Official Report: Tuesday 02 November 2021


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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The next items of business are motions to approve three statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on all three motions. I will call the Minister to move the first motion. The Minister will then commence the debate on the motions, as listed in the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move that motion, and the Question will be put on it. That process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rule. If that is clear, we will proceed.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

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

Mr Swann: Today, the House is considering three very specific statutory rules that were introduced following decisions taken by the Executive on 27 September 2021 and 7 October 2021. SR 2021/276, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021, was made on 30 September 2021.

SR 2021/283, the Health Protection Regulations (Amendment No. 17), was made on 11 October, and the third amendment, SR 2021/274, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations, was made on 30 September.

I begin by reminding Members that it is the Executive Office that holds the lead responsibility, and it operationally manages the processes leading to Executive decisions on the ongoing need for restrictions and the requirement to amend the regulations. I am disappointed that, once again, it has been left to me to introduce these amendments.

The past 19 months have been unprecedented, and the Executive have sought to balance individual and societal liberty with public health requirements in the face of a protracted global pandemic. The Executive weigh up the totality of the effect that each restriction can have in combination with other restrictions in reducing the rate of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland. However, any relaxation to the restrictions will be associated with an increased risk of virus transmission, as has been the case through the epidemic.

I return to the amendments in question today, starting with amendment No. 16 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations, which was made on 30 September. This amendment was made following the Executive's agreement at their meeting of 27 September to remove the legal requirements to socially distance in retail and indoor visitor attractions. Venues are asked to follow public health guidance to continue to utilise all other available mitigations, such as hand sanitising, good ventilation and using one-way systems where possible. The wearing of face coverings remains a legal requirement in these settings. The Executive also decided to remove the requirement to socially distance in indoor seated venues, such as theatres, concert halls and cinemas, during a performance, rehearsal or recording, and they advised that additional alternative mitigation measures should be utilised.

Amendment No. 17 to the Health Protection Regulations, which was made on 11 October, immediately extended the operation of the principal regulations to 24 March 2022. Further changes contained in this amendment came into operation on 14 October. It removed the limit on the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering in a private dwelling, limiting, effectively, indoor gatherings at private dwellings to 30 people from any number of households. It removed the maximum number who can stay overnight at tourist accommodation, and it removed the requirement to be seated at an event in a concert hall, theatre, conference hall or other indoor venue being used for that purpose. Lastly, in response to feedback from the industry, it amended the requirement for visitor and attendee information in the context of large ticketed events. The previous wording was drafted with hospitality in mind, as large venues were not open. The amendment enabled operators of ticketed events with fixed start times to collect the details of a lead booker rather than every ticket holder. That removes the need to record time of arrival and removes the requirement for premises owners to collect this information. This was duplicating the requirement placed on the organisers.

Amendment No. 6 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations commenced at 6.00 pm on 30 September. This technical amendment to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations arose as result of amendment No. 4 to the regulations. It clarifies that a person is exempt from the requirement to wear a face covering in a relevant place while actively consuming food and drink, including intoxicating liquor, and that, at all other times, face coverings should be worn in indoor venues such as theatres, concert halls or cinemas. A person may remove their face covering when seated at a table in hospitality venues such as a bar, cafe or restaurant, and no change was made in this regard. However, in larger venues such as concert halls, theatres, cinemas and conference facilities, face coverings must be worn at all times while seated and can be removed only when actively eating. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will make some very brief remarks as Chair, and I will then make some equally brief remarks as Sinn Féin spokesperson for health. We are now over 20 months into this pandemic, and, as restrictions continue to be eased, we all hope that we are heading back to some form of normality in our daily lives. We are still faced, however, with the fact that there remain a stubbornly high number of daily cases of COVID. The figure has remained consistent over the past couple of months and continues to place immense pressure on an already overstretched health service and already overworked health workers.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the total number of deaths continue to rise, and our thoughts and sympathies are very much with those who have lost loved ones over the past number of weeks and, indeed, throughout the entire pandemic. That is why it is so important that we continue to follow the current rules and guidelines. I again encourage anyone who is eligible for the vaccine and has not yet had it please to go and get it.

I also welcome the roll-out of the booster jab. I hope that the booster jab campaign will again lessen the impact of the virus and save lives.

The Committee was briefed on the regulations at its meetings on 14 and 21 October. As the Minister outlined, the rules are the outcome of Executive agreements over recent weeks and include the easing of a number of restrictions. I have mentioned in the past number of debates on the coronavirus regulations that Committee members continue to voice their frustration at the lack of evidence being provided to the Committee to enable it to consider how the Department advised the Executive and the probable impact that the easing of restrictions will have on transmission of the virus. The Committee was disappointed that it was unable to see the evidence and modelling for the specific restrictions being eased.

During the briefings, members also highlighted the issue of monitoring of rules and guidelines and how the Department is capturing adherence to them. Above all, the Committee wants to see that learning from the past 20 months has been captured, communicated and understood and that that learning is being used by the Department of Health to inform the Executive on future decisions. The Committee agreed to recommend that the health protection regulations be approved by the Assembly.

If I may, I will make a few brief remarks as an MLA. For the record, I state that Sinn Féin's search for evidence is to provide better information and to learn from what we are doing. It is not to question whether evidence did not exist for some of the very draconian restrictions that had to be put in place. I make that very clear.

These are a complex and interlocking set of restrictions, and the easings are often similarly complex and interlocking. It is therefore difficult for us to get an understanding of which measures are potentially driving increased transmission and which measures are most effective at stopping transmission.

Today, we have to recognise the pressures that are on the health service. That is the imperative. As well as saving lives and protecting people's health, we need to consider how much our health service can take, to be honest. We are seeing severe stress across the system, yet stubbornly high levels of COVID-19 remain.

It is crucial that we get better at collecting data that is specific to here. We have differences in our system here. I do not think that we can rely on data being extrapolated from elsewhere. It is imperative that we put in place monitoring systems so that we can properly track and pick apart measures to determine which are working, which are not working so effectively and what we can do better in the future.

Mrs Cameron: I welcome the amendment regulations before the House today and commend the Minister and the wider Executive for their endeavours in charting a course back to normality.

Regarding the amendment (No. 16) regulations, Members across the House will know of my love for the arts. I declare an interest as someone who is married to a playwright and as someone who has a role in a production company, as is documented in the Register of Members' Interests.

The arts across its various forms of expression have been so badly impacted on by the pandemic. Many of those in the industry rely on performances, ticket sales and commissions simply to make ends meet. There is no great fortune for many who pursue a career in the arts. Rather, their career is chosen out of a love of performance, art and expression.

We in Northern Ireland have such a rich heritage in the arts, music and various other forms of performance. Ruby Murray from Belfast's Donegall Road, Dungiven's Seamus Heaney and Bangor's Gary Lightbody are only but a few names, but what a legacy we have for world-class literature, music, dramatic performance and all other forms of artistic expression. The artists of 2021, whom we want to see make the same impact as those names, need to be performing to capacity audiences in the various fantastic arenas and venues that we have across the Province.

They need to be able to develop their craft, but also make a living.


10.45 am

Furthermore, for venues such as the SSE Arena, the Theatre at the Mill in my constituency, the MAC, the Lyric Theatre and the Ardhowen Theatre to survive and keep the lights on, they need to be able to fill their auditoriums. This amendment and the decision to remove the social-distancing requirements for persons seated at a performance, recording or rehearsal allows that to happen. Indeed, with amendment No. 16 and the removal of the need to be seated, we are returning to viability and the pre-pandemic experience of the arts. That is most welcome.

The amendment (No. 17) regulations and the removal of the limit on the number of people who can meet indoors in private households will, no doubt, be appreciated by those of us who are planning family get-togethers at Christmas. Yes, of course we need to be sensible and follow the guidance that is provided, with persistent COVID rates being as they are across Northern Ireland, but, for those exceptional moments and circumstances, having that flexibility in the law is most welcome. These are steps towards normality, and that is only a good thing.

The removal of the maximum number of people who can stay overnight in tourist accommodation is a timely boost for the sector. We will all have had representations from businesses that operate across the Province and from providers in that industry. We know that businesses that were operating at maximum occupancy were wiped out overnight. We have seen that industry decimated, just like the arts. For self-catering venues, which, in many cases, are family-owned and essential for family incomes, removing that threshold on numbers will, once more, allow those businesses to derive full economic benefit. It is also essential to the wider economic recovery; the tourism offering is essential to Northern Ireland plc. I note that the regulation also removes the need for visitor and attendee information to be recorded. That, too, is a welcome change.

The amendment (No. 6) regulations on the use of face coverings provide a welcome clarification that a person is exempt from the requirement to wear a face covering in a relevant place while actively consuming food and drink, including intoxicating liquor. One criticism that I have heard when I have been out and about in South Antrim is that there is confusion about the rules. People want to abide by the law, yet some are unsure what the current law is and what is expected. Given how many changes there have been in the past number of months, that confusion is completely understandable. Therefore, it is sensible to provide that clarity on face coverings at this stage.

I will take a moment to commend the Health officials who have been charged with drafting the emergency legislation. I have no doubt that it has been incredibly challenging work in highly unusual circumstances, and I am sure that not many of us have been queuing up to thank them. I take the opportunity to do just that now, and I thank the officials for that very difficult work.

Coming back to the motions, hospitality venues will particularly welcome the amendment (No. 6) regulations. Despite many people's best efforts to inform, there needs to be as much awareness about rules as possible. I pay tribute to Hospitality Ulster for the work that it has done to raise awareness among the public about the rules that pertain to the industry. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in condemning outright the abuse that Colin Neill has received. No one should face threats or abuse for simply obeying the law and following health guidance, whether their role is to lobby for and represent the hospitality sector, like Colin, or to wait on tables in a local pub.

The Executive have now unveiled their winter plan. I welcome the pathway that they have set out for the next number of months. It will be a difficult period for the country and the health service. We are already hearing the scary statistics on waiting times in emergency departments, and it is only November. It is incumbent on us all to do our bit to alleviate the pressures that may come. We all have the power to help by following the regulations and guidance that are in place to keep us safe and for wider public safety.

In summary, I urge everyone to avail themselves of the overwhelmingly safe and successful vaccination, which is still available. If you have reservations, please speak to a healthcare professional. We can now all easily access not just first, second and booster doses of the vaccine from community pharmacies, but lateral flow tests across a range of pharmacies. The news that research shows lateral flow tests to be incredibly accurate is comforting. They are another tool that we can use to protect those around us, along with the common-sense actions of keeping a distance where possible, using a face covering when necessary and remembering guidance on hand hygiene. I hope that everyone plays their small part, if not for themselves, then for others, including our healthcare workforce who continue to work in the most challenging times that we have had.

My thoughts are with those who have lost family and friends to COVID-19. I support the motions.

Mr McNulty: Some 90% of our people are vaccinated. That creates space for cautious optimism, and we have to say, "Well done" to the healthcare teams and volunteers who ensured that it could happen. Nightlife venues have reopened, and that is an indicator of a return to normality.

Only 52·5% of 16- and 17- year-olds are vaccinated, and uptake needs to be higher among young people. They need to do the right thing to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe. We are behind with the roll-out of the booster jab. The Health Minister will probably enlighten us as to why that is.

Every winter, seasonal pressures are felt across the NHS, and this year will be no different. It is important that everyone who has been invited for a vaccine booster takes up that offer and that those who have not yet been vaccinated come forward to receive their vaccination. That collective action will be vital in allowing our NHS to cope with additional seasonal pressures and ensure that, over the winter months, non-COVID patients get the care that they need and have waited for so desperately.

Amendment of regulations and easing of restrictions gives many people cause for excitement. The public are happy that they can return to nightclubs. Young people have been deprived for too long, and I feel for them because that big part of their life has been taken away from them for so long. I could see, in the weekend press reports, the excitement on the faces of young people who were out having fun and socialising in a way that has been denied them for so long. It was heart-warming to observe.

Mrs Cameron referred to the arts sector opening up again. I, too, am a big fan of the arts sector, and I am excited about the Lislea drama festival being able to run in 2022. So many negatives have been associated with lockdown, but the Lislea community prepared a poetry book, 'Room to Rhyme', based on the poetry recitals given on Facebook during lockdown. That lifted people and gave them a sense of hope. People such as Séan Cunningham, Anne Garvey, former commentator on this place Eamonn Mallie, Liam Hannaway and Úna Walsh created a tremendous sense of optimism, and they have turned that into a book and held a great event in Lislea last weekend. The proceeds of the book will be donated to the Rural Health Partnership, which helps people deal with mental health challenges. It is a positive story from lockdown.

I will move on. Rarely a day goes by without another horror story about the state of our health service. This year's winter pressures have arrived earlier than normal and are affecting services across the board. Our healthcare staff are crying out for help; they know that what is to come will potentially be a "winter of discontent". We are still recording over 1,000 new cases of the virus daily, and people are, literally, dying. We hear about the challenges being faced by our emergency departments and the threat of closure of some of them.

Everyone in the House should recognise the need for vaccine certification while we are in this situation. To me, it is a no-brainer. Anything that can encourage more people to get vaccinated, to lessen the demands on our health service and shorten waiting lists is a no-brainer. Why is there opposition to it? The SDLP has been absolutely clear from the start about the pressing need for vaccine certification. Vaccine certificates are a proven alternative that will allow us to prevent another lockdown. Who could be against that? They are about protecting our health service from being overrun. Who could be against that?

The evidence from other jurisdictions is clear. The introduction of vaccine certification encourages vaccine uptake, particularly in younger age groups. Surely that is not too much to ask in the interests of keeping the public, families and staff safe. Our proposals for vaccine certification were blocked in the Executive by the DUP and Sinn Féin, who have, instead, left the matter in the hands of individual businesses. Some businesses are stepping up and taking responsibility. I believe that, to attend this year's Belfast Christmas Market, you will have to have a vaccine certificate. Why is there opposition in the House to vaccine certification in order to keep our healthcare staff, families and communities safe, lessen the waiting lists and reduce the waiting times for people who are waiting for operations and cancer treatments? Why is there opposition to that? What is the problem?

It is important that everyone is absolutely clear: the decision not to employ vaccine certification abdicates —

Mr Speaker: Sorry, Mr McNulty. You make a very valid point as a stand-alone argument, but you are well off the scope of the regulations that are in front of the House. I ask you to return to the motion.

Mr McNulty: Apologies, Cheann Comhairle. I just feel strongly about it. Others will have a different view, but there should be no opposition to anything that reduces the pressures on our health service and keeps people alive.

I support the implementation of the regulations. I look forward to hearing other people's contributions.

Mr Chambers: The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and supports any guidance or regulation that is put in place to protect the health of the people of Northern Ireland and ease the intolerable burden that is being experienced by our health and social care system. We have every confidence that the evidence and advice that is being offered to the Executive by our experts enables them to make informed decisions.

The pandemic has not gone away. We are simply in a stage of trying to manage it and provide the public with an opportunity to return to some form of normality. However, that comes with a responsibility for the public: they must assist the process and ensure that the return to normality is allowed to proceed. The public can do that by increasing the number of people who have received the vaccination. It is absolutely imperative that people consider that and make the choice to get vaccinated and, when the opportunity comes along, to receive the booster injection.

It is easy to forget the simple messages that we were all given at the start of the pandemic about wearing a face covering, social distancing and hand hygiene. All those things are still relevant because the virus is out there seeking every opportunity to infect every one of us. We have a responsibility to protect not just ourselves but the people around us. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and fully supports what is in front of us.

Ms Bradshaw: I support the motions.

As the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 are technical, I do not intend to take much time on them. However, I will say that our entire guidance on face coverings is now bordering on farce, particularly given the reopening of nightclubs without any real mitigations. It is now common to see people, including staff in shops and elsewhere, simply not wearing face coverings. Of course, not wearing a face covering indoors is permitted in an increasing number of instances. Debate has now moved on as to whether face coverings should be required only while standing on public transport and seated at a wedding dance. No one can say that there is scientific advice on such specific requirements, and that removes people's faith in the whole thing.

Ultimately, we have to make a decision. If we are keeping face coverings in the regulations and thus in law, we need to enforce those regulations or put in place other mitigations where they cannot meaningfully be applied, rather than being seen to constantly pare back the requirements. Alternatively, we need to accept that we are now solely using guidance. After all, so many people are now not wearing face coverings at all.

Amendment No. 16 was made specifically to allow for the resumption of theatre and drama.

I welcome the fact that theatre and drama can resume, particularly for my constituency of South Belfast. Theatres have had a long wait to welcome back their patrons. I very much welcome the responsible attitudes shown by many theatres with which I have been in contact. Most have opted to reopen at full capacity, subject to checking for vaccination or a recent negative test, or, alternatively, they will open at below full capacity on terms similar to the hospitality industry; for example, face coverings will be required while moving about. I find that impressive, and I attended a show recently and felt that mitigations had clearly been put in place to assure those attending that they were at low risk.


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Amendment No. 17 is curious. It was designed to stop significant gatherings in private homes. The example that is always given, for whatever reason, is raves. There is a fairly open acceptance here, as I have indicated in previous contributions in the Chamber, that the regulations for private dwellings were not particularly enforceable. We wasted too much time on specifics that were never going to be checked.

In Committee, I raised the issue of communications in response to each of the amendments that we are discussing. It is evident that Scotland is the leader in communications among the jurisdictions of the UK and Ireland. Scotland gives messaging that is clear and succinct. We are still talking about the latest communication plan, which is being updated to reflect the feedback from the attitudinal study. I welcome the fact that the Department of Health conducted that, but we need to see its outworkings soon, particularly in targeting the younger age groups, where we see the majority of cases at present. We also need to ensure that there is awareness, even if people feel that they are not vulnerable, that the chain of infection, particularly via households, can soon see the virus reaching an elderly grandparent or a parent with an underlying condition and so on.

I put on record my party's opposition to the reopening of high-risk indoor venues without any mitigations that are regulated for or enforced, be they spacing requirements, ventilation, vaccination or negative test checks. This morning, I was sent a photograph of a queue outside one of the venues in South Belfast. Scores of people who look like students — they were certainly young people — were queueing to get into a venue. That is dispiriting because students or young people cannot be taught properly in university classes because those establishments worry about their close proximity, yet we see them stand shoulder to shoulder with virtual strangers. Not to have those checks in place is a major error, and it will see infection rates and, ultimately, hospitalisation rates rise. We will see so much more pressure on our Health and Social Care staff. Putting that additional pressure on them when we are warning that we are heading into a very tough winter is particularly concerning.

Mr Allister: The regulations typify the steps being taken to open up society. There is a corresponding concern in respect of those who feel vulnerable to COVID as to whether and why our booster programme has fallen behind. Many of us were amazed at the efficiency and achievements of the original vaccination programme. It truly was a remarkable feat. However, suddenly, when it comes to the booster, which, we are told, is necessary six months after the previous vaccination, we drag far behind. The figure quoted is only 28%, which is less than half of some other devolved regions. As the Minister is present, I would like him to use the opportunity to explain to the House why the booster programme lags behind, what steps are intended to make up that lost ground and what the time frame is in that regard. There is particular concern amongst many about the booster programme.

If I can test your patience a little, Mr Speaker, I also invite the Minister to comment, if he can, on the fact that the medical director in the Northern Trust has said that patients visiting hospital should be entitled to ask the attending staff whether they are vaccinated. There has been some controversy about that, not least today. Is that the Department's policy? What is the compulsion, if any, on the nursing and medical staff to answer such a question? If they do not answer such a question, are there consequences? The medical director's remarks are opening up a whole new controversy.

If the Minister could clearly spell out the Department's stance on those issues, that would be of particular interest and assistance. I would like to hear from the Minister on those two points, within the ambit of the debate.

Mr Speaker: That would be stretching it. [Laughter.]

Mr Carroll: I start by expressing my sympathies to the families of everyone who has passed away from COVID. Unfortunately, thousands of people have died, including my grandmother Claire, who, sadly, died last week. Our nanny, as we knew her, was in hospital awaiting a care package. She was waiting for a long time, and, unfortunately, picked up COVID. She was transferred to the Mater and died later. The fact that our health and care services and systems are overstretched meant that communication broke down or did not happen. I do not for a second blame the health workers; I blame an underfunded system and am concerned that others will be impacted by that, as our grandmother was. My family and I thank the staff in the COVID centre and the Mater who cared for her. I am worried about how the winter will be for many people.

I turn to the regulations. I have raised concerns in Committee about evidence not being forthcoming to guide the lifting of regulations, especially those pertaining to the removal of social-distancing requirements at performance venues. I am concerned that there has been a lack of projected modelling of what the cases will be or what will happen if regulation x or y is lifted. We are met with daily warnings about the health service reaching crisis point this winter, so I am concerned that there is a plan to plough ahead without knowing about or having some baseline as to what the cases will be if those decisions are made and regulations are lifted.

I do not believe that the regulation allowing food ordering has been put through rigorous enough checks. Despite the fact that hospitality workers are integral to the venues operating, I am concerned that, once again, decisions are being made without any consideration about how front-line workers will be impacted by them.

I am worried about the winter. I am also concerned about the spread in cases not just among the elderly and vulnerable but in people across the community, the unvaccinated and those facing the possibility of long COVID.

Mr Speaker: No other Member has indicated a wish to speak, so I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann.

Mr Swann: Before I start my remarks on closing the debate, I pass on the condolences of the House to Mr Carroll on the loss of his grandmother. It is never easy to lose a loved one, but there is often a special relationship with a grandparent that, I am sure, many Members have had. Mr Carroll, will you pass on our condolences to your family?

I welcome today's debate on the two amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. I thank Members for their contributions. I will address some of the points that were made by Members.

I was deliberate in my opening comments on how the regulations are the culmination of Executive decisions. I still feel the frustration and annoyance from the Health Committee about how it has to review, look at and mitigate the direction of travel of the regulations without the full evidence that goes to the Executive. We can give our input from a health point of view from our papers, our modelling, our TTP projection and our outbreak reports, and that is published on the Department's website, so I understand where the Chair and his members are coming from. The most recent amendment that we are talking about today was made on 9 October. We have not caught up on the debate over the regulations, but there is a shorter gap between when changes are made and when they are enacted.

I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mrs Cameron, for thanking and acknowledging the drafters. A small team of drafters in my Department, which has been supplemented now and again with staff from other Departments, works on how regulations are drafted, changed and challenged. I will put that into perspective: other jurisdictions have large teams that work in multiple shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to do the same thing as we expect a small, dedicated team in the Department of Health to do. I reiterate what Mrs Cameron said and acknowledge the work that the team has done not only in turning the regulations out in time but in dealing with the challenge of converting into legislation the conversations or the will of a five-party Executive. As we heard in the debate, it is not always easy to change those conversations into legislation that can be easily understood and communicated. That was Ms Bradshaw's point.

