Official Report: Monday 08 November 2021

The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Speaker's Business

Youth Assembly

Mr Speaker: Before we move to the business in the Order Paper, I advise the House that the Youth Assembly met on Saturday morning. Obviously, due to the restrictions that remain in place, it was not possible to invite all Members or many others. I put on record my very sincere gratitude and thanks to all our officials, who did a tremendously professional job to support those young people and the many family members who joined their youngsters here to give them some support. By all accounts, the day went very well and was very successful. It augurs well for the work that the Commission has authorised to proceed under the guise of the Youth Assembly. I intend to provide a full report to the House fairly shortly to keep Members up to date with how the Youth Assembly is progressing.

Members' Statements

Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate that by continually rising in their place. Those Members who are called will have up to three minutes to make their statement. Members are reminded that statements will not be subject to debate or questioning, that interventions will not be taken, and that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Hospital Car Parking Charges

Miss Reilly: Our responsibility as legislators is to create conditions that are fair and equitable for all our constituents. My private Member's Bill to abolish hospital car parking charges is about creating fair and just outcomes for our health and social care workers, who are burdened with an unfair additional tax because of sky-high car parking charges at their place of work. No health and social care worker should be paying to park their car as they head in to their work to care for our sick and elderly.

My Bill to abolish hospital car parking charges seeks to create fair and impartial treatment for our rural communities, who are often cut off through distance and poor public transport. There should be no inequality in the treatment of any of our constituents, rural or urban, as they try to access the healthcare facilities and treatments that they might need. Hospital car parking charges are causing patients and their families additional stress and anguish that could easily be avoided.

My private Member's Bill will put money back in the pockets of workers at the end of each week. The pandemic has taught us that we need to do everything that we can to make the lives of our health and social care workers easier and worry free. The provisions of my Bill will give relief to patients who face a health crisis and their families who do not need to be worrying about their ability to pay to park their car just to be with their loved one. My private Member's Bill to abolish car parking charges will create fairness and equality, which is what we are all here in the Assembly to strive for.

Health: Early Intervention

Mr Weir: Forgive me for not rising. I thank Members from across the Chamber for their very kind sentiments and messages on the passing of my mother; they were greatly appreciated.

The subject that I want to talk about today is the value of early intervention in health, the benefit of that to the health service and to patients and the benefit of patients being proactive in their approach to their own health. I will use myself as an example. Just over a month ago, I developed a small cut on one of my toes, which led very quickly to an infection in my foot. I was admitted, first to the Ulster Hospital and then the Royal Victoria, and I am thankful for the care that I received in both those establishments and for the skill of the surgeon who operated on me. On the first day, I was diagnosed as a diabetic, having previously been undiagnosed. That led to a much more rapid spread of infection. I required an operation on my foot, which resulted in the amputation of one toe and the removal of infected tissue. That has meant that, for the next number of weeks, I will be in a wheelchair. Important as that is, had it not been for the skills of the staff in those institutions, it could have been a lot worse.

Reflecting on my own role, although they may not have been glaringly obvious, there were some signs of potential symptoms. I took a slightly negligent route by ignoring them and, as a lot of us tend to do, saw things happening to me and put them down to age, which was wishful thinking. As politicians, we are often accused, on social media and elsewhere, of being two-faced or hypocritical. This is an occasion on which I hold my hands up and admit that I am saying, "Do as I say and not as I did". I urge people to learn from my situation: if they have a concern over the development of symptoms of any level, they should not simply dismiss them and be negligent. Instead, they should take early action, because doing so is of deep benefit to the health service through saved costs down the line. Furthermore, for anybody who is in that position, whether it is diabetes or any other potential issue, early action could be critical to the extent of any injury to you and may ultimately save your life. Therefore, I urge people to not, as I said, do as I did and instead to learn from my lesson and ensure that they do as I say. Make sure that you make that early intervention, see your GP, go to the minor injuries unit and get things dealt with at an early stage. If you do that, there will be better consequences for you and the health service.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Mr Weir, for that. We all sympathise with you on your circumstances.

Rathcoole Bus Hijacking

Mr O'Toole: I associate myself with your remarks to Mr Weir.

Last night in Rathcoole, a bus was burnt out. Men, apparently in their 40s, entered the bus, intimidated the driver, directed him and burnt the bus out. We can assume that that act was based on the same set of broad political motivations as other acts of a similar ilk.

It is a tragedy but is perhaps not surprising given the inflammatory rhetoric that has surrounded the issue this year, particularly from the UK Government and certain unionist politicians. That rhetoric has to stop, and it has to stop now, as do the actions of those who think that they can subvert the democratic process by using violence. It is totally wrong and unacceptable, and, as I said, it has to stop now.

First, it is important to state that what happened to the driver and what has happened to other bus drivers is totally unacceptable. I stand in solidarity with the driver, who, I am sure, is traumatised, and another driver was traumatised last week. It is totally unacceptable for them to be left in this situation.

Secondly, the driver of that bus served working-class communities in areas like Rathcoole and the Shankill. The people there need to get to school, to work and to doctors' appointments. It is shameful that, as a political act, people think that boarding a bus, burning it out and depriving working-class people of public transport is any form of acceptable political protest.

I am afraid, however, that we have to be honest about the context in which that happened. It happened in the context of increasingly inflamed rhetoric over the protocol. There is a set of complicated arrangements to manage our unique position post Brexit. What is the rest of the context? The rest of the context is that multiple polls now show increasing support for that complicated arrangement because people here recognise that we are a complex place, and Brexit has placed us in a uniquely complex and compromised position, so we need arrangements to reflect that.

Is it perfect? No, absolutely not. Nothing about the way that this place is governed is perfect. Nothing about Brexit is perfect, but those who amp up their rhetoric and tell people that their constitutional position or their rights are being infringed on the basis of that protocol need to reflect on their language. They also need to reflect on the fact that the democratic process allows for representation in this Chamber and discussion and negotiation around protocol mitigations, which are already happening between the UK and the EU.

The actions of the people who boarded that bus and torched it were unacceptable —

Mr O'Toole: — and the actions of those who seek to increase provocation, use inflammatory language —

Mr Speaker: Time, Member.

Mr O'Toole: — and do things like trigger article 16 are, I am afraid, making this situation worse.

Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Rhetoric

Dr Aiken: Following on from the remarks of my friend from South Belfast, I rise to raise the very concerning issue of the remarks made at the weekend by a senior EU diplomat:

"We are ready for peace but prepared for war."

The use of such language not only is outrageous but follows a pattern of language and rhetoric used by EU officials and the likes of some Irish politicians who should know better, including Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, who regularly use images of facilities destroyed in attacks by republican terrorists as so-called evidence to support their desire for the creation of the protocol. We have seen today that those are entirely counterproductive acts that have undermined support for the Belfast Agreement.

My party leader spoke directly to the EU ambassador to the UK, Maroš Šefcovic, Simon Coveney and the Taoiseach about that very issue. He also stated to senior EU diplomats face to face, as have some of us here, that they must be mindful of rhetoric and megaphone diplomacy, particularly when they bypass elected representatives in Northern Ireland. It is inflammatory, to say the least, for EU officials to make such remarks. What is required is rational, fully inclusive dialogue that recognises that, for many, the protocol is not working and does not enjoy the support of quite a few of us in our society, and it is progressively poisoning the body politic here. That has to be the starting point.

Maroš Šefcovic has the opportunity today to address those issues directly. All Members of the Assembly should join us in asking him to do so. The people of Northern Ireland need solutions to the many problems caused by the protocol and not heightened tensions and the use of warlike rhetoric.

Rathcoole Bus Hijacking

Mr Blair: I am grateful for the chance to wish our colleague Mr Weir a full and speedy recovery and to address the issue of recurring violence in Northern Ireland.

12.15 pm

I cannot condemn strongly enough the latest violence on the streets, including a bus hijacking and burning in Rathcoole, close to my constituency, on Sunday evening. I pass on my support to the driver and passengers who were on that bus. Understandably, they will be traumatised by that deeply disturbing act of violence. Such incidents bring fear to local communities and tarnish onlookers' image of Northern Ireland. They also seriously undermine the good work that is being done by good people at community level in Rathcoole and elsewhere.

Like other recent outbreaks of violence, the latest incident is reported to have been connected to dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland protocol. It follows similar attacks only last week. Members will recall that there was also similar violence at Easter this year, the effects of which still affect the communities where those incidents occurred. There appears to be increasing violence since the expiry of politically imposed deadlines with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol and issues around it.

For the sake of all communities, it is now crucial that political leaders dial down the rhetoric and focus on solutions, rather than setting deadlines or issuing ultimatums. Often, when political speeches or actions raise tensions, those tensions spill over and affect people who are trying to get on with their lives in their local areas. There has never been a greater need for political leaders to work together for satisfactory outcomes, avoid hype and end the blatant destruction of public assets. Those senseless acts of destruction, which could lead to death or serious injury, should be called out on every occasion. They must cease. The hijacking and burning of a bus achieve nothing. What they do is terrorise and frighten people who are just trying to earn a living, get home to their families or go about their daily business. I urge anyone with any information on the recent attacks to contact the police, directly or through Crimestoppers, to assist the cessation of these actions.

Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Mr Allister: I join other Members in offering my best wishes and condolences to our colleague Peter Weir.

Thirty-four years ago today, one of the most appalling acts of IRA terrorism took place: the Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen. Today, I think of the families of the 11 people who were killed immediately and the family of Ronnie Hill, who died some 13 years later. In that context, I was utterly appalled to read the comments of the Secretary of State in an interview with the PA news agency at the weekend, when he proclaimed, in support of an amnesty, that Troubles deaths were different. Troubles deaths were murder. Murder is murder. Amnesty, sadly, is, therefore, validation of murder. I utterly condemn those comments. On this day, I join in sympathy and thought with the many who are grieving in the Enniskillen area.

Last night, we saw a totally different level of violent incident at Rathcoole. That was utterly wrong. Violence is self-defeating, although it comes from within the community of Northern Ireland that saw a reward for violence through the Belfast Agreement. However, it is wrong. It is clear to me that the consequential burden on unionist politicians, I include myself, to ensure that there is no room or vacuum for such violence, is to pursue relentlessly the dismantling of the iniquitous protocol, which has wrought constitutional change. The High Court has decreed that it is incompatible with article 6 of the Act of Union 1800 in its denial of unfettered trade and is, therefore, impliedly repealed. There is no point in people like Mr O'Toole pretending that it has not made the constitutional change that it has made. It has transferred lawmaking powers from the United Kingdom to a foreign jurisdiction that is overseen by a foreign court. Of course it has made constitutional change.

Fundamentally, the flames have now been fanned by the belligerent, bellicose utterances of an EU official, when he talked about being:

"ready for peace but prepared for war."

Some time ago, the EU was the party lecturing everyone about how an international agreement could not be breached. It now threatens to set aside an international trade agreement when someone says that they might exercise a power already in the protocol, that of article 16.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Allister: The sooner that article 16 is activated, the better. Not that it is the whole answer —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Allister: — but it would at least be a declaration of proper intent to defend the —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Allister: — integrity of the United Kingdom.

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Hate Crime: Portadown

Mr O'Dowd: First, I wish Mr Weir well, and I add my condolences on the passing of his mother.

I raise the issue of the disgraceful, racist attack on a family in Portadown last night. A group of youths gathered outside the home of Florentina Dimache, her children and her husband, and racially abused the family. They threw stones and other objects at their property and told them to "Go home". Let me tell those who were behind that attack that Florentina Dimache was home. Her home is in Ballyoran in Portadown. That is where she lives with her family. That is where her children go to school. That is where she and her husband go to work.

Home would have been a much better place for those who were attacking the property, rather than out on the streets attacking a family at night, or at any other time. Ireland has a long history of people leaving these shores and establishing their home somewhere else, and we should recognise that. Those who were behind the attack obviously do not know the history of their community. That community has stood up to bigotry and sectarianism in the past, and it will not allow a group of individuals to terrorise or attack anyone in its midst.

I therefore appeal to anyone with information to bring it to the police. That same group of people has been involved in terrorising pensioners and other members of the community in the area. The fun is now over, and they have to be dealt with by the police. I commend the community groups, the youth workers, the Tir na nÓg GAA club, which is just around the corner from where the attack happened, and all who are involved in the improvement of our community in Portadown.

We have all tried to support that small group of people to divert them from what they are doing, but we can do no more, and it is over to the police to deal with them. I send this message of solidarity to Florentina and her family: we recognise that you are at home, we recognise you as a neighbour, and we want you to stay.

Enniskillen Bomb: Anniversary

Mrs Erskine: First, I condemn those responsible for that attack and also those responsible for last night's attack in Rathcoole.

My good wishes go to my colleague Peter Weir during what is a difficult time for him.

I rise in memory of 12 innocent people who were callously murdered by the IRA 34 years ago on this day, 8 November 1987, while they attended a Remembrance Sunday service at Enniskillen cenotaph. Today, my thoughts are with the families of Bertha and Wesley Armstrong, Samuel Gault, Jessie and Kitchener Johnston, John Megaw, Edward Armstrong, Ronnie Hill, William and Agnes Mullan, Alberta Quinton and Marie Wilson for the pain that they will feel today and the pain that they have felt for the past 34 years, as they have waited for justice.

That day left many others with life-changing physical and mental scars. They lived, but their lives were never the same, with the injuries that they suffered being a daily reminder of the events of that day. The IRA targeted the victims while they gathered to honour those who fought to protect our freedoms. Thirty-four years on, the families have not received any justice against those callous and cowardly terrorists who carried out the atrocity. Closure comes in many forms, but, for many, it involves justice in a court of law. Lack of justice has made it more difficult for many of the families to move on. Today, with the Enniskillen victims in mind, I say to the Government that drawing a line under the past may be attractive to some, but, to the innocent victims to whom I have spoken, it is not.

Justice was corrupted on the day the prison gates were opened in 1998. Evil people were set free while their victims still suffered. Justice was corrupted when Sinn Féin and Tony Blair dreamt up the get-out-of-jail-free cards. To ever deny any victim access to justice is the ultimate insult to those who have suffered the most. I know that, as time passes, so does the chance of justice. However, allowing murderers to stop looking over their shoulder is not right on any level. It has taken us backwards, not forwards. It is immoral and flies in the face of the rule of law. Today, we remember the Enniskillen bomb victims. Today, we speak up for justice.

Social Security Appeal Tribunals

Mr McGlone: I take the opportunity to sympathise with Peter Weir on the death of his mother. I offer my sincere sympathies to Peter and the rest of the family. I also wish Peter a good and fulsome recovery.

I will speak about social security appeal tribunals. For those of us who have been at a tribunal, they can be traumatic and stressful for individuals. Indeed, many of the people that we represent — and some go on their own, which is even more difficult — have mental health issues, anxiety and troubles. It can be a very emotional and stressful occasion for them. The social security appeal tribunals are starting to resurrect themselves post COVID and post the difficulties and problems that we had in organising them. We have discovered that, especially for personal independence payment (PIP) and disability living allowance (DLA) appeal tribunals — DLA being for children — they have to prepare five copies of their medical records for the tribunal. It can be very difficult for anyone to get all that, and it can also be very expensive. Many of the people who are there with us, or on their own, have very limited means, so that in itself is a difficulty — how it is done, but also the cost of it being done. The people who are often on the lowest incomes are facing a surcharge to get their case heard at those social security appeal tribunals.

I wish to put that marker down here — I wish to raise the matter publicly — because anyone going in there on their own will find that extremely difficult. Many people with anxiety, even if they are represented, will find that to be a traumatic occasion as it is, even though the chair and panel members are very understanding and respectful of those people and their issues. Certainly, the imposition of further financial difficulties on people with limited resources needs to be put on record. I will be raising it with the Minister for Justice.

Migraine Sufferers: Protection

Ms Bradshaw: I will speak on behalf of the thousands of people across Northern Ireland who regularly experience migraines and yet have no protection under disability legislation. Migraines are a form of severe headache that can often be debilitating for sufferers. Around one in five women and one in 18 men are affected by migraines, usually beginning in early adulthood. The condition can prevent people from carrying out their normal activities, such as work or parental responsibilities, whilst common symptoms include nausea and vomiting. A migraine can seriously impact a person's life, often leaving the sufferer incapacitated and alone in a quiet, dark room.

In the rest of the UK, when the condition is frequent and severe, migraines are recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. However, as the vast majority of that Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, migraine sufferers here are afforded no protection, as we remain governed by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Whilst its definition of a disabled person is similar to that in the Equality Act, it is more prescriptive and, in practice, excludes those with migraines. That means that the rights of an employee who regularly has migraines are effectively denied.

If an employer treats them less favourably as a result of their disability, there is no means of redress, and, under our current law, an employer is under no obligation to make reasonable adjustment by, for example, making a quiet room available. A person may be forced to struggle on for fear of dismissal.

12.30 pm

The Alliance Party recognises that, for the past 10 years, people with disabilities here have not benefited from the enhanced protections that apply in the rest of the UK. That is why, for many years, my party has advocated a single equality Act for Northern Ireland. As Deputy Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights, I have spoken with many organisations and activists, including those representing people who live with a disability, and it is clear that we have a lot of work to do on rights in Northern Ireland. A bill of rights is important work, but the road to equality would not end with its introduction.

As we approach our next mandate, we should all reflect on how we can best improve the lives of our constituents. With that in mind, I urge the next Executive to make an equality Bill a priority, not least for those who suffer from severe migraines.

South Down: Roads

Ms Ennis: When I say that the Minister for Infrastructure presides over a crisis in our road network in South Down and across the Newry and Mourne area, I am not overstating the scale of the problem. The sum of £15,000 might seem like a lot of money, and it is, but in terms of what it gets you for road resurfacing, it is minuscule. It gets you about 3 feet. That is how much officials in the southern division have to spend on any resurfacing job, otherwise they would fall foul of the legal action over procurement that the Department has got itself tangled up in. That is really farcical, to be honest.

The road network in South Down and Newry is crumbling into disrepair. If anyone in the House thinks that I am exaggerating for effect, let me give you an example of the type of situation that we are dealing with. A family from Burren contacted me to say that, when they were bringing their young child home from hospital by ambulance, the hospital had to contact the PSNI, which had to cordon off Milltown Street in Burren so that the ambulance could avoid the myriad potholes and sunken manhole covers in order to get the child home safely. If I were the Minister for Infrastructure, I would be utterly ashamed to preside over a situation such as that.

My constituents deserve to know what the Minister and Department will do to end that farce. When will the people of South Down be assured that the Department has got to grips with the situation? Frankly, my constituents and the people of South Down deserve so much better.

Vaccine Roll-out

Mr Frew: I wish Peter Weir, who is my colleague and friend, all the best, although he has left the Chamber.

In the light of the recent whistle-blower investigation in the 'British Medical Journal' that revealed evidence of falsifying data in pivotal Pfizer COVID vaccine trials, the Health Minister should make a statement to the House on the action he can take to assuage the concerns of people who have taken the Pfizer vaccine.

I applauded the vaccine roll-out, but, somewhere along the way, I have witnessed the narrative change from one of promotion and encouragement to one of bullying and coercion, not least with the threats of mandatory vaccine and domestic COVID vaccine certification, that has created hesitancy and a deep distrust of Governments. The Health Minister should make a commitment in the House to abandon any plans that he may have to impose mandatory vaccines on workers and certification to discriminate against people that would prevent them using hospitality and services. At the very least, he should publish the evidence that demonstrates the positive health outcomes from both those measures.

Housing Executive: Damp

Mr Stalford: I am very grateful because I know that we are over time, so I will not use too much of it. I extend to my colleague Peter Weir my deepest sympathies on the death of his mother and thank the Members of the House who have been in contact with me over the death of my wife's grandmother. May was a wonderful person, and we will miss her very much.

