. I do not want to be disparaging about some of the groups that the Minister said that officials have been in contact with, but, more often than not, officials go to the big groups in the voluntary sector and forget about the smaller groups in the community sector that do a lot of the work on the ground. Can he give an assurance that, as the programme rolls out, those community groups, particularly women's groups, will not become invisible?

Mr Givan: There was a sound rationale for the identification of the groups: to ensure that the need was manageable for the size of the group responsible for taking this forward. I am happy to give the assurance that, as this is developed, we want to hear from all groups that will be charged with carrying out this important work.

Mr Beggs: I welcome the proposal to empower women and enable them to carry out a role in addressing paramilitarism, but one of the problems with paramilitarism is that individuals — sometimes, very strong individuals — can dominate their community and that many are also involved in domestic violence. How will the Minister ensure that he is not sending out a signal that dominant characters will be further empowered and further emboldened, potentially to dominate female members of their community?

Mr Givan: Let me use the opportunity on the Floor of the House to make it absolutely clear that there should be no role in a community for anyone who engages in domestic violence. A Government who supported any such individuals would be rightly ridiculed, and in no way should the Executive ever empower individuals to dominate a community. This is about empowering women to tackle some of the issues prevalent in our society.

Mr Lyttle: What is the Minister's response to Mr Stitt's description of North Down Defenders flute band as "homeland security" who will defend north Down from anybody?

Mr Givan: My colleague was clear about those comments this morning. We have a Police Service of Northern Ireland that is responsible for upholding law and order. Any individuals who do not support the rule of law should, in my view, not be worthy of support from this Government.

Mr Allister: In light of what the Minister says, how does funding those closely associated with illegal organisations as chief executives or otherwise help to address paramilitarism? Does that not just confirm them in their self-inflated idea that they are "Mr Big" in their communities, which they are still determined to dominate? Is it not folly to pick out such people and organisations for funding?

Mr Givan: In organisations that I have worked with some, indeed, had a past, and I recognise very clearly that there are people who have wholeheartedly moved way beyond the place that they were in. I will work alongside individuals and organisations that are very committed to taking their community forward. I believe that there are individuals who do that. Across the Chamber, there are individuals and political parties that very much support organisations that had associations with the past conflict. I do not believe that those individuals should be sidelined. I believe that we need to ensure that individuals who genuinely want to move on and who support the police are supported in doing so.

Mr Givan: Motorcycle road racing is an extremely popular sport across the Province. It generates a lot of passion, both amongst riders and followers, and fosters a strong cultural identity in Northern Ireland and beyond.

While responsibility for improving safety at motorcycle road races rests with the organisers and promoters of a road race event, it is important that my Department provides support to the road-racing fraternity in order that road racing is made as safe as it can be. Officials from my Department and Sport NI have engaged with 2 & 4 Wheels and a number of motorcycle racing clubs to identify priorities at a number of motor sport venues, including road-racing circuits. As a result, I am delighted that my Department has been able to provide financial assistance that will help to improve safety at a number of venues, including the North West 200, the Ulster Grand Prix and the Armoy Road Races.

To take this commitment forward, my officials are working directly with a number of clubs involved in delivering road-racing events to provide safety equipment and to deliver improvements to the infrastructure of the circuits. As a first step, I have announced funding of £124,000 specifically for the North West 200. That investment will improve the safety for the riders on the circuit through the provision of kerb protectors, safety bales and a new race warning system. In addition, the funding provided will help enhance the existing spectator safety equipment used at the event. I know that this investment will support the organisers as they continue to make safety improvements for the competitors and spectators at one of Northern Ireland’s top international events. The organisers recognise that safety is an important part of their event management plans.

I take very seriously the importance of safety at sports events and will continue to ensure that my Department provides support where it can.

Mr Middleton: I welcome the funding announced by the Minister. Will the equipment be shared across other motor sport events?

Mr Givan: That was part of the conversation I had when I met Mervyn Whyte and the Member of Parliament for North Antrim. I felt that it was important to emphasise the need to share equipment, and the majority of equipment purchased, such as the safety bales and safety barriers, will be available to other event organisers. This investment will benefit not just the North West 200; other road-racing events will also benefit. Motor sport event organisers and promoters already share safety equipment where possible, and any investment by the Department will seek to ensure that that continues. Motorcycle racing clubs have long-standing arrangements to share safety equipment with other clubs and, indeed, event organisers outside of motorcycle racing.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his commitment to providing additional safety equipment. What conversations has he had with the Minister for Infrastructure to make sure that the road surfaces are safe and suitable for racing on? He mentioned the North West 200 and the Armoy races. Could he also have a look at the Mid Antrim 150 in Clough?

Mr Givan: There are areas in which I can provide assistance, and I have stepped forward to do that in respect of safety. Obviously, road surface is a matter for the Department for Infrastructure. The Member's constituency colleague Mr Storey and I met Bill Kennedy of the Armoy races. They are talking to the divisional roads manager about that. I had a conversation with the Minister for Infrastructure about the condition of road surfaces in Armoy, but the organisers are dealing with that at a local divisional level. I got the opportunity to visit the racetrack in Armoy. Ian Paisley, along with Bill Kennedy, brought me round the track, and they were able to identify some of the areas where, I believe, my Department can provide some support. I hope to make an announcement about that in the not-too-distant future.

Mr McGuigan: I welcome the Minister's commitment to ensuring safety at sporting events. Just following on from the previous question, can the Minister confirm that the organisers are working with other colleagues in the Executive and statutory partners to minimise the risks associated with motorbike racing?

Mr Givan: This is hugely important. Northern Ireland has a rich heritage in motorcycle racing: we have produced some of the world's greatest motorcycle racers. The sport is here to stay. Obviously, when there are incidents at races, it brings into sharp focus the debate around the dangers associated with the sport. While recognising them, I support the sport and want to see it continue. It is therefore vital that we provide support to clubs to enhance the safety measures at events. I do not believe that will remove the risk entirely from this sport, but we seek to do our best to ameliorate the dangers that exist.

3.00 pm

Mr Givan: My Department has provided funding nearing £4·6 million for the delivery of the two phases of the Dungannon public realm scheme. The funding was provided to Mid Ulster District Council for the design, consultation and implementation of both phases of the scheme. The council was responsible for the appointment of the design teams and the contractors delivering the scheme.

Phase 1 of the public realm scheme was completed in February 2015, with phase 2 being completed in September 2016. Before proceeding with the delivery of phase 1 of the project, there was an extensive consultation process with all key stakeholders in the town. The design of the scheme took account of all feedback, including that of Transport NI, formerly Roads Service, which is responsible for the readoption and maintenance of the scheme. The scheme involved the transformation of the town centre, including a new events space. Whilst the majority of the work has been received positively, there has been some negativity at a few aspects of phase 1 of the scheme. The main concerns relate to car parking, traffic signalling and the flow of traffic, and pedestrian accessibility in the Market Square area of the town. Mid Ulster District Council has identified a number of potential solutions aimed at further enhancing car parking, traffic management and pedestrian movement in Market Square and is currently engaged on public and statutory consultation on those. My Department provided 100% of the funding for phases 1 and 2 of the scheme, so the council will be required to fund any potential enhancements to the current scheme.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for that very comprehensive reply. He might have answered my supplementary in it. We will have a go anyway.

The scheme that is being done in Market Square has many attributes. There are one or two deficiencies, however, not least the traffic-flow problems and pedestrian safety. Minister, as you intimated, the council now proposes to do further enhancement of the scheme. What discussions have you had with it on its new proposals and to what extent, if any, is the Department funding that?

Mr Givan: I have set out how the public realm scheme was developed. It was led by the council but 100% funded by my Department. I know that some Members might ask why, given that every other council would be asked to make some contribution to the public realm, that council was allocated 100% funding. There was a context to that. The public realm scheme was designed to complement the council's development of the adjacent Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre. That was officially opened in October 2012. The £5·5 million re-landscaped people's park and the arts and visitor centre were created by the then Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council with significant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Given that funding at the time by the council for those elements, my Department did not provide any funding support to this key regeneration site in Dungannon that the council had provided. It was agreed, however, that my Department would fund the public realm works completely in order to support the regeneration of Dungannon town centre. Given that the scheme was designed and led by the council, if there are areas now in which the council has identified that it could be improved, it will be a matter for the council to provide funding for that.

Mrs Barton: Minister, while I hear what you are saying about the problems that there are with the public realm scheme, surely, as you provided 100% funding and problems have arisen perhaps because of issues that were not foreseen, you could provide some funding for remedying them.

Mr Givan: Again, given that the council led on this and designed it and my Department provided 100% funding, if there are areas of concern, it falls very much at the table of the council to deal with them. Rightly, other councils would turn around and ask my Department why it does not give 100% funding to all other public realm schemes that take place in Northern Ireland. To have a fair and equitable solution to this, the council needs to bear responsibility if it feels that there were inadequacies in the design that it implemented.

Ms Gildernew: The Minister has pointed out that he is aware that there are difficulties in the square in Dungannon, especially around the plethora of traffic lights and traffic movement in the square. There have also been a couple of years of roadworks. As a result, people have chosen to shop elsewhere. Is the Minister prepared to do anything to help to counteract that problem?

Mr Givan: Again, the Department gave 100% of the funding to help to regenerate Dungannon town centre. If the council has identified more ways in which it can improve it, it is at liberty to raise the finances for that through its own systems.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Ross Hussey is not in his place.

Mr Givan: The Department's single investigation service addresses customer fraud and error. It employs 193 staff. Of that complement, 75 front-line investigators deal specifically with suspected benefit fraud cases. In 2015-16, 931 sanctions were imposed for benefit fraud, with 272 convictions through the courts and a further 659 administrative penalties imposed by the Department.

Mrs Palmer: We were told a year ago that, under the Fresh Start Agreement between the Minister's party and Sinn Féin, there would be £125 million for the Social Security Agency to tackle fraud and error. I am concerned because, at his previous Question Time, the Minister said:

"we first need to secure the funding from Treasury".— [Official Report (Hansard), 10 October 2016, p36, col 2].