Mr McNulty is no longer in the Chamber. He spoke about "cautious optimism", but, in that messaging, I encourage people not to lose the benefits and the optimism by falling into a level of complacency, dropping their guard and beginning to act as though the virus has gone away. Mr McNulty started to talk about domestic certification. Yesterday, we launched the domestic COVID certificate app. Having that facility is part of the Executive's autumn and winter planning, should it be needed. I encourage anyone who has been vaccinated and is eligible to download the app, because, if the Executive make a decision at some point to utilise it in Northern Ireland, people already having it would be a big advantage. It would reduce the workload, and the app will be able to be used in the other jurisdictions across the common travel area where proof of vaccination is needed.

Mr Chambers talked about the responsibilities that we still ask the general public to take on in order to support us. The messaging has not changed greatly. It is to get the vaccine when it is offered; wear a face covering in crowded or indoor settings; wash your hands regularly; cover your nose and mouth; self-isolate and take a PCR test if you have symptoms; if you do not have symptoms but are mixing closely with other people, take regular tests to reduce the risk of spreading the virus; meet outside, if you can; open windows when indoors; keep your distance from people who are not in your group; and work from home where practicable or do a mix of home- and office-based working.

There are still challenges. Ms Bradshaw highlighted part of the challenge, which is the communication when we start to ease regulations and move some parts from regulation to guidance. In many places and settings, face coverings, as I said in my opening statement, are still in the regulations. I want to see more enforcement and compliance, but, from the Department of Health's point of view, we have always had the struggle that the enforcement power and ability do not lie with us. We rely on other Departments, local government and the PSNI to make educated enforcement guidance and to have conversations with people, no matter where they may be, about face coverings still being a critical tool to be utilised by those who can use them. I acknowledge that there are people to whom face coverings are not applicable or by whom they are not easily used.

Mr Speaker, you indulged Mr Allister slightly, and, if you grant me the same indulgence, I will answer some of his points. I am slightly disappointed about where we are with the booster programme. The Member is right to highlight strongly the start that we got off to with that. I engaged with our Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and our vaccination team last week. Yesterday, I engaged with a number of actors who are key to the roll-out of our booster programme to see exactly where we are. While we have been able to support our GPs with additional vaccinators in some scenarios where they have been doing large vaccination campaigns, inputting the data into our vaccine management system did not keep up with that.

We have now asked the Public Health Agency (PHA) to look at how we can enhance the administration side of things so that, when people get the vaccine or the booster, that information is put on to the system. That drives the dashboard, which, in turn, drives public knowledge about how many vaccines have been supplied.


11.15 am

The House will be aware that Community Pharmacy stepped in yesterday to provide booster programmes as well. It is now acting in that regard. There is currently a dual-track approach between GPs, who will call people forward, and Community Pharmacy, with which people can make a booking if they are eligible. Those over 50 who had their second vaccine at least six months ago are eligible.

Mr Gildernew: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his remarks. I welcome the fact that Community Pharmacy is now involved. There is further scope to employ the volunteer vaccinator cohort to take the pressure off GPs, who are so stretched in trying to provide appointments. Does the Minister recognise that there is now some confusion about where people can go to get not only the booster vaccine but the first, second and third vaccines? With so many moving parts, it has become confusing for some people.

Mr Swann: I get that. Most of the people who came forward to the PHA as volunteer vaccinators or through the payment system were deployed to the SSE Arena. There were a large number of administrators as well. It is now about how we utilise them, through the PHA, to support our GPs. They are coming forward, and they are being used.

The Member is right about what is now available. We are still calling people forward for their first and second vaccines. In the region of 400 to 500 people a day are coming forward for their first vaccine. That is available through Community Pharmacy. From where people get their second vaccine will depend on from where they got their first vaccine. If people got their first vaccine from a GP practice, Community Pharmacy or a trust facility, they will get their second one from the same place.

The third vaccine that the Chair talks about is for people who are immunosuppressed. It is strange terminology, as it is a third vaccine, not a booster. Technically, it is a third vaccine. Just shy of 10,000 people who have come forward for the third vaccine are not included in our booster vaccine statistics. That starts to complicate the messaging.

For anybody who wants a vaccine, be it their first, second, third or a booster, the availability is there. When it comes to those people over 50 who are eligible for the booster, we are back to that twin-track approach, where it is got either from their GP or from Community Pharmacy.

Come forward and get your vaccine. Over 190,000 vaccine doses have been deployed to our GP practices. Those have to be used within three weeks. I think that it was Dr Alan Stout who said yesterday that he hopes to see an increase over the next couple of weeks, and so do I. We are making every effort to ensure that we can get our vaccine programme back on track and fully performing in order to deliver the booster programme as well. It is about working with all partners across the programme.

Mr Gildernew: Thank you for that clarification and the recognition that there is scope for confusion, given that things are so complex. You stated that you are disappointed at where we are at present, so is consideration being given to reopening some of the walk-in centres to make a start on fast-tracking the programme?

Mr Swann: When we met yesterday, everything was on the table. We looked at where we could go. I want to see Community Pharmacy and GPs start to deliver what they have said they will deliver. Let us not take away from the programme that Community Pharmacy and GPs delivered at the very start, before we moved to the mass vaccination programme.

One of the things that we need to be conscious of is the fact that people cannot get a booster until six months after their second vaccine. There is a time delay involved in determining who is now eligible. It is therefore not just a matter of opening mass vaccination centres for everybody to come forward for their booster. We are providing further communication to make sure that people are clear about who is eligible and where they can go.

I did not hear the comment that Mr Allister referred to, but I see that Tom Black said something similar in 'The Irish News' . That has not been discussed in the Department, nor had it been raised with me before I saw it on the front page of 'The Irish News' this morning. I would not be comfortable with, nor do I intend, following that direction of travel, whereby we challenge our health professionals to prove that they have been vaccinated before they treat patients. It is not something that I was aware of, have had conversations about or have definitely made a decision on.

I hope that I have answered as many Members' queries and questions as possible. In closing the debate, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial to ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread once more. As we continue to remove the remaining restrictions, our society moves closer to a return to normal life. By making safer choices, following the public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The motion has already been debated.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The motion has already been debated.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two before we move onto the next item of business in the Order Paper.

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

Private Members' Business

Dr Aiken: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the rising cost of energy; expresses concern at the effect these rising costs are having on those on low incomes; acknowledges that the increased cost of living combined with the financial pressures arising from the end of furlough and the removal of the £20 universal credit (UC) weekly uplift will leave many potentially unable to heat their homes this winter; and calls on the Minister of Finance, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those in need.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up the debate. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Dr Aiken: We are all mindful of the very real and the palpable fear that many of our most vulnerable, as well as many who, until recently, thought that they were just about managing with the challenges of emerging from COVID, are feeling about the rising costs of energy. Whether it is gas prices, electricity or the escalating cost of heating oil, there is likely to be very little respite from the impact of the global hike in energy. That some local electricity companies have raised their prices four times this year alone gives far too many people the hard choice of whether to heat their home or feed their family.

For those who are at risk, there are also the equally worrying concerns about going in to unsustainable debt, seeking credit from whatever source they can. The impact on health, social well-being, children's welfare and education of a third or more of our population makes this a cross-cutting issue for the whole of the Northern Ireland Executive, but, in particular, it is an issue for the Finance, Communities and Economy Ministers. It is a crisis that was well foretold, coupled with the failure to address the existing challenges of fuel and energy poverty. I thank many of our Ulster Unionist Party council colleagues for raising these issues in council chambers throughout Northern Ireland.

The combination of gas realpolitik from Russia, a prolonged period of diminished wind energy, the restart of the Chinese manufacturing economy, and, more locally, the inadequacies of our energy sector, including its lack of robustness and resilience, has created an energy storm. That is without doubt. It is a storm that stretches across the Western world and Europe in particular, where gas and electricity prices have risen inexorably. Despite the United Kingdom having the lowest gas per therm price, there is a shortage of supply of gas and electricity. The 100% rise in gas prices, with electricity prices escalating by a third this autumn, even before the winter hits, should have caused alarm bells to go off across the Executive. That our Utility Regulator, as early as the summer, highlighted the upwards trend in gas futures shows that the information was available. It just, unfortunately, was not acted on.

That Northern Ireland is the part of these islands most affected by fuel poverty is well recognised. With a fuel poverty rate that is above that of the rest of our nation, a greater reliance on oil for heating, a very limited choice of electricity providers, and, at best, an intemperate climate, we have a real problem. We have to deal with the immediate problem, and, in the longer term, we need to look at how we deal with the situation. We need to take action now. It cannot be put off.

Yesterday, the Finance Minister outlined the October monitoring round. Quite rightly, there was an emphasis on healthcare. We also had what I can term only as an unseemly spat between several parties around universal credit and bringing forward schemes to fill that gap. There is, obviously, a disconnect between what is said in the privacy of the Executive and what is said in public, but there can be no disconnect in dealing with fuel and energy poverty. We know from research that cold kills. Three years ago, it was reported that 1,500 excess winter deaths in Northern Ireland were directly attributable to living in cold, damp homes. Add on the tangential impact of COVID, the greater energy costs, and the social dislocation and disruption caused by the pandemic, and that figure may, regrettably, be much higher this year.

Furthermore, the knock-on effect on our A&Es and heavily pressurised hospitals and on the well-being of many of our elderly and young people means that the impact will be hard felt across all of society. We can and must do better.


11.30 am

We are asking the Assembly to support us in a two-pronged approach that deals with the immediate challenge and, then, sets in place a properly thought-through future fuel poverty action plan. We may have to provide support to 180,000 to 200,000 households this winter. I will say that again: we may have to provide support to 180,000 to 200,000 households this winter. If we accept that a winter fuel allowance of around £200 is needed, that means that our Executive would have to find around £40 million. Looking at our latest monitoring round, we have not identified that yet. We recognise that this is a problem across all our nations. However, we need to make a provision for that funding in Northern Ireland by making clear that we will accept a future pressure into 2022-23, coupled with the rigorous removal of less important programmes. We should have the flex in our budgets to do that. If we are serious about supporting our most vulnerable, we should do it.

The maths are clear: with our baseline Budget of £12 billion, the approximately £40 million that is needed to provide an emergency energy fund represents around 0·4% of our annual spending. Surely, with some joined-up thinking, that could be allocated. The Finance, Economy and Communities Ministers could and should work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those who are in need. We ask all parties in the Executive to critically examine the real pressures and make some grown-up choices. It will cause pain to some Departments, but what is more important? It would help to deal with the immediate challenge and show to a very sceptical population that our Executive are capable of working together cooperatively, doing what is best for our most vulnerable people.

In the longer term, we have to accept that, as we transition away from fossil fuels, Northern Ireland's housing stock is not fit for purpose. We need to closely examine how we can prevent continuing fuel poverty. We need the Finance Minister to change the building regulations to stipulate housing improvements. We also need to look at incentives to promote microgeneration and encourage the change away from the monopolistic stranglehold that the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) and Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) — aka EirGrid and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) — have on our grid.

The Economy Minister must focus efforts on the future of our energy supplies and on security, continuity, affordability and access. Part of that discussion must be about whether our current set-up can be made fit for purpose. By any objective assessment, it is not. We also need the Communities Minister to properly identify those who are at risk, allocate future funding for continued energy relief and work cooperatively with the other Departments to create a sustainable future programme. We are approaching another election. When we eventually emerge from that, we must ensure that addressing fuel poverty is a key part of any Programme for Government: it must be in the PFG.

We look forward to hearing from contributors to the debate. I commend our motion to the House.

Mr O'Dowd: I support the intent of the motion, and we will vote for it. Listening to Dr Aiken, however, I cannot help but feel that he is either deliberately ignoring the scale of the problem or that he has no realisation of it. I suspect that he does realise the scale of the problem. If he understands it, surely he and his colleagues have to understand that it is beyond the financial capacity of the Executive to deal with the looming energy crisis that is coming down the track and, indeed, that is here. Most observers in the field believe that it will continue right up until spring 2022.

Dr Aiken has given us a figure of £40 million that the Executive need to find. When we are looking to fund something, we have got into the habit of referring to the amount of money that the Executive have, taking the smallest decimal point that we can find and saying, "That is 0·4%". Last week, another party was looking for 0·5%. Next week, another will be looking for 1%. I do not care whether the Finance Minister is from the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP or the SDLP or is Jim Allister. I do not care who it is. They can no longer subsidise Tory austerity and deal with events on a global scale such as the energy crisis.

While the intent of the motion is honourable and good, it does not recognise the scale of the problem. The scale of the energy cost rises impacts not only on those who have lost universal credit, whether they were working or not, but on families with two incomes. Whether both parents or however many in a home work, they will be hit by energy cost rises that they never thought possible.

It has been estimated that it costs £600 a year to heat an average family home using gas. It is now estimated that, with the increases, it will be over £1,000 a year. That does not take into account rising food costs, the rising cost of putting diesel, petrol or whatever it may be into your car, putting clothes on your children's backs or putting food on the table. All those things are coming down the track at families. I suspect that many families believe that they may be cushioned against that because they are working. You would have to be on a good wage to be able to say, "Right, my energy cost's going up by 100%. I'll be able to absorb that". It is impossible.

When we talk about tackling this, I do not think that £40 million does it. Last year, through COVID funding, the Executive received around £200 million to tackle fuel poverty as a result of COVID and other things. That is the scale that we are talking about. It is not 0·4% of the Budget. It is much, much more.

Today, the Assembly, with the Welsh Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, should send a clear message to Westminster that this is on a scale that none of the devolved institutions can deal with. This is not Tory bashing. I do Tory bash, but this is not Tory bashing. No devolved institution can deal with this issue. This is a central government problem. It is a Westminster issue. It has been caused by rising fuel prices, but there is a serious question as to whether the fuel to heat homes and keep people well should be sold on stock markets in the first place. It should never be a commodity that people invest in and make huge profits out of, and some may lose out. Somebody is making lots money out of this, you can be assured of that.

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

Mr O'Dowd: While I will support the motion, it is not ambitious enough. The message from the Assembly should be, "Westminster, it's time to open up the purse strings".

Mr Frew: I thank the Members who brought the motion. The Member who moved it knows that I am passionate about energy. Some would say — he might say — that I am an anorak when it comes to energy.

Why am I so passionate about energy? It is simply because energy policy is a life or death policy. There are very few policies that we would grapple with in the Assembly that are so fundamentally serious. I agree with John O'Dowd when he says that this will affect every person in this country. I also agree with John O'Dowd on the financial scale of the problem. Where I part from his belief is that the Assembly cannot just shirk its responsibility and say, "This problem has to be solved by our sovereign Government".

There is a short-term issue here, but there is also a long-term policy issue, which we have failed to grapple with for many, many years. We have hundreds of excess winter deaths every single year. That is why it is life and death, and it is incumbent on the Assembly, the Executive and the Communities Minister, whose remit includes fuel poverty, to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society survive this winter. That is how stark the problem is.

It is a global problem, geopolitically driven by Russia and China for various reasons, and the shortage of stock and gas, which has led to a rise in prices, affects us disproportionately because of our mix with regard to generating energy. It is a local problem, and the fact is that our neighbours, whom we live beside every day, may not survive the winter. It is as stark as that. If we cannot do something here in the short term, as we did last year with COVID, we will fail those people and their families.

Mr O'Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will.

Mr O'Dowd: I just want to clarify my point. The Executive can do something. My point is that they cannot do enough. They need financial support.

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

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for clarifying that and for getting me the extra minute. He is 100% right.

Mr McNulty: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will, although I will not get an extra minute.

Mr McNulty: The Member talks about the importance of our doing something. Can he clarify his understanding of what happened at the Executive meeting? The Communities Minister put in a bid for an uplift in universal credit, which has obviously been taken away by the Tories. We have to play our part here and care for the people who need that support the most — the most vulnerable people in our society, as the Member mentioned. Can the Member clarify his understanding of what happened at the Executive meeting? Who supported that bid and who was opposed to it?

Mr Frew: I am loath to get into the very ugly debate that has been going on between those two parties around who is to blame for universal credit, but let me tell you this: both parties are playing politics on this. We know from the Committee meeting that, even if the £55 million had been granted, there was no ability to draw that money down. There had to be a further bid in January. Both those parties are playing politics with the most vulnerable people's lives, and it is ugly and wrong. You need to catch a grip of yourselves.

Mr Allen: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will.

Mr Allen: Does my Committee colleague also recognise that, when officials briefed the Committee, they pointed to the fact that it would take several months to develop the IT system to deliver the UC uplift?

Mr Frew: Yes, that is my point, and I thank the Member for making it. Stop playing politics with the most vulnerable people's lives and let us get to the matter at hand, which is rising energy costs that will affect people's lives and will kill people this winter. This is a very serious issue in the short term because people will die, so we need something to be parachuted in. It could be a very blunt instrument, and I suspect that it will be given the short-termism that we need to effect this change. We need to get people the support and the money — it is a financial necessity — that they will require to pay for fuel to heat their homes this winter.

There is also a long-term aspect. It might not only be rising costs that kill people. It might be blackouts or no electricity at all, and the fault and blame for that lie squarely and fully at the door of EirGrid, which has not planned appropriately, with all its knowledge and capacity, for the generation of electricity this winter, next winter, the winter after that and the winter after that again. People will die because of rising costs. People will potentially die because of blackouts. That is unforgivable.

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

Mr Frew: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Durkan: I support of the motion. I recognise that rising energy costs is a global issue.

In the context of the COVID pandemic and its economic fallout, those are, indeed, unprecedented challenges that are outside any Administration's control. However, the weakened and significantly disadvantaged position in which we find ourselves is not.


11.45 am

According to the latest data from the living costs and food survey, 11% of all weekly household expenditure in the North is on energy. That equates to an average household energy spend of £58 per week, the highest anywhere on these islands, and, of course, we know that many low-income households spend way more than 11% on energy. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that the North has among the highest levels of fuel poverty in all of Europe.

Those issues pre-existed the current crisis, yet the efforts to address them have not gone far enough. Instead, citizens here have been set at an even further disadvantage compared with their counterparts elsewhere. This is the only region without a warm home discount scheme, which offers a £140 discount on gas or electricity bills for eligible claimants, and that money is paid directly to suppliers. Fuel poverty experts have described that as a lifeline, but it is a lifeline that households here have been left without. For an area with the lowest disposable income, battling high costs is a recipe for disaster. Households here have now been hit with the double whammy of the end of furlough and the cruel cut to universal credit. The inability of the Executive to mitigate that economic reality serves only to deepen rates of poverty.

As the Fuel Poverty Coalition put it, the increases in energy costs, on top of those challenges, will lead to "the 'perfect storm' this winter". I agree with that assessment. People here were already feeling the brunt of Tory austerity, and the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift, which just about allowed families to keep their heads above water in recent months, has left low-income households worse off at their time of greatest need. Those are the same people who will be most adversely impacted by the heavy energy price increases.

Customers are still adjusting to the previous hike in gas prices that was announced in October, so it is beyond me how they are expected to meet the cost of a 50% increase in gas prices by December, never mind the 20% increase in electricity prices that is predicted for January. The price of energy continues to rise, and the situation shows no signs of slowing down. The forecasted rises will leave hundreds of thousands of people struggling to heat their homes, access hot water and keep the lights on. The rises are completely unsustainable, and they will be the breaking point for so many.

I cannot comprehend the fact that, in 2021, MLAs are in the Chamber begging Ministers to take action so that families are not forced to choose between putting food on their table and heating their homes in the run-up to Christmas. Jeekers, Christmas is not even worth thinking about at this stage. We need a long-term strategy from the Economy Minister to address those issues. I ask him to set his sights on incentivising and increasing the use of renewable energies.

The development of any future energy strategy must have —

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. He is quite right that we have to look at the energy strategy. That is the long-term plan. However, we need more than wind power. When the wind stops blowing, as it did in the summer, it puts our generation mix into very dire straits. Therefore, when we talk about renewable energy, it has to be about more than just wind.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Tá nóiméad breise ag an Chomhalta. The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his intervention, and I concur with what he said.

The development of any future energy strategy must have net zero emissions targets at its core. While slashing the planet's carbon emissions, we can also slash prices and pass cost savings on to consumers. However, in the here and now, Ministers must work together to establish protections for the most vulnerable this winter.

I appreciate that the focus of the motion is limited to assisting low-income households. As Mr O'Dowd said, many more are affected —

Mr Allen: Will the Member give way?

Mr Durkan: I am sorry, Mr Allen. I have limited time.

I would like the Economy Minister to explore the potential inclusion of small businesses in any emergency energy proposals. They, too, bore the brunt of the pandemic's economic fallout and have been hit hard by the impact of rising energy costs. Although household energy costs here are, believe it or not, capped, businesses are not afforded any safeguards. We cannot afford to see local businesses that have weathered the storm of COVID being forced to shut up shop as a result of soaring energy prices. Businesses going bust means jobs being lost, thus contributing to the ongoing poverty cycle. We can and must do better than that.

I implore the Communities Minister to work alongside her Executive colleagues to establish a winter energy emergency fund for struggling households in order to mitigate the rising cost of living. I understand that a bid has already been made for a fuel support package, and discussions about it have begun with the Utility Regulator, but we need to see the matter progressed urgently, not held out as a carrot to be taken away at the eleventh hour. Too many opportunities have been lost.

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

Mr Durkan: We cannot afford to deny families much-needed support this winter. An emergency energy scheme is needed now. I implore the Executive to consider implementing a cross-sector fuel poverty task force, as —

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

Mr Durkan: — recommended by the Fuel Poverty Coalition.

Mr Dickson: The timing of the debate could not be more urgent. Our energy crisis has emphasised the need for real, meaningful and permanent change. As others said, the record high prices will sadly plunge thousands of households into fuel poverty this winter, with costs increasing at incredible rates in many areas.

The crisis has been sparked by a number of factors, but it is ultimately down to rising global demand for unsustainable energy. Prices have skyrocketed after the pandemic, as demand rebounded more quickly than expected. The rise in energy prices that we are seeing now will happen time and time again while we continue to rely on fossil fuels as our dominant energy system. In effect, we are in a perfect storm that has been brewing for some time.

People are desperate. They face rising energy prices, cuts to welfare and a long, cold winter. Even before the pandemic, over 160,000 households in Northern Ireland were living in fuel poverty. With no end to high prices in sight, we need to address the issue now. We must deal with it.

The removal of the universal credit uplift, which others mentioned, could not have come at a more critical time. Reports by citizens' organisations have demonstrated that some of poorest households in Northern Ireland could lose up to £40 a week. Over 300,000 people in Northern Ireland already live on the breadline. The Northern Ireland poverty bulletin reported that one child in four lives in poverty. Taking away the universal credit uplift will only plunge another 11,000 children into poverty and misery.

