Official Report: Tuesday 08 December 2020


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I have been advised that junior Minister Gordon Lyons will be moving the motion to approve a draft statutory rule on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The motion was relaid by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to facilitate that arrangement. A revised Order Paper was issued this morning.

Mr Buckley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that you, and the House, will be aware of this being a hugely significant day, with the roll-out of the first COVID-19 vaccinations across Northern Ireland. I commend all those who are involved with that triumph.

Can you advise, Mr Speaker, on Standing Order 18A(5) on oral and written statements? I find it bizarre that the Minister of Health is not before the House today to make an oral statement. I am sure that, like me, Members have many questions on logistics, storage, communications and addressing vaccine hesitancy, to which they rightly deserve answers.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. It is always the Minister's prerogative to come to the Chamber, and I would always encourage Ministers to do so as often, as early and in as timely a manner as possible, given the importance of all their business. The Minister has not come here to make a statement, and that is his choice. In fairness to him, however, it was only last week that he was here in response to the debate in the House, and the issue was thoroughly aired at that time.

The Member has made his point. It is a very good news story and an important development for all of us in how we combat the virus. There will be debates on the health regulations later today, as the Member will know. I dare say, given the wisdom and intelligence in the Chamber, that Members will find opportunities to raise that very important and positive development. The Member has made his point, and I thank him for that.

Mr O'Toole: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise on the best way in which MLAs can secure a debate, given the gravity and urgency of the Brexit negotiations and their effect on Northern Ireland? I have submitted two Matters of the Day that, as is your right, you have not granted. It is really important, however, that we have a debate, given that civic society and business groups across Northern Ireland came together yesterday to urge the UK and the European Union to do a deal, which is in the vital and solemn interests of everybody whom we serve. I was wondering whether the Speaker could advise on how we can, given the week that is in it, with the European Council meeting at the end of this week, secure a debate in order to make our voice heard on how important this is for all the people whom we represent.

Mr Speaker: I do not think that the Member expects me, in response to that point of order, to rehearse arguments on Matters of the Day. I know that you recognise that it is the Speaker's decision to do that.

There are opportunities at all times for Members to raise these matters. It would be wrong to suggest for one second that that matter has not been addressed repeatedly in the Chamber, as is appropriate, given its importance. The Member should reflect on other opportunities to raise the matter in the House on an appropriate basis. Thank you for that.

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit to the debate.

Mr Lyons: I send my best wishes to the Agriculture Minister, and I am, obviously, standing in for him. I know that many Members have passed on their best wishes already, but I want to pass on mine and, I am sure, the best wishes of everyone in the Chamber.

I am seeking the approval of the Assembly to make the Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020. I am bringing this draft legislation before you under the affirmative resolution procedure, as the statutory rule (SR) gives the Department a legislative power.

The proposed legislation would transfer to DAERA powers that would allow the provision of legislative functions from two EU directives that are not in annex 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol to be exercised by DAERA. One relates to the marketing of propagating material of ornamental plants, and the other relates to the marketing of vegetable-propagating and planting material other than seed. The SR will ensure that domestic legislation can be operated in propagating material and plant-propagating material, ornamentals and vegetable plant material after the EU exit implementation period (IP).

To give some background, as a result of those directives not being in the Northern Ireland protocol, the EU powers that are used to make and amend legislation relating to the directives will not be available to DAERA post-implementation period completion day, which is, of course, 31 December 2020. If no action is taken, the Department will not have sufficient powers available to make domestic legislation in propagating material and plant-propagating material.

The transfer of functions to domestic legislation can be done under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, provided that it occurs before the IP completion day. The powers are used in the SR to transfer the legislative functions from the two EU directives that I referred to, which are not in the Northern Ireland protocol, in order to give the Department the powers to make and amend the relevant domestic legislation.

The draft regulations confer powers to DAERA through a transfer of legislative functions that would not be available to the Department after completion day. That will enable DAERA to make and amend relevant legislation in the areas that I mentioned. The making of the SR does not make or amend policy in those areas.

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

The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 means that it has been necessary to review plant health legislation in order to take account of the protocol. DAERA currently uses section 2 powers of the European Communities Act 1972 to make legislation on the marketing of plant-propagating and planting material. Those powers will not be available after the end of EU exit implementation period.

While powers are available under the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act for matters that are in annex 2 of the protocol, Council directive 98/56/EC, which regulates ornamental plant-propagating material, and Council directive 2008/72/EC, which regulates vegetable-propagating and planting material other than seed, are not in annex 2 of the protocol.

The AERA Committee considered a written briefing on an SL1 for a statutory rule on the Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (NI) 2020 at its meeting on 22 October. It is that SR that we are considering today. At the meeting, the Committee indicated that it had no concerns or objections to the rule. The Committee has been advised that this instrument will allow DAERA, as the appropriate authority in this jurisdiction, to exercise legislative functions here after the end of the transition period equivalent to legislative functions exercisable by the Commission and the Council.

The instrument sets out DAERA's powers to set conditions with which ornamental planting material must comply; set labelling and document requirements for plant material; modify the regulated species of vegetable plant materials; set conditions with which vegetable plant material must comply; and derogate in the event of temporary supply difficulties. These regulation-making powers will enable the Department to amend marketing requirements after the end of the transition period to ensure that those statutory requirements can keep pace with scientific and technical knowledge and be responsive to market conditions.

The Committee considered the draft SR at its meeting on 3 December and was advised that no public consultation had taken place. The SR has been screened for equality impact, and there is no impact on business, charities, voluntary bodies or the public sector. A regulatory impact assessment has not been prepared. The regulations will have no financial implications for businesses. It has no human rights implications, nor is it incompatible with EU law. The order is, therefore, deemed to comply with the requirements of section 24 of the NI Act 1998. The report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules did not identify any issues in relation to the statutory rule. Therefore, the Committee was content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that the statutory rule be confirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Irwin: I send my best wishes to Edwin Poots and wish him a speedy recovery. The two motions before the House represent the latter stages of the Brexit transition process as we accelerate towards 1 January. It is important that we have these regulations before the House. In respect of the draft Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material motion, the Committee had its opportunity to discuss these points. There was a general acceptance that what is before the House is necessary, as is much of the legislation coming from DAERA, given the approaching deadline.

Powers being transferred include setting labelling and documentary requirements for plant material and derogations in the event of temporary supply difficulties. As the clock ticks down towards the deadline, I note that efforts are intensifying. At this late stage, there is still time for the Prime Minister and his negotiating team to ensure that, post-transition, our economies across the United Kingdom are protected and that trading arrangements remain frictionless and without costly barriers.

I have raised in recent weeks the issue of seed potatoes and ware potatoes and the absolute necessity for the east-west supply route to remain open and frictionless. I would welcome the Minister's update in that regard. I know that his Department has been in direct contact on the matter. I welcome his continued work on that front, given the importance of this market to, for instance, the hundreds of fast-food outlets across the Province that utilise potatoes from the south of England.

The Minister may also want to spell out to the House the wider implications of not progressing the legislation on plant and propagating material. As I have stated, we have little option, given the countdown to 1 January, which is just a few weeks away.

Mr McGlone: The SDLP accepts the amendments to the regulations on the marketing of plant and propagating material. The Chairperson has gone into the processes at the Committee in quite a bit of detail. The amendments are some of the many required by Brexit that the Assembly has had to scrutinise in a limited period. Indeed, there is a limited period for some of this stuff. The pace at which we were expected to scrutinise the statutory instruments, with the limited detail that we had, and return them to Westminster was, frankly, a disgrace. Those who think that Brexit was a good idea in allowing us time to scrutinise should reflect on that.

The regulations will transfer functions to the Department to allow for legislation in those areas after the end of the transition period. As the amendments are largely technical, we do not see a problem with agreeing to them; in fact, they are practically necessary. However, those powers should not be left in limbo or surrendered to Westminster at any stage. It will be for the Assembly to scrutinise any future legislation that the Department chooses to bring forward as a result of these and future amendments.


10.45 am

Mrs Barton: The SR is required in Northern Ireland to transpose EU law into domestic legislation and ensure that the UK fulfils its obligations. It deals with regulations for the marketing of ornamental plants and propagating material and the marketing of vegetable-propagating and plant material other than seed. The SR does not introduce new policy. Therefore, the Ulster Unionist Party supports it.

Mr Blair: I thank the junior Minister for laying out the detail of what is before us. I will speak initially as a member of the AERA Committee.

As has been explained, the statutory rule was laid before the Committee. It was content with the merits of the policy and agreed that it should move to the next legislative stage. The SR contains provisions relating to the marketing of ornamental plants and propagating material and vegetable-propagating material other than seed.

The statutory instrument will allow DAERA, as the appropriate authority in Northern Ireland, to exercise legislative functions in Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period. It sets out DAERA's powers to set conditions with which ornamental plant material must comply, including set labelling and document requirements for plant material. It also modifies the regulated species of vegetable plant material, sets conditions with which vegetable plant material must comply and allows the Department to derogate in the event of temporary supply difficulties.

The statutory rule is mainly technical; nevertheless, in the run-up to Christmas, it is a useful opportunity to thank DAERA officials for all the work that they have done on our behalf to make legislative preparation for the EU exit process, often in the face of much uncertainty.

In closure, speaking on behalf of the Alliance Party, I have no objections to the rules or regulations.

Mr Speaker: No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak on the matter. I invite junior Minister Lyons to conclude the debate and make the winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Lyons: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank Members for considering the motion. It appears that the House is in broad agreement with what has been proposed, and I do not intend to go over the points that have been made. To summarise, the regulations will transfer legislative powers to DAERA and do not make any policy changes. It is important that the SR be made before the implementation period ends to ensure that the Department takes powers to make and amend legislation in that policy area. I commend the motion to the Assembly and ask it to approve the draft Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: I have been advised that junior Minister Lyons will move the motion on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister relaid the motion to facilitate that arrangement. A revised Order Paper was issued this morning.

That the draft Plant Health and Diseases of Animals (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit to the debate.

Mr Lyons: The draft regulations are to be made under powers that were conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. They will ensure that Northern Ireland's primary legislation that governs plant health and animal health and welfare continues to operate effectively at the end of the transition period in a way that aligns with the Northern Ireland protocol.

The draft regulations are one of a number of SRs that will be laid before the Assembly over the coming weeks to ensure that Northern Ireland has a functioning statute book on and after 1 January 2021. As the draft regulations amend primary legislation, the 2018 Act requires that they are subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure. That means that they cannot be made until the Assembly approves them.

The amendments that are made by the draft regulations are technical in nature. Before I explain what they do, it may assist Members if I provide a brief overview of the legislative background. In 2018 and 2019, a number of statutory instruments (SIs) were made at Westminster to ensure that domestic legislation could operate in the event that the UK left the European Union without an agreement. Some of those SIs amended Northern Ireland legislation for which the Department has responsibility. They were taken forward at Westminster to ensure transparency and scrutiny in the absence of a fully functioning Assembly and are due to come into operation at the end of the transition period.

While there are some provisions in those SIs that are still needed because they reflect the fact that the UK is no longer a member state of the European Union, some changes that are made in them do not take account of the Northern Ireland protocol. The draft regulations revoke some of those provisions. They also make some technical amendments to primary legislation relating to plant and animal health and welfare to ensure that it aligns with the Northern Ireland protocol. The draft regulations amend three separate pieces of primary legislation: the Plant Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967; the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981; and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.

I will now speak briefly to the amendments to be made to each of those pieces of primary legislation. I will turn first to the amendments to the Plant Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Sections 2 and 3 of that Act currently provide the Department with powers to make legislation to prevent the introduction of plant pests to Northern Ireland and their spread within or from Northern Ireland. The Department can exercise those powers if it believes that it is necessary or because it is required to do so to implement an obligation under EU law, referred to in the 1967 Act as a "Community obligation". Following the end of the transition period, those EU laws relating to the spread of organisms that are harmful to plants or plant products specified in paragraph 41 of annex 2 to the Northern Ireland protocol will continue to apply here. It is, therefore, important that the Department continues to be able to exercise its powers to make legislation under the 1967 Act to implement any obligations that may arise under those EU laws. The draft regulations achieve that by making technical amendments to sections 2 and 3 of the 1967 Act. They replace the references to "Community obligation" in those provisions with a reference to:

""retained EU law or relevant Protocol"

obligation. For clarity, they also define what is meant by "relevant Protocol obligation". In a nutshell, the draft regulations ensure that, at the end of the transition period, the Department continues to have the powers necessary to fulfil its obligations.

The draft regulations make similar changes to the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. I will speak to those amendments together, as they are almost identical in nature. Article 46A of the 1981 order and section 28 of the 2011 Act provide powers for inspectors to enter premises to investigate alleged breaches of European Community obligations relating to animal health and animal welfare respectively. Following the end of the transition period, those EU laws relating to animal health and welfare listed in paragraphs 36 to 40 of annex 2 to the Northern Ireland protocol will continue to apply to Northern Ireland. The draft regulations ensure that the powers that inspectors need to investigate compliance with those EU laws can continue as they do now at the end of the transition period. Again, that is achieved by replacing the phrase "Community obligation" in the relevant legislative provisions with a reference to:

""retained EU law or relevant Protocol"

obligation. Given those changes, it is necessary to revoke some provisions in one of the no-deal statutory instruments that I mentioned earlier: the Animal Health and Welfare (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The 2019 regulations amended article 46A of the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and section 28 of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 to reflect the UK's departure from the EU. They did not, however, take account of the Northern Ireland protocol. The amendments to the 1981 order and the 2011 Act, and these draft regulations, mean that the changes made by the no-deal SI are no longer needed.

Finally, the draft regulations make a very minor amendment to a reference to the phrase, "other member States", in schedule 2 to the 1981 order to reflect the fact that the UK is no longer a member of the EU.

The Examiner of Statutory Rules has considered the draft regulations and has not raised any issue with them in her report. They have also been approved by the Office of the Legislative Counsel and were scrutinised by the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee on 22 October 2020. The Committee agreed that the regulations should proceed to the next legislative stage, which is the approval of the Chamber.

In conclusion, the changes contained in the draft regulations are technical and do not represent a change in policy. They ensure that the relevant legislation can continue to operate at the end of the transition period as it does now.

I commend the draft regulations to the Assembly.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): At the outset, I add my best wishes to those being sent to the Minister. Yesterday, I recorded my best wishes and was also in contact with him. I wish him well and commend Mr Lyons, who is looking very comfortable at the Dispatch Box as the replacement Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of the Committee. Plant health and animal welfare fall under the protocol. Primary legislation in this jurisdiction is required to align with EU obligations in accordance with the protocol so that it can continue to operate effectively at the end of the transition period.

I want to be clear that the primary legislation that we are referring to is the Plant Health Act (NI) 1967, the Diseases of Animals (NI) Order 1981 and the Welfare of Animals Act (NI) 2011. The AERA Committee considered a written briefing on an SL1, the draft Plant Health and Diseases of Animals (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (NI) 2020, at its meeting on 22 October. It is that statutory rule that is subject to debate now. At that meeting, the Committee indicated that it had no concerns or objections to the rule. The rule amends the primary legislation that I mentioned earlier relating to plant health and animal health and welfare to ensure that it aligns with the protocol. The Committee has been advised that the rule is technical and does not involve policy changes. It provides that investigations in respect of alleged breaches of animal health and welfare obligations arising under either retained EU law or the protocol can continue at the end of the transition period. It also provides that DAERA can continue to make legislation preventing the introduction or spread of plant pests into or within this jurisdiction as per the protocol.

