Official Report: Monday 05 July 2021
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I have received a letter of resignation from Seán Lynch as a Member of the Assembly for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.
Mr Speaker: I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Ms Áine Murphy has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the West Tyrone constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from the resignation of Mr Lynch.
This morning, Ms Murphy signed the undertaking and the Roll of Membership and entered her designation in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly. Ms Murphy has now taken her seat. I welcome her to the Assembly and wish her every success.
Mr Speaker: Mr Stewart Dickson has been given leave to make a statement on relations and solutions to the implementation of the protocol, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should do so by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted, and I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been finished.
Mr Dickson: Thank you for the opportunity to speak on an important issue, which failed to make any impact on discussions or in the media across the United Kingdom or particularly in Northern Ireland at the weekend. For the first time, for any serious acknowledgement, the United Kingdom and the European Union reached a significant area of agreement and discussion on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol in that they agreed to allow for a further extension of the grace period for chilled meats, and some other arrangements.
It was significant because it was the first indication of a serious engagement between the two parties to recognise the difficulties that Northern Ireland finds itself in as a result of the outworkings of the protocol.
It might also be worth noting that we are in this situation because of the failure by some in Northern Ireland to recognise the damage that they were doing by supporting our exit from the EU. More importantly, from the point at which the United Kingdom decided democratically to leave the European Union a great deal of work has been done by certain political parties to put every obstacle in the way of Northern Ireland's relationship with the EU and its relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Instead of working collaboratively and collectively to deliver the best outcome for Northern Ireland, there are those — sadly, they are represented in the Chamber — who have been determined to highlight the difficulties. They have done little or nothing to acknowledge — indeed, they are in denial — the incredible opportunities for Northern Ireland, given its unique position in the United Kingdom and in the European Union.
That has been exacerbated by the legal action that was taken. I do not deny the right of any citizen, political party or grouping of political parties to take legal action to check or verify their perception of the law, but it is clear that their actions very much have the potential to weaken rather than defend the Union relationship of the United Kingdom. They are people who voted for Brexit. They knew, from 2015, what they were seeking to achieve.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?
Mr Dickson: Now is the time to move away from constitutional issues and to determine the better business prospects for the citizens of Northern Ireland. I welcome the statement and agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom.
Mr Stalford: I will not sell my birthright for any mess of European Union pottage, despite being invited so to do by the Alliance Party. It is not purely an economic issue; it is a constitutional issue. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been fundamentally undermined and threatened by the protocol.
It is ironic that we are summoned here today to a discussion about amending the implementation of the protocol by people who called for its rigorous implementation. Mr Dickson and his party signed up to the joint position demanding the rigorous implementation of the protocol: not a soft touch or a light hand but a rigorous implementation. We have seen for ourselves what that has produced. We have seen situations where medical supplies to the people of Northern Ireland have been threatened. We have seen the supply of certain food products to the people of Northern Ireland being threatened. Therefore, those who signed up to the protocol, those who were scuttling around Brussels demanding the provisions of the protocol should take ownership of it. The protocol is not a consequence of Brexit; it is a consequence of a Remainer rearguard action to deny the outcome of the Brexit referendum in 2016. They fought for it, they argued for it, and they demanded it. Now, they seek to tell their constituents, "It wasn't really us, guv. We didn't do it. No, no, no. It was all those evil people who campaigned to leave the European Union".
Northern Ireland is being used as a political football by the European Union, and the European Union's cheerleaders in Northern Ireland should take ownership of that fact. They argued for the provisions of the protocol. The protocol does not need to be amended; it needs to go, because it is impacting on the lives of our people in a negative way. Whether in respect of supplies or economic activity, the consequence of the protocol is to make people in Northern Ireland less well off by denying them their rights as United Kingdom citizens.
The European Union's cheerleaders who fought to prevent the implementation of the Brexit referendum result and cheered Brussels every step of the way in the process did so because they owe a higher fealty to the European Union than they do to their own constituents and the interests of those constituents. We will not be lectured on doing what is right for the people of Northern Ireland by those who are actively campaigning to make them poorer.
Dr Archibald: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is good to see you back.
Last week, the grace period for chilled meats was extended until the end of September, which provided a welcome temporary relief for businesses. It is clear, however, that we need to see progress made between now and then to put in place permanent solutions in order to provide the type of clarity, certainty and stability that businesses are telling us that they want and need. Despite all the shouting and protestations from unionist parties in the Chamber and beyond, the reality is that the protocol is a consequence of Brexit, with its loudest opponents ironically being the biggest champions of Brexit: a Brexit that was championed against the democratically expressed wishes of people in the North. The majority of MLAs in the Chamber, the majority of citizens and the majority of businesses opposed Brexit and wanted mitigation against its worst excesses. The protocol is that mitigation, and, although imperfect, it offers very real protections and gives the North competitive economic advantages. Those who depend on the protocol protections for their livelihood and the success of their businesses want to see it maintained and working and any operational problems resolved. That is why we need to use the period that we now have to find longer-term solutions to the outstanding issues, and those will be achieved only through diplomatic and political engagement and through working together on the basis of good faith.
Unhelpfully, however, we have British Government representatives, including those involved in the negotiations, saying that they did not expect the protocol to be implemented in the way in which it has been. In doing so, they are either exposing themselves as incompetent negotiators or disingenuously trying to mislead the public. The former is, of course, entirely possible, but it is much more likely that the latter is the case: they are being entirely dishonest. Their position is entirely betrayed by the fact that, if they honestly wanted the protocol to operate more easily, they could seek a veterinary agreement with the EU. The British Government have said that they do not intend to reduce standards, and a veterinary agreement would substantially minimise the checks required, yet they have completely refused to do that.
We have seen and heard a willingness from the EU to engage through the existing structures, which are part of the withdrawal agreement that the British Government negotiated, ratified and signed up to, in order to find solutions. That work needs to continue in order to find permanent solutions. Despite a lack of recognition from the British Government and unionist parties, the EU has shown flexibility on a number of issues, as Mr Dickson outlined last week. Those include the removal of the obligation for a green card for car insurance and on issues to do with medicines and pets. What we need is honesty from the British Government about what they signed up to. They must engage in good faith over the coming weeks and months to provide for our businesses a stable trading environment, in which they can maximise the unique position that the protocol affords the North of continued access to the EU single market, which allows the Executive and Invest NI to —
Dr Archibald: — attract inward investment, create jobs and strengthen our economy.
Mr O'Toole: It is regrettable that we are here in the first place. It is regrettable that Brexit happened at all. It is extremely bizarre to hear people argue that the protocol is somehow unrelated to Brexit. I am afraid for Mr Stalford that the 70% of people in South Belfast who voted Remain, and probably —
Mr O'Toole: — many of the people who voted Leave, will not have —. Chuntering from a sedentary position will not strengthen the Member's position, which people in South Belfast know is absurd.
I am delighted that the Matter of the Day was raised. I should say, however, after the Member drew to the attention of the Assembly the fact that I was co-opted, that the reason that I was co-opted is because your party, Mr Stalford, was routed in South Belfast, because of its absurd position on Brexit and for forcing through a hard Brexit against the wishes of people in South Belfast and all of Northern Ireland. Reflect on that the next time that you chunter at me from a sedentary position.
A Member: Through the Chair.
Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
If I can, I will move on briefly to what we are discussing, which is the Matter of the Day. I welcome the fact that it was submitted.
Last week, the European Commission and the UK agreed a significant package of easements. We should all be about making Brexit and all its consequences work, and that includes the new bureaucracies that businesses are dealing with as a result of the protocol. The grace period for chilled meats was extended. A solution for moving pets from GB to Northern Ireland is close to being found. The European Commission has signalled a clear willingness to legislate on the area of medicines, so that we will have a comprehensive solution for that. So some of the scaremongering that has gone on is wrong. A solution for green cards, which were mentioned by the previous Member who spoke, has been found. People in this place are wont to forget that the consequences of Brexit go far beyond the protocol. It is welcome that people will not need a green card simply to travel to Donegal or, as is the case for some Members' constituents, to drive a mile down the road to fill their car up with petrol.
Leaving the single market and customs union was always going to have consequences. The protocol is an imperfect but necessary means of managing those consequences. We should all be about making that work and seeking to find practical solutions to issues, where they arise, and, yes, taking advantage of the opportunities. For decades and generations, this place has had very little genuine competitive advantage. We have all said that. Well, now we do. We have an opportunity, which is unique on this planet, to move goods and to seamlessly export into the British market and the European single market of half a billion people. Why would we deny our economy that? Yes, there are issues that we need to make work, but constantly harping on the constitution and identity anxiety is not the way to deliver prosperity and stability to our people.
With that, I conclude my remarks. I welcome the progress that was made last week. I just wish that, having created these problems in the first place, other parties in the Chamber would put their shoulder to the wheel —
Mr Allister: I suppose that it is progress that the rigorous implementers of the protocol are beginning to recognise the serious damage that their protocol is doing to Northern Ireland and to their constituents. They still, however, have that subservient attitude that we should be grateful to our overlords in Brussels because they have deigned to allow us to buy some sausages. [Laughter.]
Let me be very clear: this is an issue of sovereignty, not sausages. A mere tinkering with the protocol, the grace periods and all the rest does nothing to affect the obnoxious and pernicious substance of the protocol. Until that is gone, there is no solution. The test of all the tinkering, grace periods and of any changes is whether this supposed part of the United Kingdom is left within a foreign single market for goods, subject to a foreign customs code and a foreign VAT regime, which are all overseen by foreign laws and adjudicated upon by a foreign court. If any changes still allow that, they have not changed the substance of the protocol.
Of course, the real consequence of that is that this so-called legislative Assembly is prohibited by the protocol from legislating on much of what governs our economy. Our laws governing the economy are now made not in Belfast or London but in a foreign jurisdiction. Yet, those who proclaim themselves to be liberal democrats cheerlead that fundamental transfer of sovereignty. How can Members of the House who say that they want to be democrats approve of a system that moves the law-making powers for such a colossal part of our economy to a foreign jurisdiction and tell us that that is a good thing? No one with any blood of democracy in their veins can embrace such a state of vassalage, and yet that is what the protocol has brought to us.
Those who are beginning to wake up to the damage and are in retreat from rigorous implementation need to get to the point of recognising that the protocol cannot be salvaged. It cannot be fixed. It is doomed, because it transfers —
Mr Allister: — fundamentally sovereignty from this place and from London to a foreign place with no control. Mr Dickson can cheerlead —
Mr Allister: — over many of the laws made, and that is an abomination.
Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up. Mr Allister, thank you very much.
Mr Chambers: Like the percentage of people in South Belfast, to whom Mr O'Toole referred, who voted to remain, I voted to remain. However, the referendum was an exercise in democracy. It was not an opt-in/opt-out referendum. It was not conducted street by street. It was conducted as a national referendum of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. People voted to leave, and, as a democrat, I accepted that decision.
The protocol is a different animal. It was not brought forward in a democratic process. I, as a voter and resident in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, was not asked whether I was happy with the protocol; the protocol was imposed on us. That is just not democratic.
I remember the leaders of some political parties in the Chamber rushing down to Dublin, in the middle of the COVID restrictions when travel was much more restricted and regulations were a lot tighter than they may be today, to get their photographs taken on the steps of the Department of Foreign Affairs. They were there as champions of the protocol and were demanding its full implementation. Now, they seem to have stepped back a little. The easements that have been quoted as having been achieved in the protocol are not down to the efforts of the champions who rushed to Dublin to get their photographs taken; it was others, who fought and showed the iniquitous nature of parts of the protocol, who led to their being changed.
Mr Šefcovic addressed an Assembly Committee last Monday. I picked up some words that he is reported to have used. On medicines, the most basic thing that people need, he said:
"We are willing to consider taking bold steps if the UK Government demonstrate a clear and concrete commitment to implementing the protocol in full."
That sounds like some form of blackmail and, to use Mr Stalford's words, like Northern Ireland being used —
Mr Chambers: — as a political football. That is exactly how we have been used.
Mr Lyons: I had not intended to speak to the Matter of the Day, because Mr Stalford has set out my party's position clearly. However, I have been astounded by what I have heard from Members in some Remainer parties, in particular Mr O'Toole, who is essentially saying to us, "Stop harping on about the protocol. Stop complaining about it". I will continue to complain about the protocol, because there are constitutional, economic and social issues with it. It is not working, and it needs to go. I will not be silenced by Members who say, "Just get on with it", because the situation cannot continue.
It is not generous of the European Union to allow trade to continue between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is not generous to say, "In the future, we may be able to work out a plan that will allow you to get vital medicines". We need to see real change and progress on the issue. I am glad that we do not hear about rigorous implementation any more from the Alliance Party, the SDLP or Sinn Féin.
The penny has dropped, and they are starting to realise — I hope that the British Government, the Irish Government and the EU are starting to realise — the problems with the protocol, and we need to see action on that.
Those are the parties that have spoken so much about the Good Friday Agreement and the need to protect it. It is very clear that the protocol does not protect or support the Good Friday Agreement in any way. If people in the House are serious about wanting to share power and about seeing all communities working and moving forward together, they need to recognise the concern that the protocol is causing in unionist communities. It is a mistake to say that it is just impacting on the unionist community in Northern Ireland. The implementation of the protocol affects everybody who tries to do business with Great Britain and manufacturers trying to bring goods in from Great Britain. Rather than doubling down and continuing with the failed protocol, it is time to find new solutions, and I hope that other parties recognise that.
Mrs Barton: It is ironic that, once again, we are discussing the protocol. It was introduced by the European Union through a totally undemocratic process that gave little or no consideration to the people of Northern Ireland. Look at the problems that we have had with the protocol with our pets. There is the possibility that our pets will be vaccinated for diseases that no longer exist in the United Kingdom. What nonsense. Look at the issues with the importation of flowers and plants, just because they have soil from Great Britain on them. How has the soil changed since December 2020? Look at the issues that we have in the agricultural community, with the rules and regulations regarding the importation of animals and keeping animals in Great Britain for six months before they can be brought into Northern Ireland. That is decimating parts of our agricultural economy. Look at the issues with drugs, which have already been mentioned. The protocol has got to go. It is impacting on everybody in Northern Ireland, and there is no need for it.
Mr Muir: Welcome back, Mr Speaker. I had hoped that you would be welcomed back with a more conciliatory tone today, but there it goes. On the Matter of the Day before us, it is important to recall what was covered by the statement that came out on Wednesday. It covered a mutually agreed extension of the grace period on chilled meats. It also covered practical solutions on a number of issues that have previously been raised in the Assembly, such as medicines, guide dogs, the movement of certain animals and the green card, which some people do not seem to think is a significant issue, but, for me, it is. The obligation for the green card has been waived. Today and on previous days, I have heard, "So what?". So what? The reality is that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union was never going to be easy, and the impact on Northern Ireland was always going to be particularly acute. I hear the comments today, but I also recall when two former Prime Ministers came to Derry/Londonderry a number of years ago and outlined the serious concerns about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, if it occurred, and — hey ho — today we are debating how those concerns are now being played out.
We have to focus on solutions, not problems. Far too often here and in other places, we constantly debate the problems. That announcement was about solutions. Some say that we should get rid of the protocol and bin it. That would have some credibility if it were not for the fact that there is no credible alternative to the protocol. If we bin the protocol, we will get protocol 1.1. There is no credible alternative. We have been here for years debating the issue, as has Westminster. The DUP had a position of influence and power from which it could have enabled a better outcome, but, aided and abetted by the European Research Group (ERG), we ended up getting a hard Brexit and the impact of it. That is the reality. Some say that they did not consent to it; Northern Ireland did not consent to Brexit. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain, but we are where we are now, and we have to focus on solutions. One of the solutions in front of us is a common veterinary agreement.
I really wish that people would come together and support that. Until that happens and until all parties come together, support that and push the UK Government to deliver on that solution, I am sorry, but some of the outrage that has been expressed here does not come across as entirely credible. Solutions and the ability to take it forward are out there. We have to focus on solutions to deliver for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker: Members, that concludes the first Matter of the Day
Mr Speaker: Mr Doug Beattie has been given leave to make a statement on the awarding of the George Cross to Health and Social Care (HSC) workers that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted and that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.
Mr Beattie: The NHS is an extraordinary institution. Those who work for it are our doctors, our nurses, our care workers, our paramedics and our drivers. They are those who do the laundry, the domestics and the people who clean bottles in sterilisation units. There is a range of people that stretches out to our general practitioners and even to our pharmacists. They are incredible, and they are incredibly brave. For the last 18 months, they have been fighting a battle on our behalf against a pandemic that has taken lives and liberties. Who can forget the images of exhausted doctors and nurses in our NHS as they fought to keep people alive? The NHS is truly incredible.
Of course, we could spin this to say that the problem is that we need more funding and resources for our NHS. I will park that, because that is absolutely right: our NHS has been underfunded for many years, and that needs to be dealt with. However, today, from Her Majesty The Queen came these simple words:
"It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom."
Those are simple words, but the George Cross has, in its lifetime, been given on only three occasions. The first was given to Malta for fighting Nazi fascism, the second to the RUC for fighting terrorism and the third to our brave NHS staff for fighting the global pandemic.
For those who do not know the George Cross, it is a simple medallic recognition in the form of a silver cross. In the middle is a depiction of St George fighting the dragon, which is our NHS fighting the dragon that is COVID-19. Around it are the words "For Gallantry". Nobody, whether they like the UK's national award system or not, can stand up and say that our NHS staff do not need to be recognised for their gallantry.
Mr Buckley: I congratulate the National Health Service on the accolade of being awarded the George Cross. The honour will be hugely welcomed across the health service. From doctors to nurses, management to midwifery, clinicians to cleaners and ambulance teams to porters, our health service staff is made up of a wealth of individuals who have all played their part, particularly this year as they fought COVID-19. Throughout the 73-year history of the National Health Service, many in our health service — they come from our communities, regardless of background — have supported our citizens in their hour of need.
The George Cross is the highest award bestowed by the Government for non-operational gallantry. Put in place in by Her Majesty's late father, it is an award with which Her Majesty The Queen has huge personal affinity. As has been mentioned, it has been awarded on a collective basis only twice: in 1942, to the island of Malta for its efforts during World War II and, in 1999, to the Royal Ulster Constabulary for its gallant efforts against terrorism in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that this is a fitting award for the people who make up our National Health Service. In Northern Ireland, we have the added advantage that those who work in the social services can share in this great accolade.
We need to look after our NHS staff. While the award will be so welcome to so many and it is right and fitting to bestow it on them today, we must also recognise them with better pay and conditions and safe staffing levels. We must recognise that they have been through huge turmoil this year, and we, as elected representatives, and our community must get behind them. How sad is it that we still have attacks on our NHS staff? How sickening. It is up to us to right those wrongs.
I will raise one more fundamental point. The values of the NHS and what it brings to this part of the United Kingdom are clear, but the fundamental building block of the NHS — that it is free at the point of need — is under threat. It is up to us as Members to look at the NHS model and do what we can to ensure that the NHS success is our community's success and that we build on the vital work of those who save lives not only during the pandemic but in the recovery from COVID that will be needed.
I welcome the Matter of the Day and thank Mr Beattie for bringing it to the House.
Mr Gildernew: I note the award announced for NHS staff. I am sure that, for some Health and Social Care staff, it is a welcome announcement that will provide some comfort, reassurance and, indeed, recognition. In my time as health spokesperson and as Health Committee Chair, I have had many chats, discussions and meetings with staff, trade unions and professional bodies. In my experience, there has been a call for true and proper recognition of the skills and commitment shown by all our staff in their duties.
I have heard from staff about issues such as the need to have safe staffing levels and legislation to ensure those; to address the workforce crisis and vacancy problems; to tackle the reliance and spend on agency staff; to reduce waiting lists and transform services; to provide genuine and supportive psychological help; and, at a basic level, to ensure that, when staff are on shift, there is somewhere safe and warm for them to go to get their lunch, take breaks and change their clothes.
I have also heard clear calls for a pay award and uplift that is fair, decent and meaningful to recognise and reward our cherished Health and Social Care staff. I am sure that I am not the only one here who has heard from staff about that. Staff contact me daily through my office and directly on social media to ask for details of the recognition payment. The Minister has said publicly that he hopes that the long-awaited COVID-19 recognition payment to staff will be in bank accounts by the end of the month. I ask the Minister to share any further detail on that as soon as possible.
Finally, I acknowledge that it is right and proper to recognise the work and services provided by Health and Social Care staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to see that recognition in every interaction that we have with staff. I would like to see and hear it in a simple "Thank you" after getting treated. Say it to the nurse, the doctor, the social worker, the porter, the cook or the social care worker. I want to see the removal of abuse, verbal and physical, from all our healthcare settings, whether in the emergency department or on the phone to the GP receptionist or while walking down the street. Let us not forget all the emergency and front-line workers who were there on our behalf when they were needed. They do what they do because of their commitment to their work and to us, their community.
Let us reward their commitment and effort today and every day in real and meaningful ways, both large and small.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the award today for what it is: a recognition of our brave health service staff. It is also a recognition of their hard work, their determined effort and the absolute bravery that they have displayed. Let us remember the images that we were seeing just one year ago and the people whom we were talking to, including those who were working in the intensive care units, those who were working in other areas of the hospitals and those in the community who were being given one set of gloves and one mask and being asked to go into multiple houses throughout the day. All of that was done during a time when none of us truly knew what the impact of COVID was going to be. They did not stop, and they did not think about it. They went ahead and did their work because they knew, as staff, that they had to deliver care. Also, we got to recognise the full breadth of careers that there are in our health sector. There are many people doing different jobs, and, if any element of that did not play its part, the system would not work. I acknowledge fully what has been done.
Whilst such an award is welcome, they were also promised a £500 payment a long time ago. That would be an equal, if not more-practical, acknowledgement of their work and their effort, and I would like to see those payments start as quickly as possible. The best recognition for our healthcare staff and the bravery that they show daily would be a properly resourced service, paying our health service staff the proper pay rise that they need and ensuring that there are proper working conditions that are appropriate and acceptable. Any recognition of our wonderful healthcare staff is welcome, and I am happy to welcome this one today.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank Mr Beattie for raising the issue in the Chamber today, and I think that it is entirely appropriate that the honour from Her Majesty The Queen extends to health workers across the United Kingdom.
The George Cross is awarded for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage, and I think that we can all agree that both of those apply here. Not only did many Health and Social Care workers have to work in exceptional and difficult circumstances, they often had to take on new roles quickly, working together, often in areas and situations that they had never imagined. They did so with dedication, heroism and courage to save lives and see us through the pandemic. That most obviously applies to those on the front line working with victims of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic but perhaps most notably right at the start, when we were faced with a virus that we did not fully understand. The speed with which decisions had to be made and implemented meant that many in our health service, from those who had just joined it through to those who had come out of retirement, operated in the most stressful circumstances. We should never forget, however, that many health workers then had to carry on with regular roles, also under the most immense stress. Workplaces literally became smaller, prioritisation more rapid and challenges more difficult.
Few of us in the Assembly will ever truly grasp the astonishingly challenging conditions in which our health workers had to fulfil their duties. Words are important, but they are small in comparison with the contribution that they made. Recognition is more important. It shows health workers — even more than the notes in house windows or the clapping on the doorsteps — that their role was appreciated by us all and that, when we look back, their heroism and courage will be something on which we will all look back with pride. Sadly, a number of Health and Social Care staff also lost their lives to COVID-19 while working in our wards, and we must never forget their ultimate sacrifice.