We cannot just pay lip service to fuel poverty, food poverty, clothing poverty and period poverty. We need to address all those issues on behalf of our constituents who can no longer afford the bare essentials. No one should be forced to choose between eating and heating. That choice represents an absolute failure of government policy, whether at Westminster or here, and it entrenches pre-existing inequalities. Some of our most disadvantaged are suffering in silence. Children from cold homes are twice as likely to suffer from respiratory problems as those living in warm homes.

We need urgent action in order to maintain and support people who are living in vulnerable circumstances, but we also need long-term solutions. We need to fund energy programmes fully, insulate and retrofit homes to make them energy-efficient, and change the energy price framework, which currently charges the highest rates to those who use the least energy.

We have to make progress on tackling fuel poverty. We have not done enough. Unprecedented price rises threaten to wipe out all the good that has been done and put pressure on vulnerable households. Funding has to be put aside to ensure that people can heat their home. We need to invest in greener energy and sustainable, insulated housing. Our most disadvantaged live in poorly insulated homes. People will suffer from the rising costs of energy. Cold homes cost £50 more a month to heat, and many people are at breaking point. That is why my party's green new deal focuses on sustainable energy and ending fuel poverty, while recognising that we have to build a secure and thriving green economy that delivers for everyone.

The decisions that we take now will determine whether this is a crisis in which we support vulnerable households or a catastrophe into which we let them fall. We have an opportunity to reimagine our communities, but that must involve all-encompassing, cross-departmental schemes. An example of that is being showcased in London with the release of the Future Neighbourhoods 2030 plan that puts long-term emphasis on the restructuring of the economy, ending inequalities through a green new deal and focusing on disadvantaged residents who have been disproportionately affected by fuel poverty. Departments here need to grasp practical examples such as that.

The effects of unemployment and the COVID pandemic will be seen hard and long through the winter. An emergency fund would go some way to reducing fuel poverty but would be a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. It is time to put long-term emphasis on restructuring our economy, ending dependency on unreliable and climate-destroying fossil fuels.

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

Mr Dickson: Finally, Mr Speaker, a question for a Minister who is not here today, our Economy Minister: where is our energy strategy?

Mr Boylan: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is quite interesting, with some Members talking about how we are living in unprecedented times. I know that Mr Frew is passionate about energy and knows the subject inside out. I will not profess to know about that issue, but what I will say is: I agree with my colleague John O'Dowd. When he spoke about where some of the answers for all of this lie, I saw the proposer of the motion nod his head. He talked about the £40 million. That £40 million is not going to wash here, folks. The interventions that we need to address these issues lie outside this place.

The first words that Mr Durkan used were "unprecedented times", and he then proceeded to go after the Executive. I have no doubt that the Executive will do their bit as best they can, but —

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. I am not sure how closely he was listening. In my introductory remarks, I recognised that rising energy costs are a global issue and an unprecedented challenge that is outside any Administration's control. I am sure that the Member will accept that the Executive can and must do more to tackle this crisis through joint working.

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

Mr Boylan: I appreciate what the Member says. We all know that this is a global crisis. The pandemic has not been to the fore of any of the contributions to the motion from the Floor, but it should be. If you read any of the statements, they are always about unforeseen energy rises. Talk to the other industries right across the economic sector or to the building trade: prices are rising no matter, whether it is wood or cement. No matter what it is in the construction industry, those costs are growing. This is a global crisis across the board, but I believe that some of the answers lie, and the onus lies, with Westminster. Other Governments across Europe and the world are tackling the crisis. They are engaging with energy companies and trying their best, so the responsibility lies with Westminster as well.

I will support the motion. A lot of people have been on, and we know that people have suffered and continue to suffer. They face many challenges arising from the pandemic. We all recognise the hardships that COVID has visited on our people. The reality is that we have plodded our way through COVID on the road to some form of normality, but we have to see what that normality may be. We have seen costs rise across the economic sector. We have all seen energy prices skyrocket over the course of the year, but this issue is not specific to the North. Energy costs have risen across the world, and that is due, in part, to our over-reliance on fossil fuels, weather conditions that make it harder to generate renewable energy and, of course, the demand for energy as we recover from the pandemic. Local suppliers have raised their wholesale energy prices as a result of worldwide demand for energy. In the North, wholesale gas prices rose by 150% between August and October. All local suppliers have raised their prices. Budget Energy has hiked electricity costs by 18%. Firmus Energy increased gas prices by 35% in the ten towns network. SSE Airtricity has increased prices by 21·8%.

Click Energy has increased its prices by 16%. Further price rises are expected to continue into the winter, and it is likely to be spring of 2022 when those prices will stabilise.


12.00 noon

While this is a global problem that affects people right across the world, the increased costs come at the same time as the Tory Government's decision to cut £20 from universal credit and tax credits and raise National Insurance contributions. The combination of all of these factors will not only increase the number of people experiencing fuel poverty, as highlighted by the motion, but the number of people falling into poverty overall.

Workers and families in the North have the lowest earnings and disposable incomes across these islands and are, therefore, more vulnerable to further rising costs. The Consumer Council says that families in the North are more exposed to fuel poverty than those elsewhere due to our population having these lower wages and disposable incomes. As many have said, the scale of the energy crisis is unprecedented, and an energy fund alone would not be enough to help workers and families on low and middle incomes who will all be affected by these rising costs.

As I said, Governments across the world have taken measures and steps. The scale of the energy crisis cannot be resolved by funding from the block grant alone. I believe that the onus lies with the British Government. There are certainly measures that the Executive can take, and, by supporting the motion, I hope that we can come to —

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

Mr Boylan: OK. I am finished, Mr Deputy Speaker, Go raibh míle maith agat.

Ms Brogan: It is clear that we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Ordinary families and workers are struggling to make ends meet, and, as Members across the House have said, energy costs have skyrocketed over the course of this year. When you add that to the rising cost of food, increased costs at the petrol pumps, inflation and the costs of unsubsidised childcare, you see that families right across the board are struggling to get by. Despite this, the British Chancellor delivered a Budget last week that offered no direct support for families facing these Bills.

Last week, the Tory Government demonstrated once again that they are wedded to the rich, with cuts to taxes for the banks. Meanwhile, ordinary workers and families will pay more National Insurance, and families here who are most in need have had their universal credit cut by the British Government. It is unfair, and it will potentially leave many families unable to heat their home this winter.

I am Sinn Féin's spokesperson on children and young people, so I want to look at how this could potentially affect children and young people. The likely consequences and impacts of unaffordable energy costs on children and young people are really concerning. According to research, for those living in insufficiently heated homes, there is a 30% greater risk of hospital admission for infants, and for children there is a significantly greater risk of health problems, particularly respiratory illness. For adolescents, there is an increased risk of mental health problems. Obviously, these risks are hugely concerning and that is why we need the British Government to step up and face up to their responsibilities, just as Governments across Europe have done. We are asking them to introduce significant measures to tackle rising energy prices.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Ms Brogan: Sure, go ahead.

Mr Storey: I have listened to the Member and obviously she has raised a valid issue about insulation. Maybe she should have a word with her colleagues and ask them why, over the past number of years, her party has persistently resisted any changes to the Housing Executive. We are waiting on this new dawn for the Housing Executive from the current Minister, but that was denied by previous Sinn Féin representatives. That, ultimately, has led to a housing crisis for which she and her colleagues are responsible.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Tá nóiméad breise ag an Chomhalta. The Member will have an extra minute.

Ms Brogan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank the Member for his intervention. Today, we are discussing rising energy costs and how that is affecting everyone throughout the North. My point was about children and young people specifically. I will leave it to the Minister to respond to that.

Meaningful solutions to a crisis of this scale require intervention at the highest level. As has been said already, the Assembly has limited powers and a restricted Budget, both of which are determined by Westminster. Westminster has the power and resources to deliver solutions on the scale that is required to meet the crisis. That is why we put forward an amendment that focused on meaningful financial interventions that the British Government should deliver, rather than talking about the already overstretched departmental budgets here.

The motion recognises the role that the British Government, and the adoption of their policies, have played in driving the crisis. As was mentioned, the end of furlough and the removal of the £20-a-week universal credit uplift have impacted on some of our most vulnerable households and struggling businesses. However, the motion does not call upon the British Government to reverse those decisions, which they should. I support the motion, but it could have gone further to call for more support from the British Government.

Mr Allen: I have listened intently to comments from Members around the House. Some pointed out that it is beyond our capacity within our budget to address the issues: the cost of living issues that have been rightly pointed out; the cost of living issues that are squeezing families right across all our constituencies; and the cost of living issues that, as my Committee colleague pointed out, are a matter of life and death. I am sure that his colleagues in the DUP are the poorer for him not being in the Department for the Economy and bringing forward his passion about the energy crisis that we face. I have listened to the Member intently in our Committee, and it is clear that he has vast knowledge in that area. I am sure that he is feeding that to his current Minister.

Yes, the fund that is proposed in the motion is a short-term solution. It is similar to the short-term solution that the COVID heating fund provided in the context of the COVID pandemic. It is short term, and we need long-term meaningful solutions to address the issue that is facing all our constituents right across Northern Ireland. That is why we, as a party, have called repeatedly for the establishment of a fuel poverty task force.

I am sure that people will listen to that and say, "Not another task force. Not another body. Not another quango", but what would that task force do? I have spoken to and liaised with many of our subject matter experts in the fuel industry and in charities, which, day and daily, have to top up our constituents' gas and electric meters. Charities are having to provide financial and welfare support to those people because they cannot afford to heat their homes and they have to choose between heating and eating. That fuel poverty task force would support the Department for Communities to develop solutions to support those constituents who are facing fuel poverty. However, importantly, it would also help to develop long-term solutions to help to prevent many more individuals and families right across Northern Ireland from falling into fuel poverty.

We have heard remarks about the Housing Executive. We have had various reports, such as the cavity wall report, but where is the long-term meaningful outcome in respect of that? The Minister might be able to update the House today on the long-term action plan to properly insulate our Housing Executive homes.

The Minister might also be able to provide an update on her departmental proposals to utilise the £14 million fund. I know that it is only a drop in the ocean in comparison to what we need, but there is a £14 million fund derived from the UK for vulnerable households. Will the Minister bid to her colleague the Finance Minister for the entirety of that £14 million? What will those proposals look like? Will they be one-off payments? How will those one-off payments be measured against the impact on individuals on the ground? I will leave my remarks there.

Ms Armstrong: This is not an unexpected rise in fuel costs. I have to admit that, 30-plus years ago, when I sat in my geography class in Queen's University, Dr Nick Betts predicted that, around this time in this century, we would see an increase in the cost of energy because we would have to move away from fossil fuels. That man should be given an award for predictions.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion. I thank the Members for bringing it to the Floor of the House. The rising cost of energy is not going to impact every household; it is impacting every household. The cost of home-heating oil, gas, electric and, let us not forget, car fuel, is rising. Predictions are that those costs will only continue to rise before the end of this calendar year, which is months away. As we know, this is happening at the same time as the wider cost of living costs are increasing. What a way to come out of the pandemic. Because of the Spend Local cards, the impact of the loss of the uplift to universal credit of £20 per week has not yet been fully felt in many households. Many of my constituents have used the £100 on their Spend Local card to pay to heat their home and top up their electricity meter as much as they can in advance of winter. That means that, for many families, the money on the Spend Local cards has masked the impact of the removal of the COVID uplift. For most of them, November will be the month when energy costs hit worst.

What can we do? Of course, the motion calls for joint departmental working by asking the Finance, Economy and Communities Ministers to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help people in need. We should never allow any citizen to sit in a cold home. Older people, children, people with disabilities, and all others should never, in a First World society, sit freezing or foundered in their homes.

The increasing cost of energy also impacts on public services. Schools and hospitals will pay more for energy. We must do something about that. The Minister is here to respond to the motion. I will be honest: we have just had the October monitoring round, and no money has been allocated for a winter emergency fund, so what can we do? People who are cold want solutions, not finger-pointing. What can we do in the short term? Of course, we should write to the UK Government and ask them for financial support. We should also challenge the regulator and energy providers more. However —

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Does the Member agree that the regulator is probably underfunded and lacks capacity and should be given more support to regulate the people and organisations that are to blame for some of those issues and could well be the cause of blackouts this winter?

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

Ms Armstrong: Thank you. A stronger regulator would certainly do that. I agree with the Member.

Let us address the short-term impact of energy cost increases. Bryson Charitable Group has won the fuel bank research tender. However, I assume that that will not be delivered on for this winter. National Energy Action NI and Advice NI have put in a bid for emergency energy support for people across Northern Ireland who have no resources to pay for home heating, so that, if, for instance, someone approached their MLA for a food bank voucher, they might also be offered a home-heating voucher. I do not know what is happening with that bid. The bid could provide the solution to a means-tested winter energy fund. People are already on the ground and ready to help us. As Mr Allen from the Ulster Unionists said, perhaps the Minister could clarify what is happening with that £14 million. Will there be a fuel poverty funding pot? I would love to hear what will happen with that. I will, of course, support the Minister if she puts forward a bid for that total amount.

In the short term, if we are to deal with fuel poverty that is caused by rising energy costs, the solution is money. We have to be honest about that. We all know that it is in tight supply at the moment. We need money now. In the medium term, we need more consideration to be given in the three-year Budget plan to things like insulation, retrofitting and investment in alternative, sustainable fuels. We need to look at energy options such as solar and wind. We need public education. We know that already in the year 2020-21, 45% of our energy was generated from renewables. Therefore, we have the opportunity to do that. We also need to improve the planning process so that solar and wind farms get through the system quicker.

In the long term — I appreciate what Mr Frew said earlier — it is not all down to wind energy. Where do we live? We live on an island. We could have tidal energy. We are not investing in that at all. In the long term, we need to invest in offshore energy, because that is where the solutions are: they are in wind and tidal offshore energy and energy storage. In the week that we are in, while COP is happening, we must not keep navel-gazing and taking knee-jerk reactions to rising fuel prices and fuel poverty. We need to plan and take actions to deal with poverty and fuel poverty.

How about this: New Decade, New Approach? We had a citizens' assembly. Why do we not give the citizens' assembly the ability to come up with an energy strategy? It could be our task force. They could be the people to bring that forward and say, "This is how we need to pull ourselves out of constantly rising fuel costs and energy crises".

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close. [Laughter.]

Ms Armstrong: I am afraid that I am finished.


12.15 pm

Miss Woods: I support the motion. For those in our society who are on the lowest incomes, struggling to make their budget stretch and provide for their family, the coming winter is shaping up to be like no other. Unprecedented gas price hikes announced last month coincided with increases in the cost of home-heating oil that have been incremental but significant. The Utility Regulator has warned that gas bills could jump by another 50% in December, and, with the cost of electricity also set to rise considerably, we face further price rises next year. When is it going to end?

We can talk about a worldwide squeeze on gas and energy supplies and various factors such as the cold winter in Europe last year, increased demand from China and the impact of the pandemic, but that will not bring comfort or solace to those who will have to choose, yet again, between heating and eating or making more sacrifices for the sake of their family.

Our people need action from government, and the Executive can and must introduce measures to ease the pressure on those with very limited incomes, but we should never have reached this point. For over 10 years, the Green Party has called for a green new deal for Northern Ireland that would involve a radical overhaul of our energy system and mass retrofitting to improve the energy efficiency of homes. We need to address energy insecurity at international and local levels. We have warned against reliance on fossil fuels, and we identified the recovery period from the pandemic as a once in a lifetime opportunity to change and build back better.

Those calls have not been met with meaningful action by the Executive. I repeat the questions, as others have. Where is the energy strategy that we were promised last year? Where is the fuel poverty strategy that we have been waiting on for nearly a decade? When will we implement passive house standards as a minimum in building regulations, so that all new homes require less energy and retain more heat? Where is the extensive retrofitting programme for older houses, so that we can stop people pumping money into heating their street rather than themselves? When will we see the huge investment in home-heating transition from oil and gas boilers to electricity from ground source and air source heat pumps? It needs to be joined up, however. Putting a heat pump in a poorly insulated home is like using a teapot with cracks in it, as my colleague said a couple of —

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. She raises valid points about the way forward with heat pumps and other things, but everything that seems to be a solution at this point will increase electricity demand — heat pumps, electric vehicles and everything that goes with them — so we need to get the generation mix correct. Does the Member agree that wind will not cut it on its own, so we are on the island philosophy that a colleague across the way referred to of tidal and hydro probably being the way to go?

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

Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his intervention. I completely agree. We also need to look at the contracts for difference (CfD) scheme and at how pricing is set and whether it is set for Northern Ireland or within the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. I would certainly welcome information from the Executive on where they are with that, or, indeed, from the Member's party colleague the Economy Minister on the energy strategy that we await. I completely agree, but there needs to be a coherent approach.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. She talks about a coherent approach. A colleague and I have four projects on the north coast that are gone because of opposition to wind or tidal from people who believed that the environment was going to be damaged. How do we get a balance? In the debate, one says, "Wind, tidal; great, wonderful", but, when we go to produce them, we find that four companies on the north coast are out of business.

Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his intervention. He is correct that a balance is needed, but we cannot just keep destroying the environment for the sake of projects that could be placed elsewhere. Mr Frew made the point that we need to invest in offshore, tidal and hydro as a mix.

National Energy Action (NEA) NI pointed out that, every winter, thousands of people are faced with living in properties that are dangerous or unfit for colder seasons and that 22% of households in Northern Ireland still live in fuel poverty. They live below the poverty line and have much higher bills owing to a poor level of energy efficiency. An analysis suggests that, during winter months, families in cold, leaky homes face bills that are different by, on average, £50 from those of families in well-insulated homes. The 'UK Fuel Poverty Monitor 2019-20' found that the pandemic had created difficult conditions for fuel-poor households, driven by:

"An increase in energy use, due to more people spending more time at home"

and

"A reduction in income, as many jobs were either lost or placed on furlough".

Therefore, it is time for the Executive to step up and tackle those issues head-on. It is not OK simply to say that we are at the mercy of the market. We leave it to the market only if we choose to do so. If regulation is required, Ministers should instruct their Departments to develop legislative proposals. The Executive must set the standard and the example through implementing the required changes in, for example, our social housing stock; not in ten years' time but now.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Miss Woods: I will indeed. In the short term, they must provide financial assistance to those who have been hardest hit by the energy crisis. Intervention is an option.

Mr Carroll: I support the motion. First, the increases are an absolute disgrace. I am very concerned about how they will impact on people in my constituency and beyond, such as pensioners; people in work; those who face further pay freezes; people on benefits, including legacy benefits; and people who will be affected by the withdrawal of the universal credit uplift. The increases will have a real, negative impact on those people's lives.

This year, people are paying £1,000 more for energy than last year. The cost of heating a home and being able to wash has shot up dramatically, but pay and benefits have not; they have gone in the opposite direction. I am extremely worried about how people will get by this winter. This is an unprecedented increase and crisis, and fuel poverty already impacts on 42% of households. That figure will shoot up again even further.

As a bare minimum, the Executive need to ensure that people are protected this winter. They need to ensure that a protective financial blanket is put around people to make sure that they are not thrown to the wolves. People may ask, "How should that be paid for?". That is a fair question. However, to be honest, organisations that have made huge profits on the back of people should not be subsidised. The profits of those organisations should be tackled and the money used to introduce a payment scheme. I have already asked what powers Stormont has to do that, and some may say that they are limited. However, Stormont has power over welfare, so protection payments need to be put in place.

If the Executive cannot implement protection to prevent people being cold this winter, most people will quite rightly ask, "What are their priorities? What are they at?". A rapid and widespread winter fuel poverty scheme needs to be implemented urgently. Where is the emergency meeting of the Executive on that issue? Where is the fuel poverty strategy? There has been some talk about global causes, but there are some measures that the Executive can implement to protect people, such as a price cap.

The Utility Regulator and the Department for the Economy need to enforce a stop on unregulated energy companies profiting on the back of these price hikes, especially during such an unprecedented period. We simply cannot expect rising energy costs to be passed on to the public at a time of widespread hardship while energy companies are set to make millions in profits. Those with the deepest pockets should pay.

An emergency fuel poverty fund should be implemented. Unregulated energy companies need to commit to donating profits to an emergency fuel poverty fund, as suggested by some here, the Fuel Poverty Coalition and the Utility Regulator. Emergency financial support needs to be implemented, and additional funding needs to be directed towards increasing the winter fuel payment, the cold weather payment, the warm homes scheme and so on, as suggested by NEA and the Nevin Economic Research Institute.

A windfall tax needs to be implemented. Stormont needs to call on Westminster to implement a windfall tax on the profits made by energy companies this year and put that towards developing a green economy and a just transition.

Global causes can be used as an excuse, but the latest increase shows, once again, how unreliable the market is. In recent years, there has been an idea that more competition needs to be injected into the market. However, in the present crisis, the UK Government's preferred option is to let smaller energy companies fail and to persuade larger energy companies to take on the customers of their former rivals with the help of state-backed loans. In practice, that proves that competition is built on fantasy. Therefore, in the short term, we need to see those companies taken into public ownership to ensure that profiteering does not occur and that people are not subject to the whims and decisions of shareholders, chief executives and profiteers.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that countries such as Russia also need to be looked at? I believe that Russia is a communist state that rides on the back of the benefits of capitalism. Maybe it is time that Russia decided to look at its economics and at how it can help the rest of the world.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Tá bomaite breise ag an Chomhalta. An extra minute for the Member.

Mr Carroll: The Member wants a Russian history lesson. Russia is certainly not communist or socialist. It is a capitalist country, just like Britain and all those others. The DUP has a weird obsession with Russia and China, but I do not have time to dissect that today. Russia is very much a capitalist country. Capitalism is still your party's philosophy, which is strange, given that it cannot even protect people during a pandemic, never mind when prices shoot up. [Inaudible.]

Mr Carroll: I do not know what the Member is shouting, but let me finish.

We need to have a just transition away from those types of energy resources. Fossil fuels burn the planet, and we know that they also burn a hole in people's pockets.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Glaoim ar Aire na Roinne Pobal le freagra a thabhairt ar an rún. Tá suas le cúig bhomaite déag agat, a Aire. I call the Minister for Communities, who has up to 15 minutes in which to respond.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank all the contributors to the debate and am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the motion. The longer-term strategy for the wider crisis rests not just with me. It is an issue that the Executive as a whole have to address. All the issues were discussed at the most recent Executive meeting, and we will have to have an urgent, dedicated discussion going forward.

I am acutely aware of the impact that recent and ongoing announcements on energy price rises will have on low-income households. The price rises will impact on every family and every household across the North, coinciding as they do with the end of the furlough scheme and the cut to universal credit by the British Government. As some say, it really is a perfect storm, but the situation is imperfect for those on whom all those factors will have an impact.

This is correctly described as a fuel crisis, and it is a crisis that requires an urgent response. I recognise the urgency of the situation and the need for us, as an Executive, to act quickly to support vulnerable households, many of which had concerns about how to pay their bills long before the current situation came about.

