Official Report: Tuesday 21 July 2020

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

Assembly Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the first item of business, I remind Members that, as the Business Committee is not meeting today, there will be no lunchtime suspension of the Assembly and we will continue on through.

Mr Butler: I beg to move

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 21 July 2020.

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

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 21 July 2020.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly, in accordance with Section 19(1) of the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, appoints Mr Paul Kennedy as the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards. — [Mr Butler.]

Motion not moved.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next two motions are to approve statutory rules relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I will then call on the Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. 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 on the Minister to move it. The Question on that motion will then be put. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Éirím leis an rún a chur chun cinn. I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

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

Mr Kearney: There are two motions before the Assembly today, and with your permission I will address both of those in my remarks. I will begin by outlining the changes brought about by these regulations and the reasons behind the Executive's decisions.

First, amendment No 9 contained only one substantive amendment. Regulations 6, 6(a) and 6(b), which place restrictions on gatherings, are amended to allow for gatherings of up to 30 people in public places and outdoors. Allowing up to 30 people who are not members of the same household to meet together outdoors is consistent with step 3 of Executive's approach to decision-making. The Executive considered that this relaxation would offer benefits in terms of personal well-being, the promotion of responsible social interaction and a sense of a gradual return to normality. I am sure that we would all welcome that. It means that, for the first time in many months, our citizens have the opportunity to meet with their friends and family and share time together.

Secondly, amendment No 10 contained a set of substantive amendments that reflect decisions taken by the Executive on 2 July. Those decisions were taken after careful consideration of the available scientific and medical advice, and they are line with the timetable of indicative dates previously published by the Executive in order to facilitate the reopening of businesses and other services. The amendments include that regulation 5 on restrictions on movements and regulations 6(a) and 6(b) on restrictions on gatherings are amended to permit the reopening of museums, galleries and betting shops from 3 July.

Regulations 5, 6(a) and 6(b) are also amended to permit the reopening of massage, tattooing and piercing businesses from 6 July, and to permit the reopening of spas from 6 July, but not insofar as they provide services relating to water or steam.

Regulations 5, 6(a) and 6(b) are further amended to permit the restricted opening of restaurants and bars in registered clubs from 3 July.

Some changes have also been made for reasons of consistency and clarity. First, the reference in regulation 5 to who might attend a funeral has been removed, now that the number of people permitted to gather outside has been increased. Secondly, a change has been made to regulation 6 to clarify that summer schools and schemes can operate. Thirdly, technical amendments have been made to regulations 3 and 6 to correct the numbering of sub-paragraphs and to clarify that beer gardens can sell and serve alcohol without food.

These relaxations are aimed at boosting well-being and allowing our citizens to re-engage with our tourism, cultural and service infrastructure. They will assist in the restart of the economy by helping to protect the jobs of those who work in those sectors and their wider supply chains, and, importantly, will contribute towards an increased sense of normality.

As I explained before, the Executive will not be rushed into making decisions simply as a result of artificial deadlines or to match decisions taking place in other jurisdictions. As we have discussed in the past, we have come a long way from when the coronavirus restriction regulations were first laid. We have seen great progress as a result of everyone's concerted efforts in the intervening period.

Regrettably, other places have not experienced our relative progress to date.

D’éirigh leis na rialacha agus le cur chuige an Fheidmeannais maidir leis na srianta a mhaolú agus tá siad ag obair de réir a chéile. The regulations and the Executive's approach to easing restrictions have worked and are continuing to work. Sábháladh beatha. Lives have been saved. Our health and social care systems have not been overwhelmed. Businesses are beginning to reopen and services are returning. Our citizens for the first time in a long time are beginning to enjoy being able to do more, but it is important to acknowledge that the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. We cannot afford to drop our guard for a moment when it comes to keeping people safe.

All those relaxations were agreed on the basis of the most up to date medical and scientific advice. Crucially, they were adopted with the stipulation that all relevant public guidance and mitigating measures be implemented in advance of those sectors reopening.

I will now take the opportunity to note some of the other changes that have been agreed since the amendment regulations being debated today were laid. On Thursday 9 July, the Executive agreed a range of other measures. Those included the reopening of cinemas, bingo halls, amusement arcades, indoor fitness suites, indoor and outdoor gyms, and playgrounds from 10 July; a return to competitive sporting events without spectators, both at grassroots and professional level, which extends to include horse racing and equestrian competitions, from 11 July; the reopening of libraries from 16 July; the reopening of indoor leisure centres or facilities but not swimming pools from 17 July; and the resumption of indoor wedding, baptism and civil partnership ceremonies, with numbers to be determined by the venue on a risk-assessed basis. The Executive also agreed that the wearing of face coverings on public transport would become mandatory from 10 July, except for people for whom an exemption applies.

Those changes were given effect in the amendment (No. 11) regulations, which were made on 9 July. Members will have an opportunity to debate those measures in due course. We are now at an important point in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are beginning to look beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to secure a robust and sustainable recovery, to rebuild public services and for us to seek to restore more normal ways of living.

Is é dúshlán atá romhainn anois ná teacht ar na bealaí agus na modhanna chun é sin a bhaint amach le go mbeadh muid ábalta ruaig eile den aicíd mharfach seo a bhainistiú más gá. The challenge facing us now is to find the ways and means to achieve that whilst managing the risk of a second wave of this deadly virus, were that to transpire. The Executive will therefore be monitoring the impact of all the relaxations very carefully. We are prepared to reintroduce restrictions if that is considered necessary in order to control the virus, but our focus needs to be on ensuring that that does not happen. Vigilance and caution will continue to be essential as we move through the coming weeks. All the practical advice continues to apply. Fanaigí ar shiúl ó chéile. Nígí bhur lámha. Keep your distance, and wash your hands well and often. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, molaim an rún agus na rialacha don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I am speaking on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. There has been much debate in the Assembly and its Committees, and, indeed, in the media, about recent amendment regulations. Although the Committee for the Executive Office has discussed issues around the outworkings and alleged breaches of the regulations, it does not have responsibility for scrutinising the legislation. The statutory responsibility for that lies with the Health Committee, and I am sure that its Chair will provide a detailed commentary. The Committee for the Executive Office welcomes, however, the timely lifting of all the restrictions that are mentioned and encourages continued discipline and compliance with them.

10.45 am

I will now make a few remarks as an SDLP representative and highlight the fact that this continues to be a worrying time with a number of spikes in community transmission. People have been very worried about the outbreaks in places such as Limavady. That scares people, and we need to continue to do all that we can to manage our behaviours and approaches to everyday life so that they are done in a safe manner.

Today's restrictions that are eased include the allowing of gatherings of up to 30 people outdoors and permit the reopening of key businesses and high street venues to allow a greater sense of normality to return. Now we can go to museums, beauty parlours, spas, bars and restaurants and see summer schools take place, but always underpinning the relaxations is the need to remember to keep to social distancing guidelines and to wash our hands.

Businesses across these islands have been impacted the most, yet some have had to bear the brunt more than others. Our hospitality sector has felt the full whack of the pandemic and for it to be permitted to reopen, in even a small way, is a move in the right direction for it.

The regulations continue to cause confusion. I worry about an Executive who cannot relay messages to people and then get upset when people do not stick to the guidelines. Well, if you do not even stick to the guidelines yourselves, what hope is there that people in our communities will stick to them? People are angry at the "One rule for us and one rule for them" that some have displayed. Ministers, please go back to Stormont Castle today and shout "Clarity" at the top of your voice. Let simple, clear and effective messages be the mantra from here on. Stop the confusion. Stop the double standards. Let people know exactly what they can and cannot do in a way that is easy to understand. As my Committee has heard, you have 45 or more press officers, the cream of the crop. They should be able to help you to spread the message clearly.

Let us not fall into the trap, which is easy to fall into, of trying to make the pandemic a green-and-orange issue, an us-and-them battle a day. I ask the Executive Office and its Ministers to pull together and to do what is in the best interests of people here on the basis of the scientific advice that is available to you. The restrictions impact all of us, be it where you can go, whom you can be with and even if and when you can go on holiday. Most of us have stuck by the rules and have ensured that we lead by example. Some Members have felt the heat of that more than others in recent days. I think of my close family members overseas, whom I have not been able to see since last year, but rules are rules.

The anomalies of the guidelines continue. If we examine what is being cleared today and introduced a few weeks ago, we see that we now permit 30 people to gather outdoors in a socially distanced manner but not if they choose to watch a sporting event. It is an oddity that people can gather in large numbers to eat and drink indoors yet cannot gather outdoors to watch a sport, even with proper social-distancing and safety measures in place. I hope, for the immediate future of the GAA, soccer and other sports, that that rule is revisited tomorrow at the Executive meeting and that the Minister can give us his view on it today. Many of those sports need the gate fees from attendees to survive. They can do it safely. They can do it properly. They just need the Executive to be on their side. I hope that that is possible and that we see the change tomorrow. I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ask for that change, and I hope that it will be reflected in what we hear being proposed tomorrow. I hope, too, that other Members here today will support me in their contributions in order to help our sporting community to allow spectators back safely to sporting events.

I welcome the further easements detailed today. I believe that all of us should support them, and I encourage clarity at all times.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar leasú uimhir a naoi agus ar leasú uimhir a deich. I will speak about the amendment (No. 9) and amendment (No. 10) regulations, which the Health Committee was briefing about on 9 July. The Chief Environmental Health Officer (CEHO) advised us of the main easements for each, as outlined by the junior Minister this morning, and reminded the Committee of the 21-day period and the process for bringing proposed easements to the Executive for consideration. Once again, the Committee enquired about the commencement dates applying to different easements and was reminded that changes are made as quickly as possible since, under the original regulations, restrictions must be withdrawn as soon as they are considered unnecessary.

A number of members raised concerns about notice and preparation time for those affected. It was noted, for example, that the amendment that increased from 10 to 30 the maximum number of people who could gather outdoors came into effect on the same evening as the regulations were laid. Members enquired whether advance notice was given to, for example, the PSNI ahead of changes to regulations. The Chief Environmental Health Officer had no knowledge of advance notice being given to enforcement authorities at that time.

The Committee again enquired about the scientific evidence underpinning decision-making and noted that a written request for further detail remains pending. Again, assurances were sought in relation to the health and safety of workers in light of the recent outbreaks in Leicester and in Germany. We were advised that the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser monitor situations elsewhere and keep regulations under constant review.

The CEHO also confirmed that work was under way to restructure the regulations to improve clarity and coherence, given that there have been so many sets of amendments. It is clear that we have moved from a list of reasons to leave home, which has grown so lengthy that it would now make more sense to state what is not permissible.

Further to a question on guidance, the CEHO advised that the Department that sponsors a particular change is responsible for producing any guidance required on it.

The Examiner of Statutory Rules had not had a chance to report on the regulations prior to the Committee’s consideration, since they had been laid only a few days earlier. The Committee, therefore, agreed to support both statutory regulations, subject to the Examiner’s report. The Examiner has since reported and has raised no issues with the regulations.

I want to make a few remarks in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. It is important that we consider the reality that clusters may become all-too-frequent occurrences here. It is vital that testing, contact tracing, self-isolation and supports are in place to meet the needs of those who are tested and test positive. We saw a recent example of that in the Limavady area. It is welcome that the system was able to respond to that cluster, but we need to ensure that vigilance remains to monitor and manage such situations as and when they arise.

I am concerned at reports that some testing kits produced by Randox do not meet safety standards. I urge the Minister to come forward with information and provide answers on how that affects the North. I sincerely hope that there is no risk to citizens and it does not put anyone off or deter them from being tested. Undoubtedly, testing remains an important part of the public health response, but so does the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE). I also worry that the Randox issue could negatively impact on the capacity for testing that is required, and I would like to hear further information about that.

As restrictions are lifted, it is important that we remember that many key workers still need access to vital PPE to do their job. This week, dentists have been allowed to open up, but they are doing aerosol-generating procedures, and concerns remain about their access to vital PPE and who is expected to provide and source it. The issue should be resolved as a matter of urgency.

Mrs Cameron: I felt somewhat deflated as I thought about this speech. The unity of purpose that typified the response of the Assembly and Executive is now sadly so damaged. I have often referred to the importance of a united approach in dealing with COVID-19, but we now see more and more that one party and its selfish objectives trump all else. That is very disappointing. The public share my sense of disappointment, anger and disillusionment with those for whom public health and adherence to our own rules were cast aside. We still have had no apology.

I turn to the specifics of the amendments. I welcome the fact that we now have an increase in the numbers allowed at outdoor gatherings to 30. Socially, we have some way to go, whether that is to reinvigorate the community or attend family or other events.

It is also worth remembering that the figure of 30 is the total for the gathering, not an element. For some, I think, that clarity is needed.

Obviously, alongside the public health considerations, the priority in all these decisions is the economic well-being of our people. Jobs must be protected. It is good that more services, including contact industries, have reopened, but I urge the Executive to do more to signpost employers and business owners who are already stressed to relevant guidance on how to operate safely.

