Official Report: Tuesday 07 July 2020


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

Assembly Business

Mr O'Dowd: I beg to move

That Standing Order 20A be suspended for 7 July 2020.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 20A be suspended for 7 July 2020.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Pension Schemes Bill [NIA Bill 07/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to the debate.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The pensions landscape has changed significantly over recent years. As a result, the way in which people can save and access their pension savings has been transformed. Automatic enrolment has resulted in a significant increase in the number of people being enrolled in a workplace pension scheme. Master trusts have become a popular vehicle for employers, particularly small employers and microemployers seeking to enrol employees in an occupational pension scheme.

A master trust is a form of multi-employer occupational pension scheme for unconnected employers, where, instead of the employer setting up its own pension scheme, the scheme is provided by an external organisation that runs a pension scheme for numerous employers.
Such schemes offer benefits to employers and members. They can spur competition in the market, allow for economies of scale and provide value for money. They are also an efficient solution for smaller employers for whom setting up an individual pension scheme would be difficult and prohibitively expensive. Currently, master trusts here are regulated in accordance with occupational pensions legislation. However, that legislation was developed with single-employer pension schemes in mind and, consequently, it does not take into consideration the different structures and dynamics of the master trusts that give rise to different risks.

The Bill is not a response to a fundamental problem with master trusts but to the exponential growth in membership. For example, in 2010, across Britain and here, there were 0·2 million members of master trusts. By November 2019, there were 16 million members in 37 master trust schemes, holding more than £36 billion in assets. The introduction of a new authorisation regime is designed to address the legislative gap and to try to prevent problems arising in the future. A similar provision was made for England, Scotland and Wales in the Pension Schemes Act 2017. The aim is to ensure that essential protections are put in place in a way that is appropriate to the risks experienced by master trusts.

Under the new regime, master trusts will be prohibited from operating unless authorised by the Pensions Regulator. The Bill sets out specific requirements that must be met for a scheme to be authorised. For example, the persons involved with a scheme must be fit and proper, the scheme is financially sustainable, the scheme funder has met specific requirements, the systems and processes used for governance and administration are sufficient to ensure that the scheme runs effectively and that it has adequate continuity strategies in the event of something going wrong or the master trust otherwise seeking to exit the market.

In addition to this, the regulator will be given new powers to supervise master trusts, enabling it to intervene where schemes are at risk of falling below the required standards. The regulator must be notified in writing if significant events occur with an authorised master trust scheme. The intention is that the list of significant events will capture events that could affect the ability of a master trust to continue meeting the authorisation criteria. For example, the scheme may have a change of trustee and, as the fitness and propriety of a trustee is linked to the authorisation criteria, the regulator must be informed of such a change so that the new trustee may be assessed against the relevant standards.

The regulator will always seek to support and assist those involved in the running of a pension scheme. However, there needs to be clear consequences for schemes that fail to comply with their duties. Information gathering is an important part of the regulator's toolkit in the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 2005, which already makes it a criminal offence for individuals to fail to provide information requested by the regulator. The Bill extends these powers to include those involved in the running of master trusts. Ultimately, the regulator also has a power to withdraw a scheme's authorisation, essentially forcing it to leave the market. These powers are designed to ensure that those managing master trust schemes continue to work to protect the interests of members.

I now move to the remaining provisions of the Bill. Since the introduction of new pension freedoms in April 2015, many people aged 55 and over have been able to access their pension schemes or savings more flexibly. Previously, individuals faced a range of potential barriers, including incurring early exit charges when seeking to access their savings. Schedule 18 to the Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 allows the Department to make regulations that restrict charges or impose requirements on certain pension schemes. This Bill amends the 2015 Act to allow the Department to make regulations to provide that any term in a contract that is inconsistent with the regulations is over ridden. For example, if a contract is in place between the trustees or managers of the scheme and a person who provides services to the scheme permits an early exit charge that is higher than the level of the early exit charge cap when it is introduced, this would allow that term to be overridden. The Bill, therefore, supports the policy intention of capping early exit charges in occupational pension schemes and banning member-borne commission arising out of existing contracts that were entered into before 6 April 2016.

The pensions market is continually evolving and modernising, and there is clearly a need to ensure that there is adequate regulation of master trusts, given how they have developed since the introduction of automatic enrolment. I think that, by most standards, automatic enrolment can be considered a success. However, we cannot take that success for granted. I am sure that Members will agree that we must take action now to ensure that pension scheme members are enrolled only in high quality schemes that look after their interests. Well-managed schemes will help to secure pension income in retirement. The Pension Schemes Bill, therefore, is firmly centred on further safeguarding workers' pensions. I believe that we can all support that, and I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee for Communities welcomes the Bill. Members were briefed by departmental officials at the Committee meeting on 17 June. We heard that the Bill seeks to introduce a new regulatory framework for master trusts in Northern Ireland.

Over the past few years, there have been sweeping changes in relation to pensions and how people can access them. Master trusts have become very popular as a result of the changes. As the Minister said, a master trust is a multi-employer occupational scheme for unconnected employers that is run on behalf of those organisations by an external organisation. The benefits of that type of scheme are particularly good for smaller employers, as they do not have to set up a scheme themselves; something which is not only costly but very difficult to do. That may explain why this type of scheme is so popular; membership has grown from 0·2 million in 2010 to 16 million in 2019. Whilst the growth in this type of scheme is to be welcomed, there is obviously a need to have appropriate measures in place to ensure that the risks are managed. Fundamentally, the Bill will do that. It will ensure that no master trust scheme can operate without authorisation from the Pensions Regulator and that specific requirements must be met. That is necessary and welcomed.

Another area that the Bill deals with is administration charges. With the pension changes that I referred to, people have been faced with early exit charges when trying to access their pension savings. Members were informed by departmental officials that the Bill will cap early exit charges in occupational pension schemes. Again, that has to be welcomed. It will enable people to get more from their hard-earned savings.

Overall, the Bill is designed to safeguard workers' pensions and to ensure good governance. The Committee is supportive of the Bill's principles and looks forward to considering it further during Committee Stage.

Ms Ennis: The pensions market continues to grow and evolve, particularly since the introduction of automatic enrolment; so too does the manner in which people manage and access their pensions. It is necessary, therefore, that the regulations keep pace. As I understand it, the Bill aims to put in place additional safeguards for people who are saving into master trust schemes. It increases the power of the regulator and allows for, amongst other things, the introduction of a cap on early exit charges in certain occupational pension schemes. It is vital that people can have confidence in the schemes, and that will be my focus as we continue to scrutinise the Bill at the next stage.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill and explaining its functions and I thank the Committee Chair for outlining its merits to the House.

As outlined, the Bill corresponds to the Westminster Pension Schemes Act 2017 and seeks to introduce a new regulatory framework for master trusts here.

That includes an authorisation and supervision regime for master trusts and, crucially, a cap on the early-exit charges and member-borne commission that arise under existing as well as new arrangements.


10.45 am

We recognise and support the need to ensure that there is adequate regulation for master trusts as they have developed since the introduction of auto-enrolment. Master trusts operate on a massive scale, and most are run on a profit basis. Currently, however, they are not subject to the same regulation as contract-based workplace pensions. There is no requirement for a licence to operate, and there are limited barriers to entry. There is also little guidance on who can become a trustee, and there is no infrastructure in place to support the wind-up of a failed trust. Given that the savings and pensions of hundreds of thousands of employees here and their employer contributions are at risk, we cannot allow that to continue.

The Bill is a narrow one, and that is certainly no criticism of the Minister or of the legislation. I am not sure whether the Minister intends to bring forward any other pensions Bills in the course of this mandate. Perhaps, she can address that later. However, one issue that the SDLP would love to see resolved is the one that has seen so many women born here in the 1950s left behind by the accelerated equalisation of the state pension age. Those women made their plans for retirement only to find their retirement age sneakily pushed back by a Tory-led coalition in Westminster, an unjust move that was endorsed and voted for by a majority including the Minister's party in the Assembly. I have raised the issue with the Minister Hargey, but I am keen to hear whether the current Minister has any plans to address the issue. I am also conscious, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am straying from the narrow scope of the Bill, but that is a massive injustice.

The Bill should help to create trust in pensions savings. It is fair to say or, at least, I hope that it is fair to say that we all want workers to be able to attain a standard of living consistent with allowing them to save while in work in order to have dignity in retirement, secure in the knowledge that a regular income from a state pension and a workplace pension will allow them to enjoy their retirement without financial worry and without living in pensioner poverty. No one should have to live with the fear of not being able to afford to grow old.

We need to deliver the appropriate protection for savers, and the Bill is an important step forward in that regard. I support the Bill.

Ms Armstrong: As we know, pensions are a devolved matter. However, policy and legislation have acted in accordance with section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure that pension provision corresponds to the rest of the UK.

I will not go over the areas that have already been discussed by other Committee members. The Committee has supported the Bill, and the work on the master trust scheme is, of course, very important. To go back to what others said about the Pensions Regulator, it means that, through this legislation, the regulator can take action earlier when employers put the viability of their pension schemes at risk. Specifically in relation to Northern Ireland, clause 117 introduces schedule 8, which makes provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to that made for England, Wales and Scotland.

Pensions can be complicated, and master trust schemes are certainly complicated, but one thing that I would like to draw everyone's attention to is the simplification for those of us who have pensions and who have jumped across different jobs over the years. The pensions dashboard will, thank goodness, enable people to see in one place where their money is, whether they have five pensions, one pension or 10 pensions. I certainly welcome that.

As others have said, we now head towards the Committee Stage. Having read through the Committee correspondence on the consultations, I know that political parties, unions and other employers have supported the Bill, and that goes to show how important it is that we move it through. We support the Minister in doing so.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank all the Members who contributed. I have to say that — no offence to Gerry, who is very good at all this — I had to read this a couple of times to try to get a sense of it. However, I understood clearly that it was a complete mess.

I will start with the point that you made. A lot of people, particularly those earning £30,000 or less, may have moved jobs, particularly if they work in the private sector or the community and voluntary sector. Given the precarious nature of funding, people move from one place to another and could have a lot of small pensions. By the time they try to consolidate them or cash them in, they are getting charged a small fortune, and it is not worth their while. I do not want to deny anybody a living in managing those pensions. They were operating within the guidelines and within the regulations, but we need to change the legislation to ensure that people know exactly where their money is and that their savings are protected. That is important.

This is the first Bill that we have done that has gone through the normal passage. That, too, is to be welcomed. We have all dealt with a lot of accelerated passage legislation, particularly from this Department, because of COVID-19 and everything else. I look forward to the Bill going through the Committee.

The answer to whether there will be any further Bills regarding pension age or pensions is that a lot of that comes from Westminster. I hope to get this Bill as far as I can, so that Deirdre Hargey can come back and finish it all off.
The good thing about it is that everyone sees the need to legislate to protect workers. I am pleased that trade unions and people working in the pensions business are supportive of the Bill. Clear legislation and regulations are better for people who are investing their life savings in pensions, and the Bill close many of those gaps.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Pension Schemes Bill [NIA Bill 07/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members may take their ease for a few moments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): These two motions are to approve statutory rules. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion and then call the to Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and again I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) (Amendment) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate.

Mr Poots: The scheme was developed in response to the unprecedented difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It had an immediate impact on the sea fishing industry after social-distancing measures and the collapse of the European and domestic fish markets had made trading virtually impossible. The Northern Ireland fishing industry faced extreme difficulties as a result of COVID-19 and was in urgent need of support to ensure that there was a profitable fishing industry to return to, once COVID-19 subsided. I am pleased to say that my Department responded promptly and engaged with representatives across the sea fishing industry to discuss the financial crisis that it faced. There was a clear need to deliver financial support within a reasonable time frame, and I subsequently brought a paper in relation to the sea fishing industry scheme to the Executive and secured their support.

On 3 April 2020, I announced a £1·5 million support package to ensure that the Northern Ireland fishing industry was supported through the COVID-19 pandemic until such times as market conditions improved. I thank the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee for its initial scrutiny of the scheme and its subsequent written engagement with my officials to seek clarification of some of the details. The statutory rules that are the subject of the motion give effect to that £1·5 million support scheme.

The statutory rules were made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 15(1) and (2) of the Fisheries Act 1981 as read with paragraph 2(1) of schedule 2 to the Sea Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. Those provide the necessary powers to make schemes of financial assistance with the approval of the Department of Finance and to make grants or loans for the purpose of reorganising, developing or promoting the sea fishing industry or contributing to the expenses of those who are engaged in it. Paragraph 2(4) of schedule 2 to the Sea Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 provides that the scheme:

"(b) shall be laid before the Assembly after being made; and

(c) shall cease to have effect ... after the expiration of the period of three months beginning with the day on which it is made, unless within that period it has been approved by a resolution of the Assembly."

It was therefore important that the motion be scheduled prior to the summer recess, and I thank the Business Committee for doing so.

The Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 — SR 2020 No. 76 — was made on 4 May 2020 and came into operation on 5 May 2020. The purpose of the scheme was to provide assistance to the sea fishing fleet towards the fixed cost of vessels for the three months from March to May. The assistance was delivered via monthly payments that were based on the length of the fishing vessel subject to qualifying conditions. Vessels less than 10 metres could apply for a grant of £1,050 per month; vessels greater than 10 metres and less than 12 metres could apply for a grant of £1,800 per month; vessels greater than 12 metres and less than 15 metres could apply for a grant of £3,550 per month; and vessels greater than 15 metres and up to 28 metres in length could apply for a grant of £4,550 per month. The maximum funding per undertaking was capped at around £104,000, but no vessels were near that.

With regard to eligibility for support under the scheme, a number of conditions applied to ensure that support was directed to vessels that were dependent on fishing and were normally active during the months in which the markets had collapsed. The vessel had to be a fishing vessel registered in Northern Ireland, and it must normally be active from March to May. The vessel must have had fish landings worth at least £10,000 in 2019, and it had to be less than 28 metres in length and be available to fish if there was a market for its product. The Department issued 172 letters of offer for support under the scheme, and, to date, grants totalling just over £1·3 million have been paid to 169 eligible applicants. I am pleased that we were able to quickly issue a single payment covering three months at once to the vast majority of applicants.

To sum up, when I announced the scheme in early April, it was the most far-reaching in the UK. Its aim was to provide prompt financial support to help the fishing fleet to cover its fixed costs for three months and to help it to survive what has been one of its most difficult periods. We have succeeded in delivering just over £1·3 million in much-needed support to the fishing fleet, and the feedback that my Department is getting from industry representatives is that the scheme has generally been well received by fishermen and that the aims of the scheme have, indeed, been met.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chairperson of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee and outline the Committee's views.