My Department offers a range of supports to assist households that are in fuel poverty. Supports include schemes to help improve the energy efficiency of homes. We work with the Housing Executive and councils to offer the affordable warmth scheme to low-income owner-occupiers and households in the private rented sector with an income of under £23,000. Until a few months ago, that was the lower income threshold. We have increased the threshold to allow more families into the scheme. The scheme also includes multiple measures: cavity wall insulation; the installation of gas or oil; boiler replacement; and the replacement of windows. There is also the boiler replacement scheme, which provides a grant of up to £1,000 towards the cost of replacing an inefficient boiler that is over 15 years old. That scheme is open to owner-occupiers with a household income of less than £40,000.

As well as seeking to reduce fuel consumption through having energy-efficient homes, my Department offers vital financial support to vulnerable households through the social security system. The winter fuel payment scheme was introduced in January 1998 to help alleviate fuel poverty by providing financial help towards winter fuel bills, specifically for older people. Most winter fuel payments will be paid automatically to qualifying claimants during November and December, with all payments being made by 14 January 2022. The winter fuel payment ranges from £100 to £300, depending on the claimant's individual circumstances. Last year, 283,537 winter fuel payments were made here, to a total value of £50·6 million. The additional winter fuel payment was made last year, totalling £44·6 million, to an additional 223,000 households. The social fund cold weather payment provides a one-off payment of £25 in periods of severe weather to the elderly, the disabled and those with children under the age of five. The payment is automatically triggered once the relevant temperature criteria are met.

People who find themselves in crisis situations such as being unable to pay fuel bills due to increasing costs may be able to apply for short-term help through my Department's discretionary support scheme. A person does not have to be claiming benefits to qualify for help, and, if they meet the eligibility criteria, they can apply for an interest-free loan or non-repayable grant. Anyone who thinks that they might qualify can refer to the nidirect website for information. Many Members will know that I recently appointed an independent group to look at the discretionary support scheme and how we can enhance it. It will make recommendations to me soon. Any changes will need legislation, and I hope that I can progress that as soon as possible.


12.30 pm

Since 2017, my Department has been running the social supermarket pilot programme at five sites across the North — Derry, Strabane, Coleraine, Lisburn and west Belfast. They operate on a membership basis and provide members who experience food poverty with access to food, alongside tailored wrap-around support to address the causes of poverty. The wrap-around support includes fuel poverty support where it is needed. Work is under way to design the roll-out of social supermarket models in all council areas through a co-design process. We are engaging with local government on that initiative.

With regard to the current crisis, my Department is developing a fuel poverty strategy, as many Members mentioned. Obviously, it has to be in line with the energy strategy and the green growth strategy. It will also form part of the anti-poverty strategy to address the long-term issues around fuel poverty and around poverty and inequality more broadly. It will sit alongside the other inclusion strategies around disability, LGBTQI and young people that will be included in the anti-poverty strategy and, of course, the gender strategy. Members will know that I will bring forward those strategies for implementation before the end of the mandate.

I acknowledge that an immediate response is needed to support those in need now, but that will not solve the issue in the medium to long term. Many Members have reflected that today. The Executive must find a sustainable solution to increasingly high energy prices that aligns with our fuel poverty, energy and climate change strategies and balances it with the potential impact on the efforts to reduce carbon and switch from fossil fuels to renewables. With regard to the current crisis, I have asked my officials to consider what my Department can do to contribute to the Executive's response to those in immediate and serious need. They have had early engagement with the Utility Regulator, along with officials from the Department for the Economy and the Consumer Council, to understand and consider what can be done in the current climate.

There were some questions asked about the Barnett consequentials. We got confirmation of that only last week in the spending review. It will be £13·7 million. I have already said publicly that I am in the process of making a formal bid to the Department of Finance for that full amount of £13·7 million. Of course, more money will be needed, because, when you look at the additional winter fuel payment that we gave last year, you see that it was over £44 million. The £13·7 million will do some things, but it will do very little. There are therefore serious questions around where that finance can come from.

Dr Aiken: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hargey: Yes, of course.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her remarks so far. Is there any way in which the Minister can look through her Department and look at quantifying — I heard what her colleague from Upper Bann stated — the level that we should be looking at? There is an indication that there are additional moneys there, and we will be aware of some of the extra moneys that are likely to come over the next three years that we are going to get an indication of. Can she look at what the quantum is likely to be and put in a combined bid for that?

Ms Hargey: The combined bid will be determined by whether the money is there. Are Departments willing to give over money? As was stated, it is OK to say that it is only 0·4% of the Budget, but that could mean millions of pounds. The Department of Finance does not have a money tree. The money that it reallocates comes from other Departments that maybe cannot spend it in this financial year. Therefore I have to rely on other Ministers, if the money is available. Obviously, I will have to look within my Department as well.

Depending on the money, the support could be scalable. It could be £13·7 million, or we could scale it up to around £44 million, as we did with a similar scheme last year. Over £50 million will go out in the next month or two for the winter fuel payment. The support is in addition to those payments. My officials are working at pace to scope out the options that are available to provide support to citizens who may struggle to heat their home or pay their energy bills over the coming months. As I said, any intervention will be subject to the necessary budget requirements, and I am looking to bring forward a scheme as soon as possible. I will make a bid for the full £13·7 million, and, again, whether I can scale up a scheme will depend on the money that comes forward and what other Departments can potentially surrender.

Recently, I have also given out an additional £3 million payment to councils through the community support programme. We are engaging with local government. I know that many councils are looking at fuel support schemes and using that vital money to support people with their energy costs, as they did during the pandemic. The winter fuel payment will soon start to be paid out to 283,000 people. Over £50 million is being invested in that.

I acknowledge the contributions to the debate. It is an issue that is clearly recognised across the House. I fully support the need for collective action on the part of central and local government and all our partners in the community and voluntary sector in the hope that energy companies respond to the crisis. We can make an intervention, and it is right that we do so. I will continue to push the Executive to do that. I am developing a scheme, and I will bring it forward as quickly as I can. Fundamentally, however, we need to challenge the economic system that creates inequality and injustice and enables the fuel crisis, the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis. All those crises are not happening by chance: the global economic system is weighted to create crises and injustice. We can try to shield our citizens from the worst effects, but we cannot eradicate it on our own. That is why we need to stand up, articulate that and demand a different type of economic system that does not work for the minority. As many Members have said, somebody is making a profit out of it. A minority of people are making a profit. We need to turn that around and ensure that the majority of people feel the benefits and that those profits do not go into the pockets of a minority at the top of our global system.

Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for giving way. I hear what she says about systems. Does she recognise that, in the Republic of Ireland, householders and domestic customers supplement, if you like, the bills of large energy users, whereas, in the UK, it is the other way round, and, in Northern Ireland, the arrangements are unbiased?

Ms Hargey: The reality is that the global economic system is not working. It works for a few at the top and not for the many. That needs to change. It is not by chance that we are in a global climate crisis, a global cost of living crisis and a fuel crisis, but people are making billions of pounds in profit. That is abhorrent, and it needs to change. On issues like that, we need to stand collectively with all Governments to say, "Enough is enough".

We can do things locally. I completely agree with the motion's intent and that we should do something. I am trying to work at pace to bring something forward. Over the next period, the House and all parties can prioritise the anti-poverty and social inclusion strategies that I am bringing forward. They are being designed by the sectors involved, such as our community and voluntary sector, our LGBT community, our women's movement, our disability community, our charities and others. I ask that those strategies are endorsed when they come to the Executive and the Chamber.

I ask the House and all parties to agree to a stand-alone outcome on housing in the Programme for Government. We need to deal with the housing crisis, and all housing campaigners and those working in the field have called for that. Again, will all the parties in the Chamber endorse my proposal at the Executive to have a stand-alone outcome in the Programme for Government?

Mr Allen: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hargey: Yes. Of course.

Mr Allen: Does the Minister agree that, given that we are discussing the impact of the cost of living on many people across Northern Ireland, it is incredible that her Department had to return £2 million in the October monitoring round in respect of the closure of loopholes under the welfare mitigations? Will she call on the parties to remove the blockade on that and, in order to do so, consider an initial 10-year period for the mitigations, with the ability to extend where necessary?

Ms Hargey: In my closing remarks, I will cover the things that can be done now, Andy. I thank you for your intervention.

We can legislate now to improve workers' terms and conditions: the right to unionise —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Minister to draw her remarks to a close, please.

Ms Hargey: — the right to a real living wage and an end to zero-hours contracts. We also need to implement the welfare mitigations and get those across the line. One party is blocking the mitigations from being put on the Executive table. This Thursday, I will again call for a decision, not discussion, on that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Minister, the time is up.

Ms Hargey: We can do stuff, so let us get down to doing it.

Mr Nesbitt: I begin by thanking the Minister for making herself available to listen to the contributions and for responding with a highly factual set of remarks. As for her call to support a specific housing outcome in a Programme for Government, I will not do policy on the hoof. We have heard calls for specific outcomes for young people and older people. Given the way in which the draft Programme for Government for this mandate was drafted, to go down that route would be a reasonably radical change, so it needs some thought.

I also thank all the contributors to the debate. Before I touch on the themes, I would like to step back 10 years to when I first got elected here to "Château Despair". I was asked to serve on the Economy Committee, and one of the first things that surprised me was the fact that there was no energy strategy. How could you have a devolved Administration without an energy strategy? That point, of course, has been made by many Members, including Mr Dickson and, perhaps most significantly, Mr Frew, who said that it is a "life and death" strategy. I have to say to Mr Frew that I got very excited, in a platonic way, when he became the Minister for the Economy, because I thought, "Here's a man who really understands. Here is a Member who's going to do great things in terms of our economy strategy", which we still await.

I acknowledge Kellie Armstrong saying that that is the sort of thing that you might put to a citizens' assembly. In principle, I agree, because we, naturally enough, work in the here and now of a five-year mandate, whereas energy and transport are issues that we need to look at over a 20-, 25- or even 50-year period. A citizens' assembly would not necessarily be second-guessing what we do in here; it would be doing something different and potentially very helpful.

We need an energy policy, and I know that we are promised one before the end of the calendar year. That is one leg of the three-legged stool approach. You need policy; appropriate, effective planning; and a good grid for transmission and distribution. In fact, it is more than a grid, is it not? If we go for the likes of hydrogen energy, we need storage, and we need battery storage for wind and tidal power. Those things go together. You need battery storage and a grid for transmission and distribution, as well as planning and policy.

Before I arrived up here, something else surprised me on my first canvass to get elected. I was in Newtownards. I will not say where, but let us say that there was a small group of detached homes with two cars in each drive. As I walked into that area, I did not think that I would encounter vulnerable people as such. However, a woman who opened her door was highly distressed. She had just given up work to look after her husband, who had gone through a serious operation for cancer. What she had to do that really worried her was to heat the home two or three degrees more than normal, because he needed that additional heat to recover from the operation.

That had never crossed my mind, and she was desperately worried that she could not afford it. We would describe her as being middle class and not vulnerable, but, because of her husband's medical condition, she was incredibly vulnerable. That happened in normal times for energy prices when an increase might have been 2% or 3%.


12.45 pm

A few weeks ago, the Utility Regulator came to the Economy Committee and said that things were dire. At the beginning of October, Firmus Energy, which does the ten towns, got a 35% increase in its tariff. It wants another 40% on top of that before the end of the calendar year. Since then, the Utility Regulator has revised that predicted increase to 50% and the one for Power NI customers from 16% to 20%.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. I only want to illustrate that that will not be a price blip; it will be part of a sustained and seismic change in the way that we look at energy and the cost of energy for the foreseeable future, probably going into years.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree with him, I think that the Utility Regulator agrees with him, and it is also a point made by other Members, including Rachel Woods. The Utility Regulator is looking to us but is also suggesting to those in fuel poverty that there are other agencies, including Advice NI, Christians Against Poverty, the Money and Pensions Service, to turn to, no doubt in desperation, when looking for help.

When I look at some of the main themes, the biggest one was probably that horrible dilemma of whether you heat or eat. Mr Aiken mentioned that in opening the debate, as did Mr Durkan, who backed it up with some decent statistics on fuel poverty. Mr Durkan also referenced the lack here of the £140 warm home discount scheme that applies in England, Scotland and Wales. Stewart Dickson said that no one should be forced to choose between heating and eating, and Cathal Boylan mentioned low-income families.

Nicola Brogan talked about childcare and the increase in National Insurance as being part of a perfect — or, as the Minister described it, imperfect — storm in which energy costs, the loss of the £20 a week uplift in universal credit, the end of furlough and the prospect of a particularly cold winter are impacting on people. A perfect — or, as Ms Hargey said, imperfect — storm is coming our way.

Other impacts were referenced by Members. Nicola Brogan, speaking as her party's spokesperson on children and young people, said that under-heated homes impact negatively on the physical health of young people to the point at which they have to engage with the National Health Service. The National Health Service, which we acknowledge daily in the Chamber, is strained to near breaking point. Nicola Brogan and Andy Allen mentioned insulation, and the Minister has confirmed that she will bid for the £14 million fund that Andy Allen mentioned. Rachel Woods also talked about the need to bring forward a passive homes scheme.

The impact is not just on homes; there will an impact on our public services, as Kellie Armstrong mentioned. Schools need to be heated and hospitals need energy, and the costs will go up for them as much as they will for everybody else. We talked about renewable energy and wind power, and Mr Frew was one of the Members who made the point that the wind did not blow as hard as we wanted it to blow this calendar year. We do not have tidal energy, but Kellie Armstrong will agree with me, as a Member for Strangford, that SeaGen was a global first in generating tidal energy, and it generated a lot more than predicted with none of the downsides. Why does it seem that we have come to a full stop on tidal energy? Mr Storey made the point that sometimes environmentalists object when we bring forward green energy schemes.

We have called for the Minister for the Economy, the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance to work together. I acknowledge that the Minister, without saying that she would work toward the means-tested winter energy emergency fund that we are calling for, has said that she wants to work with colleagues in the Executive and beyond, including councils and community and voluntary sector groups, and I very much welcome that.

Mr Carroll said that the figure of 42% of households in fuel poverty will rise, and he launched the expected attack on the profits of the energy companies, but here is a question that we have not addressed in the debate: what if one of those energy companies goes bust? What happens to people who rely on an energy company to heat their home? That has happened in GB. Do we have the resilience to look after them if it happens here?

We also had a very short debate about whether Russia is communist or capitalist. In my last 30 seconds, I could start a debate about whether Sinn Féin is Ourselves Alone any more, given that it wants Westminster to intervene. Mr Boylan and Mr O'Dowd said that Westminster has to intervene and that it is down to Westminster. Whatever you do, Mr O'Dowd, do not take your seat and make that point in the House of Commons.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the rising cost of energy; expresses concern at the effect these rising costs are having on those on low incomes; acknowledges that the increased cost of living combined with the financial pressures arising from the end of furlough and the removal of the £20 universal credit (UC) weekly uplift will leave many potentially unable to heat their homes this winter; and calls on the Minister of Finance, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities to work together to create a means-tested winter energy emergency fund to help those in need.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister of Justice.

The sitting was suspended at 12.51 pm.


2.00 pm

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

Mr Speaker: Question 13 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I meet the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly, and I most recently met him at the end of September 2021. Although I fully recognise the operational independence of the Public Prosecution Service, our discussions include consideration of the resources that are available to the PPS in the context of our shared efforts to recover the justice system from the impact of COVID-19. As a non-ministerial department, however, PPS funding does not fall to my Department. The Public Prosecution Service receives its funding from the Department of Finance. The Director of Public Prosecutions is also a member of the Criminal Justice Board (CJB), which is the main strategic oversight group for the criminal justice system. The board meets regularly, and, where appropriate, its meetings include discussion on the availability of resources.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for that answer. Has she given any consideration to the implications for the Public Prosecution Service should the Stormont House legacy proposals go ahead, particularly the proposal for a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU)?

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. It is an issue that causes all of us considerable concern. I am on record as saying that the justice system, as currently constituted, is not the right mechanism through which to deal with all the issues in the Stormont House Agreement. When it comes to the issue of dealing with legacy, I believe that we need to have a properly managed approach. The Stormont House Agreement would allow us to do that over a fixed time period and in a progressive way, and that would lead to good outcomes. The Public Prosecution Service has, of course, engaged with us in those legacy discussions, as it has with the NIO, as one would expect when it comes to resourcing. It will be challenging for all parts of the justice system, which is why it is important that any comprehensive arrangement for dealing with legacy issues also be properly funded.

Mr McNulty: Minister, I have just attended a gut-wrenching event at the front of the Building, at which the families of the disappeared walked in silence to the steps of Stormont and laid a wreath in memory of those who have disappeared. I was speaking to Oliver McVeigh, whose brother has been lost for so many years. I was speaking to Anne Morgan, whose brother Seamus Ruddy was found four years ago and then buried. She still pinches herself every day that he was found.

The families are so strong, and their dignity is extraordinary. Although there are pressures on the Justice Department's resources, can you tell me whether the resources are there to help those families locate their loved ones? Moreover, are the resources there to ensure that those who were responsible for the disappeared will be brought to justice?

Mrs Long: On the issue that the Member has raised, all of us will want to extend not just our sympathy but our solidarity to those who find themselves in what is a completely unacceptable situation. Not only have they lost a relative but they have found themselves with no place to grieve, no place to mark that passing and no way to give their loved one a dignified burial, and that compounds their grief and hurt. That is the first thing that I want to say.

On the recovery of remains, the Member will be aware that responsibility for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains (ICLVR) lies with the Northern Ireland Office rather than with my Department. In holding to account those who took lives and disposed of the bodies in such a barbaric fashion, however, as I said in my answer to the original question, I believe that, at this time, the justice system is the only show in town when it comes to dealing with those who have conducted themselves in such a way. The proposals that the Government have brought forward would deny that option, however, even were further evidence to be made available. That would be the wrong thing to do for the very reason that you have spoken about today, which is the grief of the families and the fact that that grief has already been compounded by their long wait for justice, and that is potentially now to be denied. It is important, and incumbent on all of us, to find a solution that offers a viable and funded alternative to what the Government are currently proposing. I do not think that any of us in the House wants to be a party to the pain that the victims have suffered over many years.

Mrs Long: The provision of effective and consistent relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in all schools is vital in providing children and young people with the information and tools that they need in life to understand healthy relationships, make informed decisions and protect themselves. Changes to how RSE is provided in schools do not fall within my Department's responsibilities and can only be delivered by the Department of Education. However, I am keen that my officials should support such work insofar as is possible. That is why I wrote to the then newly appointed Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, in early July seeking a meeting to discuss what steps were being taken by her Department to improve RSE. I wrote to her again on 11 October but still await a response. I believe that there is real momentum in the community for progress in this area, so I have asked the Education Minister to give the matter her urgent attention so that we can arrange a mutually convenient time and date to discuss these important issues.

Members will be aware that I met the former Education Minister, Peter Weir, in March to discuss the same issues around improving RSE provision. During that meeting, Mr Weir gave a commitment that his Department would lead cross-sectoral work to look at improving the provision of RSE, including a review of the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 in relation to RSE. My Department subsequently arranged three workshops in June to allow stakeholders to put their views directly to Department of Education officials about how they believe RSE provision can be improved. I understand that participants in those workshops also identified gaps in the current minimum content order and made suggestions about those elements of RSE that they felt should be made mandatory as part of the curriculum in all schools.

While I understand that any changes to the minimum content order will require legislation, and that that will not be progressed in this mandate, Department of Education officials have advised that they believe that there is other work that can be taken forward in the interim, and they will report back to the Gillen education and awareness group, which is chaired by my Department, with their proposals.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answer, and, indeed, for her endeavours in cross-departmental working on this issue, which is not solely, if at all, under her remit. It is disappointing that her efforts have not been reciprocated. That is something that we should all bear in mind and try to get enacted. Will the Minister outline the importance to society of getting this done?

Mrs Long: If we look, even in recent days and weeks, at a number of issues, including, not least, the spiking of drinks, where we have seen a rise in the statistics, it is hugely concerning that we do not provide young people with the kind of relationships and sexuality education that would allow them, for example, to fully understand and explore issues around consent and domestic violence and abuse, and to equip them with not just the tools but the knowledge to be able to protect themselves and those around them from abuse and exploitation.

It is also important, in young people moving forward and having healthy relationships, emotionally and sexually, that they are equipped with the full spectrum of information that they need to be able to do that safely at a time of their own choosing and free from coercion or control. It is clear that Sir John Gillen felt that, without changing RSE, we would not be able to have the cultural shift in attitudes in society that would lead to a change in the kind of entitlement that we see displayed when people spike people's drinks, assault people in the street, harass women going about their daily business or, indeed, engage in sexual assault, and not only of women but of many people who are out socialising and getting on with their lives and who find themselves subject to sexual harassment and abuse. If we are going to change the culture, we need to start with the next generation. It is for our generation to ensure that we provide the best possible education for them.

Ms Brogan: Minister, relationships and sexuality education is important in tackling domestic and sexual violence and violence against women and girls. It is quite timely, given, as you said, the recent reports on drinks being spiked. Does the Minister share my concern at the lack of progress being made by the Education Minister on relationships and sexuality education in schools?

Mrs Long: I very much welcome the previous Education Minister's commitment to look at the minimum content order. That is the place to start. At the moment, the minimum content order is about as minimal as a content order can be and, therefore, leaves schools with a wide latitude to decide whether to give people full relationships and sexuality education or to take a very minimalist approach.

It is hugely important that all young people, in the same way that they are taught numeracy, literacy and all the other subjects that equip us for life, are taught the right skills when it comes to being able to enjoy relationships in a healthy way and in a way that is not subject to coercive control or abusive patterns. School is a good place to do that. It is also a safe place for young people to, in the course of that conversation, speak to their teachers and others in authority whom they trust about abuse that they may have witnessed or experienced, either in the home or in their peer group. They will be able to share that with people who may then be able to direct them to services. By providing the opportunity for people to speak, we give them that extra support.

It is, of course, disappointing that we have not made more progress than we have, but, in fairness, the Department's officials are working very closely with my officials to try to build up the evidence base. I hope that I will get the opportunity to sit down with the Education Minister in the future, because I have no doubt that she, like me, is concerned about this issue.

Mrs Barton: Minister, can you provide an update on the work carried out by the Gillen education and awareness group?

Mrs Long: My Department chairs the Gillen education and awareness group, but it also includes members from a number of other organisations, including the Education Department. We have set up a group within that to look at RSE and particularly the minimum content order. Again, that group is cross-departmental and multi-agency. A number of organisations are helping to take forward the Gillen review recommendations. The group is chaired by my Department. Health, Communities and Education are all represented, along with 30 other organisations, including Nexus, Victim Support, the Rainbow Project, Cara-Friend, the PSNI, the NSPCC, the Education Authority, the Interfaith Forum, Raise Your Voice and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.