We will have much more to do in the journey back to normality. A walk down the high street in Northern Ireland shows us the challenges that we face. Shutters are down, some permanently, and each business gone represents jobs lost and households that have been plunged into uncertainty. As we look ahead, we must ensure that we look at the most effective ways to sustain those businesses. Sticking-plaster solutions do not work. An opportunity to do things differently is before us and we should have everything on the table to ignite our economy.

In the last day or two, we have heard much about whether it is right or wrong to travel on holiday and whether quarantine is necessary. Further clarity is needed, and I welcome the First Minister's comments that there needs to be a further tidying up of the regulations and the subject of essential travel. I urge the Executive to concentrate on actual science-based evidence and, perhaps, the junior Minister can furnish the House with the relevant R rates, not just in Northern Ireland but across England, Scotland and Wales and, indeed, those of our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. As an Assembly, we need to give clear guidance and the general public want to know what they can do and how they can do that with as little risk as possible.

Test, track, trace and isolate is now in place, so let us keep reminding people to be tested if any of the symptoms of COVID-19 are present. Let us keep a distance from others and wash our hands. Let us volunteer to wear face coverings in shops. Let us look after ourselves and each other.

From a health perspective, I again make a plea for the urgent reopening of services. I also highlight the plight of dental practices and urge the Minister to engage with the sector to ensure that it is protected throughout this difficult period. The wider issues have been well highlighted and the rationales are clear. Just this morning, we heard from a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Gavan McAlinden, who aired his fears and frustrations about the pace of reopening surgeries. Mr McAlinden said that their advocacy for their suffering patients was falling on deaf ears. That concerns me and I am worried that we are not even listening to our clinicians now.

Many people, including my husband, are waiting for general surgery. Many are suffering and are in great pain and that is due to the lack of our health services at this time. Waiting lists, which were already at an all-time high before the pandemic, are growing. The Department is quite rightly trying to suppress the virus and we are all eternally grateful to all the Department of Health staff and all our amazing health workers, who go far beyond the call of duty to look after others. If this is an opportunity to transform services so that they can work more efficiently and safely, then let us do that, but let us do that with haste and recognition that the people of Northern Ireland are suffering and deserve to have services resumed as a matter of urgency. Of course, that all adds to mental health issues, and I urge the Assembly to back the Minister in reopening health services with the utmost urgency. How many will lose their lives or become incapacitated because of the lack of action to resume healthcare?

In conclusion, I welcome that visitor attractions, museums, galleries and bookmaking offices have been able to resume business. I thank the public and appeal for continued compliance with the guidance and adherence to the regulations. Let us remember what this is about: it is about saving lives. I am also very proud of those who organised very safe, lawful Twelfth celebrations this year. That is something to be proud of. I support the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (NI) 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 10) Regulations (NI) 2020.

Ms Armstrong: I rise without a prepared speech because I am so angry that I could bite something. While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (NI) 2020 allow people to go and stay in overnight accommodation, even though we had a cross-party motion in the House that recognised the pressure on carers, we still cannot have overnight respite care for people with disabilities or older people. I appreciate that the rules and regulations are being laid in a specific way that adheres to legislation, but our carers' needs are falling on deaf ears.

11.00 am

I say to both junior Ministers this morning, "Go back to the Executive and ask the Executive to sort things out for carers". We heard, over the past few days, that some respite services may be available and that daycare centres may be open for 10% of the people with learning disabilities and older people. Honestly. We have carers who have been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 16 weeks. They are at breaking point. How many times do we have to ask in this place for their needs to be recognised? Fantastic: we can all go and stay in a B & B, we can go to the bookies, but we cannot give a carer a break.

I am so angry about this. We worked so hard together as parties to recognise the needs of carers and of those with disabilities, who, to be quite honest, are sick looking at their family because they still cannot go out through the door. We are not looking after them. I reiterate what Pam Cameron said: we need to look after ourselves and one another. I ask the junior Ministers please to put carers at the front of the queue. They have been part of the rainbow of heroes throughout the pandemic; they have worked quietly in the background, and, as has been recognised in the motion, they have been scared, they have been alone, they have been isolated, and they have done all that without much thanks or any recognition.

I push for the next regulations, the ones that have not yet been written — we already know what they are; they have been talked about today — to have the needs of carers in them. We need the junior Ministers to tell the trusts that there has to be fair and equitable treatment of all people with disabilities and of older people and their carers across Northern Ireland. I make this plea: while amendments Nos 9 and 10 to the regulations are absolutely welcome, it is the people who are doing the work on the ground in looking after the most vulnerable in society who need our help now. I am asking — I am pleading with — the Assembly and the Executive please to put carers first in their next considerations.

Mr Sheehan: I welcome amendment Nos 9 and 10 as further relaxation of the draconian restrictions imposed since the start of the pandemic. Of course, under normal circumstances, none of us would have supported such restrictions, but, given the circumstances, they were absolutely necessary.

The amendments give effect to the previously announced indicative timings for the opening of, among other things, museums, galleries, bookies, spas, tattoo and piercing businesses, restaurants, bars and clubs. Funerals are no longer restricted to close family and friends, beer gardens can reopen, and so on. I welcome the easing of the restrictions, as it indicates that, to an extent, we are getting on top of the virus. However, the situation remains extremely dangerous, and we need to listen to the experts, particularly in the field of public health.

I heard Pam Cameron mention the R number. That was the third time that I heard it mentioned today. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party mentioned it on the radio this morning. I also heard Gabriel Scally, who is pre-eminent in the field of public health — one of the most renowned experts in these islands on public health — saying that when the transmission rate is as low as it is, particularly here, the R rate is not in itself a useful measurement. What is more important is the number of people being infected.

We need to listen to the experts. We also need to look at the countries that have done best in suppressing the virus. Many of them have done particularly well: New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, and so on. We should listen to the advice that we are getting from people such as Gabriel Scally and Devi Sridhar, who advises the Scottish Parliament, and that advice is that, for the purpose of public health, we should treat the island of Ireland as one unit. We should coordinate, North and South, all the moves that we take in relation to the virus.

It is welcome that there was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) a few months back, but that in itself is not enough. There needs to be constant contact between the Executive, the Dublin Government and both Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientific Advisers.

That is what we need to do. We need to continue to find, test, trace, isolate and support. That is what will keep the virus suppressed. That is the message that needs to go out.

Mr Chambers: It is important that we and the public recognise that the Executive are trying to do a job of work. The Executive are trying to strike a balance between getting the economy back on its feet, getting people back to work and getting basic services available, all whilst trying to protect the public's health the best they can. We have to recognise that any relaxation of the regulations is not an invitation to the public to let their guard down or to relax their personal measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Social distancing and personal hygiene are still paramount in controlling the virus. As civic leaders, in a way, we have to set an example, and we have to continue to adhere to the guidance as best as we can.

The virus has not gone away, and it has not relaxed its efforts to spread. We have heard that the guidance is confusing. Yes, there could be clarity in some elements of the guidance, but we have to recognise that they are emergency regulations and have maybe not been put together with the same scrutiny as the law would normally attract. We have to accept that clarity will be needed in certain sections of the regulations. A lot of the confusion has been created not by the wording of the regulations but by the selfish actions of parties and civic leaders in the House. We have a responsibility to adhere to the regulations. How can we expect the public to adhere to the regulations if we cannot?

I heard Gabriel Scally on the radio this morning, and I hear he is an extremely prominent professor. To me, he is just a voice with an opinion. I do not put any more weight on what he has to say than what I hear from our own experts whom we have employed to advise us. Only weeks ago, the R number was considered to be of paramount importance. We were all hanging on it, waiting for the Executive to announce the latest R figure. It became the habit that it was announced every Thursday. We all waited with bated breath to hear what it was, because it was considered to be a very important indicator of how we were controlling the disease. I do not think that we can now simply discard the R number. It is still a scientific figure to be looked at, and I hope that the Executive will continue to consider it.

We have heard that amendment (No. 9) was discussed by the Executive on 29 June. It was signed off at 9.30 that Monday evening and became law at 11.00 pm. At the Health Committee, I raised with the chief environmental officer the point that it is not good housekeeping to have laws change in the middle of a day. They should be changed and come into law on a date, as opposed to a time. I pointed out to the chief environmental officer the sort of confusion that was caused on 29 June, when it became law at 11.00 pm, making it legal for 30 people, as opposed to 10, to gather. That was not really fair to the enforcement agency, which, in that case, was the PSNI. They might have been out on patrol and, at 10.55 pm, come across a gathering in excess of 10 and would have taken whatever they considered to be the appropriate action, be it advice or, if necessary, the issue of fixed penalty tickets. Yet the police could have come up the same road at 11.05 pm and encountered a crowd of people in excess of 10 who were not respecting social distancing or anything else, and they would have spoken to them, totally unaware that, at 11.00 pm, the law had changed and that, now, a gathering of 15, 16 or 18 was legal and complied with the regulations. That has the potential to create embarrassment for the enforcement agency.

When I asked the chief environmental officer whether they had had any conversations with the police during that Monday to give them a heads-up that the regulations in respect of gatherings were going to change at 11.00 that night or whatever was deemed to be the time, he said that, no, they had not done so. He said that the normal practice was to inform local authorities and the PSNI the following day of any regulations that had changed. I do not think that, from a housekeeping perspective, that is really satisfactory. I know that the Executive, when they decide that they can relax a regulation, have a duty to do so quickly and give the public the benefit of it, but, as I say, from a housekeeping perspective, it would be much better if the change kicked in from midnight on a date, as opposed to a time during the day. As I say, it is unfair to the enforcement agencies.

Mr Beattie: I will be rather brief. The slow drip-feed in the easing of COVID restrictions is welcome, and it is absolutely the right way to do things. We have to look at what is ahead of us and then change to meet that. It is important that we do that and that we try to analyse and listen to the advice when we do it.

The opening of museums and galleries is incredibly important so that people can go to view our history, understand our culture and see our art. If we do not have that, if we do not allow people to get out there and enjoy it and if we do not remember what we are doing this all for, what is the point? It is incredibly important, and I welcome that release of restrictions. In the same way, I welcome the release of restrictions on the opening of restaurants and bars, although with certain caveats, because it kick-starts the pulse of our society. Our society needs to have something to look forward to. Restrictions, restrictions, restrictions will not help us or help the mental health of our society.

I absolutely agree with the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office: clarity is what is really important. That is about digging down to the absolute detail of everything that we put out there so that people know exactly what they can and cannot do. I guess that that is where the confusion is at the moment. People are confused because we are giving confused messages. We are giving confused messages in our guidance. We are giving confused messages in our legislation. We are giving confused messages when we make statements. It is important that we have clarity.

11.15 am

I also agree that the integrity and the credibility of the Executive Office have been seriously damaged. They have been seriously damaged by Sinn Féin, who seem to have selective amnesia because they never talk about their deliberate breach of the guidelines that they told everybody to adhere to. Groups of 30 being allowed to gather came out at 11 pm on 29 June, yet they managed to get their little cabal of 30 ready for a funeral the next day, not to mention the hundreds who followed behind it, who must have been organised well in advance. They certainly were not given the heads-up at 11 o'clock that night to be there.

When you talk about this selective amnesia, we now have a society that seems to have brushed that under the carpet because what that did abused our society. What they did at that funeral abused our society. There were not 30 people there, there were hundreds, and that abused our society. Many in our society are now suffering from Stockholm syndrome because they have just forgotten about it and it does not matter; they are allowed to do it. Nobody else is allowed to do it, but they can. It is absolutely shocking.

Then, to stand up and say, "Don't worry about the R number, it is not important any more because it does not fit our narrative". Yet we have just had four months of people banging on about the R number and saying that we have to get the R number down and that we have to save lives. Then, somebody says, "Ach never worry about that because we want to stop the English from coming to Northern Ireland". That is what it is all about. It is bias and bigotry, and they need to own up to it.

I will finish and say again that, in all of these amendments, clarity in everything we do and everything that we say is the most important thing.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on Junior Minister Gordon Lyons to conclude and make his winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): As we have said previously during the debates on the amendment regulations, we all want to see a return to a more normal way of living. None of us wants to have to legislate on how people and businesses go about, what we consider to be, normal and routine activities. We all look forward to a time — hopefully soon — when we no longer have to do that. However, that time is not here yet. Yes, we are winning the fight against COVID-19 and, yes, we have come a long way and made great strides towards a return to something approaching normality, but the job is not finished.

It is very clear that managing a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people safe and supporting those who have faced real hardship as a result of the pandemic is going to be a top priority for us all for some time to come. The 'Executive Approach to Decision-Making' document remains our blueprint for the review process and the incremental structure for assessing progress, contained within the document, will continue to help decision-making in key areas in the weeks ahead, as we ease our way further on the pathway towards recovery.

We have learnt a great deal and come a long way in a short period and there is much to be optimistic about. We all look forward to moving forward, responding to COVID and recovering from its impact. Progress has been good and we have made significant strides in easing the restrictions that have been in place. As a result, and provided that we keep our guard, we can look forward to further positive changes very soon.