The Committee first considered the original regulations at the SL1 stage on 9 April 2020 and was advised by the Department of the need for the policy due to the collapse in the European and domestic markets for fish as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospitality and catering sectors had closed down, along with fish counters in supermarkets and other retail outlets. The market for much of our seafood is overseas, and it had collapsed overnight. The sea fishing industry was experiencing a major slump in demand for its product, and the demand for fish and shellfish was non-existent.


11.00 am

The Department advised that, following consultation with industry representatives, the need for financial support for the sea fishing and fish-catching sector in the wake of COVID-19 was recognised as a genuine and urgent need, as many incomes had been affected significantly. The Committee heard that, under state aid rules, the scheme would focus on fixed costs, rather than the income generated, and that a number of conditions had to be met to be eligible for the scheme. One of those conditions was the overall length of a fishing vessel.

The Committee was content with the merits of the policy at SL1 stage and had no issues to raise. Members were supportive of the measures being taken by the Department to support the sea fish industry, which was experiencing severe financial hardship as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

At its meeting on 4 June the Committee was alerted to a minor technical amendment that was required following scrutiny of the technical aspects of the statutory rule by the Examiner of Statutory Rules. The amendment was to correct a reference to overall length of vessels in article 2 of the rule. Subsequently, the Department presented the amended SL1 to the Committee on 11 June, followed by the statutory rule at the meeting on 24 June. The Committee noted that the amendment was as highlighted by the Examiner of Statutory Rules and had no issues with the policy. Therefore, the Committee is content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that both statutory rules are confirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Irwin: This has been an important intervention of assistance, and I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their hard work on the matter. Significant effort over a short period has been put into the scheme, and it has been welcomed by the sea fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

As we know, COVID-19 is the cause of the crisis, and, as time has gone on, we can see just how huge an impact the virus has had not only on the health of the individuals affected but on our way of life and economically on many businesses that operate in Northern Ireland. The sea fishing industry is no different in the economic impacts felt, and, with the closure of restaurants, seafood markets and many other outlets, it is easy to see why the industry found itself in such a parlous position. The impact of the crisis could not have been foreseen when we consider the huge downturn in demand, with restaurants and many outlets closed down. For fishermen, the costs continue for their trawlers, and this has been a concerning time for them all.

As with other sectors, it was recognised that something had to be done to ensure that there was a fishing industry to return to in Northern Ireland. Recognising its parlous position, our Agriculture Minister was successful in gaining support for financial assistance in the form of the fixed-cost scheme that is before the House today. It has been a welcome intervention for trawler owners at this time. The scheme, whilst not an answer to all the current difficulties, has certainly provided some relief and important assistance to our fishing fleets, which have been practically tied up since the commencement of the crisis. Uptake of the scheme has been encouraging, with scores of successful applications, as the Minister stated, meaning that assistance has been effectively administered with minimal delay.

The restrictions that were put in place were obviously important measures in those unique and concerning pandemic circumstances, and we all look forward to better days when our way of life can return to some sort of normality. I support the motion.

Ms S Bradley: I rise as a Member for South Down, the home of Kilkeel and Ardglass harbours. I thank the Minister for bringing this forward today, because it was clear to all that the obvious slump in the market for fish required urgent attention, and this is it. I also thank the Minister for clearly outlining the process that was followed in respect of the requirement for Executive colleagues to come on board, alongside the Minister of Finance, to make this work. It really highlights the need for collective responsibility to recognise where there is a problem and come together to fix it.

As a Member for South Down, I have sought and acquired assurances from the Department that the amendment that will come up next is merely technical, and I understand that there will be no change in the amount of payment due to those fishers. It was based, I believe, on misquoted legislation, so I am satisfied that that is the case and that fishermen and women across South Down and across the North will be paid in due course the amounts that are due to them. I welcome that and support the motion.

Mrs Barton: I too thank the Minister for moving today's motion to retrospectively put in place the provision of financial support to those from the sea fishing sector, which, I understand, is in the process of being administered, while the second motion serves to determine the length of the fishing vessels that would define the amount of financial support payable to those vessels.

As no one here needs to be reminded, those working in our sea fishing industry do so in challenging and dangerous conditions that are often weather-dependent. It is an industry that has suffered greatly in human loss over the years and an industry that makes a very valuable contribution to the economy of Northern Ireland, particularly in County Down. The industry, since the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, has seen its income plummet. The markets for shellfish, including that for prawns, which was one of the higher-value catches and was in high demand in the Far East, closed down virtually overnight. Then there was the collapse of the white fish market due to the closure of the hospitality and catering sectors, along with the carry-out food outlets here in the United Kingdom, which further compounded a difficult time for the sea fishing industry. However, meanwhile, cost to the fishermen continued. All of that together resulted in an industry that, if it were to survive, needed financial support. That financial support was determined on several conditions, including the length of the fishing vessel; thus the need for the second motion.

With the gradual opening up of restaurants and hotels again, hopefully the financial package claimed by approximately 109 vessels will be timely for the recovery of the sea fishing industry. I, therefore, support both motions.

Ms Ennis: Like so many other industries, our fishing communities have struggled to adapt to the severe and ongoing economic disruption caused by COVID-19, and, indeed, few industries have such deep or culturally important roots in their communities as in our coastal fishing villages and towns such as Kilkeel and Ardglass in my constituency of South Down. With demand for fresh fish heavily reduced and suppressed at home and in European markets, local fishing vessels and their crews needed emergency support. To make matters worse, we know that fishing operations, especially smaller crews and vessels, often struggle to make ends meet. Sinn Féin recognises that many crews have wages that are insecure and often inadequate. In April, three months of support was secured to cover the fixed costs for operating the vessels, totalling some £1·5 million. By passing these technical legislative provisions today, we can ensure that that support continues to be administered to those who need it most and when they need it. As we return to more normality in society and further increased economic activity, the hope is that this support will have kept those vessels in a position where they can return to normal business safely and in a more financially secure position. I support the motions.

Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister. It is vital that we continue to recognise the hard work not only of our farmers but of our fishermen, who have, throughout this difficult time, continued to provide local produce for our tables. The past months have affected every sector, and the fishing industry has been no exception. As a Strangford representative, I know too well how badly affected the industry has been due to COVID-19. The collapse of the domestic and European fish markets made trade virtually impossible throughout the pandemic. That, coupled with the loss of labour and cash flow problems, created major challenges for our small fishing businesses and our fishing communities the length of the Ards peninsula and elsewhere.

I am glad that the Department acted swiftly to announce financial assistance to our fishermen in the region of £1·5 million. The Minister has been proactive in ensuring that the Executive have assisted all of our food sectors, and I thank him and his Department for their work. Many fishermen are either self-employed as crew members or work as small businesses, and I know that a lot of the work that is normally available to them has not been there during the pandemic. Supply chains have been disrupted, buying prices of fish have been affected, and there have been challenges getting products to market. Whilst the £1·5 million grant scheme will greatly benefit the industry in weathering the present storm, it is vital that the fishing industry is assisted to enable a safe and sustainable return to full operational capacity. Social distancing measures will be problematic in their implementation on board fishing vessels. With much of the processing workforce having left the UK or being unable to travel due to restrictions, there will be further hurdles to overcome in the weeks and months ahead.

The UK fishing industry faces an uncertain future, first disrupted by Brexit negotiations and now the impact of COVID-19. It is of note that the financial provision made thus far by the Executive is the most far-reaching scheme in the UK, covering fixed costs for three months. It represents a clear commitment to support our local fishing industry, and I know that that will continue.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Emma Rogan. This is Ms Rogan's maiden speech, and I remind Members that maiden speeches should be heard without interruption.

Ms Rogan: It is a huge honour for me to speak here today as a Sinn Féin MLA for South Down. I am honoured to continue the work of my party colleague, Chris Hazzard, our South Down MP. He was a fantastic representative for South Down as an MLA and as Minister for Infrastructure and continues to be a breath of fresh air as our South Down MP. I thank him for his guidance and support since taking over from him. I also acknowledge the 16 Sinn Féin councillors in my constituency who have offered their support to me and their hard work and dedication to our constituents. As one of two female Sinn Féin MLAs in South Down, I am extremely grateful to have ongoing support and guidance from my party colleague and friend, Sinéad Ennis.

For anyone who has the pleasure of working, living or visiting in South Down, you will know that it is a beautiful place on this island. It runs from Warrenpoint and Carlingford lough in the south, sweeping the Mountains of Mourne and running as far as the breathtaking Strangford lough and all the towns and villages in between. I am proud of the people whom I represent. It is an area steeped in culture, heritage and tradition.

I pledge to work hard to restore services to our local hospitals and to the community that they serve. That is the very least that my constituents deserve. I recognise the hard work and diligence of employees in the health and caring sector as they have battled to keep us safe in the strangest of times. I will continue to support small local businesses in our villages and towns. South Down also has many tourist attractions that the economy relies on, from the St John's Point lighthouse on the coast to the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick. As MLA for the area, I want to promote and support all that is positive about South Down.

We also have a constituency with many excellent schools. Teachers, pupils and parents will need help and support in the coming weeks to see our children back at school. Parents and their children deserve so much praise for completing their studies at home in recent weeks in the strangest of times, some with inadequate broadband and devices. To the parents of children with additional and special needs I say that I also hear your needs. I urge the Minister to secure more places in South Down.

I have witnessed at first hand in the last few months how the community that I live in and represent can work together and provide vital services and support to each other, and of that I am extremely proud.

As I represent a border constituency, it would be remiss of me not to mention Brexit. The clock is ticking towards a potentially disastrous no-deal crash-out. The Brexit deadline should now be extended to avoid what will be a devastating blow to our economy.

The purpose of both of the statutory rules is to provide financial support to those in the sea-fishing catching sector and the incomes that have been adversely impacted on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs agreed to a minor amendment to SR 2020 No. 76 to define the overall length of a fishing vessel. There will be no impact on the administration of the scheme.

Markets in Europe and the Far East, where high-value shellfish would normally have been exported, have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, social distancing measures, the closing down of the food industry sector and the closure of many fish counters in retail outlets has resulted in reduced demand for white fish and prawn tails, practically wiping out the sector.


11.15 am

The sea fishing industry is significant, particularly in the three main east coast villages: Ardglass and Kilkeel in my constituency of South Down, and Portavogie on the Ards peninsula. According to statistics, the sea fishing industry contributed £40 million of gross value to the economy in 2016 and employed 1,790 people in 2017, in catching, processing and marketing. These industries are key to rural communities like those in South Down. It can be argued that there is a real need to ensure that they are profitable and sustainable in the long term, especially with the context of uncertainty around Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. In that regard, future fisheries policy in the North of Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, needs to be conscious of the specific needs of these local industries. I support the motion.

Ms Bailey: I, too, take the opportunity to recognise the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on European and domestic fish markets, and therefore on the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. It is really good to see a package announced that so substantially addresses these issues. The package will enable fishing communities to survive and, hopefully, thrive after one of the biggest challenges that they have ever encountered. However, I do have concerns in relation to differential treatment between sectors and disparities in the levels of support that have been allocated. This is without doubt the most substantial package that has been announced for any sector within the Department's remit and, indeed, as the Minister himself stated, it is the most far-reaching in the UK.

While the package is undoubtedly welcome, questions must be asked as to why this sector is being treated differently to others. The recent separate £25 million support package that was announced for the agriculture and horticulture sectors was intended, in the Minister's own words, to be:

"driven towards those ... who can clearly demonstrate tangible loses [sic] as a result of Covid-19."

Beef and sheep farmers, like those in the fishing industry, have been affected by the falls and fluctuations in market demand for their product due to the pandemic. However, unlike fishermen, beef and sheep farmers must demonstrate proof of their losses in order to access support, and the amounts that they receive are dependent upon those losses. For the fishing industry, a lump sum has been allocated for distribution, with the only significant criterion being the size of the boat. Of course, the fishing industry differs from agriculture, and supports for the sector appear to have been treated differently, based on that justification. However, I draw attention to the ornamental horticulture sector, which has been lumped in with agriculture for the purposes of allocating a support package, without consideration being given to the fact that it differs totally from the agriculture and fisheries sectors.

Out of all the sectors, the horticulture sector has arguably been most affected, yet the level of support that it has received is nowhere near what has been accorded to the fishing industry. The sector has experienced catastrophic losses, yet the criteria for schemes such as the self-employed income support scheme, the coronavirus job retention scheme and the bounce back loan scheme all excluded growers from benefiting in many cases. According to the Horticulture Trades Association, fewer than one in five growers received help through the Government's business support measures; just 1% received financial support from the Government's coronavirus business interruption loan schemes; 48% of growers were ineligible for assistance loans, as they had no cash flow; over three fifths of UK growers said that they were not eligible for business support grants; and nearly four in five growers were not entitled to any kind of rates relief. No allowance has so far been made in the support package for horticulture to account for this or to allow for the fact that the industry does not receive an annual subsidy from public funds, which all other sectors do.

The perishability and seasonality of plants has meant that the sector has faced stock write-offs unlike any other industry. Growers have waited weeks and months with little or no cash flow and no indication of whether a package would be forthcoming until now. Many growers were not in a position to order plants that had to be ordered and paid for a year in advance, as they need to be propagated. Many were not in a position to buy stock for autumn or winter next year.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can I bring the Member back to the legislation that is being discussed today?

Ms Bailey: The package for the sea fishing industry has set a precedent for supports to be made available that are not calculated based on the proportion of losses incurred. Given that the Department has been able to provide for the sea fishing industry with a lump-sum financial package, with the only criteria being the size of the boats, it is not unreasonable, then, to expect that similar standards should be applied to other sectors that have experienced more severe impacts because of COVID. While I support the motion, I call on the Minister to apply eligibility criteria for all applicants within his remit and to do it equitably.

Mr Blair: I support the sea fish industry scheme as announced today. The benefits and outworkings of the scheme have been well rehearsed in the debate already and I do not intend to repeat them, but I should put on record that the Department has worked hard — I know this from the AERA Committee — to alleviate the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 on the fishing industry and the market for whitefish, shellfish and prawn tails. Of course, that has been further compounded by closures in the hospitality and retail sectors.

In addition to the points that have already been illustrated, it is probably worth mentioning that the scheme will benefit the economies of the towns and villages that are closest to the centres of our fishing industry. Of course, those benefits also relate to other livelihoods in those towns and villages. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I am very happy to support the scheme. I thank the Minister for his statement and the detail that he gave today. I also thank the departmental officials for what has been delivered by the scheme thus far.