I want to discuss damp in Housing Executive properties. A home is somewhere where we should be comfortable, safe and feel protected in order to raise a family or live together. Yet, the experience of so many people not just in the city of Belfast but throughout Northern Ireland is one of having homes that are below standard and are absolutely riddled with damp. How often can all of us here testify to hearing the old refrain that comes when someone is sent out from the Housing Executive or housing association that it is simply condensation or mildew? How often have people who live in homes the walls of which are black with damp been told, "You need to open a few windows"? That is totally unacceptable in a modern society. Therefore, I flag up the issue.

Given the council area that the Minister for Communities and I represented and the constituency that we represent, I am certain that she could regale the House with stories similar to the ones that I relate. I take the opportunity not to hector or to try to score points but to flag up the issue and to encourage the Department to take a much closer look at it and to have more proactive involvement. In this day and age, people should not be living in homes like that.

Mr Speaker: That ends the time for Members' statements.

Assembly Business

Ms Bunting: I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the proposed changes to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 as set out in the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit for the debate. The proposer will have up to five minutes to propose the motion and up to five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have up to three minutes.

Ms Bunting: The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 make provision in relation to the flying of flags at government buildings on specified days. Under the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, the Secretary of State has the power to make and amend such regulations. However, in doing so, the Secretary of State is required to refer draft proposed regulations to the Assembly. The Assembly must then report to the Secretary of State the views expressed in the Assembly during the debate on the proposed regulations by the date specified by the Secretary of State. That is the process. The Secretary of State has a duty to consider the Assembly's report and may amend the proposed regulations as a result of the report before laying the regulations for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.

The Business Committee was made aware that the Secretary of State had written to the Speaker on 13 October 2021 advising that he intended to make three amendments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000. The initial date provided for the Assembly to report on its views was 27 October 2021. However, as that did not take account of the period of recess over Halloween, the Speaker requested that the deadline be extended. Subsequently, the Secretary of State extended it to 11 November. The Business Committee agreed to schedule the motion today to facilitate the Assembly in making its views known in time for a report to be provided to the Secretary of State by the later date.

The first of the proposed amendments will provide that the Union flag need not be flown on a designated day relating to a member of the royal family who has died. That will prevent the flag being flown in circumstances where there is not enough time to amend the regulations to address that occurrence. The second of the proposed amendments relates to plans following the death of the monarch and will allow for the Union flag to fly at full mast on the proclamation of a new monarch. The current regulations do not make that provision. The final proposed amendment removes His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh's birthday on 10 June and Her Majesty The Queen's wedding day, 20 November, as designated days, although 20 November will remain as a designated day for this year.

A copy of the proposed regulations was circulated to all Members last week and is available in hard copy in the Business Office. The Business Committee did not take a view on the proposals. Instead, in line with previous practice, the Business Committee agreed to table today's motion to create an opportunity for Members to consider the draft regulations. The Official Report of the debate will record the views expressed in the Assembly on the proposals.

I will now speak as a DUP MLA. We all know that death is an unavoidable part of life. The regulations and the preparations for the passing of our beloved monarch are necessary. It is important that the proper process is in place for that eventuality and the subsequent proclamation of our new king in what will be a time of immense sadness and mourning in our nation and across the world for a remarkable woman, her strength of character, her life that was led as an example and her historic reign.

Nevertheless, we trust that we are making the provisions far in advance and that it will be some time before they are necessary. In the interim, we wish Her Majesty a speedy recovery from her recent ill health. On this side of the House, we continue to pray with heart and voice that, in the words of the national anthem, she is:

"long to reign over us. God save the Queen."

Mr O'Dowd: I rise to speak as a party representative, as opposed to a member of the Business Committee. I am conscious of the sensitive nature of the proposals outlined and their intentions and consequences.

I want to put a few notes on record. The flying of flags is clearly a sensitive issue in this society and can cause division. It can also be used to promote and honour someone, and we acknowledge that. There have been several attempts to bring in a process that all sections of our society can buy into. Unfortunately, those attempts have failed thus far. We have seen the latest version of that in the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) process, though I accept that that might not have impacted on buildings such as this Building.

The proposals have come forward from the NIO and the British Government, who have failed to recognise the parity of esteem element of the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure that all in our society have a recognition and a buy-in and can see that their identity is honoured and protected in the symbolism that surrounds them. The NIO and the British Government have failed miserably at that. That has to be pointed out to Brandon Lewis. It is also worth noting that, in recent days, we have learned that the DUP is blocking a strategy for Irish language at the Executive. The British —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I will, but I do not wish to get into a wrangle about it.

Mr Stalford: Nor do I. I will try to say this in the most sensitive way possible. This year, the party opposite refused to allow the placing of a stone in the grounds of this Building to commemorate the centenary of Northern Ireland, an event about which he and I disagree but that is important to a lot of people. The party opposite refused to light up the Building for the same event, while Downing Street was lit up. Again, I appreciate that the Member has a different view of the centenary from mine. The party opposite refused to allow so much as the planting of flowers in the grounds of the Stormont estate. I take the Member's view that people should be represented and that their identities should be treated with respect, but so should mine.

Mr O'Dowd: I do not wish to be diverted, because that might test the patience of the Ceann Comhairle. The mistake with the stone was that —

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr O'Dowd: — the Member's party and other unionist parties brought forward a proposal and said, "This is how we are going to mark the centenary". There was no engagement with the national or republican parties in the Chamber at any stage about how to mark that event. If you want to tell someone why this state failed, the stone is a classic example. You came forward with a proposal and said, "We are doing this. It is nothing to do with you". If you had come to us and said, "We want to have a discussion about this", we could have come up with something. That is a different debate.

My point is this: the legislation on languages and identity that the Secretary of State was supposed to bring through Westminster has not been brought forward either. Those are important milestones that the Secretary of State has to reach to ensure that parity of esteem, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, is reached.

As I said at the start of my contribution, I am conscious that the royal family is a very important institution to many in this society. I note that the changes being made today relate to sad events in the past and future events that will also be sad. I do not wish to become embroiled in a dispute about that, but the Secretary of State has to step up to the mark in providing parity of esteem.

12.45 pm

Mr Muir: I am responding to the motion on behalf of the Alliance Party and do so as a party representative, not as a member of the Business Committee.

I begin by paying tribute to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who, alongside the Queen, had a strong interest in Northern Ireland and played an important role in building relationships and promoting reconciliation across Northern Ireland. Prince Philip also had a positive impact on many of our young people through their participation in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme.

Amendments removing Prince Philip's birthday and Her Majesty The Queen's wedding day from the list of designated days for the flying of the Union flag are necessary arrangements that unfortunately need to be made. It is also a sad but important task to prepare for the death of a monarch, and the introduction of the further regulations will ensure that we are prepared for that sad moment.

The Alliance Party's policy on flags is well known by all in the Chamber and beyond. We will continue to support the flying of the Union flag on designated days, which is, in my personal view, a balanced position, respecting the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland and equality obligations. The Alliance Party stands for a shared society. We know that Northern Ireland works best when we acknowledge that views on issues such as flags, emblems and identity are complex and show respect for one another in discussions on those matters. Our stance on designated days is well known. We will continue to support them, and thus we support the regulations today.

Mrs D Kelly: I speak as a member of the SDLP, not as a member of the Commission. The regulations are not an unreasonable adjustment to the existing regulations. Nonetheless, as Mr O'Dowd said, they were done on a solo run by a previous Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, and do not conform to the true spirit of paragraph 5 of the Good Friday Agreement.

We should encourage the use of emblems and symbols in public spaces to promote mutual respect and understanding, not to cause division. I hope that, through the publication of the FICT report, if it is ever published, we will see some work being done to improve understanding, so that we do not, as Séamus Mallon once said, poke each other in the eye over such matters. We have heard in recent days that what the public are most interested in is this place working together in the interests of all to tackle our waiting list crisis, housing and our economic COVID recovery. Let us hope that we can all turn our minds to those things, because, for too many years, it has been about poking each other in the eye.

Mr Allister: The updating regulations were, of course, brought about because of the sad intervention of the death of the much loved Duke of Edinburgh and, looking forward, because of other changes in the royal family. The Secretary of State makes the regulations, and I want to put it on record that it is a matter of regret to me that he does not adopt and follow in this part of the United Kingdom the flag-flying policy that exists across GB.

The Assembly Commission has the discretion to include additional days for this Building. To me and to those whom I represent, it was a matter of regret and insult that, in the centenary year of Northern Ireland, the Assembly Commission did not have the grace to accede to the flying of the Union flag on one of the dates that mark the centenary: the original May date or the date of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament. Instead, we had the belligerent refusal of respect, which, as was mentioned, also manifested itself in the refusal to date of a centenary stone and even a rose bush in the gardens of Parliament Buildings.

I say to the Secretary of State that he should take the opportunity to include, as a standard day every year, a day to mark the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland. That would be fitting and necessary to make good on the affirmations of the Secretary of State and the United Kingdom Government of their belief in and desire for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

Why is our centenary not one of the dates marked in the annual calendar in respect of the flying of flags on public buildings? We know why it is not in this Building — because of the bigotry of Sinn Féin — but the Secretary of State has a responsibility to right that wrong by including that day in the regular regulations that apply.

Mr Speaker: I call Robbie Butler to conclude and make a winding-up speech. The Member has five minutes.

Mr Butler: I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. I intend to be brief in my conclusion.

The Business Committee's intention in tabling the motion was to give Members an opportunity to express their views on the proposed amendments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000. The Business Committee has not considered the proposals, and nor has it taken a view on them. As previously detailed, the Secretary of State wrote to the Speaker on 13 October 2021, asking that the Assembly consider the draft regulations. Following a request from the Speaker to extend the deadline, the Secretary of State asked for the Assembly to provide a report of its views by Thursday 11 November 2021. Consequently, in order to meet that deadline, the Business Committee was required to ensure that the Assembly had an opportunity to debate the proposals today.

Members have now had a chance to set out their views, and I do not intend to run through them again. The Official Report records those views. The Business Committee has been advised that you, Mr Speaker, will send a copy of the Official Report to the Secretary of State, who may then choose to amend the proposed regulations before laying them for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament. On behalf of the Business Committee, I ask all Members to support the motion.

I will speak briefly on behalf of the UIster Unionist Party. I echo the continued support and best wishes at this time for the speedy recovery of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth. I also pay tribute to Prince Philip, who selflessly supported and served the Queen, the royal family and, indeed, the United Kingdom throughout most of his life. The death of the Duke of Edinburgh brought a focus on the need to bring the regulations forward. I am also aware that the population of not only the UK but the world has become very much accustomed to the fragility of life during the COVID pandemic.

I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly takes note of the proposed changes to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 as set out in the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

Mr Speaker: I invite Members to take their ease for a moment while we prepare for the next item in the Order Paper.

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

Ministerial Statement

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Mr Edwin Poots, that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, Mr Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they want to be called. Members in the Chamber must also do this but may do so by rising in their place as well as notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members to be concise in asking questions. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. In accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period afterwards.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to talk to the House about the recent accreditation of Glenarm Forest as Northern Ireland's first Queen's Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) project, in which Northern Ireland will join a pan-Commonwealth network committed to saving one of the world's most important natural habitats: forests.

The QCC is a unique global network of sustainable forest conservation projects that involves all 54 countries of the Commonwealth in conserving and protecting forests for future generations. I am delighted to announce the successful accreditation of Glenarm Forest as Northern Ireland's first QCC project, which I had the privilege to launch on 25 October 2021 at Glenarm Forest. I also had the privilege of planting an oak tree there after a stiff walk up one of the glens.

Being part of the QCC requires a clear commitment to forest conservation objectives. The accreditation recognises that Glenarm Forest is now dedicated to sustainable forestry and its role in contributing to people's well-being and the enjoyment of the community now and for the generations to come. The accreditation of Glenarm Forest as a QCC forest is an ambitious 350-hectare initiative that will result in an increased opportunity to link people with the forest, create woodlands and promote the sustainability of woodlands for social, environmental and recreational tourism that will act as a catalyst for economic benefits for the area.

Glenarm Forest is ideally situated in the wider Glenarm Castle estate with its rich cultural history and historic woodland. The estate is steeped in a wealth of history, culture and heritage and attracts 100,000 visitors annually from all over the world. At the event, invited guests were able to savour the significance of the accreditation and the wonderful forest setting. The accreditation of the QCC initiative at Glenarm Forest is a result of innovative collaboration and partnership working between DAERA's Forest Service and Glenarm estate, with substantial contributions from a wide range of external and internal stakeholders.

As I mentioned, QCC forests are dedicated to conservation for communities and future generations. I very much welcome the participation of local people in developing the project. I acknowledge the work and support of those involved in achieving this accolade, in particular, Glenarm estate, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, local community groups, staff and students from Seaview Integrated Primary School and the Glenarm QCC forest working group. The QCC forest project will help to raise awareness of the importance of forests to society and encourage landowners to plant woodlands in line with my Department's Forests for Our Future programme to plant 18 million trees by 2030.

The announcement of this achievement for Northern Ireland, highlighting the importance of conserving and protecting forests on a global scale, is particularly timely, with the UK hosting the twenty-sixth UN climate change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021. That significant summit aims to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The purpose of the statement is to recognise, rightly, the recent accreditation of Glenarm Forest as Northern Ireland's first QCC project. I am delighted for Northern Ireland that Glenarm Forest has joined the QCC network to conserve and protect forests for the benefit of communities and future generations. It creates a physical and lasting legacy of the Queen's leadership of the Commonwealth.

1.00 pm

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for his statement. He will know that, in the past, the island of Ireland was the most forested part of Europe, but, unfortunately, we now have the dubious distinction of being the least forested part. Some great initiatives are taking place at Dunmoyle and Altmore in my constituency; indeed, most recently, there are proposals on the table for Seskinore Forest.

Will the Minister outline what role the forest at Glenarm and, indeed, any other forest developments across the North can play in promoting and protecting biodiversity here?

Mr Poots: Forests can become monocultures and not assist biodiversity, and that is why we need things that will help develop biodiversity. As we seek to tackle climate change, it is important that we ensure that biodiversity goes hand in hand with that and that we have a wide range of biodiversity. For example, Northern Ireland has far more hedgerows than probably anywhere else in the world — it certainly has the most across these islands — and that is a major asset to our biodiversity and for birds and other wildlife. It is something that we promote.

We have set a target of planting 18 million trees by 2030, and we have made a significant start on that. It is getting real traction out there and is being responded to positively. This is another boost for us, and having a forest here that has Queen's Commonwealth Canopy recognition enables us, as part of the Commonwealth, on the one hand, to demonstrate our thanks for the work of Her Majesty and, on the other hand, to do something for the future. That is why we are planting trees from which all our community can benefit.

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. Does he agree that the initiative by Her Majesty further demonstrates the royal family's appreciation of nature, the need to tackle climate change and, indeed, the need to protect our environment?

Mr Poots: Absolutely. His Royal Highness Prince Charles got a lot of criticism in the 1980s, but he was way ahead of his time on a series of issues. More recently, Prince William and Princess Kate led on the event that recognised things that people were doing to help our environment, and I was delighted that local people were identified for their work on renewable energies. We can be well placed, whether through tree planting, renewable energies or a series of other things, to do the right thing on the environment in order to ensure that we leave this world that we entered in a better state environmentally. That is a real goal for all of us.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. You referred to Glenarm Forest as Northern Ireland's first Queen's Commonwealth Canopy project. Do you have other locations identified for that project?

Mr Poots: This is the first. We are capable of applying for more. It is not an easy thing to achieve, and a considerable amount of work therefore has to be done to ensure that we are successful. We have been successful with this one, and I am happy that that is the case. We will look positively at whether we can identify other places that may be suitable and then work with the royal household to bring forward further Queen's Commonwealth Canopy projects in Northern Ireland.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the information provided in the statement. In addition to the issues raised around the canopy scheme — we welcome the good news for the scenic town of Glenarm — are schemes such as those that try to address the provision of trees in urban streets being looked at? I ask that because, coincidentally, when the statement was first scheduled, a colleague on Belfast City Council raised the issue with me as a way of increasing forestation in our urban areas.

Mr Poots: We have had a decent response from the councils, or some councils. I believe that Belfast City Council, for example, wants to plant one million trees, which would be hugely beneficial for the lungs of the city. I am supportive of the work of the councils. When it comes to streetscapes, DFI is obviously the lead Department, but, if there is anything that I can do to assist with such schemes, I will be happy to do it. Tree-lined streets really set a city off. The more of those we can have in Belfast or any other city, the better.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his statement. It was encouraging.

Minister, I take the opportunity of congratulating Ballysillan Primary School in my constituency, which recently received the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy tree for the city of Belfast. Along with a deputy lieutenant, Mr Dawson Stelfox, and some pupils, I was privileged to be involved in planting that tree.

As the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Stormont, I welcome the announcement. It is great to see Northern Ireland joining the rest of the Commonwealth in such an initiative. Can the Minister outline the benefits that the initiative will have for the area around Glenarm and east Antrim in terms of the environment, tourism and, indeed, the local community?

Mr Poots: Glenarm Castle currently receives about 100,000 visitors, and the forest is open for people to visit. When we take a run up the coast road, I would say, a lot of us have the habit of just driving through Glenarm, not realising that it is an absolute pearl of a location to stop at. I hope that the initiative will be a major incentive for Glenarm to be a go-to destination, not a drive-through destination, and that many hundreds of thousands of people will use that facility, not just 100,000.

Mr Beggs: Glenarm forest is a popular local asset, and the scheme will improve and enhance it to the benefit of locals and, indeed, those from further afield. I welcome the accreditation of the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy scheme. Many have been involved in the project, including the Glenarm Castle estate, councils, community groups and Seaview Integrated Primary School. Can the Minister advise what role his Department played? Can he give any pointers to others who might want to consider such a scheme for their local forest?

Mr Poots: The idea was brought to me, and I suggested it to the chief executive of the Forest Service, John Joe O'Boyle — a citizen of the glens, by the way — who embraced it and took it forward. It was taken forward and led by the Department. All of the other organisations were brought in to assist with the project, and we were grateful to all those who participated. It was great to see the schoolchildren from Seaview Integrated Primary School planting a tree alongside the one that I planted. That was a demonstration of good cross-community working in that area to do something that will be of real benefit to the area. Having all the players involved would be critical for any other area that might want to take forward such a scheme.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. Minister, bearing it in mind that Northern Ireland is still one of the least tree-covered areas in GB or Europe, will the project protect ancient woodlands in the area and lead to increased woodland cover?

Mr Poots: Yes. One of the things that will happen is that some of the coniferous trees in the woodland will be removed and broadleaf indigenous trees planted. That will lead to not just new planting but an enhancement of the existing woodland there. There is significant work to be done to ensure that it will be a quality facility and a quality woodland that will be around not for the next 20 years but for many hundreds of years.

Mr Dickson: Minister, I join Members in welcoming the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy accreditation for Glenarm Forest, which is in the constituency of East Antrim. I also acknowledge the number of visitors who go there and who will enjoy the forest many years into the future. Glenarm stands in stark contrast, however, to the situation at Woodburn Forest, which is also in East Antrim, where trees were removed to facilitate a futile attempt to explore for oil close to the public water supply; indeed, concern remains for the replacement trees at Woodburn, which are far from thriving. What action will you take, Minister, to protect and expand all our forests across Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: The issues at Woodburn predate my period as Minister. I would welcome any correspondence the Member might wish to contact me with. At this point, I have not received anything from him about Woodburn.

We have set out our target of 18 million additional trees being planted in forests across Northern Ireland. That is no small thing. Organisations are working extremely well with us. One of them is Northern Ireland Water, which may be criticised for other things, but, for what it is doing in planting trees and on renewable energy, I have to give it high praise, because its work is tremendous.