It is important to add that, in Northern Ireland at the outset, there was still an ongoing pay dispute, and we know that the nurses set that aside to rejoin the front line. We need to show our recognition to all health workers that they are truly valued, not just through one-off recognition payments but by paying them proper salaries to ensure that those who qualify for those vital roles are encouraged to remain in them here in Northern Ireland. Therefore, let this award be the first step to a bold and true recognition of how much we value those who took risks on our behalf to keep us all safe.
Mr Allister: The awarding of the George Cross is sparingly used for very good reason. It is the ultimate superlative accolade, and, therefore, down the years, it has been used infrequently. However, given what we have come through, I believe that no one will dispute the eligibility and suitability of our National Health Service for this tremendous accolade. I congratulate the NHS on the receipt of it. Because it has been awarded to the corporate NHS, it applies equally to every member working in the NHS, from the most lofty consultant to the porters and cleaners and all in between, who, collectively, made a monumental contribution to getting us to this point in dealing with the pandemic. All of us should and do, I trust, recognise the debt of gratitude that we owe to them.
As Ms Bradshaw said, we should remember those who, in the course of their duties, fell victim to COVID and gave their lives and did not live to see the recognition of the service to which they had devoted themselves. It is a fitting and very well-deserved tribute. Every member of the NHS can hold their head up high knowing that what they did has national recognition and that the NHS delivered as the national service that it is.
Mr Chambers: I concur and wish to be associated with all the complimentary remarks that have been made about our wonderful NHS and social services staff. I was slightly disappointed to detect in some of the contributions almost a sense of begrudgery and even a degree of political distraction around the award, but I do not intend to dwell on that.
I served in the RUC Reserve, and the RUC was subsequently awarded the George Cross. I feel great pride every time I see that fact in print. I am able to feel that I was perhaps a small part of what that organisation contributed to Northern Ireland. Today, all our NHS and social services staff will experience that sense of pride. Under the leadership of our Health Minister, Robin Swann, individual staff have gone not just the extra mile but an extra 100 miles to nurse and to restore to health our citizens and, with the ongoing vaccination programme, to protect them.
I will conclude by saying that it might be a nice touch if every member of our NHS and social services staff could receive a memento of this fantastic award — if protocol permits, perhaps even a small replica of the actual medal.
Mr Muir: I echo the comments made by many people today in welcoming the award of the George Cross, which is fully deserved. We hold a deep debt of gratitude to all people working in Health and Social Care. Many of us in the Chamber will have family and friends who work in the Health and Social Care system in Northern Ireland. My mother worked in the NHS for decades and retired at the end of last year. I have a close friend who has worked in the accident and emergency department of the Ulster Hospital in very challenging circumstances. There are also people working in admin and IT roles that are essential to the operation of the NHS.
To me, hearing the announcement this morning and then reading the letter from Her Majesty The Queen from Windsor Castle really was a quite significant tribute to all the staff who have served us so well.
If it is OK, Mr Speaker, I will read into the record the letter from Her Majesty The Queen, which had a significant effect on me:
"It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom.
This award recognises all N.H.S. staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all from [sic] nations."
Sorry; apologies. The letter is handwritten. It is a bit like a doctor's handwriting, so I am trying to go through it:
"Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service.
You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation."
Mr Robinson: Our NHS has always been there for all our citizens, no matter creed or class, in particular over the last year and a half to help to fight this vicious pandemic, which we have never endured in our lifetimes. This is due recognition to the life-saving work that those dedicated NHS staff, be they doctors, nurses, cleaners or ambulance crews, who have all gone the extra mile. In some cases, they even lost their own lives trying to save others.
Well done, with the recognition of the George Cross, to all our brave NHS staff.
Mr Speaker: Thank you. That concludes this Matter of the Day.
Mr Speaker: Members, I previously announced that I had been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Ms Áine Murphy had been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the West Tyrone constituency. Of course, Ms Murphy has, in fact, been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency. I apologise for this error and for panicking any Members in case they had been worried.
Mr Speaker: The motion will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.
That this Assembly nominates Mr Stewart Dickson to continue as a full member of the Regional Chamber of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe until the end of the current Northern Ireland Assembly mandate. — [Ms Armstrong.]
Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, the motion will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.
That Mr Gordon Lyons replace Mr Jonathan Buckley as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee; and that Mr Stephen Dunne replace Mr Gary Middleton as a member of the Committee for the Economy. — [Mr Humphrey.]
Mr Speaker: Members, please take your ease for a moment before we move on to the next item of business.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must also do that, but they may do so by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions will not be allowed.
Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): Last December, I updated Members on the restructured Procurement Board. As part of that restructuring, permanent secretaries were replaced by procurement practitioners and representatives from the private sector, the social enterprise sector and the trade union movement. The purpose of that change in membership was to ensure that procurement policies will be co-designed by people who develop contracts and the companies and workers who deliver those contracts. As part of that restructuring, it was agreed that the board's procurement guidance notes would go to the Executive for approval. Elevating the status of those notes from guidance to Executive policy was intended to ensure better and more consistent procurement practice across government. At the time, I highlighted social value as one of my priorities for the new Procurement Board. That is important because, each year, the Executive spend £3 billion, which is approximately 25% of their DEL budget, buying goods, services and construction from the private and third sectors. That spending power can and should be harnessed to advance our Programme for Government outcomes. To do that, we need to consider the cost and quality of what we buy and the broader impacts on society. However, tenders are typically scored on the basis of cost and quality only.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Today, I can announce that a new policy on scoring for social value has been agreed by the Executive. Considerable work has gone into developing the policy. An initial paper was brought to the Procurement Board's first meeting in February. The feedback from that discussion was used to develop a more substantive policy paper, which was presented to the board in April. In May, an innovation lab was held with a range of stakeholders to finalise the policy and identify the support needed to implement it effectively. The main request arising from the lab was for a lead-in time of at least nine months before the new policy comes into effect. That is to allow for training to be rolled out to procurement practitioners and small organisations bidding for contracts. It will also allow time for business cases to build in any additional financial costs arising from the social benefits that are included in contracts.
The lab also highlighted the fact that this is a step into the unknown and that there may be contracts where it is not possible or appropriate to apply an aspect of the new policy. Therefore, if a Department wishes to opt out of an aspect of the policy, it must attain the approval of the relevant Minister. Opt-outs must be strongly justified by the characteristics of the specific contract and must be reported to the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD). That is a high bar, and Ministers are required under the ministerial code to abide by it. The final policy, which incorporated that feedback, was approved by the Procurement Board in June and by the Executive subsequently. I thank the board for working diligently and constructively to develop the policy and for reaching consensus on what will be a transformation in procurement practice. It is a testament to the excellent work of the Procurement Board that, when I brought the policy to the Executive, it was very much welcomed by all Ministers.
The new policy mandates that, from 1 June 2022, tenders must include a minimum of 10% of the total award criteria to social value. That minimum weighting will apply to the thresholds that are set out in public contracts regulations: service contracts valued above £123,000; and construction contracts valued above £4·7 million. Those contracts make up approximately 97% of total procurement spend. From 1 June 2023, the minimum weighting will, subject to review and Executive approval, be increased to 20%. That phased approach was requested by all stakeholders to help everyone to adjust to the new scoring arrangements in a smooth and managed way. It is worth emphasising that Departments can score for social value before 1 June 2022, they can score for social value on contracts below the thresholds, and they can assign a weighting of higher than 10%. The purpose of the policy is to set minimum standards.
The new policy underlines the importance of considering social value at the earliest possible stage. It encourages Departments to think about social value as part of the business case process, before the procurement phase gets under way. It recommends that Departments consult with communities affected by the procurement to identify the most feasible and beneficial way in which to promote social value. Departments are also required to consider the potential to reserve contracts for businesses whose primary aim is the social integration of disabled or disadvantaged persons.
My Department recently used that provision to award a contract to Ulster Supported Employment Limited (USEL). When I visited USEL a few months ago, I witnessed at first hand how it delivers an excellent service to government while adding social value by employing people with disabilities. I encourage all Departments to make greater use of that facility, and, to that end, Social Enterprise NI is developing a directory of social enterprises that could benefit from reserved contracts.
A strong message from our consultation with stakeholders was the desire for a standard framework for scoring social value. The purpose is to ensure that social value is assessed in a predictable and consistent manner. At the same time, Departments must have flexibility to select measures of social value that are appropriate to the specific contract. To balance those two objectives, the policy provides a framework of indicators that Departments can draw on as is relevant to the contract at hand. Those indicators are linked to Programme for Government outcomes, ensuring that procurement spend contributes to the Executive's objectives. They include contracts that create jobs for people in deprived areas; maximise security of supply by, for example, minimising the proximity of supply chains to the point of delivery; deliver environmental benefits, including those that facilitate the transition to net zero; safeguard the mental health of workers; and allocate a percentage of the budget to artwork or cultural activities.
While Departments will select the indicators that are relevant to the contract at hand, some social value considerations will be mandatory. If we are to eradicate poverty and create a fair and cohesive society, we have to tackle low pay. The Living Wage Foundation (LWF) provides an annual estimate of the minimum hourly wage that would provide a full-time worker with a reasonable standard of living. It currently stands at £9·50 an hour, compared with the legal minimum of £8·91 an hour. From June 2022, payment of the living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation will be mandatory for all contracts. Given the Executive's significant spending power, that will be a major step forward in ending poverty pay. Any additional costs arising from that condition should be incorporated into business cases so that they are borne by government and not by businesses. Companies will also be required to adopt fair work practices for workers, which are defined by the Carnegie Trust as including terms of employment, work-life balance and workers' representation.
Departments and organisations that tender for government contracts will now begin to prepare for a new era in which social value is a key component of public procurement. Training and guidance will be developed to assist with that preparation. It is important that those who design and deliver contracts have a common understanding of the new requirements and how they will be applied in practice. Reporting arrangements will be established so that the impact of the policy can be assessed and any changes needed can be identified. I expect that the policy will evolve and develop over time. We are now also in a position to look at the legislation required to underpin the policy.
The policy ushers in a new era for the Executive to use their spending power for the common good. Scoring for social value will be of particular interest to social enterprises and community groups, which exist to deliver social benefit. It will also be good news, however, for many private enterprises that want to pay their workers a living wage and protect the environment but are worried that, if they do the right thing, they will be undercut by a lower bidder. Under the policy, good companies will be rewarded rather than penalised when they bid for government contracts. Rather than encouraging a race to the bottom, it sets high standards for how private and social enterprises conduct their business. I commend the policy and welcome Members' questions.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his remarks and for meeting me earlier today to discuss the statement. The Committee for Finance has previously taken evidence on social value in procurement and had hoped that related legislation would be brought forward in this mandate. Further clarity on the scoring of social value and the evaluation of public contracts would therefore be welcome.
If I may, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I have a question with two parts to it. In his statement, the Minister mentions the roll-out of training to procurement practitioners and small organisations. What will that training be, in general terms, and has it commenced? The Minister also mentioned the Living Wage Foundation and an increase in the hourly wage from £8·91 an hour to £9·50 an hour. Does he have an estimate of what that will equate to across the public sector annually?
Mr C Murphy: I thank the Member for his comments and thank the Finance Committee for its cooperation in the development of the policy. The Strategic Investment Board (SIB) has been tasked with developing a level of training and with developing what will ultimately become reporting and monitoring.
That will be made available to those who are designing contracts, obviously, but also to those who may be on the receiving end, who bid for the contracts.
On the living wage, as I said in my statement, we want to see the Living Wage Foundation's definition of the living wage, which is more than the minimum wage, built into the business case for the contract so that the burden would not necessarily be imposed on the contractor. The total cost added as a result would depend on the contract, so it is not possible to give a standard cost; it would very much depend on the size and nature of the contract.
Mr McHugh: Ba mhaith liom ar dtús buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Minister, I welcome your statement, which contains a very important message in many respects, particularly when it comes to scoring for social value. Will the policy be extended to councils?
Mr C Murphy: Councils operate under a different framework for procurement, but we have had some discussions with councils, and quite a few of them have expressed an interest in incorporating social value into their procurement practices. My team on the procurement side in the Department will work with councils to give them advice, even within the framework that they currently have, to make sure that they can take maximum advantage of that ability to achieve social value. If there is a legislative change required to the councils' framework for procurement, it would be a matter for the Department for Communities. Much progress can be made on that in the time ahead, and some councils are interested in that work.
Mr Catney: Minister, have you engaged with businesses in the small business and microbusiness sector, many of which create huge social value but, too often, are frozen out of government procurement? What is the Minister doing to unlock the social value of those small businesses?
Mr C Murphy: As the Member knows, we changed the nature of the Procurement Board and brought people onto it. They are not there just in an individual capacity; they are there as representatives of sectors. Some of the sectors, including the social enterprise and the small and medium-sized enterprise sectors, have a voice on the board. We want them to act as conduits to their sectors, and if, for example, people who are involved in microbusinesses are raising issues about inaccessibility to government contracts, we would like to hear about them. Of course, they can talk to our procurement team in the Department as well, but they have a voice at the Procurement Board through the representatives of the various sectors. We want to ensure that there is fairness in the awarding of contracts so that people have a reasonable chance of accessing them and that, in this policy, we add social value to all that we do to make sure that it reflects the Executive's priorities as well.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his statement and declare an interest as a member of the all-party group on social enterprise. This is something that we have been calling for for some time, and it is a good-news story in that respect. I agree with other Members: I would like to see the policy extended to arm's-length bodies and councils and to see training for the small businesses that can avail themselves of this. Will it be extended within the next two years? Will people be able to avail themselves of 100%, or will it be capped at 20% by 2034?
Mr C Murphy: It is very much an evolving policy. We are setting a score target for a contract. Initially, starting next June, the target will be 10%, which is a figure that was reached after consultation with the people on the Procurement Board who represent various sectors. That is a minimum target, so there is nothing to stop Departments going for more than that or, if they have the capacity, starting it now. In June 2023, we move to 20% as a minimum target. Again, that can be exceeded if Departments have the capability to do so or the contract allows for it. What we are setting are very much minimum standards.
It is also an evolving policy, which is why we have a reporting mechanism with it. My Department will produce an annual report, and, as I said in response to an earlier question, SIB is working up how that will be delivered, implemented and reported on so that we get an ongoing sense of the policy's impact. I see it very much as an evolving policy. If there is scope for setting a higher minimum standard, I am sure that that can be looked at in the future.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on social enterprise. I welcome the positive move towards embedding social value in all central government and third-party contracts. It is an important step forward. However, Minister, in the all-party group, we have an objective and goal to see this embedded in legislation. When will there be a timeline for a social value Bill, and ultimately Act, in Northern Ireland?
Mr C Murphy: I know that the Member has a keen interest in this, and I have welcomed his input. Obviously, first, we wanted to get the policy in place and get it to the Executive. He knows that I and all Ministers have conversations around the Executive table most weeks about the tight time frame for the significant amount of legislation that is coming through. It is my ambition to legislate for this within this mandate. Now that the policy is in place, we need to check that that can be done. If it can be done, we will do it. If it is not possible within this mandate, given other competing Executive Bills and the short time frame, I will want to get it to a place where legislation can follow quickly in the new mandate. However, if it can be done in this mandate, we will do it.
Mr McGuigan: I welcome the content of the statement. Others have talked about aspects of it such as the living wage and creating jobs in deprived areas. As my party's environment spokesperson, I welcome that the policy delivers environmental benefits and transition towards net zero. On page 5 of the statement, it says:
"A strong message from our consultation with stakeholders was the desire for a standard framework for scoring social value."
Will the Minister outline how scoring for the social value policy will be enforced?
Mr C Murphy: The Member has identified a key part of the policy: we should have a standard process so that people across all Departments and people who bid for contracts become familiar with how the process works. That will give the policy a much better chance of having an outcome.
It will be enforced because it will be built into contracts. It will be part of a contract award. If people default on the contract, depending on the nature of it, there will be penalties. We want to make sure that that standard approach is maintained across all the Departments. That is why, every year, the Department of Finance will report on how it is working. Where Departments have sought deviation from it in specific circumstances, the Department of Finance will report on how that worked and why it came about. We intend that there will be an ongoing monitoring and reporting mechanism. It will be enforced in the way that all contracts are enforced: if people get a contract, they will subscribe to the terms of that contract and be expected to adhere to and honour it.
Ms Dolan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. What other issues is the restructured Procurement Board working on?
Mr C Murphy: The Procurement Board is working on a range of issues, including going through and updating existing procurement guidance and discarding any that is not relevant to the current era. There are initiatives to improve the delivery of major capital contracts, on which there was a report recently. Addressing supply chain resilience has been one of the main features during the pandemic, and there is a timely piece of work on that. There are also measures to approve the commissioning of community-based services. That is some of the ongoing work. A programme of work has been outlined in the Department, and I am sure that it is available to members of the Committee.
Mr O'Toole: My party welcomes the statement. Minister, you have outlined the change in that this now an Executive policy and the change in guidance. What monitoring mechanisms will there be for this? What surety will you have that accounting officers are following this, and, if they are not, what sanction exists?
Mr C Murphy: As I said in response to the previous question, if someone wins a contract and this is built into it, they are duty-bound to honour that contract. There will be the normal contracting procedures. As to how this is applied across the board in a more general sense, the SIB is developing the implementation process, which will include a monitoring and reporting process.
The intention is that my Department will report annually to make sure that it is being standardised and followed through across all Departments and contracting bodies. We expect that, if somebody wins a contract on the basis of what they are going to do with regard to this policy requirement, they honour that. There will be penalties in the contract for not honouring that.
Ms Dillon: The Minister outlined that he would like to bring legislation forward in this mandate. Hopefully, that will happen. Is there enough support for the new policy among the Executive to ensure that, regardless of who has the Ministry in the next mandate, there will be commitment to it? I know that he cannot speak on behalf of a future Minister, but does he at least have indications from other parties and Ministers?
Mr C Murphy: We reconstituted the Procurement Board, and, rather than procurement policy being the property of the Finance Department and our Department having to attempt to get other Departments to adhere to it and follow it through, we have brought in a change that means that procurement policy is brought to the Executive for approval. The policy has Executive approval and is an Executive matter. All Ministers are duty-bound to abide by it. Unless someone brings a different policy to the Executive to undo that, an incoming Finance Minister is bound by the policy. We fully expect that. Of course, I look forward to the time when it is strengthened by legislation, but that may not be possible in this mandate. The policy is an Executive policy, and part of the reason for bringing in that change to procurement was to make sure that it had endorsement from the whole Executive. My Executive colleagues gave a warm response to the policy.
Mr Muir: The Minister outlined the fact that local government has a separate procurement policy. Is the Department giving consideration to making representations to the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) on what it is doing centrally in government and encouraging them to replicate that?
Mr C Murphy: Legislation that comes under the responsibility of the Department for Communities applies to procurement for councils. Some argue that it places a value on value for money rather than on social value. Even within that, there are opportunities for councils to develop. Some of them have already been in dialogue with us, and some are encouraged by it and want to take it up. The Department remains willing to talk to councillors and council organisations, such as NILGA and SOLACE, to see how they can make sure that they build in as much social value as they can, because they are significant procurers of contracts across the community, and, if they were on board, it would have a significant impact. There is a willingness there. If it requires legislative change, that would fall to the Department for Communities, but, even in the current framework, there is room for improvement in what the councils are doing, and there is an interest among some of the councils, which, perhaps, might increase when they see the roll-out. We will work with them in the time ahead if they wish to explore how to do this.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I welcome the new Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone to her place. I call Ms Áine Murphy.
Ms Á Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. It is great news that, from June 2022, payment of the living wage will be compulsory for all contracts. No one should have to work for less than the living wage, and I warmly welcome the Minister's commitment to delivering that. Is the Minister aware of any other Government on these islands that requires contractors to pay their staff the living wage? Which sectors are likely to benefit?
Mr C Murphy: I also welcome the Member to her seat. I am delighted to see her join us. She is correct that one of the key aspects of this is the living wage. It will allow many firms that wish to give their workers a decent standard the opportunity to do so and to bid for contracts and not be undercut by those who do not. That is an important part of this. As far as I am aware, the Governments in Scotland and Wales encourage or promote this but have not made it a requirement. This is probably the first institution on these islands to make this a requirement as part of contracts. In that case, we are ahead of the game. I think of significant workers. I caught the tail end of the previous discussion on the recognition of health workers. Significant numbers of people are employed in private contracts in the health service — in care homes and the caring sector — who do not necessarily get the living wage. The development of this will have a significant impact on those people, and I am glad that that will be the case.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the thrust of the statement. My question has been asked. However, he states:
"from 1 June 2022, tenders must include a minimum of 10% of the total award criteria to social value."
In 2023, there will be a step up again. In layman's terms or in language that the dogs in the street will understand, what does that mean?
Mr C Murphy: First, it is a minimum standard. Departments can, if they wish and if they have the capability, do that now. From next year, they can have a standard of higher than 10%. In 2023, the minimum standard will, subject to Executive approval, be 20%. I have just referred to one of the key issues, which is that people will be employed using the Living Wage Foundation's living standard wage. Rather than trying to encourage people to do right by society through making environmental improvements, there is a requirement for the fair treatment of workers. A range of measures will be aligned to the Executive's Programme for Government priorities. When contracts are being designed, the selection will not be random; it will be aligned to the Executive's Programme for Government commitments.
I referenced USEL, a company that has won a government contract and is delivering that contract very well. USEL employs people with disabilities, which is social value that you can see in practice. We want to encourage more of that, and there is already a facility to encourage Departments and contracting bodies to deliver social value today. The benefit of scoring social value can be seen in a firm that delivers a very good service to government and real social value to people who would not otherwise be in the employment arena. That should not be random. I think that, across the North, only two companies deliver social value at the moment. Social value is now to be part of a minimum standard for all government contracts.
Mr Allister: The taxpaying public should now realise that the Executive have decided to downgrade value for money in public-sector contracts. Then, we have the added cost to the public purse of the declaration in the policy that the additional costs of the living wage will be borne by government. Yet, in an answer already given, we find that that has not been costed. Will that be an added burden on the block grant, leaving less money for health and education? Will it come out of the capital or resource budget of any Department?
"who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing."
Mr Allister clearly falls into that category. He cannot see the bigger picture. Social value delivers much more than value for money. Of course, value for money is still an element in the awarding of contracts, but social value delivers much more for society. In the longer term, it will save money for the Executive. When disabled people or those with mental health issues can get back into work, that is a saving for the health service. When contractors are improving aspects of the environment through their everyday work, that is a longer-term saving for the Executive. Therefore, I invite Mr Allister to look above where he is at the moment and see the bigger picture. Value for money is much enhanced by social value, rather than simply counting the cost in pennies and shillings.
Mr Allister: I invite you to answer the question. What is the cost to the block grant?
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement. He mentioned:
"spending power for the common good."
I absolutely agree with that. When the policy was developed, what consideration was given to no longer awarding government contracts to organisations such as Capita? Capita has been found guilty of systemic maladministration, and many people regard it as having no social value. This policy seems to be a contradiction at a time when many millions are being funnelled into organisations such as Capita. What consideration has been given to that?
Mr C Murphy: The Member knows that the Capita contract was awarded long before this discussion took place. We want to create a better future in relation to such matters. I cannot speak to the specifics of that contract. It comes under a different Department, and I am not across all the details. Suffice it to say that this is about creating social value in the awarding of contracts. It is about changing the picture. It is about higher requirements and higher standards for the people who get public money to deliver services. It is about changing the mindset. I am not across the detail of whether that specifically applies to some of the issues that the Member raises. We want to ensure that the policy begins to deliver so that people who bid for public money to provide services and contracts to government have to meet a significantly higher standard in their dealings with broad society and in their approach to societal interests and outcomes than has perhaps been the case in the past.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Minister. No other Members have indicated that they wish to ask a question. That therefore concludes questions on the statement from the Minister of Finance. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments to allow for changes in the Chamber. The next item of business is the question for urgent oral answer, which stands in the name of Ms Linda Dillon.