What took so long?

Mr Givan: It is not a case of what has taken so long. Obviously, continuing conversations are taking place with Treasury to get the funding to help us to tackle fraud and error more effectively.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. What action is his Department taking to prepare an invest-to-save scheme for fraud and error, as set out in the Fresh Start Agreement?

Mr Givan: Obviously, discussions with the Treasury have been taking place about the invest-to-save proposal. That is in order for the Department to access £25 million, which was outlined in the Fresh Start Agreement, to help to address social security fraud. I have asked for those discussions to be expedited. Significant work has now been completed in preparing the operational basis on which savings will be delivered. Fraud investigation, customer compliance visiting and case review processes are all in place and working effectively. Underpinning those operational structures is a new case selection and routing function, meaning that cases can be dealt with more quickly and efficiently.

Ms Seeley: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Will he confirm that, as well as staff working on fraud, resources and an overview are given to looking at error?

Mr Givan: I am happy to give that reassurance to the Member. The team that deals with fraud also deals with error. It has identified that error has taken place, both with claimants making errors — that can be done unknowingly and very much innocently — and departmental staff as well. Over 99% of the Department's calculations are accurate, but, on occasion, there is some error on the part of staff. There is ongoing work to seek to minimise that.

Mr Mullan: What is the Minister's Department doing to address the very serious problem of housing benefit fraud, or dole drops, as they are more commonly known?

Mr Givan: The Department has very robust measures in place to identify where fraud has taken place. It is an ongoing piece of work. I will provide the Member with more details in respect of housing benefit fraud.

Ms Armstrong: My question has been answered.

Mr Agnew: How did we arrive at the situation where we conduct and pay for the investigation of benefit fraud but all the money recouped goes back to HMRC? Does the Minister have any plans to renegotiate that situation?

Mr Givan: Obviously, it is important that, wherever the money from Treasury is channelled, we seek to identify whether it is fraudulent. The end recipient of that saving is not the point; it is about the public having confidence in the benefit system and believing that people in receipt of benefit are receiving it legitimately. In terms of invest to save, this is a proposal that we have with the Treasury to finance further work that we can do. So, the Treasury will allow us to do that and, obviously, will benefit in respect of that.

Mr Givan: I am aware of the level of disability in Northern Ireland and the challenges faced by people living with a disability. One in five of the local population has a disability — around 5% of children, 17% of the working-age population and 60% of those people aged over 65. The Department is addressing these challenges through a range of activities. Some examples being driven by my Department are as follows: the development of a new wheelchair accommodation standard for new social housing in Northern Ireland; reduction in the backlog of those waiting for suitable accommodation; implementation of the Executive’s employment strategy for people with disabilities; implementation of the Active Living:No Limits action plan, which is supported by £300,000 for a disability sport capital programme; improved library and museum access; the provision of additional sign language classes; access to a range of art forms ensuring participation and artistic excellence for people with disabilities, and the development of a new Culture Arts strategy.

In addition, improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families is a strategic indicator in the new Programme for Government for which my Department has policy responsibility. The draft delivery plan for indicator 42 has been developed through engagement with people with disabilities and their representative organisations.

The draft Programme for Government Framework, including the indicators delivery plan, will be subject to a full public consultation prior to being finalised.

As part of the welfare mitigations, we will financially protect individuals with a disability who are impacted adversely by the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payment to afford them time to adjust to the new welfare reforms.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. What is your Department doing to ensure that venues and historic monuments within its remit have access for all, including those with a disability?

Mr Givan: There is a range of areas where the Department is addressing this issue. Libraries, for example, are a free service to everyone in society. Material offered includes ClearVision, access to books for visually impaired readers, material from Barrington Stoke designed for those with dyslexia and e-books and audiobooks. They also provide a home-call service for anyone who has significant difficulty in visiting a branch or a mobile library due to ill-health, disability or lack of mobility and who do not have anyone who can collect library materials for them. This, again, can be provided via a dedicated mobile library, a dual-purpose mobile library or, indeed, a delivery van. National Museums provide free entry for registered disabled people and their carers to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Ulster American Folk Park. This is for all disabled adults and children. All of the national museum sites comply with the relevant disability legislation.

With regard to the 190 monuments in state care, these are historic monuments. They range from prehistoric tombs to medieval castles and churches, ancient farmsteads, 20th century fortifications, and so on. Many of the sites, by their very nature, are difficult to access because of their location or the terrain around them. As part of the routine works to improve access to the sites, the Department has committed to ensuring that the monuments are as accessible as possible to everyone; that includes physical access to the sites as well as provision of information. Access arrangements have already been upgraded at many sites and all new projects will include consideration of how the sites can be improved for everyone. For example, we are hoping to facilitate disabled access on a stretch of the walls of Derry.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for his commitment in this area. Can you confirm, throughout all the arm's-length bodies and functions of your Department, that a particular focus will continue to be given to delivery for people with disabilities and, as you mentioned, through sports, arts and libraries, that you will ensure that people with disabilities are aware of exactly what they are entitled to?

3.15 pm

Mr Givan: I am happy to give that commitment to the Member. When I was at Girdwood for the launch of Disability Sports and the £300,000 that I announced to allow councils to buy capital equipment that people with disabilities could access, I saw first-hand the young people and children who wanted to engage in sport. It is something that so many people take for granted, and those young people were getting so much fulfilment out of what they were doing. I do not believe for one moment that people with disabilities should be disadvantaged in getting access to services in Northern Ireland, and it is something that I am keen to pursue.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Mr Ross Hussey is not in his place. I call Emma Little Pengelly.

Mrs Little Pengelly: Since 2013, the UK Government have facilitated school-age children in England, Scotland and Wales to visit the battlefields of World War I, providing an important learning opportunity around the devastation of war and the cost of peace, freedom and democracy and the bravery of so many. Sadly, it was not rolled out in Northern Ireland by the previous Education and CAL Ministers.

T2. Mrs Little Pengelly asked the Minister for Communities whether he would support the implementation of a programme of battlefield visits for schools in Northern Ireland. (AQT 387/16-21)

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for raising what is a very important point, and she highlights how this has been taken forward in other parts of the United Kingdom. It is vital for our schoolchildren to have the same insight into the sacrifices paid on the battlefields of World War I as schoolchildren in other parts of the United Kingdom. The historical, cultural and educational benefits of such a scheme are undisputed. It is wrong that the scheme has not been operational in Northern Ireland, and I am committed to rectifying it. Therefore, I am glad to inform the Member and the House that, some weeks ago, I tasked my officials with working with colleagues in the Department of Education to implement a similar programme in Northern Ireland, and the Education Minister and I hope to make an announcement on a scheme in the near future.

Mrs Little Pengelly: I welcome the news. I also welcome the consideration that the Minister has given to the matter so far. Following his discussions with the Education Minister, can the Minister outline the numbers of school-age children from across the community in Northern Ireland who could avail themselves of this important opportunity?

Mr Givan: Part of the discussions with the Minister of Education and the Department of Education has been about the numbers that could participate in the scheme, and I am keen that it will be for as many as possible. I am particularly heartened to hear that controlled and maintained secondary schools in my constituency have engaged in joint visits to the battlefields, because there is a shared history in respect of the sacrifice made on the battlefields during the world wars. Progress has been made in recognising that shared history, and I believe that this would be a valuable contribution in continuing to make progress, so I am keen that it will be available as far as possible.

T3. Mr Milne asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the capital funding currently available to sports clubs. (AQT 388/16-21)

Mr Givan: There is a range of capital funding that I would like to see released. The greatest priority is the soccer stadia strategy moneys. The Executive have committed to spend approximately £36 million, and we are in the final stages of what the proposal will be. When I am in a position to take the decision, I hope that we will be able to open it up to a public application.

I can highlight some of the thinking for the capital budget over the next four years, as there is great potential to partner with other third-party organisations on our sporting infrastructure. I am particularly keen to see another strand developed for infrastructure for the three main sports: rugby, soccer and GAA. That is a proposal that we are looking at and would like to bring forward. I would also like to see whether there are other ways that we could partner with third-party organisations, potentially councils, that are identifying where the need exists for sporting infrastructure in their communities. Is there an opportunity to maximise the capital budget that will be available to us?

Notwithstanding all that, we obviously have issues with the development of Casement Park. That is an Executive commitment that I want to be implemented. I recently met those responsible for taking forward Casement Park. They showed me the revised plans for the capacity and the way in which it would be configured at Casement. The GAA is taking that process forward. My Department is supporting the process, and we hope to see progress.

Mr Milne: Buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. What advice would you give to clubs — GAA clubs, soccer clubs and rugby clubs — to prepare for any future funding that may become available?

Mr Givan: The Member raises a good point. Moneys can become available in-year, but the pressure is about how you will be able to spend those moneys and meet the necessary tendering processes. If organisations already have an approved business case and planning permission in place, that puts them in a better state of readiness should funding become available. Organisations can link in with official governing bodies to get advice from them, and I encourage people to do that. Councils have a key role to play in developing sporting infrastructure, so, hopefully, they can also provide assistance to sporting clubs as they take forward their plans.

T4. Mr T Buchanan asked the Minister for Communities for his initial reaction to today's unjust ruling against Ashers bakery and to say how, he feels, the Equality Commission handled the case. (AQT 389/16-21)

Mr Givan: Time is needed to absorb and consider the ramifications of today's judgement. Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed, as many people will be, about the outcome of the Court of Appeal. I have had an opportunity to read the summary, in which the Court of Appeal indicates the importance of the faith community in playing an active part in commerce and the fact there should be no chill factor to their participation. I believe that, never mind the chill factor, the judgement puts those in the faith community who are involved in commercial life into the ice bucket. We need to be cognisant of that. I appeal to people to consider the faith community in the same way as the Court of Appeal has considered the LGBT community. The summary states:

"It is obviously of importance that the LGBT community should feel able to participate in the commercial life of this community freely and transparently."