We have a course of work on forests. Over my period as Minister for the environment, we have invested considerable additional money in more trees and in the Forest Service. It is now a policy direction, and I hope that whoever holds the office in future decades will carry on with it.

Mr Allister: I welcome the accolade and the opportunity for Glenarm. On a somewhat related matter, 'New Decade, New Approach' ('NDNA') ushered the Minister back into office. Amongst its many promises was reference to a project that it grandly titled the "Great Ulster Forest". What has become of that project? Indeed, what is it?

Mr Poots: The "Great Ulster Forest" was never perceived to be one wood or one forest; it was to be a series of wooded areas across Northern Ireland. Of course, the work we have commenced on tree planting will greatly assist us in delivering on that NDNA commitment, and, indeed, we are working on it.

Mr McGlone: I am glad to see projects like this one receiving support. Does the Minister see afforestation having a role as part of the support for a just transition for many farming families?

Mr Poots: Yes. I welcome the Member's seeking a just transition, and I hope he will help us to ensure that there is a just transition and will not be persuaded to do something different by people who do not understand agriculture.

On afforestation, we are looking at how we can support people to plant riparian boundaries and to plant out woodlands in areas that are not used as much on the farm so that the woodlands will have the least impact on the farm's production. There will also be opportunities for people to make the switch from food production to forestry, and we have supported people who have done that. It is about working with people in the agriculture sector to ensure that they get the right fit for what they do.

We must — all of us — ensure that we support our rural dwellers and, in doing so, support the agriculture community, which has contributed so much over the years to jobs, well-being and, indeed, the health of our environment. It has so much more to contribute. Farmers are not the environment's enemy but its friend. We should therefore not be the enemy of farmers.

1.15 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Members have risen in their place or indicated to me that they wish to ask a question, beyond those who already have.

Assembly Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have been advised that no statement is available in relation to the British-Irish Council meeting. We will therefore move on, following a 15-minute suspension. Hopefully the Infrastructure Minister will be able to join us at that point.

Mr Buckley: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, as Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure, I place on record that it is unacceptable that Members are in the House to hear a statement from the Infrastructure Minister and yet, to date, we have not received that statement, never mind that the business of the House has been impacted by a delay in that statement coming before the Assembly.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has placed his remarks on the record, and they will be there for all time for everyone to see. It is important that all Ministers, regardless of their party affiliation, provide advance notification of the content of ministerial statements. That is a courtesy to the House. As I said, the Member's remarks are on the record.

The sitting was suspended at 1.16 pm and resumed at 1.33 pm.

Executive Committee Business

Support for Mortgage Interest etc (Security for Loans) Bill: First Stage

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I beg to introduce the Support for Mortgage Interest etc (Security for Loans) Bill [NIA 42/17-22], which is a Bill to provide for loans under article 13 of the Welfare Reform and Work (Northern Ireland) Order 2016 to be charged on land and for the charges to be registrable in the Statutory Charges Register.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Committee Business

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 28 January 2022, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Mr Colm Gildernew, to open the debate.

Mr Gildernew: The Adoption and Children Bill passed its Second Stage on 5 October 2021 and was referred on for Committee Stage the following working day. The purpose of the Bill is to reform adoption law in the North, to implement the proposals in the Adopting the Future strategy that require primary legislation and to amend the Children (NI) Order 1995 to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people who have left care.

The Bill is large, with 160 clauses and five schedules. It is disappointing that the Committee has very limited time to consider such a detailed and large Bill. That is on top of scrutinising another five, possibly six, Bills. The Committee has received a number of written responses to the Bill and will begin oral evidence sessions on 25 November. As I mentioned previously, the Committee seeks the extension due to the extremely heavy workload that is in front of it and the size of the Bill. That workload means that the Committee must meet twice weekly in order to be able to consider all the evidence for those Bills and get them through Committee Stage before the end of January 2022. The Committee therefore requests an extension to 28 January 2022. That proposed extension would allow us as much time as possible for detailed consideration while balancing the consideration of other Bills. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr Gildernew.

It has been brought to my attention that, at present, we do not have a quorum in the Chamber. I see that there are only seven of us: the magnificent seven.

Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.

House counted, and, there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Principal Deputy Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.

Upon 10 Members being present —

Question put and agreed to.


That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 28 January 2022, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members may take their ease for a few moments before we move on to the next item in the Order Paper.

Private Members' Business

Mr McGrath: I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill [NIA 38/17-22] be agreed.

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

Mr McGrath: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to address this packed House [Laughter.]

I accept that it is lunchtime, and Members will note that the business has been changed around today.

In opening the Second Stage debate on the Bill, I pay particular tribute to the efforts of those who helped with its drafting, namely Fearghal McKinney and Denise McAnena from the British Heart Foundation (BHF). I also thank Clare and Melissa Doyle, a mother and daughter who spoke so powerfully at our public 'Listen In' event about their experience of CPR and its capacity to save lives.

In the past few hours, a group of students from St Mary's High School in Downpatrick has been in the Long Gallery learning those critical life-saving skills. Even some MLAs and party support staff have attended, such is the importance of the training. I thank my fellow MLAs Robbie Butler and Chris Lyttle, who co-sponsored that event for me.

Five and a half years ago, I rose in the Chamber to make my maiden speech. The issue in hand then was illegal drugs. It was, and remains, my view that government has a crucial role to play in ensuring a joined-up approach to that issue. In the matter of drug prevention, education was key. I mention that by way of an introduction to the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill, because, although it is indeed a health matter, it remains my firm view that education has a critical role to play.

The statistics are clear for all of us to see, and they are shocking. There are 1,400 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the North each year, and fewer than one in 10 people will survive. Let us put that into perspective by looking at the Chamber. If we 90 MLAs were all to have a cardiac arrest, only nine of us would survive. That is what the numbers say.

Women are less likely to survive an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, because, across the world, they are less likely to receive CPR from a bystander. We therefore have a gender-based difference in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests. Studies from two years ago show that survival from the time of cardiac arrest to admission to hospital was 34% among women and 37% among men. From admission to discharge from hospital, the survival rate was 37% of women and 52% of men.

If we have learnt anything over the past two years, it is that our health service is a very precious thing. There is a duty on all of us to ensure that it is not overwhelmed. Those in our health service walk a fine line between ensuring its stability and its falling into chaos.

Of the 1,400 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests each year, 80% take place in the home. We know that our Ambulance Service plays a critical role in our health service, and it does so admirably, but it is stretched to its limit. If we look in particular at many rural areas in the North, including my constituency of South Down, we see that there have been many instances of individuals tragically dying because the ambulance simply could not reach them in time. That is not said to criticise the work of the Ambulance Service. Rather, it is said simply to illustrate the real pressure on our health service at this moment.

Each of us will agree that something deep-rooted in Health needs to change. Anything that we can do to ease the pressures on the service will be of benefit, whether that is preventative health care; active travel initiatives, such as those the Infrastructure Minister is bringing forward; or training a new generation in critical life-saving skills so that we are not totally dependent on an already stretched Ambulance Service when someone has a cardiac arrest.

1.45 pm

In seeking to introduce this Bill, I looked at the example set in countries across the world. The examples are numerous, but the one I will focus on is that of Denmark. In 2005, Denmark launched a national effort to teach its residents to perform CPR to save people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside of hospital. The effort included mandatory training for elementary-school students, making it mandatory for drivers to learn those skills when applying for a driving licence, distributing instructional training kits, offering telephone guidance to bystanders and placing AEDs in more public places.

A study published in the 'New England Journal of Medicine' looked at out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in Denmark between 2001 and 2012. In that period, the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest numbers remained stable, but the percentage who survived to 30 days increased from 3·9% to 12·4%, with recipients of bystander CPR more likely to survive to that 30-day threshold. It is particularly interesting that the rate of bystander CPR increased from 66% to 80% and overall mortality decreased from 18% to 8%.

When we look at cardiac arrest, there is a further implication that must be considered, and that is the level of oxygen that gets to the brain. In the moments when someone has a cardiac arrest, every second that the brain loses oxygen is precious. If CPR is not administered and an AED is not accessible within three minutes, there will be a substantial lack of oxygen going to the brain, and that is called hypoxia. If CPR is not administered and an AED is not accessible within four minutes, that will cause anoxic brain injury, which is a total lack of oxygen to the brain. The resulting damage is potentially irreparable, so that, even should the patient recover from the cardiac arrest, they will potentially be left in a coma. Even if the patient is resuscitated, the hypoxia may have caused damage to their temporal lobe, causing memory loss. They may suffer muscle contractions, incontinence, impaired speech, changes in personality and further disorientation.

The result is someone who needs expensive additional care for much of their life, and all because a trained responder was unable to get to them within three minutes. The ripple effect of a cardiac arrest, and the precious time we have to respond, is extensive. However, the medical study that I referenced also discussed that issue. When looking to Denmark, the authors found that the risk of anoxic brain damage or nursing home admission was also significantly lower in those who received bystander CPR. The authors wrote that their finding:

"underscores the need to implement or improve strategies that help bystanders initiate CPR and strategies that facilitate public access to automated external defibrillators."

Before I return to the Danish example, it would be remiss not to note when discussing the provision of AEDs that the inventor of the portable AED was Professor Frank Pantridge, a Northern Irish physician and cardiologist. He has been called the father of emergency medicine, and he is surely someone that we can rightly pay tribute to.

Back to Denmark. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of registered AEDs in Denmark increased from approximately 3,000 to nearly 15,000. In Copenhagen, an AED registry was formed in 2007 which established a platform to register the location and accessibility of AEDs. The registry was expanded nationwide in 2010. That may all seem very technical and removed from our experience. However, it is actually practised in the North right now, in the beautiful seaside tourist location of Newcastle, in my South Down constituency.

Following the tragic death in 2017 of a local resident who had been struck by a car and died before an AED could be administered, the local Lions Club began a campaign to fundraise and purchase an AED so that that type of incident would not happen again. That incredible example of local grassroots community action resulted in the purchase of not one, two or three but 10 AEDs for the town, making it possibly the safest place in Ireland, should you require an AED. As in Denmark, there are local volunteers who register, monitor and organise the replacement or repair of the AEDs, should it be necessary.

A local community achieved that in under three years. While Members have just been treated to a science lesson in cardiac arrest, I do not want to move into a history lesson except suffice to say that those threatening to collapse these institutions should look at what can be achieved in under three years. Think of the lives that have been saved as a result and ask yourself honestly what those lives are worth to you.

I have given the raw statistics, and they speak for themselves. When we introduce CPR training and AED awareness to as many people as possible, the direct and indirect consequences are that we ease the pressure on our health service, reduce the number of people waiting for a hospital bed and, for those who would potentially have to adjust to a life in care in a care home, that is prevented and mental health is supported. Most importantly, though, we save lives.

The question is this: what are we to do? In bringing forward the legislation, I gave prior notice to the Education Committee and presented the Bill to it. I met Minister McIlveen and spoke to her about my intention to bring forward the Bill. I have witnessed phenomenal cross-party support, and I recognise that and express thanks to my party colleagues, who could not have been more supportive, and to all the parties I have engaged with so far, which have fully supported the intention of the Bill.

I say the "intention" because I appreciate and understand that, for the Minister, the outworking of the Bill is something the Department may struggle with. We are talking about introducing a mandatory element to our curriculum, and I appreciate that some are not comfortable with that. In saying that, I recognise that the Minister has issued a notice to all post-primary schools that it is the Department's expectation that those schools will all deliver CPR training through the curriculum at Key Stage 3. I applaud and welcome that. It is an important step, but, while it may be a step for the Department, it is not the giant leap we need. Politics is so often transitory. If we should see a future Education Minister who does not see things as the current Minister does, that expectation could be rolled over and we could be back to square one.

Further to that —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: I just want a little clarification. It is quite clear that, under article 7(2) of the 2006 Order, the Minister could by order do what the Member is looking for. Are you saying that there has been a refusal to do that? Would that not be a quicker route than the legislative one, which compels that which the Minister may be willing to do?

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. The easiest way to put it is that, in working with the previous Education Minister — not to talk about somebody in their absence, but I will do it anyway — we were not making much progress with ministerial intervention to deliver it. The new Minister has introduced the request to schools to carry out this measure, but it has no legislative base. The Bill would provide the legislative base so that, regardless of who the Education Minister is, this skill must be taught in schools. It is that difference between its being asked for and its being a definite legislative requirement.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give away again?

Mr McGrath: If I really must.

Mr Allister: Article 7(2) of the 2006 Order is pretty clear:

"The Department may by order specify, in relation to an area of learning and pupils in a key stage, such minimum content as it considers appropriate."

So, if the Minister is persuaded by your argument, she could do it by an order. Is that not correct?

Mr McGrath: Thank you, Mr Allister. The keyword is "may". This Minister may, but the next Minister may not. If we put it in legislation so that a Minister must, it means that it will take place. That is different from its being an option. I applaud the current Minister for picking up the mantle and introducing this training in schools, but that could be reversed by a future Minister. If we have it in legislation, it cannot easily be reversed. Legislation would be required to undo what we are doing today.

Further to that, in preparing the legislation, consultation with the teaching unions has been carried out. I have not heard whether it is the Minister's expectation that that is being delivered, but, from my work with the unions, I know that they are happy that this would be included.

Allowing an opt-in system, even one that will form part of ETI inspections, remains just that: an opt-in system. Therefore, the Bill that I seek agreement on recognises and welcomes the step by the Education Minister, but it makes a leap that we need. In many ways, the two complement each other, and I hope that the Minister is able to support the Bill today. Should it pass this stage and eventually be enacted, it will mean that every part of these islands will have mandatory CPR training and AED awareness in schools. That would be greatly welcomed.

We all know that schools are stretched as it is. The needs of our children and young people are complex. Cognisant of that, I carried out an extensive eight-week consultation with the public to gain views on the Bill. The findings are as stark as the statistics that I have quoted in relation to cardiac arrests.

Nine hundred and eighty-three individuals responded to the online consultation. The respondents ranged from students of school age to parents, grandparents, guardians, school staff, medical professionals, sporting officials, and beyond. I will detail some of the responses to the survey in case any Member has concerns about the public's view of such a Bill.

Of the 983 responses, 963 think that it is important for young people to have knowledge of CPR skills and awareness of AEDs by the time they leave primary education; 979 think that it is important for young people to have knowledge of CPR skills and AEDs by the time they leave post-primary education; 903 think that pupils in post-primary schools should receive the training once a year, every year; 964 feel that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that that training is provided; and 929 feel that CPR training and AED awareness is as important as academic subjects or more important.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is a good point at which to suspend this item of business, because we have two minutes until Question Time to the Executive Office commences at 2.00 pm. Once we finish Question Time, the Member will be the first Member to speak when the debate resumes. Members, please allow for a change at the top Table.

The debate stood suspended.

2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mr Speaker: Questions 6, 7, 13 and 15 have been withdrawn.

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 1 and 12 together.

The delivery of the Travel Agents (Coronavirus) Financial Assistance Scheme is now complete. It paid out £1·2 million of support to our travel agents who faced losses as a result of the pandemic. Payments have been made to all applicants who met the eligibility criteria of the scheme. The scheme was one element of a wider support package that was provided to businesses. An unprecedented range and volume of financial support has been provided throughout the COVID-19 period since March 2020. That has all been aimed at preventing businesses from closing and protecting as many jobs and livelihoods as possible.

While no consideration is being given to a further specific scheme for travel agents by TEO, the Executive have funded in full the Department for the Economy's comprehensive economic recovery action plan for this financial year. The Executive have also agreed the COVID recovery plan, which is designed to accelerate economic, health and societal recovery in order to deliver sustainable economic development for all.

Mr Muir: I thank the deputy First Minister for her response on the support for travel agents. The ability to travel safely around Northern Ireland is paramount. Will the deputy First Minister join me in condemning the hijacking of yet another bus last night, wishing the driver and passengers well and a speedy recovery from the horrendous incident, and calling for the rule of law to be upheld throughout Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I absolutely concur with everything that he said. The burning of buses is totally unacceptable, whether it is in Newtownards, Rathcoole or anywhere else. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber wants to send our thoughts to the bus driver involved and those people who were also taken off the bus. It is dangerous and reckless activity, and it should be condemned by everybody across this society. There can be no going back. Today, we need calm and steady leadership. We need less sabre-rattling and more political leadership to ensure that that type of activity does not happen on our streets.

Mr Frew: There is no doubt that the money was very slow in getting to the people on the ground who needed it, not least the travel agents. Minister, what discussions are taking place with our sovereign Government in order to reassure travel agents and travellers that they will not be unnecessarily impeded from travelling and leaving these shores?

Mrs O'Neill: A range of meetings is happening between our local Ministers and Ministers in Westminster. We also engage regularly with Scotland and Wales to try to find common ground on travel, particularly in relation to the common travel area. We understand that that sector has been really hard hit. The tourism sector as a whole has been really hard hit. I am glad to say that we have been able to support businesses somewhat. Obviously, we always want to do more, but, unfortunately, that is not always within our capacity. I am glad to say that we have reached out to over 165 travel agents who were able to avail themselves of the scheme and that money has all been paid out. A number of applications are perhaps still being assessed, but I am glad to say that that support has got out to the industry. We need to look at how we can help that industry going forward.

Ms McLaughlin: Why is the financial support for travel agents the responsibility of the Executive Office rather than the Department for the Economy?

Mrs O'Neill: I welcome the Member to her new role as TEO Committee Chair. I look forward to working with her.

The Executive Office took forward the scheme at a time when that sector was left out of every other scheme that had been developed. Sorry; it is unfair to say that. It was able to avail itself of a range of other supports that were offered. However, in this case, travel did not necessarily sit under the other Departments, and the Department for the Economy refused to bring forward a scheme, so the Executive Office stepped in to bring that forward.

Mr Delargy: I thank the joint First Minister for her update on the scheme. Can she detail what other support has been made available to the sector?

Mrs O'Neill: Thanks for the question. As the Member and everybody else in the Chamber knows, we brought forward an unprecedented number of interventions and packages of financial support over the COVID pandemic period, particularly from March 2020. That included the delivery of business-related support that has provided more than £500 million of much-needed funds to support local businesses in all sectors and all occupations. Our primary aim was to help those businesses survive the pandemic and to protect as many jobs as possible.

On the specifics of the Member's question, some travel agents, as I said, were able to avail themselves of other schemes. We had the £10,000 small business support grant scheme, of which some were able to avail themselves; the £25,000 retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure grant scheme; the localised restrictions support scheme; the micro-business hardship fund; and, more recently, the COVID restrictions business support scheme. My colleague the Minister of Finance made available further top-up payments of £5,000 and £10,000 for businesses that had received grants during the first lockdown, and travel agencies operating in retail premises also benefited from the 100% rates holiday for 12 months, which was extended to the 2021-22 financial year.

We understand how challenging a time it has been for the wider economy, and the reverberations from that will no doubt be felt for years to come. We, as an Executive, are committed to making sure that we can protect the most vulnerable and are determined to drive forward the recovery plan, which will help to accelerate growth in our economy, as well as health and societal recovery.

Mr Nesbitt: I join the deputy First Minister in condemning the attacks on buses in Rathcoole and Newtownards. Will she join me in condemning the EU official who was quoted as saying that they are:

"prepared for peace but ready for war"?

Mrs O'Neill: Anybody who holds public office needs to be very careful about the language that they use. I note that the comment to which the Member refers is not attributed to anybody, so I do not where it came from. Language of that nature is not appropriate in any shape or form.