I beg your pardon, Members. That is not the next item of business. The next item —.
I apologise. The next item in the Order Paper is a motion to approve a statutory rule.
That the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Amendment of Certain Relevant Periods) (No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Frew: I seek the Assembly's approval of a statutory rule (SR) that has been made under powers contained in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020. The Act came into law at Westminster on 25 June 2020 and includes permanent amendments and temporary modifications to insolvency legislation as it applies in Great Britain. Corresponding amendments and modifications to Northern Ireland's insolvency legislation were included in the Act under a legislative consent motion that was passed by the Assembly. The temporary modifications were made to assist companies that were adversely affected by the measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They were to be applied during what was termed "the relevant period". The Act originally provided for all those measures to expire on 30 September 2020. As we know, however, the pandemic and the restrictions imposed as a result have had a deeper and longer-lasting impact on society and the economy than was originally envisaged. That led to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) making a series of extensions to the temporary modifications as they apply in Great Britain.
One of the key principles behind making the Act was that the modifications that it made to insolvency legislation should apply equally throughout the United Kingdom. That was done to ensure a level playing field so that companies in all parts of the United Kingdom would benefit from the same support and assistance and so that none would be at a disadvantage. In accordance with that principle, each time a measure was extended at Westminster, regulations to extend the corresponding temporary modifications for Northern Ireland were brought to the Assembly.
With the gradual opening up of the economy across the United Kingdom, the need for the temporary easements has reduced. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has advised that just two of the temporary modifications to insolvency legislation that apply in Great Britain are to be further extended for what is expected to be a final time. The first is a prohibition on the presentation of petitions to have companies wound up where the statutory demand is served during the relevant period. The second is a prohibition on the presentation of winding-up petitions by creditors and the making of winding-up orders where coronavirus has had an effect on the company's finances. Those two measures, which were due to expire on 30 June 2021, are to be kept in place until 30 September 2021. That is being done with the aim of providing further support to companies in sectors such as hospitality and non-essential retail, which have been most severely impacted on by the restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The aim is to prevent action being taken by creditors to wind up those companies before they have had a chance to regain their solvency by trading for a reasonable period. To ensure that Northern Ireland companies benefit from the same easements and are not at a disadvantage compared with their GB counterparts, the same modifications to Northern Ireland's insolvency legislation are being extended until 30 September 2021.
That is the purpose of the regulations, and I now ask the Assembly to approve them. The regulations have been agreed by the Economy Committee, and the Executive were advised prior to the debate.
I ask the Assembly to approve the regulations.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): As Chair of the Economy Committee, I support the motion on the Committee's behalf. As the Minister indicated, the amendment of the relevant periods in the regulations will assist companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The regulations extend the duration of temporary measures restricting the use of statutory demands and winding-up petitions, introduced by the Act, from 30 June to 30 September 2021. The Committee agreed the statutory rule (SR) at its meeting on 23 June, subject to the report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules, and the rule came into operation on 29 June. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has no issue with the rule, and, on the Committee's behalf, I support the motion to confirm it.
I will now speak briefly on behalf of Sinn Féin. As has been set out, the SR is one of a number tabled during the pandemic that are designed to provide some relaxations and assistance to businesses. As we know, the pandemic has continued for much longer than many expected or anticipated. It is therefore important that we continue to support businesses to enable them to recover. Sinn Féin therefore supports the SR.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak in the debate. I therefore call the Minister to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Frew: Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the House and the Economy Committee for their support for the statutory rule. Without further ado, I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Amendment of Certain Relevant Periods) (No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be affirmed.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Poots: Apologies, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for being slightly late. We were told that the debate would be at 4.30 pm, but then it came up on the screen. I had a bit of a rush down, but I am here now.
Members will recall that, on 3 April 2020, I announced an initial £1·5 million support package to ensure that the Northern Ireland fishing industry was supported through the COVID-19 pandemic. That financial support package was in response to the unprecedented difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had an immediate impact on the industry after the introduction of social-distancing measures and the collapse of the European and domestic fish markets.
The Northern Ireland fishing industry faced extreme difficulties as a result of COVID-19. It was in urgent need of support to ensure that there was a profitable fishing industry to return to once COVID-19 subsided. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have a significant impact, I announced a second financial support package for the sea fishing industry on 5 October 2020. Part of that second package was a scheme specifically to assist with the fixed costs of the fishing vessels of commercial fishermen that deploy static gear, such as pots and creels, typically to target crabs and lobsters. That sector continued to be badly affected by the closure of the hospitality sector.
The scheme covered the period from 1 September 2020 to December 2020. The regulations, which are the subject of this motion, provided for the financial assistance scheme and were developed in consultation with the main sea fishing industry organisations in response to my announcement on 5 October 2020. The regulations were made under powers conferred on my Department by the Fisheries Act 2020.
Under those regulations, Northern Ireland fishing boats were eligible for support if they: had a valid safety certificate issued by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; at the date of the application, were insured for the purposes of commercial sea fishing; had, during the period 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2020, conducted more than 50% of their sea fishing activity using static fishing gear; had, during the period 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2020, landed more than 50% of their value of declared sea fish landings into ports in the United Kingdom; had declared sea fish landings for the year 2019 that were valued at £10,000 or more; and had a minimum of 12 declared sea fish landings during the period 1 June 2020 to 31 October 2020.
The financial assistance that was available to eligible Northern Ireland fishing boats under the scheme was calculated at 50% of the potting fleet's average monthly fixed costs, as evidenced in their previous three financial years. The support covered a maximum of four months, and the total maximum amount payable for each month was capped at £1,250 and a total of £5,000 over the four-month period under the scheme. It was specifically designed to assist the smaller inshore vessels, which target shellfish such as crabs and lobsters. Just over £142,000 in total will be received by 51 vessels.
The regulations that you are being asked to affirm today replace a previous scheme that was made under the confirmatory procedure in March 2021. Unfortunately, that scheme was made under repealed primary powers and had to be remade and laid under powers under the Fisheries Act 2020. Before it was brought to my Department's attention that the previous scheme had no legal effect, it had made payments totalling £139,000 to 49 vessel owners. As soon as my Department became aware of the issue with the scheme, it stopped making payments under it and brought in the replacement regulations. The regulations allow the owners of the remaining eligible vessels to be paid and bring the total amount of payments to the potting fleet to just over £142,000.
Since the start of the pandemic, my Department has been actively engaging with all sectors in the sea fishing industry to deliver a number of financial assistance packages to overcome the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses. The latest scheme brings the total amount of support to the sea fishing industry to £2·87 million, of which £287,000 was specifically for aquaculture.
I thank the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee for its prompt scrutiny of the SL1 for this statutory rule that provides financial assistance to the potting fleet.
Mr McGuigan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of the Committee.
The Committee considered the regulations at SL1 stage on 10 June 2021 and welcomes the introduction of the scheme that extends a compensatory package that was initially introduced in October 2020 in order to support sea fishing vessels in respect of their fixed costs. The regulations will enable two additional vessels to claim compensation in addition to the 49 vessels that have already made successful applications.
The Committee is aware of the significant challenges that have been placed on the local sea fishing industry due to COVID-19, which led to a sharp and dramatic fall in the demand for fish and shellfish products, a huge drop in market prices and economic challenges for fishing communities. The significant financial support that has been provided to the sector by local and national Governments throughout the last 18 months has been welcome, and the regulations will go some way to extending that support. However, the Committee is conscious that the industry still faces stark challenges in price recovery given the phased easement of restrictions in the hospitality and tourism sector and different levels of lockdown across Europe. Therefore, financial support will be required in the short and medium term to stabilise the sector and ensure a viable recovery from the impact of the pandemic.
The Committee was content with the merits of the policy at SL1 stage and raised no issues. At its meeting on 24 June, the Committee considered the advice of the Examiner of Statutory Rules, who drew no specific attention to issues of concern. Therefore, the Committee is content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that the Assembly confirm the statutory rule.
Mr Irwin: I welcome the motion. As I have stated many times in the House over the past year, COVID-19 and dealing with its health and economic effects have been hugely challenging for everyone, not least our Departments, and in the Assembly and Executive.
While some industries undoubtedly thrived during the pandemic, even those industries had to adapt to keep pace with what has been a very changeable picture. As I said previously, the agri-food sector really stepped up to the mark when other industries were having to wind down and, in many ways, had to redouble its efforts to meet increasing demand and panic purchasing and to ensure that it was able to place food on the shelves. That, of course, brought many challenges, and, as with our sea fishing community, COVID-19 had an impact.
In line with other payments that have been made to other industries and sectors, it was important that our hard-working fishermen also received financial aid. To that end, it is important to note that our fishing sector received the greatest level of support of any fishing sector in the British Isles, and I thank Minister Poots and his officials for listening to the needs of the industry and moving towards a scheme of support that responded to those needs in a practical manner. I am interested to enquire of the Minister what additional support will be made available for COVID recovery and his views on the UK-wide Seafood Response Fund. I support the motion and welcome the views of the Minister on the points that have been raised.
Mr Muir: The global COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate and significant financial impact on the sea fishing sector. The collapse of European and domestic fish markets as a consequence of restrictions on movements in line with public health guidance, and further restrictions on the hospitality sectors, made trading virtually impossible.
My colleagues Stephen Farry MP, John Blair MLA and councillors Patrick Brown and Andrew McMurray have continued to engage with and meet representatives of the fishing industry to discuss future opportunities for developing the fishing and seafood sector in Northern Ireland and to identify prospects to further promote our excellent local food product.
The financial support scheme for fishing vessel owners in the Northern Ireland fleet, whose incomes have been significantly affected by the impacts of COVID-19, is welcome. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Department's intervention. My colleagues and I remain hopeful that some outstanding matters, including a permanent commitment to Northern Ireland boats being able to land products at local ports without checks, and the exclusion of Northern Ireland boats from all but two ports in Northern Ireland, can be resolved.
The Alliance Party will continue to engage with the Department on those matters in order to secure a successful outcome for Irish sea fisheries, support our fishing communities and safeguard Northern Ireland fishing for future generations. As outlined in the recent Alliance Party 'Green New Deal' document, we are committed to supporting the fishing industry so that it can prosper and achieve environmental sustainability in the long term and to ensuring that the capacity of fleets is economically viable and does not compromise the marine ecosystems and overexploit marine stocks.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the regulations to support the sector, deliver economic, social and employment benefits and contribute to the availability of our food supplies.
Mr Poots: I appreciate the comments made by Members in response to the issues that I have brought to their attention today. A couple of questions were raised about additional funding for COVID-19. The UK-wide Seafood Response Fund was a further bonus for the local fleet of potters and trawlers. That covered support towards fishing vessels' fixed costs during the first quarter of 2020-21. In total, 144 Northern Ireland fishing vessel owners secured £1·212 million in financial assistance. The scheme was administered across the UK by the Marine Management Organisation. My officials are considering a submission from the Northern Ireland Fishermen's Federation for further COVID-19 support for the period from April to June 2021.
I published a final report on the fishing and seafood development programme on 5 May 2021. It was a strategic review of the opportunities for developing the sea fishing and seafood sectors in Northern Ireland as a whole, including the potential role of new public investment in infrastructure. The report focuses on recommendations on capital investment at the main fishery harbours and highlights a number of challenges and opportunities for the wider industry that could be addressed through a future fisheries financial support scheme.
The report marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the fishing industry here. It highlights the considerable investment that is required to help the industry to adapt to the challenges that it faces and to grasp the opportunities presented following the UK's exit from the European Union. Northern Ireland needs to build a stronger, more resilient fishing and seafood industry that can adapt to change. Of course, that will not be easy, but I hope that, with government and industry working together, we can build new infrastructure, become more prosperous, improve the marine environment and enhance our reputation as suppliers of quality sustainable seafood.
My Department is finalising the business case to inform decisions about procuring the detailed environmental and technical studies that will be needed to take the harbour proposals forward. I thank all Members who commented.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be affirmed.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I beg to introduce the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill [NIA 28/17-22], which is a Bill to set targets for the years 2050, 2040 and 2030 for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; to provide for a system of carbon budgeting; to provide for reporting and statements against those targets and budgets; to confer power to impose climate change reporting duties on public bodies; to provide for reports and advice from the Committee on Climate Change; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members, it is 1.50 pm, and Question Time is due to start at 2.00 pm. By your leave, we will suspend the sitting until then.
The sitting was suspended at 1.50 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair) —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): A number of questions have been withdrawn: question 5 and topical question 3 by Gerry Kelly and topical question 10 by Dolores Kelly.
Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I am pleased to say that a further 12-month non-domestic rates holiday has been fully implemented and is now providing a further £230 million of support for businesses dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. That package of support goes well beyond what has been given in England and demonstrates the Executive's commitment to providing certainty and support for businesses. It means that the additional rates support provided to business over two years amounts to more than half a billion pounds. The legislation for the additional holiday came into operation on 7 May. The regulations provide details of the businesses that are eligible for this support, helping to ensure that some 29,000 businesses continue to have a rates-free period.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. Have we any indication of how this will affect the overall Budget, especially the budget of local councils?
Mr C Murphy: Local councils' intake on rates is protected, as it was during the last financial year. In many ways, it is actually a benefit for councils. If a business happens to fail through the course of the year, that rates income has been protected for them.
It cost us, as I said, over half a billion pounds. That was from COVID money that came to us from London as Barnett consequentials. It was not out of the original baseline budgets; it was additional COVID money. Nonetheless, it is important for those businesses. Quite a lot of them identified, as one of their primary requests, that bill being taken off the table for them in order to secure some certainty.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta as a fhreagra. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, given the Executive's reliance on rates, do you agree that the fiscal commission provides an opportunity to consider other sources of funding in an effort to raise revenue in the Six Counties?
Mr C Murphy: The fiscal commission has just begun its work. I was pleased to meet it last week to get an update on what is happening with it. It will look at the totality of fiscal powers that may become available to an Executive. If such a proposal were put forward and agreed by the Executive, that would involve a negotiation with the Treasury.
Rates bring in about 10% of our Budget. Clearly, they are a very important source of revenue for the Executive and are used to support our public services. It is timely that we have the fiscal commission looking at the broad range of powers that may become available to us, and that there is an informed debate about those in the Assembly and in the public generally.
Ms Armstrong: Minister, will you work with the Minister for Communities to lobby the Treasury to allow councils to utilise capitalisation schemes, given the additional financial strain caused by the pandemic? Can you reassure the House that businesses will not face a cliff edge at the end of reliefs in April 2022?
Mr C Murphy: We regularly engage with Treasury on behalf of a range of Departments. If the Department for Communities has such a request, we are more than happy to work with it on that and to engage with Treasury.
We had the initial year-long rates holiday. We were then able to extend that. At the start, we thought that that may be for just six months, but, because of additional COVID money, we were able to extend it. That will be two full years' rates holiday, which is a significant contribution to a lot of businesses at a cost of around half a billion pounds. We do not have any projection for further COVID money. It is unlikely that, beyond that period, we will have that type of money to give as support for businesses. Of course, we have fully funded the economic recovery package that the Department for the Economy is bringing forward. That will, hopefully, stimulate businesses so that they can get back to a level of trading that means that they are in a better position to meet any other bills that come in.
Mr Catney: Minister, we welcome whatever help has gone out to small businesses, but the re-examination of non-domestic and regional rates must feed in to a broader examination of Northern Ireland's fiscal powers and how they match the long-term economic challenges if businesses are to have any chance of recovering from the pandemic.
Mr C Murphy: The look at non-domestic rates is ongoing. We are beginning a revaluation exercise in a much shorter time frame than has ever been done here before. That, again, was a request from businesses; they did not want a sudden jump in rates or a sudden redistribution between sectors through a revaluation exercise. It will take account of the pandemic.
Of course, we continue to engage with businesses. I engaged with some of them over the past number of weeks in relation to the ongoing review and reform of rates generally. With the rates holiday, it went almost unnoticed that there was an 18% reduction in non-domestic rates, which was very much welcomed by other businesses that could not avail themselves of the rates holiday. We continue to engage with business, and we will do the revaluation exercise and look to how we can improve the rates picture. It is vital income for us for public services, but we know that it is a significant bill for a lot of businesses.
Mr C Murphy: I am planning to keep non-domestic rates under close scrutiny as we emerge from the pandemic. My Department's 2019 review of business rates was undertaken in completely different circumstances to those now faced by our economy. The review provided some important insights, and I am pleased that significant progress has been made in respect of many of the issues highlighted during the public consultation. The overall high level of business rates and the balance of business rates to domestic rates were raised as issues during the public consultation. In response, I have reduced the regional business rate by 18% for 2020-21 and have held the rate at the reduced amount for 2021-22. I extended the small business rate relief scheme and restored the rural ATM relief scheme in response to feedback received. I have also made two changes that had been sought to assist district councils in relation to district rates. Finally, I recently announced the revaluation of non-domestic properties, which was another issue highlighted during the consultation.
As you are aware, rates are one of the few revenue-raising powers available to the Executive to generate funding for vital public services. I have established a fiscal commission to examine the case for increasing the fiscal powers available to us.
Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome his commitment to ensuring that the rates bill for businesses has taken into account the impact of the pandemic over the past 18 months. Will the Minister provide an update on Reval 2023?
Mr C Murphy: I recently announced that revaluation for non-domestic properties. It delivers on a commitment to have more frequent revaluations. The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the economy, resulting in changes between business sectors. That will feed through to changes in the rental values of many properties. The last revaluation exercise was just over a year ago, but I have asked Land and Property Services (LPS) to bring forward another revaluation in the shortest possible time. Reval 2023 will maintain fairness and ensure that businesses pay rates that take account of the impact of the pandemic. Values will be based on rental evidence on 1 October 2021.
Mr Weir: The Minister outlined the levels of relief during COVID, which is very welcome. What thinking is being given to transitional arrangements so that the 18% reduction that he mentioned does not suddenly escalate in one jump to a position in which much higher rates have to be paid?
Mr C Murphy: The reduction was in response to long-term lobbying before I became Finance Minister. There was a recognition in the Department that our business rates are much higher than, basically, anywhere else, so the 18% reduction was an attempt to address that. The Member will understand that the Executive need all the finances available to them, but I do not see any logic in trying to put rates back up, particularly given the economic downturn that will undoubtedly follow the pandemic. The Executive's objective, as the Member knows from his time there, was to keep businesses afloat and to support high streets and local businesses as best we could. I do not see the Executive agreeing to an exercise that would put a lot of businesses in significant danger of going out of business. I do not foresee circumstances in which the sudden increase that the Member mentioned would come about. Of course, the revaluation exercise is a redistribution of the rates burden among businesses. It is important to do that frequently to make sure that there is no sudden jolt from a valuation made seven, eight or nine years ago up to a new valuation that might create a higher level of change. We will continue with the objective to support businesses in the time ahead, including through the rates.
Mr Muir: I acknowledge the measures that have been taken over the last period, such as the actual percentage decrease, the commitment to Reval 2023 and the reliefs that have been put in place. The last review was done in-house by Land and Property Services in 2019. Does the Minister accept that, in order for the business community to have confidence in the rating system, there needs to be an independent review of that system similar to that which took place in Scotland under the Barclay review?
Mr C Murphy: I have met business organisations more frequently, probably, than ever over the course of the pandemic to address a range of issues in relation to business support but also on the rates issue. I have never had the sense that people do not trust the Department to do a rates review. What they want is maximum consultation, and that is already beginning again. About two weeks ago, I had a meeting in the Department with business organisations to discuss the idea of review. Again, I think that people are content for the Department to do that. They want to be assured that the process is open and transparent and that there is significant consultation.
Different interests are at play in what the Department needs to do and what businesses would like to see. That is understandable, but we have to find a system that is fair and recognises not only the burdens that businesses are under but the fact that the Executive require the resource to support public services. To be honest, I do not have plans to carry out an independent review, but I intend to continue the dialogue with businesses and business organisations to make sure that whatever the Department does is transparent and accessible to them and they can make their points of view known.
Miss Woods: The Minister has outlined the rates review and the policy issues that have been looked at. In the last number of financial years, has policy or legislation changed the process for calculating business rates?
Mr C Murphy: Not that I am aware of and certainly not in my time. I presume that, if there was legislative change, it did not happen in the previous three years. No legislation went through here during that time. If it was a policy change, I will be happy to look at that and come back to the Member. It certainly has not happened in my time. We have been focused on responding to business needs during the pandemic. The intent of the rates policy is to respond to and implement some of the issues raised in the consultation that took place in, I think, 2018 or 2017. Sorry, it was in 2019, just before I came into office. I want to continue to engage with business in the time ahead as we review the policies.
Mr C Murphy: I met the chair and members of the fiscal commission again last week, and they provided me with an update on their important work to date. The commission acts independently of ministerial and departmental direction, and our agenda covered practical operational issues. They indicated that, as part of their work programme, they have begun meeting a wide range of stakeholders, which, I understand, included a discussion with the Member on 21 June as part of their engagement with political parties.
I am pleased with the progress that they set out in our meeting and that they are on target to deliver their final report to me before the end of the current mandate, setting out their recommendations for future tax-varying and revenue-raising powers here. The incoming Executive can use that as a basis for setting their future position on fiscal devolution issues.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister. He is right: I had a fascinating meeting with the commission. We discussed one of the criteria for extra tax-varying and revenue-raising powers, which is the stability of the institutions here. What is his assessment of how stable we are? I am not asking whether the institutions will be toppled. Will our instability prevent our being able to use extra tax-raising powers?
Mr C Murphy: If there is a recommendation to an incoming Executive to do that, a discussion and negotiation with Treasury will begin. I presume that one of the issues to come up would be the stability of the institutions. The Member knows as well as I do that nothing is ever certain in politics and that, while we can assume that things are going along on an even keel, events often come along to upend that. In some ways, the pandemic was destabilising to our public services, but it was also a solidifying exercise for the parties in the Executive to have to pull together to face the emergency. Nonetheless, there has been significant instability, particularly in one of the Executive parties, and that has had an impact.
This will be a long enough process, because the report will come back to us and will then have to be considered. I hope that it will generate a debate, not only in this institution but among the wider public. An incoming Executive will have to take a view, which will then begin a period of dialogue with Treasury. There will be ample chance to prove the stability of this institution over that time.
Mr McGuigan: The Minister will be aware that the way in which businesses and consumers carry out transactions is changing and will continue to change. I thank the Minister for his update on the work of the fiscal commission. As part of its wider remit, will the fiscal commission consider an online sales tax to help level the playing field between bricks-and-mortar businesses and those that sell online?
Mr C Murphy: That is an issue that has been raised many times, because there has been a sense of unfairness, particularly during the pandemic when our high street business had to close their doors and online trading became all the more important. Online businesses do not have the rates burden that a lot of smaller and more local businesses have.
Taxation issues are within the Treasury's remit, and I understand that it is looking at that area for online businesses, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of that. I am sure that the fiscal commission will take evidence from people on where they would like to see powers devolved to us, but, as I said, the Treasury is looking at the issue, and we would like to get a handle on its take on how that can be done. From the representations that I get, however, not just from businesses but from other MLAs, there is a growing sense that there is unfairness in the arrangement when it comes to local businesses on the high street and those with an online presence, which have little if any rates burden attached to them.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, as you know, my party and I have been strongly supportive of the setting up of the fiscal commission. You mentioned that you expect it to report to you and your Department by the end of the mandate. Will that report be laid in the Assembly? You have just said that you think that it should generate debate in the Assembly, but, in order to generate that debate, surely we have to be able to read it. Can you confirm that the report will go not just to your Department? I am not accusing your Department of malfeasance; I am just saying that it would be good for the report to be laid in the Assembly so that we can all read it when it is ready to go.