I agree, but I also agree that it should be the same for the faith community.

The issues raise a challenge to our society about the type of community that we want. Is it one where we truly have a liberal society in which people have differences and different identity characteristics and we seek to balance that, or is it one where people of faith very much feel that, if they do not suppress or go against their conscience, they go out of business. I do not believe that that is what a truly liberal society is about. I am disappointed, as was the Court of Appeal, about the way in which the Equality Commission went about taking the case.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I remind Members that, while they are entitled to their individual point of view, this is not a court of law.

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he advise what implications the ruling will have in future for freedom of expression, conscience, faith, culture and business?

Mr Givan: I listened to how the McArthur family have responded, and they clearly feel that those fundamental freedoms have been undermined. That should cause everybody concern, and the House needs to reflect on it. The McArthur family handled the process, throughout the initial trial and the Court of Appeal, in a very gracious way, and they very much demonstrated the characteristics of Christian grace. I then compare that with the actions of the Equality Commission and the pursuit of the family through the courts. The Court of Appeal's judgement made it very clear that it did not provide support and advice to the McArthur family and the Ashers company, and, having today won the case, it now seeks to have costs awarded against the McArthur family.

The way in which the McArthurs have handled this stands in stark contrast to the way in which the Equality Commission has handled it. That reveals the nature of the character that exists in the Equality Commission.

Mr Butler: Thank you, councillor — I mean, Minister. We are practically neighbours, so he will let me off with that.

T5. Mr Butler asked the Minister for Communities how many current councillors are subject to complaints being dealt with by the local government ombudsman. (AQT 390/16-21)

Mr Givan: I will be happy to get that information for the Member, who, like me, was a councillor in the great city of Lisburn at one point and is now here. I am not aware of the number of councillors who are currently subject to an investigation by the ombudsman. I am aware of some individuals who have been subject to investigation, but I am not aware of the totality of it.

Mr Butler: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. This issue deeply concerned me when we had briefings from the ombudsman. Is the Minister concerned about the potential for vexatious complaints against councillors? Will he revisit the councillors' code of conduct to make sure that it is fit for purpose?

Mr Givan: The issue of the code of conduct has been raised with me by NILGA, which is the national association of councillors, and different council bodies. I am very clear that a specific standard is required for councillors who operate a quasi-judicial function on councils, namely those on planning committees. However, I should say that planning is a matter for the Department for Infrastructure, not me. Planning committee functions and quasi-judicial functions are somewhat different from other functions that councillors carry out, and it is important that the code of conduct reflects that. It is planned that a consultation process will look at the code of conduct, and that will, I believe, help to strike the right balance.

We want the highest possible standards in public life to be observed by our councillors, all of whom carry out their role in the interests of the people whom they serve. A code of conduct should not operate in such a way as to provide a straitjacket for councillors, who have highlighted the way in which it applies. The standards expected of councillors in their private life are not those expected of MLAs. There is a difference in how the code of conduct is applied in circumstances where, very clearly, you are not acting in your capacity as a councillor, just as there is when you are not acting in your capacity as a Member of this House. There is a contrast between the two, and I have been looking at that.

T6. Mr Girvan asked the Minister for Communities what is being done by his Department to educate the public on the introduction of the personal independence payment. (AQT 391/16-21)

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for raising the issue. We recently launched a new campaign. My officials are implementing a comprehensive advertising, communication and stakeholder engagement activity plan to effectively inform all the citizens of Northern Ireland about the introduction of the personal independence payment and ensure that they are aware that PIP is replacing DLA for people aged 16 to 64. A multichannel advertising campaign that began today and will run until early December is specifically designed to raise awareness prior to the start of the managed reassessment of existing DLA claimants. The key aim of the current campaign is to ensure that existing DLA claimants aged 16 to 64 are aware that PIP is replacing DLA and that they will be contacted in advance of any change to their benefit.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There is time for a quick question and answer.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. How is this being communicated to the wider public and those who have difficulty accessing the Internet and suchlike?

Mr Givan: The current media campaign delivers the primary message that DLA is being replaced by PIP. If you are of working age and are affected, you will be contacted. In order to support the media campaign content, it is on NI Direct, the government services website. It was redeveloped to allow claimants very quickly and easily to access information about PIP, including that in alternative formats such as audio and British and Irish sign language.

3.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Time is up for questions. Members should take their ease while we change the top Table.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly notes that HMP Maghaberry is unique in the British Isles and much of Europe for the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with such opposing political and ideological views and criminal backgrounds; further notes the continuing implementation of a flawed decision taken in 2003 to separate paramilitary prisoners and the impact that this is having on the operation of the prison and on the morale of public servants who live with its consequences; believes that the prison should gradually revert to its integrationist policy and that this should be reflected in the Executive’s action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime; and calls on the Minister of Justice to put in place the framework to ensure that, by 2021, there are no new admissions to separate paramilitary wings and that, by 2026, there is a fully integrated prison regime. — [Mr Beattie.]

Which amendment was:

Leave out all after "Maghaberry" and insert

"is unique on these islands and much of Europe for the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with diverse backgrounds who are subject to different court processes depending on the nature of their charges; recognises that all prisoners and all prison staff must be treated with dignity and respect; believes that there is a need for ongoing and comprehensive prison reform; and calls on the Minister of Justice to work jointly with the planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime, evidencing the need for any changes and providing useful information for stakeholders to take forward, as proposed by the report from the Fresh Start panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups.". — [Mr Kearney.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put.

The Assembly divided:

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.


That this Assembly notes that HMP Maghaberry is unique on these islands and much of Europe for the challenges it faces as a result of housing prisoners with diverse backgrounds who are subject to different court processes depending on the nature of their charges; recognises that all prisoners and all prison staff must be treated with dignity and respect; believes that there is a need for ongoing and comprehensive prison reform; and calls on the Minister of Justice to work jointly with the planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime, evidencing the need for any changes and providing useful information for stakeholders to take forward, as proposed by the report from the Fresh Start panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups.

Assembly Business

Mrs Overend: On a point of order, Principal Deputy Speaker. Following on from the point of order raised at the opening of today's business, and the unbefitting attempts by the Health Minister to close down last week's debate on waiting times, I would like to make you aware that in advance of today's debate on nursing shortages, I tabled a priority question for written answer asking for those statistics from the Health Minister. It should have been answered on 17 October, and it remains unanswered. How are we, as MLAs, meant to properly participate in these debates without such basic information? Can the Principal Deputy Speaker compare these practices with those of other regions and other seats of government?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Member for her point of order. I will refer the matter to the Speaker, and we will return to the issue.

Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I would like to apologise to the House for not being in my place during questions to the Justice Minister.

Mr K Buchanan: On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I would like to apologise to the House for not being in my place. [Interruption.]

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: If we are all finished with our points of order, we will move on.

Private Members' Business

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Anderson: I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges the ongoing problem of nursing shortages in Northern Ireland; recognises the work carried out by former Health Ministers and health and social care trusts to address this problem; and calls on the Minister of Health to build on these efforts by working proactively with our colleges and universities to promote nursing as a career choice and to work collaboratively with the relevant bodies to train and retain more nurses, thus reducing the total spend on agency workers and assisting long-term workforce planning.

I welcome the opportunity to bring forward this motion on addressing nursing shortages in Northern Ireland. I believe that this issue is one of significant importance that needs to be raised in the Assembly, and that is why I have brought this motion forward in my name and that of my colleagues. I also wish to declare an interest as I have family working in the nursing and midwifery professions.

It has to be recognised that the problem of nursing shortages is not unique to Northern Ireland but is a problem right across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the wider world. We all want to see the health service working properly, and we and our families all value and make use of it. Nursing shortages is an issue that has been highlighted many times in the media, and it is raised by my constituents on a regular basis. Throughout my time as an MLA, I and my colleagues have had regular meetings with the Southern Health and Social Care Trust and, at our most recent meeting a few weeks ago, addressing nursing shortages was a topic that was high on the agenda.

I would like to put on record my sincere thanks and gratitude to the dedicated nursing staff that we have right across Northern Ireland. They go above and beyond their call of duty to help and support the patients in their care, often working long, unsociable hours under significant pressure and stress. Nurses have a genuine compassion and caring nature and want to help others in need. It is not just a job to them. I feel that we must do all that we can to support them in the work that they do.

We must recognise that the circumstances and needs of our society and health service are changing all the time. We now have an ever-growing ageing population, which presents significant challenges to our health and social care services. In addition, we have witnessed an increase in the number of people with chronic conditions and have seen an increase in the number of people who lead unhealthy lifestyles. It has, in fact, been noted that the demand for health and social care services is rising by around 5% each year. Clearly, the health and social care sector has had to operate in a more challenging environment in recent years. This means that we have to be more efficient and ensure that finances are directed to the areas that are most in need.

In recent times, former Health Ministers, the health and social care trusts and other key agencies have attempted to address the ongoing problem of nursing shortages. An example of this is that, during the previous mandate, nearly 1,200 more nurses and midwives were employed. At the end of March 2016, the previous Health Minister, Simon Hamilton, also announced an increase of 100 preregistration nurse training places in Northern Ireland from autumn 2016, taking the Department's annual commission of training places to 745 nurses.

It was noted in the document, 'A Workforce Plan for Nursing and Midwifery in Northern Ireland (2015-2025)', that 21% of newly qualified Queen's University nurses and midwives left Northern Ireland in 2011-12 , compared with 10% in 2009-2010. Ulster University said that it had no official figures but believed that approximately 7% of its nursing graduates left Northern Ireland to work elsewhere in the United Kingdom over a four-year period. It has been suggested that the number of nursing graduates leaving Northern Ireland could be as high as one third. The Chief Nursing Officer highlighted the fact that many local nursing graduates were relocating to London after their studies. In some cases, they are attracted by packages additional to what they could receive in Northern Ireland, including resettlement and enhancement of their salary.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it is virtually impossible for two nurses and two auxiliaries to deliver a proper standard of care in a ward with 17 or 18 patients?