Finally, the statutory rule amends the Diseases of Animals (NI) Order 1981 to reflect that the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The Committee considered the draft SR at its meeting on 3 December and was advised that, as the amendments contained in the rule are technical and do not involve policy changes, they have not been subject to public consultation.

A screening exercise was carried out, and no equality issues were identified. No regulatory impact assessment is required as there are no impacts on the private, voluntary or public sector as a result of the changes. A rural needs screening exercise was carried out on the statutory rule, and no impact was identified. There are no financial implications associated with the introduction of the rule.

A statutory rule does not have any human rights implications, nor is it incompatible with EU law. It therefore complies with the requirements of section 24 of the NI Act. The report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules has not identified any issues with the statutory rule. Therefore, the Committee was content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that the statutory rule be confirmed by the Assembly.

I want to add a couple of comments as Sinn Féin spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs. The legislative process that we have been engaged in marks, effectively, the legal separation of the North from the EU, which is against the democratic will of the people of the North.

We have been governed by the common agricultural policy for many decades. A huge regulatory and scrutiny burden has been placed on the Committee and the Department. I commend and echo what Patsy McGlone said in the previous debate: the legal separation has resulted in the Committee having to deal with over 50 statutory rules and instruments. In normal circumstances, that body of work could take years to do, but we have had to do it in weeks. Doing so has put officials in the Department and our Committee officials under huge stress. We on the Committee have held bumper meetings to deal with a huge load of scrutiny at pace. We find it very challenging and unacceptable, particularly given that it is not something that the people of the North consented to in the first place.


11.00 am

There are many other areas of relevance and many other challenges in the North of Ireland to do with rural affairs, such as COVID, TB and the ammonia action plan. There are loads of other issues that we want to look at, and that has placed our Committee, and the officials in particular, under huge pressure. It is really important that we pay tribute to the work of the officials. Occasionally, they do not get the information that they need in decent time from DEFRA in order to process it all for the Department and the Committee. I pay tribute to them for all the work that they have been doing. I also place on record my thanks to my colleagues on the Committee. As I said, we are trying our best to scrutinise a massive volume of work, which is the legal fallout from the separation that we did not consent to in the first place.

Mr Irwin: As with the previous motion, this is a legislative necessity around plant health and diseases of animals. Again, the time pressure is clear to avoid moving past the 1 January 2021 deadline without the necessary legislative powers in place. As was also the case with the previous motion, it is essential that legislative protection be provided. That is the nature of the motion.

As I often say publicly, the body of our current animal health and welfare regulations enables our produce to be elevated to an enviable biosecurity, welfare and, ultimately, taste and marketability position. I encourage the Department and the Minister to ensure that high animal welfare standards are maintained and protected, given the immense effort of our producers to create that high level of traceability and those high welfare standards. Farmers often refer to the amount of red tape around food traceability. As a farmer myself, I am only too aware of the burden that that places on the producer. That having been said, however, it is an important aspect of production that has many benefits, which must be protected as we move into 2021.

As of today, there is still much uncertainty around the terms of the trade deal and the outworkings of the negotiations that will continue throughout this week. I am interested to know what role the UK animal health and welfare common framework will play in designing future policy in that area and what engagement will take place with the industry on that. Engagement is essential across our agri-food and horticulture industries. It is also most important to know whether, in any trade deal that is arrived at, protections will be included in the UK Internal Market Bill so that we have a high degree of clarity for local businesses and our consumer base in order that our industry is best prepared for the changes that lie ahead. I support the motion.

Mr McGlone: The SDLP accepts the amendment to the regulations on plant health and diseases of animals. The amendment regulations are some of the many that are required by Brexit that the Assembly has had to scrutinise in a limited period. The Chairperson outlined the detail of that.

I, too, place on record my thanks to the departmental officials for their endurance, as they had to put up with all that on this side. They have been placed in a really awful position because of the lack of flow of information from DEFRA. Indeed, in some circumstances, as we found out in the Committee, there was no flow of information from DEFRA, which led to statutory instruments not being discussed as scheduled at the Committee given the limited information that was provided to us from the other side. Again, that is one of the fallouts from Brexit, and we do not need to rehearse those matters because they are being rehearsed elsewhere today, I hope.

The regulations align legislation with the terms of the Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. They will allow for investigations into alleged breaches of obligations under either retained EU law or the protocol. I specifically welcome that, as the Minister outlined, the regulations will allow inspectors to retain the ability and the legal wherewithal to enter premises and examine not only animal health issues but animal welfare issues, which are crucial to us all. We have had motions in the Assembly about that, so it is vital that that power is retained and, indeed, built on.

As a result, the Department will also be able to make legislation to prevent the introduction of pests as required by obligations arising under the Ireland protocol. The protocol is an important safeguard, whether a trade deal emerges from the ongoing negotiations between the British Government and the EU. It is essential that the Assembly is able to meet its responsibilities in maintaining the protocol. The SDLP will hold the Minister and the Executive accountable for meeting those responsibilities.

Mrs Barton: The purpose of the statutory rule is to amend primary legislation relating to plant health and animal health and welfare and to ensure that domestic legislation could operate in the event of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement. The rule allows for investigations into alleged breaches of animal health and welfare obligations arising under retained EU law. It allows the Department to continue to make legislation in Northern Ireland in order to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests and animal diseases. The high welfare standards that we have here in Northern Ireland need to be protected as we move forward into the world market. The UUP supports the SR.

Mr Blair: Speaking first as a member of the AERA Committee, I will say that I am aware that these matters were laid before the Committee for approval and that it considered them and was content with the merits of the policies. DAERA stated that there were no changes to policy since the information was submitted to the Committee.

Speaking as the chair and a member of the new Assembly all-party group on animal welfare, I note that the SR provides that investigations into alleged breaches of animal health and welfare obligations arising under either retained EU law or the protocol can continue at the end of the transition period as they do now. In light of that, as we face more uncertainty on EU exit in the coming days and weeks, I appeal for animal welfare issues to remain a high priority in that regard and for the Department to keep those matters under continual review.

On behalf of Alliance, I will say that, as the amendments are technical and do not involve policy changes, I am happy to support them.

Mr Harvey: I thank the junior Minister. I wish to make a few brief remarks on the draft regulations that are before the House. First, it must be noted that the draft Marketing of Plant and Propagating Material Regulations and the draft Plant Health and Diseases of Animals Regulations are necessary alterations to existing domestic legislation.

The regulations are being made through powers that were conferred on the Department by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and are necessary for our exit from the European Union at the conclusion of the transition period on 31 December. As such, there is an urgency for the approval of those regulations and others that have come before the House in recent days as we prepare for our exiting of the European Union. Both sets of regulations are technical and do not involve any changes to current policy.

The first of the draft regulations relating to propagating material involves the transfer of some additional legislative powers to DAERA. That will give the devolved Executive powers in relation to the setting of conditions with which ornamental and vegetable plant material must comply, for instance, as well as the setting of labelling and documentary requirements for plant material. It is, therefore, anticipated that there would be an ability to build greater flexibility into the system in respect of those conditions in order to be as contextually aware as possible. Such flexibility may be required in relation to derogations in the event of temporary supply difficulties, for instance.

The regulations are designed to be compliant with annex 2 of the NI protocol, namely to ensure that we can operate effectively after the end of the transition period. My party's position on the NI protocol is well documented, and we have been consistent from its inception. We opposed the Commons Bill, on three occasions, and we continue to believe that the protocol is undemocratic and will be economically and constitutionally damaging for this region of the United Kingdom. That having been said, there is a duty on us to provide as much certainty and clarity as possible for businesses, individuals, producers and consumers. Not to introduce the regulations, regardless of opinion on the protocol, would leave the Department bereft of control in these areas and would not have a positive effect.

As for future travel in these areas, I look forward to the Department updating the Agriculture Committee on the outworkings of the policies and what input the UK animal health and welfare common frameworks will have in the design of future policy. Whilst EU and UK rules remain the same, that cannot be guaranteed, moving forward. Regulated areas, such as labelling, are at particular risk of divergence, and we will need to bear that in mind, post-transition. In the meantime, for the reasons that I have outlined, I support the motion.

Mr Wells: I have grave concerns about this, but I am going to bow to the much greater knowledge of EU issues of Mr Jim Allister QC, who had the privilege of representing Northern Ireland in the European Parliament and who is across these issues. I share his concerns about what is happening here today.

What we are doing has significant implications. It begs the question of why we are doing it, given that, hopefully, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union on 31 December, when many of us will be rejoicing that we will no longer be under its bondage and control. The United Kingdom will become a free and independent state that will be able to make its own decisions on plant health, the importation of seeds, and animal welfare. The United Kingdom Government will be able to set standards that are even higher than those at present stipulated by the European Union. Therefore our product, as Mr Irwin says, will be able to be sold on the world market as having the highest possible standards in respect of inputs, the treatment of animals, the use of hormones and many other issues that are of concern to consumers throughout the world. Our products will be based on quality, rather than the lowest common denominator, and people will be able to buy food, particularly from Northern Ireland, with the confidence that the standards are some of the highest in the world.

Mr O'Toole: First, I will touch on the statutory rule, and, secondly, with your permission, Mr Speaker, I might stray into some broader issues in relation to Brexit, given what I said earlier, and the fact that Mr Wells has just done the same. Before I do that, I join others in wishing the Agriculture Minister all the best and a speedy recovery.

The statutory rule amends primary legislation to ensure that our statute book is in some kind of order as we approach the end of the transition period and that it aligns with the Ireland protocol. It provides that investigations into alleged breaches of animal health and welfare obligations arising under retained EU law can continue largely as they do now until the end of the transition period.

It also provides that the Department can continue to make any legislation pursuant to EU requirements under the protocol that prevents the introduction into or spread within Northern Ireland of plant pests and implement other obligations. That is welcome and sensible.


11.15 am

However, as with lots of these statutory rules that have come before us in relation to Brexit, they come with limited time and extremely abbreviated opportunity for scrutiny. Whatever one's perspective on leaving or remaining in the European Union or whatever one's perspective on the protocol, it cannot be right that we have had such limited time to debate the implications of this secondary legislation. The Chairman of the Agriculture Committee described clearly the pressure that not just the members but the clerical and support staff of that Committee have been under in scrutinising statutory regulations. We can only imagine the level of stress and demand that there has been on civil servants in the Department to prepare for these extremely novel arrangements.

Let us not forget that the reason why they are being scrutinised at such a hurried pace, in extremis and in such extraordinary circumstances, is because of the refusal of Boris Johnson's Government to extend the transition period in the middle of the biggest pandemic — the biggest global health crisis — certainly in a century, possibly even longer than that. It is, frankly, unconscionable that that has happened.

Let us take a step back and think about this. We have not been able to meet properly as an Assembly since March. We were only a few weeks into the return of these institutions when the biggest public health crisis in a century struck. Consequent to that, there occurred an enormous, unprecedented economic crisis. We are going to be dealing with the consequences of that for years, if not decades. It has completely transformed the way of life of the communities that we serve. It has taken over, in large part, the business of this Assembly and Executive. I am sure that it has filled up the inboxes of every MLA here, not just with routine casework but the most extraordinary and difficult requests from constituents for support, in extreme economic distress, and concern and anxiety about public health. It is extraordinary, immoral and unconscionable that the transition period has not been extended in those circumstances. That is why we are having to debate this legislation in such an extraordinarily compressed time.

It is also why small businesses across Northern Ireland, the UK, Ireland and these islands are having to process so rapidly the change that is going to come upon them in a few weeks. Many of them, as we heard clearly last night from businesses and civil society, simply will not be ready at the end of this year. There is no circumstance in which they can do the necessary legal and preparatory work to be ready.

First and foremost, therefore, let us put on the record today as we pass this statutory rule, which, as my colleague Patsy McGlone said, we have no specific objection to, that it is immoral and unacceptable that not just this Assembly — we are MLAs and it is our job to scrutinise legislation — but the businesses, communities and people we serve have been put under this extraordinary stress in this year of all years. It is wrong and should not have happened. The transition period should have been extended, and it is unconscionable, as I said, that it was not.

I will talk briefly about the broader issues around Brexit and the upheaval that we will face in a few weeks' time.

Mr Speaker: I am sorry, but the Member needs to stick to the statutory rule that we are debating.

Mr O'Toole: I will stick to the statutory rule, Mr Speaker, because the statutory rule is, in a sense, connected to the broader issue that we will face in the next few days. I will say briefly that, though the statutory rule does a largely technical job, it is part of a bigger picture. It is part of the extraordinary disruption that we face at the end of this year as a result of Brexit. As several Members said, we still do not know the outcome of that negotiation. We will probably not find out for at least a couple of days. Whatever your perspective on Brexit or the protocol, the next 48 hours are critical to businesses, communities and the people that we serve.

Last night, civil society and businesses from across this place came together and said that they need a deal between the UK and the EU. Hopefully, that deal will be done in the next couple of days, but, if the UK Government or Boris Johnson are listening — perhaps he is — let us be absolutely clear: Members and the people, communities and businesses that we serve absolutely need a deal.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to wind.

Mr O'Toole: We also need time to prepare for —

Mr Speaker: Sorry, Mr O'Toole. I will have to ask you to resume your seat if you continue to move away from the statutory rule. I have given you plenty of latitude.

Mr O'Toole: Mr Speaker, I will come back to the statutory rule. This statutory rule is important. It is a small technical statutory rule to clean up the statute book and keep us in line ahead of the end of the transition period. However, let us be absolutely clear: it is part of an enormous upheaval that people and businesses will face at the end of the year. We need a deal. To anyone who still thinks that we can get by without a deal at the end of the year: do not do this to people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We need a deal and we need goodwill from the UK and the EU to make the new arrangements work. Let us be absolutely clear and let the Assembly send that message to everyone: we need a deal, and we need to make it work on the basis on goodwill.

Mr Allister: This statutory instrument marks a seminal moment in the Assembly. For me, it is a most disturbing moment, which should, frankly, be equally disturbing to anyone with any fidelity to the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Contrary to what some unionist Members read from their weekly paper press release, this is not a statutory instrument that is merely technical and makes no policy change. It signals a fundamental change in the manner in which we are to be governed because it amends the statutes of the United Kingdom in these subject matters to require the Minister to make such orders as are "necessary" by the relevant protocol. In other words, what we are doing in the statutory instrument is surrendering the power of the devolved Assembly to make our own laws that touch on these issues and intend instead to commit ourselves irreversibly to imposing the laws that are in the protocol: laws that we do not make, that we cannot change and into which we have absolutely no input. Yet the statutory instrument enslaves the House to not one, not 10 but 45 EU directives and regulations. It commits us to the unquestioning adherence to and implementation of each and every one of those.

Under the Plant Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, we unalterably impose 11 EU directives and regulations. Under the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, we enslave ourselves to 32 EU directives and regulations that we cannot change. Under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, we subject ourselves to two EU directives that we can never change. Therefore, let no one mislead the House or the public by pretending that this is only a technical measure that involves no change of policy. This involves the most fundamental change to the manner in which we are governed in decades, and, of course, it says to us that no longer will this House or a Minister of this House decide what legislation governs these subjects. We will be bound and chained to 45 EU directives and regulations that we cannot change. That is the seriousness of what this statutory instrument does, and it is most disappointing to me that a DUP Minister is here in the House urging and advocating that enslavement.