Mr Poots: I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. Throughout the pandemic, my officials have continued to meet on a weekly basis with industry representatives from right across the areas that we cover to discuss the implementation of the support schemes. More recently, they have discussed what future support might be required for the fishing industry in the months ahead in order to assist its recovery. I can inform Ms Bailey that not only have we provided support for the fishing industry, but we will be looking to provide further support through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, and those discussions will continue.

Let me be very clear about this: if anybody wants to look at an industry that has been in decline over the course of the last 30 years, they just need to go for a drive around our fishing harbours. They will see that many boats are in very poor condition because those people have not been bringing in the amounts of income that would allow them to reinvest in the way that they should have been. As we go forward and face the challenges ahead of us, we are looking at substantial redundancies. We have already witnessed that with the likes of Thompson Aero Seating, Bombardier and others making announcements, for example, in the aeroplane sector.

One of the biggest employers in Kilkeel is a facility that makes aeroplane seats. There will be a real challenge for that town if there are job losses, because they are well-paid jobs in what has been a very good, sustainable industry to this point. If Kilkeel is affected, how will it respond? One of the areas in which it can do so is by way of a recovery in the fishing sector. As we go forward, we need to support and sustain the fishing sector so that it can deliver investment into those communities and create offshore and onshore jobs in towns such as Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass.

The horticulture sector is an entirely different sector, so there will not be a similar scheme for it. However, we are supporting that sector quite well with the funding that has been set aside. We have sought to assess the losses that have affected that industry and we will respond to that. I fought very hard to get garden centres open once again. The decision to open garden centres is one that people can now easily recognise as having been the right decision, because the R number did not go up as a consequence and many people who enjoy gardening had the opportunity to go and acquire plants grown by the ornamental horticulture sector, avail themselves of those products and help support those businesses. That was the single most important thing that we could have done to support that sector, but it is not the only thing, and we have identified funding for it and will support it.

I will go back to the motion because that is what today's debate is about, and Ms Bailey's intervention was really a little distraction. In recent weeks, a significant number of vessels, particularly those that catch nephrops and whitefish, have returned to their fishing operations on a managed basis. As more of the restrictions are eased across the hospitality sectors, some of the markets for fresh sea fish are beginning to reopen, but as things stand, they are at only about one quarter of the normal number. Therefore, a lot of the fish that is being caught is being frozen. That is fine. That is what happens in that industry, but it is not being frozen at a high price, and therefore support for the fishing industry is critical.

As I said in my opening remarks, the aim of the scheme was to provide prompt financial support to contribute to the vessels' fixed costs for three months and help the fleet to survive through one of the most difficult periods. I do not believe that the scheme has been providing more than the fishermen needed. We are looking at support that was reasonable, given the circumstances, and allows vessels to go out and catch fish at a point where the returns are lower but fishermen can sustain some of the fixed costs of the vessels. Therefore, I think that the scheme has delivered very well, and I welcome the support that it has received today from right across the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Resolved:

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) (Amendment) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

That the Rates (Exemption for Automatic Telling Machines in Rural Areas) Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 be affirmed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.


11.30 am

Mr Murphy: The order serves to re-implement the rural ATM rates exemption scheme, which lapsed in 2017 in the absence of a functioning Assembly. Prior to that, the scheme was a long-standing feature of the rates system, with the policy objective of encouraging and sustaining provision of ATMs in rural areas. I believe that the policy objectives behind the scheme remain worthy, particularly in the economic climate that we now face. Previous research and analysis, along with consultation with key stakeholders, have confirmed the value of the scheme.

The order, which follows Executive agreement to extend the scheme within the 2020-21 Budget, will aid continued provision of ATMs in rural areas. The relief will be provided for the full rating year. The legislation before the Assembly continues the operation of the scheme through to the end of March 2021. The scheme provides an exemption for standalone ATMs that are individually valued in the valuation list, for example those located outside petrol stations or on main streets. It does not apply to ATMs that are located in banks or buildings societies, which tend to be valued as part of that property. As things stand, there are 84 ATMs eligible for the exemption. Although a modest measure given that scale, I think that the potential for the scheme to assist in the retention of eligible ATMs is a goal worth securing now that the Assembly has returned.

The current financial cost of the scheme is less than £200,000 in rates revenue foregone. In the context of the magnitude of Executive support provided elsewhere at present, I consider that to be an affordable sum, given the wider benefits that it can bring. Although the support is unlikely to incentivise many new ATMs, especially as we, as a society, transition towards contactless payments — a trend that is likely to be accelerated as a result of the pandemic — there remains a risk that a permanent removal of this measure could jeopardise the viability of some ATMs in rural areas. That would reduce the availability of cash in the rural communities that they serve. On that basis alone, the Executive consider that the exemption for ATMs in rural areas should be reinstated for the 2020-21 Budget period.

Turing to the statutory rule itself, article 1 of the order sets out the citation, commencement and interpretation provisions. Article 2, in turn, provides for the extension to 1 April 2021 of the date before which the scheme must end. Article 3 revokes the previous end date for the scheme.

I look forward to Members' comments and commend the rates order to the House.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghlacadh leis an Aire fosta as an mholadh sin. I thank our Minister for taking forward the legislation, which is so important to rural communities. The scheme was first introduced in 2007. At that time, it was identified that 60% of the cash that people accessed through local ATMs was spent locally as well. It was introduced to facilitate what I would describe as the "rural, rural" communities and the likes of a petrol station or grocery shop in a very isolated area. However, it has taken on a very different dimension since then.

In 2013, I supported the people of Newtownstewart when they were faced with the closure of the last bank in that town. Little did I think that, five years later, the three local banks in my own town of Castlederg would all close. When banking abandoned the rural towns, it had such an impact on our communities in every respect. The facility where one could acquire cash as needed was completely gone. That exposed rural communities in so many ways as well. We had an increase in robberies in the more rural areas, as there was an expectation that people would be keeping money at home. Those robberies then extended to ATMs themselves, and we all know the history of that over the last number of years.

ATMs are undoubtedly a necessity not only in providing for the local community but for the local business community, which was finding itself exposed and at risk in providing that facility to locals. It will be a welcome development if rate relief is once again given to the business community. They are the people who have been providing for their communities since they were abandoned by the banks. I very much welcome the Minister's proposal.

Let us not forget that in having an ATM on your premises, you are putting yourself and your premises at risk. Rate relief is something that is not just required now at the time of COVID-19 when people are probably not travelling as far, even to other towns and the like in order to do their shopping or whatever. However, it is a requirement that needs to be there in the future, too, for the more rural of the rural communities, in every respect. Go raibh míle maith agat arís, a Aire as an ráiteas seo. Thank you, Minister, for the legislation.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I apologise to the Deputy Speaker, the Minister and to the rest of the MLAs in the House for not being present. I also pass on my apologies to my Deputy Chairperson and other members of the Committee. Our business seems to be moving ahead smoothly, so I apologise.

I rise as the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance. At present, businesses, not least those that are operating in rural areas, need all the support that they can get to help them survive. Rural businesses have many barriers to overcome at the best of times. Therefore, we should consider all options to support them and help them to survive and continue to serve the customers on whom they rely, and who also rely on those businesses.

The Committee for Finance welcomes the statutory rule to reinstate the previously applied rates exemption for ATMs in rural areas. The Committee considered the SL1 at its meeting on 10 June 2020 and was content with the policy proposal. The Committee formally considered the statutory rule at its meeting on 1 July 2020 and agreed, subject to the SR's report, that the rule be affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Buckley: I welcome the motion. I am very much in unison with what has been said across the Chamber about the importance of a rural ATM structure across Northern Ireland. Many people have realised that as the banks have slowly but surely left many of our rural settlements and towns, it has had a devastating impact on connectivity, conversations and even in access to cash. Although we are moving more towards a cashless society, there has to be a recognition that there is a urban to rural split in how people access their funding, so I welcome the order.

Will the Minister provide some more detail about the 84 ATMs that he said will be eligible? Will that be a published list? Will we be able to get access to that?

I have to put on record that my colleague William Irvin and I have dealt with numerous thefts in the rural shops and rural localities in our constituencies, so there is a considerable risk to having these ATMs on the premises. Business owners are getting it difficult enough at present, without having that added uncertainty of potentially having their premises damaged or destroyed in order to provide a service that is much-needed in the rural communities.

I welcome the legislation. It is an important step forward. It will obviously be kept under constant review, but some clarity about the list would be important for MLAs to have. Thank you.

Mr O'Toole: My Deputy Speaker, I, too, apologise to yourself and the Minister for being slightly delayed in arriving to the Chamber.

This is obviously a welcome statutory rule. We discussed it in the Committee, and I do not think that any rational person would be opposed to it. First of all, it is a welcome reminder of the fact that these institutions can do positive practical things for people and communities whenever we are actually here and doing our work, so that is good and it has to be welcomed.

The broader context is twofold. It is about the post-COVID-19 economy — well, we are not post-COVID-19 yet, but we will be emerging into a post-COVID-19 economy in which our small independent businesses, especially in rural areas and market towns, need absolutely all the help that they can get in order to be sustainable. That includes having this relief, which will, in a very basic way, make it more likely that people are able to spend money, because they will have cash in their pockets, particularly in small rural villages where, as Members have said, banks may have left the high street and, as we know, not everyone, particularly older people in more isolated and rural areas, is likely to choose to make card payments.

The second component is, of course, the issue of fair banking. My colleague Pat Catney is setting up an all-party group (APG) on that subject and may talk about it in some detail. It is particularly important that we do everything that we possibly can to make our economy as financially inclusive as it possibly can be. This is a small step in that direction. It goes back to where we were before these institutions collapsed. Of course, we hope to see a broader package of support and a recovery strategy from the Executive in the weeks ahead, but, for what it is worth, this small measure is certainly welcome.

Mr Catney: I am having a problem; sorry about this. I thank the Minister. I am also a little late coming in, and I apologise for that.

As my colleague from South Belfast stated, we are, across the House, in the process of trying to set up an APG on fair banking. This represents everything that is fair for our rural community: that those in that community and in our market towns are able to have that facility.

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a pity that, because of the collapse of Stormont, this measure was not introduced in 2017. However, today, I welcome it being brought in and thank the Minister for this move.

Ms S Bradley: I, too, welcome this. In and of itself, it is not, as the Minister said, an incentive to bring an ATM or cash machine to a rural area, but it certainly helps with the viability of retaining one there. Rightly, other Members pointed out the importance of such access in rural areas. The money goes to critical shops and supports industry in the local area. That is of absolute importance and should not be lost. However, it has occurred to me, Minister, that I am not absolutely certain about how the area around an ATM is rated. Is it by the square footage of where the ATM sits? If that is the case, I ask him to take a flexible approach. Given the recent spate of robberies, many rural ATMs have required additional bollards or space around them for protection. Therefore, I ask the Minister to look at how such areas are rated and how any exemptions that applied could allow for the secure retention of ATMs in those critical areas.

Mr Murphy: I thank the Members who contributed to the discussion and debate on the order and wider issues. I will turn to some of those in the course of my remarks on the extension of the exemption for ATMs in designated rural areas.

I believe that the scheme is worth reinstating for those who live in isolated rural communities and still depend on ATMs being available. We can all appreciate the difficulties encountered in these communities through any measure that leads to a reduction in the availability of ATMs, and, especially at this time, the Executive wish to continue to do all that they can to support people in rural areas.

The long-term need for the scheme may change as people become more used to contactless payment during the pandemic. However, as things stand, it is worth preserving the measure, and, in doing that, we can help to ensure that eligible ATMs are retained in rural areas, providing greater access and support to those communities.

I thank the Committee for its work on this. Broadly, people have been very supportive of the extension and regret the fact that the exemption lapsed for a couple of years. People have welcomed the opportunity to reinstate it. Maolíosa McHugh's point about the percentage of money taken out of ATMs in rural areas that is spent in those areas was well made, and it lends itself to our ongoing efforts to support the rural economy and ensure that rural isolation does not lead to further deterioration in people's livelihoods.

I acknowledge the robbery risk that he and Sinéad Bradley referred to. That has been a factor in this.

While there will be a fixed area in relation to what would constitute an ATM — and the rates relief obviously applies to the end of the year — Land and Property Services has always tried to be as flexible as it can in relation to ensuring that. The purpose of the exemption is to try and provide support to rural businesses. That is the spirit in which it has been introduced.


11.45 am

Jonathan Buckley asked about the list. I have a list of the 84 ATMs and their location, so I will ask the Department to make it available to him. I welcome Pat Catney's initiative in relation to the all-party group on fair banking. I know that there is an interest among the parties in relation to that, and I hope that that has some success because fair banking is something that has ever been with us but particularly in relation to the ongoing support of businesses over the course of the pandemic — the loans issue and access to loans — the issue of fair banking has risen to the fore again. So, it is a timely initiative.

In closing, I ask Members to support this measure, and I commend the order to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Rates (Exemption for Automatic Telling Machines in Rural Areas) Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 be affirmed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments while we change staff at the Table.

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

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the inclusion in the Business and Planning Bill of provision for temporary reduction in the duration of certain Northern Ireland driving licences.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate.

Ms Mallon: At the outset, I acknowledge the fact that it has not been possible to adhere to normal Assembly timescales in progressing this legislative consent motion. That reflects the fact that the Business and Planning Bill is being fast-tracked through its legislative passage. The Bill was only introduced to Westminster on 25 June and completed its Commons stages in a single day on 29 June. It is in the House of Lords and is expected to become law later this month.

It is that fast-tracking process that has necessitated the very short timeline leading up to today's debate. I regret the need to shorten normal Assembly timescales on this occasion, and I am very grateful to my Executive colleagues for reviewing my Executive paper at very short notice and agreeing to the LCM. I am also grateful to the Assembly, the Infrastructure Committee and Committee officials for their urgent consideration and processing of the LCM.

As Members will be aware, the legislative consent motion relates to a specific driver licensing clause — clause 15 — that is included in the Westminster Business and Planning Bill. The Business and Planning Bill contains a range of measures that are designed to support the transition from crisis response into recovery from COVID-19. Many of its measures relate only to England and Wales or to England alone.

Clause 15 makes provision for the temporary reduction in the duration of certain driving licences, and is specific to Northern Ireland. Clause 15 makes short-term statutory provision that would enable my Department, if required, to issue one-year licences to certain bus and lorry drivers. I will outline very briefly the policy background.