Mr Anderson: I thank the Member for his intervention. I have heard of many similar cases. It happens regularly, but we cannot allow it to happen if we are to ensure that patients get the care that they need. I know, as I said, that nurses in those situations go beyond the call of duty to ensure that the patient comes first.

This is a serious issue and a worrying trend, especially when we have an ageing nursing and midwifery workforce, with research indicating that up to 46% are eligible to retire in some practice areas between 2015 and 2025. Those nurses and midwives will have to be replaced in the health and social care sector. In addition, from 2011-12 to 2015-16, approximately 1,600 nurses working across our trusts retired. The Chief Nursing Officer discussed the ageing profile in different disciplines of nursing and midwifery when she recently appeared before the Health Committee. She stated that there was a significant number in the over-50 age range who are due to retire, increasing from 11% in 2015 to 30% in 2018.

I understand that there are times when hospitals have to rely on bank nurses to ensure that they have enough staff to provide care for their patients. While we require flexibility in our system, it is unsustainable to over-rely on nursing banks. I am also aware that health and social care trusts have been asked to examine their reliance on agency staff. In each of our trusts, there has been an extensive increase in the amount spent on agency workers in the period from 2011-12 to 2015-16. I recognise the contribution that agency workers make to our health service in specific short-term circumstances, but it is important that our health service manages and controls that expenditure.

In an immediate effort to address nursing and midwifery shortages, international recruitment drives have taken place in recent months. The most prominent of those was the mission to the Philippines, and it was noted that, in August 2016, a total of 488 jobs were offered to nurses from that country. I recognise that nurses from overseas play a very important role in our health service at this time, and I thank them for their dedication and their efforts to date. However, such international recruitment efforts can prove problematic. For example, there is a lengthy lead-in time before the nurses arrive to work in our hospitals and communities due to language testing and other training that has to be completed, meaning that the employment of such nurses will not address the serious pressures facing the health service in the short term. Although bringing in nurses from overseas has merit, it will stretch only so far. The Southern Trust recently informed me that, even after it has been allocated additional nurses as a result of the international recruitment, it expects to have 50 nursing vacancies.

4.15 pm

The motion also refers to working with our colleges and universities to promote nursing as a career choice. I feel that that is of significant importance moving forward. I am aware that, in 2016, over 2,200 applications were received for the 264 commissioned adult nursing and mental health nursing degree places at Ulster University. That highlights that a desire for a career in nursing and midwifery exists. It is therefore vital that the Minister builds on the progress of former Ministers to increase the number of places that are available in our universities. I am also aware that work has been commissioned to investigate whether we can have a fast-track programme for people who already possess a primary degree in the healthcare field. Potentially, this could shorten the time taken to complete the nursing training programme, and initiatives such as this could help to address nursing shortages as we move forward.

Ultimately, the fundamental issue before us is our appreciation of the nursing and midwifery professions. The work of our nurses and midwives and the responsibility that goes with their professions need to be recognised and rewarded. We need to be thankful and determined to support the professions as we move forward. It is imperative that we ensure that the health service is attractive to encourage students and newly qualified nurses into these professions, so that we retain nurses and midwives and sustain a stable workforce.

I hope that the issue of dealing with nursing shortage is one that we can all support and on which we can find common cause. As an Assembly, we are often criticised for what we do or do not do. It is imperative that we all get behind the nursing and midwifery professions as they face many difficulties and challenges right now and will do so in the future if those are not presently addressed. I call on the Minister to move on the issue, and I look forward to her comments later in the debate.

Mr Durkan: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "ongoing" and insert

"pressures facing nursing and midwifery staff in Northern Ireland; is concerned about the number of vacant nursing and midwifery posts across each health and social care trust; acknowledges that staffing shortages have exacerbated pressures in the health system, impacted on the working conditions of staff and affected patient outcomes; and calls on the Minister of Health to work proactively with our colleges and universities to promote nursing and midwifery as a career choice and to work collaboratively with the relevant bodies to train and retain more nurses and midwives.".

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue, and I am pleased to propose the amendment. It incorporates midwives into the original motion, which focused solely on nurses.

First, I want to put in place my party's gratitude and respect for our hard-working nurses and midwives. Nurses are the backbone of the health service, a health service that is under severe strain. We all know that, when we are under severe strain, it is the backbone that feels it first and feels it worst. Let me be clear — I hope that everyone is clear — that supporting the motion and amendment is in no way a criticism of the heroic, often thankless, work that nurses do. Last week, a call for the Minister's intervention to improve services was twisted by some here and portrayed as an attack on those who deliver that service.

What we want to do is attract and retain more nurses and midwives to the profession to help to shoulder the massive workload and responsibility of those already doing the job. The motion highlights the ongoing problem of the nursing shortage here. This is not a situation that has developed overnight, and, yes, efforts have been made over a number of years by trusts and previous Ministers to address it. Indeed, such efforts are still ongoing, but the fact is that it has not been fixed yet. It needs to be fixed and fixed now.

I speak to nurses regularly — nurses who work in hospitals, in care homes or in the community — and the common theme that emerges is that nurses and other healthcare workers feel overworked and undervalued. When I looked at the information pack ahead of the debate, it was clear to me that the sentiments that nurses express to me reflect a wider picture. While some statistics in the pack actually showed an increase in the number of whole-time equivalents, they certainly do not tell the story of nurses' increased workloads. Those increases in workload, unfilled vacancies and recruitment freezes in the workplace all contribute to additional stresses on workers already operating in an extremely stressful environment. It is so bad that, according to the Royal College of Nursing, almost one fifth of newly qualified nurses will probably look for another job elsewhere in the next 12 months. Imagine if that were to happen: the impact of that on patient care in Northern Ireland would be devastating.

Today, I, along with many other MLAs, dropped into an event upstairs hosted by the Patient and Client Council (PCC).

The PCC is the patients' voice. It would certainly concur with the view expressed in the amendment that existing shortages have affected patient outcomes.

While we applaud and support past and current initiatives to increase the nursing workforce, such as the overseas nurses recruitment drive, we have to question the potential impact of Brexit on nursing levels. Prior to the referendum, concerns about this were voiced by Jeremy Hunt. There may be damage caused by losing some EU workers who work in Health and Social Care. Uncertainties around visas and residency permits could cause some to return home and some not to come here in the first place, with an unpredictable impact on hard-pressed front-line services.

Despite significant investment in the health services, there is an acknowledgement that current structures are not fit for purpose. In Northern Ireland, standards of care have been called into question due to the weak infrastructure underpinning the current provision of care. I know that the Minister will address that tomorrow with the long-awaited publication of Bengoa. It is hugely important that we enhance the quality of education and training for healthcare assistants and increase progression routes into nursing. We also have to look at progression routes in nursing. With the increased emphasis on community nursing, we have the bizarre anomaly in the Western Trust where a dedicated, skilled and experienced community nurse has to go back to working in a hospital for two years before, or if, they are to progress from being a grade 5 to a grade 6.

The Chief Nursing Officer has told us that nurses are suffering because of inconsistent decision-making by the trusts and the board. They are worried that they are being ignored. There are also genuine concerns that the bank system is being used as a mainstream recruiting mechanism rather than the flexibility tool that it was originally designed to be. More permanent nurses will, obviously, reduce the spend on agency workers and assist long-term workforce planning. Nurses are also being called in to do extra administrative duties.

An ageing workforce, as referred to by the motion's proposer, is a major worry. There is a big group in the over-50 age range that is due to retire in the very foreseeable future. Nowhere is that more pronounced — this brings me to the amendment — than in the area of midwifery. According to the royal college, Northern Ireland faces a shortage of 100 midwives by 2017. That is next year. Forty-one per cent of midwives are aged between 50 and 60. There is growing concern in the trusts that, inevitably, there will be an insufficient number of midwives to staff our already bursting maternity units due to an inadequate number of midwives being trained to replace those who are about to retire. We really are heading towards a midwife crisis.

With severely limited job prospects on completion of training, many midwives are forced to leave here to seek job opportunities elsewhere, where they are able to obtain permanent employment and progress in their career. Elsewhere, they can earn the experience they require and will also be paid substantially better than those employed here. We need to get new midwives in now so that they can benefit from the experience of that older cohort who are due to leave.

Maternity services here are performing extremely well given the circumstances in which they are operating, but that is due largely to the selfless dedication of midwives and other maternity staff. However, those who have the capacity to go the extra mile for mothers and babies day after day are feeling undervalued and overworked. A survey of midwives who have left or who plan to leave found that over half were unhappy with staffing levels. Around half are not satisfied with the quality of care that they are able to give. Most worryingly of all, only 9% of midwives who had left or were about to leave said that they felt that midwifery is valued by the Government. That is something that we really need to address, and we can start that today by supporting the amendment.

We need midwives to know that we value them, not only for bringing our babies into the world but for their vital role in maternal mental health care. We need to see the full implementation of the Northern Ireland maternity strategy. The most obvious way to make our nurses and midwives feel valued is through fairly rewarding their invaluable work. We welcome the Minister's announcement last week on the 1% pay increase but cannot ignore the disparity that still exists between here and other regions. The motion and the amendment describe nursing as a career choice, but, for so many, it is much more than that. It is a true vocation. People do it because they care. They devote and dedicate their lives to helping others but feel that this good nature is taken advantage of and taken for granted. They often have to work several unpaid hours every week.

I urge the Assembly to support the amendment. It is time for us to care for our nurses and deliver for our midwives.

Ms Seeley: I thank my colleagues in the DUP for bringing forward the motion today, which we will, of course, support. Last week was International Nurses Week, and a local nurse posted a comment on social media marking this. She noted that:

"being a nurse means you carry immense responsibility. You make a difference to the life of those you enter. Some bless you, others curse you and, sadly, some even assault you. You see people at their worst, at their best, life begin and life end."