We were told — we were promised — that Brexit was about making our own laws. The iniquitous protocol sets Northern Ireland apart as a place that will not make its own laws, and here we have Members of the House meekly and limply advocating that we enslave ourselves in that very way. I am not prepared to consent to that, so, when the opportunity arises, I will seek to give the House the opportunity to vote against this enslavement. To me, it is an utterly retrograde and appalling measure that separates us from the United Kingdom and deprives us of the right to make our own laws on these subjects. It underwrites the annexation of Northern Ireland into the orbit of the EU by subjecting us, under annex 2 of the protocol, to these 45 directives, of which there are many more scores to come. Under annex 2, the protocol binds Northern Ireland to over 300 EU directives and regulations, leaving us unable to ever change them and obliged to follow whatever changes Brussels makes to them without any consultation or input from us.

This is a shameful day for our legislative Assembly. We are being asked to surrender the right to legislate according to our own needs and to have that right suborned to the diktat of EU regulations and directives. Strip away all the fancy words, and that is what this statutory instrument is about. It puts upon the people of Northern Ireland 45 EU directives and regulations that we can never change. I do not and will not consent to that, and I am very sad that some who should know better — I wonder whether they even read the regulations — will endorse the very enslavement of this place to EU rules.

Mr Lyons: I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I will briefly comment on some of the remarks made. First, I will refer to the remarks of the Chairman of the Committee. Before that, I extend my thanks to those who have been working so hard to make sure that we are prepared for what is coming in the months and years ahead. I also thank the Committee members for their diligence in carrying out their work.

The Chairman talked about the legal separation that has taken place between the UK and the EU. That is the outworking of the withdrawal agreement. There is opposition to at least some parts of that agreement from almost everybody in the House. It is the situation in which we currently find ourselves, however.

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


11.30 am

Mr Irwin urged that there be no change to welfare standards in Northern Ireland following the end of the transition period, and I can confirm that we will continue with the standards that are in place. That is important, because we do have high welfare standards here in Northern Ireland. It is one of our strongest selling points when it comes to our produce.

Mr Wells: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: It is important that that continue to be the case. I will give way to Mr Wells.

Mr Wells: The Minister makes a point about animal welfare standards. As a long-term vegetarian of 37 years and someone who has a keen interest in animal welfare, I support him on that. It is interesting, however, that he is binding us to a set of animal welfare standards that does not give us in the Northern Ireland Assembly the power, for instance, to ban foie gras, which involves one of the most cruel forms of animal food production in the world. If we, as the United Kingdom and as Northern Ireland, bind ourselves to those rules, we will not be able to go further and enhance our animal welfare standards, because we are bound to EU diktat. Several times, Members have brought up that very cruel form of food production. We do not carry it out in Northern Ireland, but we cannot ban the import of that horrendously cruel product because we are bound to EU regulations.

Mr Lyons: I do not know the particulars of the circumstance that Mr Wells mentions, but, yes, we are going to be bound to EU regulations in many ways by the protocol. As the Member will be aware, that is of disappointment to me as well. He will be aware of the position of my party in arguing and voting against the protocol. In fact, it was Members of this House, many of whom were so concerned about a border on the island of Ireland that was never going to happen, who are responsible for what is now happening as a result of the protocol. There will still be levers for us on animal welfare and food standards, because, in many ways, it is a minimum requirement for us, and there will be the possibility for us to go above and beyond.

Mr Irwin talked about the common framework. The Department will have the same powers available to it after the end of the transition period as it has now. I have been informed that the UK animal health and welfare common framework will be supported through concordats agreed between the four UK Administrations rather than through legislation, and I hope that that is of help to him.

I did note the concerns and wider issues that Mr Wells raised. We are doing this to ensure that we have that fully functioning statute book following the end of the transition period. It is important that, for the retained EU law from the directives that are currently in place, inspectors will be able to carry out the work on those laws and directives that have broad support across this place. That is what this legislation will allow us to do.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: I will give way to Mr Allister.

Mr Allister: Is it not utterly fatuous to say that we could not have inspectors if we do not pass the statutory instrument? This statutory instrument is about robbing the Minister of any discretion. It is amending each relevant section in each of the current Acts to state that the Minister will make such orders as are called upon by the protocol. Without the protocol, the Minister could make whatever directions he wants about inspections, but, with the protocol, he can make only those that EU directives require him to make, and that is something that he can never, ever change. It is enslavement, and the Minister well knows that. Shame on him for trying to put it upon this House.

Mr Lyons: The Member has made his views known in his contributions. I do not think that there is anything that I will be able to say that will change his point of view. He has placed it well on the record.

Mr O'Toole put a number of his concerns on the record. None of them was particularly relevant to the SR. The Member is well aware that they had nothing to do with the SR, but he made his points. I referred to Mr Allister already. I thank Mrs Barton for her support. At this stage, I commend the motion to the Assembly.

Question put.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come to the Chamber.

Members, please resume your seats. Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I also remind Members that social distancing will continue to be observed while the Division is taking place. Please be patient at all times and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.

The Assembly divided:

The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:

Mr K Buchanan voted for Ms P Bradley, Mr Buckley, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey and Mr Weir.

Mr Butler voted for Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt and Mr Stewart.

Mr Lyttle voted for Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long and Mr Muir.

Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Brogan [Teller, Ayes], Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan [Teller, Ayes], Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.

Mr O’Toole voted for Ms Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin and Mr McNulty.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Plant Health and Diseases of Animals (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a few seconds to allow the Minister of Justice to take her place.


12.00 noon

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next items of business are motions to approve five statutory rules, all of which relate to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on all five motions. The Minister will move the first motion and commence the debate on all the motions listed in the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. That process will be repeated for each of the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear, we shall proceed on that basis.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 13) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 14) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 15) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

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

Mrs Long: I am asking the Assembly to confirm five sets of regulations now made. These Department of Health regulations introduce amendments to the public health protection regulations, which are made and amended as necessary to give effect to the Executive's decisions. I have, however, agreed to lead the debate for two reasons. First, although all the regulations are prepared by the Department of Health, in the case of the first two sets of amendment regulations, which are concerned with the increase of fines and penalties, my Department worked in collaboration with Department of Health officials. Colleagues will recall the Executive's agreement to the proposals that I brought forward in October to increase fines and penalties and to introduce a number of new offences on foot of the rapid review of fines and penalties requested by the strategic compliance group. That group was set up earlier this year by the Executive to oversee arrangements for encouraging compliance with public health restrictions. Given my Department's role, it was therefore a natural step for me to lead this debate. Secondly, as my officials were preparing for the debate, three more sets of amendment regulations to give effect to the Executive's decisions on public health restrictions were made, so I further agreed to lead the debate on those in the interests of supporting the Health Minister and the Executive Office in a collaborative way.

The first set of regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 13) Regulations, deals with a number of changes made to the main public health regulations, commonly referred to as the (No. 2) regulations, on offences and penalties that apply when the restrictions are breached. The second set of regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations, increases the level of fixed penalties for failure to wear a face covering in settings prescribed by the coronavirus regulations.

Both sets of regulations came into effect at 5.30 pm on 12 November.

The third set of regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 14) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, provide councils with the powers to enforce the No. 2 regulations, including on premises improvement notices. The regulations came into effect at 4.00 pm on 13 November.

The fourth set of regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 15) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, deal with the extension of the restrictions that were initially introduced on 16 October and the limited relaxation of those restrictions for coffee shops, close-contact services and off-sales. The regulations came into effect at 6.30 pm on 13 November.

The fifth and final set of regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, ensure that unlicensed premises that reopened on 20 November were restricted to no more than six people per table from no more than two households. The regulations came into effect at 8.00 pm on 19 November.

I will now set out, in detail and in turn, each of the regulations.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 13) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, SR 2020/250, were signed at 5.30 pm on 12 November and laid before the Assembly at 9.30 am on 13 November. They increased the previous fines and penalties and introduced new offences. The fixed penalty that previously started at £60 was replaced by a single fixed penalty of £200, or £100 if paid within 14 days of issue. That penalty applies to breaches of restrictions on gatherings in public or private places that remain punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £5,000. The regulations also provide that recipients of a £200 fixed penalty cannot be issued with another for the same offence. The option of summary prosecution may be used instead.

The offences of not closing a business as required or breaching the early closing requirements for hospitality will be punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000 or will attract a fixed penalty starting at £1,000, which can be increased for subsequent breaches up to a maximum of £10,000.

A new offence of not implementing measures to maintain social distancing in retail and hospitality settings will be punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000 or a fixed penalty starting at £1,000, which can be increased for subsequent breaches up to a maximum of £10,000.

A new offence of organising or participating in a large gathering or unlicensed musical event, with large defined as "30 or more persons", will carry the new higher-level penalty for organisers. That is punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000 or a fixed penalty starting at £1,000 and increasing to a maximum of £10,000 for further breaches. A new lower penalty for participants is punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £5,000 or a fixed penalty of £200. The fixed penalty of £200 will be reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days of issue.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, SR 2020/253, were signed at 5.30 pm on 12 November and laid before the Assembly at 9.00 am on 13 November. They increase the penalties for failing to comply with the health protection regulations on the wearing of face coverings. The fixed penalty that previously started at £60 was replaced by a fixed penalty of £200, which will be reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days. That penalty, which remains punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £5,000, applies to breaches of restrictions on the wearing of face coverings in settings prescribed by the regulations. As before, the regulations provide that recipients of £200 fixed penalties cannot be issued with another for the same offence.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 14) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, SR2020/255, were signed at 4.00 pm on 13 November and laid before the Assembly at 5.00 pm on 13 November.

Those regulations provide district councils with the power to designate persons to enforce the No 2 regulations, to issue a premises improvement notice where those who are responsible for the premises are in breach of the No 2 regulations, and to specify a time limit within which the measures that are required must be taken, which must not be less than 48 hours from the time that the notice is issued.

SR 2020/256, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 15) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, were signed by the Department of Health at 6.30 pm on 13 November and laid before the Assembly at 9.00 am on 16 November. Those regulations deal with the extension of the restrictions that were initially introduced on 16 October and the limited relaxation of those restrictions in respect of coffee shops, close-contact services and off-sales. They allowed the reopening, under certain conditions, of unlicensed food and drink businesses, cafes and coffee shops mostly, which were allowed to reopen from 20 November, with opening hours limited from 5.00 am to 8.00 pm.

The regulations allowed the reopening, from 20 November, of the close-contact services sector, including hairdressing, tattoo parlours, holistic therapies and driving instruction. As a condition of that reopening, those businesses were required to operate by appointment only and were required to collect and retain for a period the names and contact telephone numbers of customers for contact-tracing purposes.

Finally, the regulations removed a restriction that had previously been placed on pubs and bars preventing them from selling alcohol for consumption off the premises. Although many bars and pubs have an off-licence, the regulations had sought to prevent them selling alcohol for consumption off the premises during that time. The lifting of that restriction was accompanied by the requirement that they sold drink only in the original sealed container so that bars were not selling glasses of alcohol to customers on the street.

SR 2020/276, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, were signed at 8.00 pm on 19 November and laid in the Assembly at 9.00 am on 20 November 2020. Those regulations ensure that the unlicensed premises that reopened on 20 November were governed by a rule to restrict numbers of customers to no more than six per table from no more than two households.

Those five sets of amendments are designed to encourage adherence to the restrictions and to deter any breach of them. They complement the basic but critical and consistent public health message: wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a face covering.

Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Committee for Justice in the debate. The Committee first received notification of the health protection regulations in a written briefing from the Department of Justice received on 1 December. Yes: seven days ago. One week ago was when the Committee was provided with a written briefing.

The Committee was advised that two of the regulations are of relevance to the Department of Justice as they relate to offences, fines and penalties for breaches of the regulations. Therefore, although the responsibility for the regulations rests with the Health Minister, the Minister of Justice agreed to lead the debate on those two regulations, along with the three others in support of the Health Minister, as she has outlined.

During the pandemic, the Justice Committee has received regular written and oral briefings and updates on COVID-19 and its impact on the justice sector. We have questioned officials and senior police officers, including the Chief Constable, on breaches of the regulations and the approach to enforcement. We have sought information on the number of fines and fixed penalty notices issued, and also on the number and type of breaches reported via the COVID-19 hotline. Despite that, there was no engagement by the Department with the Committee on the review of fines and penalties that gave rise to the challenges reflected in those regulations.

The review of offences and penalties was carried out collaboratively by the Department of Justice and the Department of Health. It was the Minister of Justice who recommended the proposed changes to the Executive. The Department of Justice advised the Committee that the proposals had been considered by the Executive on 8 and 15 October. There was, therefore, ample time to inform the Committee for Justice of the proposed changes well before the notification of 1 December.

It has been said —.


12.15 pm

Ms Bradshaw: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Will you remind the House that Standing Order 43(1) provides:

"Every statutory rule or draft statutory rule which -

(a) is laid before the Assembly; and

(b) is subject to Assembly proceedings," —

Including negative, affirmative and confirmative procedure —

"shall stand referred to the appropriate committee for scrutiny."?

In this instance, because they are Department of Health regulations, it was right and proper that we, the Health Committee, scrutinised it.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's understanding of Standing Order 43(1) is correct.

Mr Givan: It has been said many times before that this situation is unprecedented, and it is sometimes necessary to make changes at a swift pace. However, that does not appear to have been the case in this specific instance. The Committee discussed the Department of Justice's written briefing on the regulations on 3 December. The Justice Committee recognises that the scrutiny of the health protection statutory rules is a matter for the Committee for Health and that that Committee is often required to consider regulations at short notice, which does not always allow for consultation with other Committees.

The Committee is concerned, however, that there may be a more widespread scrutiny deficit, with Statutory Committees being either unaware or provided with last-minute notification of policy changes relevant to their Department's remit that are being included in health protection regulations. I will, therefore, be writing to the First Minister and deputy First Minister on behalf of the Committee to ask all Departments to engage with their respective Statutory Committees on matters to be included in the health protection regulations that fall within their remit at the earliest opportunity.

I am unable to provide the Committee's position on the regulations, given that we have not had the opportunity to consider them or the policy intention behind them. I understand that Department of Justice officials gave oral evidence to the Committee for Health, and, therefore, it will be for the Chair and members of the Health Committee to comment on the specific details in the regulations.

Those remarks are made in my capacity as Chairman of the Justice Committee. I appreciate that some Members seem to struggle to recognise the role of a Chairman of a Committee, but what I have just articulated is the unanimous position held by all parties on the Justice Committee.

Setting aside my role as Chairman of the Committee, I will speak in a personal capacity on the regulations and the process through which they have been brought about. As I outlined in my role as Chairman of the Committee, the Justice Committee recognises the unprecedented way in which the regulations have been taken forward. It recognises, and I recognise, that it is for the legislative framework through the Department of Health and, indeed, the Statutory Committee for Health to deal with the detail around the statutory rules. Indeed, I received a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister yesterday outlining that issue, and I put on record my appreciation to Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill for writing to me in my capacity as Chairman of the Justice Committee.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister outlined the approach that the Executive have been taking and the collaborative way in which they are seeking to operate, and I agree with all that. That is, however, notwithstanding the issue around the roles of Committees. In my conversation with the First Minister yesterday, I was able to provide assurance to her that the Justice Committee takes it role very seriously, as do I in my membership of that Committee.