Full licences for those drivers, known as group 2 driving licences, normally last for five years. However, first-time applicants, drivers who are aged 45 years or over, or drivers who declare any medical conditions on their application form normally require a prior medical assessment. That is current policy. The outcome of that assessment determines whether applicants receive a full five-year licence, a licence of restricted duration, or, indeed, have their licence application refused.

During the current crisis, it has often been difficult for drivers to get appointments for medical assessments. In response, I have worked with the Department of Health and the British Medical Association to ask GPs to prioritise medical appointments. In turn, my Department has prioritised licence applications from key workers. More recently, the EU emergency transport regulation has provided for the extended validity of existing licences. Effectively, driving licences that expire during this time are extended for seven months beyond the expiry date that appears on the face of the licence. That has been very helpful in ensuring that drivers can remain on the roads at this time.

All that, perhaps, begs the question: do we need a new power that would allow us to issue one-year licences? The honest answer to that is that I do not know. None of us can predict with any certainty what the future holds. To date, those other measures have been sufficient. However, I believe, particularly given the impact on critical supply chains, that it is prudent to keep other options open and have a further contingency plan if needed. The EU emergency transport regulation is a short-term measure that expires at the end of August. While there is provision for a further extension of up to six months, that requires an application to the EU Commission, and there is no guarantee that such an application would be granted. I, therefore, believe that we should take the opportunity to legislate for one-year licences; short-term licences that can be issued without a prior medical assessment in the event that they may be needed in the future.

I want to summarise very briefly what the clause would allow my Department to do. It contains discretionary provision that would allow one-year licences to be issued to drivers who are aged 45 years or over in circumstances where my Department decides to waive the normal requirement for a medical report. The clause is drafted so as to manage any road-safety risk. That is the thinking behind restricting the licence to one year and the provision that a one-year licence cannot be renewed for a further year. In addition, I do not propose to issue one-year licences to any first-time applicants. I believe that it is important that drivers should be medially assessed before being granted a first licence to drive a bus or lorry. In practice, my Department would waive the medical report requirement only in circumstances where drivers are aged 45 years or over, are applying for a licence renewal and do not declare a medical condition that prevents them from driving safely.

I should also point out that those licences can be granted only during the period commencing on 1 August 2020 and ending on 24 March 2022. Effectively, it is a sunset provision. In practice, however, normal licensing arrangements will be restored as soon as it is practical to do so.

Finally, since driver licensing is a devolved matter, I considered whether we could bring a Bill through the Assembly to legislate for one-year licences. On principle, I believe that all devolved matters should be legislated for in the Assembly, and I will always endeavour to make legal changes through the Assembly where possible. In this instance, however, legal advice indicated that, in order to avoid the risk of legal challenge, the best approach would be to include the necessary provision for one-year licensing in Westminster legislation.

In summary, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) is working to restore normal licensing arrangements as quickly as possible. However, I believe that it is appropriate to take powers that would permit the issue of one-year licences without prior medical assessments as a further mitigation should that prove necessary. I would, of course, think carefully before using that power.

I commend the motion to the Assembly and ask that it endorses the inclusion of clause 15 in the Business and Planning Bill.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Minister. The first person I have on my speaking list is the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, Miss Michelle McIlveen.

Miss McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chairman of the Committee for Infrastructure on today's legislative consent motion to temporarily enable one-year driver licence renewals for lorry and bus drivers.

In recent months during the COVID-19 crisis, the Committee for Infrastructure has considered its impact on a range of individuals and organisations. The Committee has worked with the Minister — supporting and challenging her — and her Department in making the required mitigations for those most affected by the lockdown. The matter of driver licence renewals for group 2 drivers in need of a medical certificate to continue driving, and to enable them to work, is just one of the many issues that have been impacted by the pandemic, and which need a quick and effective response to remedy. The COVID-19 crisis has meant that drivers who require a medical assessment are having difficulty in gaining access to a medical professional. That has been an issue in the rest of the United Kingdom and a solution has been found. Therefore, when the Minister wrote to the Committee for Infrastructure on 17 June advising that she had decided to take immediate action through the legislative consent motion, the Committee agreed to support her. Although very little time was afforded to the Committee for its consideration, members made every effort to scrutinise the motion and to report on it for today's debate. The Committee for Infrastructure considered the intention of the LCM by correspondence to ensure that members were well informed of its content ahead of consideration at Committee and to allow the Committee to agree a written report.

As the Minister outlined, the relevant clause of the Business and Planning Bill — clause 15 — would enable driver licences lasting one year to be granted to drivers aged 45 to 65 without them sending in a medical report with their licence applications. Those drivers would usually be able to get a five-year licence or a licence lasting until their 66th birthday, if shorter, but, because of restrictions on access to medical practitioners as a result of COVID-19, they cannot obtain the required medical report.

In its consideration, the Committee for Infrastructure sought clarification on a number of issues prior to giving its consent. A copy of the issues raised, and the answers received from the Department, can be found at appendix 5 of the Committee's LCM report. The LCM was formally considered by the Committee at its meeting on 1 July 2020. The Committee for Infrastructure is content with the legislative consent motion.

Mr Boylan: I certainly welcome the motion and thank the Minister for her work on it. One of the effects of COVID-19 is that drivers who need a medical assessment for their driver licences are having difficulty in accessing medical professionals to fulfil that requirement. That is affecting lorry and bus drivers particularly. They are classified as key workers and have been playing a key role during the pandemic. It has been talked about in Committee, but I put on record, now, my acknowledgement of the work that they have done and the role that they have played over the period. Lorry drivers have been making sure that supply chains have remained open during this period of uncertainty, while bus drivers have continued to provide key services and facilitate essential connectivity, such as allowing other key workers to get to work and letting people fulfil essential journeys.

The Department for Infrastructure has extended licences by using the EU emergency transport regulation that became law on 4 June. That has allowed driving licences that expire, or are due to expire, between February and August to be extended for seven months. That is a temporary provision, although there is scope to make a request to the European Commission for an extension. However, as an extension is not guaranteed, the Business and Planning Bill will allow a discretionary provision that will enable the Department to issue one-year licences, provided certain conditions are satisfied.

I agree with the Department's assessment that it is prudent to ensure that the option of issuing one-year licence renewals to key workers should be available. Thus, I welcome the measure on the basis that that was a significant issue for the transport and freight sector during the pandemic and that the Bill gives the Department the statutory provision in the meantime.

Any decision to go ahead and grant the extension in the North will ultimately come down to the Department for Infrastructure. On that, I would like to ask the Minister whether an extension has been requested from the European Commission and whether we can have an update on that front. Furthermore, can the Minister assure Members that road safety will not be compromised by the measure? I support the motion.


12.00 noon

Mr Beggs: I support the legislative consent motion. It is vital that we ensure that drivers are able to work and carry out their key roles in our community in the months ahead.

As the Minister said, clause 15 will empower her to give extensions to licences. There has been a problem — I have seen it with drivers who have contacted me over the past number of problems — if a driver is required to have a medical assessment in order to renew their licence. There have been difficulties in accessing GPs, who have, obviously, been stressed and have had a heavy workload over the past few months. It is important that we ensure that there are no delays. Whilst drivers may be prioritised, extending for one year is reasonable.

If we do not extend, there is a risk that essential and key workers may not be able to drive, food supplies may not be delivered and buses may not be driven. There is also a calculated risk that something could go wrong if someone was driving and a medical condition materialised, but that has been assessed as being a limited risk. We all have to make choices, and I would view it as a much greater risk if we do not have food delivered to our homes or do not have transport arrangements in place.

One key worker who was in touch with me was an oil delivery driver. It is not easy to just lift the phone and get a driver who is experienced in delivering oil. We all think that they are just drivers, but, in many of the duties that our heavy goods vehicle drivers carry out, there are health and safety requirements and specialist training is necessary. It is vital that we do not leave gaps in the services that are provided. A one-year extension is reasonable, and I support the legislative consent motion to protect our community.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for tabling the motion. I declare an interest as former employee of Translink.

My party and I will support the motion. Lorry and bus drivers are key workers, and I once again formally put on the record my sincere gratitude to them and to all our transport workers who have worked throughout the crisis to keep food and medical supplies on our shelves.

We do not know how the pandemic will look on 31 August, which is when the seven-month extension ceases to apply. I sincerely hope that the number of COVID-19 cases will have continued to decrease and that we will have been able to move along the road to recovery, but we cannot know that for sure as we have seen from events across the world in recent days. It may be difficult for drivers to get the medical assessments that they require. That is why the motion is prudent and gives the Department for Infrastructure the ability to issue one-year extensions, where appropriate. However, it is also appropriate for the Department to lay out the specifics on how it will judge whether a medical assessment is feasible. The requirement for the medical assessments exists for good reason. We must ensure that exemptions are permitted only where medical assessments are not feasible. I support the motion.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Chair, the Deputy Chair and all the members of the Committee for their support and for the urgency that they gave the matter, given the speed at which the legislation is moving through Westminster. I add my voice to that of all Members who spoke by putting on record my appreciation of the critical role that our lorry and bus drivers play, particularly that which they have played during this crisis, in which they have worked hard to ensure that we can keep critical supply chains open.

Mr Boylan and Mr Beggs were right in referencing the difficulty that a number of lorry drivers and bus drivers have had in trying to get medical assessments. That is why my Department worked in partnership with the Department of Health, the British Medical Association and GPs to put in a place a framework to ensure the prioritisation of medical appointments and assessments for essential workers. Following that, we moved to tie ourselves in with the European Union regulation, which has granted a seven-month extension to all licences. As Members have rightly said, the regulation will run from 1 September through to the end of August. It is a practical solution.

Mr Boylan asked whether we were seeking a further extension: we are keeping that option open. The request would have to come from the Department for Transport, but we are continuously working with it and keeping abreast of the situation. As Mr Muir pointed out, however, we do not know where we will be in six or seven months' time. We can look at what is happening in Leicester or in Australia, where we have seen an increase in the spread of the virus and localised lockdowns. That is why I am taking what I believe to be a sensible, reasonable and prudent approach by having the one-year licence extension as a further mitigation measure on the shelf so that we can use it if required.

I add my voice to that of Mr Beggs and the others who spoke by saying that this is very much about balancing risk. It is what I do in this job daily, particularly in this area. It is very much about taking a prudent, sensible approach — a belt and braces approach — but it is also about balancing with road safety. Mr Beggs is absolutely right: part of the consideration is road safety while ensuring that we can maintain critical supply chains and get the essential goods and services that we very much need to shops and to homes.

I can assure Mr Muir about the road safety assessment. The one-year extension, if I choose to go down that path, will be issued only to those submitting renewal applications, not first-time applicants, and it will be issued to those over the age of 45 who do not have a medical condition to declare that could impact on road safety.

In concluding, I again put on my record my appreciation of the Committee's diligence and efficiency in dealing with the matter, for its support and for challenging me, as the Chair aptly put it. It is an important part of our scrutiny process and our democratic system to ensure accountability. I ask that the Assembly endorse the inclusion of the clause in the Business and Planning Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the inclusion in the Business and Planning Bill of provision for temporary reduction in the duration of certain Northern Ireland driving licences.

Committee Business

That this Assembly recognises the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the taxi, haulage, driving instruction and private hire bus and coach sectors; acknowledges that these industries have not been prioritised in terms of guidance and support packages; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward proposals for the formulation of guidance and financial support for these sectors as a matter of urgency.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has allowed one and a half hours for the debate. Miss McIlveen will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Miss McIlveen: As we are all acutely aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on almost all aspects of our lives. Over recent months, the Committee for Infrastructure has had a role in examining that impact on the individuals and organisations that fall within the remit of the Department for Infrastructure. The Committee has discussed and scrutinised the mitigations put in place for sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and has wholeheartedly supported the proposals brought forward to assist those sectors. However, the Committee is aware of industries that feel that they have been let down at this time. Those industries, in desperation and hope, have voiced their concerns to the Department for Infrastructure. However, adequate support has not been forthcoming or satisfactory. In the motion, the Committee wishes to add its voice to the frustrations of some of the sectors that have been so badly impacted by the pandemic and asks for Members support in calling on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward financial support and guidance to assist the individuals involved in the sectors outlined in the motion. I intend to outline my Committee's engagement with those sectors, the issues raised during that engagement and the insufficient response received from the Minister to date.

The Committee has considered correspondence from these sectors since the beginning of the lockdown. For example, in correspondence of 9 April 2020, representatives of taxi drivers asked the Committee for help. While appreciating that these are unprecedented times and understanding the pressures facing Departments, they voiced their concern that the taxi industry, both public and private, has received little or no guidance and support while providing an essential service to some of our most vulnerable citizens. They told the Committee that they had raised their issues with government but still had questions about the availability of government grants to help the taxi industry. The Committee sought answers from the Minister, who responded advising that her Department's responsibility extended only to taxi industry regulation. The Minister acknowledged that the financial package announced by the Government in Westminster fell short of what was needed. The Minister advised that she was engaging with the Economy Minister and that she understood that the Department for the Economy was responsible and would issue guidance.

With the Minister's view that it is the responsibility of other Departments, the taxi industry continued to ask for the Committee's help and wrote to the Committee again on 17 and 29 June. They highlighted the serious impact that COVID-19 had been having and outlined how their industry had been decimated, with a majority having to stop work due to a lack of demand as a result of lockdown. They called again for urgent financial help and support. The taxi industry asked the Minister to issues grants to help taxi drivers under the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. However, the Minister for Infrastructure, responding to the Committee, reiterated that her Department's responsibility was solely the regulation of the taxi industry, not financial assistance. In her opinion, the Taxis Act does not extend to providing general financial support grants to the taxi industry in times of hardship. However, the Economy Minister advised the Committee that, regarding a specific support package for the taxi industry, schedules 1 and 3 to the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2020 allocates funding to the Department for Infrastructure for:

" transport licensing, enforcement and regulation;"

as well as:

"support for transport services including grants in respect of rail and road passenger services including fare concessions".

The Economy Minister pointed out her belief that taxis are clearly regarded as transport services. Writing to the Committee on 29 June, the taxi industry once again outlined their concerns and called on the Minister for Infrastructure to put a specific proposal to the Finance Minister or refer the matter to the Executive so that the taxi industry could be supported by government through a hardship fund.

Many drivers have installed screens in their vehicles at their own expense but are concerned about whether their vehicles will pass the PSV test with the addition of the new equipment. It should be noted that a number of councils in England and Scotland have supplied funding for or provided personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to taxi drivers. On 28 May, the Committee for Infrastructure wrote three letters to the Finance Minister seeking financial support for the road haulage industry, the taxi industry and the transport sector in general. In his response, the Finance Minister advised that he had engaged with his Executive colleagues on those matters as well as with the Department for Transport, the Treasury and industry representatives. The Finance Minister noted that the British Government had taken the view that, given the range of measures already put in place, including the support package to maintain ferry routes, a road haulage-specific intervention was not needed at this time. The Finance Minister also noted that the Department for Infrastructure had not made any bids to his Department for support for the taxi industry and encouraged it to do so.