As well as doing work on RSE, the group is conducting scoping work to inform the development of strategic communications to challenge the myths around serious sexual offences, and I hope that that will be able to launch next year. A huge amount of work is ongoing. I ask Members, when they are on Twitter, to take the opportunity to share the pinned tweet on my Department's Twitter page at the moment. We are doing some work on rape myths and how we bust those myths in wider society so that, when people go to court, we have a well-informed cohort in the jury.

Mrs Long: It is incumbent on us all to cooperate with policing, to support the police in their work and to respect due process and independent oversight mechanisms, which are specifically designed to ensure public confidence. I will continue to work with the Chief Constable and his senior management team to help build and maintain public confidence in policing. I once again ask political and civic leaders to play their part as well. Public confidence in the police should be based on how they perform for the whole of our community. The recent narrative around a lack of confidence in policing seems to me to be based on perception rather than fact and to be far from universal, so it may be helpful for the Member to focus on some of the facts as they stand today.

Last year saw a further increase in drug seizures, with drugs with a street value of over £1·2 million taken out of circulation. Crime rates for violent crime, burglary, robberies, vehicle theft and criminal damage have continued to show a sustained downward trend. During August, the PSNI received 64,491 requests for service, processed 2,067 arrests, prepared 3,108 case files for the Public Prosecution Service and travelled over 1 million miles to respond to calls from the public. In reality, there has been a consistent increase in victim satisfaction with the police over the past four years, with 86% of victims reporting that the PSNI treated them with fairness and respect in 2021-22.

Therefore, we should all work together to support the PSNI to progress its proactive focus on those who are doing harm in communities. That is what builds confidence and, in my view, is what communities really care about.


2.15 pm

Mr Allister: If the Minister thinks that there is not a lack of confidence among the unionist and loyalist community and that it is only a matter of perception and not reality, I am very disappointed by her complacency. Does she think that she maybe contributed to that lack of confidence by her action in the House a few weeks ago, when she voted against the removal of convicted prisoners from the Policing Board? Does she not think that that gives cause to the lack of confidence in the police by many in our community and feeds that view? How can she justify saying to the community that it is right to have convicted terrorists controlling the police through the Policing Board?

Mrs Long: I am rather amazed that the Member would pursue that line of enquiry given his recent run-in with — or should I say "run over" of — a police officer who was doing his duty, as he ought to do. I am surprised that the Member continues to come to the House to denigrate the good work of police officers. Disrespect from Members towards police officers who are doing their duty, with no regard for how difficult their jobs are, and the constant narrative about two-tier policing and criticism of the police undermines confidence in communities far more than any vote that I may cast in this place.

I say that with a degree of confidence. I have been to loyalist areas in my constituency and have spoken to people who live there. They have no lack of confidence in their local neighbourhood policing team or in its ability to respond to the concerns that they raised. Though strained, relationships are good. I heard the same story when I travelled to the north-west on Friday and spoke with those in loyalist communities there. However, because of the political narrative, people are afraid to be seen to engage with policing in their community. If people have a lack of confidence in policing, it is incumbent on people such as the questioner to take some responsibility and focus on supporting the police rather than undermining them at every cut and turn.

Mr Clarke: My question follows on nicely from the Minister's response. I note that the Minister did not touch on the comments from one of the Policing Board members — one of the people whom she appointed — who referred to the RUC as a sectarian force. That Member talks about 50:50 recruitment at every opportunity; however, none of the individuals from the nationalist side seems to go out and openly encourage nationalists to join the police. Does the Minister think that that Member's comments about the RUC, which is now obviously the PSNI, were helpful or built confidence in the unionist community?

Mrs Long: It would build confidence across the community if we did what was envisaged in the Patten report and took politics out of policing. We need to focus on the stuff that I talked about in my answer to the Member for North Antrim on delivering for communities and tackling crime.

Frankly, it is not acceptable for anyone in the House, from any perspective, to undermine respect for policing. It is incumbent on every one of us to do everything in our power to encourage more people to join the Police Service so that it becomes even more representative. There is an opportunity for people to do that and to encourage people to step forward and join the PSNI. On different occasions, every party in the Chamber supported police recruitment campaigns, physically turning up to their launches and issuing statements that encouraged people to apply.

We need to get beyond the tit for tat on policing and to focus on the job that they do and hold them to account. I know that, as a member of the Policing Board, the Member obviously wants that as well.

Mr Blair: In the week in which we mark the twentieth anniversary of the PSNI and the bravery and community spirit of those who serve in it, does the Minister agree that building confidence in policing is also about building confidence in the oversight structures, such as the Policing Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman, and avoiding party politicking around those structures, their clearly defined independent roles and the personalities of those who serve in them?

Mrs Long: It is important that, at the new start that we had for policing, we did not trash the reputation of what went before. Many honourable people served in the RUC, and many of them gave their lives in the service of this community. Their families have suffered a great deal. It was clear from the Patten report that there was no intention to undermine that record of service. The report provided a fresh start for policing that would allow the entire community to buy into policing, engage in support for policing and encourage people to come forward from their communities and get involved in policing. Twenty years on, that should still be our ambition. There are, of course, under-represented groups in the PSNI, and we should seek to address that issue at every opportunity. Today is one such opportunity.

The Member for South Antrim is correct, however: it is about support not just for policing but for the overarching structures that exist to ensure that policing is not politically motivated and that no Member has overarching control of it. That is how it should be. If we invest our time and energy in the structures at the Policing Board and in support of the work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman, we will have, through those tripartite arrangements, the best and most robust arrangements possible to provide the confidence that is needed in communities.

Ultimately, however, people will listen to the voices of their elected representatives. Amplifying grievance is not the way to build confidence. Addressing issues constructively is the way to build confidence. Members need to focus on that.

Ms S Bradley: I appreciate the Minister's taking the opportunity to set the record straight about the fact that nationalists encourage people to join the PSNI and have done so consistently for 20 years. Does the Minister believe that reckless, inaccurate questioning is divisive? As we embrace a recruitment process in which we try to build a police service that truly reflects our entire society, the type of questioning that we have heard in the House today is unhelpful and does not reflect society [Interruption.]

In this case, society, as it is very often, is ahead of the people who claim and purport to represent it.

Mr Speaker: Order. Ms Bradley, take a seat for a second, please. I call for order. Everybody who is called is entitled to ask a question and to be heard. Everybody else has the same opportunity to raise their hand and stand to ask a question.

Mrs Long: Sadly, this entire line of questioning today has been unhelpful towards encouraging support and confidence in policing.

As Members, we have an opportunity not just to reflect what happens in our communities but to lead change in them. It is incumbent on every one of us to show that leadership in what we say and do, particularly on sensitive issues around policing. All parties in the House that have had an opportunity to do so have nominated representatives to the Policing Board. They have engaged with policing in a constructive way in that forum. It is important that, when we come to the House, we continue to engage in a constructive way when discussing policing issues, because we want to encourage more people to come forward, create as reflective a police service as we can of our wider community and enhance acceptance of the police right across our community. It is in the interests of those whom we serve — their safety, security, health and well-being — that they have positive relationships with the PSNI.

Mr Beattie: I will go back to the original question about the promotion of confidence. Given the high-profile murder of Sarah Everard, has the Minister had many discussions with the police about how they can raise confidence for females who meet police officers when they are out on their own?

Mrs Long: We have had discussions about that issue. As you are aware, the PSNI is bringing forward its own strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, which will take forward the work that it already does in that space. As a result of the work that we are doing around the new domestic abuse offence, there is enhanced training throughout the PSNI. The Member will be aware, through his membership of the Justice Committee, that similar training is being rolled out in relation to the new stalking offence.

It is, of course, concerning when somebody in a position of authority and power abuses that power. Therefore, I have said, on the record, that it is important that those in the Police Service and in other positions of authority and power are held to the highest possible standards when it comes to their interactions with members of the public. That includes interactions with vulnerable women and girls, who are vulnerable only because there are predators in our community.

Mrs Long: I know that every Assembly Member finds it abhorrent that slavery is happening in any form in Northern Ireland, but, sadly, it is. Raising public awareness to identify and help to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking is therefore a key priority for my Department and the wider Executive.

My clear commitment to tackling modern slavery and human trafficking crimes is set out in the Northern Ireland 'Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Strategy 2021-22', which was published earlier this year. A key part of its "prevent" strand is about ensuring that there is collaborative working and sharing of knowledge across strategic partners to identify best practice and to facilitate greater public awareness of modern slavery. My officials work with key statutory and non-statutory partners to maximise every opportunity to raise awareness through social media and information on nidirect. This year, we have also been able to support a number of projects that are working on these issues through the assets recovery community scheme. The organised crime task force (OCTF) annual report and threat assessment also sets out the actions taken to target and disrupt organised criminality and has a specific section on modern slavery.

As all Members know, Anti-Slavery Day was on 18 October 2021. My Department worked alongside partners to mark that day and to raise the profile of that important event by sharing and promoting social media content, through public engagement events and by illuminating council and civic buildings. For example, Belfast City Hall was lit up red this year. I also attended events organised by Flourish NI and Invisible Traffick, which raised awareness through creative and innovative projects. Those events were ultimately hopeful and inspiring despite the nature of these crimes and the impact on victims.

I am committed to taking every opportunity to raise awareness, sending the message that violations of human rights will not be tolerated, that criminals will be pursued and prevented from causing further harm, and that victims will be protected.

Mr O'Toole: First, Minister, I should acknowledge that Dame Sara Thornton, the UK's Anti-Slavery Commissioner, is in the Building today.

The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking (GRETA), which is part of the Council of Europe, said:

"Brexit has heightened the risk of exploitation for EU workers".

Given our geography, we in Northern Ireland are at particular risk of that happening. What specific actions is your Department taking to raise awareness and to take action to address the specific risks that we face? The strategy that you mentioned does not, I am afraid, say very much about the risks of EU exit. What is the Department doing in that regard?

Mrs Long: I am aware that Dame Sara Thornton is here today. I had a very constructive meeting with her yesterday, during which we looked at some of the emerging risk factors.

The Department takes seriously all organised crime and threats of organised crime and has assessed those threats in relation to Brexit. From a criminal's perspective, it is irrelevant whether the commodity that they are trafficking is illegal goods or human beings; the monetary value is all that matters. The work that we have been engaged in around disrupting those involved in organised crime who are trafficking any sort of goods across our borders or trying to exploit any loopholes resulting from Brexit is hugely important. It has to be said, however, that the policing arrangements, cooperation and future security partnerships that are currently in place have given us a much greater degree of continuity of service across the EU. Indeed, I met the Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) last week and will meet the Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) this week to keep them updated on and abreast of the challenges that we face and to keep abreast of the work that they are doing, alongside us, to tackle issues such as modern slavery, human trafficking and other organised crime. It is incredibly important that we do not lose that future security partnership, which forms part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), so I hope that those who are negotiating at the moment and who are considering how the protocol can be changed and implemented differently will give due consideration to the impact that that will have on crime.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 3, 5 and 7 have been withdrawn.

T1. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Justice whether she believes that the laws that cover drink spiking are adequate and, if not, to encourage a review of those laws, given that several Members have raised concerns about the increasing number of incidents of drink spiking, with recent reports of a young woman needing to be hospitalised in Derry. (AQT 1731/17-22)

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for her question. I have been extremely concerned by the recent reports of drink spiking and drug injecting, both locally, in the Foyle area in particular, and nationally. It is an extremely serious issue, with very damaging consequences for the individual. I want to reassure not just Members but the public that there are laws in place to deal with that type of behaviour in Northern Ireland. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 makes it an offence to cause a person to engage in any type of sexual activity without consent. Where it is proven that drugs or alcohol were administered, there is an evidential presumption that the person did not consent. Depending on the circumstances of the case and the nature of the sexual assault, offenders can be liable to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. There are also a number of offences under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 that could apply where drinks were spiked or drugs injected where the intention was not sexual assault but to cause harm in some other way.

I urge those affected to come forward at the earliest opportunity so that the matter can be properly investigated. The drugs that are often used in drink spiking metabolise very quickly in people's systems. If people feel themselves becoming dizzy, disorientated and woozy when they have not had much to drink, or if their reaction is out of proportion to their usual reaction to alcohol, it is important that they secure their glass, with whatever liquid is left in it, and report what has happened immediately to the bar and the PSNI. That is the best way in which to ensure, first, that people get the hospital treatment that they need to ensure that they are safe, given that those drugs can have long-term side effects, and, secondly, that the evidential chain is maintained in order to test for the drugs in their system and, indeed, in what they have been drinking.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for her response. She outlined some of the physical and, indeed, psychological impacts that drink spiking can have. Again, it is carried out with the overwhelming intention in mind of sexual assault or rape, the majority of which offences are committed against women and girls.

Will the Minister agree that the issue could be examined as part of the strategy to prevent violence against women and girls? I am sure that she will also agree that it is terrible that, in the 21st century, we are having to educate, overwhelmingly, women and girls on how to protect themselves. The penalties for those offences should be the deterrent rather than the focus being on trying to teach women and girls how to be safe when they go out for a drink, a walk or something else. It is ridiculous.

Mrs Long: I completely agree with what the Member has said and with her sentiments. We will listen very carefully to victims, as well as to the police and other partners in the justice system. If there is a need for us to review the law if it is deemed to be inadequate in any shape or form in dealing with emerging patterns of behaviour, of course we are open to doing that, as we would always be.

The Member is right to say that it is not fair for society to transfer the responsibility for the safety of women and girls to women and girls. Women and girls are not raped because of women and girls. They are not raped because they have been drinking. They are not raped because of what they wear. They are raped because of rapists, so we need to tackle those who are the perpetrators of those crimes and not transfer responsibility for that kind of behaviour to the victims of those crimes. It is so important that women and girls, and everyone in our community, be alert to the risk but also that they be free to socialise without constantly having to be aware of predatory individuals who may take advantage of them.

I encourage people who are socialising in groups of friends in bars or wherever they go to watch out for the people around them, not just themselves. Watch out for people interfering with other people's drinks. Watch out for suspicious behaviour, and, more than just watching, do something about it. Report it, because you could be the difference between somebody being assaulted and not being assaulted. In a number of recent cases, the reason why those young women were not assaulted was that their friends got them to hospital, got them help as quickly as possible and protected them.

T2. Mr Newton asked the Minister of Justice to confirm the planned number of full-time PSNI officers, the number of part-time officers and the shortfall. (AQT 1732/17-22)

Mrs Long: I will write to the Member with the details of all those. The Member will know that the target for PSNI officers set out in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement is 7,500. There is funding to raise the current complement from 7,000 to 7,100, which is why a recruitment campaign is starting today. It is my Department's role to try to secure funding for the remaining number of officers. The Member will also be aware of the Budget settlement and the announcements in England and Wales with respect to the number of additional police officers there. I am sure that he will be encouraged to know that I have written to the Finance Minister to ensure that, when it comes to Northern Ireland, we do not overlook the responsibility that we have to meet those NDNA targets as we move forward.

Mr Newton: I welcome the fact that the Minister will write to me on the PSNI full-time officers. Perhaps the Minister is able to answer the question on the shortfall in part-time officers at this moment in time.

Mrs Long: The Member asked both questions at once, and I said that I would return to him with the numbers. I do not have the complement of part-time officers, but I am happy to write to the Member to give him those figures. However, I remind him that he is at liberty to write to the Chief Constable, who is responsible for staffing. Whilst we provide the Chief Constable with funding, it is the Chief Constable who determines how many officers he has, in cooperation and collaboration with members of the Policing Board. It is not my job to dictate to the Chief Constable how many officers he employs.

T4. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Justice whether she agrees that it has never been so important for all of us to do what we can to end violence against women in Northern Ireland because, to return to the issue of drinks being spiked and young people being jabbed in the arm with some sort of drug, as the mother of a teenage girl, she is extremely concerned that this is happening a time when nightclubs and so on are reopening. (AQT 1734/17-22)

Mrs Long: I completely agree with the Member. I know that she will have listened carefully to my answer to the first topical question. The very specific experience of direct and indirect violence that women and girls face in society is an issue that is extremely important to me and one that I have prioritised. It is for that reason that I recommended a cross-departmental violence against women and girls strategy to the Executive. The Executive Office will then take that cross-cutting issue forward, along with cross-departmental cooperation, to ensure that we support effective delivery. I will do all that I can to support the strategy.

I have raised the issue of drug spiking at the Executive. I have also asked for an update at the next Executive meeting on progress with respect to the women and girls strategy. I have also listened to victims and have been working with partners such as the PSNI on the issue of drinks being spiked and will be discussing it further with the Chief Constable when I meet him this afternoon. Again, I urge anyone who believes that their drink may have been spiked or that they may have been injected to report it to the police. The Chief Constable will update me on his work to address violence against women and girls, and, as I said, I have asked the Executive for an update later this week.

During this mandate, I have brought forward an ambitious agenda of activity to protect those most at risk of violence, including the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, the Protection from Stalking Bill and changes to implement recommendations in the Gillen review. That has included discussions with a wide range of stakeholders. While many of the measures will affect everyone in society, they will disproportionately benefit women and girls due to the gendered nature of many of the offences.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for her answer and the work that she is doing. As I mentioned, I am the mother of a teenage girl. One issue that has come to light for me is that, when she walks home, she faces indirect violence through street harassment. Street harassment seems to come up more and more often for young women. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing harassment of women outside the John Mitchel Place clinic in Newry, amongst other locations. Does she agree that buffer zones or safe-access zones are necessary to protect young women who are accessing healthcare, as well the staff who provide those services?

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for her question. There are two distinct elements to it. There is the broader issue of street harassment, which is incredibly difficult to tackle through a criminal-justice lens, but is one on which I am working with others who are campaigning in this space to see whether more can be done to protect women from unwarranted abuse in the street. It is an incredibly frightening experience for young women to be approached by, often, quite bawdy individuals who shout abuse or make lewd comments as the women go about their daily lives. It is completely disrespectful. We need to target that.

I am also fully aware of the ongoing protests that are being held outside healthcare facilities across Northern Ireland, and the disruptive impact that they are causing, not only to vulnerable pregnant people who seek to access abortion services, but to those who seek general medical care and healthcare staff who are trying to carry out their duties. No one should have to face that kind of harassment. Everyone has a right to protest, but, equally, everyone should have the right to access healthcare free from harassment and intimidation. Healthcare workers should be able to go to their work free from that type of violence.

I am conscious that all trusts are reporting significant challenges in dealing with that issue, which appears to be growing. I am also concerned that some trusts are saying that they are having difficulty resolving the issue in the location where abortion services are delivered, and that that creates real disruption to their patients. I had hoped that we would be in a position to table an amendment to what was the justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill in order to provide for exclusion zones. Disappointingly, we could not get Executive agreement on its introduction. However, I support Clare Bailey's private Member's Bill on safe-access zones, and will continue to assist its progress in whatever way I can.

T6. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Justice to state whether the experience of a prisoner from his constituency is common practice or COVID-related and whether she agrees that it does not sound very compassionate, given that although the man was very grateful to have been granted temporary compassionate release at the weekend that enabled him to spend precious hours with his father as he passed away, on his return to prison, he was handcuffed, strip-searched, isolated in a dirty cell, with meals being pushed under a door to him and he may not have been able to shower, and bearing in mind that this man suffers from poor mental health, getting his medication has been a handling. (AQT 1736/17-22)

Mrs Long: That does not reflect my experience nor, indeed, reports that I have had of the self-isolation units in the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS). I must say that it does not tie in with what I have seen and witnessed of the service that is provided by the Prison Service. It has a responsibility to, as far as possible, mitigate the risks of COVID-19 for the whole prison population. Having safeguards in place in prison establishments is important, given that prisons are dynamic residential and communal settings. As such, they are highly prone to outbreaks of COVID-19 as the result of the importation of even one single case.

The Prison Service has a number of processes in place to mitigate the ongoing risk that is presented by COVID-19 in the prison environment. That includes placing prisoners in isolation when they are newly committed or temporarily released from custody, and they are advised of that before they leave custody. The measures that NIPS has introduced have been largely successful in preventing any widespread infection amongst staff or prisoners. Using isolation is consistent with guidance from the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency, and has been a very effective safeguard in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 into the prison environment.

Since 25 October, the Northern Ireland Prison Service has reduced the period of isolation from 14 days to 10 days for individuals who are double vaccinated, depending on their receiving a negative PCR test at day 2 and day 8. That change has been supported by the Public Health Agency. During their time in isolation, people in custody have access to healthcare, legal representation and showers, and can maintain family contact. The Prison Service takes very seriously the safety of staff and all those people who are placed in its care. It is committed to doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

Obviously, I cannot discuss individual cases. As with the restrictions that apply to the rest of society, in common with the Northern Ireland Executive's approach, we want to relax those that apply to prisons and people in our care in a way that is timely, safe and sustainable. If the Member has particular concerns, I encourage him to speak in the first instance to the Director General of the Prison Service.


2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: Time is up. I ask Members to take their ease.

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Health

Mr Speaker: Mrs Pam Cameron has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. 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 automatically be called to ask a supplementary.

Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Health, in light of the unprecedented demand and waiting times for patients and the risk to life, to outline the actions he is taking to mitigate pressures on emergency departments and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I thank the Member for tabling the question. Our emergency departments are operating significantly above capacity. The pressures on our trusts during the summer and into the autumn were unprecedented, often having been akin to the most difficult winter pressures previously witnessed. That is what makes the situation so serious.

As Members will recall, I stated on 22 September that a hospital emergency department could be forced to close as a result of the pressures.

Obviously, I do not want that to happen, and nor does anyone working in the trusts. However, we must realise that we are facing levels of pressure as never before.

For several years before the pandemic, too many people were being forced to wait for over four hours and 12 hours in emergency departments. The current pressures have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they were not caused by the pandemic alone. On 22 October, I made a statement to the Assembly that set out my approach to winter preparedness. I have also published individual trust winter and surge delivery plans. All that has provided information on what actions have been taken to support our emergency departments through this autumn and winter.

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) continually works with the Public Health Agency (PHA), the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the five trusts to address waiting times at our emergency departments with enhanced flow through the system and the facilitation of timely discharge. The Health and Social Care Board is also coordinating smoothing to manage our Ambulance Service flows better.

Following a further allocation in the recent October monitoring round, which was confirmed and announced on Friday past, I am investing a total of £21·2 million in the No More Silos action plan this year. The key initiatives that will be supported will manage the unscheduled pressures. That includes Phone First in urgent care centres, the timely discharge initiative, ambulance handover bays and Hospital at Home.