Where Committees have an opportunity to engage and be consulted with, I advocate that all Ministers should do so with their relevant Committee. Under the relevant powers conferred upon Committees in section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, indeed, in Standing Order 48 of this House, the final bullet point states that the Justice Committee's role is to consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Justice. We were denied that opportunity because the Minister of Justice did not come to the Justice Committee. Departmental officials did not come to the Justice Committee. We recognise the legal statutory process for how this is being engaged, but the Minister could have led the way on this and engaged with the Justice Committee, but she chose not to do so.

Ms Bradshaw: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Givan: That is a decision for the Justice Minister. I will take an intervention.

Ms Bradshaw: What happens in the Alliance Party is that, if an issue comes before the Health Committee that crosses into other Departments, I engage with my MLA colleagues on those Committees to find out their position so that I represent the whole party at the Committee. Are you suggesting that that is not what happened on your side of the House?

Mr Givan: Of course my members engage across political parties, but that does not negate the opportunity that all Members have through our membership of the relevant Committees to provide an opportunity. As I indicated, the Committee has engaged with the Chief Constable and ACC Todd on gold command when it comes to enforcement. That is all relevant to the regulations when it comes to enforcement. I understand the way in which things operate, but there are opportunities, and Members can bring that expertise through their normal Committee membership.

A letter that was circulated to all Justice Committee members states that the Executive Office understands that some members of the Justice Committee consider that, in light of the Minister of Justice's offer to lead on this debate, the scrutiny role should have been conferred on it, and that they intend to express their dissatisfaction during the debate. I was able to provide useful information to the First Minister to explain what the Justice Committee agreed to do. There is an issue about the information source when it came to advising the Executive Office. Who provided the information on what the Justice Committee agreed and discussed? It certainly informed the basis of a letter that I would question. There needs to be an explanation in that respect. No doubt the Minister will elaborate on that.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: I will happily give way, despite the fact that the Minister never engaged with the Committee. I will, however, engage with the Minister in the Assembly.

Mrs Long: Is the Committee Chair aware that Committee meetings are public and that people can watch them on television?

Mr Givan: If that is the basis on which I received the letter, that will be an interesting explanation. If anyone watched the proceedings of the Committee, they will know what the Committee decided.

Just for Members' benefit, the minutes of that Committee meeting have now been published. Members will now know what the Committee agreed. The Committee agreed unanimously at the meeting on 3 September to write to FM and DFM asking that all Ministers engage with their respective Statutory Committees on relevant aspects of COVID-19 health regulations that cover policy areas that are the responsibility of their Department. That correspondence will be copied to all Committee Chairmen and Madam Chairs. The Committee also agreed to ask the Department of Justice why there was no engagement with it or information provided on the review of offences or penalties in the proposed changes prior to 1 December, given that that falls within the remit of the Department of Justice. The Committee also agreed to ask for the protocol advising the Committee when DOJ officials are providing oral evidence to another Statutory Committee. At no stage did the Justice Committee seek to usurp the legal responsibility of the Health Committee in carrying out its role with the statutory rule. I encourage the Justice Minister to work with the Justice Committee. We have an important role. We can provide you with advice and support, and we can give an insight, but, Minister, we can do that only when you decide to engage with the Justice Committee. I hope that, in future, you seek to take a more constructive approach when it comes to COVID-19 regulations.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to interrupt the Member, but I remind him that comments should be directed through the Chair.

Mr Givan: Of course, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

The Committee considered the regulations that relate to enforcement. We had the police before us because, when you introduce enforcement measures such as fines that have already taken effect, it is vital that we see a consistency of approach in their application. We know from the early months that it took the police some time to quality assure — if I can put it that way — the way in which they dealt with checking people's activities. We had cases in which the police looked in people's shopping bags to establish whether essential items had been bought, and we know the furore that that created.

The police had to put measures in place to ensure that a consistent approach was being applied, and I welcomed the way in which they did that.

Of course, had we been given an opportunity, we would have considered the proportionality of the associated fines. The Justice Committee looks at fines for speeding offences, for example. We all know that speeding kills, and we would have been able to look at the current speeding fine and compare it with the fine that has been introduced. However, we were not able to do that because we were not engaged.

We need to consider how different breaches have been handled by the Police Service. Members raised the issue of the policing of protests such as the Black Lives Matters protest, at which fines were issued. Indeed, under the most recent regulations to be introduced, we have cases where church authorities have been interviewed by the police because of alleged breaches. Of course, people compare and contrast that with the lack of police interviews when it comes to a particular funeral in west Belfast. Then, we raise the issue about the public having confidence in the administration of the fines that are being put in place.

We need to see enforcement measures being applied equally to everybody in society. There cannot be a two-tier approach to policing. The Minister of Justice has a particular role in ensuring public confidence in the administration of justice. I know that she will say that these are operational matters for the PSNI; a position that she has taken since assuming office. However, when that operational decision-making process impinges on public confidence, it comes within the scope of the Justice Minister.

Mr Wells: I thank the Member for giving way. There is deep concern in the community that the police, we understand, have indicated that they will be swift to take action against Tandragee Baptist Church for its alleged breach of the coronavirus restrictions. However, they have yet to interview the leader of the party opposite, Michelle O'Neill, about the disgraceful scenes that we witnessed at the Bobby Storey funeral.

Mr Givan: The Member makes the point very well. When I look at the regulations going through the House today, I see that we are increasing the level of fines and making it clear, as an Assembly, that enforcement is an important tool. It is the application of that tool that requires consistency of approach by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I share the concerns that the Member elaborated on.

It is important that effective enforcement measures are in place. However, we all have the power in our own hands to act in a responsible way and to apply common sense so that we should not need enforcement in the community when it comes to policing the regulations. The best form of policing any society is self-policing, self-regulation and an awareness of one's personal responsibility. That is, ultimately, where we need to get to. Nevertheless, a minority will always flagrantly breach the law. That undermines the entire message, and it requires effective enforcement and policing. The absence of such enforcement and policing leads to people no longer acting responsibly. A further consequence is that the Executive have to take action to close down small businesses and close contact services, such as hairdressers' salons. They have paid the price because there has not been self-regulation or the kind of enforcement that there should have been. Let there be a better approach so that we do not need to take action against other individuals and organisations in our society.

Mr McCrossan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: I will, yes.

Mr McCrossan: I appreciate the strength with which the Member delivers his message about the importance of ensuring that we adhere to the regulations. Has he given such advice to his colleague Sammy Wilson?

Mr Givan: Of course, all Members need to behave in a sensible and responsible manner. It is up to everybody in the House to conduct themselves in that way. It does not matter which Parliament you are in.

Let us not be distracted from the core substance of what we are dealing with today. It is important that we have a consistent approach to the policing of the regulations. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and to her providing a justification of her failure to engage with members of the Justice Committee.


12.30 pm

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I appreciate the Minister's being here to address the Assembly on these measures.

The Health Committee considered the first four sets of regulations on 26 November, but the amendment (No. 16) regulations were included in the final Order Paper without the Committee being given prior notice. They were therefore added late to our agenda last Thursday. A briefing on the first four SRs was provided by a cross-departmental group of officials, who gave an overview of the main provisions. Those provisions included the extension of the schedule 2 restrictions, subject to modifications; additional requirements for premises selling food or drink; new premises improvement notices; and changes to penalties, including penalties for failure to wear a face covering. Officials also advised us of a strategic level working group that had been established by the Executive to look at compliance with coronavirus regulations. We were advised that the working group is chaired by junior Ministers and brings together a range of agencies and that it has conducted a rapid review, since September, owing to concerns about rates of transmission and a desire to ensure effective deterrents from breaching the rules.

Provisions relating to increased penalties prompted questions around rationale, necessity, the evidence base and equality considerations. The remaining questions centred on practical outworkings. Given the absence of a formal equality impact assessment of the higher penalties, Committee members probed the consideration given to the issue. Among matters considered were affordability issues relating to masks and the differential impact that increased fines could have. Although officials assured the Committee that such matters were taken into account and agreed that there could be potential inequalities, they could not provide detail, and they advised that they might not be able to come back to us with it, as the Executive papers are confidential.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Chair for taking an intervention. Does he agree that it is important that the PSNI continue its course of action around engagement, encouragement and enforcement — the three Es, as were talked about at the start — to address exactly the issues that he has just raised? We have to accept that, in some circumstances, people will not understand the regulations, because they are complex, even for those of us who are going through them every day. They are therefore difficult for ordinary people on the street to understand. The PSNI needs to continue in that vein so that people fully understand the implications of what they are doing.

Mr Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for her intervention. I agree with her. It is essential that it start with communication, and then engagement and encouragement. In some ways, enforcement demonstrates a failure of the other steps. We need to work from that basis and understand that some people will potentially struggle to abide by the restrictions because of a lack of income and because, in some senses, they are difficult to understand.

Officials also outlined the continued approach to using enforcement as a last resort, which is in keeping with the Member's intervention, but could not provide detail on trends or fines relating to enforcement. We wanted to know about the evidence base for anticipated improvements in compliance underpinning the increase in fines. Officials said that they would have to come back to us on that. We asked about affordability issues with masks, and we were again advised that officials would take the matter back.

Mr Buckley: I appreciate the Chair's giving way. His feelings on the inappropriate way in which these regulations come before the House, and the lack of scrutiny thereof, are firmly on the record, as are mine. The points that he has just outlined surely go to the heart of the lack of democratic scrutiny in the House. We are here today debating these regulations even though officials came before the Committee, could not provide the information and promised to come back. When they did, they still did not provide it. Does the Chair agree that the fact that the Chair of the Justice Committee has outlined today how that Committee had no role in the scrutiny of these regulations is of concern, given the lack of democratic scrutiny of regulations that have come before the House?

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Member for his intervention. I have been consistent in saying that we need to see good information being provided to and good engagement happening with whichever Committees are relevant to the scrutiny of the regulations. I will deal later with the fact that, in normal circumstances, we would not be considering legislation or changes to rules in this way, but it is pertinent to note that, although we recognise that these are unusual situations and circumstances, it is incumbent on all Departments, and everyone concerned, to provide the required level of data and analysis. If, as the Member indicated, Committees are being asked to support regulations, they should be provided with a clear sense of why those regulations are needed and why a particular approach versus another is best. They should then be able to assess that.

I am quite sure that these questions are asked —.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Gildernew: Yes, I will.

Mr Allister: In the same vein, the Member's Committee has considered a successive number of these regulations, each of which bears the affirmation that no impact assessment was made. Sometimes, it says that there was no "regulatory impact assessment" or simply no "impact assessment". Has it never given the Committee concern that it has been asked to consider regulations where there has been no impact assessment?

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, that is one of the issues of concern, and the Committee is increasingly seeking to ensure that, whatever vehicle is used, maximum consideration is given to that. As we move further into what should be normal ways of operating, equality impact assessments should be done or some attempt made to address the lack of those assessments.

On a practical note, the detail of the information to be gathered by hospitality settings was raised. A member suggested that requesting addresses might support businesses wishing to comply with the rule restricting the number of persons at a table to no more than six and from no more than two households. I recognise that complying with that is difficult. I spoke this morning with someone who is involved in the hospitality business and who reports that that is a very difficult thing to establish.

Responding to a question on the distinction between retail and office settings, officials explained that health and safety legislation deals with workers, whereas the present suite of regulations is aimed at protecting the public.

The Committee, as ever, seeks to not only be constructive but to provide the appropriate scrutiny on behalf of the public. One source of data that informs the Committee on a regular basis, along with all the other pieces of information, shows, unfortunately, the new daily case rate, the figure for hospital admissions, the ICU capacity, which today sits at 99%, and, sadly, the daily reported deaths which, as of today, are 1,059. None of that evidence and information can be ignored.

Despite reservations arising from some unanswered questions, the Committee agreed to lend its support to the measures. The Committee recognises that the regulations are cross-departmental and has written to the Health Department, which is the drafting lead, seeking to have its concerns heard and addressed in future sets of regulations. Indeed, the Justice Minister could directly comment in her response whether the Department has been consulted directly at this time in developing a new COVID-19 strategy or even whether the Executive have seen the new detailed strategy that includes the pillars of finding, testing, tracing, isolating and supporting the public. That was a Health Committee motion that was agreed by consensus in the Committee and again in the House. We have called for a new COVID strategy, developed by the Department of Health and supported by the wider Executive, in order to end the cycle of lockdowns. That was passed last month in the Assembly, and, as we enter the early phases of Christmas and the vaccination programme, it will be timely to hear about progress to date on any development of that new robust strategy.

With your permission, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I would like to address Members briefly in my role as MLA and Sinn Féin spokesperson for health. I am sure that many Members will make similar points as the debate goes on, but I am concerned about the steady increase in the number of new cases that are announced daily. To put it bluntly, we are not seeing the drop in case numbers, admissions and, sadly, in deaths, that we hoped for. I cannot help but think of the absolute mess, when public health proposals were voted against in the Executive, created by using a cross-community vote and of where we could be now had the Executive been able to act quicker.

However, we are where we are —.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Clarke: I note what the Member said about where we are today, but had the Member the same concerns when most of his colleagues on the Benches around him attended a funeral in breach of the same regulations?

Mr Gildernew: That matter has been addressed multiple times in the Assembly.

However, we are where we are. One constant feature of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the ever-present lack of time. Therefore, it is to be expected that some of the technical amendments that tidy up the original intentions of the decisions are brought forward. It has to be said again: no one wants the restrictions to be in place for any longer than they have to be. Unfortunately, however, the case for restrictions is often being better made in the corridors of ICU wards, on the countless calendars marked with crucial missed appointments for other health matters, and by families that have had to resort to making FaceTime calls instead of visiting family members as a result of the restrictions.

I support the amendments. Let us continue to do all that we can, individually and collectively, to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Chair of the Executive Office Committee, Mr Colin McGrath.

Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I will be making my remarks as an SDLP Member. I thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate today. I thank the Justice Minister for coming to the House and actually bringing forward some legislation and participating in the debate.

The regulations that we are being asked to ratify take us back to the middle of November, a time that, on reflection, many in the House may choose to forget, given the chaos that was allowed to take hold at that stage. However, today is a momentous day in the fight against COVID-19, and we must keep our eyes fixed firmly on the future and how we do things from here on. It is important to note that the first COVID-19 vaccine was given to Margaret Keenan in England, although she hails from Enniskillen. The first vaccine in the North was given to a constituent from South Down, Joanna Sloan, who is a nurse. We welcome the fact that she has received the vaccine and wish her, and everyone else who has been vaccinated, the very best as she delivers the vaccine to people across Northern Ireland.

Amendment No.13 provides additional requirements for food and drink establishments, further provision for social distancing and large gatherings, and increases the fines that a breach carries. Amendment No.4, on face coverings, also increases the level of fine for those who breach the regulations. Amendment No.14 gives district councils the power to attach premise improvement notices to businesses that needed to amend their protection in light of the regulations. Amendment No.15 concerns the circuit breaker that allowed the phased reopening for close-contact services and the gradual reopening of hospitality. Finally, amendment No. 6 concerns those in close-contact services who work in film and television production and the number of households that can sit at a table in the hospitality industry.