I will turn to some of the points that Members made during the debate. We began, as always, with the Chair of the Committee for The Executive Office. I thank him and welcome his support for the progressive, but cautious, direction of travel set out in the regulations. He, rightly, emphasised the need for caution. The burden of the regulations on our citizens is being reduced, but the need for responsible behaviour remains. Indeed, it is even more important as we relax these restrictions.

I agree with him about clear messaging and it is a point that has been raised elsewhere. It has always been something that I have tried to do in the Chamber and when replying to individual requests from Members. Trying to get guidance out, and listening to interested parties from across Northern Ireland, has certainly been to the fore of what I have been trying to do.

I agree with him completely when he says that it is not a green or orange issue; it is definitely not. There is nothing that is less green or orange because nothing is more important than human life. I want to make it clear that that has always been my approach. Indeed, the First Minister has made it very clear that her focus, and that of the Executive, needs to be on the health, lives and livelihoods of people in Northern Ireland. That is what has directed us during the pandemic.

Another issue that he raised was sporting events. I assure the Member that that is being looked at. We understand the need for people to be able to go back to those events and that sporting organisations require the income that comes from them. Obviously, there are other issues to consider around that, but we will progress it, as we will all other measures, as soon as we can. I thank him for raising that issue.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health set out the Committee's position. I note the points that he raised about testing kits and PPE. I will ask the Minister and the Department of Health to send a written response to the Member on those specific points.

I welcome Mrs Cameron's support for larger gatherings to facilitate social events. I certainly agree with her on the need for cautious and responsible behaviour at such gatherings. She, rightly, emphasises the importance of guidance to help businesses to operate safely. I assure her that my colleague the Minister for the Economy will continue to give that high priority. We have to recognise and understand that there has been an economic impact and that the regulations and restrictions that we have had to bring in are causing economic uncertainty. She is right to mention that.

Of course, it is not only an economic crisis but a health crisis; a non-COVID health crisis as well. She articulated that in her comments when she referred particularly to the reopening of services. I thank her for mentioning dentists in particular. I am sure that Members across the House have received representations from members of the dental profession. They should not be forgotten. They need our help and support at this time because they are there when we need them.

A strategic framework for rebuilding health and social care services has been published. Northern Ireland's trusts have published plans that set out the immediate work that is being done in their areas. That rebuilding process can secure better ways in which to deliver services, but will require innovation, sustained investment and society-wide support. However, keeping the public and staff safe is an absolute priority. I agree with the Member's comments in that regard.

She also raised another couple of issues, one of which related to the R number. The latest figures that we have show that, last week, the R number in Northern Ireland was between 0·5 and 1. The R number in the Republic of Ireland was between 1·2 and 1·8 last week, and below 1 in England, Scotland and Wales. I hope that that provides clarity for the Member. On that point, I agree with what Mr Beattie said: yes, obviously, there is lots of data and evidence that we have to take into consideration, but the R number remains an important tool for us as we move forward.

Finally, Mrs Cameron mentioned the Twelfth of July celebrations. I want to take this opportunity to commend everyone involved for the exceptionally high level of adherence to the regulations over that period. We understand how important the date is in our calendar and how people want to celebrate. Obviously, this year was different. It is important that we place on record and recognise that people found alternative ways in which to celebrate and did so in a largely safe way, with very high levels of compliance. I want to put on record our thanks to the leadership of the loyal orders, which demonstrated that leadership in its advice and encouragement. I am delighted that tens of thousands of people threw themselves into the spirit of the regulations and ensured that they were adhered to. They are to be commended for that.

I acknowledge Pat Sheehan's support for the direction of travel and the gradual restoration of normal life, with access to facilities such as museums. He mentioned the importance of following the evidence. I completely agree with him, which is why we have to recognise and follow the advice of our advisers. He mentioned Professor Scally, who is not a member of SAGE; our medical advisers are members of SAGE. In relation to travel, the Department of Health, advised by its advisers, has been clear that very few travel-associated cases have been identified, and the possibility of a traveller from England bringing the virus to Northern Ireland is very low in terms of absolute risk. It is important that we acknowledge that when we make decisions. As always, our decisions need to be based on evidence and nothing else.

I acknowledge Kellie Armstrong's comments about our carers, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Carers support the most vulnerable in society. I know how difficult it has been for people not to have had carers come in and not to have respite care in place. Nobody wants this situation to last one minute longer than necessary. We need to ensure that, as we reopen our services and our society, we do so in a safe manner that ensures that we do not overload the capacity of our health service. However, we also need to make sure that we do not put vulnerable people at risk. The regulations undergo frequent revision, and the issues that the Member raised form part of the discussions and considerations that take place at the Executive. The Member very firmly placed the matter on the record today, for which we thank her.

Mr Chambers, like other Members, rightly emphasised the ongoing threat of the virus and the balance that we need to maintain as we relax the regulations. There must be more emphasis on guidance and responsible behaviour.

(The Temporary Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)

A number of Members referred to scientific debate in the media. Let me again reassure Members that Executive decisions are informed by advice from the CMO and the CSA, who in turn have direct access to the most comprehensive expert advice.

The Member referred to the timing of the regulations and acknowledged that they are changed as quickly as possible after the Executive's decision to do so, in keeping with the requirement that we relax restrictions as soon as we can. It has always been the case that regulations are laid before the Assembly and then brought into force very close together, normally later on the same evening. There is no conspiracy and no other reason behind that. I take the Member's point that it may seem strange that, at 11.00 pm, there is one rule in place, and, at 11.30 pm, there could be another rule. The regulations have to change at some point, and we bring them in as soon as we can. That is what guides us. I hope that that provides clarity to the Member.

I certainly agree with Doug Beattie's comments on the significance of the amendment regulations. They are not merely technical changes but make further progress towards the gradual restoration of the normal daily activities that we all hold dear and that are so important to the economy and the health and well-being of our people.

Mr Temporary Speaker, I hope that that answers most of the questions and comments that Members raised. If I have missed anything, we will of course write to Members in due course. In the meantime, I commend the amendment regulations to the Assembly.

11.30 am

Question put and agreed to.


That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.


That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 10) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): I call the junior Minister Mr Declan Kearney to move the Consideration Stage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, the Executive Office).]

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Mr Beattie.

Mr Beattie: Sorry for the late notice on this, but it is important because it will help to make decisions. I hope that the junior Minister can answer this question. Paragraphs 8 and 9 at clause 1(4) include the term "a Minister". Can the junior Minister confirm that, where it says "a Minister", it refers only to the Minister for Infrastructure and does not extend to any Minister in the Executive?

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Mr Kearney, will you reply to that question?

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker. It is necessary to clarify the circumstances in which a Minister is required to refer a matter to the Executive, where that matter may be cross-cutting, significant or controversial. However, I must add that that does not affect the integrity of the planning process or the nature or quality of the decisions that would be taken under it. It is about who takes the decisions.

In response to the Member's point, clause 1(4) inserts a new provision at section 20(7) of the NI Act. That permits:

"the Department for Infrastructure or the Minister in charge of that Department"

to take certain decisions under the Planning Act:

"without recourse to the Executive Committee."

However, there is a caveat to be entered under clause 1(8), which qualifies section 20(3) of the Act in respect of cross-cutting matters to provide that a Minister is not required to have recourse to the Executive Committee unless a matter affects the exercise of one or more other Ministers "more than incidentally". I hope that that provides some clarification to the Member.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Is Mr Beattie content with that explanation?

Mr Beattie: I thank the junior Minister for —.

Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Temporary Speaker. Will the Temporary Speaker clarify what is happening? Is it a debate? Is it a statement? I am not sure what process I am involved in at the moment.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Mr Beattie indicated in a point of order that he had concerns about the procedures. Mr Kearney has given a very full and detailed response to the point. I understand that Mr Beattie is content with that explanation. That being the case, can we move on?

Mr Kearney has formally moved the motion. There are no amendments tabled to the Bill. The Questions on stand part will be put on each clause, followed by the Question on the long title.

Clause 1 (Amendment of section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998)

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): I think that the Ayes have it.

Some Members: No.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold the social-distancing measures and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.

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.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): The Ayes have it.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Short title)

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Some Members: Aye.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): I think that the Ayes have it. Mr Carroll, do you accept that? Yes. The Ayes have it.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long Title

Question put, That the long title be agreed.

Some Members: Aye.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): I think that the Ayes have it.

Long title agreed to.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill. The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker. I remind Members that the deadline for tabling amendments for Further Consideration Stage is 9:30 am tomorrow.

Committee Business

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): The next item of business is a motion from the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on climate change and the introduction of a climate change Act.

I will suspend proceedings temporarily while we rearrange the top Table and give Members an opportunity to get into the Chamber.

The House took its ease from 11.41 am to 11.42 am.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): I remind Members that the next item of business is a motion from the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on climate change and the introduction of a climate change Act.

That this Assembly acknowledges the ongoing climate and biodiversity emergency and calls by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for rapid decarbonisation; reiterates the Assembly’s declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency, the Assembly’s demands for the urgent introduction of a climate change Act, the all-party New Decade, New Approach commitment to delivering a climate change Act, and the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ commitment to a green growth strategy; recognises climate change as a human rights issue that risks deepening existing inequalities; further recognises the need for a stimulus-led, just and green recovery to restart economic activity following the economic disruption arising from COVID-19; calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to introduce a climate change Act with legally binding and ambitious sectoral emission reduction targets, and to ensure that any economic recovery strategy is underpinned by rapid decarbonisation and a just transition to protect jobs through upskilling people in carbon-intensive sectors; and further calls on the Minister to introduce this Act in the Assembly within three months.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): The Business Committee has allowed an hour and a half for the debate. Mr McGuigan will be allowed 10 minutes to propose the motion and a Member will be allowed 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List.

Mr McGuigan: Climate change has been identified as an immediate strategic priority in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal. Over recent weeks and months, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has received a number of briefings, which included matters relating to climate change. Speaking today as Deputy Chair of the Committee, I will now outline its work in relation to that.

11.45 am

In February 2020, the Committee took oral evidence from DAERA on its proposals for the 2020-21 Budget. The Committee noted interest in the funding associated with the development of climate change legislation. Since then, the COVID crisis has had a significant impact on those plans. In June, the Committee scrutinised funding earmarked for climate change but handed back in the June monitoring round. In terms of capital, the Committee raised concerns that £1 million earmarked for ICT to help to support climate change plans was handed back. A further £500,000 for the collaborative all-Ireland hub in research and development was also handed back. In addition, the Committee was informed that a further £1·6 million on the resource side earmarked for climate change was handed back.

Departmental officials indicated that, whilst some work on climate change is ongoing, progress is now less than originally planned. In written submissions to the Committee in response to the legislative consent motion on the Environment Bill, stakeholders raised concerns about climate change, such as the need for legislation. As part of that work, Members discussed with stakeholders issues such as biodiversity.

In June, the Committee received a departmental briefing on DAERA's draft business plan. The Committee heard that it was quite different from previous plans for a number of reasons, including the pandemic; the fact that we were approaching the end of the transition period following exit from the EU; the huge growth in public awareness on the environment; and the Minister's wish to have sustainability at the heart of the Department's plans.

The Committee heard that climate change was identified as a common theme in the development of key strategic priorities for the Department. Departmental officials highlighted the importance of this opportunity to help to address many of the long-term environmental and climate change challenges that we face.

The concept of "green growth", announced by the Minister in June, whereby sustainability is at the heart of our economic recovery, was welcomed by officials. They outlined the cost and savings for the environment of people working from home.

This month, the Committee received a briefing on the draft NIEA business plan. It heard that the NIEA will play a key role in helping to deliver the DAERA plan, including the green growth strategy. The Committee discussed the links between the environment and the economy. NIEA officials indicated that they would work with Tourism NI and the Department for the Economy on the matter. The Committee was informed of prosperity agreements that promote greater resource efficiency; for example, companies changing their fuel to reduce carbon emissions.

In an evidence session on 1 July, the Minister provided more information on the green growth strategy and plans to tackle environmental and climate change challenges. Recognising the importance of tackling climate change, the Committee agreed at that meeting to have a Committee debate on the issue. A draft motion was considered, and eight amendments were proposed. Of those, five were made and three voted down. The wording of the motion that we are debating was agreed on 2 July.

The amendment calls for consultation. However, the Committee's position is that a climate change Act with legally binding and ambitious sectoral emission reduction targets is needed and that a Bill should be introduced within the next three months. I hope that the House can support the motion.

I now speak on behalf of Sinn Féin.

"Our demands most moderate are we only want the Earth."