Mrs O'Neill: The First Minister and I hosted a round-table discussion on 14 October with representatives of the six institutions identified in the Hart report as being responsible for systemic failings and asked to make appropriate contributions to the overall cost of the historical institutional abuse (HIA) redress scheme. The focus of the engagement was to progress discussions on contributions, seeking support from all representatives for a fair and equitable approach. The conversation was constructive and forward looking. The work will be taken forward at pace, with separate bilateral discussions with the respective institutions already under way. That is being led by our independent facilitator, Paul Sweeney.

Victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse have our full support. We are determined that they will receive the acknowledgement, support and redress that they deserve for the pain that they have lived with over many years. Acceptance of responsibility from all concerned and recognition of the harm caused are both crucial in helping victims and survivors to move forward with their lives. We have made good progress in the last year with redress payments being made to victims and survivors. We must continue the momentum towards the full implementation of the outstanding recommendations in the Hart report, including those on the contributions from the institutions.

Mr Dunne: I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. Can she provide an update on the review of the compensation process, as announced in July this year, to try to speed up the application process for survivors of such abuse and their families?

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for your question. I cannot remember whether I previously welcomed you to the Chamber. I just want to say that you are very welcome. I had a good working relationship with your father, and I hope that we can also share a good relationship.

You will be aware that, on 5 July, a motion was passed in the Assembly calling for a review of the redress process, and I was able to respond to that motion at that time. Eighteen months on, I support the importance of examining the experiences of the redress process and making improvements that are identified as being needed. Our officials have held a series of engagement meetings with the victims and survivors groups to discuss the terms of reference for the review. The draft terms of reference were shared with the groups for consideration in late October, followed by a short series of meetings and calls with key groups' representatives before the terms of reference were put to Ministers for approval.

Mr McCrossan: Why have the victims of HIA still not received a public apology, and where do the blockages lie in that regard?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said in my initial answer, it is crucial that we continue to make progress on all those things, all of which are interlinked. I am pleased to report that significant progress is being made across the range of key recommendations. However, in consultation with the Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse (COSICA), officials are working on the proposals for the content and timing of a public apology, which builds on our understanding of the importance of approaching an apology with care and sensitivity and which roots it in the experience of HIA victims and survivors.

An apology project group has been established and is operational. The group discusses practical arrangements, with a focus on ensuring that victims and survivors are supported before, during and after the apology has been made. A number of engagements with representative groups took place during September and early October, and it is fair to say that those engagements were challenging but very constructive. Officials have also arranged meetings with representatives of the six relevant institutions and the Departments that were referenced in the Hart report. The engagements with the groups highlighted the need to consider how the review of the HIA redress process sits alongside apology delivery. It is our intention to work towards a timely apology being given to victims and survivors, and that means that Ministers can engage with victims and survivors in person in an appropriate and, most importantly, meaningful way.

Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for her comments on the apology in particular. Will she update the House on the work on historical clerical child sex abuse?

Mrs O'Neill: I have information today only on the work that we are doing with the institutions. We have been engaging with the six institutions, which are Barnardo's, the De La Salle Order, the Sisters of Nazareth, the Sisters of St Louis, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Irish Church Missions. I am really pleased to say that that work has been progressing well, but none of these things can be divorced from each other. The members of victims groups, who have been hurt in different ways or, perhaps, by different organisations, are watching what is happening across the board. I will provide a more detailed answer to the Member in writing.

Mr Stewart: A lot of very powerful and wealthy institutions are responsible for institutional abuse. What legal powers do the Northern Ireland Executive have to compel such institutions to compensate victims?

Mrs O'Neill: We hope that we can get goodwill and that those institutions will work with the Executive. That work that is under way at the moment. I am glad to say that our independent facilitator is working with each of the six institutions individually, following on from the larger group meeting that we had. It is important that we get people to buy in to the fact that they have a responsibility to respond, with financial redress as well as the apology and everything else by way of support services. That very focused conversation is happening, and we expect to get a read-out of that over the next couple of weeks, after which we can progress to the next stage. I hope that we never have to reach for legal powers, but, if we do, so be it. I hope that we do not do that to victims and survivors and, certainly, that the institutions do not force us to do it.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 3 and 9 together.

In relation to support for the bereaved, the First Minister and I are extremely sympathetic to the issues that affect bereaved victims and survivors, and we are very keen to address their needs and to acknowledge the ongoing loss that is felt by many people. We were delighted to be able to announce the reopening of the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) scheme for bereaved victims in April, meaning that new VSS clients are able to access financial support. As of 27 October 2021, payments have been made to 3,470 individuals, 686 of whom were new clients.

In addition to that financial assistance, all victims and survivors have full access to the frameworks of services and supports that are designed to meet needs in relation to psychological therapies, persistent pain, disability support, education and training, and advocacy. We are committed to ensuring that the needs of all victims and survivors are met as part of the forthcoming new strategy for victims and survivors, and the needs of bereaved individuals will be fully considered as the strategy is developed.

2.15 pm

In relation to the request for an update on discussions on funding for the victims' payments scheme for permanent disablement, it remains our shared view that adequate funding for the duration of the scheme should come from Westminster. In response to the NIO's refusal to contribute towards the funding of the scheme, the Finance Minister, on behalf of the Executive, commenced the dispute resolution process that is set out in the statement of funding policy. The process is ongoing, and no final decisions have been taken by Treasury. The Finance Minister will continue to make representations to the Treasury on behalf of the Executive in relation to the funding of the scheme. However, our argument remains clear: the NIO designed the scheme and legislated for it. The scheme that it designed was significantly broader in scope than what was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. It has therefore imposed additional costs on the Executive that the NIO and the Treasury should cover.

Mr Buckley: The Minister will be acutely aware of the hurt and distress that delays to the payment have caused to victims of Troubles-related incidents. Will the Minister assure the House that no further delay is anticipated for new applicants coming forward? Will she update the House on the progress of appointing a victims' commissioner?

Mrs O'Neill: On the first point, I am glad to say that, despite our ongoing conversations with the Treasury, we have secured £19 million for the 2021-22 financial year. We have also established the £6·7 million set-up costs, so there is no delay in that whilst we pursue the dispute resolution process with the Treasury.

I am glad to say that we are making progress on the appointment of a new commissioner. The recruitment process is well under way. We expect a new commissioner to be appointed in the next three months. In the meantime, we recognise that continuity is important for victims and survivors, and we have ensured that interim arrangements are in place with the commission to allow the provision of continued support. The service will also continue to deliver its services to victims and survivors, which are tailored to individual needs.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the joint Minister for her update on the victims' payments scheme. Does the Minister agree that the British Government are not only reneging on their responsibilities for that scheme but continuing to renege on their responsibilities in regard to a legacy process for victims?

Mrs O'Neill: As the Member knows, in December 2014, a way forward for dealing with legacy was agreed by the main parties, the Irish Government and the British Government as part of the Stormont House Agreement. For the last seven years, the British Government have reneged on their commitments and blocked progress towards the establishment of the agreed legacy mechanisms. Victims have raised their concerns time and time again, yet the British Government remain tone deaf. Their proposals have been rejected not only locally by victims, NGOs and political parties but internationally by UN experts and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The publication of the British Government's Command Paper in July was, without doubt, another slap in the face for victims. The Command Paper was rejected by the parties in the Chamber and by victims and survivors. Ultimately, it is all about delivering an amnesty for state forces, and the British Government proposal represents a full-frontal assault on the legal process and the administration of justice. If enacted in legislation, the proposals will place a statutory bar on the work of the Police Ombudsman and seek to halt inquests and civil cases. Members should be alert to the far-reaching implications of such decisions. In the interests of victims, the British Government need to bin their Command Paper, and we need to get back to the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Mrs D Kelly: The SDLP is on record as supporting a payment for bereaved families and survivors of the Troubles. It is my understanding, Minister, that the demand for the health service to access records is putting a huge drain on resources, particularly in mental health. Has that been brought to your attention as an additional financial requirement across health?

Mrs O'Neill: Thanks to the Member for bringing that to my attention. If you can stick an email into the office, I am sure that we can look into that and establish whether it is in fact the case.

Mr Allister: From time to time, the deputy First Minister proclaims empathy with the hurt of victims, and, in the context of the hurt of IRA victims on the thirty-fourth anniversary of the horrendous Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen, I have a fairly straightforward question that touches on the hurt of IRA victims. In the eyes of the deputy First Minister, was the attack in Enniskillen a terrorist attack?

Mrs O'Neill: First, I acknowledge the human hurt and pain that were caused to all families who lost a loved one during the conflict, including all those who lost a loved one in Enniskillen. I absolutely sympathise with their loss. Across our entire community, each of us knows people who have lost a loved one and have suffered through grief. As I often say, all mothers' hurt and pain is the same. We live in a different Ireland now, and our focus should be on working together to ensure that the tragic events that happened in the past never happen again and that there is never any return to conflict.

Mrs O'Neill: A Cheann Comhairle, with your permission, we will answer questions 4 and 7 together. Junior Minister Kearney will answer the questions.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): We continue to represent our respective positions in our engagement with the British Government and the EU to seek the best possible outcome for our citizens and businesses. Maroš Šefcovic met the leaders of the main political parties here in October, following the publication of the EU non-papers. The joint First Ministers met David Frost and Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, on 26 October to receive an update on their ongoing discussions with the European Union, during which they stressed the need for certainty and the importance of involving our officials in technical discussions aimed at developing solutions. It is intended that a further meeting will take place this week. Our officials also regularly engage with officials in the Irish Government to discuss matters of mutual interest.

The Executive remain committed to meaningful and timely engagement with the British Government and the EU to ensure that both are fully aware of the impacts of any solutions proposed and how they will work in practice for our community.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. The protocol provides necessary mitigations and protections against the negative effects of Brexit, and it is clear that many businesses now benefit from access to both the European and British markets. In the light of the comments, which the junior Minister mentioned, from the European Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic about his talks with the British Government, can the Minister elaborate on the current situation?

Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist. The Member will know that the protocol recognises the special status of this island and, in particular, this region. Its purpose was to prevent a hard border, to safeguard jobs and the all-island economy and, crucially, to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Significantly, as the Member mentioned, it also provides unique dual-market access for local businesses, manufacturers and our agri-food sector to the British single market and the European single market.

Yes, I am concerned after hearing Maroš Šefcovic say on Friday that he has seen no move from the British Government towards finding solutions on the smooth implementation of the protocol. He made comments about the British Government's potential triggering of article 16 to seek the renegotiation of the protocol, and that would have serious consequences and should ring alarm bells across the House, particularly at a time when the clear and unequivocal message from Members across the House, local businesses, the manufacturing sector, our farmers and wider civic society is about the need for stability, certainty and solutions.

The conduct of this British Government throughout the negotiations has been duplicitous and disgraceful. They have shown absolutely no regard for any of the citizens or any section of our society in the North or, indeed, for the democratically expressed wishes of the Assembly. I was struck by the comments of the former British Prime Minister John Major on Saturday. He said that —

Mr Speaker: The Minister's time is up.

Mr Kearney: — the triggering of article 16 is likely to have a price for all our society and that the approach being taken by the British Government towards the negotiations has:

"all the subtlety of a brick".

Mr O'Toole: Minister, multiple polls have shown increased and increasing support for the protections provided by the protocol. The EU has published substantial and substantive proposals on easing mitigations. [Interruption.]

I see that that is a cause of amusement for the First Minister. Leaving aside the actions of a small minority and the increasingly vocal and ramped-up rhetoric from some in the House, has a single business group or trade union asked the Executive Office to support the triggering of article 16?

Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist a chur. No; in fact, our officials have advised that matters such as the European Court of Justice — the latest dead cat thrown on the table by the British Government — have not been raised with them. The Member mentioned it: recent polling carried out under the auspices of Queen's University and, more recently, the University of Liverpool indicates that there is general pragmatic contentment with the protocol and a recognition of its necessity.

Of course, as the Member and I will recognise, we would much rather not have a protocol, because we would much rather not have Brexit. The protocol was put in place to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit. We are dealing with a society that is adapting to the reality that we have the protocol. Our focus needs to be on ensuring its smooth implementation. The majority of people here accept the need for the protocol, and the tracking indicates that that trend will continue to grow in the time ahead.

Dr Aiken: Interestingly, the research from the University of Liverpool showed that very many people in Northern Ireland — indeed, the majority — want no barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland so that there are no barriers across our United Kingdom.

It has been estimated that the protocol has cost us £820 million so far. Will the junior Minister tell us why we are insistent on not calling out the EU for its intransigence as well?

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question. Unlike some in the House, I take the view that we need to ensure that both the British Government and the European Commission and European Union work with us in a collegial way to ensure that there are no barriers to trade east-west or west-east and there should be no impediment to ensuring that local businesses maximise all of the opportunities provided by the British and European single markets.

I am sure that the Member is aware of this, but it is notable that, during the course of this year, INI has recorded 50 live enquiries from prospective foreign direct investors interested in investing in the North of Ireland. That compares with an average of something in the region of 22 expressions of interest a year between 2017 and 2020. We have work to do together to ensure that we reduce friction in trading issues and opportunities and that our businesses are poised to maximise the opportunities that are available to them in the time ahead.

As we are exchanging figures and statistics, I am sure that the Member is aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility now estimates that, on emerging trends, Brexit will cost the British state more than the pandemic.

2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: Members, that ends the period for listed questions. We will move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 3 has been withdrawn.

T1. Mrs Dodds asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what the deputy First Minister, who will know and acknowledge that Her Majesty The Queen is much admired across the community in Northern Ireland, will do to ensure that, in 2022, Her Majesty's platinum jubilee, a remarkable event in her historical long service to the people in the kingdom, is recognised and rightly celebrated. (AQT 1741/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: I will, of course, respect all those in our society who support the monarchy, and I will certainly respect their right to celebrate such an occasion. We in the Executive Office have had no discussion about the role, if any, that the Executive might play, but I absolutely support everybody else's right to support something. As you might expect, I am not a monarchist, but I respect those who are, because it is important to them.

Mrs Dodds: That kind of "mea culpa" from the First Minister — "it is not for me to decide or discuss" — just will not do. Her Majesty is an exceptionally important figure across Northern Ireland. We want to see her remarkable record of service celebrated and acknowledged. I accept that it is probably early days, but will the deputy First Minister commit to discussing in the Executive Office and, indeed, the wider Executive the establishment of a fund so that local communities can celebrate the platinum jubilee in a way that is fitting?

Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to have conversations with anybody at any time, and this issue is no different from any other. I have met Queen Elizabeth. I have referred to her as "a very pleasant lady". She has played a significant role in and made a contribution to building the peace and, in particular, to building relationships between our two islands. That has been crucial, and I absolutely want to recognise that. It is early days, but let us have a conversation. I will be happy to do so.

T2. Mr G Kelly asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister agrees that stable political institutions are essential as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic and seek to hold our economic and social recovery. (AQT 1742/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I absolutely do. We have a way to travel to get to the other side of the pandemic, and we certainly have a huge task ahead of us in rebuilding our economy and helping workers, families and communities to face the challenges ahead. Our power-sharing institutions are crucial to all that.

The scale of the crisis that we faced with COVID was unprecedented. It impacted on almost every aspect of life here and necessitated a cross-departmental response in these institutions and across the island. That will undoubtedly be the case going forward and will, like stable power-sharing institutions, be critical and essential to our economic and social recovery.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. We are still in the midst of a global health crisis that has cost thousands of lives here and, indeed, throughout the world. Our communities and economy have faced unprecedented upheaval, while our health service remains under intense pressure. Clearly, stable and secure political institutions are necessary to face all that as we go forward. Does the Minister agree, then, that the irresponsible rhetoric that we have heard from the DUP leader translates on our streets into disgraceful attacks on police and the burning of buses? In the context of what the passengers on the buses had to go through, the driver who was threatened and the cars that have been burnt, is it not utterly irresponsible for DUP Ministers to boycott the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) while their party leader threatens to collapse the institutions?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member. All political leaders need to reflect carefully on the impact of their words and, indeed, their deeds. As I said, the burning of buses in Newtownards and Rathcoole and the threats made to the bus drivers were absolutely irresponsible and reckless. Some of the rhetoric that we have heard, particularly in relation to the protocol, is completely reckless. It is dangerous and often bears no resemblance to the reality that we all face. It is utterly appalling that we now see the dialling-up of the rhetoric and language translated into violence on our streets, where we have seen attacks on buses in the last number of weeks.

I am also conscious of the fact that there has been a deliberate strategy to bring those tensions into interface areas to heighten tensions even further. That approach is disgraceful and unacceptable. The DUP should not only condemn the violence but stop feeding the narrative that enflames and even encourages it. The unlawful boycotting of the NSMC is part of that, and so are the repeated threats to the institutions and the constant incitement in relation to the protocol. This is a time for responsible leadership and an end to reckless and damaging rhetoric, but it is also a time for calm and responsible leaders to step forward to reduce tensions and ensure that there is no escalation of violence on our streets.

T4. Mr Dickson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in light of the fact that, last week, the Government announced funding for a community prosperity fund, which will be a pilot for the Shared Prosperity Fund that is to replace the European social funds in Northern Ireland, whether the deputy First Minister considers the way in which the fund has been operated to be a complete and utter slight, not only on her Department but all Departments in Northern Ireland. (AQT 1744/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for that question. I do. That fund is one of a cohort of funds that are now being delivered directly. For a start, it undermines devolution, and it is not being delivered in tandem with our Programme for Government, the work that we are doing around recovery or our strategies and plans. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that that is the way it is happening. For example, how can we deliver a more prosperous and enhanced economy if funding through the block grant is continually reduced to put money into side pots that do not reflect the priorities that we have identified or the plans that the parties in the Executive have collectively brought forward?

Mr Dickson: Given the deputy First Minister's response, how do the Executive plan to deal with applicants for funding? How do you intend to balance that funding between the organisations that the Assembly distributes funds to, particularly when the Executive has no say in the design, policy or direction of the fund?

Mrs O'Neill: Therein lies the problem. We do not have the ability to input into those schemes. The Finance Minister has taken that up directly with the Treasury on behalf of the Executive. He is working with his counterparts in Scotland and Wales, who face the scenarios that we face. We have to continue to challenge it. While, obviously, we always welcome funding, it has to be identified and spent on the priorities that we agree on collectively, not on things that somebody in Westminster decides on. We will remain focused on resolving that and finding a way to bring those things back under our decision-making powers.

T5. Mr Buckley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in light of the fact that, interestingly, throughout Question Time, the deputy First Minister has talked about reckless and damaging language and the need to dial down the rhetoric, whether the deputy First Minister can explain how the words of the Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald, at the party’s ard-fheis, when she crassly declared, "the days of Fenians need not apply are over", chime with the unionist outreach mantra that we hear much about from Sinn Fein in the media and in the House. (AQT 1745/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: As I have said to the Member before, as such a young man, he should be more focused on the future than he is on the past — [Interruption.]

Mr Buckley: You are avoiding the question.

Mr Frew: Patronising, too.

Mrs O'Neill: He should be more interested in working with like-minded young people on these Benches to build a better future —

Mr Buckley: Will you answer the question?

Mrs O'Neill: — trying to heal the wounds of the past, to build bridges that have been broken down —

Mr Buckley: Like Mary Lou?

Mrs O'Neill: — and to look very much towards the future. I am future-focused. Society wants change. It wants to see progressive legislation tabled in this place. It wants to see an end to blockages. It wants to see us building a better society for everybody. The sentiment expressed by you and your party around "no nationalists need apply" does not wash. We are not going backwards. It is not 1969; it is 2021.

Mr Buckley: It is not 1969, so I will bring the deputy First Minister back to 2012. When referencing discrimination, did the deputy First Minister or, indeed, Mary Lou have a word with her colleague, Conor Murphy? In 2012, he became the only Executive Minister ever to be found guilty of discrimination on the basis of religion, which, in that case, was against a Protestant. The tribunal said that, during Mr Murphy's time as Regional Development Minister between 2007 and 2011, there was:

"a material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background".