Phone First is currently available in the Northern, Southern and Western Trusts, with an interim service in the Downe Hospital in the South Eastern Trust. The service was also recently introduced in Lagan Valley Hospital. From 1 December 2020, more than 134,000 patients have utilised the service. Of those, 29,500 — 22% — were discharged with advice to refer to their GP. Around 60,400 — roughly 45% — were scheduled for an appointment at an emergency department or the urgent care centre alternative pathway. Some 40,300 patients — 30% — were referred directly to an emergency department.

I recently announced a package of £5·5 million to support service delivery in primary care throughout the winter. That includes £3·8 million to support additional patient care, covering general practice and out-of-hours services, and up to £1·7 million to improve telephone infrastructure. Again, those measures will help to alleviate pressures on our emergency departments. However, I must stress that we all have a role to play to support our emergency departments and our wider health system. I encourage everyone to take up the COVID-19 vaccine, the booster and the flu vaccine when offered. There is a real tangible step that we can all take to support our emergency departments now and into the winter.

Finally, it is important to recognise that the issues that we are seeing in our emergency departments cannot be resolved with one-off non-recurrent funding. What is needed is recurrent investment over a number of years to improve capacity and bring forward meaningful change.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Speaker for accepting this question for urgent oral answer and the Minister for coming to the Chamber today.

This is not about party politics; this is about people. On all sides of the House, we need to be in this together. We need to work together to fix this. Through the media, we have heard an ED consultant from Altnagelvin Hospital apologise for the appalling service over the Halloween weekend due to the huge pressure and lack of capacity. Yesterday, the Northern Trust stated:

"We are on the cusp of an emergency department in Northern Ireland having to close its doors."

What action is the Minister taking to ensure that EDs remain open for life-saving emergency services? For example, has he asked for any further assistance from the military for EDs or other areas of the health service to free up vital resource? Is there any further update on the most recent workforce appeal?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her comments. The two consultants to whom you referred, from Altnagelvin and the Northern Trust, were reiterating and reinforcing the statement that I made on 22 September. We have seen this coming; we knew where this winter was going to take us. That is why I made a bid in the October monitoring round for over £20 million to support the No More Silos structure, which predates the COVID-19 pandemic. It is about the work that needs to be done to direct and rectify the challenges that we have already seen in our EDs. Unfortunately, the pressures that we are seeing now are not new. They are a direct result of underinvestment in the health service, both financially and in the workforce over the past 10 years.

That money will bring forward specific functions, but I stress that the money became available to me only on Friday when the monitoring round was agreed. The money will be spent on increasing Phone First in urgent care centres, the timely discharge initiative, ambulance handover bays and Hospital at Home.

Those are the steps that we have taken directly.

We have not made an additional request for Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) support, because, as the Member knows, that serving unit returned only a week ago and is not currently available for redeployment. We monitor continuously whether and when MACA is available and how we can use it. I spoke with some of the serving medics before they returned home. Hearing phrases like, "I was glad to be here to be able to support my own in their time of need" was testament to the additional service and support that they provided to our health service.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members to go directly to their question. A dozen Members still want to contribute, and they cannot all do so within the limited time available to us.

Mr Gildernew: Minister, in June, I asked about the publication of the report of the review of urgent and emergency care. I have not received an answer. Will you advise when the report will be published?

Also, has the time not arrived to convene a health summit, as requested by the royal colleges and unions, to get into one room everyone who, through their awareness of the problems here, can be part of the solution?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. The royal colleges and trade unions have requested a summit. Since that request was made, I have met most of them, individually as royal colleges or through the trade union workforce structure. I indicated to them, and to some Executive colleagues, that I am minded to do that once I see an ongoing Budget settlement for Health. It would be premature to bring everybody into the room at this stage when, in two to three weeks' time, we will find out what our long-term funding will be. That is the wider discussion that needs to be had at that health summit.

I expect to see the updated report of the urgent and emergency care review shortly. It blends into the No More Silos work that was instigated a number of years ago but has been reliant on piecemeal, hand-to-mouth funding. As I have said many times in the Chamber, that is no way to resolve the structural challenges that our health service faces after over 10 years of underinvestment.

Mr McCrossan: Minister, you are well aware of the pressures that exist in GP surgeries. Phone lines have been jammed, and, as a result, more people have been presenting at A&E and creating a crisis there. We saw at the weekend how that unfolded. Has the Minister given any thought to putting in place a system, similar to that in England, of "walk-in clinics", where you walk in, be triaged there and then, and it is determined whether you go to a hospital, see a GP, a nurse or a mental health consultant? It takes away that pressure, and it worked quite well in England. Has the Minister given any consideration to that system?

Mr Swann: We consider all systems as they are developed elsewhere. However, our challenge is always that of workforce and who is able to deliver the service in a timely fashion. There is no point in displacing a patient from one section to another. That is why we introduced the Phone First system. In my original answer, I told the Member how many people utilise that system, which allows them to be directed to the correct place at the correct time.

In the week ending 15 October, our total practice teams — multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) and GPs — had consultations with 233,412 people, which is 116 per thousand of our population, and over 50% of those were face to face. I have often said in the Chamber that the narrative of our GPs not being open is incorrect.

Yesterday, the Member stated in the House that I had no plan to tackle elective care. I refer him to the elective care strategy that was published at the start of June. It might inform him of the work that is being undertaken, but it needs funded, and that requires cross-community, cross-Executive support.

Mr Chambers: I especially welcome the recent announcement of additional funding for No More Silos. Primary care has a huge role to play before people make the decision to present at an emergency department. A well-resourced primary care network is therefore essential.


3.00 pm

Will the Minister provide an update on the number of GPs coming through the training pipeline currently? I once again place on record my continued appreciation for the efforts of all our health and social care staff.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. On the GP workforce pipeline, I reiterate that, a few weeks ago, I announced £5·5 million of additional funding to support primary care through the winter.

It has often been said in the House, and this is supported by all parties, that the crisis in the workforce that we are currently experiencing is not solely because of COVID. It is due to the underinvestment that there has been in our health service in the past 10 years, not just in bricks and mortar but in the people working in it.

My Department has continued to invest in our GP workforce, and, in recognition of the increase in demand for primary care services, there has been a steady expansion in the number of GP training programme places over recent years. That has culminated in an intake of 111 students for the 2021 programme. That represents a 71% increase on the 2015 intake, when there were only 65 trainees. Although that investment in the workforce has seen the overall number of GPs working in Northern Ireland increase, more GPs are choosing to work less than full-time hours, with the result being that the overall GP workforce, as measured in whole-time equivalence, has decreased by 8% since 2014. That having been recognised, I have asked for a review of GP trainee places to make sure that there are enough GPs to meet our primary care needs into the future. I reiterate, however, that it will take time to get those medical professionals in place.

Ms Armstrong: Minister, given the pressure on emergency departments and the predictions of a winter crisis in our hospitals, will you explain why you were content to support the reopening of nightclubs? I understand that nightclubs are under a lot of pressure and that they need to open at some stage, but, without any mandatory mitigations in place, and having witnessed the queues at the weekend at our hospitals, does you still believe that it was the right decision?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question, although it is slightly off the subject of the original question. I will refer back to the autumn and winter contingency plan, which all Ministers supported. It refers to the fact that the development of appropriate enabling infrastructure to underpin a system of COVID status certificates is under way. As the Member will be aware, and as I said earlier, we launched that yesterday. The Department of Health has committed to bringing forward the domestic COVID certificate. Where and when it will be deployed is a policy directive for the entire Executive to make.

Mr Allister: Is part of the problem not the lack of coordination on the handover of patients from the ambulance to the hospital? We have cases in which ambulances sit for hours with patients on a trolley, but if they were to be transferred to a hospital trolley, the ambulance could get back on duty. Do we not need proper coordination?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. It is a valid point, and one that I have seen in operation where we have the hospital ambulance liaison officer (HALO) system in place, through which a member of the NIAS is in the emergency department in order to coordinate the handover. Although patients may be transferred to what the Member calls a hospital trolley, they remain patients of the Ambulance Service until they are fully integrated into the trust and all the necessary checks are able to be undertaken. That handover is therefore being done.

I referred to this in my original answer, but one of the changes that we have seen recently in the Ambulance Service is "smoothing", which is a clunky term. A patient is taken to an ED that has a shorter waiting time rather than to the closest ED. Doing that smoothes out the pressures that our EDs are witnessing and releases the ambulances quicker than they would have been released had they simply gone to the closest ED. The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service covers the entirety of Northern Ireland and, as a result, is not constricted by the make-up of the five geographical trusts.

Mr Carroll: The situation faced by those who work in and rely on EDs is stark and concerning. I am concerned that we will keep on doing what has been done and get the same results again.

What proportion of the new money that the Minister announced is being spent on the private sector, private organisations and private healthcare?

Mr Swann: The £21·2 million that was announced to support No More Silos is solely for the health service.

It is to support the work that needs to be done, as indicated by No More Silos, with regard to how patients are transferred through the entirety of our system. It is all about investing in the Northern Ireland health service. That includes Phone First, urgent care centres, the timely discharge initiatives, ambulance handover bays and Hospital at Home.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for coming to the House. With respect, I do not think that anybody who has been waiting on a hospital trolley for 30 hours is going to understand what No More Silos means. I think that we all accept that, and I am not being pernickety but, if the £21·2 million is for emergency care, say so, because families are sitting in cars outside hospitals in which their elderly parents are waiting on a trolley for 30 hours to get a bed. We need to be clear.

I ask the Minister to be mindful of another thing. At the weekend, I spoke to a nurse at the children's hospital in the Royal who had worked in Africa. She said to me that both the emergency department and the children's hospital in the Royal were akin to the scenes that she saw in Zambia. Our health and social care staff are under massive pressure. If they are getting additional support through that £21·2 million —

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Ms Ní Chuilín: — I want the Minister to clear that up.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. To be clear, the £21·2 million is for investment in No More Silos, which was the Department's strategy before I became Minister to address pressures in our emergency departments. I will make it clear to the Member: that investment is going towards those steps —

Ms Ní Chuilín: Is it for nurses? Is it for doctors? Is it for beds?

Mr Swann: It is for all those services that are actually there. [Inaudible.]

Mr Swann: It is for early discharge, first and urgent care centres, ambulance handover bays and Hospital at Home. It will support the entirety of the system as it works through. However, that is only part of the monitoring round moneys that I got on Friday. That bit specifically addresses the problem that was raised in the initial question for urgent oral answer. I got £70 million that will go to giving our health service workers the 3% pay rise that was indicated by the independent monitoring body that looks at that matter. It allows me to take that to the next step as well.

Additional investment is needed. I have said that many times from this place, but monitoring round money does not solve anything when it comes at this time of the year to be spent in March to address a systemic problem that has been getting worse over the past 10 years, rather than doing the structural reform that we all know needs to be done now. We need that recurrent budget, should it be for three years or five years, to give us the surety to make the transformations that we need to make.

Mr Clarke: Minister, in one of your comments, you said that you saw this coming. I think that we all saw it coming. I know of an infant who a GP refused to see on three occasions over six weeks. The parents took that child to A&E, and the A&E doctor was appalled that the GP had refused to see the child. How many examples are there where GPs refused to see children or tried to diagnose them over the phone, and parents decided to take their children to A&E, where A&E doctors told them that the GP should have seen them in the first instance?

Mr Swann: If that is a specific case, I encourage the Member to either contact the Patient and Client Council or refer it directly to the trust on an individual basis so that that case can be looked into. In relation to the narrative about GPs not being open, I reiterate to the Member that £5·5 million will be invested in our GP primary care structures over the winter. I also refer the Member to a comment that I made earlier about the number of people who are being seen by GPs. In the week commencing 15 October, 233,000 people came forward for a GP consultation with regard to how they could be best directed.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, the strongest reason for vaccination certification, which my party has called for, specifically in hospitality settings, is the fact that our health service is close to buckling. As we have discussed today, it is buckling. One reason that was given by some, including you, for not recommending vaccine certification was that the app was not ready. As you have said today, the app is ready. Will you now advise the Executive to move speedily to require vaccine certification in specific settings in order to protect our health service?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point, which his party continually raises. We are here to talk about emergency departments, but the SDLP wants to go in a different direction. On certification — I am sure that his Minister has briefed him on this, given that she seems to have briefed others on it — he will be aware that the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said that that policy development work is being taken under its direction. That is where it lies. I have always been clear on that. Health is supporting them in that.

The Executive's autumn and winter strategic plan, which was supported by all Ministers, clearly stipulates that the initial work in developing the app should be done. We delivered that yesterday. Legislation on what it will look like is being drafted and prepared. The Member and his Minister are aware that the timeline for drafting that has been laid out. As I indicated in the earlier debate on the regulations, a small team in my Department has been left to draft those regulations on behalf of the entire Executive.

Ms Bradshaw: Minister, you will be aware that the Royal College of Emergency Medicine is keen to see the introduction of the Getting it Right First Time programme, which relates to the sharing of clinical best practice across EDs. Can you give us an update on that? Also, will your Department work with the Public Health Agency on its messaging this winter so that people go to the right place for their healthcare?

Mr Swann: In response to your last point, very much so. We want to make sure that people go to the right place to be seen. That is part of the benefit of Phone First: before somebody presents to an ED, they have the opportunity to engage in that way. One of the directions of travel in No More Silos is that we have a single number for the entirety of Northern Ireland, akin to the 111 service in England and Wales. That amalgamation across the entirety of the service would take some of the pressure off out-of-hours.

The Member will be aware, if she has been talking to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, of the review of urgent and emergency care. Unfortunately, the publication of the report that sets out the findings and recommendations of that review was delayed by the pandemic. However, I plan to publish the report and consult on its findings shortly, because it ties in with the recommendations from No More Silos.

Ms Flynn: Minister, you said that 233,000 people had been seen by their GP via an appointment, which is great. Does the Department have evidence that the lack of GP access or provision contributes to the crisis in urgent and emergency care?

Mr Swann: We do not have any direct evidence of that. I know that your party conducted a GP survey, and I thank it for sharing the findings with me. Of those 233,000 people, 50% were seen face to face. The rest were triaged by telephone or the online service, and the GP directed them to where was most appropriate. That work continues to be progressed. Again, we are putting additional moneys into telephone and online consultation so that people do not have to wait to get an initial consultation with their GP.

Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Does he agree that the deficit in GP cover for out-of-hours is adding to the pressures faced by emergency departments? What is his Department doing to address that? For example, a constituent of mine tried to access their GP out-of-hours service on Thursday, but, I understand, there was no GP out-of-hours cover, hence they attended an ED on Saturday night.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I am aware of the continuing pressures faced by GP out-of-hours services across Northern Ireland, with increasing demand and difficulties in filling GP shifts. An effective out-of-hours service is a priority for me. My Department continues to work closely with the Health and Social Care Board and the out-of-hours providers to address the current challenges. Service improvements continue to be introduced. Those include adjusting the skills mix of clinicians; increasing levels of nurse triage provision; employing more nurse practitioners, paramedics and pharmacists; and increasing flexibility in shift times. My Department continues to work closely with the Health and Social Care Board, the out-of-hours providers and key stakeholders to address the challenges in the out-of-hours service across Northern Ireland and to redesign it in line with the recommendations in No More Silos. The aim of that is to have a more stable, sustainable and integrated service that will better meet the needs of the whole population. That will include consideration of a regional model for delivery of the service.


3.15 pm

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer this important question. Minister, what hope can you give to patients and the families of patients who are waiting for cancer operations, hip replacements, scans, gall bladder operations or consultant appointments?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for raising the issue. In regard to the elective care strategy that was published in June, once again I needed money from monitoring round bids to fund it. That is why I was thankful to the Finance Minister for funding my bids for Health and not diluting them in any shape or form. That allows me to continue with the work in the elective care strategy.

Over 65,000 people have been seen through waiting list initiatives; 1,800 people have been seen through mega-clinics; and another 4,000 have had preoperative (PO) assessments through GP federations. The hope that I can give is supported by the funding of monitoring round bids that I have made for my elective care strategy.

Mr Storey: The Northern Trust has the lowest number of intensive care beds and a business case for 49 additional beds that has been sitting for months. In its winter plan, it states that the initial projections show a potential shortfall of over 200 beds across the acute hospital sites in the Northern Trust. Given all that, what practical steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the situation with ambulances that he described is brought to an end by the provision of beds in the hospitals?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. He makes a valid point, and I have often said here that it is not just about investment in infrastructure — bricks and mortar or physical beds — but about investment in the staff that it takes to support those beds. That does not just mean the doctors and the nurses; it means the porters and the administrative workers who are there to support them. When this place came back in January 2020, the promise of an additional 300 nursing training places over a three-year period was welcome. That increase saw the number of nursing training places rise to 1,325 a year, but, like everything else, it takes time for those nurses to come through to support the beds.

There are a capital bids in from the Northern Trust on how it can expand. As the Member is aware, as a constituency MLA and the Minister of Health, I am supportive of those bids at all times. The Member will see that through the monitoring round bids that I continue to make to improve long-term investment in our health service. It cannot be done with short-term, non-recurrent budgets, which is why I look forward to having a longer and sustained budget that allows capital and revenue. That will mean that we can do the planning and recoup some of the underinvestment of the past 10 years.

Mr Speaker: That concludes this item of business. I ask Members to take their ease until we move to the next item on the Order Paper.

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

Private Members' Business

Mr Durkan: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the severe impact that the housing crisis, which has made housing unaffordable for many and placed home ownership out of reach for a generation of young people, has had on people and families across Northern Ireland; notes that the average price of housing in Northern Ireland has increased by 30% since 2016; further notes that the cost of renting has increased by 25% since 2016 and this is having a material impact on the capacity of people to save the deposit needed to secure a home; regrets that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have yet to publish a Programme for Government with a specific housing outcome, supplemented with relevant indicators; and calls on the Minister for Communities to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in recognition that the security of a home has an immediate impact on the health and well-being of citizens.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Durkan: I propose this SDLP motion on the deepening housing crisis, specifically the numbers of people who have been displaced from an increasingly costly private rented sector onto a shamefully long social housing waiting list, which now has 45,000 applicants. An overhaul of the housing system is required to ensure that every family and individual in the North can access a sustainable, affordable and safe home. Access to a safe and secure home is the foundation on which people build their lives. It is intertwined with health, education, mental well-being and job opportunities. There is not one policy area that housing does not affect. However, the current rate of social housing build is woefully inadequate. It is denying people the basic right to a roof over their head.

At present, there are almost 45,000 individuals and families in housing need, with nearly 31,000 of those determined to be in housing stress. A simple assessment of the situation means that, at the current rate of supply, it would take in excess of 34 years to clear the current waiting list. That wait will be even more profound for applicants with disabilities, considering that just 164 social housing bungalows were built in the past five years, despite over 8,000 applicants awaiting ground-floor accommodation. That is staggering. We cannot place further barriers on people with disabilities, especially when it comes to securing suitable housing that would permit some semblance of independence. The housing system as it stands is denying dignity to people and their families.

The housing crisis predates COVID and the Minister. The motion is not an attack on any person or party. It is clear that the crisis has deepened significantly over the past 18 months, as evidenced by the 25% increase in applications. My constituency of Foyle has the highest number of social housing applicants across the North, standing at over 4,500. That represents an increase of over 800 people during the pandemic. Housing is a historical issue here. It remains the case that many families and children are left without a place to call home or find themselves stuck in overcrowded properties that are wholly unsuitable to their needs.

Many have already given up hope of finding a home of their own.

Housing is yet another example of the deprivation that people here have had to endure. We are witnessing a new generation of children who believe that housing, rather than a basic right for all, is something that has to be fought for, tooth and nail. It is important that we never lose sight of the lives beyond the statistics. I have no doubt that many Members will have lost sleep over harrowing housing cases involving their constituents, particularly in recent months. I know that I have, and we are just listening to it; people are living it.

One example that comes to mind is a young, single mother who is a front-line health worker and who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to care for COVID patients. She visited my office between shifts, exhausted and broken by the toll of the past year. Her young children have just about come to grips with their anxieties about their mum's safety at work, yet here she was, pleading for help as a private renter unable to meet rising rent costs. She was left with no option but to leave her home due to affordability issues. The children were split between the homes of family and friends. That young mother had no option but to resort to sofa surfing after long shifts at the hospital. Where is the fairness here? How can I tell that family, who have already been through so much, that they need to be patient, to build up their housing points and to hope and hope again that a property becomes available?

That case is far from unique, and the link between poverty and low-income renters is well established. The private rented sector in the North is the fastest growing across these islands, accounting for 19% of all housing here, with many being forced into the sector by a lack of social housing stock. It is important to note that single-parent families who are renting privately are the most at risk of poverty, disproportionately affecting women. They, too, will be more adversely impacted on by the cuts to universal credit, the local housing allowance cap and the economic impact of COVID — for example, working reduced hours or taking time off to care for children.

A Housing Executive report highlighted that private rented sector households in receipt of housing benefit were more at risk of poverty than social tenants — 56% compared with 41% — further underscoring the importance of protections for private renters, including addressing the wider issue of welfare support and identifying the most at-risk households in terms of fuel poverty. In the context of rising living costs, support mechanisms need to be stepped up in the time ahead to prevent poverty. All of this contributes to the loss of accommodation and pushes more and more people into homelessness.

I am sure that the Private Tenancies Bill will help, in part, to regulate the sector and provide wide-ranging protections, but it is imperative that that legislation is passed swiftly and is backed up with adequate welfare protections, including the now, almost mythical, bedroom tax mitigations and lifting the cap on the local housing allowance in order to reflect rising rental costs. That so many private renters have been forced into the sector in the first place because of insufficient housing stock is testament to the need for an urgent housing supply strategy for the North. Yet, as already outlined, tackling growing levels of housing need goes far beyond just building homes. The focus should be on creating sustainable and affordable tenancies. More than that, the Executive must do more to support the younger generation to get on to the property ladder.

Tackling this crisis demands creative thinking. The housing supply strategy and the Private Tenancies Bill will play their part, but drastic action must be taken before housing need spirals even further out of control. People have been waiting long enough, and vague words and promises mean little to those in need of a home. Co-ownership has been supported by the Executive as a means of helping people to afford new homes. We support that, but we think that more work needs to be done to explore which levers at our disposal can be creatively used to increase housing supply and reduce housing stress.

Previously, I raised the need for a mortgage support scheme. Many homeowners are struggling to pay their mortgage. We spent this morning discussing unsustainable increases in the cost of living and the economic carnage of COVID. By helping people to stay in their home, we will keep them off our ever-growing housing lists, and we will save families from the trauma of homelessness. I would like to hear from the Minister whether such a scheme has been considered or looked at and what work is being done to bring empty properties back to life as homes for families and individuals.

What work is being done to identify and eradicate abuse of the social housing system, where homes have been allocated but not occupied and, in some instances, even sublet? That practice does exist, and it is far from a victimless crime.