So said James Connolly over 100 years ago. Those were modest demands, then and now, but I am sure that he could never have imagined that, 100 years on, we would have to add "saving the Earth" to his request. Every week, a different report or study alerts us to the real and catastrophic dangers of global warming. Yesterday, we were told that polar bears will become extinct by the end of the century if more is not done to tackle climate change. Four days ago, we were told that, in a short time from now, millions of people around the world will be exposed to dangerous levels of heat stress, with many places experiencing summers too hot to work or even live in. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization predicted that, over the next five years, global temperatures would likely break the 1·5° increase threshold compared with pre-industrial temperature levels. We know that keeping below 1·5 is vital to avoid the worst climate impacts on our planet. That was the figure agreed in 2015 in the Paris climate accord. Yet, despite the weekly warnings of dire consequences, here in the North we still do not have a climate Act or any legislation to ensure that we do our bit to fight back. That lack of urgency is, quite frankly, alarming. If we are to learn any lessons from the current health crisis it is that swift and early action based on science is key.

Perhaps there are still some climate deniers among us who think that our contribution is not needed, it will cost us too much and maybe we could care less about the polar bears of the Arctic because that is pretty far away from Ireland. Maybe some think that we will not have to face any of the consequences of climate change or that we can live with the consequences that we do face. I really hope that we are beyond all those arguments. Global warming is a startling fact. It is not something that will happen: it is something that is happening. Ten of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2005, and the decade just ended was the hottest ever. Increasing global temperatures mean rising sea levels, which affect weather patterns that cause increased flooding, droughts, storms, fires and species dying across the globe. Those things are not happening just in faraway places. Over recent years, our farms, towns, communities and infrastructure on this island have all been severely impacted on and damaged by storms, flooding and other forms of extreme weather. Our species habitats have been affected too. All of that is set to continue; in fact, all of it is set to increase at the cost of much more damage on this island and of many more lives elsewhere, if we do not address the issue.

Global warming is happening as a result of human behaviour, so we need to change human behaviour. That is the view of the majority of MLAs, and it is supported by the majority of citizens living in the North, particularly our young citizens. When the Assembly was restored in January, 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA) gave new promise of immediate and far-reaching climate action that has been so absent from previous Environment Ministers. It promised commitments to a green new deal and a just transition away from an unequal society dependent on dirty, destructive and obsolete fossil fuels. Crucially, it promised a climate change Act: legislation to put in place world-leading carbon reduction targets to compel and guide decarbonisation and hold Ministers accountable in the face of the climate emergency. 'New Decade, New Approach' was seven months ago. A month later, on 3 February, in one of the first items of business in the Chamber, MLAs endorsed and reinforced the sentiments of NDNA, proclaimed a climate emergency and called for a just transition and a climate change Act. That was over six months ago, and still we wait.

When questioned about the lack of progress on the matter over the last seven months, the Minister responsible has given answers with variations of, "We cannot move too fast", "I am looking at it", "I am consulting", "I have sought advice", "We need more information", "I am committed to considering", "I am still considering" etc, etc. I hope that it is clear when today's debate is over, Minister, that the time for considering and waiting has long since passed; in fact, the time for action has long since passed. Embarrassingly, we are the only region of these islands without climate change legislation. We need leadership and ambition now, Minister.

When I tabled the motion to the AERA Committee, I did so to signal the urgency with which we in Sinn Féin view the climate emergency. We are debating a motion because Sinn Féin and the majority of parties represented on the AERA Committee feel that the same urgency has been sorely lacking from the Minister. We need legislation that puts us on a path to carbon neutrality by 2045 at the latest. We need carbon budgets to guide us and hold us all accountable on this path. By doing so, we will not only contribute to tackling climate breakdown but unlock the vast economic potential of a just transition to a thriving green economy with high-quality and well-paid employment, using the vast renewable energy sources that we have on this island and, for all of us, lower costs, warmer homes, better transport, cleaner air and healthier lives. For that reason, Sinn Féin has also repeatedly called for the establishment of a just transition commission to bring together all the stakeholders in society to map out and agree on the future.

Legislation must have substance and must be based on science. We have 10 to 20 years to make a far-reaching impact. I am sure that most of us got involved in politics to effect positive change. The most important change and legacy that politicians in this mandate can leave is one that helps to shape the future for our children and our grandchildren by taking positive steps to save and protect our environment and their future prosperity.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Thank you, Mr McGuigan. We have nine Members who wish to contribute plus the summation. I understand that there was a significant debate on the issue in the AERA Committee. Therefore, I intend to give priority to members of that Committee, including Ms Clare Bailey. Ms Bailey, you will be called to speak after the main parties have had a chance to contribute. There is an amendment in the name of Mrs Barton and Mr Stewart. I call Mrs Barton to move the amendment: you have 10 minutes.

Mrs Barton: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "delivering a climate change Act" and insert:

"; recognises the all-party commitment to a green growth strategy and the calls for this to be at the centre of the Northern Ireland COVID-19 recovery plan; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to introduce a consultation on plans for a climate change Act."

I welcome the opportunity to reiterate support for a renewed commitment to deliver a climate change Act. With the recovery from COVID-19 and the introduction of the green growth strategy, this is an ideal time for all Departments to take the opportunity, through a consultation, to work together to bring forward plans for a climate change Act.

Climate change is nothing new. Fifty million years ago, there was no ice at either the North or South Poles. Eighteen thousand years ago, most of Britain was covered in ice and glaciers. The Earth's climate has seen many changes in its 4·5 billion years. Today, however, meteorologists, through the data collected, suggest that the current changes are the result of increasing human populations and activities that cause a build-up of man-made gases in the atmosphere that trap the sun's heat and cause changes in weather patterns around the world. That is the concern that we are addressing.

We all value the environment, and that has been particularly evident in recent months, when so many people longed to get a walk in the countryside to escape the confines imposed by the COVID lockdown. In these most challenging times, a sustainable and affordable way forward must be explored to curb and reduce our unnecessary emissions for the benefit of the generations to come and to preserve the environment that we enjoy so much. At no time has it been more important for all Departments to work together in a combined effort to reduce emissions and move towards a zero-carbon society for the benefit of our climate and biodiversity and, ultimately, our environment.

While a mix of European, United Kingdom and Northern Ireland Executive legislation currently governs greenhouse gas emissions, including the Climate Change Act 2008 in England, which has set targets to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, it is clear that Northern Ireland needs its own climate change Act, through the green growth strategy, to work towards a number of Northern Ireland-set targets. While we have broad national climate change legislation, Northern Ireland-specific climate change concerns need to be addressed. We need a consultation period to establish what best meets the requirements of made-in-Northern-Ireland legislation, which will include its own unique local circumstances.

The consultation should cover areas like what is good in other climate change Acts, whether it is the UK Act or others, and whether we can put it into our Act. It should also identify gaps and ensure that they are addressed in any new Northern Ireland legislation. That would allow the Northern Ireland Executive to undertake the appropriate degree of research, have greater autonomy over planning for home-grown climate change initiatives and set appropriate targets. For example, the UK legislation and the action towards 2050 means that reduction in emissions is regularised and controlled and ensures that there is not an overly rapid movement towards, for example, the scrappage of vehicles before their time, which could lead to expensive and more costly solutions that may be less expensive as time progresses towards 2050. A common strategic approach is a necessity in reducing emissions, but it must be informed by data and consultation to enable the right decisions to be taken and to allow the proper strategic approach to be implemented with the use of evidence.

Look at the situation at present. Our grid cannot cope with the amount of wind energy that is being supplied, yet our electricity prices increase, as producers have to receive fair payment for their investment. There is no joined-up strategic approach to that attempt at supporting green energy.

12.00 noon

The DOE discussion paper from 2015-16 is a good base for preparing the consultation. That was more of an overview, but we require more specific targets that are backed by proper research and analysis to enable a planned way forward for our Act in Northern Ireland.

I appeal for people to stop knocking the agricultural and farming industry over climate change. There is a much bigger picture that needs to be considered with regard to making a difference to climate change issues. Those are the issues that need detailed consideration in this consultation.

In his statement to the House last month on the green growth approach and strategy, Minister Poots said that he had set out a road map and would consult across the entire waste, agriculture, energy, environment and public and private sectors to get a well-rounded view as soon as possible. That is similar to what should happen in the development of a climate change Act. Some groundwork has been done with the 2015 discussion paper, and now we need to put some details and specifics behind it.

I do not want the consultation to act as a barrier to further progress; I want it to better inform the creation of legislation and produce an Act that will serve the people of Northern Ireland for this and future generations.

Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As a farmer, I am keenly interested in the protection of the environment. As I have said many times in the House, farmers play one of the most active roles in protecting and enhancing the environment by farming the land. It is also a fact that farmers are acutely impacted by climate change, given their reliance on the land and their vulnerability to extreme weather events.

The motion is laden with an unquantifiable level of commitment that is matched by a unquantifiable associated cost. Those are two very important issues that must be measured if we are to realistically address concerns around climate change whilst ensuring that we have sustainable and profitable industries in Northern Ireland.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a harsh and regrettable toll on the health of the UK population, and indeed that of many other countries across the world, it has also taken a very harsh toll on the economic health of the United Kingdom. The predictions make for sobering reading, and when the impacts of the pandemic are taken into account along with the changes in consumer habits over a period of months, there are justifiable and serious concerns over the length of time that the economic recovery will take.

I note with interest that the renowned firm KPMG believes that it is possible that Northern Ireland will be the most sheltered in that regard, due in no small part to the strong food manufacturing base here, which has continued at speed throughout the pandemic. Again, that shows the importance of our agri-food sector to our Northern Ireland economy. Indeed, agri-food accounts for somewhere in the region of 100,000 jobs, and the food manufacturing sector accounts for 32% of manufacturing sales in Northern Ireland. This is an important industry, and it must be protected, especially in these most challenging and unprecedented times.

There is a new focus for the Assembly and its associated Departments. That focus is, and must continue to be, the recovery of Northern Ireland's people and its economy in line with the current health and scientific advice. With the recovery will come opportunities to do things differently, and in line with the focus today on climate change and the environment, there are opportunities that should be taken to make preparations and allow Northern Ireland to continue on the right track.

I have listened intently in the AERA Committee to our Minister, the departmental officials and industry representatives on the importance of us playing our part in addressing climate change. Indeed, I welcome Minister Poots's very pragmatic and common-sense approach to these issues. One only has to read his contributions in the Chamber to see that he has a strong affiliation with the agri-food industry and, critically, an understanding of the environment. The green growth strategy is a case in point, and the opportunities for improvement in meeting our targets are many. It was enlightening to learn at a recent AERA Committee meeting that DAERA, a Department with hundreds of employees, has saved around 55,000 miles per day due to staff working from home in these new circumstances. In an era when carbon footprints are a concern, that is a staggering amount of mileage. When it is considered that that happened in the first 35 days of lockdown, one sees that it equates to 2 million miles saved, which is a very significant way of working. The positive impact of that on the environment is obvious. However, huge importance is attached to ensuring that all elements of government continue to function as required to aid our recovery whilst pursuing new ways of working.

That is only a single example, but it shows what is possible in our own government structures. Whilst those types of savings are more straightforward to make in the Civil Service, in the world of industry, efficiencies are made as a matter of course simply to ensure that businesses can remain operational and survive. There is no money to waste in wider industry, especially at this most difficult time. That is why I believe that in the green growth strategy and many of the other actions and programmes that we may seek to roll out, the onus that is placed on industry must be workable.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Will the Member bring his remarks to a close, please?

Mr Irwin: Pardon?

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Will you bring your remarks to a close, please?

Mr Irwin: OK. Take, for instance, our dairy industry, which has worked extremely hard to reduce its carbon intensity by 34% between 1990 and 2017. That is a commendable achievement that must be recognised and built upon. The sustainability of our industry in Northern Ireland is vital.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Will the Member please finish?

Mr Irwin: I do not support the motion, but I will support the amendment.

Ms Hunter: I am delighted to speak here today on a very important topic. Climate change is a real and unprecedented challenge for us all. We hold in our hands the responsibility for the future of the planet. The culture of how we view and care for our land must change. The SDLP will support the motion, and I welcome that the Committee tabled it. Unfortunately, we will not support the amendment because although we have no doubt that it is well-intentioned, we feel that it removes the urgency of the motion. We cannot wait any longer. We must act now.

Climate change is the biggest threat that we face not only to the environment but to our health, economic prosperity and global security. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the impacts of climate change are accelerating and are largely driven by greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human activity. If we are to combat the devastating environmental, health, economic and societal impact of climate change, we have a responsibility to act responsibly as individuals. From beach clean-ups to climate strikes, we have seen the peace, positivity and passion shown by young people right across this island, who have taught us that it is time to listen, stand up and be the change. We can no longer go on with business as usual. We must act now.

Climate change is no longer a theory but an irrefutable fact. Young people across the world are leading the fight for action, and I stand with them. They will be here long after us, and they have a real opportunity to do something that no other generation in history has done, which is to leave the world in a better condition than that in which they got it. Having spoken with young activists directly, it is evident that our education on environmentalism must change to reflect the crisis that we are in. Climate education must be included more often in our curriculum. Given the right leadership and supported by the right legislation, we, too, can deliver change in a manner that will not just help to address the environmental challenges but that has the potential to bring about significant economic and societal benefit for all.