Mr McCrossan: Will the Member give way?

Miss McIlveen: Not at this time, thank you.

He outlined that £59·5 million of the funding set aside by the Executive for the transport sector had not yet been allocated. In response to a letter to DOF and DFE on the need for financial support for taxi drivers, the Finance Minister provided a list of COVID support schemes to which those in the taxi industry could apply. However, there was also an acknowledgement that many drivers had not been able to access the available schemes.

As for a financial support package for the road haulage and logistics sector, it was a similar story, with the Infrastructure Minister taking the view that her Department was responsible only for the regulation of the industry and, through that role, she had introduced regulatory measures to aid the transport and logistics sector.

The Minister also identified that the Department for Transport has been liaising with the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Freight Transport Association (FTA) to ensure that the key objectives of maintaining critical supply routes and supporting economic recovery are achieved. Regarding a Northern Ireland package of support, the Minister advised that any request for financial support for the road freight sector should be made by the Department for the Economy.


12.15 pm

The RHA and FTA provided oral and written briefings to the Committee on the amendments to legal requirements that they have sought to enable them to continue to provide their vital role in keeping supply chains operating. Those changes include extending drivers' daily driving and delivery hours, vehicle MOTs, driving licences and medical examinations to ensure the continuation of vital supplies required by all in Northern Ireland.

In response to the Committee's concerns, the Department advised that the Department for Transport has been liaising with RHA and FTA to understand the up-to-date picture for road hauliers at a local and UK-wide level. The FTA weekly survey of the first week of April 2020 reported that businesses were experiencing the following: 82% general downturn in business, with work orders cancelled; 34% had gone out of business; 20% of HGV drivers and warehouse staff were not able to work due to the virus; and 32% were experiencing moderate to severe difficulties in finding fitters, mechanics and technicians.

The RHA and FTA detailed how some elements of the sector are surviving. However, there are operators in other sectors. For example, one operator has a mixed fleet of vehicles worth £6 million parked up. They are relatively new vehicles, and the depreciation on the vehicles alone is in the region of £100,000 a month. With the vehicles parked up for over three months, that is a loss of over £300,000 in value, and that does not take into consideration the lost income.

The Committee has also heard, as I am sure that many Members have, from driving instructors who are feeling forgotten and invisible during the pandemic. Some have tried to work out their own safety measures, with little to no guidance.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Miss McIlveen: Sorry, let me continue, please.

They have no idea of when they should return to work, and they are in dire jeopardy of failing, with many job losses. In response, once again, the Minister and her Department have advised the Committee that it should look elsewhere for answers and that the Department has no remit for driving instructors and when they might return to work. That adds to the confusion that driving instruction was not specifically covered in the COVID-19 recovery plan, nor were driving instructors specifically listed in any of the schedules to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 or in subsequent amendments. There is still no indication of when driving tests can resume; without testing, instruction is pointless. That needs to be addressed immediately.

In response to Committee questions about the coach and bus hire sector, the Minister offered little support other than continuing to take action in relation to its regulatory responsibilities and directing this sector to the general pandemic business support measures.

Other Committee members will give more specifics on the detail of the challenges, but I hope that I have given Members a sense of the abandonment felt by these sectors, which are so integral to the work and responsibilities of the Department for Infrastructure. Unfortunately, by attempting to pass her departmental responsibilities to others, the Minister has failed to be the champion the transport sector has needed during the pandemic.

I am disappointed that an amendment is proposed. Throughout the discussions in Committee, there was a unity of purpose in attempting to seek a solution to the various challenges facing these industries. These employers, breadwinners and vital cogs in our transport infrastructure feel genuine fear of debt and job loss. They are not interested in the politicking in the Chamber. They are looking for someone to lead. I hope that the House can support the motion to call on the Minister for Infrastructure to genuinely listen to the concerns and to be that person.

Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out from "these industries" to "Minister for Infrastructure" and insert:

"the powers of the Minister for Infrastructure are limited to regulation of the transport and transit sectors; welcomes the work undertaken by sectoral bodies and the Minister for Infrastructure to ease burdensome regulation during the emergency period; further recognises that these industries have not been included in specific Executive support packages for private businesses; and calls on the Executive".

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.

Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the Minister's attendance for the debate. The Minister has led from the front. Regretfully, it is very clear to see that some people are politicising Statutory Committees. The fact that there is a proposed amendment to a Committee motion speaks to that. We have cross-party support on that basis. There is deliberate misdirection and confusion. For a start, in relation to all the sectors, every Member feels, I am sure, a great debt of gratitude to those who continue to work throughout the health pandemic. We all know that many people are worried about their health, their jobs and their livelihoods, and as we face into, potentially, the worst economic recession that we have ever known, many people's fears continue unabated.

From the outset, the Minister has led from the front, within the purview of her ministerial responsibilities. She has amended the regulations. She has listened to the haulage sector, to driving instructors and to the taxi industry. We talk about the "taxi industry", but who, exactly, are we speaking about? I have checked with all my colleagues across Northern Ireland, and, as I understand it, the majority of the taxi industry folk who have a problem with what the Minister has done are centred around north and west Belfast. My office in Lurgan is beside a taxi company, yet I have not received a single complaint.

The fact is that all those self-employed sectors have been able to avail themselves of the financial support offered by the Minister for the Economy. We were told, in answer to a ministerial question, that, to date, over 30 taxi firms have availed themselves of the financial support package. Others have availed themselves of the furlough schemes, across all the sectors mentioned. Indeed, others have and will continue to avail themselves of the rates holiday and the break in tax payment that has been announced.

There are sectors that have had specific financial packages made available to them. However, they have been made available by the Executive, by the Economy Minister, and, sometimes, by the Finance Minister working with one of his colleagues. On more than one occasion, the Committee was told that the Minister for Infrastructure had no vires to make financial supports available. None. Therefore, what the motion seeks, and what people fail to hear, is that the Minister for Infrastructure has no power to give financial support grants. The Committee has had sight of lengthy correspondence trails in which the Minister for Infrastructure wrote to her Executive colleagues asking for specific help.

If I can deal with the issue of guidance for driving instructors —.

Ms Kimmins: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mrs D Kelly: No, I will not. [Laughter.]

You will have plenty to say later.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way

Mrs D Kelly: No, I will not.

At the Committee, I specifically asked the head of the DVA to tell me who has responsibility for driving instructors. They are self-employed. I have been approached by driving instructors. I have corresponded with them and given them the best advice available to me. However, I am very clear: driving instructors are self-employed, and their guidance was on the website of the Department for the Economy. The Minister for Infrastructure has responsibility for driving examiners, an entirely different kettle of fish, especially if you are the one doing the test.

In relation to the furlough scheme and the haulage sectors, you can see that the Infrastructure Minister has, alongside the Finance Minister, corresponded with the Department for Transport and put in place whatever measures and opportunities she could to protect ferry routes. Unfortunately, however, the ferry companies decided to keep the financial package for themselves and did not pass on a reduction to the haulage sector. That is regrettable. It is something, I am sure, that the Department for Transport and, individually, Ministers here have raised with the ferry companies. However, that is the fact of the matter.

I looked up the guidance for taxi drivers myself, as I had heard what driving instructors were saying. I wanted to find out what the guidance was so that I could pass it on to driving instructors. Lo and behold, where was the guidance? It was on the Department for the Economy's website, because that is where the guidance comes from, as taxi drivers are a self-employed sector.

We have great difficulties with the motion because it leads to confusion and misdirects. It is not serving the people, whom they said they seek to serve and get the best for. If we are honest and truthful with all those sectors, we will give them the right information, at the right time and send them to the right Ministers to get the help that they need. We would not send them up the garden path for us to make our own political point-scoring available to them.

In the SDLP amendment, we want to recognise the fact that this matter is not simply for DFI, where there is very clear regulatory responsibility. I will give the House some indication of some of the decisions that the Minister took within her area of responsibility.

The Minister wrote to Ministers Murphy and Dodds, seeking information and advice as to whether there was specific support and financial assistance that the taxi industry could access. Again and again, Minister Mallon wrote to the Executive, stressing that there was a need to ascertain what financial support could be made available to the industry. She also wrote to the Minister for Communities, asking whether taxis could be redeployed to help support the fightback against COVID-19. In the responses from the Sinn Féin Ministers, Minister Mallon was assured that there was support for taxi drivers. She was assured that a Sinn Féin Minister was exploring options for redeployment. People should ask what happened: what redeployment opportunities were presented by that Sinn Féin Minister? Minister Dodds not only wrote to Minister Mallon but, in answers to MLAs, she clearly pointed out that she was providing guidance for the taxi industry. The taxi industry has availed itself of support.

I am mindful that I have to address the issue around the coach and private hire sectors. It is my understanding that the Minister for the Economy will be making that provision because the industry is part of the wider hospitality task force that has been asked to look at the options that might be available for them. I hope that good news will come to that particular sector, because we all know that, the drop-off in tourism, especially from outside Northern Ireland, has had an adverse impact on that sector.

It is most regrettable. In all my years, Committees have spoken with one voice. We have not generally created divisions, and it is very clear to see where the party political point-scoring is coming from. Some Members are looking for a greater focus on some industries and not on others. You have to ask why they seek to support some specific industries.

The message is that, if there are opportunities for the Executive to help in any way, in any particular loophole or gap that needs to be filled, I ask Members to support our amendment, so that we can act and speak with one voice.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mrs D Kelly: Very briefly.

Mr Allister: I do not want to get involved in the ping-pong as to which Executive party is to blame, although I have my view about that. Surely, it is a collective failure of the Executive, because these may well be cross-cutting issues. The haulage sector, about which I am particularly concerned, has been hung out to dry by the failure of the Executive parties to apply for a pot of money, which is sitting in Finance — at present, it is £29 million — and there has been no collective decision to make an application for it. Is it not, therefore, an Executive failure, never mind individual Departments?

Mrs D Kelly: I want to be fair to all the Ministers around the table. This is a global pandemic, the like of which we have never seen before, and Ministers have had to step up very quickly, not only to their brief but to the challenges presented by the health emergency. By and large, many of them have worked well, but there is a lack of transparency in how some sectors get supported more quickly than others. I urge the Executive to fill the gaps in the haulage, coach and private hire and taxi sectors. Whatever the sector, we feel all workers deserve to be supported in these most challenging and trying of times.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr Boylan: Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin seo. I am in favour of and welcome the motion.

This is like everything else: the Member will take an intervention from Members from other parties but will not take one from mine.


12.30 pm

The Member said that people should step up in a pandemic, and that is exactly what this is about. A lot of other Ministers across the board did not have the vires to do things but stepped up and came up with plans and ideas. The Member is engaging in a rearguard action to protect her Minister. This was discussed in Committee. A lot of Members who, funnily enough, will maybe support your amendment were content in the Committee system to speak out and were happy with some of the responses that we got. Still and all, today, when they get up to speak, they go against what they said in Committee. Mr Beggs supported Mr Murphy in Committee when he talked on this Floor about bringing forward proposals to the Executive — he mentioned the Committee — and other Members said other things, and they were content for that to happen.

The whole point of it was this: we were saying to the Minister, "Bring forward proposals, and we, as a Committee, will support you". We are not the ones who were ding-donging across Ministers. The Minister sits there with a database of taxi licences and all the licences across the board, but all that we were saying at the time was, "Put that on a bit of paper. Bring it to the Executive, and then we shall discuss it". The industry out there looks to the Infrastructure Minister; they do not look to the Economy or Finance Ministers or to the Executive. I appreciate what Mr Allister says about a certain package of money, but, if you talk to taxi drivers or bus operators, you will find that they look towards the Minister for Infrastructure as their Minister. All the Committee was saying to the Minister was this: "Bring forward a proposal. We will support you in working with other Ministers on a package".

I agree with Mrs Kelly that there are some people who have been —. [Interruption.]

I apologise, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I agree that some sectors of the industry were facilitated in some of the schemes, but I asked the Finance Minister about this, and he said that proposals were not brought forward and that, if they were, the Executive would discuss them and make a decision. I asked the Infrastructure Minister to work with the Economy Minister to bring forward proposals, but they were ding-donging between them about whose responsibility it was. I have received two letters from the Economy Minister saying that the remit lies in DFI. That is not what the motion is about. The motion says that the majority on the Committee would support proposals being brought to the Executive, and that is still our position on it.

I had a whole speech prepared, but Members have already brought up a number of the issues. Mrs Kelly said that only certain sectors of the taxi industry got it hard, but I know people in my constituency got and are getting it very hard and applied for some scheme but did not get anything. The real discussion point in all this is that we are in a pandemic, and all that we are saying is that, if people are really going to step up, let them step up. I want to bring one thing to the Minister's attention, because Mrs Kelly was praising her glories. The Minister found the time for the airports — I need to find it in my notes — and to work on them. In her own words:

"While my powers are limited on airports, working with colleagues and the Department for Transport, I have been able to secure this unique payment to support the airports at this difficult time. It is this type of collaborative working that will get us through this crisis and our recovery from it."

I could not agree more, Minister. Sorry, I should speak through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. All that we say is that the Minister should bring proposals and use the data on the database. It may be the case that working with data across Departments is needed — I cannot say that it is not a cross-cutting measure — and I do not disagree with that. The Minister should bring proposals. We in the Committee will support her, and it will be an Executive decision. That is what the motion is about. Mrs Kelly to say that past motions from Committees have been unanimously agreed, but the majority of people agreed this motion. Unfortunately, Mrs Kelly was not there for the discussions on it. I will support the motion and go against the amendment.

Mr Beggs: I support the amendment. I also support the main motion, but I am indicating a preference for the amendment. I will explain myself during the discussion.

Undoubtedly, those who have been involved in a variety of industries, such as coach tour operators, ordinary coach operators, taxi drivers, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and driving instructors have been severely adversely affected over the past months. Some have been affected to varying degrees, and I will come back to that.