I contacted that nurse in advance of this debate. She told me that nurses are mostly drained and hopeless and that they face more and more strain and pressure every day. Watching their backs at every turn in a blame culture, enjoying very little positive feedback or recognition, despite working their fingers to the bone and bladders to bursting point. She described her children as spending early mornings and late evenings in childcare, all the while their mum or dad is saving lives or, at the very least, making lives better. She said how degrading it can be but explained that the guilt that they feel about letting society down keeps them going to work, tirelessly, every day. Although this story is not unique to the North, there is no doubt that our nurses are under immense pressure. It is important that we, as their representatives and their Government, respond to that in a manner that inspires hope and confidence whilst recognising, acknowledging and commending the invaluable work that they do.

I want to send out a very clear message to nurses across the North today: your Minister does care, your Minister is aware of your daily struggle, and your Minister is responding.

We do not have a problem attracting people into the nursing profession: for every nursing undergraduate place available, there are in excess of 10 other applicants. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's recent response to my question regarding the bursary in which she committed to maintaining it, at a time when the British Government intend to move to a loan. In her answer, she also outlined her plans to increase the number of nurses being trained over the coming years. Despite this, and in the immediate term, there are increased demands on nursing services due to an ageing population, increased complexity of patients, and development of new models of care. In the North, 31% of the workforce is aged 50-plus. We must respond to that knowledge now, not in later years when it is much too late and retirement sends our health service into crisis.

I welcome recent comments that the Minister intends to make the North an employer of choice by attracting nurses to work here and encouraging our students to stay here. The retention of nurses must remain a priority. The web-based nursing and midwifery career framework, used to promote the North as an employer of choice for existing and future staff, will prove crucial to that. Local recruitment initiatives are being progressed regionally, including job offers to all year-3 students in training, streamlining, standardisation of recruitment processes, and open advertising by trusts of vacancies. The increased investment in the return to nursing practice programme, delivered by Ulster University, to 48 places per year is further testament of the Government's commitment to addressing nursing shortages. I encourage the Minister to continue with the implementation of her Department's 10-year nursing and midwifery workforce plan, which will prove key in ensuring that we have an appropriately resourced and skilled nursing workforce to meet the needs of our population.

The amended motion does not mention workforce planning, so we are unable to support it. The proposer of the motion specifically mentioned midwives in his opening remarks, so we are content that the original motion includes and gives plenty of focus to midwives.

4.30 pm

Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?

Ms Seeley: I will, indeed.

Mr Durkan: By an extension of that logic, given that the proposer of the amendment mentioned workforce planning in his remarks, could the Member not see fit to support the amendment?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member will have an extra minute.

Ms Seeley: I thank the Member for his intervention. I have made our position on the motion clear and given the House an explanation for it.

I am sure that today's motion will give faith and hope to our nurses — those who work endless hours, some unpaid, some without a break — that we, their government representatives, care. I say a heartfelt thank you to each and every one of those nurses on every ward across the North.

Mr Butler: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and the amendment. I understand the difficulties of the increasing pressures on nursing staff: my wife is a nurse and deals with these pressures daily. I have no problem with either the motion or the amendment. The only issue that I might have at home, in speaking to my wife, is that I am not sure whether she would agree that we commend any former Health Ministers for how they treated nursing. However, we will support the motion and the amendment.

It is ironic that, when reading over previous debates in advance of today, those who tabled the motion were most irritated when concerns were raised in the last mandate about the pressures facing our nursing staff. Nonetheless, party politics should not be brought into today's debate. I really hope that we have a positive discussion, but there needs to be a recognition across all the parties that there is a problem.

Nursing roles have been systematically widened, and targets have been stretched without the appropriate provision being made for staffing levels through workforce planning. The failure to workforce plan, as can be clearly seen in the spiralling reliance on and cost of agency nurses, is impacting on every aspect of our health service. It does not matter whether it is A&E or care in the community, they all face serious challenges. Whilst I am aware that there has been an increase in nursing posts over recent years, it has been in conjunction with a major increase in nursing vacancies. A long-term vacant nursing post is about as much use as no nursing post at all.

I am also aware that there have been some efforts in recent times to increase the number of nurses entering the profession, and that has included the Department of Health's recruitment drive on the international stage. Whilst I welcome the foresight of bolstering nursing levels — the nurses already in post here who were recruited from overseas play an essential part in the local health and social care workforce — the obvious disadvantages of our increasing reliance on international recruitment have been pointed out. I believe that the Southern Trust and the South Eastern Trust have relied on a small number of foreign nurses recently, but I have to express disappointment that a small number is all that we were able to attract. A cost is also attached to those recruitment drives: travel, accommodation, additional examinations and, of course, supporting the nurses to become sufficiently fluent in English. How will the Minister ensure value for money in those circumstances? As a first port of call, we should seek to utilise all our local resources before investing large amounts of money in attracting nurses from overseas.

Nursing, like midwifery, is a wonderful career. In fact, it is the type of career that people queue up to enter, often not for the money but for the pleasure of helping people in need. That is most apparent in there being a far greater number of applicants than nursing positions. The previous Minister increased the number of nursing training places slightly, but we need to realise that it only slowed down the problem rather than solving it. The pressures under which our nurses work, as well as the traumatic scenes that they witness daily, are quite immense, but rarely do they let it spill over. At that point, I pay tribute to our hard-working nursing staff. They work long hours, come home at night and go back to work the next day, putting their uniform on to do it all over again.

The current Minister has an obligation — we will, hopefully, hear more from her tomorrow — to ensure that our local health service has the capacity to meet the rising demand. That means not just that more staff are needed but that the right intervention has to be made at the right time. Nursing staff, as I am sure every consultant or person responsible for commissioning services is acutely aware, are best placed to ensure that patients are safely and efficiently progressed through their journey. It is for that reason that the Assembly has an obligation to ensure that they are supported through this work.

Ms Bradshaw: I support the motion and the amendment, but, on balance, I prefer the text of the motion. The objective today is that, going forward, we secure concrete action.

Nursing is one of many areas of the health service in which workforce planning has been inadequate for many years. The motion is correct in its aim of reducing dependency on agency workers and emphasising long-term planning. No one is claiming that, going forward, this will be easy.

It is fair to recognise the rise in the number of nursing students, although that must be matched by a rise in the number of nurses working here. Here in Northern Ireland, our nurse training is among the very best in the world, and there is good provision for continuous professional development and return-to-nursing courses. However, the fact there is a campaign to attract nurses back to the profession indicates that education is not the only problem — perhaps it is not even the main one. Many of those qualifying do not enter the profession in Northern Ireland, although it is good that the number doing so seems to be on the rise. As I mentioned, workforce planning is a serious issue across the whole of the health and social care service, and, in fairness, it is not restricted to nursing.

It is hard to disagree with the recommendations of last year's workforce plan for nursing and midwifery: a strategic approach; a review of the workforce and the independent sector; proper forecasting; and the introduction of advanced practice programmes. However, even that workforce plan contains a lot of reviews and considerations, when what is required are concrete actions. In any case, all the workforce plans and reform reports in the world are of no use without an adequate commitment of resources.

At this moment, we should not underestimate the seriousness of the UK's decision to leave the European Union. Across the UK, it has led to an ugly expectation among a minority that the result of the referendum somehow equates to foreigners having to leave the country now. In fairness, it has to be said that local representatives, even those who were vocal in campaigning for a "Leave" vote, have been clear that the NHS simply could not function without the foreign workers doing such a great job. I think that all parties in the Assembly will join me in emphasising that nurses in Northern Ireland, regardless of where they come from, do a terrific job and make a significant contribution to the health and social care sector.

A similar motion was passed by the Assembly in January 2014, and the workforce plan followed the next year. I therefore emphasise that resources for reform need to follow, and, with that plan and countless expert reports now available to us, we need more actions and fewer considerations. Let us hope that the motion leads to those actions and to direct, tangible outcomes.

Mr Clarke: I apologise that I was not here for most of the other contributions as I had other business. I support the motion tabled in the name of my colleague Sydney Anderson. Although I have sympathy for the amendment, I do not believe that it is as strong as the motion. I do not want to get into the blame game: if we are all mature about this, we know that there is a problem in the nursing sector and in our hospitals. Many of us who visit the hospitals know the pressure that nursing staff work under. It is not a case of blaming one person or another for that; it is about finding a solution. The motion refers to including our colleges in providing more encouragement to get people into the profession.

I want to touch briefly on comments made by the previous Member to speak. As someone who voted to exit the European Union — I do not want this turning into a European debate — I fully get our past and future reliance on foreign nationals coming to work in our hospitals, because of their work ethic and the compassion that those individuals show, but we should not tie that into a debate about whether we should be in or out of Europe. It is about the professional character of some of those individuals.

Indeed, some of those individuals work outside of European countries as well. So, they have come to this country and given an awful lot, and I do not think that we should underestimate their value, the role that they have played in our hospitals and the care that they have provided to our patients.

Moving on to the motion, the difference for me in relation to the motion and amendment — I have had this conversation with Mark privately — is that I could have seen myself supporting the amendment, however, the motion goes on to talk about the reliance on agency workers. We need to be prudent going forward, and I would not wish to have the difficult job that the Minister and all Ministers have in trying to balance finding the finances with delivering services, but until we get properly funded nurses in positions, we cannot remove the over-reliance on agency staff. Agency staff are much more expensive. That is one aspect. The other is around workforce planning and having a balance going forward. It is for that reason that I support the main motion.

The Minister has a difficult task ahead to try to get the balance right. It is for that reason that I find myself in support of the motion to try to come to a position where we can remove the pressures for some of the individuals who take nursing on as a career. I have friends who are in that profession, and I understand the difficulties that they have working in it, but one thing at the heart of all this is that we should not underestimate the care that the nurses provide. Whether they have pressure or otherwise, their first and foremost position is that they are caring professionals doing a caring job for the patients whom they serve. That said, we need to encourage more people into the profession. One of the ways to do that is to open up more recruitment places and to make it more attractive looking from the perspective of our colleges. I support the motion.