Climate breakdown is the seismic global challenge facing this generation. Failure to take action now will result in significant changes to our global climate and weather patterns. That will devastate developed and developing economies right across the world, leaving millions destitute and poverty-stricken. Global warming is happening at a much faster rate than anticipated. Extraordinary action is required now to keep global temperature increases below 1·5°C and to avert irreversible damage to our climate.

Over the past few years, millions of citizens right across Europe and the world have called on governments and the political establishment to take action on the climate emergency, for this generation and the next. The expressions of this crisis through protests in European capitals and school strikes on the streets across the North have their roots in social, economic, ecological and political upheaval. We know that this crisis will disproportionately affect those least able to bear the burden. Interventions designed to tackle the climate emergency must be robust, equitable and contribute to social justice more broadly. We cannot create a society that offers tax cuts to the wealthy while introducing new levies that disproportionately target the poor. We cannot decarbonise our economy without ensuring that clean energy is more affordable. We cannot deliver income equality without a green economy that creates high-quality jobs. We know that the ecological transition and economic equality must go hand in hand. Accepting and addressing the causes of the climate crisis is critical to avoid irreversible damage to ecosystems and economies.

The SDLP believes that protecting the environment is not an expensive political hobby horse. It is a moral, economic and health imperative that, if planned and implemented correctly, can benefit us all: people, communities and businesses. The future is in our hands. We owe it to our children and future generations, and we must act now.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Weir): I call Mr John Blair, and following that, Ms Bailey.

Mr Blair: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the need for a specific climate change Act for Northern Ireland. I stress the urgency of that commitment, a commitment that was made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement six months ago. I therefore support the motion as tabled by the Committee.

The urgency and importance of the issue and the required commitment mean that I am not in a position where I can support the amendment, and neither can my colleagues. The amendment, for those of us in Alliance at least, falls short on detailing the desired outcome and, whether intentional or not, dilutes the motion's intention of urgent action. The world is facing a climate emergency, with potentially disastrous consequences. The impacts of climate change are already being felt by some of the most vulnerable regions in our world. Locally, we are experiencing changing and variable weather and climate patterns, increases in flooding and changes in the natural environment, habitats and biodiversity in these islands, and these will only increase in magnitude if action is not taken urgently to reduce carbon emissions.

As the only region in the UK and Ireland without a specific net-zero emissions target, and despite laudable attempts, we have not reduced our greenhouse gas emissions in line with scientific advice. Since the introduction of the UK Climate Change Act 2008, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across the UK by 27%, but, in Northern Ireland, by only 9%. If we have not reduced the UK's net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030 — the position of the Alliance Party — we will not be able to pay our full part in avoiding devastating tipping points that would shatter the global economy and pose existential human threats.

This is the most critical decade for Northern Ireland. There is urgent need for new policies that will protect the environment. We must embrace the challenge and legislate for ambitious net-zero outcomes, with interim and sectoral targets, and we must invest in zero-carbon infrastructure and technologies.

The climate change Act, which is, as I said, incredibly delayed, must deliver meaningful improvement and implement mechanisms for ensuring that future environmental improvement plans are sufficiently ambitious and are relevant specifically to Northern Ireland. I have today, quite deliberately, leveled no criticism directly at the Department. There have been, as we all know, competing demands and periods without devolution, and there is remaining uncertainty about post-EU arrangements. It must be recognised as well, though, that the recent green growth strategy from the Department was a welcome step forward in environmental awareness and protection.

The motion is in the spirit of such protection, addressing our climate challenge and safeguarding our future. This is an interdepartmental issue requiring interdepartmental and cross-cutting solutions. I am pleased that the Committee tabled the motion and I am pleased to support it.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Thank you, Mr Blair, for such a succinct putting of your case. I also thank Ms Hunter and Mrs Barton for taking a similar approach.

12.15 pm

Ms Bailey: I am happy to support the motion, which, my party and I believe, is long overdue. I thank my Committee colleague Mr McGuigan for moving it.

I am pleased to see the acknowledgement of climate change as a human rights issue in the motion. For many, climate change may seem like a distant possibility — something far into the future — but that misconception is destructive. It is a falsehood, and it is our responsibility to face it head-on. Communities in the global south already experience the effects of climate change in the form of floods, droughts, hurricanes and other extreme weather events. Climate change causes death and destruction, threatens peace and security, increases social inequality on a global scale and threatens economic stability and our way of life. Climate change exacerbates chronic and contagious diseases, worsens food and water shortages, increases the risk of pandemics and aggravates mass displacement. The UN forecasts that there could be anywhere between 25 million and one billion environmental migrants by 2050. Think about that.

We see the social implications of climate change in Northern Ireland. In agriculture, for example, more and more small farmers are unable to withstand the extreme weather events that we now see occurring year-on-year, forcing them to leave the land. If we look at projected levels of flooding by 2050, we will know that we are likely looking at a housing crisis of epic proportions, as much of Belfast, among other areas, will end up under water.

The reality of climate change is that those who are least responsible for causing the problem are those who will feel its effects most acutely and are least well equipped to respond to it. Climate change will not be a great leveller. It will not affect us all equally. For all our declarations of a climate breakdown and an ecological and biodiversity crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what an emergency looks like and how to respond to it. Climate change, like COVID-19, requires a global to local response and long-term thinking guided by science and the need to protect the most vulnerable. It requires the political will to make that fundamental change to the way in which we live our lives in order to respond to what is an existential threat to humanity and all life on Earth.

We need to start thinking about what a post-pandemic economy looks like. We all want to get back to normal, but normal is not working. As professor of green political economy John Barry has said:

"The coronavirus has cancelled the future. But that's OK. It wasn't a very good one to begin with."

We have a unique chance here to change the course that we are on to irreversible climate catastrophe and to build back better. We need to rebuild with a transformative green new deal. Our COVID-19 recovery plan must decarbonise the economy in a way that tackles inequality and enhances the lives of ordinary people, our workers and our communities. The transition to a green economy must be underpinned by values of social justice and the principle that no one gets left behind.

Legislation is long overdue. Scotland and Wales have their own legislation, and both countries are set to meet and outperform their climate targets by 2020. In Northern Ireland, our emissions are not falling at anywhere near the same rate. We have increased our share of the total UK emissions. The New Decade, New Approach agreement includes new commitments to introduce legislation and targets for reducing emissions that are in line with the Paris agreement. We have seen little to no movement so far, however. We are already behind the rest of the UK. Work on the legislation needs to begin immediately, and it must be underpinned by ambitious, time-bound and legally binding sectoral targets. While there will be huge wins from the decarbonisation of the energy sector, that must be accompanied by reductions in others sectors, such as transport and agriculture, in order to meet long-term emissions reduction targets. We need to front-load those interim targets to ensure that we reach 80% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2045 at least.

We must also recognise that solutions will not always be technological. While innovation has a part to play, nature-based solutions are best placed to tackle both the climate and biodiversity crises by restoring, protecting and managing carbon sinks and restoring native woodlands.

The Temporary Speaker (Mr Wells): Will the Member bring her remarks to a close, please?

Ms Bailey: Certainly. A climate change Act is well overdue. We are on the brink of disaster. The predicted temperature rise of 4° will be catastrophic for Northern Ireland. We have been given a rare opportunity: let us not lose it.

Dr Archibald: I support the motion; I do not support the amendment.

On 3 February, the Assembly declared a climate emergency. We also called for the Executive to fulfil the climate action and environmental commitments agreed in 'New Decade, New Approach' and for the commencement, as a matter of urgency, of a review of the Executive's strategies to reduce carbon emissions in respect of the Paris Accord and the climate crisis. On 17 June, in response to my question for written answer that asked for an update on the New Decade, New Approach commitment to reviewing the Executive's strategies to reduce carbon emissions, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said:

"I am still considering plans to meet climate change commitments and approaches outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I believe it is imperative that we build the evidence base and ensure government policy making has climate and environment at its core and that future policies and strategies can demonstrably deliver the outcomes people expect. The introduction of any new cross cutting approaches on climate change will of course require the support of the NI Executive."

It is fair to say that the evidence base clearly exists already. It has done so for the past three decades; in fact, the evidence simply grows on the scale of the disaster of not acting. Frankly, I do not really know what "the outcomes people expect" means. Certainly, the Paris Accord commits to limiting global warming to 1·5° by the end of this century, and in NDNA, in January, parties here committed to implementing policies to meet that target. The Assembly has declared a climate emergency and called for the implementation of those commitments, so it is fair to say that people expect action that will achieve that and not simply rhetoric and can-kicking. People expect a climate change Act with the type of binding sectoral targets and strategies to achieve them that will meet our obligations on limiting global warming and preventing the catastrophic consequences of missing those targets.

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

On 1 June, the Assembly called for a fair, just and green economic recovery that demonstrates that we value our key workers, protects the most vulnerable, protects workers' rights and our public services and commits to tackling economic challenges by a just transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy. In planning for an economic and societal recovery from COVID-19 that will also be able to deal with the challenges of the climate crisis now and into the future, a recovery that is jobs-led and is fair and just would be hugely benefited by the introduction of a climate change Act with legally binding and ambitious sectoral targets.

I pick up on Mrs Barton's point when I say that the reports are there, including the Committee on Climate Change's report from last year. The evidence is there. There will of course be a consultation on any legislation that is brought forward, and that will be shaped by best practice. Certainly, when I talk to stakeholders and delivery partners, including those from business, energy, industry and academia, they are keen to make progress on decarbonisation but, to some extent, are working without a guide. They are planning loosely on the basis of the British targets, and that is not the localised, all-island approach that we need to protect our local economy and to ensure a just transition for our citizens.

Mr Givan: Will the Member give way?

Dr Archibald: No, I have quite a lot to get through, sorry.

It is vital that we have a genuine partnership approach that brings together representatives of all those who will be impacted; in reality, who is not? Here we mean representatives of workers, business, academia and, of course, agriculture and the agri-food industry, energy, the community and voluntary sector and government to plan for the just transition and economic recovery that will deliver jobs, prosperity and a better quality of life and outcomes for people that cannot simply be measured by GDP. Climate action must be based on social justice and must not disadvantage those who are least able to pay. That is why I have called for the setting up of a just transition commission to plan for the decarbonisation of our economy and society. We need to see real investment in skills development and infrastructure and in the sectors that will deliver this: the green economy, the creative economy, the digital economy, research and innovation and academia. We have huge potential on this island and should seek to build on that in a real, joined-up way through an all-island approach, because climate recognises no borders. The resilient economy and society that we want to create will be better enabled by supporting the development of secure local supply chains.

This is too crucial a time to dither and delay. The evidence for action is overwhelming, and there is a real need for the regulatory framework, through climate change legislation, to ensure our strategies on building a better and fairer economy and society work for all citizens and protect and enhance the environment and the planet for generations to come.

Mr Harvey: The issues addressed by the motion affect us all: the environment around us, the economy within which we do business and the energy that we all consume. The experience of lockdown afforded many of us the opportunity to enjoy Creation and benefit from an altogether less polluted environment. Northern Ireland has an incredibly natural and diverse environment. A recent research paper from academics at Queen's and Napier universities noted that there are 308 different soil types across Northern Ireland, compared with around 700 in the whole of England and Wales. That statistic alone testifies to the wealth of our natural resources.

I do not believe that any benefit is to be had from whipping up a frenzy of panic on climate change. Rather, we must approach the issues with positive action to ensure a cleaner environment and a sustainable future in the years ahead. For such a goal to be achieved, it will require the collective will not just of the House but of society as a whole. I am glad that positive action has already been taken by my party colleagues in the Executive to formulate a coordinated and strategic approach to tackling the challenge of climate change. It is incumbent on us all that we take our responsibilities seriously. It is worth reflecting on the achievements that have already been made in tackling carbon emissions and waste outputs. For instance, 47% of our electricity mix already comes from renewable energy forms, and that is a solid statistic on which to build.

Mr McGuigan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Harvey: Yes, I will.

Mr McGuigan: The Member talks about the reduction. Will he express disappointment, as I do, that, in the North, since 2008, our emissions have reduced by only 8%, when, on the island of Britain, they have fallen by 27%?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Harvey: I thank the Member for his comment.

I commend the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) for the work currently under way, particularly in relation to the green growth strategy within the delivery framework and the Forests for our Future initiative, which aims to plant 18 million trees by 2030. That is the sort of positive action that is required. Similarly, the efforts to tackle plastic pollution, through the deposit return scheme, thereby ensuring that the plastic remains in the economy, will be of great benefit and quality to our environment. Prosperity agreements already encourage business to rethink how they can do business, creating greener and more sustainable solutions. As the Agriculture Minister has stated, sustainability must be our guiding light in all that we do.

Sadly, the effects of COVID-19 are already being felt, with job losses and economic uncertainty. We must ensure that our efforts around climate issues benefit people on the ground. Exciting opportunities lie ahead, as we work to transform the economy from high- to low-carbon, with the potential for sustainable job creation as a result. As we focus on emerging technologies, it is great to know that we can build on firm foundations such as our manufacturing sector, as we look forward towards carbon alternatives, such as hydrogen, in the energy strategy.