3.30 pm

We welcome the Minister's stated commitment to, and vision for, housing. She deserves credit for that vision. We support the removal, which the Minister wants, of the impediments to the Housing Executive's building new homes. The right-to-buy scheme ended just last week for housing associations. We cannot afford to keep haemorrhaging scarce social housing stock. Will the Minister give us a wee update on her work to end the right to buy Housing Executive properties?

It is an indelible stain on the Executive's record that the Programme for Government, with a specific housing outcome, is yet to be published. It would have gone a long way to preventing homelessness and would have provided assurances during this precarious period. How can we tell families waiting in desperation that the leadership here has not seen fit to make it a priority?

Improving access to housing goes hand in hand with supporting mental well-being for our citizens. It needs to be a priority for this Executive and those hereafter as we emerge from the fog of COVID. We must unite to ensure that Executive strategies are as comprehensive as they need to be and that our institutions remain stable in order to deliver them and much-needed positive change. I ask Members to support the motion.

Ms Ferguson: I support today's motion, which is fitting, given that it will be a year tomorrow that our Minister outlined in the Assembly the most ambitious and biggest shake-up of housing in the North since 1971, which is the biggest in my lifetime and, I think, in the lifetime of everybody present this afternoon.

Our Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, has not only laid the strong foundation for a much-needed revival of the housing sector but has made sure that we are all together, planning strategically for the future to ensure that every household has access to a good-quality, affordable and sustainable home appropriate to its needs.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was Deirdre Hargey who not only stepped up to protect renters from eviction but introduced the first of many proposed pieces of legislation, in the form of the Private Tenancies Bill, which proposes not only to ban rent increases in annual contracts but to extend the notice-to-quit period for tenants, to reduce the cost of heating homes for families and workers, to prevent deposits being in excess of one month's rent, and to provide for electrical fire and carbon safety standards in the social and private rented sector. All of those are firm starting points on which we can all expand.

We will see the Housing Executive with the power to begin building homes again. Our Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, has allocated £162 million — the biggest housing budget in a decade — to the Housing Executive to build even more homes. Work has started on over 2,400 homes, smashing the building target by 30%. There has been increased support for co-ownership over the past year, and that has enabled the organisation to help an additional 400 families between last May and this coming March.

We currently have the Department for Communities' consultation on intermediate rents, which is looking at alternative avenues to home ownership that are genuinely accessible to and affordable for workers and families. In addition, the Department is leading on the development of the housing supply strategy, which our Minister is bringing to the Executive. The strategy will provide the long-term basis for sustainable improvements for the entire housing market, with a focus on equality, sustainability and increasing housing supply and housing options for those in greatest need.

Over almost the past two decades, the number of people in housing stress has risen by over 1,000 a year. The lack of social and affordable homes has had an impact on students, on young professionals, on workers unable to afford repairs to their homes, on families and on older, more-vulnerable groups and is driving more and more people into insecure, unsuitable accommodation.

The status quo is not an option, and Sinn Féin has been vocal in its support for a stand-alone, specific outcome on housing in the Programme for Government, supplemented with indicators to provide a continuous, specific focus on ensuring that every household has access to good, affordable and sustainable homes that are appropriate to their needs. That remains our position. That was a commitment in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), and that remains the ask of our housing bodies, which work day and daily in the area, including Homeless Connect, Housing Rights and the Federation of Housing Associations.

The importance of constructive cross-collaboration in this area cannot be overemphasised, and the all-party group on homelessness, which was established this year and which I was delighted to be able to attend, showcases the importance of developing policy in the area with the lived experience of individuals and families experiencing housing difficulties and homelessness. That should be at the heart of everything that we do.

Tackling our housing crisis and ending homelessness for our most vulnerable citizens and for all must be a priority for every Member of the Assembly. Equality in housing cannot wait. It is a moral imperative and is fundamental to delivering a more equitable society post COVID.

Mr Frew: Housing is a fundamental. Where else can we go for safety if we cannot go home? There is an issue that every MLA in this place, either in the Chamber at the minute or outside it, must see when they are out and about meeting constituents and knocking doors, and that is the state of some of our housing. If you do not see that, you are spending too much time here. I see a stock that is deteriorating year in, year out. There have been positives. We can all talk about positives in our areas, and that is good, but so many are still left homeless because their home is not fit for purpose.

We talk a lot here about supporting health and spending on health. It is good, especially in the short term, that we can give more money to health so that people who use the health service get the service that they deserve, but what about spending money to keep people out of hospital? What about investing in people's welfare to make sure that they remain healthy so that they do not need the health service at that acute end? It sounds novel. We all talk about it, but do we do anything about it and do we really see action? It is hard to prove the value for money of preventative spend, but that does not mean that it is not worthwhile.

We need to get to the point where we serve people's interests best by spending money up front. One way to do that is to invest in housing and construction. There needs to be a concerted effort to do that. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Mark Durkan, who moved the motion, said that it would not be an attack on anyone. To be fair, I agree with him in that regard. Housing is such a fundamental issue that it should be an Executive-wide issue and should be part of the Programme for Government. There are so many items and issues that impinge on housing, not least the water and sewerage capacity problem that we all face at present.

I want to talk about the positives in my constituency of North Antrim, particularly Ballymena, where, over the last number of years, we have seen advancements in brownfield sites in our town centre and have had social housing built. However, that leads to another problem that affects people's standard of living when they move into the houses. There is something fundamentally flawed in our housing allocation system whereby, when we build a new block of social houses — flats, apartments or whatever they may be — we allocate those homes all at once, take the top names from the list and move everyone in at the same time. It is not an easy subject to talk about, but I see the ramifications of that daily. If you move someone off the top of the list into a settled area, the chances are that that person will settle. If you move 30, 40 or 50 families or people into a brand new complex, in many cases, there will be hell to pay for years until that community settles down. We all know the reasons for that.

When I speak to housing associations and the Housing Executive, they all tell me the same thing: they are sick to the back teeth of protests about how houses are allocated. Something must change to give those people — those law-abiding people who just happen to need accommodation — the chance of a new, safe and secure home in a safe environment. I am not seeing that for the people whom I represent.

Mr Allen: It will be no surprise to Members across the House that I will speak in support of the motion tabled by the Member opposite and his colleagues. I thank them for bringing this important motion to the House.

There are times in the House when, as parties, we do not all agree, whether that is on the goings-on at the Executive about the universal credit uplift and what happened behind the scenes etc or what is happening with the blockade on welfare mitigations being discussed. However, we can all agree on our endeavours to support the most vulnerable across our society. We can also agree that we are in the midst of a housing crisis. I have heard the Minister acknowledge that on many occasions. She has not shirked her responsibility in admitting that, and I welcome the initiatives that she has taken forward in her short time in the Department to tackle the spiralling housing waiting lists.

There are 2,500 households on the housing waiting list in my constituency of East Belfast. Of those, 1,500 are deemed to be in housing stress. If we put that in the context of Northern Ireland, with that figure being replicated across every constituency bar maybe three or four where the number is nearly double, it equates to 45,000 households on our social housing waiting list. Some 31,267 households were deemed to be in housing stress as of 30 September this year.

The Minister will recognise the following comment from the Adjournment debate that we had in the House two weeks ago. During that debate, I asked whether the figure of 45,000 households on our housing waiting list was the true reality. I do not believe that it is, and I will tell Members why. A number of months ago, I posed a question for written answer to the Department for Communities to ask how many individuals had been taken off our housing waiting list. The Department revealed that 28,000 households had been taken off the waiting list due to the Housing Executive receiving no reply to a renewal reminder. In a follow-up question for written answer, I sought to ascertain how many of the applicants who had been taken off subsequently reapplied. The answer was 7,000. That leaves 21,000 people who gave up on our flawed and failed housing system because they recognised that it would not house them and their families.

I speak about that system daily with constituents who have been on the housing waiting list for years upon years with no prospect of being housed. Those individuals feel that they have been driven, with no other choice, to the private rented sector, where there are increasing costs. We spoke earlier in the House about the increasing cost of living. That is acute and real for many across our constituencies, and many families and individuals have to top up their rent with their social security payments.

I pose this question to the Minister about the welfare reform mitigations and, moreover, the loopholes: does the Department have any statistics or figures? I emphasise that those statistics and figures relate to individuals and families who have lost their home as a result of our inability to close those loopholes. Is that being monitored, and can the Minister advise whether we know if anyone has lost their home due to our inability to close the loopholes?

During the Adjournment debate, I posed another question. I did not get a suitable answer to it, so I will pose it again. It was about constituents engaging with the Housing Executive, and I am sure that it will resonate with Members. I put it on the record that the Housing Executive staff and teams at every level do tremendous work in difficult circumstances and with limited resources to deliver houses. When individuals approach the Housing Executive's housing officer for a particular area, however, they are often advised that the turnaround in that area is very low — there are hugely sought-after areas where turnaround is low — and that naturally leads them to revise their areas of choice. When a housing association approaches the Housing Executive to determine housing need in an area, the information is skewed and is not reflective of the reality. Is that situation monitored? Will we look at that flawed approach to assessing where there is housing need?

The Member touched on the constituents who have come into his constituency office. I am sure that we could all point to similarities across our constituency offices and report how overjoyed we were for constituents whom we managed to support —.


3.45 pm

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

Mr Allen: I close my remarks.

Ms Armstrong: On behalf of Alliance, I confirm that we will support the motion, and we thank the SDLP for tabling it. I suspect that the whole House will support the motion.

Earlier today, the Minister for Communities confirmed that she will take forward a housing outcome. I welcome that — why would I not? All five parties of the Executive agreed that there would be a housing outcome in New Decade, New Approach negotiations. Given how vital an issue housing is for all citizens across Northern Ireland, it is astonishing that we do not already have a specific housing outcome. I am not surprised, however, that the Executive Office has not brought forward a new Programme for Government this close to the end of a mandate. I expect that, after negotiation, the new Programme for Government will be brought forward by the next Executive. Truthfully, I believe that we will have the current draft Programme for Government until the new mandate and until the new Programme for Government is negotiated. That means that I do not expect a housing outcome to be introduced before the pre-election period, from the end of March. That is just my honest opinion.

On the cost of housing, we all know that the cost of a house has increased. The increase has placed that option out of the scope of many who are trying to get on the homeowner ladder. There is an issue with co-ownership. Co-Ownership's website confirms the types of properties for which people can access support. It confirms, for instance, that you cannot buy a one-bedroom home using co-ownership: surely, with the bedroom tax situation, you should be able to buy a one-bedroom home. Moreover, you cannot buy through co-ownership incomplete homes or homes that do not front onto an adopted road: in my constituency, that basically refers to every new build that is happening. We need to review that to see whether Co-ownership can offer support when people need it.

The increase in rental costs is placing more and more people in debt just to rent a home. Thankfully, the Department, the Minister and the Committee for Communities are working on the Private Tenancies Bill, which seeks to cap deposits and limit how often rental increases can happen. It is likely that we will work to limit the amount of rent to be paid in advance. That work will help to deal with some of the issues that groups such as Renters' Voice have brought forward.

I fully support the Minister's work to protect renters from eviction during the pandemic, and that protection is in place until May 2022. What happens after that? If the Private Tenancies Bill passes in time and Royal Assent is secured, there may be a longer notice period, but, as the definition of homelessness will stay the same, people being evicted — even with notice — who cannot access another place to live will not be defined as homeless until they are four weeks away from having to sofa surf, go to a shelter or sleep in their car.

To stop the housing crisis, we need an effective housing supply strategy and action plan. We need effective area planning and community plans. That means local government working with the housing sector to ensure that need is met and housing is planned to develop community and enable access to public services. We also need our local planning offices to progress planning applications within time limits and not with the years of delay that we currently have. We need to reform the Housing Executive, which has been mentioned, sort out the points system and decide what mechanism will be used to allocate social homes.

We need to consider whether homes are able to adapt to society's changing needs. More citizens present with housing crisis in their later years or when they need adaptations to suit their disability. We need homes designed to suit all life, not part of life. The housing supply strategy must embrace the agreements already made to ensure that shared housing is prioritised.

Homes should be a safe place for every citizen, not only for some citizens. Homes should be available to everyone, not only to some people, because areas are presumed to be of one culture or another. We have a housing crisis, and we have a lot of work to do. I support the motion and call for action on the housing crisis to be moved forward quickly.

Ms Á Murphy: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I am in no doubt that there is consensus in the Chamber that we need to address the housing crisis, which has worsened year-on-year.

The cost of rent and property has skyrocketed over the past number of years, putting low-income families, young people and workers under serious pressure when trying to secure a home. Those individuals cannot depend solely on the Housing Executive. In many situations, they will be placed on waiting lists until a home becomes available. As a result, many can be plunged further into debt as they pay extortionate rent just to have a roof over their head. There is also a risk, unfortunately, that some may become homeless. In November 2020, in order to tackle that problem, Carál Ní Chuilín, as interim Minister for Communities, outlined a sweeping transformation plan to overhaul the North's housing system. That was the first radical and robust approach taken in relation to housing in 50 years. That project was required due to outdated housing stock, poorly maintained existing stock, increase in demand and lack of new builds.

Last year, Minister Hargey oversaw the commencement of 2,400 new homes, smashing the current house-building target by 30%. That is a prime example of the Minister's commitment and steadfastness in relation to this project. The Minister also recognises that tweaking around the edges will just not cut it. She is to be commended for her ambition and leadership.

This body of work requires cooperation and support from all of us. Sinn Féin is on record as supporting a stand-alone, specific housing outcome in the Programme for Government, to be accompanied by indicators that provide a specific focus on ensuring that each household has the ability to access good, affordable and sustainable housing that is appropriate to its needs. We will not be found wanting when it comes to that being included in the Programme for Government, and I therefore conclude by offering my support for the motion.

Mr Dunne: Access to a safe, secure and fit-for-purpose home is a basic and fundamental human right. However, a roof over our head is much more than just that: it is vital to the physical, mental and emotional well-being of adults and children who, without a stable, safe and comfortable home, are less likely to succeed academically, more likely to end up in poorly paid employment, potentially be led into a life of crime and even to suffer from a higher mortality rate. Those are some of the things that define the importance of adequate and suitable housing. In short, the lack of a stable home environment, which affordable housing can provide, can impact all aspects of a person's life and, in turn, can have a catastrophic effect on society as a whole, putting a significant strain on our economy, community welfare and physical and mental health. Indeed, my colleague Mr Frew touched on that and on getting priorities right so that housing has a knock-on effect, so reducing the impact on our health service. The cost to the NHS of dealing with issues resulting from inadequate housing conditions is estimated to be around £40 million a year.

As the motion states, the supply of social and affordable housing in Northern Ireland needs to be increased. The average price of housing here has increased by 30% since 2016, with the average house price now over £153,400. For so many people, that is simply unaffordable, and many people are struggling to make the first step onto the property ladder. That was the case even before the pandemic began, but the pandemic has obviously had an even greater negative impact on those trying to get onto the ladder. Meeting deposit requirements is another considerable challenge. I understand that only one local bank in Northern Ireland currently offers the 5% deposit scheme and that that is only on new builds, not resales.

The cost of renting has also greatly increased, with an estimate of around 25%. That hinders many young people saving for that all-important deposit, as that money is simply used for rental payments.

Private lets are also in short supply, and we have seen examples of landlords cashing in on ever-rising property prices, which, obviously, has had an impact. Rents are rising by 5·7%, and many simply cannot afford to rent privately, turning instead to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, an organisation that is simply unable to meet demand.

During 2019-2020, over 4,500 people were placed in temporary accommodation here. In 2020-21, that figure had risen to over 9,700. Unfortunately, those figures will only get worse. Daily, my constituency office, like those of so many other Members from across the Chamber and beyond, hears heartbreaking stories of families living in one room, multiple children sharing a bedroom and people with mobility issues being unable to negotiate stairs. They are desperate to secure a more suitable property to meet their needs. Many homes are simply not fit for purpose, with a never-ending waiting list for work to be done. Damp and mould continue to be a real problem across the Housing Executive's stock, and more innovative ways from the Minister are needed to tackle it, including improved insulation and energy efficiency measures.

Often, families find it impossible to stay in the area in which they were brought up. They simply cannot afford to purchase a home in an area where no suitable social housing is available. In August of this year, it was reported that the Housing Executive had a backlog of over £500 million of repairs and maintenance waiting to be carried out. Add to this the current trend of landlords selling on properties from under the feet of private tenants to cash in on the property boom, and we have a real recipe for disaster, leading to many families having serious mental health issues and even breakdowns. As I mentioned, improving the energy efficiency of homes and tackling fuel poverty must be a key priority for the Minister, and we need to see action on that, not simply words.

The pandemic has hit hard, and its effects on jobs and livelihoods will be long lasting. A more permanent remedy must be sought to protect our most vulnerable. We need to look at improving existing stock and at acquiring existing residential and non-residential properties to add to that stock. We need to see real investment that also provides key economic opportunities, not just in the construction sector but across many other sectors. Our housing crisis is not just the result of COVID-19. We are in this desperate state because of a lack of investment or strategic planning from the Minister and a lack of provision of adequate social housing over many years.

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

Mr Dunne: Yes. Longer-term solutions are needed, and we need action.

Ms Hunter: Having tabled the motion, alongside my colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to speak on it. Over a third of young people around my age — between the ages of 20 and 34 — still live at home with their parents, often moving back because of soaring rents, financial hardship or lack of economic opportunity to save for a mortgage deposit for their first home. I truly believe that we are entering dangerous waters for the future of our young people. In my constituency of East Derry, in the past year, only 58 social houses were completed against a backdrop of 2,538 applicants. Those statistics are worrying and show the scale of the problem that we face, given our growing population, and we know that it will only get worse.

I have been contacted by many constituents across East Derry and, indeed, across the North about housing, as have other Members. Those constituents have different jobs, ages and backgrounds. They are renters, buyers, homeowners and people who are still having to live with their parents. Housing is the number one area that the caseworkers in my office are contacted about. Many constituents are trying to get social housing as a result of being handed a notice to quit after their landlord decided to sell the house during the pandemic. It is of the utmost importance that we increase the housing stock to tackle the long and ever-extending waiting lists that people here are facing.

The average value of housing has increased dramatically, especially over the past 12 months. In the two council areas in my constituency, for example, we have seen prices in the Causeway Coast and Glens area increase by 16·9%, which is nearly 17%, and, in Derry City and Strabane, there has been an increase of nearly 6%. Many tenants across Northern Ireland are being evicted by landlords who wish to sell up, with my constituency office receiving many phone calls from worried constituents, especially those with small children. They have a fear of becoming homeless, and they really have nowhere to turn, as was eloquently put by my colleague.

In places such as Portrush and Portstewart, areas that are more popular with tourists, local people are being pushed out of the town where they spent their childhood by landlord greed, spiralling rents and the lack of available affordable social housing. They are being priced out of their own communities.


4.00 pm

I am a Portrush resident, but, on the wider north coast, in areas such as Castlerock, Portstewart, Portballintrae and even Benone, we are seeing an influx of second homeowners who rent out their property in the tourist season and are pushing local people away from their town. There are no affordable homes for local residents. Communities here are being eroded. Families are being forced to split and live in different towns. The SDLP believes that we can and must do better.

It is deeply worrying and disturbing to see the impact of the housing crisis on young people across Ireland, with the average cost of a rental in 2021 being £729. How are young people meant to be convinced to stay here when housing prices are continuing on an upward trend?

According to Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) statistics for 2021, the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area had the lowest earnings of all local government districts, with employees earning just £452 a week, compared with £618 a week in Belfast, meaning that the area with the highest increase in housing prices is the area with the lowest wages and wage growth in Northern Ireland.

I am truly worried for the health and well-being of my constituents who have the threat of insecure tenure and homelessness hanging over their head. We are staring down the long road of a mental health crisis that already exists here, and the added pressures of unaffordable housing will have an impact on the overall health and well-being of all who live here.

I hope that, with this motion, the Assembly finally recognises the housing crisis that we face. As an Assembly, we can all work together to give our young people here the chance to go from a place in which they just live to a place that they can call home.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member opposite for bringing the motion to the Chamber, and I welcome it. When I come to the House, there is one thing for which I am always thankful, and that is corporate memory, because it seems as though some people have very short memories. Although I would prefer not to make it a political issue, let us face up to some realities.

Some truths have to be told to some new Members who make glowing statements about "cross-collaboration" or who say, "Let us all work together to achieve an outcome". That is very funny, because the current Minister's party had no interest in working together when I was Minister for housing. Probably the happiest but most challenging days that I spent in this House were when I had the privilege of being the Minister for housing. The greatest challenge that I faced, however, was obstruction, denial and delay from the party opposite. The Savills report told us what investment was needed in our housing stock. When the party opposite decided to pull down this place for three years, it was not interested in housing. I was still working as a constituency MLA, and I wrote to the then permanent secretary, Leo O'Reilly, in 2018. In a letter to me, he said that it would take £3 billion of investment over 11 years to deal with the maintenance backlog, so let us not take the view that somehow the problem has crept up on us.

Fifty years ago, nationalists were complaining about poor housing, but so were unionists. It is an indictment of us collectively that it is 2021 yet there are people living in absolute squalor and people who cannot even get houses. Why therefore was there a delay? Let us go to that issue. Remember that the Speaker of the House, who was in the Chair earlier, was Minister in the Department for Social Development. He said in 2012:

"We must use whatever financial levers we can to increase supply to those most in need."

When I became Minister in 2014, he was the very person who obstructed the financial arrangements to change the model to give the Housing Executive the money that it needed to do the required work. Why? Because it did not suit Sinn Féin at the time.

Now, because there is an election — sooner rather than later, I hope — it wants to convince its people that it has done something about housing. It is time that Sinn Féin, as a party, faced up to the reality that it has let people down in Londonderry, west Belfast and other parts of the country, because it has failed. Now what does it want? It wants addressing that need to be a stand-alone issue for the Executive. It is time that that party came clean.

It must also come clean on another issue. Where does it stand with regard to housing associations? When I was Minister, I went with two Members from West Belfast to visit houses in their constituency. The ones that they showed me that were good examples were those that belonged to housing associations. However, housing associations are the very thing that the party opposite has problems and difficulties with.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mrs D Kelly: The Member will recall that he and I visited a new rural housing association scheme out at Derrymore and saw the splendid work that was being done on fuel poverty and being built into sustainable houses at that time.

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

Mr Storey: Thank you. I welcomed that opportunity. I said the same thing then as I say now: it is not one size fits all. It will take a combination of the private sector, the Housing Executive, housing associations and various other methods and means to ensure that we deliver good-quality homes for the people of Northern Ireland. I had the great joy of going to see the Apex scheme in the city of Londonderry, where we saw many houses that had been built in that city. However, I have to say that the party opposite bears huge responsibility for years of delay. It is time now to end the rhetoric, denial and delay. Let us see the Minister's plan. We will assess the plan and determine whether it is good for Northern Ireland plc and for housing.