Mr Sheehan: I also welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Any debate on the health service will be listened to very carefully by those who work in the service but also by those who depend on the health service for their treatment and care. For that reason, all of us should be measured in what we say so that no one is made to feel more insecure or vulnerable, whether they be employees or patients.

I will say again what I said last week: the best way to improve the health service is by everyone working collaboratively to bring about change. That includes political representatives in this Assembly, healthcare professionals, nurses, trade unions, patients and any other individuals or organisations that have a stake in the health service. That is what the people out there want. They want people working together. That, more importantly, is what they deserve.

Moving on to the motion, of course, there is a problem of nursing shortages in the system. Everyone knows that, and all the Members who have spoken so far have acknowledged and recognised that. Those shortages exist for a variety of reasons. First, there is a global shortage of nurses and midwives, which is impacting on health services across these islands. Patient needs are also becoming more complex in an ageing population. Added to that, there have been decisions in the past to reduce investment in preregistration nurse education. Those decisions lacked foresight and exposed a lack of vision around workforce planning. We are not going to resolve the issue of the shortage of nurses without proper investment and a clear workforce planning strategy.

It is not the case that young people are not attracted to nursing. On the contrary, as has been pointed out, there are more than 10 applications to study nursing for every place that is available. So, what can be done about shortages in the system? The Department has already increased by 15% the number of preregistration nurse training places in our universities. The Minister has also made clear that the nursing bursary will continue here. That is something that, I know, nurses are very pleased about. I am confident that the Minister will take further steps and introduce other measures to promote nursing and midwifery as a career choice and, moreover, create the conditions that will make qualified nurses want to stay and pursue their careers here. I am quite sure also that the Minister will take account of the recommendations of her Department's 10-year workforce plan for nursing and midwifery.

4.45 pm

Nurses make up 36% of the health service workforce, and anyone who has ever been in hospital, who has had close family members in hospital or who has even visited hospital will attest to the professionalism, dedication and commitment of our nurses. It is no exaggeration to say that, without nurses, there would not be a health service. Nurses are, indeed, the glue that holds our health system together. We could not do without them. I had the pleasure of visiting the midwife-led unit in the Mater Hospital last week with the Health Minister, and I previously had some experience of there because my four-year-old daughter was born there. Although at that time it was not midwife-led, it is mainly the same midwives who are operating the unit now. It is an absolutely excellent unit, and I hope that the Minister gives full support to it.

I am disappointed that the amendment detracts from rather than adds to the motion. Any amendment should add to the motion not detract from it. It does not give a nod to workforce planning, which is absolutely essential to ensuring that we have enough nurses in the system and that they are not overburdened in their work. For that reason, we will be opposing the amendment and supporting the motion.

Mr Middleton: I support the motion, and I agree with the comments made by my colleagues earlier. The motion has five key points in it, which I feel the House should support. Many Members have already agreed with the first of those points, which is the fact that there is a shortage of nurses and that that is an ongoing problem. We know that nurses make up a very large part of our Health and Social Care workforce and are delivering 24/7 care, 365 days of the year across a wide range of sectors, in primary, secondary and tertiary care and in our schools, prisons and workplaces, to name a few. Of course, to assist and drive further the transition of service delivery from predominantly acute hospital-based care to community-based care, more nurses will be needed. They will be needed in specialist skills areas as well to provide complex case management and advanced and specialist practice knowledge. Of course, they will need to have the confidence to work independently in the community rather than in acute hospital settings.

The second point —

Mr Dickson: I thank the Member for giving way, and I concur with all that he is saying, particularly where he suggests that we will constantly need a new influx of nurses into Northern Ireland, whether that is through training or through trained nurses coming to us from other parts of the world or the EU. Will he agree that we should not be placing any barriers to those coming into the United Kingdom other than those of qualification? The sorts of barriers that exist in Northern Ireland to people coming here are freedom of movement and, indeed, sadly, racism.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member will have an extra minute.

Mr Middleton: I do not particularly disagree with anything that the Member has said, and I think that the issue of language has also been touched on. It is important that we ensure that those who come here are able to undertake the language as fast as possible and fit into our service. Ultimately, we have to pay tribute to those who are already here and doing a fantastic job in our health service.

The second point in the motion recognises the work carried out by previous Ministers. We touched on the fact that 100 additional nurse training places were made available earlier this year. That marks an 15% increase in the annual number of preregistration nurse training places, taking the number of places over the 700 mark for the first time since 2009.

That takes me on to the next point of the motion, which asks that the Health Minister build on that work. I have no doubt that she will strive to do so, and I appreciate that the Bengoa report comes out tomorrow, with the Minister's vision coming alongside that. Not to pre-empt what is to come, but I expect that nursing and the increase in nursing numbers will be a major part of that solution.

We also need to work proactively with our colleges and universities to promote nursing as a career choice. Mr Durkan referred to the fact that it is not just a career choice: people go into it to genuinely make a real difference and provide a first-class service. I do not have to go any further than my constituency to see the work that our colleges and universities do in nursing. The nurse training provided at the Magee campus is first-class. It is in the top 10 in the United Kingdom. The partnership working between the Department of Health and the universities and colleges should continue. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is promoted and that nursing is promoted as a real career choice that can make a difference in our community. There were over 2,200 applications to Ulster University this year for only 264 undergraduate places. There is an increase in demand combined with the return to nursing practice programme. These are two examples of where the universities and the Department can work together.

The need to train and retain more nurses has been mentioned. That obviously has to continue, but we also want to see the continued professional development of the nurses we already have. Finally, it is important that we refer to workforce planning, because the change in the demographics of the country continues. That is something that we have to bear in mind and work on proactively over the next number of years.

Mrs Dobson: I apologise to my Upper Bann colleague for missing the earlier part of the debate.

As has been said, our nurses are the lifeline of the local health and social care service. Over the years, we have seen a sea change in what it is to be a nurse. Their role, input, scope and responsibilities have all changed dramatically. That change is saving lives. I say that as a mother who has relied on nurses to help care for my son. Like so many other families, I can name the nurses who cared for our loved ones. I want to use the opportunity to publicly thank Hazel, Rozzi, Kathryn and Alison, all of whom still play a part in my son Mark's life. They became an extension of our family, and I cannot speak highly enough about how they all went above and beyond the call of duty.

Nurses are by far the largest group of health staff. I struggle to think of a health setting where nurses are not the first, middle and last point of contact for patients on their journey. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that they, as a workforce, are supported and properly planned for. In its document, 'A New Vision of Nursing and Midwifery', the Royal College of Nursing highlights that:

"Without adequate investment in all parts of the nursing workforce, health care organisations will continue to struggle with staff shortages, poor skill mix, bed pressures, preventable morbidity and mortality, and poor provision of community health services ... Nursing is also put under pressure when management assumes that nurses will 'fill the gap' whenever there is one to be filled, be it doctor, cleaner or administrator."

The challenges facing our local nursing workforce are nothing new. Whilst we have heard much about piecemeal investments in local nursing services, the Minister and her officials know, as do the nurses on the ground, that a 6% increase over five years is insignificant in comparison with the far faster rate at which demand and indeed the scope of their role is growing.

As was mentioned by my colleague, the Department appears reluctant to tell us the number of nursing posts that are vacant. What we know is that, earlier this year, there were 850 vacancies across Northern Ireland. The number in my trust — the Southern Trust — increased from 19 to 226 in just two years.

While nurses are, of course, the public face of local hospitals, they have an equally important role in caring for people in private nursing homes. I urge the Minister to instigate an investigation to assess the challenges facing our private nursing homes. Let me give you an example. Last week, my party was contacted by a local private nursing home owner. Her sheer frustration and distress were obvious. Recently, she lost her deputy home manager and four staff who were working 36 hours a week each. She lost a further staff member on 48 hours' notice, and several more all with significant contracted hours have handed in their notice. So many nursing staff leaving was no reflection on her ability as an employer; it is simply because staff are being enticed away from our local homes to work for agencies.

Our private nursing homes are spiralling towards a crisis. They are haemorrhaging staff, particularly to agencies. Therefore, the Minister may shortly be required to take the unprecedented step of intervening to ensure that the patients and residents do not find those homes facing closure with all that entails for them personally and for their families. We do not want to see repeats of the scenes from last year. I am thinking particularly of Donaghcloney in my constituency.

Nursing staff deserve fair pay for the vital work they do. I support the royal college and all it is doing to ensure fairness. When we look at newly qualified nurses, we see that they must see a progression ahead of them, a clear stairway to career enhancement in their job. I support the motion and the amendment and urge the Minister to take action to support all our nursing staff.

Mr Milne: I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the shortage of nursing staff. It has been an ongoing problem for a number of years, as demand on health services continues to grow not just here in the North but across the world. The motion gives us the opportunity to hear at first hand what the current situation is, what impact previous measures to address the issue have had and, most importantly, what all this means in the short, medium and long term. Before I continue, I echo the comments of other Members and add my words of praise for the nursing staff and those who support them in their work. On a personal note, three years ago, my son's wife gave birth to twins who were 10 weeks premature, and I cannot praise enough the work, skill and care that the nurses in Antrim Area Hospital gave to bring those children from the point of death to being healthy boys today.

There is no doubt that nursing staff are the backbone of our health service. They are a highly skilled and dedicated workforce, and their contribution to providing a safe service and improving patient outcomes cannot be overestimated. They provide a high level of care and compassion to patients in the hospital environment and the community, working unsociable hours and often over and above expectations. The challenging circumstances they work in have been well documented and rightly so, but often that can mask the many positive and rewarding aspects of the job. I was very encouraged by the figures coming from the Ulster University that show that the level of demand for a career in nursing remains extremely high.

Continuing on that note of positivity, I welcome the 15% increase in the number of preregistration training places for this year's intake announced in March by the outgoing Minister and the commitment by the current Minister, Michelle O'Neill, to continue with the nursing bursary, which has been mentioned. Added to the increased investment in the return to nursing programme, those interventions will go some way to address the legacy left by the decision to reduce investment in nurse education a number of years ago. In the short term, however, as we heard, there are a substantial number of unfilled positions, and every effort should be made to continue to recruit staff from home and abroad to alleviate the pressures caused by the shortage. I acknowledge the nurses from, say, the Philippines and Europe and, indeed, from around the world, who have taken up work here and have made a significant contribution to the health service. They are very much appreciated and valued.