Mr C Murphy: I am glad to hear that. The fiscal commission is an independent body. We will give it whatever support it needs, but we are not directing it in any fashion. It has been asked to report to me. My understanding is that it intends to produce some time in the autumn an interim report that would also be a good stimulant to public debate and perhaps further consultation and input from the public, political parties, business institutions, trade unions and others into the final report. The purpose was to stimulate debate and hopefully influence the Executive to engage, as has happened in Scotland and Wales for many years, with the discussion in an informed way so that an incoming Executive and an incoming Assembly can take decisions based on solid information. Of course, that means that the interim and final report will have to be public, and I am happy to lay them in the Assembly and table them for debate or to do whatever is required to ensure that that happens.
Mr C Murphy: To date, the £10,000 top-up payments have been issued to 1,173 businesses that received the £25,000 retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure grant last year. The total value of those payments is £11·5 million. The £5,000 top-up payments have been issued to 12,114 businesses that received the £10,000 small business support grant last year. The total value of those payments to date is £60·4 million.
Businesses that did not receive an automatic top-up payment and any business that started to trade between 20 May 2020 and 1 March 2021 have been able to apply for the top-up grant since the 30 June 2021.
I expect the payments resulting from those applications to start issuing to businesses before the end of this month.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I welcome the intervention that his Department has made, particularly the latest top-up payments to many businesses that were relying on them.
Has the Minister any thoughts on businesses that have multiple premises? Will support be offered to them?
Mr C Murphy: We have long recognised that a number of sectors — multiples are one of them — were not able to avail themselves of much if any support over the course of the pandemic. Therefore, we have been striving to find a way or encouraging other Departments to find a way to provide support to those businesses.
We have engaged with people who represent multiples over the last while, and we are committed to looking at a scheme that, we hope, will provide them with some support in the autumn. We will work that through with them.
Mr McNulty: Minister, 13,000 businesses did not qualify for support during the most recent lockdown. They were not forced to close but, nonetheless, were seriously impacted due to the "Stay at Home" message. Will the Minister confirm that all of those businesses, many of which are family-owned and part of the community, have received grants from his Department?
Mr C Murphy: We have endeavoured to provide support, but we had to do that by regulation. The regulations are brought forward by the Health Department, and it tells us which businesses are obliged to close and which can remain open. We cannot, by law, pay businesses that remained open under the local restrictions support scheme (LRSS) scheme. We are forbidden to do so, so we have tried to find other ways to support those. Included, in my answer to this question, is the £10,000 top-up and the £5,000 top-up, where businesses that could remain open were able to avail themselves of that support. I cannot guarantee that that covers absolutely every business because some businesses were excluded on the basis that they were operating quite well during the lockdown. Some businesses experienced an upturn in trade.
As far as we can, we have been not only administering the LRSS scheme to so many businesses but using the money that was left over at the end of the financial year to generate a scheme such as this, which will support further businesses. This top-up scheme alone has delivered over £70 million across businesses, with more to go out as businesses apply for it.
Mr Muir: I thank all the staff in the Minister's Department for the work that they have done in distributing the grant assistance for well over a year, in challenging circumstances.
The public health restrictions are still in place, and they affect businesses in many ways. To give an example, in a public house, you do not go to the bar; it is all table service. Businesses that operate slot machines have contacted me because their businesses have collapsed because people are not walking around the bar. Has any consideration being given to assisting businesses that are still affected by the public health restrictions? For some, it is proving difficult to continue.
Mr C Murphy: There was always a recognition that, no matter what support we could distribute through all of the grant schemes that we and the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities administered, it was never going to replace lost trade. We do not have the resources to do that. It was to give businesses a fighting chance of staying in business until such times as we could get back to normal trading after the pandemic.
The regulations on what we can do in this regard are set by Health. They determine which businesses should close and which can remain open, and we were not allowed, by law, to assist businesses that were not required to close. We always recognised that, even where businesses were allowed to open up. That is why the rates holiday was applied to certain sectors of businesses, those that, we recognised, would continue to struggle, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sector. Even if their businesses were allowed to open, the restrictions that they had to operate under would mean that they would do less business. The rates holiday was one way to try to offset some of that, but there was always the recognition that support would never replace the lost trade. It was really just to give businesses a fighting chance to stay open until such times as they came back to full trade.
Mr C Murphy: In line with the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitment, the Executive subcommittee on reform was established to consider the recommendations of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) report in full and oversee their implementation. The subcommittee met in July, November and December 2020. Members of the Executive subcommittee agreed a draft report setting out the response to the inquiry and the actions that are required to fulfil the remaining recommendations of the inquiry report. The report was forwarded to the Executive for agreement on 26 March this year. The subcommittee agreed a number of changes to the guidance for Ministers and the special adviser code of conduct in light of the recommendations of the inquiry. They have also been provided to the Executive Office for consideration.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his response. Does the Minister agree that, if the public are to have confidence in the institutions, there should be no delay in the implementation of the recommendations of the RHI report?
Mr C Murphy: I agree with the Member. It is a source of some frustration to me that, a number of months on from when the report was submitted to the Executive, we are still waiting for it to be dealt with. The subcommittee was made up of representation from all parties in the Executive, and the report was agreed by all members of the subcommittee, so I struggle to understand the delay in getting it to the Executive proper and getting it agreed and implemented. I agree with him that the longer it runs on, the more it damages confidence that the Executive will respond to the issues that were raised in the report in a proper and timely fashion.
Mr Allister: Given the excessive delay by the Executive, maybe it is a good thing that we got through some reforms under the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021. For many people, when they viewed the wreckage of RHI and the mishandling of things, the other burning question, as well as reform, was, "Is there any discipline?". Will the Minister update the House on whether anyone in the Civil Service been disciplined for their actions or inactions during RHI? Did bringing forward retirement cause many to escape discipline?
Mr C Murphy: As the Member knows from his membership of the Finance Committee, a number of civil servants were reported for further investigation and potential disciplinary issues resulting from that. Some people retired in the interim, which is unfortunate for a proper and publicly understood outcome to the inquiry's recommendations. There are ongoing matters, because there are some legal matters being challenged. They have not yet concluded. We have undertaken to provide the Committee with as much information as we can, subject to legal advice on ongoing legal matters.
Ms Armstrong: Will the Minister provide his initial assessment of the impact of the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act on the workings of the Executive and special advisers?
Mr C Murphy: I spoke against that Bill. I made my views on it clear. I thought that some of the propositions in the Bill were impractical and that some probably contradicted the delivery of good government. Nonetheless, the Bill was passed in its final format once amendments were sorted through by the Assembly. The Department immediately, as it was obliged to do, provided a report to all Departments on what they need to do to make sure that they observe the legislation that was passed. That has caused some changes in reporting and recording matters. A lot of those issues were already addressed in the RHI report and would have come through by way of the Executive's subcommittee and the Executive response anyway. However, we have ensured that the matters that flow from the Act have been distilled and distributed to all Departments to make sure that people fully understand the requirements that are now in law.
Mr C Murphy: New Decade, New Approach commitments envisage that the number of arm's-length bodies (ALBs) will be rationalised and that there will be efficiency savings, a strengthening of democratic control and improved accountability. In June 2020, the Executive agreed to a review of ALBs to meet that commitment. Following that initial analysis, the Executive have now been asked to agree to the way forward in the review of arm’s-length bodies. Subject to the Executive's decision, it will be for individual Departments to consider the way forward for their respective ALBs on an organisation-by-organisation basis. In line with the NDNA priority, the Department of Finance will maintain and publish a record of ALB reviews and outcomes. The Department of Finance is preparing legislation that will enable Departments to make any changes that are required as a result of the reviews.
T1. Mr Beattie asked the Minister of Finance whether he will consider funding Informing Choices NI, which is the central access point for abortion here and is about to run out of funding. (AQT 1501/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: Normally, funding requests come from a Department that has a responsibility for or a relationship with an organisation. I am happy to consider any requests for assistance that might come forward from a Department. I am sure that vital services are being provided for women, but, rather than the Department of Finance going out to look for it, it would require the sponsoring Department within the ambit of which the organisation operates to come forward. I assume that that will be the Department of Health or, perhaps, the Department of Justice. However, if such a request comes in, I am more than happy to consider it with the relevant Department and to talk to the Executive.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister. As he has identified, this is an important service for women. We are talking about a relatively small amount of money: £150,000 for the year. The health service is under pressure with regard to waiting lists and the mental health strategy. I do not have a follow-on question, but I take on board what the Minister has said.
Mr C Murphy: As I said, I am happy to look at the request. I remind the Member that it is not just Departments that are sources of funding. There are voluntary and community sector groups, and the National Lottery delivers the dormant accounts fund, which looks at resilience to make sure that organisations do not go out of existence because of a lack of support. A number of organisations support charities and other groups like that. By all means, I am happy to look at that, but Informing Choices NI should look at other sources of funding.
T4. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Finance, who will know that social clauses have been in place in the Department for Communities for some years, particularly in building homes in the social sector, how he sees those working alongside the social scoring value model that he announced this morning. (AQT 1504/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: I see it as an enhancement. In my time at the Department for Regional Development (DRD), we had social clauses for some Roads Service contracts to try to achieve good social outcomes. The problem was that it was intermittent and had no uniform standard process to assess or score social value. The paper that I brought to the Executive and reported to the Assembly today will bring a standardised process to all Departments. There will be a minimum threshold, which will enhance the good work that some Departments have been doing to create social value. It will ensure that those awarding contracts and those bidding for them understand clearly what is required and operate on the same playing field. That will lead not only to better outcomes but to better social outcomes.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he knows, many of the social clauses cannot be utilised, especially in the construction sector, as they were not written very well and have been around for a long time. Has the Minister had any conversations with the Minister for the Economy about apprenticeships? In today's statement, the Minister mentioned bringing jobs to deprived areas. I can see how the social model could work in those areas.
Mr C Murphy: The discussion on the matter went to the Executive. Part of the change to procurement is that, rather than being a Department of Finance policy that it must try to get other Departments to adopt, it has been brought to the entire Executive and has their stamp of approval and will get a uniform approach from Departments because Ministers are obliged to follow through on it. I have had dialogue with a range of Ministers on all of that, and we want to see an improvement across the board. We want procurement to be used in that fashion.
Where Departments can achieve better social outcomes with the work that they do, by all means, they should. We are setting a minimum standard, and that does not mean that it stops there. Departments can do other things and bring other improvements. We procure about £3 billion worth of goods and services each year. That gives us enormous power to achieve a lot of other social good. I hope that a consequence of the policy that we have brought through is that it will allow the Executive to do that across the board.
T5. Ms McLaughlin asked the Minister of Finance whether he has considered how to radically review fiscal policy on the taxation of businesses and, if so, to outline the steps that he has taken to ensure that the review takes place quickly, particularly because she is very concerned about the state of our town and city centres, which have been in decline for many years, with the pandemic exacerbating that decline. (AQT 1505/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: The only fiscal policy that can currently be of that type of assistance to town centres is the rates policy. In our response to the pandemic, we gave a two-year rates holiday to a substantial number of businesses at a cost of £500 million to the Executive. We also reduced the non-domestic rate by 18% last year, and we have kept that 18% reduction. As the Member is well aware, we have given out a variety of business support grants through a number of Departments. We also fully funded the economic recovery package, which the Department for the Economy will use to support town centres and other businesses as we try to assist in their recovery from the pandemic.
There is broad recognition that our high streets have been in trouble for some time and that, wherever we can, we should use whatever devices are available to the Executive to provide support. We should act collectively across a number of Departments. The Department for Communities has an interest. The Department for Infrastructure has an interest in some of the parklet schemes that were launched last weekend. Those things can collectively contribute to improving town centres, and the Executive should work across all Departments to do what we can with the limited resources and fiscal levers at our disposal.
Ms McLaughlin: Thank you for that answer, Minister. Should we incentivise businesses to set up in our town centres? At the minute, the fiscal policy that we operate penalises businesses that do so. There is no level playing field. While bricks-and-mortar businesses are penalised and taxed for setting up in city centres, online shopping has experienced great growth in recent years and is not going away, so we need a complete review of how we do business and taxation in Northern Ireland. I would like to see you being a leader in delivering that policy, Minister.
Ms McLaughlin: Will the Minister be a leader and a champion for delivering different fiscal policy and for incentivising businesses?
Mr C Murphy: I will, of course, be a champion for businesses. We have distributed enormous relief and support to businesses, which is not a normal function of my Department, to try to ensure that they have a chance of survival after the pandemic.
As the Member knows, we have established a fiscal council to look at the idea of other fiscal levers for the Executive. At the moment, the only lever that we have is rates, which contribute about 10% of the Executive's finances. As the Member knows, they are used to try to protect the vital public services that serve Derry and other places. Those services are hugely important to us. There is always a balance when trying to do that.
The presence of online shopping is a taxation issue that Treasury is looking at. There is an unfairness in small local businesses and shops in town centres struggling against an online presence that does not bear the same rates burden. That can be examined. I hope that the fiscal commission will look at the fiscal levers that are available to the Executive to address a range of issues and that we will use them to try to support local businesses and jobs in the time ahead.
T6. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Finance whether he will develop policies to enable civil servants to continue to work from home, given that COVID-19 has thrust workers and workforces into different ways of operating. (AQT 1506/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: Yes. A lot of trends that were already happening in the workforce have been accelerated significantly by the experience of the pandemic, including reliance on and enforcement of people's working from home. It will have huge implications for the way that the Civil Service works and for its estate. You can already see people in the private sector reassessing the office space that they need and how they will work in the future. Thankfully, from what I have seen in recent reports, sick leave has reduced significantly during the pandemic, and people have been able to get a better work-life balance. We are looking to review how we do workforce planning in the Civil Service, and we are looking at the idea of a blended approach that combines being in the office and being at home. That requires IT support and other things that we have accelerated over the course of the pandemic.
The Member will be aware that we have begun the establishment of a ring of hubs so that, if people cannot work from home or they prefer to work in an office environment, they are not required to travel in and out of Belfast five days a week but can go to regional centres. That will have the added impact of ensuring an economic boost to those centres.
There is a range of measures to be considered, including where people work from, their work-life balance, a blended approach to working, regional hubs, what we require for the Civil Service estate, and the IT improvements that can assist all that. That is all in the mix and will be part of a longer-term Civil Service review.
Mr Butler: I welcome the Minister's positive answer. Does he agree that, whilst there is a balance to be struck that enables the multiple benefits that he explained come from working from home, there may also be benefits for those who find it hard to gain employment, particularly single-parent families and women, and that there may be benefits beyond those that he has already identified?
Mr C Murphy: I agree with the Member about the ability to work from home. It is recognised that, unfortunately, a lot of the burden of organising the home falls unfairly on women. The opportunity to do more blended working makes work more accessible, particularly in Civil Service jobs, which previously would have required employees to spend one or two hours on the road in the morning and the evening travelling in and out of Belfast, or whatever the journey might be.
The regional hubs idea will mean that Civil Service jobs will be opened up to people from more peripheral and border areas as well. Travelling and commuting was a big challenge for people considering opportunities in the public sector and probably in the private sector as well. It will give us a more diverse and balanced workforce and will give people more access to employment. That should be regarded as a good thing in the time ahead.
T7. Ms Mullan asked the Minister of Finance whether he has received any indication that the spending review will make provision for a multi-annual Budget settlement or additional funds to tackle health service waiting lists. (AQT 1507/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: I spoke to the Chancellor when I met him in London a number of weeks back. He assured us that the spending review will deliver a multi-annual Budget, which is what the Executive have sought for some time. That will give us the opportunity to plan ahead and to try to deal with some of the big transformation issues such as the health service. We have no indication of additional finances for that transformational work, but we will continue to press the case for it, particularly for our health service, because if we are to reduce waiting lists and get the types of changes that we need to see in the health system, we need a significant investment in it from the Executive. We continue to press the case for that support. The British Prime Minister said that the health service was one of the issues for which the UK Government wanted to see support in response to the pandemic. We hope that that translates into support for our health service here as well.
Ms Mullan: Thank you. Minister, you answered my supplementary question. I had been going to ask for an update on those conversations with the Exchequer, so thank you for that.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): If I may, I request an extra minute to answer that question, as I know that it is of great interest to Members and their constituents.
My Department has undertaken two significant pieces of work to assist those wishing to undertake international travel. First, officials have been working on a comprehensive COVID-status certificate system (CCS) since April, when international standards for information exchange began to emerge. The final CCS will take the form of a printed certificate supplemented by a mobile phone app. That system will provide internationally accepted proof that the holder has either received both vaccine doses at least two weeks prior to travel, or has demonstrated immunity to the virus, or has received a negative PCR test result in the preceding 72 hours. The comprehensive solution is expected to be available for 19 July. For those unable to access the automated digital solution, a helpline will be available. Members will appreciate that IT-based solutions that require access to personal healthcare records must meet the strictest data protection and cybersecurity standards and that such work cannot be rushed.
A second interim solution was developed in an incredibly short time and was made available to the public on Friday evening last week. The service was developed after some countries unilaterally decided to require vaccination proof, ahead of the EU vaccine passport scheme becoming fully functional. The interim solution enables people from Northern Ireland travelling to international destinations to show that they have received both vaccine doses. The system was available on the nidirect website on Friday evening, with requests prioritised by intended date of travel. Health and Social Care Board staff are verifying the requester's identity, locating their vaccine record and preparing a vaccine certificate for collection from one of three vaccine centres, and staff are on hand to assist with any difficulties that may arise.
There has been an incredible public response to the interim solution. As of 1.00 pm today, there have been 4,500 applications. For 125 of those travelling today, certificates were made available for collection from one of three collection points yesterday afternoon. The short-term interim arrangements are only for people travelling to foreign countries who require proof of double-dose vaccination up to 20 July. The interim documentation will have a short-term expiry date and will be of no use to anyone travelling at a later date.
I am sure that Members will join me in thanking the Health and Social Care Board staff, health and social care trust staff, the system developers and departmental officials for developing the interim solution in a matter of days and working over the weekend to enable our citizens to meet the changing requirements for international travel.
Ms Sugden: Thank you, Minister. That is really great work. I thank the Minister for his attention to that matter. I have written to him on a number of occasions, and that information will be gratefully received today by all those who need that vaccine passport, if you like.
Today, I read that the second vaccination dose is available at the COVID mobile test units. Will that have any implications for information-sharing for the vaccine passport, so that people can get that documentation?
Mr Swann: It will not. In fact, it allows members of the public to bring forward their second vaccine dose from what had been scheduled. We encourage people not to do that as it would affect the sequencing of our booking systems. However, that can be done if people prefer to do it and they follow the guidance. We do not encourage it, but it would allow people to be provided with the vaccine certification and verification documentation once they have received their second vaccine.
Mr McNulty: Minister, well done on this. It is a huge release for so many who want to feel sand and sea or travel abroad to get away from things after this hard 14 months.
You will recognise that the race against the delta variant is on. On Saturday, a temporary vaccination centre was set up in the Quays in Newry and had a huge uptake. I believe that the centre in Craigavon is now allowing people to rock up for vaccinations without an appointment. How important do you see that being in the race against the variant? Will those temporary stations be more readily available on weekdays and weekends so that more people can access the vaccine and allow us to get ahead of the delta variant?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. Other people have used the terminology that this is now a race between the vaccine and the variant. I concur with that. The more people we can vaccinate with first and second doses, the more protection we can give to the population of Northern Ireland.
The Member quoted examples of walk-in vaccine centres at the weekend. He will see those being replicated across all trust areas. All the trusts are moving forward with those centres for first doses and, in some cases, they will be located in towns and villages across Northern Ireland where we have identified a low uptake of vaccines. Our trust centres are still operating and will move to a walk-in service for first and second doses, as long as people have left the appropriate time between doses.
We are doing everything that we can to encourage as much uptake of the vaccine as possible in Northern Ireland. We have seen a great response to date. We have seen a great response from our health and social care system in delivering the vaccine. If the Member recalls, the programme started only a number of months ago rather than a long time ago.
Mrs Barton: Can the Minister provide an update on what steps are being taken to ensure that people who participated in the vaccine trials are not disadvantaged when it comes to securing the appropriate certification?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her point, which is a significant one for the people in Northern Ireland who came forward for vaccine trials, some of whom received a placebo dose.
The four UK Chief Medical Officers and the Chief Scientific Adviser in Northern Ireland have advised that participants in well-regulated clinical trials should not be disadvantaged as global travel resumes. Participants will not be disadvantaged in any domestic vaccine certifications compared to anyone else who received their vaccines under the standard health and social care programme. The vaccine management system used by the CCS will record trial participants as being vaccinated. All participants in trials who received a vaccine that will not be licensed, or received a placebo, have been advised that they will remain certified during a grace period to allow them to receive the standard vaccines, if the doctors in charge of the trials recommend that.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, I was contacted by a constituent whose teenage daughter has only had her first dose. Will you clarify what the period between the two doses is? My constituent is worried that they will be unable to go on holiday.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that. There is now revised guidance and the periods between vaccines has been shortened. It depends on what vaccine she got for her first dose. It has been reduced to six weeks and eight weeks depending on the vaccine. I have it in my notes somewhere. If I remember it during the rest of Question Time, I will respond to the Member. I will reply to her in writing about shortening the period between the vaccine doses. It is possible, but I do not encourage it because it upsets some of the systems that we have in place.
Mrs Dodds: We are really pleased that progress has been made in allowing people to travel and in providing them with the documentation to allow them to do so. Over the last number of months, there has been significant interest in investing in Northern Ireland. Has any progress been made in allowing investors into Northern Ireland in the way that our national Government have allowed exemptions for those who are considering making a significant investment in the country?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for raising the point; as Minister for the Economy, she raised it numerous times. We always review and revise the travel restrictions under the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. The Member will know that the graded and individual exemptions from quarantine or providing proof of vaccination are continually reviewed at UK level.
I think that the Member will acknowledge that, as we see vaccines being widely delivered across the world, the proof of vaccination and the certification that can be provided not only at Northern Ireland or UK level but at EU level will allow those individuals who come in to the country to prove vaccination certification to a standard that will allow them to access the country under the traffic light system for guidance on international travel.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. The vaccination programme continues at pace. I can confirm that uptake has been very strong across Lagan Valley. Information on the vaccine uptake and total doses by postcode is available on my Department's vaccination dashboard, which shows that in the nine postcodes in the Lagan Valley Assembly area, there were 142,755 first doses and 105,955 second doses. I am sure that the Member will join me in commending all those in the area who have already come forward and played their part in helping to protect themselves and those around them.
Aside from thanking all those involved in the vaccination programme for their dedication and ongoing commitment, our best way out of the pandemic is through vaccination. The vaccination programme has been designed to be agile and pragmatic in order to make it as easy as possible for people to be vaccinated. While the figures mentioned are impressive, we will strive to drive the uptake rates for first and second doses even higher.
Mr Catney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle —
Mr Butler: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his recognition of the sterling efforts of people right across Northern Ireland and, indeed, in my constituency on the level of vaccine uptake. I thank the Minister, his Department and the trust for the "Grab a jab" initiative at the weekend. Is it too early to ask the Minister for an update on how popular that has been? Will he join me in commending the South Eastern Trust for its "Grab a jab, get a poke" initiative whereby people were given a free ice cream with the jab this week?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that, but I have to raise a slight concern about his last comment. Where I come from, "Grabbing a poke" actually has a quite different meaning. [Laughter.]