Mr Givan: I appreciate that the Member gives way and note that he does while others choose not to. That is their prerogative.

Does the Member agree that, in having a sustainable way forward on the issue, we should not take the lead of the Republic of Ireland, which has spent in excess of €100 million buying credits to farm out its responsibilities to others while continuing to fail to meet its international obligations? We are best placed to tackle the issue, and we should not engage in virtue signalling, which is what we hear from quite a number of Members. We need real, tangible, sustainable ways forward to make sure that we have a green and pleasant land in this country.

Mr Harvey: I thank the Member for his comments.

Northern Ireland undoubtedly has the innovation, skills and motivation across all sectors and industries to play a leading role in the development of green energy for the benefit not only of our environment but of our economy for the future.

The new energy strategy will likely set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero-carbon society as we move towards the UK's 2050 commitment date.

There is much to be done, but the work has already commenced. Sustainability will lead to economic growth and, hopefully, future prosperity for everyone. We must use the resources that we have been blessed with wisely.

12.30 pm

Mr Durkan: Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face, not just to the environment but to our health, economic prosperity and global security. As has been said, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the impacts of climate change are accelerating and that they are largely driven by greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human activity. If we are to combat the devastating environmental, health, economic and societal impacts of climate change, we have a responsibility to act globally, locally and as individuals.

Given the right leadership and supported by the right legislation, we can deliver change in a manner that will not just help address the environmental challenges but that has the potential to bring about significant economic and societal benefits. That is not the first time that I have said those words. That is almost verbatim what I said in 2015, when, as the Environment Minister, I issued a discussion document that clearly set out the rationale for climate change legislation. At that time, there was a clear idea of how that legislation should look. It was our view that the Northern Ireland climate change Bill should:

"Make provisions for a long term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ...Make provisions for interim targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ... Place a duty to set limits in carbon budgets on the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that can be emitted ... Provide powers to request specified public bodies to report on their transition towards a low carbon economy and their plans to adapt to the effects of climate change [and] Contain provisions to establish a Northern Ireland Committee on Climate Change or to designate an existing body to exercise advisory functions should it be decided that this is appropriate".

Finally, our climate change Bill must:

"Contain a requirement for Northern Ireland to obtain an independent assessment for progress made towards implementing the objectives, proposals and policies set out in the Northern Ireland Climate Change Adaptation Programme."

That needed to be done as a matter of urgency five years ago. It needs to be done as a matter of emergency now.

The vast majority of responses to that discussion document were positive, with people and groups recognising the need for us to act. Support was not unanimous, though, with reservations and, in some cases, outright opposition, coming, not unexpectedly, from certain quarters in industry and agriculture. The commercial concerns expressed have perennially been reflected in political opposition or, in today's case, resistance to a climate change Act from some quarters in the House. That is OK. It is natural to have different views and healthy to hear those views.

As Mr Hamilton said, some good work has been done with industry, through prosperity agreements as one vehicle, to demonstrate the economic benefits and opportunities that going green can create. We have moved, or at least are moving, beyond the old-world view that environmental regulation must constrain economic performance and productivity. It is possible to create a better environment and a stronger economy. Standing still will deliver neither. We certainly stood still with no Government here for three years. It is time that we got moving.

I was going to say that things here happen at a glacial pace, but thanks to global warming the glaciers are probably moving quicker than we are. Having said that, I must acknowledge Minister Poots's green growth plans, the visionary work of Nichola Mallon as Minister for Infrastructure and the great work that has been done by many of our councils, including Derry City and Strabane District Council.

Mr Stewart: Will the Member support our amendment?

Mr Durkan: We will not support the amendment. We believe that it kicks the can further down the road.

The Department has, I believe, done enough work to know what needs to be done. As a Bill makes its way through a robust legislative process, there will be ample opportunity for engagement, evidence gathering, amendments and improvement.

Commitment to advancing this legislation is a cornerstone of the New Decade, New Approach agreement —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Durkan: — an agreement that has brought us all back here. Let us honour that commitment. We need an Act, and we need to act.

Mr Muir: In my maiden speech I fully supported the Assembly's declaration of a climate emergency and of the climate commitments in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document and said that they should be acted upon as the bare minimum. In some respects, everything has changed six months later as a result of COVID-19. The need for us to act urgently in response to the climate emergency has not, however, changed one bit. I fully support the motion, including the timetable for the Minister to introduce a climate change Act.

I will focus my comments today in my role as the Alliance Party's finance and infrastructure spokesperson. At this point, I should declare that I was previously an employee of Translink and a councillor on Ards and North Down Borough Council.

Rapid decarbonisation, green growth and a green recovery will not happen unless we significantly increase our investment in the relevant infrastructure. It is of real importance that we have a fit-for-purpose planning system that enables plans such as the North/South interconnector to proceed and to avoid having wind farms being stuck in the planning system for years awaiting approval, as that will enable more renewable electricity to flow into our grid. Investing in our broadband network, particularly in rural areas, is essential to enable more people to work remotely and to avoid lengthy commutes. Bringing forward a scheme to incentivise home insulation, as the Chancellor announced for England and Wales two weeks ago, could play a significant role in reducing household energy consumption. Those are just a few steps that we could take immediately to deliver the green infrastructure and investment that we need.

First, however, we must better utilise our existing borrowing powers. This year, we have not drawn down a penny of the available borrowing from the National Loans Fund, and we have handed back millions of pounds in financial transactions capital. That is inexcusable at a time when we should be investing in our future. It only serves to make the case for a national infrastructure commission even stronger. Such a body could advise the Executive on, and oversee the delivery of, a green infrastructure strategy and could identify the projects best suited to deliver green growth — projects that are shovel-worthy as well as shovel-ready.

The second aspect of our response to the climate emergency that I want to touch on today is how we travel. Transport accounts for 20% of Northern Ireland's CO2 emissions. It will be key to achieving future targets in any climate change Act, should one ever be brought before the Assembly. Translink's current financial predicament as a result of the slump in passenger numbers is no reason to give up on public transport. We should, instead, be seeking to build back better, rivalling other parts of Europe in their investment in sustainable transport, rather than continuing the chronic underinvestment that has bedevilled Northern Ireland for years.

The new Government in the South have committed to investing in new public transport in a ratio of two to one to new roads. We in Northern Ireland must adopt something similar in our response to the climate emergency. We have the tools right here to make our public transport system as green as anywhere in the world. Wrightbus is already delivering cutting-edge hydrogen and electric buses that, with the right support, could be as cheap as their fossil-fuel counterparts in the very near future. By working with firms such as Wrightbus we can tackle the climate emergency, ensure better air quality, and support economic recovery all at the same time.

As well as investing in public transport, we must also rapidly increase our commitment to active travel. The increased provision for pedestrians and cyclists that was brought in during COVID-19 should be made permanent. It should also be built upon to catalyse the shift in how we travel.

In closing, I fully endorse the motion and the onus that it places upon the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to act quickly. However, responding to climate emergency is the obligation of every Minister and every Member. Financing green infrastructure investment and decarbonising how we travel must be essential components of our collective response.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Matthew O'Toole. The Member will have the remaining three minutes of the debate.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will try to be concise. I echo the sentiments of my colleagues Cara Hunter and Mark Durkan and those of the many others who have supported the motion.

A few weeks ago, in the Assembly, the Minister for Agriculture set out his vision for a green growth strategy. The Minister told us that the data and evidence for the increase in carbon emissions is irrefutable and that Northern Ireland needs to do much more to meet the UK Government's target of reaching zero net carbon by 2050. Who could refute that data?

Going back to some of the points that have been made, the Member for Strangford said that Northern Ireland had done well. Philip McGuigan gave a bit of the context relating to the reduction in our emissions since 2008. Between 1990 and 2017, in comparison with other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland emissions fell by 18%, Wales by 25%, England by 45% and Scotland fell by 48%. Paul Givan was drawing contrasts with the Republic of Ireland. It may well be the case that they need to be more ambitious in their climate reduction targets, but, as others have said; they are doing that and have an ambitious series of targets in their Programme for Government.

I welcome the sentiments expressed by the Minister a few weeks ago. We do have much more work to do, and that needs to start now. The sentiments were strongly backed up by the Committee on Climate Change progress report to the UK Parliament that said that the devolved Administrations need to step up to the plate. We know that this proposed legislation was specifically mentioned within the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, and it is right that we need to step up to the plate. The Assembly has recognised the gravity of the climate emergency. In one of our first sittings this year, we passed a motion describing the situation as a "climate emergency". That puts an onus on us to deliver this legislation.

It is critical that we now move on from those declarations, to the specific action of delivering a climate change Act. The impact of having no binding climate change legislation in Northern Ireland is already apparent. There is considerable disparity in emissions reductions progress between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK. Legally binding targets will move us beyond the status quo of vague aspirations with minimal practical implementation, and towards serious long-term and interim targets. We are the worst performing UK region for emissions reductions and we cannot wait any longer.

I am coming to the end of my three minutes. In closing, and to keep my remarks brief, we have been a backwater on climate action for far too long. If six months is a short enough deadline to crash out of the EU without preparing our businesses for it, then I am afraid that three months is more than long enough for the Minister to bring —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — forth climate change legislation. As my colleague has said, we do support the motion. We do not support the amendment because —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — we have waited long enough for specific legislation. I commend this motion, and those colleagues who have brought this to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I now call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, to respond to the debate.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

A three-month time frame is impossible to achieve, and it is ridiculous to ask for it. The Member who has just spoken says that it is adequate time, yet his Party had five years in this office to bring forward a climate change Act and did not do it. It is quite ridiculous, Mr O'Toole, that the party of which you are a member, want me to do that in three months.

Northern Ireland has reduced its carbon footprint by 20% since 1990. Do we believe that more needs to be done? Of course more needs to be done. Transport, energy and agriculture are the big players and account for 65% of greenhouse gasses. What are we going to do? Are we going to pass motions which basically replicate what others have done and have not successfully challenged the greenhouse gas problem, or are we going to take actions? I am not a politician who gets too hung up on motions and regulations. I want to see actions and things that will make tangible differences in Northern Ireland and beyond.

When I was previously Minister —.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for giving way. I agree with him that motions are important, but that actions are essential.

He may or may not be aware, that there is an application on the Minister for the Economy's desk to allow for the extraction of petroleum across the North. Would he agree with me that rejecting that application would put those actions into words?

12.45 pm

Mr Poots: That is entirely a matter for the people who are looking at it. Importing gas from Russia or importing oil from the Middle East does not necessarily strike me as being more environmentally friendly than doing it here. Nonetheless, that is for those people. I have no idea whatsoever about that application, and I will not comment on it. It may come across my desk, with factual information that I can analyse then.

We need to do more when it comes to these issues. The last time that I was Environment Minister, the issue of recycling and waste was brought to me. At that point, our recycling rate was around 25%; it was in the low 20s, actually. They said, "We could aim for a target of 40% by 2020", but I said, "No. We're not doing that. We're going for 50%". They said, "It won't be achieved". It was achieved. When I became Minister, we were getting nowhere on renewable energy because of the planning legislation that existed, so we brought in the appropriate planning legislation. As a consequence of that, Northern Ireland is now producing over 40% of its energy from renewable sources. Mrs Barton quite rightly raised the issue of the utilisation of that, and a course of work needs to be done to address that. Nonetheless, we believe in actions, not words. What I hear from a lot of the Members who have come forward today are words. Having delayed the Assembly doing anything for three years, they want me to do something in three months. I want to ensure that we get those actions.

Mr McGuigan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Poots: Your colleague will have an opportunity to speak later, and you had 10 minutes.

Lord Deben produced a report for Westminster in which he set out a series of actions. He is looking for the following: investments in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure; support for reskilling, retraining, innovation and research for a net-zero, well-adapted economy; upgrades to our homes and the building of new homes, ensuring that they are fit for the future; action to make it easy for people to walk, cycle and work remotely; tree planting, peatland restoration, green spaces and other green infrastructure. That cuts across not just my Department but all Departments. I want to know what the ministerial colleagues of the individuals who have been speaking in this debate are doing in their Departments, because this issue is not solely for DAERA. Every Department has a role. Every Department has a responsibility.

Already in DAERA, in spite of COVID and in spite of all the problems, delays and distractions as a consequence, in the first six months, we have been able to bring forward the Forests for our Future strategy. We have also been able to bring forward our green growth strategy. I can tell you that we are working on programmes that will make real, significant change. Members of my staff are working extremely hard on developing ideas that will drive real reductions in greenhouse gases in my Department and, I trust, elsewhere.

Ms Bailey: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Poots: We will see how time goes.

You will not find this Minister wanting when it comes to dealing with these issues. We will see who steps up to the plate. We will see what other Ministers will do in support of what I want to achieve when it comes to environmental issues. It will be extremely challenging. I will not go forward with a very limited proposal. I want to see a programme that will deliver real, tangible changes to the environment.