As has been indicated, there are support schemes that are available to the self-employed. Putting together any scheme to provide additional support will need to be carefully worked out to avoid duplication. We do not want to double-fund someone and then not give funding to someone else. It is clear in my mind that there will need to be close cooperation with the Economy Minister, who has brought forward the vast majority of schemes that have been assisting those who have been working in Northern Ireland, particularly the self-employed. They have been in that central position, and, because of that, I believe that they have a role going forward. In addition, I understand that detailed work is going on on how we can assist the tourism industry to recover from the epidemic, and I understand that a separate work stream is looking at tour coach operators. It is important that we do not create a double funding and a double support mechanism. That is why I have a preference for the Executive working together and the two Departments working together and bringing forward an Executive-led scheme. With the money on offer, there is no point in somebody bringing forward a scheme that will not be funded. Discussions with the Department of Finance are needed as well, to assist those in need.

There has been huge variation in how drivers have been affected. Those giving driving lessons have had no work; it was impossible to work. In the HGV industry, if you were working in the construction sector, you had virtually no work because many construction sites closed down. However —.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that he, like me, will acknowledge that the reason that that close working was prohibited was the nature of the virus.

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

Mr Beggs: I fully accept that, but I am just trying to demonstrate that some had no work. Others, for example hauliers involved in the food retailing industry — I understand that food retailing went up 30% — were probably busier than ever. There is a variety of workload with a range of results for those serving the economy in transport. Taxi drivers' work virtually dried up completely. Thankfully, some work is emerging again, and direction has been given to try and assist them to assist key workers and the general public.

I recognise that the Department for Infrastructure can play a significant role. It has access to tachographs and, if a scheme that showed the level of business that each operator had during the period was wanted, that would seem to be the obvious route. That is why the Department for Infrastructure has a significant role to play. I would prefer an Executive-led scheme, involving all relevant Departments and ensuring that we avoid duplication and get best value from public funds to help those at the coalface who need support.

Mr Muir: The motion tabled by the Infrastructure Committee rightly refers to business sectors in need of support that have struggled to obtain grant assistance, in many instances, from the three schemes established to date by the Department for the Economy, namely the £10k, the £25k and the hardship fund coronavirus grant business support schemes, delivered, I note, under the Industrial Development (Northern Ireland) Order 1982. I have engaged with many businesses and people in those sectors over recent weeks and months. Many are desperate for support. They are crying out for assistance and looking to Stormont for help.

While some hauliers have managed to get through the pandemic without major financial stress, those without contracts with, for example, major supermarkets are teetering on collapse. Business virtually collapsed during the pandemic and is now only a fraction of what it was prior to March. With leases still to pay, furloughing being phased out from next month, loan payments due and utilities bills still arriving, the future is stark. News that a much-hoped-for joint package of support would not be forthcoming from the Department for Transport in London and the Executive in Northern Ireland felt like a kick in the teeth, especially for those who were waiting for the money to arrive and thought that the funding was already set aside. Just because DfT and HM Treasury do not want to proceed does not mean that we cannot act in Northern Ireland. We can and should deliver a tailored package of support for those hardest hit.

Most taxi drivers, like driving instructors, could not access the grant schemes set up by the Department for the Economy because of the relationship with the non-domestic rates system and the exclusion of sole traders from the hardship fund criteria, leaving them with recourse only to the self-employed income support scheme, if eligible, and no support for the overheads and bills that keep arriving. Guidance and support have been slow and lacking and must be addressed if we are to build back our economy, recognising the valuable role that both play in helping to get us about.

Like that for driving instructors and taxi drivers, trade for private bus and coach operators has also largely dried up in recent months. At this point, I should declare that I was previously an employee of Translink.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. He may be aware that there is a meeting today in Belfast of the coach operators. Obviously, I have had some discussion with some of the coach operators in my constituency. The issue of regulation falls within the remit of the Department for Infrastructure, and the plea that comes from the motion and from the House is for the Minister to recognise that there needs to be, as the proposer of the motion stated, leadership on the issue to make a recommendation so that, in particular, the coach operators get financial assistance.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an additional minute

Mr Muir: Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I will refer to the point that the Member has just raised later in my speech.

As they often rely on tourism business in the spring, summer and autumn seasons, 2020 is viewed by many in the private bus and coach business as a complete write-off. With furloughing being phased out and payments still due for fleets locked up in yards across Northern Ireland, a financial bridge to 2021 is essential. Without it, I fear, rebuilding our tourism offer will be extra, extra hard next year.

The case for action in support for the sectors is, therefore, clear. That is not in dispute, but let me be crystal clear: taxi, haulage, driving instruction and private bus and coach sectors and many more have been excluded from the grant assistance necessary to get through the pandemic. That is wrong and must be addressed, but, by passing the motion as it is worded today, I fear that all that we would be doing is raising false hopes that the wrongs will be righted.

As, I suspect, the Minister will detail in her response, the Department for Infrastructure does not feel that it has the vires to distribute the grant assistance needed.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Boylan: Besides the vires issue, which I agree with the Member on, is he saying that the Minister has not the capacity to bring forward proposals or any suggestions to address the issue?

Mr Muir: I think the vires issue is quite an important one. It is a legal issue about whether you can give out the money. I have asked the questions and have got the responses, and I have no reason to believe that I am being misled.

By passing the motion today unamended, you would, in essence, be asking a fish to climb a tree. I am reluctant to do that. To those who state that the Department in charge of regulation and to whom you pay your fees —.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Muir: No. To those who state that the Department in charge of regulation and to whom you pay your fees and taxes should give the support, I say that I think that your logic is flawed. If followed through, you should abolish the Department for the Economy and use the Department of Finance to give out all of the grant support.

I urge Members to support the amendment as a real and practical way of getting the assistance to the sectors that need it. Saying that the Executive cannot come together and sort out the issue shows a real lack of confidence that Ministers can come together, develop solutions and govern together. In 2020, that is what I and others expect: New Decade, New Approach. It ought to be the norm, to be honest, where each Minister governs to support each other as equals, rather than passing people from pillar to post. "Get around the table and sort out the issues" should be the message today, not to point and pin blame on one Minister and one Department.


12.45 pm

Mr K Buchanan: It is important to say that anyone who is listening from outside does not care about the politics. If they are driving a bus or a lorry, they want financial support, and they do not want to get into the politics of it. It is important to say that for anybody who is listening to the debate.

I support the motion, which seeks guidance and financial support for the industry. I will not support the amendment. The COVID-19 crisis has massively impacted a varied range of ground transportation businesses, including coach operators, taxi companies, driving instructors and hauliers, to such an extent that, for many, their income is more or less non-existent. Public transport has received support, but many within the coach, taxi, driving instruction and haulage industries are either self-employed or from small family-run businesses and have been left out.

Taxi drivers have been unable to obtain clear guidance about protective equipment. The taxi industry and its drivers have been left without adequate protection and guidance. Despite some having worked throughout the lockdown, many operators have reported a 70% to 80% downturn in business. Taxi drivers cannot do their job from home and their job makes it hard to socially distance. They are self-employed, so they need to work. While some drivers can claim the Government's self-employed income support scheme, which is worth 80% of their trading profits, many are not eligible. At the Committee for Infrastructure on 10 June, it was highlighted that the Minister of Finance was clear that his Department had not received any bids for support for the taxi industry. In response to this point, Mr McGrath from the Department for Infrastructure said:

"There simply is not enough money to cover the current pressures, and there may well be other pressures. Not every need can be met. My Minister has a view that she has no responsibility for the financing of the taxi industry."

Many owners and operators within the coach industry said that without financial support to withstand the current crisis, their industry in Northern Ireland will face severe financial hardship, with jobs placed at risk. With the cancellation of coach holidays within Northern Ireland, the UK, Ireland and further afield, many private coach companies will struggle to remain in business. Many cannot access the support directed at the leisure sector despite being an integral part of the tourism industry. Their business is highly seasonal, with March to September being the peak, meaning that their peak season will be non-existent this year. As they travel from 2020 to 2021, they will be in a vulnerable position as the winter months are always less profitable. Many operators had bookings throughout the summer season and have been obliged to offer cash refunds to those who have requested them. Operators have invested heavily in their operations to maintain a good fleet, reduce breakdowns and encourage people to use coaches. Each vehicle has a huge standing cost. Purchasing, insurance and maintenance costs still need to be covered during the pandemic. As with many within the service industry and leisure and tourism businesses, the coach industry seeks to provide the best service possible, including the upkeep of their fleet. Many businesses have purchased new coaches with finance on them. As payments on the finance continue, depreciation on the vehicles is accelerating, with the second-hand coach market becoming flooded as operators' businesses collapse.

I have been contacted by numerous driving instructors who are incredibly frustrated with the lack of guidance that has been given to them by DVA. Unlike their counterparts on the mainland who were supported and advised throughout the lockdown period, rather than helping them, DVA caused more confusion with an email that was sent on Saturday 27 June that advised that they were not specifically mentioned in the list of businesses in the regulations that must close. To comply with social distancing, and the nature of the task, of course those businesses were going to close. Of course, they would look to DVA to advise how and when they could return to work. When I spoke to a number of them yesterday, I was told that they have around six to eight hours of instruction booked this week, but without a date for testing, which is in the gift of the Minister. Those businesses are not sustainable. It is not good enough, and those businesses need clarity.

The haulage industry is suffering because of the reduction in backloads from the mainland and lower levels of business, while still having to pay fixed-costs for the lorry fleet. Some of the aforementioned transport businesses have received payment holidays from the financial institutions, but that is only a stopgap and will not help the sector in the long term.

The Member to my right referred to a fish climbing a tree. Maybe if the fish was given some help or guidance, it could attempt to climb that tree. It is not impossible. [Laughter.]

To conclude, I call on the Minister to look at the schemes to support the forgotten businesses within the sector.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Fish climbing trees. [Laughter.]

Ms Kimmins: I had a prepared speech, but a lot of the points have been covered. I do not want to go over old ground when a majority of us are on the same page. It is important to clarify that — to follow on from Mr Muir's comments — we are not asking the Minister to hand out the money. With her responsibility for transport policy, we are asking her to lead on these issues, provide clear guidance and bring proposals to the right people.

I cannot go on without mentioning Mrs Kelly's comments. It is quite unfair to say that the only complaints from taxi drivers are from those in north and west Belfast. That is not the case in my constituency. I ask her to reflect on that later. Why would that be an issue, if it were the case? What was the implication there? I am under the impression that all taxi drivers are entitled to raise their concerns. Whether they are from north Belfast, west Belfast, Newry, Strabane or wherever, they are all entitled to raise their concerns.

Others have mentioned taxi drivers and private bus operators. I want to focus on the hauliers and pick up some of the points about driving instructors. I have engaged locally with hauliers in my constituency, some of whom have vehicles haemorrhaging money — haemorrhaging money. Hundreds of vehicles parked up every week, and no support in place. These are some of the key providers for our economy, and they have been left very much to fend for themselves. I totally appreciate that not all hauliers are in the same position, and they recognise that themselves. That is why we need to look at this and develop a bespoke response to dealing with the issue.

It is important to realise that the Economy Minister has made it very, very clear that it is not up to her to lead any intervention for the road transport industry, as this is considered under the Department for Infrastructure. That is why we are here today as a Committee: because we have responsibility for these sectors. It was important that we came together to raise the concerns because there has been toing and froing for far too long. People are just frustrated; they are fed up and they cannot see a way out of this. We are hitting Brexit right in the face now. We are less than six months away from the deadline, which is another major challenge coming down the road.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Ms Kimmins: No.

The last thing that I am going to raise is in relation to driving instructors. The issues that I have been hearing about, particularly since the announcement last week that they could go back to work, even though they had never been told that they could not work, are more around the confusion over how that can pan out in reality. They are seeking clear guidance from the Minister on that. That is the message that they have been giving. I have been contacted by people from Ballymena and Belfast as well as in my constituency, because it has not been clear. Although they have been signposted to guidance, they still feel very much that examiners are being told to do different things. What is the difference? Why are they being told that they can go back to work, but examiners cannot? What is the difference, when they are working in the exact same environment?

Rather than going back over the same points, I just wanted to raise those key things. It is important that we recognise that the people are fed up. This is not politicking. This is ensuring that people get the right support and guidance that they deserve.

I support the motion.

Mr Frew: I have listened to the debate. Although I am outside the Committee for Infrastructure, I am, nonetheless, very supportive of any Committee that identifies a problem and tries to deal with it in a very constructive way. If that means bringing a motion to the House, so be it. We all can debate it, and I am very thankful to the proposer and to the Committee for highlighting the issue in the Chamber.

What I know, as an MLA for North Antrim, is that haulage companies have been dramatically and drastically let down. If haulage companies had had the same attitude as some of our Ministers — a can't-do attitude — where would we all be with regard to supplies of food and medicine? Those haulage companies have had to work through thick and thin, looking after their own staff and their own lorry drivers and their health and safety, trying to get from A to B, with all these drastic barriers put in place, and they still fulfil their orders and their commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. Would it not be great if we could say that about the Executive and some of our Ministers, who have been slow to react? In the middle of this crisis, when so much good has been done, we still have Ministers who have a can't-do attitude. That is not good enough.

I think it was Mrs Kelly who made a comment about Committees being of one voice. You cannot have it both ways. You either want a scrutiny Committee or you do not. You either want to get into the hard detail or you do not. The one thing that the House needs to ensure is that the scrutiny Committees in this place work efficiently and effectively.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: No. There is an order and code in the House: when a Members does not give way to other Members, why, then, should she see fit for Members to give way to her? That is a very good principle that we should all remember in the House when giving way. I give way a lot in the House.

It is very bad when a party — any party — becomes a defence mechanism for its own Minister and a scrutiny Committee. That makes the Minister look bad. The Finance Minister has come to the House many times. When we have asked him about the £59 million that was sitting here — it is now down to £29 million — to support transport that cannot be unlocked to give support to the haulage companies, the Finance Minister says, "Where is the bid? I am waiting for a bid. That bid has not come". Why has that bid not come? The haulage companies see that money sitting there. It is not as if we have no money left or that the coffers are dry. The money is sitting there and it is so annoying.

Let us forget about "can't do" attitudes. I sit on the Finance Committee and I have chased the Finance Minister up and down the corridors. He has been hit by scandal after scandal but he is looking quite good now in relation to finance for the Minister for Infrastructure. He comes to the House to say that he would like to support those businesses but he is waiting for a bid. Mr Allister made a fundamental point about the way in which the Executive function and perform. That money is sitting here, dropped down from on high as a Barnett consequential, but we cannot even get together to unlock it. It is not as if we have to raise it or find some mechanism to raise taxes or rates. It is sitting there ready to be used and spent, which is what it is designed to do. Yet, there is a reluctance to support those industries.