While it translates well in some areas of this country, I am glad that the Member clarified that it was ice cream. I assure him and anyone who is going that that is all that is involved and that that is all that they will get with their vaccine. [Laughter.]
While terminology and language are always important in the House, I particularly want to clarify that point.
I thank the Member for highlighting the fact that we are seeing different approaches across trusts to encouraging people to come forward. The on-street and walk-in vaccine pop-up clinics that we saw over the weekend are targeting those people who have not availed themselves of the vaccination programme in more formal settings. I again acknowledge all those who have come forward, and I encourage those who have not had their vaccine or, in the South Eastern Trust, their ice cream to come forward.
Mr Catney: I am sorry for jumping in ahead of you there, Robbie, but it did not cost you any time. It was just a wee mistake.
I heard the great figures from Lagan Valley in your answer to Mr Butler, Minister. What messaging does your Department have to encourage further uptake of the vaccine, especially among young people?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for highlighting, as was referenced, the different avenues that we are taking and promoting to reach young people and to get the messaging right. It is about getting the vaccine, not just to protect yourself but to protect others. One of our concerns, especially with young people contracting COVID, is not the immediate effect but what is now established as long COVID. There is always the chance that anyone who contracts COVID may not end up in hospital or ICU now, and they may not transmit it immediately to a loved one, a work colleague or a family member, but they may not have planned for or considered the long-term effects. It is easier for people to come forward and take up the vaccines when they are available, and there is large-scale availability now from multiple sources across Northern Ireland. I thank the Member for encouraging people, especially those in younger age groups, to come forward and get the vaccine while it is available.
Mr Lyons: I welcome the high uptake of the vaccine in Lagan Valley. Does the Minister have particular concern about the uptake of the vaccine in certain geographical areas or about a potential urban/rural divide?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Our vaccine dashboard shows the geographical position across Northern Ireland, so you can see where there are concerns about low uptake. The Member will see that that is where we are concentrating some of our mobile testing facilities: Belfast city centre, Castlewellan and The Quays in Newry. In all areas where we have seen low uptake, we are doing that outreach programme. We have also expanded into various workplaces, including those of fishermen in Kilkeel and food-processing factories. In that way, we encourage anyone who is eligible, especially those at higher risk, to come forward and get the vaccine. We are trying to make that as easy as possible, and that is the idea of these walk-in clinics.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Iarraim ar Áine Murphy ceist a chur. I call Áine Murphy for a question. You are very welcome, and it is good that you are with us.
Ms Á Murphy: Go raibh maith agat. Minister, as a new MLA representing a largely rural constituency, I welcome the deployment of mobile COVID vaccination clinics at the weekend. When will we see these mobile COVID clinics being used to deliver vaccinations to dispersed rural communities and to harder-to-reach minority communities in Fermanagh and other parts of the North?
Mr Swann: First, I welcome the Member to her place, and I look forward to working with her over the remaining months of this mandate.
The Member asked what additional walk-in clinics will be available, specifically in the Western Trust area. Further mobile and pop-up clinics are planned in July, and walk-in first doses are available in Omagh from today and in the Foyle Arena from tomorrow. I encourage all those who are eligible and are not yet vaccinated to make use of those clinics to protect themselves. Every vaccination counts as we face a potential spike in infections, and, throughout the vaccination programme, the Western Trust has operated vaccination centres at three locations across the Western Trust — Londonderry, Omagh and Enniskillen — to ensure that that access covers all. I encourage the Member to speak to her constituents to make sure that they avail themselves of all the opportunities to get the vaccine.
Mr Lyttle: Given the importance of messaging to vaccination and the ongoing nature and risk of this infectious disease pandemic, why has the Executive's COVID-19 weekly press conference ceased?
Mr Swann: The First Minister and deputy First Minister headed up those bulletins, so the substantive response to that question should come from the Executive Office. My Department, through the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), still provides regular media briefings. Those are no longer in the format of podium briefings but in a fortnightly media-specific briefing at which the CMO and the CSA make themselves accessible to all media outlets on a range of subjects and questions. The Member is correct that joined-up messaging, especially coming into this crucial period as we fight the pandemic, is important. I have said from this place in the past that our all giving the same message is helpful, especially on vaccines. I am pleased that every party, not just in the Executive but across the House, has stressed the importance of vaccination and indicated that people should get not just their first dose but their second dose.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. It is accepted that the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and other restrictions have all had a negative impact on our population's mental well-being. The Health and Social Care Board has explored the evidence for the rising demand in mental health care and treatment and made a series of initial projections of how that would translate into the Northern Ireland context. It estimates that there will be up to 32% more new referrals to mental health services over the next three years. A key element of responding to that emerging mental health need has been the development of a new mental health strategy for 2021-2031, which I published on 29 June. It sets the future strategic direction for mental health in Northern Ireland for the next decade and takes full cognisance of the impact of the pandemic.
My Department and the Health and Social Care Board are working together on the development of a regional mental health surge and rebuild plan, which will outline the proposed approach to medium-term and longer-term planning for managing the surge and rebuild. That will work across the stepped care framework in line with the 10-year strategy, together with the key actions required over the next six to 12 months to manage increasing referral rates and to prepare for longer-term rebuild, reform and redesign. The work will be overseen by a mental health pandemic response group, which will be chaired by the Department and will comprise colleagues from the Health and Social Care Board, the Public Health Agency (PHA) and health and social care trusts. I thank the Member for attending this morning's launch of the £10 million mental health fund. It was good to see him there to acknowledge the importance of the fund.
Mr Harvey: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he believe that the development of crisis cafes, such as are available in Newry, are the way forward for providing easier access to mental health services?
Mr Swann: The Newry-based WELL-Bean cafe, which is run by PIPS Hope and Support in partnership with the Southern Trust, is a good example of that. To reduce mental and emotional distress, the cafe provides a clinical alternative to emergency departments . The pop-up-style cafe is based on a Leeds model and has been co-produced by those with lived experience and those working in the area of mental health promotion and suicide prevention in community, voluntary and statutory services.
The crisis cafes are not a replacement for existing services but a complement to them. By providing quick and easy access to early intervention and prevention, we can improve the outcomes for our population. My officials are considering the future of crisis services, and the crisis cafe in Newry is one of the positive examples of new initiatives that will inform the way forward in that important area.
Ms Flynn: I was unable to be in the Chamber last week, Minister, so I want to acknowledge the hugely significant announcement that you made about publishing the 10-year mental health strategy and funding plan. There are some detailed figures in them on different service developments that you hope to progress.
Can the Minister outline how he arrived at some of the costs? Was a needs analysis carried out to make sure that the demand is being met in the way in which he is breaking down those costs?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. As she will be aware, not only did we produce the mental health strategy but I produced a costed funding plan alongside it, because it is important to indicate to the House and to Executive colleagues that there is a commitment in my Department to driving forward the changes that we need to see made in the area of mental health.
The costings were done at quite a granular level in my Department to ensure that we were being realistic about any financial ask that we were going to have to make to prove the case not just to the Minister of Finance and his Department but to the Executive. That is why that work was undertaken and why both documents were produced at the same time.
Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. The recently published a 10-year mental health strategy makes clear that mental health is one of the Minister's top priorities, and I thank him for that. I especially welcome today's opening of the mental health support fund. What sort of impact does he expect it will have in supporting the essential contribution made by our community and voluntary sector organisations?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I was pleased to announce and launch this morning the £10 million mental health support fund. There were nearly 200 representatives of voluntary and community groups there. The fund is open to all charitable organisations that offer support services to people with mental ill health throughout Northern Ireland.
Groups are invited to submit proposals on key themes, all of which are linked to improving the mental health and emotional well-being of the population. The fund will equip and enable those charitable organisations to provide a wide range of support services for people with mental ill health and help to ensure that those who need to can continue to access mental health support services in the community.
To manage demand, applications will be staggered. Applications for large projects are being accepted immediately, and those for smaller projects will be accepted in September 2021. The fund is being managed by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, and is now accessible via the Community Foundation's website.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. First, it is important to state that Informing Choices Northern Ireland, formerly the Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland, receives substantial public funding from my Department and the Public Health Agency of approximately £137,000 each year to support the provision of free sexual health advice and counselling. That service includes phone- and web-based non-directive advice, counselling and literature on a range of issues for people who are often young, vulnerable or in crisis. That includes contraception, STIs and pregnancy choices, as well as sexual health and relationship education for people with learning disabilities. Last year, I awarded a further £15,000 grant to Informing Choices as part of an uplift to all core-funded bodies in recognition of the financial challenges faced by the voluntary and community sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I can confirm that my Department is considering a request for further funding from Informing Choices to support its decision to provide a central access point into the early medical abortion (EMA) services that trusts began to provide from April 2020 in line with their statutory responsibilities under law. That remains under consideration, and I have not received final advice on that yet. My officials are engaging with Informing Choices and carrying out the usual due diligence checks in relation to that request, as you would expect.
In light of the extreme funding pressures facing my Department at present, I have written to the Northern Ireland Office Minister of State, Robin Walker, to request additional funding to support those services because, as yet, the Westminster Government have not provided any additional funding to my Department since introducing the abortion regulations in March 2020. Last week, Minister Walker again confirmed that the funding support that I have requested will not be forthcoming.
Ms Bailey: I would like to declare an interest as a board member of Informing Choices NI. While the Minister may think that the funding it receives from his Department is substantial, I can assure him that it is not sufficient to cover the demand for the services that it offers.
Minister, this was being discussed last week on BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour'. At the end of the discussion, they read out a response that had been passed to it from your Department about the provision in the Western Health and Social Care Trust. The response stated that the services for EMA had been temporarily paused due to staffing resource issues since April 2021, and that your Department was monitoring ongoing efforts by the trust to roll out services.
Minister, given that your Department has not implemented, has not funded and has not established any services at all, what do you mean by "temporarily paused due to staffing resource issues"?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. She has raised this issue numerous times. I will refer her to the position that has been confirmed: this issue is cross-cutting and controversial and is not a decision for me and my Department to take but is actually one for the Executive to take.
At this point, it is not known how long services will be paused in the Western Trust. It is my understanding that efforts are ongoing to put additional staff in place as soon as possible to resume the provision of an EMA service with minimum disruption. My Department continues to monitor that situation. In the meantime, and in the event of a prolonged pause, it is likely that women residing in the Western Trust area will be referred to the central contact point, which remains available to women from Northern Ireland and is managed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Iarraim ar Colm Gildernew ceist a chur. I call Colm Gildernew for a question. Could you make it fairly brief, please? We are running out of time.
Mr Gildernew: Minister, you referred to the letter of 16 June that you wrote to the Health Committee, in which you advised that you were working to develop a service specification for commissioning. It has been 14 months since the abortion regulations were made. When will you complete that work, and when will that service be delivered?
Mr Swann: I refer the Member back to the point that my Department has resumed planning work to deliver a service-commissioning specification. That work will consider setting in place the most appropriate access arrangements for women seeking abortion. However, as I have stated previously, under the ministerial code, I am required to bring any matter that is significant or controversial, and is clearly outside the scope of the Programme for Government, to the Executive for consideration and agreement. It is not possible at present to provide a precise timescale for the introduction of a fully commissioned abortion service. However, it is estimated that the work will take approximately nine to 12 months to complete.
T1. Ms Flynn asked the Minister of Health whether he can confirm a reopening date for the Belfast mesh implant clinic, given that, on 14 June, in answers to questions from her in the Chamber about the pelvic and hernia mesh implant scandal and a reopening date for the Belfast mesh implant clinic, he stated that the Belfast Trust was considering a reopening date. (AQT 1511/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I am aware of the admirable efforts of Mesh Ireland to help mesh-injured women. In correspondence with that group, I addressed its comments and indicated that the issues that it raised reinforced similar issues that had been raised by representatives of another group that I had recently met. A further meeting on the issue was, therefore, not necessary. The focus should be on the rebuilding of health services. The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust mesh centre collaborated with the specialist centre in Bristol. The service resumed work on 17 June, with one clinic per week. That, unfortunately, is a reduced capacity due to COVID risk assessments and having to reduce footfall in Belfast City Hospital.
Ms Flynn: Thanks very much, Minister. I am glad to hear that, although it is at reduced capacity, it has started to operate again. I am conscious that, this week, we are one year on from the Julia Cumberlege report. I know that you will probably make an announcement on that soon. On the back of that report, will you confirm whether there are any plans locally to look at reimbursing patients who have to travel to access private healthcare to remove mesh implants fully and safely? I know that there was some progress over in Scotland recently. Do you have any update on that?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. She will be aware of the extent of the Cumberlege report. My officials continue to work to develop our response and are working with colleagues across the United Kingdom in that regard. The work of the group that I set up to consider the report and engage with UK colleagues has been progressing on a number of recommendations. As the Member said, I hope to be able to provide fuller detail shortly on the work of the group. Not all the recommendations are within my power, as Minister of Health, to take forward, as some reside with the Department of Health and Social Care in London, but we continue to engage with it in a Northern Ireland context.
T3. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Health, who will be well aware of the pressures that our health service faces annually over the autumn and winter periods, what plans his Department has to bolster front-line services, including, in particular, face-to-face GP access. (AQT 1513/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question, and I welcome him to the House, while acknowledging the unfortunate circumstances that have led him here.
GP services are working to make the best use of available resources for everyone who seeks to access the care that they need. GP practices are open and are providing face-to-face appointments and alternative consultation options for patients as appropriate. The general practice telephone-first consultation process allows patients to seek timely medical advice from their GP for routine and urgent problems. The GP determines the most appropriate approach to addressing a patient's needs safely, using their clinical expertise, and decides whether a patient can be managed over the telephone, should be signposted or directed to other appropriate services or if, based on the GP's assessment, a face-to-face appointment is appropriate.
It is important to be clear about the extent to which primary care was already facing considerable pressures, even before having to cope with the continuing pandemic situation. That is why we are investing in technology to support GP practices and in initiatives such as the multidisciplinary team programme and the introduction of advanced nurse practitioners and additional general practice nurses, which have already made a difference to the way in which primary care services are being delivered.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer and for his welcome. There has been some discussion around a booster jab across Northern Ireland. Will that third jab be offered to everyone in Northern Ireland, and what role does he envisage GPs having in administering it? Will they have a central role, rather than the regional centres? Will the offer of a booster be determined by age or vulnerability?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for those very pertinent questions about boosters and where they will be delivered. At the moment, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has made an initial determination that boosters will be necessary for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and in the older age groups. The JCVI is still assessing the need for that, but we are preparing for it, should it be necessary, if it decides that that is the best way to go. As the Member will be aware, we always follow JCVI advice and guidance. We have assessed the situation here, and we believe that GP services will be the best place to deliver the booster programme. At the moment, we are also considering an option, as yet unconfirmed, to run COVID boosters in conjunction with the flu jab because of the large crossover in the cohort of people who are eligible for a flu jab and have been recommended to take a COVID booster.
T4. Dr Archibald asked the Minister of Health for an update on gall bladder surgery waiting times and to state how they will be addressed in the elective care framework. (AQT 1514/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. I do not have current figures for gall bladder surgery waiting times in front of me. I am sure that the Member will understand that, but she will be aware that, when we published the elective care framework, it set out a five-year plan with firm, time-bound proposals for systematically tackling the backlog of patients who are waiting longer than the ministerial standard and how we invest in and transform services in order to allow us to meet population demand in future.
Our current system of one-year Budget cycles contributes to the inefficiency in the system, as it does not allow us to plan services properly. The framework takes a multi-year funding approach to tackling the backlog of patients who are waiting longer than the ministerial standard. As the Member is aware, I have asked the Executive for £707·5 million of additional investment to be made available over a five-year period in order to implement the framework, and that will reduce the backlog of patients and build HSC capacity to meet annual demand for services. Subject to that funding commitment, the Department made it clear that, by March 2026, no one should wait more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment or inpatient day-case treatment or 26 weeks for a diagnostic appointment and that, by March 2026, we will have eradicated the gap between demand and capacity for elective care.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his response. I recently received correspondence from the Western Trust stating that the waiting time for gall bladder removal surgery is more than six years. I was really taken aback by that; it is a very long time for someone to wait in pain. That can have a devastating impact on people who are facing lengthy waits for an appointment or surgery. How will the Department or the trust record or monitor the impacts associated with such lengthy delays on individual patients?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her supplementary. I assure her that I receive many such contacts daily from constituents, as do my Department and other elected representatives in the House. We published the elective care framework because people are waiting for such extended periods.
Today, we celebrate not just the birthday of the National Health Service but the recognition of Her Majesty The Queen in awarding the George Cross to our health and social care system. In Northern Ireland, we have acknowledged the length of our waiting lists and how underfunding over the past 10 years has challenged the key precept of the National Health Service, which is that it is free at the point of delivery, free at the point of use and free at the point of need. That concept was used not only by Nye Bevan in creating the National Health Service but by my party colleague and former Health Minister, William Grant, the MP for Duncairn in Belfast, when he brought forward the Health Services Bill in this place on 10 July 1947.
T5. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Health, after congratulating the health service, which is a literal lifesaver in the work that it does, for the well-deserved award that it has been given, whether he can give an update on the review that he agreed to following previous questions from her about increasing the provision of day care and respite centres. (AQT 1515/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question and would have been surprised had she not raised the issue. I committed to asking the Public Health Agency to assess where those centres are with social distancing and face coverings and whether testing can make a difference to how many people we can have in each centre. That assessment has not yet been completed. As soon as it is sent to the Health and Social Care Board or my Department, I will take action on its recommendations. As the Member highlighted, as we have debated here and as we all recognise, the additional service that respite centres provide, even if it is day care, is priceless to carers.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for his commitment to taking on the issue. It is a very important issue for me and for many across Northern Ireland. Indeed, just before I came into the Chamber, I saw an email that Action for Children has sent to all MLAs to provide an update on young carers. Having just left school for the year, they face a summer without respite or day centre support. What support will you ask the trusts to provide to young carers so that they do not become further exhausted before going back to school in September?
Mr Swann: The Member raises the issue of a very special cohort of carers who often go unrecognised and unacknowledged, especially those who balance a caring responsibility, whether it is for a parent or sibling, while undertaking their own educational challenges. She will be aware of the £4 million investment that we made in carers' organisations so that they could submit bids and proposals for how they would support specific groups of carers. The early indication is that there are a number of bids and applications from organisations that will look specifically at supporting young carers. Until those applications have been accepted and assessed and the nominations have been announced, I am not in a position to provide any further update, but I will keep the Member up to date.
T7. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Health, after apologising in advance if the question has already been answered but pointing out that she cannot hear very well from her location in the Chamber, to state the advice that he has for someone who wishes to travel on 20 July and who will need proof of vaccination, given that, on 2 July, his Department issued a press release that stated that an interim proof of vaccine scheme for foreign travel will be available up to and including 19 July. (AQT 1517/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. If she wants, she can check Hansard. It was the first question asked of me, although her specific issue was not covered. The interim service that we provide via a paper-based system through the Health and Social Care Board will be effective up until 20 July. It is our hope and intention that, with everything going well, as it currently is, the UK-wide certification programme will be up and running by 20 July, and it will take into consideration the worst-case scenario, which is that it will take 10 days for a certificate to be delivered. We are standing down our internal, Northern Ireland-specific process because the UK process is to be up and running by that date. We will keep that under constant review, however. We had received 4,500 applications for our internal service up until 1.00 pm today. We are assessing them in the order of the closest date of travel. Those applications are being prioritised.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Time is now up. Members should take their ease while we move to the next item of business, which is a question for urgent oral answer.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Ms Linda Dillon has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Justice. 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.
Ms Dillon asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the impact on public confidence in the administration of justice as a result of the decision not to prosecute British soldiers involved in the killings of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty and two of the 14 men killed by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday, William McKinney and Jim Wray.
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask for some latitude in the length of time allowed for me to deliver my answer, given the sensitivity and complexity of the issues.
First, I say to the families of Daniel Hegarty, William McKinney and Jim Wray that I understand and empathise with the hurt and distress that the news that, for legal reasons, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has determined that prosecution is not possible in those cases will have caused.
It is clear that they, and other families who have lost loved ones, are left with an enduring loss and grief. That grief weighs heavily with the surviving family members. They have campaigned unstintingly, for many years and despite many setbacks, to receive both truth and justice for their loved ones, so this decision will undoubtedly have been incredibly painful.
I also understand the wider impact that the cases have in the community, especially for other bereaved families for whom the events surrounding the loss of their loved ones are unresolved and in a context in which there appears to be an absence of political will to deal with outstanding legacy issues in an open and transparent way that ensures that both truth and justice prevail.
As Minister of Justice, I have to, and do, respect the independence of the Public Prosecution Service. The PPS decision may be open to challenge in the courts, so it would be inappropriate for me to be drawn into discourse on the specific decision taken beyond that already set out in the report by the PPS itself. I welcome, however, the fact that the Director of Public Prosecutions was explicit in saying that this development:
"does not undermine previous findings that those killed and injured in these tragic incidents were entirely innocent",
and I trust that the families can draw some comfort from that.
I consider that the transparency of the Public Prosecution Service's statement, setting out the basis for its decision, should assist the public in understanding the difficulties posed by elements of the ruling of Mr Justice O'Hara on 30 April 2021 in the case of R v Soldier A and Soldier C, and its impact on the cases in question.
The judge described the procedure under which the Royal Military Police statements were taken as:
"designed in part to protect soldiers from being questioned by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and, ultimately, from being prosecuted."
The judge found that the interview procedures conducted by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) also breached the code of practice governing the conduct of investigative interviews.
I continue to have faith in the good judgement of the public and their strong sense that those who serve the public, whatever their occupation or responsibilities, must be accountable for their actions in law. As the Justice Minister, I respect the decisions of independent organisations such as the PPS and the fact that we are all required to work within the due process of law. It is important that factors such as the admissibility of evidence and the ability to conduct a fair trial are given due weight.
On Sunday, I said publicly that there was no necessary read-across between these cases subject to the PPS decision and other legacy cases. My views are not dissimilar to those expressed by Judge O'Hara in condemning the 1970 arrangements for interviewing army personnel. However, I believe that public confidence is more likely to be affected by the change of approach to outstanding Troubles-related investigations announced by the NIO last year and again this month. My concerns regarding the proposed movement of legacy from a justice resolution approach based on the Stormont House Agreement to a somewhat nebulous truth recovery and reconciliation model are well known. I continue to stress and emphasise to the Secretary of State and the Westminster Government, at every opportunity presented, the importance of sharing the detail of the Government's proposals and, in particular, the need to provide a robust and comprehensive mechanism to adequately resource the justice system in Northern Ireland to discharge the legacy pressures that it has to address.
I recognise that the passage of time means that, realistically, relatively few legacy cases can result in a successful prosecution. However, that does not mean that we should not deploy the full vigour of the law to investigate and, where possible, prosecute cases where the law has been broken. Not to do so would be much more damaging to public confidence in the administration of justice and the rule of law.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for her answer so far. She has partially answered my supplementary question, but I would like to have on the record her unequivocal support for the families. It is devastating not only for the families involved but for the many families who have lost loves ones and who are awaiting legacy inquests and judgements.
Will the Minister put on record her opposition to any attempt by the British Government to introduce an amnesty or statute of limitations for British state forces? Will she also resist any attempts to interfere with due legal process in respect of legacy inquests, judicial reviews, civil cases or prosecution cases involving British soldiers already before the courts, as they would undermine confidence in the justice system?