I do not know about anybody else, but I find that mapping out the timeline of events can be quite confusing, as so many amendments are being updated. Some will have lapsed by the time we discuss them, and some have since changed, even though we are discussing them. I am sure that everyone in the House can resonate with being asked a question, whether by a constituent or constituency office staff, that requires you to stop and think to try to work out what the exact regulation is and what its impact may be.
Let us be under no illusions: scrutinising legislation is definitely not for the faint-hearted. However, these regulations were, and are, necessary. We need to continue to do all that we can to stop the spread of the virus and help our beloved healthcare staff, who, frankly, have been the heroes in all of this. As the vaccine is rolled out, we need restrictions now more than ever.

How do we do that? We have to normalise some behaviours that previously would have seemed improbable or even impossible. For example, the wearing of face masks has become normalised for most of us. When someone not wearing a face mask coughs or sneezes in public, you become very aware that they are not wearing a face mask.

How do you encourage the wearing of face masks? Well, you can do it through the science and detail the reasons for doing it; you can do it through encouragement and asking people to wear a face mask; or, if necessary, from time to time, if people refuse, you have to levy fines. That is what resulted in conformity from about April or May through to now. Very quickly, all those measures together encouraged people to wear face masks. Fines have played their part.


12.45 pm

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: Yes, of course.

Mr Sheehan: Would it not also be an encouragement for some people to wear masks if they were made freely available? These masks are sometimes not inexpensive, especially the disposable ones. If they were made freely available, more people might be more likely to wear them.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. I know of his continued intervention in the Health Committee, especially highlighting the situation in South East Asia, where face masks are worn regularly and have been part of the ability to control the spread of the virus there. Yes, I totally agree with him. They are not very expensive. I think, from checking DUP returns, that it costs about £48 for quite a considerable box-load of them. If you can get the face masks and make them available to people, it would encourage their use. I know that it is an extra cost for businesses, but people sometimes find themselves at shops and other places and do not have a mask and could do with one. Making them generally available would certainly help.

Mr Givan: I appreciate the Member giving way. He has articulated a clear position on the need for wearing masks, and I do not disagree with that. Will he also comment on those who, under the law, rightly have an exemption for respiratory reasons such as asthma or for psychological reasons? It is important that we respect their position and do not have a scenario where people are being shamed because they have legitimate health reasons for not wearing a face mask.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. I believe that those protections are in legislation and in the regulations as well. They specifically highlight that those who have particular reasons for not wearing masks should not have to wear them. I welcome those protections as well.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for taking a second intervention in such a short space of time. You talked about that provision and people finding themselves at shops without a mask. I have seen that for myself on many occasions. It is an issue, even more so if you have travelled by public transport; it is different if you only have to go back to your car. Some shops do provide them. Some shops and retailers — the big retailers — have been able to stay open right through the pandemic and have done fairly well because of that. They will be in a good position to provide free masks.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for the intervention. Holistically, we are making the point that, if we can make masks available, it is of benefit and we should continue to do that. I would welcome that.

We are looking at the overall regulations today and questioning whether they were necessary. We have all accepted that the regulations that we currently have were and are necessary, but it begs this question: why did we stop for a week in the middle of the circuit breaker, reopen everything and then close it down again for a further two weeks? That just did not sit right. It means that we will see a slight rise in cases, then, when we shut down for two weeks, cases go back down again. One has to reflect back to that period and ask whether it would have been better to have gone six weeks right through. It has already been mentioned that the numbers are not dropping as we would like, and that may be because of that week when we did not shut down.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Member for being so generous in giving way. Will he agree with me that, while intervention is absolutely essential to help support businesses through this very difficult time, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme may have been too generous and far too early an intervention, given that it has absolutely fed into the levels of infection in our communities?

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, we need to provide as much support as we can to businesses because they are having a difficult time, but, at the same time, we need to make sure that the protections and support that we are providing for businesses do not have an inadvertent consequence. I hope that we can provide the financial support that businesses need, and that may mean that they do not need to operate to a level that may cause some difficulties.

The vaccines are being rolled out to the most vulnerable and to those at risk. Christmas is ahead of us, and there is very real hope going into the new year. However, our work as legislators must continue.

As we come to the end of the year once again and prepare to begin anew, let the lessons of the past few weeks not be lost on anyone in the House. Bullheadedness and digging your heels in gets us nowhere and will only set us back. Let us approach the new year with a sense of optimism on what has been done when we let the public down and with a renewed sense of clarity, collective purpose and cohesion for the Executive. While I have issues with what happened and the way in which it happened in November, we continue to look forward to the future. We support the amendments.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members, given that it is now 12.51 pm and the Business Committee is due to meet at 1.00 pm, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Economy Minister. When this item of business resumes, the next Member to speak will be Mr Doug Beattie.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.51 pm.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Economy

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question 10 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 1, 2 and 4. Again, with your permission, I would like to avail myself of the extra minute to answer that grouping.

I am delighted that Project Stratum, delivered through the DUP's confidence and supply deal, is up and running. Project Stratum will utilise public funding, together with Fibrus Networks investment, to deliver gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure to more than 76,000 primarily rural premises across Northern Ireland. The citizens and businesses in these areas have waited far too long for acceptable broadband, and their struggles have been deepened by the COVID-19 crisis. As some 97% of these premises are classed as Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) band H, which covers settlements that have fewer than 1,000 people and are in open countryside, the entire intervention area is a priority for my Department. Deployment work is already under way. That is very significant because, within the nine-month period initially thought to be required for network design, the figure of 19,000 premises will have been passed.

I appreciate that Members will want to know how Project Stratum will impact on their area. My Department is engaging with Fibrus Networks to ensure that citizens and businesses can access further information on deployment plans and project implementation dates. An online portal has been developed by Fibrus Networks to provide this key information throughout the deployment phase of the project. Details of the deployment plan are available on the portal, and a premises checker will be added over the coming weeks. Links to the Hyperfast NI portal can be found on my Department' s website and the Fibrus website. The portal will be updated and expanded as the project progresses.

I understand that some Members may feel disappointed that their areas are further into the roll-out cycle than they would prefer, but I ask for their patience. It is vital that the network is designed with technical and economic efficiency. That will enable as many premises as possible to benefit from the intervention. I hope that Members agree that the important message for citizens and businesses is that a solution is now in reach and that all those premises that were struggling to access acceptable broadband will be served by this intervention, making them among the best-served places for broadband in the United Kingdom and, indeed, throughout Europe.

I assure Members that the management structure for Project Stratum contains the required tiers of project oversight to support robust governance procedures. These include a project board and a project management team. The project board will monitor progress —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Minister's three minutes are up, some time ago.

Mrs Dodds: Sorry. There is a lot of information to get out.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive response. Many MLAs, particularly those who, like me, represent rural areas — I represent West Tyrone, which is in the Sperrins — are itching to know when it will come to our local town or village. When Project Stratum was conceived, it was estimated that the number of premises with no access to superfast broadband was over 100,000, whereas Project Stratum now targets 76,000. Will the Minister explain that gap and advise whether there is a solution for the 30,000 premises not currently part of the Project Stratum intervention area?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I apologise for my lengthy response, Mr Deputy Speaker, but my Department is receiving a lot of questions about this, and we want to give a fulsome response to Members in the Chamber.

The identification of the projects came about through an open market review that identified the potential number of premises available. Those were then looked at in conjunction with the already existing commercial access to broadband, and that gave us the number that we are looking at in the Project Stratum intervention area. There are about 3% of other premises that we would like to have within that intervention area, and we are currently working with our national Government to try to work out a solution for those premises. We will come back to the House as quickly as possible with information on that.

I know that the Member will be interested in this: in West Tyrone, 9,591 premises will be able to avail themselves of superfast broadband as a result of Project Stratum.

Mr K Buchanan: I welcome the Minister's work in getting this rolled out. We are now indeed seeing confidence and supply money rolling into Northern Ireland, and we will now see confidence in and supply of our broadband, and to all communities, I might add. At the very start, some were very negative in their comments about the project, but it is going to be rolled out across all communities and will support all of them. There are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, but obviously there is only one, Minister, and it is the most important one: Mid Ulster. [Laughter.]

What is Project Stratum going to do for the average homeowner, pupil and student in Mid Ulster?

Mrs Dodds: I looked up the figures on the portal before coming to the House. In Mid Ulster, 8,785 premises will benefit from next-generation broadband thanks to the Project Stratum intervention. We have all seen how families have struggled with homeschooling and homeworking during the pandemic. The intervention will increase their ability to do those kinds of things no end.

It is also very important for the economy. One of our economic goals is to have a regionally balanced economy. The new connectivity for the economy is fibre, and that will help us get a regionally balanced economy so that people in rural areas, where before they might have been served by very poor broadband, can now be connected and work in the same way as those in more urban settlements.

Mr Blair: What work is the Department doing on community fibre partnerships to ensure that areas that are not yet included and those that are harder to reach can be included in this or future programmes? I have some such areas in my constituency, and I am sure that the Minster has some in hers.

Mrs Dodds: As I said in response to other colleagues, a small number of premises are still in the very-hard-to-reach category and thus outside the scope of the current Project Stratum. We are in discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and with Fibrus Networks on how we can bring solutions to those premises. That will most probably be on a cost and a case-by-case basis, but we are determined to try to have the best broadband service in the whole of the United Kingdom, if not Europe, for Northern Ireland. It is an enormous selling point when we talk to investors across the globe.

Ms McLaughlin: Project Stratum is indeed a very welcome initiative, and it could not come sooner. What review mechanisms has the Minister in place if, for example, the project is delayed or the roll-out is just not up to the standards or expectations that her Department has?

Mrs Dodds: I am not anticipating problems. This is an exciting project, the goal of which is to give us a better-connected and more regionally balanced economy. It is a really important initiative. We have a project board and different levels of guidance and governance for the project.

Of course, payment will be dependent upon delivery, and that is the most important element. I do not anticipate there being problems. There are always glitches in life, but I am looking forward to a smooth roll-out and to 19,000 properties in Northern Ireland having, by the first six to nine months of next year, a level of broadband that they would not have received commercially. That will make an enormous difference.

Mr Boylan: I welcome today's announcement. The Minister and I have had a number of conversations in the corridor in relation to this project. I want to be a wee bit selfish and ask about the number of premises that are being targeted in Newry and Armagh and the time frame for that. It is most important that this project be rolled out to those premises, most of which are in the open countryside, that have been waiting a number of years for broadband provision.

Mrs Dodds: The Member opposite and I clearly understand how absolutely important this is for, and the economic opportunity that it can bring to, rural communities across Northern Ireland. Project Stratum will target 8,101 premises in the Newry and Armagh constituency. That will give an average coverage of access to next-generation broadband in that whole constituency of 99·5%. That will be a pretty good record, when we reach it.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. I fully appreciate that many pubs have been asked to close under the regulations and, as a result, have had no income or limited income. It is vital that we provide support to prevent permanent pub closures and job losses. That is why I want to see those businesses receiving additional top-up support as soon as possible. My Department has been allocated a funding envelope of £10·6 million and is designing a scheme within that budget that will go forward to the Executive for agreement. The aim of the scheme is to provide compensation to wet pubs that were required to remain closed under the health regulations restrictions for a further 12-week period, from 4 July to 23 September, when the rest of the hospitality sector was permitted to open and trade.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am sure that she will agree that longer-term financial support may be needed well into 2021 to assist the hospitality industry in getting back on its feet and to protect jobs, following so many months of lost income this year. How can we help the sector to recover next year, once the roll-out of the vaccine is at a more advanced stage?

Mrs Dodds: I am on record many, many times in the House as saying that the best way to help the economy is to ensure that it is open and functioning and that people can go about their daily business. We are in the midst of a health pandemic. That, sadly, has brought great suffering to the hospitality sector, and particularly to those traditional pubs that have not been able to open for pretty much most of the year, maybe bar a week or two in late September/early October. That is why it is incumbent upon us to try to support them. I will bring forward the scheme to the Executive this week, hopefully. We are waiting on details of verification checks, and I know that the Member will appreciate that it will have to be done in such a way that we can authenticate and check applications.

Dr Archibald: The fact that that scheme will go to the Executive this week, hopefully, will be welcome news for the sector. All these schemes are very welcome. Last week, the newly self-employed criteria were published. When that scheme opened, it became apparent that some people will still be excluded on the basis of the criteria, particularly in relation to the requirement for 50% of the trading income to have been from self-employment in 2019-2020, which will exclude those who became self-employed later in the year. Will the Minister commit to looking at that criterion to ensure that those people who previously missed out get paid?


2.15 pm

Mrs Dodds: I am, of course, going to provide a full answer on the self-employed scheme. We launched that scheme to deal specifically with those who had no access to any interventions whatsoever. We have broadly employed the same criteria as the schemes in Scotland and Wales, and it is therefore in line with the criteria in the self-employment scheme (SES). That is why the scheme was designed and launched in the way that it was.

We are always willing to look at any of those issues, but we need to have the rationale. The reason for the 50% requirement is to protect those who are genuinely self-employed and to make sure that that is their main source of income.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. With the Minister and the Deputy Speaker's indulgence, I will ask this question: are the Executive looking to provide some sort of grant support for licensed sport and social clubs in order to help them make it through the rest of the winter? Furthermore, will she join me in wishing Mr Stewart Dickson a very happy birthday? [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is stretching the question, but I will pass it to the Minister to decide whether she wishes to respond. [Laughter.]

Mrs Dodds: Mr Deputy Speaker, I could not resist. I am not going to sing the happy birthday song, but I wish the Member a very happy birthday. Given all the challenges that he has been through, that is very welcome.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mrs Dodds: Mr Aiken is always willing to embarrass you at every opportunity, is he not? [Laughter.]

Licensed premises that have been closed and that have been instructed to close will be able to apply for other grant schemes in the same way as others who have applied.

Mrs Dodds: The Executive have agreed a funding allocation of £10 million to support the newly self-employed. The newly self-employed support scheme opened at 6.00 pm on 3 December and will provide financial support to those newly self-employed individuals whose business has been adversely impacted by COVID and who have not been able to access support from the UK Government's self-employment income support scheme.

The scheme will provide a one-off taxable grant of £3,500, enabling support for approximately 2,900 newly self-employed individuals. Invest Northern Ireland will deliver the scheme on behalf of the Department for the Economy, and the scheme will close to applications at 6.00 pm on 7 January 2021.

At scheme closure, any underspend will be considered and a top-up grant may be paid to eligible applicants. Details of the eligibility criteria, along with an eligibility checker, can be found on the NI Business Info website.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, in addition to the support scheme for self-employed workers, is your Department any further forward in developing a scheme that directors of limited companies can avail themselves of?

Mrs Dodds: My Department is developing a scheme for limited companies. Again, we want to discuss the eligibility with the various business organisations that deal with those issues. We are doing that, and we will continue to work on it as quickly as we can.

I put on the record that we in my Department are managing parts A and B of the COVID restrictions schemes; we have launched the self-employment scheme; and we have almost finished working up the scheme for traditional pubs. We also have a scheme waiting for large hospitality, another for bed and breakfast businesses and we are working very hard on the high street stimulus scheme. I pay tribute to the officials from my Department for the work that they are doing in order to support businesses in Northern Ireland. That is an enormous workload on top of all the other day-to-day issues.