Why is there a reluctance to do that? Those industries have kept going through thick and thin, providing food and medicines for us. They have looked after their staff, some of whom are very worried about going back to work or being in work because of the COVID-19 situation. Yet, we cannot find it in ourselves — the Executive and the Minister for Infrastructure — to bring forward a bid. Such a bid would not burden the Minister's current financial package — the money that she has at the moment — because that money is sitting here. It just needs to be moved from an unlocked position to her Department so that she can support those industries.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, of course.

Mr Allister: Unless, of course, there is another agenda, which is to keep that £29 million for something else. Translink has already had something of that order but needs more money. Does the Member think that there might be prioritisation going on in which the haulage sector is the loser?

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

Mr Frew: The Member raises a very valid question that we should all be posing to the Minister today. What is the priority? If it is not the haulage companies, after all that they have done for this country and for Northern Ireland plc over the last number of months, what is the priority? Why will the Minister not bring forward a bid for financial support for taxi services, haulage companies and all the other companies that have been let down during the pandemic? That is a question that we have to pose. It is the right of the Assembly and the scrutiny Committee to ask those hard questions of our Ministers. I am glad that the debate is taking place today.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time. This item of business will continue after Question Time, when the next contribution will come from Ms Martina Anderson.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will be aware that, as part of our phased resumption of Question Time, only listed questions will be asked of Ministers. Topical questions have been suspended for today. Members who ask listed questions will be afforded an opportunity to ask a supplementary question. I will keep the time under review and may call other Members who rise in their place, should sufficient time remain.

The Executive Office

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): A LeasCheann Comhairle, with your permission, I will answer questions 1, 6 and 11 together.

Significant work has been undertaken by officials to date on the delivery structures for the victims' payment scheme. However, important issues remain to be resolved, including the designation of an Executive Department to exercise the administrative functions of the board on the board's behalf, the source of funding for the scheme and the clarity on how exceptions are to be interpreted. A series of discussions has taken place with officials in relevant Civil Service Departments in relation to the administration of the scheme. That work is ongoing, with further discussion to happen this week.

Security of funding of the scheme has not yet been confirmed. The Executive agreed to release an additional £2·5 million to advance necessary preparatory work for the scheme. There is a shared view that Westminster has an obligation and must deliver on its responsibility to support funding for the scheme, and efforts are continuing to resolve that issue as swiftly as possible.

The First Minister and I have made it clear that we are committed to addressing all of the outstanding issues. The Westminster regulations came into force on 29 May. Further time, however, is required to deal with each of the outstanding issues and establish the necessary arrangements for the operation of the scheme.

I know that this is deeply disappointing for many victims and survivors who need the support. We share that disappointment and will work to do all that we can to get the scheme delivered as soon as possible.

Mr Buckley: I welcome the additional allocation of £2·5 million from the Executive Office for the victims' pension scheme. Despite that, many innocent victims and their families remain deeply concerned by the Finance Minister's comments on 30 June, in which he suggested that if, for some reason, it remained unspent, the money would be surrendered back in the monitoring round. Will the deputy First Minister assure those innocent victims and, indeed, the wider public, who are, rightly, cynical about her intentions at this time, that she will neither impede nor frustrate the roll-out of the victims' pension payment? Can she also provide an indication of timescale?

Mrs O'Neill: I can assure the Member and all the victims who have been anxiously waiting for the scheme for far too long that everything that can be done to have an appropriate scheme in place is being done. We are working our way through the detail. I am sure that the Member can accept the fact that there is a lot of ambiguity around the detail. We do not have confirmation of funding from Westminster, and that is extremely important because the scale of what is proposed is so significant that due diligence has to be done in terms of the Executive Office and its role. There is a lot of ambiguity around the detail of what has been proposed. As I said, we are working our way through the detail of all of that, but, for the record, let me be very clear: I want to see a victims' pension scheme being paid and in place for all those injured as a result of the conflict.

Ms P Bradley: In her original answer, the deputy First Minister stated that there were issues yet to be resolved, one of which was the designation. Given that the Justice Minister has said that she would step in to oversee it, why have we not yet seen a Department designated to roll the scheme out?

Mrs O'Neill: You are right: the Justice Minister wrote to the First Minister and me, advising that, should the Executive Office decide, her Department would be willing to administer the scheme and she would take the work forward. Whilst the designated Department has yet to be agreed, DOJ compensation services has agreed to assist TEO at official level with key tasks including key process requirements; potential staffing structures; data management, including the development of a data protection impact assessment and privacy notice; and a review of the draft application form. There is still an awful lot of work to be done in developing a scheme that looks after all those who need a payment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Órlaithí Flynn is not in her place. I call Jemma Dolan.

Mrs O'Neill: I can assure the Assembly that the Hart recommendations will be implemented fully. The Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Redress Board has been established and opened to applications on 31 March. That is ahead of schedule. It has made awards of compensation, and I commend the dedicated work of the board and the staff, led by Mr Justice Colton, during the COVID-19 restrictions.

The competition to appoint the statutory Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse recently launched. The closing date was 3 July, and it is anticipated that the commissioner will be appointed in late summer. Work is progressing on the Hart recommendations not requiring legislation. They include an apology, a memorial, provision of services and engagement with the responsible institutions on contributions to the redress scheme.

Ms Dolan: Can the deputy First Minister provide an update on the quantum of applications to date to the redress scheme for victims and survivors of historical abuse?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. The board opened for applications on 31 March. Some seven weeks later, the first compensation payments were made within the timescale that was set out by the president. That was a significant milestone for victims and survivors, who are now starting to receive the compensation that they are long overdue. As of 21 June, 199 applications had been received, 70 Hart applications and 129 non-Hart applications. Of those, 149 were online applications. We are grateful to the president of the HIA Redress Board for the continuing prompt assessment and payment of applications and to the solicitors and groups who support applicants. It is encouraging that, even at this difficult time with all the COVID-19 restrictions, applications are still being completed, submitted and assessed.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister Kearney to answer the question.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Since the launch of the strategic framework document in 2016 and with extensive community consultation, work has progressed to help create stronger communities and relationships, promote greater health and well-being and create safe, shared spaces and facilities. There is a very strong and vibrant integrated local reference group with broad community representation from across Ardoyne and Ballysillan. There are 11 community-led revenue projects in the north Belfast Urban Villages area. They demonstrate high degrees of cross-community partnership and good relations activities, with particular focus on important local themes, including mental health and well-being, pathways to employment, building local advocacy and capacity and nurturing youth aspiration and leadership. In addition, 13 primary schools and three post-primary schools in north Belfast have achieved School of Sanctuary status in recognition of their work in providing safe, welcoming and inclusive places for children and, in particular, newcomer pupils and their families.

There are also 19 capital projects. Eight of those projects have been completed, and a further three have moved to construction. Those are the Sacred Heart parochial hall and the GRACE Family Centre, while contractors are due to go on-site shortly to begin the public realm improvement scheme at the Crumlin Road and Ligoniel Road junction. The community response intervention work of local groups in Ardoyne and Ballysillan is very well regarded for its cross-community cooperation and partnership working.

Mr Humphrey: I commend Linsey Farrell and her Urban Villages team for the work that they are doing. I hope that that work will continue.

Given the deputy First Minister's reckless and arrogant behaviour in the last week, when she ignored her own advice and medical and scientific advice, broke COVID regulations and caused great hurt to bereaved families, should the Minister do what any self-respecting person and a Minister in any other jurisdiction would do: consider her position and resign?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The supplementary question should be connected to the original question. I will pass that to the Minister if she wishes to respond.

Mrs O'Neill: The 'New Decade, New Approach' document contains a wide range of proposals that, taken together, constitute an ambitious and challenging package of measures to be taken forward. There are over 200 proposals, and they include major transformation programmes in education, health and social care, as well as significant infrastructure projects and cross-cutting recommendations, for example, in relation to housing provision, climate change and childcare. Whilst the management of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Executive's number-one priority over recent months, some of the NDNA proposals are already being progressed at a departmental level, such as the implementation of the redress scheme for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse and work to legislate in respect of rights, language and identity matters, which are been advanced through our Department.

Looking forward, the Executive will soon have the opportunity to consider the totality of the NDNA proposals as they move to bring forward a new Programme for Government, which now also needs to incorporate robust COVID-19 recovery measures for key sectors in the context of the available resources for the new financial year.

Mr K Buchanan: I would like the Minister to give an update to the House on additional police numbers, which was talked about in that document, and where we are. With the lack of visibility of police on the streets, as we have seen recently, an update on that may be interesting.

Mrs O'Neill: I could not give the Member an update on police numbers. Obviously, all of the NDNA commitments, I think, have probably in some way been stalled because of the response to COVID-19 and the efforts there. However, with regard to the recruitment of additional police numbers, we can refer that to the relevant authority — if it is the policing authority or whoever — to make sure that you get that information.

Mr Kearney: The work of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition is being concluded. We anticipate that a final report will be submitted later this month, and we look forward to receiving that report and considering all of its findings and recommendations at that time.

Ms Bailey: The commission was established in an attempt to move forward on issues that could not garner political support, at the Executive level at least. Will the Minister provide assurances that, when the costly and long-overdue report is finally received, the political will to implement its recommendations exists?

Mrs O'Neill: I am a bit confused, because the last question asked me a supplementary. Is it for the junior Minister to answer that question?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): It is for the junior Minister to answer.

Mrs O'Neill: OK, go ahead.

Mr Kearney: The Member is correct. That work was commissioned in 2016, and then, in December 2018, the commission decided to scale back its meetings, while awaiting a changed political context. We now have an indication from the commission that it is bringing forward all of its recommendations. The expectation is that that will be with the Executive Office before the end of this month, and it will be brought to the attention of the First and deputy First Ministers for consideration at that time.

You will be aware that there was extensive community engagement in relation to this work. Twelve public meetings were held across the region. It is believed that there were up to 1,000 people involved in sharing their views on all the issues. They are contentious issues and are very challenging. It is important that, when this work is brought forward, it is taken in context with the likely cross-cutting issues that will arise for other Departments, but, importantly, given the extensive remit of the commission, it is likely that the actions that flow from it will also dovetail with the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. Therefore, I hope that it will act as a platform to inform that piece of work, going forward. I hope that information is useful to the Member.


2.15 pm

Mrs O'Neill: The majority of the requirements for the implementation of the protocol are reserved matters. However, the agri-food requirements fall within the Executive’s devolved competence, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is working intensively to ensure that those obligations are met.

We remain committed to doing all that we can in relation to the protocol to secure the best possible outcome for our citizens and businesses and the least possible disruption to our economy and trade, North/South and east-west.

Ms C Kelly: In light of the Minister's answer, how strong is the possibility of a no-deal Brexit?

Mrs O'Neill: The Member is right to raise concerns about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which would, as we all know, represent a dramatic change of circumstances across these islands. The Good Friday Agreement must be upheld, and there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Executive, for their part, considered operational readiness at their meeting on 15 June and agreed that a programme of readiness planning should be coordinated across all Departments. That will include planning for no agreement or a limited outcome from the future relationship negotiations with the EU. It will take into account the fact that the protocol will be implemented regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.

Mrs O'Neill: The public appointment competition for the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse was launched on Tuesday 9 June. The competition was publicised widely, with advertisements in local and national press as well as communication through various social media platforms. Victims and survivors’ groups were also notified of the launch. The closing date for applications was noon on Friday 3 July, and it is anticipated that the commissioner will be appointed in late summer. The competition will be conducted in line with the principles and practices of the Commissioner for Public Appointments' code. Hopefully, that answers the question.

Mr T Buchanan: At this stage, can the Minister give any details of the powers that the commissioner will have? Will the commissioner have a legal background or any legal qualifications?

Mrs O'Neill: The powers have all been worked out and will be part of the job description and everything that has been set out in relation to the public appointments process. I am glad for the victims and survivors community that a permanent person will be in place, because that is important in moving us to the next stage. There are outstanding issues that the victims want to see addressed. I want to see that happen, so we need to move on from an interim advocate to a permanent advocate. I am happy to provide the Member with written details of the powers, remit and responsibilities of the advocate.

Mrs O'Neill: 'New Decade, New Approach' contains significant and comprehensive commitments to legacy issues. The First Minister and I have not made any joint representations on legacy issues in our role as First Minister and deputy First Minister to the Secretary of State since he made his statement on 18 March. However, we intend to meet him this Thursday, and that is one of the issues that will be on the agenda.

Mr McGrath: The approach outlined by the Secretary of State is an appalling attempt to shut down justice for victims and survivors. Does the deputy First Minister agree that cases must remain open so that advances in policing technology that could open new investigative and evidential opportunities can be explored to deliver justice for families?

Mrs O'Neill: It is so important that we deal with the past in a way in which we can command the support of the majority, and I think that the Stormont House Agreement was a way for us to do that. I certainly have a personal, political view of the Secretary of State's statement on 18 March, and I know that your party shares that view. In my opinion, the approach taken is an act of bad faith, and we need to deal with legacy issues in a way that is inclusive, respectful of what everybody wants and finds a way forward, because we do not want to burden the children of today with legacy issues.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister Kearney to answer the question.

Mr Kearney: Funding from the minority ethnic development fund (MEDF), the crisis fund, good relations interventions and Urban Villages has been used to promote good relations and to address both the long-term and emerging needs of our local minority ethnic communities. Since its establishment in 2002, the MEDF has enabled hundreds of projects and groups to support minority ethnic people. It is worth around £1·2 million per annum. This year, to prevent any disruption to services during COVID-19, we extended that funding to current core-funded MEDF recipients for a further 12 months commencing on 1 April 2020. That was designed to give stability to the sector, and it has enabled organisations to continue to support minority ethnic people at a time when they need it most. We are ensuring that the crisis fund, currently totalling £100,000, continues to operate, particularly to help the most marginalised, including our refugees and our asylum seeker population.

There is a wide range of good relations funding that, depending on eligibility, may be accessed by minority ethnic groups and projects. They include the central good relations fund, which is worth £2·75 million; the district council good relations programme, worth £3 million; and the Peace IV programme, for which the Executive Office is the accountable Department. The building positive relations actions have been allocated approximately €64 million. Through those programmes, we are able to help many groups and projects achieve their goals to the benefit of our flourishing minority ethnic community and to enrich our broader shared society.

Dr Archibald: They are really important projects and work streams. Over the past number of weeks, we have seen very public demonstrations against racism in the Black Lives Matter protests, but we also really need to see systemic and structural change to tackle division and discrimination. Can the Minister confirm that the Executive remain fully committed to tackling the scourges of sectarianism and racism in all their manifestations?