I have to say that the quality of scientific work has been challenged on the back of COVID-19. We have been told for years that cows make a dreadful contribution to greenhouse gases. Interestingly enough, during the COVID period, the number of cows did not go down, but greenhouse gases certainly did so. Subsequently, other scientists are indicating that the methane produced by cows has had relatively little impact on the environment. So, on that, we need qualitative science. I am thankful that organisations like Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) exist in Northern Ireland. We need qualitative science to demonstrate, in a very unequivocal way, the real contribution of agriculture. It is very easy to say that a cow produces so much methane but no one is saying what a cow does with regard to sequestration of carbon. She eats that lovely green grass; that green grass has roots that goes down into the soil and that green grass captures carbon and takes it down into the soil. The cow actually tramples grass down into the soil along with it, particularly cows that are grazed in the extensive systems in Northern Ireland.

I am conscious that Sinn Féin are bringing forward motions that would introduce legislation in a rushed way, and that would, inevitably, damage farming and make hill farming unsustainable in Northern Ireland. Mr McAleer and Mr McGuigan are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Mr McAleer is constantly protesting for hill farmers and Mr McGuigan is constantly protesting on something that would damage hill farmers. We need to be very clear about it; the legislation that has been introduced in other places would be damaging to Northern Ireland's agriculture and, consequently, damaging to the hill farmers who Mr McAleer likes to talk about a lot. I will not be having it; it will not happen on my watch that we damage the people who are trying to make a living on the hills, because those people are making a positive contribution. I want to ensure that we have the scientific evidence to demonstrate that they are making a positive contribution. Carbon capture exists in our trees, our hedges and our grasslands. The sequestration that takes place is significant, and we need the science to back us up and to demonstrate that we are doing some things that are real and are truly beneficial.

Mr Muir mentioned the North/South interconnector. The parties that he is going to go through the Lobbies with are the parties that have been most opposed to the North/South interconnector. I agree that we need to have an electricity system that is fit for purpose. People need energy and there needs to be a greater utilisation of that green energy, through the North/South interconnector, than is currently the case, but the parties that he will vote with are opposed to it.

I welcome Translink's recent recognition that there are quality buses available in Northern Ireland. It took them a long time to identify that there are buses manufactured here, and I welcome the fact that they are now acquiring them. Translink have their own pieces of work to step up to. Running empty buses or trains is not good for the environment. I recognise that public transport is critical, going forward, but it is critical that they make the right decisions with the limited funding that is available to all Departments, including Health and Education, to provide for the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

Speaking of education, Ms Hunter raised an issue around the environment. If she checks the facts, she will find that Northern Ireland is leading when it comes to education on environmental issues. All our Eco-Schools are registered and have innovative programmes and activities delivering on issues, such as Rethink Waste, which I introduced. There are strong conditions for the Government to reinforce climate positive behaviours that have emerged during the lockdown, including increased remote working, cycling and walking. I believe that our leadership will play a key role in forming new social norms and expectations. I assure Members that my focus, as AERA Minister, is to find ways where we can all work together and achieve those positive outcomes, for nature and for business, and tackle the challenges of climate change.

Therefore, I do not support the motion. I cannot support it. We should not use language such as "emergency" or "crisis". Northern Ireland climate change legislation should not be rushed through and forced upon the Assembly without its being properly informed and considered. We need greater clarity and evidence on what should go into legislation and what that can deliver for Northern Ireland. Without that, there is a real risk of rushing through something that we would later find out has a detrimental effect and puts up barriers for businesses and industry, debilitating Northern Ireland's realisation of a just transition to a low-carbon, green economy.

I should say that we are leaving the European Union. Over the period in which we were in the European Union, it produced 2,800 regulations and laws for agriculture alone. What I hear from people on the other side of the Chamber is that there should be more regulation. I do not want more regulation; I want more action. One achieves much more by giving people leadership than by bullying them. We can give them that leadership. We can demonstrate to the public, unequivocally, that the actions that we take will actually be of real benefit to the environment. Bringing in regulations such as that which requires a farmer to request permission from DAERA to clean out what we refer to in the country as a "sheugh" did not do one bit of good for the environment — not one bit of good. It was just another regulation. I am not interested in waste-of-time regulations, which are a burden to individuals and to the Government to have to implement. I am interested in taking real action and actually reducing the greenhouse gases and carbon that we produce, looking at how we can sequestrate it better, looking at how we can do things better with regard to working from home, and all those issues. That is something that all Ministers, in all our Departments, need to work on together. I am happy to give leadership on that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call John Stewart to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. You will have up to five minutes.

Mr Stewart: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. I want to say at the outset that I certainly acknowledge the spirit and intent of the motion. Our amendment was not designed to impede its intentions in any way but rather to inform what would, ultimately, form the climate change Act, which we, as a party, support.

Having watched the Committee, I believe that there was no real insight or justification for what seems like an arbitrary figure of three months. It is a figure that was plucked from the air. Equally, it could be asked, then, why it was not three weeks. I do not see where that figure has come from. Many of those who argue most adamantly that it needs to be done quickly seem to forget the fact that they prevented the House from sitting for three years, during which time the emergency has moved on.

Mr O'Toole: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stewart: I am happy to if I will get an extra minute.

Mr O'Toole: I will be brief. I appreciate what the Member is saying about the three months, and what the Minister said, too. I have two issues, however. One is whether he has a different timescale in mind, and, two, whether he accepts that a consultation process could be brought forward on the legislation, draft legislation could be brought forward that would be debated in the House, and stakeholders could give their views on that?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Stewart: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, I do have a time frame in mind. Given the conditions that we are in — in the middle the biggest health crisis that we have ever seen — and that the Executive have a lot of work going on, a consultation could be launched right now to be finished by the end of the year, and a climate change Act enacted in 2021 to celebrate and mark the centenary of Northern Ireland and acknowledge the work that we need to do to cherish and promote our green and pleasant land. Therefore, yes, while I do support that, I do not think that an arbitrary figure of three months, which has been plucked from the air, is one that should, in any way, be binding at this stage.

Climate change is a global crisis. Record-breaking temperatures across the globe, including 38°C in Siberia this year, with high temperatures and drought affecting food production, have impacts everywhere. Northern Ireland is not exempt. We have seen rising emissions here and poorer air quality, with higher pollution levels in Belfast than in other cities around the UK. Thankfully, those levels have gone down with the reduction in traffic during the COVID-19 lockdown. It would, however, be worrying to see them go back up again. We also have the impact of coastal erosion and rising tides here. Northern Ireland will be affected by climate change.

Equally, changes that will be brought about by Brexit mean that Northern Ireland will also be in a unique situation when it comes to the repatriation of EU powers on climate change and the environment.

Regardless of legislation in London or Brussels, we need to act. We have the opportunity to bring about real change in transforming our economy and our environment to help to mitigate many of the worst aspects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and make a valid contribution to dealing with climate change.

1.00 pm

As the party's spokesperson on climate change, I support Northern Ireland-specific legislation in the form of an all-encompassing climate change Act on Northern Ireland targets and emissions, on the need for an independent environmental protection agency, and the inclusion of our party commitment to see and deliver zero net carbon by 2035.

As a result of the previous Stormont Executive, we are the only Administration in the UK and Ireland not to produce its own laws to cut carbon and to improve and protect our environment. As a result of the hiatus of three years of absolutely nothing here, we are even further down the line. I find it somewhat ironic that some people bang a drum about the emergency when we could have been dealing with the issue in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

I am not saying, Mr Deputy Speaker, that legislation is the panacea to all problems. There is undoubtedly an awful lot of virtue signalling on the issue. The impression, sadly, for too long has been given that Northern Ireland does not take the issue seriously, which is unfortunate, to say the least.

In my maiden speech two or three months ago, I said that what we can do here can be summed up in two words: mitigation and adaptation. We need to mitigate and address the causes of climate change, and adapt, making the necessary changes to reduce and negate the effects of climate change, such as protecting our sea walls and improving our coastal communities against the vulnerable impacts of climate change. Neither of those can be done in a silo mentality in one Department in our Executive or without a link to local government, numerous NGOs, our businesses and every level of society. That sort of work will require a full, in-depth, up-to-date public consultation, which could be carried out now, ahead of getting this work done, and a climate change Act implemented in 2021 to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland and to preserve our green and pleasant land for many years to come.

The time has come to act. As I said, the amendment is not intended in any way, shape or form to take away from the intent of the motion. I agree with many Members' comments. We are all on the same page about identifying the importance of the issue. However, the introduction of an Act within three months, as the Minister said, is far too obtuse. That does not give us an opportunity to consult fully. Consultation could be done this year, with legislation enacted next year.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Declan McAleer, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the wide-ranging and robust debate. Before I go to some of the contributions, I want to pick up on a couple of things. I am glad to hear that the Minister has noted that I have been pushing the case for hill farmers, because he certainly has not been doing that. Since he became Minister, some of his decisions have been to the detriment of hill farmers: he did not return the ANC payments; he blocked the transition towards the flat rate; and not a penny of the £25 million that he allocated recently will go to the hills. At least my party and I are here to advocate for hill farmers because it is becoming increasingly clear that the Minister of Agriculture is certainly not the Minister of hill farmers. I am glad that he is reading the farming press, where he will read that I am advocating the case for hill farmers.

Mr McGuigan: I thank the Member for giving way. I congratulate him for sticking up for hill farmers. The Minister made a number of accusations and assertions on issues that were not even included in my contribution. He does not need to take my word for it. He can take the word of the Ulster Farmers' Union, which, in a briefing paper, said that climate change is "impacting" on farmers and needs to be addressed. It has also said that farmers in the North need to be part of the solution, they have signed up to tackling emissions within the greenhouse gas implementation partnership, and they are impacted by climate change and are therefore directly aware of the challenges. Research and new technologies are needed to help industry towards zero net carbon.

Mr McAleer: Thank you for that intervention. I agree with one thing that the Minister said: farmers play a huge role. They are environmental custodians. I agree with what he said about the sequestration of cattle and the important role that they have for the environment and the climate. They are not separate; they are the same.

Climate has a huge impact. As a representative of the Sperrins, I know of the impact suffered in the Glenelly area, three years ago, when a huge landslide devastated farming in that area. Farmers are still dealing with that loss, and the Minister has yet to deal with it by way of compensation or support for those farmers. I have seen how the climate has impacted on those farmers who suffered that devastation. On top of that has come the COVID crisis, the loss of the ANC payment, and the fact that many of them will be getting nothing out of the £25 million COVID scheme for which the Minister recently set the criteria. I hope that he will consider hill farmers in a tranche of the £7 million that he has retained.

I turn now to the debate. Philip McGuigan highlighted concerns regarding the dangers of global warming and said that the lack of action was alarming. He called for leadership and ambition and said that action needed to be taken now.

Rosemary Barton welcomed the opportunity for renewed support for a climate change Act. She called for a sustainable way of moving forward and said that there must be a combined effort to reduce emissions in an effort to move towards a zero carbon society. She also said that we need to have a consultation period for our legislation to identify the needs and the gaps that exist.

William Irwin said that this was an unquantifiable issue and that there was an unquantifiable cost. He referred to the important role of farming in relation to the motion. He does not support the motion. He also spoke of the need to ensure that the agri-industry remains profitable.

The SDLP's Cara Hunter said that we cannot wait any longer and that we must act now. She talked of the growing evidence of the impact of climate change and of the important role of young people in the area. She said that issues relating to climate change should be incorporated into the curriculum and that young people were leading campaigns on climate change. She said that failure to take action now will have a devastating impact and that that impact is felt across the world. She also stated that we must ensure that disadvantaged people are not disadvantaged even more so.

John Blair talked about the importance of the motion and its spirit of protection. He asked for support for the motion and said that we now needed to act here. He supports the motion and welcomes the green growth strategy.

Claire Bailey said that this was long overdue and that it was a humans rights and health issue which threatens our way of life. She said that all people would not be affected equally. She also said that this was a rare opportunity and that we must not lose it. She spoke of the need to think about how things will look, post-pandemic, and of the need to be guided by science and political will. She said that this is a unique chance.

Caoimhe Archibald said that climate is at the core of new policies. She said that evidence exists, and is growing, and that we need an Act that contains targets. The House calls for a fair, just and green economic recovery, and Caoimhe Archibald stressed that the evidence exists to achieve that. She also made the point that there would be a consultation period before any new legislation came in. It would help shape the final Act that is agreed. She said that climate action must be based on social justice. She also said that there was overwhelming evidence that action is required. She spoke of the huge potential that exists on the island and said that climate change does not recognise boundaries or borders.

Harry Harvey made reference to the diverse environment and said that we have a wealth of natural resources. He does not see the need to whip ourselves up into a frenzy over the environment but called for positive actions on climate change. He commended DAERA and made reference to prosperity agreements which encourage business sustainability. He said that the North has innovative skills for green energy and new energy strategy and targets, and that much more must be done.