When it comes to representation on public bodies, are the days of "No Protestant need apply" over in Sinn Féin?

Mrs O'Neill: I repeat the words of my predecessor, Martin McGuinness: we have to govern by treating every citizen equally. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, Members.

Mrs O'Neill: It is not just about the citizens whom you represent but about all of our citizens. I encourage you to start looking towards the future instead of harking back to the past.

T6. Mr McNulty asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what the joint First Minister will do and say to ease the pain of the families of the disappeared, given that, last Tuesday, All Souls’ Day, the families of the disappeared walked silently to the steps of this place, albeit no one from the joint First Minister’s party attended because that party continues to cheerlead the shadowy figures who abducted, tortured, murdered and secretly buried those loved ones, to lay a wreath and flowers in memory of their loved ones whose remains have been lost for decades — their annual All Souls’ Day walk shows respect, honour and reverence for their dead family members whose souls remain lost and continue to haunt the families. (AQT 1746/17-22)

Mr Frew: Are those families living in the past?

Mrs O'Neill: I support all families in their quest for truth and justice. I want us to very much build on what has happened in the past. We have to help our society to heal if we are to be successful in moving to a better future. That includes all those who have lost a loved one. Our entire community suffered so much during the conflict. It is important that all of us, as political leaders, work together to build a better future. That includes getting closure for families and anyone who lost a loved one in the conflict.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for her answer. I spoke to Oliver McVeigh on All Souls' Day last week. His brother Columba was abducted on Halloween night so many years ago. What will you, as joint First Minister, say to Oliver McVeigh? What will be done to ensure that his brother's remains will be found and given the dignity of a Catholic burial? What will you commit to doing? No more platitudes like, "We can do better. We can work together". What will you, as joint First Minister, do to give that man and his family some peace and peace to the families of the disappeared?

Mrs O'Neill: I would like your party to join me in ensuring that we have the full implementation of the political agreement that was devised by all parties and the two Governments: the Stormont House Agreement. That was agreed back in 2014, but here we are today and it still has not been implemented. The only closure that the British Government are interested in is covering up their role in the conflict. It is incumbent on all of us to build a better future. I will play my part, but that is a collective responsibility.

Mr Speaker: I call Jim Allister. There will not be time for a supplementary.

T7. Mr Allister asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what message the deputy First Minister thinks that she has sent today to IRA victims by her refusal to say that the Enniskillen bombing — a massacre — was a terrorist act, and why would innocent victims not conclude that she and her party continue to endorse and justify that brutal, vicious, hideous murder and all else that went along with it. (AQT 1747/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: As I said in my earlier answer, I acknowledge the hurt and pain that has been caused across our society. We are all obliged to build a better future and to help to heal the wounds of the past. However, the Chamber is not the place for inflammatory language from supposed grown-ups —

Mr Allister: Was it a terrorist attack? Yes or no?

Mrs O'Neill: — like you and many others. Those who have engaged in recent weeks and months and perhaps even longer, in the Brexit debate, in sabre-rattling and inciting young people on to the streets —

Mr Allister: Was it a terrorist attack?

Mrs O'Neill: — while they stay cosy in their homes —

Mr Speaker: Minister, take your seat, please.

I do not want to have to curtail Members when they are involved in reasonable debate, but respect has to underpin all of our contributions. These issues are not easy; they are challenging and difficult. Members have a right to pose questions if they do so respectfully. They also have to give the people to whom they ask the questions time and respect to answer those questions. We will not listen to any more interruptions.

There is less than a minute left. Deputy First Minister.

Mrs O'Neill: I have concluded. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: Members, take your ease for a moment or two, please.

2.45 pm

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Questions 6 and 11 have been withdrawn.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I am aware of statistical reports that show large increases in food exports between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland compared with 2020. Caution needs to be applied to comparisons with 2020 given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to trade. The increase in trade with the Republic of Ireland is not surprising given the trade barriers that have been put in place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the resulting disruption causing businesses difficulties in trading with, by far, our biggest market and having to seek alternative customers. Hence, I continue to seek the removal of all trade barriers within the United Kingdom for goods that are used in Northern Ireland.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, last week, you said that a proposed new UK/New Zealand trade deal poses "a very serious threat" to Northern Ireland farmers. You just acknowledged that exports from North to South — and, in many cases, I am sure, onwards to the wider European single market — have increased. Does it not therefore follow that Northern Ireland is benefiting from the protections of the protocol and will benefit from them to protect our farmers from what are, as you have said, very serious threats of the UK/New Zealand trade deal?

Mr Poots: Our exports have also increased to Great Britain, and therefore exports are going quite well. One reason why exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland have increased is due to the difficulties that the Republic of Ireland has with importation from Great Britain. We do not want to be in a similar circumstance in which Northern Ireland has those difficulties with importation from Great Britain. We already have issues there, and it is not in the benefit of any of our constituents to have unnecessary trade barriers imposed between our main trading partner, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Therefore, businesses across Northern Ireland and across the community are saying to us that we need to remove those barriers. I hope that the Members opposite will join and assist us in supporting the removal of such barriers.

Mr Allister: Does the Minister agree that the protocol barriers have caused a substantial diversion of trade, which is one of the proper grounds upon which article 16 of that same protocol can be triggered? If it is triggered, will the Minister undertake to, at that point, cease all checks at our ports that are being exercised under the protocol?

Mr Poots: I have engaged with my senior civil servants to indicate that they should be looking at the Command Paper that was produced in July as a means of moving forward on this issue. Trading barriers are not to our benefit, and the deployment of highly qualified veterinary staff and environmental health staff in that role takes them away from other important roles. Unnecessary checks should not be carried out at Northern Ireland seaports because of our juxtaposition to Great Britain. Therefore, that action needs to be addressed.

I remind the Member, even though he knows very well, that a different set of circumstances relating to live animals pre-existed Brexit and the protocol, and we need to take full cognisance of that as well.

Mr McAleer: In the context of the increasing levels of North/South trade, will the Minister give a commitment to work with the agri-food sector to enable it to maximise the benefits of the protocol in being able to access the EU and the British market?

Mr Poots: I assure the Member that, when it comes to selling goods, I will take pounds sterling, euros, dollars, yen or whatever it happens to be, and I will work with whoever wishes to acquire Northern Ireland's very well produced goods to make it as easy as possible for them to acquire those goods.

Dr Aiken: I make a declaration of interest as an ex-chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. Has any analysis been done of the diversion of trade that has occurred? It is quite obvious that the reduction in the movement of goods between places like Holyhead and Liverpool to Dublin has, in some respects, been replicated by movements from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. Have you had an opportunity to talk to any of the major supermarket chains about that dislocation of the logistics chain and the fact that we have a circular economy that seems to be falling flat?

Mr Poots: Yes, we have. Clearly, a lot of goods are coming through Northern Ireland's seaports as opposed to Dublin seaport because it is easier to get into the island of Ireland in that way. There has been a dislocation and less use of the land bridge to go to the Continent.

Our logistics firms have been doing some tremendous work on food security and food traceability. I believe that that work covers a lot of the issues that were talked about pre Brexit regarding tracing food from source right through to sale and everything in between. Ultimately, in due course, the standard of work will be used as a template right across the world. If Members have the opportunity to look at some of this, they will be pleasantly surprised and pleased at just how good we are at tracing all goods from the factory, during transit right through to their destination. If we ever get to the point of having an agreement with the European Union — I hope that, at some stage, the EU will be sensible about how best we can protect its single market — it will be able to identify the logistics work that is being done that will greatly assist in that.

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 9 together. I am satisfied that all material considerations have been assessed by officials for the marine licence application, reviews of the discharge consent and abstraction licence for the proposed Islandmagee gas storage development. Therefore, I do not intend to review the decisions on the matter. Final licences were issued to the applicant on 5 November 2021. I am content that adequate mitigation has been identified to minimise the impacts of the project and has been incorporated into the conditions of the marine licence, discharge consent and abstraction licence, which will augment the existing mitigation in the planning permission.

Mr Beggs: The discharge licence speaks of 24,000 cubic metres per day, which is difficult to visualise. It has been estimated that that is equivalent to 10 20-ton loads of rock salt being deposited at that spot every hour for the next eight to nine years. How can the Minister be sure that that will not be detrimental to the sensitive ecosystem and, in particular, that solid deposits will not come with the concentrated brine that will gather in that area?

Mr Poots: At no time did I take anything to do with or interfere with any of the actual assessments that took place. I waited patiently, allowed civil servants and people with expertise, on their behalf, to carry out all those investigations, and I made a decision that was based on what was recommended to me by those officials. A number of in-depth assessments were made on the potential impacts of the project on the environment, including a detailed habitats regulations assessment (HRA), completed by DAERA, which considers the potential impacts of the project on the national site network and also the Portmuck area of special scientific interest (ASSI), Gobbins ASSI and Larne lough ASSI. The HRA was also reviewed by an independent third party. An environmental statement was prepared by the applicant. The chapters on avian and marine biodiversity, underwater noise and cumulative effects were updated in 2018-19, as was the brine dispersion model and accompanying third-party audit. That material has been made available to the public on the DAERA website.

Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I share local people's real concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the project. Will the Minister confirm what measures are in place in the draft marine construction licence to require the developer to decommission in the event that the gas caverns are commenced but not completed or are not used for a period? Will the Minister ensure that any financial guarantee that is provided under the lease between Islandmagee Energy and the Crown Estate to manage any residual liabilities at the end of the lifespan of the gas caverns is to the benefit of his Department?

Mr Poots: Islandmagee Energy Ltd is responsible for the safe decommissioning of the gas storage caverns at the end of the project's life and ensuring that arrangements are made in respect of any residual liabilities. The lease from the landowner, the Crown Estate, will require that an acceptable abandonment programme that is applicable to the works, including the arrangements for residual liabilities, is provided. The Crown Estate has indicated that works cannot commence below mean high water spring tide level until the issue is resolved. DAERA has included that information on the marine licence. DAERA will continue to engage with the Crown Estate to ensure that all conditions are satisfied. The company may require a new marine licence from DAERA to undertake the physical aspect of the decommissioning activity. At that stage, the impacts of decommissioning would be considered, and potential environmental impacts would be given full consideration.

Mr McGuigan: I have heard the Minister's answers to the previous two questions. However, it simply beggars belief that a project of the size of the gas storage facility that is proposed for Islandmagee would not have a significant environmental impact in an area of special scientific interest that is surrounded by other ASSIs and conservation areas. Given the need to move away from the use of fossil fuels and the British Government's announcement that new gas boilers will be banned from 2035, does the Minister now accept that this project should be scrapped?

Mr Poots: Whether the project is financially viable is a matter for the people who are developing it. My Department was asked about its environmental acceptability. All the people who were involved in that took their decision on the basis of whether that could be achieved, and they then made their recommendations to me on that basis. That is how that came about. It is not a result of anything other than that. Therefore, whilst I recognise that the decision will not be popular, I also recognise that I need to take cognisance of the material that was put in front of me by independent officials and, indeed, by experts in that issue.

I remind the Member that one of the issues in front of us today is the price of gas, which has skyrocketed because there is a lack of stored gas. The Member may not be so concerned that people in his constituency — people who are on the breadline — are paying gas prices and, indeed, electricity prices that are 30% and 40% higher than in previous years. His resistance to having storage, thus leaving it to Vladimir Putin to turn gas on and off as and when it suits him, putting the Member's constituents' prices up on the back of that, is a matter for him.

3.00 pm

Mr Dickson: Minister, given the cross-cutting nature of your decision, what consultation have you had with the Utility Regulator and the owners of the Scotland-Northern Ireland interconnector pipeline that transports gas from Scotland to Northern Ireland? In response to the answer that you have just given, I ask this: do you not recognise that the application is not for gas to be stored for Northern Ireland but for gas to be stored for the rest of the United Kingdom and for it to be sold at ransom prices in the rest of the United Kingdom? Where are the cross-cutting considerations? Will you be the Minister who leaves Northern Ireland with a hole under Larne lough and nobody else agreeing with you?

Mr Poots: I am sorry that the Member may want to hype things up. A process was commenced as the result of an application. That process was conducted properly and correctly. At its conclusion, I was presented with the documentation. I sought no documentation throughout the process. I sought not to have any influence on the process. I merely allowed the process to be carried out to its conclusion, and I was then presented with options.

What was identified and recommended to me by the officials and the experts was clear. The Member may not like what they have recommended. Indeed, I may not like what they have recommended, but I have to give consideration to experts when they are asked to do a piece of work, and I have to take full cognisance of the views expressed by them. He may not like those views, but they are arrived at on the best basis possible.

Mr McGlone: The Minister referred to independent involvement and third-party audits. Will he expand on that? What external and independent assessment has the Department sought of the environmental impact of the project on the marine habitat?

Mr Poots: As I indicated, the recommendations were put out to third parties and independent expertise in order for them to provide us with due diligence. A further check was done that went beyond what officials and civil servants would have done. That course of work was carried out. The precautionary principle was applied to all of it, and we therefore did not arrive at the decision quickly, or, indeed, easily.

The work was started before my time, and I deliberately became involved only at its conclusion. Given the sensitivities around it, I did not want to encourage people one way or the other in coming to their recommendations. I wanted an independent recommendation, so I was always going to take the decision on the basis of the independence of the people who were acting on behalf of the Department.

Mr Poots: I am pleased to provide an update on the independent strategic review of the Northern Ireland agri-food sector, which, of course, the Member was instrumental in setting up. Sir Peter Kendall, who was appointed to lead the review, has met a range of stakeholders over the past six months to explore the challenges and opportunities that the agri-food sector faces. I look forward to reading his findings and recommendations in the final report.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for his answer. If I recall correctly, one of the issues that we wanted to tackle in the independent review of the agri-food sector was competitiveness and productivity. Recently, I read that the Finance Minister is interested in low productivity in Northern Ireland. He seems to think that the way to increase productivity is within the EU, despite the fact that we have just spent 40-odd years in the EU and it has not been a particular help. Will the Minister bid to the Finance Minister, along with the Economy Minister, for funding to invest in those world-class businesses in Northern Ireland's agri-food sector to help them increase productivity and competitiveness?

Mr Poots: As the Member knows very well, that crosses two Departments: DFE and DAERA. Agriculture is more involved in the primary sector, and DFE is more involved in the business side. I am very supportive of bids going to the Department of Finance to sustain our agri-food industry, which employs 30% of our manufacturing sector, has a turnover of over £5 billion and has the potential to increase that significantly.

The tricky bit of it is that we are now in a circumstance where, for the long-term security of the sector, we need investment that will not necessarily create jobs. A lot of the food sector needs to mechanise and become technologically smarter by using more robotic equipment to sustain the industry. However, that will not give a headline about more jobs, but it does ensure that there is real sustainability for the jobs that exist. I hope that Invest NI and, indeed, the Department of Finance will work with us to ensure that the agri-food sector, which has been through a number of transformations to be the successful powerhouse that it is for the Northern Ireland economy, can continue to be that for many decades going forward.

Mr O'Toole: I am tempted to point out that the Member who asked the previous question mentioned competitiveness. I cannot think of anything more competitive than having unique dual access to two different markets. Given the importance of the all-Island component for our dairy sector, has a single food producer or farming sector body approached his Department or him and supported the principle of the UK's triggering Article 16?

Mr Poots: The dairy sector was mentioned very heavily in advance of the protocol. Everything seemed to be based around the problems that would exist in the dairy sector, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to the problems that would exist in every other sector should we have a protocol of the nature that eventually arrived. Consequently, we are in a circumstance where there are so many goods that we either pay a premium for or struggle to get into Northern Ireland as a consequence of that protocol. When we make decisions, we make them on behalf of all of industry, not one sector. I believe that it would be really positive if we were to invest in the dairy sector in Northern Ireland and ensure that more of the milk produced here is processed here. It makes absolute sense to me, and that milk, as a processed product, will mostly end up in the GB market. Having that circular economy makes considerable sense.

Mr Blair: The Northern Ireland agri-food sector has been heavily dependent on a flow of EU workers, which has stopped due to the UK's post-Brexit immigration rules. Can the Minister provide us with an update on what actions have been taken to address those labour shortages?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. Yes, there has been that stop of new EU workers coming here. Of course, those who are here are welcome to stay, and those who returned home during COVID are welcome to come back, but many have chosen not to. I might add that there are other people — some have estimated a figure of at least 1 million and, possibly, 1·5 million across the UK — who have decided to opt out of the workforce over the COVID period. That is a lifestyle choice for many people who are perhaps over 55 but who still have the capacity to carry on working for a number of years. However, they have made that lifestyle choice, having got used to how things are, to live on less and enjoy life. We cannot force people to do otherwise.

The Government's aim is to get more people out of unemployment and into work, and that is a reasonable aim. It has proven to be particularly tricky when it comes to the food sector. There is availability of considerable numbers of people from other places, including the Philippines, and we can get people from those areas should the UK Government decide that that is a policy they wish to engage. We have been seeking to encourage that because it helps to sustain industry, certainly in this interim period. They have opened the doors for an additional 800 workers to come through. I am just after having a phone call with George Eustice. We hope to get a reasonable number of those people through for December, which will help to alleviate some of the pressures on our food processing sector.

Ms Á Murphy: Minister, will you clarify whether any potential recommendations arising from the independent strategic review of our agri-food sector will be considered in the draft food strategy for the North?

Mr Poots: We need to pull all those strategies together. They need to have connectivity. The strategy on green growth and the environment strategy, which I hope to talk about tomorrow, will all help us to pull together the various areas we need to address here in Northern Ireland and ensure that we go forward on our best foot. That is ultimately very important to us.

Mr Poots: As the matter is ongoing, I am unable to provide a cost at this time, but I will be happy to do so when one is available.

Mr McCrossan: Undoubtedly, the cost will be significant. Minister, do you accept that your illegal obstruction of meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council undermines the rule of law?

Mr Poots: As that is a matter that is currently before the courts, I do not wish to comment.

Mr Sheehan: Following on from that, given the High Court judgement that the DUP boycott of the North/South Ministerial Council is unlawful and in breach of the ministerial Pledge of Office, will the Minister undertake to end this juvenile boycott now and get back to the job he was appointed to do?

Mr Poots: Again, the matter is before Justice Scoffield, so I am not going to get involved in details that a noble judge might decide on. It was rather juvenile of the Member and his colleagues to pull down this institution for three years and deny people the opportunity to deal with health, education and infrastructure and so many other issues, causing real harm to all the public of Northern Ireland as a consequence of their actions.

Mr Poots: The illegal breeding and trading of low-welfare puppies is an abhorrent practice that, working in conjunction with other agencies, my Department continues to disrupt.

It is very difficult to establish the number of people who choose to operate in contravention of dog breeding legislation in Northern Ireland. Intelligence provided to my officials indicates that the breeding of low-welfare pups often takes place outside Northern Ireland. Regrettably, those animals are then illegally imported into Northern Ireland and trafficked via our ports to more lucrative markets in Great Britain.

My Department is well aware of the pattern of movements. In response to the problem, it has established and coordinated activity at the ports under the Paws for Thought initiative. As a result of collaborative working, there have been multiple interceptions this year, most recently when 10 springer spaniel pups were found hidden in Larne in a van that was bound for England.

I acknowledge that much more needs to be actioned on the matter, and I will continue to press for that to happen.

3.15 pm

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that Lucy's law, the private Member's bill that my colleague Robin Newton is seeking to introduce, will go a long way towards providing local authorities with the powers to tackle illegal puppy farming in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that more needs to be done about pets purchased in the Republic of Ireland and in GB? Ensuring that only registered businesses can engage in such activity, and making sure that there is greater enforcement, would surely lessen the financial incentive for criminals to participate in those unscrupulous actions?