Mr Kearney: Yes, but the starting point is to reference our Together: Building a United Community strategy. For the Member's information, that outlines a vision of a united community that is based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation but where everyone can live, learn, work and socialise together free from prejudice, hate and intolerance. I am sure that all Members in the Chamber this afternoon will agree that that is not the lived experience of so many in our society, where there is still far too much direct and indirect discrimination that citizens experience on the basis of their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity or their colour. In this day and age, that is a reality that we need to try to eradicate.

Tackling and confronting the scourge of sectarianism and racism in our society in all its manifestations is a challenge facing us all. It will require a cross-cutting, collective, societal approach, so, in so many ways, it requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society strategic response. That, in turn, underlines the importance of the NDNA commitment that will, in a very explicit way, see racism and sectarianism addressed in a legal expression, setting those issues into legislation as hate crime. It also provides us with the option of all our representatives committing to an anti-sectarian pledge. That is a very important, practical, political, concrete, symbolic position for us to take.

We need bold representation and leadership from everyone in civic and political life; it is not simply a matter for the Executive and for the Chamber to show that. We need to see strong positions taken against racism, sectarianism and all forms of intolerance, regardless of the source. That needs to be reflected in school life, wider community life, the workplace and, of course, from political leaders. I am confident that I and colleagues in the Executive and in our power-sharing Government are absolutely committed to providing that type of leadership.

Mrs O'Neill: At its meeting on 25 June, the Executive announced a range of indicative relaxations that included the resumption of further close-contact services, such as tattoo parlours, from 6 July. I am pleased that that decision was ratified by the Executive on 2 July, and tattoo parlours are now permitted to open with effect from yesterday.

A range of guidance is available to help businesses to prepare for a return to operation, including guidance on making workplaces safer that has been prepared by the engagement forum: 'COVID-19: Working Through This Together'. In addition, the British Government have produced workplace guidance for close-contact services, and advice and guidance is available from trade and professional bodies.

Mr Hilditch: Over the past four months, the work of the Executive has been crucial, particularly the guidelines and legislation, which have been very helpful. However, the deputy First Minister and her party colleagues have driven a coach and horses through those guidelines and laws by their actions last Tuesday. Will the deputy First Minister do the right thing, give the public the apology that they are owed and stand aside or resign until a full investigation is conducted?

Mrs O'Neill: My position on that issue is clear and on the record. I spoke in the House yesterday; I will speak again later today. I have spoken in front of the Committee for the Executive Office. I have spoken to the media. I have spoken at the party leaders' forum. My position is well rehearsed. I am glad that we are in the position that we are in today with regard to lifting the restrictions. I am glad that we have been able to make continual rolling easements. I hope that we can continue to do that into the future. I will continue to lead us through that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, as we are ahead of schedule, I propose to open up supplementary questions on the remaining three questions.

Mrs O'Neill: The racial equality strategy provides a 10-year framework for action by Departments and others over the period 2015 to 2025. We continue to implement the key actions in the strategy, working closely with the racial equality champions in Departments and the racial equality subgroup, which officials meet regularly. At present, we have no plans for a formal review, but we will continue to monitor progress and emerging issues to inform successful implementation of the strategy.

Mr McNulty: Notwithstanding previous answers about the T:BUC strategy and 'New Decade, New Approach', which, surely, should be underpinned by a racial equality strategy, does the deputy First Minister appreciate that the failure to progress the review of the racial equality strategy does little to dispel the notion that equality is not a priority for the Executive Office and that, particularly given the over-zealous approach by police to the Black Lives Matter protest and the inconsistency of that with their approach to other recent mass gatherings, institutional racism exists here?

Mrs O'Neill: We all have a job to do to make sure that we stamp out racism in society. We all have a job to do everything that we can. That is the responsibility of us all as political representatives. The fact is that the racial equality strategy covers the period from 2015 to 2025, and, as is acknowledged in the strategy, we are under no illusion about the size of the challenge that is in front of us in tackling racial inequalities. That will require time, effort and resource.

The racial equality subgroup has been appointed, along with the racial equality champions in each Department. Obviously, that is good. We continue to work closely with them to implement the key actions in the strategy. In addition, a review of the Race Relations Order 1997 and relevant aspects of other legislation is under way. A review of the delivery model of the minority ethnic development fund is nearing completion. Work is ongoing again with the Department of Education to identify ways in which we can tackle racist bullying in schools. In the coming months, we plan to consult on a draft refugee integration strategy. We are also considering proposals for ethnic monitoring to help to identify potential inequalities and any underlying causes.

I am happy to take on board any concerns that the Member has. I am happy to receive them at any time with regard to how we can improve things and do all that we can collectively to stamp out racial inequality.

Mr Nesbitt: Before the Assembly collapsed in 2017, the Executive were making great strides on a scheme for Syrian refugees. I believe that, proportionately, we were taking more than our fair share on a UK-wide basis. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on what has happened to that scheme since 2017.


2.30 pm

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. He is right. In October 2015, we committed to welcoming, by December of that year, between 50 and 100 refugees under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, with the expectation that further groups would arrive on a phased basis. The twenty-fifth group of refugees arrived on 6 February, this year. That brings the total number to 1,815. A further group of 93 individuals was due to arrive on 16 April, but, obviously, that was postponed because of the current situation. The scheme was due to come to an end following the arrival of the twenty-sixth group and has been consolidated into a new global resettlement scheme that was announced by the British Home Secretary on 17 June, last year. It was also agreed that we would continue to participate in the new scheme for the next year, even though the current crisis places constraints on it, but it is important that we continue to do what we can. Our officials continue to liaise with the Home Office and the strategic migration partnership on the implications of the current crisis, and we will consider the potential for continued participation in due course. I am happy to keep the Member updated on all of that.

Mr Allister: How can the Minister talk about equality, racial or otherwise, when, just this day last week, she was demonstrating that she and her friends think that they are more equal than others and that they have the capacity and the right to break the laws that they themselves make? Would it not be a good start to equality to subject yourself equally under the law?

Mrs O'Neill: I breathe equality, every day. I believe in equality. I practise equality. I bring it into every aspect of my work, every day. Thank you.

Mrs O'Neill: Since early March, the management of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Executive’s number-one priority. Our objective has been to help keep people safe and to support those who have faced real hardship as a result of the pandemic. The extraordinary measures that we have had to put in place have worked well and, whilst we must not be complacent, we are now at a key point where attention can begin to shift from purely controlling the public health response towards planning for recovery.

Over recent weeks, it has been possible to ease many restrictions and, with the publication of an indicative timeline for further easements, people and businesses can begin to plan ahead. The Executive have started the process of developing a recovery framework that will have a particular focus on achieving effective health, economic and societal recovery. We expect to announce more details about that shortly.

Mr G Kelly: I presume that we are in a good place — we are going into the recovery phase — but has the possibility of a second wave been factored into the Executive's plans?

Mrs O'Neill: The risk from COVID-19 remains and none of us wants to see a second wave of this deadly virus or to be in a position in which restrictions have to be reinstated, as has been the case in Leicester, Galicia and Catalonia. We will be monitoring the impact of the relaxations closely, and we will be prepared to reintroduce restrictions if that is considered necessary to control the virus. A key tool in preventing a second wave is the test, trace and protect strategy. That will play a key role in containing transmission as more relaxations are introduced. If anyone is contacted by that service, they must act on the information provided and self-isolate or get tested as appropriate.

From 18 March, TEO established a COVID-19 operations room, or hub, to provide information and analysis, and to raise issues relating to public health services across the North. The hub coordinates activities across Departments and reports to the Executive. It is important that the hub remains in readiness to deal with any potential further waves and any concurrent civil contingency emergencies that may arise. The COVID-19 hub has been scaled down since 15 June. A small number of volunteers have been retained to operate in a maintain-readiness mode.

Work will continue in the coming weeks to ensure preparedness for any future necessary stand-up, with full stand-up test runs provisionally scheduled for the autumn. The Chief Medical Officer has also commissioned a rapid review of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a clear understanding of the effectiveness of the initial and ongoing response, and to capture the lessons learned to improve our response to any future resurgence of the virus.

Mr T Buchanan: I have listened to you, deputy First Minister. How do you expect the public to have any confidence in the Executive's response to COVID-19 in the future, following the developments of last Tuesday when you and a number of your MLAs blatantly broke the legislation that you were involved in making? Is it time to do the honourable thing: apologise to the people for the wrongdoing and step aside until a full investigation is carried out?

Mrs O'Neill: I assure the Member that I take my responsibilities very seriously. I will continue to lead us into the recovery phase of the pandemic. We need to make sure that we are preparing for whatever comes at us and doing all that we can to make our recovery good for all our people.

Mr Muir: After the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a risk of a resurgence and spikes in different parts of Northern Ireland. What preparations are being made to assist businesses in areas where localised lockdowns might be needed to ensure that they can continue throughout that period?

Mrs O'Neill: That is something that we have been looking at, considering and planning for, whether it is a second wave or a cluster effect, which we have witnessed in many areas across the world. Even today in County Down, there is a report of a cluster. The crucial element to us being able to deal with that is our having the test, trace and isolate policy in place. That is crucial to being able to quickly identify things. One of the things that the Chief Scientific Adviser said to us was that, as we lift all the restrictions and free-up people to move around a lot more, the ability to be able to detect cases very quickly will be a tool to combat them as quickly as they happen.

The Member is right: when it came to lockdown in the first instance, supports were put in place to help businesses. We have to consider, as an Executive, how we can support businesses if they are in an area where there is a cluster and where closures need to be put in place. That is something that we need to continue to consider, and it will be part of our planning for what could come next.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members to continue rising in their place to indicate that they still wish to ask a supplementary question.

Dr Aiken: The deputy First Minister reads fairly widely and has taken a lot of advice and guidance, particularly on COVID. She has looked quite closely at the World Health Organization, which recently revised its guidance on gatherings and crowds. Would she care to reflect on that and give us some answers on what she did last week?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not see how that is relevant to the question that I have been asked, but I am happy to say that we have to do all that we can to lead ourselves through this period of recovery. We have lifted so many restrictions each day over the last number of weeks, and we have done so at breakneck speed, as I keep saying to people. We need to get normality back for people and give them freedom; we said that we would not keep any restriction in place for one day longer than necessary. I am very sure in my responsibilities and in what I need to do, and I am very sure that I will continue to lead us through this crisis.

Mrs O'Neill: We have reached an important point in the COVID-19 pandemic, where we are beginning to look beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to effect a robust and sustainable recovery, rebuild public services and restore more normal ways of living.

Our approach will be to build on sectoral plans, such as the economic recovery strategy, which was published recently by the Economy Minister, and to bring forward an inclusive Programme for Government, which is based on collaboration and joined-up thinking to deliver good outcomes in the things that matter most to people.

We will continue to develop strong cross-sectoral working partnerships, such as that provided through the engagement forum, which is chaired by the LRA, and maintain a dialogue with stakeholders as a basis for strengthening and enhancing societal well-being, with our immediate priorities being to get our economy working again, strengthen our health and social care services and mitigate the immediate societal impacts of the crisis.

Mr Sheehan: Does the Minister agree that, as a society and an economy, we cannot go back to what was there before COVID-19? We must have a society that is just, equal, people-centred and inclusive.

Mrs O'Neill: It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting and profound impacts on society and the economy. An immediate priority for the Executive will be to help our local businesses get through the crisis and get the economy working again. However, that does not simply mean returning to the way that things were. The crisis has allowed us to view things in a different light, and it has shown us new ways of working and given us opportunities to explore different technologies and experiment with alternative working patterns. There is no doubt that the world that emerges out of the pandemic will be significantly different to what has gone before. We need to be ready to grasp emerging good practice and be able to learn quickly from others so that we can make this a good place to live, to work and to do business. We need to achieve economic growth in a balanced and sustainable way that puts social justice, workers' rights and equality at its centre. We need to be prepared to look forward rather than back when it comes to societal recovery. We must, however, acknowledge and help with the trauma that people have suffered, particularly those who have lost loved ones. Those are issues that will need to be explored with key stakeholders across all sectors as we start to plan for the recovery and as we bring forward our new Programme for Government.

Mr O'Toole: One of the most vital aspects of the economic recovery from COVID-19 will be dealing with the effects of Brexit later this year. The deputy First Minister said earlier that the Executive Office is doing all that it can to protect Northern Ireland from the effects of Brexit. With respect, there is culture of silence from the Executive Office. Since the Assembly reformed, we have had no formal updates from the Executive Office on the delivery of the protocol or on the broader issues relating to Brexit. It is not enough, deputy First Minister —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): May we have a question, please?

Mr O'Toole: — to defer to the ideologues in Whitehall. Can we have before recess a specific update on legislation that the Assembly will have to pass before the end of the year and also a plan for engaging with local businesses on what they need to do to deal with the effects of Brexit? First Ministers, we need that urgently.

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely agree that Brexit is one of the biggest challenges that we face. As we rebuild the economy, what our businesses and our people are craving is certainty, and we need to get that certainty. As we move towards the end of the year, I would be very fearful if we were still in a space where we could have a crash-out Brexit, which would be catastrophic.

We have the protocol. That protocol must be implemented. It was hard-fought. The Executive continue to discuss all those things. As I said, the implementation of the protocol is the role and responsibility of the British Government, but the agri-food role falls to DAERA here, so a lot more work needs to be done to give our local ports, for example, the required clarity. We need to continue to engage with the sector to make sure that we answer questions, of which people have many, and that we give that clarity. We will continue to engage with the Assembly on all of that and, indeed, with our own TEO Committee.

The Executive themselves have now had a number of dedicated sessions on Brexit, because, over the past number of months, a lot of the focus was on COVID-19. We have been very conscious for some time now, however, that we had to get back to dealing head-on with the issue of Brexit.

Ms Bradshaw: I am just wondering what role our universities will play in the economic recovery and whether the Executive will support the lifting of the cap on student numbers.

Mrs O'Neill: I will say first that, just as it did to fight COVID-19, it is going to take all our effort to recover. That means working with all our stakeholders. If I could point to one of the positives in how we have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, I would point to the work that has been done with business organisations, with the trade union movement and right across the piece. That work has been crucial. I want us to continue with that partnership approach. A collaborative approach with society is one of the things that was written into the NDNA deal. If we are going to build, that means working with the universities, the further education colleges and all the other stakeholders, because we have a huge battle on our hands in the time ahead to build our economy, to make sure that there are employment prospects and to make sure that we tackle all the issues that need to be tackled.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That was the last of the questions —

Mr K Buchanan: On a point of order Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): — to the Executive Office. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. We will return at a quarter to three with questions to the Minister of Health.

Points of order are not