Mr Stalford: I associate myself with the comments of Mr Aiken, although I would not dare to guess which birthday Mr Dickson is celebrating. I would not wish to offend — or compliment — him by making a guess.

The scale of the challenge that the Minister faces in stimulating the economy is reflected in the fact that she put in a bid for £390 million and received roughly a third of that from the Finance Minister. It is not real money in the sense of the economy generating new money; it is government money that will, ultimately, have to be paid back.

Can the Minister commit to using her influence and power in the Executive to push for the fastest easing of restrictions on economic activity that safety will allow? It is essential that people be allowed to get back to work.

Mrs Dodds: The Member, and Members across the House, will be in no doubt that a fully functioning economy is required to be open and devoid of restrictions. However, we are in the middle of difficult health circumstances, and, like my colleague Robin Swann, my advice to people is to be respectful of one another, remember the rules, wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear your face mask. If we do those things, we can have an economy that is freer and more open and able to trade.

I noticed today that the first woman in the world to receive the vaccine — although she lives in Coventry, and we will forgive her for that — is from Northern Ireland. I take that as a great sign of hope for the future, recognising that getting the vaccine rolled out is a mammoth challenge.

Mr O'Dowd: Minister, I want to return to the self-employed and newly self-employed. I understand that representatives of the self-employed are bringing forward to the Minister proposals that would meet her objectives of ensuring that the public purse is protected and that money goes to those most in need. Will the Minister take those proposals seriously and undertake to assist the newly self-employed?

Mrs Dodds: I think that the Member knows well enough that I receive delegations from right across the spectrum of Northern Ireland, and I will treat their representations with respect and look at all suggestions that are put forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Rachel Woods is not in her place.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. Given the tweets that we have just seen, and some of the issues that have been aired today, her question is timely.

Since taking office, my priority has been to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses continue to enjoy unfettered access to our largest market, Great Britain. I have engaged with our Government on a regular basis to ensure that, and I am pleased that those efforts are yielding results.

Unfettered access can be guaranteed by the United Kingdom through the Internal Market Bill by agreement in the Joint Committee. I note the latest reports. I also note, and the House should note, that I spoke to businesses this morning, and all agree that a pragmatic, practical outcome is desired.

The SI covering goods from Northern Ireland into GB is too vague; it is not a comprehensive definition of a Northern Ireland-qualifying good. While international trade, including which measures will be taken to ensure that EU goods do not use Northern Ireland as a backdoor to the GB market, is a matter for the United Kingdom Government, it is important that the quality and provenance of Northern Ireland goods are preserved. The Government have yet to outline specific anti-avoidance measures that would be used against EU businesses attempting to avoid tariffs by bringing goods into Northern Ireland.

I welcome the commitment to developing a sustainable longer-term definition of "qualifying", and anti-avoidance measures. Engagement with industry and the Executive on those is essential. The Executive have written to the Government supporting proposals from the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) that could act as an effective model for the agri-food sector in ensuring unfettered access.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. Minister, can you advise on the country of origin of goods that have been produced using products from several countries, for example cheese or Baileys drink?

Mrs Dodds: The Member will be glad to know that I spoke to the chief executive of Dairy UK on that very issue this morning. I assume that the Member refers to milk in Northern Ireland that may have been processed into cheese etc in the Republic of Ireland. We need a practical outcome to this so that, if it is done in that way, it is treated as a product of origin of one or the other. However, most importantly, what we need to ensure for all of our produce is that we have free access to the EU market in this respect and that we also have access to our biggest market. I will repeat this because it is worth repeating: Northern Ireland sells more in the Great Britain market than it does in the Republic of Ireland, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world all added together. That unfettered access to GB is absolutely vital.

Mr McAleer: The Minister made reference to the anti-avoidance measures that the British Government are supposed to put in place to prevent the North from becoming a back door into the British market. That has the potential to become a huge impediment to trade heading east. There are only 23 days to go until the end of the transition period. Does she have any assessment or sense of what shape the anti-avoidance measures might take?

Mrs Dodds: As I said in my answer to the original question, the Government have said that they would bring in anti-avoidance measures. Those are likely to be measures around asking firms to prove that they are not using a particular route through Northern Ireland in order to avoid duty on the goods that they are bringing into the GB market.

A couple of things are massively important for Northern Ireland. We want to preserve our place within the United Kingdom's internal market. As I have said, it is the most important market for Northern Ireland. I know that the Member will be extremely interested in this. For agri-food in particular, it is absolutely vital that we preserve that place. It is equally vital that we preserve the provenance of Northern Ireland goods so that Northern Ireland is not seen as a bit of a back door through which anybody and everybody can bring goods into the GB market. That would undermine us in the GB market and undermine the value and provenance of Northern Ireland goods. That is massively important as well.

Mr O'Toole: I do not know if the Minister has seen it, but, in the last hour, there has been news of some agreement at the Joint Committee. She, like me, will want to see the detail of that agreement between Minister Gove and Vice-President Šefcovic. Pursuant to that, once we see the detail, is she wiling, with others in the Executive, to press for full access for Northern Ireland businesses to existing EU trade deals? Via the Joint Committee, we should be able to agree that we get access both to UK deals and, of course, the UK market — and I agree with her on that — but also existing EU trade deals. That offers real opportunity for businesses here. It is also essential for —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has asked his question.

Mr O'Toole: — businesses, particularly the dairy business.

Mrs Dodds: The chief executive of Dairy UK will be very pleased that we were listening to him this morning. I, like you, will want to see the detail of what has been agreed. I have read the statement, which followed discussions that have been ongoing for a number of days. As I have said in the House on many occasions, for Northern Ireland and for the rest of the United Kingdom, it would be better if we were able to achieve that zero-tariff, zero-quota deal. We need the practical outcomes of the protocol to be agreed. As I said in an earlier answer, we can do that through either the Internal Market Bill or, with the agreement of the EU, the Joint Committee.

I will be very interested in the outcome of the discussions today and in the Minister's statement about the discussions to the House tomorrow.


2.30 pm

It is important that we have access to the new trade deals that the United Kingdom will do. That is a huge issue for us. Of the 37 trade deals that the EU has, most, bar about three, have rolled over. As members of the United Kingdom, we will have automatic access to those rolled-over EU trade deals. We very much need to make sure that we have access to the new trade deals with the US, New Zealand and Australia on the same basis as every other part of the United Kingdom.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of our period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister for the Economy what proposals she has to bring forward a scheme to assist PAYE contributors who have been excluded both from furlough and the newly self-employed support scheme. (AQT 801/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I presume that the Member means the national self-employed income support scheme (SEISS). As I indicated, we have launched a scheme for the self-employed. That is for those who became self-employed after March 2019 and could not, therefore, have supplied a tax return to HMRC before we were struck by COVID in March 2020. The scheme that we have brought forward is broadly the same as the schemes that were developed in Scotland and Wales. I look forward to those who have been unable to access any support being able to access support through that scheme.

I presume that the Member is also asking about those who became self-employed, say, in 2018 or in late 2019, who have not had a particularly successful outcome through SEISS. Those people are not included in our scheme and would require a completely separate scheme. Of course, it will be up to the Executive to decide whether they want to include those people in the scheme. That would mean topping up national schemes, and the Executive would have to decide whether they want to do that and whether the Finance Minister has the funding for it.

Ms Bradshaw: Minister, thank you for your response. I have recently received correspondence from constituents who have advised me that, when they applied for the newly self-employed support scheme, they had been frustrated by what seemed to be a mismatch between the definitions used in the Go For It programme and what the Department is using for eligibility. Could you look into that? As you know, Minister, many of those who have fallen through the cracks are in very dire straits, and it is having a serious impact on their mental well-being.

Mrs Dodds: I am completely aware of how difficult life has been over the last number of months. That is why, through the three support schemes that we brought out earlier this year, we paid out over £340 million to those who required help. I am also aware that that did not include everyone who needed help. That is why we have specifically targeted the self-employed who were unable to access the national self-employment income support scheme. That is a very important distinction.

The criteria for the new scheme were developed in line with those that the excluded group brought forward. They are also in line with those used in the Scottish and Welsh schemes of the same nature.

T2. Mr Middleton asked the Minister for the Economy, given that she will be aware of the media attention on the discussions and agreement between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, whether she agrees that it is vital that an overall trade deal be reached to support businesses in Northern Ireland and whether she would support a flexibility or grace period for local companies as they try to adapt to the new arrangements post 1 January. (AQT 802/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I thank my colleague for his question. It is important that we reach a deal; I have said many times that that would be the best outcome for Northern Ireland. It is also important that we reach a conclusion on the issues that the protocol has thrown up for Northern Ireland. I do not support the protocol. I am not pretending about that to anyone in the House — everyone knows my view. However, we have practical issues to resolve for the good of the business community and economy in Northern Ireland, and to support jobs. That is important.

This morning, I spoke to my EU stakeholders group, which is made up of a wide range of businesses across Northern Ireland. We agreed with yesterday's statement from business leaders that a period to ease the adjustment is necessary given the late hour of the agreement. Of course, we will reserve judgement on the agreement until we see the details.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her response and welcome her comments. I agree with her that it is important that we wait to see the detail. Will she continue to raise the concerns around the protocol? This morning, with colleagues, I met representatives of the airlines. They raised serious concerns about the impact that the protocol will have on them. Will the Minister commit to continuing to raise those issues on their behalf?

Mrs Dodds: I absolutely will. What we might see from the discussions of the Joint Committee are high-level agreements coming out over the next number of days. Underneath those, however, will be a myriad of practical issues that the protocol has imposed upon us and which need to be resolved. I advise those in the House who call for full implementation of the protocol to step into my shoes for a brief period and listen to the difficulties of businesses that are struggling with the complexities of customs, export certificates and the cost to them. Another important issue for the House, and one that we need to keep reminding the Government of, is that cost to business and their promise to ensure that businesses do not have to bear it themselves.

T3. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister for the Economy, given that she has provided multiple grants to hotels and accommodation providers but continues to exclude taxi drivers and the coach industry, to give a commitment to amend part B of the coronavirus business support scheme so that taxi drivers and coach operators can access payments additional to the rather meagre payments that they have received from the Department for Infrastructure, particularly because the black taxis play a valuable role in the tourism sector in his constituency and the other Belfast constituencies, where the drivers provide guided tours for tourists throughout the city, to the benefit of hoteliers and other accommodation providers. (AQT 803/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: Of course, the Member will understand that the responsibility for looking after taxi drivers and the coach and haulage industries is with the Department for Infrastructure. It is the Department that regulates same and has brought forward the scheme in relation to same.

The COVID restrictions business support scheme is meant to look after the supply chain of businesses that are named in the restrictions. Therefore, they have to be named and be in the direct supply chain: they must have a contract with a named business. The best way in which to support taxi drivers is to have an open and free economy. Of course, in the next year, one of our absolute priorities will be to restart and reboot the tourism economy so that we can see visitors coming back to Northern Ireland and ensure that jobs in that sector are secure for the future. Northern Ireland has a lot to offer tourists, and I look forward to working with the sector on that renewal. I hope to make announcements about that in the near future.

Mr Sheehan: I must say that I am very disappointed with that answer. Taxi drivers in particular, who, under normal circumstances, work long and antisocial hours for little recompense, have been left behind in the pandemic. It took a long, long time to launch the Department for Infrastructure scheme.

The Minister has the power to —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Does the Member have a question?

Mr Sheehan: — amend part B of the coronavirus business support scheme, which would ensure that taxi drivers and coach operators get additional payments.

Mrs Dodds: I sympathise with taxi drivers and coach operators. There already is a scheme for them, however. They have applied to it, and those applications have been verified, but if the Executive decide that there should be additional funding for that scheme to satisfy additional hardship payments, I will support that.

T4. Mr Irwin asked the Minister for the Economy whether Northern Ireland is part of the GB Kickstart scheme, given that, as she will be aware, the impact of COVID on the economy has been unprecedented, and it is his understanding that a number of initiatives exist to help people stay in work or find new employment. (AQT 804/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. Much of what we do in the Department for the Economy is to support the broader economy and to support training and initiatives in the economy. That is why we launched our apprenticeship schemes, which are being received well by industry. We are creating new apprenticeships and supporting others. Kickstart is the Department for Communities' scheme, and I spoke with the Minister some months ago when Kickstart was announced for the rest of the United Kingdom. I understand that she is working up a scheme, and I encourage her to bring it forward as quickly as possible.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for her response. I am sure that she will agree with me that it is vital that every effort be made to help many of those businesses.

Mrs Dodds: Absolutely. It is really important to help businesses, and individuals as well. Perhaps the House, in the closing minutes of this Question Time, will want to know that part A of the COVID restrictions business support scheme has received 3,603 applications, of which, to date, support has been paid out to 2,544, with over £12 million being given to individuals in this period of restrictions. We hope to have all of part A of the scheme fully paid out by the end of the week, except for the one or two applications that are much more difficult to do. Part B of the COVID restrictions business support scheme will start paying out this week, with significant payments being made today and on Friday.

T5. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister for the Economy, after giving his full support to Project Stratum and the progress that has been made, with Fibrus being awarded the contract, but also expressing his concern about the timeline for increased broadband coverage, for her assessment of the need to prioritise West Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the roll-out, given that those constituencies are the worst impacted in terms of connectivity. (AQT 805/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I have made my view very clear on that. The contract was awarded in such a way that the company that got it would be able to roll it out in a way that made most economic and technical sense. If we start to prioritise one area here, one area there and one area somewhere else, we will make the contract more expensive, and fewer homes and premises will then be included in the contract area.

Like you, I would like to see my constituents get broadband in their area as quickly as possible, and they would like to see me being able to chop and change things around, but that is not how it will work. We are rolling it out in the most economic and technically sensible way in order to get the most that we can from the contract and to include as many premises as we can in it.

Mr McCrossan: West Tyrone is somewhat worse, but I understand that we have to defend our constituents. Can the Minister outline whether any assessment has been undertaken with her colleague the Minister of Education on the impact that Project Stratum will have on boosting broadband connectivity in rural schools?


2.45 pm

Mrs Dodds: I have not spoken to the Minister of Education about that specific issue, but we all know that connectivity is key. It is king, and fibre is the new method of connectivity. Project Stratum will bring economic opportunity to your constituents in West Tyrone on an equal basis to those who live in larger urban settlements. That is a good thing for families, farms and jobs in the West Tyrone area. I look forward to seeing it roll out.

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

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Education

Mr Butler: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: We do not take points of order during Question Time, Robbie. Sorry about that. I will take it later.

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): I thank the Member for her question. It is my priority that examinations to award Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) qualifications, which is the one area that I have direct control over, should go ahead as planned in 2021. However, it is clear that there is a need — I have acknowledged this from the start — for adaptations, given where we are this year.