Mrs Long: The Member will be aware that my party and others in the House signed up to the Stormont House Agreement. That should have been progressed, and it has taken too long to get to this point. We, like other parties, have been asked to engage in a process with two Governments — the British and Irish Governments — to look again at legacy. The scope of that process is unclear, at best. We are not clear whether it is a super-consultation involving the parties about the Governments' proposals or is meant to be some kind of negotiation. For the time being, we seek clarity on that from the Governments, and our participation in those engagements remains highly qualified.
I move now to the substantive issue about the rule of law. The rule of law should apply to not only those who were serving soldiers here but all of those involved in legacy cases. Many families have lost loved ones in this place, and many families continue to suffer. All deserve justice and truth. I appeal not only to those who are charged with delivering justice and truth through the Governments to bear that in mind and to bear in mind the impact that any changes to that process through an amnesty or statute of limitations may have on people's confidence in the modern justice system but to those who were responsible for those acts. I call on them to assist those families in finding justice and truth, because there is a lot of healing that still needs to be done in this community, and we are a long way from a process that will deliver that.
Mr Storey: Does the Minister stand over pursuing cases in the absence of admissible evidence and that, clearly, would not stand up in a court? Does the Minister believe that the criminal justice system can be considered a neutral arbiter when it comes to dealing with legacy issues? Will the Minister comment on why it took so long for our PPS to come to its conclusion on the basis that there was no admissible evidence?
Mrs Long: The Member has raised a number of issues. First, I believe that the justice system is capable of acting impartially; in fact, because of its impartiality, it is one of the few institutions in our society that has the broad respect of the vast majority of people in this community.
On the complexity of the decisions, Judge O'Hara's decisions on Soldiers A and C clearly had read-across to a certain number of cases. However, in order for the PPS to determine the impact on the legacy cases before it, it had to look at each case on its merits. It is right that the PPS should take whatever time is required, including the work that it did with senior counsel, to reach its conclusions. As I have said, the decisions may be appealed within the PPS appeal system or via a judicial review in due course, so it would be inappropriate for me to speculate.
I will not criticise the Public Prosecution Service for doing its job diligently and thoroughly, given the importance of the issues at stake. In these cases, it is more important that the PPS reaches the correct decision rather than a quick decision. However, that does not in any way take away from the pain that the families will feel at the news that they have received, as would any family receiving devastating news in such circumstances.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We, along with the Derry public, have stood alongside the Bloody Sunday families, the family of Daniel Hegarty and the families of too many victims in their long campaigns for truth and justice. That justice has been denied, but they will not give up and nor will we.
Does the Minister think that the soldiers responsible for the murders of Daniel Hegarty, William McKinney and Jim Wray should be prosecuted? Does she fear that this decision could now bar the prosecution of any army personnel for atrocities that they committed on our streets pre 1974?
Mrs Long: With respect, the Member is asking me to second-guess the work of the Public Prosecution Service and its senior counsel. It would be entirely inappropriate for me, as Justice Minister, to state here whether I think that soldiers should be prosecuted. The PPS, with its senior counsel, has reached a decision that there is not enough admissible evidence to base a prosecution on. Unless anyone here finds themselves to have a greater legal mind than those in the PPS office, it would be risky for us to go down the route of second-guessing their decisions. I certainly will not do that.
I understand entirely the distress and the concerns of the families. However, as I said in my original statement, there has to be due process. Unfortunately, in these cases, due process has led to justice not being possible in the courts due to the inadmissibility of evidence. If that decision is subsequently overturned, either at an internal review of the PPS or as the result of a judicial review, the outcome could change. However, given that it is based on the ruling of a judge, which is not open to challenge simply because you disagree with the opinion but is open to challenge at appeal only if the judge's decision is not logical or is fundamentally legally flawed, neither of which holds in this case, it is unlikely, at this stage, that change will happen. Members will, of course, respect that the families reserve their right to appeal.
I have been clear that there is not necessarily read-across to all other cases; in fact, there are other cases in the system that have been assessed by the Public Prosecution Service and, at this stage, are not affected by the ruling.
It specifically affects the cases in which the Royal Military Police required a compelled statement from those whose weapons were discharged. It was not given under caution and, for that reason, was inadmissible. Unfortunately, the subsequent interviews by the Historical Enquiries Team also did not follow best practice. Those statements were, therefore, also rendered inadmissible in that they were so tainted by the original statement and the subsequent statement that they could not be admitted. That is not the case in all legacy cases, and it would be dangerous to read the judgement in those cases across to judgements in other cases.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you for coming to the Chamber today, Minister. I also put on record my deep-felt sympathies to the families. I very much appreciate the distress that Friday's decision has caused.
What do you think needs to happen, going forward, to improve confidence in our judicial system's handling of legacy cases?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for her question. As I said, I am extremely concerned that we do not have a comprehensive process to deal with legacy cases going forward. At the moment, there is a series of strands, including the work of the legacy inquest branch, the inquest system, the legacy investigation branch (LIB) and the Police Ombudsman cases. We now need to engage with the UK Government to ascertain their plan going forward. Up until 'New Decade, New Approach" (NDNA), we were all under the impression that the proposals in the Stormont House Agreement would be taken forward; indeed, part of the NDNA agreement is that those would be taken forward by the UK Government. Now that they have resiled from that and are seeking a different model, we will engage with them in a constructive way. In terms of the impact on the justice system, we remain of the view that, where there is admissible evidence and where a court could reach a finding, any attempt to prevent people from seeking justice in the courts would be wholly wrong and would undermine the modern-day justice system.
There are legacy artefacts relating to how these cases were processed and handled and how the investigation was completed at the time. Those reflect on the system as it was then. If we deny people the right to pursue justice in the here and now, that will have an impact on respect for the justice system now, which will have major consequences.
Mr Allister: Whatever hurt may be felt by families, are there not three immutable principles here: first, that only admissible evidence is permissible; secondly, that the same rule applies to all, irrespective of who they are; and, thirdly, that statements made without caution are, for the very best of reasons, inadmissible? Since all of that has always been clear, the bigger question is about how those cases got as far as they did in the absence of sufficient evidence. How did the PPS ever think that there was sufficient admissible evidence?
Mrs Long: I concur with the three points that the Member raised. I set that out clearly in my statement. I disagree, however, with his final conclusion. Until the ruling of Mr Justice O'Hara in April with respect to the admissibility of interviews conducted by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team in 2010, statements prepared by soldiers in advance of those interviews and statements made by soldiers to the Royal Military Police in 1972, it was not clear whether any or all of that information would be admissible in court. That was an arguable point of law. While the Public Prosecution Service always accepted that the denial of legal rights and safeguards when taking the original statements in 1972 would normally render them inadmissible, it considered the HET interviews, which were voluntary and conducted under caution and with the benefit of legal advice, to be admissible. It considered that the adoption of the 1972 statements in those interviews rendered the 1972 statements admissible in themselves. Those arguments, however, were rejected by Mr Justice O'Hara in the prosecution of Soldier A and Soldier C. It is important, therefore, that we allow the court to have that argument, to scrutinise the argument on both sides, to reach its conclusion and then to apply that case law fairly and without fear or favour across the remaining cases in the system. That does not necessarily read across all cases and prosecutions. However, unfortunately for the bereaved families, it affects the cases of Soldier F and Soldier B. Therefore, prosecutions will not be able to proceed in those cases. It is right that, having made that judgement, the Public Prosecution Service took the time to review all the cases and to decide whether to proceed. It would have been wholly wrong to go back to court with evidence that had already, in effect, been judged inadmissible by the judge in a previous case.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for submitting the question, and I thank the Minister for her solidarity with the Bloody Sunday families. Does the Minister agree that in no other case would we have a situation where somebody who has admitted to a serious crime — the cold-blooded killing of civilians, no less — which Soldier F has done, would, effectively, get away without a prosecution case proceeding against them? Does she also agree that that awful decision shows how inaccurate the claims are of a two-tier justice system stacked against soldiers and state forces?
Mrs Long: I do not concur with either of the Member's assertions. First, I do not agree that that is evidence of a two-tier justice system. Whilst I recognise the pain that it will cause to the families, it is about applying justice in a fair, impartial and balanced way. Unfortunately, the Member is also wrong to say that there would never be a case where someone would make such an admission and not face prosecution. The previous Member to speak made the point that any admission of guilt or statement of fact must be made under caution. I am sure that the Member would be appalled if any citizen were to be pulled in by police, not told of their legal rights, not entitled to any legal counsel at the time and told that they were compelled to make a statement that would then be used against them in a prosecution. Those safeguards are there for a reason: to ensure that, when somebody speaks to an incident that happened and the evidence is largely self-incriminatory, the individual is fully aware of what they are saying and its import. While those checks and balances cause huge frustration, they are part of the justice system and have been for generations. They are there in to protect the rule of law and the ordinary citizen.
It is, of course, frustrating. I do not disagree with the Member that, when people made those statements, they incriminated themselves and that we are now in a situation where those prosecutions cannot proceed. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Running a coach and horses through the justice system would not make it more effective; it would undermine basic principles of public protection for the ordinary citizen. I am sure that the Member would not wish that at all.
Mrs Dodds: There is no doubt that violence in Northern Ireland has left a terrible legacy of tears. I want to focus my remarks and my question on the issues that the Minister has raised about the legacy process. I welcome her assertion that the process should be transparent and justice-based. However, many of us in Northern Ireland have listened over the past weeks to the Irish Republic's Foreign Minister pontificate and lecture us on the issue of legacy while there are many cases that concern his Government, including, in particular, allegations of collusion between Garda officers and the Provisional IRA in the case of prominent members of the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take action to ensure that the victims in those cases have a right to redress, to the truth and to justice?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Minister will be aware that the original question focused on recent announcements. It is at the Minister's discretion whether she chooses to answer a question of such breadth.
Mrs Long: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am happy to give a brief answer. The Member will recognise that the investigation of legacy cases is not in my remit. It is not in my remit to prosecute cases; that is a matter for the independent prosecution service.
It is not within my remit to judge on cases. That is a matter for the independent judiciary. It would be wrong for there to be political interference in that system.
It is right that any system for dealing with legacy needs to be comprehensive. It needs to take account of the needs of all victims and put them at the centre and it needs to be open, transparent and accountable. Although I agree with what the Member asks for, it is important that we take the opportunity, as Members of the House and of the various parties in the Executive, to engage with both Governments about their responsibilities in that regard. We must, however, also engage with those other members of our community who may hold information on legacy cases, who may know who pulled the trigger that led to people losing their life and who may know where bodies are buried, about which families are distressed. It is incumbent on all of us to try to extract that information so that families can get truth, if not justice, in all cases, because the prosecutorial threshold for cases of that age is extremely difficult to meet. I have always been honest with people in saying that, at this remove, a successful prosecution will be possible for only a small number of cases. In principle, however, due process must be allowed to be followed, because interference with that has much more serious consequences.
Ms Anderson: Minister, despite a British Prime Minister eventually acknowledging to the Bloody Sunday families that what happened on the streets of Derry in 1972 was "unjustified and unjustifiable", do you understand that, for the Bloody Sunday families, for Daniel Hegarty's family and for the people of Derry and beyond, the news that they received on Friday was a bad day for justice? Do you understand that it spoke to a widely held view among many who have been trying to fight for justice and truth about British state violence that British troops have acted with impunity? I acknowledge what you said about the Bloody Sunday families. Throughout this, they have acted with courage, resilience and dignity, and they will continue to do so. Their fight for justice and truth is not over —
Mrs Long: I was in Parliament when the then Prime Minister made his statement, and it was an important statement to make, in that it acknowledged that what happened was "unjustified and unjustifiable". Nothing in this decision changes that. Nothing in this decision changes that. It is a point of law. I understand that it may feed the concerns and fears of those who feel that, over many years, their path to justice and truth has been frustrated. I completely acknowledge the fact that people feel that way. Nevertheless, it is a point of law that could not be ignored.
It is incumbent on all of us, as elected representatives, to be circumspect about amplifying concerns on such issues and instead try to provide the necessary reassurance. I have no doubt that the Public Prosecution Service looked at the cases incredibly carefully. Had there been a point of law on which those cases could have been pursued, and had the prosecutorial threshold been met, the PPS would have pursued them. In the cases of Soldiers A and C, it went to court to fight for the admissibility of the evidence. The PPS cannot, however, continue to use evidence that has already been ruled inadmissible by a judge to pursue cases of that ilk. There was therefore no alternative decision that it could have reached in those cases. It spoke directly to the families, recognising the pain that it would cause. I think that it did so in a manner that was respectful and sympathetic to them. I hope that Members in the Chamber will be careful about using language around "two-tiered justice" or "obstruction of justice". This is a clear case of the PPS having to take significant legal caution in the admissibility of evidence. However hard it may be to reconcile, it is for the protection of us all that statements that are compelled, not taken under caution or taken without access to a legal adviser should be inadmissible in a court of law. If they were allowed, any of us could find ourselves in a situation in which we were prosecuted unjustly.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and her answers thus far. Minister, it is important to recognise and applaud the dignity, courage, strength and forbearance of the families in light of the PPS decision and over so many years. However, they do not need applause or recognition; they need truth and justice.
Given the pain and trauma that victims and survivors have suffered and are suffering, does the Justice Minister believe that an amnesty can form the foundations on which reconciliation can be built? Victims, survivors and their families do not believe so.
Mrs Long: I do not believe so either. Denying families who may be able to see a prosecution the opportunity to access redress in the courts will only compound their hurt and grievance. In this case, it was a point of law that stood between the families and justice in the courts. Whilst that is painful, I have been honest at all times that there was always a risk that, given the remove from the circumstances, those cases would be difficult to prosecute. However, that is an entirely different scenario to one in which we would intervene to prevent cases that could go before the courts with admissible evidence from doing so.
There has been much debate over many years, from before 1998 and to the current day, about the use of an amnesty. There is a huge pain at the heart of our society, and an amnesty will not deliver any kind of solution to that problem. I also have to be clear that the criminal justice system cannot resolve all those issues, and that was demonstrated by those decisions and the inadmissibility of the evidence. We need to find a way to allow families to recover truth where it can be recovered, to reconcile as a community where that is possible and to pursue justice unimpeded where it can be found.
Mr Chambers: On the general issue of amnesty, does the Minister agree with me that it is reprehensible for any Government to provide letters of comfort to dozens of individuals that guaranteed them that they would never face prosecution for terrorist crimes that they may have committed? Does she also agree that no one should ever be considered above the due process of the law?
Mrs Long: I agree with the Member. As an MP, I am on record as being opposed to the on-the-run (OTR) letters when the House of Commons held an inquiry into that matter. I am glad that, on the advice of the then Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, Theresa Villiers effectively rescinded those OTR letters on the Floor of the House of Commons in 2014 or 2015.
Whether they are in a uniform, in a paramilitary organisation or acting in any other capacity, no one should be above the law, and any intent to make people above the law is wrong. It is a corruption of justice, and it should not happen. As Justice Minister, my sole concern has been to protect the integrity of the justice system in the here and now. We cannot fix how those things unfolded in the past, but we can ensure that the justice system and its integrity is not damaged going forward. That would be a high price to pay in order to avoid confronting the horrible and violent past that we lived through in this place.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Justice Minister for continually acknowledging the pain and trauma experienced by the Bloody Sunday families and, indeed, all victims of unjustified violence in Northern Ireland and for responding to the decision with the leadership that was demanded. Does she agree that an urgent need remains to implement a properly funded, comprehensive process for dealing with the past, a framework for which has been well established by the work of victims, Eames/Bradley, the Haass/O'Sullivan talks and the Stormont House Agreement, and in the absence of which, trauma will continue to affect people across Northern Ireland for generations?
Mrs Long: I completely concur. I can only imagine how traumatising it is for victims to hear again that there are going to be talks about legacy. How many times have we sat in rooms and discussed these issues, talking about a comprehensive process and the need for access to truth and justice and for practical support to help those victims who still suffer today? Yet, we continue to talk instead of act.
It is time for this society to confront its legacy and the violence of the past and to do so in an open, transparent and accountable way, with the sole purpose of trying to bring some peace to the victims and some form of reconciliation and peace to our community. If we fail to take the opportunity in this generation, it will leave a long legacy for the next generation to deal with.
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I beg to introduce the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill [NIA 29/17-22], which is a bill to make provision about and in connection with sexual offences; regulate particular matters relating to cases of trafficking or exploitation; and amend rules applying with respect to certain sexual or violent offences prevention orders.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I beg to introduce the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill [NIA30/17-22], which is a bill to amend the Human Tissue Act 2004 concerning consent to activities done for the purpose of transplantation and make consequential amendments about the provision of information about such consent.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments, amendment Nos 1 to 4, which deal with remote meetings and technical amendments. We will debate the amendments in that group. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments will be moved formally. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 4. I call the Minister for Communities, Ms Deirdre Hargey, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.
After clause 1 insert -
"Meetings: power to make provision about remote meetings
2.—(1) The Department for Communities may by regulations make provision for the purpose of or in connection with ensuring that district council meetings may be held remotely.
(2) Regulations under this section may include provision as to—
(a) how district council meetings held remotely may be facilitated,
(b) how persons may attend, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate in such meetings when held remotely.
(3) Regulations under this section may include provision for standing orders of district councils to—
(a) specify the basis or process for considering whether (including who is to assess or decide whether) district council meetings should or are to be held remotely,
(b) govern the arrangements for and conduct of such meetings whenever such meetings are to be held remotely,
(i) the public’s access to such meetings,
(ii) the availability to the public of documents pertaining to such meetings, whenever such meetings are to be held remotely.
(4) Regulations under this section may—
(a) disapply or modify statutory provisions (as construed in accordance with section 1(f) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954),
(b) contain supplementary, incidental, consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provision.
(5) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Assembly.
(6) For the purpose of this section, meetings are held remotely if they are held without all of the persons attending them, or without any of those persons, being together in the same place.
(7) In this section, the references to district council meetings are to meetings of—
(a) district councils,
(b) executives of such councils (as provided for in Part 6 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014),
(c) joint committees of two or more such councils,
(d) committees or sub-committees of such councils, executives or joint committees.
(8) This section is without prejudice to section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (but see sections 88 to 90 of that Act)."
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In clause 3, page 2, line 10, leave out from "made" to "question" on line 11. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
No 3: In clause 3, page 2, line 12, leave out "the financial year in question" and insert "financial year 2021/22". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
No 4: In clause 3, page 2, line 19, leave out subsection (5) and insert -
"(5) The references in this section to financial year 2021/22 are to the financial year ending on 31st March 2022." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Ms Hargey: Amendment No 1 proposes a new clause as a replacement for clause 2, which was opposed at Consideration Stage. I listened to Members' concerns about clause 2 as introduced, including concerns about the level of Assembly scrutiny and that subordinate legislation made under the clause would be subject to concerns that it would enable changes to be made to wider provisions on council meetings, as set out in the Local Government Act 2014 and concerns that it would enable changes to be made to voting rights, speaking rights and participation rights. The intention behind clause 2 had been to create an enabling power to allow provisions for remote meetings to be further extended or even made permanent by means of subordinate legislation should that be considered necessary or desirable after the regulations being extended by clause 1 end, which is currently scheduled for March 2022.
As I explained at Consideration Stage, the intention was not to provide the Department with a means to restrict the rights of councils; rather, it was to provide flexibility for councils to enable them to hold meetings remotely or by hybrid means and to make provision on how legislation governing council meetings should apply in the context and to facilitate meetings held remotely or by hybrid means. During Consideration Stage, I indicated that, while I would oppose clause 2 due to Members' concerns, I intended to table an amendment at Further Consideration Stage to replace clause 2 and to deal with any unintended consequences of its removal.
The proposed new clause would allow my Department, by subordinate legislation, to further extend the ability of councils to hold remote or hybrid meetings should that be necessary because of the continuing issues with coronavirus post March 2022, when the Coronavirus Act expires, or sooner, should the Act be suspended earlier than that. It would also allow my Department to provide councils, on a more permanent basis, with flexibility to hold hybrid or remote meetings, should that be considered desirable at some point in the future. Of course, our intention will be to engage fully with councils on any proposals to extend the remote meeting provisions and to gather evidence from councils of their experience over the past year of holding remote or hybrid meetings.
I will now set out how I propose that the new clause differs from the previous clause 2. The new clause focuses on particulars around providing councils with the ability to hold remote meetings. It also clarifies that any regulations made under it would be for the purposes of facilitating remote or hybrid meetings and not to permit the Department to make more general amendments to the provisions on meetings in the Local Government Act 2014, which has never been the intention. The level of Assembly scrutiny for any regulations made under the clause has been changed to draft affirmative rather than negative procedure, so regulations could not be made unless laid in draft and approved by the Assembly. If the new clause is not approved today, it will mean that the Department will have no means of further extending the provisions on remote meetings beyond March 2022 other than by moving further primary legislation. It would mean councils not having cover to hold meetings by remote or hybrid means after 25 March 2022 or, if the Coronavirus Act were scheduled to expire, at an earlier date. A further Bill would need to be introduced and to proceed via accelerated passage. However, with Assembly elections due next year and given the current number of Bills in the legislative programme, it may not be possible for a second Bill to be progressed during the current mandate. That could leave a further gap in cover for remote meetings after the Coronavirus Act expires or is suspended, should they still be considered necessary because of any further upsurge in COVID-19. Also, it seems from Members' comments during earlier debates on the Bill that there would be some support for providing continued flexibility to local government for post-pandemic remote or hybrid working.
There is no doubt that the ability to hold remote meetings has been a beneficial tool for a number of reasons. As mentioned during previous debates, it has provided flexibility for council members with young families, for those with caring responsibilities, for those with illnesses or disabilities and for those who live in rural areas and normally have to travel long distances to attend meetings. It also allows councillors to fully engage and participate whatever their circumstances.
The new clause provides a means for us to extend the remote meetings provisions by regulations that, under the draft affirmative procedure, will be subject to robust Assembly scrutiny. I urge Members to support the new clause.
I turn to amendment Nos 2, 3 and 4. At Consideration Stage, Members agreed that clause 5(2) should be omitted. Amendment Nos 2, 3 and 4 make minor amendments to what is now clause 3, which are required as a consequence of the removal of clause 5(2). They tidy up the clause by removing any remaining references to the 2022-23 year and to the clause applying for more than one financial year.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for tabling the amendments. It will come as no surprise that I am still a bit concerned about any changes that we might make that affect councils. The Minister said that, if any such changes were to be considered necessary, they would be made by way of regulation and the Committee will have a chance to look at them.
Many councillors have caring responsibilities, whether for children, older parents or other family members, and I fully understand how, whatever the situation might be in the future, continued remote access would help them in many ways. As I said, I am not overly happy about it, but I will not push it to a vote. I know that the other Members who are in the Chamber would not support me — maybe one would.
I want to make a point about the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE). Over the weekend, I bumped into a chief executive, and they told me that they were unaware of what we were doing in the Chamber. I have since heard from SOLACE that it was not formally asked for an opinion on the regulations. NILGA has not got back to me to let me know whether it was consulted or asked for a formal opinion. I find it pretty hard to take that neither organisation — both have so much invested in this Local Government Bill, and it will affect them — were not asked for a formal opinion. I am not overly happy, albeit I understand why it has to be done, and I am glad to see that the matter is to come back to us via regulations, which is much easier for us to manage.
I am perfectly happy with amendment Nos 2, 3 and 4. I know that they are technical and need to be made because of the action that we took last week on clause 5. As I said, I am not fully supportive of amendment No 1, but I do not intend to push it to a vote.
Mr McCann: I will be brief, because everything that needed to be said has been said. However, I am concerned by what Paula said about the two organisations.
I would have thought that such organisations, which play a vital role in local government, would have been able to tap into the consultation on the Bill, because it has been debated widely not only at Committee but in the Chamber.