Mr Poots: The Member is right: they are unscrupulous actions, and more needs to be done in that regard. I have impressed upon my officials the unacceptability of that trade and the fact that they need to stretch themselves in ensuring that they clamp down as hard as possible on individuals who are engaging in all sorts of things to circumvent the rules and the law and making considerable money from that very lucrative trade. I also encourage people in Great Britain and at home who are buying pets to do more to check the source of their pet because they could be buying a cute little bundle of fluff that has not been well reared or received the appropriate veterinary vaccinations, and so forth. Consequently, they could be buying themselves heartbreak. I do not think that any family deserves that.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 1, 6 and 7 have been withdrawn.

T2. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs who, last week, attended COP26, presumably because he believes that climate change is real and action needs to be taken on it, whether he will, speaking of "a cute little bundle of fluff", disassociate himself on the record from the irresponsible nonsense from his colleague from East Antrim Sammy Wilson, who called COP26 "a climate circus", especially in the light of the fact that, on Saturday, thousands of people, particularly young people, marched because they are scundered with this place and our failure to take action on the crisis of this century. (AQT 1752/17-22)

Mr Poots: I will leave the Member to ask the questions of Sammy when he gets the opportunity to do so. I represent the Department and my party in the Department, and we recognise that we all need to do considerably better on the environment than has been the case in the past. We need to do more in all areas, whether that is how much carbon or greenhouse gases that we produce — and the necessary reductions that we have to ensure happen — air quality, water quality or biodiversity. That is why one of the first things that I did was to set out the Forests for Our Future initiative and, more recently, the pollinator scheme to protect our bees. In between, we made support available for farms to invest in low-emission slurry spreading equipment (LESSE) to reduce ammonia. Over the course of my time in Government, you will see that there has been a series of actions taken to ensure that we leave the environment in a better state than we found it.

Mr O'Toole: I want to ask a specific question about environmental protection and climate change mitigation. The Minister may know that this jurisdiction has been ranked twelfth out of 240 countries or jurisdictions in respect of biodiversity loss. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has suggested that 83% of our targets in the 2015-2020 biodiversity strategy were not met. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we do better? What deliverable, real targets will be in the next Programme for Government, which his Department, hopefully, is working on as we speak?

Mr Poots: The key measure on biodiversity is the biodiversity strategy. The environment strategy cleared its last hurdle through the Executive on Thursday, and, with the Speaker's permission, I will present it to the Assembly tomorrow. There is also the green growth strategy. The biodiversity strategy, which we are working on, and the ammonia strategy will help on that issue.

Biodiversity involves management. If the Member wants to see biodiversity in action, he should go to Glenwherry, where we have undertaken a course of work with the RSPB. As a consequence of that project, we are seeing more hen harriers, curlew, red grouse etc. That is as a result of quality management of the environment in that area. Delivering that has engaged both the farming community and the RSPB.

People who want us to do nothing and go to wilding would ensure that our biodiversity is ruined entirely. Some of the most damaging things to the ground-nesting birds in that area are crows and foxes, but some people suggest that we do not do anything to manage that. I am sorry: if you want genuine biodiversity, you have to engage in steps to ensure that it happens. People introduced grey squirrels to Northern Ireland because they are nice, cute, fluffy things. As a consequence, we lost most of our red squirrels. It is not a simple thing; it is a complex thing, but we can make significant achievement on it, and I am very determined that we do so.

T3. Dr Archibald asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what he will do to support our farmers who stand to lose out as a result of the British Government’s recently announced trade deal with New Zealand, which will have a negative impact on them, as he has acknowledged, and which follows similar deals with other countries that produce food to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than here, albeit the trade deals are a direct outcome and stated intent of the hard Brexit for which the Minister’s party advocated. (AQT 1753/17-22)

Mr Poots: I have spoken to senior people in Sainsbury's and Tesco recently. They have committed to buying products that meet certain environmental standards. For example, they will not be buying products from areas in which there is deforestation. In areas where there is no reduction in greenhouse gases, carbon and so forth, again, there will be issues. Those places and countries that want to produce things to low environmental standards will find it very difficult to market their products, particularly in this jurisdiction, because the main buyers will not want to acquire those products.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for that response. Minister, do you acknowledge that the majority of agri-food producers support the need for the protocol, do not want to see it scrapped and, instead, want solutions to implement it more easily? Have you advocated for that on their behalf to the British Government?

Mr Poots: No, I do not accept that, because I get complaints from agri-food producers continually about the protocol. They want trade arrangements between the UK and the European Union that will allow a relatively free flow of trade with appropriate checks. They want an entirely free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They want to ensure that they provide security for the single market for the European Union. We are more than willing to work on that with the European Union in order to ensure the integrity of the single market is upheld, but that does not involve the current protocol, which is punitive, harsh and damaging to the Northern Ireland economy, consumers and constituents who the Member represents.

T4. Mrs Barton asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what he can do to support organic egg producers, who, at the moment, are sourcing food that is 95% organic, albeit after the protocol derogation ends in December, they will be expected to source food that is 100% organic, which will be difficult. (AQT 1754/17-22)

Mr Poots: I am concerned for the organic farming community. Its output is relatively small, in Northern Ireland terms, but it is an important community. As a consequence of its being a small sector, there are no local suppliers for much of its product and organic producers have to go elsewhere to import. Therein lies the problem, because, traditionally, most of that importation has come from Great Britain, and costs have gone up exponentially. That area has been damaged, again, as a consequence of the protocol. We therefore want to try to ensure that we can get the appropriate relaxations put in place so that they can conduct their business in a way that is not too dissimilar from how it was conducted previous to the protocol.

Mrs Barton: Minister, those organic producers may be working at a disadvantage, given that, in Great Britain, food that is 95% organic is allowed. What will DAERA do to help them to market their food?

Mr Poots: I had a conversation with Minister Eustice today and on Saturday about a lot of those issues. We will continue to engage at that high level with the UK Government to ensure that we get the best possible outcome for producers and consumers in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, that is our role. Given that we are in here and have those opportunities, we are speaking to the highest level of the UK Government in order to get those things resolved. We have waited quite some time for that to happen. I sincerely hope that we do not have to wait much longer to get those issues resolved, because it has been extremely difficult for small businesses across Northern Ireland to make a living, many of which are family-owned and have, in addition to themselves, only one or two workers. We want to ensure that that becomes somewhat easier for them.

T5. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, who will be relieved not to be asked about farms in North Belfast, to provide an update on the measures that his Department is adopting to ensure that the directives on single-use plastics are met by January 2022. (AQT 1755/17-22)

Mr Poots: We have done a piece of work on the plastic bag levy, and that is, I understand, with the Committee at this stage. We will be bringing forward something very significant on that within the government estate. We have done a piece of work on eliminating around nine of the most common single-use plastics. We are also looking at a deposit-return scheme (DRS). We have to decide whether to go with our own scheme or a scheme that is more closely associated with the one in England. We are looking at all those issues to ensure that, as far as possible, we do away with single-use plastics. I certainly desire that to be the case.

Ms Ní Chuilín: That seems fairly piecemeal, to be honest. I know that you said that it is significant, given that the work looks at removing nine types of single-use plastic. Given that the directive has to be honoured by January 2022, will the Minister commit to trying to give further detail on his answer? I appreciate that it is a topical question and that he may not have all the details, but I know that others would appreciate a bit more detail on what he is doing in his Department on behalf of the Executive.

Mr Poots: That is absolutely no problem. There is a series of pieces of work, and I illustrated three of those. There are more than that, but I illustrated those three to demonstrate that we are taking it seriously. I am happy to correspond with the Member in order to give her the full detail in a written format so that she can study that.

Mr Speaker: Rachel Woods is not in her place.

T9. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether he has been able to resolve with the Minister of Justice the data-sharing arrangement in relation to the creation of an animal cruelty register. (AQT 1759/17-22)

Mr Poots: I do not have a further update on that issue for the Member.

Mrs D Kelly: If there is anything further, I would be grateful if the Minister could write to me. Earlier, he referred to the Paws for Thought campaign at the ports. Minister, how do you anticipate trying to close down some of the loopholes that were exposed in the recent 'Spotlight' programme? Is there anything further that can be done? If so, are your officials working on that?

Mr Poots: Frankly, the issues that were brought to light in the 'Spotlight' programme were pretty depressing. I have been working closely with Robin Newton on Lucy's law, and I hope that the private Member's Bill could be completed before the end of this term. If not, I hope that the evidence that has been presented in relation to it will be taken forward by DAERA as a priority in the new term.

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This is a reprehensible trade, and a relatively small number of people are making themselves millionaires out of it. We need to clamp down very hard on that trade and ensure that we do not become the conduit for poorly reared puppies from the Republic of Ireland to Great Britain. I really do not want to see that happening. It is happening, and I want to see it stopped.

Mr Speaker: Sinéad Ennis is not in her place, and time is up. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment while we move to the next item in the Order Paper.

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

Question for Urgent Oral Answer


Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): 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 to outline the steps he has taken to safeguard against inappropriate access to personal data held on the COVID-19 vaccine management system.

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I was made aware of reports in local weekend papers of concerns over the amount of access that health and social care (HSC) staff have to patient information that is held in the vaccine management system (VMS). I can assure Members that strict controls are in place over access to information that is held in the VMS and other HSC systems. The VMS is used by a wide range of healthcare providers in order to maximise vaccine uptake, so it is important that those staff ensure that safety checks are undertaken before each vaccine is dispensed and that those checks are recorded accurately.

Controlled access to patient information is essential in ensuring that we have clinically safe and quality data. To help to maximise uptake, vaccination is being provided by different healthcare providers, each of whom must be able to cross-check key details before dispensing vaccines. Controlled access to patient information is not unique to the vaccination system. Each of the healthcare providers and administrators who use the system are subject to security checks as part of normal employment processes. The access controls for our VMS are managed by each health and social care trust, GP practice or pharmacy. That includes the selection and training of all staff members, and it specifically requests that they are provided with access to the VMS. All those employers have professional and legal data protection responsibilities. All actions undertaken by those using the system are logged and subject to audit. That is standard practice for all HSC systems.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to answer this question for urgent oral answer. As he will be aware, it has been reported by several senior health clinicians that, in recent weeks, a flaw in the relevant software led to a database containing the vaccination status of every resident in Northern Ireland becoming widely accessible, including to staff who were not medically trained and those in temporary or administrative roles. These allegations raise serious concerns about personal privacy and data protection.

Will the Minister accept, given the serious and far-reaching impact of the pandemic on fundamental freedoms, that a laissez-faire attitude to personal data is not only unacceptable but damaging to public confidence? Will he now refer this matter to the Information Commissioner's Office for independent investigation and commit to a comprehensive review of existing procedures?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question, but the people who access this system are, as I said, managed and put forward for access to the system by their employer, be that an HSC trust, GP or community pharmacy. It is necessary to ensure that information on anyone coming forward to receive a booster dose or third dose is accessible across all manufacturers.

There has been extensive engagement by the Information Commissioner's Office and National Cyber Security Centre teams on securing the information. As required by GDPR, the vaccine management system developers implement and maintain appropriate technical and organisational security measures. Those include measures that meet the requirements of ISO 27001 and ISO 27018 to protect personal data, data processes, a data processor or sub-processor on its customers' behalf.

Since the launch, once logged into a VMS, user actions are logged in an audit trail that creates "create view" update events on patients' details. If clinicians are indicating that people who should not be accessing the system are accessing it, it is up to them to come forward and say how they have been given access to the system when it is clear that it should be accessible only to those who have been expressly identified by their employer, be that an HSC trust, GP or community pharmacy.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Minister, in the early months of the pandemic, the Health Committee looked at regulations that would allow recruitment outside health workers to assist with vaccination. However, you have taken vaccinators largely from the Health and Social Care workforce: 121 from the Belfast Trust, 92 from the Northern Trust and 66 from the Western Trust. Given the pressure on the system, will you consider taking voluntary vaccinators from other sectors? Also, given the pressure on GP appointments and that the dashboard indicates that GPs are providing by far the most vaccinations, will you commit to further extending the voluntary vaccinator cohort?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his questions. He will be aware that I spoke last week about the Public Health Agency (PHA) supplying not only vaccinators but administrative support for the system. I think that the Member is actually asking about the crux of the vaccine management system, which is this: if you received your first or second dose at a GP practice and then go to a community pharmacy for your third dose or a booster vaccine, that pharmacy must have access to that information as well. That is why we control the healthcare providers and administrators who use the system, and they are subject to security checks as part of the normal employment processes. That administration is managed by the health and social care trust, the GP practice or the community pharmacy under their data protection protocols.

The next step was that we engaged with Community Pharmacy. It started its operation to supply booster vaccines last month. A total of 240 community pharmacies across Northern Ireland can now supply booster and third dose vaccinations.

They need access, however, to information on where people received their first and second doses in order to enable them to do that safely, both clinically and technically.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for answering questions on this important issue. I put on record that this is not about the vaccine or receiving it. That continues to be one of the most important things that we can do at this time. Rather, this is purely an issue of data and data protection.

I ask the Minister whether there is any difference between how that data is held and accessed compared with, say, how data is held and accessed in other parts of the health service, such as, for example, data held by GPs, dentists and other allied health professionals who can access information electronically? Is there anything that the Minister thinks could be done to tighten up what was referred to in the original question?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Having been made aware of the reports in the media over the weekend, I am disappointed, having checked, that some of the answers and additional information that we as a Department provided were not utilised in that article. If that had been done, it would have addressed some of the concerns that have been raised today.

As I have said, as required by GDPR, the VMS developers implemented and maintained the appropriate technical and organisational security measures, and that includes measures that meet the requirements, as I said, of ISO 27001 and ISO 27018 to protect personal data, its processes and a data processor or sub-processor on its customers' behalf. Once logged into the VMS, a user's actions are logged in an audit trail that includes options to create, view or update events on a patient's details. That is similar to all the equivalent health and social care systems. The difference is that this one covers the entirety of Northern Ireland and can be expanded. As we have seen, people seeking their first, second and third doses, and even their booster vaccine, are going to different locations where those are accessible, so whoever is administering them has to have the information on what people have received and when they received it in order to make sure that they are compliant, safety-wise and technically.

Mr Chambers: I am sure that the Minister will share my concerns that there may be negative impacts from stories of this nature that may discourage people from coming forward to be vaccinated. Will he confirm what steps his Department has taken to protect patient data, and can he confirm that no data breach has occurred?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I will take his last point first. I can confirm that no data breach has occurred. Even the report in the papers talked about hypotheticals. A full data protection impact assessment of the vaccine management system has been carried out and can be found online, at There is also a published privacy notice regarding data, and that can also be found on the Department's website, at In the build of the vaccine management system, security and privacy have always been key considerations throughout, as is the case with all our systems. The system has been through end-to-end security assessment and penetration testing.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for coming to the Chamber this afternoon. I wonder whether the vaccine management system is being used, or could be used, to identify which health and social care staff have and have not been vaccinated and whether you intend to use it to target those areas where there is a deficiency in uptake.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question, but the system does not, as far as I am aware, include the employment status of an individual, and to use it in that sphere would be to go outside what we have agreed with the Information Commissioner. It is purely a technical and medical vaccine management system, not one that can be used retrospectively to query who has and who has not been vaccinated. That seems to be from where some of the misconceptions in the article over the weekend have come.

Mrs Erskine: When such stories appear, they create fear, and I agree with my colleague that we should be encouraging people to come forward to get their vaccine. That is vital in combating COVID-19. Minister, can you be categorically clear and tell me whether the Department has an access control policy, particularly when dealing with special category data such as medical records? Is the system in line with that policy? If not, why not?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member, and I will refer her back to what I said. The full data protection impact assessment of the VMS has been carried out and can be found online. I will share the website link with members of the Health Committee so that they have access to it.

The published privacy notice regarding the data can also be found.

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As I said earlier with regard to the health and social care systems that we use, the vaccine management system was based on that crux and the same requirements as GDPR, because the VMS developers implemented and maintained the appropriate technical and organisational security measures. As I said, that includes the measures that meet the requirements of ISO 270001 and ISO 270018.

Mrs D Kelly: Thank you, Minister. I cannot wait to get my booster vaccine. I hope that many others take up that opportunity.

Minister, your Department today published stats that told us that, in the last 24 hours, 11 people have lost their lives to COVID and that there are a further 41 people in ICU beds. God forbid that there were any accidents or anything like that and somebody belonging to us needed an ICU bed. As I understand it, the majority of those who have died and those who are in ICU are unvaccinated. Minister, will you use the opportunity to join with us in the SDLP to call on those who have not yet received their vaccine to do so without delay?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that. What concerned me about where this story went over the weekend was that it could have deterred people from coming forward to receive their vaccine because of a misconception that their details would be widely publicised. That is not the case, they will not and I hope that the assurances that I have given in my answers to the question show that. In this last charge, we are engaging with those people who need to be convinced and to be given additional support to come forward to get their vaccines. I agree with the Member about the need to encourage everyone who can still come forward. That is not just for those who will receive their booster or third dose but for those who are hesitant about receiving their first dose. They should also come forward to take up their flu vaccines.

The last data that was published by the information and analysis directorate in my Department showed that 75% of COVID inpatients under 50 years old were unvaccinated. A COVID inpatient under 50 was 15 times more likely to be unvaccinated, and those over 50 were five times more likely to be unvaccinated. That shows the benefits that vaccination has, and I would be concerned if anyone was put off being vaccinated by what they may have read. I want to address the concerns about the benefits of vaccination and the security of their data in the vaccine management system.

Mr Beggs: GDPR and contractual arrangements require GPs, trust employees and pharmacists to handle confidential personal information with great care. Will the Minister confirm that, each time anyone accesses anyone's personal records, there will be details of who accessed them and, no doubt, what time that access occurred? Will he also confirm that anyone who breached that confidential arrangement would commit a serious offence that could have implications for their employment?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. The point that he makes is that accessing the vaccine management system is no different from accessing any other healthcare record. The only people who can log on and access the vaccine management system are licensed registered users, who are healthcare professionals directly involved in the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, following requests from the organisations that employed or engaged them, should that be trusts, GP practices or community pharmacies. User accounts are only granted to those for whom access is necessary to ensure the safe and efficient delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

The VMS is a clinical system. That is clearly stated to all users when they log on to the platform. All those users are used to working with clinical systems and having access to patient data as part of their duties in providing patient care. Those users are fully aware of the information governance that is associated with such activity, and all activity on the VMS is logged and auditable.

Mr Allister: So all users are registered users. Will the Minister give some indication of the quantity? Are we talking about dozens, hundreds or thousands of registered users? One of the aspects of the weekend's press report was a claim that the updated system was less efficient or did not have an audit facility. Can he say categorically that that is not correct? Does the system enable the overseers to see who accessed it and when? Is there any grey area around that?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for seeking that clarity. Since the VMS was first launched, it has been the case that, once users log on to the system, their actions are logged in an audit trail, whether they create a record, view a record or update patient details. The original version, which the Member refers to, was the system provided by GP surgeries, and that had access only to their patients' details. Phase 2 of the VMS, which was rolled out in September, was designed to support the delivery of boosters. Vaccine history needed to be cross-checked with any provider location, and that required the inclusion of expanded search criteria.

Access to citizens' data is monitored by security and authentification mechanisms. Data is accessed only by clinical users, VMS administrators and development staff. Data is also recorded for audit purposes. Employers have the responsibility to ensure that only legitimate access is sought in order to support legitimate clinical processes. I do not have with me the number of people who have access to the system, but I will get it to the Member in writing.

Mrs Barton: Minister, is it the case that, only because the VMS has been expanded to include vaccine history across any location, many thousands of people can now be vaccinated in our community pharmacies?