The first suite of adaptations, which I agreed on 9 October and subsequently on 6 November for GCSE qualifications, provide a significant reduction in the burden of assessment for young people while still allowing as much opportunity as possible to cover the content of the specifications. I also agreed a number of health-related adaptations for AS and A levels. However, the situation has been kept under review, and my officials have been working closely with CCEA to develop a range of further mitigations and contingencies to respond to the fluid public health situation. That is particularly the case for AS and A levels. That work is at an advanced stage. It has also involved discussions with key stakeholders in terms of partnership at school principal level. I hope to be in a position to provide more information on that issue very soon.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his answer. Having read the public exam guidance that was published in November, I and many others are still deeply concerned that the Minister and CCEA continue to ignore the concerns of young people, their families and teachers. There will be no level playing field when it comes to the public exams that will be used next year. Many young people will have had multiple periods of self-isolation, so the education experience is very varied. Will the Minister consider directing CCEA to add greater optionality for the exam papers for 2021 to try to reduce some of the stress that is being felt by our young people?

Mr Weir: As with a lot of things in education, it depends on what you define as a particular term. Optionality has, generally speaking, been considered from a purely educational point of view, which is about having more exam questions from which to choose. Direct concerns have been raised. That is one of the options that continues to be looked at.

Concerns have been raised, particularly by non-selective schools, that optionality, by that definition, would create problems, especially for some children with special educational needs and candidates who are not as strong academically, and that it could discriminate against them. However, there is a range of other options, if I may put it that way, for adaptations that I hope to bring forward very soon.

We have already gone further than some other jurisdictions, particularly England, with adaptations for GCSEs. I hope to be in position to come to a conclusion and to make further announcements on those adaptations before Christmas in order to give people a level of certainty. We will have to take account of the current wider situation because it is about trying to create as level a playing field as possible. In the current circumstances, whatever direction I or any jurisdiction move in, the playing field will not be completely level for anyone. That is part of the difficulty, because, sometimes, making one decision will be fair for some people and unfair for others, and it is about trying to balance that. I hope to be able to reach a conclusion on that fairly soon.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for his answer to the question. I am very concerned — I have put my concerns firmly on record — about examinations going ahead, particularly given what happened in the summer and the impact that that has had on the mental health of our young people and teachers in schools. Minister, you are in the bad books of a lot of students and teachers, and I think that you know that very well. Given the situation and that the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the mental health champion have spoken out, will you now cancel examinations this year?

Mr Weir: No, I will not. Frankly, if we are talking about fairness for people, we first have to take into account that the exams that I control are administered by CCEA. If we were to cancel all CCEA examinations, there would still be roughly 20% of students doing English board examinations. It would place students in Northern Ireland in a different position not just from students in England, Scotland and Wales but — this may be of greater interest to the Member — the Republic of Ireland, all of whom are going ahead with examinations. Every jurisdiction, by one means or another, is going ahead with examinations.

We need to ensure that we have a level playing field for grading throughout the United Kingdom and that, as much as possible, there is a level playing field for students in Northern Ireland. If we were the only jurisdiction that, in all forms, abandoned examinations, where would that leave some of our students when making comparisons for university places? Rather than snatching at a populist headline, we have to think this through so that we can see where it leaves our students.

The one thing that I am going to do is be absolutely straight with students and others. Members will say, "Wales has abandoned exams". It has not, really. It is having assessments that are externally set and externally marked. Presumably, if there is going to be a level playing field for students in Wales, those assessments will have to be carried out under examination conditions. In many ways, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

Mr Butler: We are now on the edge of the Christmas break for schools with no certainty about a return date due to the potential for increased COVID transmission over the festive holiday. What impact assessment has your Department carried out on the extent of lost classroom learning, particularly for years 11 to 14?

Mr Weir: From that point of view, the adaptations that will be put forward will cover the situation and will recognise that not every student has faced the same issues. We will also need to look, in a wider UK context, at dealing with special considerations for individuals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, rumours will always abound in Northern Ireland. There are no plans to delay the return to school in January. I want our young people to have as full an opportunity as possible to be educated directly. Let us make sure that rumours do not start that, again, do not have any substance.

Mr Speaker: Questions 2 and 7 have been withdrawn. I call Chris Lyttle.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. I was not aware that question 2 had been withdrawn.

As the Member will be aware, setting admissions criteria is, by law, a matter for boards of governors of individual schools. To assist in the process, guidance was issued to all post-primary schools on the operation of the transfer procedure. However, given the unique situation that we find ourselves in, I have also written to the boards of governors of schools that will be using the entrance test results in their admissions criteria. I am sure that the Member will be aware that schools are under an obligation to publish the criteria and to produce them by 11 December. I have told boards of governors that, in drafting their criteria, they should consider any eventuality whereby test results are available, but not necessarily for every student.

As such, I have indicated to them that, as part of the single set of admissions criteria, they should look at how they will deal with students who will have had to self-isolate, for instance, and, perhaps, have not been able to do all the tests. They will also be working alongside the test providers. It is also the case, this year, that schools will apply special circumstances. I have asked them to review their special circumstances, because I suspect that there will be a greater call on those this year than in previous years. It will be for individual schools to determine how they deal with such applications, and once criteria are completed, they will be published by the Education Authority at the beginning of the new year.

Mr Lyttle: The Education Minister has failed to introduce a dedicated code to gather COVID-19-related pupil absence data, but, in November, the National Association of Head Teachers surveyed 89 primary schools and found that, on average, as many as 37% of P7 pupils had experienced a COVID-19-related absence since the start of term. I ask the Education Minister, yet again, how can it be fair to base post-primary admission on testing 10-year-old children in such exceptional circumstances?

Mr Weir: I admire the Member for the inventive ways in which he attacks academic selection. His attacks seem to take slightly different twists and turns, and the route, now, is under the cover of COVID-19.

With regard to absences, we have direct information on pupils who are absent and still able to engage, and those who are self-isolating. Those figures reached their highest point towards the end of October when there was a combined rate of about 8%. It is a lot lower than that for most of the other weeks, and it tends to be slightly lower in primary schools than in post-primary schools.

We have seen the alternatives suggested by a few schools looking to move away from academic selection this year. The alternatives that they seem to have produced relate to whether your mum, dad or older brother went to the school. It is a range of those things. It is a form of selection by family and genetics. Sometimes, it will be a question of getting into the school if you have a brother, but not if you have a sister, or vice versa. It is an accident of birth — an accident of DNA.

Whatever the criticisms of academic selection, it is, at least, based on the merits of the applicant. As such, while a wider debate on academic selection has gone on for a long time, with a range of views, to jump in and put in place those sorts of measures will only exacerbate difference and make it utterly impossible for some students to get into a school that is not based on academic selection. If a child was the greatest genius in the land, they would simply be denied, because of who they were related to. That does not seem to be a particularly satisfactory way of selecting children for an oversubscribed school.

Mr Sheehan: The Minister will be well aware of Sinn Féin's position on academic selection and the rejection of children. Participation in those tests should not be equated with support for them. Often, sitting those tests is the only way that children can get into a school that is nearest to their home.

What alternatives is the Minister considering to post-primary transfer this year in the context of COVID-19, absences from school, self-isolation and mental health issues?


3.00 pm

Mr Weir: I appreciate that your party has been very consistent and clear-cut on the issue. I support academic selection and the right to academic selection. It is enshrined in law. Unless schools choose something that takes them outside the law, admissions criteria are up to individual boards of governors. We can give schools advice that says, "You need to have a range of criteria to look at eventualities for individuals". However, it is ultimately a choice for schools.

Many fine schools across the system have never used academic selection, or only use it partially, and also get absolutely brilliant results. I welcome those schools, and I do not intend to force academic selection on anyone. However, neither do I intend to take the right to academic selection away from schools. I am not planning for an alternative. We will give advice, particularly on what is required on health and safety issues. We also advise that schools need to be more cognisant this year, on a wide range of criteria, to cover those eventualities. We will give guidance, particularly on the special circumstances that each individual school has to apply; it cannot be something that is done on a blanket basis. Those schools need to examine their criteria closely to make sure that they are fit for purpose for this year, but I am not going to impose a solution on them that takes away their right to academic selection.

Mrs Barton: Thank you very much for your answers so far, Minister. With regard to the use of academic selection for this cohort of pupils, can you outline any contingency planning discussions that you or your Department have had with grammar schools in response to the recent successful Committee for Education motion on the same issue?

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. I have made it very clear that not only is academic selection in legislation but it is up to boards of governors. It is not a question of me or my Department coming up with criteria. The grammar schools that use academic selection are perfectly entitled to do so. I am not going to interfere in that right. As I said, a range of mitigations is being put in place this year, because anybody doing any form of public examination will have to follow a range of guidelines for health and safety. That will apply in all circumstances. However, I will not take away the right to academic selection. I will not be the Minister who seeks, by the front door or the back, to destroy our grammar-school system.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. To help support schools and the education sector in addressing many of the new pressures arising as a result of COVID-19, I announced significant additional funding, with the support of the Executive. To date, extra allocations of £6·9 million have been made to the Education Authority (EA), earmarked for special educational needs pressures arising from COVID-19 and Education Restart. I have asked the EA to continue to monitor funding requirements as the pandemic progresses, in order to inform potential departmental bids for additional resources.

Mr Buckley: I know that the Minister fully appreciates the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on children with special educational needs. He will join with me in appreciating the tenacity of the children and the teachers and parents who look after those young people. Will the Minister provide an update on the transformation and improvement programme of special educational needs services?

Mr Weir: I am happy to do so. The Member mentioned teachers and parents. As we move towards Christmas, I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation — as I have done before, particularly for those in special educational needs but across the board — for parents, principals, teachers and all educational staff who have ensured that education continues.

Specifically on the question that the Member asked, the SEN governance group was established in September to maintain strategic oversight of the implementation of improvements being made in the EA and the Department. Considerable criticism has been levelled in the various reports that have been produced, and it is important that those are answered strategically.

The EA recently established a programme of improvements through its SEN strategic development programme, which provides a single coordinating governance structure for the SEN transformation agenda across Northern Ireland. The programme not only draws together ongoing multi-agency SEN development work but defines a single strategic plan to address the wide-ranging recommendations for changes that have resulted from various review reports over the past few years, including the 2020 Northern Ireland Audit Office SEN report, the SEN learner journey recommendations and the recent report by the Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner.

Mr Dickson: Minister, can you explain why the school restart fund does not apply to special schools? Is the failure to apply the fund to special schools an act of discrimination against special schools?

Mr Weir: No, it is not. Perhaps I am being a bit pedantic, but the Member may be referring to the Engage programme rather than restart. The restart fund is the wider package of measures that is being taken into account. As I indicated, £6·9 million of restart funding is directly for special educational needs. The Engage programme is £11·2 million of funding and is targeted at mainstream schools. As a more one-to-one intervention is required in special schools, I have instructed the EA to work directly with special schools to make provision of a similar nature to the Engage programme. Given the budgeting, the Engage programme has been delegated to schools. As the Member will also be aware, budgets for special educational needs are not devolved to the schools but are dealt with at EA level, which is why I have instructed the EA. There is a good argument for a lot more flexibility with the budgets. With the Engage programme, the flexibility on how that money is used is devolved to individual schools. Needs will be met directly in special schools, but the budget will come through the EA rather than the Engage programme.

Ms Mullan: Minister, the Education Committee heard evidence a number of weeks ago that suggested that the Department of Health had not fulfilled its obligations to cooperate with the Education Department on children with special education needs. Can the Minister assess the current levels of cooperation between the Education and Health Departments to support children with special education needs?

Mr Weir: To be fair, while the Committee Chair and I will often clash, he made reasonable suggestions to develop better stakeholder engagement and a reference group for vulnerable children. I am trying to take the suggestions forward with officials. As the Member suggested, that cannot happen purely in the Department of Education, and it requires cooperation.

Much of the Member's question would be better answered by the Health Minister. However, good work has been done and the situation is beginning to improve. There is no doubt that turning aspirations into real cooperation can be challenging at times and requires a continual effort. It can be brought forward as the consultation on the SEN regulations comes to an end, and the code of practice will be allied to the regulations. The code of practice will be a driver to improve what we can do for our young people with special educational needs.

Mr Allister: Extra resources in this area are very welcome. However, does the Minister agree that there needs to be better alignment between the release of resources and further improvement of the statementing process? The current targets are still disappointing. You can have all the resources that you like, but if the kids are not statemented, you are not marrying the two, and that is where the solution lies.

Mr Weir: I agree with the Member up to a point. As with all issues, resources are required to do certain things. Resources, in and of themselves, are not the complete picture. I do not have the figures to hand, but timescales for the statementing process have improved considerably. They started from a very poor base a year or two ago and have reduced considerably.

I see somebody shaking their head from a sedentary position, who clearly does not have the figures in front of them either. I revealed the figures at my previous Question Time.

Before the Chair gets a little bit paranoid, I will say that I am not accusing him. For once, he is an innocent man. The figures suggest very long-term waits. For example, a number of months ago, a number of children were waiting, say, more than a year and a half for a statement. That is no longer the case. There have been reductions in all those elements. It is about making that progress.

The Member is right about alignment, and the purpose of the SEN regulations is to try to get a much more joined-up approach. That is why they are out for consultation. It is important that we can move ahead with those as soon as possible and do as much as we can with the resources that are there.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. As Nettlefield Primary School is a controlled school, the Education Authority is responsible for minor capital works there. It has advised that, subject to the availability of funding and prioritisation of other works, consideration is being given to progressing minor works at the school. I know that the Member takes a close interest in Nettlefield, and I believe that it was one of the schools that the permanent secretary and I visited pre-COVID, which seems a long time ago. Specifically, in the next financial year, the EA is looking to progress minor works relating to the toilets and the roofing, and I know that there is a danger with the windows. The concrete steps outside the school office could also prove to be a hazard. All those matters are being considered for progression by the Education Authority, which will deal with the operational side of it.

Mr Stalford: I declare an interest as a past pupil of Nettlefield Primary School. I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. The Minister knows that this is a unique building. I think that it is a listed building, which complicates the process of making improvements to it. The Minister has seen the state of some of the rotten window frames and the general poor state of some parts of that building. Please, will he do everything in his power to process this as quickly as possible and get the work carried out? The school really needs it.

Mr Weir: I appreciate that. One of the restrictions has been the school's listed status, which is not unique to Nettlefield. For some buildings, listed status is not, with the best will in the world, preserving great Georgian architecture but is, at times, holding back measures that need to be taken to improve health and safety. The EA is cognisant of the issues at Nettlefield. The problem is that, when the last call was made for minor works, there were around 6,000 applications, about 600 of which have been funded so far. There is a lot of demand out there, but I can give the assurance that the EA will take it seriously and that the Member being a past pupil of Nettlefield will in no way disadvantage the school. [Laughter.]

Mr O'Toole: I welcome the Minister's answer. Although I am not a past pupil, Nettlefield clearly has real issues. It is a notable building, and it really needs the work that my South Belfast colleague has asked for.

May I ask a brief question on the broader capital budget of the Department of Education? Given that it has been a unique year for getting capital spending out the door, has the Minister had any conversations with the Finance Minister about ensuring that the capital allocation that sits with you this year will be spent in-year and none of it will be handed back?

Mr Weir: I understand that, and I think that the Department was well aware of that. For instance, some money has been released, after discussions with DOF, to the EA for issues such as the procurement of additional bus allocation and a range of other procurements. I appreciate that there was disruption, particularly around the spring, to capital spend. We have caught up on some of that. On the broader budget, as we move towards 2021, the situation with capital resources will still be very tight across the board, but I had very useful conversations with the Minister of Finance yesterday on the broader budgetary issues covering both resource and capital demand.