Mark Durkan said that we have a responsibility to act to combat the impact of climate change. He said that, in 2015, when he was Minister, there was a clear idea of how legislation should look. He said that we have a responsibility to act and that, if we did, it would bring benefit to all. He also made reference to the green growth strategy. Furthermore, he said that there is ample opportunity to engage and plenty of evidence to move ahead with a climate change Act.

Andrew Muir said that rapid decarbonisation and green growth would not happen without investment in infrastructure. He also mentioned the importance of broadband and the funding of it. He spoke of the importance of investing in sustainable transport and active travel.

Matthew O'Toole of the SDLP said that, between 1990 and 2007, emissions here fell by 18% but that there was a greater drop in other regions. He said that the South of Ireland's Programme for Government contains ambitious targets and legally binding targets to move them in the right direction. He said that we cannot wait any longer and that this has been a backwater for too long. He supports the motion, but not the amendment.

Mr Poots said that the time frame is impossible to achieve and that it was a ridiculous time frame. He said that we have a reduced carbon footprint but more needs to be done, and he wants to see things that will make a tangible difference. He said that he is a person of actions and he wants to do things that will make a change.

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for giving way. It is interesting that you focus on that and it was good to hear the Minister point out that the time frame was unachievable. He went on to explain that, when we set deadlines, come up with strategies and put them out, we actually exceed the targets that are set in them.

Mr McAleer: Thank you for the intervention, Clare. He questioned the science regarding the impact of farming on greenhouse gas emissions, and he said that rushed legislation could damage farming so we should not be rushed. He does not want to get tangled up in a whole web of EU regulations.

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he recognise the tangible effort that could be made with regard to procurement, for example, which his party has responsibility for in the Department of Finance, by reducing transportation costs by sourcing things locally and by not sourcing things from countries that are some of the biggest emitters of carbon? Is that not an action that his party could take now?

Mr McAleer: Yes. The Minister said that any actions with regard to climate change would be cross-cutting across Departments, so absolutely. Again, in going back to the Minister, he drew it across all of the Departments — which is quite right — but it is his Department that must take the initiative of bringing in a climate Act in the first place.

There are a few more points. With regard to the — where was I now? You have knocked me off course, Mr Givan. [Laughter.]

Was it was a plan?

Mr Stewart wound on the amendment and he questioned why the three-month time frame was picked. He supports an Act for here —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr McAleer: — and the intentions of the motion, but he queried the time frame.

In conclusion, I thank you all and I commend the motion.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

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

Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently 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. It is important that social distancing continues to be observed in the Chamber during any Division. In order to facilitate that, I ask that any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Members who wish to vote in the Lobby on the opposite side of the Chamber from where they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. The remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby Door should enter the Lobby first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. However, any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should not leave the Chamber. I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing while voting.

The Assembly divided:

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

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

Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey and Mr Weir.

Mr Butler voted for Mr Allen and Mr Swann.

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

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

Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We will take a brief pause because other Members may wish to come into the Chamber again.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly acknowledges the ongoing climate and biodiversity emergency and calls by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for rapid decarbonisation; reiterates the Assembly’s declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency, the Assembly’s demands for the urgent introduction of a climate change Act, the all-party New Decade, New Approach commitment to delivering a climate change Act, and the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ commitment to a green growth strategy; recognises climate change as a human rights issue that risks deepening existing inequalities; further recognises the need for a stimulus-led, just and green recovery to restart economic activity following the economic disruption arising from COVID-19; calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to introduce a climate change Act with legally binding and ambitious sectoral emission reduction targets, and to ensure that any economic recovery strategy is underpinned by rapid decarbonisation and a just transition to protect jobs through upskilling people in carbon-intensive sectors; and further calls on the Minister to introduce this Act in the Assembly within three months.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): An urgent oral question has been accepted by the Speaker. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting for about 15 minutes in order for the Minister to take a break. The sitting will resume at 1.50 pm, when the next item of business will be an urgent oral question to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on waste storage at the Edenderry Industrial Estate.

The sitting was suspended at 1.35 pm and resumed at 1.50 pm.

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): William Humphrey has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given the health and safety issues arising from waste storage at Edenderry Industrial Estate, what action his Department and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) are taking to ensure that the offending material is removed urgently.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): My Department has actively engaged with the site operator and representatives of the landowners and directed that the waste materials deposited at the site be removed as a matter of urgency. Subsequently, the landowner has engaged a legitimate waste management company, and works to remove waste from the Edenderry site have commenced today. My Department is present at the site and will continue to monitor progress daily. A full and thorough investigation is under way, and my Department will ensure that those responsible for the activity are vigorously pursued and face the maximum criminal sanction.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the House for allowing the question to be asked today.

Minister, the communities in Woodvale and mid-Shankill have been plagued by rats and infested with flies and have had to endure dreadful smells over the past number of weeks. Belfast City Council and the Northern Environment Agency were far too slow to react. Assurances were given that clearance would start before the Twelfth holidays, yet attempts were made on Saturday to dump more material in the area. I ask the Minister whether his investigation will be robust and provide reassurance to the people living in the area.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question and for alerting me to the situation on Saturday afternoon. I can assure him that there will be a robust response. What has happened is unacceptable. It is not a registered site. Consequently, it is an illegal site, so NIEA's enforcement branch will be tasked with carrying out all the investigations and, on the basis of the information that it finds, with bringing forward a recommendation to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to take the matter to court. It is a matter for NIEA enforcement branch, but I assure the Member that it will be robustly investigated. If the appropriate information comes forward, the matter will be taken further.

Ms P Bradley: I praise my colleagues William Humphrey, Councillor Kingston and Councillor Verner for the proactive and timely work that they have done.

To follow on from your answer to Mr Humphrey, Minister, do we need to look at having stricter laws and higher fines throughout Northern Ireland when it comes to illegal dumping, which has been extremely prevalent during the COVID-19 period?

Mr Poots: Fines are a matter for the courts. Those fines can be high if the courts decide to make them high, and we encourage the courts to fine heavily. We have a principle that "the polluter pays", and, consequently, NIEA will always seek to get back all the expenditure that it has involved in a case so that there is no public expenditure as a result of someone's criminal activity. It is for the courts to identify the level of fine over and above that, and we will encourage them to fine quite heavily individuals who engage in illegal activity.

There are people who engage in waste activity who are registered and carry out those activities legally; there are others who appear to be doing it who are not registered and consequently are doing it illegally. I am happy to look again at the work that was done in developing the regulation and the legislation around this to see whether it needs to be refreshed or whether there are inadequacies. I do not believe that this will be a one-off case. I believe there to be other cases. Therefore, if we need to, we will have to take further steps to ensure that we clamp down heavily on this activity.

Mr McGuigan: I concur with the Minister and the Members who spoke about the absolute disgrace of illegal waste being dumped on that site. What engagement has the Minister had with the local authorities, businesses and residents to urgently address the vermin problem associated with the illegal waste?

Mr Poots: The vermin problem is one for Belfast City Council. As I understand it, Belfast City Council is putting down full baiting for the vermin problem. I say to the people who resisted the opening of household waste recycling centres that a lot of this waste is waste that would normally have ended up there. That is why I pressed, some time ago, for household waste recycling centres to open. It was evident that waste that was being collected in people's backyards and gardens was causing problems, and some people have turned to an illegal sector that has gained financially from that. I believe that, in various council areas, there are household waste recycling centres that have still not opened. I say this to councils where that is the case: "Would you please get your act together, get those recycling centres opened and provide the service that you are being paid to provide?".

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Member for tabling the question. As has been said, it is completely unacceptable that residents in that part of north Belfast have had to put up with this appalling spectacle and illegal dumping.

In his previous answer, the Minister said that he suspected that this was illegal dumping by people who had paid to dump that stuff there. Is he aware of that happening on a more widespread basis across Northern Ireland? Have there been reports to his Department of it happening in a systematic way? He seems to have an indication that this has been paid for by a specific organisation. Is he aware of it happening on a more widespread basis?

Mr Poots: The evidence is anecdotal as opposed to empirical at this stage. There is a bit of the "white van man" scenario, where he has been doing a bit of tidying up round people's homes, and they have asked, "Could you get rid of that for us?". Bits and pieces of that have been involved with fly-tipping, and we are aware of that. Some people may have set themselves up to handle waste when they are not registered waste-handlers. That may be going on. We need to be cautious in all of this to identify exactly what the situation is in this and any other case that is brought forward and to follow due process. Due process will bring results in taking those people to court and having them appropriately fined and the costs charged to them for the disposal of any materials.

Mr Blair: I thank Mr Humphrey for asking the original question.

Given that we know that one of the sites is on the same piece of ground as a block of private apartments and immediately abuts other properties, is it clear whether costs incurred by residents thus far can be refunded to them through action taken against the illegal operator?

Mr Poots: I am not sure whether that is or can be the case. Certainly, we are happy to look at that. Our primary focus, since I became aware of this on Saturday afternoon and worked with NIEA over the weekend and on Monday morning, was to get the material removed pronto.

Yesterday afternoon, we got agreement from the owners of the Edenderry site that they would pick up the bill for removing it. That agreement was signed off later in the evening, and operators are clearing it as we speak. That was our initial target. We can look at the issue raised by Mr Blair.

2.00 pm

Miss Woods: Given the track record of illegal dumping in Northern Ireland, not to mention Mobuoy and now this ongoing in Belfast city centre, will the Minister commit to strengthening laws on illegal dumping and practices across the region?

Mr Poots: I am certainly happy to look at how we can strengthen laws and ensure that we can have the appropriate responses. For example, we still have waste that was dumped here that needs to be repatriated to the Republic of Ireland. When I was previously Minister, we got an agreement from the then Republic of Ireland Minister that waste would be removed from 20 sites. I was somewhat surprised, when I came back into office, to discover that waste from only nine or 10 of those sites had been repatriated. That is a matter that I will raise with the new Minister, now that I finally have a Minister to deal with in the Republic of Ireland. There was an absence of that for a period of time. They had a Government who were carrying on but, clearly, were not going to be the eventual Government. I will raise the issue of having that repatriation completed with my ministerial colleague.

There are issues around waste. Money can be made from it. Individuals engage in the waste business inappropriately because of that. A lot of good operators out there want to see the laws strengthened, because they are doing the job right. On a regular basis, NIEA calls with them to check that they are doing the thing right, and then these other people pop up and do things entirely illegally. We need to ensure that we can clamp down on illegal operators quickly, effectively and efficiently.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question, and the Minister for his responses. Most Members are very concerned to hear, yet again, about another illegal dump in Northern Ireland and the environmental consequences arising from that. I have concerns about whether the lessons have been learnt from the Mobuoy dump and the Mills report recommendations fully implemented. I do not feel that they have. I would be interested to understand from the Minister what his view is. Have the lessons been learnt and the recommendations implemented?

Mr Poots: It appears that, in this particular instance, the material first gathered was cardboard, mattresses, pallets and things like that, but it then developed into other materials more associated with landfill. That got out of control very quickly. Once that material is dumped inappropriately, particularly with mattresses and so forth, rats and flies very quickly take up residence and cause all sorts of problems.

We need to be on the ball with illegal activity. I will be looking at this further, on the back of what has happened. Ultimately, it is absolutely essential that waste is dealt with appropriately. In Northern Ireland, we have reached our 50% target for recycling and we are going to push that up further. It is critically important that we ensure that the problem we create is managed appropriately. Consequently, we cannot have this fly-tipping, illegal dumping and all that taking place. The result of that is damage to the environment and other people's lives. We are considerably better than we used to be. However, there are still gaps. How best we fill them needs to be addressed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Are there any further questions? I call William Humphrey.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answers. Some folk have had to leave their homes, and people are complaining of being ill. This has caused major anxiety and stress in the local community, all in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, I thank the Minister for his intervention. Can he assure me, and more importantly, assure the House and my constituents, that the nightmare that they have had to endure over the last number of weeks will end this week? Work has started today, and we welcome that, but will the matter be put to bed this week?

Mr Poots: I believe and have been given assurances that all the material that is attracting rats and flies will be removed by the end of the week. Some of the material, which is not of that type, may take a bit longer to be removed, but all the residual waste will be removed by the end of the week. In fact, I hope that it will be removed a lot quicker. I know that the companies that have been brought in are very professional and are good at handling that sort of thing. I believe that they will respond very quickly to the problem that exists. Hopefully, it will be done well before the end of the week.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes that item of business.

Item 5 on the Order Paper is the Adjournment. Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the next sitting of the Assembly is currently scheduled for Tuesday 28 July. However, if it becomes apparent that an additional sitting may be required on Monday 27 July, the Business Committee will meet remotely tomorrow to agree an Order Paper, and Members will be duly notified. The Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response will continue to be available to meet and to allow Ministers to make statements to the Assembly during the summer. There is no meeting scheduled at present. As soon as the Speaker's Office receives details from Ministers that they wish to provide an update, Members will be notified in the usual way.

Adjourned at 2.06 pm.

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