Mr Swann: The Member is correct. As I said in an earlier answer, the vaccine management system now verifies the vaccine history of anyone who comes forward for their booster, third dose or even their second dose so that whoever administers it can check that medical history as well. That is why phase 2, which, as I said to Mr Allister, was rolled out in September, includes that additional data. It allows the cross-checking of vaccine history with any provider location in order to include the expansion of the vaccine programme and the next steps.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members, that concludes the question for urgent oral answer. Members should take their ease before we move back to private Members' Business.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill [NIA 38/17-22] be agreed. — [Mr McGrath.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members, we will resume the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill. The next Member to speak is Chris Lyttle, the Chairperson of the Education Committee.

Mr McGrath: I had not finished.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): You had not finished? Sorry, I was not made aware of that. That is a rap across the knuckles for me from my comrade. Glaoim ar mo chara Colin McGrath leanúint ar aghaidh leis an díospóireacht. I now call Colin McGrath to continue his contribution to the debate.

Mr McGrath: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I knew that everybody had rushed to the Chamber to hear the end of my speech, so I did not want to disappoint them by not getting the opportunity to conclude.

Given that there has been a little bit of a gap, I will summarise. Thus far, I have taken the opportunity to detail why we need this Bill, the reasons that it will help people and how the outworkings of this private Member's Bill will save lives. I will repeat that: it will save lives. I also detailed how all other parts of these islands have brought this measure in by legislation and that we are the only place that does not have it in that way. I also detailed a lot of the numbers and the background of the public consultation that took place. When I detailed all the information from the public consultation, I was detailing the voices of the public. With just under 1,000 people participating in that process, we have a duty to listen to what they said and to try to act in a way that meets the need that they identified.

With the figures as they are, we, as an Assembly, must act now. We must do more to ensure that CPR training and automatic external defibrillation (AED) awareness are a normal part of everyone's lives and that those who are trained have the confidence and skill set so that, should they need to go out and save a life, they can do so.

We are living longer, but we are not always living better. Smoking, a lack of physical exercise and obesity remain factors that we must consider. Poverty is still prevalent here, and, in the past, those who lived in the most deprived areas were identified as being more at risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease. Two years ago, the statistics told us that 10 people were dying every day in the North due to heart conditions, including cardiac arrest. Given that other countries have increased their survival rate from one in 10 to one in four, I believe that, by enacting this legislation, we stand a real chance of saving lives. We are dealing with life or death. That is bigger than any of us. It goes beyond the issues that are often a source of division and touches at the very essence of that which unites each of us: our common humanity.

In closing, I am proud to bring the Bill to the House for its Second Stage. I look forward to hearing contributions from all other sections, and if any clarity is required, I look forward to providing it. At the outset of my contribution, I mentioned that the figure of one in 10 surviving would work out at approximately nine MLAs. Taken in the round, in the full knowledge of your medical history and lifestyle, would you rather know that, should anything ever happen to you, every child who has come through our schools has received training in CPR and AED awareness? If the answer is yes, and you want to be a part of changing our statistics, I implore you to support this Bill.

Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I can think of few more important matters to teach in our schools than the life-saving techniques of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automatic external defibrillation. Northern Ireland can be proud that, in response to the deadly threat of cardiac arrest, the portable defibrillator was invented by Hillsborough man Frank Pantridge. That was one of the greatest innovations in history, and we must ensure that it can be readily and competently used by as many people as possible in his native Northern Ireland.

The risk of cardiac arrest and the power of competently deployed CPR and AED were, of course, broadcast globally during Euro 2020, when the life of Christian Eriksen, an elite-level athlete, was saved due to the prompt and competent implementation of those techniques. CPR maintained oxygen flow to Christian's brain while his heart could not, and defibrillation restarted his heart's signal. Perhaps it is worth noting that Eriksen's native Denmark has adopted mandatory CPR training in schools, and that has improved survival rates from cardiac arrests to one in four. Tragically, people in Northern Ireland who suffer a similar out-of-hospital cardiac arrest experience have a survival rate of one in 10.

Pupils in Northern Ireland do not have access to the same training and awareness that is provided across the rest of these islands. Over the past two years, England, Scotland and Wales have all enhanced their curricula to include CPR training in schools.

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The Education Minister here announced on 21 September that CPR will be taught to Key Stage 3 pupils from the 2022-23 school year onwards. It is my understanding that the proposer of the Bill, Colin McGrath MLA, welcomes that development and is seeking to provide an opportunity for the Assembly to enact that commitment in legislation. The Member seeks to address this critical matter in a concise Bill, with one substantive clause that obliges the Department of Education to place training in CPR and defibrillation on the curriculum for Key Stage 3. The simple objective is to improve the survival rates from cardiac arrest in Northern Ireland. The Bill has enjoyed strong support from consultation, which found that 94% of respondents support compulsory CPR training in schools. Even higher levels of respondents believe that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that that training is provided.

It is my hope, as Education Committee Chairperson, Alliance education spokesperson, a sports coach and a member of this community who cares for the health of my family, friends and constituents, that the Bill and the work of the Education Minister will provide pupils in Northern Ireland with the training and awareness that is afforded to other young people on these islands and empower them with the type of skills that saved the life of Christian Eriksen.

Time is critical in the context of cardiac arrest. I give my commitment to progressing the Bill, if passed to Committee Stage, in a timely manner and ensuring that the Education Committee and the Assembly play a part in improving the ability of this community to change the face of cardiac arrest survival rates in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sheehan: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill. I commend the proposer of the Bill, Colin McGrath, for bringing it to the Assembly. The Chair, in his opening address, covered comprehensively most of the issues that need to be covered, so, if I repeat some of them, I apologise.

One of the most important things that the Chair spelt out was the poor survival rates from cardiac arrest. There may be some misunderstanding of the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack. A heart attack is a result of coronary heart disease, whereas a cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating. I had a good friend who collapsed and died recently. There was a defibrillator close to the premises where she was. The defibrillator was brought in and deployed but not activated because it detected that there was still a heartbeat; a verbal message came from it not to activate it. It is important that messages like that get to people who may have some basic training in the use of an AED but are concerned about whether they should use it. The AED is able to say whether a person's heart is beating, and, if it is, it will say not to use the device.

I know of other people who have had cardiac arrests. I have a good friend who took a cardiac arrest in bed. Fortunately, his wife arrived in the bedroom within a very short space of time, realised what was happening and, because she had some medical training, was able to use CPR until the paramedics arrived. She saved his life. He was brought to hospital and treated. Initially, it was thought that he would not survive or that, if he did, he would be in some way incapacitated or disabled as a result of starvation of oxygen to the brain. Fortunately, he made a full recovery and survived.

The evidence shows us that survival rates are much higher in places where more people are trained to perform CPR and are willing to intervene. Colin referenced Denmark in his contribution, but there are other places throughout the world where there has been extensive CPR training and a raising of awareness about CPR training. The evidence tells us that even a very short training programme on CPR can make a difference. In the time that a television advert lasts, people can be shown how to perform CPR and given that confidence. It is only when people have that knowledge that they will have the confidence to intervene in a situation where a person has had a cardiac arrest. I have heard it said that, given the litigious society that we live in, some people are afraid to intervene because, if they did and got it wrong — breaking somebody's breastbone or something like that — while performing CPR, they might be sued by the victim. There is no record of anyone who was intervening to give life support or help being sued, so people should not be afraid of that.

There have been attempts to increase the availability of, and access to, CPR training, most notably the 2014 community resuscitation strategy. That has been taken forward under the leadership of the Ambulance Service, which should be commended for that. There are many first responders, particularly in rural areas, who carry defibrillators in the boot of their cars and are ready to go at a moment's notice to intervene to save people if needs be. My colleague Michelle Gildernew is a first responder and has, on occasion, had cause to use the AED.

There is no doubt that lives have been saved by the training that the Ambulance Service has been giving to groups and organisations. I understand that Sport NI will be rolling out training as well. As well as CPR being a mandatory part of the school curriculum, we need a whole-community response, where others in society have access to training, particularly in CPR but also in the use of AEDs. It is only when the whole of the community is trained in this area that we will see an increase in the survival rates. There is a massive difference between one in 10 surviving and one in four surviving. There is no reason why we cannot reach those figures if we roll out a proper strategy and children are trained in school on how to do this.

Chris Lyttle mentioned what happened to Christian Eriksen at the Euros, which we all remember, but, even closer to home, people have survived cardiac arrest on the playing pitch. Kevin McCloy, the former Derry footballer, had a cardiac arrest whilst playing for Lavey in a club match. He gave thanks to the people who came onto the pitch and gave him CPR. There was a defibrillator there as well. That was there because of the high-profile campaign after the death of Cormac McAnallen, the former Tyrone all-Ireland-winning captain, who also died as a result of a cardiac arrest.

I support the Bill. It is very important, and I am sure that it will get support right across the House.

Mr Newton: I welcome the Member's Bill. It is probably the shortest Bill ever to come before the Assembly. I welcome the fact that it is an extremely focused Bill, which requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation training and automatic external defibrillator awareness, focusing in on pupils in years 8, 9 and 10 — the 11- to 14-year-old age group. Hopefully, those skills might be carried on into later life.

For personal reasons, I have huge empathy with the sentiment of the Bill. I was approached by the British Heart Foundation a number of months ago at a time when I had just lost a friend to a heart attack, so I was keen to support it. With the foundation's agreement, I wrote to the Minister on the matter, and she responded very positively and did some work with the British Heart Foundation in the grounds of this very Building.

I had some notes on Christian Eriksen, but I will not go into his case, as it was well covered by the previous two contributors. However, the statistics are concerning in that, in the case that was referred to in Denmark, one in four people who have a heart attack survives because of action by folk, yet, in Northern Ireland or GB, one in 10 survives. We should be concerned about that, particularly since Professor Pantridge did all the necessary research and development of the defibrillator. He came from our small community here, and his work is now recognised worldwide in that field.

In my friend's situation, he collapsed in a public area. He was in a group of between 25 and 30 people, and no one was able to do anything except dial 999 for an ambulance. He was a gentleman who did not smoke or drink and took a lot of exercise, including long walks, so the physical indicators were that he was healthy, but he had an underlying problem that no one knew about. He lived for 10 days after the heart attack, and all the indications were there that, if support and attention had been available and if the group had had the skills, he would have survived and returned to full health and strength, but that was not to be the case.

We would like to see training in our schools, but that is just one step. Defibrillators are all over my constituency, but I do not know where they are.

I know where one is, but I have no idea where the majority of them are. The recent call for a register of where defibrillators are across Northern Ireland, and the need to maintain that register, is a positive step. Schools are one area, and a number of sports clubs have taken up the matter. Whether it is football, swimming, rugby, tennis, GAA or whatever, we need to know where defibrillators are and where training is available for folk.

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I will make some general points in support of the Bill. I know that the British Heart Foundation was pleased with the Minister's response. I am sure that it will also be pleased with Mr McGrath's response. We do not prescribe what is compulsory in the curriculum. In many ways, we trust teachers to schedule the lessons, cover the content and, indeed, meet pupils' learning needs in any area that the curriculum covers. We determine that on the basis of teachers' skills, knowledge and experience in that area. I am pleased that there is already a foundation to be built upon. Life skills in first aid, which includes CPR, are already covered in the curriculum, as, indeed, are qualifications in personal development and mutual understanding. The subject of CPR is covered at primary and post-primary level. Therefore, there is a foundation there on which to build.

We recognise the importance of this issue. The statistics are there, and I am sure that many in the Chamber have had similar experiences to mine. We remain supportive of efforts to increase awareness and develop skills in schools and across society. I welcome the work of the British Heart Foundation. It undertakes extensive work and provides extensive support in schools. I recognise the immense value of those life-saving skills.

Mr Butler: I support the Bill at this stage and congratulate the Member on bringing it to the House. I thank the Minister for taking the issue seriously and indicating that she, too, is prepared to do something. In light of Mr Allister's contribution earlier, I am minded that, at this stage, we have to push through every legislative opportunity that we can, the reason being that, at times, we have found these institutions to be not the most stable of places. That is why we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to do what we can whenever we can. That is not a poke at anybody; it is just the reality of politics in Northern Ireland.

Before I move on, I want to touch on something that Mr Newton has just shared. It was rather exceptional. He made a really important statement, and he used the word "if" in what was kind of a rhetorical question. When we do or discuss anything here, it is important that we go back into the detail of the what, why and how. In this instance, when we are talking about something that pertains to life and death, that has absolute importance. I thank Mr Newton for raising the issue of "if", because I had not thought of it. I was not here last week because, sadly, my wife's sister died. I pay tribute to my wife's sister and thank all Members who reached out. Even in that moment of grief, my wife's family and I — indeed, most of us — will say, "If only we knew", "What could we have done?" or "If we had tried —". I will not go into the details of her death.

When we look at what can be done for something such as cardiac arrest, however, we see what was done for Christian Eriksen, who was talked about earlier. Over the years, in this country and across these islands, we have heard of many young footballers whose heart stopped on the pitch. Some of them, sadly, lost their life for a variety of reasons, whether that was an unknown congenital heart defect or some other issue, but their heart stopped. In reality, if we had known better, and if we had had the substance and the resource, perhaps they would still be with us. It is never time to stop learning and improving on what we know.

To give some background as to why it is important to target that type of information, training and skills at young people, I think back to when I was in the Fire and Rescue Service . The fire safety education programme, which I have talked about many times in the Chamber and will keep talking about because it is so valuable, was introduced just over 20 years ago. The target audience for it is primary 5. It was assessed at the time that primary 5 presented a good opportunity and was an appropriate age at which to introduce something as important as saving life and the dangers of fire. It was not a matter of saying, "These young people are not old enough to know and understand". If we look at what has happened over the past 20 years, we will see that the number of accidental fire deaths and accidental fires has gone through the floor. That is a testament to "Education, education, education". The more that we can do and the more information that we can entrust our young people with, the better that their life outcomes will be.

I do not know whether the Bill sponsor will wish to pick that up, because the Bill talks about Key Stage 3 pupils. When speaking to the representatives of the British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland who were upstairs, I quizzed them a little bit about how they picked their target age. The World Health Organization perhaps indicated that it should be Key Stage 3 pupils, but I say that there may be something that we can do in our primary schools to inform pupils in P5 and P6.

Mr Sheehan made the point that it is not just about schools but about whole communities. He is absolutely right. One of the benefits of the fire safety education programme was that, when pupils in P5 were given a safety pack featuring different heroes and including stickers, they had to take it home and talk about it with their parents or carer, their granny and grandad, and their brothers and sisters. There is then cross-pollination, and that is a fun thing. Education and learning, especially at that age, can be addressed in a fun way, and the outcomes can be absolutely brilliant. I would love to see the statistics about the one in 10 figure go through the floor, just as they have done for accidental fires and accidental fire deaths.

The Education Committee Chair, Mr Lyttle, and, indeed, Mr McGrath, paid tribute to that great Hillsborough man Frank Pantridge. I encourage Members to read up on Mr Pantridge. He is an incredibly important man for probably millions of people across the world, and he is someone of whom we can be very proud. Coming from the Lagan valley, I am proud to associate myself with the area from which the great man came.

When you read about Frank, you learn that part of his desire to do what he did came from his own illness. He was a prisoner of war, and he had a cardiac condition. His ingenuity knew no bounds. The first defibrillator that he made weighed 70 kg and ran on car batteries, but, within three years, he had brought its size down to something portable that weighed only 3 kg.

His passion was saving lives, and there is no cause more noble than that. We should thank him. I suspect that his family would be very proud to know that we are trying to continue his legacy and to implant it in our young people in order to equip them with the same passion and vision that Frank Pantridge had all those years ago.

I will speak no more on this. I hope that the House will unite behind the Bill today.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will share my expression of sympathy to your wife on the death of her sister.

Ms Brogan: First, I offer my condolences to Robbie and his family on the death of his sister-in-law. I am very sorry to hear that.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate as Sinn Féin spokesperson on children and young people, and I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing this important legislation to the Assembly. The training will have huge benefit not only for the children and young people who might suffer cardiac arrest and the older people who are more generally affected by it but for those who learn from it and increase their confidence about how to approach such medical emergencies.

In recent days, we have seen children and young people coming together to challenge climate change and, in doing so, take action to save lives. In a way, this Bill hopes to do the same. Its intention is to mobilise the agency of young people by giving them the necessary tools to intervene and save lives in the event of a cardiac arrest. Within the relatively small population in the North, around 1,400 cardiac arrests take place every year outside of a hospital setting. In the event of a cardiac arrest, there is a very small window of opportunity to save someone's life. Every minute without trained intervention reduces the chance of survival by up to 10%, and that is why it is vital that training and equipment become more available to the general population.

Currently, the survival rate here sits at one in ten. However, in parts of Europe where CPR is taught in schools, survival rates are reported to be one in four. The significance of teaching CPR in schools has also been recognised by the World Health Organization, which endorsed the Kids Save Lives statement. Teaching young people CPR as part of the school curriculum and providing them with the skills to resuscitate people in cardiac arrest is a tried and tested intervention that also empowers young people to be active and engaged citizens. Having acquired those skills, young people can take that beyond the classroom into their homes and the wider community.

The vast majority of cardiac arrests take place in the home, a setting where young people are well placed to make a difference, not only through direct intervention but by sharing their new skills with other family members, which then increases the number of people in the community with the skills and confidence to intervene and make a difference. Jurisdictions right across these islands have already committed to teaching CPR as part of the general education of young people. I hope that the Bill progresses. I will support it as it moves to Committee Stage.

I have a couple of other points that I want to raise with the Bill sponsor. Maybe it is something that we can discuss further if the Bill makes it to Committee Stage. As part of my previous employment, I received annual CPR and AED training. The Bill could go further and ensure that the CPR and AED training for children and young people is annual. Although my workplace was a medical practice, I was not on the front line. Thankfully, I never had to use my training, but I needed a refresher every year. Maybe we can look at that.

Secondly, can we extend the CPR and defibrillator training to basic life support? Say, for example, somebody who has epilepsy; if they take a seizure, how do you deal with that? If a diabetic person goes into a hypo, what is the best way to cope with that? There are other things that could be explored to improve the piece, but I am happy to support the Bill and I hope that it reaches Committee Stage.

Mrs Dodds: Like many others across the House, I support the Bill at Second Stage. Many have quoted today that every minute without CPR and defibrillation reduces a person's chance of survival by up to 10%. If we can give confidence and help to young people in dealing with emergency situations, that is an excellent thing.

I also want to acknowledge the work of very many groups across our community and, indeed, my constituency that offer CPR training on a regular basis. Over the past few weeks, I have been involved with a mental health charity in my community that has just received additional funding to give CPR training throughout the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area. I commend not just schools and teachers and what we are trying to do with the Bill, but those community groups that reach out on this very important issue.

Again, many have quoted the statistic from a recent survey by the British Heart Foundation. Of those who responded, 97% felt it was important that pupils left post-primary school with CPR skills, and 90% agreed that CPR training should be made compulsory.

That gives weight to the idea of embedding CPR training in the curriculum, and that is important.

4.30 pm

I support the Bill, but we should acknowledge that the Minister has moved to ensure that CPR training at Key Stage 3 is part of the curriculum from September 2022 and that additional funding has been secured to make sure that that is possible. Further work is being done not only with the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) but with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the Education Authority (EA) to make sure that there is proper inspection of the curriculum and that they take forward the development and dissemination of the appropriate support materials for young people.

I remain supportive of the intent of the Bill. I look forward to its Committee Stage, but I acknowledge the work that has been done to ensure that the facility is already available to children and young peopl in the education system,

Mr McCrossan: I speak as the SDLP education spokesperson and as a Member for West Tyrone. I fully welcome the Second Stage of this significant legislation. I thank my party colleague Colin McGrath for bringing it forward. It has united the House, and, hopefully, we will see swift passage for it. The benefits of it for many will be very significant.