It is crucial that the necessary support and continual development be provided to ensure that nurses feel valued, respected and able to do their jobs professionally and effectively, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to that.

5.00 pm

The standard that our nursing staff are trained to is amongst the best in the world, and that is something to be very proud of. In the midst of a global shortage, we must work hard to retain them.

As we move forward, workforce planning is central to addressing many of the issues facing the health service. Demand in the service has not only increased; it has changed, and so too has the method of delivery. The recent updated plan for nursing and midwifery highlights the impact of that. The move towards community-based care, an ageing population, an increase in the number of people presenting with complex needs and long-term conditions, and the move towards enhanced and specialised nurse-led care are some examples of that. All of them have brought their own pressures and challenges. The plan also puts a focus on the age profile of staff, the impacts of demographic changes, and a shrinking labour market. It makes a number of recommendations that it hopes will address those issues and will identify and plan for future challenges. That is the only way that we can attract, support and retain nursing staff, and it is the only way that we will deliver the healthcare that we want to see. As other Members said, we have to work together.

Mr Robinson: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, as I have a family member who is in the nursing profession and am therefore well aware of the problems for staff and patients due to the lack of nurses in our hospitals, health centres, care homes etc. There is a shortage of nurses generally, but there is a specific shortage of specialist nurses in many disciplines, which means that those with lifelong or life-limiting conditions are impacted the most. That needs to be addressed.

I praise my colleagues and former Health Ministers and health trusts who have intervened to boost nurse numbers, and I call on our current Health Minister to follow in their footsteps.

Nurses are the front line of our health service, dealing with the most direct and basic needs that a patient has; they are vital to the success of the entire health system. If there are fewer nurses, the medical profession is less effective. Our nurses are truly unsung heroes, and I thank all of them for the magnificent and, at times, thankless job that they do. We must also take into consideration the abuse, both verbal and physical, that nurses and other health staff have to endure in their line of work from day to day.

I appreciate that the University of Ulster and the Western Trust work well together, and the extension of that close working relationship should be examined. Many graduates find work in the trust and in Northern Ireland. I often hear about the lack of nursing staff from patients and professionals, and one thing that I frequently hear is that the dependency on agency workers needs to be reduced. Agency staff are essential and help to keep wards and A&E units working. However, full-time staff are a less costly solution. I ask the Minister to look at how we can attract more young people into nursing and ensure they stay in the Northern Ireland health system when they qualify. We encourage those young people to stay and build Northern Ireland and use their specialist skills for the benefit of Northern Ireland people.

As the motion states, we must find ways to ensure that long-term planning is aimed at retaining the valuable group of young people who graduate with nursing skills. Those graduates are the future of our health service, and we must find ways of working with all relevant bodies to ensure that that future skill base is retained. We must also ensure that training and retraining are available for existing nursing staff, including time for each nurse to undertake that training, as that will enhance their skills set and possible future promotions. That will benefit staff, trusts and, most of all, patients.

As one who understands the demands placed upon our nursing staff and the struggles that they have due to staff shortages, I fully support this very worthwhile motion and ask all Members to support it too.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Health): I very much welcome the debate and thank the Members for tabling the motion. It provides us with a timely opportunity to consider the issues we face with a shortage of nurses. I thank Members for their considered contributions throughout the debate. They all reveal a concern for and interest in nursing and midwifery that I entirely share, and I hope to respond to as many of the points raised as time allows.

I pay tribute, as other Members did, to the dedication and commitment of all our nurses, who play a vital role in the delivery of high-quality nursing care to our population across all sectors and settings. I greatly value and appreciate the work that our nurses do in the face of increased demands and the unique contribution they make to the lives of patients, clients and families daily. The evidence is clear that the number of graduate nurses has a strong effect on patient experience and outcome.

I share the concern expressed by Members regarding the challenge of nursing shortages impacting on our services. I wish to assure the Chamber of my commitment and resolve to address the problem. The situation we face reflects a nursing shortage on a global scale, which is impacting on the North of Ireland and across these islands. There are many other contributing factors, including increased demands on nursing services; demographic changes; the ageing profile of the workforce; increased patient complexity; new service models; and an underinvestment in preregistration nurse education since 2010. It is important to recognise that there is no single quick-fix solution to the shortage of nurses. However, my Department has plans under way and is proactively leading on a range of measures to address the nursing supply issues in the short, medium and longer term.

In the immediate term, I recognise that the consequences of past decisions to reduce investment in preregistration nurse education have come back to haunt us. Despite best efforts to recruit and retain nurses from anywhere on this island and, indeed, from Britain, there still continues to be in excess of 800 nursing vacancies in the system and a consequent reliance on bank and agency nurses. Nurses work in the HSC and outside it, and I am very aware of the difficulties faced by nursing homes to recruit and retain qualified nurses. It has therefore proven necessary, in the short term, to implement an international recruitment campaign in collaboration with HSC trusts in order to maintain safe staffing levels and meet service needs. I warmly welcome into the North of Ireland those talented and caring individuals from the Philippines, Italy, Romania and Greece who have been recruited through recent international campaigns and the contribution that they will make to strengthen our workforce.

My Department has continued to support the nursing and midwifery workforce through increased investment in resourcing the registered workforce. The numbers of registered nurses and midwives across the HSC have increased by 8% since 2011, which is an additional 1,076, giving a total headcount of 17,027 staff in our system. Furthermore, the implementation of my Department’s policy framework, Delivering Care: Nurse Staffing in NI, has resulted in a significant investment of £12 million allocated to trusts during 2015 for additional nursing staff for acute surgical and medical wards.

I am fully committed to local solutions, first and foremost, and I believe that investing in our local talent is strategically the right course of action, if we are to strengthen our existing nursing workforce and ensure its sustainability into the future. We are privileged to have a long-standing reputation of excellence in nurse training, and nurses educated here are sought after the world over. Furthermore, we are in the fortunate position that nursing remains a highly popular career, as we have no difficulty in attracting nurses into the profession, and I want it to remain that way. In each of the last three years, approximately 10,000 young people applied through UCAS to study nursing at universities, locally and elsewhere. There are in excess of 10 applications for each training position commissioned by my Department. When you consider those figures, combined with the low drop-out rate of less than 10%, I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will agree that attracting potential nurses into the profession is not a problem.

I share the concern that, in preceding years, investment in nurse education was reduced and, consequently, did not keep pace with workforce demands. Rectifying that situation will take some time. My Department has significantly increased investment in nurse education by commissioning an additional 100 preregistration nursing places at our local universities for 2016-17, giving a total of 746 nursing and 55 midwifery places. That takes our annual investment in nursing and midwifery to £27 million. I am giving consideration to further investment for 2017-18.

I am fully committed to supporting student nurses and midwives while they undertake their training. As I made clear to the House during questions on 18 October, I have ruled out the approach being taken in England: removing bursaries and requiring students to take on additional debt. The nursing bursary will continue in the North of Ireland.

I am very enthusiastic about providing a pathway into nursing for those already working in the HSC who wish to follow that path. In 2016-17, my Department more than doubled the intake for the Open University preregistration nursing course, which is a route that is funded for HSC staff, and more than 50 people commenced the course this year. The independent sector also utilises this route as a means of retaining staff. It is a successful way of growing our own nurses and supporting nurse retention.

I am aware of the huge pool of talent that exists among our healthcare support workers. I have increased investment in the various access courses designed for healthcare support workers that provide a route into the Open University preregistration nursing course. Investment in this group of staff can reap huge dividends in developing our own nurses and retaining them in our services.

My Department has also increased investment in the return to practice nursing programme delivered by Ulster University. It is designed to enable nurses who are out of practice and whose nursing registration has lapsed to re-enter the profession. A return to practice media campaign was launched by my Department in January 2016 to target this specific group of nurses and encourage them to avail themselves of the opportunity to return to practice and have their fees funded. Thankfully, a total of 83 nurses successfully completed the programme in 2015-16. My Department has since increased the number of commissioned places for the return to practice programme on an ongoing annual basis from 32 to 48 and will consider further targeted campaigns as necessary.

Workforce planning is an essential element of ensuring the sustainability of the future nursing workforce. My Department has completed a 10-year nursing and midwifery workforce plan, and its implementation will be key to ensuring that we have an appropriately resourced and skilled nursing workforce to meet the needs of the population. The workforce plan makes a series of recommendations, including the need for a strategic approach to the supply and demand of nursing. It highlights the importance of making the North of Ireland a destination employer of choice by attracting nurses to work here and encouraging our students to stay here.

A shortage of band 5 nurses in particular is posing a significant challenge, with each trust investing heavily in time and effort to recruit nurses at this pay band in order to support the existing workforce. Encouraging local students to work here on successful completion of their training is, therefore, an important recruitment strategy. Local nursing students in year 3 of their training are now being offered permanent band 5 posts by each trust when they qualify, in an effort to encourage them to stay. I am pleased to advise that we have well-established collaborative working relationships with our universities, and my officials are in regular communication regarding nurse education and commissioning matters.

I recognise the importance of investing in post-registration education and training to build the capability of our existing nursing workforce. Education of the registered workforce directly impacts on the quality and safety of clinical services, and it improves patient outcomes through enhancing the knowledge and skills of nurses in front-line care. My Department has invested £8·5 million in the post-registration education commissioning budget for 2016-17.

I support the development of new nursing roles as the nursing profession seeks to respond to the challenges of healthcare delivery in the 21st century. I believe that our nurses are well placed to expand their roles and take on enhanced roles, blending doing so with the strong nursing values of care, compassion, dignity and respect. My Department has invested in the growth of an advanced nurse practitioner role and has commissioned Ulster University to develop and deliver this new programme from 2017. Initial pathways will be in the areas of emergency care and primary care, with paediatrics to follow.