I appreciate the chance to speak to the Bill as a member of the Communities Committee and as Sinn Féin's local government spokesperson. As I said previously, this is important legislation that will allow our councillors to meet remotely and that will give them the space and time to meet improvement targets in what has been a very trying and difficult year for everyone in society.
Our local government sector has been a vital resource for our communities. We all know the pivotal role that it plays in service delivery to all our constituents. That is why it was appropriate that the Bill was approved for accelerated passage. I commend the Minister and her officials for the work that they have done to get the Bill ready for presentation. [Interruption.]
I am glad that the issues identified in it have been worked out between the Minister and Committee members. I know how anxious we all are to get the Bill over the line. [Interruption.]
I put on the record my thanks to the Minister for her diligence, for her readiness to work with the Committee and for striking the right balance in the clauses. I assure her that the Bill has my full support.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. If you hear barking, it is not coming from me. [Laughter.]
I thank the Minister for having open ears and listening to the Committee's concerns in previous debates and for tabling a new clause.
We did ask for clarification. Although the Committee did not have to have representation at it, officials did come along. I thank Julie Broadway and Anthony Carleton for their time spent taking us through the amendments that are before the House.
Proposed new clause 2(2) states:
"Regulations under this section may include provision as to—
(a) how district council meetings held remotely may be facilitated,
(b) how persons may attend, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate in such meetings when held remotely."
I am delighted to see that, because a number of council colleagues from various parties, including my own, have been concerned that their voice has been hampered as a result of using remote access in this recent period. Some have been denied the ability to vote when participating remotely, while some have been placed on mute and silenced. They are not allowed to raise points of order, for instance.
The officials kindly confirmed for me that this legislation means that that will no longer be the case. Every one of our council colleagues will have the same level of access to speak and vote in their council chamber. That means that no chief executive, mayor or chairperson can deny our council colleagues their democratic right. It is good, right and proper that we should put that in Hansard so that they can read that for themselves.
I am delighted by proposed new clause 2(5), which states:
"Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Assembly."
That means that, where there are concerns about them, those regulations will have to come before the House. We can then scrutinise and have input into the regulations, and I welcome that.
I will not say too much more other than to thank the Minister for the Bill. Our councils need remote access continued as soon as possible. Given that this is Further Consideration Stage and that tomorrow we are doing Final Stage, I ask the Minister when she hopes that the Bill will be given Royal Assent so that our councils can continue without there being any further delay to their remote access.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for bringing back the Bill and for the manner in which she has brought it back. I thank her staff for their work on the Bill and in particular for their diligence in making changes to it. It is good that the Minister was indeed listening.
I will pick up on a point made by the Member for Strangford about hybrid meetings and remote meetings. There is no doubt that remote meetings will be better for some people. The Finance Minister was in the Chamber earlier, and I was able to ask him what it is going to be like for civil servants who want to work from home post-pandemic and whether lessons have been learnt. We need a measured approach for those whom it does indeed suit, such as single-parent families and women in particular. Perhaps it will open an avenue whereby working in councils and in local government may be advantageous for them. That would be really good.
Balance is also needed, perhaps through further regulation in the future, to ensure that we work together where we can. We have all-party groups here on mental health, suicide prevention and addiction and dual diagnosis. We also have one on social isolation. While it is really good to use social media and other media for meetings and so on, it is better to meet in person where we can. Hopefully, those things will be picked up in further regulation.
The Member for Strangford talked about the ability to use social media to host meetings and the need for them to be governed really well in terms of fairness. We just have to think back a number of months to a council meeting in England that resulted in Jackie Weaver becoming someone with whom we are all familiar. She was told, "You have no authority in this meeting"; we do not want to see our local government descending into such controversial arguments and degenerating, although our local councillors are, obviously, very high-performing in that regard.
We support the Bill.
Mr Allister: I am with Fra McCann's dog on amendment No 1: I object to it. I do so for reasons that are entirely logical and appropriate. First, as I have said from the first day on which we debated the matter, making permanent change to the Local Government Act 2014 on the back of accelerated passage is not an appropriate way to go. The Chair of the Committee has told us that, apparently, SOLACE knows nothing about what is in the amendment and that other leaders in local government have not been consulted. Yet we are invited today to amend the Local Government Act and give the Minister the power to ride roughshod over councils and make decisions that councils should make and decisions that would supersede their own standing orders. That is not healthy or appropriate. The Minister said, as she went down that road, that she would consult councils. Why did she not consult them before now? I ask that question confident that there will be no answer because this is a Minister who neither takes interventions nor answers points in debates. She is script-bound in all of these things, but I ask the question nonetheless.
Secondly, the amendment is not COVID-related. The whole raison d'être of the Bill was to deal with an emergency that was COVID-related. In amendment No 1, we are doing something that outlasts COVID, no matter how long it lasts, substantially. It changes in a significant way the Local Government Act that the Assembly laboured over for months in 2014, and it does it in such a way as to grab powers to the centre that are totally unwarranted.
If the amendment were only about the COVID situation or allowing councils in the long term to meet remotely, it would not need to go beyond clause 2(2)(a). However, it takes itself into amazing territory in clause 2(2)(b). One might have thought that what is in clause 2(2)(b) was the very essence of council standing orders, but no: the Minister is taking on herself the power to make regulations to decide "how persons may attend" a council meeting; how they may "speak at" a council meeting; how they may "vote in" a council meeting; and how they might "otherwise participate" in meetings that are held remotely.
Let us consider some of those provisions. The word "persons" is wider than councillors: that means the public as well. The Minister will have powers to decide how the public can participate in a council meeting, if at all. She will have powers to decide whether documents will be available; that is covered by the phrase "or otherwise participate". This is stringent, unnecessary and way beyond what the COVID situation requires. It directs how persons may "speak at" such meetings. This Minister could decide, for example, to make a regulation that a person can speak in whatever language they like and it must be translated.
Those are some of the powers that are in the enabling power. We will pass that without having had a Committee Stage or having heard from a single council, a single councillor, the chief executive of SOLACE or anyone else. We will surrender council powers to the Department. I say to the House that that is not a wise course to take.
Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Member giving way. Does he agree that, as a general principle, one of the concerning developments over recent months has been that of mission creep, whereby measures that, we were told, were temporary suddenly become permanent and, as the Member has rightly identified, more and more power is shifted to the centre?
Mr Allister: That is it exactly. There is no dressing it up: this is a power grab of council powers by the Department. It is going to direct:
"how persons may attend, speak at, vote in".
All those things that I read are the stuff of standing orders; they are not the stuff of regulations to be made by a Minister. We are imposing on councils a central view of how things should be done, when councils should have their autonomy respected. This is an autonomy-defeating amendment. It takes away the autonomy of the councils in their own standing orders to do what they think appropriate and creates a diktat from the centre as to how they will do it.
It goes on to say, in clause 2(3), that certain things "may" be included in standing orders. However, when you analyse clause 2(3), you see that it does not require anything in standing orders. The key word is "may". The Minister could make regulations under the clause, which does not even permit the matters to be finessed in standing orders. It says that she "may" allow them to be; it does not say that she has to. A council could have it handed down from on high who, including the public, can attend, how they can speak, how they can vote, how they can otherwise participate and what documents they can see, and there is no necessity, under the clause, for any standing orders to cover any of that.
I say to the House that we are treading in a dangerous place when we think that we can so high-handedly undermine the autonomy of councils in the way that the amendment does. The sheer breadth of this amendment is brought home by clause 2(4)(a), which states:
"Regulations ... may—
(a) disapply or modify statutory provisions (as construed in ... the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954)".
That means — this is what the Interpretation Act says — that even any Act of Parliament of a superior place can be disapplied and modified by a regulation made by the Minister. Really? Not only are we setting ourselves over and above councils and ripping away their autonomy; we are in the business of saying that we can, in fact, modify and disapply any Act of Parliament. We will do all that without having a Committee Stage, without having heard from councils and without having done anything other than ride roughshod over those affected by it. It is wrong, and I invite the House to oppose it.
Ms Hargey: I thank the Chair and all those who contributed, even the puppy. I wish that I had as much power and influence as Mr Allister said I had. If he listened or was here during all my debates, he would know that I take interventions in the Chamber. You can try and make that false accusation, but that is what it is: false.
Mr Allister: There is always a first. When the Minister says to us that she will consult councils on what the regulations may contain, what credibility does that assertion have when she has failed to consult council representatives up to this point on tabling the amendment?
Ms Hargey: The legislation has been developed in consultation with councils, which are calling out for the legislation to be extended. While there is no formal engagement process because of the timescales within which we had to introduce the Bill, there has been engagement, and the legislation has been discussed with NILGA and SOLACE. I met representatives of those organisations in previous engagements that I had with councils. Any change in the legislation will be subject to approval in the Assembly. Any changes to the provisions, including those that cover council meetings and members of the public listening to those meetings, are covered in the 2014 Act. It is laid out clearly that any changes would have to be passed by the Assembly. Those are some of the things that I have changed over the past couple of weeks.
I sat with you and other Members outside to listen to the concerns that were raised here over a week ago on how the initial clause was set out. I made those changes instantly, but I see that you choose ignore the fact that I did move. I have tried to facilitate, to move —
Mr Allister: Is the Minister saying that she consulted councils outside the basic suggestion that there was a need to extend the possibility of remote meetings? Did she consult them on the fact that she was going to take unto herself permanent powers to decide all the matters that are in the amendment? Did she consult them on that?
Ms Hargey: There have been engagements by my officials with council officials, NILGA and SOLACE on what is in the Bill. Those engagements have been happening. It is not just a case of the Minister having all that power, because any change will have to be agreed in the House, which will have the scrutiny role. I have also given a commitment to issue a call for evidence to allow councils and others to tell us about their experience with remote meetings over the past year. Over the past week, some wanted me to go much further, and I said that it would not be good to go further than what I propose, because we need to consult and to look at the unintended consequences.
This is not about a power grab, and it is silly even to try to say that it is. This is about trying to be flexible and work with councils so that they can make decisions. I do not know where the pandemic will be this time next year. There will be an election in the middle of that, and you will have purdah and other restrictions on legislating. It is about trying to build in flexibility where we can. With this legislation, I have demonstrated that I have worked with Members and am proposing changes to the legislation, as reflected in the amendments.
I thank everyone for their contributions.
People are entitled to their opinion. That is what a political Chamber is about. I propose that we proceed with the amendments.
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 (Performance: power to alter various rules (2021/22))
In page 2, line 10, leave out from "made" to "question" on line 11. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
In page 2, line 12, leave out "the financial year in question" and insert "financial year 2021/22". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
In page 2, line 19, leave out subsection (5) and insert -
"(5) The references in this section to financial year 2021/22 are to the financial year ending on 31st March 2022." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I have received notification from the members of the Business Committee of a motion to extend the sitting past 7.00 pm under Standing Order 10(3A).
That, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3A), the sitting on Monday 5 July 2021 be extended to no later than 8.00pm. — [Mr Butler.]
That this Assembly recognises the discontent of victims of historical institutional abuse (HIA) with the redress process; further recognises that the delays, the impersonal nature of the judicial process, the disparity of awards, and re-traumatisation are posing difficulties for the victims of historical institutional abuse; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to carry out a review of the redress process, which should be undertaken alongside the current process and should not in any way impede the operation of the process while the review is under way.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has allowed one and a half hours for the debate. The Chairperson will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Mr McGrath: This is one of those debates that should never have had to be brought to the Assembly. Over a period of many years, some of the most vulnerable people in our society were handed over by the state to institutions in which all too many of them were abused. Our society failed those people as children. We need to make absolutely sure that we do not fail them as adults. I will not rehearse the harrowing stories of what happened to those children. The abuses were catalogued by the Hart inquiry into historical institutional abuse, and no one could fail to have been moved by the testimonies of those who courageously told their stories so that the extent of what happened to them could be heard, documented and acted on. Besides, the issues have been discussed in the Chamber before, so they are well known to us.
As Members will know from their contacts with victims of abuse, redress has been a long time in coming. The legislation for the Hart inquiry was introduced in the Assembly in June 2012 and passed in January 2013. The inquiry reported in January 2017, and among its recommendations was a redress process for victims of abuse. In the absence of an Executive, legislation to establish a commissioner and a redress board was passed at Westminster in 2019. The Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board began its work in April 2020, convening a series of panels to assess the claims of victims of institutional childhood abuse.
Members soon began to hear of problems with the process, and I am sure that many will attest to that in their contribution today. Former Deputy Chair of the Committee Doug Beattie and I informally met groups representing victims in January and May of this year. I pay tribute to Doug for his work on the issue when he was with us on the Committee. The Committee was pleased to hear from the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse (COSICA) in January and April of this year. She was hearing the same issues as we were, and we committed to working together to address them. The groups were invited before the Committee to give evidence on 23 June. Some did so personally, while others did so through written evidence. I felt humbled by the dignity and eloquence with which the issues were presented to us.
What have we been hearing? We have heard that the redress process takes too long. Victims have waited long enough up until now, but too few applications are being processed by the panels.
That is a particular issue for those who are unwell or advanced in years. Sadly, we have heard about individuals who have passed on before their payments have come through. The redress process is too judicial and impersonal. It has been set up in the legislation in that way, that is true. There are some lay panel members, but, elsewhere, such processes have more of a mixture of people from different backgrounds. Contact with the board is through a solicitor, which makes the process seem even more legalistic. Some would have preferred to speak directly to the assessment panel, but that does not seem to have been an option. How are people supported while they give their testimony? A review can look at how that can happen.
There seems to be inconsistency in the amounts of awards and the rationale for them. Put yourself in the position of an applicant: you have been struggling for decades with the impacts of what has happened to you, perhaps you have suppressed long-forgotten events or memories that are just too painful to retell. Do you risk trying to recall such memories for an adequate payment? Or do you just say what you can cope with and settle for a lower award? Besides, your memories are those of a child — an abused child — and what will the panel make of that? Light needs to be shone on the way in which the panels make decisions and how that reflects the experiences of the applicants.
People who have subsequently moved to Great Britain are disadvantaged. The legislation only applies to Northern Ireland, including disregards for tax, national insurance and means-tested benefits. Therefore, it is not worth taking the long-awaited redress money if you live in Great Britain, if it means that you lose the support that you need. The state is giving you money with one hand and taking it away with the other.
There seems to be an insufficient understanding of the legacy of having experienced a harsh environment. The impact of being in such an institution, even without evidence of direct abuse, is abuse in itself. The redress scheme in Canada gives a standard award for anyone who was in a particular institution at a time when abuse was taking place.
Mr Stalford: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. This is a point on the funding of the scheme that I have raised several times. Yes, the state had responsibilities and should be held accountable for that, but these institutions, which are some of the wealthiest in this land, also have an obligation. Will the Member agree with me?
Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, of course. It is well recognised in all parts of the House that there needs to be some redress from the institutions. The joint First Ministers will have worked on that matter and may be able to give an update on that today.
The redress scheme in Canada gives a standard award to anyone who was in a particular institution at a time when abuse was taking place and an additional sum for each year of residence. The scheme removes the need to prove abuse that took place so long ago and is so painful to recall. The Committee has also heard evidence from the Department, the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) and the redress board. We were left with the sense that the issues with the system are due to the way that it was set up.
Let us have a look at the whole process. The scheme has been operating for over a year, and this is an opportune time to examine how it is working. The survivors' groups have called for a review, and the Committee fully supports that call. The redress board has also said that there should be an all-encompassing review. The Committee agrees that such a review must look at every part of the process.
However, the Committee has one particular concern about the impact that any review will have on the current delivery of the scheme. Yes, a review is intended to look at what needs to change and make recommendations, but it must not interfere with the process of assessment and payment while it does that. No one should be disadvantaged or have their payments delayed because of the review. One group told us that survivors are at a crossroads and feel that no one is listening or willing to challenge the current predicament that they find themselves in. I urge Members to support this motion to demonstrate that we are listening and are willing to challenge the predicament that those people, who have suffered enough, find themselves in.
I will now make a few, short remarks in my capacity as an MLA. I will echo all the remarks that I have made in my role as Chair of the Committee. I do not think there will be much dissent about that today. I will acknowledge and applaud the dignity with which the victims and survivors have approached this entire process. Their evidence is some of the most disturbing and harrowing given to any inquiry or Committee here, and the way they have championed their cause is truly inspiring. I welcome that the Committee that I Chair, and its predecessor Committees, have been with them at all stages of that journey.
The state truly let these people down as children, and we cannot allow that to happen to them again as adults. If any system within our government is not working, it is incumbent on us, as an Assembly, and the Executive to evaluate that and get it right. The problems with the scheme are well-rehearsed and will be repeated: the process is too impersonal and too legalistic; it threatens to re-traumatise people; it takes too long; and there are inconsistencies in the payments. It is possible to change all of the above by examining the resources and the approach. There is little to the problems being faced that will not be fixed by a review and a modification of the approach.
Messaging is also important. Getting that right is critical. What message would it send if the Executive Office refuses to intervene and order a review? What would that say to those who are going through the process? What message would it send back in time to the defenceless children who were left, by the state that was there to protect them, to be subjected to traumatic and life-changing abuse? We have a chance to get this right. We have an obligation to get this right. We must get this right. The SDLP supports this motion and demands that we do what is right.
I will finish by thanking the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse for her close cooperation with the Committee; the Assembly's Research and Information Service for supporting the Committee with its information needs; and, above all, the groups and individuals who entrusted this issue to the Committee and in whose name we propose the motion today. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Mr Stalford: This is probably the seventh or eighth time that I have participated in a debate on these matters. It is worth restating a few basic principles. The first of those, which I think is accepted by all, is that we have an absolute moral obligation towards those who were placed into the hands and care of rapists, paedophiles and criminals. We recognised our obligation to those people when we started the process of attempting to find redress for their suffering. The state has responsibilities in this regard, and it is right that we meet our responsibilities.
I have been on the Executive Office Committee continuously since I became a Member of the House. I am, therefore, well acquainted with many of the issues around these matters. We have all been lobbied or spoken to by innocent victims who are simply seeking justice. It is important that victims are at the heart of any considerations of these matters. The principle of co-design and victims having a direct hand in shaping the schemes is also accepted by all parties on the Committee.
As a general principle, we are really asking for a review of best practice. There is nothing to stop the continued roll-out of the programme to help victims to access the funding and support that they need while we try to find the areas that we can improve. It is better to get things right now than to have the lengthy roll-out of a scheme that is not delivering for people. We need to deliver for people.
The Chairperson of the Committee, Mr McGrath, referred to one of the consistently raised criticisms, namely of the processes that people are expected to go through. As a first principle, it should be accepted that those processes need to be gentle and caring with people. They cannot be overly legalistic. They cannot be processes whereby people are re-traumatised and made to feel even worse. That cannot be the case, because we are all committed to trying to help people who have suffered at the hands of institutions and through the failures of the state.
The Chair also referred to the disparity in awards, and I absolutely agree with him on that point. It is very distasteful to have to talk about this, but how does one quantify another person's suffering?
What matrix is there for that? How do you write that down and codify it? Obviously, it will be very difficult, but, in financial terms, is one person's suffering worth less than another's? If so, how do we quantify that? As I say, that is an uncomfortable conversation that has to be had. However, it is important that everyone has full confidence that they will be treated equally and fairly when they go through any processes.
It has been a long and winding road to this point. Having got here, if we discover where there is room for improvement, there is no reason that we cannot take the measures. I am sure that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will outline that.
I raised the issue of funding the scheme, and I say this very directly: creative accountancy practices should not get in the way of justice and of people paying their fair share for their responsibilities in this regard.
I am happy to support the motion. I thank the Chairman for bringing it before the Assembly. I believe that it represents a considered Committee position. Finally, I thank the commissioner for her work, and, most of all, I thank the victims, whether they are individuals or groups, who have suffered long enough. Now we have to step up and ensure proper and adequate delivery for them.
Ms Dillon: I agree with all the remarks made by the previous Members to speak. We will probably all make similar remarks, because we are all on the same page on the issue. I know that to be the case because, when we had to convene parties in the absence of the Executive, all the parties, including the Green Party, worked together to formulate the legislation and do it in the best way that we could. We were all fairly much on the same page because we all agreed that those people had waited long enough, that they had been through enough and that we had a responsibility to deliver for them in a fitting manner for victims and survivors. While we call it "historical" institutional abuse, be in no doubt that there is nothing historical about it for the individuals who suffered it. They suffer it and live with it every day. Thankfully, many of them survive it every day. We need to recognise that as a starting point.
I took over the role of spokesperson on the issue in 2017, and I have kept in close contact with many of the victims and survivors over those years. I spoke to them again over the weekend, because I would never speak on the issue without speaking to the individuals. In fairness, the Chair and Mr Stalford have reflected pretty much where the victims and survivors are and the issues that they have. It is important that we include victims and survivors in any review, because the bottom line is that redress has to deliver for them. It is not about anybody else. It is not about us; it is about them. We need to have that in our heads at all times. A review needs to be short, sharp and solution-focused. As other Members said, we cannot have any type of review that delays the process or causes any issue over getting payments out to those who are in the system already.
When we were developing the legislation, I raised concerns about the legalistic and adversarial nature that the process might have. I was reassured that that would not be the case. It was important, because we are dealing with highly traumatised and often very vulnerable people. I am not happy that we now hear that the process is very legalistic and adversarial. That is not what was intended in the legislation. I want the redress board to look at the intent of the legislation and at what we wanted to do as a Government to deliver for those people. I ask the redress board to listen to what we say today. We do not have all the solutions, but a short, sharp review will hopefully get to them.
There is one thing that can be done. It has been raised repeatedly by all the victims and survivors to whom I have spoken. I have raised it with the redress board and spoken at length with the commissioner about it: a point of contact. It is not an advocacy service for victims. I think that the president might have pushed back on this on the basis of a misunderstanding that it would be some kind of advocacy service. It would be a point of contact. Those people feel that they have been tramped over all of their lives. For all of their lives, they have been damaged, hurt and injured by the state and by the people on whom they relied and who were supposed to look after and care for them. We need to ensure that they feel some ownership of the process. We are saying to them, "If you have a question, you have to go to a solicitor, who will go to the redress board. The board will come back to your solicitor, and your solicitor will then come back to you". Why would they have faith in that process? Why can we not humanise it? Dealing with those people is not an administrative role. It is not a role that can be done without trauma training, because it involves dealing directly with victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. They have very specific issues, and we need to ensure that the person who is their point of contact has specific training to deal with those issues.
Having that point of contact is important. Having information and feeling a sense of ownership and power are key for those people, because every ounce of power over their lives was removed from them for long enough. We need to ensure that they have some sense of ownership and of power over their destiny. They should not have to look to a solicitor to ask questions of the board before coming back to them. That is not a fair or human process for the individuals whom we are supposed to be supporting. I ask that that is the very minimum that is put in place. I support the motion, and I thank the Committee for bringing it to the House today.
Mr Butler: This is the first chance that I have had to speak on the topic. I welcome all the sentiments that Members have shared so far. We can all look back on great days in our lives, whether that is the day we got married, the day a child was born or the day a friend or you got a great job. It might seem strange to suggest that victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse could ever have had a great day, but they did. That day was Friday 20 January 2017. No one who attended the hotel in south Belfast where Sir Anthony Hart delivered his report on historical institutional abuse could have failed to be moved by what they saw. Dozens of victims and survivors were feeling anxious, nervous and suspicious about what the former High Court judge was going to say. Many feared that he would prove to be an establishment man who would protect the state and its agents. However, on that winter's day, Sir Anthony told the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse that he believed them. They had been abused physically, psychologically and sexually over the 73-year period from 1922 to 1995. That day, 20 January 2017, was their day in the sun, and the relief, the vindication and the hope for better days ahead were tangible.