Mr Nesbitt: I had not intended to speak in the debate, so this will probably be more of a long intervention than a five-minute speech. I was just provoked by something that Mr Frew said. Before I get to it, however, I endorse what my colleague Andy Allen said and absolutely support the motion. There is a crisis in social housing, and we need to act on it. What I do not get is the bedroom tax and social sizing. If you are building a house, you need a kitchen, living space, a bathroom and a bedroom. It seems to me that a second bedroom is not a big spend. It does not require a great percentage to put on a second bedroom, but it adds huge flexibility to how the social housing can be used over the course of its lifetime.

The point that I want to make is that Mr Frew said something interesting, which was that we should invest in construction. I absolutely agree with him. However, the thought that I had was of gender budgeting. I do not have the figures in front of me, but it has been clearly established that if you spend, say, 1% of your GDP on construction, the vast majority of the jobs that you create will be for men. Conversely, if you put that 1% of GDP into social care, the vast majority of jobs that you create will be for women.

While I absolutely support the Minister if she is moving to address the social housing crisis, I ask that she does it not in isolation, but encourages her Executive colleagues to think about the impact of gender budgeting and, perhaps, the need to balance the investment in construction with investment in something like social care, so that the gender budgeting implications are addressed and there is fair distribution of job creation between men and women.

Ms Bradshaw: Like my party colleague Kellie Armstrong, I rise to support the motion. I will come at it from a slightly different angle, mainly that of health and well-being, as referenced at the end of the motion.

Many Members have already outlined issues with the supply of housing and the need to build more homes. That is true. It is pertinent to note that, while housing has become a significant issue across the border, it is not prioritised as much in public debate here. I cannot help but think that that is because, here, the impact is felt predominantly in social housing, rather than there being a sense that people are being priced out of the market to the same degree. Nevertheless, a quick glance at average wages and average house prices suggests that, even here, there is no room for complacency.

For me, an additional consideration arises from the opportunities that we are wasting in our supposedly integrated health and social care system. In the past few years, some of the English city regions, notably Greater Manchester, have taken steps to integrate health and social care. By integration, they do not mean stopping at providing health and social care services from one department; they mean integrating them to the extent that health and welfare become part of the same package. That is pertinent when we consider that the issue with housing in Northern Ireland is not only that we need more of it but that it needs to be better quality.

Even something as apparently basic as dampness or poor insulation can have a significant impact on health and well-being. In Greater Manchester, the integrated system means that, in primary care, a specific housing intervention can be prescribed. In other words, housing is not just a service to be provided but a real extension of well-being. It should not be hard to replicate that in a small area such as Northern Ireland. However, it will mean getting on with it. It may be necessary to find ways of more quickly converting brownfield sites for new housing, for example, thereby renovating and reinvigorating locations.

Fundamentally, I am talking about a resident-first approach with a focus on well-being, particularly since the approach of the Programme for Government is supposed to be outcomes-based. We should set out to accomplish it urgently; there would be significant benefits from it.

Ms Bailey: I support the motion, but I also put on record the fact that housing has not been an issue only for nationalists and unionists; it has been an issue for all of us. Mr Nesbitt quite rightly points out the flexibilities that having a second bedroom can give, but we also need to be cognisant that the welfare reform legislation that went through, supported by many in the House, removed that flexibility from a lot of people.

I will not go over points that have been made. I urge the Executive to commit to developing legislation for a Northern Ireland-specific rent control scheme. We cannot continue to run the risk of becoming like Dublin or London, where increasing numbers of people are priced out of the city and long-established working-class community areas become gentrified.

I do not believe that everyone should want to own their own home. I am a renter; I am a social housing tenant. I was one of the A1 priorities that were mentioned. I was at the top of the list. I was resettled absolutely fine, but it was a lengthy, bruising and torturous process.

Our long-established communities who already face the chronic shortage of housing will be further impacted when landlords realise that they can make a heftier profit if they rent to students or young professionals rather than people from within those communities. Market forces mean that private rental is sold as a great boost to people to help with their pension incomes. It is a wee bit brutal when pensions are under attack and are dwindling. It is sometimes hard to blame people for going for that model, but housing is a human right, not an economic lever. Let us understand that and wake up to the encroachment that we are allowing to happen and that is putting so many people at risk.

Knowing that, the Green Party supports rent control measures. For those who are unaware, rent controls are government regulations that limit the rent that a landlord can charge. Policies can come in different forms, and regulations might include capping annual rent increases so that they do not increase beyond a given figure, preventing landlords from increasing rent during a tenancy, and creating a rent ceiling or upper limit that specifies the maximum rent for a property to let. Rent controls are not a new phenomenon. For example, the private rental market in the UK was regulated for most of the last century, the last regulations having been abolished in 1989. Paris caps rents so that they cannot be 20% more than an area's average. In February 2020, Berlin introduced a five-year rent cap for all apartments built prior to 2014.

I am aware that the rent-to-buy scheme will be ended next August.

While the Minister is here, I take the opportunity to let her know that I have received the written notification from my housing provider. It is good news that the notifications are going out. Hopefully, that measure will go some way to stemming the loss of public housing into private ownership. It is bizarre that we spend public money building public housing that we sell off at a lower value into private ownership, and there is no requirement for the public stock to be replaced: that needs to stop.


4.15 pm

How are rent rates set in public bodies? When we talk about "affordable housing", what do we mean? I am not aware of any public or private rental rates that are set using an average income rate. How bizarre is that? As far as I am aware, all rents are set in accordance with the market value. Well, the market value is unaffordable and unsustainable, and using that as a measure for something that is a human right needs to stop. Human rights should never be a commodity, but that is exactly what is happening, and it is happening under our watch.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I now call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to respond to the debate. The Minister has 15 minutes.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank the contributors to the debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion.

I am aware of the housing crisis that we face, and many Members have discussed that crisis today. Indeed, I have not shied away from saying that it is a housing crisis. Members will recall the statement that was made, almost a year ago to the day, outlining plans to address the challenges that we face in our system. Those included looking at the housing stress, increasing the supply of social and affordable homes and looking at the change in population going forward.

Previously, I outlined how I will deliver on the challenges. That included proposals for legislative and structural change, which may transform how we address the housing need. My ambition is to ensure that every household has access to good-quality, affordable and sustainable housing that meets its needs appropriately. I am pulling out all the stops to get more homes built in every area where there is a housing need. Tackling housing stress is my top priority.

Last year, 2,403 social housing units were started; the highest figure in a decade. During the same period, 1,318 social housing units were completed, and that exceeded the target of 1,200. I have secured an investment budget from the Finance Minister for new social housing. This financial year, I have made £162 million available, and that is an increase of £26 million on the previous year's budget.

I am considering what policy changes are needed to increase the capacity of the social housing development programme. I will reintroduce ring-fencing to ensure that areas of acute housing need are prioritised. I am working with housing associations, and I have encouraged them to identify land that is available for social housing. I am also conducting an exercise to identify surplus public land that could be used for social housing developments. Again, that is where councils, through their local development plans, can play a key role in making sure that the targets around social and affordable housing are met. I know that some people in councils — I am glad that is a minority — did not want any minimum threshold. However, we need the threshold to be at 20% or up at 30% to 40%, at least, as a minimum.

The COVID pandemic has impacted the construction industry and the cost of materials. To ensure that we protect the delivery of new social housebuilding programmes, I have recently approved a mid-year review to increase the cost to allow those projects to continue. That will take account of the increased costs that are affecting contractors on newly tendered schemes. Housing associations can claim for increased costs between April and September of this year for schemes that are already on-site or tendered.

I will also continue to help people into homeownership, if that is their choice, through the support for shared ownership schemes such as Co-Ownership. Co-Ownership has helped more than 30,000 families into homeownership. It is currently assisting well over 1,000 people a year to purchase their first home. Over the four years to 2024, I will have provided £158 million of financial transactions capital loan funding to Co-Ownership. That will help to deliver more than 4,400 homes under that successful scheme. That includes £13 million that was allocated in January this year to assist those who were negatively impacted by tighter lending conditions as a result of the pandemic.

More needs to be done to provide people with a greater range of affordable housing choices. My Department published the definition of affordable housing in April 2021. The changes are designed to facilitate a greater range of affordable housing products and to support the delivery of mixed-tenure developments as a key area of focus for councils in their local development plans. I launched a consultation on the delivery of one new such product: intermediate rent. The consultation sets out my proposals to deliver a new supply of affordable housing for rent, offering homes that are affordable for lower-income people and families.

Meeting the challenges posed by our housing crisis requires us to do more, deliver more social and affordable homes and protect the homes that we have. In June 2020, the Assembly passed legislation to end the house sale schemes for housing associations, and that will come into effect in August 2022. Members were written to in October 2021, informing them of the change. I remain committed to launching a consultation on the future of the house sale schemes, addressing the need to do much more within the Housing Executive stock as well. I put this proposal to the Executive, and it has not progressed. I am calling for the proposal to be progressed so that I can put it out to consultation.

Members are also aware of the huge and long-standing investment challenges faced by the Housing Executive.

A Member: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hargey: I will give way at the end. Sorry, I want to make sure that I finish what I have here.

My officials and the Housing Executive continue to work in partnership and at pace to provide me with advice to enable me to bring a recommendation to the Executive by March 2022 on how to tackle the challenge. We need to make the private rented sector a more sustainable option, and, indeed, that sector was one of our most urgent areas of intervention as the pandemic hit. An emergency Bill was drafted, from a blank piece of paper, and passed in the Assembly in less than five weeks, to extend the protections around the notice to quit. Indeed, I have extended those again until May 2022.

I am bringing forward new legislation to improve the safety, security and quality of the private rented sector, and I put the needs of tenants at the heart of this approach. Private renters should have access to good, affordable homes, with peace of mind over the length and conditions of their rental contract. There needs to be improved health and safety in order to keep families and people safe, and I want to see restrictions on rent increases and to extend the notice-to-quit period so that we protect tenants when it comes to evictions.

The Bill includes a clause to alter the notice period up to a maximum of six months, and my officials are exploring ways to make better use of private rented homes, examining the potential for long-term leasing schemes in the private rented sector. That will allow tenants to avail themselves of longer tenancies in better, well-maintained homes, with tenancy support services available when they need them.

I prioritised an action to improve our response to homelessness. Our future homelessness policy continues to build on the lessons learned in how we have dealt with the pandemic. That will include a roll-out of an interdepartmental homelessness action plan, and it will continue to support the Housing Executive to deliver on its statutory responsibility for responding to homelessness.

I am pleased that I was able to secure an additional £9·3 million this year to continue the public health response for the very vulnerable groups. That will allow the Housing Executive to continue to deliver actions in its COVID reset plan, which was published in November 2020. The plan sets out a framework to build on the lessons learned since March 2020, while also considering the wider strategic impacts. Work continues on the development of the new homelessness strategy to take us from 2022 to 2027, with a public consultation set to be launched this month.

Housing is an integrated system, as many have said. That means that the impacts on one or more parts of the system — for instance, restrictions on private housebuilding — impact on need and demand in other areas. It also means that the barriers to increasing the supply of social and intermediate homes are much the same as those affecting housing supply more broadly. My Department leads on the development of a housing supply strategy. That will focus on those whole-system issues that act as a barrier to the supply of housing. It will also consider the wider issues of quality, sustainability and affordability in the context of changing demographics and household formation trends. The strategy will provide the long-term basis for sustainable improvements across the entire housing market but with a specific focus on equality and an increase in housing supply and housing options for those in greatest need.

The consultation on the strategy will come forward before the end of this year.

I have covered a number of important issues. Some are deep, underlying issues that have been there for many years, if not decades. I am taking on the challenges through the most radical transformation of our housing system in over 50 years. Tackling our housing crisis requires collaboration across government. Today's debate highlights the need for a stand-alone housing outcome in the Programme for Government. It was discussed in the other debate, but the right to a home is fundamental. A house impacts on many other things. I support the housing sector and those campaigners in having a stand-alone outcome. My position on that is known. I have raised it at the Executive, I will continue to raise it, and I have put it in writing as part of the draft Programme for Government outcomes framework.

Mr Storey: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hargey: I will give way in a minute, once I finish, and there is a bit of time. Sorry.

I have also spoken to the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. She, too, has confirmed her support. Indeed, she has told me that she has signed off on the Programme for Government outcomes framework that was brought forward by officials. That Programme for Government document has been through numerous departmental discussions, stakeholder engagements and consultation exercises. It represents not only a ministerial and departmental road map but one that has been endorsed by wider civic society and a range of stakeholders. I know from speaking to the deputy First Minister that she has clearly and publicly set out that position in Executive meetings.

I know the proposers' intent in respect of housing, but, if they speak to their Minister, they will hear that Nichola knows what has been raised and said at the Executive meetings. That means that one area is being blocked from being brought forward by one part of the Executive Office. Rather than trying to promote the false narrative that it is being blocked by two sides of the House, we should work collectively to ensure that our people benefit from a quality housing policy and improved rights for all. I call on the Programme for Government and my consultation on the right to buy scheme to be brought to the Executive for decisions.

I have a bit of time, so I will address some other issues. I have covered the housing supply strategy and said that we will go out to consultation on that soon. My proposal for a consultation on the right to buy scheme has been with the Executive for a number of months, but it has not made it on to the agenda. If you look at the issues, you will see an obvious trend.

I move now to prioritising health. I agree that health and housing have to work together. There has been greater working together throughout the pandemic. A memorandum of understanding was signed by Robin and me, but it ends in December. I want that to continue and to be broadened beyond the pandemic. Last week, I visited a homeless accommodation facility in south Belfast. You can clearly see the links between housing and health, particularly around addiction and the wider wrap-around support. I want to continue to work with the Health Minister to make sure that we are addressing those issues collectively.

Issues were raised around the allocation and points system. Members will know that, when I was off, my predecessor, Carál, brought forward changes to the points system. Eighteen of the 20 recommendations were approved. Work to put the systems in place for those changes to take effect is ongoing with the Housing Executive. Some will start to be rolled out next year, and that work will continue shortly after that.

I do not have the specific details or targets on the loopholes. However, the longer that the mitigations and loopholes cannot be closed, the longer that people will be impacted. I have asked the Executive that that be placed on the agenda for decision, not discussion, at this Thursday's Executive meeting.

I move now to gender and budgeting. Obviously, I am responsible for developing the gender strategy. We have looked at gender budgeting and participatory budgeting, and I have looked at the sectors. It is not just a case of putting more money or resources into social care. It is about fixing the terms and conditions within social care. Not only are many who work there female but it is the lowest-paid sector. You can look at that and track it across. A number of months ago, I attended a Housing Executive presentation with the Human Rights Commission, which was looking at gender in apprenticeships. The higher-paid apprenticeships are predominantly in male-orientated sectors. That is what needs to change.

I completely agree, but we need to change the fundamentals. I am more than happy to look at that in the time ahead.


4.30 pm

A comment was made about the institutions. It is critical for housing, because, when it comes to how budgets are allocated or decisions are taken, discrimination of any sort needs to end. There should not be political interference that tries to discriminate in public policy [Interruption.]

Mervyn, I get on with you, but you are a different person in the Chamber from what you are in the corridor, truth be told. I am more than happy to have a conversation with anybody —.

Mr Storey: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hargey: When I am finished. I am more than happy to have a conversation with anybody who comes to me, but very few of you have come to me. Some have — I will give them that — but few MLAs have asked to sit down with me to discuss housing. You wait until you come to the Chamber to say anything. I know that many of you are genuine about it, but come and speak to me as well.

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

Ms Hargey: The proposer of the motion said that he did not want the debate to be political. I totally agree with that, but he then went outside and did a video and made it political. Again, straight after raising it — [Interruption.]

Ms Hargey: I have no problem with being held to account —

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

Ms Hargey: — but work with me and be open and genuine about it. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order.

I call Dolores Kelly to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate on the motion. The Member has 10 minutes.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for being present for the debate and all Members who contributed. From Members' contributions, the linkages between housing and good health outcomes for everyone are clear, and, owing to the changing demographics of society here, there is a need for much more diverse housing accommodation for people who are older, those who have disabilities and those who are part of the boomerang generation, if Cara Hunter does not mind my saying that. As the parent of someone from that generation, I am familiar with the difficulties that young people have in getting an affordable home, whether that is to rent or to buy.

Across all constituencies, in the past weeks and months, we increasingly find people presenting as homeless because landlords are taking advantage of rising house prices. Only the other week, I had a family in with me who had been given until just after Christmas to find a new home. The Member for Upper Bann across the Chamber will know that there are not many places left to rent in the Upper Bann constituency, yet we have huge public land ownership. We have stacks of land in the centre of Craigavon, in the Brownlow area in particular, on which we could build homes. Despite 2,908 families and individuals on the waiting list last year in our constituency, only four homes were built.

I say to the Minister that, as an elected representative, I have regular meetings with the Housing Executive. I place on record my thanks to its staff, because many of them work tirelessly and are passionate about finding good homes for people. I also place on record my thanks to Housing Rights, because I am sure that I avail myself of its services on a weekly basis as I seek advice on how best to advocate on behalf of my constituents. Often, it picks up our slack by providing advice and making available legal services.

COVID has taught us all about the value of having a good home and having a bit of space in the garden and in the house. There is the old saying about your home being your castle. Many Members spoke about the need for people to feel safe and secure in their home. That is true.

I did not think that I would ever say this in the public domain, but I was glad of Mr Storey's intervention, because I was beginning to think that I was living in a parallel universe in which we did not have three years of collapse of the Assembly with no decisions on health, education and waiting lists. We heard earlier about the crisis in our health service. We now hear about the crisis in housing. We had three years, however, in which housing did not drive people back to the Chamber or back around the Executive table.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mrs D Kelly: I will give way.

Mr Storey: To clarify, I am the same person in here as I am out there. I am happy to talk to anybody. I may enjoy a bit of banter in the House, but my message will be the same out there as it is in here.

I say to the Member from Upper Bann that it was worse than that. In the two years prior to that, Sinn Féin decided not to move on housing. It is playing a game of bluff. Now, all of a sudden, there is a rush to get everything to the Chamber so that it can get it into its election manifesto that it has done something for housing, when it has, in fact, sat on its hands for the past 10 years.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his comment.

I think it was Ms Bradshaw who remarked that housing is an issue across the island. I think that the reason why it is not in the public discourse to the same extent in the North as it is in the South is whose responsibility it is. Housing is the responsibility of Sinn Féin in the North, but Sinn Féin, of course, is an opposition party in the South, where housing a key electoral strategy. Some of the remedies that the Housing Minister in the South has advocated are the ones on which we are to congratulate the housing Minister in the North.

I find it strange that, all of a sudden, having a housing-focused outcome in the Programme of Government is so important now, when it was not important in January last year, which is when we sought for it to be in the Programme for Government. When Margaret Ritchie and Alex Attwood were Social Development Ministers, they increased housing, with 2,000 new homes built each year. During their tenure in office, they built more houses than any subsequent Minister.

It is right and proper to say that housing should be on all our minds, because of those linkages to health and how it creates vibrant and sustainable communities. Across Ireland, there is a huge need for people to own their home, but, as Ms Bailey said, it is equally OK to rent and to want to be a renter. Indeed, Ms Bailey referred to examples across Europe —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I encourage the Member to use the microphone.

Mrs D Kelly: Sorry.

— where there are protections such as rent caps. We need to look at that.

I feel sorry not just for the people who are most vulnerable and marginalised in terms of the types of houses that they have to live in but for the people who cannot get on to the social housing ladder at all and have zero chance of owning their home. The strategy going forward for how housing is designed and created has to not only meet the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised through the provision of a good, affordable home but help your children, my children and the children of teachers, nurses, care workers and factory workers. It has to help everyone. We have to start to build a different type of society where it is OK to rent. Equally, we have to look at how co-ownership can help those who want to get into the housing market.

Of course, there are issues with how land is often banked by developers until there is an opportune time to build. I fully understand that there is much more that is not in the Minister's gift, as she said, and that requires collaboration across government. That is clear, and I accept that. However, there has to be some honesty about what has been delivered: four houses out of 2,900 on a waiting list. It is not just about starting to build; it is when the houses are actually built that is the true stat that we need to understand.

I welcome the Minister's flexibility on contracts. She will know that new builds, particularly around schools, have, in my constituency, fallen foul of the increased cost of construction.

I ask the Minister to look particularly at disabled persons facilities grants. I know that she has looked at some flexibilities there. Getting an assessment from occupational therapy to kick-start the process —.

Ms Hargey: Will you take a point of information?

Ms Hargey: We are looking at that. The Housing Executive is running a pilot to look at doing a lot of that assessment in-house. There have been brilliant results around disabled facilities, and we hope that that will be extended across the board. I will be able to update you separately on that.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for that clarification. That is some good news. We have talked about that in the House for a long time. As a former OT, I wonder why it has not been done before. I wish the Minister well. I know that the pilot has shown some good results. It is critical. As more and more people require healthcare and community care, the focus will be on care in the community.

Once people are ready for discharge from hospital into the community, it is critical that the support mechanisms and the wrap-around service swing into gear very swiftly.

We are, as the motion says, in a housing crisis. Far too little has been delivered over the past number of years. I hope that the strategies that the Minister outlined will see the light of day and be quickly resourced and implemented. It is very clear in my mind that we need a much broader overview to meet the needs and aspirations of all our citizens, whether it is co-ownership, having social and affordable housing to rent or people being able to remain in their own homes after injury or illness. I thank all the Members who spoke for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the severe impact that the housing crisis, which has made housing unaffordable for many and placed home ownership out of reach for a generation of young people, has had on people and families across Northern Ireland; notes that the average price of housing in Northern Ireland has increased by 30% since 2016; further notes that the cost of renting has increased by 25% since 2016 and this is having a material impact on the capacity of people to save the deposit needed to secure a home; regrets that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have yet to publish a Programme for Government with a specific housing outcome, supplemented with relevant indicators; and calls on the Minister for Communities to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in recognition that the security of a home has an immediate impact on the health and well-being of citizens.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)


4.45 pm

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the 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 who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber may do that by rising in their place or by notifying the Business Office or the 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 should be avoided at all costs. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.

Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): I take the opportunity to update Members on the progress of the high street scheme. I know that there is much interest in that in the Chamber and across Northern Ireland.

I begin by putting the scheme in context. Throughout these challenging economic times, my Department has been at the forefront of the Executive's response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. We have delivered unprecedented financial support that has enabled thousands of businesses to keep their doors open, secured tens of thousands of jobs and provided hope for families and communities. We have provided around £500 million to over 32,000 businesses through a number of essential support schemes, all of which were delivered and developed in unprecedented turnaround times. Working with Invest Northern Ireland, we introduced new schemes to support businesses, and, alongside Tourism NI, we weighed in with support for