In assisting to address the nursing shortages in the short term, my Department has commissioned the Business Services Organisation to provide regional oversight and coordination of nurse recruitment. A regional team was established in January of this year on a collaborative basis across all trusts. The international recruitment campaign has been progressing this year, with over 700 job offers made to nurses from Italy, Romania, Greece and the Philippines. The first of the European nurses arrived here in September, with more to follow in the coming months. Initially, the overseas nurses are employed as healthcare support staff whilst they undergo the necessary stages to enable them to register with the British nursing regulatory body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council. This is a lengthy process that will take several months.

Finally, I wish to assure the House that I recognise that investing in the workforce is essential if we are to effectively address the problem of nursing shortages. The short, medium and longer-term measures that I have outlined will, taken together, get us back on track and secure our valued nursing and midwifery workforce now and into the future.

5.15 pm

Ms S Bradley: I welcome the motion and the chance to speak to it and to an amendment that, I believe, brings added value.

Moving the amendment, Mark Durkan, my colleague, outlined how it incorporated the work of midwives. I ask the House not to just overlook that point. He referred to the heroic and often thankless work of nurses and midwives working in our trusts, and he highlighted the fact that one fifth of newly qualified nurses look for a job elsewhere. He rightly pointed out the uncertainties arising with Brexit and the visa problems that could derive from that. He looked at the problems with skills programmes and training. He referred to a 100-midwife shortage by 2017, and the inadequate numbers being retrained to make up the number when we look at the age profile of our existing cohort of midwives. In his true style, he referred, although very seriously, to the midwife crisis that is looming. He also referred to the disparity of pay, which is an issue that perhaps would not get enough attention in the time allowed today.

Robbie Butler spoke to the amendment, and he expressed his concern that the roles have widened in what it means to be a nurse or midwife and resources are subsequently overstretched. He expressed concern at the low level of nurses we have and are able to attract from overseas. No doubt that is a costly exercise, and we are not getting the return that we would hope. He said that extra nursing training opportunities had eased the problem but, as he rightly pointed out, had not yet solved it.

Also speaking to the amendment, Jo-Anne Dobson identified the role of nurses, and very publicly and in a nice way, she thanked the nurses who have helped her family along the way. I think that we would all like to express that sentiment, because we have all shared those stories. Jo-Anne, I am maybe not as good as you at remembering the names — I am impressed by that — but that is something we would share across the House. She referred to the problem of staff in private nursing homes, and those nurses who are attracted out of the private nursing home sector, creating another cohort of problems, and no doubt going to work as agency staff.

There was a bit of debate about whether the amendment brought added value or not. The original motion states:

"to train and retain more nurses, thus reducing".

"Thus reducing" are the two words. There are many things that we could add to that "thus reducing". In this instance, the motion states:

"thus reducing the total spend on agency workers and assisting long-term workforce planning."

We could add, "Thus promoting the sustainability of our nursing and midwifery workforce". We could add, "Thus reducing our need to undertake expensive recruitment exercises overseas". We could add, "Thus allowing the continuity in nurse and midwifery/patient relationships". There is plenty we could add to that.

What is in the motion is good. Nobody is arguing that that is not a valid point, but we cannot then just say that, because two words — "workforce planning" — are missing from an amendment, the spirit of that amendment has not been embraced by the House. I ask people who are uncomfortable with those two words not being in the amendment this: are you therefore saying you are happy to not acknowledge the pressures facing nursing and midwifery?

Cat Seeley, although I may not be quoting her word for word, quite rightly sent out a reassuring shot to those nurses, saying that the Minister was listening and does care. We are simply asking the House, "Please extend that to midwives". Recognise that that problem extends to midwives. Let us not be so pedantic as to hang on two words, and come in on agreement that, based on those two words, this is our flow and travel of direction. Embrace the spirit. I ask the Minister, and every Member in the House, to extend your care and support to all nurses and all midwives.

Ms P Bradley: I welcome the opportunity to wind up the debate. First , I thank my colleague Sydney Anderson for asking me to put my name to the motion. I was more than happy to. Many Members on our Benches go home to nurses at night-time. I know that many in the Chamber do that. I can hear Mr Poots in the background heckling, and I know what he has to put up with: worse still, I know what she has to put up with. Anyway, I digress. I will go back to the subject.

I join all my colleagues and everyone in the Chamber in showing our gratitude to our nursing staff throughout Northern Ireland. As someone who worked for the health service for a number of years, I know only too well the pressures that they face. I know only too well the work that they put in and how they go over and above, day and daily, to fulfil their duties. I do not want to minimise the debate in any way by looking at all our different types of nurses in a different way; I see them all as nurses. We have very much focused on hospital-type nursing and midwifery. We also need to look beyond that, because part of the way forward for health and social care in Northern Ireland is to look at primary care. We have our district nurses, our acute-care-at-home team nurses and our practice nurses, all of whom are essential to keeping our health service going. I pay tribute to them for the work that they do. We heard at the Health Committee last week about the crisis that faces GPs in Northern Ireland, and, without those practice nurses, district nurses and acute-care-at-home teams, GPs would be in an even worse position. I do not rule out any type of nurse when I stand up and speak. I have worked across the board with them all at some stage in my time in health and social care, and I have used several of them over the years. I will go on to talk about Members' contributions in a moment, but it is very telling how many people in the Chamber have had very close contact with nursing. I thank Jo-Anne and Ian Milne for bringing up their experiences. I know about that on a personal level, too. The nurse is the one person whom you come to rely on, especially in that hospital setting. You can tell from the comments in the Chamber — Mrs Bradley is the same — just how important those services are when you have to use them.

I want to touch on the nursing degree. I am of an age that I remember it way back before it was a nursing degree, and I remember working with all the nurses who had to go through their nursing degree. I am very encouraged by what the Minister is saying about the pathways, especially the Open University pathway. We all know so many high-quality healthcare support workers or healthcare assistants and the invaluable work that they do and the level of nursing that they provide on the wards. I would like the Assembly, in any way possible, to pull all that experience together and enable them to progress through a nursing career and a nursing pathway. I am also encouraged about the fast-track programme, whereby we look at people who have other health-related degrees and fast-track them through nursing. There are some very welcome things there.

My colleague Gordon Dunne, who has left, made an intervention on safety and staffing levels on wards during Mr Anderson's speech. I am sure that the Minister takes that extremely seriously, given that we are hearing information that, because of a reduction, there are only two healthcare assistants and two nurses to manage wards. We need to identify that pretty quickly in our hospitals and in our trusts, because that should not happen. We know the pressures that those nurses are under and how that type of unsafe working can lead to mistakes and an increase in sickness among staff.

I will move on to some of the comments that were made. I thank Mr Anderson again. He and a lot of Members said that the problem was not unique to Northern Ireland. We are seeing an increased need and a reduction in nurses worldwide. He said that when he meets his trust — I am sure that we are all the same — the issue of our nursing and medical staff is brought up time and time again. I believe, even from the tone of the debate, that we all take this seriously and want to see and effect change.

Mr Anderson also mentioned that the needs of the service had changed over time. Mrs Dobson brought that up as well. The role of nurses is diversifying all the time. That is due to, among many things, the number of people with long-term conditions and multiple co-morbidities, which has led to changes in what nurses have to deal with and how they work.

Mr Anderson also brought up the age of the workforce in nursing and especially in midwifery, which has become a great problem and needs to be addressed. He mentioned, too, the reliance on agency staff — many Members pulled it into the debate today — which costs our health service a vast amount of money. There are vacancies for nurses in care homes and other parts of the health sector that cannot be filled, and that is very much to do with the overuse of bank nurses. Some nurses have decided that that is a better course for them. I cannot blame them, because they can choose their hours, decide what days they want to work and get paid slightly better. We cannot throw the blame on nurses. Why would you work unsociable hours, weekends and night shifts, when, through banking, you can pick and choose what you do? We need to address all those things, as everyone said, through workforce planning for the future.

I find the amendment to be a rather good one — I do not think that any of our Members said that it was not — but we felt that it did not address some of the specifics. We are not knocking it; we certainly have not done so. I hope that the tone from these Benches has not been heard in that way. I think it was Mr Butler who said that he did not want to politicise this; in fact, he was the only Member to politicise things when he talked about Health Ministers not doing anything. I wonder whether that includes his Health Minister when his party held it, but, at this stage, I will not know the answer to that. I am glad that it did not become a political football in the Chamber. Time and again, when we debate health in here, that is not how any of us want to take it forward.

I will just touch on a few more contributions if I can fit them in. Catherine Seeley talked about International Nurses Day and the feelings of being drained and hopeless of the person she spoke to. That is certainly not what we want to hear of our health and social care staff. They are the people who, when we are feeling drained or hopeless or go to visit loved ones in that state, we want to comfort us. We forget that no one is comforting them through their trials.

I have already touched on some of what Mr Butler had to say, so I will move on to Mrs Bradshaw. She was absolutely right when she said that we needed to reduce our dependency on agency workers. She also said that workforce planning was a major issue across the entire health and social care service. That, again, is entirely correct: it is not just nursing that we need to look at but everything else as well.

I was delighted to hear that Mr Sheehan had been in my wonderful constituency of North Belfast, at the Mater Hospital, for whatever reason it might have been. I thank him for his contribution. I know that I am getting to the end now and need to wind up. I thank everyone who took part, especially those who told their personal stories. I was glad to hear Antrim Area Hospital getting a mention for the work that it has done for Mr Milne and his family. There is an overall consensus in the Chamber that we cannot thank our nursing and healthcare staff enough for the work that they do for us.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly acknowledges the ongoing problem of nursing shortages in Northern Ireland; recognises the work carried out by former Health Ministers and health and social care trusts to address this problem; and calls on the Minister of Health to build on these efforts by working proactively with our colleges and universities to promote nursing as a career choice and to work collaboratively with the relevant bodies to train and retain more nurses, thus reducing the total spend on agency workers and assisting long-term workforce planning.

Adjourned at 5.44 pm.

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