That was 1,627 days ago. The intervening period has seen those victims and survivors plunged back into frustration and despair. It is a dark period that casts a long shadow of shame on those who abused devolution. First, there was the collapse of Stormont. That came four days before Sir Anthony told victims and survivors that they deserved an apology, that there should be a permanent memorial on the Stormont estate and that they were entitled to financial compensation, not that any amount of money can make up for the lost life opportunities suffered by so many through no fault of their own.
Now, we are back, and the redress board is in place to finally deliver for victims and survivors. How disappointing, then, that delivery is not what it should be? We have form in that regard. Some Members will recall the introduction of the Victims and Survivors service (VSS) for victims of the Troubles. Those early days were characterised by dysfunction, delay and disappointment for the thousands of victims and survivors who had waited years and even decades for help. Members need only read the Hansard reports of the Committee for the Office of the First and deputy First Minister to understand why there was a root-and-branch review of the VSS in 2014. As recently as last week, at a sitting in the House, we reflected on the report from the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman on the delivery of the personal independence payment (PIP) benefit.
The ombudsman described the regime as featuring "systemic maladministration". Little wonder, then, that we are where we are today, hearing evidence of further disappointment, delay and dysfunction in the delivery of redress for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. It appears that systemic failure really is systemic, above and beyond any single scheme.
Let us join together in common purpose to fix the problem. Let us remind ourselves that we must not prioritise the integrity of the process of government over the people whom we are here to serve. Let us recall that error often accounts for significantly more money going to the wrong place than fraud does.
The victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse found themselves in the wrong place against their will through no fault of their own. Today, many again find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities. In evidence to the Committee for the Executive Office in mid-May, the lead official reported that 166 applicants had submitted incomplete forms, while 109 more required information from the institutions in which they were abused. The Committee Chair made it clear that the delays are acceptable. I agree, just as I agree that we need to do more to ensure that the application process does not re-traumatise victims and that the outcomes are more consistent than they are at present.
The House has a moral obligation to the victims and survivors of institutional abuse, but so do the organisations that ran the institutions: the Churches and others. I understand that discussions with those organisations about their financial contribution to redress are ongoing, but let me repeat my party's call that those organisations should deposit funds up front to relieve the pressure on the public purse. The Ulster Unionist Party would rather that those bodies had overpayments returned to them than for the Executive to have to chase them for funds retrospectively. We support the motion.
Ms Bradshaw: I welcome the opportunity to speak about the issue in the Assembly. Like others in the Chamber, I have spent many years working with the victims of institutional abuse. I therefore share others' concerns that the process as currently constituted is proving to be somewhat less than optimal.
In general, the redress aspect of the implementation of the Hart inquiry recommendations has become too adversarial. There is a strong sense that victims are being asked to do or provide things that are simply not reasonable. Just one example that was brought to my attention a few months ago is that victims have to pay to access their medical records and then be refunded. That shows a complete absence of understanding of the social and financial circumstances in which many victims and their families find themselves.
In my eyes and those of many victims, there remains a deep insensitivity to the emotional reality of what they have been through. I place on record my appreciation of the hard work of all the victims' groups that have lobbied so hard for many years to have victims' voices heard. Victims have faced barrier after barrier just to get this far, and there is a very real sense that more barriers are being put up in the process. Although any such scheme must be robust, the fact is that victims are understandably tired, frustrated and angry at the hoops that they have to jump through.
One issue that is very prominent in discussions with victims' groups is that of communication, or, rather, a lack of it. Other Members mentioned that. The process is made to appear more adversarial, as communication can only be via a solicitor. There is no direct line for victims. Indeed, there is not really even an indirect line. The sense that that creates for them is one of being kept at a distance while decisions that affect their lives — predominantly financially but also emotionally and socially — are being made behind closed doors.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. She touches on a very important and central issue. For many of those people, authority and those in authority have treated them badly throughout their lives. The consequence of their going through an adversarial process to try to get justice for their suffering is that it is re-traumatising them.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you. Mr Stalford, I totally agree with you and will come on to that shortly.
The sense of the whole process being adversarial and impersonal is exacerbated by the sense that, although many well-qualified people are involved in assessing applications, people with direct knowledge of areas such as child protection or trauma are not necessarily or even regularly involved.
For many, it is almost as though the application is assessed by a crude, distant, emotionless system that has little understanding of what they went through and how it has affected their lives over the many decades since.
The requirement that applications may only be in writing or, in practice, by someone else in writing not only adds to the sense that the whole thing is distant but may re-traumatise the people whom it is supposed to be assisting. It could be very different. Just on the other side of the border, there is an example of a process that relies much less on the written word. By enabling people to present evidence verbally, we could remove much of the impersonality, and we could restore the sense that the redress scheme is meant to serve victims.
It is not just that the design of the process is troublesome for some people; implementation is taking too long. There are too few panels and recruitment has been slow. To victims, that looks like another barrier, another delay and another piece of evidence that their interests are not being adequately prioritised. The review needs to be concluded quickly, and it needs to do two specific things. It should seek to learn from other processes, as others indicated today, and it should assess whether the legislation needs to be amended on the basis of the experiences thus far of victims applying for redress.
In closing, I put on record my exasperation that the formal apology and the memorial, three years on from the inquiry report, are taking so long. I am concerned that we are now entering into this process for those who have been impacted upon by mother-and-baby homes. Some of those victims are able to apply under the redress scheme, but others are not, including those who were forcibly adopted. I would like the Executive Office to take on board concerns about the potential expansion of the scheme to cover those institutions.
Mrs Dodds: I thank Members for the very thoughtful tone of the debate. Like other Members, I make my comments in support of the victims of historical institutional abuse and in pursuit of delivering a redress process that is fit for purpose, victim-centred and commands the confidence of those stakeholders who, for so many years, relentlessly campaigned for justice.
We cannot begin to quantify the pain, suffering and trauma that they have endured for so many years or the walls of silence, denial and obstruction that they had to overcome in order to achieve rightful recognition of the horrors that were inflicted upon them. That is why it is so vital that the redress process is fit for purpose and commands the confidence of those whom it is meant to serve.
Victims had to campaign for recognition. Victims then had to campaign for redress. They are now having to campaign for the most basic of asks: a process that is fit for purpose. The current situation clearly lacks the confidence of those whom it was meant to serve. Those who listened to the testimony of victims speaking of their experience of the redress process could not help but be moved by the overwhelming sense of hurt, anger and frustration at how bad a process they had been forced to endure — one for which they had relentlessly campaigned and waited so long but that had let them down.
As some said, the process is "not fit for purpose". The system is:
"not working and is not centred on survivors."
Victims feel that they have to "prove and continue to prove" what they went through. Those are just a few examples of how victims describe their experiences of the redress process. The most alarming of those for me was the common theme of re-traumatisation and further hurt inflicted upon those who have already suffered so much. It falls to us, in this House, to right that wrong and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Victims and survivors deserve better, and we must deliver better for them. Victims have asked for a review of the current redress process, and we have a moral duty to help deliver a process that commands their confidence. The redress board has spoken of understanding the criticism and said that it can improve things. That must be the basis upon which we move forward together to find a resolution that accommodates and addresses the very real and tangible concerns of victims and survivors.
I trust that the Executive Office will take on board the concerns that have been raised here today, that it will recognise and understand the further pain and suffering that the current process is inflicting on victims, and that it will commit to working with the stakeholders to deliver a process that is fit for purpose and victim-centred. Like others in this debate, I know that we need not stop the process and that the review should be short, sharp and really focused on the concerns of victims.
In finishing, I express my thanks to the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse and to those who have spoken out. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the tireless campaigners who continue to speak truth to power, in the face of unwavering opposition and denial, to try to finally deliver justice. We must be their voice and deliver a redress process that puts victims at its heart.
Mr Sheehan: Victims and survivors have been campaigning for many years for redress as a result of the abuse that they suffered while in the care of the state. The Hart inquiry and, more recently, the setting up of the redress board gave victims and survivors hope that their long journey was coming to an end. Unfortunately, many problems continue to dog this process. Those problems exist, many argue, because the process itself and the redress board were not designed in a way that was victim and survivor-centred. That is a considerable flaw in the process, and it is not what was intended when this legislation was being designed. It is all the more disappointing because, for victims and survivors to make contact with any agency or body about the abuse that they suffered, it takes considerable courage. I do not feel that that courage is being either recognised or repaid.
Let me mention some of the issues that victims and survivors and the advocates have raised with us. The redress board was established under the presumption that there would be 5,000 applications for redress. In the first year, 506 final determinations were completed. If the board continues to work at that pace, it will take up to 10 years to complete the work. Many victims and survivors are already elderly, and some have already died, so the process needs to be speeded up. Probably the most important thing that is missing from the process is proper communication with victims and survivors. As Fiona Ryan, the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse, said:
"They are being asked once again to trust the state and engage in a process that ... has left them feeling powerless again."
Currently, the process, as everyone has said, is very legalistic and based on a relationship with a solicitor who communicates with the redress board. Why can there not be direct communication between victims and survivors and the redress board? Why can a caseworker not be assigned to victims and survivors who can keep them informed about what is going on in the process in their case?
Another issue that has been raised by some victims and survivors is that they do not have the facility to give evidence to the board in person. I hasten to add that not everyone would want to do that, but those who do should be facilitated. How can board members really understand what victims have endured, and the impact of the abuse on them, if they do not hear them? Redress must be more than just the administration of legal compensation.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for taking my intervention. On the oral hearings, does he agree that we are very often talking about people who did not get an education and who cannot read and write, yet we are asking them to write down what happened to them? For anybody, that would be an extremely difficult thing to do, but, for somebody who cannot read or write, expecting somebody else to do that for them is not fair.
Mr Sheehan: Yes, I agree entirely with the Member. Of course, there are other victims and survivors who believe that the redress board cannot possibly empathise with the suffering that they have had to endure unless it actually listens to victims giving evidence directly.
As I said, redress must be more than the administration of legal compensation. That should be just one part of a reparations framework on the part of the state, the victims and the survivors. Importantly, as a first base, it must be trauma-informed and victim-centred. If victims and survivors are feeling disempowered and detached from the current process, clearly it is failing and needs to be fixed. These victims and survivors have been failed already by the state. They do not deserve to be failed again.
How do we deal with the issues and problems that have been brought to our attention by victims and survivors, and their advocates? There have been enough delays in the process, so any review of the workings of the redress board needs to be short and sharp. The last thing that victims and survivors need is another long, drawn-out review. The focus needs to be on solutions that will improve and enhance the process. The best way to ensure that that happens is to involve victims and survivors and to let their voices be heard.
We need a short, sharp victim-centred review that focuses on solutions and brings empathy for victims to the forefront of the process.
Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I wish to speak in favour of the motion.
The Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board has been in operation for over 15 months. While many applicants have been content with their outcome, some found the process daunting and deeply traumatic.
I was one of the junior Ministers involved in researching and establishing the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry. I listened to people's heart-wrenching testimony about their childhood abuse in institutions that were supposed to care for them. I hold all survivors in the highest esteem, survivors like Jon McCourt, Margaret McGuckin and Gerry McCann, to name only three as there are countless others who have advocated and campaigned relentlessly for truth, justice and redress. All of them, and the hundreds who were confined to institutions as children, deserve redress if they were held in institutions that they should not have been held in or/and in institutions that subjected them to abuse.
It has been over 11 years — some Members here remember it — since survivors came to Stormont to ask for help. Yet after all that time, after campaigning, after the inquiry process and after finally winning a redress process, survivors still needed to appear before a Stormont Committee two weeks ago to highlight the immense challenges that some survivors have with the redress process.
Applicants — some elderly, others suffering from various degrees of social isolation, mental illness and who have different levels of educational attainment — struggle to articulate the horrific experience that they suffered while in institutions. The redress scheme should have been an opportunity to help to address the harm, pain and trauma that has been caused to many victims over 50, 60 and 70 years ago.
Just when victims thought that they were at the end of the road, they turned the corner and saw the road of bureaucracy, official doublespeak and legalistic jargon stretch out in front of them. For some, there is great difficulty in committing to paper the facts as they can recall them for fear of getting it wrong or not being believed. Indeed, some survivors have not and will not come forward because of their fear of and deep anxiety about the current redress process. Some feel forced to revisit long-buried memories, hurt and trauma. They feel forced to relive trauma just to get the redress that they deserve. By creating a process that is overtly legalistic and judicial, an impossible environment has been created for many already traumatised survivors.
The fact that we have been informed that the redress process prevents some survivors from submitting an application is perhaps the biggest concern. I firmly believe that the redress process needs to be amended. We need to adopt a trauma-informed approach that is understanding of and sensitive to the awful ordeals that survivors experienced. If you went through one of the institutions in which systematic abuse took place and which the inquiry condemned, that should be enough evidence to process an application. If survivors can make an oral statement to appeal, the redress board should make that option completely accessible. The process should also take proper account of the fact that, in many instances, there are no official records of abuse. They may have been hidden or destroyed by the very institutions that were condemned.
The motion is before us today because we Committee members listened to victims and survivors. The redress board needs to be flexible in responding to survivors' needs. It must acknowledge their hurt and be sensitive to their trauma. For many survivors, their stories cannot be fully summarised on an A5 or A4 page, so why should an application for redress be based entirely on that? If survivors are saying that the process is intimidating and re-traumatising, that is exactly what it is, and that is exactly what the Assembly needs to hear and exactly what the Executive need to change.
Mr Carroll: I pay tribute to all the victims and survivors who have battled unsurmountable odds and overcome hurdles and obstacles to finally get some recognition of the fact that they have been failed and that they were abused by institutions under the nose of the state, if not directly by it. The process to get some recognition was long, arduous and unimaginably traumatic for the people who were failed repeatedly. Although the redress board scheme was not, and is not, perfect, it was because of the grit and determination of those survivors and victims and their families, who campaigned and fought to get a scheme over the line, that this scheme was developed in the first place.
People have raised with me similar issues to those raised with the Chair and other members about the scheme and how it operates. They have said that it is a very legalistic and complicated process. As I understand it, people, effectively, need a solicitor to navigate the scheme. Although that is possibly good advice and practice, it is not something that everybody has access to or feels comfortable with. There are also other problems, as people have mentioned. The fact that the redress scheme takes, as I understand it, 16 weeks to complete suggests that a lot of work needs to be done to speed up the process. Whether it is employing more staff or putting resources in place, whatever needs to be done should be done immediately to speed up the process and stop unnecessary delays.
There should be some form of recognition — I think that Ms Bradshaw touched on this — when an application or information is supplied. There should be a dedicated phone line, or a letter should automatically be issued so that people know that their information has been received. Survivors and victims have said to me repeatedly that there should be flexibility in how the scheme and payments are administered. There is also the question of the discrepancy in payments. Who can say that the abuse that one person suffered is less than that suffered by someone else? I cannot. Nobody in the Chamber can, or would. With prosecutions and legal proceedings against those involved in the abuse being unlikely, if not impossible, given the timescale of events, the only real barometer that people have of receiving recognition for their abuse is the payments that are made. The discrepancy in the rates being paid to different people is an important point.
There have been recent reports about the system failing people with disabilities. I hope that we will not continue to fail victims and survivors and that, by supporting the motion and a review, those problems will be resolved.
Mr Givan (The First Minister): I thank the Executive Office Committee for tabling the motion and Members for their contributions. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate.
Victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse have endured much in their lives, and it is incumbent on all of us in the Chamber to ensure that we do the right thing to address their needs and demonstrate the Assembly and the Executive's acknowledgement of what they have suffered. Historical institutional abuse should never have happened. It was wrong on so many different levels. Trust was breached and children violated. It is a sad reality that so many children were forced to spend their lives carrying with them extraordinary and unimaginable trauma, pain and suffering. Thousands of children were robbed of their childhood and silenced. They were failed by a system that should have protected them but that instead turned a blind eye and covered up systematic abuse. We all need to take the opportunity to learn the hard lessons about what happened in those institutions so that it will never, ever happen again. In doing so, we underscore the importance of the continued implementation of the Hart report recommendations. The responsibility for the implementation of that report rests with the Executive Office. Without doubt, it has been and remains one of the key priorities of the Executive Office and the whole Executive.
Before I turn to the specific points that have been made in the debate, it would be remiss of me not to reprise the past 15 months. On 30 June, we marked 15 months since the HIA Redress Board opened to applications at the end of March 2020. In that time, the redress board has received over 1,600 applications and made determinations totalling over £20 million for 1,091 applications.
The decision was taken in March 2020, in the interests of victims and survivors who had waited such a long time for justice, to open the redress board to applications in the midst of a global pandemic. The former president of the board, Mr Justice Colton, ensured that all the preparatory work was completed in time for the opening. Throughout the past 15 months, the board has determined to continue to deliver, despite difficulties in accessing records and vital corroborating information. The new president of the board took the decision that it would accept all applications, incomplete or otherwise, and take on the task of gathering the additional documentation. That feature is unique to our redress board.
The work has gained significant momentum since then. In the first couple of months of this financial year, the board has held more panel meetings and made more determinations of awards than in the first six months of its operation in 2020. It paid out £4 million in the first two months of this financial year, against £3·7 million in the first six months of the previous one. Although that is good news and shows that the board is delivering, and delivering in a very difficult operating climate, no one is being complacent. The deputy First Minister and I are acutely aware of the concerns that victims and survivors have raised. There is always room for improvement, room for streamlining and room for looking at what we have done and at whether we can do more and do it better or more efficiently.
In principle, I therefore welcome the review proposed by the Committee's motion to address the concerns. It is important that it should look at all aspects of the redress process, from when people decide that they wish to apply for compensation until they receive an award and decide what they want to do with it. Indeed, the support that we need to offer does not stop there. We established a dedicated support service for HIA victims and survivors, which is provided by the Victims and Survivors Service, supported by two community organisations, WAVE Trauma Centre and Advice NI. It is a very important service, which has a range of therapies and supports in place that were designed with survivors in a way that offers them choice and flexibility and that is unique to individual needs. It is trauma-centred and trauma-led. Health and well-being support is provided in the form of, for example, complementary and physiological therapies and persistent pain management. There is social support provided through befriending and outreach, personal development provided through education and training, and welfare advice and support to assist with information recovery. The last point is of particular importance to survivors wishing to obtain their own records.
Deciding to apply for compensation is undoubtedly a big step. Those who want to avail themselves of particular emotional support and help as they make an application for compensation can receive dedicated help from the personal support unit in the support service.
That allows a person to talk about their lived experience in a safe environment. There is also the option of a person making a recording of their experience to sit alongside the written application for compensation.
It is important that any review looks at all aspects of the redress process. As the motion recognises, the review should be done in such a way as not to impede the day-to-day work of the board. I suggest that the review should not hold us back from making important improvements in the meantime. The president, for example, has committed to regular engagement between the board and the victims and survivors' groups and to look at the area of communications; indeed, he has already been discussing the content of decision notices with panel members. Changes have been made by the board to its statement of experience.
The support service and the redress board are working on amendments to websites that provide a seamless link between the three organisations — the VSS, the commissioner and the redress board — that clearly signpost whom to contact at a particular stage in the redress process. They are also looking at providing additional financial and investment advice and assistance. That is work that has already been taking place, and it is important that it continue.
Some victims and survivors have stated that they wish to see an independent review undertaken. When the terms of reference of the proposed review are being drawn up, we will need to consider how best an independent element of review can be built in, and engagement with victims and survivors, the redress board, the commissioner and the support service will be part of that. I expect discussions to take place over the summer regarding the terms of reference, the time frame and the reporting.
Today is not the day to go into the detail of any review, but there are two things that I wish to say clearly. First, I assure victims and survivors that they are being listened to. Secondly, I appeal to all individuals out there who are yet to decide on whether to come forward and make an application for compensation, including the former Hart inquiry applicants, not to be afraid or daunted. If you are a family member, if you are a victim and survivor, take the first step and come forward. The support service will help you in any way that it can with your needs before the outset of the application process.
I turn to some of the points that Members made before I make a final remark. A number of Members raised the disparity in awards. Members will know that each award is based on an individual application and determination and thus the awards are different depending on the evidence that is presented. That emanates from the findings of the Hart report, which were different in respect of the different kinds of institutions, and the panels have to take that into account in their findings. The applications are assessed by an independent panel that is appointed by the redress board. Each panel includes two people, one of whom will have a health or social care background. It is important to say that those who are unhappy with the award have an automatic right to appeal a panel's assessment.
Communication was raised by quite a number of Members. The president has said that there is commitment to addressing that and has personally engaged with all panel members on the wording of decision notices. He has confirmed to me, the deputy First Minister and the Committee that he is open to engaging with the victims' groups on how to improve that communication. Linda Dillon mentioned the legalistic nature of the process, as did other Members, and, to help with that, the president has committed to getting more nonjudicial members involved in the future engagement with victims' groups.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for taking an intervention. I realise that the mother-and-baby-homes do not come under the remit of the Executive Office, but it is important that whatever is learned from this review is shared with the Health Minister before a redress board for the mother-and-baby homes is put in place.
Mr Givan: I agree with that. There is a difference as that is with the Department of Health, but the Executive announced that there would be a design process for the work that would be done with that and that, of course, lessons would need to be learned from it.
As part of the communication process, one of the things to look at is the possible provision of a helpline. Ultimately, that is for the board to decide on. It goes to the point that the Member made about having a central point of contact when you want to get clarity on the process. That is something that the board is keen to look at, and we are encouraging it to do so.
Mr McGrath raised the issue of the benefits disregard in Great Britain. Yes, the legislation on historical and institutional abuse redress provided that it should not affect tax or social security benefits. Whilst the tax exemption was applied UK-wide, the benefits disregards did not cover Great Britain. Work was done on that by the former First Minister and the deputy First Minister with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I am pleased to say that the outcome has been positive. Officials are now working urgently with DWP to put a business case to Treasury that will allow that Department to put in place the necessary arrangements for disregard.
A number of Members raised the issue of engagement with the institutions, including Mr Stalford and Mr Butler. There was a meeting in February with some of those institutions. That engagement is ongoing. It has been agreed that there will be a round-table meeting with the relevant institutions on the principles underpinning the discussions on contributions by all concerned. The deputy First Minister and I are considering a proposal for an independent facilitator to assist with those discussions and to bring focus and challenge to them.
Mr McGrath also raised the issue of older people, and he is right to highlight that. The legislation requires the president to prioritise people by their age and health. To date, 274 of the 1,604 applications received have been in that category. The board continues to expedite that area.
Ms Bradshaw raised the issue of an official apology. The deputy First Minister met the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse, Fiona Ryan, on 24 March. Part of that conversation was focused on how best to deliver the right apology in a way that addresses the issues of most concern. Officials continue to consult the commissioner. Work is being done on proposals for the content and timing of such an apology. A project group has been set up to take that forward. It is my intention to work towards the apology being given to victims and survivors in the autumn, when, we hope, there will be further relaxations of the COVID restrictions and there can be engagement with victims and survivors in person. An appropriate and meaningful way to do that is of paramount importance. Victims and survivors deserve the right apology, and it is important that they get it in a way that is genuine and authentic. We will confirm the dates and agree consultation arrangements with them in the near future.
Finally, the redress process, including the payment of compensation and the provision of services, is a tangible acknowledgement of the wrongdoings of the past, which should never have happened. What we do will never heal the hurt, pain and suffering that individuals have endured, but I make this appeal to them: please find a way to come forward and receive the help and support that you rightly deserve.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office, John Stewart, to conclude and wind up the debate on the motion. You have 10 minu