Mr Nesbitt: I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating Nettlefield on surviving the many challenges that it has faced down the years. I understand that the Minister has visited West Winds Primary School, which is in the constituency that we both serve. Will he join me in congratulating the senior leadership team on the energy that it has brought to school life? Will he support that team's desire to see the same infrastructure improvements in that school as have been seen in other primary schools in the area in recent years?


3.15 pm

Mr Weir: I certainly congratulate the school on its hard work and success, not just under its current principal but under its previous principal. It has been success story and a particular beacon of light.

For people who are checking the Register of Members' Interests, I should perhaps indicate that I visited the school in my capacity as an MLA for the area, as I think the Member did as well, rather than in my capacity as Minister of Education. I was able to view some of the school's challenges and some of the improvements that need to be made to its physical infrastructure. Speaking as an MLA, I am very much in favour of those improvements. Indeed, I want to see the best possible availability of space and construction for all our pupils, not just in the great constituency of Strangford but beyond the constituency and throughout Northern Ireland.

Ms Brogan: I thank the Minister for his update on Nettlefield Primary School. Can he provide an update on the Strule shared education campus in Omagh, which is in my constituency of West Tyrone, please?

Mr Weir: I should first say that this is the Member's first Education Question Time. I will see her tomorrow at the Education Committee, and I welcome her to her place.

Work is continuing on that. Recently, I have taken a position to the Executive, and the Executive all agreed that we need to move ahead with Strule. There is still some work to be finalised between the Department of Finance and Treasury. Without breaking any confidentiality, I was able to raise the matter directly with the Finance Minister yesterday, and the Department of Finance is pushing ahead. We need a final position from Treasury to confirm all of that, however. It is probably the biggest capital project that Northern Ireland has ever undertaken, and there is a strong determination, not just from the Department of Education and me as Minister of Education but from the whole Executive, to carry on to make sure that the campus is brought to fruition.

Mr Lyttle: Can the Minister outline the monetary scale of the maintenance backlog across Northern Ireland?

Mr Weir: I do not have those figures directly to hand, but I will be happy to provide them to the Member.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions, Members. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Education whether he has read the excellent report on the independent review of integrated education and, if so, whether he has any initial comments to make on its recommendations. (AQT 811/17-22)

Mr Weir: Yes, of course I have read the report. Indeed, I had to take some imaginative action to make sure that it was published on time in the previous mandate. I think that its final version was produced during the period of purdah, so I had to make sure that it was able to be released. In order to cover the situation in which we are not supposed to release anything during purdah, I remember that the report had to be released at a quarter to 10 on election day in 2017.

As I said, yes, I have read the report. A number of its recommendations have been put in place. The report refers to the fact that, where there are outstanding recommendations, a number of them are part of a wider picture and some may not be 100% appropriate, but the consideration of that is in the wider revised draft terms of reference that hopefully will form part of the independent review. I have submitted a paper to the Executive on that. Any independent review would take forward anything that is outstanding from that.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. I refer him to recommendation 17, which suggests that his Department should be more proactive in advising schools about the transformation process. Is he satisfied that the Department, historically, has delivered on its statutory obligation to facilitate and encourage integrated education?

Mr Weir: I should say that, although history was one of my favourite subjects at school and is something that a lot of politicians in Northern Ireland will always get accused of being immersed in, I do not really think that there is a great deal of point in trying to decide retrospectively what should have happened five years ago or 10 years ago. Trying to meet the challenges of where we are now is probably the more appropriate response. As I indicated, as part of the outstanding recommendations, we will look at what is appropriate to be put in place. How it can be put in place will lie with the independent review, which hopefully will soon be initiated.

T2. Ms Flynn asked the Minister of Education, after welcoming his recent announcement of £5 million for schools to support pupils’ mental health and well-being, albeit that £1·5 million came from the Department of Health, to state whether £5 million was sufficient and to outline whether he plans to submit further bids. (AQT 812/17-22)

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. There are actually two funds, and she may be slightly mixing up the two. Of the £5 million that was recently allocated, £4·75 million was directly for schools; the other £0·25 million was for the Youth Service, because obviously there were gaps there. That was specifically money that I had put forward a proposal for. The Executive endorsed that and provided it via the COVID side of things.

With regard to the £1·5 million that the Member referred to, there are plans to have a wider, embedded £6·5 million in addition to the £5 million. The £6·5 million is for mental health and well-being, with that contribution from Health because of the crossover issues. The aim is for that to roll out in the new year.

There may be some possibilities to look at what can be done next year and, while COVID funding will still be available in 2021-22, I am sure that the Finance Minister, if he was here, would indicate that it is roughly about a quarter of what it was in total. There is still the possibility to bid for further COVID money, but the aim is, in addition to the COVID money, to have something secured within the Budget on a rolling annual basis.

Of the original £6·5 million, as this is the first year of additional funding, some of that will be through pilot programming. We have to see what works in practice. What may work in West Belfast may not work in West Tyrone, or what works in a primary school may not work in a special school or a post-primary school. Part of it will be testing out and then trying to embed what is very successful and, perhaps, shift resources.

Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for his response. Will the Minister also outline the time frame for the delivery of the emotional health and well-being framework? Will he commit to making this an urgent priority in the new year of 2021?

Mr Weir: The framework will try to marry the two issues, so it will be early in the new year for both.

T3. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister of Education, after declaring an interest as a governor of Nendrum College, Comber, for an update on any discussions that are being held about controlled post-primary provision in the Ards area. (AQT 813/17-22)

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. As the Member is aware, there has been pressure on places, particularly at some post-primary schools in the Ards area, in recent years. In light of this, 90 extra places were allocated across the Strangford constituency in advance of the 2020 process. We tried, to some extent, to get ahead with that. There will be some reduction in pressures in 2021 because a smaller cohort will be transferring. In addition, I have put in an initial 10 places in advance of 2021, but my Department stands ready to allocate further temporary variations. For permanent change, a development proposal would need to take place.

To try to judge where the pressures are in the area, I want to look at a new policy of rightsizing and normalisation, as it is called, across the board in Northern Ireland. If a number of schools, for instance, have year-on-year issues with getting temporary variations, that can be taken into account. Legally, the definition for a development proposal will be a significant change. However, it strikes me that, where there are scenarios that are simply reflecting what has happened on the ground, that will need to be put into place. With regard to any specific development proposal, that will come as a legal process that I, as Minister, and the Department will have to give a direct verdict on. I cannot comment on any individual development proposal.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his response. Parents and pupils are keen to have provision for post-16 education at Nendrum College, and Glastry College is long overdue a new build. Will the Minister provide an update on what consideration is being given to those projects?

Mr Weir: At the moment, it would be a significant change if we were to move to the scenario where either school has sixth-form provision as opposed to school ending for pupils at age 16. I do not have any particular problem with that per se, but it would come as a development proposal (DP).

As for the current situation, any development proposal would need to come through the managing authority. At present, there have not been any published DPs for Nendrum College or Glastry College from the EA. If that were to be considered, it would have to be initiated through those organisations. It may be that it has, again, been overtaken by other events. The Member may want to raise that directly with the new chair of the Education Authority, Mr Barry Mulholland, whose appointment was announced today.

T4. Ms Rogan asked the Minister of Education to outline a time frame for the full implementation of the new special educational needs (SEN) arrangements, given that we are all too aware of the shortcomings in recent years in the administrative and operational processes involved in the provision for SEN children, albeit that the new SEN framework and the associated regulations in the code of practice will hopefully represent a new beginning in supporting those children and their families. (AQT 814/17-22)

Mr Weir: The current arrangements, the terms of the SEN regulations and the code of practice are things that all of us would welcome. The fine details are out for consultation, which will finish before the end of Christmas. I hope to move ahead with that in as full a way as possible as soon as I can.

The only issue, which, again, I urge Members around the Chamber to support me on, is the requirement for a significant financial investment. In this year's Budget, around £7·5 million was directly allocated to that. A full-year cost will be £30 million. Therefore, resources will have to be either provided or found. To some extent, the speed of movement on that will depend on the wider financial settlement that we are able to reach. I believe that the Finance Minister is hoping to bring proposals on draft Budgets to the House fairly soon.

To be fair to the Finance Minister, we are potentially going to be in quite a difficult situation across the board next year because, effectively, once you take out particular elements of COVID, or at least one major ring-fenced element, the financial settlement that will be provided to the Executive is likely to be pretty close to flatlined cash, which will make things very difficult. Implementing the SEN regulations is a priority and a critical commitment, and I will do everything that I can to move them as fully and as fast as I can.

Ms Rogan: Minister, you may be aware that in the Downpatrick area of my constituency of South Down there is a serious shortage of special school places. I take this opportunity to commend the great work and leadership of Knockevin Special School. It is well oversubscribed, indicating that there is a need for increased provision in our area. Will the Minister commit to looking into that in order to ensure that provision is available for local families in the area so that they do not have to travel miles for a suitable placement?

Mr Weir: Again, there is always a bit of a balance to be struck in trying to ensure that people do not have to travel too far while ensuring that there is an element of specialist quality. As with anything, if you simply spread that too thinly, you do not get the quality. If there was to be, for instance, extra provision directly either through additional schools or units, in the first instance, that would be for the EA. If it requires a development proposal, that would be something that I, as Minister, would have to sign off on, but, certainly, we want to make sure that every provision is made for our special educational needs students.

T5. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister of Education, given that he will be aware of the trends in international mathematics and science study (TIMSS) report that lists Northern Ireland's position in mathematics, to give his opinion of that good report and Northern Ireland's placing. (AQT 815/17-22)

Mr Weir: Certainly, I welcome that report. In the dark days that we have had, it is fairly good news. In the TIMSS report that was published today, in mathematics, we are the seventh-highest performer in the world among those who were submitted. I think that around 58 countries were put in. Of those countries that are wholly in Europe, we were the top European country. I suppose that I will do this on a cross-community basis and say that we significantly outperformed pupils in England and the Republic of Ireland in that subject.

In science, there was also a strong performance, with about 18 countries ahead of us and 28 below us. It should be remembered that some jurisdictions did not participate in TIMSS, possibly because of a suspicion that they would not get the result that they wanted. That makes our position even more impressive.

The findings emphasise that year 6 pupils in particular in Northern Ireland experience high academic success, that there are very few problems with school discipline, and that classrooms are safe and orderly. It is the case — this is a lesson as well — that the most successful countries are those with the smallest gap between those at a socio-economic advantage and those at a socio-economic disadvantage.

While there is a great deal of work to be done on that in Northern Ireland, it is noticeable that our figures show that, for maths and science, the gap between affluent and socially deprived children was considerably lower than it was for our international comparators involved in TIMSS. That shows that, in many ways, there has been a lot of good work, but, of course, there is a still much good work to be done.


3.30 pm

Mr Speaker: There is about a minute left for a supplementary.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given how difficult it has been this year with regard to digital learning, online learning etc, what is the Minister's opinion of the TIMSS findings on learning by digital means?

Mr Weir: The TIMSS findings showed that we are considerably ahead of our international comparators. There are issues — I know this from the previous Question Time — with ensuring that there is broadband availability, and there is always more that can be done. What it showed was that 96% of students here had access to a computer or tablet, which is well ahead of our comparators, although that does not necessarily mean that those students have individual access at home. To cover the situation, particularly during lockdown, more than 10,000 devices have so far been provided to our most disadvantaged and vulnerable learners. However, there is further work to be done.

Looking at the independent report and the comparisons with other jurisdictions, we see that we are well ahead of the international average. I should indicate that many very affluent economies throughout the world took part in TIMSS, so Northern Ireland was not being compared with countries that always have difficulties in that regard.

Mr Speaker: Time is up. Members, please take your ease.

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

Northern Ireland Assembly Commission

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Member for her question. The Assembly Commission has a strong focus on the health and well-being of staff, and that is a key aspect of the Commission's corporate strategy and corporate plan. The Commission also has a health and well-being framework and a wide range of health and well-being resources on the Assembly's intranet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission issued three regular weekly communications to keep in touch with staff, as many were working some or all of the time from home. Each week, "Well-being Wednesday" communications were issued to promote a wide range of resources on health and well-being topics.

The Commission’s employee assistance programme continued to be available throughout the pandemic. Under that programme, staff can avail themselves of 24/7 counselling, online training, and access to a range of electronic resources covering health and well-being topics. The Commission has 18 staff trained as mental health first-aiders, and our learning and development team regularly promote activities to assist staff with managing their health and well-being. The Commission will continue to support and promote the good mental health of its staff throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Member for his answer. It is welcome to hear about those resources. Does the Member agree that the Commission has a duty to ensure that staff are looking after not only their physical health but their mental health and well-being, especially given the added pressure that many have faced as a result of the pandemic and the extra workload that they have been carrying?

Mr K Buchanan: Yes, I agree that the Commission has a duty of care to its members and, moving on from the staff in the Building, to the personal staff of MLAs, whether they are in the Building, working remotely or in constituency offices. The Member might be interested to hear that the Clerking and Member Support Office is exploring the delivery of electronic courses on mental health awareness through the Northern Ireland Civil Service online training platform. These short training courses will be available to all Members and their staff. So, it will be available not only for Members in the Building but all staff, whether they are employees of the Commission or our own direct employees.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Member for being here today to answer questions. What steps is the Assembly Commission taking to encourage further uptake of the specific mental health support offered by the Commission during the pandemic?

Mr K Buchanan: I will need to get written clarity on some parts of that for the Member. If you are happy, the Commission will write to you to give you more information.

Mr O'Dowd: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask for an additional minute, as I will answer question 2 and question 5 together.

I thank the Members for their questions. As Members will be aware, the Speaker, on behalf of the Assembly Commission, announced the establishment of an Assembly-supported Youth Assembly in July 2020. Since then, work has been under way to put in place detailed arrangements for the establishment of the Youth Assembly. A number of important developments have occurred, and I will outline some of those for Members.

Two members of staff from the Assembly’s Education Service were appointed to take forward the work. They have been joined by two youth participation officers, who started work on 30 November. The Speaker is establishing an advisory group to give the Commission access to advice, including from the youth sector, as it takes further significant decisions. The group will be advisory, as opposed to having decision-making powers. A young person’s Youth Assembly co-design panel has been established to help co-design some of the practicalities relating to the Youth Assembly, notably around recruitment and selection, induction and communication. Up to six virtual sessions of the co-design panel have been arranged for December — one has already taken place. Once all the sessions have been held, staff will write up the outcomes and findings and bring them back to the panel in January to allow it to finalise its thoughts and recommendations. Work continues on awareness raising. A Youth Assembly web page and online social media presence have been created; emails have issued to the youth sector, schools, further and higher education colleges, youth organisations and sporting organisations, and over 640 people have signed up to a Youth Assembly mailing list.

Looking ahead, it is hoped that the report of the co-design panel’s findings on recruitment and selection will be available for presentation to the Assembly Commission by the end of January. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had some impact on progress to date and may yet slow the pace of progress. However, as previously said, the Assembly Commission is determined that the Youth Assembly will be established and operational as soon as possible. The Speaker has said that he looks forward to hosting the first formal plenary session of the Youth Assembly in the Assembly next year, hopefully before the summer.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for his detailed reply. I will probably forward some Assembly questions on the information that he supplied.

Does the Member agree that we need legislation to ensure that the Youth Assembly is a permanent feature and is not depe