Since I have known him, the Member has been a massive advocate and campaigner for CPR and policies relating to defibrillators across the North. I take the opportunity to thank him for the work he is doing and for bringing to the House this potentially life-saving legislation. I also make special mention of Fearghal McKinney of the British Heart Foundation for the work he has done not only in his current role but as a former Member. He is solid on and passionate about the issue.

As other contributors have said, we all saw the horrific scenes earlier this year when, during the Euros football tournament, Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest. It was important that timely treatment was given, and it ultimately saved his life. That brought a stark focus to the importance of CPR and AED training globally and to whether we do enough here to save as many lives as possible when people suffer cardiac arrest.

I was shocked to learn that, of around 1,400 people who suffer cardiac arrest, only one in 10 survive. That is a shocking figure, and it really brings it home. Unfortunately, just before COVID, I witnessed a gentleman who was sitting just over from me at Mass take a cardiac arrest. It was a shocking thing to witness, let alone experience. A lady who was sitting not too far away acted swiftly and carried out CPR until the trained medical professionals of the Ambulance Service arrived. She also administered the AED, which helped massively. Thankfully, the gentleman survived, but, without that lady's swift actions, I do not believe he would have.

Following from what Pat Sheehan said, often when such events happen, people are in a state of shock and do not know what to do. The best thing you can do is act, and that is critical to saving an individual's life. Cardiac arrest is traumatic to see and watch, particularly if you are not entirely sure how to carry out CPR. It is straightforward to learn, and people should make every effort to have that training, because you never know when someone in your household or elsewhere will be impacted in that way.

It is concerning that research conducted by the Resuscitation Council shows that only half of people would intervene if they came across someone suffering a cardiac arrest. That is mainly due to a lack of confidence in administering the life-saving aid. That touches on the point that I made. Thankfully, throughout our communities — Robin Newton touched on this — there has been huge community investment in raising funds for AEDs. They can be seen in all of our constituencies. They appear in rural areas, in places where crowds gather. Following the experience that I have shared, the community quickly moved to raise funds to put a defibrillator at the chapel. That shows the response of the community.

Robin highlighted an important point. It would be good to see a register of defibrillators and where they are located, because, in the moment, your mind goes blank, as mine did that day. Even though you pass them and see them everywhere, your mind goes blank. You are in a state of flux, and you ask "Where do I go to find one?". That was a helpful suggestion.

In recent years, we have made great strides with training, education programmes and awareness-raising campaigns. There is a greater awareness, but more needs to be done. This legislation will help to give a greater understanding of the importance of acting in that critical moment, but we are missing a key part of the jigsaw. The SDLP believes that the greater emphasis on CPR and AED training in education settings is critical. I thank the Minister for moving on that — not that she was not moving before. She has been very good on the issue, and we thank her for it.

The Bill will not only help educate our younger people but give them a true life skill that will empower them to react and take important actions when it comes to potentially saving a life, especially the life of a person who suffers cardiac arrest outside hospital. It could be a family member, a close friend or even a stranger that they may come across. Research has also shown that in countries where basic life-support skills are taught in schools, survival rates for cardiac arrest have increased significantly — two or three times higher — when compared with countries where they are not taught. The research points to Norway, some US states and North Holland, in particular, where we have seen significant increases in survival rates over the past decade as a result of such action.

Given that, it is no surprise that we have recently seen action being taken on these islands to increase CPR and AED training in our schools. In England, CPR training has been introduced as part of the health education curriculum in secondary schools; in Scotland, every local authority is committed to teaching CPR in schools; and, in Wales, legislation has been enacted that will ensure that CPR will be taught in schools from next year. Yet, the North has been falling behind in mandating CPR and AED training in our schools, but it is being welcomed, as touched on by the Minister, and I am delighted that the House is in full support of ensuring that it will become mandatory in schools.

The Bill will add to the great work already undertaken by the many charity organisations and community groups that have campaigned tirelessly over the years on CPR and AED training. I put on record my thanks to the British Heart Foundation, in particular. The work that it does is amazing. I had the privilege of being trained in CPR by it today. I also thank St John Ambulance and all of the other groups involved in training and raising awareness. The Bill is significant as a public health initiative that will ensure that our young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary should they encounter a cardiac arrest. It will also help drive up survival rates, increase the likelihood of people being treated swiftly and, ultimately, save lives in communities across the North.

It is also important that people be educated on the symptoms. Many people do not get a warning. A cardiac arrest can just happen, and, unfortunately, it happened in the cases of my two grandfathers. Both of them died from a cardiac arrest: one in hospital and the other at home. Unfortunately, they could not be saved. It is vital that we educate society on what the symptoms are. There is a myth that you might be too young to suffer a cardiac arrest or a heart attack. The reality is that age does not matter. I have seen healthy, younger, active people go into cardiac arrest and not survive; others had slight symptoms of chest pain and did not get checked; and others had signs of sorts and did not go to be seen. If you have any symptom or signs, it is critical that you are seen and receive immediate medical intervention, because, if you do not, something might happen, by which stage it may be too late.

I welcome the Bill; it is close and important to me. I want to touch on the fact that many people in our society live alone and are worried about what to do if they take a cardiac arrest at home. In my constituency offices, we have helped many people in those situations with a Careline alarm. Careline is a great organisation that puts a box into people's hallways with a big red button and a speaker system and gives them a pendant or two. That alarm is critical in the event that anything, not just a cardiac arrest, happens to someone who lives alone. Those alarms have saved lives. People who were not feeling right have managed to hit the button, and, ultimately, they received medical intervention or family members or others have arrived at the scene at that critical moment.

I welcome the Bill. I am proud that it has been brought to the House and of the work that my colleague has done. I am also proud of the Members who have united on this critical issue.

Ms Bradshaw: I will say a few words on the Bill as the Alliance Party health spokesperson. I thank the Bill sponsor, who is a fellow Health Committee member. The Bill will be a worthy piece of legislation when it is passed. I also thank the British Heart Foundation for its work to promote the potential benefits of what the Bill includes.

My contribution to the Second Stage debate will not take long. I appreciate that the Bill sponsor indicated that the financial effects will be minimal. As Back-Benchers, when we introduce private Members' Bills, we have a duty to ensure that the financial impact is kept as low as possible.

I put on record my acknowledgement of the role of Northern Ireland and Queen's University Belfast, in particular, in the development of the portable defibrillator. It is estimated that that invention has saved millions of lives, yet, as the Bill sponsor rightly pointed out, many others are not saved, because people did not have access to one.

Mr Sheehan mentioned the potential for the Bill, when it becomes an Act, to be a catalyst for the wider availability of defibrillators and training in the community. As someone in a position of responsibility in a sports club in Carrickfergus, I can say that we, as committee members, are conscious of not only the sport but the health and safety and risk management of players, volunteers and spectators. It is welcome that we are dealing in the Chamber with an issue that really impacts on our communities.

One issue with the Bill that jumps out at me relates to the options considered. I wonder whether the Bill sponsor, in his response at the end of the debate, will address the issue of there being two options: do nothing or pass legislation. Mr Allister referenced the potential for CPR and AED training in schools to come forward as a policy change by the Department of Education. I want a bit more information on that.

That is all I have to say. I endorse the Bill and look forward to working with the Bill sponsor and others as it progresses.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There was another Member who wished to speak, but he is not here. I will move directly to inviting the Minister to respond.

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I offer my condolences to the Member for Lagan Valley and his family on the passing of his sister-in-law.

Before I begin my response to the debate, I want to mention the story of Clare Hamilton and Melissa Doyle. Melissa was taught CPR by her school nurse in Fort Hill Integrated College in Lisburn. In what must have been her worst nightmare, she had to put that training to use in real life when her mum, Clare, suffered a cardiac arrest at their home. Melissa's quick actions and the training that she had received undoubtedly saved her mother's life. I had the immense privilege of meeting Clare and Melissa when, with the British Heart Foundation and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, I launched my Department's CPR programme in September. That programme will mean that all post-primary pupils in Key Stage 3 will receive CPR training from the start of the next school year. Melissa and Clare are real people with a real and moving story to tell. Theirs is a clear example of the importance of being trained in CPR at school. Put simply, it saves lives.

4.45 pm

As a former teacher, and having been trained in CPR, I truly understand how vital it is. I therefore thank the Member for South Down for giving the Assembly the opportunity to discuss the matter and for recognising the work that has been undertaken in the last few months and my genuine commitment to it. I acknowledge the support from across the Chamber today for CPR training in schools. The proposed Bill would place a duty on my Department to make CPR training and awareness of the use of defibrillators a compulsory part of the statutory Key Stage 3 curriculum. I fully agree with the principles of the Bill and am fully committed to ensuring that all children receive CPR training in our schools. However, as I will set out today, that work is already being implemented.

At the outset, I pay tribute to the wonderful work that has been ongoing in our schools. Many thousands of young people have been and are currently receiving CPR and defibrillator training as part of the curriculum. The British Heart Foundation provides a range of resources and supports for schools through its Call Push Rescue programme, which is designed to build capacity and expertise in CPR training across our education system. The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has also invited schools to participate in its Community of Lifesavers education programme. We are not at a standing start: many of our schools have led the way in providing CPR training over many years.

Today, I will set out for the Assembly the current approach that my Department is taking to ensure that all pupils receive CPR training. My Department wrote to schools on 20 September setting out its expectation that, from September 2022, CPR training will form part of the Key Stage 3 curriculum. I fully agree with the Member for South Down that an opt-in system is not sufficient, and that is not what is being introduced. CPR training will be part of the delivery of learning for life and work in all our post-primary schools. That is the ideal context for learning first aid and CPR.

Learning for life and work provides opportunities for pupils to develop practical knowledge, alongside the skills and attributes necessary to put such knowledge into practice in a real-life emergency; for example, through the development of self-confidence and empathy and learning to identify and manage risk. I have asked schools to consider introducing CPR training during the current academic year, if at all possible. From September 2022, the Department will then expect all Key Stage 3 pupils to receive CPR training as part of the curriculum. That expectation will be reflected in the Education and Training Inspectorate's safeguarding pro forma and will form part of an inspection of learning for life and work. Schools will also be asked to consider providing refresher training at Key Stage 4 and post-16.

However, it is not sufficient to simply mandate. We have to support and engage schools in that important area to ensure high-quality provision for our young people. My Department has therefore commissioned CCEA and the Education Authority to develop appropriate resources and training to support the universal roll-out of CPR training. They will work closely with the British Heart Foundation and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. I will provide £70,000 of funding to support that work during the current financial year and further funding in future years, as required. Further information and guidance from my Department signposting that additional support and training will be provided to schools later this year.

CPR training is likely to be more impactful if it forms part of a coherent approach to teaching first aid across all key stages. That is a much more holistic approach to curriculum implementation. Mr Butler mentioned that he would like to see that training much earlier. I share his view, so I have progressed that. Consequently, CCEA will develop a first aid curriculum progression framework setting out how best to teach first aid at each stage of education, from primary 1 right through to Key Stage 4. That will give a big-picture view of the key concepts and significant steps that learners take as they develop their expertise in first aid during their time in school. That goes significantly further than the Bill and will provide a joined-up and coherent approach.

I recently attended the launch of the Ambulance Service's roll-out of its lifesaver ambassador training to initial teacher training programmes. That will equip future educators to deliver emergency life support skills, including CPR and defibrillator awareness, to pupils.

I will now turn to the curriculum and comment on it. In common with the majority of high-performing school systems, the principles of limited prescription and maximum flexibility underpin the world-class Northern Ireland curriculum. The curriculum is designed specifically to reflect the importance of giving schools autonomy to choose their own curriculum approaches. That allows school leaders and teachers to build a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing for their pupils. By contrast, legislating for detailed lists of compulsory subject content does not in any way ensure that a topic will be well or consistently taught. Rather, ad hoc legal additions can lead to an overcrowded and poorly designed curriculum that lacks clear structure and coherence. Such high levels of prescription are generally associated with lower-performing school systems, where teachers' skills also tend to be weaker.

There are regular calls for legislation to make a wide range of issues compulsory in the statutory curriculum, such as CPR, smoking awareness, gambling-related harm and sexual and domestic violence. Those are really important and, indeed, potentially life-saving issues, but there is a need to protect our schools from curriculum overload, where content or issues are constantly added in response to meeting new societal demands, leading to schools becoming the answer to all of society's ills. That is why I do not necessarily think that introducing primary legislation is the right approach at the moment.

My officials have also considered the approach of amending the minimum content regulations. However, lists of topics simply become longer, and nothing is removed to accommodate the newcomers.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way briefly. This is a debate about an important principle. Does she not accept that there are some key areas that require standardisation in terms of curriculum delivery?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention. I took a lot of time to consider that issue, and I spoke to officials about it. The approach that we have taken with regard to rolling out CPR aspects at the beginning of September seemed to be the most appropriate way to deliver it at this point.

The list of topics leads to breadth at the expense of depth and content at the expense of skills, with the result that teachers feel that they do not know how to support students in those emerging areas, and that goes beyond CPR. The Northern Ireland curriculum is explicitly designed to prevent such curriculum overload, and it aims to help our children and young people to gain the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century.

The flexibility of the curriculum aims to empower schools to provide a curriculum that is adaptable and responsive to the needs of individual learners. By contrast, in topic-heavy curricula, the development of problem-solving, critical and creative thinking skills are inevitably squeezed. CPR is clearly an extremely important issue, which is why I am committed to ensuring that all pupils receive CPR training as part of the Key Stage 3 curriculum. As a consequence, I do not believe that it is absolutely necessary to introduce mandating primary legislation. Such an approach begins to unravel the coherent whole of the Northern Ireland curriculum. There is enormous scope in our education system to address the issue without recourse to legislation. Mr McGrath is aware of that, because we have had this conversation. Our focus must be to support schools to design and implement a high-quality curriculum that is tailored to meet the needs of our pupils and reflect a school's context and values rather than a mistaken pursuit of rigid uniformity.

Let me conclude by reiterating that I fully support the principles and intent of the Bill. We are all united in the aim of giving our young people the skills and confidence that they need in order to save a life. By educating and empowering young people around CPR training, we will improve the chance of surviving an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. However, I ask Members to reflect on the ongoing work on this important matter. CPR is now an expectation in the curriculum for all pupils.

Mr Butler: I appreciate the Minister giving way right at the end. You are talking about the curriculum, and I was struck by a point that, I think, is important to make to you in that regard. We are very much concentrating on the Bill, which we should be today.

The purpose of the Bill is to teach children how to use CPR and AED as interventions. We are talking about that being in the curriculum from P1, and my other concern is the things that children consume. I am thinking of energy drinks and children's diets. I used to take energy drinks before I went out to play football. It was madness, absolute madness. Is anything on the preventative piece being looked at for the curriculum? The Bill covers the intervention piece, which is vital and has my full backing, but what about the preventative piece?

Miss McIlveen: I appreciate the intervention. I am happy to have a discussion and maybe arrange a meeting with officials to see what we can do in that regard.

My Department's approach has been to engage with schools to build teachers' confidence, to build capacity and to provide training, resources and support that will, ultimately, provide better outcomes for young people. I might disagree with the Member to my right: he may measure the effectiveness of this place by the number of Bills that we pass; that is not necessarily my position.

Naturally, Members are committed to supporting the Bill, so I will, of course, work with officials over the coming weeks to consider how best to proceed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Thank you, Minister. Glaoim ar Colin McGrath le críoch a chur ar an díospóireacht. I call on Colin McGrath to conclude the debate.

Mr McGrath: I thank all Members for their contributions. As everybody correctly pointed out, this is an important issue. The debate gave us an opportunity to discuss providing something in our curriculum and communities that will save lives.

Many debates in this Chamber can be very frustrating. However, having a debate — this conversation and these discussions — on something that could make a real difference to people's lives and help people to survive is heartwarming. There was about 98% support around the Chamber, and there may be a few rough edges that we need to move on.

Rather than going into individual contributions, I will pick out some themes that are worth mentioning. Many Members provided a story. They had an experience or knew somebody who had a cardiac arrest, and there were various outcomes. We have those stories to tell in a Chamber with just 15 or 20 Members in it. Let us multiply that across our community and acknowledge that this is an issue that affects huge numbers of people. Therefore, we need to take our response to that seriously. We need to legislate, if we can, to try to resolve this issue and help people with those experiences.

Many Members spoke of being in a public place when a cardiac arrest took place. A key feature, as I said in my opening remarks, is that 80% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests take place in the home. If 30, 40, 50 or more people are in a public place when somebody has a cardiac arrest, two or three people will jump to help. In the homes that those people go back to, there may be no one to jump to help and no one with the skills. That is when you have to lift the phone and seek help. As I said earlier, every additional minute lost will cause more problems for — potentially, even the death of — the person concerned. Each of those homes must have somebody with the skills to help.

Many Members mentioned community groups and sporting organisations. They have led the way with training, support and help for their members to get these important skills. However, why should they have to do that? I contend that, if they are sporting groups, they should focus on sport; if they are community groups, they should focus on their activities. We should have an education system that delivers to everybody the appropriate life skills to be able to get on with their daily lives but also to step in to help if somebody is having a cardiac arrest. The Bill would allow clubs and community groups to focus on their activities without having to spend time focusing on these skills.

5.00 pm

Hopefully, most of the specific references to the Bill — for example, whether training could be an annual event rather than a one-off — will be examined at Committee Stage. I am absolutely up for that. I would love to see it happen. I tried to keep the information presented in the Bill as minimal as possible in order to get it through, because I wanted to try to gain as much support as possible from everybody, but if there is an appetite amongst Members to increase the amount of information or for pupils to have the training more than once at school, that will be welcomed. I did not want to put too much into the Bill in case it put people off. I wanted to get the legislation across the finishing line, so that is why I have kept it as basic as possible, but I am happy enough for it to be expanded on, if that is the wish of Members.

I accept what the Minister says about the curriculum and understand the predicament, but it also causes me to be a little bit suspicious. The reason that I am suspicious is this: if you say that you do not need to put it on the curriculum because it is happening anyway, if it is happening anyway, why do we not put it on the curriculum so that it is there? If it is in legislation, it cannot be taken away. If it is happening but is not in legislation, it can be changed.

I know that this Minister is completely dedicated to this happening. I have spoken to her and met her, and I know the work that she has brought forward thus far, which has taken us leaps and bounds beyond where we were previously. I was with your predecessor, and it was a brick wall. The person who comes after you could also be a brick wall, but if this is in law — if we decide that we want the Bill to be enacted — it will be much more difficult for somebody in the future to overturn that law, because that Minister would have to come back here to do so. I do not think that that would happen. Having observed the Minister's good work, I want to copper-fasten it so that the House is 100% behind her through our adding our legislative weight to it. I look forward to seeing the Bill progress.

I will finish with this. I said at the beginning that there are 90 Members of the Assembly and that, according to the current statistics, only one in 10 would survive a cardiac arrest. That is nine of the 90 Members. I was hoping that somebody might have corrected me or taken the point a step further. I have been taught CPR, and I know that a number of other Members have been trained in it, so we should be able to get that figure from one in 10 up to one in four. Through our skills and training — my first aid training, Robbie's Fire Service training and the skills of many others — we would save an additional 13 MLAs' lives. We can fight afterwards about who would survive. That is a debate for another day. We have the skills in here, however, so we would be increasing the chances of survival from one in 10 to one in four. Why should we not enable our communities to have the same fighting chance that we have?

I thank everybody for their contributions today, and I look forward to the Bill's Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill [NIA 38/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes the Second Stage of the Education (Curriculum) (CPR and AED) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Education.

Adjourned at 5.04 pm.

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